Tuesday, June 29, 2010

We'll miss you, Polly, but we welcome you, Eugenia

By Michelle Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions

They say good things don’t last, but the Girls Scouts also say, “Make new friends and keep the old.” Today we said goodbye to one of the paintings in John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Praise of Women, - Polly Barnard, or The Girl in White Muslin - but said hello to a new friend, Madame Errazuriz, or The Lady in Black.

Top and above: packing Polly

Eugenia Huici, was born in Chile and married the wealthy diplomat Jose Thomas Errazuriz, with whom she moved to Paris around 1880. Eugenia’s husband was an artist himself, and they shared many mutual friends with Sargent. She was known as an attractive and outgoing woman with impeccable taste who enjoyed socializing with her circle of friends, all qualities that appealed to Sargent. They became lifelong friends in Paris and later in London.

It is likely that Eugenia met Sargent while visiting Venice on her honeymoon. He painted her a number of times in the early 1880s, always in informal compositions like the one now on view. The portrait is an exceptionally engaging depiction of her, as her smile indicates a friendly familiarity with the viewer. Sargent’s striking contrast of the black in Eugenia’s evening dress with the reds in the upholstery and fan lend an air of elegance to the picture.

Installing Madame Errazuriz

Sometimes, things change fast in the Exhibitions world. One minute there’s a painting in a gallery, the next minute it’s swapped out for a different one. But that’s ok because we get to share with our visitors the old and the new and it makes for an organic, lively presentation. Polly will miss you but Madame Eugenia welcomes you!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Haida Totem Pole Dedication

By Eva Fognell, Curator of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art

At the end of a very busy & exciting week we finally had our big splash - the Haida Totem Pole Dedication. The weekend-long event began with a great dinner for our guests, The Rainbow Creek Dancers, on Friday night. Then there was Saturday – the big day. Please do not let it rain! (Please don’t let it rain…) I think everyone that was involved checked the weather daily (hourly?) for the week leading up to May 29th. When I woke up in the morning, there was a light mist in the air. (Oh no…no rain). But it cleared up and became slightly hazy which kept it from getting too warm. By noon people started to crowd onto the front lawn of Fenimore Art Museum and eventually it seemed that every chair, and most of the lawn, was covered by people, children and blankets. Everyone was excited and anxious with anticipation because they didn’t know what to expect.

After remarks, the covering was dropped and as it fell to the ground there was a collective “oooohhh” sounding over the lawn. Reg Davidson, the artist of the Haida Totem Pole, and his dance troupe, The Rainbow Creek Dancers, put on an amazing performance of traditional Haida dances and wore traditional regalia and masks. The day turned out FANTASTIC and the museum has a magnificent contemporary artwork that we hope will welcome people to stop and see all we have to offer.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It's a Bird, it's a plane, it's the new guy!

By Stephen Loughman, Prepartor

As you may have seen from a few previous posts, it seems I have become the go-to guy for all things up in the air. And no different was this on May 29th for the grand unveiling of the much-anticipated Haida Totem Pole. It was a moment of great excitement and relief when the covering for the pole fluttered to the ground when the cue was given.

When I was told back in April that I would be in charge of coming up with a way to cover a thirty foot totem pole, I really had no idea where to start. So the rest of the curatorial staff and I racked our brains and came up with the idea of using nylon rip stop and sewing three pieces together. We chose nylon because we knew it would slide off easily during the unveiling and it would allow air to circulate and let the pole “breathe” while installed for three weeks. After brushing up on my sewing skills, I was able to come up with a giant type of windsock. On the day we installed the pole, I hopped aboard a cherry picker and dropped the cover over the pole. It was tied with rope at the top. Then, we installed bungee cords every few feet down the length of the pole to keep the covering secure. Once covered, every morning I would go out to make sure the covering was secure. Secrecy was the main goal as we wanted to keep our Totem Pole undercover until the official unveiling.

We were all thankful that the pole remained under wraps, which I think created a very exciting atmosphere. It was a little nerve racking as I was traveling up the back of the pole in our Genie lift to get into position for the unveiling. Yet with a one good cut from my knife the pole saw daylight for the first time since going up. Mission accomplished!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

By John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections

It’s June, the CGP students have graduated or have left for their internships, the museums are open, the weather is nice (albeit a little hot); now it’s Inventory Season for the collections staff!

Some of you might not think that inventorying a collection is so wonderful, but it really is, at least for me. I don’t always get the chance to wander through the collections areas and see what we have, let alone get a chance to see what things look like. But now that I have a bit more free time on my hands, I can start working on our Inventory Plan. If you don’t speak museum-ese, this is our way of saying “Schedule”, in our case, on a five-year rotation. This year happens to focus on our two second floor wing spaces at Iroquois Storage Facility, or at least we’ll attempt to get both done.

I decided to start on the wing that I thought would be the hardest, in part because as soon as you walk in you immediately see upwards of 500 or more wood planes. We have a pretty large collection of planes of all shapes, sizes, cut patterns, and makers and it’s pretty daunting at first to think about going through and checking each one for an accession number. I managed to get through them in a little over a day and a half. Now it’s on to the next dozen or so shelves, racks, eaves and overhangs, and miscellaneous spaces where objects have been living for years.

I don’t mind the work, it’s actually pretty fun, and it’s what I’ve been doing since I began interning or volunteering at museums. It really is a great way to know what you have in the collection in case someone ever asks “Do you have a…”

It really is a wonderful time of year, even if that means going through 3,803 objects, which happens to be our present count of objects in the wing….

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Home Again, Home Again...

By Chris Rossi, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

Taking down an exhibit is something akin to taking down your Christmas tree. The hours of joy you spent carefully arranging each ornament have their end in a relatively quick undressing of the tree. Ornaments that had comfortably fit in their storage boxes for years seem not to want to go back in their cases.

Last week, we dismantled Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art and just like the Christmas tree, it is going very quickly in comparison to our meticulous installation. It was good to see that our old friends, the objects from our collection, were in good shape and ready to go home. The objects mounts, like those Christmas tree ornaments, did seem to have multiplied or grew. Trying to get them all back in their bins was a bit of a challenge. That said, by the end of the week we had them sorted out and ready for the long ride home.

Once back to Fenimore Art Museum, the objects, mounts, and we curators all get to take a little break until our next venue in the fall. Next stop – the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Statue with a Split Personality

By Doug Kendall, Curator of Collections

Every museum collection has its mystery objects: artifacts whose purpose or provenance is not recorded. This is the story of a work of art that probably seemed quite straightforward when it was acquired, yet may not be exactly what it appears to be.

As readers may recall, I discussed the popularity of Last of the Mohicans merchandise in the 19th century in a previous post. Today’s subject is another object associated with James Fenimore Cooper’s most famous novel: a bronzed figure of a Native American holding a bow, wearing a loin cloth, headdress and beads. The figure stands alert, looking intently to his left, a club and a quiver of arrows at his feet. On one end of the sculpture’s base is a label cast in Gothic letters: “The last of the Mohicans.”

Last of the Mohicans, or, Caupolican. Zinc, bronzed. Reduction after the original by Nicanor Plaza, 1844-1918, Paris, France, 1890-1910. Gift of Harry St. Clair Zogbaum, N0643.1943

So when I received a call from Donald Fennimore, Curator Emeritus at the Winterthur Museum asking to see our Last of the Mohicans statue , I had to search the database and the storage facility carefully before I found it. I studied with Don at the University of Delaware many years ago and gladly made an appointment for him to view the sculpture, but I did some digging on my own to discover why this object might be of interest.

There were a few clues in the catalog and on the object itself. The artist was listed simply as “N. Plaza;” I soon discovered that this was Nicanor Plaza (1844-1918), a Chilean sculptor who studied and worked in Italy and France and has been revered as a pioneer in Chilean art. This seemed a bit odd, as the Museum concentrates on art and artists of the United States.

Translating some sites that discussed Plaza’s career using Google’s Translate (which can give you the general meaning while stumbling over idiom and colloquial phrases), I came across a photo of the same figure—only this one is life-size and overlooks the Chilean capitol, Santiago. And it’s titled Caupolicán, not Last of the Mohicans. I’d found the source of a controversy over Plaza’s work and the reason for Don’s interest in the sculpture. Caupolicán was a leader of the Mapuche resistance to the Spanish conquest in the 1550s. Although he was ultimately captured and executed by the Spanish, he remains a hero to Chileans of indigenous ancestry, so the statue—installed in 1910—is a symbol of national pride.

Caupolican, as installed, Santiago, Chile. Bronze. Nicanor Plaza, 1844-1918. Santiago, Chile.

There’s some evidence that Plaza had entered the figure in a competition to memorialize Fenimore Cooper. After he failed to win that commission, he received a request for a figure of Caupolicán. Rather than waste the work he had put into the American competition, Plaza “re-purposed” the statue for his homeland. Or so the speculation goes. Over the years, Chileans have sometimes raised the question of why “Caupolicán” appears in non-Mapuche garb.

Don Fennimore is attempting to determine the specifics of the competition for which Plaza is said to have created the figure.

There is perhaps more than a bit of irony in the creation by a Chilean of Spanish ancestry working in Europe of a statue that has been identified as both a North American Mohican and a South American Mapuche. It will be interesting to see whether Don can establish the origin of Plaza’s project.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Day With a Photographer

By John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections

As the Coordinator for Rights, Reproduction and Photo Sales at the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers’ Museum, I often get to call upon our local museum friend and photographer, Richard Walker and his wife, Zibby. Richard has been taking photographs of objects at the museums for quite some time and I am fortunate enough to work with him to photograph newly accessioned objects, update our existing cache of images, or discuss ideas for future projects.

Bear and Pears, 1825-1835, Unknown artist, Oil on wood panel. N0044.1961. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY. Photograph by Richard Walker.

It wasn’t until after I started working with Richard that I found out that I was already very familiar with his work. Richard has done photography for the Newport Restoration Foundation, based in Newport, RI, where I held an internship in 2007 while a student with the Cooperstown Graduate Program. Talk about small world. (Oddly enough I found out recently that Chris Rossi, our Associate Curator of Exhibitions, designed and constructed the object mounts that I had to fuss with while doing inventories at Rough Point, the home of Doris Duke that the Foundation operates.)

Indian Maiden, (Detail) 1865-1875 by Thomas V. Brooks (1825-1895), Wood and paint, N0041.1972. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY. Photograph by Richard Walker.

I have always been interested in photography but never had a real knack for it, though after watching Richard during our sessions, I’d like to think that I’m learning something as I share stories and the history of the objects with him. It’s amazing how a slight change in lighting or angle can create a more dramatic effect on a piece or make the colors ‘pop.’ And as we phase out the use of transparencies, at least to a certain degree, having digital images created by an artist in his own right helps us not only share our images with the world, but also create a lasting record of the object for future condition issues, cataloguing, etc.

Harvesting Hops near Cooperstown, New York, 1884 by Frank Waller (1842-1923), Oil on canvas, F0077.1998. The Farmers’ Museum, Cooperstown, NY. Photograph by Richard Walker.

Without a doubt, the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers’ Museum will have a long lasting relationship with Richard as a photographer, but more importantly as a friend and patron, a feeling that is mutually shared.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

What Lies Below the Surface? Part III

By Doug Kendall, Curator of Collections

When great landscape painters of 19th-century America are discussed, one will certainly hear the names of Thomas Cole and Asher Durand, both of whom are represented in the collections of the Fenimore Art Museum. Frederic Church, George Inness, Thomas Doughty and Albert Bierstadt would probably make the list as well.

These painters not only created a popular vision of the American landscape, they also inspired countless Americans to take up pencil and sketchbook, palette and canvas, and record the scenery of their own regions. Though neither famous nor in most cases professional, many of these artists did possess some artistic skill and talent.

In western New York, William Martin Beauchamp (1830-1925) and John Calvin Perry (1837-1894) were two such artists. Beauchamp’s father was an English printer who emigrated to Skaneateles and ran local newspapers and a printing office. William sketched landscapes of the Skaneateles Lake area from an early age; he became an Episcopal priest and an amateur archaeologist and continued creating sketches and watercolors throughout his life as an avocation.

Glenhaven, Head of Skaneateles Lake, 1851. By William Martin Beauchamp. Oil on canvas.
Bequest of Nina Fletcher Little, N0183.1993.

John Calvin Perry lived his entire life in the hamlet of Delphi Falls, 30 miles or so from Skaneateles. He painted portraits, but also farmed to support his family. At times he taught art at the Cazenovia Seminary and in other nearby communities. He painted landscapes for his own pleasure and many of these remained with his descendants.

Wheat Harvest, date unknown. By John Calvin Perry. Oil on canvas.
Gift of Clayton Smith, N0121.1992. Photo: Lesley Poling.

Artists like Beauchamp and Perry could not earn their living as artists, but they are representative of an artistic culture that developed in 19th-century New York. Their works, which never became iconic representations of the American landscape as did those of Cole and Church, nevertheless have great historical value in documenting the common landscape of upstate New York.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Outposts of Memory

By Chris Rossi, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

It is easy to think of the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA) as the big treasure house of public memory for all of New York State – from farmer to urban dweller. All of the letters, clothing, house-wares, photographs and artwork embodying the thoughts, desires, woes and joys of past generations are tucked neatly away in our storage facility just waiting to be shaken-out in the light and put on display. Our collections and exhibits represent instant time travel, or perhaps a little time nexus where we can be simultaneously in past and present with a glimpse along to the future.

NYSHA may be the big memory treasure house, but we are supported by little memory outposts all across the state. It’s the little historical associations that keep local memory alive. Last week Michelle Murdock and I had the pleasure of attending the opening for the Richfield Springs Historic Association. Marjorie Walters and her associates have spent years collecting the town’s memorabilia and displaying it for all to see. The Association’s exhibit space is a grassroots community treasure trove. Visitors were entranced – thrilled to see their town and its history (their history) on public display.

Why does memory matter? Why do we collect, display, and sometimes worship the objects of our past? Perhaps artist Ralph Fasanella came closest to that answer – “But I can’t shut myself off from the past. I don’t forget yesterday, so I know who I am today. I hang on to what I was yesterday, so I know what I’m going to do tomorrow.” In establishing their new Historic Association the people of Richfield Springs are celebrating their past and present, with the experiences of years past now on hand to help inform their future.

Photos courtesy of R. Walters

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