Today on Museum Bites we’re continuing our tour through the Milwaukee Art Museum with a look at painted ladies. From madonnas to mummies the Milwaukee Art Museum is filled with a colorful collection of paintings that celebrate the many phases of a woman’s life. Join me for a brief glimpse of these delightful works and the artists who created them.
The Angsty Teenager: Girl Reading (1848) by Johann Georg Meyer von Bremen (1813-1880) captures the essence of teendom. I can almost feel the eye roll and huffy sigh that is sure to follow. Meyer’s early work consisted of religious and historical subjects, but after a trip to Bavaria and Switzerland in 1840, his work changed dramatically. Instead, Meyer focused on everyday domestic life that featured cozy cottages, rosy-cheeked children, and content and loving families. His subjects are happy, relaxed and often in deep sleep. Click on this Johann Georg Meyer von Bremen slideshow to view more of his work. Watch closely and you’ll see the young lady featured in Girl Reading, as well as the same reading nook in several of his paintings.
The Party Girl: Kees van Dongen’s (1877-1968) The Quai, Venice (1921) is a colorful look at the glitz and glamour of 1920s Europe. The subject’s wild hair, sparkling jewelry, and gauzy dress are trés chic. I can imagine her enjoying a post-dinner la passeggiata along the Grand Canal. Is she waiting to take a romantic gondola ride under the Bridge of Sighs or planning to sip prosecco in the Piazza San Marco? Whatever her destination, this painting captures a festive night out on the town. And van Dongen would know. A rabble-rouser and noted anarchist, he threw lavish parties in his Paris studio and his work is comprised primarily of “urban women”. van Dongen frequently visited the red light district with sketchbook in hand. He also painted celebrities and socialites, including Brigitte Bardot and Josephine Baker. Click on this Kees van Dongen video clip to view more of his painted ladies.
The Good Wife: Mrs. Mordecai Gist (1774-1775) by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) is a bit of a mystery. It is unclear if her maiden name is Elizabeth McClure or Cecil Carnan. We do know Mr. Gist, a successful Baltimore businessman, desired a portrait of his wife. According to the Milwaukee Art Museum, the lilacs Mrs. Gist is cradling are a symbol of her love and the sprig of verbena coyly nestled in her bodice represents her purity. All very wifely virtues indeed, but is this a picture of wedded bliss? I leave it up to you to decide.
The artist, Charles Willson Peale was an industrious and multi-talented figure. He fought in the Continental Army but is best known for his portraits of George and Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and several other founding fathers. Peale also established his own aptly named, Peale Museum where much of his work was on display. In 1801, he organized the first American expedition to exhume a mastodon and ever the industrious businessman, displayed the fossilized bones at his museum. Taking it a step further, Peale created a painting of the mastodon dig site and it too hung inside his museum (see below). Notice Peale in the painting below, showing off a mastodon bone in the lower right corner. And if that weren’t enough, he was also responsible for inventing the water pump depicted in the painting.
Peale married not once, but three times, sired 17 children, and in his later years penned several essays, including, An Essay to Promote Domestic Happiness (1812). I wonder if he sent a copy to the virtuous Mrs. Mordecai Gist? Click on this Charles Willson Peale clip courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute to learn more about his life and work.
Fun Fact: Thomas Jefferson and William Clark, of Lewis and Clark fame, contracted fossil fever several years after Peale. Click on this Museum Bites, The Humble Mastodon post to learn more.
The Stern Mother: Despite being more than 600 years old, Nardo di Cone’s (1320-c1365) exquisite Madonna and Child (c1350) radiates warmth. The lush gold is a vivid backdrop to steely-eyed Mary and her pensive, finger chewing son. This painting was once the center panel of a triptych and the halos held inlaid gems. The relatively small size indicates this piece most likely belonged to a wealthy, Italian citizen, as opposed to the church. Religious works were especially popular during this time period. In 1347, the Black Death reached the shores of Italy and within a few short years, decimated Europe. Anywhere from ¼ to ½ of the population was wiped out by the Black Death. Fearing this plague was due to the wrath of God, the people sought desperate refuge in prayer and their religious icons, particularly Mary. Nardo and his fellow artists accommodated these desires by creating stern and unforgiving religious figures.
Little is known about Nardo di Cone. The second oldest of four boys, he was a painter, sculptor, and architect. His brothers Andrea di Cione (aka Orcagna) and Jacopo di Cione were also accomplished artists and more famous than Nardo. The three brothers often collaborated and together opened a successful workshop in Florence. None of the brothers perished from the plague.
The Picture Perfect Friend: Nancy is a stunning floor-to-ceiling portrait by contemporary artist Chuck Close (b1940). Suffering from prosopagnosia (face blindness), Close devised an innovative technique for creating his photorealistic paintings. He divides his canvas into a grid and using a snapshot of his subject, Close recreates the minute details of the photograph onto a grander scale. These mugshots, as Close calls them, are riveting. No airbrushing here. Up close Nancy looks like an abstract, but stand several feet away and her freckles, crooked front teeth and tiny hairs on her face slide into view. Nancy Graves (1939-1995), a former friend and fellow artist of Close posed for the portrait in 1968. Click on this inspiring Chuck Close video clip courtesy of CBS This Morning to learn more about how the artist has overcome significant physical disabilities.
The Dearly Departed: Portrait of a Woman (c100-150 CE) is our final and most ancient painted lady. This portrait was originally attached to this Egyptian woman’s mummified remains so that she could achieve immortality. These ancient funereal practices combined both Egyptian and Roman burial rites. Egypt at this time was part of the pre-Christian Roman Empire and a melting pot of cultures and customs.
Made of dyed beeswax that was painted onto cypress panels, this painting is captivating and frankly a little creepy. The woman’s haunting eyes and somber face beg the question, was she aware of her fate? There are no records indicating when Egyptians sat for their mummy portraits. In the bloom of health or when they knew the grim reaper was about to knock on their door? We do know Egyptians were obsessed with the afterlife (click on Museum Bites, The Game of Life for more info) and the mummy portrait was most likely just one more item on their prepare-for-the-afterlife checklist.
Over 900 mummy portraits have been recovered predominantly in the Faiyum Basin, located west of the Nile. Little is known about the artists. If you’d like to see more mummy portraits, click on this fascinating Metropolitan Museum of Art video clip.
That wraps up our look at the painted ladies on display inside the Milwaukee Art Museum. Next week we’ll take a hike down the street to the Milwaukee Public Museum. In the meantime, have a great week!
Title Art: The Quai, Venice (c1921) by Kees van Dongen, Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo (cropped) by cjverb (2017).
cjverb.com – The Humble Mastodon
Encyclopedia of Art & Classical Antiquities
Smithsonian Institute – Charles Willson Peale
YouTube – Power in a Mummy Portrait, by The Getty