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Object of the Week: Salad Days

Giving tours to young people through our big Jane Lang Davis Gallery in the Modern and Contemporary collection can be difficult. It’s impossible to avoid the fact that there’s a really large painting of a naked woman on the wall! Even if, as the tour guide, one forgets about it momentarily, kids will always bring the attention straight to that piece. Their stifled laughter, or even outright laughter, will probably derail conversation about anything else happening in the gallery. Once my focus is drawn to it, I feel simultaneously uncomfortable and totally compelled by the image. I get why they’re staring and pointing.

There’s a name for the painting with the naked woman: Salad Days. She’s just one half of a two-panel piece that measures seven by fourteen feet, rendering relational discord on a huge scale. The artist is contemporary American painter Eric Fischl. He has been creating uncomfortably naked paintings since the early 1980s, and there are few artists out there who do it better, or with more unsettling creep factor.

Fischl has described himself as a storyteller, an artist who aims to create scenes that are full of meaning. Whether that meaning is positive or negative does not matter to him; whether the viewer’s senses are offended does not matter either. Instead, he’s interested in radical openness and honesty. Many of Fischl’s paintings focus on awkward territory: enduring down time in an unhappy relationship, singing in the shower, or lounging unceremoniously in the buff. Over and over, he confronts viewers with scenes that are unusual for their bare honesty.

Of course there’s a very long history of naked people in art, and Fischl is hardly the first, last, or only artist to engage the subject. Most of these artists are working in one of two traditions: nude art, or naked art. The nude is an idealized figure, on display for the viewer, situated in a context that justifies, or makes more art history appropriate, the lack of clothes. Nakedness is all about the lack of clothes and flying in the face of propriety. Fischl fits squarely in the naked camp.

Venus and Adonis by Paolo Veronese

SAM’s collection has great examples of the nude genre too…

Salad Days pictures a private moment, and in doing so, turns it into something highly public. The woman’s physical nakedness comes to represent a psychological nakedness, where her private thoughts and actions come to the surface. This, like much of Fischl’s work, is a voyeuristic, intimate vignette—not an idealized display set up for our consumption. Imagining two sides of a conversation happening over the phone, he invites us to imagine how others act when we can’t see them. You’ll be thinking about it the next time you’re on a call…

IMAGE: Salad Days, 1984, Eric Fischl (American, born 1948), oil on linen, two panels, 84 x 168 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, © Eric Fischl. Venus and Adonis, 1570s, Paolo Veronese (Italian, 1528-1588) and workshop, oil on canvas, 88 3/8 x 66 ¼ in. Seattle Art Museum, Samuel H. Kress Collection, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Mosaic from the House of Menander with Zeus

One of the things we sometimes say around here about Dr. Richard Fuller, SAM’s founding director, is that he liked to collect things he could hold in his hand, and that maybe this had something to do with his love for rocks and geology. Even while he was planning for the museum’s opening in 1933 and then seeing it through its first years, Dr. Fuller pursued his second passion at the University of Washington. He studied geology through the whole of the 1920s, first earning his bachelor’s, then his master’s, and finally his doctorate, in 1930. Beginning in 1926 he also taught part-time at UW, and that led to his being named research professor in 1940. His connections in the world of archaeology brought him a fortuitous letter that same year.

The letter, reproduced here, came from Charles Rufus “C.R.” Morey, a distinguished professor of art and archaeology at Princeton University. He had recently published a volume on excavation findings at the ancient city of Antioch (The Mosaics of Antioch, published by Longmans, Green and Co. in 1938), a book that would be one of his many contributions to the field of art history. He was also a founding member of the College Art Association, which still remembers C.R. with its annual Charles Rufus Morey Book Award.

Letter to Dr. Fuller from Charles Rufus Morey

Writing on behalf of the Committee for the Excavation of Antioch and its Vicinity, Morey offers Dr. Fuller and the Seattle Art Museum its pick of recently excavated mosaics. As Morey explains, they’re offered at bargain prices—25% to 50% off! Now, one of the reasons I feel a real kinship to Dr. Fuller is that he was always looking for a deal. He was wealthy, but not so wealthy, he figured, that he didn’t need to be smart with his resources and to push them as far as they would go. Thankfully for SAM, Dr. Fuller saw in Morey’s letter a great opportunity to build the museum’s collection of antiquities.

Dr. Fuller responded in a letter dated May 27, 1940, that the museum would like to purchase one item, the “fragment of the Sea God,” adding that he wished to “express our appreciation of the generous opportunity which you present for our participation in the extremely important excavations of your committee.” In SAM’s annual report for 1940, Dr. Fuller describes the chosen mosaic as a “very vigorous portrayal of Neptune.” This is the mosaic now hanging in our ancient art galleries on the fourth floor, titled Mosaic from the House of Menander with Zeus.

Later scholars have identified the main figure as Zeus, and not Neptune, but I would say that he’s very vigorous, indeed. He is seated on a throne, grasping a scepter in his left hand and reaching outward with his right. A halo or nimbus encircles his head and symbolizes his divinity. Almost unbelievably, SAM’s mosaic once formed part of the floor of a luxurious urban villa, about five miles outside of Antioch. Because they were durable and allowed for color and decoration, mosaics were actually used quite often as pavements in former provinces of the Roman Empire. I’ll speak for myself here, but my feet are totally unfit to tread on this, and I’m glad it’s hanging on the museum’s wall instead.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Right: Mosaic from the House of Menander with Zeus, 3rd-4th century, Roman, limestone and marble tesserae, 38 11/16 x 32 1/4 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 40.181.1; Left: Mosaic from the House of Menander with Figure, 3rd-4th century, Roman, limestone and marble tesserae, 15 x 23 1/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 40.181.2, Photo: Natali Wiseman. Letter to Dr. Fuller from Charles Rufus Morey.

Object of the Week: Anthony of Padua

You simply can’t miss the eye-catching posters and banners all over Seattle advertising our next special exhibition, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. When you come for the free opening celebration this week—and do come!—you’ll see huge paintings from private and public collections across the world, including a gem from SAM’s own collection.

Anthony of Padua, a painting in the very traditional method of oil on canvas, measures six feet tall by five feet wide. The figure is imposing, the decoration bright and busy. His is an empowering posture borrowed from the aristocratic patrons of art history and conferred to a young person of color. The rococo frills that surround him speak of the joy of excess.

He brings together, as Kehinde Wiley’s work often does, two worlds of swagger. The original swagger portrait (a real term in art history used even by stuffy academics) developed in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. At the time, those who had the funds to do so might pay an artist to paint them in a very flattering pose, wearing elegant and expensive dress, accompanied by symbols of their knowledge or power. The idea was to show off your status, wealth, and noble character. You wanted to impress those around you and those who would see your painting long after you were gone.

More recently, swagger has been mostly informed by looks, attitudes, and language developed in street culture. Kehinde Wiley’s work picks up on both points of reference, which, when we think about it, are not so different. Urban Dictionary’s top definition describes swagger as “How one presents him- or herself to the world. Swagger is shown from how the person handles a situation. It can also be shown in the person’s walk.” The way to attain it has changed across cultures and across time, but swagger has always been about getting respect by portraying self-confidence. It’s always played out through language, body language, and dress.

To build his new swagger portraits, Wiley has developed a practice of “street-casting” to choose the models for his portraits. Wherever he might find himself looking—and Wiley has taken subjects from places as diverse as Brooklyn and Brazil, India and Israel—he strolls the streets, more or less living his life, but also waiting for a moment of connection with another individual. He’s allowing chance to play a role in selecting who makes it into these paintings, and then onto the walls of a gallery or museum. The models come to the artist’s studio with the instruction to wear everyday clothing and express their personal style. That’s just how the model for Anthony of Padua posed and is portrayed here: with his own coat and patches, teal pants, and octopus necklace.

Anthony of Padua in Seattle Art Museum's European Galleries

Anthony of Padua arrived at SAM in 2013, shortly after he was painted. Here, he was not destined for the Modern and Contemporary galleries, but found his home right away in the European Baroque galleries, surrounded by the likes of Veronese and Anthony van Dyck—one of the most successful to ever do a flattering portrait.

The historical figure who informs the title of SAM’s Kehinde Wiley painting is Anthony of Padua, who lived 1195-1231, and who was canonized in 1232. I like to think that SAM’s painting, if only because it shares his name and a resemblance to another artist’s depiction of him, carries some of the presence and virtues of the saint. In life, Anthony of Padua became known as a devoted student, one with a remarkable memory, and as a convincing, charismatic orator. In the Catholic tradition, he cares for, and hears prayers from, the poor, the elderly, expectant mothers, travelers, and seekers of lost things. Fittingly for us here in Seattle, he is also the patron of fishermen, domestic animals, and mariners.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Anthony of Padua, 2013, Kehinde Wiley (American, born 1977), oil on canvas, 72 x 60 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Contemporary Collectors Forum, 2013.8, © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Robert Wade.

Object of the Week: The Judgment of Paris

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique,
like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see.
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
a functioning cog in some great machinery,
serving something beyond me.

– “Helplessness Blues,” Fleet Foxes

Why do I visit museums and what do I hope to encounter there?

There are as many answers to that question as there are people to answer it, and actually more, because I would respond differently depending on the day. I might want something challenging and make it my goal to find something like that, or I might want to be awed by something made with otherworldly skill. But why would I go to the museum? What’s so significant about what’s here, and does it matter that I have to be here—and nowhere else—to see it? On some days I make the case for the museum by saying that the art in our galleries tells important stories in the history of the world, including ones that are still unfolding today.

Standing face-to-face with an original and unique artwork can be a deeply moving experience. I remember vividly when I “met” Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence and Picasso’s Guernica at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. I would argue, though, that the uniqueness—the idea that this thing is one-of-a-kind, and that only when I am standing with my two feet here, at this specific spot in the world, can I know it this way—is only part of the specialness of the museum. What completes it is the network of art-making across the whole of human history. It wouldn’t matter much to us if this were the only David by Michelangelo if not for the artist’s role in shaping the visual art of his time and managing to influence artists hundreds of years after his death. That entire conversation is what makes this moment of emphatic punctuation so gripping.

SAM’s painting of The Judgment of Paris by Lucas Cranach the Elder is not exactly notable for its uniqueness (though it is a pristine original). It’s a great painting because of its place in the story.

A highly productive artist and one who was especially drawn to this theme, Cranach produced at least ten similar paintings. There are wonderful examples in the collections of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the St. Louis Art Museum; and several European museums. Cranach has sometimes been criticized for the very fact that he was so productive. He established a studio and could be seen—from one perspective—as churning out pretty pictures, maybe investing less in the paintings, and making the artworks less remarkable.

The Judgment of Paris (detail)

From another perspective, he was a trailblazer: a skilled and highly successful artist. Cranach was a pioneer for the nude painting in Northern Renaissance art. In The Judgment of Paris, he’s couching his sexy idea in a scene from classical mythology that made it culturally acceptable. He paints the goddesses in three different, seductive poses. As the story goes, Paris, who is represented in the picture by the dozing fellow in armor, was on a hunting trip in the woods when he got lost, tied up his horse, and fell asleep. Mercury, here shown as an older man with an elaborate plumed costume, came to him in a dream to present him with Juno, Minerva, and Venus. His task: to choose the fairest. Maybe Cranach was remarking on the difficulty of rating goddesses when he painted these three almost indistinguishable nudes. That they are anatomically a bit awkward reflects the newness of the nude in Northern European art when Cranach was working.

The Judgment of Paris (detail)

While there are others like it, there are certain charms to this painting one can only enjoy in person. Cranach painted it on an unusually thick piece of oak that has gone back to its original curvature, as panels tend to do over time. The flat frame around the curved panel creates a quirky and interesting viewing experience. The intimate size of the painting and the precision of its detail are other features one can really only appreciate in the gallery. Apparently the painting is also magnetic to fingers: SAM conservators have had to care for it multiple times after folks put their grubby paws on it. If you feel so compelled, just think: it might be your last opportunity to see the original.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: The Judgment of Paris, ca. 1516-1518, Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, Wittenberg, 1472-1553), oil on wood, 25 x 16 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, LeRoy M. Backus Collection, 52.38.

Object of the Week: Sea Bear Crest hat

An encounter with a sea bear would not be easily forgotten. Among the Haida people, oral histories sustain the memory of this imposing, magical spirit, with its origins at the beginning of the world. A hybrid animal with features of the whale and bear, the sea bear had all the subtle swiftness of the whale and the predatory power of the bear, carrying the mass and presence of both. Traversing land and sea freely, it commanded respect in all domains. Rows of intimidating teeth, set in powerful jaws, made it so. On the back of its neck, a dorsal fin gave him stability and agility in the water, and when he emerged from its surface, as we see him do here, whomever he encountered would take notice.

Before I learned a little bit about this Haida Sea Bear Crest hat, I might have called it (adjective) animated, pointing out that I see a quality of life and energy reflected in it. Turns out that its maker also intended it to be actively (verb) animated, or even danced. It’s a hat, after all, and it was worn as part of a ceremonial costume. The sea bear marked the crest of a particular family or lineage, so displaying it was a show of family pride. Carved wooden hats—for me, even worse to think about wearing something wooden on your head than wearing something wooden on your feet, so gimme clogs—were common in the art of the Northwest Coast Native peoples. In literature, they’re sometimes called “helmets,” and that is maybe a term we would have an easier time connecting to the sea bear.

Sea Bear Crest Hat (detail)

Over 150 years, wear to the paint and wood has made the hat’s features much more quiet than they would have been. Both carving and painted design were meant to contribute to a striking figure. Today, the red pigment that once animated the lips, tongue, and ears of the sea bear is only barely visible. Without looking closely, one might even miss his serious front claws.

Many people have played a part in the life of this piece, from its maker to its performers, and later, collectors. Two figures from this last category are especially significant to us. John H. Hauberg, who donated the piece in December of 1983, has been a hugely influential contributor to SAM. His foundational gifts established the Native art collection as a strength of the museum and placed it on a level of national regard. Interestingly, Hauberg actually acquired the piece from another well-known figure in this corner of the art world: Northwest Modern painter Mark Tobey.

Sea Bear Crest Hat (detail)

The Sea Bear Crest hat features in the display Pacific Currents, on view now in our third floor galleries. If you find him, peer under the brim of the “hat” to get a better sense for how this artwork would have been worn and performed (and to see the fine work of our world-class mount-makers).

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Sea Bear Crest hat (Tsa.an Xuu.ujee Dajangee), ca. 1870, Haida, red cedar and paint, 10 1/2 x 15 3/4 in. Gift of John H. Hauberg, 83.228. Photos by Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Gwendolyn Knight

When Jacob Lawrence was just a teenager in Harlem beginning to explore visual art as a way of commenting on the world around him, a local art teacher walked him straight into the local offices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to apply for an art project. The boy was too young, they were told, but he would be welcome to re-apply when he met the age requirement. Lawrence himself all but forgot about that invitation. His teacher, though, made sure he followed through, and one imagines the two were almost equally excited when Lawrence secured a project—his first paying art job, painting in the easel division of the Federal Arts Project.

The teacher was Augusta Savage, a well-known sculptor who had studied in Europe and in New York City, with Hermon MacNeil of the National Sculpture Society, among others. Her name carried a large amount of respect in the art community of Harlem, because she had talent and because she had settled back among her people after gaining education and exposure. She achieved a “professional” status that made her the admiration of students and local artists. There were moments in Savage’s career when her skill and grit brought financial and critical success: She earned commissions for portraits of race activists W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, and also for a monumental piece displayed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

"Gwendolyn Knight" by Augusta Savage

Partly by her choice, and partly for the difficulty of her time, which was marked by economic depression and racial discrimination, Augusta Savage’s legacy would be her students. Through her Harlem Art Workshop, affiliated with the State University of New York, Savage directed one of the largest free art instruction programs in New York City. Her efforts earned her an appointment as director of the Harlem Community Art Center, supported by the WPA. Through these programs, Savage’s Harlem students were offered a rare technical training and art education.

Savage once said “I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting”—and we might debate her on this point—“but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work.” We can safely say she accomplished what she set out to do: Jacob Lawrence, for one, listed her first among the people who encouraged him as a young artist. We might also like to thank Augusta for bringing together, through her studio, Jacob and the woman who would become his wife and muse, Gwendolyn Knight. It might have been Gwen’s sense of self-assuredness that inspired Augusta to create the memorable portrait we are looking at today.

Newspaper clipping featuring "Gwendolyn Knight" by Augusta Savage

SAM’s painted plaster portrait of Gwendolyn Knight perfectly illustrates Augusta Savage’s devotion to Gwen and all of her students. Masterfully made, it captures the nuances of Gwen’s facial features and exudes the grace and dignity for which the subject was known. Savage’s training in classical realism shines through in the portrait. It’s moving to consider that Savage had shown her work in such a hallowed space as the Grand Palais in Paris, but she debuted this portrait of Gwendolyn Knight in an exhibition of student work, held at the Harlem Y.W.C.A. in February, 1935. Not only that, but it was cast in fragile plaster and then painted; with few exceptions, Savage never had the funds to cast her works in lasting, costly bronze.

The students’ art at the 1935 Y.W.C.A. show, like Savage’s, drew on the culture and experiences of African Americans. It was a celebration of their solidarity. Augusta Savage’s lasting achievement was to create a place where aspiring artists could learn the skills of their craft while proudly exploring who they were, where they could be built up and encouraged, and made to believe in their value. Hers is a legacy worth considering as we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this weekend.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Gwendolyn Knight, 1934-1935, Augusta Savage (born Green Cove Springs, Florida, 1892; died New York City, 1962), painted plaster, 18 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 9 in. Gift of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, 2006.86, Photo: Natali Wiseman. Gwendolyn Knight detail, Photo: Natali Wiseman. “Negro Students Hold Their Own Art Exhibition,” New York Herald Tribune, February 15, 1935, Reproduced from the Collections of the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Object of the Week: Head from a statue of Pharaoh Thutmosis III

There are two terms you simply must hang onto in the event that you’re watching Jeopardy and “Art of Ancient Egypt” comes up as a column and pharaonic sculptures features in one of the answers: uraeaus and nemes. The nemes is the distinctive, striped headcloth donned by our Egyptian king here and probably best worn by King Tut himself—whose tomb treasures, coincidentally, featured in one of the most important exhibitions in SAM’s history: the 1978 Treasures of Tutankhamun. My personal all-time favorite photo from the SAM archives features our own Chris Manojlovic, Director of Exhibition Design, enraptured by Tut’s mask. The other term, uraeus, refers to the coiled cobra above the figure’s forehead, which was both a symbolic presence, signifying that its wearer was royalty, and a protective force, whose breath and venom would keep harm from coming to the king.

An installation photo from the 1978 exhibition "Tut"

This cool Egyptian head lives amid our ancient art collection on the 4th floor downtown. S/he has had a long and interesting journey. The Egyptian artist(s) who crafted it worked with simple saws and drills made of copper to carve out the head and a complete, life-size body that was once attached to it. When they had established the form, they created a smooth surface by using stone scrapers over the hard basalt. A lively first life for the statue might have included performance in rituals and standing guard in a festival or funerary temple.

Dating ancient material like this piece is very tricky and relies mostly on judgments of style. SAM’s sculpture has a date of mid-15th century B.C., in 18th Dynasty Egypt (about 1543 B.C.-1292 B.C.), but in the first years after it entered the museum’s collection, expert opinions placed it in the much later Ptolemaic period (305 B.C.-30 B.C.). Because ancient Egyptian art idealized individuals—aiming to show them as gods—even the subject is a matter of debate. We think it depicts Thutmosis III, but it’s possible that instead the face represents Queen Hatshepsut, the woman who totally stole his thunder, usurped his throne, and pushed him to the background for her more than 20 years of rule.

Our Head from a statue of Pharaoh Thutmosis III was cultivated from a 1937 excavation at the Temple of Armant in Egypt. Sir Robert Mond, pioneering chemist, collector, and archaeologist, financed the excavation, and notable archaeologist Oliver H. Myers directed the project. The basalt head was a highlight from their findings. Multiple restorations have the figure looking as good as s/he does now. Sections of the nose, cheek, uraeus, the upper lobe of the left ear, the upper and lower lobes of the right ear, and a segment of the headdress have been restored. One restoration, later reversed, is documented in the photo below, where simulations of the chin and right jaw are affixed to the original.

A historic photo of the Egyptian head documents a restoration to the chin and right jaw, now removed

For some time in 2002-2003, this striking sculpture joined Andy Warhol screenprints of Mick Jagger and Muhammad Ali, as well as Nigerian carved wood figures, for the SAM exhibition Hero/Antihero. Mounted at the same time as a show devoted to George Washington, Hero/Antihero explored the idea of the hero and the effect heroes have had on art and belief throughout history. The Egyptian pharaohs, each worshiped like or as God, offer a fascinating example of people venerating other people.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Head from a statue of Pharaoh Thutmosis III, mid-15th century B.C., Egyptian, basalt, 11 1/2 x 14 x 11 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 52.70. Installation photo from the 1978 exhibition “Tut”, Photo: Paul Macapia, Seattle Art Museum. A historic photo of the Egyptian head documents a restoration to the chin and right jaw, now removed, Photo: Seattle Art Museum

Object of the Week: Trapsprung

As we welcome 2016, SAM nears its 83rd anniversary as an institution. It’s an organization with a rich and, at points, dramatic history. From its early years SAM has also shown a commitment to being part of history as it develops—not becoming a place where we all gawk at history as it gathers dust.

Our founding director, Dr. Richard Fuller, set up a regular exhibition program for living Northwest artists. Much of the gallery space at the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park was, in the museum’s formative years, a site for rotating displays of contemporary work. Often Dr. Fuller would purchase a painting from a show on behalf of the museum, using money from his own pocket, but representing the museum, and later very informally accessioned it into the permanent collection. For the artists he deemed worthy, he provided complementary display space and buying power via SAM. In addition to his role as an important patron to Northwest artists—notably Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, and Kenneth Callahan—Dr. Fuller also worked out agreements with some artists to support them through living stipends. He employed some of them, like Callahan, to help him at the museum with installing, packing, and shipping art, or promoting shows in the local papers.

Kenneth Callahan

In the photo above, a smiling, sweeping Callahan oozes appreciation—and he should! While employed by SAM, and with the financial and emotional support of Dr. Fuller, he produced powerful work like First Seed into the Last Harvest (1943), a favorite of mine in Pacific Northwest Modernism.

First Seed Into Last Harvest

Our current director, Kim Rorschach, continues to encourage SAM’s engagement with contemporary art. One acquisition representative of her time at the helm is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Trapsprung (2013), a remarkable oil painting that’s currently hanging in the Brotman Forum near our admissions desk. In the picture, a life-size ballerina emerges from a flat background, full of dynamism and grace in her movement.

Born in 1977, Yiadom-Boakye is a British artist of Ghanaian descent. In her work, Yiadom-Boakye is interested in making interventions in history and reality. Her work features human figures and can be called representational in that sense. The figures are almost always people of color, and they are always posed actively, portraying self-confidence, and not passive presences. They’re figures, but they’re not exactly portraits: Yiadom-Boakye works using her imagination rather than representing specific individuals from life studies or photos.

What makes her work especially compelling is her desire to insert people of color into monumental paintings (and the sometimes exclusive stories that have traditionally played out there), such as her ballerina in Trapsprung. She’s writing a new history, an inclusive one, and it’s freshly assertive, exciting, and imaginative.

Here’s to all that we know 2016 holds—including a blockbuster show for another artist interested in new histories, Kehinde Wiley—and to what we have yet to discover!

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Trapsprung, 2013, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, British, b. 1977, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 70 7/8 in., Seattle Art Museum, General Acquisition Fund. Seattle Art Museum Archives. First Seed into Last Harvest, 1943, Kenneth Callahan, American, b. 1905, tempera on canvas, 14 1/2 x 18 1/4 in., Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection.

Object of the Week: Virgin and Child

Wandering through our European art galleries at SAM one day, I overheard a visitor lamenting the space we had given to older art with Christian themes. His voice dripping with disdain, he said, “Oh, pictures of Mary and Jesus. I’d rather look at myself in the mirror!” Besides drawing laughter from his companion and from myself, his comment got me noodling and then writing this blog post.

Allow me to make a case for Mary-and-Jesus pictures this timely week.

A lot has changed since the holiday season of 1967, when SAM sent out a Christmas card with a reproduction of its great Francesco Bassano Adoration of the Magi painting, and since December 19, 1968, when the Beacon Hill News-Journal sported a similar reproduction of the Bassano, while inviting Seattleites to a long list of local Christmas services.

American museums today take the responsibility to honor the diversity of the human race , the American population, and the specific communities they serve very seriously by representing a range of viewpoints in the galleries. Religious as well as ethnic diversity and identity freedom are all at the forefront of these conversations. Diversity and inclusion are necessarily central to museum hiring practices, too. These core concepts represent steps forward to a more equitable global community. I believe SAM is rightly approaching diversity and inclusion with its focus and humility, understanding that it has areas in which to grow, aiming to address those head-on, and setting its sights on better serving our delightfully diverse city and world.

Painting on view at the Seattle Art museum

A painting like SAM’s Virgin and Child by the Master of San Torpè of Siena, dated to the end of the 13th century or early 14th century, does achieve a number of important goals for the museum. Simple in composition and small in scale, Virgin and Child has a very intimate presence. Whatever the artist’s ambition in creating the work—maybe a genuine sense of devotion to God or a devotion to being exceptionally good at his craft—he produced a picture of quality that has handsomely withstood 700 years.

Remarkable as a work of art, the painting shows a high level of craftsmanship and gives us a window onto a significant period in art history. Works produced in this Proto-Renaissance style of the 13th and 14th centuries directly precipitated, well, the Renaissance, with its focus on humanist ideas and a visual art that encouraged scientific perspective and a mimetic approach to representing the world. The religious subject, the Madonna and Child, is very representative of the time and place when it was painted, one of the most important themes for the period. I find the aesthetic really intriguing: the balance of heavenly gold and august blue gives the painting an appropriately impressive air, and the figures have oddly proportioned features like those crazy fingers.

Many of our visitors won’t experience a connection to the roles Mary and Jesus play in Christian theology, but quite a few more—I daresay all of our visitors—were born to mothers. The maternal affection Mary shows for her baby as she cradles him, the kind of loving, protective care that she embodies—these are essentially human feelings. To illustrate the longings of the human soul in visual art is, for me, one of the great challenges for an art museum, and one that this historical piece takes up well.

Very warm wishes to all this holiday season!

P.S. To those who celebrate Christmas, I hope it’s a very merry one!

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Virgin and Child, ca. 1325, Master of San Torpè, Italian, active ca. 1290-ca. 1320, egg tempera and gold on wood, 21 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 61.152. Beacon Hill News-Journal, 1968.