All posts in “painting”

Layering Histories in SAM’s Collection

The Seattle Art Museum collection spans ancient and contemporary art across continents—perfect for examining historical artworks through the critical framework of Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas. While you’re here, listen to new collection audio tour additions from creative community members on objects from our collection or use the question and information below as way of looking again at the works you see at SAM regularly.

How does the narrator of a story change how the story is told?

Susanna and the Elders, an oft-painted Old Testament tale, is recast in a contemporary context by Robert Colescott in the image of his painting, above. This subject is popular throughout art history for featuring the nude female figure and also allowing viewers to morally condemn the lecherous elders. Colescott inserts himself in this scene as a Peeping Tom in the window to show how, in his presentation of the nude female form, the artist is complicit with the elders, as are the viewers as they too watch Susanna bathe.

Albert Beirstadt had not visited inland Washington when he painted Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast in 1870. It was likely commissioned by a shipping magnate making money from the West coast who wanted a painting to get America imagining where their future modern seaport might soon arise. Because of the patron, this pioneering painting of the past is actually a new maritime civilization’s prologue.

Louis-Philippe Crépin depicts lives lost in the name of discovery in Shipwreck Off the Coast of Alaska. At the right are two Tlingit witnesses who helped search for survivors of the La Pérouse expedition. The French expedition and the shipwreck became part of the Tlingit oral tradition. However, when La Pérouse named this the Bay of the French, it was clear from the trading skills of the Tlingit, that this expedition was not the first to find this bay.

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Content Strategist and Social Media Manager

Photos: Installation view of Close Ups at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, photo: Natali Wiseman. Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast, 1870, Albert Bierstadt, born Solingen, Prussia, 1830; died New York City, 1902, oil on canvas, 52 1/2 x 82 in., Gift of the Friends of American Art at the Seattle Art Museum, with additional funds from the General Acquisition Fund, 2000.70, photo: Natali Wiseman. Installation view of Extreme Nature at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, photo: Natali Wiseman.

Figuring History Facts: Robert Colescott

What do you know about the three artists in Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas? Take a minute to learn more about the people behind the paintings currently on view at SAM as we share 10 surprising facts about each of them. This month we’re focused on Robert Colescott. Colescott’s work is bold, colorful, often satirical, and packed with meaning.

  1. Colescott’s parents were accomplished musicians who played jazz, blues, and classical music. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, Colescott also had musical talent—growing up he played the drums and always kept a drum kit in his studio.
  2. Despite painting and drawing from a young age, Colescott originally wanted to go into international relations. He decided to pursue his passion for art since he was told at the time there wouldn’t be a future for him in the field as an Black person.
  3. Robert Colescott married five times.
  4. Colescott was thrust into international spotlight as the first Black painter to have a solo exhibit at the Venice Biennale in Italy.
  5. Robert Colescott’s older brother Warrington Colescott is an also an artist best known for his etchings.
  6. Oski wow wow! Colescott graduated from the University of California, Berkeley where he received both his bachelors and masters.
  7. A world traveler, Colescott spent an year in Paris at an atelier studying with artist Fernand Léger.
  8. In the early 1950s, Colescott moved to Seattle and taught junior high school in the Seattle Public School District.
  9. Colescott was a veteran—he volunteered to serve in the US Army after graduating High School in 1942 and fought in the 86th Blackhawk Division during World War II.
  10. Colescott has five sons and a grandson. His grandson, Colescott Rubin, is also a jazz musician and played at the opening celebration of Figuring History in front of his grandfather’s painting, Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas.

See Colescott’s work in person at the Seattle Art Museum. Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas will be on view until Sunday May 13!

– Nina Dubinsky, Social Media Coordinator

Image: Installation view Figuring History: Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, 2018, at Seattle Art Museum. Photo: Natali Wiseman

Object of the Week: Study for the Munich Olympic Games Poster

I always loved running—it was something you could do by yourself and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.

— Jesse Owens

One of 29 artists commissioned to design a poster for the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Jacob Lawrence chose to highlight the achievements of Black athletes.[1] In his Study for the Munich Olympic Games Poster, five runners, depicted in Lawrence’s characteristic graphic flatness, recall the figurative style of Greek vase painting—an apropos homage on the occasion of the Games of the XX Olympiad.

The iconic colors of the five interlocking Olympic rings—blue, yellow, black, green, and red—recur throughout the study, from batons and jerseys to shorts and shoes. Framed by the curvature of the track, the runners’ physicality and strength are difficult to ignore. Together, their musculature, movement, and form encapsulate the excitement and competitive finish of the relay—where gold, silver, and bronze are determined by mere tenths of seconds.

Known for his stylistic experimentation and depictions of African American life, Lawrence’s commission also has special importance within the context of the Civil Rights Movement and history of the modern Olympic Games. Created only four years after the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics, and on the occasion of the first Olympics held in Germany since 1936, his representation of Black athletes is especially meaningful.

In the 1968 Olympic Games, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos respectively won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter race.[2] Upon climbing the podium, with the Star Spangled Banner playing behind them, both Smith and Carlos, donning black gloves, raised their right and left fists and bowed their heads—a symbol of protest and strength on an international stage.[3] Though interpreted by many as an explicit demonstration of Black Power, for Smith, it was a human rights salute: “It was a cry for freedom and human rights. We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”[4]

Just 32 years earlier, in 1936, the Summer Olympics were held in Berlin. Though Germany had won the bid in 1931, prior to the rise of the Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler’s rhetoric of white supremacy and antisemitism was already well established. For Hitler, the Olympics became a stage upon which Germany could prove his theories of racial superiority. It was within this Olympic setting—in which athletes of color and Jewish heritage were openly discriminated against—that Owens won four gold medals, set two world records, and came away the most successful athlete of that year’s games.

For Smith, Carlos, and Owens, these Olympic victories allowed them to transcend—and publically challenge—the political divisions and discrimination taking place in the United States and abroad. Similarly, Lawrence’s Study for the Munich Games Poster, depicting all Black athletes, is an important work that finds its place within this complicated history of the Olympic Games.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Other artists included Hans Hartung, Oskar Kokoschka, Pierre Soulages, David Hockney, and Josef Albers, to name just a few.
[2] Tommie Smith won the 200 meter race with a world-record time of 19.83 seconds.
[3] It is believed that Smith raised his right fist, and Carlos his left, to represent Black unity, forming “an arch of unity and power.” BBC News, “1968: Black athletes make silent protest,”
[4] Rick Campbell, “An Olympic moment—from 1968,” Houston Chronicle, August 5, 2008,
Images: Study for the Munich Olympic Games Poster, 1971, Jacob Lawrence, gouache on paper, 35 1/2 x 27 in., PONCHO, 79.31 © Jacob Lawrence. Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) extend gloved hands skyward during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner in Mexico City on October 16, 1968. Jesse Owens running at 1936 Olympics in Berlin.



Wyeth’s Cast of Characters: Christina Olson

One day I came in and saw [Christina] on the back door step in the late afternoon. She had finished all her work in the kitchen and there she was sitting quietly, with a far-off look to the sea. At the time, I thought she looked like a wounded seagull with her bony arms, slightly long hair back over her shoulder, and strange shadows of her cast on the side of the weathered door, which had this white porcelain knob on it. ―Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth met Christina Olson through his wife Betsy and first painted her in 1947. He would paint Christina every summer in Cushing, Maine for the next 20 years until her death in January, 1968. As Betsy explains it, “The key to the Olson pictures is Andy’s relationship with Christina—absolutely at ease with him.” Christina Olson, a New-England native, refused a wheelchair for much of her life, despite being without the use of her legs. Rather, she used her upper body to pull herself through the fields and house where she lived and worked. Her tenacity and intelligence captivated Andrew Wyeth and their friendship blossomed easily.


I think one’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes. I see no reason for painting but that. If I have anything to offer, it is my emotional contact with the place where I live and the people I do. – Andrew Wyeth

Even in death, Andrew continued to draw inspiration from Christina through her house and the objects that had defined her. Wyeth considered this painting of the two entrances to her home a double portrait of the siblings, Alvaro and Christina Olson. When first introduced to the Olson siblings, Andrew was initially taken with Alvaro and painted his portrait before he become focused on the indomitable Christina. Alvaro died on Christmas night, 1967, and Christina, without him, died only weeks later. The house and remnants left abandoned in their wake struck Wyeth as symbolic of the lives they lived—the shadowy Alvaro, who only posed for Wyeth once and remained always in the background as Wyeth painted in the Olson house; and, by contrast, the brilliant, captivating Christina.


The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless . . . limited physically but by no means spiritually. – Andrew Wyeth

Anna Christina is Wyeth’s last portrait of Christina Olson. She died only months after the tempera was completed. The trusting relationship of artist and model is evident: Christina confronts the artist and the viewer completely unselfconsciously, and Wyeth returns the favor with unflinching honesty and respect. “A powerful face with a great deal of fortitude. The Quality of a Medici head,” Wyeth described his friend. He painted Christina against an open doorway filled by a milky gray rectangle of fog that had enshrouded the house for weeks.


This drybrush is intended to be a portrait of the Olson house both outside and inside. Outside is total fragility. Inside is full of secrets. There’s Christina sitting in the kitchen, on the left, and everything’s in there—the stove, the geraniums, the buckets, and the trash. I had to overdo it here and reveal all the secrets. I like to paint in places that are not too nice. ― Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth saw the world around him resounding with hidden meaning. Occasionally considered a magical realist for his emphasis on the inner life of objects such as the stove or the bucket in this painting, Wyeth was certainly a storyteller. His paintings can be seen as stills in a moving image—the story of Christina’s Olson’s life surrounding her and continuing right outside the open door of her kitchen.


This curtain that had been lying there stale for year began slowly to rise, and the birds crocheted on it began to move. My hair about stood on end. – Andrew Wyeth

Christina Olson was a muse for Andrew Wyeth that helped launch his career. As a subject she is forever seated due to the degenerative disease that made her a paraplegic, but in Wyeth’s paintings, the figure of Christina stands out, singular and strong in the stories of Wyeth’s characters. See Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect before it closes, January 15.

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Content Strategist & Social Media Manager

Images: Christina Olson, 1947, Andrew Wyeth, American, 1917–2009, tempera on hardboard panel, 33 x 25 in., Myron Kunin Collection of American Art, Minneapolis, Minnesota, © 2017 Andrew Wyeth / Artist Rights Society (ARS). Alvaro and Christina, 1968, Andrew Wyeth, American, 1917–2009, watercolor on paper, 22 ½ x 28 ¾ in., Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine, Museum Purchase, 1969, © 2017 Andrew Wyeth / Artist Rights Society. Installation views of Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect at Seattle Art Museum, 2017. Photos by Natali Wiseman.


Object of the Week: Nail Police

New Year’s Eve ushers in and allows for all sorts of behavior. For some, it might be a night to reflect on the past year while making resolutions for the next, but for others it is a social occasion during which one can celebrate freely, throwing caution—and social mores—to the wind. This work by John Wesley, titled Nail Police, seems to be a proponent of the latter.

At first the work appears relatively benign, with a cartoon-like image of a woman drying toenail polish—a standard beauty routine. Upon closer look, Nail Police reveals more erotic undertones, and raises further questions: Why are there three feet instead of two? Is the woman pictured even painting toes at all? Is the painting in fact an adult fantasy rendered ambiguous?

One of Wesley’s many strengths as an artist is his ability to create images that are at once explicit and enigmatic. And, like his highly stylized paintings, Wesley has defied easy categorization throughout his career. His flat, graphic figures and distinctive color palate of periwinkle blue and pale pink often align him with artists who share a Pop sensibility, although Wesley associates his uncanny, dreamlike compositions with Surrealism. However, his painting style, which bears little trace of the human hand, has also been espoused by many Minimalist artists, most notably Donald Judd.

Interested in our mass consumption of media, Wesley regularly begins his paintings by tracing images from publications such as newspapers and fashion magazines—dogs, birds, women, and cartoon characters—which are then converted into gouaches and, ultimately, acrylic paintings. This process allows certain characteristics to be reduced to their most basic elements. Here, this can be seen in the contours of the woman’s feet, or the treatment of her full lips and eyelashes.

Regardless of how you might read this image, the last night of the year is as good a time as any to paint the town—and maybe even your toenails—red. However you celebrate, Happy New Year!

Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Nail Police, 2002, John Wesley, Acrylic on canvas, 63 x 48 in. (160 x 121.9 cm), Gift of American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York and Hassam, Speicher, Betts and Symons Funds, 2004.90, © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Wyeth’s Cast of Characters: Helga Testorf

“The difference between me and a lot of painters is that I have to have a personal contact with my models . . . . I have to become enamored. Smitten. That’s what happened when I saw Helga.” – Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth painted Helga Testorf in secret for 13 years before the world, and his wife, saw the paintings for the first time. The secrecy and intimacy of these paintings stirred quite the scandal when they were first exhibited and they continue to be a source of much conjecture into the details surrounding Wyeth’s relationship with one of his greatest muses. Find out more about the character of Helga both within, and outside of, Wyeth’s life and paintings during a talk given by Patricia Junker, SAM’s Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, in the Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect galleries.

“Remember, he’s a Bergman . . . He’s creating a world they [his models] don’t realize and they’re acting out a part without any script.” – Betsy Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect is on view at Seattle Art Museum through January 15 and the next Wyeth Wednesday tour with Patricia Junker will take place January 3.

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Content Strategist & Social Media Manager


SAM Gallery Artists on Seattle: Leslie Stoner, Liz Tran, Sheryl Westergreen, Stephen Rock

Seattle is one of those rare places where it isn’t considered droll to talk about the weather. The SAM Gallery artists in Color Excursion, on view December 8 through January 7, offer an escape from grey days into exuberant artwork. Below, three of the artists in this show share the ways that living in Seattle and the surrounding area impact the way they see the world. For such a moody and dramatic locale, you may be surprised by their vibrant, lively work. If you’re looking to recharge your senses, come to SAM Gallery for the Color Excursion Opening Reception on Thursday December 7, talk to the artists about their work, and find out how you can rent or buy artwork from SAM Gallery.

Leslie Stoner

This year I moved from Green Lake to Whidbey Island. Previously my work originated from a contemplative state of creation. I found inspiration through travel and memory and emotions but now living on Whidbey, I’m in it. On the island your surroundings are constantly in flux. The winds whip in and carry things away, the storms batter the shoreline leaving treasures on the beach. The nights are deep and dark and full of creatures. Everything feels alive and in a state of change. The beauty and the drama of my surroundings constantly barrage my eyes and fill my brain with endless creative ideas and the solitude of the island allows these ideas to come to fruition in my studio.

When invited to make a body of work for Color Excursion, I was elated. I’m addicted to color. I mix my own colors using wax and powdered pigments and when working with this medium it becomes something else, something more tactile. It’s hard to explain, it’s like I’m making a soup but I’m loading it with saturated color until it’s thick, and I want to eat it. That’s what initially drew me to encaustic painting and I think it’s what draws people to want to touch an encaustic painting.

Liz Tran

The use of color in my work is an unapologetic form of escapism from the long stretches of grey weather that continually blankets my Pacific Northwest home. Each year my palette of luminous, unnatural hues provides a defiant objection to winter’s approach. Pulsing fluorescent paints massage the naked eye with ultraviolet light, creating an energized glow impervious to dull environments. Maroon does not belong to me. Tubes of brown remain unopened. There is safety in muteness. My paintings speak to extroversion, experimentation, and play. Through color, I aim to activate.

Sheryl Westergreen

Color Excursion immediately brought to mind the idea of travel, taking an excursion lavish with color. My work in this show was inspired by a trip to South America one year ago. Although the paintings for this show do not reflect Seattle, much of my work is inspired by my daily routines and surroundings. For example, the Across the Lake, Cloud Dreams, Inside a Cloud, and Inside a Leaf series are all the result of my daily walks in my Seattle neighborhood.

I let my experiences germinate and then abstract them on the canvas, translating a memory of a place or an experience. I work in layers of color and compose the image while working. My paintings are oil on canvas or board. Working with oil means that each layer needs to have a bit of time to dry before the next layer can be applied. I find that when I return to the piece it changes and evolves in surprising ways.

Stephen Rock

This new work at SAM Gallery is from a series of unique digital mixed media prints called the Gardeners Journal. The nature of the Northwest has always been a part of my life having grown up in eastern Washington. With this body of work, it becomes a touchstone away from the tech-focused culture of our evolving city. My digital print studio keeps me in front of a computer monitor much of the time. As a retreat from the stream of  social media I find refuge out my window, a slight turn of the head away from the monitor. I have found the organic shapes and colors of my garden to be a creative counterpoint to the drone of data. By exploring abstracted shapes and forms found in nature, this new work provides endless metaphors and narratives and visually blend the creative tools of traditional art making with new digital possibilities to find a balanced voice in the moods and aesthetics of the region.

Images: Detail of Leslie Stoner’s studio, photo: Alison Blomgren. Afterglow Two, Liz Tran, 30 x 24 in., mixed media on panel. Easter Island, Chile, Sheryl Westergreen, 36 x 36 in., oil on canvas. Like a garden splashed across the landscape, Stephen Rock, 36 x 36 in., pigmented print, watercolor, gouache.

Object of the Week: Still Life with Calendar

As we prepare for the last 31 days in our 2017 calendars, it becomes clear how quickly time flies. Where did the year go? In this 1956 work by Northwest artist Wendell Brazeau, Still Life with Calendar, time is certainly a preoccupation, as well as developments in abstraction imported from Europe during the years following World War II.

A painting that could only exist after the pictorial revolution brought about by Cubism, and Paul Cézanne before that, this work is a marker of an important moment in American painting when European theories made their way to artists living and working in the United States. Like many, Brazeau studied in Paris and worked first-hand with the European avant-garde, bringing such ideas back to the Northwest and pollinating the region with new modernist theories.[1]

One of the main genres of Western art, the still life takes many forms; whether arrangements of symbolic objects that point to the brevity of human life,[2] or celebrations of material wealth, the still life has fascinated artists for centuries. In more recent art history, the still life has become a foundation for formal experimentation.

Indeed, here flat geometric forms and bright planes of color unify a spatially ambiguous plane. We see lemons or limes perched precariously on the left-hand corner of the table, as well as a chair, coffee pot, flower vase, and fruit basket, all nearly sliding from their fixed positions. Behind this array of multi-toned vessels and objects we also see a small section of an incomplete calendar—a tongue-in-cheek inclusion that seems to simultaneously honor and scrap the genre’s interest with the passage of time. A knowing departure from the still life paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, Still Life with Calendar playfully explores the possibilities of abstraction while wittily honoring the subject’s antecedents.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Still Life with Calendar, 1956, Wendell Brazeau, oil on board, 41 3/4 x 46 in., Northwest Annual Purchase Fund, 56.254 © William A. Brazeau
[1] Brazeau studied art at the University of Washington for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees. For more, please see Barbara Johns, Modern Art from the Pacific Northwest in the Collection of the Seattle Art Museum (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1990), 16.
[2] Vanitas, for example, contain objects—such as musical instruments, skulls, candles, and flowers—that serve to remind the viewer of their own mortality, as well as the worthless pursuit of earthly goods and pleasures.

Object of the Week: Union

Sam Gilliam’s 1977 painting Union tantalizes with its tactility. It’s rhythm, texture, color, and shade; bright and inviting, dark and rough. It’s free-form abstraction raked as a zen garden, and grounded by geometric shape.

Over the course of his career Gilliam has shown a deep interest in painting as a physical process. He made waves in the art world in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when he displayed paint on canvas in innovative ways. He began suspending his canvases, hanging them by corners like linen sheets on a laundry line, or pinning them up at certain points, allowing the canvas to cascade downward in thick, heavy folds. While this body of work created a sculptural experience of the canvas, his series of Black Paintings, of which Union is a prime example, created a sculptural experience with paint. In these works he used a shag-rug rake to create a notched surface texture that unifies the painting.

Interestingly, Gilliam started out as a representational painter. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, he studied at the University of Louisville, earning his BA in 1955 and his MA in 1961. In the ‘60s he relocated to Washington, DC, where fate awaited. In DC Gilliam joined up with the artists who would become known as the Washington Color School—a group working in abstract modes to press the expressive potential of color.

In his own milieu Gilliam was a sponge, always soaking up wisdom, but also dispensing it. Discussing artists who have influenced him in a recent interview, he begins with Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis but covers a staggering range after them, speaking smoothly on Paul Klee, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Yvonne Rainer, Claude Monet, Georges Braque, Arthur Dove, Tintoretto, Alice Denney, Jan van Eyck, and David Smith. Add to that mix: jazz music, especially the tunes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk; curators like Walter Hopps, one-time director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art; symbols, like the American flag; and Washington’s urban design, its circular hub and radiating arteries.[1] Gilliam links his own productivity with his ability to recognize fine material: “There’s a mental connection that’s very good between the activity of painting and, let’s say, the visual and the listening process from the outside, which is always stimulating.”[2]

Though Gilliam’s beginnings were tied to the figure, his future was bound in colorful abstraction. His first one-man show in DC, held at Adams-Morgan Gallery in 1963, featured exclusively representational paintings, while his second show, held just a year later, featured no representational works.[3] Gilliam recounts that one of the DC artists, Tom Downing, played a large part in encouraging this shift: “Tom saw an exhibition of mine that was entirely figurative plus a series of watercolors on a grid, which were Klee-like. He suggested that, obviously, the figurative painting was unnecessary and that the watercolors were right in. So, I guess he’s the one that got me started making abstract paintings.”[4]

Gilliam’s work now graces prominent collections all over the country, and his Black Paintings have been collected by many important museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Denver Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. We can safely say that his influences, and his innovations, have served him well.

Check out Union and a group of earlier paintings in the Sam Gilliam exhibition on view now at SAM!

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Union, 1977, Sam Gilliam (American, b. 1933), acrylic on canvas, 55 x 65 ½ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Peirolo, 82.117 © Copyright the artist. Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA.
[1] Sam Gilliam, interview with Peter Halley, March 29, 2016, reproduced in Sam Gilliam. Ex. Cat. Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2017; 82-92.
[2] Sam Gilliam, 92.
[3] Gilliam/Edwards/Williams: Extensions. Ex. Cat. Hartford, Conn.: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1974; 15.
[4] Sam Gilliam, interview with Peter Halley, March 29, 2016, reproduced in Sam Gilliam. Ex. Cat. Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2017; 82.