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Object of the Week: Hester Diamond Tribute

What lasts

This abstract composition is pieced together from fragments of ordinary things—corrugated cardboard, painted fabric, and wrinkled burlap. The surface is pierced, stained, and gouged, painfully reminiscent of scarred skin. It comes from a series called Sacchi (sacks), which use humble materials to create compositions that hover between painting and sculpture. Alberto Burri, who had been a doctor in the Italian army during World War II, started making art when he was a prisoner of war in Texas in 1943. As much as anything, the Sacchi seem to be about the temporary nature of materials, experiences, life—for many viewers in the 1950s, they seemed to express the suffering and darkness of the war years.

Burri created Sacco in 1955 when he was staying in New York. He had become friends with Harold and Hester Diamond, a young New York couple with an interest in art (Harold, a schoolteacher, would go on to become a prominent art dealer). Harold’s brother owned the Upper West Side building where Mark Rothko had his studio, and the Diamonds, who lived upstairs, arranged for Burri to use the studio. He included the sleeve of one of Harold Diamond’s discarded shirts in the lower right of this work, and presented the work to the Diamonds at the end of his stay.

Decades later in 1995, Hester Diamond gave Sacco to the Seattle Art Museum in memory of the artist, who had died that same year. Harold Diamond had passed away in 1982, and Hester, with her second husband Ralph Kaminsky, had become a friend of SAM and a supporter of the Seattle Opera, whose Ring cycle brought her to Seattle numerous times. Over the years she gave three more works to SAM, all very different from the Burri.  

One of them is this wonderfully strange family portrait of Leda, Jupiter in the form of a swan, and their three children, hatched from eggs—a work by the mid-16th century Flemish painter Vincent Sellaer. The combination of appealing and unsettling visual qualities is typical of Mannerism, a style which attracted Hester’s interest beginning in the early 1990s. Previously devoted to 20th-century art, she fell in love with the refined technique, inventiveness, and beauty of 15th- and 16th-century European painting and sculpture and shifted her collecting focus.

Hester Diamond was an enthusiastic and generous friend to international art institutions, artists, curators, scholars, and gallerists. The seriousness of her commitment to art was matched by her sense of humor and love of adventure as she explored new fields. A lifelong New Yorker, Hester had a close relationship with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and made significant gifts to her hometown museum over the decades. SAM is fortunate that she also recognized how works from her collection could make a difference here in Seattle.

Hester’s collecting interests could encompass a post-war collage roughly fashioned out of the ephemeral everyday, as well as a painting superbly crafted to last forever. Both are now valued works in our collection which future generations will be able to enjoy thanks to her generosity. Sadly, they outlast Hester herself, who died on January 23, 2020 at the age of 91. She will be greatly missed.

Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture

Images: Sacco (Sack), 1955, Alberto Burri, burlap, cardboard, muslin, and paint, 35 1/2 x 28 1/4 in., Gift of Hester Diamond in memory of Alberto Burri, 95.134 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Leda and the Swan and Her Children, ca. 1540, Vincent Sellaer, oil on wood panel, 43 1/2 x 35 1/16 in., Gift of Hester Diamond in honor of Chiyo Ishikawa on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2004.31. Photograph ©️ Carla van de Puttelaer, 2019.

Object of the Week: Lucie Léon at the Piano

Berthe Morisot, once dismissed with her fellow Impressionists as a “lunatic” by a contemporary critic, is now the subject of an international touring exhibition that confirms her singular contribution to the movement. After seeing it, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl concluded that she was “the most interesting artist of her generation.” This 180-degree swing in critical appreciation over time is by now familiar—mocked then and later adored—especially with the Impressionists.

An upper class Parisian woman, Morisot could not paint the cabarets, racetracks, and cafés that her male colleagues depicted. Though her subject matter was limited to the domestic realm, she was radical in her bold approach to painting. Her slashing brushwork and sophisticated color animated scenes of women reading or getting ready to go out for the evening, a maid hanging up the laundry, and children in the garden, for example.

Woman at her Toilette, 1875/80 Art Institute of Chicago

Woman at her Toilette, 1875/80
Art Institute of Chicago

In the Garden at Maurecourt, 1884 Toledo Museum of Art

In the Garden at Maurecourt, 1884 Toledo Museum of Art

Woman Hanging Laundry, 1881 Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Woman Hanging Laundry, 1881
Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Morisot exhibited her paintings in all but one of the eight Impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886. In the 1890s her style changed. Her angular brushwork, which in the ’70s and ’80s had created a kind of vibration between figure and background, relaxed. Contour and outline now fixed the figure in place, as in the Seattle Art Museum painting of a young pianist looking up from her practice to pose. The slowed-down brushwork and blue palette contribute to a melancholy quality, which is typical of Morisot’s work in the ’90s and perhaps influenced by the new Symbolist movement practiced by Edvard Munch, Paul Gauguin, and her friend the poet Stéphane Mallarmé.

Lucie Léon was a musical prodigy who would go on to have an illustrious professional career. But Morisot’s daughter Julie, who was present for the painting sessions in their home, recalled that Lucie was a reluctant sitter who “would have preferred to play croquet.” You can hear her piano playing here:

Berthe Morisot died of the flu in 1895 at the age of 54. During her lifetime she sold no more than 40 works out of over 400 paintings. The exhibition Berthe Morisot/Woman Impressionist, shown in Quebec City, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Paris, will introduce her to many new fans.

– Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture

Image: Lucie Léon at the Piano, 1892, Berthe Morisot, oil on canvas, Overall: 38 x 33 in., Image: 24 3/4 x 20 1/2 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Prentice Bloedel, 91.14.

Object of the Week: Virgin and Child with Donor

Seattle has been under a smoky haze for days now because of forest fires north, east, and south of us. Ash covered my kitchen table yesterday morning. The sun no longer sparkles—it looks like an opaque orange egg yolk, and its light struggles to get through the smog. If we were in the midwest I would think a tornado was imminent. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, Harvey and Irma have battered their way through neighborhoods wielding the weapons of wind and water.

When I was thinking about an object to write about for this unsettling week, I considered atmospheric abstractions; a Dutch painting about an explosion in a gunpowder factory; a hazy landscape. But then I had another thought. These massive climate events make me feel small and helpless. What have people in the past done in the face of such intimidating natural force? They turned to higher powers.

In ancient civilizations people made offerings to the gods. Later, supplications could be made to royalty, once believed to be divinely endowed. But in 14th-century Christian Europe, most prayers were directed heavenward—to God, his son Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or a pantheon of saints, each associated with specific conditions or complaints. Saint Christopher was supposed to protect you if you were traveling; Saint Roch was invoked against the plague; Saint Martin of Tours was the patron of the poor. For protection from bad weather, people turned to the little known Saint Medard.

We don’t have an image of Saint Medard, but we do have an image of a man kneeling in earnest prayer as he gazes up at the Madonna and Child.

The figure is easy to miss because he is so much smaller than the Virgin and Child who are the main subject of the painting, originally the central panel of an altarpiece that he paid to have painted. This man was not asking for deliverance from a momentary crisis such as a flood or fire. He was thinking longer term and bigger picture—specifically, eternal life beyond this brief earthly existence. For him, the Virgin Mary represented solace through her various roles: protective mother, Queen of Heaven, and embodiment of the living Church.

I love this painting, which is currently undergoing conservation and will be back on view in the European galleries by the end of this year. In the past I have always focused on the serene splendor of the Virgin, who remains a loving mother while embodying queenly demeanor. But, feeling small these days in the face of catastrophic world events, I feel a new identification with that tiny donor, praying away for all eternity.

– Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture

Image: Virgin and Child with Donor, late 1340s, Bernardo Daddi, Italian, Florence, active ca. 1280-1348, egg tempera with gold on wood, 43 x 18 1/2 in., Samuel H. Kress Collection, 61.151, photo: Eduardo Calderon.

Seeing Nature through The Eyes of Curators: Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, and Impressionism

Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather

One of Paul Allen’s favorite periods is obviously French Impressionism, and he has some exquisite examples. In Seeing Nature there are five paintings by Claude Monet. Monet had such a long life that he underwent a long evolution based on seeing and communicating his subjective experience to the viewer.

Monet was constantly trying to forget what he knew and what his mind told him—such as that if a stone building is brown it should be depicted as brown. He wanted to forget logic and just paint what he saw. In Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather, London was beset by terrible pollution and it created a very foggy atmosphere. For Monet, those atmospheric effects made for a series of beautiful paintings where you can subtly perceive the fact that there’s a bridge before you with smoke stacks beyond. The brushstrokes depicting sunlight coming through the arches of the bridge have more substance than the bridge itself. He was interested in the changing color effects of different times and days so he painted the Waterloo Bridge at different times of day.

Landscape on île Saint-Martin, Claude Monet, 1881.

Landscape on île Saint-Martin

Earlier in his career, Monet didn’t have the luxury of going far afield to paint. It took him years to be able to make a living. Landscape on île Saint-Martin and The Fisherman’s House, Overcast Weather are from the early 1880s when he was still years away from becoming successful. He painted where he was living with his family. During one summer, Monet was on a little island just north of Paris and painted it in all of its summertime glory with this beautiful field of poppies. There is a little fisherman’s cabin that used to be a watchtower right on the Normandy coast, an area of his childhood that he would return to many times over the years. These paintings reward looking close up, but they also reward standing back and taking in the whole—he’s thinking about both perspectives at the same time.

The Fisherman's House, Overcast Weather, Claude Monet, 1882.

The Fisherman’s House, Overcast Weather

Claude Monet painted Venice fairly late in his career. It’s important to mention The Palazzo da Mula in conjunction with View in Venice–The Grand Canal by Edouard Manet. Manet was such an inspiration for Monet. Though he never called himself an Impressionist, Manet was absolutely fundamental to the movement. It’s interesting that both artists went to Venice—Manet painting in 1874 and Monet in 1908. By this time there is a historical body of work that artists have created about Venice. There are conventions about what Venetian paintings look like and both of these artists are interested in breaking those conventions.

The Palazzo da Mula, Claude Monet, 1908.

The Palazzo da Mula

Manet’s painting is particularly radical. He is right on the water. It’s as though he’s painting in a boat. All of the grand views, the many beautiful buildings that intersect with the sky and water, are not his main subject. The dome, which was originally much bigger—there’s a pentiment that shows through a little bit now—he suppresses it. He doesn’t want that to be the main event. He’s instead much more interested in the mooring poles that are part of the navigational system of all the boat traffic in Venice.

View in Venice–The Grand Canal, Edouard Manet, 1874.

View in Venice–The Grand Canal

When you see just the prow of the gondola come into the picture, it reminds you that photography has become part of the visual vocabulary by this time. A view can be cut off like a snapshot and a form can end abruptly. It’s not composed in that traditional way, it almost looks like a found view although he obviously worked at it. To me, this painting is an antidote to the kind of more melancholy mysterious aspect of Venice, which is so much a part of its literary reputation. This is more about a bustling city full of movement. It’s full of vigor and sparkling light in the middle of the day.

– Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture

See these and other Impressionist artworks in Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, on view at SAM through May 23.

Note: This text is taken from an audio recording of a staff tour of the exhibition led by SAM curators.
Images: Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather, 1904, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 25 9/16 x 39 1/8 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. Landscape on île Saint-Martin, 1881, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 28 13/16 x 23 5/8 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. The Fisherman’s House, Overcast Weather, 1882, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 22 3/4 x 28 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. The Palazzo da Mula, 1908, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 26 1/6 x 36 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. View in Venice–The Grand Canal, 1874, Edouard Manet, French, 1832-1883, oil on canvas, 22 9/16 x 18 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection.

Migration Stories: Chiyo Ishikawa

World War II is the reason my parents met. They were both American citizens but wartime fear forced an unwanted migration on my father’s family and thousands of other west coast Japanese and Japanese-Americans. As soon as Executive Order 9066 was issued in February 1942, my dad began efforts to get out of internment camp. This second migration is how he came to meet my German-American mother in Nebraska that same year.

My father’s father, Rintaro Ishikawa, was born in Hiroshima in 1865. In the early 20th century he emigrated to the United States with his wife Mura and their young daughter Fusae. We don’t know why the family chose to emigrate but it may be because they had converted to Christianity and perhaps also so that Fusae could receive a college education, which was unavailable to girls in Japan at that time. Rintaro first worked as a janitor and then for Hyland’s, a homeopathic pharmacy which still exists today. He never learned much English, and he and his wife spoke Japanese at home. The family settled in East Hollywood in a neighborhood of Japanese immigrants and African-Americans. There they had four more children, including my father, Joseph, who was born in 1919.

After his sophomore year at UCLA in 1938, Joe followed his father’s wishes and sailed to Japan to learn Japanese. Rintaro was concerned that his children could not read and write the language and had no communication with family members in Hiroshima. Joe was admitted to Keio University but after two semesters relations had grown so strained between Japan and the United States that the American consulate warned American citizens to leave. He returned to the US in January 1941 on the penultimate ship that sailed before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December that year.

In February 1942 Executive Order 9066 was issued; it called for the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese-Americans on the west coast. The family first reported to the Santa Anita Racetrack before being transferred by train to the Granada War Relocation Center (Amache) in southeast Colorado about six months later. While at Santa Anita, Joe applied to inland universities which welcomed Nisei students and was accepted at the University of Nebraska.

Joe went to the University of Nebraska in fall 1942 to study English literature, but he began working at the University Art Galleries and eventually became a curator there. Through a friend he met my mother, Olivia Brandhorst, the daughter of two German-American parents whose families had emigrated from Germany in the 19th century.

Olivia’s paternal grandfather, Karl Wilhelm Brandhorst, was born in 1869 in a small town near Hamburg in northern Germany. He came to the United States to work as a coal miner in Mt. Olive, Illinois but tried several other jobs before settling in Lahoma, Oklahoma in 1902 with his wife Alvina Backhaus and their children. Olivia’s maternal grandparents, Ernst and Augusta Koeneke, were prosperous farmers in Kansas who had come to the United States from Schleswig-Hollstein, Germany in the mid-19th century.

Carl Theodore Brandhorst (b. 1898) married the youngest Koeneke daughter, Louise, and began a career as a Lutheran school teacher in small Kansas towns. My mother, born in 1927, was the third of their eight children. German was spoken at home when she was small. When Olivia was a teenager the family moved to Seward, Nebraska. She had led a sheltered, conservative life and my father must have seemed exotic to her—nine years older than her, from the west coast, a Japanese-American with experience living abroad.

My parents met in 1944 and married in 1951 after a long and tumultuous courtship. The Brandhorst parents liked my dad but did not approve of the marriage, and no family members from either side were present at the wedding. Going against her parents’ wishes was hard for my mother, who had been raised to “honor thy father and thy mother.” But in the following years they made sure that their five children had relationships with their families and learned the best of the values that had shaped them.

My parents came from two tradition-bound cultures that were known for proud homogeneity. Their own lives provided a counter-narrative to those norms, which had proved so devastatingly destructive during the years of World War II. Part of it was that their generation thought of themselves more as Americans than belonging to their culture of origin, and like many of their peers Olivia and Joe moved away from their hometowns to forge a new identity that they could shape independently.

– Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture

Inspired by Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, Seattle Art Museum’s Equity Team and staff is sharing personal stories of immigration, migration, displacement, and community. Hear more stories, in person, at the last installment of our Migration Stories events, this Thursday, April 13, with speakers presented in partnership with Tasveer in The Migration Series gallery. We hope this blog series and the upcoming event inspires you to consider how your own perspective and history relates to the works on view in Jacob Lawrence’s artwork.

Photo: Olivia and Joseph Ishikawa wedding photo , June 11, 1951, Courtesy of Chiyo Ishikawa.

Seeing Nature through The Eyes of Curators: Venice

By the 18th century, landscape has become a full-fledged genre. One of the reasons that artists paint landscapes is for a shifting international clientele that is doing a lot of travel. Of course, it is the wealthiest elite that is doing this kind of travel, such as English gentlemen on the Grand Tour. It becomes a mandatory part of one’s education to spend time in Italy, which is where European systems of government formed and where there are still ancient monuments for people to see. It also has a lush and exotic landscape from an English perspective. In Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection you’ll see works focused on Italy, and particularly Venice—a favorite place for people to visit and a very favorite place for artists to portray. It is also a favorite place of Paul Allen’s—there are eight paintings of Venice in this exhibition. Throughout, you have the opportunity to think about places you have, or haven’t, visited, and see them through the eyes of artists. And this is especially true of Venice.

The first great painter of Venice is Canaletto, a Venetian, and he paints very exacting images of particular locations in Venice. Venice is a magical place because it is so unchanged. You can seek out this view of the Grand Canal and it will look just like the painting. Canaletto had his studio in Venice where these paintings were displayed and English visitors would commission paintings or buy them in groups as decoration for their homes. Both of the Canaletto paintings in Seeing Nature are spectacular paintings in their own quiet way. He can easily describe the rhythms of everyday life, but can also describe pageantry and the kind of stately and more decorated trappings that Venice could put on for grand occasions. The ingredients that you see here—buildings, water, boats, sky—those are the basic ingredients of any painting about Venice and artists will address these elements according to their own interests.

J. M. W. Turner painted about a century after Canaletto, in the mid-19th century. By 1841 when he painted this painting, Turner had visited Venice three times. His early works are watercolor studies made on the spot—probably influenced by images by Canaletto and other Venetian artists. By the time he is well into his career, he has made Venice the scene for a kind of more poetic rumination on mood and atmosphere–and also a sense of nostalgia for the past, which often accompanies views of Venice as well as poetry and literature about the city. Turner has invented a story here about the great 15th century painter, Giovanni Bellini, whose paintings are still to be seen in many churches in Venice. In Turner’s fantasy, three Bellini paintings are being delivered to the church that you see in the painting. He has created a lavish and dignified pageant: you can practically hear the music playing, with richly dressed people and flags and banners and a full flotilla delivering these paintings to this beautiful church. Sky, water, boats, buildings—it’s all here, but what a different effect from the Canaletto paintings. Most of the paintings in the exhibition have Plexiglass over them so you can get close to them and study the surface and brushwork. This one is almost like enamel. It looks like palette-knife work. Turner’s texture and color contribute to the mood. This is all part of concocting an emotional and poetic response to this place.

Later in the exhibition you can see how Manet, Monet and other Impressionists saw Venice through the lens of the artistic issues of their own time.

– Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture

Hearing from SAM ‘s curators is a treat and this post is only a taste of what Chiyo Ishikawa and Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator, will be speaking on Wednesday, April 19 during A Constant Entertainment: A View Of Venice From Canaletto’s Studio. This lecture is part of our Conversations with Curators series. This popular members-only lecture series still has tickets available and single lectures are open to the public. Get your ticket now for more on Venice and our current exhibition, Seeing Nature, on view through May 23.

Images: Installation view of Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection at Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman. The Grand Canal, Venice, Looking Southeast from San Stae to the Fabbriche Nuove di Rialto, ca. 1738, Canaletto, Italian, 1697–1768, oil on canvas, 18 1/2 x 30 5/8 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. Depositing of John Bellini’s Three Pictures in La Chiesa Redentore, Venice, 1841, Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775–1851, oil on canvas, 29 x 45 1/2 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. View in Venice–The Grand Canal, 1874, Edouard Manet, French, 1832–1883, oil on canvas, 22 9/16 x 18 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection.