“The story that’s happening right now is we are in a struggle to be more human.”
– Barbara Earl Thomas
For more than a year, SAM visitors were mesmerized by the intricate and detailed cut-paper artwork of Seattle-based artist Barbara Earl Thomas in The Geography of Innocence. On the final few days of the installation, SAM sat down with Thomas to discuss how her breathtaking installation came together.
Watch this video to learn about the importance Barbara placed on bringing light into her work, her experiences working with children as models, the story behind the catechism in the installation, and the lessons she hopes her portraits impart.
In Self-Portrait with Grandchildren in Funhouse, Imogen Cunningham captures a moment of joy with two of her young grandchildren, Joan and Loren, as they experiment with the effects of a warped mirror. Despite the playful nature of the image, Cunningham remains stoic in photographing herself. Her face points down as she looks into the viewfinder of her black and silver-lined rectangular camera which she steadies with both hands. She is small in comparison to her grandchildren, whose elongated arms stretch the entirety of the image, but identifiable by her white hair, gemmed cap, and metallic glasses.
Tune in to this audio recording to hear Imogen Cunningham’s granddaughter, Meg Partridge, discuss Cunningham’s relationship with her grandchildren. Produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Partridge describes how this image came together and emphasizes Cunningham’s signature artistic style. Listen to this and other audio recordings as part of the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectivewhen you visit the exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum through February 6, 2022.
Self-Portrait with Grandchildren in Funhouse, 1955
Narrator: An outing with two of her granddaughters and a fun house mirror provided Imogen Cunningham with an irresistible subject. Meg Partridge, granddaughter of Imogen Cunningham.
Meg Partridge: Imogen was really being very playful as she always was with photography.
Narrator: Partridge was only two when this photograph was taken, and too young to tag along. Instead, we see her older sister Joan, in the middle with both hands raised, and her cousin Loren, on the right with a hyper-elongated arm.
Meg Partridge: Imogen did not spend a lot of time taking grandchildren places and doing grandmotherly-like things. She enjoyed children once they became, as I would say, of interest to her. They could be articulate. They could have opinions. They could share thoughts.
Narrator: Cunningham worked while raising her three sons, and continued to do so once their children came along.
Meg Partridge: Looking at her work, you can see some of the same subjects coming in again and again. So we see many photographs of Imogen looking into her camera and photographing herself in a reflection or often in a shadow as well.But another is a very sort of surrealistic view that she took with her camera.
Narrator: Unlike the distorted versions of her granddaughters, her reflection in the self-portrait remains relatively true. We get just a glimpse of her grey hair beneath an embroidered cap and one-half of her eyeglasses, as her hands adjust the dials on her ever-present rolleiflex camera.
Meg Partridge: She was able to capture great shots that were unexpected because she had a camera around her neck and she just always wore it.
Around 1901, Imogen Cunningham purchased her first camera. Aware of his daughter’s interest in photography, Cunningham’s father, Isaac Burns Cunningham, built her a darkroom in a woodshed on their property in Seattle. With her photography career in full bloom, Cunningham returned to the site of the original darkroom more than 30 years later to photograph her first and biggest supporter, her father.
Seated on a log in front of split wood, Cunningham intimately captures her aging father. In this recording produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Meg Partridge, the granddaughter of Imogen Cunningham, reflects on Cunningham’s loving relationship with her father and reveals the supportive role he played throughout her career. Listen to this and other audio recordings when you visit Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectiveat the Seattle Art Museum.
My Father at Ninety, 1936
Meg Partridge: In all the photographs Imogen took of her father, you can just see that relationship between the two. You experienced that relationship a bit when you look into the eyes of Isaac Burns in this photograph.
Narrator: Cunningham had a host of ways for getting her subjects to relax and reveal a bit of themselves. She’d chat them up, catch them off guard, or mesmerize them with her own fluid, busy movement, all in order to, as she once said, “gain an understanding at short notice and at close range.” But with this sitter, those techniques weren’t necessary. Her father’s guard was never up.
Meg Partridge: Imogen was very close to her father. I think there was a real similar interest in their curiosity and their intellect and their pursuit of information.
Narrator: Isaac Burns Cunningham was a freethinker. His formal education was interrupted by the Civil War, yet he was a voracious reader and a student of all religions. He supported his large family with a wood and coal supply business. In his daughter, named for the Shakespearian character he found most noble, he nurtured a love of nature and art, buying her first set of watercolors and arranging painting lessons on weekends and summers.
Meg Partridge: This is from a very low-income, frugal family that didn’t have a lot of extra money to spare. Isaac Burns also made her a darkroom in his woodshed. So that’s how Imogen got started actually processing her own work as a teenager in Seattle.
Narrator: Like her father, Imogen Cunningham lived into her nineties. When asked in an interview two months before her death at age ninety-three which one of her photographs was her favorite, she replied, “The one I’m going to take tomorrow.”
In this soft-focused black and white photograph, a woman is visible from the waist-up. She sits in three-quarter profile and wears a loose, white robe which emphasizes her pale skin. This woman, who glows in contrast to the dark, hazy background which surrounds her, is miniaturist painter Clare Shepard.
Imogen Cunningham photographed her friend, Shepard, at the peak of the pictorialist movement. This movement saw photographers approach cameras as a tool—similar to a paintbrush—that made an artistic statement. Rather than capturing the real, pictorialism emphasized the beauty of a subject and an image’s composition.
In this audio recording produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Chris Johnson, chair of the photography department at the California College of the Arts, considers the pictorialist approach Cunningham took in creating The Dream (Nei-san-Koburi)and the romantic feelings it relays. Listen to this and the rest of the audio tourwhen you visit Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective at our downtown location as part of the exhibition’s free smartphone tour.
The Dream(Nei-san-Koburi), circa 1910
Chris Johnson: It’s a kind of a classic, romantic, pictorialist image of a young beautiful woman.
Narrator: Chris Johnson, chair of the photography department at the California College of the Arts.
Chris Johnson: You can see that Imogen is very sensitive to the falling of light and shadow over this young woman.
Narrator: The atmosphere around her, seems to glow. Diffused light falls on her headscarf and the folds of her painter’s smock. Her eyes are half closed, as if in a trance. The close framing of the portrait keeps the background abstract. The subject is Clare Shepard, a friend and miniaturist painter.
Chris Johnson: Imogen, in her heart of hearts, was really a romantic and a romantic takes her feelings very seriously so her feelings as she was projecting them on to this young woman are pretty clear.
Narrator: The otherworldly portrait hints at Shepard’s rumored abilities as a clairvoyant. The image exemplifies pictorialism, an approach that prioritized beauty and expressiveness, composition and atmospheric effects. The movement rejected the realistic, documentary nature of photography and instead looked to painters as artistic influences.
Chris Johnson: One of the ideas behind the pictorialists was that you would use the soft-focus technique as a trope to indicate dreamy, romantic, ethereal, spiritual qualities. She’s catching this moment when Claire is lost within thought and it intends to try to draw us into the mood space that she’s occupying using pictorialist soft-focus as a formal strategy.
Narrator: When Cunningham took this portrait around 1910, Pictorialism was at its peak. Cunningham had recently opened her own studio in Seattle after studying photographic chemistry in Germany. The photograph marked a specific, early period in her career.
Chris Johnson: All of her photography subsequent to this phase is in marked contrast to the visual effects of this image.
While teaching at the California School of Fine Arts in 1957, Imogen Cunningham overheard her friend and co-worker Dorothea Lange give her students an assignment: photograph something you use every 24 hours. Inspired by the simple prompt, Cunningham returned to class the next week with a new photograph she had taken titled The Unmade Bed.
Listen to an interpretive analysis of the work from Cunningham’s close friend and collaborator Judy Dater. From the perfectly rumpled sheets to the spread out piles of bobby pins, Dater discusses how this image acts as a self-portrait of the artist and explains the reason why Cunningham often gifted a print of this image to newlyweds.
This audio recording is part of the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectiveat the Seattle Art Museum. Tune in to all 13 recordings when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location.
The Unmade Bed, 1957
Narrator: A rumpled sheet and blanket are thrown back to reveal a pile of hairpins and another of bobby pins. Subtle gradations vary from the crisp white sheets exposed by sunlight, to the grey wool blanket with a shimmery trim, to the completely dark background.
Judy Dater: I can’t look at that photograph and not think of it as a self-portrait, a very personal self-portrait.
Narrator: In 1957, Dorothea Lange, best known for documenting the Great Depression, was teaching at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. Cunningham was also teaching there when she heard her friend and fellow photographer give her students an intriguing assignment.
Judy Dater: And the assignment that, apparently, that Dorothea Lange, gave the class that day was to go home and photograph something you use every twenty-four hours. And so Imogen went home and made that particular photograph. And then when she came back the following week, she brought that in as her example.
Narrator: Did she intend it as a self-portrait? After all, those are her hair pins. Do they signify the letting down of one’s hair or one’s guard? Cunningham never said as much, but she did ascribe one message to the image.
Judy Dater: She sometimes would give that photograph to people as a wedding present so that the husband would know that the wife was going to be busy, that she had things to do, and not to expect the bed to always be made.
Narrator: Cunningham may have deliberately arranged the sheets and hairpins, or perhaps she happened upon the unmade bed exactly as she left it. For photographer Judy Dater, that’s irrelevant.
Judy Dater: She saw it and she was at the right angle at the right moment, and she knew what to do with it.
For nearly a decade of her 70-year career, Imogen Cunningham focused on capturing the beauty of botanicals. Having studied chemistry and worked in the botany department at the University of Washington, she wrote her thesis in 1907 on the chemical process of photography while employing a variety of plants as her subjects.
Magnolia Blossom is perhaps Cunningham’s most well-known botanical image. The close-cropped photograph of the flower reveals the cone of stamens and pistils hiding between the petals. Taken as a whole, the image represents a transfixing study of light and shadows within the history of black and white photography.
In this audio recording produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Meg Partridge, the granddaughter of Imogen Cunningham, discusses the significance of this photograph within Cunningham’s larger body of work and provides insight on the photographer’s fascination with botanicals. Tune in to this and twelve other recordings as part of the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectivewhen you visit the Seattle Art Museum.
Magnolia Blossom, 1925
Narrator: This close-cropped image of a magnolia flower fills the entire frame. The petals have completely opened revealing the cone of stamens and curlicue carpels.
Meg Partridge: It’s really a beautifully sharp, focused, large-format image that is a simple subject, but it’s very powerful.
Narrator: For roughly a decade, Cunningham focused her attention on botanical studies. This is perhaps her most well-known example. She had an extensive knowledge of plants—as a chemistry major in college, she worked in the botany department, making slides for lectures and research.
Meg Partridge: She knew the botanical names of all of the plants that she had photographed and all the plants that she gardened with. She spent a good bit of time in the garden. So I think it was more about the relationship she had with her subject—be it a person or a plant—that we really see and respond to.
Narrator: There was a practical aspect to these botanical works as well. Cunningham once explained: “The reason I really turned to plants was because I couldn’t get out of my own backyard when my children were small. I photographed the plants in my garden and steered my children around at the same time.”
Meg Partridge: And she would do it in moments where she had children underfoot, but also a moment to focus. She always used natural light and she often took photographs either inside with a simple backdrop or she even took simple backdrops, a white board or a black cloth, out into the garden to photograph.
Narrator: Cunningham’s full-frame botanicals such as this one were groundbreaking in early modernist photography.
Salmon, sea lions, seals, rabbits, hummingbirds, eagles, and Cooper’s hawks—SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park is a refuge for Seattle’s wildlife. Today is World Wildlife Conservation Day, a holiday intended to spread awareness about the natural world and its habitants, and we’re offering an update on ongoing habitat restoration projects taking place at the park.
In 1910, the park’s site was developed as a fuel storage and transfer facility by Union Oil of California (UNOCOAL). By the time the museum purchased the property in collaboration with the Trust for Public Land in 1999, the soil and ground water had been severely contaminated by petroleum products. In acquiring the land, SAM resolved to return the site to a functioning ecosystem, while simultaneously creating a safe space for public recreation and the display of outdoor sculptures.
As SAM trustee, collector, and arts philanthropist Martha Wyckoff previously explained to SAM, “Community can include everyone in Seattle and anyone who comes to visit. As we developed the project, we realized it also included the salmon, and the plants, and the future, by making sure there’s more green, natural settings in the downtown core for all to enjoy. Where else has a major city art museum created salmon habitat in partnership with a national nonprofit land conservation group?”
After an exhaustive international search featuring 52 applicants, Weiss/Manfredi Architects of New York was selected to design the park. The designers developed a 2,200-foot Z-shaped configuration to create four distinct landscapes that reflect the native ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest. This innovative design allowed for the implementation of several environmental restoration projects, including brownfield redevelopment, the creation of a salmon habitat restoration, and the capture and use of rainwater on-site.
On land, designers introduced a three-foot-thick layer of engineered soil that dramatically reduces runoff and allows rainfall to percolate and drain out to Elliott Bay. The planting of dense tree canopies, under-story vegetation, and ground covers also contribute to the retention of rainfall above the soil’s surface. By restoring the original topography of the land, the designers were able to reintroduce microclimates that allow for greater diversity in the plant and animal life which occupies the park.
Meanwhile, on the shoreline, designers focused on the creation of a nearshore habitat which serves as a refuge and foraging ground for juvenile Chinook salmon that migrate through the Green and Duwamish Rivers. They also opted to relocate rip-rap rocks from the shoreline to develop a pocket beach which created a shallow subtidal habitat bench suitable for the planting of native vegetation.
Since opening to the public in 2007, these environmental restoration projects have only continued to flourish. As SAM‘s Facilities and Landscape Manager Bobby McCullough explained, at this point, it’s all about maintaining the work first implemented while the park was being designed.
“Our efforts these days are mainly focused on watching the park grow and letting it do what it was meant to do,” he said.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t more progress to be made in returning the park and others across Seattle to their original environmental conditions, however. For the last year, Bobby has participated in a taskforce formed by Seattle Parks and Recreation aimed at creating and grooming more pollinator corridors throughout the city.
“The City of Seattle is really leading the charge right now in rethinking the landscapes of Seattle’s parks,” he said. “We’re often walking the waterfront, attending meetings, and coming up with new ideas about how we can increase the number of pollinator species that inhabit our parks.”
For 14 years, the Olympic Sculpture Park has served as a haven for art- and wildlife-enthusiasts alike. In addition to hosting thousands of visitors each day, the park often sees researchers from the University of Washington studying the growth of juvenile salmon and other organisms near the shoreline, as well as members of the Seattle Audubon Society observing its natural wildlife populations.
“The growth in wildlife that we’ve seen in the last few years around here has been really fantastic,” Bobby said. “Looking forward, I think these numbers are only going to grow.”
Introducing #SAMSnippets! We recently launched a new live series on our Instagram which gives followers an in-depth look at works from SAM’s permanent and semi-permanent installations virtually. Each month, we’ll choose a new gallery to walk viewers through, providing a taste of SAM from wherever you may be!
To kick off the series this November, we featured a diverse collection of artworks from “Native Art and Life Along the Northwest Coast” in celebration of National Native American Heritage Month. Watch the video now to get a peek at what’s on view at SAM now and read about the works shown in this video below. Visit SAM now to see all of the featured works and more in-person!
Masks of the Animal Kingdom Dance
As we enter the galleries on this short walkthrough you’ll see an installation of masks arranged on platform. Performances featuring masked dancers are birthright of particular families and derive from long-ago auspicious encounters between human ancestors and supernatural beings, in the guise of animals or unique spirits. The “Dance of the Animal Kingdom” represents a heroine ancestor’s adventures among the animal beings, who in turn bestow the dance and masks upon her for use by her family and subsequent generations.
According to Chief Bill Scow (1902–1984), the Animal Kingdom story took place at Shoal Harbor (Gilford Island, British Columbia) where in the distant past a girl went looking in the woods for her lost brother. She instead encountered a dance of animal beings inside a cave. The messenger of the animals, Mouse Woman, was sent to see if there was indeed an intruder. Because the girl was able to overcome the supernatural power present in the animal dance, she was allowed to witness it and to bring to her people the privilege of performing it. The masks shown here were carved by artist Sam Johnson (1930–2007) for the opening ceremonies of the Seamonster House at the Pacific Science Center in 1971.
As we pan across the arrangement, keep an eye out for Deer, the “curious one,” recognizable by its antlers. You’ll also see Owl, called the “Wise One” perhaps because its large eyes see deeply into the real and spirit worlds. Its distinctive markings, rotating head and binocular vision, put the owl in the pantheon of auspicious creatures. George Hunt (1854–1933), a knowledgeable First Nations consultant to anthropologist Franz Boas, recorded that some Kwakwaka’wakw believed that after death man becomes an owl.
According to Bill Scow, one of the heirs of the Animal Kingdom privilege, Wolf was the leader of the animals and would call them out one-by-one to pantomime the characteristics of each creature. After all the animals had danced in sequence, they would dance together as a group for the finale.
Raccoon, as keeper of the fire, would have been in charge of illuminating the sacred cave where the Animal Kingdom Dance first took place.
Because of her speed and sharp mind, Mouse Woman is sent out to make sure no one is watching the secret dance of the animals. In the story, she befriends the girl and tells the others that no one is watching. In time, the girl is allowed to observe and to take the supernatural treasure of the dance and masks back to her family.
Grizzly Bear is the “fierce one” and can be identified by his upright ears, large snout, and moveable jaw.
The presence of Bukwus in the Animal Kingdom Dance may be a reference to the lost brother that the girl was seeking. Bukwus are feared ghost-like creatures believed to represent humans who have become separated from their community and wander the woods. In the story, the brother loses his human identity and becomes a Bukwus.
Kingfisher is said to be the assistant to Wolf, the leader of the animals. In the wild, they are stocky birds with a shaggy blue crest who fly quickly over rivers and shorelines looking for fish. Their rattling cry and expert diving abilities make them special and mysterious creatures.
Now we turn to historic and contemporary works created by Native peoples across the Northwest Coast. The first work in this collection, Seated Human Figure Bowl, portrays a skeletal humanoid figure cradling a bowl in its lap, with its arms and legs encircling the bowl. Three distinct snake images are carved downward from the head, resembling a headdress with two footprints on top. Bowls such as these, carved from stone, wood, and horn, are often used by Coast Salish peoples in rituals of healing and protection.
Next to the bowl sits a Sxwaixwe Carving. The unusual being depicted in this carvingis used in Coast Salish communities to bless and protect people in life crisis events, such as sickness and death. Only the right person with the right to use the masks would know its deeper meanings. This small carving might have once been the finial of a rattle or the top of a staff.
Also in this collection, we see two Skull Rattles. The imagery of these two works reveals the death-and-rebirth aspect of initiation into the t’seka or Winter Ceremonial whereby acolytes are temporarily imbued with supernatural power then restored by attendants who shake rattles to tame the wild behavior of the initiate. The subdued initiate is reborn with greater status and connection to spiritual power.
Halibut—giant flatfish that can weigh one hundred pounds or more—were traditionally caught in Tlingit and Kaigani Haida communities from cedar canoes using special barbed hooks. Fishermen used imagery that referenced the help of a shaman. This Halibut Hook (Naxw) which is then panned to represents a human figure with animal-like feet biting an octopus tentacle. The octopus appears frequently on shaman charms and is considered to be a supernaturally powerful being.
The importance of shamans, called halait, as powerful spirits which aid in combatting sickness and soul loss in Native communities along the Northwest is reiterated in the next work featured in the video, Soul Catcher (Am’halait). This special amulet of bone, abalone shell, and buckskin is a container that was manipulated while the shaman was in a trance, in order to locate and retrieve the wandering or bewitched soul of a person, thus restoring their health.
Small carved shaman figures such as the one which is next panned to, represent spirit helpers and were part of the myriad curing paraphernalia employed to purge ill persons of evil spirits. Objects such as these would protect the shaman against supernatural enemies while completing his healing duties.
To the right of this shaman figure, we see a venerable ceremonial garment. Xoots Kudás displays a bear on one side and a stylized design of bull kelp on the other, both crests of the Tlingit clan. The crests are held communally and symbolize ancestral encounters with supernatural beings. Such regalia is considered to be at.óow (“an owned or purchased object acquired through an ancestor”), one of many traditional art works brought out on ceremonial occasions to signify the connection between the ancestors and the living.
Leaving the glass case of Northwest Native works, we pan to two pedestals with works highlighting the importance of Raven in Tlingit communities. The first, Raven at the Headwaters of Nass Hat (Naas shagi Yeil S’aaxw) was used in Alaska to comfort those in mourning. Clan hats are the ultimate expression of complex shared histories and are featured prominently in potlatches. When the song associated with the hat was sung, the host family and guests—ritually dressed in headgear and robes—would dance in remembrance of their loved ones.
The second work is a stunning combination of maple, mirror, abalone shell, bird skin, paint, sea lion whiskers, copper, leather, and Flicker feathers. According to myth, the distinguished natural features of Tlingit homelands can be attributed to Raven. Lkaayaak Yeil S’aaxw (Box of Daylight Raven Hat) depicts the wily Raven in the act of releasing the sun, moon, and stars from his grandfather’s box, which the legendary bird clutches in his human-like hands.
Behind these pedestals, we see Keet Shagoon (Killer Whale) by Tlingit artist Preston Singletary. Growing up in west coast cities and trained in European glass techniques and practice, Singletary began incorporating Native Iconography into his work in 1987, explaining: “I found a source of strength and power [in Tlingit designs] that brought me back to my family, society, and cultural roots.” In this, his first monumental work, the artist studied the house screen in this gallery, fusing his clan Killer Whale crest into sixteen panels, thus recharging an ancient tradition and bringing the past forward. Learn more about this artwork featured in SAM’s Object of the Week series.
The tour concludes with Robert Davidson’s Canoe Breaker: Southeast Wind’s Brother. According to Haida oral traditions, Canoe Breaker is one of ten brothers of Southeast Wind, who is responsible for the turbulent weather on Haida Gwaii. You can learn more about the story behind Canoe Breaker in this highlight as SAM’s Object of the Week.
“Southeast Wind is in the form of a killer whale. The [white] ovoid actually separates the lower teeth from the upper teeth in the mouth. And the top shape would be the tail and this U-shape could be the pectoral fin and dorsal fin. When you see the killer whale in their world we see them as killer whales but when…they go into their dwelling [below the sea] they will take off their skins and hang it near the door..so that’s why…human attributes [are] mixed in with what a killer whale looks like.”
– Robert Davidson
– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator
Video Artworks: Deer Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, antler, paint, cloth, 14 1/2 x 9 1/2 x 9 3/4 in. (36.83 x 24.13 x 24.77 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.7. Owl Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Wood with enamel paint, 12 x 9 1/2 x 10 in. (30.48 x 24.13 x 25.4 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.5. Wolf Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, enamel paint, and cloth, 8 x 8 1/8 in. (20.32 x 20.64 cm) L.: 20 3/4 in., Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.10. Bukwus Mask (Wild Man of the Woods), Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, Overall: 12 x 11 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. (30.5 x 29.2 x 21.6cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.12. Raccoon Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, enamel paint, and cotton cloth, 12 1/2 x 9 x 9 13/16 in. (31.75 x 22.86 x 24.96 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.9. Cod Fish Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, 12 3/4 x 9 1/8 x 9 1/2 in. (32.39 x 23.18 x 24.13 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.1. Mouse Woman Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, enamel paint, cotton cloth, and leather, 11 x 9 1/2 x 9 in. (27.94 x 24.13 x 22.86 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.8. Grizzly Bear Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, 9 1/8 x 8 in. (23.18 x 20.32 cm) L.: 15 3/4 in., Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.6. Bukwus Mask (Wild Man of the Woods), Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, 12 x 9 1/4 in. (30.48 x 23.5 cm) , Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.2. Kingfisher Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, 8 1/4 x 9 in. (20.96 x 22.86 cm) L.: 11 in., Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.4. Porcupine Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, 11 1/4 x 9 11/16 x 10 in. (28.58 x 24.57 x 25.4 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.3. Otter Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, Overall: 6 1/2 x 8in. (16.5 x 20.3cm) Length: 16in. (40.6cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.11. Seated Human Figure Bowl, pre-1800, Coast Salish, Soapstone, 14 3/4 x 4 5/16 x 7 5/16 in. (37.5 x 11 x 18.5 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 83.223. Stone Mortar, pre-1800, Salish, Granite, 10 x 5 3/4 x 4 3/4 in. (25.4 x 14.61 x 12.07 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.136. Eagle and Salmon, Manuel Salazar, 2007, Canadian, Cowichan, born 1966, Deer hide, acrylic paint, Diam.: 20in. (50.8cm), Gift of Doug and Thelma McTavish, 2008.49. Sxwaixwe Carving, ca. 1880, Coast Salish, Wood, Mountain goat horn, mountain sheep horn, cow horn, copper, 5 1/2 x 2 in. (13.97 x 5.08 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.140. Drum with Skull Painting, Susan Point, 1991, Musqueam, Canadian, Born 1951, Animal hide, acrylic, wood, bone, 17 x 3 in. (43.2 x 7.6 cm), Gift of Simon Ottenberg, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, SC2005.13. Halibut Hook (Naxw), ca. 1890, Tlingit or Kaigani Haida, Yew wood, yellow cedar, iron, cedar bark twine, and commercial cotton twine, 4 5/8 x 1 3/8 in. (11.75 x 3.49 cm) L.: 9 1/2 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.105. Soul Catcher (Am’halait), ca. 1860, Tsimshian, Bone, abalone shell, and buckskin, 1 5/8 x 1 1/8 in. (4.13 x 2.86 cm) L.: 7 3/4 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.83. Shaman Figure, ca. 1860, Tlingit, collected in Sitka in 1869, Yellow cedar wood, human hair, and paint, 14 5/8 x 4 x 3 in. (37.15 x 10.16 x 7.62 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.119. Xoots Kudás (Bear Shirt), ca. 1890, Tlingit, Tekweidí clan, Commercial wool cloth, cotton cloth, imported mother-of-pearl buttons, applique, synthetic indigo dye, 41.5 x 57 in. (101.6 x 144.78 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.80. Raven at the Headwaters of Nass Hat (Naas shagi Yeil S’aaxw), ca. 1810, Tlingit, Taku village, Alaska, Gaanax.ádi clan, Maple, paint, shell, hair, baleen, 8 1/2 x 7 x 12 in. (21.59 x 17.78 x 30.48 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.125. Lkaayaak Yeil S’aaxw (Box of Daylight Raven Hat), ca. 1850, Tlingit, Taku village, Alaska, Gaanax.ádi clan, Maple, mirror, abalone shell, bird skin, paint, sea lion whiskers, copper, leather, Flicker feathers, 11 7/8 x 7 3/4 x 12 1/4 in. (30.2 x 19.7 x 31.1 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.124. Keet Shagoon (Killer Whale), Preston Singletary, ca. 2003, American, Tlingit, born 1963, Fused and sand carved glass, 72 x 92 x 3/8 in. (182.9 x 233.7 x 1cm), Purchased in honor of John H. Hauberg with funds from the Mark Tobey Estate Fund, John and Joyce Price, the Native American Art Support Fund, Don W. Axworthy, Jeffrey and Susan Brotman, Marshall Hatch, C. Calvert Knudsen, Christine and Assen Nicolov, Charles and Gayle Pancerzewski, Sam and Gladys Rubinstein, SAM Docents, SAMS Supporters, Frederick and Susan Titcomb, and Virginia and Bagley Wright, 2003.12. Canoe Breaker: Southeast Wind’s Brother, Robert Davidson, ca. 2010, Canadian, Haida, Masset Village, born 1946, Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 40 in. (152.4 × 101.6cm), Gift of The MacRae Foundation, the Native Arts of the Americas and Oceania Council, and Ancient and Native American Art Acquisition Fund, 2013.35.
From close friends to strangers, and even the artist herself, photographer Imogen Cunningham found inspiration in capturing the human form in various settings. Taking portraits of those around her, Cunningham aimed to find the “beauty of the inner self.”
Listen to this audio interview to hear Japanese and Chinese Canadian photographer Kayla Isomura discuss the lessons she has learned from Cunningham’s extensive body of work. Paying particular attention to the artist’s 1973 portrait, Morris Graves In His Leek Garden, Isomura highlights the intentional melancholy of the image and shares admiration for Cunningham’s keen ability to capture her subjects in their natural state.
This audio recording is part of a free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective, now on view at the Seattle Art Museum. Tune in to this and twelve other recordings when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location.
Morris Graves In His Leek Garden, 1973
Narrator: Like Imogen Cunningham, photographer Kayla Isomura is known for her portraits.
Kayla Isomura: I am a fourth-generation Japanese and Chinese Canadian, with a background as well in journalism, all of which have influenced my interest in multimedia storytelling.
Narrator: Kayla identifies with Cunningham’s goal of finding the “beauty of the inner self” in her portraits. Here, Kayla notes Cunningham’s deft touch with her subject, the painter Morris Graves.
Kayla Isomura: For me, I really like capturing people kind of as they are. Even taking a photo on the spot. Sometimes people will feel self-conscious about that. But more often than not I’m taking a photo of them because there is something about them that is photogenic even if it might not be in the sort of what society might expect. It’s very important that anybody can feel comfortable in front of the camera, or anybody can feel like they’re able to see themself in a photograph.
Narrator: Twenty-three years after Cunningham first photographed her friend Graves, she received a somewhat concerning letter from him. In addition to asking if she would once again take his portrait, Graves wrote, “Like us all, I am undergoing changes that are beyond my comprehension. I am tired of life, and I understand less and less.” Soon after, Cunningham visited Graves at his retreat, a 380-acre property in Loleta, California, where she took this photo.
Kayla Isomura: Something that really stood out to me is how authentic I guess in a way that I feel like this image was captured. Looking at how the photo was taken through the leeks and the contemplative expression on his face, it made me feel like there was more to this too. Like I didn’t know if there’s a sense of even mourning or even loss or maybe he’s just kind of lost in thought in his garden.
Narrator: After developing her photographs, Cunningham sent them to Graves along with her own letter, complimenting his “aura of beauty” and hoping that her portrait would inspire him to paint again.
– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator
Image: Morris Graves in His Leek Garden, Imogen Cunningham, 1973. Gelatin silver print, 8 ¼ x 11 3/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of John H. Hauberg, 79.72.
Get excited for your visit by watching this quick overview about the exhibition with Carrie Dedon, SAM’s Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.
Hosted on November 8 as a talk for SAM Members, we’re excited to share this recording of the overview with everyone and offer some context on the important contributions of Imogen Cunningham to photography as an art form over the course of her seven-decade career.
And remember, every First Thursday is free at Seattle Art Museum. Find out more about discounted admission opportunities!
Every painting, drawing, and sculpture at Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Asian Art Museum, and Olympic Sculpture Park is thoroughly inspected and cleaned by our conservation department before being put on view. These supremely talented individuals are dedicated to maintaining the aesthetic and structural health of SAM’s vast and, in some cases priceless, collections.
Watch this video from Seattle Channel’s Art Zone to get to know the leader behind this department, Jane Lang Davis Chief Conservator, Nicholas Dorman. Nick discusses his upbringing, explains how he ended up at SAM, and walks viewers through how he and his team care for every work of art at all three locations. All the works featured in this video can be seen on view in Frisson: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection at SAM through November 27, 2022.
In honor of National Ask a Conservator Day on November 4, we reached out to our Instagram community to see what questions they had for SAM’s conservation team. Nick, along with Senior Objects Conservator Liz Brown and Associate Conservator Geneva Griswold, took the time to answer them and give a bit more insight on their favorite memories at SAM—read their responses below!
What are some of the most time-intensive projects for SAM conservators to tackle?
Liz Brown (LB): Conservation treatments are time-intensive by nature! Small artworks treated in the studio take hundreds of hours to clean, treat, and document. Large, outdoor works such as those at the Olympic Sculpture Park get cleaned once a week, and then receive in-depth treatments, like a refreshed coating, each summer.
What background, formal education, and training is required to become an art conservator?
Geneva Griswold (GG): Paths into the conservation field can be circuitous, but many of us studied art history, chemistry, or are artists ourselves—conservation combines all of these interests! Formal entry into the field often includes the completion of a three-year graduate degree in art conservation with a specialty in objects, paintings, paper, textiles, books, or works on paper. Additional experience is gained through internships and fellowships.
What is your most cherished memory of working on SAM’s conservation team?
GG: One of my favorite memories is installing Yves St. Laurent: The Perfection of Style because it required teamwork from everyone in the department, plus local conservators who work in private practice, and conservators from France who travelled with exhibition. These collaborations are always the most fun because I learn a lot from my colleagues!
What has been your favorite artwork to restore/preserve while working at SAM?
LB: My favorite object is frequently what I am working on in the moment as each new work presents an opportunity to explore. Right now, I’m investigating cold cathode lights with artist Claude Zervas to prepare his artwork Nooksack for an upcoming exhibition.
How do you ensure you don’t change an artist’s intent when doing conservation?
Nick Dorman (ND): This important point is the subject of much concern and discussion. Treatments may be discussed with living artists directly, and conservators may collaborate with an artist’s foundation, community members, and others who are close to the work. We carefully research and document all work, and design every treatment to be reversible.
What aspect of conservation is misunderstood or overlooked?
LB: The title “conservation” can cause confusion it is often seen as rooted in a tradition of attempting to keep an object from changing. Sometimes this is a goal, but when considering treatment, we always consider the intangible aspects of the artwork. Thus, in conversations with stakeholders, we are looking to manage, change, and look to how that artwork lives best in a museum.
What is your favorite conservation tool?
LB: This is always changing, but one I come back to all the time is the very simple, yet versatile bamboo skewer. It’s wonderful in that it can be easily shaped to suit a variety of purposes. The wood box my father made for my small tools is also a favorite.
What’s the most interesting attempt you’ve seen a previous owner make to conserve an object? What did you have to do to correct/modify their attempt?
GG: I am currently working on a black lacquer wood sculpture. In areas where the black lacquer is missing, someone has colored the bare wood with a Sharpie marker to hide the unsightly loss. While well intentioned, this will be challenging to remove, if at all possible. Someone also used carpenter’s wood glue to reattach elements of the sculpture, however this type of adhesive has damaged the fragile lacquer. My treatment seeks to remove this adhesive and replace it with a more appropriate choice.
Any strange conservation stories to share?
ND: When I went to Italy in 2006 to research the original location of SAM’s Tiepolo ceiling fresco with former Chief Curator Chiyo Ishikawa, we found what seemed to be a very similar painting on the ceiling of the painting’s original home in Vicenza. The current custodian of the home said, “We have the Tiepolo, I don’t know what you have.” Turns out, we both have the Tiepolo! The surface of the original painting had been removed from the underlying fresco layers and attached to a new canvas support, eventually traveling across the world to grace SAM’s Porcelain Room ceiling. The remaining under-paint was left in place and was eventually retouched by a prominent Italian restorer.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in art conservation?
GG: Review the American Institute For Conservation and the Emerging Conservator Professional Network for resources. Informational interviews with conservators and conservation students can give a window into what the job entails on a day to day basis. Our roles vary immensely from museum to museum, and from institutional settings to private practice. Find a mentor who can provide sustained guidance—SAM conservators are happy to connect with you, get in touch with us!
Behind one of the most significant private collections of Abstract Expressionist and post-war art is a love story for the ages.
It started with a chance meeting between Jane Davis and Richard E. Lang at the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra. Within a year, the two were married and moved to Seattle. With a shared passion for the arts, Jane and Richard collected abstract works from artists across the United States which they showcased in their modest waterfront home.
Watch this video by the Friday Foundation to see how Jane and Richard’s extensive collection came together and how their legacy lives on in Seattle and its cultural community. Then, see 21 works from their personal collection in Frisson: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection at SAM, on view through November 27, 2022. These exceptional artworks now live at SAM thanks to a gift from the Friday Foundation in honor of these local collectors. The recent Lang Collection gift is comprised of 19 outstanding artworks that transform SAM’s holdings of postwar art, making it the most significant collection of its kind in the Pacific Northwest.
During their September 21 meeting, SAM’s Board of Trustees elected Dr. Constance W. Rice as their new Chair. A celebrated leader and activist in Seattle, Dr. Rice has been a member of the museum’s board since 1995 and previously served on the board’s Executive, Governance, and Education & Community Engagement Committees, serving as co-chair of the latter since 2010.
To celebrate her new role at SAM, we spoke with Dr. Rice about her proudest accomplishments on the board, how the pandemic affected its functions, her favorite memories at the museum, and what it means to be the first Black chair in SAM’s history.
SAM: Can you talk a bit about the role of SAM’s Board of Trustees at the museum and its purpose?
Dr. Constance Rice: The board of trustees is the governing body of SAM. I think one of our biggest responsibilities is being ambassadors for the museum. We work to make sure the public knows that Seattle Art Museum is a community resource and that we uphold the museum’s mission to “connect art to life.” To make that happen, we try to bring in people from a variety of different backgrounds and career fields to serve on the board so that we are get input from as many different communities—corporate and non-corporate—as possible. Our official duty is to manage the Executive director and CEO of the museum. There is also a fiduciary element: making sure the museum has an operating budget and is accurately tracking expenditures. We are the activists of the institution, and it takes money, time, commitment, and a love of the overall mission of the museum to make sure it functions properly.
SAM: Compared to work you’ve done on SAM’s board in the past, what are some important parts of your news role as SAM’s Board Chair?
CR: This role is a bit more outward facing than my previous roles on the board. As the board’s primary spokesperson, I’m responsible for talking with various community members and institutions to support the museum. Like many other art institutions right now, Seattle Art Museum is looking for better funding stability. To get that stability, I work with opinion leaders at the state legislature—both elected and non-elected officials—to develop a broad constituency of support not just for SAM, but for all art institutions in our area: Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, Seattle Theatre Group, and Northwest African American Museum, among others. The other main responsibility of my role is relationship building. The chair is responsible for ensuring the cohesiveness of the board and making sure every member knows their role. I am there to support every member and to make clear that we all are there to support one another and the institution.
SAM: You’ve served on the board since 1995, in many roles, most recently as vice chair. What are some accomplishments you are most proud of?
CR: My level of activism has varied throughout my many years on the board. But I think my most proud accomplishments are working with Sandra Jackson-Dumont, former SAM Deputy Director for Education and Public Programs, and co-chairing what is now the Education and Community Engagement Committee (ECEC). Sandra has been an inspiration for me throughout my life and I feel honored that I was able to work so closely with her before she moved on from SAM. As co-chair of the ECEC, I was able to focus on community building and had the opportunity to work with several more wonderful people. My first co-chair, Herman McKinney, was very much an activist. He helped found The Breakfast Club, chaired the Martin Luther King Memorial Committee, and served as the first director of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s Urban Enterprise Center. Eventually, José Gaitán took over Herman’s role and José was very interested in ensuring the museum understood Seattle’s Latinx population and was actively reaching out to them. After José, I co-led the committee with Sandra Madrid. Sandra really got the museum interested in developing partnerships with non-profits like Boys and Girls Clubs of America and Atlantic Street Center. Co-chairing this committee has been a great joy for me in terms of watching it expand and engage with local communities over time.
SAM: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the way you approach leadership roles?
CR: Professionally, I’m extroverted, but personally, I’m introverted so the professional side of me has really had to adjust since we began holding our meetings virtually due to the pandemic. My leadership style is very focused on establishing relationships, and it’s been harder to do that remotely the last two years. In interviewing for this position, I had the opportunity to meet with board members mask-to-mask since the museum is open to the public and it made me realize just how much I value person-to-person interactions. Going forward, I intend to meet every single one of the board members in person at some point throughout the next year. That’s the only definite plan I have right now.
SAM: What are some of the top priorities you’re looking to address within the museum?
CR: The COVID-19 pandemic made me a lot more introspective and gave me an opportunity to read a lot more. As a kid, I was pretty much a loner. No, I was totally a loner. I’m from Brooklyn, New York, and in junior high school I would go into Manhattan on the weekdays to the 53rd Street Library to do my homework. After I finished, I would go across the street to The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) because it was free to all students at the time. The library and MOMA opened a whole new world for me—it was liberating. Libraries and museums liberated me.
Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic as a kid—I couldn’t imagine it. Being in the position that I am in right now, I want to focus on creating more opportunities for children and their communities to access the arts. Because without art, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Whether it’s through singing, painting, dancing, dreaming, or reading SAM offers a space for every kid to be creative and that’s what I want to emphasize as I take on this new role.
SAM: You are the first Black person appointed as SAM’s Board Chair. What does that mean to you? And why is it important for a museum board to be diverse?
CR: One of the things I asked myself when I was first approached about becoming chair was, what’s wrong with this picture? Well, I’m not male, and I’m not rich. One of the challenges of the board is the diversity within it—age, gender, ethnicity, etcetera. And while we are the ambassadors of connecting art to life, we still have work to do in terms of bringing more life into the art world. And that means really considering what work we’re putting on our walls and who we are hiring to shape and guide the museum.
SAM: The summer of 2020 was a difficult time for many people across the nation. It was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the world was grappling with the murder of George Floyd. Many institutions, including museums, were called upon to reevaluate how they interact with the communities around them. How did you see this materialize within SAM?
CR: I live nearby the museum, so I was very pleased when I first saw Kimisha Turner painting the plywood on the windows that summer. As I watched her progress, I noticed that she brought her son with her and sat him down on a chair outside every day while she worked. One day I stopped by to ask about him being there, and she said, “I create better when he’s with me.”
I marched a lot that summer and the museum was on the route for many demonstrations. I am very aware that the marches, and what was going on nationally with George Floyd, bolted me to this new position on the board. I am deserving of this position, but I am also aware that my colleagues looked around and said, “we’re not going to do business as usual.” That’s what I believe I represent. It’s also why I really admire and respect my peers on the board. They looked around at what was going on in the world and decided it was time for change.
SAM: Can you share any favorite memories of being at SAM?
CR: I have so, so many wonderful memories of being at SAM. I knew Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Knight well. Jacob was from Harlem and the only living creature that could make me smile when he called me Connie because I hate being called Connie. But I was fortunate enough to attend one of their gallery talks in the old auditorium in the basement of the Seattle Asian Art Museum. It was there that I got to know Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art, and I immediately became a fan.
Being at SAM, I have also been able to meet so many wonderful artists, like Brenna Youngblood and Theaster Gates, two former winners of the Gwendolyn Knight & Jacob Lawrence Prize. I met Theaster when he lived in Seattle and was doing The Listening Room at SAM. He had a satellite office set up in Pioneer Square and asked members of the community to bring in their albums to add to the exhibition. When I was looking through the donated albums one day, I saw a Nina Simone album with a cover that I loved. I asked Theaster what he was planning to do with albums when the exhibition was over, and he said, “I’m going to give it to you.” I nagged him and nagged him throughout the exhibition, but I never got the album. But, you know, one of the things I hope for as chair is that I have more of these special moments and memories with artists at the museum.
Claude Monet was not the first painter to find artistic inspiration in Étretat. Throughout the 19th century, impressionist painters including Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and Charles François Daubigny traveled to the small seaside fishing village to capture the landscape’s breathtaking views.
Tune in to a letter Monet wrote to his companion, Alice Hoschedé, during his first voyage to Étretat in 1883. In it, the plein-air painter expresses his intention of painting a large-scale canvas of the village’s defining cliff, the Manneport. Aware of Courbet’s recent series of paintings depicting the same landscape, Monet calls the move “audacious.” However, he promises Hoschedé that his interpretation of the view will be different and worthwhile.
This audio recording is available on the free smartphone tour of Monet at Étretat, now on view at the Seattle Art Museum. Listen to excerpts of five letters Monet wrote to Hoschedé while in Étretat, when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location, on view through October 17.
La Falaise And The Porte D’Aval, 1883
“I worked well today, I am very happy, the weather is superb if a little cold. I plan to do a large canvas of the cliff at Étretat, even if it is terribly audacious on my part to do that after Courbet did it so admirably, but I will try to do it differently. . .” February 1, 1883.
– Claude Monet
Image: La Falaise and the Porte d’Aval, 1883, Claude Monet, French, 1840–1926, oil on canvas, 23 5/8 × 31 7/8 in., Private Collection.
Empathy—the ability to understand the experience and feelings of others—is a skill that many in the modern world struggle to accurately express. This increasingly common deficiency is known as Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD).
Enter Lessons from the Institute of Empathy. This immersive exhibition occupying the fourth floor of Seattle Art Museum functions to help visitors awaken their own empathy. Anchored by contemporary artist Saya Woolfalk’s ChimaTek: Virtual Chimeric Space, the exhibition invites you to step outside your normal, routine self and practice your ability to understand others by observing empathic works from our African art collection.
To better understand how Lessons from the Institute of Empathy encourages viewers to practice empathy, hear from Aurelia Wallace, a representative from the Institute. In her 10-minute talk, Wallace walks viewers through the lessons of each work on view. From Jacolby Satterwhite’s colorful animations honoring his late mother and Nick Cave’s avant-garde garments created in response to the murder of Rodney King to gold rings inspired by proverbs from the Ashanti Kingdom and the activism in skirts worn by Ndebele women in South Africa, this video offers the first step in elevating your own empathic capabilities.
During his time in Étretat, as well as many other periods in his life, Claude Monet’s greatest enemy was himself. Despite the physical challenges presented by the cold winter weather in the seaside village on the Normandy Coast, the plein-air painter’s most difficult challenge to overcome was his persistent fear of a lackluster career and overall artistic failure.
In a letter written to his companion, Alice Hoschedé, while on his first sojourn in Étretat in 1883, Monet describes a series of sleepless nights when thoughts of hopelessness seemed to never end. But the discovery of a new painting location in the annex of his hotel which captures the picturesque cliffs and fishing boats lining the shore brings Monet renewed creative inspiration.
This audio recording is paired with Monet’s painting, Fishing Boats (Bateaux de pêche), on the free smartphone tour of Monet at Étretat at the Seattle Art Museum through October 17. Tune in when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location.
Fishing Boats (Bateaux de pêche), 1883
“… I am so worried that I can’t sleep anymore; tonight too, consumed with thinking about this damned exhibition, I listened to the lashing rain and felt hopeless. However, I didn’t waste my day. I was able to install myself in an annex of the hotel from which you have a superb view of the cliff and the boats. So I worked all morning from this window, regretting I hadn’t done it sooner because I would have been able to quietly create some superb things. Anyway, there are always calamities.” February 10, 1883.
– Claude Monet
Image: Fishing Boats (Bateaux de pêche), 1883, Claude Monet, French, 1840–1926, oil on canvas, 25 3/4 × 36 1/2 in., Denver Art Museum: Frederic C. Hamilton Collection, 2020.568, image courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.
Claude Monet traveled to the small fishing village of Étretat twice to paint the setting’s spectacular natural landscape. Both voyages—one in 1883 and another in 1885—took place in the winter season. Despite consistently cold weather and an unpredictable sea, Monet found these months of uninterrupted solitude and pure engagement with nature to be the most fruitful in his artistic endeavors.
Listen to excerpts of three letters Claude Monet wrote to his companion, Alice Hoschedé, while in Étretat in 1885. Written across five days, these letters express a combination of artistic inspiration and frustration. An unexpected period of good weather and the sight of local fisherman lining the shore each morning left Monet feeling both grateful for the beauty that surrounded him and raging at his inability to capture it all on his easels. With his time in Étretat soon coming to a close, Monet wondered whether he would ever be satisfied with his work.
This audio recording is part of a free smartphone tour of Monet at Étretat and accompanies the painting Boats on the Beach at Étretat, on view at the Seattle Art Museum through October 17. Take the tour when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location.
Boats on the Beach at Étretat, 1885
“. . . Etretat is becoming more and more amazing; it’s at its best now, the beach with all these fine boats, it’s superb and I rage at my inability to express it all better. You’d need to use both hands and cover hundreds of canvases.” October 20, 1885.
“For three days it’s been superb weather and I’m taking advantage of it, I can tell you; the boats are getting ready for the herring, the beach is transformed—very animated, so interesting.” October 21, 1885.
“I’ve begun quite a few things here, repetitions, in the hope of being able to work every day, but it doesn’t go quickly. It is true that with several good sessions the canvases can quickly take shape; I have returned to some canvases and I don’t really know how I will get it all.” October 24, 1885.
– Claude Monet
Image: Boats on the Beach at Étretat, 1885, oil on canvas, Claude Monet, French, 1840–1926, 26 × 32 7/16 in., Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, 1947.95, photo: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY
While looking for inspiration in Étretat, Claude Monet faced numerous mental and physical challenges. From the gloomy weather of the winter season to constant bouts of self-doubt, Monet struggled to keep his artistic spirit alive. Amidst all these hurdles, however, the plein-air painter also found days where everything seemed to go right.
In a November 1885 letter Monet wrote to his companion, Alice Hoschedé, the artist describes a productive workday. With the sun shining above and the tide exactly right, the artist was able to make progress on several paintings. Yet Monet knew these ideal working conditions would not last long. The start of a new moon signified another impending change in the environment of the small fishing village on the Normandy Coast.
Accompanying the painting The Cliffs at Étretat, this recording is available on the free smartphone tour of Monet at Étretat, now on view at the Seattle Art Museum. Listen to this and four other letters Monet wrote to Hoschedé while in Étretat, when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location.
The Cliffs at Étretat, 1885
“Finally a good day, a superb sun . . . I was able to work without stopping, because the tide is in this moment exactly what I need for several motifs. This helped me catch up—and if I had had the chance that this weather would continue for several days, I would get a lot of work done. It’s new moon today and the barometer is going up a lot, even quickly.” November 6, 1885.
– Claude Monet
Image: The Cliffs at Étretat, 1885, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 25 5/8 × 32 in., Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1995.528, image courtesy Clark Institute.
Inspired by a 19th-century Palampore, or bed covering, from SAM’s Asian art collection, teaching artist Amina Quraishi leads an art activity focused on shapes, patterns, and symmetry. With just a pencil, eraser, tracing paper, and a sheet of construction paper—and a few other optional art materials—Amina offers a tutorial on pattern building and repetition. Drawing from childhood memories of traveling to India and henna patterns applied to her hands in celebration of Eid al-Fitr, Amina encourages artists to think about meaningful objects and symbols in their culture. How can these be incorporated into the work?
The Seattle Asian Art Museum is open, though school tours are not available at this time. SAM continues to connect art lovers of all ages to our rich collection of art through a variety of virtual experiences which align with Washington State learning standards in Visual Art and English Language Arts. The Eyes on Asia video series is designed to be used as a supplemental learning tool in virtual classrooms, at home by parents and caregivers, and by friends hanging out online. Once you’ve watched the videos in the playlist, visit the museum to see the featured artworks in person!
Two years after he first made the journey to the small fishing village of Étretat on the Normandy Coast, Claude Monet returned in the winter of 1885 to find renewed artistic inspiration. After one rainy morning, the plein-air painter set out to capture the landscape’s defining natural arch, the Manneport, from the beaches below but found himself victim to the sea’s raging tides. Too entranced by his own work to notice the turbulent waves ahead, Monet was thrown against a cliff and dragged into the sea along with his art materials, destroying the painting he was working on.
Listen to an audio recording of a November 1885 letter Monet wrote to his companion, Alice Hoschedé, recounting the accident. In his own words, the artist describes his struggle to emerge from the freezing waters, his fragile state after getting soaked, and the anger he felt toward the “old hag” he calls the sea. Despite the loss of his painting, Monet returned to the beach the next day with a new easel to once again paint Étretat’s breathtaking cliffs.
This audio recording is part of a free smartphone tour of Monet at Étretat, now on view at the Seattle Art Museum. Tune in to this and other letters Monet wrote while in Étretat, when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location.
Waves at the Manneport, 1885
“After another rainy morning I was glad to find the weather slightly improved: despite a high wind blowing and a rough sea, or rather because of it, I hoped for a fruitful session at the Manneport; however, an accident befell me. Don’t alarm yourself now, I am safe and sound since I’m writing to you, although you nearly had no news and I would never have seen you again. I was hard at work beneath the cliff, well sheltered from the wind, in the spot which you visited with me; convinced that the tide was drawing out I took no notice of the waves which came and fell a few feet away from me. In short, absorbed as I was, I didn’t see a huge wave coming; it threw me against the cliff and I was tossed about in its wake along with all my materials!
My immediate thought was that I was done for, as the water dragged me down, but in the end I managed to clamber out on all fours, but Lord, what a state I was in! My boots, my thick stockings and my coat were soaked through; the palette which I had kept a grip on had been knocked over my face and my beard was covered in blue, yellow etc. But anyway, now the excitement is passed and no harm’s done, the worst of it was that I lost my painting which was very soon broken up, along with my easel, bag etc. Impossible to fish anything out. Besides, everything was torn to shreds by the sea, that ‘old hag’ as your sister calls her.
Anyway, I was lucky to escape, but how I raged when I found once I’d changed that I couldn’t work, and when it dawned on me that the painting which I had been counting on was done for, I was furious. Immediately I set about telegraphing Troisgros to send me what’s missing and an easel will be ready for tomorrow . . . I send you all my love and hug all the children for me, remember me to Marthe. To think I might never have seen you again.” November 27, 1885.
– Claude Monet
Image: Waves at the Manneporte, ca. 1885, Claude Monet, French, 1840–1926, oil on canvas, 29 × 36 ½ in., North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Gift of Ann and Jim Goodnight, 2016.8.5, image courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art
How do traditions evolve over time? Consider this question as you compare a historical example of a Palampore with Faig Ahmed’s Oiling, both on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Look closely at the intricate patterns, the symmetry (or lack thereof), and the ways in which order and disorder are portrayed in each artwork. What can you learn about the contemporary piece, Oiling, by looking closely at the Palampore?
This video brings together historical and contemporary works of art to show how traditions and modernity interact in our world today. A quick drawing activity offers a way of remotely engaging with the artworks and provides the foundation for a more in-depth art activity inspired by the Palampore in our Eyes on Asia YouTube playlist.
The Seattle Asian Art Museum is open again though school tours are not available at this time. Aligned with Washington State learning standards in Visual Art and English Language Arts, the Eyes of Asia video series is meant to connect art lovers of all ages to the museum’s rich collection of art through a variety of virtual experiences and provide opportunity for creative response. Each video can be used in virtual classrooms, at home by parents and caregivers, or by friends hanging out online. Visit the museum in person to see these, and other artworks featured in the series!