In Boafo’s Words: Reflection I

Reflection I marks Amoako Boafo’s first self-portrait following his move from Accra, Ghana to Vienna, Austria. With his head resting on his hand, Boafo resembles artist Auguste Rodin’s famed sculpture The Thinker, a work that has come to symbolize both the suffering and salvation found in self-reflection.

In addition to Rodin, many consider this self-portrait to allude to W.E.B. Du Bois and his notion of the double-consciousness as outlined in The Souls of Black Folks (1903), for which Boafo’s exhibition is named. This concept interrogates the idea that Black people constantly have to look at themselves through the eyes of ‘others.’ In looking at himself in the mirror, Boafo challenges the ‘othered’ gaze often applied to the Black body—a theme explored by the artist within many of his works.

Tune in to the free smartphone tour of Amoako Boafo: Soul of Black Folks to learn more about Reflection I and eight more of Boafo’s portraits. It can be accessed on your own time via our SoundCloud or by scanning the QR code accompanying each work in SAM’s galleries. Get your tickets to see the exhibition today!

Reflection I, 2018

NARRATOR: Boafo painted Reflection I in 2018, after leaving Ghana to study in Vienna, Austria. The radiator under the mirror deliberately points out the change to a European setting. The new environment sparked a period of self-evaluation for the artist: it led him—for the first time—to paint himself.

AMOAKO BOAFO: Working with myself helped me understand who I am as an artist and a human being. Making that image also help others look at themselves and think of things differently. It is a way that I wanted to experience my masculinity myself and not what society sees to be normal. I wanted to see how it looks like when you explore more of the flesh.

NARRATOR: As part of this exploration, Boafo has developed a distinctive skin color palette of umber brown and ultramarine blue. He applies the paint directly to the canvas using his fingers.

AMOAKO BOAFO: I wasn’t able to move forward with the brush painting the way I wanted my characters to feel, the way I want to express their feeling, because for me, painting is just more than capturing the perfection of a person. There is character. There is feeling. There is energy. The brush could not give me that kind of feeling. And so I arrived at painting with my finger.

NARRATOR: Here, the artist meets his own gaze in the mirror.

AMOAKO BOAFO: I think sometimes we look away from our experiences, and painting being a tool for me to express myself, I don’t want to shy away from the experiences. I want to look at it. I want people to see me looking at it because for me I feel like that’s the space where I get to be myself.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photo: Reflection I (detail), 2018, Amoako Boafo, oil on paper, 51 1/8 x 43 3/8 in., Image and work courtesy Roberts Projects, Los Angeles and Private Collection, photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

In Boafo’s Words: Jean Jacques Ndjoli

Before entering the galleries of Amoako Boafo: Soul of Black Folks at SAM, visitors are greeted by a 2020 portrait of contemporary fashion designer and stylist Jean Jacques Ndjoli. Hanging amidst a wall covered in Boafo’s well-known Monstera plant print, the portrait offers an introduction to the artist’s signature style with its vibrant yellow hues and the apparent use of his distinct finger painting technique.

Learn more about this artwork and eight more of Boafo’s portraits by tuning in to our free smartphone tour of the exhibition on our SoundCloud. Or, if you’re in the galleries, scan the QR code accompanying each work to be directed to the relevant stop on the tour. The exhibition closes Sunday, September 10—get your tickets to see it before it’s gone!

Jean Jacques Ndjoli, 2020

AMOAKO BOAFO: This is a painting I did in LA [where] it’s sunny all the time. You know, you are guaranteed to get your fresh pressed orange juice.

NARRATOR: To capture that mood, the artist focuses on one color.

AMOAKO BOAFO: You have three shades of yellow. So, the overall pullover is the cadmium yellow hue, and then the background, I tinted it with white, and then I added a bit of brown to the yellow hue to have that inner pullover.

NARRATOR: Boafo is a figurative painter. In other words, he paints recognizable figures and objects. But this image goes beyond straightforward representation. The flat, simplified forms of the hooded pullover become abstract areas of color.

They also create a strong visual tension with the thickly finger-painted skin of the face.

AMOAKO BOAFO: I think of colors that, you know, just highlight the face and the figure.

NARRATOR: The important thing for Boafo is to elevate and celebrate his characters.

AMOAKO BOAFO: I consciously think about how to elevate the characters and place element or colors that only elevates them or complement them and not compete and take away from them.

I think the thing with celebration is that we don’t do it that often, and I think it would be good that we celebrate others more often: for people to know that we see what they are doing, and they are appreciated and noticed for what they are doing.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Jean Jacques Ndjoli, 2020, Amoako Boafo, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in., Collection of Josef Vascovitz and Lisa Goodman, courtesy of Roberts Projects, Los Angeles.

In Boafo’s Words: Introducing Soul of Black Folks

“I like people to be with me through the journey of making [a] painting, even though they’re not in the studio space. I want people to come to the show and feel like they made the paintings with me…”

– Amoako Boafo

Amoako Boafo: Soul of Black Folks is now on view at SAM! As part of the contemporary Ghanaian artist’s Pacific Northwest solo debut, we developed an audio tour of additional artistic insight. Featuring interviews with Boafo and exhibition curator Larry Ossei-Mensah, the tour highlights eight of the artist’s portraits created between 2016 and 2022 and is exclusive to Seattle audiences.

The tour kicks off with a brief introduction to the exhibition and Boafo’s artistic process. This stop includes a discussion of the exhibition’s title—drawing its inspiration from W.E.B. Du Bois’s seminal 1903 ethnographic study The Souls of Black Folk—and the artist’s distinct finger painting technique used to sculpt the skin of his subjects. The recording concludes with Boafo explaining what he hopes Seattle visitors will take away from experiencing his artwork.

Explore all nine stops of our smartphone tour in SAM’s galleries by scanning the QR code accompanying each of the featured works on view or listen to it on your own time on our SoundCloud. Get your tickets to see the exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum through Sunday, September 10!

Soul of Black Folks: Introduction

NARRATOR: Welcome to the Seattle Art Museum and to Amoako Boafo: Soul of Black Folks. This is the first solo museum exhibition in the United States for Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo. The show brings together over 30 works created between 2016 and 2022. It has been guest curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah.

The title of the exhibition is inspired by the seminal ethnographic study, The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. Du Bois, dating from 1903. The book was an assessment of Black life at the turn of the 20th century. Boafo’s work offers a visual equivalent for our times: it can be seen as an exploration of Black life in all its breadth of experience and emotion. The exhibition is a celebration of the humanity of Black people in 2023.

Boafo’s paintings combine skillful brushwork with finger-painting: specifically, he uses his fingers to mold and sculpt the bodies of his subjects—subjects that he refers to as ‘characters.’ We’re delighted that Boafo will be joining us throughout the tour, offering insights into his artistic process and inspiration. 

AMOAKO BOAFO: I like people to be with me through the journey of making the painting, even though they’re not in the studio space. I want people to come to the show and feel like they made the paintings with me because there is all the choices of colors and movement that you see, and you feel like you are part of the painting, or you are there when the painting was made.  I want people to have that feeling when they come.  

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photo: Alborz Kamalizad.

Inside SAM’s World of Compelling Cloth: French Coverlet

While many of us source our coverlets—more commonly referred to today as a bedspread—from big-name companies, in 18th century France these objects were typically handwoven and dyed with meticulous precision by local artisans. They often featured intricate embroidery details that took hours to craft. In the sixth stop of our smartphone tour of Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth at SAM, we take a close look at a French coverlet from the late 18th century and explore its fabric, known as Chiné à la branche. Browse all seven stops of our free smartphone tour from the exhibition’s galleries before it closes on Monday, May 29 or in your own time here.

How was Chiné à la branche used?
European ikat fabrics were incredibly expensive to produce, which is one of the reasons Chiné à la branche is most closely associated with royalty. Marie Antoinette had a particular affinity for the fabric, having her court clothes and palace furnishings made of various Chiné à la branche designs. The more popular designs in court were soft, blurred floral patterns, which were used for everything from dresses to upholstery.

How did industrialization affect ikat?
Industrialization led to the French abandoning the slow and costly production of ikat. Rather than hand-dying individual bundles, they were able to print patterns directly onto the warp threads. The dress shown above is stylized to look like ikat, but technically does not follow the traditional ikat process.

Verbal Description of French Coverlet

This coverlet was made in the late 18th century and measures five feet, six inches tall and four feet, nine inches wide. The ikat top layer of this coverlet is made of silk and linen thread and the back is made of silk. The layers are connected by quilted embroidery. This coverlet—or, bedspread—has both the colorful print-like pattern of the weave and a textured pattern created by the quilting process that joins the ikat fabric with other layers of the piece. The backing of this bedspread is a pink silk fabric. Between the silk backing and the ikat top layer, there’s about half an inch of batting—or, filling—that would make the coverlet a more effective warming layer for a bed.

First, we’ll examine the woven pattern of the ikat, which is precise in its execution, but has an intentional blurry quality around the edges. The pattern is a repeat of vertical stripes: a powder-blue stripe about three inches wide sits next to a cream colored stripe about five inches wide. This set of stripes is repeated six times across the coverlet. Within the cream colored stripe, there’s more detail. Thin lines on both edges of the cream stripe in pale yellow, dusty rose, and black frame an abstract design of flowers.

The stems and leaves of the flowers are a soft, mossy green and run down the center of the cream stripe in alternating curved lines that are reminiscent of vines. Splashes of the same dusty rose color form the blossoms of the flowers. Both the blossoms and the stems have irregular edges that artists in France nickname ‘flambé’—or, flaming—an aesthetic that was desirable at the time. On the sides of the coverlet, there are two strips of the fabric that have been cut off and attached perpendicularly to the rest of the bedspread, making the pattern horizontal on the edges.

Now let’s focus on the quilting that joins the layers together. The quilted stitching is done in a clear thread so that the lines themselves are only visible by the indentation and texture they create on the surface of the bedspread. In the center of the piece, there is a circle surrounded by eight symmetrical petal shapes, forming a simple flower shape like a large daisy. The daisy has three rings encircling it and then diamond shapes fill up most of the coverlet until about a foot from the edges where they are boxed in. Around the diamonds, small hearts and daisies alternate in a border to the quilting.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photo: French Coverlet, late 18th century. Collection of David and Marita Paly. Silk, warp ikat, linen weft, quilted embroidery. 66 in. x 57 in. Marie Antoinette, Archduchess of Austria by Joseph Ducreux. 1769. Pastel on parchment. © Château de Versailles. Robe à la Française, French, 1760–70, Silk. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Inside SAM’s World of Compelling Cloth: Woman’s Robe (Mashru)

Mashru is an Arabic word meaning ‘permitted’ or ‘allowed.’ In many Islamic cultures, a mashru is a garment made of a silk-cotton blend worn my individuals of all social classes. This stop of the smartphone tour of Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth explores the history of mashru garments with additional content not found in SAM’s galleries. Learn about these garments below and see an example for yourself by visiting the exhibition at SAM’s downtown location before it closes Monday, May 29. Plus, explore all of the stops in SAM’s free verbal description tour on SoundCloud.

One ikat textile that has traveled across Asia is the satin-woven fabric known in India as mashru. This type of silk-cotton blend is called mashru. Mashru cloths were worn by men and women across the Islamic world. In some Islamic cultures, Muslims are not permitted to wear pure silk garments, so textile makers in India experimented by adding cotton into the silk weave, creating a garment that was soft and lightweight, but also acceptable to wear.

Verbal Desciption of Woman’s Robe (Mashru)

This garment is a mashru. Mashru is spelled M-A-S-H-R-U. The robe was made in Syria in the 19th century and measures five feet, six inches tall by four feet, five inches wide. The garment is made of silk and cotton thread and metallic embroidery. The robe is hung on a ‘T’ frame with the arm sleeves stretched out and the back of the garment facing the viewer. A dense pattern of stripes and arrowhead shapes defines this woman’s robe from Syria. The robe’s hem extends down to the wearer’s knees and the long sleeves reach to the wrists.

Let’s start by talking about the pattern on the outside of the garment. Long, thin vertical stripes alternate in cherry red, black, and light pink. Layering on top of these stripes are horizontal bands of white arrowhead shapes which create a complex illusion of depth. By contrast, the inside of the robe is lined with a soft cream white cotton. The inside of the sleeves are decorated with a cotton ikat cloth with blue and white stripes.

Now, let’s focus on the structure of the robe. The body of the robe is made three vertical panels of fabric—roughly equal in size—that hang down separate from one another so you can imagine how they might sway and twirl as the wearer moved about. To join these panels together and close up the robe, the wearer would fasten a series of balls and loops found along the edge of each panel which is scalloped with reprieving triangle patterns. As we zoom into that edge, notice how metallic thread is embroidered into decorative designs, adding weight and stiffness.

The rest of the robe is thin and lightweight; the surface is silky smooth. This comes from the blend of fibers used here: silk for the warp threads—which run vertically—and cotton for the weft threads which run horizontally. This type of silk-cotton blend is called a mashru, an Arabic word meaning permitted or allowed. Mashru cloths were worn by men and women across the Islamic world. In some Islamic cultures, Muslims are not permitted to wear pure silk garments so textile makers in India experimented by adding cotton into the silk weave, creating a garment that was soft and lightweight, but also acceptable to wear.

– Lily Hansen, Marketing Content Creator

Photos: Mushruu (woman’s Ottoman robe), 19th century, Silk Road (garment made in Ottoman world; ikat cloth possibly Syrian), silk warp ikat and cotton weft, metallic embroidery, 53 x 66 in., Collection of David and Marita Paly. Traditional Mashru Weaving in Gujurat, India.

Inside SAM’s World of Compelling Cloth: Chief’s Poncho

This stop on SAM’s smartphone tour of Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth explores an indigo and cream poncho created by the Mapuche people of Chile in the late 19th century. It includes photos and text not found in the exhibition’s galleries as well as a verbal description of the textile intended for visitors with low to no vision, or anyone interested in taking a closer look at the artworks.

Scroll below to learn about Chile’s Mapuche people, the connection between weaving and land rights, the significance of stepped crosses on Mapuche textiles, and a thorough explanation of one particular poncho on view in SAM’s galleries. You can explore all seven stops of the exhibition’s smartphone tour and thirteen available verbal descriptions while visiting SAM or on your own time. And don’t forget: Ikat is on view at SAM’s downtown location through Monday, May 29—don’t miss it, get your tickets today!

Who are the Mapuche?

The Mapuche are the largest group of indigenous people in Chile and make up about 9% of the country’s population. Mapuche culture has existed in Southern Chile and Southwestern Argentina since 500 BC, but the current relationship between the Mapuche and the Chilean State is fraught. The government has stripped away land rights from the indigenous groups, and has met protests with a variety of human rights abuses.

How are land rights and weaving connected?

As the Mapuche people lose their land, they also lose access to the raw materials used in traditional crafts, such as weaving. Indigenous forests are being cut down and replaced with more profitable logging materials, like eucalyptus and pine. Many of the indigenous species being destroyed are used by the Mapuche for dying wool, creating drums, and even in medicines.

What is a Stepped Cross?

A stepped cross, also known as a gemil, or chief’s mantle, is a design featured frequently in Mapuche weaving. It represents the art of handcrafting, science, and knowledge. A poncho with these bold geometric patterns and deep indigo hue would be worn by a distinguished leader in the community. The deep, almost black, indigo color indicates the “celestial vault”. On a man’s garment, this signifies the wearer is accomplished beyond the parameters of humanity.

Verbal Description of Mapuche Poncho

Woven in Chile by the Mapuche people in the late 19th century, made of sheep’s wool and dyed with indigo. It is four feet and ten inches tall by four feet and eleven inches wide. This poncho is made by the Mapuche, which is the largest group of Indigenous people in Chile. It would be worn by a chieftain, a mature man of elevated position in their community. Lying flat, the poncho is a square shape. There is a vertical slit in the middle of the square meant for a person’s head to fit through. When worn, the front and back sides of the poncho hit just below the waist of an average sized man. The poncho appears to be black and white, but upon closer inspection, the colors are the deepest shade of indigo and a warm beige. The indigo hue was achieved from months of dyeing and oxidation, creating a color so rich and intense it seems almost darker than black. The pattern on the poncho is made of geometric designs of stepped crosses and lines in indigo with the surrounding space being a warm cream color. Nine equidistant vertical lines cover the poncho. Sitting on the lines are staggered stepped crosses. The stepped crosses look like pixelated diamonds, with three steps on each side. An indigo fringe sits on two edges of the poncho—what would be the front and back when worn by a person. Symmetry is a very important part of the textile. If you folded the poncho onto itself in any direction, it would create a perfect inversion every time. The poncho is made of woven Spanish merino wool; thick and rough but still pliable. When worn by a chieftain, the fabric wouldn’t simply fall flushed to its wearer, but pucker and lift as the sturdy wool tries to maintain its shape.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photos: Mapuche, late 19th century, Chile, warp ikat sheep’s wool, indigo, 58 x 59 in., Collection of David and Marita Paly. Mapuche protesters wearing traditional clothing © Negro Ramírez. Loom and weaving with “cacique’s mantle” design Nancy Epulef Barra, Mapuche, b. 1971 wood, wool yarn, vegetal dye/dyes © National Museum of the American Indian. Chief’s Mantle (Manta de Cacique) Chile, Mapuche, 20th century wool; ikat © Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Inside SAM’s World of Compelling Cloth: Agbada

Not all of the stops on SAM’s smartphone tour of Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth feature artist interviews and other audio content. Some stops, such as this one focused on a traditional Yoruba agbada, offers additional exhibition information via pictures and text accompanied by a verbal description of the artwork on view. Look below to learn about the importance of these traditional men’s tunics and how they’re made. Browse through all seven stops of the exhibition’s free smartphone tour and listen to its thirteen available verbal descriptions now, then purchase your tickets to see the exhibition at SAM’s downtown location before it closes on Monday, May 29.

What is an Abgada?
An agbada is a long, flowing robe with wide sleeves worn by men in some parts of West Africa, often decorated with embroidery. Traditionally, agbada were prestigious garments associated with royalty. These days, agbada are more common with a wide variety of styles to fit the occasion.

What is Aso-Oke?

Agbada are traditionally made from Aso-Oke fabric, which is a hand-loomed cotton cloth of the Yoruba people in Nigeria. The style of Aso-Oke fabric featured on the garment in this gallery is known as ‘Etu,’ which is made to imitate the striped blue and white colors of the Guinea Fowl for which it is named.

Verbal Description of Agbada

This garment is called an agbada—spelled A-G-B-A-D-A—which is the Yoruba word for a men’s tunic. This garment dates from the early 20th century. The garment is exceptionally oversized to create a strong impression, as it measures four and a half feet tall by five feet wide. The agbada is Aso-Oke strip-woven, which is a Yoruba term that specifically describes this type of handwoven cloth, which incorporates cotton, ikat, and cotton hand-embroidery. The base fabric in this garment is a dark blue cotton, resembling denim. Layering over the blue cotton are thinner strips that gradually shift from red to white. The stripes are vertical on the bodice of the garment, but horizontal on the sleeves. At the center of the garment, are two pockets for resting your hands, like the pockets on a hoodie. Along the neckline, adorning the front of the agbada, around the frontal pockets, is intricate white embroidery. If you look closely at the embroidery, you can see where the red stripes have bled onto the white thread, turning them light pink. The neckline’s embroidery appears as point-side down adjacent triangles that give the impression of a lacey necklace. The embroidery on the front consists of eleven rounded medallion-like shapes that form a symmetrical grouping around the pockets. The medallions are about the size of a fist and their shapes resemble chain links. The embroidery around the pockets is similar to the neckline with lacey pointed bands encircling the pocket openings.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photos: Agbada (tunic) and pants, mid-20th century, Africa (Yoruba), cotton, tunic: 47 x 88 in., pants: 36 x 32 in., Collection of David and Marita Paly. Ori of Otun, photograph by William Buller Fagg. Nigeria, 1949-1950. Royal Anthropological Institute London. © RAI. A late C19th image of an aso oke weaver, one of the earliest known photos of aso oke production. Photographer unknown, courtesy Foreign & Commonwealth Office Archive, London.

Inside SAM’s World of Compelling Cloth: Rowland Ricketts on Zurashi

As part of Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth at SAM, exhibition curator Pam McClusky commissioned textile artist Rowland Ricketts and weaver Chinami Ricketts to create a site-specific installation showcasing the importance of ikat as a living tradition and the repetitive nature of its creation. Their large-scale immersive installation, titled Zurashi/Slipped, welcomes visitors to the exhibition’s galleries with an indigo wave of threads that flow from floor to ceiling.

Listen to the recording above to hear directly from Rowland about the process of creating Zurashi/Slipped and what he hopes visitors get out of their hand-woven work. Then, explore all seven stops of the exhibition’s free audio tour on our SoundCloud and reserve your tickets to see the exhibition before it closes on Monday, May 29.

Rowland Ricketts on Zurashi/Slipped

One thing that I hope [with this installation, is for] people to viscerally experience ikat. This installation is made up of some 6000 odd lines hanging down with patterns on them and it’s very repetitive, as Chinami has said. Even making the work was a very repetitive [process] as we were measuring the same things over and over, binding the same things over and over, and dyeing the same things over and over. But there is a really powerful accumulation in this work and through its process that is really a foundation for all the works in the exhibit, right? All things made with ikat do have this repetitive nature of binding and dying and unbinding and weaving, so I think I I hope that that’s palpable to people.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photo: Alborz Kamalizad.

Inside SAM’s World of Compelling Cloth: How Ikat is Made

By now, you’ve likely seen or heard the word ‘ikat.’ From advertisements on the side of King County Metro buses to the gorgeous graphic gracing SAM’s lightbox in downtown Seattle, the word is everywhere. But what is an ‘ikat’ and how is it made? In this first stop as part of the smartphone tour of Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth at SAM, Ramzy Lakos, the museum’s educator for digital learning, gives an overview of this time-honored textile and lays out the many intricate steps necessary in creating an authentic ikat.

Listen to the recording above to familiarize yourself with the subject at the focus of this limited-run exhibition at SAM and explore all seven stops of the exhibition’s free audio tour on our SoundCloud.

How to Make an Ikat

RAMZY LAKOS: Let’s talk about how ikat textiles are made. Techniques, materials, and tools vary all over the world, but we’ll cover some of the basic details in this audio stop.

The process that defines ikat textiles is known as resist dyeing, which requires binding threads  with a material that repels liquid dye. Traditionally, materials like palm and banana fiber were used to bind the thread, but plastic is [becoming] increasingly common. After they are tied off, the bundles of thread are submerged in liquid dye. Those areas that are tied off will remain the color of the original thread, and the exposed patches of thread slowly take on the new color. The longer the threads soak in the dye, the deeper and more vibrant the final result. By tying off different sections of thread for each new color, the dyer can create increasingly complex multicolored patterns. 

Dyes are traditionally made using organic materials. A few examples include indigo leaves, ginger root, onion and pomegranate skins, and cochineal insects. However, synthetic dyes have been popular since the late 19th century. 

After the dyeing process is complete, the weaving process begins. To create a textile, a weaver takes the dyed threads and stretches them over a frame called a loom. The threads stretched over the loom are known as the warp. To create a solid cloth, the weaver passes a thread side to side, over and under the taught warp threads—this is known as the weft. At this stage, the weaver takes care to match each thread to the next so the design lines up correctly. 

There are a few kinds of ikat. The most common is known as a single warp ikat, where only the vertical threads are resist-dyed. Less common and more challenging is single weft ikat, where the horizontal threads are resist-dyed. The final and most complex category is double ikat, where both the warp and the weft threads are resist dyed, so two different designs have to be lined up on the loom. 

The visual signature of an ikat is a movement at the edges of a design that result from the slight shifts of individual yarns during the dyeing and weaving process.  All over the world, there are regions where ikat was discovered and cultivated as a unique way to embed images in cloth. 

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photo: L. Fried.

Alberto Giacometti: Head of a Man in Profile

Although Alberto Giacometti is most often remembered for his towering statues and landscape paintings, the artist began every new project with a sketch. Preferring either a ballpoint pen or pencil, he referred to the act of drawing as the “basis” for all of his artworks.

In Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure—the extensive retrospective which shares its name with the ongoing special exhibition at SAM and is available for purchase at SAM Shop—contributing writer Catherine Grenier writes of Giacometti: “The numerous drawings he made of the same motif show the simplification he carried out in his sculptures… In many of them, the natural movement, the inclination of the body, the folding of the leg show that they are drawings made while looking at scenes in the street” (33).

Guided by SAM Museum Educator Lauren Kent, this audio recording from SAM’s smartphone tour Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure guides visitors in a close-looking activity at one of Giacometti’s sketches, Head of a Man in Profile. Visit SAM’s downtown location through Sunday, October 9 to experience Toward the Ultimate Figure and listen to all seven stops in the audio tour.

Head of a Man in Profile, ca. 1959

NARRATOR: Giacometti once said that ‘drawing is the basis for everything’. Here’s SAM educator Lauren Kent on Head of a Man, a lively portrait in ballpoint pen.

MUSEUM EDUCATOR LAUREN KENT: Take a moment to stand in front of this drawing and take it in with your eyes. Zoom in to notice the details of the lines and marks on the paper. Let yourself get lost in these details. Then, zoom out to notice how it all comes together. Take out your finger to draw in the air. Find a starting point and trace the path of the lines that you see. Experiment with moving very slowly, like an ant walking along its path (voice slows down). Now, speed up and move quickly, chasing everywhere Giacometti drew with his ballpoint pen.

What shapes, angles, and movements does your finger make? Which areas do you return to and repeat over and over again? Which areas don’t you touch at all?

How do you think Giacometti was feeling when he made this drawing? What was the energy in the studio like? Do you think that he knew this model? What do you see that makes you say that?

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Head of a Man in Profile, ca. 1959, Alberto Giacometti, Swiss, 1901–1966, blue ballpoint pen on paper, 65 × 19.3 cm, Fondation Giacometti, © Succession Alberto Giacometti / ADAGP, Paris, 2022.

Alberto Giacometti: Walking Man I & Tall Woman IV

In 1958, Alberto Giacometti was invited to compete for a public artwork for the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. Envisioning three outdoor sculptures including a Large Head, a Tall Woman, and a Walking Man, Giacometti set out to make them in plaster. After a year of several attempts—three versions of Walking Man, four of Tall Woman, and two of Large Head—Giacometti abandoned the commission due to his dissatisfaction with the results.

Discussing the abandoned project, Giacometti was quoted as saying, “I can see they are a failure, or rather, not fully achieved—they are all wide off the mark in a big way.” Despite the artist’s self-assessment, the sculptures were soon celebrated as some of his most iconic works.

In SAM’s ongoing exhibition, Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure, Giacometti’s initial vision for the plaza is recreated with Walking Man I, Tall Woman IV, and the addition of Dog (Le Chien) (1951). In this audio recording, SAM Educator Yaoyao Liu guides visitors through a close-looking exercise of the two towering artworks Giacometti envisioned for the Chase Manhattan Plaza. Listen to all seven stops of the smartphone tour when you visit Toward the Ultimate Figure at SAM’s downtown location through October 9.

Walking Man I (1960) & Tall Woman IV (1960)

NARRATOR: Commissioned together in 1958, Walking Man I and Tall Woman IV were intended as outdoor sculptures for New York City’s Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza. Though the sculptures were never delivered, this initial context can help us think about how they relate to one another. Here’s SAM Educator Yaoyao Liu to guide you in a close looking exercise.

YAOYAO LIU: In the gallery, take time to move slowly around each sculpture, taking in details such as color, texture, and form. Then move back and view the two sculptures as a pair. What did you notice looking up close at each one, then seeing both at the same time? Where do you see connections between these two sculptures? And where do you see differences?

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: L. Fried.

Alberto Giacometti: Man with a Windbreaker

In Alberto Giacometti’s never-ending pursuit of a new vision of the human form, the artist often turned to nature for inspiration. Many of his early artworks—most notably in his paintings and sketches—focused on the dynamic landscapes of his upbringing in Stampa, Switzerland. This motif remained as his career progressed, yet his exploration with nature and man’s relationship to it was explored in new ways.

With its tiny head perched on an oversized mound, of which only the figure’s arms can be identified, Man with a Windbreaker (1953) is one of Giacometti’s sculptures which best demonstrates his evolving relationship to nature. While he experimented with scale, texture, and perspective in nearly all of his artworks during this artistic period, this sculpture stands out for its evocation of a geological concretion, with some scholars going so far as to call it a stalagmite.

In this audio recording, SAM Associate Director of Interpretation Erika Katayama discusses Man with a Windbreaker, comparing the rough texture of the mound to a “rocky mountainside.” Tune in to this, and seven other audio recordings which accompany artworks on view in Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure, when you visit the exhibition at SAM’s downtown location through October 9.

Man with a Windbreaker, 1953

NARRATOR: Giacometti’s experimentations with scale and texture come to the fore in Man with a Windbreaker. Associate Director of Interpretation Erika Katayama:

ERIKA KATAYAMA: At this point in his career, Giacometti is constantly manipulating perspective and scale as a means for him to capture his vision of the human figure. Notice the dramatic contrast of proportion in this sculpture. The tiny head sits atop a large, almost mountainous body. The rough texture of his clothes reminds me of a rocky mountainside. As a viewer, this gives us the illusion that the body of the man is close to us, looming large, whereas the tiny head is far away.

VOICE OF GIACOMETTI: For me, any deformation is entirely involuntary. I simply try to recreate what I see. My struggle is to grasp and possess an appearance that constantly escapes me. I try to express what I see, but unfortunately I never manage to make something that truly resembles it.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photo: Man with a Windbreaker, 1953, Alberto Giacometti, Swiss, 1901–1966, bronze, 50 × 28.6 × 22.5 cm, Fondation Giacometti, © Succession Alberto Giacometti / ADAGP, Paris, 2022.

Alberto Giacometti: The Cage

In both his paintings and sculptures, Alberto Giacometti used the architectural device of a cage to surround and outline specific constraints for his artistic vision. While Giacometti used a physical frame to demarcate the borders of his paintings, in his sculptures, the artist built physical cages in which to constrain his artworks. First utilized in Cage (1930–31) and Suspended Ball (1930–31), Giacometti returned to the idea of the enclosure as a framing device nearly twenty years later as he began to think more deeply about the self-referential interior of the sculpture compared to its surroundings.

The Cage, First Version is reminiscent of a display case. The upper portion presents a figure and a bast as if laid out in a vitrine. The standing figure is not proportional to the considerably larger head, thus disrupting a reading of these figures within a conventional perspectival space. Placed at the outer edge, the standing figure holds on to the armature that marks the perimeter, looking out beyond. The cage, just as the figures themselves, are composed of the same nubby bronze texture that Giacometti is often recognized for.

Listen to the audio recording above to hear SAM Associate Director of Interpretation Erika Katayama discuss Giacometti’s continuous use of cages, frames, and proportionality throughout his artistic career. All eight audio recordings—produced by the Seattle Art Museum as part of the free smartphone tour of Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure—can be found by scanning the QR codes accompanying selected artworks on view in the exhibition through October 9.

The Cage, First Version, 1949–50

NARRATOR: Giacometti uses cages and frames as a way to further explore the relationship between the viewer and the object, the sculpture and its surroundings. Associate Director of Interpretation Erika Katayama:

ERIKA KATAYAMA: The cage functions both symbolically and psychologically in this work, forming a space which encloses the subjects within. And as a viewer, we see the standing figure and the oversized head, which are not in correct proportion to each other, yet they both exist within the bounds of the cage—and so we have to consider them in relation to one another.

NARRATOR: How does the cage shape how you view this piece? Try imagining it without the cage, what changes?

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photo: The Cage, First Version, 1949–50, Alberto Giacometti, Swiss, 1901–1966, bronze, 90.5 × 36.5 × 34 cm, Fondation Giacometti, © Succession Alberto Giacometti / ADAGP, Paris, 2022.

Alberto Giacometti: Tall Thin Head

“When viewed from different vantage points, Tall Thin Head seems to be two distinct heads. From the front the head is narrow; the effect is like looking straight on at a knife edge. From the side, the profile is full-bodied and dramatically silhouetted, completely contradicting the frontal view.”

– Valerie Fletcher

Alberto Giacometti used a variety of artistic devices to disrupt the viewers’ interpretation of space. His 1954 portrait bust Tall Thin Head—or Grand tête mince—was just one of a series of busts made by the artist in the 1950s which played with scale, perspective, and texture. From the front, the sculpture looks flat and vague, but when viewed from the side, however, a detailed portrait emerges revealing the angular features of a male figure.

The sculpture, modeled after his brother, Diego Giacometti, falls into a familiar trend seen across Giacometti’s artistic career. Since the beginning of his artistic life, Giacometti preferred to work with those closes to him as models, especially Diego and his wife Annette. Sitting for him required long hours of concentration, and both his brother and wife also assisted with various aspects of managing his studio and career. For the artist, working with consistent models allowed him to better pursue his vision, unveiling the stranger beneath the familiar.

This audio recording marks the third stop in SAM’s free smartphone tour which accompanies Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure. Listen now to experience a close-looking art activity led by SAM educator and teaching artist Lauren Kent and tune in to all eight stops in the tour when you visit the exhibition at SAM’s downtown location through October 9.

Tall Thin Head, 1954

NARRATOR: Perspective can change everything in a sculpture, and that rings true especially for Giacometti’s later work. Here’s SAM educator Lauren Kent to guide you in a close looking activity for Tall Thin Head.

LAUREN KENT: As you approach Tall Thin Head, position yourself so that you are in front of the sculpture, looking at the face straight on. What do you see? What do you think about what you see? What do you wonder? Does this sculpture express an emotion or remind you of anything?

Slowly move about a foot in one direction around the sculpture, then stop. What do you notice now? What do you see that you didn’t before? What has changed?

Move another foot in a circle around the sculpture and stop once more. What do you notice here? What do you see now that you didn’t before? What has changed?

Continue moving in a full circle around the head. Observe how it expands and contracts. Observe all of the different ways that it looks and feels at each angle. You can keep an eye on Tall Thin Head as you walk through the rest of this gallery.

 Lily Hansen, Marketing Content Creator


1 Alberto Giacometti: 1901-1966, Valerie Fletcher, p.180.

Image: Tall Thin Head, 1954, Alberto Giacometti, Swiss, 1901–1966, bronze, 64.5 × 38.1 × 24.4 cm, Fondation Giacometti, © Succession Alberto Giacometti / ADAGP, Paris, 2022 ALL IMAGES: © Succession Alberto Giacometti / ADAGP, Paris, 2022.

Alberto Giacometti: Reliquary Figure

Alberto Giacometti’s vision of a new human form was heavily inspired by Cycladic, African, and ancient Egyptian art. In 1927, the artist purchased a sculpture from Gabon—then one of France’s colonies in West Africa—and placed it in the center of his studio. Giacometti studied such non-European works in the Parisian museums he visited, where he found himself fascinated by African sculptures that emphasized volumes and geometric voids.

Giacometti and many of his artistic peers greatly admired such artworks for their unique power and approaches to stylized form, which they thought offered visionary and radical alternatives to European academic models of representation. This admiration for non-European art’s visual power was at times marked by a lack of knowledge about the origins of works brought from the colonies to the West. Giacometti may not have known, for example, that the figure he owned once guarded sacred remains of the Kota people of Gabon. In Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure, African sculptures from SAM’s private collection—including this early 20th century Reliquary Figure from Kota, Gabon—are placed alongside Giacometti’s bronze and plaster sculptures to illustrate the Giacometti’s fascination with the structure and composition of ancient African artworks.

Listen to SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art Pam McClusky discuss the influence of artworks such as Reliquary Figure on Alberto Giacometti’s artistic development in this audio recording from SAM’s free smartphone tour of Toward the Ultimate Figure. Discover all eight recordings when you visit the exhibition at SAM’s downtown location through October 9.

Reliquary Figure, early 20th century

NARRATOR: Like many European artists living and working in Paris in the 20th century, Giacometti found inspiration in works of African sculpture. Here’s curator of African and Oceanic Art Pam McClusky on this Reliquary Figure from SAM’s collection.

PAM MCCLUSKY: Giacometti sits with a sculpture like this in his studio, as can be seen in a photo nearby. It served as a mysterious muse that transforms a face and body into dynamic forms coated with a flashing metal surface. It offered a bold fresh vision of a very strong archetype. Giacometti bought his sculpture, similar to the one in front of you, from a fellow artist in 1927, and no doubt they talked about how its inventive geometric shapes replaced anatomical correctness. Yet, what they saw was not what the Kota intended. In its original setting, this figure stood guard over a bundle of sacred ancestral remains. The reflective face was meant to draw attention to their presence and repel any harm to them. Giacometti gave this unknown agitator a place of honor, and drew inspiration from it for his own reframing of the human body.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Reliquary Figure, 20th century, Wood, copper and brass, 23 3/4 × 11 1/2 × 2 1/4 in. (60.3 × 29.2 × 5.7cm), Gift of Dr. Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb, 2014.3, photo: L. Fried.

Alberto Giacometti: The Mountain Road

Although Alberto Giacometti may be most remembered for his delicate yet commanding bronze sculptures and busts, his artistic career began with vibrant watercolor paintings and drawings that capture the mountainous landscape of Giacometti’s home in Stampa, Switzerland. Scenes from the village and dramatic views of the surrounding mountains are depicted in his early paintings which draw inspiration from his father, Giovanni Giacometti, a celebrated post-impressionist painter.

In The Mountain Road (ca. 1919), a thin, lavender road marks the entry point to a large, mountainous landscape. On the left, dark green trees line the road, while on the right, a telephone lines follow the road. Colors of blue, pink, red, and yellow complete the painting, depicting a segment of the Swiss Alps on a summer day. Placed beside one another, watercolor paintings such as The Mountain Road offer a striking departure from the gothic sculptures which defined his later career and illustrate Giacometti’s development as a postwar era artist.

In this audio recording, Erika Katayama, SAM Associate Director of Interpretation, discusses Giacometti’s early artistic inspirations in Switzerland and the influence of his famous father in his artistic development. Tune in to all eight recordings as part of the free smartphone tour of Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location through October 9.

Photo: L. Fried.

The Mountain Road, ca 1919

ALBERTO GIACOMETTI: “I could spend every day looking at the same garden, the same trees, and the same backdrop.”

NARRATOR: Alberto Giacometti was talking about the views of his small town of Stampa, Switzerland, where he grew up surrounded by towering mountains and trees. It was there that he began his journey as an artist. Associate Director of Interpretation Erika Katayama:

ERIKA KATAYAMA: So Giacometti came from a family of artists, and his early works like this watercolor landscape, are reminiscent of the style of his father Giovanni, who was a post-impressionist painter. Alberto loved his hometown of Stampa Switzerland, and although he moved to Paris in the 1920s, he came back to visit throughout his life, drawing inspiration from the alpine landscape and channeling it into the shapes and textures of his sculptures.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: The Mountain Road, ca. 1919, Alberto Giacometti, Swiss, 1901–1966, watercolor and pencil on paper, 22 × 29 cm, Fondation Giacometti, © Succession Alberto Giacometti / ADAGP, Paris, 2022.

Imogen Cunningham: Double Image, Sutter St. and Fillmore

Imogen Cunningham often took photographs of unsuspecting strangers on the street. Uncomfortable with confrontation, she found beauty in capturing daily public life without interference. At times, she used windows, spun around, or bent over and pretended to be searching for something in her purse to distract from the sound of her camera’s click. She called these surreptitious photographs “stolen pictures.”

Double Image, Sutter St. and Fillmore marks a stark contrast from Cunningham’s typical street photographs. In this image, her subject—a Black woman dressed in a long coat, stockings, and heels—has spotted Cunningham. Waiting for the bus, her right eyebrow is raised as she looks directly into the camera.

The woman’s stare is intensified as the image is cleverly reflected off of a storefront window, dividing the composition down the center, and creating a “doubled” illusion. Cunningham was fascinated with this effect and often used mirrors or glass to create this perspective.

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, discusses Cunningham’s “stolen pictures” and the changing dynamic shared between Cunningham and her subject after being spotted. Tune in to all 13 recordings as part of the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location through February 6.

Double Image, Sutter St. and Fillmore, ca. 1940

Narrator: Taken in Cunningham’s San Francisco neighborhood, this photograph captures two figures waiting for a bus. On the right, a man wearing a hat holds a paper bag. In the center, a woman stands dressed in a winter coat with her purse at her feet.

Chris Johnson: She’s giving Imogen a very strong direct gaze and there’s nothing reticent about that gaze and I think Imogen liked that because she was a strong outspoken woman herself.

Narrator: The image is doubled in the reflection of the storefront window on the left. Cunningham was fascinated with this effect, something she first encountered in the compositions of eighteenth-century Japanese prints. She often used mirrors or glass to create this perspective. The doubling effect places the woman in the center of the image and creates a dynamic between individuals, including the photographer.

Chris Johnson: The implied relationship between the photographer and the woman who’s giving her that gaze… between the black woman and the white man who is presumably ignoring both of them, Imogen and this black woman are in their own world. The white man is in his other world. He has his back turned to us. So Imogen is affirming her allegiance to this black [woman] and I really think the meaning of the image resides there.

Narrator: These “stolen pictures”, as Cunningham called her street scenes, were sometimes taken without the subject’s knowledge and represented a stylistic departure for her. But in this case, the central figure directly confronts Cunningham, and us.

Chris Johnson: Isn’t this a clear example of photographic seeing, you know, the way that the camera sees differently than the way eyeballs see?

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photo: Double Image, Sutter St. and Fillmore, ca. 1940, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, gelatin silver print, 7 3/4 × 7 1/2 in., Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Gift of the Junior League of Oakland, A67.130.33, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Imogen Cunningham: Hand Weaving with Hand

Hands play a prominent role in the work of Imogen Cunningham. Many of her most recognizable photographs focus on the movement of hands and their connection to the body. In Hand Weaving with Hand, the shadow of a hand with spread fingers protrudes from the lower left side of the image. Although the majority of the photograph is composed of a thin, rumpled fabric with vertical stripes, it is the ambiguity of this shadowed hand which captures the viewer’s attention.

Tune in to this audio recording to hear nonbinary Black transfem choreographer and dancer Randy Ford explore Cunningham’s use of hands throughout her work and relate it to her own dance production, Queen Street. Hear this and other audio recordings as part of the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective when you visit the Seattle Art Museum.

Hand Weaving with Hand, 1945

Narrator: While the right side of this photograph is dark, filled with billowing folds of a draped cloth, the left portion is backlit, and the fabric hangs flat. Behind the weaving, a light silhouettes a hand with fingers splayed. This hand is what first caught the eye of Seattle native Randy Ford, a dancer and choreographer.

Randy Ford: So I just think the hands are very interesting. You know, we create a lot of things with our hands. You know, we draw. We open doors. We close doors. We celebrate with our hands. They just play a really huge part in our lives and choreograph what we do every day. I don’t think of dance as just something that you do with your legs and your body and your torso. You know you can do a lot of expressing with just your hands, which is probably just why I again gravitated toward this shadow of a hand on this masterpiece of a sheet. The hands really kind of direct us a lot of places.

Narrator: In her portraits, Cunningham often zeroed in on hands—tickling the keys of a piano, delicately playing a violin, or shaping the rim of a clay pot. This singular, open palm appears to almost clap the suspended weaving. Is this the hand that made it? Is it presenting the cloth proudly… lovingly? As with so many of Cunningham’s photographs, the layering—in this case of fabric, lighting, and shadow—and ambiguity allow for multiple interpretations. Randy Ford, who recently told her own complex transition story in her dance production, Queen Street, can relate.

Randy Ford: I love making work that, is definitely visually appealing, but I also want people to realize what they’re looking at or maybe where their feelings are coming from. There’s definitely just a lot of depth within this simple-looking image and that’s why I chose it. It was very simple but still complex. It had like a little bit of a story. It invoked something about creation for me as a choreographer and director and an artist myself. I always kind of just wonder what are the beginnings of things? You know, things aren’t just the way they are just because they appear to us.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photo: Hand Weaving with Hand, Imogen Cunningham, 1945. Gelatin silver print, Image: 13 1/4 x 9 1/2 in. Collection of The Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Imogen Cunningham: Mills College Amphitheater

In June 1920, Imogen Cunningham’s husband, Roi Partridge, accepted a teaching position in the art department at Mills College, a private liberal arts school for women in Oakland, California. With their three young sons, Cunningham and Partridge moved from San Francisco to an old house situated near campus which initially had neither plumbing nor electricity.

While in Oakland, Cunningham established herself as a well-educated woman and progressive role model in the community. She offered Mills College students uncensored advice about their professional aspirations and her home came to be recognized as a safe haven for private discussions about sexuality and family planning.

One important stream of income for Cunningham at this time was photographing Mills College student portraits, dance performances, and campus architecture. Her photograph, Mills College Amphitheater (ca. 1928), captures the curved concrete design of the college’s outdoor auditorium. The image, likely inspired by the work of American photographer Paul Strand, plays with abstract geometric forms created by sunlight and shadows.

In this audio recording from the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective at the Seattle Art Museum, nonbinary black transfem choreographer and dancer Randy Ford discusses the significance of this image within Cunningham’s larger body of work. She points out Cunningham’s decision to forgo photographing the amphitheater’s stage, opting instead to play with the shadows and sunlight of the empty audience.

Mills College Amphitheater, ca. 1928

Randy Ford: My name is Randy Ford. I use she/her and goddess as pronouns, and I’m a nonbinary Black transfem, just out here trying to live and make art that’s going to change the world.

Narrator: Imogen Cunningham’s photo of an outdoor amphitheater reminded Randy, a choreographer and dancer, of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in Seattle where she staged her first full-length performance, Queen Street.

Randy Ford: I’m also a Greek drama nerd, and so this just looks like a Greek amphitheater like back in the day. It looks like a coliseum.

Narrator: The photograph was actually taken at Mills College, a women’s liberal arts college in Oakland, California, where Cunningham’s husband taught. She often photographed architectural elements on campus, including the amphitheater. There is no stage in Cunningham’s abstract interpretation. Instead, we see only curved concrete rows and rectangular steps highlighted by sunlight and shadows.

Randy Ford: Cunningham was very much just like, yeah, you know, the audience is the show. It’s not always about what’s on stage. It’s kind of like what’s the environment? What’s the tone? What time of day is it? Was this right before the performance? Was this an empty show where no one showed up? Audience plays a huge role in live performance. As a live performer, I live for an interactive audience. Just let me know you’re here. Let me know you feel me because, performers are also humans.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photo: Mills College Amphitheatre, Imogen Cunningham, ca. 1928, Gelatin silver print, Image: 8 1/8 x 12 1/4 in, Collection of Gary B. Sokol.

Imogen Cunningham: Ruth Asawa Family And Sculpture

In 1950, Imogen Cunningham’s son Randal introduced her to Japanese-American artist Ruth Asawa. Despite their 43-year age difference—Asawa was 24 and Cunningham was 67 at the time—the two artists quickly developed an unbreakable bond.

“Asawa and Cunningham placed a priority on relationships and refused to choose between the life of family and their art,” explained art historian and curator Daniel Cornell of their friendship. “They shared a similar fate as the critics who labeled their work feminine as a way to suggest its inherent inferiority to the work of male artists.”1

Over the next two decades, Cunningham and Asawa’s careers regularly intertwined. For the cover of the June 1952 issue of Arts & Architecture magazine, Cunningham photographed a few of Asawa’s wire sculptures, developed four individual prints, and mounted them on a single board. In 1964, Aperture magazine used a photograph Cunningham had taken of another of Asawa’s sculptures on the cover of its winter issue.

Imogen Cunningham’s photograph for the cover of Arts & Architecture featuring Ruth Asawa’s sculptures on view at SAM. Photo: Natali Wiseman

In a drafted letter recommending Asawa for a Guggenheim Foundation grant, Cunningham wrote of her friend: “However remote and obscure Ruth Asawa’s project may seem to most of us, I have very strong reasons to believe that she can achieve a real improvement in building ornament by carrying it out… To me, she is what I call an unfailingly creative person and there are very few of them.”2

Listen to this audio recording to discover the backstory of one particular photograph Cunningham took of Asawa and her family in 1957. Produced by the Seattle Art Museum, this recording includes a discussion by Japanese and Chinese Canadian photographer Kayla Isomura on the significance of Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture and its influence in her own work. Learn more about this image from SAM’s personal collection and Ruth Asawa’s legacy here, then see it on view alongside Ruth Asawa’s sculptures now in Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective at SAM through February 6.

Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture, 1957

Narrator: Photographer Kayla Isomura.

Kayla Isomura: I really enjoyed this image actually because of how candid and sort of natural it is, and it’s so every day in a way, but there’s also this interesting juxtaposition of just the art that takes up so much of the space. I’m not even sure if I should be looking at the sculpture or the kids, but I think just all of that put together, for me it just seems very intriguing as an image.

Narrator: Cunningham often photographed Asawa’s sculptures, but this image incorporates the domestic studio. Beneath the central sculpture sits a baby drinking from a bottle and a girl with a stick. Partially hidden by the suspended work, a third child watches as his mother pulls wire from a spool to begin another looped sculpture. A fourth child crouches on top of a low table.

Kayla Isomura: It doesn’t feel like the family or the kids are necessarily aware that the camera is there. They’re just kind of doing their own thing.

Narrator: Like her sculptures, in which open weaving reveals forms inside the forms, multiple facets of Asawa’s life are on view. You can see several of Asawa’s sculptures in this gallery. Asawa, her parents, and five siblings were among approximately 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent incarcerated during World War II. In her work, The Suitcase Project, Kayla, a fourth-generation Japanese and Chinese Canadian, asked Japanese Americans and Canadians what they would pack if they were forced into an internment camp. The process raised questions about the complex relationships among artist, subject, and identity.

Kayla Isomura: Something that in recent years that I’ve really come to consider is this sort of question of who is allowed to do this work. Do you have that connection, or do you feel this as part of your identity if this is what you want to do? Or can you work with somebody who has a closer connection if you do not? So is it enough that the subjects in their work, are maybe being represented? Or, does it matter equally as much that the person behind the work, you know, has that direct connection, to whatever it is that they’re documenting? And I think those are the questions that I have.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photo: Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture, 1957, Imogen Cunningham, Gelatin silver print10 3/8 x 10 3/8 in. (26.4 x 26.4 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.43 © Imogen Cunningham Trust.

1 Daniell Cornell et al., The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2006), 148.

2 Imogen Cunningham, undated draft of Asawa recommendation (probably 1971),
Imogen Cunningham Papers.

Imogen Cunningham: Self-Portrait with Grandchildren in Funhouse

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 Retrospective when 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.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Self-Portrait with Grandchildren in Funhouse, 1955, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, gelatin silver print, 8 3/4 × 7 5/16 in., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2006.25.2, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Imogen Cunningham: My Father At Ninety

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 Retrospective at 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.”

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: My Father at Ninety, 1936, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, gelatin silver print, 9 3/4 × 7 11/16 in., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 87.XM.74.12, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Imogen Cunningham: The Dream

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 tour when 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.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: The Dream (Nei-san-Koburi), about 1910, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, platinum print, 8 15/16 × 6 3/8 in., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 88.XM.44.5, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Imogen Cunningham: The Unmade Bed

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 Retrospective at 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.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: The Unmade Bed, 1957, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, gelatin silver print, 10 11/16 × 13 1/2 in., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, 2016.173.5, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Imogen Cunningham: Magnolia Blossom

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 Retrospective when 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.

 Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Magnolia Blossom, negative 1925; print 1930, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, gelatin silver print, 9 5/16 × 11 5/8 in., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, 54042, Photo: Randy Dodson, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Imogen Cunningham: Morris Graves In His Leek Garden

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 Retrospectivenow 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.

Monet’s Letters: La Falaise And The Porte D’Aval

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 Étretatnow 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.

Monet’s Letters: Fishing Boats (Bateaux De Pêche)

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.

Monet’s Letters: Boats on the Beach at Étretat

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

Monet’s Letters: The Cliffs at Étretat

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 Étretatnow 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.

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