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Object of the Week: Gwendolyn Knight

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

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

"Gwendolyn Knight" by Augusta Savage

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

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

Newspaper clipping featuring "Gwendolyn Knight" by Augusta Savage

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

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

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

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

Happy birthday, Ed Ruscha!

“Made in U.S.A.” It’s a familiar phrase. A distinctive feature of the phrase is that it always comes attached to an object. The statement makes no sense when detached from an object because it lacks the first element of any sentence: a subject. What was made in the U.S.A.? Whatever it’s printed on. This is what one might call an index. Where we see the words has a direct relationship to the meaning we draw from them.

American Pop artist Ed Ruscha chose the language carefully. The physical lithograph that he called America Her Best Product was imagined and then printed within the boundaries of the U.S. The Pop movement that it represents was also distinctly American—cleverly responding to a boom in consumerism during the third quarter of the 20th century with a new brand (pun intended) of satire. The American Dream and the drive to buy that supports it are two more products referenced here. Are they the most telling ones?

America Her Best Product came to SAM as part of a 12-piece art portfolio titled Spirit of Independence, which also featured print works by artists such as Robert Indiana, Alex Katz, and Jacob Lawrence, and which celebrated the country’s 200th year in 1976. The portfolio assembled works symbolizing American creativity and freedom. Curtis H. Judge, president of the donor Lorillard Co., wrote that Spirit of Independence “reflects and projects American independence as interpreted by 12 of America’s foremost artists.”

As Ruscha points out, one of the great parts about freedom is the ability to question the direction of one’s own country.

Happy birthday, Ed Ruscha!

Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: America Her Best Product, 1974, Ed Ruscha (American, born 1937), lithograph, 31 3/8 x 23 1/2 in. Gift of the Lorillard Co., N.Y.

Object of the Week: Airstream Turkey

Our global culture is pretty good at making visual associations. As kids, many of us grew up pointing to the sky, calling out animals and faces suggested by the eccentric outlines of the clouds. Now, we play the meme game: How funny is Ryan Gosling if we cut him out of a movie role and paste him into all these different come-on scenarios? How well does a scrunched-up, pouty kid face express all your life’s frustrations? So funny! So well! And for me, it’s hilarious how quickly and creatively we make these connections. If a movie star or a top athlete makes a crazy face one night, there’s a trending meme of her or him the next morning.

In art, too, visual associations go a long way. They can be poignant, suggesting parallels across time and across cultures, causing us to re-think our views about the world. They can be as silly as a Ryan Gosling meme, putting a sign or symbol or person into a new context and pointing out just how important context is for how we understand these things.

Patti Warashina’s Airstream Turkey was born out of a similar, this-looks-like-that approach to digesting the huge diversity of images we experience every day, bringing together the forms of a trailer, a turkey, a bread loaf, and a chafing dish lid. Warashina applied low-fire glaze and low-fire luster to the ceramic piece, giving it the shiny metallic quality of a vintage trailer. Wings and feathers morph into streamlined horizontal details; reductive legs jut into the air like maneuverable levers. Airstream Turkey pranks us visually and playfully, thoughtfully keeping the eye engaged.

With her idea of a turkey vehicle, Warashina seems to have been onto something. Just such an avian Airstream makes a notable appearance in Tom Robbins’ 1990 postmodern novel Skinny Legs and All, in which the First Veil opens:

“It was a bright, defrosted, pussy-willow day at the onset of spring, and the newlyweds were driving cross-country in a large roast turkey.

The Turkey lay upon its back, as roast turkeys will; submissive, agreeable, volunteering its breast to the carving blade, its roly-poly legs cocked in a stiff but jaunty position, as if it might summon the gumption to spring forward onto its feet, but, of course, it had no feet, which made the suggestion seem both empty and ridiculous, and only added to the turkey’s aura of goofy vulnerability.

Despite its feetlessness, however, its pathetic podalic privation, this roast turkey—or jumbo facsimile thereof—was moving down the highway at sixty-five miles an hour…”

Today, let’s do some associations around the word “Thanksgiving”: gratefulness—smiles—family—love—warm food—mashed potatoes and gravy.

Happy (postmodern) Thanksgiving from SAM!

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGE: Airstream Turkey, ca. 1969, Patti Warashina, American, 1940- , earthenware with low-fire glaze and low-fire luster, 9 1/2 x 9 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Anne and Sidney Gerber, 94.86, © Patti Warashina.

Object of the week: Pomponne II de Bellièvre

Did you know that in the 1930s the Mona Lisa hung in the halls of the newly opened Seattle Art Museum in Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill? And that it was joined by other European masterworks from the Louvre, the Uffizi, and other renowned collections?

They were all here. Or rather, editions of the originals were here. SAM’s founding director Richard E. Fuller initially devoted some of the museum’s gallery space—which was at a premium—to a display of faithful facsimiles of European Old Master paintings. Showing replicas alongside originals might seem problematic or just plain tacky to us today, but we can’t say his choice wasn’t a practical one. Collecting European paintings was never a priority for Fuller, and the costs for these kinds of historical works were often above his budget. Still, Fuller understood the importance of this chapter in the history of art-making. Even while he and his mother, Margaret MacTavish Fuller, were building the museum’s collection by selecting Asian art objects and patronizing local painters, Fuller couldn’t imagine telling a story of art history without the Old Masters.

Asian Art Museum in the 1930s

About 100 years before Fuller was hanging his facsimiles, American painter Samuel Morse (1791-1872) was considering the same issue. Morse’s first profession was painter; he would later become the inventor of the electromagnetic telegraph, immortalized in the term “Morse” code. Like Richard Fuller, Morse was deeply interested in connecting the art of the European masters with America’s present and future cultural production. How to bring the best of European painting to America, so that our local artists might learn and grow from its examples? Using the skills and technology available to him, Morse began a monumental painting that would feature dozens of Old Master artworks in miniature, for the instruction and reference of his fellow American painters.

Gallery of the Louvre by Samuel F. B. Morse

Morse worked on what would become his masterpiece, Gallery of the Louvre, between 1831-1833, in both Paris and New York. The painting depicts the Salon Carré, a prominent gallery in the Louvre. The artwork has an impressive scale, at roughly six by nine feet. Within Morse’s “gallery picture,” one can spot references to important artists such as Titian, Veronese, Caravaggio, Rubens, and Watteau. A portrait by Anthony van Dyck, much like the SAM’s own Pomponne II de Bellièvre, is prominently featured. See if you can spot Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Thanks to a traveling exhibition organized by the Terra Foundation for American Art—the proud owner of Gallery of the Louvre—this significant historical painting is now on display at SAM in Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention. To view this massive work is to see and appreciate Morse’s skillful execution and his faithful attention to the like-minded artists who came before him. Come see and enjoy!

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGES: Pomponne II de Bellièvre, 1638-39, Anthony van Dyck, Flemish, 1599-1641, oil on canvas, 54 x 43 1/2 in., Purchased with a major grant from an anonymous donor; additional funds provided by Louise Raymond Owens; Norman and Amelia Davis; Oliver T. and Carol Erickson; Seattle Art Museum Guild; Pauline Ederer Bolster and Arthur F. Ederer in memory of their sister, Milli Ederer Kastner; Mr. and Mrs. James D. Burns; gift in memory of Andrew Price by Mrs. Mary Price and their family; bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Archibald Stewart Downey; bequest of Charles Moseley Clark; Max R. Schweitzer; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Stimson, Thomas D. Stimson Memorial Collection; Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection; Silver Anniversary Fund; Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund; Seattle Art Museum Purchase Fund by exchange, 98.15. Photo: Seattle Art Museum Archives. Gallery of the Louvre, 1831–33, Samuel F. B. Morse, American, 1791–1872, oil on canvas, 73 3/4 x 108 in., Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.51. Photography © Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago.

Object of the Week: Amor Caritas

One of the many wonderful qualities of visual art is its ability to lead people forward in response to tragedy. Amor Caritas, a bronze relief sculpture at SAM by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), was meant to serve just that purpose.

Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin, Ireland, and immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was just seven months old. He lived through the divisive years in America leading up to the Civil War and the catastrophic war at a formative time in his life. While his experience of the Civil War left a lasting mark on his art, its effects didn’t surface in the way one might expect.

Amor Caritas detail

Saint-Gaudens contributed to the American Renaissance, a broad movement that flourished in the decades following the Civil War that inspired not just art and architecture, but also politics and finance. The visual artists of the American Renaissance looked to the iconic examples of ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration, aiming to express an equally grand vision for America and its culture. The foundation of their art was a firm belief that art could inspire healing and progress.

In the figure of Amor Caritas—a composition that Saint-Gaudens returned to multiple times and that earned him international recognition—the artist felt that he had achieved a perfect female form, and that was essential to his purpose. Feminine beauty here personifies our human capacity for amor (love) and caritas (charity). Physical beauty provides a visual form for these lofty, encouraging sentiments.

Amor Caritas detail

I find it very telling that in a private letter, Saint-Gaudens wondered about titling the sculpture “Peace on Earth” or “to know is to forgive.” For the artist, each of these themes was equally present in the idealized human form. As today marks fourteen years since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, we can appreciate the artist’s positive response to a tragedy of his day, and the call this sculpture gives for us, as people, to move forward in a spirit of love, togetherness, and forgiveness.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Amor Caritas, modeled 1898, cast probably 1898, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, bronze, lost wax cast, bronze: 39 7/8 x 4 1/2 in., frame: 52 x 32 x 6 3/8 in., Gift of Ann and Tom Barwick, the General Acquisition Endowment, the Gates Foundation Endowment, the Utley Endowment, the American Art Endowment, and the 19th Century Paintings Fund, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2006.4.

SAM Art: Poetics of paint and place

The Cornish Hills, 1911, Willard Metcalf, American, 1858 – 1925, oil on canvas, 35 x 40in., Partial and promised gift from a private collection, 2005.160. On view in American Art Masterworks, American art galleries, third floor, Seattle Art Museum, starting this Saturday, October 11.

The Cornish Hills, 1911, Willard Metcalf, American, 1858 – 1925, oil on canvas, 35 x 40in., Partial and promised gift from a private collection, 2005.160. On view in American Art Masterworks, American Art galleries, third floor, Seattle Art Museum, starting this Saturday, October 11.

Rather suddenly, as a mature painter at the age of fifty, the impressionist painter Willard Metcalf found a landscape subject that would engage him as never before. In the winter of 1909 Metcalf traveled to the artists’ enclave of Cornish, New Hampshire, where he discovered the beauty of the winter landscape, reduced to a few solid forms and strikingly contrasting colors. Thereafter, Metcalf made the scenery around Cornish something of a specialty year-round, his magnificent paintings earning him the title “poet laureate of the New England Hills.”

The Cornish Hills is just one of the paintings included in a new installation, American Art Masterworks, opening this Saturday in the American Art galleries of the Seattle Art Museum.

SAM Art: An American image

There are innumerable ways to be “American,” and artist Abe Blashko explored many of those routes in his Social Realist drawings.

The Great Depression, fascism in Europe, America’s entry into world war—the dark forces that changed the western world forever in the decade from 1930 to 1940—upended America’s art establishment as artists channeled moral outrage into a new sense of social purpose. Social Realism is a term traditionally applied to the work of these artist activists who chose to express themselves in a style that forcefully conveyed human suffering and moral character. But realism is an inadequate description, for these artists filtered reality through the imagination and even modeled their satirical statements on the most expressive art of the past. Their subjects might be the common man and woman, but their portrayals are sophisticated and startling exaggerations, personifications of the forces of good and evil within all of us as individuals and as a society.

Street Corner, 1939, Abe Blashko (American, 1920–2011), lithographic crayon on cream-colored heavy weight wove paper, 19 7/8 x 13 1/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 40.63, © Abe Blashko. Currently on view in the American Art galleries, third floor, SAM downtown.

SAM Art: Millennium Light

Early modern art in America is strongly linked to myth and symbol, to what was an enduring quest to find spiritual meaning in the physical world. That quest, begun by nineteenth-century landscape painters and poets who felt divine inspiration in nature, for example, led artists time and again back to long familiar classical and Biblical texts for imagery and to newly discovered myths and symbols in Native American and Asian religions, philosophy, and art.

In his early 20s when he painted Millennium Light, Morris Graves’ interest in myth and mysticism was already apparent. It was created at the dawn of his long career, within months of his first important public recognition as the winner of the Northwest Annual’s Katherine B. Baker Purchase Prize for Moor Swan (also currently on view).

Millennium Light, 1933-34, Morris Graves, American, born Fox Valley, Oregon, 1910; died Loleta, California, 2001, oil on canvas, 39 x 39 1/2in., Gift of the Marshall and Helen Hatch Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2009.52.98, © Estate of Morris Graves. Currently on view in the modern art galleries, third floor, SAM downtown.

Beauty Shot Fridays: Summertime Sun and Fun

In hopes of procuring more sun from the sky this week, we asked people to send us photos of their summertime fun in the sun. Photos did not have to be of Seattle or from this summer but could be of anything sun- and summer-related. I’ve selected a few of our brightest submissions from last week and written some of my thoughts on them… Read More