Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Anatomy of a Family Painting

Hanging in my study is a still life that my father painted. I like it on many different levels. First, of course, it has meaning to me because my father painted it. I also like the fact that it has a masculine quality — I imagine that it might have been hanging behind Alistair Cooke as he introduced episodes of Masterpiece Theater. I like it as an exercise in light and shadow. And finally, it pleases me that the still life depicts items that are now in my possession.

My father was an interesting personality. During the week, he was a military man who dealt in finance and logistics. But in his off-hours, my father gardened, studied history and painted. He had gotten a degree in architecture from Cornell University in the 1930s, but upon graduation faced a job market much like today's. So he entered the U. S. Army through ROTC, and was initially in the Cavalry (yes, the United States had a cavalry right up to the beginning of World War II!). Because my father was a very reserved person, his outlets were all quite reflective.

I could list another reason the still life appeals to me — the items within it mirror that reflective personality.

My father was not the collector that I am, but he did accumulate some good Asian antiques. He was particularly fond of celadon and a glaze that's known as "ox-blood." This jar was one of his favorites because the ox-blood red is particularly deep and rich in color. This is, I believe, a Korean antique.

My father smoked this pipe occasionally, but it may have belonged to my maternal grandfather. They admired each other and both, incidentally, died from cancer. I cherish this pipe but have never smoked!

This lovely little perfume vial always lived on my mother's bedroom dresser, and I assume it was a gift from my father. I'd love to know more about it. It looks quite European, even though the decoration appears to be of a Thai dancer.

Here are volumes I & II of the writings of Sir Joshua Reynolds. They were awarded to Elizabeth Bywater in 1873 for her proficiency in Geometrical Drawing.


The other items in the painting have scattered to the winds. One was a remarkable paperweight of a dandelion floating in Lucite. It was a gift to my father from a classmate of mine, and as the years went by the Lucite slowly yellowed and clouded. The dog-eared brown book was an American textbook from the 1820s. My father enjoyed it because a young student from that time had penned anti-Jefferson comments in the margins. The two green volumes were a 19th-century edition of Isaak Walton's The Compleat Angler. They were gifted to my father's best friend after he delivered the eulogy at my father's memorial service.

In a sense, this painting is a family portrait, and when I look at it, I respond to it as though it were a window onto my past.
.

31 comments:

  1. What a terrific treasure, given the relationship you so wonderfully describe. Are you familiar with the work of Luigi Luciano? The glaze and the reflection in the sang-de-boeuf (ox-blood) vase are quite reminscent, as well as the shadows and the folds in the cloth. It's difficult to see, but the figure depicted on the vial looks more Chinese than Thai to me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Columnist - I am aware of the work by Luigi Luciano only through your postings on him, but I think his work is very fine indeed. Very rich. As to the figure on the vial, I will have to defer to your judgement. I suspect that it might be a European interpretation of the Far East, in which case it might be idealized.

      Delete
  2. Hello Mark:
    We can see absolutely why this painting should be held so dearly by you. The fact that it is painted by your father is reason alone to cherish it, but that it also contains items which you possess to this day makes it even more special.

    The celadon vase is truly stunning. The colour and the glaze are beguiling, but it would be a challenging subject for a painting we would think. we are full of admiration for the way in which the reflecting light has been captured so well, not an easy task.

    Your father was most certainly an interesting character and, as you say, his painting gives a small window into his life and, as a result into your own heritage. We are interested to know where [if at all] the painting hangs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello, Jane and Lance:

      The jar with the ox-blood glaze is not celadon, which is a glaze with a very subtle green color. My father collected both the ox-blood ceramics and celadon ceramics.

      Thank you for appreciating that reflective light; my father had a good understanding of the principles of light due to a rigorous training in architectural drawing.

      The painting hangs in my study, over my computer, and I'm able to enjoy it even as I am typing this comment to you!

      Delete
  3. What a lovely family possession to own, but what a pity that your father was unable to practise as an architect.
    On one or two levels this brings back memories for me. My father was also an occasional pipe smoker, and as a young girl I loved to watch him loading his pipe and getting the lighting process going, little knowing the dangers it held. I too do not smoke, but my father luckily avoided getting cancer and lived into his 80s.
    Your mention of Alistair Cooke reminds me of listening to him on the radio every Sunday morning with his "Letter from America" compulsive listening to those hook on the programme. He had a such a reassuring quality to his voice and the content was always a revelation to us in the UK.
    I have known about Izaak Walton for all of my life, there is a 17th century hotel in Dovedale, Derbyshire where he fished on the river Dove called the Izaak Walton Hotel.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Alistair Cooke was always a great favorite of mine. I've never been a keen TV watcher (there hasn't been a TV in my house for years), and when I was first out on my own and had a TV, I had a self-imposed house rule: I would never choose TV over an invitation or the possibility to do something in "real life." And I say all this to admit that the exception was for Alistair. Anything else would have to be scheduled around his "America" series.

      Delete
  4. Dear Mark,
    This is a truly lovely post and I enjoyed reading it during my lunch break.
    I like the composition of this painting and the way the colours compliment each other.
    The fact that your father painted this piece would make it special. The added bonus is that you have various of the items illustrated.
    Bye for now,
    Kirk

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Kirk,

      The colors are very complementary and in fact for a number of years the color scheme of my living room was those exact colors. Many interior designers decorate around a painting that way, but I think I did it rather subconciously. In any case it was always a focal point . . .

      Delete
  5. It seems more of a portrait than had it been of your father himself. What a delightful keepsake and inheritance :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree with your observation, Stefan, it's as much a portrait as a still life.

      Delete
  6. Hello Mark, Such a personal heirloom is the greatest type of memento. It is also a very attractive still life; your father (unsurprisingly) was an accomplished artist. I particularly like the progression of colors and the way the brown book and pipe work with the paneling to tie the picture together. The inclusion of the modern Lucite piece prevents it becoming an old-time stage set, and allows brilliant effects of dispersion of light and looking through the refractive plastic.

    Your father seems to have built in personal symbolism. I can't quite read the date, but is it 1945? The dandelion seeds perhaps are a metaphor for a world in disintegration, and trapping it in Lucite reflects your father's (and others') attempts to preserve it and keep it together. In this light, it is ironic that the Lucite was not sufficient for this task, and the seed-ball deteriorated anyway. The fact that Volume 1 of the Reynolds is upside-down is surely not accidental.

    It is fantastic that you have so many of the items represented. The oxblood vase and the enameled vial look good enough that they should be checked out, beyond their value as heirlooms. The date in the Reynolds book looks like 1873 to me; that would also accord with the binding style and the VR (Victoria Regina) logos.
    --Road to Parnassus

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello, Parnassus,

      First of all, I thank you for reading the date more carefully than I did! The Reynolds books do date to 1873, and I've made that correction to the text. Thanks again.

      The date of the painting itself is "73," 1973.

      I enjoy the symbolism that you've read into the layout. I think that my father included the Lucite paperweight because he would have enjoyed the challenge of painting different textures and sources of reflections. He did other still life paintings that included cut crystal, old bronze figures and shiney silver.

      Delete
  7. I agree it's a treasure! I'm particularly impressed with how well be captured the reflections in the vase, the pipe and especially the lucite cube. It's quite masterfully executed.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I love the story behind this painting. How wonderful that you have at least some of the pieces used in the still life. I truly love the perfume vial...even if it is a European interpretation!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Theresa - I'm only guessing that the vial is a European interpretation — I really don't have any information on its history, and of course it's too late to ask now!

      Delete
  9. Mark -
    So wonderful to know that talent runs in your family!! I love still life paintings with books. It's quite personal and tells a lot about the owner / artist, etc. Many of my books are garden related. Thank you for sharing this special and handsome painting. You are lucky to have it along with many of the items featured.
    Cheers,
    Loi

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Loi - As I think back on all the elegant postings of your blog, I know that your own collectibles could be assembled into a very handsome still life. I can see it now — books, creamware, pods and pine cones, and perhaps a small topiary on the surface of a Gustavian table. It would be a celebration of neutral tones with one shot of bright color, perhaps a contemporary book.

      Delete
  10. Hello hello, I'm delighted to have stumbled upon your blog! Your father's painting and the objects featured in it simply humm with the magic of history-- beautiful and touching. Thank you for sharing it-- I look forward to reading more of your posts!
    Best regards from a like-minded new friend,
    Erika from parvumopus.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello, Erika,

      Thanks for visiting my blog and enjoying my Dad's painting. It never had so many viewers, and I know he would be pleased to see all the feedback.

      I have visited your sumptuous site, and look forward to going back to view and read your postings in depth!

      Delete
  11. Good morning, Mark. You never fail to delight...yet this post is even more of a treasure than usual. So enjoy reading your thoughtful and meaningful blog.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Oh Mark, how fortunate you are to have this wonderful reminder of your dad in your family. Your dad was very talented in his own quiet way. I love, especially, how you've shown the actual items depicted in this still-life. Just a lovely tribute. Thanks so much for sharing these bits and pieces of your life with us.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Yvette - Thank you for enjoying the posting. My dad understood how to cast shadows because part of his architectural training was in making architectural renderings. The experience stood him well whenever he painted a still life.

      Delete
  13. Hello Mark,
    What a treasure, in every possible way. Wow -talk about family heirloom(s), you brought tears to my eyes.
    Anyes
    XX

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Anyes. My parents knew that I liked that painting a lot, and it ended up as a birthday gift to me. That, too, is a happy memory.

      Delete
  14. Oh how I can relate, my father was a sunday painter as well and you know it's actually a nice painting.

    ReplyDelete
  15. this still life is quite awesome.

    ReplyDelete