Friday, April 27, 2012

My Rare Florida Spoonbill

Every once in a while I get the urge to make a collage. Usually I have a subject in mind, and the image of John James Audubon's Roseate Spoonbill has been rattling around in my head for quite a while. So I had to get it out.
Above is Audubon's version of the spoonbill. Audubon's original print measures approximately 38"x24" and is currently valued at $235,000.

© Mark D. Ruffner, 2012
 And this is my own version,
The Rare Florida Spoonbill.   |

John James Audubon (1785-1851) spent much of his his career producing The Birds of America, a series of 435 hand-colored engravings, with birds all at life-size or larger. He sold the series by subscription, and his subscribers included the kings of England and France, as well as major institutions of the day.

The Roseate Spoonbill, found in Texas and Florida, was highly prized for its feathers, and by the end of the Civil War, had disappeared completely from Texas. Only a couple dozen remained in Florida. Today, spoonbills found in Florida are actually the Mexican Roseate Spoonbill.

In writing this post, I have relied heavily upon the excellent site of Graham Arader, and I encourage you to read more about John James Audubon there.

I offer you two views of John James Audubon. I can't help thinking that with his sharp eyes and nose, he resembles the American Bald Eagle.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Visionary Erastus Salisbury Field

Erastus Salisbury Field (1805-1900) was an itinerant portrait painter who also painted mythical landscapes that far overshadowed his early work.

In the winter of 1824-1825, Field traveled to New York City and studied art under Samuel F. B. Morse, credited not only with inventing the Morse Code, but also with introducing photography to the United States.   |
Morse, above, was an artist of stature, and his portrait of President James Monroe today hangs in the White House. One wonders about Field's short stay with Morse. Did he run out of funds? Was he discouraged? What we do know is that Field returned to his rural home of Leverett, Massachusetts and began a career as an itinerant artist in a rather isolated area.
Field's first known painting is a portrait of his grandmother, Elizabeth Billings Ashley. Many of his sitters were friends and a very extended family.

Joseph Moore and His Family   |

click to enlarge   |   titles and credits below
What we can see from Field's portraits is that they were very formulaic. In fact, the greatest difference in the three portraits above is the scenery beyond the red curtains. Most itinerant artists of the period — or limners — would paint canvases with generic bodies during the winter months, then simply add a client's face at a later time. I've read that Field was different in that he painted faces first, and would add all the rest later. In any event, he was unable to make a living as an artist because, ironically, his teacher had introduced the country to the daguerreotype. Having an exact likeness on a small plate supplanted the work of many lesser portrait painters.
Field continued to paint, however, and turned his attention to Biblical themes. Above is one of several versions of the Garden of Eden. Below is He Turned Their Waters Into Blood, one of a series of paintings depicting "The Plagues of Egypt." Field apparently enjoyed painting architecture, and architectural elements appear more and more in his later paintings.

Masters of Naive Art   |   Bihalji-Merin
Field's most famous painting is in every way monumental. From 1867 to 1888, Field worked on The Historical Monument of the American Republic, below, a canvas that measures 9'3" x 13'1". 

click to enlarge   |   Masters of Naive Art   |   Bihalji-Merin
Comprised originally of eight towers, with two more added later, the painting chronicles American history from Jamestown to 19th century events. Field conceived the monument to celebrate the 1876 Centennial, but continued working on the towers into his old age. Each tower has faceted panels depicting important scenes in low relief sculpture. I've read that Field enjoyed sharing his work with neighborhood children, providing them entertainment that must have been somewhere between a history lesson and a travelogue.

Erastus Salisbury Field died at age 95, in 1900.

The three portraits at the beginning of this post are, from left to right:
Clarissa Gallond Cook, 1838-1839,
Julia Ann Adams Peck, 1843,
Lauriette Adams Peck, probably 1843,

Monday, April 16, 2012

200 Posts

My last posting, on painting with feathers, was No. 200 of this blog. I thought I'd mark the occasion by highlighting some of my own favorite postings, postings that you may have overlooked.

Thomas Jefferson's Tromp l'Oeil was a posting about an aesthetic problem that Thomas Jefferson faced as he was building Monticello, and how he cleverly solved it. See it here.

Pack Rat, The Grand Aquisitor was a posting about the actual animal and his quirky habits. He inspired me to do several paintings. See it here.

J. P. Morgan Meets the Duveens was a posting detailing how Morgan decided to test an art dealer, and how he got the surprise of his life! See it here.

George Washington's Left Eye was a posting about a little experiment I did on Gilbert Stuart portraits of George Washington. The computer allowed me to come to an interesting conclusion. See it here.

Lunch With Rosie the Riveter's Father was a posting about an interesting man who regaled me through many enjoyable lunch hours. See it here.

I hope you enjoy,
while I work on No. 202!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Wallpainting With Feather Dusters

The bathroom of my friends Sandy and Greg

I've painted half a dozen rooms with feather dusters, and I'm pleased to report that the results have all gotten rave reviews. Today, I'll share how it's done.

Let's begin with the feather dusters. Because the project requires using a lot of dusters, the good news is that the type you must use is the cheapest, made from chicken feathers. The more popular dusters are finer and fluffier, and doubtlessly come from more exotic birds. The duster made from chicken feathers is stiff by comparison, which is what you want, because your dusters are going to get a real workout!

As shown above, take the feather duster and cut about a third of the feathers off. (I suggest doing so outdoors or at least in a space where flying feathers won't be a problem.) You'll end up with something that looks more like a feather brush than a feather duster.

The technique (as I do it) requires two sets of colors applied with dusters over one solid color — one duster per color, per wall. A room of four walls would therefore call for eight feather dusters, but I'd have 4-6 extras on hand, just in case.

Now for the colors, which will work best as flat paint. Successful rooms require an optimum three colors, and for best results, they should be three adjoining colors from the same paint chip. Of course you can do something more dramatic, but the rooms featured in this posting were achieved with three tints of the same color. (A), or the middle color, will be the base color, and you'll begin the project by painting the whole room with that middle hue.

In the case of my own bedroom, everything was painted that middle color — walls, trim and ceiling. When the room was finished, I painted the Victorian mirror frame the base color, too.

Here, I'm demonstrating with colors left over from painting my house exterior. First is a flat coat of the middle tone. For the next step, I suggest a practice session with a piece of cardboard. Dip the feather brush into the darkest of the three colors, (B). The best way to do that is to dip the feathers at a perpendicular angle into a paint tray, and lightly enough so that only the tips of the feathers are covered with paint. (Otherwise you'll be applying big globs of paint.) Press the feathers against the wall so that they splay out.

After this first application of feather painting, the wall will probably not look attractive. You might even be moved to say, "Oh my God, what am I doing!!" Don't worry, the second coat of feather painting will be with the lightest color, (C), and it will blend the darker color and the base color very nicely. Applying the lightest color will be the major part of the project because it will require you to even out all the texture by eye.

When you get to the ceiling line or trim edges, simply mask where you're painting with a thin cardboard, like a shirt board.

This technique is not limited to walls; I've also used it for the background of a couple of paintings.

Several things to consider: 1) If you start with a room that has already been painted with the base coat, this will still be a full day's work.  2) While I have never painted over a feathered room, I know that I have added considerable texture to each wall. 3) Having said that, I also know from my own bedroom that the feather-painting technique makes a lot of unevenness in walls disappear. And finally, 4) you will be tempted to add more than three colors. Each application of feathering makes your texture finer, which means that at some point of adding layers, you'll be back to your first step. Three colors really is optimum, and I would use no more than four.

One more look ...


Friday, April 6, 2012

Background on Fabergé's First Egg

Carl Fabergé was born in 1846, four years after his father, Gustav, opened a jewelry business in a St. Petersburg basement.

The Art of Carl Fabergé  |  Kenneth Snowman  |  1952

Above is a bracelet by Gustav Fabergé. While Gustav's designs were not remarkable, Gustav was successful enough to send Carl to good schools in Russia, and artistic training in Dresden (where Gustav eventually retired) and Frankfurt. Carl also visited England long enough to learn English.

Louis XV snuff box  |

Gustav Fabergé then treated Carl to a Grand Tour of Europe, which included exposure to Florentine enamelers and goldsmiths, and to the treasures of the Louvre and Versailles, where Carl was bewitched by all that was Baroque.

In 1870, Gustav retired and Carl Fabergé, age 24, took over the business. 1870 also happened to be the year that the Tsar's favored jeweler closed his doors, leaving an opening for someone new.

Carl Fabergé almost immediately moved the family business to a ground floor across the street. Then, in consultation with his father and brother, Agathon (who remained one of his best designers), Fabergé decided to include jeweled objets d'art in the company line. This momentous decision seems like a no-brainer in retrospect, but at the time, the production of such pieces had the potential to be less profitable.

Above is the first Fabergé Easter Egg, made in 1884 by Carl and Agathon. A white enameled egg opens to reveal a golden yolk, which in turn reveals a golden hen. A ruby heart dangles inside the hen. The egg was an Easter gift from Tsar Alexander III to his wife, Marie Feodorovna, and it must have caused much delight. For more than 30 years, Fabergé made Easter eggs for Marie Feodorovna and her daughter-in-law, Tsarina Alexandra, wife of Nicholas II.

Marie Feodorovna's sister was also named Alexandra — Queen Alexandra of England. Doubtlessly Tsarina Marie communicated her delight to her sister, and soon Fabergé was supplying eggs for King Edward VII of England to give to Queen Alexandra as birthday gifts. Above are the two sisters in old age, Queen Alexandra on the left and Dowager Empress Marie on the right.

Incidentally, the movie Hugo has drawn attention to the amazing mechanical toys of the 18th and 19th centuries, toys that also fascinated Fabergé. When he was studying in Dresden, he often visited such toys at the Green Vaults Museum.

The Art of Carl Fabergé  |  Kenneth Snowman  |  1952

Fabergé created a number of moving objets d'art, including this toy of Catherine the Great in a sedan chair. When the chair is wound with a key, the standing figures move smoothly in unison. We know that this was created for the French or English market because it is signed "FABERGE" in English.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Genius Behind Tiffany Lamps

A New Light on Tiffany  |  Eidelberg, Gray, Hofer

Last month I was in Winter Park, Florida, for my second visit to the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. The museum is known primarily for its collection of Tiffany glass, and artifacts relating to Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Our family friend, Yvonne, had renewed my own interest in Tiffany by sharing two recent books about Clara Driscoll, the woman at the top of this posting. A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls, by Martin Eidelberg, Nina Gray and Margaret K. Hofer is a fine companion piece to the novel, Clara and Mr. Tiffany, by Susan Vreeland.

Both books describe how Clara Driscoll (1861-1944) was a driving force behind the mosaic glass creations that we most often associate with Louis Comfort Tiffany, despite the fact that she got almost no credit in her own lifetime.

For those of you who are addicted to emails and tweeting, it might be worth noting that Clara Driscoll is finally getting her due because she wrote voluminous letters about her work, letters that were shared and saved by her family.

Dragonfly Lamp  |
Through the letters, which include designs and accounts of meetings, it is apparent that Driscoll came up with the idea for Tiffany's iconic mosaic glass lamp shades. She produced hundreds of glass designs for everything from windows to screens to desk accessories, and some of those designs are among Tiffany's most famous pieces. Yet the only credit she ever got was when exposition juries required that every member of a design team be mentioned. (For that reason, Clara did get credit for the Dragonfly Lamp pictured above, which recently sold at auction for $554,500.)

Butterfly Lamp, by Clara Driscoll  |
The Women's Glass Cutting Department was a separate branch of the Tiffany company, staffed by dozens of women who were all managed by Clara Driscoll. Driscoll met on a near-daily basis with Louis Comfort Tiffany, who usually sided with her as she battled her male counterparts, who often gave her little respect. Despite the fact that today she probably would have merited pay worthy of a full partner, Clara Driscoll earned a modest income and lived most of her adult life in boarding houses. She was required to leave the company when she married.

Wisteria Lamp, by Clara Driscoll  |
Clara Driscoll ended her life painting silk scarves, none of which have survived. But her letters did survive, and they have recently shed light on a creative genius who left a big mark on our collective conscious.

Clara Driscoll and fellow Tiffany employee Joseph Briggs in 1902  |  Metropolitan Museum of Art
To read an excellent account of how two historians simultaneously discovered the extent of Clara Driscoll's work and influence, sleuthing through those letters, I direct you to a New York Times article, here.

•  •  •

Clara Driscoll is not to be confused with a lady of the same name and the same time who was the Texas philanthropist who saved the Alamo from demolition. That's another interesting story.