Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Etiquette from Catherine the Great

Catherine II by Andrey Chorny  |  Treasures of Catherine the Great  |  Abrams, 2000
The following rules of etiquette were posted by Catherine the Great at her Hermitage and are reprinted from the 2000 exhibition catalog of Treasures of Catherine the Great:


1. All ranks shall be left outside the doors,
similarly hats, and particularly swords.

2. Orders of precedence and haughtiness,
and anything of such like which might result from them,
shall be left at the doors.

3. Be merry, but neither spoil nor break anything,
nor indeed gnaw at anything.

4. Be seated, stand or walk as it best pleases you,
regardless of others.

5. Speak with moderation and not too loudly,
so that others present have not an earache or headache.

6. Argue without anger or passion.

7. Do not sigh or yawn, neither bore nor fatigue others.

8. Agree to partake of any innocent entertainment
suggested by others.

9. Eat well of good things, but drink with moderation
so that each should be able always to find his legs
on leaving these doors.

10. All disputes must stay behind closed doors;
and what goes in one ear should go out the other
before departing through the doors.

If any shall infringe the above, on the evidence of two witnesses,
for any crime each guilty party shall drink a glass of cold water,
ladies not excepted, and read a page from the Telemachida* out loud.

Who infringes three points on one evening,
shall be sentenced to learn three lines from the Telemachida by heart.

If any shall infringe the tenth point,
he shall no longer be permitted entry.

* A poem of 1766 by Vasily Trediakovsky, relating to the adventures of Telemachus, son of Odysseus. Over-long, old-fashioned and heavy, the poem was perceived by contemporaries as the very model of bad poetry.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Dear Blogging Friends,

I wish you a very merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Season's Greetings

From my collection of antique cards

My grandmother's ice skates, Switzerland, circa 1896

Monday, December 19, 2011

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Architect's Christmas Card

My father earned a degree in architecture, but graduated from college in the midst of the Great Depression. And because good architectural jobs were less plentiful, his life took another direction. Every year, however, my father would design the family Christmas card, and often the theme was architectural. Of all his Christmas cards, this 1967 view of the National Cathedral is my favorite. It's a great perspective drawing, and it also reflects his love of landscaping. He owned books on Japanese gardens, and it's no coincidence that the tree on the left looks oriental. The card was designed as a black and white line drawing, and then was printed in reverse, a technique that works particularly well for achieving a starry, starry night.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Annunciation Template

Fra Angelico   |   c. 1440   |   San Marco, Florence

I've been studying books of Renaissance art lately and I've noticed that the angel depicted in the Annunciation goes through an evolution that becomes increasingly stylized. That shouldn't be too surprising, since the artists shown in this posting either taught each other or competed with each other. In any event, they were setting standards for each other. It's interesting to see a progression in the rendering of the angel, and that it finally settles on an iconic pose and gesture.

We begin with Fra Angelico's angel. Fra Angelico painted the Annunciation numerous times, and while his angels did not kneel, they bowed before the Virgin. The angel above, painted in Fra Angelico's own monastery, comes closest to kneeling, with what might be interpreted as a curtsy.

Filippo Lippi   |   c. 1440   |   Martelli Chapel   |   San Lorenzo, Florence
Filippo Lippi's angel was painted around the same time as Fra Angelico's. The rich detail, and especially the folds of cloth, make Filippo Lippi's work seem much later. Filippo Lippi has his angel kneeling and holding a lily, the symbol of purity.

Leonardo da Vinci   |   1475   |   The Uffizi   |   Florence
Leonardo painted his Annunciation angel when he was 20 or 21. Now the angel kneels, carries a lily, and makes the gesture of a blessing. So far, all of the angels have been wearing red garments. Red was a favored color in altarpieces, in part because the pigment was more expensive; it was literally a richer color, worthier of holy subjects.

The youthful Leonardo sets himself apart by representing the halo as an actual burst of light, rather than a static plate of gold.

Domenico Ghirlandaio | 1482 | Cloister of the Collegiata | San Gimignano
Ghirlandaio — who is credited with being a teacher to Michelangelo — painted this Annunciation angel, which follows the pattern of holding a lily, kneeling and blessing.

Pinturicchio | 1479-85 | Baglioni Chapel, Santa Maria Maggoire | Spello
Pinturicchio's angel follows the pose, lily and gesture ...

Sandro Botticelli   |   1490   |   The Uffizi   |   Florence
... as does Bottecelli's angel, which now seems to both kneel and bow.

I find the progression interesting. Did the pose become a standard because it was seen as more aesthetic? Did it better please religious clients? Or perhaps these artists recognized that the pose contributed to a stronger composition. Notice that each one of these angels takes the shape of a triangle that leads the eye towards the space occupied by the Virgin. We can dwell on the folds of cloth, but which artists have most successfully lead the eye to the right through strong body movement and gesture? Leonardo and Bottecelli.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cool Recycling!

This time of year, I always check in with the gift shop at St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Arts. Any time I buy something there, the purchase gets packaged in handsome paper bags like the ones above.

I mentioned to the manager that these are so attractive that I save them as alternative giftwrap for small presents.

And she said that in that case, they're recycled at least twice. And then she explained that the paper from which these bags are made comes from the fabric industry. They're the sheets of paper that are put either atop or under fabric as it's printed, to catch excess ink.

These decorative paper bags are made from what is essentially blotting paper — isn't that cool!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mystery Solved


Parnassus wins my virtual deerstalker cap for guessing the inscription on the very first try. And Carol P. also wins my virtual deerstalker cap for suggesting the higher dpi, which allowed me to verify that Parnassus' guess was correct. Steve of The Urban Cottage gets a virtual deerstalker cap, as well. Congratulations!

This is my tracing over the 1200dpi scan. One note of interest: in graphology, the shape of the "A" in "Austin" is called a "Star T," and is a sign of doggedness, or persistence. Writers using that mark tend to finish whatever they start. It's interesting that Stewart's cousin used that shape for "A"s, and not "T's. Perhaps later in life he or she did.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to solving my conundrum. You are all History Detectives, and you each receive your very own virtual Ruffnerian Decoder Ring. Congratulations!

I did a quick search through census records from 1900 and 1910 and found three S. A. Austins, all born in the 1840s (which would probably be the correct birth date for this teenager with late 1850s attire):

S. A. Austin   St. Clair, Alabama   1842
S. A. Austin   St. Joseph, Michigan   1842
S. A. Austin   Leflore, Mississippi   1846

Perhaps the sitter for my ambrotype is one of these three people, and lived into the beginning of the 20th century.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Calling All History Detectives!

I recently purchased an ambrotype of an 1850's teenager. The case in which it came was unremarkable, but the ambrotype was in fine condition, and the earnest young face was appealing — a blank clean slate, if I ever saw one!

Isn't that vest great?

There was a piece of paper in the case that was so faded that at first, I didn't even realize that there was writing on it. So I opened this image in Adobe PhotoShop and played around with filters, trying to accentuate the handwriting and fade the background.

At first it looked like it might read "E_______ L," but I wasn't sure. Some more work, and then I came up with this:

I believe that the young man's name is written on two lines and that "Stewart" is his first name. But what is the rest of the inscription? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

After mulling it over with a cup of coffee, contributer Carol P. suggested that I scan the inscription with a higher dpi (dots per inch).  Exhibit D is the result, scanned at 1200dpi (or four times more detailed than the original scan).  Now can you decipher it?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

My Tenuous Connection to Marie Antoinette

This lovely painting of a young Marie Antoinette comes from the blog of Catherine Delors, who writes extensively on the life and times of the tragic queen. For more information about the painting, and to explore Catherine's fine blog, click here.

We're still intrigued, sometimes morbidly so, by Marie Antoinette's spiraling life, by the tumultuous time in which she lived, and even by those who crossed her path in good times or bad.

One such person was an ancestor of mine, Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823), considered by many to be the greatest watchmaker of all time.

Abraham-Louis Breguet

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were enthusiasts of Breguet (pronounced Bray-gay) because in their time, he revolutionized everything that had to do with watches and timekeeping. Breguet's inventions made watches shock-proof, balanced and self-winding (perpétuelles). Breguet developed the tourbillon, which allowed watches to counter the effects of gravity. He invented gongs for repeating watches, the Breguet key (which could only be turned in one direction), and the very first wristwatch (designed for Queen Caroline Murat of Naples).

Other patrons included George Washington, Talleyrand, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, King George III, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dumas, Queen Victoria and Sir Winston Churchill. At the Battle of Waterloo, both Napoleon and Wellington were wearing Breguet watches.

Sotheby Parke Bernet

Besides taking the mechanics of watchmaking to new heights, Abraham-Louis Breguet was responsible for a new aesthetics — the high-tech look of his time — and a look which is still very contemporary. Breguet's attention to detail included guilloche faces and his distinctive watch hand design, a trademark of the company to this day. The above image is a carriage clock sold in 1826. It's an eight-day clock and calendar that repeats on the quarter hour.


Breguet's most famous watch was one he created for Marie Antoinette, and today it's known simply as "The Marie Antoinette." This handsome piece was designed to include every conceivable watch function known at the time, and was not completed until years after the queen's death. Today it is valued at $30 million.

Breguet made numerous marine chronometers, and in 1815 was named official chronometer maker to the French navy. He was admitted to the Academy of Sciences in 1816, was awarded the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by Louis XVIII in 1819, and in 1888, 65 years after his death, Breguet's name was one of 72 inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.

I'll end this posting with a little family story. My grandfather Breguet was a psychiatrist, and when I was about five, he gave me a cheap alarm clock to play with. "Go ahead and do anything you want with it," he said. "You can even open it up and take it apart." Many years later I remembered getting the clock, and I realized that he was of course trying to determine whether an aptitude for horology could be genetic. I told the story to my mother, and she said, "Oh, yes, he gave me a clock when I was that age, too."

We must have disappointed him sorely because we both dutifully took apart our clocks, and then seeing piles of loose parts, moved on to more gratifying entertainment!