Elizabeth Siddal

I feel this overwhelming need to formally apologize to Elizabeth Siddal. I fell instantly in love with John Everett Millais’s painting, Ophelia the first time I saw it. I loved it before I knew that Elizabeth, the model, had lay shivering and uncomfortable in lukewarm water for hours upon days until she caught pneumonia and never fully recovered. And I loved it still after knowing this. I loved it because the way she laid lingering in the water so beautifully reminded me of the way my gorgeous son lingered on to his life, fragilely for many years before dying. I loved her red flowing hair and the flowers on the water, her wrists, and her hands. I love it still, still. But it comes with a feeling of guilt for what she endured for the painting to come into being. And I am sorry to say that the first thing I ever read about Elizabeth was that she was considered very beautiful, had a sensual mouth, heavy lidded eyes, and radiant red hair to her waist. Secondly, I read of her tragic short life from 1829 to 1862. Only lastly did I read that she herself was an artist and a part of the Pre-Raphaelites group, a literary and artistic movement that followed the footsteps of painters prior to Raphael because they believed art was meant to be simple, pure, and spiritual. Together, they rebelled against the Academy, feeling that the style was severe and sterile with its favoritism of realistic interpretations of nature. To them, fighting against the Academy meant freedom.

Like many of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, Elizabeth was greatly inspired by literature and wrote poetry. The subject of her watercolors and drawings were often Romantic interpretations of works by John Keats, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Browning, William Shakespeare and John Keats. She also rendered Christian scenes and her favorite writer was Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In style she was influenced by work of the Middle Ages. Her work, though somewhat abecedarian, was vividly scented and intensely evocative when complete. In her life she executed over one hundred paintings and drawings.

One of my personal favorites of Elizabeth’s is entitled “Clerk Saunders” a watercolor and chalk on paper. It illustrates the Ballad of Clerk Saunders by Sir Walter Scott. The greens and blues are vivid against the greys, and red browns of the room and the woman, May Margret’s red hair. It is a story of the passionate love between a man and a woman from different social classes. The painting is hauntingly beautiful and ghostlike, with an otherworldly feel, as if it was swept straight out of someone’s night dreams. The palette is sensual with dreamy light against the shadows. May Margret, the lover of Clerk Saunders, is kneeling to the ghost of her lover who was killed by her brothers. In the story the ghost entered through her wall to ask her to renew her vows. An oval shaped window depicts an outdoor scene behind them. A tiny oratory in the room alludes to the Middle Ages and May Margret’s devotion. The figures have a rigidity that is strangely unnerving and graceful all at the same time.

Siddal is best known for being the tragic muse of painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and for modeling for many of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings. But the fact that she produced the impassioned work that she did in her short 32 year life, amidst persistent illness, an unfaithful husband, the grief of a stillborn baby, addiction and bouts of bitter depression is beyond amazing. Past her physical beauty and tragic romantic story, if we look closely at her actual work, we see that it is full of fervor, sensitivity, and a passion for art and literature. Listen and we can hear it singing.

I close with one of her poems.

The Lust of the Eyes

I care not for my Lady’s soul
Though I worship before her smile;
I care not where be my Lady’s goal
When her beauty shall lose its wile.

Low sit I down at my Lady’s feet
Gazing through her wild eyes
Smiling to think how my love will fleet
When their starlike beauty dies.

I care not if my Lady pray
To our Father which is in Heaven
But for joy my heart’s quick pulses play
For to me her love is given.

Then who shall close my Lady’s eyes
And who shall fold her hands?
Will any hearken if she cries
Up to the unknown lands?

 

The Red Rose Girls

Recently a good friend of mine suggested that I put my fairy painting series (a work in progress) into a picture book. I never would have thought of this idea if she had not suggested it. A few days ago another friend of mine relayed to me a lively discussion she had with her small daughter about one of my paintings. For me, this seemed to cement the idea that the paintings would be welcoming to children and a book would be a way to make the paintings more accessible to a larger population. The reason I bring this up is to demonstrate what collaboration and close friendship can bring to our work. I have several artist friends, mostly ones who live a good distance away, but we keep in contact. Some of these friendships arose out of a mutual love of art, but were eventually strong beacons of light in some of my darkest hours.

One of the most fascinating artist collaboration stories is set against the backdrop of the early 20th century of the Victorian Era and the developing women’s rights movement. Three female artists formed a deep collaborative bond with their lives and work. In an old and picturesque estate in Villanova called the Red Rose Inn, Violet Oakley, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Jessie Wilcox Smith lived together as loving friends and successful illustrators. Their deep friendship began during their studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. They also studied under the tutelage of illustrator Howard Pyle.

The brilliance of their work and their unconventional lifestyle captivated the world around them. Their living arrangement and lifestyles did not conform to the strict Victorian social norms, but even so they vowed they would never marry and live together always. Their friend Henrietta Cozens joined them and willingly took care of the domestic chores so that the three illustrators could focus on their work. They called themselves the ''Cogs family,'' a name formed from the initial letters of each of their surnames. Eventually, they purchased their own compound with studio and living space.  Their unconventional family freed them from domestic distractions and gave them round support on all sides. They often posed for each other, gave constructive criticism, and shared ideas. And from what I’ve read about them, they loved each other deeply and considered themselves a family.

The three were professional artists during a time when women were expected to take art classes as a symbol of social status rather than as a serious undertaking. Female students were refused from life drawing in the majority of art schools and usually were in segregated art classes. At the time Illustration was thought to be an adequate career for women because the creation of images for children's books and magazines was assumed acceptable because of the link to decorating and child rearing—two things that were considered more “natural” female talents.

The women earned commissions from the nation's most prestigious periodicals, including Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post. Elizabeth designed covers and interiors for Harper's Magazine over a span of twenty-three years. Violet was a national painter, muralist, and stained glass artist. She was awarded the gold Medal of Honor by the Pennsylvania Academy in 1905. She earned a commission in 1902 to paint eighteen murals in the new Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. Jesse became famous for her idealized pictures of children and domestic life including The Ladies Home Journal, and Scribner's magazines, among many others. In addition she illustrated more than forty popular books, among them Dickens's Children, Charles Kingsley's Water Babies and Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. It is no question that their great success was enmeshed with their support for one another.  

In June of 1911 Elizabeth fell in love with a man and married, breaking the vow the women had made to each other.  Soon after Green’s marriage, Violet Oakley purchased the adjacent property, but had another cottage built for Jessie and Henrietta who lived together for the rest of their lives. In 1918 Violet’s friend, Edith Emerson, a painter, moved in with her and they lived together for over forty years until Violet’s death in 1961.

In their own unique way these women were rebels. Their story is romantic and poetic, and their illustrations were stylistic and budding with beauty. I think what we can learn from them is the power of friendship and collaboration in the arts and in life.

 

 

 

Judith Scott

When a close friend of mine came across Judith Scott’s work, she called me on the phone. “I found this artist!” she said and continued to tell me all about her. “Finally,” she said, “someone who understands. She wrapped things!”

Indeed Judith did wrap things, all sorts of things, bicycle wheels, a skateboard, jewelry, crutches, any object within her reach she would wind with layers upon layers of strips of fabric, twine and yarn until the object was hidden. Some are small graceful objects and most are large scale masses, sometimes up to nine feet long. She created her own process of fastidiously winding arbitrary objects with knotted yarn and fabric over days and weeks, sometimes until her fingers bled. The results were mesmerizing, beautiful, body-like, organic, shrouded sculptures that leave little hint to what is inside.

Judith was born in 1943 with her twin sister, Joyce. Judith was born with Downs Syndrome and after a bout of Scarlet Fever, she lost her hearing. The twins lived together for seven years. Because her deafness was initially undiagnosed, Judith was considered uneducable and her parents were advised to make her a ward of the state of Ohio. She lived the following 35 years in an institution for the disabled.

In 1986, her sister Joyce, still missing her “other half” became Judith’s legal guardian. She enrolled Judith in the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, a progressive organization for artists with disabilities. After watching a visiting fiber artist, Judith took off and began creating her enigmatic fiber sculptures. She was given the freedom by the staff to use whatever objects she desired.

Judith worked tirelessly five days a week for eighteen years, resulting in over 200 works of art. Her work has been exhibited around the world including the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York City, the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, and the Oakland Museum of California. She has been featured in a film and there is also a book about her life and work, Metamorphosis: The Fiber Art of Judith Scott, by John MacGregor. Judith continued working on her sculptures up until her death in 2005. She died in her sister’s arms.

Upon researching Judith’s work I came across much discussion about Judith’s assumed unintentional creations and the fact that Judith could not tell us what her work was about because she was nonverbal. It was questioned as to whether her work should be considered “Outsider Art”—a term which arose to define an artist who creates without intention, especially if that artist is disabled. The assumption being that an “Insider Artist” intends everything and rationally makes decisions about what they create, while the “Outsider Artist” does not. Neither of these terms makes sense to me. I don’t want to discuss this. Even trying to talk about this feels very unnatural.

What I want to talk about is why my friend was moved enough by Judith’s work to call me on the phone across the miles. And why she said, “Finally, someone that understands. She wrapped things.” I think what we both felt as we talked about her was that finally someone had brought to light that there is a mystery hidden in all of us, that there is something secret, a beautiful pearl within us, that when Judith obscures an object in a gorgeous cocoon-like mass, as humans we can identify. We may have close friends, people may know us deeply, and we may live in a culture of over-sharing, but there is a hidden mystery within us that no one else can ever touch. It is precious and sacred. Somehow, when my friend and I looked at Judith’s art we felt understood in this way. As to why… well, that in itself is a mystery too. It may not be what everyone feels about her work, but is what we felt. There could be so many wonderful feelings and interpretations that come out of Judith’s sculptures. I am reminded of a song by Paul Winter that I used to listen to while rocking my sons to sleep, “O Mystery, you are alive. I feel you all around. You are the fire in my heart. You are the holy sound. You are all of life. It is to you that I sing. Grant that I may keep you, always in everything. O Mystery.”

 

Käthe Kollwitz

As a mother who has lost a son, I can attest that in my greatest grief I eventually looked to Art for healing. Nothing in books or imagery anywhere resonated my bereavement like Käthe Kollwitz ’s print, Woman with Dead Child. It is not a feeling nor an image I feel able to describe so I won’t do so. But I can share about the life of Käthe Kollwitz, her other works of art and the gifts she left for those who have known heartbreak.

In her prints and sculptures, Käthe Kollwitz expressed compassion for the suffering, working poor, and sick while confronting social injustice. She is hailed as one of the most important German artists of the 20th century. Her art and her own life were entrenched in hardship and sorrow.

Käthe was born in 1867 in Konigsberg, East Prussia (Now Kaliningrad in Russia) to a political progressive middle class family. Encouraged by her father, she began art lessons at age 14. She attended the Berlin School of Art and then went on to study in Munich. In 1891, she married Dr. Karl Kollwitz and together they settled in one of the poorest sections of Berlin. From 1898 to 1903 she taught at The Berlin School of Women Artists.

In the early 1890s she turned exclusively to printmaking, seeing the mediums potential for social commentary. Prints could be inexpensively reproduced in multiples, allowing her to speak to a wider audience.

Her first prints in 1897 were inspired by Gerhart Hauptmann’s play about a revolt of German weavers. Her next print collection, The Peasants’ War, spoke of the German peasants’ rebellion in the 16th century.

For the next 50 years, Käthe  produced intensely emotive prints, usually in black and white but sometimes with touches of color. Early on, her references were provided by her husband’s working class patients. But soon her subject matter was born out of her experiences as a mother and a grandmother in both World Wars. She was devastated by the loss of her son in the first war and her grandson in the second.

In 1914 her 19 year old son, Peter, was killed in Flanders, just two months after enlisting. By December of that year she had formulated the idea of creating a memorial to her son—his body outstretched, the father at the head, the mother at the feet. In 1919 she temporarily put the project aside. Twelve years later in April 1931, she was finally able to complete the sculpture, which is placed adjacent to her son’s grave.

The fact that Käthe was only able to finish the sculpture 18 years after her son’s death gives us a great sense of the true process of bereavement. And the memorial is intimate—two parents on their knees—but universal. The story of Käthe and Karl Kollwitz’s journey stands for millions of others. The sculpture contains neither artist’s signature nor reference to time or place. Instead, what is embraced is simply the universal sorrow of two parents, grieving.

Käthe’s journey through the making of the memorial gave peace to one chapter of sorrow but more heartache lay ahead. In 1933, Käthe’s honest and dramatic subjects came with a price. The Nazi government forced her resignation to the Prussian Academy. And soon to follow, she was denied the right to exhibit her work. Her husband died in 1940. Her grandson Peter was killed on the Russian Front in 1942. In 1943 she was forced to leave Berlin due to Allied bombing. Her house and a large portion of her work was destroyed.

She died on April 22, 1945, writing in her last letter, “War accompanies me to the end.” She left behind timeless, universal, intimate and beautiful work. Work that has, I think, the capacity to bring one soul closer in understanding to another.

Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone

 

Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone’s illustrative works are best described as intriguing and detailed illustrations that a little child would naturally and blissfully pore over. I know I did, as a child, with their gorgeous alphabet book, ending with a meticulously illustrated telling of the Pied Piper. The mesmerizing book was one of my most prized possessions.   

Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone were identical twins, born on June 1, 1928 and remained close throughout their lives. Their brother Murray described them together as one and a half rather than two people. Their mother, Doris Zinkeisen, was a successful portrait painter and stage designer who did valuable work during the Second World War. In 1946 the twins' father, Captain Grahame Johnstone, died and both girls lived thereafter with their mother for the rest of her life. Zinkeisen died in 1991. Janet and Anne never married, but were close to their nephew and two nieces, all of whom worked in the arts.

Anne and Janet’s artistic endeavors were nurtured both at home and at school. The twins attended the Heathfield School in Ascot, Berkshire during World War II and eventually both studied at St Martin's School of Art. Afterwards they became professional illustrators in London and later on in Suffolk, gaining popularity all the while. They worked on every illustration together, passing the drawings back and forth until both were happy with the result. Janet focused on drawing birds and animals while Anne's talent lay in her knowledge and rendering of period costume.

An early work included Enid Blyton's Tales of Ancient Greece, and new illustrations for Struwwelpeter. Christmas cards took up a great deal of their time as well as a large number of gift books. The sisters worked on over 100 books together. Some most known works include the classic fairytales by Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm, J.M. Barrie, and Charles Kingsley, a series based on Biblical tales, Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greeks and Trojans, as well as many rhyme and modern story-collections, some of Paul Gallico's magical children's stories, Manxmouse, The Man who was Magic, Miracle in the Wilderness, and Enid Blyton's 1979 Dean book, The Enchanted Wood. They also worked on some television, jigsaw puzzles, ads, logos and for the children’s magazine, Finding Out. In 1956 they illustrated Dodie Smith's The Hundred and One Dalmatians, one of their most popular works. Unique perspectives and use of shadow influenced the Disney's cartoon film to follow. Focusing on clever drawings of the animals, human characters were often portrayed from the back but still come across in a highly individualistic way.

Their beautiful full-page illustrations for nursery rhymes, fairy tales or children's prayers were largely criticized for being too sentimental and too determined to please. But the public loved their work, which actually portrayed many styles. Their drawings show an attention to detail and line sensitivity as well as convey a strong palpable atmosphere beyond comparison.

In 1979 Janet died from smoke inhalation from a kitchen fire. As close as the sisters were in friendship, sisterhood, and work, Anne was devastated by this loss. Even so, she was able to lift herself up and continue illustrating alone. Unused to drawing animals, she taught herself to become so able (particularly with horses) that she eventually was elected a Member of the Society of Equestrian Artists.

And Anne didn’t just draw horses well, she rode them too. The twins had, in their lives together, driven a little dogcart in the country. After Janet’s death, Anne kept this hobby alive and won cups and rosettes in competitions.

Anne died from liver cancer on May 25, 1998. She handled her illness with courage and grace and continued to work until two days before her death.

            Janet and Anne inspired and touched the hearts of children around the world. Their work ethic was superb and their illustrations flawless. They were able to compete with some of the finest work of their generation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary Cassatt

"I have had a joy from which no one can rob me--I have touched with a sense of art some people once more--They did not look at me through a magnifying glass but felt the love and the life....Can you offer me anything to compare to that joy to an artist?" -Mary Cassatt