Friday, November 1, 2013

Art History's Top 100 -- American Artists

All good things must come to an end, and my art history class wrapped last week with a session on American artists.  We talked about 22 artists and saw slides of over 250 works.  So, as always, it's hard to decide what to share here.

Gilbert Stuart's Portrait of
George Washington
We started the class with Gilbert Stuart's Portrait of George Washington (known as the Athenaeum portrait).   We have all seen countless portraits of our nation's first president over the years.  But this image might be particularly familiar since this is the work that is replicated on the dollar bill.  Stuart got a lot of those bills painting portraits of GW to sell to patriotic citizens who wanted a picture of their leader for their homes. Using this work as his template, Stuart created 130 portraits of GW and sold them for $100 each.  We're talking 1796 dollars here, so that is a lot of moolah.  One fun fact:  Gilbert struggled a bit when he painted this work because Washington had a new set of false teeth that distorted his jawline.

Grant Wood's American Gothic (1930)
Who doesn't smile when they see Grant Wood's American Gothic?  As one of the most parodied works of art (along with The Scream, the Mona Lisa, and Whistler's Mother), it's one of those images that has truly become a part of popular culture.  Grant came across this house when he was traveling across Iowa and was captivated by the Gothic revival style window.  He then added the farmer and his daughter (using his dentist and his sister as models) as representations of the type of people he thought would live in such a house.  Some art historians believe that the image of the father and daughter is a reference to the trouble that young women could get into with the traveling salesmen of the time.  (I always thought it was a husband and wife, so that never crossed my mind.)  Others feel that the stoicism of the pair reflects the inner strength that people had to call upon to get through the Depression.   Either way, Wood captured the sense of an era.  (Note the way the silhouette of the pitchfork is repeated on the farmer's shirt and coveralls.  Brilliant!)

Keith Haring's Crack is Wack (1986)
It's a big leap from Gilbert Stuart's Portrait of George Washingon to Keith Haring's Crack is Wack, but we arrived there in the course of 2 1/2 hours.  Haring's early work in New York City was as a true graffiti artist, creating temporary works of chalk art on the walls of the City's subway system.  People soon recognized his distinctive style, and it didn't take long for him to become internationally known.  Haring used his work to promote social causes.  Crack is Wack is a mural painted on the face of a handball court on East 128th Street and Harlem River Drive in New York.  It was a message to the kids of the neighborhood--and people driving by on the FDR--not to get involved with the highly addictive drug.  The phrase might sound familiar not from Haring's work, but from Whitney Houston's 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer when she denied allegations that she was using drugs, saying, "Crack is whack."  Perhaps Houston got the phrase (at least subconsciously) from Haring's painting.
Whether you recognize Haring's name or not, you are likely to have seen his signature "radiant baby."  During the 1970s, Haring was involved with the Jesus Movement (more popularly known as "Jesus Freaks").   This image derives from that period of his life.

Rosalie referred to Haring's work as "graffiti-glyphics," and the thought dovetailed perfectly with the beginning of our class when we talked about ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.    In six short weeks we saw not only Rosalie's "Top 100" hit parade of artistic creations, but literally  thousands of works.  Each week was a new adventure, and I already miss the class.  Fingers crossed that she will teach a more focused art history class in the future.  In the meantime, the next session of her class starts on Wednesday, November 6th.  There's a seat just waiting for you!

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