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BMA Voices: The Blue Eyes

Henri Matisse. The Blue Eyes. 1935. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone  of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.259. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse. The Blue Eyes. 1935. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.259. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Katy Rothkopf, Senior Curator & Dept Head of European Painting & Sculpture

Henri Matisse’s small, but powerful, painting The Blue Eyes was created in 1935. It features an intimate view of Lydia Delectorskaya, a Russian woman who met the artist when she was hired as a nurse for his wife. Lydia began to model for the French master in 1935, later becoming his studio assistant, muse, and Matisse’s companion for the rest of his life.

In 1935, when The Blue Eyes was produced, Matisse was just starting to paint again after a three-year hiatus from making oil paintings. In the late 1920s, Matisse had received some criticism for producing so many decorative paintings of women in interiors, often dressed in exotic costumes. He decided to take a break, and travelled abroad, created his first illustrated book, as well as completed a major mural project for the Barnes Foundation outside of Philadelphia. When he returned to producing oil paintings in 1934, Matisse had a new sense of energy and excitement in his work. His exploration of space and his love of texture and pattern began to emerge in new ways.

During his hiatus, Matisse came to Baltimore to pay his condolences to Etta Cone, one of his most important collectors, whose sister Claribel had died the previous year. During that visit in 1930, he saw all of the wonderful pieces the Cone sisters had purchased for their collection, including his own works that he had not seen for a long time, as well as paintings by many of his great artistic heroes. After his visit Matisse and Etta became even closer friends. When the artist returned to making oil paintings in 1934, he began to make works with the Cone Collection in mind, wanting to ensure that Etta’s collection was as strong as it could be.

The Blue Eyes is a composition that seems very spontaneous and immediate, but, in fact, the artist worked on perfecting the pose several times. Matisse was very taken by this idea of a woman seated in a casual pose, leaning on the back of a chair with her head resting on her arms. While working on a drawing with a similar pose, Matisse took photographs of the work in progress and sent them to Etta. She was so taken with the images that she could not resist purchasing the related painting from her favorite artist.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

Reproduction, including downloading of Henri Matisse works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

BMA Voices: Birds

Thomas Coke Ruckle. Birds. 1842. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Gift of Louise M. Carr; Gift of Edward P. Crummer; W. Clagett Emory Bequest Fund, in Memory of his Parents, William H. Emory of A and Martha B. Emory; Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch; Gift of a Group of Friends; Gift of Mrs. Oliver Iselin; Gift of E. Carolyn and Rosa E. Nicholson; Special Purchase Fund; Gift of Mme. A. W. L. Tjarda Van Starkenborgh-Stachouwer; and Gift of John Vanderbogart, BMA 1985.20

Thomas Coke Ruckle. Birds. 1842. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Gift of Louise M. Carr; Gift of Edward P. Crummer; W. Clagett Emory Bequest Fund, in Memory of his Parents, William H. Emory of A and Martha B. Emory; Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch; Gift of a Group of Friends; Gift of Mrs. Oliver Iselin; Gift of E. Carolyn and Rosa E. Nicholson; Special Purchase Fund; Gift of Mme. A. W. L. Tjarda Van Starkenborgh-Stachouwer; and Gift of John Vanderbogart, BMA 1985.20

Laura Albans, Curatorial Assistant for the departments of European Painting and Sculpture and Conservation

Although I work in the Curatorial Division at the Museum, I do not always have the opportunity to walk through the galleries and truly study the installations, as I would if I were visiting another museum. I am very fortunate to work for two departments within the Museum—European Painting and Sculpture and Conservation. Working in the European Painting and Sculpture Department allows me to fully learn a collection, while working in the Conservation Department introduces me to new works, allows me to become familiar with objects from other departments, and, most importantly, opens my mind to works or styles I may not otherwise notice.

Thomas Coke Ruckle’s small painting came into the Conservation Lab several years ago, where, as an amateur birder, it immediately caught my attention. Prior to working in the European Painting and Sculpture Department, I had worked closely with the Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture Sona Johnston, but I was not familiar with this image from the American paintings collection. The painting stayed in the Conservation lab for several months, and I was able to see it on a daily basis. It wasn’t just the bird motif that captured my interest, but rather, it was the style that intrigued me, as well. I love how Ruckle captures the identity of the birds with such detail, yet he does not give any indication to the birds’ surroundings or landscape. This simple composition, with its naïve feeling, is fastidious in a painterly manner, creating quite a beautiful little masterpiece.

I am also continually surprised at the early date of Ruckle’s composition. I have to remind myself that it was completed in the middle of the nineteenth century, and yet it looks so fresh and modern! However, this example of these familiar North American birds was painted just one year after Ruckle’s return to Baltimore after studying at the Royal Academy from 1839-1941, nine years prior to the death of John James Audubon (1785-1851), and several years after Audubon’s publication of The Birds of America (1827-1839). I am very curious to know as to whether Ruckle referenced this illustrated tome for his artistic study.

Like Audubon, Ruckle captures the birds’ identity in great detail, but in using a bit of artistic license, he places all the birds on branches of a budding and blossoming apple tree, while seemingly depicting each with individual personalities. I am happy to note that all the birds seen in this composition are common visitors to my Baltimore backyard. Illustrated from top to bottom, left to right are (all males, most likely for the use of vibrant color and immediate identification): a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a Northern Cardinal, American Robin, Baltimore Oriole, Northern Flicker, and an Eastern Bluebird.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

BMA Voices: A Path through the Woods

John White Abbott (English, 1763‑1851). A Path through the Woods. c. 1785‑1795. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Rhoda Oakley, Baltimore, BMA 2008.9

John White Abbott (English, 1763‑1851). A Path through the Woods. c. 1785‑1795. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Rhoda Oakley, Baltimore, BMA 2008.9

Ann Shafer, Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings & Photographs

If ever I turned my attention to making art instead of writing about it, I would pull out my watercolors and brushes and head outdoors. It’s hard to imagine a world when that wasn’t possible – but it wasn’t so long ago that the first paints in tubes became commercially available. The first premixed watercolors were introduced to the market in England in the 1760s, but it wasn’t until the 1840s that those little tubes we know today were invented.

The proliferation of watercolor landscapes in England in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was due in no small part to the introduction of those premixed watercolor paints. Artists began to experiment with the medium and test the boundaries of what could be accomplished. Soon these works found their way into the annual exhibitions of the English Royal Academy, but they were so marginalized that a group of artists split from the Academy in 1804 to found the Society of Painters in Water-Colours. The goal of this new Society was to place watercolors on an equal footing with oil paintings. Artists responded by creating large-scale, highly-finished watercolors displayed in elaborate gold frames. The Museum is fortunate to have an example of one of these by Britain’s favorite son, James Mallord William Turner.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775‑1851). Grenoble Bridge. c. 1824. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Nelson and Juanita Greif Gutman Collection, BMA 1968.28

Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775‑1851). Grenoble Bridge. c. 1824. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased with exchange funds from Nelson and Juanita Greif Gutman Collection, BMA 1968.28

In contrast to the highly-finished, exhibition watercolors, many artists created more intimate works in the same medium. Artists went outdoors with sketchbooks and paints to test their skills at portraying the landscape. One such work from a sketchbook (notice the crease down the center) is a favorite (pictured top). The artist is John White Abbott, a country surgeon and apothecary from Exeter, who as an amateur artist painted for his own enjoyment (the term amateur indicates only that the artist did not earn money making art, but is no indication of a lack of talent). After inheriting an estate from his uncle, he was able to devote himself fulltime to painting. Abbott probably drew A Path through the Woods first in graphite pencil on the spot, and then returned to his studio to finish the work with gray washes and pen and brown ink. I continue to be amazed at the quality of light through the dappled foliage painted with just gray and brown. In fact, the execution is so masterful that I see this monochromatic scene in full color. In addition, the peacefulness of the scene always transports me to somewhere else. For me, this work is a figurative and literal breath of fresh air.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

BMA Voices: A kimono six months in the making

Kimono Furisode 1912-1989, Taisho (1912-1926) or Showa (1926-1989) Japan. Gift of Mrs. D.M. Cheston, Baltimore  1990.113

Kimono Furisode 1912-1989, Taisho (1912-1926) or Showa (1926-1989). Japan. Gift of Mrs. D.M. Cheston, Baltimore 1990.113

Kimono Furisode 1912-1989, Taisho (1912-1926) or Showa (1926-1989) Japan. Gift of Mrs. D.M. Cheston, Baltimore  1990.113

Kimono Furisode 1912-1989, Taisho (1912-1926) or Showa (1926-1989) Japan. Gift of Mrs. D.M. Cheston, Baltimore
1990.113

Anita Jones, Curator of Textiles

The incredible skill and significant time that people from various cultures devote to the production of special textiles is a continuing source of amazement to me. This superb furisode, a kimono intended for a Japanese bride to wear at her wedding reception, is an illustrative example.

The ground fabric is a woven silk damask-like weave (rinzu) with the swastika or sayagata pattern – an ancient Buddhist symbol of longevity – along with wild orchid (ran), chrysanthemum (kiku), and bamboo motifs. This elaborately woven ground is almost overlooked with the addition of colorful surface patterns. The most prominent of these, known as “scattered fans” (semmen-chirashi), is composed of diverse multicolored, floral, and geometric motifs adopted from traditional Japanese textile designs.

kimono2 These designs are hand-painted using the yuzen-zome technique. The motifs were first drawn on the fabric in spiderwort juice – a fugitive or temporary blue dye. The yuzen artist then carefully covers the lines with a starch paste resist, sometimes on both sides of the fabric. Soybean extract (gojiru) was brushed over the fabric to stabilize both the paste and the dye which was then painted on with a brush. The resist prevented the colors from bleeding into one another. Next, the fabric was steamed to set the dyes and the resist paste was washed off. Afterward, gold and silver metallic paint would be added to complete some designs and to cover the white outlines left from the resist.

A secondary pattern “vertical seething with clouds” (Kumo-tatewaku), referring to the constant movement of clouds, was created by the application of silver and gold leaf to the surface of the silk. This same motif is also found on the robe’s red silk lining along the hem and on the edges of the lower half of the kimono opening.

kimonoAfter all the dyes and pigments were finished, embroidery was added in the form of multiple colored ribbons of silk floss that float across the open areas and weave through the slats of the fans forming tied bows on either side. Finally, metallic threads were couched down outlining and emphasizing the edges of motifs.

This kimono was the product of an organized workshop, with each process performed by a specialist. It probably took six months to complete. Considering that it would have been worn for only one occasion, the care and effort spent on this richly ornamented garment is phenomenal.

I would like to thank Japanese textile specialists Ann Marie Moeller and Ed Lagan for much of the information provided in this article.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

BMA Voices: George Rickey’s “Seesaw and Carousel”, 1956. A stopmotion animation.

Angie Elliott, Associate Objects Conservator

George Rickey’s Seesaw and Carousel (1956) is the artwork that I’m most excited for you to see when the American Wing reopens. This large, colorful, and delicate mobile has been in storage for decades and in the conservation lab for over a year. Commissioned by the Museum in 1955, it was last seen by the public during the Guggenheim’s Rickey retrospective exhibition in 1979. The fragile paint surfaces had to be carefully stabilized and preserved before it could be reassembled. Using the artist’s hand written and drawn instructions, we put it together as a trial run to make sure that it was ready to go for the big installation. Make sure you stop and look up when you visit the newly installed galleries in November.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

BMA Voices: A Green Frame? Uncovering the Original Artist’s frame for Thomas Hart Benton’s “Bubbles”

Thomas Hart Benton. Bubbles. 1914 1917. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of H.L. Mencken, Baltimore, BMA 1947.317. Art ©  Thomas Hart Benton Trust / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Thomas Hart Benton. Bubbles. 1914-1917. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of H.L. Mencken, Baltimore, BMA 1947.317. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

A Green Frame? Lauren Ross, Senior Conservation Technician Paintings & Objects, describes uncovering the original artist’s frame for Thomas Hart Benton’s Bubbles, 1914‑1917.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

BMA Voices: A Chinese treasure

1959.45

Bottle Decorated with Phoenix Motif. China. Mid‑14th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Julius Levy Memorial Fund, BMA 1959.45

Frances Klapthor, Associate Curator for Asian Art

One of the BMA’s founding trustees, Julius Levy, was a successful businessman whose family company made men’s hats in the days when well dressed men wore hats. In summer, those would have been straw hats. And that straw came from China and Japan. Mr. Levy was so committed to establishing a public museum in Baltimore that he and another trustee purchased the Museum’s first home in Mount Vernon. There it opened in 1922 and remained until moving to Wyman Park in 1930.

Sadly, Julius Levy didn’t live to see the Museum relocated to its present building. But to honor his engagement with the Far East, as well as his devotion to the BMA, his family established in his memory a fund to purchase Asian art and a gallery for its display. What had originally been designated on architectural drawings as a children’s classroom instead became a gallery for Oriental Art, with beautiful paneled pearwood walls and a coffered silvergilt ceiling. It was the renovation and reopening of this gallery that caused my first encounter with this blue-and-white bottle.

Thirty years ago, the Museum had recently emerged from major construction: adding galleries for temporary exhibitions, a sculpture garden, visitor entrance, auditorium, shop, and restaurant. Now the BMA turned to the final part of the project: the Julius Levy Memorial Gallery for Asian Art. For me three decades ago a door swung open. That door was a vault door I unlocked with a dedicated key, which I had signed out at the guard’s station. It seemed an ordinary key to an ordinary room, a room painted battleship gray – not just the walls but even the concrete floor, all were the same gray. In the room were objects in storage cabinets and still-unpacked boxes returned from off-site storage. Just an ordinary room, yet guarded 24 hours a day. So: a vault. Vaults aren’t really ordinary. They hold treasure.

The bottle was in the vault, third cabinet on a middle shelf at eye level. I was drawn to the drawing on its surface, and to its shape. This bottle bore the symbol of China’s empress like a badge: a phoenix with spiky wings outspread, head turned sideways, beak slightly open and one small eye visible, feathered jaw and scaly chest, and long tail trailing out. The bottle’s edge was shaped like an elongated S, its lip turned outward, long neck arced down, its shoulder sloped into a round body that rested on the circle of its foot. The serpentine shape was further defined by the decoration: upright leaves ringing the neck, lotus panels descending around the shoulder, two phoenixes against leafy vines, upright lotus panels surrounding the bottom of the body, and beneath each of these a narrow patterned band. An early example of underglaze cobalt decoration on porcelain, the bottle embodies a combination of materials that would come to be desired almost around the world for many centuries. All of these things are its formal qualities. But the phoenix! That is the mythical creature that symbolizes rebirth.

The carpeted China room that opened in June 1985 will return next autumn as an education and community space, while the Asian art collection will be reborn in larger and more visible galleries that will open April 26, 2015. It could be that this bottle will be the first work you encounter in the new galleries. It bewitched me thirty years ago. It thrills me still.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

What do you wonder about African art?

D'mba Docent Tour

A BMA docent teaches a class of fourth-graders about the Great Mother Headdress (D’mba).

The BMA’s African galleries are currently under renovation, with a planned reopening on April 26, 2015. The new galleries will be filled with visitor favorites such as our Great Mother Headdress (D’mba), shined until she sparkles and fully dressed in a new full-length costume, plus never-before-seen objects. This creates an exciting opportunity to rethink how we can help visitors understand the art in the galleries, and why it is relevant in their lives.

During the last few months, we’ve spent a lot of time brainstorming different possibilities for how we might be able to share all the interesting information we have about the art, artist, or culture on display.

Now we have lots of ideas—everything from video projects to maps to iPad apps. But one thing that we’ve kept saying is, “That sounds interesting to me, but will our visitors be interested?”

What better way to answer that question than to ask?

Docent tour in the African gallery

Docent tour in the African gallery

We want to know what you care about when you’re looking at African art. Everyone looks at these artworks through different eyes—with different experiences and knowledge shaping how they see them.  What are your questions when you see a mask, a statue of a woman, a reliquary figure, a contemporary vase, or other objects?

If you have 7 minutes to spare, please fill out our visitor research survey at the bottom of this page and let us know what you care about. You can also leave us comments on this blog post. We’d love to hear from you.

Bonus Prize: If you add your contact information at the end of the survey, you will be entered into a draw for the prize, Museum Educator for a Day. You will receive a personal gallery tour with a BMA education staff person and then have the opportunity to write a blog post about it for the BMA blog! You can choose a particular artwork, gallery, media, or anything else you can think of to write about.

Take our survey

Stealing History

FBI's Most Wanted Art TheftsWere the hands that lifted the Renoir painting off of the Museum’s walls shaking? Or were they steady, swiftly raising the small landscape off of a hook without hesitation?

Was it a woman? Did she uncouthly slip the painting under her skirt—maybe into a pocket within her bulky crinoline made for just such an occasion? Or did she gently tuck it into her coat’s fashionable large balloon sleeve?

And was the Renoir her first choice? Or just a consolation prize when the intended loot was too difficult to take?

We may never know the answers to these questions now that the FBI has officially closed its investigation, but what we do know, thanks to an FBI video, is how the agency determined the painting’s provenance and rightful owner.

Special Agent Gregg Horner interviewed is one of 14 FBI special agents who investigate art thefts throughout the world. Created in 2004 partly because of looting in Iraq’s Baghdad Museum, his team knows all too well:

  • The US is the preferred place among criminals to sell stolen art;
  • Billions of dollars of art go missing every year;
  • Art theft is one of the highest grossing criminal trades in the US, following only drugs and arms; and
  • Fundamentalist terror groups rely on looted antiquities as a major source of funding.

So that’s why you should care. But what can you do about it?

  •  If you’re looking to buy antiques or art work, only buy from reputable dealers and auction houses who have researched the chain of ownership and who will guarantee that the artwork has not been stolen.
  • Help spread the word about thefts, leads, and recovery efforts.
  • Stop by the temporary entrance after seeing The Renoir Returns (closing July 20) to read about the top ten works of art still missing from museums around the world.
  • And last but not least, help protect and display Baltimore’s great treasures by becoming a BMA member. Your membership matters.