Today in History
Namitjira is renowned for his watercolor landscapes of the Australian Outback. His vivid, harmonious paintings stand out because of his sharply detailed style and his rich knowledge of the desert terrain and its plant life.
Kwariitnama (Organ Pipes) c.1945-53 watercolour over pencil on paper
He was able to combine the artistic approach of traditional Aboriginal art with modern techniques in a way that drew strong public enthusiasm. Once his work was publicized among art collectors, his exhibits often sold out. His talents were recognized by numerous awards and in 1953 he received a medal from Queen Elizabeth, one of his most prestigious fans.
Namitjira’s life experience bore many similarities to that of the indigenous Americans of the same time. His Western Arrente people lived on reservations, many of them (including Albert) were educated in European-run mission schools, and as second-class citizens they suffered strong discrimination in the workplace and mainstream society. Namitjira’s acclaim as an artist was a milestone in the recognition of indigenous Australian artists. In 1957, he became the first Aboriginal person to receive independent citizenship.
Mount Sonder, MacDonnell Ranges c.1957-59 watercolour and pencil on paper
Images: National Gallery of Australia
June 6, 1599: Birth of Spanish Baroque painter & portrait master Diego Velazquez
Velazquez was born in Seville into a family of the lower nobility. He received a diverse education and studied under several of the region’s famous artists. At age 18 he received his master’s certification through Seville’s painters guild.
In 1623, he already had a growing reputation as an artist and an expanding clientele in Seville when his big break came: the favorite court painter of King Philip IV died, leaving the post vacant. A friend arranged an ad hoc interview with one of the king’s ministers to show off Velazquez’s talents, securing him the job. The painter and his young family were relocated to Madrid, all expenses paid – the ultimate work package with job security and benefits.
When the famous master Rubens traveled to Spain in 1628, their meeting prompted Velazquez to make a trip to Italy – the first of two he would make during his lifetime – to immerse himself in the country’s rich artistic heritage. He made the second journey nearly twenty years later as part of a royal assignment to build an art academy in Spain. Both trips made such an impact on him that they mark major dividing periods in his work.
In a country dominated entirely by the crown and the church, Velazquez was fortunate to enjoy a favored position with the monarchy, which gave him considerable artistic freedom. He was a trusted part of the king’s household, and was knighted in 1659. He died the following year of a fever following an excursion to a royal ceremony.
Velazquez rarely signed his paintings, and many have been lost or destroyed over time – in fact much of what we know about his output comes from documentation in the royal archives. Most of the works exhibited during his lifetime remained in the royal estates, and were little known publicly. Ironically, the wars and upheavals that damaged and destroyed so many of his paintings also scattered them across the continent, causing a surge in publicity that led to his being recognized as one of the most influential painters of the modern period. Artists of the early 1800s were especially impacted by his work. He is best remembered for his portraits, scenes from history and mythology, and genre paintings from many levels of Spanish society.
Images: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
Favorite Velazquez portraits
Velazquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas (or “The Maids of Honor”), oil on canvas, 1656. This famous piece is actually several paintings within a painting – the portraits of the Spanish infantas, the king and queen seen in a mirror observing, and Velazquez himself portraying himself both within the scene and in the facing mirror. The domestic tranquility belies its highly technical composition.
Conde-Duque de Olivares, oil on canvas, 1638. Olivares was the royal minister instrumental in obtaining Velazquez a position as court painter. Velazquez never forgot the favor; in fact when Olivares lost his rank years later, Velazquez stood by him, and the two remained good friends.
Portrait of Sebastian de Mora, oil on canvas, c1645. This was one of a series of portraits of the royal court’s entourage, including several dwarfs who served as jesters. I find these portraits particularly moving because they portray these individuals with such serious dignity, in contrast to the jibing and ridicule which they ordinarily faced.
Portrait of Juan Pareja, oil on canvas, 1650. This is my personal favorite out of all Velazquez’s portraits, and made a huge sensation at its first exhibit. Pareja was Velazquez’s personal servant, and this portrait was painted when he accompanied the painter on his second trip to Italy. It was exceptional for a person of low rank to be the subject of such extraordinary detail, sensitivity and realism in a piece of fine art.
TALKBACK: What’s your favorite Velazquez painting?
“Light is therefore color” – Turner
April 23, 1775: English painter J.M.W.Turner is born
Joseph Turner, known as the “Painter of Light,” was the pioneer of Romantic landscape painting. His favorite subjects were the sea and sky, storms and powerful dramatic natural elements that minimized the human aspect. Turner’s nature is wild and insurmountable, with a stern sense of justice (as shown in his famous painting of the wrecked slave ship). But his sunlight is always benevolent, shimmering and pulsing with almost tangible warmth – almost as if it were a personality that pervades all his paintings.
Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in 1775 in London to a working class family. (The traditional date of his birth is April 23, although this is under debate.) His first pieces of art were sketches, and he was fortunate to receive encouragement in his talent. As a boy, he sold drawings in his father’s barber shop window. He was admitted to the Royal Academy where he first studied architectural drafting, but gradually moved to watercolors and oils that quickly became his medium of choice.
Fishermen at Sea (1796)
His first oil painting, Fishermen at Sea (1796), gives a bold early glimpse of his signature style. Turner’s abilities quickly won him commissions and patronage that enabled his first European tour 1802, where he studied at the Louvre and filled sketchbooks that became templates for later paintings.
“There’s a sketch at every turn.”
His “offbeat” style of luminous, slightly abstract landscape was not always well-received, especially when the vogue was glorified history paintings and portraits of the affluent. Critic John Ruskin was one of his early supporters, helping to popularize his work, including Turner’s paintings of trains.
Interestingly, Turner portrayed railroads almost as a force of nature, rather than a human artifice – an uncanny point of view at a time when industrialization was becoming such a socially charged issue. Turner consistently downplayed the human element in his environments, making him a true Romantic in his day, and eventually one of the most beloved of the great masters.
“I don’t paint so that people will understand me, I paint to show what a particular scene looks like.”
Turner’s influence is also strong in the works of Monet and other French painters. But for an artist who is often remembered as “the guy who inspired Impressionism,” it’s unjust to see his art as foggy and imprecise. As his architectural drawings and prints demonstrate, he was clearly obsessed by detail and his landscapes are not just atmospheric mood pieces. It is tempting to see a deeper connection to an earlier artist – William Blake – whose works have a similar transcendent, mystical quality. In both cases, the primeval became the avant-garde, ushering in a new artistic era.
Turner was a good businessman and a disciplined worker, but was known for a reclusive personality that became more withdrawn and eccentric in his later years. When he died in 1851 he had bequeathed his works to the British nation, and left a small fortune intended for a charity to support artists. After a court battle this went to his cousins who were the executors of his estate. Today, the Turner Prize is awarded in his name.
“Painting is a strange business.”
Images: Wikimedia Commons
Belonging to an artistic family with unusual social and political views gave Rosa a huge advantage in pursuing her talents. Her father, an accomplished artist himself, quickly recognized the independent streak in the tempestuous young student that brought her formal education to an impasse. He used art as an outlet for her creative energy and curiosity, and trained her at home, since women were not admitted to formal art training.
Raymond Bonheur supervised the art training of all four of his children as each developed their own interests and careers. Eventually their home studio developed into a family business, with several members cooperating at once on a commission.
Rosa honed her artistic skills by copying the great paintings of the Louvre, and studying animal anatomy at farmyards, slaughterhouses and veterinary schools – in short hair and men’s clothes, to boot. This was unthinkable for a girl of that time. But the knowledge acquired by first-hand observation resulted in the fine detail and realistic accuracy of her animal portraits, and also led to her noted accomplishments in the field of sculpture.
In 1841, at the age of 19, Rosa had the first of many exhibitions at the Paris Salon, winning numerous awards that led to her first state commission, the well-known Plowing in the Nivernais.
The Horse Fair, which she exhibited at the Salon in 1853, is considered her career masterpiece. Measuring 8 feet by 16 feet, the huge work is more a mural than a painting.
February 2, 1830: Seth Eastman is stationed at Fort Snelling, Minnesota
Seth Eastman (born 1808) was a West Point graduate who worked as an illustrator and mapmaker in the army. His first assignment to Fort Snelling – one of the army’s most important posts on what was then the edge of the frontier – marked the start of a life-long journey that resulted in an outstanding pictorial record of the Dakota people.
Eastman’s tours at Fort Snelling gave him a special advantage as an artist. Working as an embedded journalist with the army, he served as a military liaison with the Dakota (or Santee), learning their language and customs, and staying with them for extended periods, giving him valuable experience that he channeled into hundreds of sketches and small paintings.
During his first stay, he married Wakanin ajin win (“Stands Sacred”) the daughter of a Santee chief, and had a daughter named Winona. According to the custom of the day, however, such a marriage was not legally binding for an American male – and when he was reassigned nearly two years later, this “unofficial union” was dissolved. From then on he had no further association with his Indian family.
(His daughter Winona later took the name Mary Nancy Eastman and was the mother of another famous Eastman, Ohiyesa – also known as Charles Eastman. A writer, teacher, and advocate, he became the first Native American medical doctor.)
When Eastman later married into a prominent Virginia family, his wife Mary accompanied him to various military posts – including a second tour at Fort Snelling that lasted seven years – and wrote stories about Dakota life for which Eastman provided illustrations.
In 1847, Congress commissioned Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s series Indian Tribes of the United States, a large-scale illustrated series similar to the landmark
McKenney-Hall & King work of a generation earlier. Eastman immediately petitioned for the job of illustrating the work, but was at first denied. Eventually, through the influence of his wife and friends, he won a furlough to concentrate on the artwork. The project was five years in the making and ultimately consisted of 6 volumes and nearly 300 detailed illustrations.
The success of the work led to other government commissions, many of which now hang in the nation’s capitol. While his paintings have long been recognized for their historic value, they were not always accepted without controversy, because they were so objective in portraying Dakota people and their customs at a time dominated by a strong negative bias, even open hostility against them. For the most part he portrayed the traditional village life of Minnesota’s farming communities, and not the more familiar – and more romanticized – nomadic horse culture of the Plains. Eastman’s documentary accuracy, and his thorough and detailed precision, make his portfolio such a monumental achievement.
Before his death in 1875, Eastman would have been witness to the wars and forced removals that opened Minnesota to American expansion and systematically dismantled the Dakota lifestyle he had spent so many years documenting. Ironically, his own grandson Charles was among the community of relocated Dakota who fled first to Canada, then to North Dakota; there he attended mission schools, later to graduate from the best colleges in the East. Like his grandfather, Charles also married an accomplished woman with a deep interest in making a written record of Native American cultures. As a certified medical doctor, he was assigned to the Pine Ridge reservation where he was a first responder following Wounded Knee.
It is a paradox that these two men, despite their close relation and their individual influence in giving the world a glimpse of Dakota culture, were alienated by convention on two opposing sides.
More on the Eastman family:
Seth Eastman: Painting the Dakota – companion website for the PBS docudrama (excellent resource!)
PBS “History Detectives” Episode: Investigating Eastman’s pieces A researcher determines an uncovered Eastman painting to be a forgery – but in the process explores some of the ironies about Eastman’s career and relationship to the Dakota. He also meets with a descendent of Eastman’s Dakota marriage.
Historic Fort Snelling – Seth Eastman
January 6, 1832: Birth of French illustrator & engraver Gustave Dore
Dore was a French illustrator whose engravings of famous literature have become so pervasive, they are almost inseparable from the works they depict. For generations they were the benchmark in capturing the grandeur and mystery of epics, religious writings, poetry and even fairy tales. The dark, expansive, highly detailed look of his engravings is instantly recognizable.
He was extremely prolific, producing sometimes hundreds of illustrations per work – but his skill and imaginative style was remarkably consistent. His most famous works include the complete illustrated edition of the 1866 English Bible; Don Quixote, The Idylls of the King, and the epics of Milton and Dante; and an anthology of fairy tales.
He also published a famous collection of caricatures.
December 4, 1619: The “Berkeley Thanksgiving”
Yet another contender for the title of the original Thanksgiving. English settlers from Berkeley, England arriving in Virginia in 1619 (yes, that’s the year before the Pilgrim’s Plymouth landing) made this date a commemoration of gratitude for their safe arrival in the New World.
Unlike its famous counterpart, this Thanksgiving was clearly intended to be carried on in the future, as evidenced by the original proclamation in the Berkeley colony’s charter:
“Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
This celebration is still honored today at the prestigious Berkeley Plantation.
Of course, this occasion is already predated by the little-known “St. Augustine Thanksgiving” shared in Florida by the Spanish and Native Americans – aptly enough, in the first permanent European settlement in the New World. (That one took place a whopping 56 years before its traditional 1621 counterpart.) But it is probably the earliest such celebration by English colonists in America.
See more: Countdown: 10 Things About Thanksgiving
Berkeley House was built on the plantation later, in 1726. Photo from the National Park Service website, courtesy of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
November 10, 1697: Birth of preeminent English painter, printmaker, and political cartoonist William Hogarth
Hogarth was born to a lower-class London family. At the beginning of his art career, he started out as an engraver’s apprentice, but became more independent as the demand for his prints rose. This enabled him to marry his art teacher’s daughter and live comfortably, honing his skills as a painter and satirist and becoming well-established as a portrait painter by the 1730′s. His portrait of the actor David Garrick in his role as Richard III sold for the highest price of any English portrait up to that time.
Below: My favorite Hogarth pieces are the serious, sensitive portraits such as the “Servants” above and the tantalizing, enigmatic Shrimp Girl.
Most of Hogarth’s work reveals his voice as a social commentator. He is best known for his “morality serials” depicting the vices and social ills plaguing populous urban England, and the sham of upper-class manners. Series such as “The Rake’s Progress,” “The Harlot’s Progress,” and “Marriage a la Mode” were published in installments and quickly became wildly popular. The rampant pirating of his pieces, and similar experiences of his colleagues, prompted him to lobby Parliament for the creation of the Engraver’s Copyright Act, which was passed in 1735.
Hogarth’s drastic rise in social status never seemed to hamper the strong sense of ethics and civic responsibility reflected in his art. He used his means to found an art school, which was a precursor to famous Royal Academy. And he and his wife, unable to have a family of their own, fostered foundling children. His popularity, and the respect he enjoyed from his peers and his public, is portrayed in the epitaph Garrick wrote upon Hogarth’s death in 1764:
“Farewell great Painter of Mankind
Who reach’d the noblest point of Art
Whose pictur’d Morals charm the Mind
And through the Eye correct the Heart.
If Genius fire thee, Reader, stay,
If Nature touch thee, drop a Tear:
If neither move thee, turn away,
For Hogarth’s honour’d dust lies here.”