Monday, August 27, 2012


(Barking up the Wrong Tree, Francis William Edmonds, 1850, Birmingham Museum of Art)

The art world often takes itself a little too seriously.

That's why I am attracted to artists with a wicked sense of humor.

Such is the case with Francis William Edmonds who was known for his humorous depictions of American life.

Edmonds started his professional career as a banker in New York.

Perhaps he was a bit of a stuffed shirt at the time.

In any case, it didn't take long for him to catch a clue and enroll in the National Academy of Design.

The esteemed Mr. Edmonds wanted to be a painter.

But not at the risk of losing his day job.

He continued to work in the financial world while he studied painting at night.

After all, who knew if this painting gig was going to work out?

And why risk professional embarrassment if it didn't?

Francis decided to play it safe.

He exhibited his paintings under the pseudonym E. F. Williams.

As things turned out, Edmonds' paintings met with favorable reviews.

So he dropped the false name and the rest, as they say, is history.

Early on, Francis was known for his courtship scenes.

Aww – that's sweet!

But it wasn't long before he introduced an element of humor into this genre.

“Barking Up the Wrong Tree” is a fine example.

Let's take a closer look.

Here we see a decidedly older man trying to woo a young woman.

How do we know the man is in the act of wooing?

One look at his face tells the story.
His eyes are planted directly on the woman.

He only has eyes for her.

I wonder if the gentleman has an inkling of how this is going to go turn out?

Look at his frown.

Check out his pursed lips.

And his seriously set jaw.

He's not going into this quest with a high degree of confidence, is he?

He knows this is going to be a tough sell.

Another clue is found in Edmonds' composition of the painting.

He's placed the couple – and only the couple - in his “courting” room.

There isn't a chaperone in sight.

That's highly unusual when we consider the courting customs of the 1800's.

In fact, there were families who did not allow the courting couple to be alone at all – unless, of course, the gentleman was about to pop the question.

And how did the family know when the beau was about to pop the question?

In most families, the bride-to-be's father was in on the secret.

That's because he had already given his blessing to the beau when the suitor asked for the girl's hand in marriage.

Times have dramatically changed.

Still, it's a girl's prerogative to say “yea” or “nay” after the question has officially been “popped.”

Do we know which way our lass is leaning?

Well, she's certainly not looking at her long-in-the-tooth suitor.

She has her gaze firmly turned on us.

That's the first clue.

But there's more.

Do we detect a Mona Lisa-esque grin on that pretty face?

I believe we do!

And what category of emotion could possibly be lurking behind that sweet grin?

I've come up with one real possibility.

Perhaps that smile is saying to the suitor and to us:

“Not in a million lifetimes, honey!”

Alas, we'll never know.

But here's something I do know.

Our lady is holding a knitting needle firmly in her hand.

And it's aimed in the direction of her visitors.

I don't think she cares if the gentleman or his loyal pooch makes the first move toward her.

One of them is going to get taken out.

Unless, of course, she decides to go with Plan B.

In that case, both of them are going bye-bye.  


(Wrapped Oranges, William J. McCloskey, 1889, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas)

I've never been a huge fan of still-life paintings.

It's not that I don't appreciate their quiet beauty.

It's just that they never have any people in them.

And I find people to be endlessly interesting.

But then the day came when I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth.


I was instantly blown out of my socks by the dramatic, simplistic beauty of a painting entitled “Wrapped Oranges.”

There is absolutely nothing that I do not adore about this painting!

William J. McCloskey painted wrapped oranges many times over the span of his career.

In fact, he seemed to be unusually devoted to this limited subject matter.

Some believe he was on the hunt for artistic perfection with his multiple images of wrapped oranges.

It would certainly seem so, anyway.

We know that decorative, table top still lifes were popular during the Victorian era.

These colorfully composed arrangements usually consisted of fruit, flowers, vegetables or a combination of those objects.

And let's face it, you can't go wrong with most of Mother Nature's productions!

Indeed, you can not open an interior design magazine these days without seeing many references to “organic” decorative design.

Elements in nature calm our spirits and uplift our souls.

That's why they've been popular throughout the ages.

Here's a short list of some better known “organic” objects:





And my personal favorite,


All of these natural elements have been painted gazillions of times since the days of Eve.

And rightly so.

They are restful.

They are beautiful for the human eye to behold.

That's apparent when we see McCloskey's brilliantly painted oranges.

However, perhaps the most fascinating fact about these oranges is this:

Four of them are wrapped in crinkly white tissue paper.


Art technicians might use the word “contrast” to explain McCloskey's decision to use the white paper.

And contrast there is!

We have additional information from the Amon Carter about this artist's motives:

“McCloskey imparted to each specimen a distinctive character. The tissue paper acts as a veil or drape, both suggesting and subtly altering the oranges' color and form.”

Just look at that partially unwrapped orange in the background of the painting.

It looks as if the top portions of the paper have been suddenly unleashed and flung into the very air itself!

To me, those white paper protrusions look like dog ears standing at attention.

We can't avoid noticing them, can we?

That's why I find this painting to be so visually exciting.

That brilliant white paper is covered in tiny creases and folds.

This artistic device lends crackly texture to those oranges.

Where does the light fall in this painting?

Most of the light is focused on the orange nearest the black background.

To be specific, it falls directly on the paper that still enfolds the orange.

But it also falls on each of the wrapped oranges in this painting.

The color white draws light to itself.

Perhaps that's why a car salesman once told me:

“White is the number one color choice of car buyers. When we sell a white car – which is frequently – we call it a “white sale.”

Mr. McCloskey seems to know a thing or two about our innate attraction to white, doesn't he?

What about the unwrapped oranges?

For one thing, they're definitely in the minority in this work of art.

They look like dyed-in-the-wool oranges.

Their color perfectly offsets the stark black background and the brilliant white of the tissue paper.

That lends further drama and life to the painting.

Let's talk about that gorgeous table top for a minute.

Someone has been doing some serious polishing!

Or maybe it's just a spectacular varnishing job.

Either way, the gleam of that table top allows the five foreground oranges to have added time in the visual spotlight.

We could even say that those oranges are basking in their mirrored, reflected glory.

I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure Mr. McCloskey wouldn't mind that assessment.

Monday, August 20, 2012


(Original work of art owned by a private collector, 2011)

As I write this, I'm gazing at an original work of art.

The gazing is taking place at my desk.

For once, I'm not standing in the middle of an art museum.

The canvas is covered in “you-can scratch-it-with-your-finger” paint.

Paint made of chemicals and compounds awash in color.

This time I don't have to settle for a copy of an original piece.


This time, it's the real deal.

And because it's the real deal, the painting emanates “life.”

By that I mean the colors are brighter.


More beautiful.

The composition - the positioning of lines, shapes and curves – is cleaner.

At other times, the composition appears softer.

More defused.

This all depends, of course, on the artist's conception of his or her piece.

Alas, my painting does not have a title.

So here's a thought.......

let's give it one!

We could call it:

“Composition in Blue and White”......

After all, this painting has been thoroughly composed.

It has lines, shapes and a boatload of sinewy curves.

It's obvious that this artist has chosen to color his composition in shades of blue and white.

So “Composition in Blue and White” would definitely make logical sense

But wait a minute here.

Aren't we missing the obvious?

The painting is a portrait of a woman.

A beautifully striking woman.

Perhaps not beautiful in the Hollywood, glamor girl sort of way.

Rather, she is beautiful because she reminds us of a living, breathing woman.

There is life in her rosy countenance.

And radiance in her large blue eyes.

It would be a travesty for this woman to continue her existence in this nameless condition.

Pardon my politics, but far too many women have roamed the earth nearly nameless.

Or worse yet – forgotten.

We can instantly remedy that.

From this moment on, this woman will be known as “Joanna.”

Don't you love that incredible headdress “Joanna” is wearing?

It seems massive at first.

But the more you look at it, the more it speaks perfection.

Part of it resembles a kind of contemporary crown.

Other parts of it encircle the woman's forehead and cheeks, delineating the features of her face.

Mostly, the headdress acts as a flowing drape, giving weight and balance to the subject's head and neck.

This effect is not unlike Rogier's ethereal veil in his “Portrait of a Lady” which we discussed a few weeks ago.

The scriptures tell us that a woman's hair is her crowning glory.

But not in this case.

Here we see but a few golden tendrils peeking out from the drapery.

In this case, it is the woman's magnificent headdress that is her crowning glory.

I can't leave “Joanna” without talking about her stunning blue bodice.

If you could see the painting in real life, you would see many, many tones of that beautiful blue.

All of these hues – when expertly blended by the eye of a seasoned artist - result in the striking shade you see here, a mesmerizing“royal” blue.

“Joanna” was painted by an artist not normally known for his “splash-it-on-the-canvas” portrait work.

He is by trade a successful digital artist.

And that's a horse of a different color.

When he feels the need to escape cyberspace, John William Thomas, likes to play with his paints.

And that's how “Joanna” came into being.

Simply put, I adore her.

She lights up my life each time I glance in her direction.

And one more thing......

I'm kind of related to the talented Mr. Thomas.

He happens to be my son-in-law.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


(Florentine gown worn by Eleanora of Toledo, as interpreted by Isabelle de Borchgrave)

There's no doubt about it.

It's more than a little scary and beyond bold for an art lover to write about an art exhibit she has never seen.

But that's exactly what I'm going to do.

That's because I've got a feeling deep in my bones that Countess Isabelle de Borchgrave is an artist wildly deserving of that leap of faith.

Oh so many years ago, Isabelle fell in love with pencil drawing as a little girl in Belgium.

She treated every surface in her room as a canvas.

Even her walls and floors were not off limits.

As a teen, she studied at the Centre des Arts Decoratifs and the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels where she created, among other things, drawings of still lifes and model figures.

Later, she diversified her interests and began making clothes for friends.

Eventually, she opened her own design studio where she created dresses, scarves, and jewelry for a larger audience of buyers.

Isabelle's true love was fabric design and that was the common thread that ran through each of her artistic creations.

Then one fateful day – like most art lovers on the planet – she stepped inside the beloved halls of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Inside the Met, Isabelle began to imagine a new world of period costumes.

But this time things were different.

Isabelle did not dream up costumes made of fabric as one would properly expect from this creative genius.

No, Isabelle's newest line of costume dresses would, instead, be made of paper.

That's right.


Before long, Isabelle began work on four collections of painted, paper, period costumes.

Her first collection, “Paper in Fashion,” examined 300 years of fashion history – everything from Elizabeth I to Coco Chanel.

Next, she delved into the fashion culture of 19th century Venice with a collection entitled “Mariano Fortuny.”

Her third collection, “I Medici,” brought Renaissance fashion to life by displaying prominent Florentine aristocrats in their pearls, silks, velvets and sumptuous gold braiding.

(Costume of Anna de' Medici as interpreted by Isabelle) 

(Costume of Isabella de' Medici as interpreted by Isabelle)

Finally, “Ballets Russes” highlighted the talents of Pablo Picasso and Henry Matisse who designed costumes for Sergei Diaghilev's Russian ballet company.

Then, in 1998, Isabelle's mind blowing talents hit the big time when her exhibition, “Papier a la Mode,” toured France, the United States and Asia.

“The New York Times” called this popular paper costume review “pure delight.”

As the exhibition traveled, Isabelle continued to create new costume designs – all in paper - for some of history's most illustrious fashion leaders:

Queen Elizabeth of England,

Marie Antoinette of France,

and the Empress Eugenie, consort of Napoleon III,

to name a few.

Oh, I should tell you that Isabelle managed to knock out a a few Ottoman kaftans in paper while the exhibit was planted in Turkey.

This, my friends, is not a woman who lets dust gather under her feet!

Speaking through the “Daily Telegraph,” Isabelle talked about her commission for the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.

She said: “Jackie Kennedy's wedding gown was dusty and fragile, wrapped up in black tissue paper. The silk was dead, you couldn't touch it any more. It was preserved like a relic. The original is dead, but the paper copy I created brings it back to life.”

Here's my favorite factoid about Isabelle:

In 2004, Isabelle designed and fashioned a painted paper dress for Queen Fabiola of Belgium. The queen actually wore this gown to the wedding of Prince Felipe of Spain in Madrid!

How does this mega-talented woman use paper and paint to fashion a gown?

The beginning of Isabelle's creative process starts with sheets of paper which measure approximately three by five feet.

Next, she gathers a large collection of brushes and paints and places them on a ginormous linen covered table in her studio.

Then she goes to work painting her paper masterpieces.

“The New York Times” makes the following comment about Isabelle's creative process:

“Her colors are very much inspired by her travels: reds from the roses of Turkey, earth hues from Egypt, blues from Borchgrave produces astonishing effects of scintillating color, weight, transparency and texture. Her renderings of diaphanous gauzes are especially astonishing.”

In 2008, a beautifully illustrated book entitled: “Paper Illusions: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave” was published in America.

Within just a few weeks, “The New York Times” said the book was “one of the best gift books published in 2008.”

It the book's introduction, world renowned fashion designer, Hubert de Givenchy, says:

“Isabelle is one of a kind; with a single sheet of paper, she creates the most beautiful dresses, the finest costumes, or, simply, a chain of white roses...whether it becomes a shoe, a hat or a few strings of pearls, Isabelle transforms paper the way a musical virtuoso plays an instrument.”

High praise, indeed.

So without further adieu, I bring you three concluding photos of Eleanora's breathtaking ensemble as it was envisioned by Isabelle de Borchgrave.


 (Eleanora's gown in all its frontal splendor)

 (The posterior view)

(Eleanora's pearl headdress and necklace)


Much of the information in this blog was gleaned from Wikipedia.

Some of the photographs were taken from the book: “Paper Illusions: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave.”

And finally, Eleanora's stunning Renaissance gown was inspired by a portrait painted by Bronzino which hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

I reviewed this very painting in an earlier blog on January 9, 1012.