Q and Art: Thanksgiving Edition, A Pilgrim Tale
November 26, 2014
This post is part of an ongoing series on Eye Level: Q and Art, where American Art's Research department brings you interesting questions and answers about art and artists from our archive.
Question: Can you tell me more about the story portrayed in John Rogers' sculpture "Why Don't You Speak for Yourself, John?"
Answer: John Rogers was just one of the many artists who contributed to our mental image of the Pilgrims through his portrait of John and Priscilla. Hiss sculpture illustrates a scene from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem The Courtship of Miles Standish, which tells the story of a love triangle between three members of the Plymouth Colony: Captain Miles Standish, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins. The poem begins by introducing the friends Captain Miles Standish and John Alden. John is portrayed as scholarly, reserved and handsome. He is writing letters in which he frequently mentions Priscilla, barely hiding his secret love for her. Miles is older, brash and pompous. He recounts his past accomplishments in war and compares himself to Julius Caesar. We learn that his wife has died during the winter, and he has decided to remarry. The woman he has in mind is the "the Puritan maiden Priscilla". Because he is afraid of rejection, Miles convinces John to speak to Priscilla on his behalf.
Priscilla is working at her spinning wheel and singing Psalms, when John arrives at her home. He wishes he had mentioned his affection for her during a past visit, but realizes that he missed his chance and quickly bursts out with the Captain's desire to marry her. The surprised Priscilla asks why Miles cannot come and woo her himself, and after John goes on about the virtues of his friend, Priscilla says her famous line, "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?" It is in that moment that John understands that Priscilla returns his affection.
John is torn between his loyalty to his friend and his love for Priscilla, and he decides that he will return to England on the Mayflower, which is to set sail the next day. He returns to Miles and tells all that was said in his interview with Priscilla, and Miles angrily accuses him of betraying their friendship. In the middle of his tirade, Miles is called away to discuss threats to the colony. The next morning, Miles prepares for battle. John wishes to speak to his friend, but pride keeps him quiet.
John goes to the beach to board the Mayflower, however, when he sees Priscilla among the colonists who have gathered to watch the ship depart, he decides that he cannot leave her. She later finds him lingering at the shore and the two discuss their previous conversation. When news of Captain Standish's conquests during the battle with the Indians arrives at the village, Priscilla is horrified, and dreads the day Miles will return and repeat his offer of marriage. Months later, John and Priscilla are at her spinning wheel, when a messenger arrives with news that Miles has been killed in battle. John is saddened by the death of his friend, but he also feels the freedom to marry Priscilla. The two fall into each other's arms. On the day of the wedding they are surprised by the return of Miles, who had not died as reported. After the vows are exchanged the Captain steps forward to say that all is forgiven. The colonists celebrate the wedding and the return of Captain Standish. Then they return to their work, and John guides Priscilla to their new home on the back of a snow-white bull.
Longfellow published The Courtship of Miles Standish in 1858, more than two hundred years after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth in 1620. John Alden, Priscilla Mullins and Miles Standish were passengers of the Mayflower; however, the Plymouth Colony records do not document any of the details of the romance between John and Priscilla. Historians know that John and Priscilla were married had ten children, but the truth of the rest of the legend is impossible to confirm. It was not until 1815 that the first written version of the romance appeared in Timothy Alden's A Collection of American Epitaphs and Inscriptions with Occasional Notes. Longfellow, who was a descendant of John and Priscilla Alden, claimed that the story of the courtship was passed down through his family.
For additional information about John Rogers' sculpture look for the following exhibition catalog at your library or bookstore: John Rogers: American Stories, edited by Kimberly Orcutt, New York: New York Historical Society, 2010. To learn more about the lives of the Pilgrims visit the Plimoth Plantation and Pilgrim Hall Museum websites.
The museum is delighted to announce that Njideka Akunyili Crosby is the 2014 winner of our biennial James Dicke Contemporary Artist Prize. Akunyili Crosby was selected by an independent panel of jurors who wrote in their decision, "Her bold yet intimate paintings are among the most visually, conceptually, and technically exciting work being made today."
Akunyili Crosby was born in 1983 in Enugu, Nigeria. She creates vibrant paintings that weave together personal and cultural narratives drawn from her experience as Nigerian and American. She uses an array of materials and techniques, such as collage and photo-transfer, which serves as a visual metaphor for the intersection of cultures as well as the artist's own hybrid identity.
"Akunyili Crosby's paintings speak to a figurative tradition in American painting that is a strength of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's collection," said Joanna Marsh, The James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art. "Her work both upholds this tradition and expands upon it in exciting new ways."
Akunyili Crosby is the 11th winner of the $25,000 award, which recognizes an artist younger than 50. She was selected by a panel of five jurors: Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem; Byron Kim, artist; Harry Philbrick, The Edna S. Tuttleman Director of the Museum at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Walter Robinson, artist, critic, and founding editor of Artnet Magazine; and Sheena Wagstaff, the Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of modern and contemporary art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Luce Foundation Center: Artist Talk by Martine Workman
November 20, 2014
Local artists discuss their work and process in the context of artworks on view in the Luce Foundation Center as part of American Art's Luce Local Art Series. This series is presented in collaboration with CulturalDC. All talks begin at 1:30 p.m. Our next artist talk is by Martine Workman this Saturday, November 22.
Have you ever considered the pen or pencil strokes that make up a drawing, or how they would look if transposed from paper to another medium? D.C.-based artist Martine Workman explores these possibilities with her work, which varies from whimsical drawings of figures to zines that explore life experiences. Workman will talk about her work and its evolution over the last few years since moving to DC from the Pacific Northwest in her Luce Artist Talk this Saturday, November 22 at 1:30 p.m. Her various works on paper bring together different element--such as food in pop culture, like in her zine, Prince Food. Other works explore the enjoyment of nature, as in her large work, The River, which depicts the experience of floating down a river in an inner tube.
Workman is a graduate of the California College of the Arts and has shown her work at small press fairs since 2004. This year, she was a Sondheim Artscape Prize semi-finalist, 3rd Place Trawick Prize recipient and was awarded the DCCAH Artist Fellowship Grant for 2015. Her current show, Dusk Woods, will run at Cultural DC's Flashpoint Gallery from November 21 to December 20, 2014.
Rescue Me: Kathleen A. Foster on Winslow Homer's The Life Line
November 18, 2014
How does a curator unpack a painting, you may ask. Very carefully, of course. But if you're Kathleen A. Foster, senior curator of American Art and director of the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you also do it artfully, providing thought-provoking commentary along the way. Foster spoke the other evening at the McEvoy Auditorium, the third and final speaker in this year's Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture in American Art series. Her focused talk concerned Winslow Homer's iconic painting from 1884, The Life Line. By spending more than one hour on the history and the mystery of a single painting, Foster not only revealed insights into the workings of the artist, but also themes very much on the minds of Homer and his contemporaries.
In the mid- to late nineteenth century, the turbulent ocean brought people from overseas to the United States. Unfortunately, not everybody survived the passage. Shipwrecks were front-page news stories, then and now. (Think of the recent Costa Concordia, shipwrecked off the coast of Italy in 2012.) In Homer's closely cropped work, a nearly drowned woman is rescued by a new type of American hero in a contraption known as a breeches buoy, what we might consider a kind of zip line today. In its day, it was the height of new technology, more Sony Walkman than iPod, but apparently it did the trick.
The painting, displaying the themes of heroism and romance, against the overlay of man verses nature, picks up on the ideas of the roles of men and women in society. Foster shared with us the history of such images in painting and literature (and even a contemporary ad from Target) to show us not just Homer's time, but ideas that have come down to us as well. The painting became a turning point in Homer's career and is considered an important part of his oeuvre.
If you missed Foster's talk, watch our webcast. Bonus points if you can keep score of all the nautical references in her talk.
Eric Fischl's Tumbling Woman II is a poignant and provocative sculpture that is on view in American Art's Lincoln Gallery. In addition to the artwork's historical underpinning and evocative pose, it maintains a distinctive materiality that causes a visitor to pause and engage with its subject.
The material, and materiality, of artworks are points of consideration for nearly all art historical and museum professionals; however, none are more acutely sensitive to their importance than conservators. Art conservation requires a scientific understanding of the media that constitutes an artwork. Potential treatments and preservation efforts rely on the proper identification of the specific paints, metals, adhesives, and other components of collection objects. Misidentification of any part of an artwork can compromise its appearance and lifespan. Extensive testing is often carried out by conservators to identify the specific paint ingredients, ink types, or metal alloys used in the artworks they encounter.
In discerning the specific ingredients used in the distinctive patina of Tumbling Woman II, our objects conservator, Helen Ingalls, was able to benefit from a resource sometimes afforded to contemporary art collections: the people who actually fabricated the object. Through conversations and an onsite visit, Ms. Ingalls learned that although the sculpture resembles aging iron, Tumbling Woman II is actually made of bronze. The patina that is applied to the bronze surface comprises a series of fired nitrates and chlorides that yield the distinctly iron-like appearance desired by the artist.
To find out more about this sculpture and our ongoing efforts to preserve it, please join us at 6:00 p.m. on November 18 in the museum's McEvoy Auditorium as Helen Ingalls presents " Gravitas and Gravity: Eric Fischl's Tumbling Woman II."