It begins with a trip to the museum…

Rapgaello Sanzio

Last week we took a cultural field trip, visiting the Columbus Museum of Art to view the Dresden Tapestries, based on cartoons by Raphael in 1515-16 and commissioned by Pope Leo X to hang in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Although we had seen tapestries in French chateaux and other European museums, this was our first opportunity to get a little closer and to learn more about how they are made. The bottom line: they are really art times two, the artist’s initial cartoon and the fiber art of the tapestry produced from it.

What is a tapestry?

The more intimate setting of the Columbus museum and the quiet weekday timing offered a perfect opportunity to view the tapestries more closely. A docent gave the group we were with a basic overview of tapestry weaving as well as the history of these particular pieces. Tapestries are a unique fabric art, woven to portray a scene, story or event, often biblical or historic. These tapestries focus on the ministries of Saints Peter and Paul. But more about that later. 

This is the cartoon by Raphael for the tapestry “Christ’s Charge to Peter.” This is just one in a series of ten cartoons.

In essence the tapestry subject is a woven copy of a drawing (known as a cartoon) created by an artist. Tapestries are painstakingly handwoven — most often by European workshops specializing in this art form — with the design on one side of the fabric. To do this, the cartoon is copied (by hand!) and the copy laid face-down on the fabric. The finished tapestry becomes a complete reverse of the original cartoon. The cartoons for the original set of these tapestries were sent to Brussels to be woven in the workshop of Pier van Aelst. They were probably completed in 1520.

About the Raphael tapestries

My knowledge of Raphael was pretty sketchy, so after the museum visit I delved a little more into his life and his role in the Renaissance art world (Of course, it would have been even better if I’d done this homework first!). Along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael is considered one of the three architects of the High Renaissance, a period from as early as 1495 to as late as 1530 of exceptional artistic accomplishment in Rome and Florence, Italy.

Artistic temperaments played a part in Renaissance art. Historians point out that Michelangelo was no fan of Raphael and openly critical of his work. Raphael was generally thought to be more agreeable and charming, traits that may have played a part in his success in acquiring significant commissions. In developing the cartoons for this series of tapestries, Raphael was very aware that they would be in close proximity to Michelangelo’s famous ceiling in the Sistine Chapel; however, the subject matter — Christ turning over the church to Peter and Paul — was different.

Like many artists, Raphael got an early start; his father was a court painter and Raphael was apprenticed at a young age to another master. After time spent elsewhere in Italy, he found his way first to Florence and eventually to Rome. His reputation firmly established, one biographer noted that Raphael had a workshop of fifty pupils and assistants, many of whom later became significant artists in their own right. This was arguably the largest workshop team under any single master painter. The workshop included masters from other parts of Italy, probably working with their own teams as sub-contractors, as well as pupils and journeymen. There is little evidence of the internal working arrangements of the workshop, but this was the artistic custom of that time. Raphael died quite young (at age 37 in 1520). He is perhaps best known for the frescoed Raphael Rooms in the Sistine Chapel. The series of 10 cartoons for tapestries representing the lives of Saint Peter and Saint Paul was commissioned by Pope Leo X in about 1516. 

“The Miraculous Draught of Fishes.” Like all the tapestries in this series, the subjects refer to Christ turning the church h over to Peter and Paul.

The Dresden tapestries are one of numerous sets woven from these cartoons after Raphael’s death. Seven of Raphael’s original 10 cartoons for the series have survived and are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The tapestries woven for the Vatican no longer hang in the Sistine Chapel but are displayed on a rotating basis in the Vatican Museum. They returned briefly to the Sistine Chapel in 2020 in honor of the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death.

This is the cartoon for the tapestry above. Note the images are reversed.

The impact of the tapestries and Raphael in the art world is evident in the second part of the exhibition, which includes drawings by Raphael that were studies for his cartoons. Numerous other works—paintings, prints, drawings, and sculpture—were created by artists influenced by Raphael’s designs. The artist’s style and in some cases entire images were lifted from the much larger tapestries to become art on their own or to be worked into other pieces. Noted renaissance and baroque masters such as Rubens and Poussin are among the artists who incorporated Raphael’s work into their own.

The Columbus exhibit is comprised of six works from the duplicates ordered by the Prince of Wales (later King Charles I) about 100 years after Raphael’s death. (Here’s where the world history kicks in.) They were produced by tapestry makers in Mortlake, England. Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, brought the tapestries to Dresden, Germany in the 18th century. The tapestries were restored in the late 20th and early 21st century. The Columbus exhibition is the first time they have been displayed outside Europe. 

Two lessons in one

I think I always looked at tapestries as works of art, but certainly without appreciating the entire process. First, the artist creating the cartoon has to plan the scene, starting with a series of rough sketches that are refined into final drawings to be included in the cartoon. These are huge works with significant detail and background scenery. This is where the other artists in the master’s workshop came into their own, copying the master artist’s style and intent. This is the first art lesson. The artistry of the tapestry weavers is the second lesson. Perhaps time for more research?

I don’t know about you, but I love when a “field trip” of some sort sets me off on subsequent pursuits. I’d like to know more about the lives of Raphael and Michelangelo. Can you imagine these men elbowing their way for favor among the papal and royal interests of their day? I know Francis I lured Leonardo da Vinci to his chateau in Amboise, France, where da Vinci (and the Mona Lisa) remained until his death. What story lines would you pursue?

Thank you so much for stopping by for my impromptu art history class. See you again soon!

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Getting the hang of picture-hanging

Recently, I put my heart in my back pocket and went ahead and made nail holes in our “virgin” walls. I’m not an empty walls kind of girl, and we had pictures, prints, etc., stacked up in corners everywhere. The real issue was less about making holes in new walls and more about deciding what should hang where.

First we decided what we definitely wanted to hang again, what we thought we would hang again, and what we never wanted to see again. (This last category took some negotiation and that process continues.)

About those holes in the wall

I never have a problem hammering a nail or picture hanger into the wall. Sometimes, of course, despite careful measuring, the picture is not hung in the exact spot you planned or maybe it is but doesn’t look right after all. In that case I just move it. Does this sound cavalier? My husband will roll his eyes at this, but I don’t worry much about excess holes in the wall.  A dab of spackle, a quick sand and a light brush of paint take care of most errors. I admit that there have been times when the holes were not visible from minor hanging adjustments until we took all the artwork down to repaint the room and revealed what can only be described as a machine gun look to the walls. In my mind that just means more spackle before you paint. However, I understand that for some, this can be tragic.

Tackling new, blank walls

Sometimes there’s a natural anchor for artwork, like a fireplace or a piece of furniture. This is the bottom of the large buffet from my former dining room. When we moved here, I left the metal shelves off the top and settled it on the biggest wall in the foyer. These prints of Siena and Montapulciano hung in our former living room over a marble-topped dresser, but they seemed perfect for this space. I think, however, I need to switch to a larger lamp and perhaps extend the wall arrangement beyond the width of the cabinet. Does this look skimpy to you?

We are both really fond of a number of prints we bought on our European travels. They are grouped together on a slim wall space, also in the foyer. I started with the large print on the left, then the two from France stacked on the right. Then I just filled in the space. They all came from open air markets or tiny galleries and I don’t think any of them cost more than $20. I thought about just hanging the two square prints from France, but since this is across the hall from the arrangement above, it seemed appropriate to add more weight here for balance.

When I was arranging these groupings, (left and below) I started on the floor first. I discovered that a basic drop cloth was about the same color as our walls and it offered a neutral background for arranging the prints. So, I laid the pieces out, adding, subtracting and arranging space until it seemed right. Sometimes I had to walk away for a while and come back to it.

It’s interesting to mix the media in a group. We did that in the library with this combination of black and white photos, a black & white print and some smaller, sepia-tone prints. This is a grouping that I imagine may grow a bit, as we find additional pieces, though I would like to stick to black and white.

It’s fun to hang something in a more surprising spot, like over a door. This old fruit print is from my pears/plums/grapes period, when I was collecting artwork and plates with that motif. (It’s a long story.) I’ve passed on most of those pieces, but I do love this print and its unfortunately heavy, dark oak frame.

More hanging tips and tricks

  • There’s a hanging system for everything, from heavy-duty french cleats (which we used to hang some antique shutters in our last house) to super light tacks for small pieces. Cruise the aisle with these supplies at the hardware store and ask questions. Then, arm yourself with a selection of anchors, hooks, hangers and even Command stick-on strips. I keep my supplies together in a kit with a small hammer and a tape measure so I have what I need when I’m ready to hang.
  • Framing gets very expensive very quickly. Usually what we find on our travels or at antique markets is unframed. I have most things framed at Michael’s or Hobby Lobby, and I wait for a sale or a coupon. Their frame selection is substantial, and I have never been disappointed in their workmanship.
  • You probably already know this, but in general, the center of a single picture should be between 56- and 60-inches from the floor. If you’re hanging a gallery of pictures, you will have to adjust this, but keep in mind that wall arrangements should be essentially at eye level, not floating above furniture.

The snake-bit system

A designer friend introduced me to this a few years ago. It requires two holes for every frame (Ouch!), but once hung nothing moves. This is especially useful in a hallway or high-traffic area where pictures often are knocked askew. To do this you need a hammer, small finishing nails, wirecutters, a small level, a small block of wood, a tape measure and pencil. 

  • Determine where you want the picture to be. I like to make a small pencil mark on the wall at the top corners of the frame and in from the left and right sides of the frame a quarter- to a half-inch, depending on the width of the frame.
  • On the back of the frame, make comparable marks a quarter to a half-inch on the left and right sides and 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches down from the top of the frame. Tap a finishing nail into the frame at each of the two marks. The nails should be at an angle, like fangs on a snake. Make sure the nails are anchored firmly in the picture frame. Use the wirecutters to snip off the heads of the nails. You need to be able to drive this end into the wall.Measure the distance from the top and sides of the frame to the point where the nail is in the frame. Using the lightest touch of a pencil, transfer this to the wall, using those first marks you made indicating the left and right top of the frame.
  • Using another finishing nail, make a “starter hole” in the wall for the snake bit nails to slide into. Tap this nail in part way and angled down to match the nails on the frame. Pull the nail out and you have holes for your snakebit nails to slide into. Now carefully fit the snakebit nails in the frame into the holes in the wall.
  • Gently push the frame down to snug it to the wall. If you need the hammer to tap it in place, use the small block of wood between the hammer and the frame to prevent damage. Use a 6- or 8-inch level to check that the top of the frame is level.

Until you have done this a few times, it seems like a huge project. Don’t be discouraged if your holes are too big or unevenly spaced. Don’t be surprised if you end up with a few extra holes until you perfect this technique. We used it on these botanicals in our last house, and none of the prints dared to move. 

None of these ideas are original. In fact, the concept of assembling wall art by subject matter or color is fairly “tried and true.” It works. Most of my ideas come from a Pinterest board I’ve saved called “Walls,” because it includes shelves, sconces, baskets, plates and more. Like I said earlier, there’s a way to hang almost anything on a wall. And the mix of items is so much fun!

Obviously, there are more walls to deck, more pieces to find places for, and inevitably more to collect, so stay tuned. For now I’m giving my hammer and hangers a rest and enjoying what we’ve accomplished.

Thank you so much for stopping by. See you again soon.

Summer without a garden & more

Normally at this time of year I would be including lots of notes about my garden, but I don’t have one yet in Ohio.

Good morning! First, thank you for your supportive comments on my last post. I really appreciate them. After my rant, however, I thought something a little lighter may be in order, so I’m sharing my latest Instagram favorites. They are probably as good a clue as any to what’s on my mind, what I’m finding inspiring, and what I may (or may not) be planning to do.

My summer without a garden

Our yard is still clay and rocks; there is also a healthy crop of weeds. (It’s really pretty awful looking.) The builder is awaiting the appropriate parts and crews to finish drainage and irrigation issues. In the meantime my green thumb can only dream. So here’s what I’m thinking.

We will have a small garden out front based on some bushes that the landscaper provides. We will supplement that with some blooming plants and I would like to try for a green and white garden. It’s a small area and I want like it to look cohesive. Something like this, with Lambs Ears and Hostas for texture and color variation, along with white blooms, below.

In the back yard, we have a small patio, sort of a very mini version of this, below. Again, I like the blue, white and purple with the greenery. And I love the idea of a few really generous pots for color, but still keeping a tight palette.

Hung up on picture hanging

We continue to work on getting pictures hung here; Steve and I both think they add the personal touch that makes a space feel like ours. However, the spaces here are somewhat different so I’ve been searching for inspiration on Instagram.

We have several pairs and even trios of prints to find places for. I am not necessarily a symmetrical person, so arrangements like this, below, that work for multiples often throw me off. But, hey, if James Farmer can do it, I can too! I love the way he takes the edge off the symmetry by staggering heights and objects on top of the cabinet (which would be perfect in my house.)

I really like the idea of dressing up a bathroom or powder room with artwork. The image below does just that and is the kind of loose arrangement I usually prefer in most rooms, instead of something too studied. (Although I think it’s harder to achieve.) And I like the way the classic frames and touches of black and white give this space more sophistication.

I’m planning a picture-hanging post soon to show off some of what I’ve done so far. And some of what I’ve already moved!

Some rooms call my name

If you are one of the legions of fans of Nancy Meyers films (The Intern, Something’s Got to Give, It’s Complicated) do you like the films or are you just mesmerized by the gorgeous settings? I’ve seen each of these movies more than once, and they’re charming. But I love her sets. They are the ultimate eye-candy. So it’s no surprise that the blog world was set a-buzz when the newly renovated interior of Nancy Meyers’ own home was revealed in the current issue of Architectural Digest. You can go directly to the magazine, but if you’re really interested I encourage you to read Joni Webb’s post (here) to get a look at Nancy’s house then and now as well as all her sets. No one covers a decorating story like Joni Webb.

This is the perfect living room in Nancy Meyers’ house, below. It’s a little traditional, somewhat spare in a modern sense, not overly staged but certainly welcoming. I like the way the mirror off to the right (instead of staged over the fireplace() reflects more of the room, the substantial coffee table with plenty of room for drinks, snacks and magazines. I could easily sink into one of those chairs to enjoy a conversation with friends or a drink in front of the fire.

Sometimes I scroll along in IG, pause, scroll some more, go back and like something and scroll some more. Then I finally go back and save the photo. That was the case here. First, I’m a sucker for a center table like this and when it’s skirted, it’s even better. (Any excuse to incorporate a generous swath of fabric and trim!) I like the way the white in this room balances the wood. Those beams could be imposing, but they aren’t. And that table — perfect centered with big flowers and staged with a collection of books and memorabilia, at least that’s what I imagine.

Paris is always a good idea

We are beginning to think about travel again. It turns out I’m willing to go anywhere as long as it ends with a few days in Paris. And even if I don’t get to Paris, I still save images of the city. Cafe de le Nemours is one of our favorite stops there. It’s near the Louvre, next to the Comedie Franchise, and around the corner from the Palais Royale (also good for a glass of wine) and therefore perfect for people watching. It also serves a wonderful quiche that’s perfect any time of day if you need more than a cafe or wine.

And after, you can walk over to the Louvre and, if you have had the foresight to buy the right kind of ticket, enter thru a side door for a quiet look around. Just avoid all signs leading to the Mona Lisa.

Of course, Paris is going to be a bit of a stretch if we decide to road-trip thru Canada or head to Sonoma for some wine tasting! I think the real issue here is indecision. I’m not packing any bags just yet!

In the meantime, I hope you’re having a great day. Thanks for stopping by! See you again soon.

A day at the (art) museum

BisaDetailHi. Before I say another word, I need to apologize for my last post. “Good Stuff” probably arrived in your inbox riddled with typos and crazy mixed up type. I can’t believe this happened, but I hit publish instead of review. And out it went. I’m so embarrassed. I realized my mistake immediately, but it was too late. I did clean up the mess on my website, so if you read the post at ivyandironstone.com, you saw the corrected version. 

On with today’s post. I’m so excited to share this. 

Earlier this week I met two of my best-ever friends (the kind from the first day of high school!) downtown at Chicago’s Art Institute. Our goal was to see the Obama presidential portraits and then hopefully take in another exhibit on quilts. It turned out to be quite a day. 

The Obama portraits were more interesting in person that we expected. Like us, you have probably already seen them in the media. They are not typical presidential portraits. The artists — Kehinde Wiley for former President Barrack Obama and Amy Sherald for former First Lady Michele Obama — are the first African Americans commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to create official portraits of a president or first lady.  

Mr. Obama’s pose was familiar — seated, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, as if he’s ready to engage with the viewer. The portrait is really large, commanding even, and maybe a little imposing. I’ve been curious about the leafy background since the painting was revealed. The artist used it to work in flowers representative of places in the president’s life, including Chicago, Hawaii, and his father’s native Africa.

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Mrs. Obama’s portrait is also non-traditional. I imagine most viewers are initially struck by her gray skin, a trademark of the artist. According to the Art Institute, Sherald  does this “as a nod to these historical photographs and a reminder of the relative absence of African Americans in the history of painted portraits, but also to relieve her subjects from the internal and external limits imposed by the construct of race.” Interesting, huh? The hair, the expression, and the African-inspired fabric of her dress are all very much Michelle Obama. And purposeful. Interestingly, the background on her portrait is just blue. The blank but colorful background is another hallmark of artist Sherald.

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Chicago was just the first stop for these portraits.  They’re traveling on to the Brooklyn Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, High Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Bisa Butler’s portrait quilts

I’m not sure what we expected from this exhibit, but it wasn’t close to as extraordinary as these quilts proved to be. Artist Bisa Butler constructs her quilt portraits from bits and pieces of fabric, from the finest details of a facial expression to the puffiest sleeve on a dress. I tried to show some of the detail in the first photo, above. 

Although each work is strictly fabric, she approaches each piece as she would a painting, often working from a found photograph and selecting fabrics as an artist selects paint pigments. Butler incorporates kente cloth and wax-printed African fabrics in her quilts, using bright jewel tones rather than more traditional shades to depict skin tones. She believes this conveys the emotions of her subjects —who may be everyday people or historical figures. Look at the range of expression on the faces of the children in this quilt, Safety Patrol, which opened the exhibit (and knocked our socks off from the start.). 

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This quilt is based on an old photograph. The tulle on the hats is a three-dimensional addition. I love how naturally the women are posed.

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We were struck by the detail on the mother’s dress. Once again, the pose is so natural. Look st Dad, holding his daughter still

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I love the fabric layering and detail in each quilt and the remarkably life-like poses. (Look at the feet in each quilt!) I have always considered quilting as a precious part of our American heritage: a necessity for frugal homemakers to use what they had and an evolving craft reflecting historical moments as well as an art form. Bisa Butler’s work redefines the medium.  I’ve spent a lot of time studying these images, trying to grasp both her vision as she approaches each quilt and then the skill and artistry to select and assemble the fabrics.

That’s all I have right now. I hope you are having a good week. Thanks for stopping by and I’ll see you again soon.   

Binge-ing on culture

Lately I have found myself on a bit of a culture course. And while I’m certainly not complaining, I am amused at how things sometimes come together. The last few weeks are a good example.

One of the advantages of living in a big city is the access to cultural and entertainment venues. And while that is certainly true, it’s also true that making the time, getting the tickets, and all the other requisite details often get in the way of what the city has to offer. Our suburb is twenty miles west of downtown Chicago, and while we have easy access to the city by car or commuter train, it’s more than a run to the grocery for milk.

My binge started with tickets to see The King’s Speech at Chicago Shakespeare. Perhaps you have seen the movie about Prince Albert, the Duke of York and his struggle overcoming a crippling stutter at the same time his brother, the Prince of Wales, was about to abdicate the throne, making Albert the king as Europe was going to war with Hitler. (Talk about pressure!) The play was enjoying critical acclaim at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater. Everything I have seen there has been first-rate and this production did not disappoint, including the appearance of Harry Hadden-Paton, of The Crown and Downton Abbey, as Albert. My husband and I totally enjoyed the evening.

But then, less than a week later, I found myself at Symphony Hall. I am joining a girlfriend this season in a series of five concerts. She has been a subscriber for years, but her partner in this venture decided not to participate this season. The seats are good, and the cost when you subscribe ahead of time is do-able, so of course I said yes. Well, these seats are more than good; they’re in the fourth row. I can watch the violinists finger their instruments. We park in the garage across the street, grab a bite to eat and sit back and enjoy. I may be hooked!

But, wait, there’s more!

My usual cultural destination in the city has always been the Art Institute. (I’ve written about various visits here, including the Thorne Miniature rooms, John Singer Sargent and Gauguin in my Miscellaneous File. ) A year or so ago friends introduced us to a monthly lecture/discussion series at the AI. We are all retired, so when schedules allow we meet there to attend the series and enjoy lunch after. Last Friday was especially appealing, because a new Andy Warhol exhibit has just opened. We met early to see as much of Andy Warhol-From A to B and Back Again as possible before the regular lecture. But we may need to go back, because this is an extensive exhibit that takes the visitor well beyond Warhol’s prints of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy.

And early pen and ink self-portrait of Warhol.

I wish I had done a little AW research before we went (Note to self: next time do a little homework.) Warhol’s much more than just a pop icon of the sixties, although that certainly describes much of his work. Unlike other artists, Warhol began his career doing commercial art. His first commission was drawing shoes for Glamour magazine in the 1950s, followed by work as a shoe designer for manufacturer Israel Miller.

Much of Warhol’s later work continued to be based on commercial art, like the Campbell’s soup cans and the Brillo boxes. He was well known for his silk screen process. Many of those pieces, including the famous and familiar Marilyn Monroe image, were based on commercial photos that he copied and successfully turned into iconic images using a silk screen process. (The Marilyn Monroe image was originally a studio publicity shot for her last movie.) The silk-screened portraits, in fact, became so popular that movie stars, public and private figures came to Warhol for what he referred to as “commercial business.”

In addition to the individual portraits, Warhol often produced multiple versions in one work, sometimes with slight variation in color and/or shading.

This oversized portrait of Mao Zedong (it’s about 125-feet tall) is part of The Art Institute’s permanent collection. The Institute’s archive notes that Warhol’s portrait displays some irreverence towards the image that was widely displayed in China: “Flamboyant brushstrokes compete with the photographic image, forming color splashes on Mao’s clothing. Red rouge and blue eye shadow resemble graffiti.” Some art historians view Warhol’s treatment here as commentary on similarities between Communist propaganda to capitalist advertising media.

Like so many artists, Warhol’s artistic muse went well beyond the canvas. He spent most of his later years exploring videos and movies. Warhol died at only 58, so it’s interesting to speculate on where his art would have taken him. Like many gallery-goers, I’m more drawn to Renoir and Monet than Warhol. But there is no denying the impact Warhol has had on the art world. He used techniques like silk screen and video and blurred the lines between commercial art and fine art. And that alone is saying a lot.

What about you? What kind of art are you most drawn to?

So much for my culture binge. It’s time to take a deep dive into holiday prep, a.k.a. oven cleaning. Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon?

Lately: Baseball, architecture and how my garden grows

So what do you think there are more of, leaves on the trees or blades of grass?

That was my eight-year-old grandson’s intriguing question as we drove home from one of his ballgames this weekend. Since the answer would take lots of Google-ing and probably some math, I left that to his dad and Grandpa. But I think Jack unwittingly summed up June. It’s just so green, so lush, so full of promise.

Trip #1

Speaking of grandsons and baseball, Steve and I spent the weekend in Ohio carrying our folding chairs from game to game, following the five-year-old and his T-ball team and the eight-year-old and his coach pitch team (who seem like pro’s after watching T-ball).

These games have not changed in 30 years. Players wave to parents from the field, play in the dirt, forget where they’re at to watch a low-flying plane overhead and are happily surprised when they get a solid hit or make the play at first or second base. Forget marching bands and flag-waving patriots, this is America.

Trip #2

Before heading to Ohio, I joined a friend on a “field trip” into the city to take the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center cruise along the Chicago River. If you are a history or architecture fan (and even if you are not), the “Great Chicago Fire” led to a building renaissance in Chicago. And what started after the fire in 1871, continues today.

The Chicago skyline, looking west on the river.

The river cruises are led by volunteer docents from the Foundation. I know they have a common script that follows the boat route and they are well-trained to answer questions, but I believe you could do this cruise again and again and still learn something new, because each docent puts his or her own spin on the material. Maureen and I were part of a much larger group of Chicagoans, so this could have been a challenge to the volunteer. After all, we’ve all seen these buildings before and heard the stories behind them, and we have worked/shopped/visited them. Many of us had taken the tour before. But her passion for and knowledge of Chicago history and architecture was so palpable that she kept all of us totally engaged.

Separating history from architecture from the Chicago River is virtually impossible. Fort Dearborn, Chicago’s first settlement, was along the river. The engineers who worked with the architects solved the design issues, reversed the flow of the Chicago River, built more than a dozen movable bridges over the river so the city and industry could grow north and south. They replaced cast iron with steel and glass. The building and engineering continue to evolve. It’s a great story filled by the likes of Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, and Mies van der Rohe and populated by buildings as diverse as the Tribune Tower and the Willis (Sears) Tower. You don’t need to love architecture or history to respect the vision, engineering and problem solving that goes into each structure.

My garden is a little different every day

If you follow me on Instagram (you can do that here), you know I am a little obsessed with my garden, what I can cut or cook from it, other gardens, and so on. One of the great pleasures of a garden is that it’s a living, breathing entity and as such changes a bit every day. Something new is in bloom, there’s a weed invasion where there was nothing two days ago, I’ve solved the problem of rabbits eating the hostas but they’ve moved on to tulips, the daylilies have totally overgrown their space, or, this week, the shasta daisies seem stunted.

I tour the flower and herb beds most mornings, thinking about what I should do next. I pester other gardeners about how they treat various plant emergencies. My husband’s tomato plants have doubled in the last week. The daylilies in the garden are a sea of buds waiting for one or two more days to open.

In this photo, right, is an all white bed I planted about four years ago. I wanted to try a theme. It’s all about texture; I plan to add some Lamb’s Ears and Artemesia near the bottom of this photo. Beyond this bed, daylilies and Russian Sage are getting close to blooming. My Limelight hydrangeas, behind them, bloom later.

To have a garden is to happily anticipate the next bud, bloom, or fruit.

I hope the sun is shining and the gardens are growing wherever you are! Thanks for stopping by. See you next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Highs, lows, and our Notre Dame story

This photo and the one below are from April, 2015. We had just enjoyed coffee and croissants at a cafe behind Notre Dame and were on our way Saint Chapelle.

This week has been a lesson in the highs and lows of the human heart. On Sunday morning in Chicago we awoke to mid-April snow. Not flurries, not a dusting, but inches of wet, sloppy, slushy white stuff. In November we would have found it fun. But in April, on Palm Sunday, I didn’t get the joke at all.

In fact, I wanted to pull the covers over my head.

Instead we drank coffee, read the papers, and my husband turned on the Masters Golf Tournament. We got caught up in the drama of the last hole and Tiger Woods’ amazing finish. If you saw this, you know what I mean: sheer joy in every fiber of his being. The crowds and his competitors were equally jubilant. This was a moment Woods was afraid would never come. But it did. A testament to the simplest work ethic: never, ever, ever give up.

What an emotional high. If you watched him hug his children and his mother without feeling tears come to your eyes, you might be missing a heart.

Monday’s punch

I was in the car on Monday when I heard that Notre Dame de Paris was on fire. How is this impossible? Architectural icons don’t burn; they weather revolutions, plagues, World Wars and Nazi occupations. But this was real. When I got home my husband had the news on, and he said, “This is awful. It’s like Katrina. You can’t stop watching.”

He was so right. We watched it off and on throughout the afternoon, waiting for the firemen to somehow get on top of the blaze, to get it under control, but instead the fire kept growing, and we watched the spire fall. The news commentators talked about the added tragedy of this happening during Holy Week. And we looked at each other and recalled a family story.

Our Notre Dame story

Another springtime shot, on the north side of the cathedral looking towards the bell towers.

Seventeen years ago Steve and I made our first trip to Paris together. It was a little earlier in the spring and we got back in time to celebrate Easter with my mom, her brother & his wife. (Our kids were away at school.) This was well before smart phones and selfies and so we took along a stack of printed photos (remember them?) from the trip to share over dinner. And as the five of us poured over the iconic sights from Paris — the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph — my uncle studied one of Notre Dame and remarked that he had been there for Easter in 1945.

What? How could he not have told any of us this story?

Bill was a Chicago kid in the Navy who spent WWII on a small boat escorting much larger ships back and forth across the Atlantic. He spent a lot of time in England and then in Le Harve, France. It was hazardous duty, and like so many WWII vets, he had never shared much about it. But back to Notre Dame…

When we found our voices, we asked what he was doing there. Well, he said, he and several shipmates had leave for Easter and they ended up in Paris. On Easter morning they headed for church. They didn’t know about Notre Dame or go looking for it, it was just the church they found (as if you could miss it, right?) The locals welcomed these young sailors warmly as “Yanks” and led them to seats right up front. I suppose they represented the liberators.

I can only imagine Bill’s blue eyes and his Evangelical and Reformed heart taking in the majesty of Notre Dame: its cavernous space, monumental pillars, stained glass, row after row after row of seats. How can you even take it all in?

Since hearing Bill’s story, I have been to Paris on a handful of additional visits. Notre Dame is simply part of the city, part of the skyline, we’ve walked by it a hundred times (often noting the crowds waiting to get in and said we’ve been here before and we’ll come back at a quieter time), we had breakfast with friends in a cafe just behind it, we’ve admired it up close and from across the river. We’ve picked it out of the skyline from the Musee d’Orsay and Sacre Coeur.

Notre Dame is Paris.

And clearly it will be repaired and rebuilt and continue to play its Parisian role. In the meantime, it hurts the heart to think of its blackened walls and collapsed roof. At the same time we’re heartened by its resilience. Icons can be fragile, it seems, and that should give us pause.

What about you? Do you have a Notre Dame story? I’d love to hear it!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time.

On the French Riviera

I’m not sure what I expected, but French highways (and Italian) look a lot like what we travel in the States.

In thinking about this blog post, it occurred to me that though I never thought of myself as a “French Riviera kind of girl,” after our visit there last fall, I’d go back in a heartbeat.

The French Riviera is incredibly beautiful. Blue skies, even bluer Mediterranean water, sunsets that defy any camera to adequately capture them. Turn away from the water and there are hilltops covered in the tiled roofs of villas and, beyond that, mountains.

We included the Riviera on our “great French road trip” because getting that close and skipping it would be foolish, and we wanted make at least some some stops on the “art trail” in the South of France. (You may recall we had been making our way along the western coast of France, beginning in Rouen, then Normandy and Mont St. Michel, before heading to the chateaus in the Loire and then wine tasting in Bordeaux.)

After a beautiful cruise thru the French countryside, with the occasional walled chateau or abbey along the road, we found ourselves navigating in bumper-to-bumper traffic on ridiculously narrow streets, lined with parked cars on each side and street vendors selling everything from sunglasses to take-out dinners. Bikes and pedestrians criss-crossed our paths. What had we done?

Steve, after parking our car on a sidewalk (along with so many others) in Juan les Pins.

But wait, it gets better.

As we motored our way thru the congestion (it was Friday afternoon, the last Friday on the last weekend of the season as it turned out), we were trying to follow Google’s directions to our hotel in Juan les Pins, across the street from Antibes. Google meant well, but when she said turn left, she meant at the intersection we passed 20 yards ago. After a series of ridiculously convoluted detours, we finally pulled into a “parking space” on a sidewalk among a number of other cars and walked to the hotel. Then, having a somewhat better grasp of where to go, Steve moved the car to the underground garage where we happily left it until Sunday morning! (This park nd walk maneuver is one of our best tips. Sometimes finding someplace on foot is easier.)

Our room was large and lovely with a tiny balcony from which we could see the Mediterranean. We would be here for four nights. I don’t think we’d fully appreciated how much we had been “on the road” until now, stopping only for one or two nights along the way. And what a place to take a break. We walked down to the beach, found an empty cafe table, a glass of wine and just enjoyed the sunset. The next morning, after a leisurely hotel breakfast, we walked — yes, walked — about eight blocks, a little uphill and then down, and we were in Antibes!

The French Riviera is a string of cities like Nice and Cannes, and smaller cities and even villages along this lovely coast. We chose Juan les Pins/Antibes as a base because it was smaller than Nice and not as “high end” as Cannes. We could stay close to the water for a reasonable price. All of these cities are connected by a train line than runs frequently throughout the day, like a commuter rail. In fact on Monday, we walked to the station and took a short train ride to Nice.

This is Picasso country

Antibes was a fairly busy place on a Saturday morning, but we easily found our way to the Old Town with the usual tangle of charming, narrow streets and interesting shops. Our destination was the Picasso Museum.   (Actually, there are Picasso Museums all over France it seems. I have also been to one in Paris.)

This was on a Saturday morning and we had been taking our time, ooh-ing and aaah-ing over the Antibes waterfront and wandering thru the old town. We arrived at the ticket office just before noon. We walked up to the ticket wndow along with some other visitors only to have the ticket-seller (who on this day was apparently also the ticket-taker) announce to all those around, that it was his lunch time and he would be closing until 1:30.

This is so quintessentially french, you just have to go with it.

Just one view of the waterfront in Antibes.

So, we wandered back to a food market complete with a cafe, ordered a light lunch, and did some people watching. I checked out a brocante market and we got sidetracked by two wedding parties celebrating along the way. Back to the museum.

This particular museum is housed in the Chateau Grimaldi, a 14th Century Roman Fort turned museum in which Picasso enjoyed a work space in 1946. His time in this space was short, from September until mid-November, but his artistic output was remarkable. He produced 23 paintings and 44 drawings during this short time. Interestingly, he donated all this work to the museum, which eventually acquired much more, including sculpture and ceramics.

The collection here included a number of sculptures on a terrace facing the Mediterranean.

About Picasso. Although I am not a huge Picasso fan, I have come to genuinely appreciate his work and its evolution, as well as his influence on generations of artists. The range of his work extends from painting, drawing and sculpture to include set design and ceramics. I wish I pictures of his ceramics, they were stunning. (This is what happens to me. I get so busy looking that I forget to take photos!)

The next day we dared to take the car from the garage to the outskirts of Nice to visit the Musee Matisse.

Self portrait, 1918, in the Musee Matisse.

After a predictably adventurous drive, we arrived at the museum, where interestingly (ironically?) there was a substantial exhibit recalling the friendship and rivalry between Matisse and Picasso. (Did I say this is Picasso country?) Matisse and Picasso met sometime in 1906 at Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon. (Americans Gertrude Stein, her brothers Leo and Michael and Michael’s wife Sarah were important collectors and supporters of Matisse.) Picasso, who was 11 years younger, and Matisse were artistic contemporaries. One of the most interesting displays in the exhibit was a pair of black and white films of each of them at work on similar pieces.

Matisse was 48 and a successful artist when he first came to Nice in 1917. Initially he wrote that it rained every day for a month. He was about to leave when the sun came out and he was hooked by the light. He never really left.

 

After Matisse we headed further inland to St. Paul de Vence, hoping to at least have a drink at La Colombe d’Or, the restaurant where so many artists paid their tabs by offering a painting or drawing in lieu of money. Did I mention this was a Sunday? On the last weekend in September? Everyone in France goes out to lunch on Sundays, especially beautiful September Sundays. The views on the drive were breathtaking, the town was packed, and the restaurant was unapproachable even for a drink without a reservation.

We knew better, but in our “carefree vacation” mode we just assumed they would throw open the doors for Janet and Steve. Happily, we found a table in an outdoor cafe and enjoyed a delicious lunch and some serious people watching. But we found the town too crowded to enjoy. C’est la vie.

On our last full day on the Riviera, we took the train from Juan les Pins to Nice to explore the old town. It took less than 30 minutes and, once in Nice, there is a handy tram a block from the train station that runs down to the water, making several stops along the way. This was a day to walk and enjoy. Nice is very old and so close to Italy, that the influence is striking. Look at these pastel hued buildings, so different from the neutral stone in the rest of France.

 

This streetscape of fountains and park amid more substantial buildings is in the heart of the town near the water. Note the clouds: a change in the weather was on the way. Although the sun shone all day, it was much cooler by the time we went to dinner.

 

We enjoyed a delicious lunch at an outdoor cafe just off to the right of this photo.

This is the Promenade des Anglais. We walked here for several yards before I realized this is the idyllic spot where terrorists drove a huge truck into the crowds celebrating Bastille Day on July 14, 2016. Today the promenade is lined with bollards, but the horror of that night is hard to imagine in the midst of sun and sea.

 

As luck would have it, we were in Nice on the day of their regular antique market, which in this case was blocks-long, winding from one square to another. I was in heaven, Steve not so much. One of the most striking aspects of these markets is the age and provenance of the goods. There are chandeliers and gilt mirrors, confit pots, textiles and more that I have just never seen in a market in the midwest.

 

Despite our “longer stay” on the Riviera, we left the next day, promising ourselves to come back. In fact I would call this our “preview visit” to the Riviera. There is so much more to see on the art trail, we never got to Monaco or St. Jean Cap Ferrat or Cannes.

This is the mantra of our travels. And it is, I suppose, why we are totally unapologetic about returning to places that we love. There’s always more to see. What about you? Are you willing to make a return trip to a destination you really liked? Or do you feel each place you visit — in this country or around the globe — needs to be new? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Thank you so much for stopping by. See you next time!

 

 

 

 

 

Field trip!

Singer Sargent’s charcoal portrait of Mrs. Marshall Field III (Evelyn Field) was actually done in New York in 1905. Though many of his subjects and collectors were Chicagoans, he did not complete many works in the city.

Last week Steve and I finally went to see the John Singer Sargent exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute. It’s a relatively small show compared to others mounted by the AI, but with a interesting cross section of his work. After reviewing his work and doing a little more research, I’m struck by how “American” his work seems, although he spent most of his life in a variety of European cities. Tell me what you think.

Most of us think of Sargent as the painter of Gilded Age portraits. And these he did beautifully. The facial expression, body language and clothing in each is remarkable and distinctive. No wonder he was so “in demand” from a relatively early age.

But before Sargent began accepting portrait commissions, he honed his skills on other works. Street in Venice, 1882, below, is one of several paintings he completed while painting there. (Although Sargent was American-born, his parents took him to Europe as a young child; the family remained there permanently.) I think it’s impossible to escape the moodiness here, or not wonder about the stories behind these three characters.

 

 

La Carmencita, 1890, is a more glamorous portrait of dancer Carmen Douset which captures her haughty (or is it defiant?) expression as well as a theatrical pose in equally theatrical dress.

 

When I think of John Singer Sargent portraits, I think of traditional works like this, Mrs. Edward L. Davis and her son Livingston Davis, painted in 1890. I like the crisp black and white here and the silky texture of her skirt versus the somewhat rumpled suit her son is wearing. And, most important, I think the pose looks totally natural: Mother with her hand on her hip, son just leaning into her.

 

 

Two years before the Davis portrait, Singer Sargent painted this portrait of Alice Vanderbilt (later Vanderbilt Morris) of the Vanderbilts when she was just 13. This seems a bit more traditional, but together with the Davis portrait, above, they are a clear representation of what we think of as “Gilded Age” portraits, from a time when new American money could buy the trappings of old European aristocracy.

 

 

Shortly after the turn of the century, however, Singer Sargent stepped way from his successful portraiture commissions to spend more time in pursuit of plein air painting. Many of these pieces feature vivid watercolors, including a number of paintings from Venice. The Gondoliers Siesta, 1904, is a beautiful example.

 

 

One of my favorites from the AI exhibition, The Fountain, Villa Tortonia, Frascati, Italy, 1907, captures Sargent’s transition from portraitist to plein air painter. The couple are Wilfred and Jane Emmet de Glenn, professional artists and friends of Sargent.

 

Sargent painted a series of watercolors much later while staying at the Florida estate, Vizcaya, of his friend and benefactor James Deering. One from the AI exhibition is The Terrace at Vizcaya, 1917. Here the color is much lighter, more “Florida.”

 

Despite living most of his life in Europe, John Singer Sargent never gave up his American citizenship, and painted many of the American political and industrial greats of his time. When I look at his paintings, especially his portraits, they seem to be very American: straightforward poses, not a lot of background, pretty much an American sensibility, but perhaps with the added polish of European training. What do you think?

The next field trip

Right now we are packing bags and maps before leaving on a long-awaited “road trip.” I hope you are following me on Instagram. I’ll be away from the blog but try to post often on IG!

Thanks for stopping by! See you next time – and on Instagram!