When Art and History Combine Perfectly

A photograph of a wax figure sculpted from a painting. That’s the idea behind Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Portraits, a series of nine-minute-long exposures of wax figures that were modeled from painted portraits.

The result is a paparazzi-like photograph of a historical figure turned into a modern celebrity. Many of these photographs are now on view at the Getty Museum along with two other series by the artist.

How to combine art appreciation and historical context to give valuable experiences to visitors remains a challenge in the museum community. Art exhibitions tend to strip down the historical context of the artist or work or time period in deference to art appreciation. History exhibitions, on the other hand, can focus so intently on the context that aesthetics are overpowered by information. It’s a well known debate in the museum world: art versus history, and can they ever successfully co-exist.

For example, a touring Frida Kahlo exhibition in which all objects and paintings are reproductions met criticism. The goal was to immerse the viewer in the world and biography of Frida Kahlo, however critics questioned the quality of the reproductions and the misleading advertising language.

But when executed correctly, a reproduction show can offer a way for art and history to co-exist. And that’s what Sugimoto’s Portraits accomplishes. While not technically reproductions, Sugimoto acknowledges his photographs are a step removed from the original work.

“Photography is like a found object. A photographer never makes an actual subject; they just steal the image from the world…Photography is a system of saving memories. It’s a time machine, in a way, to preserve the memory, to preserve time.”

Sugimoto’s masterfully executed photographs show us how we can produce new objects from history that satisfy both aesthetic and historical context, as seen in the beautifully haunting photograph of Anne of Cleves, fourth wife of Henry VIII.

Here is how this works. Almost 500 years ago, Hans Holbein the Younger painted a portrait of Anne of Cleves.


Then Madame Tussaud created a wax figure of her based on the painting.

Anne of Cleves_Tussaud

Enter Sugimoto, who staged the wax figure, removed the background, changed the angle, and composed this striking image.

Anne of Cleves_Sugimoto

The Holbein portrait was created to show Henry VIII and his council what Anne of Cleves looked like during marriage negotiations. That has framed and limited the context in which we experience Anne of Cleves, and therefore it’s been easy to pass on the myth of the “Flanders mare” that displeased Henry VIII. We only know Anne of Cleves through Henry VIII’s frame of reference.

Two steps removed from the painting, Sugimoto’s photograph allows viewers to reset the context and experience her in a different dimension, as a person, and from her point of view. After appreciating the artistry of his composition and technique, it doesn’t take long for viewers to wonder which moment in her life Sugimoto is trying to preserve.

Is it the moment she learned she was moving from Germany to England to become the fourth wife of the King of England? Is it a lonely moment as she watches everyone at court laughing in a language she doesn’t speak? Is it the moment she realized her royal marriage was in jeopardy and she needed options? Or perhaps it’s a moment from later in her life, as she peacefully reflects on her survival while walking through the gardens at Hever Castle.

Sugimoto’s Portraits offer the best of both worlds for art lovers and history lovers, beautiful art that brings history to life before our eyes. The concept of the work is so compelling and well executed, it offers inspiration not only to artists but also to museum professionals on ways to bring art and history into harmony.

Plate 1 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, 1719


Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 1 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, 1719.
Maria Sibylla Merian was a German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator. With a grant from the city of Amsterdam, she spent two years in Surinam, a Dutch Colony in South America, where she recorded, illustrated, and noted the medicinal uses of the plants and animals. A single mother (she divorced her husband), Merian took her youngest daughter with her. Source: National Museum of Women in the Arts

5 Things I Learned from Lee Krasner

  1. In Paris, there was nothing unusual about being a woman and an artist.
  2. An artist considers it murder when they destroy their own work.
  3. It was very difficult to understand what Hans Hoffman was saying a lot of the time.
  4. Yellow is an extremely difficult color to work with.
  5. Jackson Pollock was not that memorable the first time you met.
Watch this fabulous interview, great insight into the mind of an artist during a fascinating time in history.

The Complete Works of Frida Kahlo. Kind of.

Being a women’s history fan and a museum professional, I found this story very interesting. An exhibition titled The Complete Frida Kahlo. Her Paintings. Her Life. Her Story is making it’s North American debut in San Diego. It’s appeal: it has for the first-time ever (and probably forever) pretty much all of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s paintings, sketches, etc. in one place. They are also alongside her clothes and furniture. The catch is that they are all replicas.


I have to say, I want to see this. And I am not at all put off by the fact that they are replicas. I think this exhibition is breaking the mold and showing that art is also a human production. History museums and history exhibitions have been displaying replicas and “of the time period but not original to the house” objects forever. I find it very refreshing that someone made the decision to do this with fine art.

And I can think of no better artist than Frida Kahlo to take this leap. Her work and her life are so intertwined with her biography, the history of Mexico, the international art scene, Modernism, on and on. You can not study or appreciate Kahlo’s work with out understanding history or her biography. She is a icon and just as this co-curator states in the interview…she’s crazy about Frida. Everyone is.

The work of Frida Kahlo is a great example of an artist whose body of work is so dispersed across the globe that audiences will never be able to see it all together. So, even if they are replicas, to see the complete oeuvre of the Grandmother of the Feminist Art Movement in one place, I have to support that.

Here is an interview of one of the co-curators:

Mary Cassatt: Print Maker Extraordinaire

Today, May 22, is the 168th Birthday of Mary Cassatt who was one of the most innovative artists of the nineteenth century. I often feel she doesn’t get her due as a true genius. Most critics fashion her a sentimental women artist and focus on her mother and children paintings that made her a lot of money when she was working in Paris. Even those don’t get their due as Modern interpretations of the Madonna and Child theme. She really is a complex, misunderstood woman artist. For her birthday, I dug out an old magazine article I wrote on her when working for the National Museum of Women in the Arts that focuses on her innovation in printmaking. I wrote it to correspond to a donation of prints the museum received, so I tweaked it a little bit for this post.

In 1879 Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Félix Bracquemond, and other artists of the group that would later become known as the Impressionists began discussing a new print journal, Le jour et la nuit, to which many in their circle would contribute major prints. Through the practice of printmaking, Degas insisted, they would learn to draw and perfect their art. Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), who had distinguished herself a few years earlier as the only American to exhibit with the Impressionists, was invited to participate. While the journal was never published, the project cemented a close friendship between Cassatt and Degas, and it began Cassatt’s lasting interest in printmaking.

For over thirty years, Cassatt embraced the challenge of printmaking and created over two hundred prints. She believed printmaking was the perfect artistic discipline for learning to draw, as it required great control and skill. Employing a range of printing techniques, from drypoint to hard- and soft-ground etching and aquatint to color prints, she drew her images on metal plates from which multiple impressions could be pulled. Her experiments would lead to one of the greatest contributions to graphic art—her “ten color prints”—which introduced new techniques to color printing.

Cassatt and all other “modern” painters wrestled with how to make color prints. In 1890, Cassatt visited the great exhibition of Japanese art at the École des Beaux Arts, and was inspired by the subject matter and unfamiliar technique. She wrote to Berthe Morisot that she [Morisot] “couldn’t dream of anything more beautiful.” She purchased several Japanese woodcuts and studied the centuries-old technique until she could translate it into her own printmaking. With this endeavor, Cassatt introduced a new chapter to the history of printmaking by creating a series of ten color prints modeled after Japanese methods.

When viewed together, the similarities are remarkable. This is a wood-block print by Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1865), one of the most prolific Japanese artists of the ukiyo-e style.


This is Cassatt’s The Coiffure from her series. Cassatt even rendered her sitter with subtle Asian facial features, which did not go unnoticed by the public who saw her exhibition.


Cassatt’s innovation lay in mixing printing techniques and experimenting with the process of applying color to the plate. She used one plate for the tonal area and another for drypoint lines, applying color by hand to each of the plates, which were then successively impressed on paper. The procedure was complex and labor intensive, requiring a day of preparation just to ink and reprint the plates for each of the impressions. In addition to technique, she also borrowed the Japanese style of using outlines to suggest fully rounded contours, almost completely eliminating the traditional shading and tonal variations that create the illusion of depth in Western art.

The set of ten color prints, along with a series of twelve drypoints, were shown in an exhibition at the Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris in 1893. The show received accolades from critics and contemporaries. According to a letter written by Pissarro to his son, her tones were exceptionally fine and her results were as beautiful as those executed by Japanese masters. Cassatt’s success with her ten color prints added to her standing as an artist, and it is remarkable to note that she most likely did not use any preliminary color sketches.

Cassatt’s reputation as an artist put her in connection with leading Parisian dealers and artists. This stature led to another of Cassatt’s contributions to the history of art. At the turn of the century, Cassatt became a conduit to several prominent American collectors, assisting them with assembling their own private collections of European masterpieces. Her role as art advisor created the greatest American collections of French Impressionism.

For the remainder of her artistic career, she divided her time between the passion of advising and her own work, continuing to work on metal plates to improve her draftsmanship. In 1910 she ceased working on metal, as the shiny surface aggravated her failing eyesight, and she stopped printmaking altogether four years later.

To see all ten prints from Cassatt’s series, you can visit the National Gallery of Arts online exhibition Mary Cassatt — Selected Color Prints.

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop: The Profile Image in Context

Today, we have a guest post by Melissa Mannon, archivist and fellow history lover. She originally published the post January 25, 2011 on her website ArchivesInfo. I couldn’t decide what I loved more about the post, that it was an interesting topic or that Melissa does historical research on her personal purchases. It goes to show you how history is all around you, you just have to look closely. A chick after my own heart. Everyone should now go dig out all their grandparents things and look to see if you have any. More info about Melissa and her work follows the post.

profile  1While at the antique shop today, I found a few lovely profile images of women from the turn of the century. This is a pose that we rarely see in portraiture today and I began wondering about the history of it. I found Patricia Simon’s fascinating web site with excerpts from her article “Women in Frames” that offers an interesting theory about the origin of women in this pose. Prior to the Renaissance, according to Simon, profile portraiture was reserved for men. Perhaps, I think because prior to this time, few women were considered to be important enough to have their visage preserved in high art (or any other art for that matter.) A few articles I’ve read have said that the profile grew out of classical imagery, as seen on Roman coins. Men with prominent noses and strong jawlines, by the mid-15th century, were replaced by women in profile.

And here is where it gets most interesting for me…Simon theorizes that this format enhanced the idea of women as objects of beauty. They were shown with accepted modesty, including eyes looking away from the viewer and sometimes downcast. Simon claims that this pose also allowed Renaissance women to show off their finery without abashment, showing them as fine representatives of high culture and role models for their sex. This style was used to the same effect in the Victorian era, but can you picture Isabella Stewart Gardner accepting that kind of treatment? Consider the way she stares at you in her well-known painted image by John Singer Sargent — almost daring you to make a comment about her femininity that she so proudly displays with her plunging neckline and tight bodice. This dichotomy in imagery reveals the struggle for women to gain equal footing with men. This is evidenced in their historical fight for suffrage and equal rights, which rose to prominence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when my two antique shop portraits were taken.

profile2By the time the camera came around, it seems that the profile was just one of the standard poses in a photographer’s arsenal. In addition to the profile, I found a frontal view of the woman in lace. Yet the profile pose of the woman (and also of the girl below) are particularly striking. They appear almost porcelain-like. Their fine features are emphasized by this view from the side that also shows off the classic curls in their hair. They are virtuous female Victorians, perhaps stereotyped as such in these images.

I wonder why profiles are not popular today, but I have a theory. When someone happens to capture my image in profile, I tend to dislike it. I do not picture myself as my profile. I want to stare at the world head on. I want the viewer to recognize me and to see into my eyes. I want to appear strong and friendly. I do not want to be shrinking, lost or untouchable – like porcelain. Has modernity chased away a women’s soft decorum and is this represented in our imagery? Profile images invite us to consider the context in which they were taken. Twenty first century images represent and document the modern woman and not the ideal woman of more than a century ago. Images such as these can give us remarkable insight into changes in our society and even a pose can tell us quite a bit.

306px-Sargent_MadameXEditors note: After reading the entry and Melissa’s reference to Isabella Stewart Gardner’s portrait, I also thought of the other SCANDALOUS portrait of Madam X (ex-pat Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau) by Sargent. This painting sent shock-waves through Victorian polite society when it debuted at the 1884 Paris Salon. Sargent boldly combines the Profile with the Plunging Neckline.


Melissa Mannon is an archivist, cultural heritage consultant, and information expert with twenty years of experience promoting collaboration and professionalism among museums, libraries, historical societies, town governments, and private collections. She is the principal consultant of ArchivesInfo. ArchivesInfo’s mission is to promote the security of cultural knowledge, memory, and identity. The blog posts focus on archives, historical knowledge and information literacy. You can find ArchivesInfo on Facebook . You can follow ArchivesInfo on Twitter: @archivesinfo

New Book Tells the Story of the Women Behind Famous Artists

Every wonder who those women were behind some of the most famous art in the world? Well, at least Western art? Now’s your chance to find out.

1e518-51-bjdbsaxl-_sl500_aa300_Lover:  Portraits by 40 Great Artists
by Juliet Heslewood
Publisher: Frances Lincoln (January 1, 2011)

From the book description:

“Juliet Heslewood, art historian and author of Mother: Portraits by 40 Great Artists, brings together a collection of portraits of artists’ lovers, through history to the present day. The evolution of such a portrait begins with a unique and intimate relationship. These lovers were important to the artists, each one making an appearance upon canvas or paper, in plaster or stone. Exploring notions of forbidden love, lover as muse, as spouse, as life-long friend, the author tells the stories behind each of the works featured, and what they tell us about the artist, their relationships and their place in history. From Raphael, Rubens and Rossetti to Klimt and Hockney, over forty portraits make up this collection of artists’ lovers. A fascinating combination of biographical anecdote and art history, it is also a celebration of relationships, partnership and love.

Juliet Heslewood studied the History of Art at London University and later gained an MA in English Literature at Toulouse. For over twenty-five years she lived in France where she devised and led study tours on art and architecture as well as continuing her writing career. Her books include The History of Western Painting for young people which was translated into twelve languages. She also wrote its companion on sculpture and Introducing Picasso. She has published collections of world folk-tales. Juliet now lives in Oxfordshire where she continues to write on both art and folklore and is a freelance lecturer in the History of Art.”

And here is a review from the London Telegraph.