Unemployed by Ben Shahn

Unemployment by Ben Shahn

My featured artist today was quite unknown to me.  I came across him and his paintings when I was flicking through an art book looking for information regarding another painter.  One painting stood out from the rest and I have made it My Daily Art Display featured painting of today.  There was something very haunting about the picture with its great sense of realism and I had to find out more about the work and the artist, Ben Shahn.

Ben Shahn was at the forefront of the American Social Realist art movement of the 1930s, a grouping, which included the likes of artists of the Ashcan School, many of whom I have featured in earlier blogs.   Social Realism is a term used to describe visual and other realistic art works which record the everyday conditions of the working classes and mainly feature the life of the poor and deprived and how they had to live.  The works are a pictorial criticism of the social environment that brought about these conditions. Social Realism has its roots back in the mid-19th century and the Realist movement in French art.  Twentieth century Social Realism refers back to the works of the French artist such as Courbet and his painting Burial at Ornans or Millet’s great work The Gleaners.   Social Reailsm art became an important art movement in America during their Great Depression of the 1930’s.

The art of the Social Realist painters often depicted cityscapes homing in on the decaying state of mining villages or broken-down shacks alongside railroad tracks.  Their art is about poverty and the hardships endured by the ordinary but poor people.  Often the works would focus on the indignity suffered by the poor and how they would work hard for little recompense.  The depiction of this inequality of course implied a criticism of the capitalist society and capitalism itself.  The Social Realist painters of America did not want their works to focus on the beauty of their country as portrayed by the likes of the Hudson River School painters.  For them, to get their message across to the public, their works needed to depict the industrial suburbs with its grime and unpleasantness or the run-down farming communities with their broken-down buildings.  Occasionally these artists would depict the rich in their paintings but they were only included for satirical reasons.

Ben Shahn was born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1898 and was the eldest of five children of an Orthodox Jewish family.  His father, Joshua, was a woodcarver and cabinet maker.  In 1902, probably because of his revolutionary activities, his father was exiled to Siberia.  His mother, Gittel Lieberman, and her children moved to Vilkomir, which is now the Lithuanian town of Ukmerge.  Four years later, in 1906, Shahn’s mother and three of her offsprings emigrated to America and settled in Brooklyn with Joshua who had already fled there from Siberia.  Ben Shahn original artistic training was as a lithographer and then as a graphic artist.

At the age of twenty-one Shahn went to New York University and studied biology.  Two years later he transferred to City College of New York to study art and then moved on to the New York National Academy of Design which is now known as The National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts.

In 1924 Shahn married Tillie Goldstein and the two set off on a long journey of discovery taking in North Africa and the traditional artist pilgrimage of the capital cities of Europe taking in the works of the great European modern artists of the time such as Matisse, Picasso and Klee.  He had not been won over by their art or the European Modernist art scene and soon felt less influenced by their work and preferred to follow the style of the Realists painters especially those who showed a concern for the plight of the downtrodden.  Shahn was inspired by the likes of the photographer Walker Evans, the Mexican communist painter Diego Rivera and the French Realist painters.   It was with Rivera that Shahn worked on the public mural at the Rockefeller Centre, which was to cause such controversy and had to be hidden from public view and eventually destroyed.

As a political activist Shahn became interested in newspaper photography.  Photography was to act as his source material for some of his paintings and satires. During the 1930’s he was engaged in street photography himself, recording the lives of the working-class and immigrant populations and the hardship of the unemployed.   Over the years Shahn, with his trusted 35mm Leica camera, built up a large collection of photographs which poignantly recorded the horror of unemployment and poverty during the Depression years.

My Daily Art Display featured painting is simply entitled Unemployment and was completed by Shahn in 1934.  Shahn exhibited many paintings and photographs which highlighted the plight of the unemployed and homeless especially during the time of the Great Depression.  Before us stand five men, all purported to be out of work.  They look down on their luck.  Their black eyes stare out at us.  They stand upright trying to muster a certain amount of dignity despite the hopelessness of their situation.  In some of their faces we see a look of desperation and fear of what their future may hold.  The man in the right foreground has his arms folded across his chest.  His look is more defiant almost questioning the viewer about what they intend to do about his plight.  One man has a makeshift patch on his eye which makes him look even more vulnerable.  I suppose Shahn and other Realist painters believed that through the moving nature of the subjects of their works it would help remind everybody of the horrors of life we could face and counsel us to avoid similar pitfalls in the future.  Sadly, as in the case of war with its tragedies and horrors, we rarely learn by our mistakes and seem to always repeat our mistakes.  There seems to be little we can do but shake our heads sympathetically as we view these Social Realist paintings and can only hope that we ourselves are never touched by similar tragedies.

Niagara by Frederic Edwin Church

Niagara by Frederic Church (1857)

My Daily Art Display for today returns to a painting by an American artist and another member of the Hudson River School, which was a mid-19th century American art movement personified by a group of landscape painters whose artistic vision was influenced by the 18th century European Romanticism movement.   The paintings for which the group is named depict the Hudson River Valley and the area around the Catskill, Adirondack and the White Mountain ranges.  The artist is Frederic Edwin Church.

Frederic Church was born in Hartford Connecticut in 1826.  His father, Joseph, was a silversmith and watchmaker and through his success and that of his father who had owned a paper mill, the Church household lived a prosperous lifestyle.  Frederic studied art at school and through a family neighbour, Daniel Wadsworth, was fortunate enough to be introduced to Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, who agreed to take Frederic on as his pupil.   Church thrived under Cole’s tutelage and within a year, he had some of his paintings shown in the National Academy of Design annual exhibition.  The following year, 1848, Church was elected as the youngest Associate of the National Academy of Design and was promoted to Academician the following year.  That year he sold his first major oil painting to the Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, which had been founded by Wadsworth.

In 1848 he went to live in New York and began to teach art.  In his spare time in spring and autumn he would travel throughout New York and New England, particularly Vermont, all the time sketching the beautiful scenery whilst during the winter months he would return to New York City and his home and convert his numerous sketches into a number of landscape paintings, all of which sold well.   Church and a friend set forth on an adventurous trip through Central America and Ecuador. From this trip, Church’s first finished South American pictures, shown to great acclaim in 1855, transformed his career.   For the next decade he devoted a great part of his attention to those subjects, producing a celebrated series that became the basis of his ensuing international fame.   During a two year period, 1854 to 1856, he travelled extensively visiting Nova Scotia, and journeying throughout Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and it was around this time that he visited the Niagara Falls.   The late 1850’s were the high point of Church’s career, artistic triumph followed artistic triumph.   In 1857 he made another trip to Ecuador and also took a voyage to Newfoundland and Labrador.  In 1860, Church bought some farmland at Hudson, New York, and married Isabel Carnes, whom he had met during the exhibition of his paintings.   He and his wife lead a settled and happy life and he spent most of his time tending to his farm but his happiness was shattered in 1865 when both his young children contracted diphtheria and died.  However, with the birth of Frederic junior in 1866, Church and his wife began a new family that was eventually to number four children.

At the end of 1867, Frederic Church and his family embarked on a long trip to Europe, North Africa, the Near East, and Greece that was to last eighteen months and was to lead to several important paintings. As Church got older he spent more and more time on his farm and farming.  From the 1870’s onwards Church suffered badly from rheumatoid arthritis and it badly affected his right arm which curtailed much of his art work although he did teach himself to paint with his left hand.  Frederic Church died in 1900, aged 74 and is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Hartford, Connecticut.

Today’s painting by Frederic Church entitled Niagara is one of four he painted of this waterfall.  This one was painted in 1857 and guaranteed for him, still a young man of thirty-one, the role of America’s most famous painter.   It is probably the most famous painting of it ever made.  During the 19th century, American artists flocked to the Falls to paint the various views of it.  The Falls were looked upon as the nation’s greatest natural wonder.   This picture was painted from the Canadian shore, a short distance above Table Rock, and includes the sweep of the Horseshoe Fall and the edge of Goat Island in a notable depiction of water and light. The time is towards evening.   We can see an amazing amount of detail in every stage of the water’s journey as it cascades downwards.  Look at how Church has incorporated an optical flourish of the rainbow against the falling waters.

The painting was introduced to the American public shortly after its completion, as a one-painting exhibition at the commercial gallery of Williams, Stevens, and Williams in New York City.   People flocked to see the work and were willing to pay 25 cents each to view the monumental canvas, which measured 109cms x 230cms and sometimes they would use opera glasses or other optical aids to augment the experience.   With their 25 cents admission fee the people would also receive a pamphlet that reprinted contemporary critics’ praise of Church’s picture and offered exhibition-goers the opportunity to purchase a print of the work.   Within a fortnight of the exhibition’s opening more than a hundred thousand people had paid to see it.  Art critics lavished praise on the work describing it as “the finest oil picture ever painted on this side of the Atlantic.”    After this success in New York the painting was taken to a number of American cities before it made two tours of Britain and was exhibited at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris where it won a prize

The painting now hangs in the The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC

Fur Traders descending the Missouri by George Caleb Bingham

Fur Traders descending the Missouri by George Caleb Bingham (1845)

For My Daily Art Display today I cross the Atlantic and return to the nineteenth century in order to discover the art of George Caleb Bingham.  Bingham was born in 1811 in Augusta County Virginia.  He was the second of seven children to Mary and Henry Bingham and his early life should have been a life of plenty as his grandfather on his mother’s side passed on to his mother and father the family mill and a vast tract of land along with a number of slaves and servants.  However when Caleb was seven years old, an unwise decision to stand surety for a friend’s debt by his father lost the family everything.  It was time to move on and the family went West in search of their fortune.

The family settled in Missouri in the small town of Franklin in Howard County, a few miles north of the great Missouri River, and eventually Caleb’s father became a county judge.  Sadly, when Caleb was only twelve, his thirty-eight year old father contracted malaria and died.   The family moved to a farm just outside the town.  Caleb spent much of his leisure time down by the river and many of his paintings he did as an adult featured this magnificent waterway.   Caleb became an apprentice to a cabinet maker when he was sixteen years old and he was put to work painting signs.  A few years earlier Caleb Bingham had met Chester Harding the portrait painter who had passed through Howard County looking for work.  The artist had sparked an interest in art with Caleb, so much so that the teenager started to paint portraits of the local people which he sold for twenty dollars.

Bingham married Sarah Hutchinson in 1836 and the couple moved to the city St Louis where he was able to expand his artistic career and soon made a name for himself as a portrait painter.  He travelled to Philadelphia where he spent some time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before moving to Washington.   He returned back to his Missouri home in 1844 and started painting river scenes, one of which is my featured painting today.  As far as his paintings are concerned, it is reckoned that the period between 1845 and 1855 he produced his greatest works.    In 1848 his wife died and his mother moved in with him to look after his children.  She too died three years later.  In 1856 Caleb made a trip to Europe with his second wife Eliza Thomas.   He visited Paris and was able to fulfil one of his ambitions which was to study the works of the Great Masters at the Louvre.  They moved on to Germany where the family lived in an artists’ colony and he enrolled at the Dusseldorf School of painting where he studied historical painting.

Eventually he and his family returned to America and he continued his lucrative career as a portraitist.  He also fulfilled another of his ambitions; he entered politics and held positions in the state legislature of Missouri and later became president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners and was appointed their first chief of police.  His second wife died in an asylum in 1876 and soon after he married for a third time.  He became the first Professor of Art at the University of Missouri but he died in 1879, early into this tenure.

The painting I am featuring today in My Daily Art Display is entitled Fur Traders descending the Missouri which he completed in 1845.    This was one of his genre paintings of everyday life on the Missouri River.  He loved to depict the river boatmen and fur traders whose livelihood was tied up with this vast waterway.  In some ways Bingham’s painting was out of date and it really was just his nostalic look back on the past as by 1845 when he completed this work, the world of the lone hunters and trappers bringing their pelts to trading posts by canoe was over, superseded by the big companies which shipped their commodities up and down the river by steamer and barge.  The painting was originally titled French Trader, Half Breed Son.  It was quite common in those days for fur traders to take up with Native American women.  However when first exhibited the American Art Union considered the title to be, what we would now term, “not politically correct” and so the Art Union renamed it, hence its present title.  In front of us we see an old French fur trader, wearing his liberty hat along with his son with their cargo, riding a dugout canoe along the shimmering Missouri River.  In the centre of the canoe is their cargo of furs atop of which is a dead duck which will provide supper for the duo.   In the prow of the craft is a tethered animal.  I say “animal” for to me it looks like a cat but doing some research into the painting I believe it is supposed to be a small bear cub!

The light in the painting adds a haunting quality to the work and this is where I give you another “-ism” to think about – Luminism and the American Luminists.    The term luminism came into being in the mid-twentieth century when art historians used the term to describe a 19th-century American painting style that arose as a derivative of the Hudson River School, examples of which I featured on Feb 4th and Feb 9th.  Luminism was a retrospective name given by art historians and was not a term used by the luminist artist themselves nor did they align themselves with the Hudson River School of painters. The landscapes of Luminists could be characterised by the use of clear and cool colours.  It was hard to detect brushstrokes in paintings done by the luminists.  These artists liked to paint very large works emphasising nature’s grand scale that emphasized tranquillity, reflective water and soft hazy skies.

Today’s featured painting was looked upon as Caleb Bingham’s most famous,  evoking an era in America’s early history.  There is no question that the painting today is a prime example of luminism.  I am amazed by the aura of serenity and stillness I detect in this painting.  The composition is well balanced.   There is no hint of any motion and yet we know the small craft is carrying its passengers downstream.  Caleb Bingham will have seen such sights many times over when he lived near the banks of the Missouri.  It was thanks to the paintings of the likes of Bingham that folk back in the East learnt about the pioneering push to the West as although cameras had been invented before the time of this painting, photographs were expensive to produce and so for the ordinary people works of art were their window to the West.