The arts touch even the most jaded soul with beauty, intellectual stimulation and moments of sheer joy. Thus on March 2 as Jill Sanford prepared to give the third in a series of presentations focused on early American art, a wave of sweet anticipation ran through the audience.
Through her study of art and her ability to speak with complete fluidity and purpose, Sanford has been providing educational art presentations for a number of years to schools and other venues. To say one walks away with clear understanding of whatever style of painting she is speaking on is not enough – people of all ages learn what the images are saying beyond the obvious. Sanford calls her presentations “Art For Your Mind,” presentations that ask you to enter with her into the mind of the artist.
In delving into early American art, Sanford focused on several specific painters to highlight not only how primitive some early American works were, given that painters were self-taught (folk artists), but also the rise of genre paintings previously not explored in European art. Genre painting, subjects depicting ordinary people doing everyday things, would later influence classic themes in Europe while European painting techniques would inform American painters.
Sanford explained that American painter Charles Wilson Peale was a self-taught artist whose painting of Washington, while less technically executed than those by the classically trained William Russel Birch, are nonetheless perfect in their own way. She said that Peale enjoyed a close personal relationship with Washington, including crafting many sets of false teeth for the nation’s first president. It’s those precious little personal details peppered throughout a Sanford presentation that brings the artists to life.
While our young nation struggled towards a democratic society, there weren’t any schools of art for people who aspired to become painters. That does not mean art wasn’t happening, to the contrary. People sought to represent life, everyday events, farms and animals and families in homely settings known as genre art.
Americans were looking at their world and attempting to memorialize what they saw through painting. Though most of these works demonstrated a lack of perspective and distancing, there has been, over the centuries since they were created, appreciation for their innocent beauty. Flat farm scenes where distant hills appear stacked atop plowed fields atop farm animals in corrals and people carrying produce hold a sweet and even clear picture of what life was like during those early decades of nation building – people simply getting on with the work of living.
As time went on, American painters sought out technical training either by traveling to the art centers of the world or by seeking artists who had been trained in such places as Paris. But back to Peale for a moment: Sanford said that he would go on to study in England and later still found the Philadelphia Academy of Art in 1805. His private life would find him fathering 17 children from three wives and supporting them all through his art.
Engravings became a popular way to spread painted images throughout the country. An entire engraving industry began due to the thirst people had for art to enjoy in their homes, even if they could only afford a black-and-white engraving.
Sanford talked about a genre painter named Edward Hicks, whose paintings have gone on to be famous and well respected in the art world. His painting titled Peaceable Kingdom is filled with animals harmoniously gathered together with cherubs and angels, while in the background on the left humans including Native Americans and white settlers appear to be holding their own gathering to discuss peaceful coexistence.
Sanford asked the attendees to study the left side of the painting for clues on how the artist captured the human gathering. She noted that the left-side gathering was in reverse from its original painting, thus Hicks had used an engraving of that image for his painting.
Bringing the presentation to its closure, Sanford discussed how quickly American artists became great painters in the traditional sense, painters like Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson and Henry Tanner, a black artist whose gentle depictions of black family life and portraiture brought him international acclaim.
Art For Your Mind is far more than an educational opportunity to study selected pieces of art with an expert. It is also an opportunity to join the artist as they planned what to place upon a board or canvas and why – getting deep into the mind of the artist with a hostess of exceptional talent herself.
Sanford’s fourth installment of Art For Your Mind “American Painting” is scheduled for Wednesday, April 6, at 12:30 pm at the Mattapoisett Council on Aging.
By Marilou Newell