Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Saga of Seal and Polar Bear, Part II
The last time we met, I was telling you about a fantastic painting in the permanent collection, Seal and Polar Bear by Charles Sidney Raleigh.

I had decided to feature the work in my upcoming exhibition How Extraordinary!, but I knew virtually nothing the artist who painted it. So it was off to the books in search of the enigmatic painter.

 Charles Sidney Raleigh in his later years (Image courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C, ).

Charles Sidney Raleigh was born in Gloucester, England in 1830. He ran away to sea when he was ten or twelve, no one is exactly sure when. He became a merchant seaman, but other than that we don’t know much about this part of his life. 

Let’s flash forward to 1870, then, when Raleigh’s life direction changed dramatically.
While returning from a voyage to Rio de Janeiro, Raleigh and his shipmates became sick with a mysterious fever. He convalesced in Sandwich, Massachusetts, at the house of a fellow crewman. During his recovery, Raleigh fell in love with his host’s daughter, Amelia, and married her. They settled down in New Bedford Massachusetts, and had six children together. To support his growing family, Raleigh embarked on a new career as a self-taught painter. 

While painting may not seem like an instinctual choice of career after seafaring, Raleigh was a talented artist, and is thought to have executed over 1,100 works. Over 600 of these were meticulous, highly detailed portraits of ships, but he also painted murals, shops signs, and even the interior of his own house.
Coincidentally, Shelburne Museum has one of his shop signs, for Purrington and Taber:

Signboard for Purrington and Taber, Painters, ca. 1870-1880

Raleigh also painted polar bear scenes. He never visited the Arctic himself, but instead relied on the accounts of whalers and explorers to gain an understanding of the region. His polar bear paintings have an abstract, cartoonish look, but they also exude a sense of energy and excitement.

Raleigh died in 1925, having lived a long, productive life.
Now I knew a little more about the artist, but I still needed to learn about the painting itself. What would I find out? Stay tuned for Part III...

The Saga of Seal and Polar Bear, Part III

Welcome back to my continuing adventures with Seal and Polar Bear!

In my last post, I introduced you to the artist who painted this peculiar scene, Charles Sidney Raleigh. Today I’ll tell you what I’ve learned about the painting itself.

I started my research by consulting the records room in our Collections Management Building, which contains our object files.

One of the many filing cabinets dedicated to our object files.

While perusing the folder for Seal and Polar Bear, I found a reference to a second version of the painting, located at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
The fact that there were two versions of this peculiar work intrigued me, so I grabbed our library’s copy of the National Gallery’s catalogue of American vernacular painting. 

Law of the Wild, 1881 (image courtesy of the National Gallery, Washington D.C.)

The version at the National Gallery is called Law of the Wild, but it’s the same basic composition, and was executed in 1881, the same year as Seal and Polar Bear. That wasn’t all I learned, however. While reading about Law of the Wild, I saw a reference to a third version of the painting.

Wait, there’s a third version?

According to the catalogue, an image of this third painting is kept in Raleigh’s artist file, which is located at the Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, a microfilm copy of Raleigh’s file can be accessed at the Boston Public Library, and so I took a research trip to look at it.

I hadn’t visited the library before, but its grand, Italianate façade made it easy to find. 

The exterior of the Boston Public Library, designed by architect Charles McKim and completed in 1895.

The interior of the library is as grand as its exterior.

The library is famous for its murals by John Singer Sargent.

After I had explored the library, I settled down with the Raleigh’s microfilm reel, and found two photographs of the painting. 

 The date 1886 had been written on the pictures, which suggested that this version had been painted five years later. Unfortunately, the pictures were small and blurry, so I wasn’t sure whether I was really looking at a third version of the painting, or just a poor, misdated photograph of one of the two known versions.

I found a note mentioning that this third version had last been seen at the Bourne Archives in Massachusetts, which was now part of the Bourne Historical Society. I called and asked whether the Historical Society had a painting called Seal and Polar Bear in its collection.

“Why yes,” the archivist answered, “I’m looking right at it.”

Seal and Polar Bear, 1886 (Image courtesy of the Bourne Historical Society)

The archivist generously sent me pictures, and once I had them, it was easy to see it was a different painting, with very jagged icebergs and a seal whose mouth resembled a beartrap.

I was excited to see this third version, but it raised new questions. Why would Raleigh paint three versions of the same composition, for example, and who was the intended audience? There is a story waiting to be told here, and if I had all the time in the world, I’d tackle it. I had an exhibition to prepare, however, so I needed to put this story on the backburner, for now at least.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of Seal and Polar Bear

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Art on the Edge

"Is the frame original?"

Whether carved, molded, gilded or painted, picture frames can rise to the level of  works of art in their own right, and can tell us a lot about the context in which a painting was displayed, but it's rare that we know much about how a frame came to be associated with a painting it houses. Frames are not often described or included in catalogs of paintings, and it is common for collectors to change framing when they purchase a work of art or change their decor.

Not long ago, we found ourselves asking, "Is the frame original?" when Rembrant Peale's Woman with the Tuscan Hat, c. 1847 came into the lab for conservation treatment. Both the painting and frame were in dire need of cleaning and repair, so this was an excellent opportunity to look into both of them a little more deeply.

Before Conservation Treatment

After Conservation Treatment
The painting is described in inventories of the artists' studio following his death as "Tuscan Hat, from a composition after André" but there's no indication as to whether or not the painting was framed. The painting came into Shelburne Museum's collection in 1985, and to the best of our knowledge, had only been published once before in John Mahey's 1969 article in American Art Journal in which the painting is depicted, but not the frame. 

The frame itself was made in two parts: the outer rectangular decorative moldings and the inner spandrel with  an oval opening. They're held together with nails on the reverse side of the frame. Oddly, the inner spandrel is a bit small for the outer frame; it just barely fills it so that you can see its outer edge peeking out from the opening of the outer frame. It also looks like an ornamental border had been removed from the outer edge of the spandrel. While there were a few empty nail holes that didn't match up between the spandrel and outer frame, there weren't enough for me to say that either piece had been used in some other context.

The pink arrow points to  the edge of the spandrel. The green arrow shows marks made by an ornamented border that was once on the frame and the blue arrow is pointing to cotton tulle applied to the surface of the frame before it was gilded. This image was taken before conservation treatment.
The pink arrow shows a wood splint added to the outer frame's rabbet to hold the  inner spandrel in place.
There's another splint under the spandrel too. Its just a little harder to see in this picture.
The Rococo-style ornament was made using compo, rather than plaster or carved wood. Cotton tulle netting applied to the ornament prior to gilding was a popular technique in the second quarter of the 19th century. And while the spandrel doesn't fit the outer frame perfectly, the compo ornament applied at the corners compliments the decoration on the outer frame. And so the style and materials used to make the frame suggest that it may have been produced sometime between 1825 and 1850, the same period as the Peale's Woman in the Tuscan Hat.

We will probably never be certain when this frame was associated with the painting or whether the outer frame has been reused. If it isn't the first frame this painting ever had, the match is in keeping with the time that they both were made.

If I've whetted your appetite to learn more, you might be interested in these summaries of three thought-provoking talks from this year's American Institute for Conservation annual meeting which considered picture frames and framing and the challenges posed in researching them.

Thanks to conservation department volunteer intern Linzy Vos who performed the conservation treatment of this frame and contributed to the research. Thanks also to paintings conservator Pamela Betts who researched and performed the conservation treatment on the painting as part of an Institute for Museum and Library Services Conservation Project Support grant.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Teaching Shelburne Museum II: A Centennial Expo

A few weeks back I wrote about a partnership between Shelburne Museum, the Green Mountain Writing Project, and Turning Points in American History that encourages Vermont educators to use primary sources, including museum collections, when studying the Civil War and Reconstruction era. I promised to share more about the study group that meets at the Museum, including innovative ways that participating teachers are engaging their students with history. I had to look no further than the 1876 World's Fair, which arrived at the Museum on a sunny day this spring.

"Lamb & St. Lawrence Leech Co.," presented by Vermont educators Jennifer Theoret (pictured) and Cate Lamb, advertised historical remedies in the Apothecary Shop.
The Turning Points educators modeled their Centennial Exposition after National History Day, a competition in which students study a historic topic using a variety of primary and secondary sources and present their research in the form of a paper, performance, exhibit, website, or documentary. Our educators set up temporary exhibits around the Museum grounds on nineteenth-century topics including needlepoint samplers, the history of footwear, and Civil War-era amputation. 

They brought to life several objects that I had seen before but never studied, such as this prosthetic leg on display at the Doctor's Office upstairs in the General Store. I learned that amputations were increasingly common in the Civil War as a result of military advancements like the minie ball, a particularly destructive lead bullet used by the Union army. The Turning Points teachers also made compelling connections, as in the needlepoint display that linked the content of early American samplers to the unique roles that women played in the abolitionist movement. I was surprised to discover that explicit anti-slavery inscriptions appear on textiles dating as early as the 1830s.
A prosthetic leg at the General Store.
Each exhibit included a detailed lesson plan relating to the content of the exhibit to the elementary, middle, or high school classroom. My visit to the 1876 World's Fair was a unique opportunity to see Shelburne Museum's collection from a different angle, and it opened my mind to ever-new teaching possibilities. Stay tuned for a post about the Green Mountain Writing Project's role in this unique collaboration. Thank you, Turning Points!