365 Days of Art: April 29 – Rothko’s Friend Writes a Letter; Recalls Visit

21, Mark Rothko, 1949

April 29, 1982

Twelve years after Mark Rothko’s suicide, the Italian writer Gabriella Drudi writes a letter to the art critic Dore Ashton, and recalls visiting Rothko at his house on East 95th Street in NYC:

We went together to visit the house. There was happiness. The festiveness of the poor when they finally know possession. We climbed to the third floor where the studio would be; then to Tofy’s (his son Christopher) room, and ended up sitting in the little courtyard–a bit melancholy as is every place that has been taken over by new inhabitants, still intruders. Mark had become taciturn and grim–this happened, I think each time that he felt drawn into existence and not art. He seemed very tired. He said to Mell (his wife): you remember when I used to pass my days at the Museum of Modern Art looking at Matisse’s Red Studio? You asked: why always that and only that picture? You thought I was wasting my time. But this house you owe to Matisse’s Red Studio. And from those months and that looking every day all of my painting was born.

365 Days of Art: April 28 – Napoleon Issues Press Release About Planned Art Exhibition

Edouard Manet, Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe/Luncheon on the Grass, 1863

April 28, 1863

Emperor Napoleon III issues a press release, regarding the planned Salon des Refusés (literally, Exhibition of the Rejected Ones):

An exhibition will open on 15 May…Artists have until 7 May to withdraw their works…After this date works that have not been withdrawn will be placed on show.

Here’s the backstory: This statement, and the idea of the exhibition of rejected works, was formulated out of a sense of political fear on Napoleon’s part. The annual Paris Salon was a traditional, fairly conservative art exhibition that was presented each year, sponsored in part by the French government. Acceptance and praise from the Salon was essential for a successful artistic career. Private galleries had no weight at all.

This particular year, the Salon jury rejected two-thirds of the works presented to them, including work by such now-recognized masters as Courbet, Manet and Pissarro. The rejected artists and their supporters weren’t happy, and news of their protests reached the ears of the politically sensitive Napoleon. His office issued a statement saying:

Numerous complaints have come to the Emperor on the subject of the works of art which were refused by the jury of the Exposition. His Majesty, wishing to let the public judge the legitimacy of these complaints, has decided that the works of art which were refused should be displayed in another part of the Palace of Industry.

Accordingly, the advertisement above was posted in the paper, giving artists a chance to opt out of the exhibition. Probably the most famous of the rejected works is Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass).

365 Days of Art: April 27 – Arbiters to Leonardo: After 23 Years, Finish the Painting!

Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1506

April 27, 1506

Arbiters in Milan, who have gotten involved in a dispute between Leonardo and a patron, rule that Leonardo is required to finish the commissioned Virgin of the Rocks within two years, and will be paid 200 lire. Notoriously slow on his follow-through, he had accepted the commission 23 years earlier with no results. Art historians believe, in fact, that he did finish this commission on time–he just happened to sell it to someone else. There are two versions of Virgins of the Rocks today; the earlier version can be seen here and at the Louvre. The one above is believed to be the one that was finished in compliance with the arbiters’ ruling, and is on display at London’s National Gallery.

365 Days of Art: April 26 – Helen Frankenthaler Exhibition Opens at Andre Emmerich Gallery

Helen Frankenthaler, Eve, 75" x 50", acrylic on paper

April 26, 1990

Frankenthaler: Paintings on Paper opens at André Emmerich Gallery.

Helen Frankenthaler loved paper since she was a child, and worked on paper exclusively at the end of her life, for at least a decade. Like many artists, she found working on paper to be easier while traveling, and when studio space was scarce. But, she also worked on paper that was sized at 6 x 7 feet. The works on paper were often more opaque and dense than her well-known “bleeds” of watered-down pigment on canvas.

An interesting side note about women working in the man’s world of art in the 1950s and 60s (as Frankenthaler was): Frankenthaler was a good friend of the art critic Clement Greenberg. They moved in the same circles, and frequently went gallery hopping together. In conversation, he was quite enthusiastic about her work and invited others to look at it. But, in spite of their friendship, he only wrote about her once, and that was in the context of a 1960 article he wrote about two male artists (Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis). Her innovative painting techniques had inspired them to work in color field painting, yet that wasn’t worthy of its own article.

Frankenthaler was also once married to Robert Motherwell, one of my favorites.

365 Days of Art: April 25 – Leonardo Accepts a Commission

Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, 1483

April 25, 1483

Leonardo signs a contract with the Milanese Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in San Francesco Grande; they have commissioned him to produce several paintings including Virgin of the Rocks, and to polychrome their altarpiece in Milan.

Interestingly, art historians believe that Leonardo sold this painting, instead of fulfilling the commission. Later, he had to paint another version (this one with the help of apprentices) which he gave to the Confraternity in fulfillment of his contract. A slick move by Leonardo, who was in the habit of not finishing commissions in the agreed-upon manner.

365 Days of Art: April 24 – Art and Politics Collide for Diego Rivera and Little Mermaid

Two instances of politics colliding with art today:

Diego Rivera, Man at the Crossroads (destroyed), 1933

April 24, 1933

With Diego Rivera’s mural for Rockefeller Center two thirds of the way finished, the NY World-Telegram inflames tensions between the artist and patron by publishing this headline:

“Rivera Paints Scenes of Communist Activity and John D. Jr. Foots Bill”

Little Mermiad, Edvard Eriksen, Copenhagen


April 24, 1964

Oh no, it’s The Little Mermaid getting injured again! Her head is sawn off and stolen in a political act by artists of the Situationist movement. The group is primarily composed of artists and serves as a standing critique of capitalism. The head is never recovered; a new head is later fabricated and placed on the statue.

365 Days of Art: April 23 – Leonardo Writes His Will

Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk (believed to be self-portrait), Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1510-1515

April 23, 1519

Leonardo da Vinci writes his last will and testament. He asks that 60 beggars follow his coffin, stipulates the number of masses to be held in the church on the day of his funeral, and dispenses his property. His friend and apprentice Francesco Melzi is the principal heir, receiving money, as well as Leonardo’s paintings, tools, library and personal effects. Leonardo’s other long-time pupil and companion, Salai and his servant Battista di Vilussis, each receive half of Leonardo’s vineyards. His brothers receive land, and his maid receives a black cloak edged with fur.

Leonardo dies in France less than two weeks later.

365 Days of Art: April 22 – Scientists Announce Discovery of World’s Oldest Oil Paintings

April 22, 2008

Scientists announce they have proved the world’s first-ever oil paintings were made in caves that were discovered behind, and after the destruction of, two giant statues of Buddha in Afghanistan.

Ironically, the dynamiting of the statues by the Taliban in 2001 revealed the caves and art behind them.

Scientists discovered that paintings in 12 of the 50 caves were created using oil paints, possibly from walnut or poppy. Samples from paintings date them from the 7th century AD, which is hundreds of years before oil paint was used in Europe.

It wasn’t until the 13th century that oil was first added to paints in Europe, and it wasn’t commonly used there until the early 15th century.

This is the earliest clear example of oil paintings in the world, although drying oils were already used by ancient Romans and Egyptians, but only as medicines and cosmetics,” said Yoko Taniguchi, leader of the team of scientists.

Bamiyan was once a thriving Buddhist center, a stop on the Silk Road trade route between China and the West. Monks lived in the caves carved into the cliffs by the two statues. The cave paintings were probably the work of artist-travelers on the Silk Road. The colorful paintings depict Buddhas with gorgeous crimson robes, as well as mythical creatures.

365 Days of Art: April 21 – Serial Art Vandal Throws Acid at Five Dürer Paintings

Mater Dolorosa or Virgin of Sorrows, Albrecht Durer, 1495

April 21, 1988

Hans-Joachim Bolhmann, who we’ve met before this year, throws two bottles of sulfuric acid on five paintings by Albrecht Dürer in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek. The injured works include Lamentation for Christ, the Paumgartner Altar and Mater Dolarosa or Virgin of Sorrows.

The Virgin of Sorrows is hit directly in her face, and the acid drips down her blue gown. The varnish of the Virgin of Sorrows was thin, and the acid quickly penetrates the paint layer. The complexity of the conservation needs, and the fact that five Dürers were badly damaged, mean that conservation moves slowly. Work on the Virgin of Sorrows, the last of the Dürers to be finished, isn’t completed until 21 years later, in 2009. The damage is estimated at 35 million Euros.

365 Days of Art: April 20 – Rothko Suffers Aneurysm

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1968

April 20, 1968

Mark Rothko suffers an aneurysm. He’s told by his doctor to exercise, eat more heathily, slow down on drinking and smoking…he does none of this. His one concession is to work on smaller paintings, and he switches to acrylics on paper. His poor health after the aneurysm contributes to marital stress, and he and his wife separate less than eight months later. In another year, he will kill himself.

365 Days of Art: April 18 – Exhibition of Spanish Civil War Drawings Closes at MoMA

Luis Quintanilla, Dead Moors-Defeat at Pozoblanco

April 18, 1938

The exhibition Luis Quintanilla: An Exhibition of Drawings of the War in Spain, for which Ernest Hemingway wrote the catalog, closes at MoMA. Quintanilla was a distinguished leader of the opposition to the Fascists, director of the Republic’s intelligence services in the Basque country, and earned a spot on General Franco’s first black list, for execution in the bullring in Burgos.

Despite all these accomplishments, he was honorably discharged by the army because he was considered more valuable as an artist. He traversed the entire front line of the war in two months, and completed 140 drawings in another three. The drawings were exhibited in Barcelona, and at his friend Hemingway’s urging, at MoMA the following year. Hemingway’s catalog essay is typically pithy yet to the point:

A year ago today we were together and I asked Luis how his studio was and if the pictures were safe.

“Oh it’s all gone,” he said without bitterness, explaining that a bomb had gutted the building.

“And the big frescoes in University City and the Casa del Pueblo?’

“Finished,” he said, “all smashed.”

“What about the frescoes for the monument to Pablo Iglesias?”

“Destroyed,” he said. “No, Ernesto, let’s not talk about it. When a man loses all his life’s work, everything that he has done in all his working life, it is much better not to talk about it.”

These paintings that were destroyed by the bomb, and these frescoes that were smashed by artillery fire and chipped away by machine gun bullets were great Spanish works of art. Luis Quintanilla, who painted them, was not only a great artist but a great man. When the Republic that he loved and believed in was attacked by the fascists, he led the attack on the Montana Barracks that saved Madrid for the government. Later, studying military books at night while he commanded troops in the daytime, he fought in the pines and the grey rocks of the Guadarrama; on the yellow plain of the Tagus; in the streets of Toledo, and back to the suburbs of Madrid where men with rifles, hand grenades, and bundled sticks of dynamite faced tanks, artillery, and planes, and died so that their country might be free.

Because great painters are scarcer than good soldiers, the Spanish government ordered Quintanilla out of the army after the fascists were stopped outside Madrid. He worked on various diplomatic missions, and then returned to the front to make these drawings. The drawings are of war. They are to be looked at; not written about in a catalogue.

There is much to say about Quintanilla, and no space to say it, but the drawings say all they need to say themselves.

This is me again. Check out the drawings one after the other. They really build in power as you go through.

365 Days of Art: April 17 – Pope Julius Refuses to Meet with Michelangelo Regarding Tomb Commission, Stiffs Him on Money, and Causes Him to Flee Rome in Despair

Moses, from the tomb built for Pope Julius II by Michelangelo, commissioned 1505, completed in 1545.

April 17, 1506

Michelangelo is turned away by Pope Julius II, in his latest attempt to meet and move forward on the commission for Julius’s tomb. Adding insult to injury, the Pope doesn’t cover the freight charges for the marble which Michelangelo has already selected and shipped to Rome. “Overwhelmed with despair”, Michelangelo tells his servants to empty his studio and sell the contents to the Jews. He then flees Rome, saying he will never return.

PS: Of course, he does, or the Sistine Chapel as we know it would never have happened. Julius himself hires Michelangelo to paint the chapel, which Michelangelo accepts because he thinks it will favorably position him to eventually return to the tomb commission. He’s right, and begins work on Julius’s tomb almost immediately after finishing the chapel. The tomb is eventually finished, but not to Michelangelo’s liking because the scope is continuously scaled back after Julius’s death. It remained one of his greatest professional disappointments.

Note: I don’t understand the specific reference to selling his studio contents “to the Jews”. But, given the expulsion of the Jews from Spain just ten years earlier, I’m assuming a similar bigotry exists in Italy at this time. I suspect this reference is intended as a slur, the lowest way for Michelangelo to vent his frustration, disgust and bitter disappointment at the way he’s been dimissed by Pope Julius.

365 Days of Art: April 16 – Apollinaire Compares the Studio Habits of Picasso and Matisse

Matisse and Picasso self-portraits, both 1916

April 16, 1911

Apollinaire, the poet and friend of Picasso, writes in the Le Mercure de France about the differences in studio practice between Picasso and Matisse. These kinds of side-by-side comparisons stoked their professional rivalry:

On the contrary, Picasso, who is a Spaniard, takes delight in cultivating the disarray in his studio, where you see a jumble of Oceanian and African idols, anatomical pieces and a great deal of dust. The painter works there slowly, barefoot, and smoking a clay pipe. At one time he used to paint during the night…

The erudite Henri Matisse paints with gravity and solemnity, as if hundreds of Russians and Berliners were watching him. He works on one canvas for a quarter of an hour and then moves on to another. If anyone is in his studio, he indoctrinates them and quotes Nietzsche and Claudel, mentioning Duccio, Cezanne, and the New Zealanders as well.

365 Days of Art: April 15 – Brunelleschi Dies, Da Vinci is Born, Nike of Samothrace is Unearthed, Impressionists Exhibit Together, and Thomas Hart Benton Reveals Himself to Be a Fool (Again)

April 15, 1446

Filippo Brunelleschi, father of Renaissance architecture and engineer of the Duomo, dies.

Leoonardo da Vinci, 1489

April 15, 1452

Leonardo da Vinci is born.

Nike of Samothrace, c. 190 BC, Parian marble

April 15, 1863

An excavation on the Greek island of Samothrace unearthed a winged female statue carved from white marble, known as the Nike of Samothrace, or Winged Victory of Samothrace. It’s considered one of the greatest masterpieces of antiquity, and many consider the lack of head and arms to add to its beauty. The original is dramatically displayed above the Daru staircase in the Louvre, in Paris.

Samothrace is the eastern-most Greek island, located in the northeastern Aegean Sea. In ancient times, the island was home to a temple complex known as the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. I spent a good chunk of one summer working on this archaeological site.

Claude Monet, Impression: Sunrise, 1873

April 15, 1874

The Impressionists, though they weren’t known by that name yet, hold their first exhibition. A group of about 30 French artists which included Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot called themselves “The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, Etc.” and displayed 165 works in Paris. Viewers thought the subjects (contemporary life) and execution (seemingly unfinished and untalented) unfit for fine art, even laughable. One art critic entitled his nasty, satirical review Exhibition of Impressionists, after Claude Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise, 1873. The critic, Louis Leroy, meant it as an insult, but it eventually became their identity.

Over the course of the month-long exhibition, 3500 ppl came to see it, many of them to express their outrage at this new art form. People always get shocked by new things; even the Impressionists were once considered too edgy.

Poker Night (from A Streetcar Named Desire), Thomas Hart Benton, 1948

April 15, 1941

The New York World-Telegram runs an interview with the always-thoughtful and eloquent Thomas Hart Benton. Here is his monologue:

Do you want to know what’s the matter with the art business in America?…It’s the third sex [gay people] and the museums. Even in Missouri we’re full of ’em. We’ve had an immigration out there. And the old ladies who’ve gotten so old that no man will look at ’em think that these pretty boys will do. Our museums are full of ballet dancers, retired businessmen, and boys from the Fogg Institute at Harvard, where they train museum directors and art artists. [The typical museum is] run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait. If it were left to me, I wouldn’t have any museums. I’d have people buy the paintings and hang ’em in privies or anywhere anybody had time to look at ’em. Nobody looks at ’em in museums. Nobody goes to museums. I’d like to sell mine to saloons, bawdyhouses, Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, and Chambers of Commerce–even women’s clubs.