AMAM Masterpiece Spotlight:
Thomas Cole, Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill)
”Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill) is based on sketches Cole made in late summer 1825 with support from his patron, New York merchant George Washington Bruen. The twenty-four-year-old artist traveled by steamboat up the Hudson River, disembarking at West Point and Catskill, New York. The drawings Cole made on this trip served as the basis for a powerful group of new landscape paintings. A pencil drawing (now at the Detroit Institute of Arts) made at this time is inscribed “Lake of Dead Trees” and depicts the general composition of the AMAM painting with light and color notations. In this work, Cole amplifies the story and enhances the wilderness aspect of the Catskill landscape-dead trees appear in the left foreground along with two fleeing deer and the setting sun in the right distance. These details support many varied literary, religious, or other symbolic readings of the picture and anticipate Cole’s later allegorical landscapes.
The Oberlin painting is one of three by Cole that were shown in the window of William Coleman’s New York shop in late October or early November 1825. The landscapes captured the attention of artist and president of the American Academy of Fine Arts Colonel John Trumbull (1756- 1843), who purchased one of the paintings. Trumbull was so impressed with Cole’s work that he called them to the attention of writer and artist William Dunlap (1766-1839), who bought the AMAM painting, and to artist Asher B. Durand, who purchased View of Fort Putnam.
Marking a significant moment in American art history, these early sales launched Cole’s career as a landscape painter and led the way to important future commissions. Lake with Dead Trees was donated to Oberlin College in 1904 by Cleveland educator Charles F. Olney and was first exhibited in the town’s Carnegie library, more than ten years before a museum was built for the College.”
- excerpt from the Allen Memorial Art Museum collection catalog.
AMAM Masterpiece Spotlight:
AMAM Masterpiece Spotlight: Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Finding of Erichthonius”
The subject of this work by Rubens comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: the daughters of Cecrops, the King of Attica, had been entrusted by Athena with a basket they were explicitly told not to open. It contained the baby Erichthonius, son of Vulcan and Gaia, whose legs were in the form of snakes. Naturally, they opened the basket (the youngest daughter, Aglauros, is seen in this act in the AMAM painting), where, to their shock, they found the deformed child. According to some accounts, they were so horrified at the sight, they threw themselves from the heights of the Athenian Acropolis. Art historian Julius Held, however, noted that in the Oberlin painting, Ovid’s version of the tale is depicted, as no harm comes to the daughters and as a landscape-not the rocky outcropping of the Acropolis-is seen in the background.
The AMAM canvas is a fragment of the complete work, whose composition can be deduced through preliminary sketches, prints, and a number of copies. The complete painting was in the collection of the Duc de Richelieu in 1676, but by 1786 when it appeared in an auction as “a female gardener,” it had been significantly cut down, and overpainted: Erichthonius had been covered over by blossoms, so that the entire composition looked like a young girl with a basket of flowers; the various limbs of her sisters, seen in the AMAM work, had also been overpainted. In 1939, the Rubens scholar Ludwig Burchard recognized the composition from a Rubens print, and suggested cleaning the work, after which the original composition was discovered.
The painting is from the last decade of Rubens’s life, and displays the brilliant coloration, sheen of silks and satins, and free handling for which he is known. Rubens was the foremost Flemish artist of the seventeenth century, and was widely known throughout Europe for his inspired compositions and sumptuous coloring. He ran a large studio and served as painter to the Duke of Mantua, the Spanish and French courts, the Habsburgs, and a vast array of other notables, often serving both as artist and diplomat.
The AMAM collection contains a print after the painting by the Flemish artist Pieter van Sompel, as well as two drawings by Rubens, showing The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine and the Head of an Old Man.
AMAM Masterpiece Spotlight: Michiel Coxcie’s Portrait of Christina of Denmark
Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan and Lorraine (1522-1590) was the daughter of King Christian II of Denmark and Isabella of Aragon. In 1533 she was married by proxy to Francesco Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, who died in 1535. She later married Francis, Duke of Lorraine, but was widowed again in 1545, the year of this portrait. Court painter to Mary of Hungary (the aunt of the sitter), and member of the guilds in Mechelen and Brussels, Coxcie was extremely prolific, producing history paintings, altarpieces, frescos and portraits, as well as designs for tapestries and stained glass.
Listen to Erik Inglis, Professor of Medieval Art History, discuss this work by visiting our Podcast page!
Michiel Coxcie (Flemish, 1499–1592)
Portrait of Christina of Denmark, 1545
Oil on oak panel
Mrs. F. F. Prentiss Fund, AMAM 1953.270
AMAM Masterpiece Spotlight: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Self-Portrait as a Solider.
”In this haunting self-portrait, the horror and mental anguish of the First World War is made vividly evident. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, one of the founders of the Die Brücke movement, a group that was the first to bring forth the style of art that would become known as German Expressionism, depicts himself in his studio, where canvases lean against the walls behind him, wearing the uniform of the 75th Artillery Regiment. His right-painting -arm is a bloody stump, his cheeks are sunken, his dark-circled eyes are empty and hollow, and a cigarette dangles listlessly from his lips. Although Kirchner did not suffer the loss of his hand during the war, it broke him emotionally. He had been inducted into the army in early 1915 and assigned to the field artillery, but due to a lung infection and depression was sent away from the front lines and released in the autumn of that year. He subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in clinics and sanatoriums.
The figure behind the artist is ambiguous -likely female, it has masculine overtones- and it is unclear whether it is meant to suggest a live model, or a figure painted on canvas. There is a suggestion of a bent limb-elbow or knee-over Kirchner’s shoulder and under the figure’s right arm, and the way the figure is inscribed within the dark background-which may continue behind Kirchner-would seem to suggest it is part of a painting. It bears some resemblance to the AMAM’s 1919 sculpture by Kirchner, Standing Female Nude.
This work, with its raw and garish colors, was included in the 1937 Entartete Kunst - Degenerate Art - exhibition put on by the Nazi authorities in Munich, after which it traveled to other cities in Germany in 1937-38. In Munich, the painting was exhibited in room 3, with other Kirchners, as “Soldier with Whore,” under the texts “Deliberate sabotage of national defense” and “An insult to the German heroes of the Great War,” while next to the painting were the (sincere) words of a German curator likening Kirchner’s art to that of Dürer: “We are in the presence of the first German artist to achieve a penetrating quality that can be likened to that of Dürer, E. L. Kirchner.” The use of the quote in this context was meant to mock both the curator, and the artist. Kirchner, like Dürer, was known for the power of his woodcuts, and the short strokes and angular forms in this work make reference to that medium.”
- from the AMAM Collection Catalog.
AMAM Masterpiece Spotlight: Hendrick ter Brugghen’s Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene.
This work -one of the most important Northern Baroque paintings in the United States - is a strikingly sensitive vision of physical suffering. The third-century Saint Sebastian, shot with arrows by his fellow guardsmen for having converted to Christianity, was tended by the Roman widow Irene and her maidservant; none of the arrows had pierced a vital organ and they were able to bring him back to health. Here, left for dead, with his now gray, bloodless arm tied by a leather strap to a tree, he slumps forward as the women, fully absorbed in their work, tenderly begin to nurse him.
Pierre Rosenberg, former director of the Louvre, published the painting in 2006 in his book Only in America: One Hundred Paintings in American Museums Unmatched in European Collections. Having conducted a survey of curators and art historians, Oberlin’s painting was found to be cited more often than any other as meeting that extremely high standard-and, as a result, it is the book’s front cover image. The AMAM owes its purchase to the connoisseurship of the museum’s former director Charles Parkhurst, who first saw the work at a dealer in New York in the spring of 1953. After discussion with Oberlin art professor Wolfgang Stechow, he agreed to move forward on the purchase. The dealer was then in touch with Samuel Kress, for whom it had been reserved, to gain his approval. The painting might equally have gone when it was earlier in the hands of another dealer to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or to the museum in Utrecht. The Rijksmuseum, however, did not have available dollar funds while the Utrecht museum did not act quickly enough, due in part to a misdirected letter.