Category Archives: art

Overboard, less than ekphrastic, it was for the insurance

J.M.W. Turner’s “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead & Dying – Typhon Coming on” (aka, “The Slave Ship”) [Museum of Fine Arts, Boston] was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1840 with lines from a poem that Turner had written in 1812:

“Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying – ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?”

In spite of John Ruskin’s ekphrastic description in Modern Painters (1843), which culminated in an allusion to the stain of Duncan’s blood in Macbeth (II,2):

It is a sunset on the Atlantic after prolonged storm; but the storm is partially lulled, & the torn & streaming rain clouds are moving in scarlet lines to lose themselves in the hollow of the night.  The whole surface of the sea included in the picture is divided into two ridges of enormous swell, not high, nor local, but a low, broad heaving of the whole ocean, like the lifting of its bosom by deep-drawn breath after the torture of the storm….
Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers are cast upon the mist of the night, which gathers cold and low, advancing like the shadow of death upon the guilty [Ruskin’s note: She is a slaver, throwing her slaves overboard.]  The near sea is encoumbered with corpses. ship as it labors amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight, – and cast far along the desolate heave of the sepulchral waves, incarnadines the multitudinous sea.

insurance on slave-cargoes covered only those drowned at sea & not slaves who perished from brutality, disease, or conditions on board, thus profit-minded captains cast the dead & dying into the ocean.

John Ruskin, Modern Painters in The Complete Works of John Ruskin, eds. E.T. Cook & Alexander Wedderburn  (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 3:571-2.


Portraits of Hiram & Elizabeth Brown Montier, 1841

The earliest surviving portraits of an African American couple, Hiram & Elizabeth Brown Montier.

The Montiers descended directly from the first mayor of Philadelphia, Humphrey Morrey (c.1650-1716), appointed in 1691 by William Penn. The Morreys manumitted their slaves during the early 18th century, & Humphrey Morrey’s son Richard, entered into a common-law marriage with one of the family’s freed servants, Cremona.

Upon his death, Richard bequeathed about 200 acres, in what is now the Glenside section of Cheltenham Township, to Cremona, making her one of the first & largest black land owners in what would become the United States.

The family’s prominence undoubtedly influenced the Montiers’ decision to commemorate their marriage with high style portraits, a rare & expensive undertaking for the young couple. By the time of his wedding in May 1841, Hiram Montier was a successful bootmaker on 7th Street, just a few blocks from Independence Hall.

Dressed formally & surrounded by lavish drapery, & leather-bound books, the figures record the Montiers’ affluence as well as their literacy. Signed by Philadelphia painter Franklin R. Street, (1815/16­–before 1894); Phila. Museum of Art;  on loan from the Collection of Mr. & Mrs. William Pickens, III.


A zibellino, from the Italian for “sable,” is a pelt from one of the mustelids  (sable, marten, ermine) worn draped at the neck or hanging at the waist, or carried in the hand; a women’s fashion accessory popular in the later 15th & 16th centuries. Some zibellini were fitted with faces & paws of goldsmith’s work with jeweled eyes & pearl earrings, while unadorned furs were also fashionable.  Although it had been suggested that the furs were intended to attract fleas away from the body of the wearer, that appears to be merely urban, or perhaps, feudal legend.

The sartorial taxonomy represented by the codification of sumptuary laws (sumptuariae leges), especially during the Renaissance, preserved the demarcations of class distinction.  We wouldn’t want just anyone to wear a zibellino! And so we find the likes of Mary Queen of Scots & Elizabeth I of England wearing their sable zibellini, while those of lesser standing could wear fur pieces more suited to their station, de facto.

Cremonese court painter to Philip II of Spain, Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1532-1625), includes several zibellini in her works.  The detail from the painting above is from a portrate of Bianca Ponzoni, Anguissola’s step-mother, painted in 1557. Perhaps the most famous is her portrait of Queen Elisabeth of Valois with the pelt of a marten set with a head & feet of jewelled gold.  (It was the most widely copied portrait in Spain; copied by artists such as Peter Paul Rubens).

Although carrying zibellini as a fashion statement died out in the 17th century, fox & mink pelts were worn in similar fashion in the 19th & 20th century.  But be not dismayed.  You too may carry a zibellini (although preferably not to a PETA meeting), as advertized by Sable Greyhound:

‘Your zibellino will be made to order. You get to choose your:

  • Type of fur: I always have mink or marten on hand.  Also, I will occasionally I have fox and sable pelts available as well.
  • Color of “metal”:  My zibie’s heads and feet are made of a durable polymer clay, which is much lighter weight and economical than real gold or silver.  You have your choice of gold, silver, copper, black, or pearl.  Other colors available upon request.
  • Decorations: Gold or silver filigree & your choice of crystal colors for the collar, eyes & overall ornamentation.  (Actual layout of decoration will be up to my discretion.)

Included is a photo of my own personal zibellino.  Actually, it’s a mink’s head from a stole I purchased at a “flea market,” then mounted on a small 3×5″ plaque in order to parody a relative’s trophy room.

Sherrill, Tawny  “Fleas, Furs, & Fashions: Zibellini as Luxury Accessories of the Renaissance,” in Robin Netherton & Gale R. Owen-Crocker, editors, Medieval Clothing & Textiles, Vol 2, p. 121-50

Facelle, Amanda E.  Sumptuary Law & Conspicuous Consumption in Renaissance Italy,” BA Thesis, Wesleyan University 2009

Basic Chart of Tudor Sumptuary Laws for Dress

Grant “American Gothic” Wood, an Impressionist?

Grant DeVolson Wood (1891–1942) — long before his “American Gothic” became iconic,  Wood’s forays into “formal” art education included occasional night classes at the Art Institute of Chicago.  However like other Americans of the era, he studied at the Academie Julien (Reginald Leslie Grooms was a fellow student).  While in Paris he became captivated with Impressionism & Post Impressionism [Les Nabis] as reflected in some of his works below.
In spite of this lack of formal training, in 1934 he became an associate professor of fine arts at what is now the University of Iowa.  During his tenure this led to continual confrontations with the guild of “academic” professors.  One of Wood’s detractors was H. W. Janson, who was teaching at Iowa while finishing his Harvard dissertation.  Friction between them prompted Janson’s criticism of Wood & Regionalism in the 1940’s & 1950’s.  Subsequent editions of  Janson’s textbook History of Art (the default standard in classrooms for years) excludes any mention of Wood, Regionalism, or “American Gothic”.  Nevertheless, Wood received a number of prestigious honorary degrees.  In his lithograph, Honorary Degree (1937), Wood, somewhat “short” on formal training, is honored with a “gothic” hood by his taller & more pretentious academic colleagues. Wood is basking in the glory of the Gothic arch, his symbol for Regionalism & American Gothic, his claims to fame.  This is one of the few self-portraits he completed.

Grant Wood’s sister Nan & his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby — standing next to their iconic likenessAs an aside: Although it’s common knowledge that the models for  the oft-parodied “American Gothic” were Wood’s sister, Nan Wood Graham (1900-90), & his local dentist from Cedar Rapids, Dr. Byron H. McKeeby (1867-1950), interestingly, both sat separately & never in situ in front of the Carpenter Gothic style house (Sears, Roebuck & Co. used to sell them as kits) which still is standing in Eldon, Wapello County, Iowa

Dan Ellis-Killian

[rockyou id=123326777&w=600&h=450]

Question: Did George Stout (former director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston) study under Grant Wood or Horst Woldemar Janson at the Univ. of Iowa? No, by the time Wood was appointed to the faculty in 1934 & Janson was teaching (1938-41), Stout was head of the conservation department at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum

Wright, Frank Lloyd

  • In 1893, architect Louis Sullivan personally asked Frank Lloyd Wright to leave his Chicago firm of Adler & Sullivan after he discovered that Wright had been moonlighting.
  • Later, his son, John Lloyd Wright, was fired from his father’s architectural firm over a financial disagreement, only to go on to invent the iconic “Lincoln Logs”
  • There’s a small brass marker outside a nondescript house in Fiesole (above Florence) Italy, where Wright & Mamah Cheney continued their open ‘liaison,’ though both were married to their respective spouses at the time. The scandal that erupted over this affair (not his last) virtually destroyed Wright’s practice in the States. On August 15, 1914, while Wright was in Chicago, a servant set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin & murdered seven people as the fire burned; among the dead were Mamah & two of her children.

Gaudi, Antoni (1852-1926)

Gaudí began work on the Sagrada Familia in 1883, at age 31, his work on the project ended when he was hit by a trolley in 1926.  He is buried in the cathedral’s crypt