Posted by Ellen

One of the masterworks of early American art, Asher B. Durand's massive 1853 oil painting "Progress (The Advance of Civilization)," has been sold privately to an unknown buyer, perhaps Bill Gates, and has disappeared from public view after almost half a century on display in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The sale price may have been in the range of $50 million.

The details of the painting, which are very difficult to make out in this digital reproduction, utilize landscape to represent time. There is wilderness in the foreground, where Indians stand on the rocks looking way off into the distance. The middle distance is pastoral: fields of grain, country roads, a horse-drawn wagon. Far off in the background is a new railroad trestle and a train, its engine belching smoke. The Indians are still standing in the forest primeval, but already, they and their paradise are so last week.

I remember writing a paper on this kind of symbolism in college, as did a million other students. It all has something to do with a new American way of looking at nature: Old World artists painted romantic landscapes in which the ruined stones of ancient buildings were being reclaimed by the forest, whereas in American landscapes, fresh civilization was intruding into nature. Either way, the story was somehow sad.

The story of what happened to the Durand painting this year is also sad, and the lesson it illustrates could be taken to implicate both nature and civilization: i.e., human nature.

About fifty years ago, Jonathan "Jack" Warner, the wealthy owner of Gulf States Paper Company in Alabama, started collecting art, mostly American art. He bought original Audubon prints and put them up in the company cafeteria. He bought paintings by Winslow Homer, Georgia O'Keefe, Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Mary Cassatt, James Whistler, Edward Bierstadt, Gilbert Stuart, and dozens of others; he kept many of the paintings at home but decorated the walls of corporate headquarters with many others. Eventually, he built a museum for the collection.

The museum was open to the public, but it was still a private collection, funded in large measure with corporate money. Warner had a good eye for art and also apparently a good nose for a bargain, and eventually the art collection came to represent many tens of millions of dollars of corporate assets. He set up a foundation to manage the collection, but ownership remained substantially with the company.

And he turned over corporate leadership to his son. "That was a huge mistake," he said recently. "I think about that every day."

Warner's son, Jonathan "Jon" Warner, remade the family business, changing its name to Westervelt Company, selling off its paper mill and focusing on forest management and renewable energy. Early this year, plans were announced to build a plant in west Alabama to manufacture wood pellets for export to Germany.

Building the wood-pellet plant will cost about $50 million. The Durand painting may have fetched that much, even in the somewhat depressed art market that has lingered since the financial crisis and recession.

In fact, the recession has made the painting much more valuable to a corporate entity like Westervelt. One of the provisions of the 2010 Stimulus Act provided for a one-year capital-gains tax break for companies selling assets not related to their core business.

The Warner collection curators say they came in to the museum one Monday morning and found blank spots on the wall where many of the paintings had been. Westervelt's board of directors had voted to sell the art.

Jack Warner did manage to keep a large part of his collection intact, and he has created an organization called the Tuscaloosa Museum of Art to eventually display it. In the meantime, several dozen of the paintings make up a traveling show that has been exhibited in London and is now at the University of Pennsylvania's Ross Gallery in Philadelphia.

Speculation as to the buyer of "Progress" has focused on two deep-pocket collectors who are known to be interested in American art: Alice Walton, of the Wal-Mart fortune, and Bill Gates. Jack Warner's wife personally called Ms. Walton and was told that no, she did not buy the picture. It has also been reported that Gates has denied the purchase, but some sources say that he always issues denials and that it is exactly the kind of painting he would want.

Gone with the wind, our Progress is.

Posted by Ellen

Baby Goat, by Avram Dumitrescu, our very own Romanian Irish Texan painter.  Click through for Avram's story and some more of his paintings.

Posted by Ellen

The postcard had a Belgian stamp on it, and a message: "I think this is self-explanatory."

Is it?

Fortunately or unfortunately, additional explanation was at hand, in the caption in the lower left-hand corner, in French and some other languages. It turns out that the artist is Anu Tuominen, and the work is Fleur de Sel, completed in 2002–2004. The medium, if you must know, is saltshakers and travail de crochet.

From the intertubes, I see that the artist was born in Finland in 1961, and that she doesn't always work in saltshakers and crochet. Sometimes she uses a cheese slicer and knitting, sometimes mittens and socks, sometimes clothespins. In closing today, we have a work by Anu Tuominen done all in red and blue pencils.

Posted by Ellen

It’s a little hard to take at first, but keep looking till you see the cute little baby seal above the ear with the pearl earring. And the grouchy-looking turtle underneath the necklace.

And look at all the different kinds of hair on this person's head—coral hair and snake hair and claw hair and tentacle hair and even crawfish and seahorse and water-spout hair.

This is “Water,” painted in 1566 by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, part of a series of four portraits representing the elements. The subject of this portrait is approximately a human being, perhaps a woman, but quite grotesque, maybe because Arcimboldo had studied under Leonardo da Vinci, who loved to sketch dramatically ugly-looking people. As for the critters in the picture—there are more than sixty species, we’re told—they are here in true-to-life detail because Arcimboldo in his day job was court painter for Emperor Maximilian II in Vienna and Prague; his duties included painting natural specimens collected by the Hapsburgs, and his perks included access to the royal library.

Why would a court painter in the sixteenth century paint a person made out of an octopus, a frog, two eels, a stingray, a catfish, a starfish, and etc., etc., etc.? The short answer must be: because the emperor liked paintings like that. Apparently, Maximilian even liked an Arcimboldo portrait of the emperor’s son made out of fruit and vegetables.

And Maximilian wasn’t his only fan. Almost a hundred years later, when Queen Christina of Sweden raided Prague during the Thirty Years War, she specifically ordered her army to steal all the Arcimboldos in the Hapsburg collections and ship them to her in Stockholm. Many of the portraits—people made from chickens and pumpkins and grapes and turnips, a librarian with arms made of the spines of books, a lawyer with a shirt made of lawsuits and a mouth of fish lips—remain in Sweden to this day. 

Posted by Ellen

In the 1890s, when Thomas Eakins was teaching painting and anatomy at the Philadelphia Academy of Art, he spent a lot of time hanging around a local gym, watching the anatomy in action. This painting, "The Wrestlers," the final work in Eakins's sporting series, features not only a stylized moment in a wrestling match, very close to a final pin, but also some background characters watching and working and teaching and learning. In particular, the man in street clothes who is pointing at the wrestlers has been compared to Eakins himself--the coach in the gym, like the art instructor in the studio, draws attention to the wrestling action in hopes of elucidating salient matters of craft and human dynamics.

In 2011, meanwhile, wrestling season is again upon us, and one of the Stein wrestlers has stepped away from the gym for a few moments to share with us some observations about the Eakins wrestlers. "The guy on bottom," notes Allen, "should not be trying to peel the fingers off of the offensive opponent. He will be better off planting his right foot on the ground and arching on his head and trying to punch through back to his belly."

Coach in the background may be making the same point. But Mr. Eakins, the guy with the paintbrush--the guy in charge--apparently liked both these wrestlers exactly as they are.

Posted by Ellen

There's a new mural in the neighborhood, by Michael Webb. It honors Julian Abele, the architect who designed the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Duke Chapel, among other wonders, and who lived in the neighborhood for most of his life.

Abele was the first academically trained African American architect in the United States. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture in 1902. 

That's Abele in the middle of the mural, in the brown, three-piece suit, standing in front of a blueprint of the Duke Chapel tower.

The small lot here is called a park--Julian Abele Park--and with a new grant for landscaping improvements, it may soon become an actual park. One of the landscaping features is to be a walkway lined with old marble stoops, suggesting the rowhouse architecture of the neighborhood.

 The trees in front of the mural don't look like much in the wintertime, but of course they are controversial. Do they block the view of the artwork or frame it in natural greenery?

Posted by Ellen

California sculptor Michael Christian wrought this man--bogeyman?--from rusting steel. The creature first appeared last summer at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, but he has recently been transplanted to a brick courtyard in Toronto's Distillery District.

He is named Koilos, which is a place of caves in a fantasy-card game. He's fourteen feet high and weighs about a ton. And he is perfectly typical of Christian's monumental-scale work, which is well known on the West Coast: vaguely human, clearly alien, all kitschy with that ineffable low-budget horror-movie something. Many Torontans have quickly grown fond of Koilos; as of last night, at least 339 photos of Koilos in Toronto have been posted on the web.

Posted by Ellen


Toxic waste can give a body of water that certain something--a sheen, a glow. Call it art. Perhaps it's not surprising, in light of what a mess we're making of this world, that there has emerged in contemporary art a movement obsessed with discovering beauty in garbage and pollution and rusting husks littering the landscape. It has been argued that the nightmarish provenance of this beauty somehow deepens it, makes it more meaningful.

When one of my children was in elementary school, his teacher assigned a paragraph about something beautiful that they'd seen with their own eyes. My child wrote about the colors shimmering in a little puddle of gasoline in the Crown Station parking lot. The teacher was very upset; she apparently thought he was mocking her and her assignment. Really, he was just showing preternatural aesthetic sensibilities.

Posted by Ellen

"Playing Chess with Tracey," painted in 2003 by the British artist Peter Blake. From his series, Marcel Duchamp's World Tour.

No comment.

Posted by Ellen

They Didn't Expect Him, by Ilya Serin, 1883. A revolutionary returns home unexpectedly from political exile, setting up a cinematic sort of family scene.

The man's mother rises to greet him. The little girl, his younger child, seems a little frightened; perhaps he has been gone so long that she doesn't recognize him. The boy, a little older, looks thrilled. The man's wife, sitting at the piano near the door, is startled and confused; perhaps she had given him up for lost. Perhaps too, she has been angry about his political obsessions that left the family abandoned for so long. The servants are watchful, eager to see what happens next.

The man himself looks haggard and unsure of himself. His return is not triumphant; perhaps it's not anything at all like what he might have imagined while he was away. Can he pick up the pieces of his old life? Will his wife welcome him back? What about his political and intellectual life, which had led to his exile? What does he do now?