The conclusion of this painting’s 700 mile 20 year round trip is a fitting end to this series of my work and I feel like my summer projects have been finally completed.
A quick backstory on the painting’s subject in case you are catching up on this at the end: The cotylorhynchus is an early Permian synapsid that was first described by OU’s own J. Willis Stovall in 1937. The species name for the specimen found just north of Norman is Romeri for Alfred Romer (1894-1973), the founder and first president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology which now grants the Romer Prize to predoctoral students for work excellence of scientific value and oral presentation at SVP’s annual meeting.
Shead’s 1938 painting is the first attempt at depicting the animal in life and while there are many issues with the interpretations by today’s standards, it stands as a testament to his skill as an artist and the importance of paleoart, even in the 1930s. The painting itself lived in the Stovall Museum until the time came to move into the new building in the late 90s early 2000. There are a few different accounts to where it was found initially, leaning up behind a vacant building, next to the trash receptacle, or similar, but either way it was slated to be discarded. Either room or just it’s own out of date representations of science may have doomed it, but thankfully a cheerful passerby inquired about taking it and it was saved.
I don’t know the names of any of the parties involved at this point, but at least 2 different stories corroborate what happened next: The painting made it’s way to the finder’s brother who was attending A&M down in College Station, Tx and hung in his apartment until he graduated whereupon he presented it to the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Lab. There the “Komodo Dragons” quickly became a staff favorite.
Now, something about this painting if you haven’t made it out by this point is it’s size. The thing is nearly ten and a half feet long and over four feet tall. This wasn’t just swept away under an arm like a folded newspaper. To relocate this thing anywhere required work, and a great deal of it.
Thankfully the powers that be at the research lab agreed to gift the painting back to the Sam Noble where it now nearly completes some semblance of a “set” of what Shead paintings I have been able to track down. A pickup date was scheduled that coincided with a need to transfer some textiles from another collection on the A&M campus to Sam Noble and we were to initially head down sometime between the 28th and the 30th of August.
Poseidon, not being a fan of art or terrestrial fauna, had other plans. Hurricane Harvey, in addition to the immense devastation along the Texas coast, postponed the painting’s return trip. We eventually rescheduled for September 25th and 26th.
Texas A&M is about 357 miles from the University of Oklahoma and after picking up the rental van and removing what seats we could, we loaded it with all our packing and strapping and were finally headed south around 10:30 am.
The next morning we met the Biodiversity Heritage folks and prepared to claim the prize. As if making up for the delay, luck smiled on us in the form of a masonite backing on the painting which made if far easier to secure in the van. Some framing, lashing, and a few knots and it was ready to return to it’s ancestral home.
We picked up the textiles across campus and left College Station nearly exactly 24 hours after we have left Norman. We caught a break in the rain bands when we unloaded the cargo and it is now safely in “the bubble” where it will rest in a type of quarantine for a few weeks before getting it’s frame worked on and joining the other wayward Shead paintings.
Not only is the Cotylorhynchus Norman’s native son, but it is the only painting of Shead’s that we have a photograph of him painting. I don’t think I could ever thank the wonderful folks at A&M enough for agreeing gift it to us. To think that it could be displayed with the photograph of the artist at work gives me an incredible sense of satisfaction with how this whole thing has played out.
Seeing just this sampling of Ralph Shead’s work, now nearly all collected back under one roof, is amazing just from the art and the historical perspective. If these enormous works can ever be displayed together in the same room it would certainly be testament to the power of paleoart and paleoartist–past and present –to still inspire awe in the visitor.
If you have been following along, you will recognize the crescendo of this Shead story has taken over my posts and summer research. It is hard to think of anything else I could add to what I’ve discovered so far save just adding to his already herculean numbers of completed pieces of art. Following the magazine covers that were part of his enormous portfolio and utilizing the interlibrary loan services at my library I secured a few copies of the Specialty Salesman Magazine.
They aren’t readily available and is one of those magazines whose volume numbers roll over in the middle of the calendar year. Luckily I was able to get a copy of November 1925 as it explained the change in editorial and layout (in great detail), and the new direction that the magazine was headed. This is fortunate because one of the pages featured a set of portraits of the magazine staff including their titles. Not only was Ralph Shead a contributing illustrator to the magazine he was the magazine’s art director. This explains the several covers that were part of the portfolio as well as the few pieces of art that weren’t his.
So far the earliest I have seen is the November 1925 edition, but one of the portfolio covers shows the change from 1924 to 1925. Perhaps he was working for the museum even earlier. I am still trying to track down as many copies of the magazines as I can to at least figure out when he started publishing illustrations there. This isn’t a particularly easy task as the magazines are large format (about 12×14 inches) and average 150 pages each. Some of the earliest ones I have seen swell to nearly 250. This means they take up a lot of space on library shelves and are likely not to be requested much. This is one of those instances where the physical copies of the magazines are essential to determining who produced the art. As great as microfilm is for text it is just as bad when it comes to images. We’ve preserved hard black and white letters for 500 years, but there was no apparent reason to care about that the images were. Simple pictures and visual aids are of no importance. (This is where we need a dedicated sarcasm font). For instance, in microfilm you would never be able to make out the works on the wall or on Shead’s easel in this image. Working with the physical copy you can clearly see one of the originals from the previous post hanging on the wall.
I am working on getting a clearer scan of that page to see if I can match any more of the extant pieces with the Art Department’s studio. I am hoping against hope that the one he is working on in this photo is one of the originals, but I fear I may have already used up my allotment of luck for this project.
Before I show the few matching pieces that I have found I want to share a little about the magazine itself. As its title suggests it is a magazine for men and women who sell. Sell what, exactly? And to whom? The mid twenties saw a rise in the traveling salesman and this magazine was a trade magazine of sorts to those enterprising enough to go door to door. Even if you’ve never been visited by a brush or vacuum cleaner salesman, you know there kind. This is exactly what Daffy Duck was doing representing the various head offices in Walla Walla, Washington. It wasn’t just a television trope.
Among the short stories illustrated by Shead and a handful of others there were scores of advertising pages providing dealer direct stock of men and women’s clothing, fountain pens, pocket watches, and even fire extinguishers. It is basically a magazine full of all the things that are relegated to the backs of most magazines today.
With nearly 9 more years to round out the 20s I do not know when or if I will be able to complete the decade an further to see when Shead’s final piece appeared, but there is more than enough here to attest to the profound productivity during his time in Indiana. In the 14 issues that I have catalogued Shead produced 84 illustrations and the all their covers.
For every one of the originals that are still in the portfolio there are several that exist as illustrations only. Some are part of the same stories, others are dispersed throughout countless other stories.
Shead’s illustration surrounding this poem “The Gallant Salesman” also shows that his animal scenes were just as good as any of those featuring people. It would be almost a decade before his subjects took him back to Norman to the campus museum and into prehistory.
As a final though on Shead’s work and to tie it all back around to his work at the Stovall museum and where I first encountered him, there is a marvelous collection of images that are all part of the same project. Throughout this project besides breaking through some of the obscurity of the man and his work, I have been able to see his watercolor study, the plaster Marquette (which it turns out are not his), and a beautiful black and white photo of the finished diorama as it ran in The Oklahoman in 1952.
Several days after visiting with Ralph’s great nephew, Bill, he called me to say he had found a small watercolor study for one of the old museum dioramas and a few charcoal studies that Ralph had done as a student and others that were originals submitted as accompanying illustrations for short stories.
I was finally able to go back with my camera and take better photos of the paintings as well as look at these new finds. Those “few” sketched turned out to be an enormous century-old portfolio filled with over 100 pieces of art that Ralph had done either for story illustrations, studies, or magazine cover layouts. I was in awe.
The magazine covers were layout for The Specialty Salesman: The National Inspirational Monthly for Men and Women who Sell. The earliest cover layout was the January 1924 issue. I have no idea if these are the same ones that include the illustrations, but I have three years worth (12 months collectively bound) requested through interlibrary loan to find out.
Other covers included a music journal and an advertising flyer for the ad service that Ralph was working for in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The nudes and studies are not dated but could be from his time as a student at the University of Oklahoma. The earliest dated piece is from 1916 which was Ralph’s senior year at OU. The architectural details (Cherokee Gothic) reveal that it is somewhere on campus.
Most of the illustrations, when dated, are 1925 and 1926. These make up the bulk of the portfolio, which, incidentally survived the house burning down in 1937. Flipping through these huge (18×24 inches) original illustrations was something that doesn’t happen every day, and all could have easily been lost 80 years ago. In addition to just being great artwork, the instructions for the engraver and printer were included on many including the finished sizes for printing, the largest being a mere 8.25 inches.
There a a few pastels and watercolors among the monotones as well.
One of the watercolors ties back into Shead’s museum work. It is a watercolor sketch for one of the many dioramas he painted for the Stovall Museum at the University of Oklahoma starting around 1933. Shead created these Leptomeryx plaster models for reference.
Finally, in the back of the giant portfolio was a “regular” sized sketchbook. The remaining sketch pages were all landscape studies from the 1940s complete with the color descriptions for painting– things like “pinkish bluff” and “light purplish bluff.” Many of these are recognizable areas for anyone who frequents the Southwest. Most specifically the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico.
The Sandia Mountain sketch is dated September 1948 which means this enormous portfolio spans at least 32 years of work including Shead’s time as an OU art student, his work as a professional advertising and illustration artist, his return back to Norman and his unfathomable amount of artwork at the museum, and, likely, the personal landscapes that adorn the walls of his home. Such a corpus of work, in addition to the fact that nearly anything at the Stovall Museum with paint on it was his, proves that R.B. Shead is fantastically more than the few sentences dedicated to him in the “official” university histories.
To continue from the end of the previous post, this will just highlight the largest painting completed by Ralph B. Shead. This Oklahoma Geologic Map is dated 1938, making it another in the line of WPA paintings.
Age and renovation have taken a toll on something that was never meant to last this long. It was another of those bygone works marked for disposal. Preliminary talks are underway on how to get it restored/preserved, where it should hang after, and how to maintain it in the meantime. Maybe we can do something broadly inclusive like a crowdfunding campaign. The thing itself is a logistical nightmare measuring approximately 10×14 feet. It appears to have been painted with acrylic paint, so I am not sure if restoration is an option, it may just be a preservation issue with a coat of sealant to prevent anymore paint loss or damage.
These are just raw camera images I have taken in order to try and do some digital repairs on it myself. As soon as Photoshop is working again on my work laptop I will get right on that. Until then, enjoy this enormous map with scenes of Oklahoma farm and industry surrounding it.
For me, History is filled with people and things. I have never really indulged in the movements and theories and isms that seem to infect the past presently. For a historian this is a professional character defect, for me it is what brings history alive and allows us to find our connections to it. It is likely why I spent so much time learning archaeology and paleontology. I believe it is ultimately what lead me to the history of science so I could talk about all of that at once.
When I first came to OU and was getting settled across campus with the few people I had some connection with I was shown around the Sam Noble Natural History Museum. On the second floor back in the hallway to the VP lab and collections there are these two enormous paintings (13.5 feet long by 3.5 feet high). After taking in the scale and content of these behemoths I immediately looked for the signature. “Ralph B. Shead ’42” and “Ralph B. Shead ’34 (or 39 it is obscured by the frame I believe it is 34).
Who was this artist? What else had he done, and why was he doing these things at this scale? This was years before I started the digitization and scanning project and information was slow in coming. I wouldn’t even find a photo of him for 2 years. When I started scanning and updating an internal manuscript on the history of the museum I gleaned a little more information.
You can see how hard it is to piece this stuff together. Langston missed Shead’s retirement by a few years which is understandable because Langston was working at the National Museum of Canada from 1954-62. Shead stayed at the Museum until 1960 or 61 and he wan’t simply the museum artist. In addition to his museum technician and painting work he served as the Oklahoma sate superintendent for the WPA during the 30s (when the bulk of his work was completed). The WPA records and receipts over in our Western History Collection indicate that some paint and supplies were purchased as part of the “Fossil Bones” project making at least the two paintings upstairs technically WPA art. Through some interesting turn of events another giant (13-footer) painting now resides down at the Texas A&M Biodiversity Heritage prep lab. The irony behind this is that its subject matter is Norman’s native (Permian) son–the Cotylorhynchus.
The Cotylorhynchus painting falls under the WPA years as well and was complete with the aid of a plaster or clay model he created.
Shead also created other plaster models for reference, and I believe he was the one who fashioned/oversaw the plaster for the Procamelus (now Aepyicamelus) skeletal reconstruction that accompanied the skull until it disintegrated.
The bulk of Shead’s work predates the formation of the WPA by a year. They were the “missing” and then “rehomed” paints from the previous two posts. They are also impressive in scale and scope as well, and add three more paleontology paintings to Shead’s portfolio. Ralph’s great-nephew told me that the marine reptiles mural wasn’t one of Ralph’s. Conrad said he was certain that it was a signed just as the Mammoth was, of course the place where his signature would have been was unfortunately damaged when it was removed from the wall. It doesn’t look quite like other works by Shea, and was painted on sheetrock and not canvass like Shed’s other works, but he did paint most everything that was in the museum. If anyone out there has a photo of this with the signature intact please send it along.
The moving of these paintings led to some renewed interest in some old emails and leads that were passed to me for follow up. Chasing down contacts I was able to locate the final “missing” mural that I was aware of living peacefully over in the Geology Graduate offices in Sarkey’s. It is another of Shead’s giants too, this one of a Carboniferous landscape painted in 1938 (during the WPA funded period)
There were also some Shead paintings reportedly hanging out in the microbiology department so I went in search for them. There were three, two in an classroom/lab and one in the herbarium office. These were as surprising as the marine reptile mural because I had never seen mention or reference of them. I photographed them to add to my ever-growin Shead dossier. When I was processing the images later that evening I noticed that there were no signatures on the microscope or fungi ones, but I assumed they had been covered by the frame (looking back now I don’t think that is the case, I just need to look harder).
The other one was even more surprising because while it is a Shead painting, it wan’t painted by Ralph.
I had no idea there *was* a Robert Shead and that added a whole new layer to the simple project of documenting Ralph B. Shead’s work. I found even less on Robert Shead (1908-1999) than his older brother Ralph. Robert had a son who ended up working at an internationally acclaimed interior design firm in Dallas. That son’s, (David LaForge Shead) obituary outlined his work followed in his parents’ footsteps studying art and design at OU. I haven’t been able to track down Robert’s years at OU yet. William Shead confirmed all this and added that Robert had a lucrative interior design company in Oklahoma City. He even served as a designer during his war service years, boasting that he has designed the interior of MacArthur’s private plane. He also confirmed that the fungi and the microscope were Robert Shead paintings and not Ralph’s.
Ralph however received his certificate of art in 1916, 14 years before Stovall arrived at the university, and became *the* name associated with all things museum and paleontology related. David Levy’s The University of Oklahoma: A History, Volume II 1917-1950 only mentions Shead in a single sentence: “Ralph Shead, a professional artist who became a long time employee of the museum, designed displays and created historic murals.” (214). At least two of which include a Jurassic scene and the background for the oreodon exhibit. Not only did Shead paint the background but he did the figure sculpting for the diorama as well.
Pretty short-shrift for someone who produced four 13+ foot paintings, three slightly smaller ones, and served as acting director of the museum between 1952 and 54 (Stovall died in 1953) after the “new” Museum was opened in 1951.
The paleontology paintings aren’t even the largest scale that Shead worked with while painting at OU. There is an enormous geological map of Oklahoma painted with various labor scenes around it that I will be spending some time with next week photographing more completely and attempting to do some digital repairs on it.
Shead wasn’t bound to the art studio during his tenure at the museum. As WPA superintendent part of his work included accompanying the visitors and press to sites worked under WPA funding. Here here is during the “This Project Pays your Community” public tour week in the Cimarron County Dinosaur Quarry.
Similarly, Shead’s fieldwork was not simply administrative. There were times when Shead as a “museum technician” was involved in the dirt of the excavation, and like his paintings he worked with dinosaurs and extinct mammals.
Later in 1941 Shead published a 7 page informational booklet on the Bear Zuni Fetishes from the Spiro Mounds archaeological excavations. Spiro was another scientific University WPA project. OU Anthropology students Shawn Lambert and Lucius Martin presented a poster highlighting the OU WPA artists and their illustrations for the Spiro project and publications. Interestingly this poster hangs in the same paleontology hall as the first two Shead paintings that I saw.
While I was working on this collection of Shead work, I contacted his great nephew William who not only lives in Norman, but lives at the original Shead address. The original house burned in the 1930s and the current house is a gorgeous faux adobe Mexican colonial partially designed by Ralph with the interior designed by Robert. It is definitely my favorite house in Norman.
I spent the afternoon surrounded by even more of Ralph’s art in his old house catching up on the Shead family history which is as fascinating as I had figured and in a surreal way similar to threads of my mother’s side of my family. Just to add all the smaller pieces of Shead’s work here to what is part of the University it is obvious that Shead painted all the time. Some of these landscapes are from the areas in the panhandle area which William said Shead really liked. I am going to make it a habit of visiting more often and next time I will have my big camera, but for now, having all of Ralph’s extant work together, even if it is just digitally. is a pretty fulfilling feat. There is at least one more that was given to a family psychologist friend. Either set of these would be an impressive portfolio, when lumped together is simply staggering.
Most are normal “house-art” sized (16×20 or so) except the Mexican scene, it is at least 48×60. I want to try and get some better photos of at least that one for a print.
I don’t know much more about the artist that was born in New Madrid, Missouri in 1892; What was he up to between 1916 and 1933 when he started painting for Stovall and the museum? Shead’s WWI draft card lists him as a school teacher in Jenks in June of 1917. William said he thought Shead was pursuing a master’s degree in art in Indiana before the family called him home to help during the depression. A few newspapers have him exhibiting art at the Herron Art Museum and the Indiana State Fair. He is mentioned as living in Indianapolis with his brother Walter (newspaper reporter) in the reports of Laurance’s death in 1933. An article in the Inianapolis Star (January 8, 1935) lists Shead as having attended Washington University in St. Louis, MO, the Grand Central School of art, and the School of Design in New York. It mentions his OU museum murals and a potrait of Bishop Francis Kelly of the Catholic diocese of Tulsa and Oklahoma City which all seem to have been completed in 1934.
His plans to return to Indianapolis in 1935 changed when he became the WPA Oklahoma state superintendent that same year. When the WPA folded, Shead became the assistant director of the University Museum, serving as “acting director” from 1952 to 1954 when the Hungarian-born archaeologist Stephan Francis Borhegyi took over the museum directorship.
According to William Eugene Hollon’s A History of the Stovall Museum of Science and History (1956), during the late 1940s through the early years of the 1950s Shead was the only full-time museum employee. He serve as assistant director and head of exhibit preparation at the renamed Stovall Museum until he retired in 1960. He continued to paint the rest of his life finally laying down his brush in 1969.
Shead is buried next to his parents and brother (not Robert) in the the St. Joseph’s Catholic section of the Norman IOOF cemetery on Porter St. in Norman, less than 50 yards from J. Willis Stovall and his wife. There is an American Legion medallion next to his headstone. There were even a story tied to the headstone.
The large Shead stone was created by Shead’s father James. He was skilled with concrete and decorative planters and birdbaths are part of the front garden at the house.
The family stories are not without tragedy either. The brother Laurance that is buried here was a fairly successful theatre manager at the Garden Theatre in Paterson, New Jersey who was known to help anyone down on there luck. One such patron, a prospective singer from Georgia named Louis Kenneth Neu took advantage of his kindness, accompanied Laurance to his apartment for a party, and eventually hit him from behind with an iron and stole his wallet. Laurance died of his injuries and Ney was later apprehended and executed in New Orleans for the murder of Laurence Shead and a wealthy Tennessee businessman.
Their mother Mary is, so far, the longest-lived Shead, and her story ties the family to one of the most significant geological stories in North America. Her Father’s Grandfather, a LaForge survived the New Madrid Earthquake only to catch pneumonia from wading through the slush that was once his farmland when the Mississippi River flooded. He later succumbed to his illness ultimately making him another victim of the quake.
His surviving work is impressive by any standard, and that isn’t taking into account all the already (really) lost “displays” and “historic murals” that served as backdrops for all the dioramas throughout the museum. His work isn’t simply art or background, paleontology or archaeology. His work crisscrossed all aspects of the museum, its collections, and ever expanding subject areas (which I think is why I have been drawn to finding out more about him). They also remain some of the strongest physical links to the history of the university museum outside of the collection artifacts themselves.
Continuing with the Scooby Doo theme here I get to update one of the most exciting stories that has happened since my time here. You remember my last lament of the missing murals? Well guess what isn’t “missing” anymore!
This is far more than a “ta-da” story and I need to explain about the use of “” above missing. Through the years and many renovations and relocations things get shuffled and repurposed. Such was the case of the old museum storage facility. When the University Landscape Management HQ and shop moved into the old building there were four large paintings standing in the corner stacked against each other.
Luckily, Conrad Zindel, a 17-year-old temp worker in 1997 liked them enough to hang them in their break room (which I am convinced is the only reason they’ve survived intact/ this long/at all). This is why I used the “” earlier, because for me they were missing, but for Conrad, after going full-time, they are something that he has seen every day for the last 20 years!
Recent renovations for their building meant they had to come down and they would not be re-installed. It was this news that drove his wife Brandy and her sister Kimberley Cloud to hit the internet where, as luck, would have it, she hit on my most recent blog post here. I can’t describe the excitement when her comment hit “I know where these paintings are.” I dropped everything and directed her to contact me through my Paleo Porch facebook page and we started figuring out how to orchestrate the rehoming of these nearly 85-year-old paintings. It culminated with me meeting Conrad at his shop not long after I came into work.
They were coming to install sheetrock in the area where they were temporarily stored so we had to act quickly (in fact they started installing it while we were moving the last one!). Thankfully everyone who could do anything about it was on campus that morning, and through the course of the day the two largest ones were taken down the the museum. The two smaller (relatively speaking) paintings were taken to Conrad and his wife Brandy’s house lest they be stepped on or damaged in some other way and they–including the mammoth one that started this whole adventure–will be re-homed this coming week and I will update this post some higher quality images than the ones that Brandy sent me online as soon as I get them.
This wasn’t just a case of missing/found, only 2 of the four were on the list of the ones I knew existed. The other two, one large and one smaller, were both new to me and terribly exciting. At the time of writing I only have images of the one that was indeed a mural–painted on Sheetrock–and the other large canvas. But look at this classic marine reptile scene! Now I need to try and backtrack the historical side of things and see what I can find out about it. Since this piece was done directly on sheetrock it took a little damage when it was removed, losing Shead’s signature and the date (another 1934!) But it is absolutely stunning.
The other one was even more extraordinary as it wasn’t a painting by Shead, but one by J. Willis Stovall himself! I have only seen a corner of it featuring Polar Bears from an photo Brandy sent me through facebook.
It was a red letter day, and will be even more exciting this week when the other two are able to join their old roommates down at the museum.
I love everything about this story, how they were not really lost, how the timing hit to get them moved quickly, but mostly how it was my silly little blog post that helped orchestrate it. It just goes to show you what can happen when the doors of communication are opened as far as humanly possible. I am confident that there would be no other way that this would have played out so positively had it not been for my silly blogging that Brandy and her sister Kimberley found on my website in an internet search. As an archaeologist and historian I am beyond thrilled that they’ve been “found,” as a paleontologist and historian of science, I am excited about the historic representations of these scenes, and as someone who likes good stories I am beyond elated that this one played out like it did.
The conversations that this has started have also proved fruitful. Since then I have been able to ascertain that another of Shead’s paintings currently lives in the Texas A&M Biodiversity Heritage prep lab and that he was commissioned for another 5 murals related to biology and they are on campus in two different buildings which I fully intend to find in the next episode, which I think will give me enough for a full post on the artist Ralph B. Shead. Until then, I can shift pop culture references and say that this part of the case is solve-ed!
I have found it odd that the case has to be made to study photography and art as source material and not merely “visual aids.” The only think that is even more odd is that this case is relatively recent.
The four books and one article in this little operating section tend to all say the same thing–photographs are important not because they are photographs, and not even because the subjects of the photographs, but because they represent a distinct moment in time of an ever-changing culture. The contextual culture of regional and temporal data are frozen in time just as the faces of early portraits. Each work provides its own examples of why this is an important shift in thinking about images. As Martha Sandweiss points out in Print the Legend sometimes what isn’t photographed or what was photographed and then lost can reveal as much (if not more) about a certain moment in the past. Sandweiss provides a solid foundation that scholars should use in reassessing their relationships with photographs. I believe this improved methodology will also easily cover other visual culture as well. Print the Legend could easily be a history of technology work as it follows the exponential developments of photography across two generations (her investigation ends in the 1890s) which happens to parallel the development of America’s mythos regarding their newly acquired and explored territories. For my purposes, she provides the best answer for why, after a MA in American History I have shifted over to work with the Art Historians for my dissertation:
“A lingering bias in historical training teaches would-be historians to value the literary over the visual or material, and teaches them how to query, challenge, and interpret literary documents, while leaving them few analytical skills for the interpretation of visual records”
While looking back through some of the little work I have done with photography (only really starting in 2014) I did find a C-SPAN video of this very book, and it is worth the time you can devote to it:
A funny aside is that you can purchase this as a DVD or an MP3. The latter of which you can listen to Sandweiss describe the photographs, which leads one to believe they missed the point.
Alan Trachtenberg’s Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Matthew Brady to Walker Evens is one of the earliest books (1990) to call for a shift in the understanding of photographs. It is one of those books that requires complete attention and an appropriate amount of pyschological working up to undertake. It is dense.
Not in a bad way, but at times the theoretical asides (which I am certain Trachtenberg does not see as asides) get in the way of the point he wishes to drive home. My first run in with Trachtenberg was his first book about the Brooklyn Bridge. While reading this I went back and thumbed through some things in it on a hunch. Photographs does continue Trachtenberg’s thread of America as imagination. In fact in 1965 he called it “An America of the imagination.” In addition to starting the stone rolling on photography reassessment in history, Trachtenberg offers a short sentence that I am certain will come up for expansion in my future work:
“Thus O’Sullivan placed the survey camera among the instruments of practical science, allowing the history and meaning of the Western surveys (the conjunction of “pure” science and imperial economic enterprise) to reveal their contradictions” (289)
The remaining books in this section could be considered “popular” books each focusing on a single photographer as they managed to work their way through the new continental nation and new technologies in order to make names for themselves as photographers.
In Meaningful Places: Landscape Photographers in the Nineteenth Century American West, Rachel McLean Sailer highlights that print making and mythmaking went hand in hand. Few of the landscapes are void of human life or activity, to the contrary many settlers used photographs of themselves in their new spaces as vindication for the success and progress of American culture. Photographs provided constant reassurance that people were indeed where they belonged. A sense of place for people who had left their cities or even countries in the case of foreign born immigrants was something that most settlers struggled to maintain, but photography, according to Sailer was instrumental in calming some of those unspoken fears.
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis is another notch on Timothy Egan’s literary gun. I have personally read two other of his works: The Worst Hard Time and The Big Burn. Egan doesn’t write books you can glean which is one of the reasons I enjoy assigning them. The book itself follows the drama of Curtis’ life as he moved across the West capturing moments that were fading away. The story of forgotten photographs rediscovered are as much the legend as Curtis’ “quixotic” quest to capture native life. Which I think is captured better in this variant cover:
The renaissance of his work in the 1970s installed Curtis at the forefront of historical photography. Even as historians in the 80s attacked his work for being staged or “playing dress up.” Egan points out that Curtis heard these attacks during his life, and never denied it. His defense provides insight into his work and the importance of photography in the late 19th century: he wanted to represent the past, not document the present of the future. His time in Oklahoma in the 1920s saw many of the natives already fully remodeled into Euro-American culture and his pace in his “race against time” hastened. For Curtis himself, the 2001 documentary Coming to Lightis an excellent way to start. I apologize for the ads in the linked video but it was the only site that had the full program to share. Here is a snippet. You can see the whole thing here.
Curtis was involved in the Harriman Expedition in 1899 which, at this planning stage, will be the final expedition in my dissertation. Curtis also employed the new technology of moving pictures after the turn of the century, which ties back into the final book of Eadward Muybridge.
As with Sandweiss and others, the nature of photography in the American West also serves as a history of technology. Nowhere in these readings (maybe even more broadly) is that more evident than in Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows: Eadward Muybridge and teh the Technological Wild West. In fact, Muybridge’s life can be seen as a parallel with both the arc of the West and the rise of photography. He “invented” himself in western culture, photographed through the landscapes as did his contemporaries, and then made studies with the movement displayed in still photographs. His moving pictures were the legacy his family life never produced. Solnit describes Muybridge as a man who “split the second,” which had “as dramatic and far reaching [effect] as splitting the atom” (7). One reviewer did not care for this phrasing, but given the circumstances and the tenor of the book (and Muybridge’s life) I think it fits.
The final piece was an article in the Art Bulletin in December 2003 highlighting Timothy O’Sullivan as a survey photographer. Trachtenberg mentioned O’Sullivan in the quote above as the person who brought photography into the came of scientific instruments. Robin E. Kelsey’s article “Viewing the Archive: Timothy O’Sullivan’s Photographs for the Wheeler Survey, 1871-74” look at the photographs as a new form of graphic representation. That is a more precise way of expressing the landscapes, forms, materials, etc that the survey encountered. “Pictorial Rhetoric” became the tool for people like Ferdinand Hayden in order to increase (or sustain) federal appropriations for their continued surveys. One of the mor interesting portions of the articles many photographs is the sort of “line of custody” we see in O’Sullivan’s (i.e. The Survey’s) photographs:
A final thought on this reframing of photography as primary sources is stirred by the author byline in Kelsey’s article. “He is preparing a book on Survey photography.” If the article is any indication it will be an excellent book. I wonder though, if the pendulum is swinging too far into the study of photographs as primary sources that they will become more detached from their created context as they become topics or study. Something like Survey photographs is an excellent topic to undertake, but at the time the photographs, as graphic representations, were another means of transferring information and raising interest in the surveys, government exploration, and the American West as construed by the myth-makers. I think it shows the power of photographs to evoke audience interest and emotion that no popular book has been written on the Survey graph or map making or their field reports as entities. Journals have been reprinted and photos as well, but I think it will a long time before the similarities and differences between visual and literary will ever be hammered out.
This will be one of the shortest posts made on this travelogue through everything in print (Every time I start this way I drone on for over 1000 words). This is not due to the end of the semester doldrums (I’ve been on 12 -month work contracts since moving up here) or the holidays (I’d rather not do them), but because the bulk of what I have read is review of review of things that I have already written about at great length. In fact, it was precisely such foci that started my posting in earnest as I collected and transcribed my notes for class. In addition to typing up the notes I was able to track down most of the images that we used in class and included them in with their appropriate author. There is no need to re-invent the wheel at this point, so I will link to them throughout the post. This is an excellent time to realize that my previous work is now back paying dividends.
Before moving on to the two main points I want to make in this post, I wish to take a moment to remark on the shifts of formulas in the books read about individual artists. I have moved on from the rubrics of “academic” writing and fallen into the interesting (and more visually appealing) gallery books that accompanied exhibits across the United States (and sometimes farther). These collections of essays group around the artists whose work is on display and offers just enough insight to be interesting but not so much as to be overly useful for comprehensive exams preparation. I have enjoyed them though.
Early in my foray into the Art History department I made a remark about there being so few artist biographies. One of the other students (now a director at a museum in New Mexico) voiced disagreement, but offered no examples outside of these collected essays or a few pages of encyclopedia entries. I still stand by my complaint. I am not suggesting separating the artist from their work, but more bringing in as full a context as we can manage for the world their work was a part of.
What can be done is something along the lines of what Benita Eisler does for George Catlin in The Red Man’s Bones. I have read this book once before (and never got around to reviewing it which was what this whole stupid spelunk into blogging was supposed to be), but reading it a second time after reading about the culture of the growing United States, showmanship, art, and European tours, it is an even better example of taking someone who is currently existing “out of time” and putting them back into the structure that shaped there careers. For my take on Catlin see this old post.
Bierstadt and Bingham both have (excellent) posts of their own as well. I was actually able to visit the Bingham exhibit Navigating the West(which is the exhibit book that I just finished) and get a tour with the co-curator Nenette Luarca-Shoaf.
One of the best books in this section that isn’t currently being held for ransom by some other library patron (the Winslow Homer book will have to be edited back in this post or added to another one when it finally gets returned to the library) is Robert Taft’s Artists and Illustrators of the Old West 1850-1900. Each chapter is an excellent overview of an artist or a set of artists working in the same genre or region. Each one of these chapters could easily be made into a book. In fact, taking Taft as a starting point and Eisler as an end template I think one could make a lasting furrow into that lack of useful biography thing I mentioned earlier. The kicker with Taft’s work is that is was published in 1953. On a hunch I emailed one of my professors and asked if there were any updated versions or had anyone added to it. He replied there were some updated materials but no one has done it better than Taft. After finishing the book, I have to agree. It is one of those that has been added to the “purchase own copy” list that is an outgrowth of this project.
One of those included in Taft’s survey was William Jacob Hays. I bring this one up here because he might be lesser known than anyone mentioned here (or even in Taft’s book) but produced one of my favorite paintings that I have actually seen because it is at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa: Herd of Buffaloes on the Bed of the River Missouri. The sheer mass of the megafauna portrayed in the river bed give an idea of how many buffalo there were. I suppose thinking back to the environmental histories I have read here, it really is sort of the same thing as Burroughs’ poetry about nature and descriptions of the Passenger Pigeons. (this whole endeavor is turning into Dirk Gently’s Holistic detective agency).
Moving on from Taft and Buffalo I want to end with Alfred Jacob Miller and horses. Like the others I have reviewed Miller in previous posts but there are a few points to add here, less because they are new to the discussion and more because they are familiar to my life before the university: horses.
At the height of or equine days my family had 17 horses full under AQHA values, papers and all. Our number one stallion was born two weeks before I was and only recently died a year ago. Turns out he was 96 or 98% Foundation Quarter Horse which means that I could have completed all of my schooling and advanced degrees with the stud fees we never charged.
I tell that story to set up the one about Miller’s horses. When we first started looking at Miller’s paintings in class I recognized his horses all looked like Arabians which where the stock the Spanish brought back to the United States (I saw “back” because paleontologically speaking horses first evolved in the “new” world before invading the old and going extinct here). I never thought more about it until reading more about the complaints people have about Miller’s horses. They were too Arabian to be authentic wild ponies that the Indians were riding. This is the keystone in this whole putting the artist back into their context lamentation I keep tearing my sackcloth over. Miller may best be remembered for his commissions for the Scottish nobleman William Drummond Stewart.
Miller only ventured west for a few months of his life. His real mark of success (by that I mean living comfortably off his art) was back in Baltimore where he set up his studio in the center of the trade offices of the merchants, bankers, and lawyers. Just like real estate art patronage is all about location, location, location. These were the wellest-to-do of New England and were part of the growing trend in thoroughbred horse breeding and racing of which Arabians was choice starting stock. These were the people purchasing Miller’s work and commissioning his time. They expected to see Arabain horses, so that is what Miller gave them. Miller clearly had a feel for his genre, but he also had a handle on the desires of his audience. In addition to the real estate location, he also mastered another rule central to all forms of artistry–know your audience.
Just so they are most included, here is the link to my Karl Bodmer and Thomas Moran posts too. I will come back and add anything pertinent on Frederich Church or Winslow Homer if I find anything in this book:
Art and the American West is the most recent undertaking of my long and checkered career as an academic. Since finishing my MA in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine I have spent a great deal of time in our Art History department learning ways to tie in the arts to the American cultural studies that I seem to have fallen into in recent years.
The greatest benefit to getting into a program at this late in the game is that you are still interested in the topic and it hasn’t been completely scraped from your soul by years of arguing theory. I have always said that the surest way to remove any of the joy in literature is to study it at university. The same can be applied to art.
Since I have been involved in the courses or the last two years, the three intro books on my list are excellent reviews for stuff we’ve talked about in class. In class we spent more time with articles and visual analysis and less with the broader portrayals and involvement of the artists, art (as object), and art (as culture) within their historical context. This is also the same field that led to the more structured development of this blog and eventually the webpage where it lives. Many of the individual artists that will come into play in the future posts will be linked back to my first art history works that used some of the books in the series as part of the courses I was taking.
From what I have been working on, I find it is completely impossible to understand the antebellum period in American history without understanding its art. All of these overview books are collections of essays that isolate major themes and then reapply them back to the larger American Cultural landscape.
Reading American Art (Marianna Doezema and Elizabeth Milroy) offers a handy collection of American Art and their interpretations through the academy and through time. The survey runs from the colonial period through to Jackson Pollock. For my purposes the usefulness of this collection comes from the analysis of the early 19th century establishment of art as American. There is much lamentation over the fact that Americans had little pride in their own form of art. The hardest question to answer or explain is the schizophrenic nature of early art in American that needed to prove it was its own thing while striving to make it work on European terms. Political history sets up the development of this art form less in manner of than artists and more in the manner of the artists’ patrons. Whigs and Democrats in the early to mid 19th century were both striving to arrange the new Republic in a manner that benefitted their constituency. The lack of any actual aristocracy and the expansion os suffrage to those who did not own land drove the Whigs to seek control over American culture where it had lost control over American politics. Instead of calling themselves Dukes or Lords, they opted for the title of patroon and shifted to constructing reflections of American culture through their patronage of early American artists.
American Icons (Thomas W. Gaehtgens and Heinz Ickstadt) is a larger format and, frankly, easier to read version of Reading American Art. The essays are all arranged from a comparison perspective between American and European art. Many of them are comparing the differences in the American arc from those of their European counterparts. Save one. William Hauptman’s essay “Kindred Spirits: Notes on Swiss and American Painting of the Nineteenth Century” looks at the parallels with Swiss and American art, most notably the fact that national artists had to leave the nation (Switzerland or the US) in order to make their names and (however measly of) fortunes in the art world. The most interesting aspect beside the timing is the cultural arrangement of Switzerland that can be used to illuminate that of the American side. With a population less than that of New York of City, Switzerland was self divided into regional cultures that “shared more differences than similarities” and led to a multifaceted emergence of “Swiss” art. (Contrary to popular belief Swiss art is not art that is full of holes).
Finally, Barbara Groseclose’s Nineteenth-Century American Art is part of the Oxford History of Arts series and is filled not only with useful chapters and asides, but with further reading and sections on which museums to visit to see some of the famous collections of American art. As with the others, Groseclose starts American Art in Boston and follows it through the development of art unions as “culture” spreads through New York and Philadelphia. One of the strengths of this book is that was published with most of the art images in color. Even Reading American Art which sold itself on being a collection of essays intended to remove the need for bad photocopies of articles and aides for teaching class was published without colored images.
These intros all serve to orient oneself in the larger field of American Art History as it pertains to the Antebellum period which all have mentioned is a bit of a black hole of art history theory (which I think is one of its strong suit) even as it proves to be more important for the development of the culture of the young Republic than it at first seems. You can’t separate early American history from early American Art History and have either make any sense. Many of the artists that have works in this books were mentioned by name and covered in the books of the previous posts. Even those like John Haberle, and William Harnett who aren’t as famous as Bingham, Bodmer, or Bierstadt (who ironically, may not be that popular either given the number of times these authors talk about the obscurity of American artists in the 19th century. These early collections and studies from the mid-late 1980s all remark that this period in Art History has fallen under that research of American Cultural History and American Studies departments which means I have been on the right track trying to put it all together to understand a more complete America during the long 19th century.
I will end this with the same thing I tweeted when I finished the last book: “It should be illegal to publish black and white images of colored art works in art books.”
Turns out Hugh Hudson has a new film out that focuses on the discovery of the prehistoric cave paintings in Altamira. If you aren’t familiar with the discovery, the Cliff Notes version is an 8 year old girl named Maria led her father Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola to a cave which held amazing paleolithic paintings of bison among other wonders; scientific debates ensue.
The end of the 19th century was rife with debates on man’s place in nature as well as the entire story of mankind in general. The established French view was that prehistoric humans were incapable of such higher forms of thought required to create such things. Arguments about the past and the professional nature of the scientists and divided disciples were heated, marked, and many times personal. Paleoanthropology and other disciplines as we know them were in their infancies fetal stages and battle for the authority to pontificate on humanity’s past was as much the prize as finding answers to the questions they were asking.
Having done a fair amount of research on the Piltdown Affair and its context within the debates that came to a head because of find like Altamira, I am especially intrigued. Adding to that is the fact that like so many other important discoveries in this period it was made by an amateur. That is to say it was reported by an amateur since it was originally discovered by a child.
The movie itself looks wonderful since it will have the debates and forces of will involved (including the Church). It also included the wonder that fills Maria as the bison from the cave come alive in her dreams and become a part of her.
As with most things in life I didn’t get to this from any direct route. I actually first heard of this film through a trailer for its soundtrack. As bizarre as soundtrack trailers sound the bits and pieces around it are where I can glean more of the story.
Mark Knopfler and Evelyn Glennie worked together to create the score for the film and it sounds incredible. It was on Mark’s official Facebook page that I first say the trailer to the soundtrack. Complete with the reimagined stylized version of the famous bison on the front.
The bison form Altamira are iconic and you may recognize them from the plethora of Bisonte cigarette ads/packs that are everywhere. (I say everywhere, that may only be the case if you are as interested in Spain as I am). If not everywhere then at least on cigarettespedia.com which is a more useful website than you may think, especially for someone who studies visual culture.
Getting to the heart of the film is difficult since all the available trailers are in Spanish since it was released there at the first of this month (April 2016). This isn’t because the film is in Spanish, but because of locality (I guess). So the trailers are dubbed into Spanish which just strikes me as odd, even if I am appreciative of the fact that was produced in English.
There are a few English clips that are part of the making of the soundtrack video below where I grabbed some of the above photos. As far as the cave itself goes, it remains closed to visitors since the damage it sustained from visitor’s breathing in the 1960s. The museum close by has a full replica included some sculptures of human faces that you couldn’t get to in the cave itself. There are also reproductions in Madrid, Germany, and most recently Japan. The Caves were up for reopening to the public a few years ago, but in an effort to preserve the site the decision was made to keep them closed. looking at a fake trope was still contentious in 2014.
The Cave was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985 and they have a short video on it as well. Until it gets wider release this will have to suffice to piece together what is going on.
Update: Aug. 3, 2016 Full length English trailer finally hits youtube.