Framing The Art of Romaine Brooks
September 22, 2016

Romaine Brooks was something of an interior decorator as well as an artist. She took a lively interest in the frame designs and finishes for her artworks. Several of the paintings in the exhibition The Art of Romaine Brooks are in frames that she personally designed or that were prepared under her direction.

Other Brooks paintings, however, came to SAAM years ago in frames that have no connection to her. We took the opportunity of our recent exhibition to reframe some of those for the show, creating frames that more closely resemble those she designed or chose. The frame for Peter, A Young English Girl was created by Eli Wilner & Company of New York as a gift to the museum. The frame for Le Piano was created in our own Lunder frame conservation lab by Martin Kotler.

Brook's painted portrait of Peter, A Young English Girl

Romaine Brooks' Peter, A Young English Girl with a frame by Eli Wilner & Company

Eli Wilner & Company created the frame for Brooks' Peter, A Young English Girl, taking cues from the artist's own enhancements to an Art Deco-inspired frame on Brooks' Self Portrait along with as other frames in the exhibition. The Wilner staff took photographs during a site visit, and also consulted notes in a frame treatment report and used a frame profile drawing provided by Kotler. For further character, they referenced and analyzed silver frames from a similar period that are in the Wilner inventory. In order to maximize accuracy, the studio craftspeople created a subtle range of profile samples for the curatorial staff to review alongside the painting itself.

The chosen finish was silver-gilded, with underlayers of gesso and a slightly orange-red clay, purposefully omitting the standard layer of ochre clay to help achieve the desired color and luminosity. After sealing the gilding, they applied an extremely thin layer of aluminum paint, followed in the normal manner with casein. Throughout the process, various in-house techniques were devised through experimentation to give the frame a sense of age, and to replicate the complex nature of the surface, including incorporating a small amount of powdered silver to imitate a unique, somewhat glittery feature that exists intermittently on the original, artist-made frame.

Before Martin Kotler began constructing his frame for Brooks' Le Piano, Chief of Conservation Tiarna Doherty was in the process of conserving the painting, which required a careful study of Brooks' techniques. Doherty found that Brooks began her paintings by toning her ground with diluted black paint, before subsequently applying layers of grays and glazes made from oil mixed with varnish. In fact, the artist used a similar approach with a number of her frames: the wood was first toned with a black stain, then gilded with a silver-colored leaf. Kotler emulated these aspects of Brooks' technique to create his frame for the Le Piano.

Kotler paints the frame

Kotler paints the wood frame with a mineral ground, called gesso, in this case a mixture of calcium carbonate, water, and rabbit skin glue.

Virginia Mecklenburg, Chief Curator, discussed and reviewed Kotler's approach along the way. He constructed the frame of oak-veneered plywood over poplar hardwood, choosing the oak because its heavily-grained characteristic would telescope through the metal leaf-gilded surface. In addition, oak is commonly used in France, where other frames in the Romaine Brooks exhibition were made, making it a natural choice.

The Art of Romaine Brooks continues through October 2, 2016. When visiting the exhibition, we hope you will look closely, not only at Brooks' extraordinary paintings and drawings, but at their striking frames as well.

Abigail Choudhury contributed to this post.

Posted by Jeff on September 22, 2016 in American Art Here, Conservation at American Art
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Luce Artist Talk with Nicole Salimbene
September 20, 2016

Each month, the Luce Foundation Center partners with neighboring Flashpoint Gallery to bring local artists to speak about their own work and the inspiration they take from SAAM's collection. We'll kick off our fall Luce Artist Talk Series on Sunday, September 25, with Nicole Salimbene, a multimedia artist whose work explores themes of mindfulness and conflict between one's internal self and the physical world. She will discuss how she uses form to encourage contemplation and provoke dialogue.


Nicole Salimbene in her studio. Photo by the artist.

Have you stood in front of a piece of artwork, eyes swelled with tears or with a grin larger than life, because the piece evoked a deep personal connection or raw emotion inside of you? On Sunday, D.C. artist Nicole Salimbene will discuss how her interactive installations invite viewers to contemplate their own personal relationship with the piece and discuss how it impacts them. Rooted deep within her artistic practice, Salimbene's art acts as a metaphor for a human experience or represents a relationship with the physical world.

Like Nicole's installations, artwork in the Luce Center uses form, color and shape to convey the human experience. Rosalind Bengelson's painting, Abstraction, uses bright primary colors and simple shapes to represent the vibrancy of life while Kenneth Campbell's sculpture, Nike, uses smooth stone to give it an "awareness of its own sense of gravity, making it seem as mobile as humans are." Nicole's work, which hones in on themes of mindfulness and conflict, challenges the viewer to grasp its intended meaning from its material and form as well. Her current exhibition, titled Mending, consists of thousands of threaded sewing needles and tangled sculptural masses of yarn and stitches. She strives to create elegance and monumentality out of everyday materials traditionally used for mending or repair. Her unique material choice and sculptural forms compel the viewer to stop and meditate on the meaning of the piece and their relationship to it. She hopes the viewer draws the connection that the steady act of threading a single sewing needle represents the stitch-by-stitch process the viewer must take to create transformations in their own life and in the world.

During her talk, Nicole will draw connections between her current exhibition and Sean Scully's work, Black Moon. In addition to Scully's piece, her emphasis on meditation and reflection takes on similar themes of other works within the Luce Center such as Bruria's work, Dream Sequence, which uses lace, butterfly decals, and porcelain to allude to a meditative space.

Based in Washington, D.C., Nicole Salimbene creates art for meditative practice and hopes her work brings attention to issues within the environment, compelling the viewer to explore reasons behind their own personal life choices. On Sunday, we look forward to learning more about the connections she draws from the pieces here in Luce, as well as in her own artistic practice.

Please join us at 1:30 p.m. for Nicole's presentation and a short Q&A afterward.

Posted by Madeline on September 20, 2016 in In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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September's Handi-Hour at the Renwick
September 16, 2016

Join us on Thursday, September 22nd from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Renwick Gallery for our early fall Handi-hour.

After you make this adorable key tray, you'll never worry about losing your keys again. You'll always know where they are. Bring your creativity and excitement for all things decoupage and collage and we'll provide everything else. Paint, magazines, Mod Podge—everything you'll need to transform a plain wooden tray into a work of art. For extra craft flavor, we'll have beer from Denizens Brewing and music from the LATO duo. Spaces are still available, so buy a ticket, for you and a friend (you both must be 21 or older). Check out the video above for basics on decorating a tray, and we'll see you at the Renwick on the September 22.

Posted by Gloria on September 16, 2016 in American Craft, Post It
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African American Artworks at SAAM
September 15, 2016

William H. Johnson

William H. Johnson's Going to Church

The Smithsonian American Art Museum boasts more than two thousand works of art in its collection by more than two-hundred African American artists. Covering centuries of creative expression, the artworks explore themes that reflect the African American experience in paintings, sculpture, prints, textiles and photographs. From an important grouping of recently acquired works by self-taught artist Bill Traylor to William H. Johnson's vibrant portrayals of faith and family, to Mickalene Thomas's contemporary exploration of black female identity, the museum's holdings reflect its long-standing commitment to black artists and the acquisition, preservation, and display of their works.

In honor of the opening of the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture, SAAM is showing 184 works from our collection by African American artists. The nearly two-hundred objects will remain on view on all three floors of the museum, including the Luce Foundation Center, through February 28, 2017. The artists included in SAAM's collection powerfully evoke themes both universal and specific to the African American experience. Many reflect the tremendous social and political change that occurred from the early Republic to the Civil War, rise of industry, the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance, the post-war years, the Civil Rights movement and beyond up to the present day questions of self and society.

Beginning in the mid-1960s SAAM acquired significant works by African American artists including Sargent Johnson's Mask and James Hampton's visionary installation, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly, as well as works by Romare Bearden and Alma Thomas. In 1980 the museum added works to its collection by 19th century artists Joshua Johnson, Robert Scott Duncanson, Edmonia Lewis, Edward Mitchell Bannister, and Henry Ossawa Tanner. Six years later, the museum acquired more than four-hundred works by folk and self-taught artists including paintings by Sister Gertrude Morgan and Bill Traylor.

In addition to the artists listed above, the museum contains key works by Loïs Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Benny Andrews, Martin Puryear, John Biggers, Thornton Dial, Sr., and Augusta Savage as well as Washington's own Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam, and Felrath Hines. Contemporary artists in SAAM's collection include Mark Bradford, Faith Ringgold, and Kerry James Marshall, among others.

Download the brochure to learn what's on view and where.

While you're at SAAM, don't forget to check out Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten for an insider's take on the greats of the Harlem Renaissance.

Posted by Howard on September 15, 2016 in American Art Here
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Integrating Art in the Online Classroom
September 12, 2016

Michael Hristakopoulos teaches high school social studies at a virtual school in Florida. This July, he participated in one of SAAM's summer teacher institutes, offered for English and social studies teachers interested in integrating American art into their curricula. This summer, 59 teachers from 22 states and Washington, D.C., participated in one of two week-long sessions. Michael fills us in on how he applied his experience here to his online teaching environment.

Michael Hristakopoulos

Michael Hristakopoulos participating in one of SAAM's summer teacher institutes in July.

Visual art can be understood as an expression of the human experience. A reflection of our history, culture, and ideas over time, art has relevance to every area of study. In an era when many schools are struggling to keep their art programs alive, educators across all disciplines must be proactive about integrating art into their courses. And I am a strong advocate for the value of art in the social studies classroom. Taking time to examine artwork in class has the potential to bring classroom content to life, helping students think critically, make interdisciplinary connections, and find relevance to their own lives.

It was this type of interdisciplinary eye-opening that was my goal when I had students in my online American government class review Edward Hopper's taut, mysterious Cape Cod Morning. I had the pleasure of examining this work closely as a participant in one of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's week-long summer teacher institutes this July. And its subject matter naturally provokes relevant questions for a class of high school government students: Where do American women find themselves in 1950, at the time this painting was completed? What seems to be Hopper's message about women and the wider society? How can we read Cape Cod Morning as a precursor to the changes soon to come for American women? What about loneliness? Does Hopper's subject exalt modern life or critique it? This painting offers myriad points of departure for a discussion with any class, and I would argue that many paintings present the same opportunity for those who simply take time to look.

My classes, along with a rapidly growing number in our public school system, are taught online. Even more traditional classrooms are often incorporating online meeting spaces or digital content. Thanks to the efforts of museums like SAAM, incorporating artwork and museum resources is easier than ever. High resolution images, thoughtful criticism, and pre-made lesson plans broken down by subject and content area streamline integration of art into online platforms as well as traditional classrooms. My own short lesson on Cape Cod Morning, for example, is accessible as a collection on the Smithsonian's Learning Lab, along with hundreds more collections created by teachers and museum professionals.

In my online government class I chose to place Hopper's painting outside of the formal flow of lesson content, but still within the conceptual "learning space" of the class. My course is administered through the popular Canvas learning management system, and uses a feature called "Announcements," which allows the instructor to make a posting that is seen by every student at their next login. Students logging in can get their thoughts flowing simply by clicking on an image such as Cape Cod Morning, and answering a few provocative questions about how it could relate to lesson content. In order to keep their responses organized, I use a simple and editable online survey through Google Forms which enables me to view student responses in a spreadsheet, and review their reflections on the painting I have chosen.

Teachers in any number of other contexts could just as easily incorporate art into their curriculum. Just like art itself, the possibilities for digitized content and online applications are endlessly flexible. As educators, we owe it to students to ensure the arts and humanities remain part of their education, whether learning takes place online or in person. Institutions like SAAM offer a multitude of resources to help educators do this; but the final responsibility is with us to keep art alive for our students.

Posted by Phoebe on September 12, 2016
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