William Blake: 1757-1827

Nebuchadnezzar-William BlakeBorn on November 28, 1757, William Blake is ranked among the greatest English poets and one of the most original visual artists of the Romantic era. The son of a working-class family, Blake studied art as a boy at the drawing academy of Henry Pars.  In 1772, he began an apprenticeship with the commercial engraver James Basire and 1779 entered the Royal Academy Schools as an engraver.

Blake married Catherine Boucher in 1782 who later became his studio assistant.  The couple had no children. In 1784 Blake set up his own print shop and made his living for much of his life as a reproductive engraver.  In 1788 he developed a method of etching in relief that enabled him to combine illustrations and text on the same page and to print them himself.

Blake described his technique as “fresco.” Using oil and tempera paints mixed with chalks, Blake painted the design onto a flat surface (a copperplate or piece of millboard), from which he pulled the prints by pressing a sheet of paper against the damp paint. He completed the designs in ink and watercolor, making each impression unique.

Blake bound and sold his own volumes, including Songs of Innocence of 1788 and its sequel, Songs of Experience of 1794.  Many of his large independent color prints, or monotypes, were created in 1795. From 1795 to 1797 he produced over five hundred watercolors for an edition of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, of which only one volume was published.

For Blake, art was visionary, not intellectual. He believed that the arts offered insights into the metaphysical world and could potentially redeem a humanity that had fallen into materialism and doubt.

Blake’s most important patron and closest friend was Thomas Butts, a prosperous civil servant. Butts appears to have purchased most of Blake’s output up until about 1810 including a commission of 50 tempera paintings, 80 watercolours, all of a biblical nature.

In 1800, Blake moved to Felpham, near Chichester, at the invitation of the poet William Hayley, who offered him employment for three years. It was here that Blake regained a spiritual calm and was profoundly affected by the study of Milton. He returned to London in 1804 and began “Jerusalem”, a project he worked on until his death.

In 1818, Blake was introduced to his second major patron John Linnell. Linnell commissioned works including the engravings to the Book of Job (1823-1826), and a set of illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy (1824-1827). He made regular payments to Blake until his death. Despite Linnell’s support, Blake had considerable financial problems during his later years and in 1821 was obliged to sell his entire collection of prints. In 1822, at Linnell’s insistence, he received a grant from the Royal Academy.

William Blake died of gallstones at his home in London on August 12, 1827. Largely unrecognized during his lifetime, he is now considered one of the most important figures in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age.

For a complete biography, see the sources links below.

Sources: Metropolitan Museum of Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, National Gallery of Art, Wikipedia

ART-O-MAT: Pocket Art

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Many art lovers simply don’t have the budget to purchase original works of art.  Enter the Art-O-Mat – re-purposed cigarette vending machines that have been converted to sell pocket size original works of art.

North Carolina artist Clark Whittington created the first Art-O-Mat in 1997 which he showed along side his paintings at a solo show at a local cafe. The machine sold his black & white photographs for $1.00 each. The art show was scheduled to close, however, the owner of the Penny Universitie Gallery, Cynthia Giles, loved the Art-O-Mat and asked that it stay.  It remains in its original location to this day. Following the show, the involvement of other artists was necessary for the project to continue. Giles introduced Whittington to other local artists and the group “Artists in Cellophane” was formed.

“Artists in Cellophane (A.I.C.), the sponsoring organization of Art-O-Mat is based on the concept of taking art and “repackaging” it to make it part of our daily lives. The mission of A.I.C. is to encourage art consumption by combining the worlds of art and commerce in an innovative form. A.I.C believes that art should be progressive, yet personal and approachable.”

The Art-O-Mat dispenses original art-works and may include paintings, photographs, sculpture, collage, illustration, handmade jewellery, textile arts, and more. There are 82 machines in at least 28 American States, one in Quebec, Canada, and one in Vienna, Austria. There are around 400 contributing artists from 10 different countries currently involved in the Art-o-mat project.

For more information, to get involved, or to find an Art-O-Mat near you, visit Art-O-Mat.org.

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Andy Warhol: 1928 – 1987

Born Andrew Warhola on August 6, 1928 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Andy Warhol was a painter, printmaker, and filmmaker and a  pivotal figure in the formation of the  Pop Art movement.

Warhol was the son of working-class Slovakian immigrants. His frequent illnesses in childhood often kept him bedridden and at home. During this time, he formed a strong bond with his mother.  It was what he describes an important period in the formation of his personality and skill set.

Warhol studied at the School of Fine Arts at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (now Carnegie Mellon University), majoring in pictorial design. In 1949, he moved to New York City where he quickly became successful in magazine illustration and advertising, producing work for publications such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and the The New Yorker.

Much of Warhol’s work the 1950’s was commissioned by fashion houses and he became known for his whimsical ink drawings of I. Miller shoes. In 1952, Warhol’s illustrations for Truman Capote’s writings were exhibited by the Hugo Gallery in New York and he exhibited at several other venues in the 1950′s including a 1956 group show at the Museum of Modern Art. Warhol received several awards during this decade from the Art Director’s Club and the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

Warhol was enthralled with Hollywood celebrities, fashion, and style and by the early 1960’s these interests were reflected in his artwork. Borrowing images from popular culture, Warhol’s “Pop Art” paintings were characterized by repetition of everyday objects such as soup cans, Coca Cola bottles, and 100 dollar bills.  He also began painting celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Elizabeth Taylor.

Most of Warhol’s paintings were produced in his studio that he called “The Factory” with the help of assistants. Photographic images were screen-printed on to painted backgrounds and mechanically repeated – a process that mimicked the manufacturing industry and parodied mass consumption. During the Factory years, Warhol associated with and “groomed” a variety of artists, writers, musicians, and underground celebrities including Edie Sedgwick, Viva, writer John Giorno, and film-maker Jack Smith.

Warhol worked prolifically in a range of media including painting, photography, drawing, sculpture, and film. Between 1963 and 1968 he produced more than 60 films and about 500 short “screen test” portraits of his studio visitors. His most popular and successful film was Chelsea Girls, made in 1966.

On June 3, 1968, Warhol and art critic/curator Mario Amaya, were shot by Valerie Solanas after she was turned away from the Factory studio. Warhol’s wound was almost fatal and would affect him physically and mentally for the rest of his life.

The 1970’s was a quieter decade for Warhol who concentrated more on portrait commissions for celebrities such as Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, and others.  He founded Interview Magazine and in 1975 published “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol” which expressed the idea that “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.” During the 1970’s Warhol was also involved in a number collaborations with young artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente and Keith Haring.

In general, Andy Warhol was consistently ambiguous on the meaning of his work and appeared indifferent and ambivalent. He denied that his artwork carried any social or political commentary.

Warhol died in New York City on February 22, 1987 of a cardiac arrhythmia while recovering from routine gallbladder surgery. In his will, almost his entire estate was dedicated to the “advancement of the visual arts”. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts was founded in that same year and it remains one of the largest grant-giving organizations for the visual arts in the United States today.

Sources: MOMA, Guggenheim, National Gallery of Canada, Andy Warhol Foundation, Wikipedia

Beatrix Potter: 1866-1943

peter_rabbit_first_edition_1902-beatrix-potterBorn on July 28, 1866  in South Kensington in London, England,  Beatrix Potter is best known for her  illustrated children’s books. She was an author, illustrator, mycologist, farmer, and conservationist. Potter came from a  wealthy family and although her father was a barrister, he devoted much of his time to his passions of art and photography. He and Beatrix’s mother Helen were socially active associating with many writers, artists, and politicians.

Potter had a lonely childhood and was educated at home by a governess. By the age of eight, she was filling sketchbooks with drawings of animals and plants and her artistic endeavors were encouraged, especially by her father.

In her teens, Potter spent most of her time studying, and painting and sketching. “Although she got her Art Student’s Certificate for drawing, Beatrix reached the age of 21 having had little real education. Like many adult daughters of the rich, she was appointed ‘household supervisor’ – a role that left her with enough time to indulge her interest in the natural sciences.”

In her 20s, Potter developed into a talented naturalist, made studies of plants and animals at the Cromwell Road museums, and learned how to draw with her eye to a microscope. She began to focus more on drawing and painting and began to earn a small income from her illustrations.  She had also begun to write illustrated letters to the children of her former governess, Annie Moore. Peter Rabbit was born in a letter she wrote in September 1893 to Annie’s son, Noel.

Six publishers rejected “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” before Potter decided to publish her own edition of the story. Having seen the edition, publisher Frederick Warne decided to publish Peter Rabbit, and within a year had already had to produce six editions to meet demand. “This success marked the start of a life-long relationship between Beatrix and Warne who proposed marriage in 1905. ” Although she accepted him – defying her parents, who saw that being ‘trade’, a publisher was an unthinkable match for their daughter – Norman unexpectedly died less than a month later of a blood disorder.”

Potter continued writing and produced one or two new books each year for the next eight years. In 1909 she met and then befriended a local solicitor, William Heelis. After a period of having to battle her parents’ objections to her relationship Beatrix married William in 1913.

After her marriage, Potter dedicated herself to the role of lady farmer and became an expert in breeding Herdwick sheep. From 1920, and due to failing eyesight, Potter did  less and less creative work and her books had to be pieced together from sketches and drawings done years earlier. Her last major work, “The Tale of Little Pig Robinson”, was published in 1930.

In the final part of her life, Potter concentrated on her other passion – conservation which was inspired by her friendship with Canon Rawnsley, one of the founder members of the National Trust. “Her expanding estate, funded by revenue from book sales, gave her the opportunity to fulfil an ambition to preserve not only part of the Lake District’s unique landscape but the area’s traditional farming methods.”

Beatrix Potter died on December 22, 1943.  She left 14 farms and over 4,000 acres to the National Trust, land that it still owns and protects against development today.

She wrote and illustrated a total of 28 books, including the 23 Tales, the ‘little books’ that have been translated into more than 35 languages and sold over 100 million copies.  Her stories have been retold in various formats including a ballet, films, and in animation.

Sources: V&A MuseumBibliOdyssey

Alphonse Mucha: 1860-1939

Les Saisons - Alsphonse Mucha

Alphonse Maria Mucha was born on July 24, 1860 in Ivančice, Moravia (now Czech Republic) and is known for his prominent role in shaping French Art Nouveau.  Mucha loved art as a child but studied on a choral scholarship at the Church of St Peter in Brno, the capital of Moravia.  In 1875, Mucha returned to Ivančice where he worked as a court clerk.

After his rejection from the Prague Academy of Fine Arts in 1878, Mucha traveled to Vienna to work as a scene painter for the firm of Kautsky-Brioschi-Burghardt.  In 1881, he left Vienna and moved to Mikulov (Czech Republic) where he paintied portraits. It was there that he met Count Khuen Belasi who commissioned him to decorate his castle at Emmahof and where the Count’s brother became his patron, enabling him to study at the Munich Academy of Art in 1885 and at the Acadamie Julian and the Academie Colarossi in Paris from 1887 to 1889.

Between 1890 and 1896, Mucha lived in a studio above Madame Charlotte’s cremerie and began illustrating for the theatre magazine “Le Costume au Theatre”. He met Paul Gauguin (who later shared his studio), and also began working for publisher Armand Colin.  In 1894, Mucha designed a poster for actress Sarah Bernhardt for the play “Gismonda” which led to a five year contract to create more posters and stage and costume designs for her as well as designs for magazines, book covers, jewellery and furniture for others.

Mucha’s illustrations are characterized by their mosaic backgrounds and influenced by Byzantine art. In contrast with poster makers of the time, he used paler pastel colours. His romantic female figures wear garments that are decorated with precious gems and are often flamboyantly posed and surrounded by lush flowers.

Mucha moved to a new studio in 1896 at rue du Val-de-Grace and his decorative panels “Les Saisons” were published by the Champenois firm, who he would sign an exclusive contract with around 1897.  Between 1897 and 1899, he had several solo exhibitions including shows at the Bodiniere Gallery and the Salon des Cent, in Paris, the Topic Gallery in Prague. As well, Mucha participated in the first exhibition of the Vienna Secession.

From 1904 – 1910 Mucha traveled and lived in America visiting New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philidelphia.  While there, he painted society portraits and met Charles Crane, who would later sponsor his work on the Slav Epic project. From 1905 – 1907, he worked on commissions and taught at art schools in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.  In June 1906, he married Maruška Chytilová (a former art student in Prague), with whom he had daughter Jaroslava, and  son Jiri.

Mucha, Maruška, and their daughter returned to Prague in 1910 where he would spend the next 18 years working on his Slav Epic project – a series of twenty paintings depicting the history of the Slav people.  In 1928, the completed series was officially presented to the Czech people and the City of Prague and was shown at the city’s Trade Fair Palace.  In 1931, Mucha was commissioned to design a stained glass window for the St. Vitus Cathedral, in Prague, donated by the Slavia Bank.

With the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Mucha was one of the first to be arrested by the Gestapo.  He was questioned and eventually released, but, having suffered from pneumonia in the Autumn of 1938, his health was weakened by the ordeal.  Alphonse Mucha died on July 14, 1939 and is buried at Vysehrad cemetery.  Over 100,000 Czechs attended the funeral despite the Nazi ban.

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Sources: Mucha Foundation, Mucha Museum, Wikipedia