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Paper + People is a blog about the Smith College Museum of Art’s collection of over 18,000 prints, drawings, and photographs. Here you will find a diverse array of posts written by museum staff, students, scholars, and other paper enthusiasts about anything pertaining to the collection.

Any works you see featured here are available to view by appointment.

  • Friday, June 15, 2012

    Robetta’s Adoration of the Magi

    Guest blogger Julie Warchol was a participant in the 2011 Summer Institute in Art Museum Studies and is currently a curatorial volunteer in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

    The Adoration of the Magi,a recently acquired engraving by Cristofano di Michele (1462 – after 1534), simply known as Robetta, offers an intriguing and enlightening view of artistic influences and the painter-engraver relationship at the turn of the 16th-century. Robetta was born in Florence in 1462, the son of a hosier, or stocking maker. Like many men of his time, he worked in his father’s trade until 1498 when, at the age of 36, he decided to instead pursue a career as a goldsmith and artist. This kind of career change was quite unusual, as most Renaissance artists and craftsmen started apprenticing in their early teens for a lifelong career. While relatively little is known about his life, except for his public records and a brief mention in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists,we do know that he produced only about three dozen engravings, including his masterpiece The Adoration of the Magi.

    Cristofano di Michele, called Robetta.  Italian, 1462 – after 1534. The Adoration of the Magi.16th century. Engraving printed in black on beige, medium weight, moderately textured paper. Purchased with the Elizabeth Halsey Dock, class of 1933, Fund and the Josephine A. Stein, class of 1927, Fund in honor of the class of 1927.

    The Adoration of the Magi was a popular subject for Italian artists because it allowed the artist to showcase their ability to create an elaborate composition filled with animals, sumptuously clothed figures, and often a vast landscape. While Robetta does all of these things somewhat successfully, a closer examination of the print reveals the unabashedly referential nature of his work. The composition and many of the figures are directly borrowed from Filippino Lippi’s Adoration of the Magi (1496), now in the Uffizi Gallery, in a manner which raises questions about the relationship between the painter, Filippino, and the engraver, Robetta. Rather than creating an exact copy of the entire painting, Robetta’s print contains several mirror-image imitations of Filippino’s figures — particularly the kneeling Kings and the long-haired figure on the right, thought to be a portrait Lorenzo de Medici, the young cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent, from whom a crown is being removed (see details below). Other figures in the foreground are reminiscent of those in Filippino’s painting, but with slight variations of clothing, expressions, and gestures. Both works exhibit a centralized composition surrounding the Holy Family, yet Robetta creates a more unified arrangement by eliminating several figures seen in Filippino’s Adoration, including two members of the Medici family which appear in the left foreground of the painting. Although the painted Adoration was completed for the Convent of San Donato agli Scopeti at least five to ten years before Robetta’s print, scholars believe that these deliberate and discriminatory quotations of Filippino’s work point to the fact that Robetta worked from Filippino’s preparatory drawings rather than the finished painting. Whether Robetta worked in Filippino’s studio or acquired his drawings independently is unknown, but this shared relationship between painter and engraver was certainly not uncommon.

    Detail from The Adoration of the Magi.Photograph by Julie Warchol.

    Detail from The Adoration of the Magi.Photograph by Julie Warchol.

    Detail from The Adoration of the Magi.Photograph by Julie Warchol. This figure is thought to be a portrait of Lorenzo de Medici, the cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent.

    Robetta was an artist with diverse influences; he not only culled figures from many of Filippino’s paintings throughout his career, but also integrated elements of Northern printmaking, which was beginning to impact Italian artists at this time. In his Adoration, Robetta references Albrecht Dürer in his landscape of rolling hills and bulbous tree forms. A more subtle allusion is the small hat at the bottom of the print, directly above Robetta’s signature (see detail below), which is a direct quotation from Martin Schongauer’s engraving of the same subject. Although Robetta’s work is often deemed stylistically amateurish and naïve because of the late start to his artistic career, the true value of his engravings lie in how they illuminate the popular tastes at the beginning of the 16th-century, and offer modern viewers insight into the liberties of quotation taken by Renaissance artists.

    Detail from The Adoration of the Magi.Photograph by Julie Warchol.

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  • Monday, June 4, 2012

    Death in Art

    The art of dying well

    In our youth-obsessed Western society death has become taboo, hidden away in sterile funeral homes and shiny caskets. Death, a friend only to the old and the sick, not to be talked about, not to be seen. Death throughout history was never a welcome visitor. However, in times of war, famine, or disease, when death was personal, undiscriminating, and close, visual representations of death in many forms were more commonplace. A long life was for the few and fortunate, and so the emphasis was placed on the one thing inevitable in a poor soul’s life: death.

    Käthe Kollwitz. German (1867 - 1945). Tod (Death); Plate II from the series Ein Weberaufstand (A Weavers' Rebellion),1897. Lithograph on yellow-brown chine collé mounted on thick white wove paper. Purchased. SC 1958:44

    Memento Mori

    The Ars Moriendi was an originally Rhenish (German) “manual” on the art of dying well. The Cunningham Center owns an illustrated page from this intriguing piece of human history. The work highlights the medieval culture of death, which sprung up in Northern Europe around the time of the black Plague. The page in question is a 15th-century woodcut mounted on an oak panel. The book originally contained six chapters, which addressed the various elements of a good Christian death, from what to feel, how to behave, and which prayers to choose. The work was very popular at the time, widely distributed and translated in many languages. It clearly fulfilled a practical need in dire times.

    Unknown. Rhenish. The Temptation by Avarice, Plate IX from Ars moriendi. 1460-1470. Woodcut printed in grey-brown ink on paper mounted to oak board. Purchased with the Elizabeth Halsey Dock, class of 1933, Fund. SC 2005:20. 

    The virtuous dead

    While the Ars Moriendi was written for the literate few, the illiterate would find their comfort in the churches. Catholic churches were filled with examples of “good deaths” all centered around the crucified Christ. Venerable martyrs would cover the walls, often depicted in their moment of (mostly gruesome) death or portrayed with the actual instruments of their demise by their side. Unlike saints whose lives would serve as examples, the martyr found his or her glory solely in their moment of death.  

    Cherubino Alberti. Italian (1553 - 1615). Martyrdom of Santa Cristina de Bilsena,by January 1605. Engraving printed in black on medium-thick moderately textured cream-colored paper. Purchased with the Elizabeth Halsey Dock, class of 1933, Fund. SC 2011:30-2

    Death and the Maiden

    In the 16th and 17th centuries the image of death remained present in art. However, death took on many new guises. German artists like Hans Baldung Grien (whose work is displayed below) turned death into a “seducer” and lover of young maidens. The virginal pallid white female is “kissed” or actually bitten by death. In Dutch there is an old saying that something has suffered from “de tand des tijds” (the tooth of time). Here death’s “kiss” could be a kiss of aging or a kiss of death. A beautiful contemporary print from our collection titled “Death and the Maiden” clearly finds its inspiration in this age-old theme.

    Jiri Anderle. Czech (1936 - ). Death and the Maiden,1983. Soft-ground etching and drypoint printed in black and red on paper. Gift of Andrew Carron and Cathy McDonnell Carron, class of 1979. SC 2007:53-1

    Hans Baldung. German, 1485 - 1545. Death and the Maiden, 1518/20. Oil on panel. Kunstmuseum Basel. 

    The Vanitas 

    Vanity and death were also a favorite pairing. In this Hans Thoma print from 1912 this old theme is repeated. Death holds up a mirror to the young woman reminding her of her own mortality. In turn the young fancy man in his plumed hat in this 16th century engraving by Lucas van Leyden reminds the viewer of his own mortality by pointing at the skull kept under his cloak. There is some debate among scholars regarding the true meaning of these vanitas portraits. I believe that since Christian virtues of modesty were highly praised in Protestant Dutch society the wealthy had to account somehow for their wealth by advertising their humility. While the Protestant Church believed one was already predestined to go either to heaven or hell at birth, it did not stop people from demonstrating their virtues and modesty to convince others that they were among the elect. The vanitas portrait could therefore be regarded as a sort of 16th/17th century afterlife insurance.

    Lucas van Leyden. Early Netherlandish (1494 - 1533). Young Man with Skull,n.d. Engraving on paper. Gift of the estate of Mrs. Charles Lincoln Taylor (Margaret Rand Goldthwait, class of 1921). SC 1994:20-16.

    Hans Thoma. German (1839 - 1924). Reminder,1912. Drypoint on ivory wove paper. Gift of Lessing J. Rosenwald. SC 1951:41

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  • Thursday, May 17, 2012

    The Destruction of Lower Manhattan

    Guest blogger Julie Warchol was a participant in the 2011 Summer Institute in Art Museum Studies and is currently a curatorial volunteer in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

    Danny Lyon. American, born 1942. West Street between Jay and Duane Streets from The Destruction of Lower Manhattan. 1967; printed 2007. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.

    In 1966-1967, several decades before the World Trade Center attacks, sixty acres of Lower Manhattan were systematically demolished and few, except Danny Lyon, seemed to notice or care. A Brooklyn native and young documentary photographer, Lyon had just returned to New York City after spending two years photographing and riding with outlaw motorcyclists for a series called The Bikeriders. He settled into a loft apartment at the corner of Beekman and Williams Streets, on the outskirts of a neighborhood that was to be destroyed. This portion of Manhattan contained some of New York’s oldest streets which were constructed in the 19th-century. In their prime, they had been bustling centers of mercantile activity, but were in an apparent state of decline by the 1960s. Many of these Lower Manhattan buildings, which were deemed architecturally insignificant, were razed in order to construct Battery Park City and the World Trade Center as well as other new buildings which have come to characterize the city. In the midst of this rapid leveling, Danny Lyon took to the streets with his large format camera to document the buildings in their final days, the looters and few remaining occupants, and the eventually demolition itself.

    The views of New York City presented in these photographs are jarring; the desolate brick buildings and cobble-stone streets seldom contain people, cars, or any other signs of life. Simultaneously dilapidated and majestic, they stand as symbols of a past century that were sacrificed for the creation of more modern structures – a classic American strategy of development. Recognizing the symbolic importance of these neighborhoods and their fate, Lyon takes a subjective, and therefore novel, approach to his documentary photographs. Publishing journal excerpts alongside the photographs in his book The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, Lyon maps the progression of his work and encourages the viewer’s sympathy. By the end of the project, Lyon had shifted his focus from the ill-fated buildings to the demolition workers themselves, those unsung heroes who take great pride in their work. In these photographs, Lyon finds somber beauty not only in the architectural remnants of 19th-century New York, but also in their destruction.

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     “I came to see the buildings as fossils of a time past. These buildings were used during the Civil War. The men were all dead, but the buildings were still here, left behind as the city grew around them. Skyscrapers emerged from the rock of Manhattan like mountains growing out from the earth. And here and there near their base, caught between them on their old narrow streets, were the houses of the dead, the new buildings of their own time awaiting demolition. In their last days and months they were kept company by bums and pigeons.

    For a hundred years they have stood in the darkness and the day. In the morning the sun has shined on their one side, and in the evening on another. Now, in the end, they are visited by demolition men. Slavs, Italians, Negroes from the South, American workers of 1967 drinking pop-top soda on their beams at lunch time, risking their lives for $5.50 an hour, pulling apart brick by brick and beam by beam, the work of other American workers who once stood on the same walls and held the same bricks, then new, so long ago.” – Danny Lyon, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan

    Danny Lyon. American, born 1942. Washington Street. View North from Chambers Street from The Destruction of Lower Manhattan. 1967; printed 2007. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.

    Danny Lyon. American, born 1942. Eddie Grant and Cleveland Sims. Washington Street maintenance men for the New York City Department of Urban Renewal from The Destruction of Lower Manhattan. 1967; printed 2007. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.

    Danny Lyon. American, born 1942. 185 West Street at Chambers from The Destruction of Lower Manhattan. 1967; printed 2007. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.

    Danny Lyon. American, born 1942. Dropping a wall from The Destruction of Lower Manhattan. 1967; printed 2007. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.

    Danny Lyon. American, born 1942. Housewrecker from The Destruction of Lower Manhattan. 1967; printed 2007. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.

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