Dispatch 3: Philadelphia, ivory and Sports Illustrated

Editorial Staff Opinion

War and watercolor in Philadelphia

There is more than one reason to visit Philadelphia this spring. Go early and often, beginning with a visit to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to see World War I and American Art before it closes April 9. The show will migrate to the New York Historical Society (May 26-September 3), and after that to the Frist in Nashville (October 6-January 21, 2018), but if you can see World War I at PAFA in its spirited, spacious place of origin you really should. Strangely, we have forgotten the First World War, forgotten that it created the modern world, forgotten that its shock value burst forth in our art in a way that this exhibition is uniquely able to show. If we are shock-proof now we may owe that to the pointlessness, the reduction of men to materiel, the dissolution of patriotic good faith in that “forgotten war.” There is, of course, a great deal more than disillusionment to this show and you can read about one of its sublime surprises in the portrait I discuss below. I am currently reading the excellent catalogue essays and will be thinking about the show’s paintings, posters, drawings and sculpture for a long time to come.

Make another visit later in the month for the Philadelphia Antiques and Art Show (April 21-23), the cherry trees along the Schuylkill, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s major event, American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent on now and until May 14. In the meantime I recommend Kathleen Foster’s article, “Women and Watercolor” in the forthcoming issue of The Magazine ANTIQUES. Foster, the show’s curator, combines her superb aesthetic with the social history of women in art in a wry, discerning, and important way.

Susan Hannah MacDowell Eakins, 1851-1938, Portrait of Lieutenant Jean-Julien Lemordant, 1917, oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 25 inches, Deborah Force Fine Art, Inc.

I saw the war and watercolor exhibitions on the same overwhelming day. The presence of women as artists and subjects also runs through the PAFA show which is not surprising since women (as well as African Americans) are a particular emphasis for that institution. I was especially taken with Susan Macdowell Eakins’ Portrait of Jean-Julien Lemordant (1917), lent by Debra Force. Among the first works painted in the year following the death of her husband, Thomas, Eakins’s portrait depicts a wounded man bound in a consoling pose with his dog. You do not have to know that Lemordant was a notable French artist blinded in battle, or that the image of him was taken from a photograph. Eakins’s portrait stands on its own as a quietly dramatic composition where the whites of the man’s bandage are echoed so beautifully in the dog, where his hands feel what his eyes cannot see. But I had to know more so Debra Force pointed me to a document by Lisa N. Peters where I discovered that Cecilia Beaux had also painted Lemordant’s portrait, probably when he visited this country lecturing and being celebrated for his art and his views on heroism and pacifism. I also learned that he returned to France and in 1935 had an operation that restored his sight. What else? Oh, yes, he remained an idealist to the end, joining the demonstrations in Paris of May 1968 and dying as a result of tear gas poisoning. I love the portrait. I love knowing about this man.

The matter of ivory

Chess Piece in the Form of a Knight, ca. 1500. Netherlandish. Elephant ivory. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1984 (1984.214). Photograph by P. Dandridge

Before your state legislature votes to ban all historic works of art containing ivory in the feel good and utterly benighted effort to end the illegal poaching of elephants, its members should be encouraged to read Martin Levy’s recent article in Apollo (February 7, 2017). Banning antique ivory will not save a single elephant but it will endanger the movement of a good many cultural objects such as the sixteenth-century chess piece shown here. Levy’s voice has been persistently well informed, judicious and persuasive on the subject over the last year and distributing this article should help any reasonable politician persuade others of the all too obvious point that we can preserve elephants and conserve art.
The parliamentary debate Levy describes in his article sounds a lot more measured and intelligent than some I have followed in this country where spurious issues arise and emotions overwhelm anything resembling intelligent thought. For that reason I asked him to address two more points that occasionally come up over here:

EP: We agree that “there is zero correlation between historic bona fide works of art that happen to be made of or contain ivory, and the reprehensible Illicit poaching from endangered herds of African elephants,“ but someone might argue that the great value of such historic works creates a precedent for the prestige and value of ivory in general and thus encourages its illicit poaching today?

Levy: No, the value (which is both artistic as well as, undoubtedly, financial) does nothing to encourage poaching.  Curators, collectors and connoisseurs (institutional, private and trade), who pursue works of art, are driven by an urge to study and own beautiful examples of our shared material culture.  There is nothing in the value of such works that has the slightest impact on poaching, which feeds an utterly different, and unsophisticated demand.

EP: I have seen references to the significant decline of the elephant population in 19th century Africa as a result of the ivory trade and as well as the rise of slavery associated with the trade. Are these issues relevant to the debate? Surely not all ivory came from elephants that had died of natural causes?

Levy: I do not know the figures for the nineteenth-century decline in the elephant population, nor indeed if this is true.  But I understand that elephants were hunted at that time (but not to the point of extinction), and the case of, for example, the Belgian Congo and slavery is relatively recent history that we rightly now abhor.  So, not all ivory was obtained from elephants that had died of natural causes, but that was then, not now. We cannot undo the past, and indeed if there is an established connection between the slave trade and ivory, it is a story that should be acknowledged. But this is not a reason to demonize works of art from the period.  Indeed, I think it is a distraction to introduce this into a debate that is based on the present threat to the elephant.

I should point out that Martin Levy is director of Blairman & Sons, the fourth generation of his family in the business and widely respected for his integrity and scholarship. The Blairman & Sons booths at TEFAF, the Winter Antiques Show, Masterpiece, and PAD are themselves works of art.

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue: behind the curve and behind the curves

How curious that the gag on the back cover of the annual SI flesh fest should repeat in somewhat demented form the Serpentine Chest taken from the 2013 calendar of Nathan Liverant & Son Antiques.

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