Book Club A Go-Go

If ever an event can move me to put on nice pants and sit around drinking mediocre coffee, it is the promise of spirited debate. With that in mind, the Hermitage staff book club had its inaugural meeting today. I am delighted to report that everyone had on nice pants.

Our first book, Whose Muse? Art Museum and the Public Trust,  generated a particularly lively discussion. If you are at all interested in the study of museums I recommend picking up a copy.

James Cuno, President and Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, proposes the following in his essay entitled “The Object of Art Museums”:

“The public has entrusted in us the authority and responsibility to select, preserve, and provide its access to works of art that can enhance, even change, people’s lives. And in turn, we have agreed to dedicate all of our resources — financial, physical, and intellectual — to this purpose. Art museums are a public trust.”

As museum-goers, do you feel anything is lacking from this definition? What are the limitations of that trust? And most importantly, what pants do you plan on wearing to our next meeting? I’m going with a classic chino.

A Word on our Header

No, that isn’t a stock photo at the top of this blog; it is a detail photograph of a 19th century Chinese Kingfisher Headdress. We have four such headdresses at the Hermitage, all of which were loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an exhibit on Louis Comfort Tiffany in 2006. You can read more about that exhibit here.

Below is the image in its entirety:

Another detail:

A view from the top:

To achieve that otherworldly shade of blue, kingfisher headdresses are inlaid with — you guessed it — kingfisher feathers. Poor dears!

I am sure a more conscientious bird-watcher will tell me this is the wrong type of Kingfisher

Kingfisher feathers can be found in Chinese ceremonial dress as far back as the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.). To the great relief of kingfishers everywhere, laws protecting the endangered species were passed in the 1930′s  and the birds are beginning to make a comeback.

Two adult-sized headdresses

Two child-sized headdresses

All four pieces are currently on display in our West Gallery and I encourage you to come have a look for yourself. You see, staring at kingfisher feathers is sort of like staring at the sun (yeah, they’re that bright), and these images cannot possibly do the iridescent blue a wit of justice.

Then and Now

This is the first of a new series exploring the evolution of the Hermitage over the last 100 years. We’ll start small: below is a glimpse of the “boy’s hall” office in 1947:

The "boy's hall" office, 1947

Mrs. Sloane’s two boys, William Jr. and E.K (Edwin Knapp), lived in what is now a wing of staff offices. The fireplace — fabulously asymmetrical and inset with handmade Arts and Crafts tiles — is worthy of its own post:

This area is still used as an office today — my office!

Boy's Hall turned Curator's Office, 2010

Not a day goes by I don’t marvel at the beauty of this place.

This is not your mother’s jade

Let’s be honest: everyone likes to kick back with a cold one every now and again.  There is no reason to feel ashamed.  But did you know that 5000 years ago the Chinese were doing the exact same thing? You might want to watch your step because I’m about to drop some knowledge.

In the place of solo cups, early Chinese drinkers used vessels carved from precious jade.  Now don’t get ahead of yourself and think they were tossing early versions of ping-pong balls into these cups, because that would be far from the truth.  In fact, they rarely brought out the ‘good’ hardware because jade was considered a sacred stone and as a result was reserved for ceremonies.  Considering that most examples of early Chinese jade have been discovered in tombs, it seems safe to say that the everyday use of jade was limited.

The Hermitage is fortunate to not only have an outstanding Asian collection, but we also possess an unparalleled jade collection. Those in the know have said it is the best in the Southeast… but we don’t like to brag.

On display in our East wing is a particularly fine example of a jade libation vessel. It is, in fact, the oldest piece in our collection (this means, obviously, that you should come see it).

Standing at just over eight inches tall this prismatic stone cylinder demonstrates the superior craftsmanship of a culture that had not yet even reached the Bronze Age.  Known commonly as a ‘Tsung’ or ‘Cong’, these ceremonial vessels were not always used for holding liquids.  While it is exciting to think that the Chinese often engaged in ritual drinking sessions the realities of the vessel’s purpose were far more spiritual.  The tall quadrangular form with hollowed tubular center is meant to conjure up thoughts of the connections between the heavens and earth.  Eventually (during the Han dynasty, 206 B.C.-220 A.D.) the Chinese would identify the Cong’s shape as only a representation of the Earth.  It would also be at this much later date that one might find this type of vessel in a more active daily role.  In the case of our cong though we are dealing with a far more ritualistic piece that may have never been used by a human.  Early congs were used for storage as well as serving as incense burners.  Their presence was often a part of ceremonies that involved human burials and even sacrifices.  It would be here that the vessel might have been filled with a potent wine that helped shamans transcend our earthly realm.  Liquid courage was a popular item in Neolithic China, which ranges from well before 3000 B.C. to the end of the Shang dynasty in 1122 B.C.  Alcohol would continue to disappear and reappear throughout Chinese history as both a tool for reaching heavenly states to simply being a refreshing beverage choice.

A cong’s shape is not limited to the taller rectangular features like those seen at the Hermitage.  Shorter and more bulbous shapes were just as common.  What stays consistent are the motifs that show up on the vessels.  Each of the carved tiers on the exterior of a cong showcase the standardized imagery of Neolithic China.  Animal and semi-human faces tend to be the most popular figures to appear on early Congs.  The Hermitage’s ceremonial vessel has a simplified version of an animal mask grace its slightly tapered tiers.  If the vessel were to be seen in 2500 B.C. it would have had a thick dark brown shade throughout its entirety.  This would have made the recessed animal motifs much more noticeable than they are today.  The discoloration that can be seen stems from calcium eating away at the stone.  Where once was a brown tint now is a cloudy shade of white.  After all, this piece was  underground for well over two millennia.

Obviously there is far more to this vessel than a few short paragraphs on a blog can tell you.  I encourage you to do a little research of your own, or if you really want, come to the Hermitage and have a look at it for yourself!  Chances are I’ll be rummaging through our extensive Asian collection **cough cough, best in the Southeast, cough cough** and would love to see all of you enjoy what this museum has to offer.  I look forward to sharing more of our collection with you over the next few months.

Through the looking glass

The late, great Helen M. Turner is perhaps my favorite artist in our collection.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1858, her 70 year career encompassed the full sweep of the American Impressionist movement. In 1921, her work was exhibited alongside Mary Cassatt’s in the Milch Gallery’s landmark exhibition Six American Women. I dislike linking her so quickly with Cassatt, but it seems to be the only way to put her in context; or at least the only way to underscore her oft-overlooked importance. Turner’s work is more impressionistic than Cassatt’s, and it is my humble opinion that throughout her career she took more risks with color and shadow. But I digress.

Unlike many artists, her work was well received during her lifetime. Indeed, in 1921 she achieved the inestimable honor of being the third woman elected to the National Academy of Design; she was certainly the first Southern woman.

Turner lived to the miraculous age of 99 (she passed away just shy of her 100th birthday, in fact) and scholarship on her work is slowly gaining momentum amongst art historians. Mark my words: interest in Helen M. Turner is about to explode.

The Hermitage is fortunate to have what is perhaps the single largest public holding of Turner paintings (and sketches) anywhere in the world, including one which I believe is unique amongst her oeuvre entitled The Boudoir Mirror. It is currently tucked away in storage and in desperate need of conservation.

The Boudoir Mirror

Backstory: Turner has always been known for painting women. She painted women indoors at their leisure, outdoors amongst flowers, or otherwise engaged in solitary, feminine pursuits. Her subjects are typically alone (and if there is a companion, she is always female) and her settings are, as a rule, intimate and elegant. The Boudoir Mirror seems no exception to this rule: the foreground features a woman at her toilet, face turned casually toward the viewer, a pair of slippers slung loosely across her lap. An elaborate vanity set  spreads out behind her and a sliver of bedroom is revealed in the reflection of an enormous mirror.

But wait! Who is that dark figure reflected in the mirror? Is that… a man? [Image enlarged and enhanced for your mystery-solving pleasure].

Identify yourself, sir (or ma'am).

I sent the photograph around the museum to see if we could come to a consensus. Opinion was divided down the middle — a few said man, others were convinced it was a woman. This is a Helen Turner painting after all.

I turned my question to Jane Faquin, curator of the upcoming Turner retrospective at the Dixon Gallery in Memphis, Tennessee. You see, Jane Faquin is lucky enough to possess an inventory which Turner herself made in the 1940s of all her existing artwork. “Why yes!” Jane said, “she [Turner] called it ‘Interior with Two Figures’ and notes that one of them is a man.”

Vindicated!

Another mystery solved. Granted, it was an easy one. I have a theory brewing about the identity of this man. I think there might be a clue in our collection of Turner’s sketches, also in storage…

Next up: Asian Art spotlight with Colin (he of the dubious taste in t-shirts).

The Murky Depths

My job at the Hermitage is like an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg, as it were, is the part the public sees: polished exhibits, carefully researched text panels and meticulously cleaned interiors.

The other part of my job – close to 96 percent of my duties – floats eerily beneath the waterline, well out of view. And now, thanks to climate change, that ominous bottom part is melting and spilling all over the place. Take this photo as evidence:

Acid-free archival boxes also make great curator forts.

Truth is, the second part of my job is easily the most important, and it is something the public rarely sees. That invisible job is, of course, the ongoing care of the tens of thousands of objects currently off display and housed in storage.

Just a fraction of our collections storage

The Sloane Collection is an especially tough beast. Thanks to the vision and enthusiasm of our patroness, Mrs. Florence K. Sloane, the collection is an exceptional cross-section of art history and comprises everything from Art Deco pieced-velvet opera capes to neolithic jade congs. We have objects made out of tooth, bone, skin, and hair; objects woven from the finest gossamer fibers; objects cast in bronze; objects hewn from rock; objects smelted over a hot fire; objects dug from the earth; objects containing animal skeletons; objects representing turning points in human history; and, of course, hundreds of paintings in all shapes and sizes.

Most of our work is done behind the scenes, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to share it with the public.  It is my special privilege to write about this part of my job here, and I hope you find the process as infinitely interesting as I do. And hey, if things ever get too serious, there’s always Colin to lighten the mood:

Welcome, friends

Hello from the new Collections blog. Check back soon for exciting updates from the Hermitage Curatorial department!

About the Hermitage:

Built on the banks of the lovely Lafayette River in Norfolk, Virginia, the Hermitage is a rambling Arts and Crafts mansion designed by William and Florence Sloane. Construction on what was originally conceived as a summer home began in 1908. As the Sloane family grew, so did the Hermitage. The current 42-room configuration was completed in 1936.

The Hermitage is home to the Sloane Collection, an assemblage of fine and decorative art which rivals the house itself in both scope and inventiveness. With over 40,000 objects, the collection spans 5,000 years of art history and represents over 30 countries. As a pioneering patron of early 20th century painters and sculptors, Mrs Florence Sloane is among the pantheon of great American collectors.

About the Contributors:

Lauren Northup, Curator of Collections.

Originally from the mountains of western North Carolina, Lauren is delighted to be up to her elbows in the Sloane Collection. As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill she double majored in English and art history. She went on to earn her master’s degree in art history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. After a brief stint in the wild world of art auctioneering, Lauren returned to the States to pursue a career in historic preservation. Previous museum experience includes the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina and the Fife Folk Museum in Ceres, Scotland.

Colin Brady, Assistant Curator

After surfing the waters off the coast of the Hermitage for many years, Colin decided to trade his wetsuit for a bowtie and give museum work a try. His undergraduate work at Old Dominion University led to a master’s degree in art history at The University of St Andrews in Scotland. Colin is our resident Asian art specialist.

Lauren and Colin can’t wait to begin sharing the Hermitage collection with a wider ‘virtual’ audience.  Check back soon for illuminating updates from  archives and collections storage.