Monday, January 12, 2009

Scott Joplin

In the early 1970s, Americans became captivated by piano music written more than 60 years earlier by Scott Joplin. Known as rags, these tunes featured syncopated, foot-tapping rhythms , rich harmonies, and bouncy melodies.

Rags had been popular in the early 1900s, but they were largely forgotten until 1973, when they were featured in a hit movie, The Sting. Suddenly, pianists across the country were playing “The Entertainer” and other rags by Joplin, who received overdue recognition as an important composer.

Born into a musical family headed by an ex-slave, Scott Joplin left home at 17 and moved first to St. Louis and then to Chicago, where he earned a living as a pianist. After studying music at George Smith College in Sedalia, Missouri, he began writing his own songs. One of his early compositions, Maple Leaf Rag, made enough money to allow Joplin to devote himself entirely to composing.

In addition to some 50 piano rags, Joplin wrote operas and ballets. But his wish to be recognized as a “serious” composer was unfufilled until long after his death in 1917. His opera, Treemonisha, was performed to critical acclaim in 1972. Because of the reborn popularity of his rags, recordings of Joplin’s music accounted for an incredible 75 percent of all albums on classical best-seller lists in 1975. And in 1976, the “King of Ragtime” was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his contribution to American music.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt lived at a time when women were expected to marry and raise families. They were not supposed to become artists. But Cassatt was determined to be a painter, and she succeeded. She became the first American women to win recognition as an important artist.

Cassatt studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Then she went to Europe to pursue her dream. In 1872, one of her paintings was accepted for exhibition by the French Academy of Fine Arts. She settled in Paris, where she became a lifelong friend and student of the Impressionist painter, Edgar Degas. “How well I remember, “ she recalled, “seeing for the first time Degas’ pastels in the window of a picture dealer. I used to go and flatten my nose against the window and absorb all I could of his art.”

Most of Cassett’s paintings were of women or children. Artists at that time usually idealized their subjects. But Cassatt’s paintings showed people as they really looked. Her work became very popular. And when a gallery exhibted her work in 1893, the catalogue noted, “Cassatt is perhaps along with Whistler, the only artist of eminent talent…that America actually possesses.”

Cassatt’s eyesight began to fail when she was about 60. She grew nearly blind, and had to give up painting.

You can find several links regarding this artist at Mary Cassatt Online and this site has a lot to offer from the National Gallery of Art.

There are also several YouTube videos featuring Mary Cassatt’s work (see list here) including this one:

Sunday, January 4, 2009


In this year, two settlements were founded that would later become important U.S. cities. The year also saw the death of Blackbeard, a notorious pirate who had terrorized ships off the Atlantic Coast and the Caribbean.

In the early 1700s, England, France, and Spain competed for control of North American. England’s colonies grew up along the Atlantic, while France claimed Canada and a vast central area called Louisisana. The Mississippi River provided access to the territory. So the French leader Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, founded a settlement at the mouth of the river in 1718. He named it La Nouvelle Orleans (New Orleans), after the Duke of Orleans, a French nobleman.

Farther west, in today’s Texas, Spain also founded a settlement, San Antonio. One of its first buildings was the Mission of San Antonio de Valero, later known as the Alamo.

In November, 1718, the pirate Blackbeard—an Englishman named Edward Teach—was cornered by two British ships near Ocracoke Island off North Carolina. Blackbeard wore his long, black beard in braids. To look fierce in battle, he stuck lighted matches on his hat, so that his face appeared to be ringed by fire. He was killed in a furious battle, and his head was displayed on a ship’s mast as a warning to other pirates.