Thursday, February 19, 2009

James Whistler

James Whistler believed that art should speak for itself, and that the subject matter of a painting was not important. To underline this point, he called his paintings symphonies, nocturnes, etudes, and arrangements—names usually given to musical works.

His most famous work is a portrait that carefully balances areas of light and dark. He called it “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1.” Most people know it by another name: “Whistler’s Mother” seen here with this post.

Born in Massachusetts, Whistler spent much of his youth in Russia, where his father built a railroad for the government. He attended the military academy at West Point, New York, but left to become an artist. He worked as a mapmaker, learning the technique of etching and printmaking.

Then he moved to Paris, where he joined a circle of Impressionists painters. There he began collecting Oriental art, which became a major influence on his work. He moved to London in 1859.

Whistler was famous for his sharp tongue, dandyish dress, and eccentric manner. But he was serious about his art. Many of his etchings and paintings were moody and impressionistic, and his work was often derided.

In 1877, critic John Ruskin accused him of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler sued Ruskin for libel and won. In later years, Whistler was acclaimed for his brilliant lithographs and subtle portraits, in which he presented his subjects in silhouette against a black background.

Monday, February 16, 2009


In 1676, a bloody war between Indians and white settlers raged in New England. And to the south, in Virginia, colonial farmers rebelled against the British government.

The leader of the warring Indians in New England was chief of the Wampanoags, Metacomet, whom the colonists called Philip. Angry over the settlers’ treatment of the Indians and their encroachment on Indian land, Metacomet and his allies began a series of fierce attacks on frontier settlements in 1675. Metacomet was a son of Massasoit, the Indian chief who lived in peace with the Pilgrims when they arrived in the New World.

Many settlements were completely destroyed, and hundreds of colonists were killed. But in 1676, the settlers counterattacked, and the Indians were defeated. Some 600 colonists and 3,000 Indians were killed during King Philip’s War, the bloodiest of the seventeenth-century wars between American colonists and Indians.

Meanwhile in Virginia, a planter named Nathaniel Bacon led an uprising of farmers against the British governor. The farmers were angry because of high taxes and because the government was not protecting them from Indian attacks. Bacon’s men captured Jamestown, and the governor fled. But when Bacon suddenly fell ill and died, the leaderless revolt collapsed. It would be 100 years before American colonists again defied Britain.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Bustle

Casual, comfortable clothing is preferred by most people today. But in the nineteenth century, American women chose to be uncomfortable rather than unfashionable. They wore tight corsets and long, heavy dresses that restricted their movements . And they also wore a series of strange contraptions that were designed to give them the shape considered attractive then.

One odd fashion device of the 1870s was the bustle, or “dress improver.” The bustle was either a padded cushion of cork or down, or a frame made of metal or whalebone. A woman tied it around her backside at waist level. When she put her dress on over the bustle, her skirt stuck out in back.

If the bustle was small, it merely gave the impression that extra material had been gathered at the back of the skirt. But some bustles were huge. They jutted out like shelves, provoking jokes about bustles big enough to serve tea on!

By the 1890s, the bustle was no longer in fashion. Women could once again sit down without having to make allowance for the awkward “dress improver” behind them.

Prior to bustles, women wore petticoats with wide steel hoops so that their skirts would swell out into enormous circles. Some skirts were ten yards in circumference!