Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Useful and Beautiful" Conference at the University of Delaware Announced

The University of Delaware has announced a conference entitled "Useful and Beautiful: The Transatlantic Arts of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites." The conference will run between October 7-9 at the University of Delaware, the Delaware Art Museum, and the Winterthur Museum. This sounds like such an exciting conference. Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend, but I hope that some readers will go and report back!

The conference, which has been organized together with the William Morris Society in the United States, will take feature rare books and manuscripts from the University's holdings, as well as fine and decorative arts from the Delaware Art Museum. The keynote speaker for the conference will be Fred Kaplan, Professor Emeritus of English at Queens College and the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York. His address will be held Thursday, October 7, at 4:30 p.m. in the Reserve Room of the Morris Library. Dr. Kaplan has written a number of biographies,including The Singular Mark Twain; Gore Vidal; Henry James: The Imagination of Genius; Charles Dickens; Thomas Carlyle(finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize); and, most recently,Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer. His lecture, entitled “Useful and Beautiful: Henry James and Mark Twain,” is sponsored by the University of Delaware Library Associates and associated with the exhibition, London Bound: American Writers in Britain, 1870–1916, at the University of Delaware Library.

In addition to the keynote address, there will be numerous sessions by internationally recognized scholars and specialists in Pre-Raphaelite Art, and a special performance of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest by the University of Delaware's critically acclaimed Resident Ensemble Players/Professional Theatre Training Program.

For more information, contact Mark Samuels Lasner, Senior Research Fellow, University of Delaware Library by email at:, (302) 831-3250; or visit them on the web

The conference is priced at $150 per person, and $75 for students. There is no charge for University of Delaware faculty, students and staff.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Arts

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." - Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species

I ran across the website for Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Arts while doing a search to see what connections there might have been between Charles Darwin and the Pre-Raphaelites. I saw Creation, a very interesting film about Darwin a few weeks ago. The film starred Paul Bettany and I really enjoyed it. Very nicely done, in my opinion, though I know that many may have been disappointed by it. The film focused more on Darwin's relationship with his daughter than it did on science, but the movie captured the Victorian era so well, and I loved the Gothic way the story was told, so I would recommend it. At any rate, after seeing the film it occurred to me that Darwin was a contemporary of the Pre-Raphaelites, and I wondered what they had thought of them.

I always knew there was some disagreement between the Pre-Raphaelites and Darwin. Ruskin (who else?), was the most vocal critic I could find. He disliked Darwin because he felt his science robbed the world of wonder, mystery and beauty. He wrote frequently on the topic of natural selection (or rather, Ruskin's own highly amusing version of it). In response to Darwin's suggestion that "the final end of the whole the production of the seed" Ruskin argued that "the flower exists for its own sake...not for the fruit's sake." Oh well. There was no pleasing Ruskin - just ask Effie...

But what of the other Pre-Raphaelites?

One of the more direct artistic Pre-Raphaelite responses to Darwin's work that I could find was this painting by William Dyce, which was originally part of the "Endless Forms" exhibition. The picture features the artist's family gathering fossils in Pegwell Bay, near Kent. The painting, which is held today by the Tate Gallery, uses the tail of Donati's comet to cast an ominous and uncertain mood over the scene (the comet's tail is supposed to be "barely visible" in the center of the painting - I think it's one of the white spots near the top-middle area of the picture, but I can't be sure). Dyce was a devout Anglican, so the inclusion of the comet - which, conveniently, was not due to reappear for 2,000 years - is rich with symbolism.

Be sure to check out the virtual exhibition of "Endless Forms" online. It gives an interesting overview of artistic responses to Darwin, from early natural history drawings through to the Impressionists.

image courtesy Wikimedia

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Botticelli and the Medici

I've been keeping busy over the last couple of days with Niall Ferguson's entertaining history of finance, The Ascent of Money. I've been meaning to read it for some time, and I've finally gotten around to it! (It's been easier to make time for reading, now that the World Cup is drawing to a close). Anyway, I'm having a grand old time - finance has always been one of my favourite subjects. And when art and finance intersect, all the better!

The first chapter of Ferguson's book is largely devoted to the financial machinations of the Medici. The Italian Renaissance was a time when art blossomed, thanks in a large part to the generous funding of wealthy patrons  like the Medici. The painting above, entitled "Adoration of the Magi" was commissioned by the Banker's Guild as a tribute to the Medici family. Ferguson notes that all three of the wise men are actually modeled on members of the Medici family. Cosimo the Elder is washing the feet of baby Jesus, while Piero (center, in red) and Giovanni (white) complete the trinity. Other family members featured in the picture are Lorenzo and Giuliano. Philosopher Pico della Mirandola (who was also patronized by Lorenzo de' Medici) is also pictured in the left foreground, wearing a dark robe and red hat. And if you ever wondered what the painter looked like, the young blond man to the far right is actually Botticelli. The painting really is a "who's who" of the Italian Renaissance.

The Medici were certainly trumpeting their success with this painting, though I should note that Cosimo, Piero and Giovanni (the three kings in the picture), were all deceased at the time the work was produced. That did not stop Lorenzo the Magnificent from getting in on it, though. Ferguson says that Lorenzo appears in the painting in a pale blue robe, though I've noticed others online that seem to think he's posing with the sword (which seems unlikely to me). I saw one posting that flags the man in black as Lorenzo, which makes the most sense to me. He's centrally located within the painting, but not too obvious...if I was a wealthy patron, that's where I'd put myself! Anyway, it certainly looks the most like Lorenzo...does anyone know for sure? I have been trying to find a more authoritative source, but so far, no luck.

So I'm doing a poll (unless any readers can offer a definitive ID). Where's Lorenzo? (you can click on the picture above to take a larger look)

Here's a head shot of Lorenzo, for comparison:

Let the debate begin!