Finding Inspiration in a Deck of Cards

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Selections from Whitfield Lovell’s Card series. Left to right: Untitled (Card XXXVII), 2005; Untitled (Card XXXVIII), 2005; Untitled (Card LI), 2006; Untitled (Card XXII), 2003; Untitled (Card XLIX), 2006

 

These five small-scale works on paper are part of Whitfield Lovell’s first Card series, in which he paired an intricately detailed hand drawn face with each of the deck’s 52 rectangular cards. As the artist has noted, the Card series was an important precursor to his Kin series:

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Whitfield Lovell’s “Card Series II” on view at National Museum of African American History and Culture

“I had been making these little drawings on tan paper long enough that . . . it was natural to bump up the scale and proceed from there. I just wouldn’t have started the Kin series had I not been working on the Card series for so long. Drawing with that degree of detail is not something I would start doing suddenly overnight.”

After completing his first Card series, the artist embarked on a second Card series, this time with a deck of round playing cards. Concurrent with this exhibition, you may see Lovell’s round Card series as part of the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Whitfield Lovell: The Kin Series and Related Works is on view through Jan. 8, 2017.

Portrait of a Portait Artist: Lydia Field Emmet

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William Merritt Chase, Lydia Field Emmett, 1892. Oil on canvas, 72 x 36 1/8 in. Brooklyn Museum, New York, Gift of the artist

After years of study with him at the Art Students League, in 1891, Lydia Field Emmet accepted William Merritt Chase’s offer to lead the preparatory class at the Shinnecock Summer School of Art. By this time, she was also pursuing work as a society portraitist and a designer of stained glass for Tiffany and Company. Her self-assured expression fixed on Chase’s canvas captures an image of an artist who would become one of the foremost American women portrait painters of the late 19th century.

The portrait bears the strong imprint of the 17th century Dutch portraiture tradition, sharing with Anthony van Dyck, Rembrandt, and Frans Hals an allegiance to painterly brushwork, elegant contrasts of light and dark, dramatic pose, and expressive tone. Moreover, Lydia Field Emmet highlights Chase’s skillful hand in conveying texture, as seen in the precise rendering of the lace and the variegated tones of the pink satin ribbon—signs of the enduring legacy of the artist’s Munich training.

Elsa Smithgall, William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master exhibition curator

Who Was Dora Wheeler?

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William Merritt Chase, Portrait of Dora Wheeler, 1882–83. Oil on canvas, 62 5/8 x 65 1/8 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Boudinot Keith in memory of Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Wade

This is one of William Merritt Chase’s defining early masterworks that showcases his burgeoning talent as a still life painter and portraitist. Dora Wheeler was one of the artist’s first private students. Chase painted this portrait just as Wheeler returned from her training at the Academie Julian in Paris to establish a career in New York. The portrait exudes the quiet dignity of the sitter with the assured placement of her curled hand on her face, relaxed pose, and direct eye contact with the viewer. Dora’s mother, Candace Wheeler, owned a decorative textile firm, Associated Artists, in which her daughter worked as a designer. In the same building was Dora’s own art studio, where Chase painted this portrait. She sits on a grand Elizabethan chair with a blue art deco bowl full of narcissus on top of a carved ebony Chinese tabouret. The brilliant golden tones of the hanging tapestry extending from one edge of the canvas to the other serve as a dramatic foil to the rich brown and blue contrasting tones.

From the beginning, Chase conceived of the painting as an exhibition piece, one that would showcase his virtuosity and bolster his reputation. Chase’s approach builds on the legacy of the opulent illusionism of his Munich manner and asserts, with its richly layered palette of yellows, blues, and browns, the vibrancy of color and virtuoso brushwork that earned the artist international acclaim. Indeed, the groundbreaking nature of Portrait of Dora Wheeler catapulted Chase’s career, earning him honorable mention in 1883 at the Paris Salon and the gold medal in Munich’s Crystal Palace exhibition.

By contrast, the following year, when the painting made its United States debut in the Society of American Artists exhibition, it met with mixed praise because of its radical departure from the conventions of portrait painting. In his review of the show, painter W.C. Brownell expressed his dismay at how unagreeable the portrait was, arguing that Miss Wheeler “counts for next to nothing in it”—a mere decorative prop in the overall ensemble. Perhaps emulating the artist Whistler who signed his works with a butterfly, here Chase inscribed his personal insignia into the painting. Look at the upper left of the painting for the cat chasing its tail.

Elsa Smithgall, William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master exhibition curator