Illustration Art is Art

I've always wondered about Illustration Art. Ever since I was a kid and saw a painting by Frank Schoonover of pirates storming a ship at Newman Galleries in Philadelphia I thought it was just about the best style of art there was. I had come to find out that some folks poo poo illustration art as not of the same caliber as other styles of art. Maybe it's because Illustration Art was used in magazines and publications, made for another reason than just as art. Well, I really can't say - but I know that this style is one of my favorites. Not long ago I purchased an unsigned oil on illustration board of men on camels against a bright purple sky. Here it is…

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The first thing I did was to take it out of that frame. Ugh. Then I started researching images that might resemble this one. Believe it or not there were a bunch of stories of Middle East adventures. I'm still researching who the artist might be, so stay tuned. But when I think about illustration art, I immediately think about the Brandywine School…

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The members of this school included Howard Pyle, Jessie Wilcox Smith, N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Violet Oakley among about 70 others who were hand picked each year to learn from Pyle. So remember to always keep your mind open to new and different styles of art!

Coney Island Pearl Divers

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Old Master Mystery

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Have you ever been absolutely compelled to buy something?  To where the piece spoke to you?  Drew you in.  Took hold of you and wouldn't let go.  Well, it happened to me.  This is a story about my introduction to the world of Old Master painting.
 
It was a very early Saturday morning and I was checking out the offerings of a dealer friend from Massachusetts.  Looking over his inventory and seeing much that I liked, but nothing I loved until I came across a painting that was still in its box.  I asked about it and he commented to me that he had just purchased it the night before from another dealer.  Who doesn't like fresh merchandise?  So I asked to see it and he said, "Oh, Heather, that's not for you.  It's an old painting of Joan of Arc".  I asked again and he unwrapped the painting.  That was all it took.  Other dealers began to circle around me as I held up the painting for examination.  Each with their own commentary on the age, subject, condition and so on. Each giving me a quizzical look wondering why I'd be looking at it.  As I was known primarily for dealing in picture frames, the frame on this painting wasn't much to speak of.  A Dutch style moulding dating from the early 1900's.  Still I held on to it.  Knowing that if I loosened my grasp, one of my associates could swoop in and grab the painting for themselves.  So I held on, or rather it held me.  Without haggling, I paid my friend and hopped in the first taxi I could hail and headed downtown to my apartment.  And so began my project.
 
First would come a true assessment of the painting and that could only come from seeing it out of the frame and from a proper cleaning.  My painting restorer is an expert in Old Masters (little did I know) and he was pleased to take on the project.  After seeing the work out of the frame and a proper cleaning, it turned out to be a lot older than any of us suspected.  Rather than being from the 1800's and a Continental portrait of Joan of Arc, it was from the 1500's and an Italian portrait of Saint Michael.  Wow!  Three hundred years earlier and a different sex!  
Saint Michael is portrayed in a bejeweled armor, holding the balance scale, his sword and shield by his side.  Looks like we all could have used a bit more coffee before making up our minds that early Saturday morning!  Turns out, the painting was re-lined at some point in the early 1900's, framed by a Massachusetts framer and offered through a Montreal gallery.  The relining and new stretcher are truly first rate with a mid stretcher bar on a painting that measures approximately 17" x 21".  The Montreal gallery may have commissioned the work or handled the piece afterwards as their stamp is visible on the stretcher bar.  The framer's label is still visible on the backing paperboard on the work.  All great clues to ascertaining the identity of the artist, but all less than helpful.
 
As I am not an expert in Old Master painting, I really don't have an opinion on painting styles.  Sure, I could look through a few coffee table books and say, "Gee, it looks like a Titian".  But that really would not hold water.  I researched the gallery.  It closed sometime in the 1930's.  I researched the framer.  Only came up with a listing in the newspaper of the time.  I researched the researcher who wrote their thesis on the gallery.  She recommended that I read her 2000 page thesis.  Written entirely in French.  Dead ends?  Of course not.  There is always a way if you are willing.
 
So, I enlisted the help of an expert.  An armor society in the United Kingdom.  Their expert gladly offered his opinion of the armor, for a small fee. With this new information and some clues, I'm headed off in another direction to better understand my painting.  

Now, some of you may be thinking, "Why not show some photos to one of the big auction houses?"  A good idea.  If you know how to speak directly with the expert.  There are many levels in an auction house and getting up to the top level is not as simple as sending an email.  So, perhaps some of you may be thinking, "Why not just show the painting to an expert?"  Another good idea.  If you know THE expert.  For there are many experts.  Many.  And finding the right expert is almost as difficult as researching an unsigned Italian Old Master painting from the 1500's. So, I'll take my chances with me.


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Philadelphia Portraits

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Civil War Ghost Story Mystery

Have I mentioned that I am quite good at buying unsigned paintings?  Yes?  Oh, wonderful then you know already.  For those of you who are new to my blog, here's a little backstory: I am always buying things that I know very little about.  There.  I said it.  It's part challenge and part gamble. It's what makes the antiques business fun.  Reaching out and trying your hand at something new.  This painting is no different.  Actually, it is different.  Very different...

So, I had just given birth to our second child a week earlier.  A dealer friend of mine had called to see how we were all doing (awesome, thank you) and also wanted to show me a few things.  Maybe the paintings were first on his mind, but I like to think it was the other way around.  So, he makes the drive over to our apartment and I met him in the lobby.  The first two paintings were not for me (though I bought them against my better judgement and lost money, but that is a WHOLE other story - P.S. always go with your gut rather than a signature...) and then he showed me the third painting.  Wow.  Strong.  Emotional.  It wasn't my hormones, it was the painting.  It had been re-lined at some time, maybe 70 years ago or so and was an oil on canvas dating to the late 1800's, I thought.  Looked like an American canvas and stretcher.  And now to the interesting part.  The painting.  A woman in a white dress playing the violin sits on the edge of a bed.  A man (who looks like some military type) is lying in the bed propped up on pillows dressed in a white shirt with red around the cuff.  The room is bare.  A brown dresser and blue chair are the only furniture.  There is a crucifix above the bed.  Trust me, it is an emotional piece.  Asking my friend about the piece yielded nothing.  An, "Oh, I'm not sure.  Could be something good.  Maybe an illustrator.  Definitely American,  Sargent?  I had a couple other names in mind..."  You know the story.  So, we reached a price and I brought the paintings back up to our apartment.  The whole deal lasted about ten minutes.  Just long enough for the new baby to fall asleep.  And yes, the door closing did wake her up...

So after some time with the family, I began on my search for an artist.  I tried illustrators.  I tried American painters.  I tried violin players.  I got no answers.  Days turned into weeks and those turned into months.  Zilch.  We were planning a trip to Brazil, so I packed up the paintings and put them into storage.  And there it sat.  About six months later, I was reunited with the paintings and I was happy to be hanging them in our new apartment.  When the time came to unpack this one, I was seeing it with fresh eyes.  Sitting down at the computer I typed in four words: woman violin soldier painting.  Bingo.  Sort of.  Turns out there's a Civil War ghost story about a woman who plays the violin for a dying soldier.  It's a North South romance.  Very touching.  I felt that I had made a huge breakthrough.  Could this painting symbolize the story?  Tell me what you think...

The story goes, during the Civil War the Martha Washington College for ladies was turned into a hospital of sorts to care for wounded soldiers. The college was located very much in the South, but took on patients from either side.  A few of the students enrolled in the college stayed on as nurses and nurses aides.  One day a seriously wounded officer from the North was brought in.  He was brought in and cared for by the doctors and nurses.  One of the students who was assigned to his care, began to fall in love with him.  She was a wonderful violin player, not much of a nurse.  When the wounded officer would need some comfort, he would ask her to play violin for him.  Legend has it, that he called out to her to play something.  She obliged and he peacefully passed away.  She would die a short time later, some say of a broken heart.
The Martha Washington College is now the Martha Washington Inn.  Some say that to this day, the sounds of a violin can still be heard coming from the room where the Northern soldier and Southern student had fallen in love.  And the painting remains a bit of a mystery, but one that is at least a bit closer to an understanding.  Now, if I could just figure out the artist...