Category Archives: Art and Inspiration

Bicycle Built For Two

A tandem bicycle with a lady and a gent on it. Actual old photo.

Tandem bike, CA 1896

I frequently tell people that everything is interesting and cool, and only gets more awesome the closer you look. Here’s a relentlessly deep dive into a corny song that’s over 120 years old.

CAUTION: Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two) is an earworm, and the insidious metaphorical kind, not the literal ones who are just trying to make a living that I like to cover on this blog. What’s that? You read the medical paper in that link and now your ears itch just thinking about it? Why watch horror movies at all when there’s all of nature’s untrammeled majesty just waiting to be discovered? Why, you’re welcome.

These are the lyrics for the version I know:

 

Daisy Bell

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true.

I’m half crazy all for the love of you.

It won’t be a stylish marriage;

I can’t afford a carriage.

But you’ll look sweet

Upon the seat

Of a bicycle built for two.

 

Henry, Henry, I’ll give you my answer true.

I’m not crazy all for the love of you.

There won’t be any marriage

If you can’t afford a carriage.

I won’t look sweet

Upon the seat

Of a bicycle built for two.

 

Heh. Read it really carefully. What’s this song about, and what’s going on? What happens in it? Don’t overthink it. I find, when teaching people to close read, they think there’s some kind of secret, super-hard trick answer to questions like this, when really, all I want is the obvious, basic stuff. Got an idea of what the song’s about? Click and drag over the following text for an overview, to check your answer: Henry proposes marriage to to Daisy, who rejects him. 

On the same page now, regarding the text? Good. Now, the interesting thing is, this isn’t the original version of the song at all. Turns out, the original version is this one, and it was written in 1892. Here’s a more listenable recording, from not much later. The complete soppiness of the original song drew parody second-verse replies almost instantly, and one of these became the version I know. I learned it from my mom, who learned it from her parents, who learned it from their parents, who learned it from their parents. Whoa. That brings us to official Interesting Point #1 – songs can be transmitted from generation to generation for over a century. It clearly mutated a bit along the way too. Fascinating.

So, bicycle built for two, huh? Bring on Interesting Point #2 – There was a full-on bicycle fad, at the end of the 19th Century. Daisy Bell was written to cash in on it while these newfangled velocipedes were all the rage. Tandem bicycles were also popular, with (according to pictures) lots of variants.

You’ve seen bicycles built for two, but how about three?

Old picture of three women on a bike in matching skirt uniforms. I guess this was a sport...

Three people on a bike.

Four?

Old timey picture of four gentleman athletes on a bicycle built for four.

Four on a bike. These seem to have come from the same album, so I’m guessing there were competitive sports for entire teams of people on tandem bicycles.

A legendary five-bike?

Five dapper gents on a five-bike.

My favorite thing about this picture is that enough time has passed that (in 2018) the haircuts are all back in fashion. Give these gents some skinny jeans and a plaid shirt and a smartphone, and you wouldn’t even look at them if you passed them on the street.

Anyway, bicycle craze over, the other Interesting Point about Daisy Bell is #3 this is the song that computers sing. If you know this song at all, it’s probably from 2001: A Space Odyssey and it was HAL 9000. Chances are really good that if you ask your voice activated digital assistant to sing their favorite song, they’ll sing this one. The reason is that the first speech synthesis program sang this as a demo on the IBM 704. Everything from the weather alert voice to Hatsune Miku and your digital assistant comes back to Daisy Bell.

Cat Samurai Mystery Solved!

Just in time for AnimeCon 2018, I have finally found out the origin of the samurai-walking-a-cat artwork, and what it’s all about!

You know, this amazing picture:

old scroll style artwork of a samurai taking a cat for a walk. Love the put out expression.

A samurai walking a cat. Thank goodness I figured out where it was from.

Anyway, it turns out it’s an artwork from an exhibit by contemporary artist Tetsuya Noguchi, who specializes in insanely well executed renditions of samurai in comical and surreal situations. Here’s a blurb about the exhibit, with more examples of the art, including a samurai on a penny-farthing bicycle!

Absolute respect for getting all the details dead-on accurate. There was a lot of research that went into this, in addition to the artistic skill. My favorite part is the multiple layers of humor, and the farther you look into it the funnier it is.

Modern parody artwork of samurai doing something incongruous, which quotes from historical sources, some of which are themselves parody artworks of samurai doing incongruous things, or which seem incongruous out of context. Nice.

A quick bit of said context so you can appreciate it all the more!

About “Samurai”:

  1. “Samurai” means, basically, “servant” so no high-class warrior would consider themselves a samurai, like some sort of ashigaru (footsoldier) prole. As for what to call a pre-modern Japanese warrior in general, I’m going to go with bushi (warrior), from here.
  2. During the eras of actual warfare, and not the long relative peace of the Edo period, where they were channeled into less destructive tendencies like loyalty and honor, bushi were all about one thing, and one thing only: cutting off heads and getting rewarded for it. (Acceptable hobbies include playing the flute or biwa, appreciating noh theater, flower arranging, and poetry.) This leads to a few developments:
    • Looking distinctive – Make sure your armor is unique, and instantly identifiable, so that you get properly witnessed by others on the battlefield if you do cut someone important’s head off, so you can get rewarded for it. This also serves to make sure that people know that YOU are important enough to try to cut your head off if you get killed, because it would be miserable, pointless, and horribly humiliating if you died, and nobody even bothered to harvest your noggin. This is also why you should also wear makeup and grow facial hair (high class gentleman!) if at all possible.
    • LOTS of paperwork. This whole system of Eternal War for Fun and Profit ran on bureaucratic red tape like an old timey steam engine ran on coal. Historians love this fact. How do we know who took what heads and got which rewards? We have the hearing transcripts and the severed head receipts.
  3. Awesome. Let’s look at some historical examples!

Probably late Sengoku Era, or in the style of that time, armor. Wearing a face guard so people can’t see your mustache? Just put a mustache on the face guard. Problem resolved! Probably lots of people are wearing a helmet that looks like a gentleman’s hat. Cover the hat with fur to match the mustache, and add some gilt bronze horns, for bonus distinctiveness points!

Closeup of the helmet and faceguard of a suit of Japanese armor.

By https://www.flickr.com/photos/tiseb/with/6454720709/ tiseb [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Honestly, at this pace, kitty ear helmets aren’t out of the question. Here’s a rather worn example, of somewhat less fancy armor, with rabbit(?) ears.

Rabbit ears or maybe deer ears tacked onto a helmet.

By https://www.flickr.com/photos/oxborrow/ (https://www.flickr.com/photos/oxborrow/49836706/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Oh, Minamoto no Yoshistune, you were thirty when you died (1159 – 1189), yet the first thing people do to you in the future (by which I mean 1500-something) is make you prettier for extra romantic pathos:

Shizuka Gozen (Yoshitsune's girlfriend), Minamoto no Yoshitsune (on the horse), and a couple of scruffy ashigaru, in a 1500s painting. Note that they've apparently scrambled out of the house without shoes, but not before putting on makeup. It's all about priorities.

Shizuka Gozen (Yoshitsune’s girlfriend), Minamoto no Yoshitsune (on the horse), and a couple of scruffy ashigaru for contrast, in a 1500s painting. Note that they’ve apparently scrambled out of the house without shoes, but not before putting on armor and makeup. It’s all about priorities.

See you guys at Anime Con, where you can Ask Me Anything!

Of Pies and Birds

Bird pies, pied birds, and pie birds.

It all started when I wanted to do a full-on program on mute swans and swan upping. As it turns out, this was a weird idea, and maybe not suited for an actual mini-class that people would actually come to. I never did get enough material for a program, but I did keep turning up primary sources on a fairly bizarre historical food. Behold! A Mute Swan Pie.

Kitchen scene with fancy swan pie.

Kitchen Interior by David Teniers the Younger, 1644.

I know it’s a lot to take in, but take a minute, and really process this. In the back, there’s people roasting various birds on spits over a fire. There’s even more game birds, including teeny songbirds (Katherine, later: and a GREY PARTRIDGE!! They’re everywhere!), bottom left, probably also destined for their own pies. Various meats abound. The swan pie is right there, on the table, next to the red-skirted cook who’s peeling apples. It’s fancied up with a crown and flower garlands.

Sooo… what on Earth is with the swan pie? Well, the pie itself is the ancestor of pot pies. So, meat filling, and the crust is a lot thicker and tougher than our flaky pie crust is today, because it’s meant to seal in and support all that meat. People still make and eat meat pies of this sort in the UK. So, inside the elaborate crust is the roasted mute swan meat, in its own gelatin and drippings. Also, it’s decorated with its own severed wings and head, which, guessing from copious amounts of 17th Century paintings, was the fanciest possible way to cook and present a bird.

Turkey Pie

Turkey pie with a pink rose in its beak.

Still Life With a Turkey Pie by Pieter Claesz, 1627.

 

Some Kind of Personal Small Bird Pie (Grey Partridge Perdix perdix ?? That’s my best guess.)

A picture representing February of a cook holding a tiny pie - what looks like a gray partridge pie I guess.

February by Joachim von Sandrart, 1642.

I think that the personal pie bird in question really looks like it’s a gray partridge. What do you think?

Gray partridge in snow.

By K.Pitk [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Hmm. Gray neck and front. Speckled wings and tail. Rust colored face. Also, I’ve been looking at partridges long enough trying to figure out what that bird is that the word has started to look really weird. Partridge. Partridge.  P a r t r i d g e.  Gah! On to the next thing.

In addition to ending up inside pies, some birds are pied birds. Magpies, for example. Pied is an archaic word describing the pattern of having patches of different colors, usually black and white. The Eurasian Magpie is usually what people mean by magpie, and it’s easy to remember what it’s scientific name is, because it’s what Pikachu would say (although arguably misspelled.) Pica pica

Eurasian magpie on a fence

By Garry Knight (Flickr: Magpie on a Fence) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Pied Piper 

A street fair in Hamelin, Germany, with a bunch of kids dressed up as rats, and a pied piper guy.

The city of Hamelin, Germany still has all sorts of stuff commemorating the Pied Piper from folklore, or, creepily enough, maybe based on historical fact.

Healthy surplus kids getting sold to slave traders is not off the table in this case. Especially since the rat-catching bit seems to have been added a couple centuries later, and doesn’t show up in the original sources we have for this folktale… Check it out at this nifty archive of folktales. Well, that took a horribly grim turn. You know what will cheer everybody up? Ponies and linguistics! Yay!

 

Piebald Horse

An old picture of a piebald drum horse.

A piebald horse is a horse that is black and white. A skewbald horse is a horse that is any other color than black and white.

Stewball was a racehorse. No. Really. He was an actual horse. And he was probably a skewbald. Hence the name. Also, if you’ve never heard this word used for horse colors before, it’s because in North America, we generally use the Spanish-derived pinto (painted) to describe a white-splashed horse. Then the word bounced back to English, and we call them paint horses too. Lest you assume that the picture is one of those dusty crusty remains of the long lost past, nah, they still totally have ceremonial drum horses. What’s harder than playing a slide trombone? Playing a slide trombone on a horse.

The Pied Crow Corvus albus

A pied crow - black with a white belly - in a tree.

By Thomas Schoch [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

These guys are native to sub-Saharan Africa, and not to be confused with crow pie, of course. As we’ve seen already, it’s totally reasonable that the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie are literally an entire crow massacre cooked in their own juices in a pie. What a way to eat crow.

So, now that we’ve covered bird pies and pied birds, what about pie birds? If you made a totally sealed pie, with no holes cut in the top crust, the steam and pressure build up from cooking might cause a piesplosion. Or, less dramatically, at least soggy crust. To keep the steam from ruining your pie, you need to make sure the crust has a hole to let it out. Sure, it’s pretty easy to just cut holes in the crust, but, in true Victorian fashion, the people of the 19th Century weren’t going to leave it at that. A pie bird is a little ceramic piece shaped like a bird (usually with an open beak), and hollow, with an open bottom and top. You put the pie bird in your pie and poking up through the crust, to vent it. That’s it. Wikipedia has an article, but otherwise it’s hard to find more about the use of pie birds. We just don’t use pie birds much anymore. Instead, people collect them as prime examples of obscure consumer culture kitsch. Nothing quite like kitchen accessories that nobody really needs.

Death’s Scythe

Death in a cholera outbreak, mowing down people.

This is how it’s done. Death mowing down people like wheat in a cholera outbreak.

Here we go. RANT TIME. I draw things, often. I don’t know if you draw, but if you do, I hope this helps you out, or at least gives you something to think about. Even if you don’t draw, hopefully you’ll find plenty to think about. Maybe this sort of thing will become a series, too, about things that bug me about art. Being an artist is about training the eye and observational mind as much as the hand. The topic today is Death’s scythe. This is seriously one of my personal artistic pet peeves – understandable, but it really does impact how Death comes across. I’m talking here about personified Death itself. The Grim Reaper. If you take just one thing away, it should be this:

A SCYTHE IS A FARM TOOL, NOT A WEAPON. YES, THIS MATTERS.

Let’s get what a scythe is out of the way, because although it’s interesting, it’s not as interesting as why this matters, and how so many artists get this wrong, especially recently. A scythe is a farm tool for cutting down wheat or grass and such, really efficiently.

Like so:

Obvious Note: less physical work is not the same thing as faster.

A scythe is not an awkward weapon that has a blade that sticks out at right angles to the pole for some reason, with the edge on the wrong side. A scythe is an elegant mowing machine. In most models, the blade is angled, so that it’s horizontal to the ground when the scythe is in use. Why this matters: a scythe is not a tool for combat between roughly-equal beings. A scythe is a harvesting tool. Death carrying a proper scythe means that human lives are as single stalks of wheat before the blade. Look at that newspaper illustration at top again: that’s what a pandemic is like – death mowing people down like grass.

So, that’s what a scythe is, and why it matters. The last question – why do artists have trouble with Death’s scythe, especially recently? – is an open one, and interesting. I can think of two possible reasons, maybe even both at a time. Maybe artists in recent times don’t have much experience with scythes, and don’t have the chance to observe how they’re used or put together. We don’t generally harvest with a scythe anymore, so the chance to see one in action is more rare. The other half is that maybe the modern experience of death itself has changed. We’re used to people dying one at a time from disease, picked off with precision, not mown down. For contrast, this is what the 1918 Flu Pandemic looked like:

South Beach Hospital Ledger.

South Beach Hospital admissions ledger. Everybody’s got the flu, and four people are dead in a matter of days. WWI was just wrapping up, and still gets most of the attention, but this flu pandemic still killed more people than the entire infamous Great War, and in a matter of months. Here’s the document source!

Yikes. By contrast, our death, the death with a wonky, useless scythe is a much less fearsome entity than the Grim Reaper.

 

High Concept and Low Concept

Sometimes, if you’re discussing books that you read, games that you play, shows that you watch, music you listen to – basically any media you consume – you need some specialized ideas and terms to help you describe and discuss it. “It was great” or “It was bad” or “I thought it was OK” are all very well and good, but it’s so much more satisfying if you can also talk about WHY you liked/disliked something. If you want to win arguments and impress your friends, remember your ABCs – Always Backup Criticism.

Have examples, of course, of things you like or don’t and why. But, sometimes, you need some special vocabulary and ideas in order to help you with your critique. That means it’s time to add another idea to your toolbox: high vs low concept. This is all about how much concept a work of art contains, not how good the concept is. Think of it as a matter of the amount the concept itself contributes to the total content of the work.

Jane Austen’s novels are generally low concept. The idea of the novels – that people in various economic circumstances need to get paired up (or not paired up, or not paired up the way they thought) – is nowhere near as important to the books as the interactions between the characters, which is why people read them. Here’s an example pie chart, based on a very precise and academic guesstimate:

There’s also works that split it pretty much right down the middle, generating interest in equal parts from the idea that drives them, as well as the execution of the plot and characters:

On the far end of the scale, there’s also works that are high concept – that get their interest mostly from the ideas that drive them. I can think of no better example than 18 Days, which breaks down about like this:

As I’ve probably mentioned before, the library has the concept art book, if you want a look at the idea, but, sadly, they didn’t get full funding for the series as it was originally conceived. Instead, you can watch it in a few different languages on the Graphic India YouTube channel. Still pretty awesome, though.

Whatever the level of concept in your media, now you have a new way to talk about the things you love: is it high concept, low concept, or a balance of the two?

Image Gallery

In my quest to provide you only the best of content, I frequently raid Wikimedia Commons – the free-use image archive from which Wikipedia gets its pictures – to complete my posts. When I need a picture of something crazy, like a Javan Chevrotain, or a fancy coconut chalice, that’s where I go. The point is, I look at a LOT of images, to pick the best ones. Sometimes, I stumble across images that are so amazingly great, that I can’t forget them, even if they can’t be used for the post I’m writing. It would be a shame to let them fade into obscurity, and I just have to share some of them with you. You’re welcome. (Since I’m finding crazy images all the time, this will probably become the first of a series, too!)

 

A Snuggle of Honduran White Bats

Four white tent bats snuggle up under a leaf.

By Leyo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 ch (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/ch/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ectophylla alba, the Honduran White Bat, or the Honduran Tent Bat, is a species of bat that roosts, not in caves or hollow trees, but underneath large leaves, like those of banana plants. They nibble through the ribs of the leaves, to cause them to droop over in a tent, sheltering the small colony of bats from the weather. Their stark white fur also acts as camouflage, as sunlight filtering through the leaves tints the bats a matching green. This picture shows a colony of four bats all snuggled up together to sleep under their leaf tent during the day. You can even see the bite marks along either side of the leaf spine. These bats are incredibly cute. “Snuggle” should obviously be the collective noun for a group of roosting bats.

 

The Monowheel Driver

Smug man in a hat on a monowheel, which is a motorcycle that has only one wheel, but instead of the engine and driver sitting over the wheel, they sit INSIDE a really large single wheel.

Look at that smug expression. I think I’d be that smug too, if I had a monowheel motorcycle.

I love everything about this picture. The boots, the hat, the diesel-punk aesthetic of the technology (except this actually happened in real life). The fact that it’s a monowheel. A monowheel is like a motorized unicycle, but instead of you sitting ON the engine and wheel, you sit on the engine, INSIDE the one giant wheel. The engine ratchets you around the rail inside the wheel, and your gravity keeps the whole machine moving forward. Don’t ask what happens if the wheel gets stuck in the mud or something. I love the nonplussed bystanders, just out of focus in the background. Most of all, though, I love the smugness on the driver’s face. The “you know you want this monowheel” look in the eyes.

 

Cry ‘Havoc’! and Let Slip the CATS OF WAR!!

It's a painted wall scroll. Of a samurai in black armor with kitty ears on the helmet, walking a cat - who also is wearing armor, on a leash.

I’m speechless.

What. What is even happening here. This is one of the most baffling things I’ve ever seen. It’s a painted scroll of a warrior, in armor, walking a cat on a leash. Yet, if you take the time to look at the details, it only gets weirder. The cat has its own tiny suit of brigandine armor. Cats are not known for their ability to either leash train or wear clothes. The warrior’s helmet has cat ears on it. I love the kind of put-out expression, and the dainty hold on the leash. Why isn’t he wearing shoes? Who is this? Is this some sort of edgy and topical sociopolitical commentary of the mid 1600s? Or… are we to believe that war cats were a thing in the Sengoku Era? Did some warrior of that time have a cat… theme… going on? If so, who? Did Japan’s fascination with cat people start way earlier than anime would have us believe??!? So many questions. Almost no answers.

Howard Pyle’s Pirates

Play a game with me: imagine a pirate.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

 

 

Got a picture of your pirate in your head?

You’re imagining a Howard Pyle pirate. Yes, this definitely includes Jack Sparrow. In a previous post, I mentioned a centuries-old book about art criticism, and how even now, the ideas in it shape our perception of what art even is. This time, it’s about the illustrations themselves. Illustrations to books have a profound impact on the popular imagination, and yet they’re rarely given as much weight as the words on the page. You probably don’t know who Howard Pyle was, yet, he’s in your head right now, painting your pirates on the canvas of your imagination, with an army of other illustrators, costume designers, and film directors doing his bidding, and has been completely dominating the entire perception of what pirates were for the last century. Now that’s raw power.

 

Introducing (Officially) Pyle’s Pirates

Although you’re already subconsciously familiar with them, all of the following scurvy sea dogs are from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1903). This gorgeously illustrated book is full of illustrations of pirates. Pyle’s pirates are grubby, scruffy, and rough-looking, yet arrogant and roguishly fashionable. The artist uses red as a highlight to draw and hold the eye. As usual, click on pictures to embiggen!

painting of pirates dividing up a pile of gold

Pirates divvy up the loot.

Is a fancy red sash really practical for people who have to climb rigging and fight with cutlasses? No. Did real pirates – even European ones of the Caribbean – actually dress like that? Probably not. Do they look great? Heck yes.

Sparrow look-alike in a red cloak.

I’m just going to go ahead and call this guy Captain Sparrow. Nice pose and red cloak.

This pirate even has earrings, and scraggly hair, and possibly even eyeliner. He might be Johnny Depp. He’s also an illustration that’s over 100 years old. Generations of kids have grown up on Howard Pyle pirates, at this point. By now, this is just what pirates look like.

Pirates fight over treasure chest, while the crew looks on.

I love basically everything about this picture. The composition, the colors, the anatomy, and how straightforward the storytelling is. What’s going on? Pirates knife-fighting over their share of the booty, obviously. Yarrrr mateys.

Howard Pyle had students, who went on to paint their own Pyle-style pirates. Pylerates, if you will. This group of massively influential illustrators became known as the Brandywine School – including, most famously, N. C. Wyeth. The techniques of the school, and the means of storytelling through art would go on to shape illustrations in books for decades to come, and even eventually mutate into comic books as we know it. How do we get to comic books from here? Let’s look at Wyeth, for a bit.

 

N. C. Wyeth

What are illustrations actually for? Seriously. It’s not just pictures to decorate books. Illustrations go with the text. Sometimes, a good illustration even adds to the storytelling even more nuance than was in the text to begin with. The story itself even happens in the pictures. Look at this N. C. Wyeth illustration from The Boy’s King Arthur (1922):

A joust with knights, the blue knight is unhorsed by the red knight.

There’s a lot going on here. Choice of what to illustrate, motion – splinters of lance in the air – reaction – the rearing horse – everything adds to the story, and makes it exciting.

Fancy expensive books need illustrations, but so do cheap dime novels, too – so do magazines, and newspapers. Soon, newspapers and magazines were paying authors to write short stories or continuing storylines – serials – for publication, to draw in an audience. All of these need illustrators. It wasn’t long before these illustrated serials got their own section, and became standard features. Some magazines specialized in publishing these picture stories.

Billy Bones with a spyglass, wearing a billowing cape.

You know what this character is like, even if you haven’t read Treasure Island at all. It’s the attitude and the cape. Instead of a cliff above the sea, imagine a skyscraper above Gotham City. That’s how these techniques transfer to comic books.

Next time you read a picture book, or any book with illustrations, think of how different it would be without them. Yet, we give less weight to the pictures, or even scorn books that have illustrations. Consider the case of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. These books have been on the American Library Association’s most challenged book list for decades. Top of the list, for 1990 to 1999, even. Dropped lower afterwards, though – and why? Because in the meantime the publisher totally caved to pressure from pearl-clutching parents, and changed the bone-chilling original illustrations which is why they were so frequently challenged. 

People would be up in arms if the opposite happened, and a challenged book “just” had all the text changed, but the illustrations left alone. But Scary Stories was mutilated, and hardly anybody but the fans of the original illustrations noticed. Stick up for illustrations, and artists. Pictures are important. Read the original versions of the Scary Stories books in protest, if you want.

Pylerates attack the stockade in Treasure Island.

N. C. Wyeth did great Pylerates, too! You also owe it to yourself to read the original Treasure Island, unabridged.

 

Cover of a book about Wyeth. Search the catalog for more.

The library has lots of books about Pyle, Wyeth (both of them) and the Brandywine School. They’re gorgeous.

 

Squeeze the Source: In Your Face

Warning: contains super-secret library hacks, severed heads, and a horse being killed. Some (illustrated) blood is involved.

Last time, on Squeeze the Source, we covered the basics. This time, we’re going to try a slightly different approach. I’ll tell you literally everything I can think of to fill in the gaps and context of the following images, and your job is to be the very best inquisitive four year old you can be and pick up on one single detail that’s literally right in front of your face. Heh. Remember when I told you last time to not take anything for granted, and throw away all your preconceptions so they don’t get in the way of the obvious? Well there’s no better time than now!

This is a detail of a much longer scroll – Moko Shurai Ekotoba – that was commissioned by a warrior named Takezaki Suenaga. None of these people would have called themselves “samurai” since the word means basically servant. They are warriors, or bushi. Let’s get that out of the way right here. Click on pictures to see them full-screen!

Scroll detail of three people and two severed heads.

Takezaki Suenaga (in green and brown) at a court hearing, seeking rewards for beheading two members of the invasion force. He brought the heads as proof. Adachi Morimune is the judge, here, in red armor on the left. The guy in black is the secretary: it’s thanks to people like him that we have so many primary sources about this. Historians are practically rolling in receipts for severed heads.

The 13th Century warrior class in Japan was very much a headhunting culture. The military government – bakufu – didn’t prevent violence so much as referee it, and regulate it with lots of paperwork. This scroll is about the Mongolian invasion of Japan, and although there are plenty of scenes of Takezaki Suenaga fighting, a large part of the story is an interlude where he goes to court and insists on being given a replacement horse, since his own horse was killed out from under him in battle. The lifestyle of a bushi was all about fighting, taking heads, and getting rewarded for taking heads.

Takezaki Suenaga on his horse. The horse has been hit by several arrows.

The pivotal scene of the horse being killed by arrows.

The bakufu didn’t just dole out rewards like lollipops, though: you had to prove you earned it. You couldn’t just say you killed an important enemy, you had to bring the head. You couldn’t just bring the head, you had to have witnesses. The witnesses couldn’t be your relatives or friends, either. Preferably, they were third-party eyewitnesses, who didn’t have anything to gain if you won your case.

Interesting, huh? Maybe so interesting that you want to read a translation of the scroll itself? You want in on this HOT CIVIL LAWSUIT HORSE-REPLACEMENT ACTION!!! Too bad the Louisville Free Public Library doesn’t have a copy. (It’s a super-specialist history academic book, and expensive, so buying it isn’t going to be much help.) Never fear, for I will show you how to use your sweet library skillz to get even the most elusive of manga-style academic works. (That’s right, it’s published right to left like a manga, so as not to break up or flip the scroll. Hardcore.)

First, you need to know about the book. The title is In Little Need of Divine Intervention: Takezaki Suenaga’s Scrolls of the Mongol Invasion of Japan ; the translator is Thomas Conlan ; the publication year is 2010. Here’s the ISBN: 978-1-885445-13-1 (ISBN is short for International Standard Book Number – it’s a serial number unique to every edition of a book or book-like publication. Use this to be sure you get the exact book you want, and not something with the same title or whatnot. Convenient!) It’s published by the University of Hawai’i Press. Nifty.

Now, with all your information about the book, you can use this to get YOUR library to borrow a book from ANOTHER library so you can read it. Not only are you not limited to all the books in OUR system, you can also read all the books we don’t have that other libraries are willing to lend out! To use The Awesome Power of Interlibrary Loan, just get all the information about a book you want that we don’t have, go to our website, and click on “services” – there you will find a link for “interlibrary loan” and a webform you can fill out to get our library to borrow a book from another library for you. First, though, be absolutely sure that we don’t already have it. You can use it three times a month. Just promise you will use your power for good, and not for evil. With great power comes great responsibility and all that.

This is all very well and good, but there’s one visual detail that’s right in your face in this picture that says a lot about this headhunting culture, and its values. Look over all the pictures we’ve seen so far. Notice anything about these gentlemen? (Especially, if not exclusively, the gentlemen, actually.)

A warrior in red armor, on a camp stool with a fan.

Shoni Kagesuke, chillin’ on a camp stool. Have a good close look. What you’re looking for is so obvious that you’ll kick yourself, I swear.

Figured it out yet? Here’s a hint! We’re lucky in that the painter of the scroll in these scenes is actually very precise and naturalistic, in terms of details, like accessories, clothes, hairdos, and hats and such. You’re looking for a detail of personal appearance that’s clearly in all the primary sources like this, but almost never reproduced in period piece movies or TV shows, no matter how accurate they’re trying to be. This is your chance to review the pictures, and look for it. It’s not something subtle, or tricky even. Channel the inner four year old.

Select between the brackets to reveal the answer: [ Adachi Morimune in the court scene, Takezaki Suenaga himself on the horse, and Shoni Kagesuke are all wearing (quite a lot of) makeup. Faces don’t match hands, or other people’s natural skin color. You can see it plainly. Go ahead and look again! Stark white base makeup with red lipstick, and in Shoni Kagesuke’s case, he’s also dyed his teeth a fashionable black. It’s not geisha makeup, It was anybody’s high-class makeup, if you were rich and pretty enough to pull it off. Geisha just happen to still wear it. ] Interesting. I can’t tell if we don’t see it in period-piece movies and such because nobody is expecting to see it, so the costume department doesn’t know (I mean, you didn’t until just now, probably), or if it’s omitted because the producers think that the audience will be distracted if half the cast is wearing it, even if they would have, historically. Also, it’s possible to infer that its use is associated with class and rank – only the higher ranked warriors have it, and not all their followers. In addition, Suenaga is shown wearing it in battle, but not the court case, implying that some warriors specifically wore it into battle, even if they didn’t necessarily for other occasions. Maybe so that they looked their best: it would be a shame if somebody killed you and didn’t think you were high-ranking enough to bother cutting off your head. I doubt the Mongolian forces cared about it, but Takezaki Suenaga and his peers sure did.

That’s why looking at actual primary sources is important. No matter how well-researched representations of the past are, they’re filtered through the culture and expectations of their own present. While you can’t remove your own cultural filters, you can look at the primary sources directly, rather than relying on second-hand versions.

Rosa Bonheur, Animal Painter

Or, the painting food chain and the revolutionary importance of wearing pants.

painting of a bull (title: monarch of the herd) by Rosa Bonheur

And that’s absolutely no bull (It’s a painting of one. By Rosa Bonheur.)

Background – The Hierarchy of Genres

Before the photographic camera caused a crisis in the arts by the early 20th Century resulting in expressionism, impressionism, cubism, and various other modern-isms, there was a well-defined hierarchy of paintings – and therefore artists. Read more about it here at the Tate Glossary. At the very bottom were still life paintings, of household objects and food, and flowers.

Van Gogh Sunflowers

Sunflowers, 1887. According to the Hierarchy of Genres, Van Gogh is a bottom-feeder painter making bottom-feeder paintings of sunflowers. That now sell for absurd millions of dollars. Things Happened between 1699 and now…

Image of the Oath of the Horatii

Jacques-Louis David, however, makes super-prestigious history paintings, and is basically a rockstar. This is the Oath of the Horatii, 1784.

For Rosa Bonheur, though, the most important thing to know is the rationale behind the Painting Food Chain: Europeans believed that literally everything belonged in a divinely-mandated Great Chain of Being, from God down to rocks, and humans were the greatest form of life on Earth. Literally, some things were created to be better than others. Have a look:

Great Chain of Being illustration.

An illustration of the Great Chain of Being, from God through angels and humans, and animals, down to rocks. Note that each tier also has higher and lower. Naturally Kings are the highest form of human life (just to either side of Adam and Eve in the middle there, connected with a line to the chain). Convenient. If you’re a King, of course: “hey, I can’t help confiscating your lands and whatever – God put me in charge.” That’s why a coronation ceremony requires clergy, after all. That’s also what’s so revolutionary about the Declaration of Independence. Either George III has the literal God-given right to put down the rebellious colonies and tax the britches right off their butts, OR ditch him and the whole framework by founding your brand-new country on principles of human rights and equality. The bedrock of our founding documents is almost literal heresy. American history is, in large part, the history of the tension between centuries-old social orders of hierarchy and the necessary rejection of hierarchy on which the country was founded. In the words of Keanu Reeves: Whoa.

And now you understand almost all European and American history better! Glad we had that little diversion. It’ll help you in history class later, I swear. So, painters of inanimate things and plants were naturally below painters of animals, who were naturally below painters of the human form. But, in order to paint the human form, you have to practice, and spend quite some time observing and sketching actual humans. This means you have to have anatomy lessons, and live nude models. Now, in the days before first-year college students, the only people who would take their clothes off for money were literal prostitutes, or the truly desperate and destitute. Becoming a painter of the human form required seeing people naked and hanging out with sex workers. Because this was off-limits for women, women were denied the education and therefore the chance (with a few exceptions) to break into the highest ranks of painting.

(If you want to take a deep dive, check out this super-crunchy primary source at archive.org – in which Andre Felibien literally lays out the food chain of painters for what would become the French Academy. Hope you’re OK with clawing your way via google translate through some barely-modern French. I can’t really read this, since I took Spanish in High School, but it’s still a fascinating book, nonetheless. When you look at it, you’re looking at the book that shapes European art for the next several centuries, and casts a shadow, even today. If you’ve ever thought of some things but not others as Real Art; if you’ve been to an art museum or gallery; if you’ve ever wanted to know what it took to be a Real Artist; if you’ve ever wondered why some paintings are stupid expensive, but others are cheap – all of this means that the ideas in this book have gotten into your brain – and you haven’t even read it! That’s what people mean when they say something about how books can change the world or how knowledge is power. Now that you know, you can consciously choose to agree or disagree with the book’s view of art. Maybe YOU can be a Real Artist.)

The Hierarchy of Genres did get pushback, right from the start, however: as you can imagine, artists didn’t like being arbitrarily assigned to a lower income bracket forever. Landscape painters started sneaking people into paintings, and portraitists would sneak in allegorical details and landscape.

Lady Hamilton as a Baccante by Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1790. Portrait, or Genre Painting?

Lady Hamilton as a Baccante by Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1790. Portrait, or History Painting?

Paulus Potter - The Young Bull, 1647

Paulus Potter – The Bull, 1647. This painting is actually about life-size, which means it’s enormous.    o_O    Bad Paulus Potter! You and your edging in on history painting turf with huge paintings of bullocks.

Which brings us right up to the middle of the 1800s. Painters were sneaking in attacks on the Great Painting Food Chain, the French Academy had a stranglehold on what art even means, and who gets to be a Real Artist – and then photography was invented, and massively jacked everything up.

Photgraph of Crown Princess Liliuokalani and Queen Kapiolani at Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, 1887.

Crown Princess Liliuokalani and Queen Kapiolani at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, 1887. Now even if you’re a queen, you can get photographic portraits anyway. Even if you’re NOT a queen, too.

Photography caught on like wildfire, and now you didn’t need a specialized artist to paint people, or anything else, really. The painting world faced a crisis. The hierarchy of genres (and therefore artists) could no longer hold, if anyone with a camera and a darkroom could make images of anything they wanted. Artists pushed harder than ever to break the art food chain, which brings us to the incredible life of Rosa Bonheur…

 

The Artist

Rosa Bonheur was an animal painter, which was traditionally ranked above still life but below portrait and history painting. She went to slaughterhouses to study animal anatomy, and spent enormous amounts of time sketching in the field.

Rosa Bonheur sketch of bulls with notes.

Rosa Bonheur sketch of bulls with notes.

She went to zoos, and studied exotic animals, and animals she couldn’t get close to in the wild.

The Wounded Eagle by Rosa Bonheur

The Wounded Eagle by Rosa Bonheur. Golden Eagles are not known for their tameness and docility.

She was immensely popular during her lifetime, although tastes in art have changed, and she is less remembered now than some of her contemporaries, who were on the fringes of the art world at the time. Like Vincent Van Gogh.

A Ghillie and Two Shetland Ponies in a Misty Landscape by Rosa Bonheur. Hey: it's got a human in it! I see what you did there.

A Ghillie and Two Shetland Ponies in a Misty Landscape by Rosa Bonheur. Hey: it’s got a human in it! I see what you did there.

As it turns out, riding horses, tromping across cow pastures, through heather, and forests, is pretty challenging in a corset and ankle-length skirts. Fed up with the restrictions of women’s clothes and gender roles getting in the way of her work and life in general, she got a prescription for pants from her doctor, so she could get an Official Pants Permit so the police wouldn’t arrest her for wearing men’s clothes.

Rosa Bonheur's actual police permit to wear pants.

This is Rosa Bonheur’s literal Police Permit to Wear Pants. I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that this exists at all, or the fact that this happened often enough that there’s AN OFFICIAL PRE-PRINTED DOCUMENT FOR THIS. I don’t even. Just let people wear pants. Sheesh. Also: it looks like it was good for only six months at a time.

Anyway, armed with an official Pants Permit, Rosa Bonheur went on to go to farms, and hunting grounds, and all sorts of rugged places, and rode lots of horses (astride, of course, not sidesaddle, because she has a permit to wear pants now). Her most famous painting is The Horse Fair (1855), which she worked on with her friend, Natalie Micas.

Picture of Rosa Bonheur's The Horse Fair

Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair. The artist herself is visible wearing a black hat and a blue shirt, behind the head of the rearing grey horse in the center of the image.

 

Rosa Bonheur went on to continue to wear pants, and paint acclaimed and highly-sought-after paintings – whose outrageous success despite being animal paintings further eroded the Hierarchy of Genres – until her eventual death at age 77 in 1899. She was an animal painter, but with the success and fame of a history painter.

Lithograph of Rosa Bonheur in her studio.

You know you’ve made it when other painters are painting paintings of you as a painter painting paintings. This is a lithograph, though. Possibly based on a painting, but there’s a photograph of her in an almost identical pose.

This one’s a real painting:

Anna Klumkpe, Portrait of Rosa Bonheur.

Portrait of Rosa Bonheur, by Anna Klumpke. You see that medal on her jacket? That’s the French Legion of Honor. She was even promoted to Officer, too. That’s how important she was, during her lifetime.

 

You can also get all the info on Rosa Bonheur straight from the horse’s mouth (or at least really close), and read this book! Rosa Bonheur: the Artists (Auto) Biography by Anna Klumpke; Gretchen van Slyke, translator.

A picture of the cover of the book.

Protip: it’s at the library.