It’s difficult for me to remember a lot of firsts. At best, I have an oldest memory of some thing or event but there is no guarantee that those are the first times I experienced anything. I could figure out the first 45 that I bought because we still have them all. I could just check release dates. It was probably “Watching the Wheels” or “Woman” The first album I bought with my own money was The Outfield’s Play Deep. Anything I had up until that point was a gift or mixtape. The first time I remember being in a movie theatre was when my parents took my brother and me to see Kramer Vs Kramer. I assume they expected us to sleep through it because I was 4 years old at the time. I know I was awake long enough to see Jane Alexander walking down a hallway naked right before my mother’s hand went up over my eyes. Mom would repeat this maneuver two years later to block the giant Nazi in Raiders of Lost Ark being chopped up by the airplane propeller.
But what is the first unique piece of art that I saw? It had to be in our house, because, as I have previously established, I did not enter a museum until I was 17. I didn’t visit an art gallery until high school. We had prints in our house for a long time. My parents still have a series of what I think are offset lithography prints of northern European engravings that celebrate each month, like Breugel. Scenes of harvest, etc. They have four, one for each of our birth months. As family finances improved, unique works like paintings or monotypes showed up. My parents still have some Anna Jaap monotypes from the 1990s in their house- still lifes a bit more recognizable in presentation than the abstraction she has progressed to since then.
There are strengths and weaknesses in the means by which you form a lifelong bond with a work of art. The biggest weakness seems to be the effort required to go see it. Music is everywhere. It goes with you and gets directly tied to wherever you are when it is playing. The Sundays were from London and wrote about British things, like losing a pound in the Underground, but their first album is forever burned in my brain by driving down Conference Dr near Rivergate Mall in Goodlettsville, TN in my friend’s very old, red Volkswagen Beetle that was in such bad shape that it didn’t even have floorboards in the back seat. If you sat back there, you pulled your feet up and hoped for the best because you could see the road passing underneath the car where your feet were supposed to rest. The heat for the car was broken in some way that prevented you from turning it off. It was on all of the time, even in the summer. No matter the season, the windows were always down, which does make for good cruising and listening to The Sundays in the spring evening. This relationship to an album is nothing that a band in that position could have ever predicted but that’s the strength of recorded music. This is art’s weakness. No one is driving around Goodlettsville, TN having an Albrecht Dürer moment. Dürer is not in the air. But this weakness is countered by art’s strength that when you stand in front of a painting, you are standing where the artist stood. There was a show of Leonardo da Vinci drawings at the Met years ago. A friend of mine and I were standing in front of a drawing, 2 feet from it, when we heard a woman behind us say, “You know, you can see it from here too.” My friend turned back and said, “Yeah, but he was standing where I am when he drew it.”
I assume that most artists have had that moment early enough in their lifetime to nudge them a bit into the profession of making art: a person stood where I am standing and made the thing I am looking at and this is the only place you can stand to have this experience because this is a unique object and I occupy the singular space directly in front of a unique object at this moment. The closest thing to a first for this experience that I can remember happened in my grandmother’s house. She was the caretaker of some of my great-grandmother’s art. I have little-to-no information about my great-grandmother. I should ask more questions. She lived in eastern North Carolina and was a hobbyist of art more than an artist. She taught some classes but what remains of her work are pieces that she copied, predominantly images from magazines. We have a small watercolor still life in the kitchen that she either set up herself or copied it. It’s a handful of red, green and yellow apples with a small glass dish. It lacks volume and light but possesses a nice washy quality. It’s also well-arranged, from my perspective because it’s a relatively-long horizontal and a quick scan of all of my work will reveal that I don’t consider myself to be good at arranging along a horizontal. I make verticals. I really need to work on expanding my range of formatting.
The work of hers that grabbed my attention over the years was the biggest surviving piece that the family kept. It’s a copy of Edwin and Thomas Landseer’s The Stag at Bay. It is unclear to me whether or not the original Landseer painting exists now. The composition is best documented by Edwin’s brother, Thomas’ engraving from approximately 1848. It depicts a stag in what I assume is a lake being attacked by two wolves. The winner and loser of the fight have yet to be determined but I feel like if the stag is in the water, then the stag is going down. It looks like it could go either way. There is a threatening cloud hovering over the composition with a bird of prey circling in the darkest section of the cloud. Despite the storm, broad rays of light streak from behind the cloud to illuminate the shoreline and forest in the distance. It’s a nice slice of British romanticism. Every element of the natural world is turned up to maximum volume.
My great-grandmother’s charcoal copy of this print hung in my grandmother’s house and then came to my parents after my grandmother’s death. For the first few years of it being there, I considered it a hideous thing and rarely looked at it. But one day I finally had that “Hey, someone stood right here and made this” moment and my relationship with it changed. I think it happened because I understood that it was a relative of mine that made it. My father knew the person that made it. Now it was a mysterious object. I had no idea who Edwin Landseer or what Romanticism was or that my great-grandmother had copied this. I thought she made it up out of her head. Why would she do this? It seemed unlikely that she would ever see a stag attacked by wolves. As my eye developed, I graded it. Her drawing has space and light and proportion but lacks form. But she was seeing more than likely seeing this in a magazine so how much form did she have to observe? The horizon line doesn’t match up on the left and right side of the stag’s body. This is not a Cezanne move. It’s an error. The drawing’s importance to me grew as I grew. When we bought our first house, my parents unloaded a lot of my childhood stuff on me that had been in their attic. They gave us furniture they didn’t need. I asked for the stag and got it.
slideshow: Edwin Landseer- Night (Two Stags Battling by Moonlight), oil on canvas, 1853, 56x103”, Morning (Two Dead Stags and a Fox), oil on canvas, 1853, 56x103”, Ptarmigan in a Landscape, oil on canvas, 1833, 19.5x25.75” - images courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Once I started working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I dusted the frame of two large Landseer paintings every week. Other smaller Landseers were around, and honestly, it is a gem of a small collection of his work. Click here to see them. The Ptarmigan in a Landscape painting is a masterful control of earth tones and grays. One large piece I dusted depicts two stags battling at night. The partner of the same size depicted two dead stags with a fox and a bird of prey. Saturday night, Sunday morning? Not knowing Thomas’ prints, I was still able to look at these and my great-grandmother’s drawing and know that she was looking at his work. The composition of forms was too similar to not be him. That gave me enough to start searching. Over the years (this is early internet 2.0) I would occasionally search “Landseer stag” and find work similar but not it. After a year or two, I got an eBay hit on the print and the mystery was solved. Now I knew what she had been using as her guide and I could compare and contrast the original and the copy. The unsolvable mystery will always be where she saw it and what she was copying. She sliced off the right quarter of the composition, but maybe that wasn’t included in what she was looking at. Maybe the edits in her composition were not hers. She washed out the storm. It’s a clear day in her drawing. The landscape is downplayed. The true romanticism of the piece is negated just to focus on the subject. She nailed the shape of the stag and the antlers and the wolf on the left though. It’s a good copy. No wonder I wanted it up on the wall.
The drawing hangs above my studio door now. I’ve drawn it in the background of at least one piece of mine in the past and I’m sure I’ll use it again. I see the print pop up on auctions, but I’ll never spend $5,000 on it. I found it hovering in the background of a bar scene in Bull Durham. It’s a nice steady reminder of art history as well as family history and that your children and grandchildren may latch onto an oddball thing you make as a keepsake that you were ever here. We have this drawing and some of my wife’s grandfather’s whittled oddities. You can hold those whittled piece in your hand in the same way you can stand in front of a Leonardo drawing and say, “This is the only one of these. I am holding it (or standing in front of it) and no one else can have that direct relationship right now but me.”