Norman Rockwell

Refugee Thanksgiving, Saturday Evening Post cover, November 27, 1943 Issue

I published this for Thanksgiving two years ago. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is not about getting anything. It is about appreciating all the things that are good in the world, all the people you love and who love you in return. And, I hope, it is about taking a moment to think about the world as it is, and wonder for a moment how I might do some little positive thing to make it better. I have a lot of new readers, and I want to offer this piece again. Most of the time when I re-read something of mine all I can think of is how to re-write it. Not this one. It is one of my favorites. May your Thanksgiving be filled with joy and peace.

I am fifty-six years old.  In all those years I have never been afraid of the place where I live.  I have never wakened with the thought that if I am not careful today, very careful, I may be killed.  I have never stood in a street as evening approached desperate to find a proper shelter before I freeze to death.  I have never doubted, even a little, that I will get something to eat.


Good for me.  But there are Americans who have experienced all those things.  Some experienced those fears in other countries, places from which they fled.  Some experience them every day right here, just a few miles away from my house.  But I am blessed and this does not happen to me.  This does not happen to most Americans.  We are almost all of us blessed in our safety, our prosperity, our luck.  We are living the American Dream.  And that has everything to do with how we look at something.  It colors our vision.

Our American Dream is illustrated by Norman Rockwell, at least for my generation.  We are not fools, of course.  We know that America was never really as much fun or as innocent or as schmaltzy as he made it seem in those delightful covers for the Saturday Evening Post.  He never claimed to be a serious artist like Hopper or Pollock, but I’m not even sure what that really means.  He is single-handedly responsible for some of our most cherished images of American life.  People who never heard of Marc Chagall can describe a Rockwell image in loving detail.  And get it right, too.  Another writer said something to the effect that the modern view of America and Americans was pretty much defined by Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell.  That may well be true.  If he colored our vision of ourselves, he did it with the best of intentions.  He shows honest affection and love for the people that inhabit his work.  He seems to regard Americans as a kind of miracle, and who could dislike a guy who thinks so well of us?

Rockwell did many Thanksgiving pictures over the years.  The one most of us think of wasn’t done for Thanksgiving, per se, but was part of his Four Freedoms series.  The series was inspired by an oration by Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the images were titled Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want.  In Freedom from Want we see the kindly grandmother showing the grand, roasted bird to her admiring family as the grandfather stands behind her, waiting his chance to carve.  That’s our Thanksgiving image, tattooed in our national conscience.  This is our entitlement, or so we believe.  But note the careful language of these freedoms.  Want and Fear are things we must be freed from.  Somewhere within that language is recognition that Fear and Want are part of the predominant human condition.  There is a presumption that it is up to us, as visionaries, as Americans to change that.  To change it for everyone.  But Freedom from Want, the picture the PR types want us to look at, is not what I choose to review.  Instead I am looking at Refugee Thanksgiving which I think was closer to Rockwell’s heart.

The original painting for this is lost, which is not uncommon for Rockwell.  He did not fancy himself a great artist, and simply destroyed many of the originals once they were used.  It survives in prints and posters only as a cover.  We are looking at a young Italian girl in a dirty, decaying blue dress.  Her feet are wrapped in stiff cloth which she must wear instead of shoes.  Her Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1943, and there is a war on.  (The November 27 on the cover refers to the week of issue.)  She sits in the ruin of what once had been an important public structure.  Chunks of marble or granite from blasted columns lie about.  There is a broken manacle hanging from a stone wall.  The girl is draped in the overcoat of an American Army sergeant.  Balanced on her knee is a flimsy GI mess kit with a meager supper.  The girl’s hands are folded in prayer, and from the title we assume she is giving thanks for this meal and for her rescuers.

Those who dismiss Rockwell’s work often accuse him of sentimentality.  They say he is not an “honest” chronicler of events.  He goes for the easy tug of the heart strings.  Perhaps that is often fair, but I don’t think so here.  If he were going for sentimentality and the pro-American “message” he’d have surely posed this differently.  We’d see this (no doubt) gruff old sergeant handing her the food, or better yet, see him shamed into praying with her, one hairy eyebrow cocked as he peeks in secret to see if she is done.  That’s your Hollywood, baby.

I mean, that’s box office gold.

Instead, it is what it is.  Because I am a fifty-six year old American who has never known a day of real fear, of real hunger, of real deprivation, I see a young girl thanking God for her rescue by a benevolent soldier.  I am programmed by my life to think that way.  Rockwell knows this, but like any complicated, thinking human being he feels more than one way about war.  And so there is no soldier in this painting.  And someone else, someone from some rougher place where they don’t think Americans are all swell, might instead see a child who has scavenged warmth and food from a dead soldier’s things, and this child now thanks God for deliverance from her tormentor.  And that viewer might think this way because there is no soldier in this picture.  And the picture is what it is.  And how we see a thing, how we judge its rightness and meaning depends very much on who we are.  It is only when we take the trouble to really know each other as human beings that we get beyond this programming, and learn to borrow each other’s eyes.

And what do you suppose she prays for, really?  Does it matter whether she is the rescued or the oppressed?  She is a child of war, and I imagine she is mightily fed up with her life so far.  If we could really hear her, I don’t know that we’d hear a prayer of Thanksgiving at all.  It might  be more like, “Please God, make them just stop fighting. Everybody asks you to do that, and you never do it.  Please, for once just make them stop.”

She’d have better luck asking for shoes.

Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 2010.  And there’s a war on.

Update: Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2012. And there’s a war on.

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Leon Bakst

Art leads where it will. Leon Bakst had every intention of being a conventional artist. Indeed, he painted many portraits and other works of art which most museums would today be proud to display. But his claim to immortality comes from a different realm altogether, the world of dance. It was his work with the Ballet Russes and the titans of his age like Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Diaghilev, Nijinski, Anna Pavlova, Ida Rubenstein, Michel Fokine—and so many other titanic names that it strains credulity to see them listed—it was this work that broke the world of the theatre wide open and left Europe gasping at what miracles could be shown on stage.

He did not simply dress a dancer. He worked with dancers and choreographers so that each piece enhanced the motion of the dancer and reinforced the story itself. Audiences were shocked to see sheer fabrics beneath which the dancers wore no tights relying instead on color and movement to keep them just short of salaciousness.

His sketch for Nijinski’s faun is breathtakingly beautiful, and it must have been stunning to watch this wizard move across the stage. Bakst mastered all aspects of design. This description from Romola Nijinsky, the dancer’s wife, says it all: “The dancers were instructed by Bakst how to make themselves up. They had very whitish-pink eyes, like those of a pigeon. He painted them first, himself. They wore no tights and had nothing under their pleated gauze tunics, which were cream color and painted by him with the motif of Greek keys, some in light blue, others in apple green…They all wore tightly fitting wigs wound from cords painted in gold, their formal locks falling across their breasts. The girls really gave the impression of Greek statues in a frieze. Bakst took infinite pains to make them so and the effect was exquisite.” (Nijinsky, by Romola Nijinsky, Gollancz, London, 1937)

This bold, almost overdone theatricality simply blew away the audiences of the day. These were by far the finest dancers of their generation, and Bakst ensured that they spent every moment on the stage draped as their stature and passion deserved. It must have been wonderful to experience that incredible locus of aural, kinetic, and visual art thundering onto the stages of Paris like a dragon pouncing from the east.

His relationship with the Ballet Russes was a complicated one, with many on again-off again episodes as one might well expect when so many entitled egos go at it for a while. When he died he was no longer associated with the group. But his contribution is honored to this day, and his sense of design is virtually timeless; many a set designer or costumer, even now, will drag out these old prints and look for clues to see how they, too, might look really modern. If you doubt me, check out some of the edgier Manga some time. There’s nothing like a cutting edge.

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Kurt Vonnegut

We approach a sacred date, and I thought it might be time to talk about someone I loved very deeply. The porcelain above is from a city in Germany called Dresden. Dresden was part of Germany at a time when Germany was doing a terrible thing in the world, and the people who sought to stop it from doing that terrible thing thought one of the best things to do was to destroy the city. Not only did they bomb the city but they covered it in accelerant with the express purpose of burning it in hellfire. Some people were there and say that Dresden was used as a staging stop for troop movements and that it was important. Some other people, like Vonnegut, were there and say it was what it had always been, a town of delicate arts and porcelains that had little to do with the waging of war. Certainly, the timing of the attack seems a little strange; the war with Germany was all but over. The Germans had very few options left. Whatever the case, and whatever your point of view, the attack happened over three days and Vonnegut was there to see it. He would never argue the point. He would let the city’s art speak for itself. This is what they did in Dresden, he would say. This is what they destroyed in fire and flame and the deaths of so many civilians. It is interesting how different wars can be between then and now. The Germans went out of their way to save the lives of the American POWs, even as their own citizens ran burning in the streets.

Sometimes it costs too much to create a genius.

Part of what makes an artist true is the stamp of his personality on whatever he creates. Pick almost any of Vonnegut’s works, grab a line in isolation, and chances are it will ring of the man himself.

He knew how to say things simply, to drag the fat from a phrase until it stood so naked you were forced to look at it, to see its truth without filters. He tried to tell us what we are really like. Simply.

Almost everyone can be good. Almost everyone can be bad. People mostly want to belong. One of his characters created a law from which everyone inherited a family name so everyone, everywhere would have a big family. You could travel all over America and pick up a phone book with assurance that you had family there. He wanted us to be reassured. He knew that life was less a matter of good and evil than of simple unintended consequences, a result of failing to think things through. He might have said—though he never did—that Hitler turned to Goebbels once and said, “Oops. I’m not sure we thought things through.” Vonnegut might have said—though he never did—that it is harder to really hate someone capable of saying “oops.”


Look at the USA. We have been at war for some ten years or so. A decade. It seems like we have fought at least one war every decade I have been alive. Maybe we should look at all the other superpower countries that can make that claim.


It seems like everybody wastes a lot of energy on their facades these days. Vonnegut would not have cared for that. He would have understood it, but he wouldn’t have cared for it. The world has always had snark; the world has always had irony. Vonnegut would find it silly that someone would think irony was a life-style. What next, obsequity? Time will have a new cover: Americans embrace the new Digital Obsequity. Maybe it will be ironic obsequity and no one will understand it at all, especially its followers. That’s the sort of thing you expect from irony, yet somehow the ironists never see it coming.


If Vonnegut were here he’d say—though he never did—that it is socially inappropriate to pretend to any attitude you cannot honestly feel during orgasm. That should be the rule. No one ponders hateful, obsequious, ironic orgasms so just drop those facades when you go out in public and give yourself an orgasmic face. We’d be a happier, more peaceful nation. The President would always wear a wacky grin, or his face would be composed in a serene, releasing expression. Imagine a whole world with everyone walking around in full Meg Ryan all the time. Hi-ho!

I like to think that as I wrote that, Vonnegut sat up there in the Mermaid Tavern and cocked his head to listen to me type. I like to think he would approve. I could do worse than live my life trying to deserve the approval of people like Vonnegut. I probably never will, but I can try.

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.

And all music is.

Breakfast of Champions
by Kurt Vonnegut

Happy Birthday, Mr. Vonnegut. Some of us forget. Some of us do not. So it goes.

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Sir John Lavery

The Green Sofa

It is a lazy day for me here at the Automat—not because I am actually feeling lazy—but, because I have so many things going on, I cannot get too carried away with this blog (though I am vaguely interested in whether [for strictly academic purposes] I can somehow work long dashes, commas, parentheses, and brackets {Have you gone crazy?} into the same sentence for four distinct appositional phrases).

So anyway, I am going to show you some pretty pictures and then link like nobody’s business.

Boating on the Thames, 1890

Sometimes it is enough to simply enjoy a work of art. I like looking at Lavery. (How’s that for fancy technical art talk?) I want to live in the England he painted. I want to punt in one of those slender boats with my best girlie lounging level with the gunwales, followed by a jolly rogering on the rich green grass of Blighty.  Then we’ll relax with an upper-class picnic of watercress and cucumber sandwiches washed down with a bottle of cheap plonk, and we’ll dab our lips with serviettes that cost twenty-five quid apiece and carry our wine-and-love spotted linens home in a two hundred year old picnic basket. Then I’ll fire up the Cord and drive west to Vita Sackville-Baggins’ house and freshen up all the lesbians in the Bloomsbury Set (please don’t write and correct me; it is too, too tedious.)

The Red Fan

Lavery knew that this posh and poofy England was the best place to press his wares. The trend in art had been all about painting the peasants and rendering the real world. Lavery had noticed that peasants didn’t pay nearly as much for portraits and landscapes as rich people did, and changed his strategy accordingly. As a result we have some of the best renderings of the rich and powerful people of his day, and he became a very wealthy and knighted gentleman himself. Not bad for a poor Irish orphan who’d been told throughout his student years that he wasn’t good enough to be an artist.

Michael Collins, the Love of Ireland 1922


Lavery experienced a political awakening somewhat late in his life, and was very much involved with the negotiations and maneuverings between the Irish and the English. His portrait of Michael Collins is probably his most famous piece, certainly among the Irish.

The Tennis party


If you are interested in the details of his life, and want to see more of his work, please visit the blog Underpaintings at the link I’ve provided where you will find a terrific article about Lavery.

A Conquest


In the meantime, consider these beautiful paintings. Find yourself a wonderful partner. Find a fragrant patch of grass. And if some cop interrupts you, tell the Philistine bastard that you are making art.

Live, damn it!

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Native American Art


Hopi pot, attributed to Nampeyo, ca 1930

I find myself compelled to learn something about Native American art. The passing of Russell Means struck me very hard. I was once a fervent fan of the troublemakers who attempted at Wounded Knee to bring the nation’s attention back to a people to whom we owe so very much. Yet, here I was decades later as ignorant as I’d been all those years before.

Northern Cheyenne dress

I can share a few things I know about Native Americans. I know that art applied to every aspect of their lives, and most of it bore religious significance.  Designs on pots and blankets hearken back to tales of creation and spirits and the promise of the world to come. I know that life itself was so precious and valued that nearly every tribe embraced the things of the earth and the life that moved upon its surface with no sense of entitlement or dominion, but with a keen sense of their place within the body of a gigantic engine. They were a people of titanic courage who might yet approach a mouse with caution for powerful spirits lurked everywhere and if life taught them anything, it was that it paid to be humble.

woman’s boot style mocassins, ca 1915 cheyenne

Last Lakota Horse Raid, Lakota Doll, Rhonda Holy Bear, artist ,

Spirits live even in the work of our hands. Any regular museum goer can attest to having from time to time felt an odd premonition that just beyond the next corner lies a thing of power and significance and life. I am convinced that much art, particularly pottery, still exists today because it calls to us and requires our attention and protection. And we provide it because it magically makes us feel better. We are rubbing noses with a spirit on another plane. We feel the promise of eternity and simplicity, of spiritual peace.

Lakota dress, unknown artist, the beadwork tells the story of creation

I have not paid attention as I should, and so I commit now to look at this art with fresher eyes. In the meanwhile, here are some pieces to look at. They are all curious and beautiful. I cannot wait to find out what they will teach me.

Anything is possible.

possibles bag, Cheyenne

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Stan Freberg

Art is a muscular, flexible athlete of a subject that can take a lot of pounding; the notion of what does and does not constitute art has fueled many an intellectual debate from the Athenian symposium to Gertrude’s salon to the hipsters at Starbucks. For my money, art is anything that enlightens through a prism of creativity and genuine point of view. If you do not believe what you are talking about, if you don’t stand behind the work you have created, then you may be a  provocateur, a card, a tease, a wit—perhaps a thousand different positive things, but you are not an artist.

Stan Freberg is an artist.

His comedy routines are innovative and cutting edge. His sense of decency and morality is enough to make most of us redden with embarrassment. He never accepted sponsorships from tobacco or alcohol companies; he would have been a much, much richer man if he had. His work is extraordinary and covers the serious and sedate all the way through madcap hyper-surrealism. If you have never listened to the magic of the Stan Freberg collection called Tip of the Freberg from Rhino Records, then you don’t like yourself nearly enough and you should talk to somebody about it.

Here is his slogan for Meadowgold Milk from the sixties: So good it’s almost too much to endure.

That is hitting hard wood from home plate, baby.

Chun King foods was a tiny little company no one had ever heard of when it went to Freberg to try and save its business. He composed a campaign so successful the company simply couldn’t make its food fast enough. The original radio commercial, one in which Freberg corrects a corporate spokesman who claims 95% of Americans prefer Chun King (95% of Americans have never heard of Chun King!) led to a near immediate market dominance and their subsequent acquisition by R.J. Reynolds.  His campaigns for Sunsweet Prunes and Jeno’s Pizza Rolls  (In which he spoofs a completely unrelated product, Lark Cigarettes, who ran a “Show us your Lark” campaign to the same William Tell Overture) are equally legendary. In the Jeno’s ad they are interrupted by a smoker who wants to “…talk to them about the music you’re using,” followed by—well, watch it yourself. Sales for Sunsweet Prunes, meanwhile, already the best selling prune in America, went up 400% in the first year of his campaign. Let me repeat: 400%.


Stan Freberg is an artist.

In a radio comedy sketch about a homeless man (played by the immortal Daws Butler) we learn the concept of an “alarm rat” who can bite you awake so you never miss any vital social engagements.

He was the father of so much more than just a few funny commercials and some old fashioned radio skits. His influence is apparent in the achievements of everyone from Nichols and May to SNL to Weird Al Yankovic.  He is a genuine original who managed, while turning out one of the largest bodies of work in his field, to also provide more free support to causes and movements than any of us will ever know because he did so much of it quietly. He also managed to stand up to censorship and the witch hunters like Joe McCarthy while other people in entertainment wet their pants at the mere mention of the name. No one would mistake Freberg for a humble man. None but an idot could enjoy such prodigious gifts and be unaware of them. But history shows he was generous and principled and brave even when it didn’t pay to be that way. We used to call that kind of person a class act. We don’t get to use that expression much these days, not without a lot of argument anyway. Not many people would argue that Freberg is anything but a class act. These commercials from YouTube really are only the tip of the Freberg.

Stan Freberg is an artist. Seek him out.

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Nicholas Roerich


Himalayas, 1933, Tempera on Canvas, 74.5 x 118cm

Nicholas Roerich was born into a well-heeled family in Tsarist Russia and managed to spend his life traveling and working and campaigning for good without ever seriously pissing anybody off; considering his background and affiliations, that was no mean feat, but if ever an artist’s head and heart were in the skies, this is the guy. Despite leaving behind an impressive number of excellent paintings, he was most proud of the work he did on behalf of the world’s art and architecture against the ravages of war. Today there are formal agreements among nations regarding the protection and disposition of the world’s great art, agreements that began with the so-called Roerich pact of 1935 to which nations of the Pan-American Union, including the USA, were signatories. He was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize which is somewhat ironic in that his greatest work lay in the protection of property and treasures instead of people, but that is an unfair judgment on the committee. Much of the process of working toward peace is promoting the recognition of the other side as an actual culture instead of just an enemy, and nothing leads us to an understanding and sympathy with a culture more quickly than a familiarity with its art. Or so he hoped.

Tibet, Himalayas, 1933, Tempera on Canvas, 74 x 117cm


Roerich travelled widely throughout his life, and he had a deep fondness for the Asian artistic tradition. This influence is evident in many of his paintings, but seems fresh and unique since techniques of, say, Chinese draftsmanship and landscape are filtered through Roerich’s training as an architect.  This leaves us with gauzy, wide vistas broken by the march of practical polygons, habitats of monks and mountain dwellers who dare the peaks in structures of primitive simplicity which somehow manage to endure forever against the harshest climate on earth.

Dorje, the Daring One, 1925. Tempera on canvas, 74 x 117.5cm

His work is also very illustrative. Some of his paintings might easily have come from the pages of a graphic novel, and I wonder how many of the early comics artists might have been influenced by his style.

His life is one of incredible achievement and adventure. He was there for the Bolshevik Revolution and tried to help the emergent nation come up with a coherent policy on art in his never-ending quest for art preservation. He managed to scuttle free of the Leninist regime which he despised, and eventually made his way to the west where he took everyone and everything by storm. Heavily into Blavatsky’s Theosophy and occultism, he looked like a fierce wizard striding across North America. He made it at last to India and eventually died in the Punjab at the age of seventy-three.

St Francis, 1932, Tempera on Canvas, 153.5 x 107cm

Chances are pretty good most Americans have never heard of him, yet he has his own museum in New York City. It’s just the latest one, by the way. There are others. There are also Roerich societies around the world. Like Ferris Bueller he seemed to be known and respected by everyone, and like Bueller he somehow managed to be in on everything everywhere. He was an architect, a lawyer, a painter, a set designer, a philosopher, a short story writer, a poet, and a magician.

The kids think he’s a cool dude.

Ferris Bueller (Sometimes mistakenly called Elijah the Prophet) 1931, Tempera on Canvas, 74 x 117cm


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Edward Hopper IV

Room in New York, 1940

One of the things I find bothersome in our modern culture is the Rachel Ray syndrome, the one where someone speaks in an overly theatrical, exaggerated manner that sounds about as genuine as an upper crust British accent in the mouth of a West Virginia coal miner. Rachel may be a fine lady but she gushes way too much, and it always rings false to my ear.

Chop Suey, 1929

This is not a thing we have to worry about with Hopper or his characters. Part of what makes his work so compelling is the complete lack of theatricality in his people, even when they are in the theater. They are presented as off the cuff, normal, banal. But it is a studied and artistic banality to which we respond without thinking. These are our kind, he is saying, these are our places, and somehow, by magic, he implies an epic sweep of emotion and drama and peril that appears in no way or form on the canvas.  Directors of cinema, envious of his technique, have consciously and deliberately emulated his style of lighting and blocking to heighten tension within quiet, solitary scenes.

Office at Night, 1940

For his part, Hopper always denied that his pictures were anything other than what they appeared. When people invented back stories for his tableau he accused them of trying to “Norman Rockwell” his work. He believed that the viewer should decide his own opinion of art and should defend his view fervently, particularly if it ran counter to common opinion: “…Else tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced with shame to take our opinion from another.”

Washington Square building, Hopper apartment on top floor

He was a man who was hyper-conscious of his surroundings and his time. He lived in an apartment building off Washington Square in New York City that had known two of  “the Eight” as tenants (Ernest Lawson and William Glackens), where Thomas Eakins (an artist Hopper much admired) had lived and worked, where Henry James had been born “…next door at No. 2,” The Dial was born there, E. E.  Cummings and John Dos Passos both lived there for a while. The writer and artist Brian O’Doherty (to whom I owe all my best Hopper quotes and details) reports that Hopper protected his building from his enemy, New York University, which “…wanted to engulf it.” (It’s amazing how long famous New Yorkers have spent hating New York University for one thing and another. Fran Liebowitz is only one of the latest.)

Ach, I am getting off track here.

Here’s the long and the short of it. Hopper saved my life. Hopper helped me find my way back to myself. Hopper made the doing of something, the creative act, a pleasure for me again.

Hopper’s last painting, done about a year before his death, is of a pair of clowns taking their applause from an unseen audience. Hopper and his wife, saying goodbye. They were in their eighties. He died first and she followed ten months later staying behind just long enough to tidy up his affairs.

I said the last time I would do no more Hopper columns except the interludes and I say it again this time, too. I am notoriously unreliable.

This is the 100th column of the Automat. It has gone from being virtually unread to being the first choice for those who wish to crib their art papers from the internet. I want to thank all my readers for their support over the last two years. I am just warming up.

Two Comedians, 1965

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Egon Schiele

Death and the Maiden, Oil on Canvas, 1915, 150.5 x 180cm, Austrian Gallery Belvedere

Art is death.
All the young dudes…

How many have we seen now, how many young artists lost to war, lost to disease, lost to their own insane drive to create? Here’s another, dead at 28.

He considered his personal life to be rikki-tik, right on top of the world. It was only where it intersected with society and his neighbors that he found a little trouble.

Portrait of Edith Schiele, Oil on Canvas, 1918, 140 x 110.5cm, Austrian Gallery Belvedere

Art is love.
All the young dudes…

Mind you, this was all mostly rumored. But it was also likely. Egon was probably a pretty bad boy. He diddled his wife’s sister, his own sister, was arrested for pornography, was kicked out of his father’s home, and was run out of a few neighborhoods on suspicion of child molesting. He was a complete and possibly innocent-at-heart hedonist, which is frankly the kind of character we prefer in our artists.

Levitation, 1915


Art is truth.
All the young dudes…

He studied under Klimt which doubtless reinforced his own sense of sexual entitlement as much as it influenced his early, derivative work. But he soon moved on into his own vision and began creating exciting, breathtaking art.

Unlike Modigliani, who knew for his whole life that he was doomed by his disease, death snuck up on Egon. The world flu pandemic  took him down like wolves take a rabbit, with barely any warning and without mercy. Pfft. Gone.

The Lovers, Pencil and Body Color on paper, 1915

Art is spirit.
All the young dudes…

The choice you make to be an artist is seldom a conscious one, not really. There is much about the life to attract anyone, but real artists respond on a different level altogether. Real artists are making something that denies reward, something that is only accidentally useful to the world. Real artists are taking something dead and infusing it with the best part of their own humanity. They are procreating in reverse, making themselves in images that are forever unique, with non-replicatable DNA that can influence but cannot be copied without damaging its own progeny—art that can inflame but cannot fire. For once and for all time, if you would know the artist, look to his art.

Art is life.
All the young dudes, carry the news.

Port of Trieste, oil and pencil on card


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John French Sloan

McSorley’s Bar, 1912, Oil on Canvas, 66.04 x 81.28cm, Detroit Institute of the Arts

We know a lot about John French Sloan. He was one of the famous “Eight” who made up the Ashcan School in the early Twentieth Century. The Ashcan School supposedly offered us all a realistic look at New York City’s grimy underbelly, but this was a sensibility more honored in the breach than most. As usual, reality and hype do not dance together, and in fact are each listening to different orchestras at once. Most of the Ashcan School paintings I’ve seen are rather pretty. So much for grime.

Easter Eve, 1907, Oil on Canvas, 81.28 x 66.04cm, Private Collection


Sloan’s successes were more hard-won than most. He never rang the bell of artistic greatness that so many others did. He often had to compromise his work to make a living, struggling along as an illustrator here, a cartoonist there. He was known to have a bitter and sharp way with words. In later years he would teach artists like Alexander Calder who would enjoy far greater commercial rewards than anything of which Sloan could have ever dreamt. He often warned his students they could learn nothing from him of making a living.

I love his art, and I think McSorley’s Bar is one of the great American paintings. But I am more intrigued by Sloan himself. He was a complicated and oddly gentle man. He was apparently a bit of a naif when it came to courting and the ways of romance, and when he did fall in love he chose a prostitute named Anna Maria Wall, known as “Dolly.” He had no illusions about her; they had met in the brothel. But he loved her and married her and did not care a fig for anyone else’s opinion. She was also an alcoholic, and everyone knew that as well, and he did not care a fig for anyone’s opinion about that either. Just to round things off, Dolly was also a little bit mad. Figs be damned!

Even for an artist, this was extraordinary. For her part, Dolly adored him.

Dolly did not get better, but Sloan fought harder to help her. At her doctor’s suggestion, Sloan began to keep a very special kind of diary in which he recorded not only his daily activities and work, but the many ways in which Dolly made his life better. It was a secret diary supposedly, but one he meant for her to discover, one purposely used to salt the dark mine of Dolly’s fragile self esteem. He did this patiently, religiously, from 1906 until 1913. This diary was published in the sixties and apparently provides a wonderful look into the art world and habits of that time. I will make it my business to find it and read it.

As a gift of love it must surely be without parallel.

Renganeschi’s Saturday Night, 1912, Oil on Canvas, 66.68 x 66.04cm, Art Institute of Chicago

He loved the city, too. Just as he left Dolly secrets to discover on her own, he laid out bits of urban bliss to cheer our hearts and warm our souls. He has told us that he sought only to paint the things he saw. He did not set out to say anything political or profound. He watched people secretly—refusing to disturb their realities with his needs for composition and art, which he believed were intrusions on the world. As someone who has fallen in love with New York City over and over again, I have to admit that I can feel that great urban engine just gazing at these works. It is a fabulous city filled with fabulous people.

I’ll see you there, this spring, in the park, in the rain.

Spring Rain, 1912, Oil on Canvas, 20.25 x 26 inches, Delaware Art Museum

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