Oils

Google and an Art Inheritance by Jeannine Cook

Some while ago, I was fortunate enough to inherit a painting I had always loved in my family home. A coastal scene with a wonderful foreground frieze of golden gorse, it had always delighted me with its luminously expansive feel.  I had been told that it was painted from the veranda of my family's home in Albany, Western Australia, but that was all I knew.

One day, I decided to start investigating to see what I could learn about the work.  I copied onto paper the almost illegible signature, and eventually started working on Google, trying out whatever I could decipher. Google came up trumps - which, in a way, is less and less of a surprise as time and the reach of Google have taught us all.  The signature was of an Australian woman artist, Ellis Rowan,who was active, and prominent, in the late 19th and early 20th century.  As I learned a little more about her intriguing, adventurous life, and her skills at self promotion as she developed her career as a "flower painter", I was filled with admiration.  I was also delighted to find that she had connections with my redoutable great grandmother, Ethel Clifton Hassell - another very strong character by all accounts. Pushing all sorts of boundaries as a woman, Marian Ellis Rowan seemed to make no concessions in her pursuit of flowers to paint and places that might be of interest.

Ellis Rowan travelled several times to Western Australia, following in the footsteps of her much admired flower painter role model, Marianne North, who travelled the world to paint flower species during the 19th century, finally endowing Kew Gardens with a gallery for her wonderful works.  It was thus natural for Ellis Rowan to meet my great grandmother, a community leader in Western Australia and a flower lover.  They possibly got on well and I can imagine the scene of Ellis Rowan settling down on the veranda at Hillside, the Hassell home in Albany, to paint the view out to King George Sound.  Her skill in painting was considerable, especially given that she often used gouache, which is quick drying and often difficult as a medium. She also used watercolours and oils.

Birds and flowers, of preference tropical, colourful and exotic, were Ellis Rowan's favourite subject matter, and many of her paintings in the National Library in Australia show her skills.  She was prolific, and consequently, there is a marvellous diversity in her work.  These are but a tiny sample of her flower paintings.

Wild Cornflowers, gouache and watercolour, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Wild Cornflowers, gouache and watercolour, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Fringed Violet, watercolour and gouache, 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Fringed Violet, watercolour and gouache, 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Norfolk Island Hibiscus, watercolour and gouache, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Norfolk Island Hibiscus, watercolour and gouache, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Swamp Banksia, watercolour and gouache, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Swamp Banksia, watercolour and gouache, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Black Wattle, gouache and watercolour, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Black Wattle, gouache and watercolour, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Dutch Utopia exhibit at Telfair Museum by Jeannine Cook

Savannah's Telfair Museum of Art has just opened an unusual and most interesting exhibition, Dutch Utopia. Using art already in the Museum's permanent holdings as a springboard, curator Holly Koons McCullough and her team have assembled a large number of works by American artists who worked in artists' colonies and small unspoiled villages in the Netherlands during the second half of the nineteenth century.

There are plenty of canvases large and small by artists who remain well known today, from John Singer Sargent to Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase. Then there are the delights to be savoured thanks to many artists whose names are less familiar today, from George Hitchcock to accomplished women artists like Anna Stanley and Elizabeth Nourse. Traditional compositions of landscape or interiors suddenly change to daring works which feel much more contemporary to us today. Watercolours hold their own with oils on canvas, some huge. It is an interesting mix of works and takes one to a totally different time and place, in a tight society living beneath amazingly luminous Northern skies, where wind and sea dictate every aspect of life and, according to one contemporary comment, there is a great deal of the colour blue in sunlight. The American artists lived there for varying lengths of time, but they all seemed to concentrate on eliminating from their work any hints of the changes that Europe had been undergoing as the Industrial Revolution reached its zenith. The Holland they portray had barely changed from the work Rembrandt and Franz Hals knew.

I found myself contrasting many of the scenes of Dutch women, be-coiffed and be-clogged, monumental and utterly Northern, with those by the Pont Aven school of artists who were depicting the Breton women with their typical coiffes and, yes, clogs too, on occasion. Working at about the same time, Gaugin, Sérusier, Emile Bernard and a host of other French artists were working in the sleepy little Brittany towns of Pont Aven or Le Pouldu. They were, to my eye, far more adventurous in their approaches than the Americans in the Netherlands, but each community produced some wonderful art.

The Ghost Story , 1887, Oil on canvas, Walter MacEwen , (Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio)

The Ghost Story, 1887, Oil on canvas, Walter MacEwen , (Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio)

In Holland,  1887,Oil on canvas, Gari Melchers Gari Melchers Home and Studio, Fredericksburg, Virginia

In Holland, 1887,Oil on canvas, Gari Melchers
Gari Melchers Home and Studio, Fredericksburg, Virginia

The Telfair's exhibition runs until January 10th, 2010, before moving to the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands.
It is well worth seeing at one of its venues.