John Haberle: A Counterfeit Artist

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John Haberle, Imitation, 1887, oil on canvas, Image credit: Smithsonian Gallery of Art.

Take a good look at this picture. Does it look like a photograph? Well look again, its a painting! And its 130 years old! I was at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. the other day walking through a room of still life paintings when I came across one called Imitation by artist John Haberle. I thought it was so detailed and real-looking that I had to stop and admire it for a good long while. Usually when I’m walking around the National Gallery I stop and look at the paintings that have funny hats or interesting facial expressions. When I’m being serious I’m usually more drawn to landscapes, especially from Hudson River School artists. But this time it was Haberle’s painting of what looks like the contents of someone’s pockets tossed onto a board and framed.

Upon further research, I learned that Haberle was not just a still life painter, he was particularly gifted at a special kind of still life painting called “trompe l’oeil” (French for “fool the eye”). Though the art-style had been around since at least the Renaissance, it was particularly popular in the late 19th century in Europe and the United States. Perhaps artists felt like they had to compete with photography which seemed like the most “real” depiction of real life. Other popular American artists who specialized in trompe l’oeil were John Peto and William Harnett. According to one writer, “Trompe l’oeil images share an affective intention of double wonderment: first, to make their viewers wonder “Is this real? and What is real?” and, second, to make us wonder (in the sense of “marvel”) at the artist’s virtuosity in provoking such questions in the first place.” Where photographs offer a way for viewers to look through a “window” at reality, trompe l’oeil paintings subvert this kind of realism in a way, by appearing “real” for a moment before the viewer realizes that it is not. Continue reading “John Haberle: A Counterfeit Artist”

A Fiddler, a Poet, and a Graveyard: The Spoon River Anthology’s Happier Poetry

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“Fiddler,” early 20th century. Image source: Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at little Grove.
To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust
Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;
They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy
Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-Loor.”
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill- only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or a picnic.
O ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle-
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

In 1914, poet Edgar Lee Masters anonymously published a series of poems that were later called “The Spoon River Anthology.” I got the book as a Christmas present and am enjoying reading them. The poems are free-verse and are written as epitaphs of deceased people in the fictional town of Spoon River. But it wasn’t all made up. Masters himself lived in a small town in rural Illinois and used his neighbors as inspiration for his poetry, sometimes barely even changing peoples’ names. Real-life banker Henry Phelps was changed to Henry Phipps. Henry Wilmans became Harry Wilmans. Continue reading “A Fiddler, a Poet, and a Graveyard: The Spoon River Anthology’s Happier Poetry”

“Above all things, avoid a dress suit”

Everywhere you look in the news today, you see stories about politicians and what they’re up to. One common theme in all these stories, it seems to me, is that people in politics are untrustworthy and you can never tell what they’re actually thinking. Everything is rehearsed and carefully phrased so that all the public really sees is smoke and mirrors. This definitely isn’t a universal truth, but it has some merit and I think this is the way that many Americans perceive the political world around them in the 21st century.

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Photo Credit: New York Public Library

I’d like to introduce you to a career politician from a long time ago who I think is a pretty genuine person. You probably won’t agree with his politics, but he is a blunt man who won’t leave you guessing what his actual position is and what his goals are. Continue reading ““Above all things, avoid a dress suit””

Soap Sandwich

Radios became extremely popular and widespread in the late 1920s and especially the 1930s, in no small part because of soap operas. Writing a decade later, this is what writer James Thurber had to say about the new kind of entertainment that still dominates daytime entertainment:

“A soap opera is a kind of sandwich, whose recipe is simple enough, although it took years to compound. Between thick slices of advertising, spread twelve minutes of dialogue, add predicament, villainy, and female suffering in equal measure, throw in a dash of nobility, sprinkle with tears, season with organ music, cover with a rich announcer sauce, and serve five times a week.”

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Cast of the “Ma Perkins” radio show, a popular soap opera. Image source: otrcat.com
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James Thurber (right). Image source: xroads.virgina.edu

Thurber was a humorist and writer in the same vein as Mark Twain. He was most famous for his articles and drawings in The New Yorker, but my favorite work from him is The Beast in Me and Other Animals (1948), which features “Soapland,” the best history and commentary on the soap opera that I’ve ever seen. Definitely worth a read!

There is a section in Internet Archives called “Old Time Radio” where you can listen to thousands recordings from the early years of radio. There are tons of good soap operas available here too. Listen and see if you agree with Thurber’s description!

A Cartoon Takes on the Third Reich: Disney’s Chicken Little (1943)

When I usually think of World War II propaganda, I usually think positive. American propaganda- in the form of posters, articles, radio broadcasts, and films- were no exception. Slogans like “We can do it!” or “Give it your best!” come to mind.  Its easy to find colorful examples of propaganda providing encouragement and positive examples of working hard, achieving victory, and being the best you can be. But this isn’t the whole story. Propagandists also used scare-tactics and images of death and destruction to warn Americans away from bad habits and poor decision making. The war could be won by hard work on the home front, but it could also be lost by mistakes too.

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The “Rosie the Riveter” poster was made by the Westinghouse Company. Image credit: Smithsonian Institution.

Continue reading “A Cartoon Takes on the Third Reich: Disney’s Chicken Little (1943)”

Innovation Behind the Camera: Stop Motion and Other Film Special Effects

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Most early movies were made with cameras that looked like this. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

It wasn’t long after motion pictures were invented before film makers realized that a film was not just an ordinary play acted out before a camera. Instead of a physical theater where plays are limited by the stage and live audience, a camera crew has many tricks and techniques at their disposal to make the impossible appear real on film. In the early days of film, discovering and perfecting these techniques was a long process of trial and error. Even simple techniques like the close-up and scene transitions had to be figured out and perfected before filmmakers could make movies like the ones we have today (for an interesting discussion of the first “modern” film see here.) But if you want to see the birth of special effects for yourself, then the best thing to do is watch the movies! Continue reading “Innovation Behind the Camera: Stop Motion and Other Film Special Effects”

Mad About the Marathon

In the early 20th century, the marathon race was over two thousand years old but it was just starting to catch the attention of athletes and sporting fans all over the world. The event was revived in 1896 as part of the very first modern Olympics and it didn’t take long for the long-distance running event to become incredibly popular. Today, hundreds of thousands of people run marathons and long distances every year, often to get fit and stay healthy.

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The 1910 Baltimore Marathon featured more than seventy runners. Photo Credit: The Baltimore Sun

But the new marathon craze did have its detractors, including a Dr. John H. Girdner. According to the good doctor, long distance running was a dangerous killer that wrecked the bodies and minds of young people both in training and competition. “Its victims,” he wrote of the marathon in a 1909 article, “will work irreparable injury to their own health.” Does it seem a little strange that a doctor was so opposed to what is now considered a popular and healthy activity? I think this calls for some historical investigation! Continue reading “Mad About the Marathon”