Research: Phoenix Art Museum - Site Visit Report

Two blogs in one day, oh my! Here's another project I did for my biography class, looking at portraits as part of biography.

Phoenix Art Museum - Site Visit Report

I’ve been visiting the Phoenix Art Museum for several years and have been a member for more than two years now. I frequently visit and love to wander the galleries, visiting certain paintings and pieces of art as if they were old friends. Several portraits in particular inspire this feeling. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve viewed them or how long it’s been since my last visit, but when I see these portraits it’s as if the subject is greeting me. One painting, especially, has always caught my eye. Spring Flowers (In the Conservatory) by Julius Stewart took my breath away the first moment I saw it and during our class visit to PAM it had the same effect. The recent renovations to the gallery have been beneficial to the piece as it’s now facing out towards the entrance, so you can see it as soon as you turn the corner. Now as I visit the museum as a member of this Biography class, I find myself viewing the painting in a very different way and the women seem more alive than ever. After reading Hermione Lee’s Biography: A Very Short Introduction and the Introduction and first chapter of Richard Brilliant’s Portraiture I have a different view of portraits, and of Spring Flowers in particular. I now realize that portraits, though not necessarily a traditional biography, still have many biographical qualities that, even if they don’t lend themselves to an individual biography, still assist in creating a group biography of a particular time and place.

At approximately six and a half by eight feet, this oil on canvas dated to 1890, is an impressive sight. Even from far away its detail leaps off the canvas and the figures seem to come alive. The painting features four women in a conservatory, I would imagine one in a large Victorian mansion in Belgravia or Mayfair. The women are gathered around a table with a large display of pink and red peonies. One woman is arranging flowers, another has paused to inhale their fragrance, one has her back turned towards the viewer, reclining on a chair and talking to the fourth woman, who is standing to the side holding a small bouquet. Each woman is appropriately dressed in late-Victorian attire, though this fourth woman looks like she’s either just recently joined the group or is about to leave.

Spring Flowers is a great subject to apply the six aspects of portraiture that Dawn Uscher shared with us. In regards to focal point, the two women that appear in conversation are looking at each other. Since the one has her back to us, we see less than half her face. The woman who is arranging the flowers is looking at the arrangement in front of her, and the woman behind the table is looking down and off to the side. None of them are looking out from the canvas which gives the painting an almost cinematic feel, as if it’s a still frame from a movie, each of the characters frozen in time, yet I still imagine they might start moving if I turn my back.

Their facial expressions are very interesting, and this has always been one of the things that attracted me to the painting. The two women who are talking, are smiling lightly, and appear very interested in what they are talking about. The one who is arranging the flowers has a very focused look on her face, but at the same time looks as if she’s listening to the conversation or thinking about what is being said. Though her eyes are firmly on the flowers, she doesn’t appear to be thinking about them, it’s as if she’s a little distracted. Perhaps by the gossip her friends are discussing? The woman in the back however, seems completely off in her own world and while she is sniffing the flower she almost has a melancholy look on her face, you can’t help wondering what she’s thinking about.

Their gestures are very simple and casual. The woman reclining on the chair has one arm resting on the back of the chair, while the other lays relaxed in her lap. The woman she is speaking to is lightly holding a small bouquet of flowers in one hand with another resting on a chair behind her. The other woman seems to be gently coaxing a light pink peony into place in the elaborate arrangement and the woman in the back is holding a flower up close to her face, just under her nose and has her other hand placed lightly against her chest.

Their clothes are spectacular, and are certainly the main reason I’ve always loved this painting. They are all dressed in period 1890 day dresses with high necks and full skirts and each dress is different. The woman arranging the flowers is wearing a pale, ivory dress with a high neck and what looks like some kind of peplum at the waist and the woman in the back is dressed in a dark mauvy-gray with puffed sleeves. However, it’s the two women in front that are the most spectacular. The one on the chair is wearing a navy blue dress with gold embroidery on the bodice and the sleeves. She has a high neck but one that seems a little looser than the other two. Her sleeves are only three-quarter length and feature elaborate gold trim at the elbows. Her skirt looks like satin and is very full with tucks and gathers forming a small bustle in the back. The other woman is wearing a visiting ensemble consisting of a skirt and jacket in white with pale blue stripes, the skirt has a front overlay that is pulled up at the sides and gathered to the back and the jacket has a notched lapel and a rounded hem at the bottom. Under the jacket she seems to be wearing a pale blue blouse and has finished the look with a golden straw hat covered in yellow flowers with a matching blue chiffon ribbon that cascades down the back and is tied under her chin. The artist has taken great care to capture the clothing and the fabric each dress is made out of.

The center of the painting is dominated by the flowers as the main object. There is also the table they are sitting on, a few chairs as well as planters and other flowers and plants in the background. But the peonies in the center really draw the eyes into the middle of the canvas, and thus the middle of the conversation of the women. It really makes you want to be there as a fifth member of their little party. They are also the brightest and most colorful part of the painting.

The setting is clearly a beautiful and large conservatory, possibly a more quiet corner, but you do get the sense of it being a large space, even if what we are seeing is surrounded by plants. It also seems well lit, possibly with natural lighting coming from above through sky lights.

There is a lot of information to be pulled from this piece, almost every time I see it I notice a new detail that had gone unnoticed before. Though nothing is really known of the women depicted it is nevertheless a stunning portrait of these four women completely in their element. It’s a perfect illustration of what Richard Brilliant means when he says, “The oscillation between art object and human subject, represented so personally, is what gives portraits their extraordinary grasp on our imagination.” (7) This painting is an impressive work of art, stunning not only for it’s size but also the great detail captured within it, but the human subjects represented are done so in such a beautifully personal way that they seem to come alive on the canvas. Similar to Brilliant, Hermione Lee in her book uses the metaphor of portraits for biography and tells us that portraits suggest empathy, a bringing to life and a capturing of the character. (2) This is also true in regards to Stewart’s painting. Looking at these women I can imagine their lives and feel a certain empathy towards them and whether I know these women or not I can still imagine who they might be. This painting also seems to be a perfect illustration of Lee’s comment on Victorian biographies, which she claims could be, “eloquent and vivid.” (62) The painting’s eloquence is seen very clearly in it’s vivid use of the six aspects of portraiture. But it also illustrates Brilliant’s point that portraits, “exist at the interface between art and social life and the pressure to conform to social norms enters into their composition because both the artist and the subject are enmeshed in the value system of their society.” (11) Spring Flowers, while being a beautiful piece of art, also clearly portrays the social life and the value system of late-Victorian society through its use of the six aspects of portraiture. The depiction of the clothing, the setting, the facial expressions, and gestures in particular, all reflect the typical life and attitude of women during this period. Their clothing represents the way that women were almost like living dolls, dressed in their finest and meant to amuse their husbands. The setting of the large conservatory, positions them almost as beautiful birds, kept in a gilded cage. Their facial expressions and gestures are exactly what one would expect of a proper Victorian lady: sweet, gentle, demure, and proper. Brilliant also explains that portraits, “reflect social realities. Their imagery combines the conventions of behavior and appearance appropriate to the members of a society at a particular time, as defined by categories of age, gender, race, physical beauty, occupation, social and civic status, and class.” (11) The social reality of life for upper class women in the late-Victorian era is definitely represented in Spring Flowers.

Lee does, however, bring up some ways that portraits can complicate the idea of biography. She explains, “The image of the portrait, though a more appealing one than the autopsy, also suggests what can go wrong with biography -- flattery, idealization, flatness, inaccuracy, distortion.” (3) Spring Flowers is certainly a very flattering and idealized version of reality for women during this time, however, while this complicates its use as biography, I don’t feel that this reasoning should discount it completely. Just because something is a flattering and slightly inaccurate version of a person does not mean it shouldn’t be counted. All biographies are someone’s interpretation of a life, no matter how much research is done. Lee also mentions that her metaphor has limits saying, “there are obvious differences between portraiture and biography: “‘Biographical subjects...rarely stand still.’ They speak, they change, they grow old, and they die.” (4) But again I feel that this is not necessarily grounds to discount portraiture completely. Though a portrait may only be a snapshot of a person’s life, it nevertheless still documents that life in that moment, and still counts as a valuable representation of that life.

Finally, it is something Lee says further into Biography: A Very Short Introduction, that led me to my conclusion that portraits, possess many biographical qualities that, while they might not lend themselves easily to an individual biography, still assist in creating a group biography of a particular time and place. In Chapter 4 Lee mentions the National Portrait Gallery in London, a spectacular museum, that she explains was, “founded in 1856, with a historical, patriotic agenda . . . Portraits -- and, later, photographs -- of British people of note made a visual biographical collection of, and for, the nation.” (64) Having visited this museum myself and after spending part of an afternoon wandering through gallery after gallery, this museum is a beautiful example of how portraits can create biographies of a group of people or a culture during specific periods of time, whether it be the royal family of England or upper class Victorian society. In the case of the latter, Spring Flowers, would be a lovely addition to such a group biography.

Works Cited:

Brilliant, Richard. Portraiture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991. Print.

Lee, Hermione. Biography: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.


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