Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Angels we have heard on high
In honor of Christmas, I was thinking about what kind of posts I could do in keeping with the season. Angels were the first thing that came to mind. And of the angelic art I knew, given that I've touched on a Renaissance/Baroque lately, I thought I'd go the direction of more modern.
These angelic depictions are the work of Abbott Thayer, a prominent American artist that lived from 1849 to 1921. His angels are subdued and reserved, draped in flowing white or goldrenrod gowns, framed back their fluffy white feather wings. Oftentimes, these "ideal" women depict virtues.
Angel. 1887. Oil. Smithsonian American Art Museum.
This is probably his most famous angel. Her pursed lips, as if stifling a smile, is a curious look for an angel, but it was his way.
When asked about the meaning of his angelic figures, this was Thayer's reply:
"Doubtless my lifelong passion for birds has helped to incline me to work wings into my pictures; but primarily I have put on wings probably more to symbolize an exalted atmosphere (above the realm of genre painting) where one need not explain the action of the figures."
This painting actually commemorates the author Robert Lewis Stevenson. On the rock this angel sits upon, VAEA is inscribed, while there is a firework in the darkness behind her. VAEA refers to a mountain top where Stevenson was buried after his death in 1894.
The painting is an excellent example of extreme light and darkness, gladness and sadness, good and evil. This was appropriate, both for Thayer to paint (with the main emotional and spiritual levels behind his work and style) and to represent Stevenson, who often wrestled with these themes in his writing.
Thayer's story is actually a pretty sad one...I'm sure you could probably tell by the subdued nature of his angels, and the reasons why will be touched upon below. Despite the personal tragedy and grief that tinted his life, Thayer was positively received in the public art scene and that's why many of his pieces exist in American museums today. You can read more about his story on Wikipedia if you're interested.
I included this picture in the collection A) Because the "Virgin's" pose directly references the Nike of Samothrace, my beloved sculpture I'm in the process of writing a paper about. And winged Nike is certainly a type of angel.
B) It's obvious the "Virgin" is the same model as the first angel from 1887. According to this article on Thayer, therapy, and the angels, the Angel is his eldest child, Mary. The two young children at her sides are her younger siblings, Gladys and Gerald. This painting was done the years after their mother, Kate, passed away from "irreversible melancholia" in an asylum, a downward spiral enacted by the deaths of two of their sons in the 1880s and her father in 1891. The article suggests tuberculosis may have been the actual reason.
After Kate's passing, the family became hyper vigilant about health and attention to nature, secluding themselves in rural New Hampshire within two weeks of her death. It is no wonder then that they are depicted on a brisk walk, barefoot, and out in nature. The surmounting clouds build behind them, appearing to rise from Mary's back, a testament to the 1887 Angel picture. In an earlier Virgin Enthroned piece, playing on the structures of Renaissance Christian art, Mary is playing the part of the Virgin (appropriate) and acting as a stand-in for her own mother, who is not present. The same is suggested in A Virgin...Mary is the stand-in mother, and Thayer's children are made sacred in referencing Mary's angelic depiction and embracing the therapeutic effects of Mother Nature.
Art was his form of therapy to cope with the tragedies in his life. His angels, the figures of another otherworldly realm, sacred and pure.
"It turns out I was my own art therapist all along...that deep, emotional churning that takes place when you feel powerless to change some things in your life, and you pick up a brush or a pencil and the focus transcends like a meditation." - Daniela Anderson