Dorothea Lange—Picturing America during Difficult Years

People alive today are no doubt the most photographed generation that has ever lived. Cell phones record our daily life and let us see what is going on in the rest of the world. We are accustomed to seeing people splashing through floods in India, scratching for food in drought-stricken fields in Africa and enduring bombings in Europe.  But documenting news through photographs is a fairly recent development. We owe the richness of our visual lives to a handful of photographers whose work made photography a vital source of information in the modern world. One of the influential women in this field was Dorothea Lange, a documentary photographer who introduced thousands of Americans to the sight of the landscape of our country and the people who live and work in it.

Born in 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey, Dorothea Lange grew up in New York and its suburbs observing and living with people in the city. As a child she suffered a bout of polio that left her with one crippled leg. She always felt self-conscious about that, but she did not let it hinder her activities. While still a teenager, she made up her mind to be a photographer even before ever owning a camera. After graduating from high school, she travelled to California with a friend and settled in San Francisco. There she got a job in a photography studio and within a few years became a successful portrait photographer. In 1920 she married the painter Maynard Dixon with whom she had two sons.

Dorothea Lange

For ten years or more she and her husband lived busy social and professional lives. They became part of the progressive artistic life of San Francisco and knew many painters and journalists. Dixon loved painting scenes of the rural areas of California and Arizona, so the couple spent a great deal of time traveling in the Southwest. Unfortunately, when the 1920s ended with a financial crash, the market for photographic portraits and for paintings almost disappeared

Both Lange and her husband were ardent supporters of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal policies of providing help for workers, including artists. For a decade starting in the early 1930s, Lange worked for the Farm Security Administration taking pictures and writing reports about conditions throughout the western and southern states. When the dust storms of the mid-thirties pushed thousands of people from their barren fields in Oklahoma and other Southern states out to California, Lange took some of her most famous pictures, including the iconic “Migrant Mother.”

As World War II started, the United States began to force Japanese American families who lived in Western states into internment camps. Lange proposed a project of documenting this move through photographs. She also interviewed people as they were being moved into the camps and documented their difficult lives. Most of her pictures of camp life, however, were impounded by the government and did not become available until after the war. They can be seen now in the National Archives and at the Bancroft Library of the University of California.

Migrant Mother” one of Lange’s most iconic photos of the Depression

Dorothea Lange’s life and work continued for twenty years after the end of WWII. For those who are interested in her life and achievements, Linda Gordon has written an absorbing biography. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (2009). Gordon not only makes Lange and her personal live come alive, she also paints a picture of California during the first half of the twentieth century. Reading about Lange’s life, we learn about how farming developed in the West and about the variety of Californians—Indigenous people, Latinos, and Easterners fleeing the Depression. Lange’s life was lived at a turning point for the country and her pictures help us understand how important those years were. You can find  the book, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, at most public libraries.  

Becoming a Pro—Berthe Morisot

In 1874, a group of French artists opened an exhibit of paintings that shocked Paris, attracted crowds, and created a sensation. The paintings they showed were different from the traditional, careful pictures that had been exhibited year after year at the official Salon show in Paris.

Most of the people who crowded the new exhibition were shocked by what they saw. Critics wrote that the new painters, who called themselves Impressionists, had “declared war on beauty” and very few of their works were sold. It took courage to turn against the critics and persist in painting in a new and different style. The men who exhibited paintings at that exhibit included several who are now considered major artists, including Monet, Pissarro, Degas and Renoir. And there was one woman who earned a place among them in that first show—Berthe Morisot. She may not have realized it, but she too was forging a new role for women in art.

Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 in Bourges, France. Like many daughters in prosperous middle-class families, she was given a good education and excellent artistic training. Even though women were not allowed to enroll in the professional art training available to men, there were artists willing to offer private tutoring for young women at home.

By the time of the first Impressionist show, Morisot was thirty years old. Some of her paintings had been accepted and shown at the official Paris Salon, but she was interested in exploring new ways of developing her art. Most women at that time gave up art when they got married, but Berthe Morisot was more interested in painting than in marriage. “Work is the sole purpose of my existence,” she declared. “Indefinitely prolonged idleness would be fatal to me from every point of view.”

Developing a career as a painter was difficult for a woman. Men were free to participate in the lively social gatherings in cafes and to attend private parties. It was there that painters met art dealers, arranged exhibits, and sold paintings. A respectable woman , like Berthe Morisot, could scarcely leave her home without a chaperon. She  had to rely on the men in the group to set up exhibitions and publicize the work of the Impressionists. Morisot was lucky because the Impressionist painters, especially her friend Edouard Manet, respected her work and opened opportunities for her to exhibit with the men. Eventually Morisot married Eugene Manet, brother of Edouard.

Morisot received her share of ridicule from critics who scoffed at Impressionist paintings because they considered them not as carefully finished as traditional paintings. One critic wrote: “If Mademoiselle Morisot wishes to paint a hand, ‘she gives as many brushstrokes, lengthwise as there are fingers, and the thing is done.”

Berthe Morisot stood firm in her decision to paint freely and offer a fresh, new view of the world. It took years of struggle by the Impressionists, but gradually an audience for their work grew. Despite finding it difficult to sell their paintings, many of them stayed together and continued offering group shows. It was not until 1879  that the group had a successful exhibit and started to make money.

Berthe Morisot was the first woman to become part of the Impressionist movement, but she was followed by others. Mary Cassatt, an American artist, joined the group in later exhibits as did another French painter, Marie Bracquemond. In 1894, the art critic Gustave Geffroy described the three women as “les trois grandes dames” (the three great ladies) of Impressionism.

As the twentieth century started, more and more women became professional artists, but it is enlightening to look back and learn about how they joined the art world as colleagues and equals.

Impressionist paintings, of course, can now be seen in major museums, there are also films and prints widely available. Several books have been written about the history of the Impressionists. One that I recommend highly is The Private Lives of the Impressionists (Harper Collins 2008) by Sue Roe, which is available in many libraries and bookstores.

Making Art during Difficult Days

Across the country and around the world, thousands of people are spending more time at home than they ever expected or wanted to do. As we enter our third month of sheltering in place, many of us are searching for new and satisfying ways of occupying our leisure time. According to a New York Times report, sales of groceries are booming as more people cook at home. The gaming industry is expanding. And even the sales of coloring books designed for adults have increased. Sheltering in place can lead to all sorts of new activities.

Mary Queen of Scots

All of this may be new to most of us, but we are not the first people to experience long, tedious months of forced isolation. Over the centuries, some people have used unexpected free time in remarkable ways. Mary Queen of Scots, for example, although she is remembered now mostly for her good looks and her political losses, showed an entirely different side to her talents during the eighteen years of her imprisonment in England. She designed and stitched a wealth of embroidered pieces that are still as attractive and appealing as when she first made them.

If you remember your history, you may recall that back in the 15th century Mary struggled with Queen Elizabeth I of England over who should rule Scotland and England. For many years Mary was a prisoner of Elizabeth’s and some of those years were spent in an uncomfortable, cold, drafty medieval castle of Tutbury in Staffordshire. The castle had been built many years earlier and repaired infrequently so it had become extremely damp and had a marsh underneath it from which “malevolent fumes arose, unpleasant enough for anyone and especially so for a woman of Mary Stuart’s delicate health” according to Mary’s biographer Antonia Fraser. Nonetheless, Mary was stuck there and had to make the best of it. One of the ways she did that was by turning to art and developing her skills by designing and executing lavish embroideries.

Design by Mary Queen of Scots

Embroidery is not usually considered a major art form, but it has been used to produce work of lasting value by producing pieces that combine images with words and symbols. This combination can make embroidered pictures into art works to read and understand as well as view. Many of Mary’s embroideries are in the Victoria and Albert Museum and can be seen on their website.

If you want to explore further the kind of art that has been created in isolation, the Tate Gallery has a fascinating selection and discussion of modern artists who have created art under situations that would have silenced most people. Each of the pieces on display is different and the stories of how the artists came to create their work varies. Not all of us can create masterpieces in isolation, but perhaps we can at least attempt to explore new possibilities.

Andy Warhol–Fifty Years Later

This week I saw the exhibit Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In that large museum the art works stretch out over three floors and many galleries and include not only Warhol’s famous pictures but also some of the films that he and his associates produced.

3D rendering by steelblue for SFMOMA

For me it was a reminder of my first glimpse of the Warhol world back in 1966. We were living in New Jersey then, near Rutgers University and tantalizingly close to the glamor of Manhattan just a few miles away. The university was a lifeline that gave suburban housewives like me a glimpse of that glamor. I remember the evening when a friend and I went to a Warhol event on campus (our husbands stayed home with our preschoolers) to watch some flickering films and see a new group called The Velvet Underground.

We arrived to find a crowd waiting at the door. A heavily made-up girl in a floppy brimmed felt hat was taking moving pictures of the audience as they entered. A long-haired, paunchy man followed her around while she aimed her camera to take close-up views of the people’s eyes, faces, lips. At one point she sat on someone’s lap to photograph a face. 

When the audience had settled in, the films were shown. One was Vinyl, which featured the beautiful actress, Edie Sedgwick. Undergraduates hooted and made rude comments as she appeared on screen drinking glass after glass of wine and finally ended the film crouching over a toilet.

After the movie, the Velvet Underground went on stage. Some of the performers played, one sang, a couple danced at the side. The loudspeakers were turned so high that the music was deafening—our seats vibrated with the force of the sound. Behind the singers, the movie screen showed flickering pictures of the performer’s face, hair, lips, eyes…

Velvet Underground

All this was new and eye-opening to us and to most of the audience in 1966.  My friend and I went home with headaches from the noise, but satisfied that we had caught a glimpse of the future with Andy Warhol and his fabulous friends.

One advantage of living a long life is having a chance to discover how often what seems to be a foreshadowing of the future turns out to be a dud, while other startling changes affect our lives for years to come. Warhol’s influence has certainly not diminished. His paintings brought daily life into the realm of art. We started looking at everyday objects with new eyes. And his films and music have changed the way we have listened and looked at entertainment for more than half a century. Seeing his work now reminds us of how much he meant to all of us.

Museums sometimes seem out of the mainstream, preserving artifacts from places, cultures and times that may seem distant. But the moments they preserve are vital to understanding how the world changes. I for one am eternally grateful for museums and the people who work in them. They increase our knowledge and broaden our view of the world.

I recently read that some museum staff members in many cities are unionizing amid complaints that they do not get paid enough for their work. All of us who care about preserving our society and enriching our lives ought to support funding for museums and their workers. They make our lives better by showing us where we have been and how we got to where we are now.