By Sarah Lees
Many of the works in Philbrook’s collection are beautiful and carefully crafted, presented in the domestic-scale rooms of Philbrook, and based on artistic traditions that have stood the test of centuries. But in addition, some of these works hold stories of rebellion or radical innovation about which their pleasing appearance reveals few clues — behind-the-scenes events that might surprise the casual observer.
Take Rosa Bonheur’s Meadow and Sheep of 1891. The bucolic scene is set on a wide, open plain under a vaulting sky filled with puffy clouds. Two sheep are silhouetted against the horizon, one gazing nobly into the distance, the other directly at us. Bonheur’s carefully observed animals and inviting compositions in this and other paintings made her one of the most famous and successful French artists of the late nineteenth century. But to achieve that status, she rejected most of the usual rules, working outside the traditional institutions that had supported successful artists up to that time, and created her own network of dealers, promoters, and clients.
Bonheur learned to paint as a child from her artist father, Raymond. Since women were prohibited from enrolling at the French national art school, she spent hours studying, drawing, and painting on her own, usually taking animals as her subjects.
Her breakthrough came at the 1853 Paris Salon, where she exhibited the sixteen-foot-wide painting The Horse Fair: a work whose scale and ambition were seen as highly unusual for a woman artist. This monumental canvas — depicting prancing, rearing horses — received critical praise, and the French government tried but failed to purchase it.
By the time New York’s Metropolitan Museum bought it in 1887, it was one of the most famous paintings in the world.
As well as making bold, widely-acclaimed paintings, Bonheur challenged the norms of her day in other ways. Because she often worked in places like the open-air horse market or the slaughterhouse to study animal anatomy, she wanted to wear pants while working — illegal for women at the time — and got permission from the Paris police department to do it. She also cut her hair short from an early age, and lived with a female partner for much of her adult life. These very open and public challenges to gender norms made her exceptional in the art world and contributed to her fame.
Camille Pissarro’s View of Rouen (Cours-la-Reine) reveals his innovative approach to printmaking. In it, he used new techniques that he had developed alongside colleagues Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas to make a wide range of marks and tones on the etching plate, much as he used lively brushstrokes and vivid colors in his paintings. This quiet scene also relates to some of Pissarro’s ideas that were even more radical. The most explicit expression of these ideas appeared in a little-known work that he never intended to exhibit.
In 1889, Pissarro compiled a set of twenty-eight drawings for one of his younger relatives to educate her about what he saw as the evils of modern capitalist society. The booklet, titled Turpitudes sociales (social depravity or baseness), clearly illustrated Pissarro’s lifelong anarchist beliefs. The images depicted the dangerous working conditions and lack of adequate food and shelter endured by impoverished workers, the indifference and immorality of the wealthy, and even the risk of despair and suicide for members of the upper classes who lost their wealth or status.
The images were accompanied by texts Pissarro quoted from the anarchist press, which he read regularly despite some of the publications being illegal to distribute in France. The original Turpitudes sociales exists in only one copy (which Pissarro had hand-delivered to his relative in England, rather than risk having it confiscated in the mail), but later facsimile editions were produced.
Aside from this one instance of overt criticism of capitalism, Pissarro’s anarchist views informed much of his work in more subtle ways. In addition to being beautiful, pleasing images, many of his landscape paintings and prints depict rural workers making a comfortable living from their labor, in harmony with the land and with each other. Even his views of small-town markets bustling with vendors and shoppers demonstrate not the destructive power of capitalism, but the direct exchange of goods among people who know and support each other, without an intermediary making excess profit from the transactions.
This was Pissarro’s vision of a world after the revolution he believed would occur between the working class and the wealthy: small communities engaged in collective action, sustainable agriculture, humane industry, and ample leisure time.
When Ukrainian-born Alexander Archipenko arrived in Paris in 1909, the art world was in a state of upheaval.
Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso had been working with a new compositional approach known as Cubism for about two years, creating techniques that broke the rules of painting established in the Renaissance. Archipenko too was exploring new approaches in his chosen medium of sculpture. Initially he used traditional materials like stone to shape simplified forms inspired by traditional Russian folk art. When he began to learn about the work Braque, Picasso, and several other French artists were making, he started to develop even more innovative ideas.
In fall 1909, Picasso made one of the first Cubist sculptures, initially out of clay and then cast in bronze. And it was probably Braque who in September 1912 first applied non-art material — a piece of decorator’s paper printed with fake wood grain — to one of his drawings. This initiated the technique of collage that Braque and Picasso employed in many of their works.
At virtually the same time, in the fall of 1912, Archipenko constructed a radically new kind of sculpture that used both Cubist compositional ideas and a collage-like combination of non-art materials. This work, called Médrano I, used wood, glass, paint, sheet metal, and wire to form a circus juggler out of hollow shapes and empty spaces that suggested the body’s rounded limbs. This kind of playful exploration of how forms can be represented, and how they are perceived by the viewer, informed much of Archipenko’s subsequent work. The elegantly sleek bronze figure of Standing Concave (Glorification of Beauty) uses a more traditional material for sculpture, but it similarly plays with hollow and rounded forms, and it combines a traditional, high-art reference to the nude with the up-to-the-minute, popular culture style of the 1920s flapper.
Although we know about Médrano I only from old photographs (it was probably lost during World War I), it demonstrates that, in the competitive Parisian art world of 1912, Archipenko was in the vanguard, exploring fundamental questions about how forms and images are constructed alongside his better-known colleagues.
Kallmünz — The Town Hall Square is another calm, pleasing image, depicting the narrow streets and picturesque buildings of the small town in Bavaria where Wassily Kandinsky spent some time in the summer of 1903. He was still in the early stages of his career as an artist, having moved to Munich from his native Russia in 1896 to study painting.
In this period, Kandinsky looked to colleagues like the Post-Impressionist artists in France for inspiration. Their use of broad, heavy brushstrokes and bright, unnatural colors appealed to him, prompting him to adopt similar techniques in paintings like Kallmünz. After a few years, he became less interested in depicting the world around him than in capturing spiritual and emotional states using color and lines in a purely abstract way. But the skewed, flattened perspective and heightened tones of this early painting give only the faintest hint of what was to come.
Within the next decade, Kandinsky became one of the first artists to make entirely abstract art (although Hilma af Klint, a Swedish painter who rarely exhibited her work, was probably the first). In the same period, Archipenko, Braque, and Picasso broke new ground with their compositional approaches, but they also maintained vestiges of figuration: Their work generally depicted something visible in the world, even if the images were sometimes hard to decipher. Kandinsky’s goal was to separate color and line from representation, making meaning without reference to the visible world.
In December 1911 he published On the Spiritual in Art in Munich, in which he explained his ideas about the power of color and form to affect the viewer at a deep, spiritual level. His theories about abstract art inspired a number of artists in Russia and Germany — particularly when he taught at the Bauhaus art school in Germany in the 1920s — and became even more influential when his book was translated into other languages.
So, as you stroll through the galleries at Philbrook and allow each of the works to speak to you of other times, places, and cultures — as well as your own — keep in mind that some of their stories extend far beyond what you can see. Even as they use or reshape traditional forms, these works may represent the artists’ ongoing search for new means of expression.
Rosa Bonheur, Meadow and Sheep, 1891. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase, 1946.43.
Camille Pissarro, View of Rouen (Cours-la-Reine), 1884. Etching, soft ground etching, and drypoint. Museum purchase, 2015.10.
Alexander Archipenko, Standing Concave (Glorification of Beauty), 1925. Bronze with black patina. From the Collection of Herbert and Roseline Gussman, TL-71–2010. © 2019 Estate of Alexander Archipenko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Wassily Kandinsky, Kallmünz–The Town Hall Square, 1903. Oil on board. From the Collection of Herbert and Roseline Gussman, TL-85–2010. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris