“come away, o human child!” my victorian fairy painting investigation

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If you’d told my child-aged self that one day I would embark on an academically sponsored research trip to Scotland to investigate fairies [and their representation in three paintings by a particular Scottish artist], she…probably would have shrugged and said “well, it’s not as good as finding a portal to a fay kingdom, but it will do.

As someone who grew up fascinated by fairy lore, I find Victorian fairy painting such a compelling and strange epoch of modern artistic production. For one relatively brief nineteenth-century moment, winged creatures of fantasy held centerstage in the world of fine art – occupying monumental canvases typically reserved for history painting. I won’t reveal too much about my particular research angle yet, but through a number of museum and library visits in Edinburgh and Glasgow, I’ve discovered some truly fantastic archival material to help me on my journey.

The experience of seeing these three J. N. Paton paintings in person after studying them for so long, of course, may be as close to real magic as I’ll ever get.

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in search of the Welsh sublime

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When I captured the first photo above – the dramatic view of distant Castell Dinas Bran radiant in the sunlight and mist – I felt as though I’d stepped into a painting by Thomas Cole, one of my favorite artists associated with the Hudson River School. (The thematic similarity of castle ruins immediately made me think of The Present, a painting I used to teach with almost daily in my previous job, but it could really be any glorious Cole landscape!)

I expected a grey, wintry Wales awaited me during my trip in January, so the verdant pastures and generally vernal signs of life took me by surprise. If only the bleak New England beginning-of-the-year could take some tips from Great Britain!

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spellbound by the faerie handbook

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What could be a more appropriate distraction from my newfound fear of flying than The Faerie Handbook, a volume dedicated to winged creatures? It was with this logic that I toted this gorgeous, enormous tome in my carry-on luggage to Europe and back this past winter, hoping its lush pages might soothe my anxiety mid-flight. I waited in the terminal clutching it behind my boarding pass, too afraid to leave the book in my backpack and risk loosing access to it after the captain had turned back on the fasten seatbelts sign.

I shouldn’t bury the lede: my air travels are less relevant than my general adoration for this book by the creators of Faerie Magazine. Still, its detailed, whimsical contents did indeed prove a panacea to some of my turbulence terrors…so that’s saying something!

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outgoing mail: the golden age

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The most enjoyable aspect of studying eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art last semester was reveling in how downright nerdy many experimental European artists were–in one fascinating example, the German Romantic painters who called themselves the Brotherhood of St. Luke basically cosplayed as medieval monks, and would paint each other dressed up as romantic figures from a seemingly distant past. In Johann Friedrich Overbach’s Portrait of the Painter Franz Pforr, Overbach depicts his buddy in an anachronistic paradise–he even gives him a pious medieval babe for a wife in the background, though Pforr was unmarried!

Perhaps my own romanticized fixation with various aspects of the past — including as the nineteenth-century William Morris designs I transformed into my outgoing Christmas mail — becomes less strange when contextualized within each generation’s endless cycle of “golden age” nostalgia.

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What’s In My Mailbox? Angel of Music

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The year: 2007. The setting: an introductory French class. My teacher was showing us a Powerpoint of significant cultural sites to assess how much this group of teenagers knew about Parisian life. As soon as the Palais Garnier appeared on the screen, the room went completely silent–so I raised my hand and before my teacher could be impressed by my apparent level of high taste, I whispered in reverent, broken French “est-ce que le fantôme de l’Opéra habite là?” 

Which is all to say that I have loved both the Gaston Leroux novel and the ridiculous Andrew Lloyd Webber musical since I was twelve years old, and I was completely delighted to see some Phantom-esque souvenirs in my most recent letter from France. Opera ghosts may not be spooky to some, but I think this letter fits quite well with the rest of the Halloween/autumnal mail I received this week from domestic pen pals in Nevada and my home Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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Berkshire Museums ’16: Renoir Redeemed

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I’ve been joking about my “feud” with Pierre-Auguste Renoir ever since I overdosed on his art at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia–a place where literally every wall is covered with his works. An afternoon there will certainly give you enough bucolic portraits of shimmeringly blurry young girls to last a lifetime!

Truth is, though, that I’m totally kidding myself: I love what the guy can do with color and flowers. At a place like the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, where I was surrounded by both nature and Impressionism, I’m even more apt to admire his boldly-brushed blooms.

2016 marks the third year in which I’ve kicked off September with a field trip to museums in the Berkshires. This time, I was inspired by my love of macro photography to capture wondrous, delicate details in Renoi–um, Impressionist paintings–and some other enchanting genres!

(Pictured above: a photograph of a flower I took on one of the Clark’s nature trails, followed by some blooms painted by–you guessed it…)

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Lake District, Part I: Arts & Crafts

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The Lake District is the place where many (non-British) forest girls’ dreams were born–exploring the land of Beatrix Potter and Wordsworth felt like returning to a childhood home that I’d never visited before. I imagined all the romanticized visions of idyllic woods-and-country life from children’s stories playing out before me as we drove by the lakes and trees and mountains and stone cottages…

The first stop, though, was a place entirely unlike a simple “cottage”: Blackwell, a great Arts & Crafts manor decorated in the most beautiful Art Nouveau-esque style. Every grand, sweeping room included tiny windowside reading nooks, tucked-away places for contemplation and creation.

(So who wants to contribute to the “let me live in an Arts & Crafts house in the Lake District” fund? I promise it will be a good investment [for me, at least]!)

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