In “The Artist’s Garden”

“The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887-1920”, is a terrific exhibition showcasing American painting, drawing, design, and photography during a period when the idea of American home life changed completely. With greater wealth and greater amounts of free time on their hands, middle class Americans began to make their homes into places where the outside was just as cared for as the inside. Your teak patio furniture, trellis hung with wisteria, and stamped concrete garden pavers grew out of this change in attitude toward what gardens, and indeed being outdoors, was all about.

The first observation to be made is that this is a very attractive, easy to like exhibition. One could be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that this is merely an assemblage of paintings of pretty women and flowers, colorful glass objects, and tiny photographs. Yet as one moves through the rooms, the idea takes hold of what a profound shift in thinking the American psyche underwent during the late 19th and early 20thcenturies.

Until a century ago, most Americans used the land surrounding their homes primarily for growing their own food and keeping livestock – Pauline Wayne, the last cow to graze on the White House lawn, departed for Wisconsin in 1913. By the middle of the 19thcentury however, a significant ground shift was beginning to take place in the relationship of man to the land, which is well-documented in this exhibition. The barn yard gradually became the back yard, a haven from the brave but ugly new world of belching factory smokestacks and clanging streetcars.

This change in attitude toward the use of one’s property went hand-in-glove with the effort to try to beautify American cities. Students of architecture and urban planning will be familiar with the fruits of this greater movement. Temporary installations such as the Philadelphia Bicentennial Exposition of 1876, the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1905, had permanent echoes across the American landscape, from Central Park in New York, to the Macmillan Plan and the National Mall here in Washington.

While your average, middle class American could not dream of achieving anything similar with their more modest means and surroundings, writers and artists still wanted to encourage those of more ordinary means to make their home gardens as beautiful as possible, as a way of fostering civic pride and cleanliness. It was all very well to construct grand boulevards and expansive parks in American towns and cities.  If they led to ramshackle houses whose grounds consisted of little more than chicken coops and piles of dirt however, the whole “effect” which these reformers were trying to achieve would be lost.

The strength of this exhibition is not only in some of the individual paintings, sculptures, and decorative art objects, but also in stepping back and taking a look around at the America which this show evokes as a whole. What is particularly telling is that fact that on the whole, the lifestyle evoked by this exhibition is not at all unfamiliar to us, even more than a century later.  True, we do not dress as the people in these images do, and our homes and gardens may be somewhat less fussy than those celebrated in some of these images.

Yet even though generations have passed, we still continue to hold to the ideals of making our home and garden simultaneously a place to relax and to show off – ideals which were fostered by the artists and designers featured in this exposition. Thus the painting of a lady reading a letter at her dining room table, silhouetted by open French doors leading onto a sunny garden patio shaded by a pergola, with some slight alterations could come out of a contemporary magazine spread. The fact that I daresay many of my readers spend their Saturdays mowing lawns, pulling weeds, pruning shrubs, and so on, none of which has anything to do with the production of food and everything to do with what it means to be in the American middle class, originally comes from the era which produced these works of art.

Rather than comment on the individual pieces in the exhibition, if you care to follow me on Instagram, later today I will be posting some photos I took of a number of pieces in the show; just visit this link:

“The Artist’s Garden” is at The Chrysler until September 6th; it then travels to The Reynolda House in North Carolina, on to The Huntington Library in California, and finally to the Griswold Museum in Connecticut. Whether or not you are particularly interested in American impressionism, this show is a wonderful evocation of a world which, though now long-gone, still has a profound influence on how Americans live and see their homes today.










Do You Duomo? Crowdfunding a Cathedral

I haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting the city of Milan, let alone seeing its famous Gothic Cathedral (called a “duomo” in Italian) of Santa Maria Nascente in person.  Yet I was impressed to read that the Archdiocese is taking advantage of social media for something which Europeans, and particularly the Church, often lag behind on when it comes to the digital age, and that is turning to crowdfunding to achieve a fundraising goal.  In this case, a charitable organization called The International Patrons of the Duomo di Milano is mounting an effort to restore the Cathedral, and part of that effort has a special significance for Americans.

The Milanese Duomo has been compared to many things, with its masses of spires pointing up into the sky, but perhaps one of the most apt descriptions is that it looks rather like an ornate wedding cake, full of spun sugar confectionery decorations.  Because the church took over 600 years to complete, the range of saints depicted in its exterior ornamental statuary is quite vast, covering centuries of Church history.  One of the saints featured is St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), who played an important part in the establishment of the education system of this country, and is the first American citizen to be canonized a saint.

Born in Lombardy, the region of Italy dominated by Milan, Mother Cabrini arrived in New York in 1889 as a missionary.  She spent the rest of her life founding schools, orphanages, and hospitals across the country, and became an American citizen in 1909.  As a result, she is not only popular with many Italian-Americans, whom she and her sisters ministered to when they began arriving in huge waves of immigration at Ellis Island and elsewhere, but also back in her native Italy, where her devotion to her fellow Italians who had to leave for America due to extreme poverty is well-remembered.  It made sense then, that the largest cathedral in her native region of Lombardy would honor her with a statue on its facade.

The gourmet Italian food purveyors Eataly have come on board with the effort to restore the Duomo, and have just opened an exhibit at their New York flagship store featuring actual architectural elements from the Duomo itself, including gargoyles, statues, and other carvings.  Those of my readers in the New York area should take advantage of the opportunity to drop in and see these works, since many of them are placed so high on the Cathedral that normally they are only for the eyes of birds – and God, of course.  The exhibition is free, and will remain open until May 2015.

In the case of the St. Frances Xavier Cabrini spire of the Duomo, the hope is to raise the $188,000 restoration cost by December 22nd, the anniversary of her death.  So many Italian-Americans owe their very lives to the fact that Mother Cabrini and her sisters took care of their ancestors when they arrived in this country a century or more ago, I hope that those among my readers of Italian heritage will consider contributing to this effort, and sharing it with those whom you think might be interested.

Moreover, even if you are neither Italian nor Catholic, but happen to love great art and architecture, the Duomo di Milano is simply one of the finest buildings in the world.  It is not only the symbol of the city of Milan, it is a stunning example of the flowering of Gothic architecture and, I would argue, the most sumptuous, important Gothic building in all of Italy.  The effort to preserve and restore this ornate and glorious building for future generations is something that anyone who appreciates history and Western culture can surely appreciate.

Detail of the Spire of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Duomo, Milan

Detail of the Spire of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini
Duomo, Milan


“The American Catholic Almanac”: Four Centuries of Incredible Stories

I’m honored to be the next stop on the blog tour for the new book, “The American Catholic Almanac” by Brian Burch and Emily Stimpson, which was just published by Image.  If you’re a Catholic interested in learning about the contributions of your brothers and sisters in the Faith to the building up of this country, you need a copy of this book.  If you’re not a Catholic, but appreciate the huge sweep of American history and cultural life, you also need a copy of this book.  For Catholics, as it turns out, have had a far earlier, deeper, and more lasting impact on this country than many of us were taught in school.

Given that I live in Washington, DC and often write about architecture and design on this blog, I wanted to take one example from the “Almanac” as an example of the wealth of fascinating material in this book.  The name James Hoban may be known to you from pub quiz trivia – or indeed, from the pub named after him in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of the Nation’s Capital – as the architect who designed the White House.  What may not be known to you is the fact that Hoban was a devout Catholic.

In the “Almanac” the authors detail how Hoban, the son of a poor tenant farmer in Ireland, managed through talent, hard work, and being in the right place at the right time to land what even today would still be considered the most prestigious of all home design competitions in America.  His chance meeting with George Washington in South Carolina led to a prosperous career, where Hoban not only built the White House, but was one of the principal architects working on the Capitol, as well as designing homes, churches, banks, and hotels around DC and for other parts of the young country.

Perhaps Hoban’s most famous commission apart from the White House was the State House in Columbia, South Carolina, which was burned to the ground by Sherman during the Civil War.  Fortunately, his elegant County Court House in Charleston still stands.  That said, even the White House did not escape the meddling of others, for Thomas Jefferson, who had himself entered the competition to design the President’s House and lost to Hoban, modified a number of Hoban’s designs when he moved into the Executive Mansion. Ironically, as the authors point out in the “Almanac”, Hoban later had a second crack at the White House, which is why their entry about him appears on August 24th.

During the War of 1812, the British invaded Washington and burned the Capitol, the White House, and many other buildings on August 24, 1814,  When reconstruction began, then-President James Madison approached the now 64-year-old Hoban and asked if he would supervise the residence’s rebuilding and restoration.  “Proving himself a more gracious loser than Jefferson,” the authors write, “Hoban replicated the third president’s modifications in his restoration.”  Given Jefferson’s tendency toward the experimental, which was not always successful, this was a true mark of respect, indeed.

For Catholics across the Capital City, Hoban’s efforts remain a visible reminder of his legacy to this city and the country, even when the buildings themselves were later replaced.  From Georgetown University to St. Patrick’s in the heart of downtown to St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill, the communities that still support these institutions owe a tremendous debt of thanks to Hoban for helping to make the Catholic presence in Washington a visible and lasting one.  He is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery here in DC, overlooking the city which he helped turn from a dream of the Founding Fathers into a reality.

The entry on James Hoban is just one of the stories contained in the “Almanac”, one for every day of the year.  There is such a wealth of material, that it is hard to imagine the sheer amount of work that went into this volume.  Spanning over 400 years of history, the “Almanac” provides daily reading on the lives of Catholic men and women, both Americans and those with an important tie to America, as well as non-Catholics who made an impact on the lives of American Catholics.  Often, the stories contained in these pages may come as a complete surprise to the reader.

For example, the original Mary “Mother” Jones, after whom the famous left-wing magazine is named, was a devout, pro-life Catholic, who thought mothers ought to stay at home and raise their children rather than work.  Joseph Warren Revere, the grandson of Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere and himself a celebrated hero of the Civil War, converted to Catholicism as an adult, much to the surprise of his New England family.  So too did Fanny Allen, daughter of the very anti-clerical Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen; she actually went one step further and became a nun.

Athletes, criminals, entertainers, politicians, writers, and yes, clergy and religious fill the pages of the “Almanac”.  Some of these individuals were pious believers, and some of them were absolute scoundrels. And yet we would not have the America we know today without them.

Catholics have been part of the story of America from the very beginning.  This book is not only proof of that fact, but provides that proof in an engaging, well-researched, but never heavy style, making it easy to read cover to cover, or to pick up and put down as the mood takes you.  It will also provide, particularly for educators, writers, and politicos, a picture of just how significant the Catholic contribution to this country has been in the past, and will continue to be into the future.

Whether for those new to American history, or for those who think they already know it well, there is much to savor and enjoy here, at any level: in fact, I already know which college professor friend I’m giving a copy to for Christmas.

American Catholic Almanac