A Taste of What is to come:
Introducing Dating Jane
B. Scott Crawford
For those of you who follow this blog or have possibly seen me give a presentation on the topic, you know that I have just completed a three year research project on a painting by Lilly Martin Spencer found in the Taubman Museum of Art (or is it now art center?). This research is currently being compiled in the form of a digital book that I hope to have published sometime in November 2012 through the iBook store.
In the book I advance an original and more accurate interpretation of the painting serving as the focus of the book, a painting titled Jane Eleanor Sherman Lacey and Her Son Edward. I also explore in great detail the historical context surrounding the painting, as well as examine the genre of postmortem portraiture in relation to Lilly Martin Spencer – a heretofore theme in relation to the artist that has sadly been underrepresented in the scholarship surrounding Spencer! In actuality, postmortem portraiture played an important role in the artistic career of Spencer. Also, my research has revealed just how important photography was to Spencer as she created postmortem works – a theme also overlooked in the study of Spencer and her work. Through her reliance on and use of photography, an important irony unfolds in relation to her work as she operated within this genre.
In the end, I hope the book will not only bring attention to a painting in Roanoke and in some small way help a museum on the brink of failure – a true tragedy – but I hope the book will put forth some new insight into the creative process of a wonderful 19th century American female artist.
The working title of the book at this stage is Dating Jane: Domesticity, Death, and Photography in a 19th Century Portrait. The cover of the book, as it exists at this time, is found above. For my blog this month, I would like to share with you the first chapter of the book. In this first chapter, which is a very short chapter, I briefly introduce the painting and I clarify how I view the interpreter’s/scholar’s/viewer’s relationship with art. I hope you enjoy this introduction, I hope it provides you with an apt metaphor for our relationship with art, and I hope you will share your thoughts about the painting and/or this first chapter!
Detectives, Mediums, and . . . Art?
She came to the Art Museum of Western Virginia, now Taubman Museum of Art, located in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1988. With her was her son, Edward. As museum staff and the general public got to know her over a twenty year period, she impressed them all as being a good mother – in fact, it was her nurturing, motherly manner for which she was best known. Not only did she have her son with her at all times, she held him in a loving, yet controlling, manner. In many ways she served as a model of middle class values associated with child rearing. Jane Eleanor Sherman Lacey became a wonderful addition to the museum in 1988, but it would be just over twenty years before she was fully understood. Was she only a good mother? Or did she hold a secret – a secret that would allow those that came to know her to uncover a fascinating story that has little to do with motherhood?
This book is a story about how a woman and her son impacted my life over a three-year period. This woman, Jane Lacey, and her son, Edward, became a major focus of my life beginning in April 2009. Over the next three years, I literally journeyed over 500 miles in space and over the course of approximately 160 years in time in order to get to better know her and her son. For you see, Jane and Edward came to the museum both in image and in spirit, but not in person. Jane and Edward are the subjects of a portrait the museum purchased in 1988; a portrait simply titled Jane Eleanor Sherman Lacey and Her Son Edward, which was painted by Lilly Martin Spencer sometime during the 1850s. Spencer preserved their images for posterity through the use of oil paints and a canvas. Those images in turn gave Jane and Edward a degree of immortality, thus allowing their spirits to at some level remain tied to the portrait.
This journey became very rewarding to me as I was able to convincingly show that the portrait of Jane and Edward did indeed hold a secret; a secret that had been lost for at least sixty years, if not longer, and a secret that escaped staff, students, and general viewers that engaged the portrait at the museum beginning in 1988 when the portrait was first displayed publicly. Only by developing a strong relationship with the painting was I able to uncover this secret. Ultimately, this is one of the primary points of this book: that to appreciate a work of art, a viewer must develop a relationship with the work.
Too often visitors in museums move from work of art to work of art only giving each work at best a cursory once over. They look at a piece of art, they register an initial reaction, and then they move to the next work. Museums have generally failed to help visitors learn how to engage a work of art and to in turn recognize that in actuality a guest will experience the greatest reward from going to a museum by spending a large amount of time with relatively few pieces of art rather than by simply looking at an entire collection.
Dr. Robert Schultz, Roanoke College, who served on the Taubman Museum of Art’s education committee during my tenure as director of education for the museum, used to comment about how the area in front of a painting was almost mystical as it facilitated a conversation across time and space. At one level, the viewer of a work of art does indeed have a conversation with the artist and the work as he or she reacts to the work emotionally and then, if he or she takes the time, begins to explore the work’s various layers of meaning. Ideally, this space in front of the work, the space witnessing a conversation between viewer, artist, and work of art, can enlarge as other viewers step forward and share their thoughts. Thus the conversation moves from metaphysical to physical. Through these conversations the viewer establishes an intimate relationship with the work of art; a relationship that can grow each time the viewer revisits the work and formulates new thoughts as they develop over time.
This conversational experience is one that I, as education director, embraced and endorsed. Even after leaving the museum, I continue to do so. Ultimately, the methodology I developed to aid viewers as they engage works of art was based on the belief that a viewer’s experience with an artistic creation is indeed metaphysical as much as it is physical. Tapping into pop cultural trends, I would explain to audiences that they really needed to view themselves as both detectives and as mediums as they engaged art.
Just as in popular shows at the time, such as CSI, Law and Order, and NCIS, those who view works of art must explore the works as if they are detectives examining a crime scene. Every detail must be closely examined. The viewer must commit time to researching the art’s historical/socio-economic context, as well as the history of the artist. Next, just like in the then-popular TV series Medium or Ghost Whisperer, the viewer gives a voice to the artist who at the very least is probably not immediately present or could very well be deceased. Through defining the voice of the artist as the viewer interprets the work of art, the viewer-now-interpreter is the medium between the art, the artist, and a larger audience that is also engaging the work of art.
So now follow along as I have a conversation with Lilly Martin Spencer through her work Jane Eleanor Sherman Lacey and Her Son Edward. This book will chronicle my investigation of this work much as if we were exploring a crime scene – I will deeply explore details of the work and present evidence I have gathered. In the end, an interpretation of the work will be conveyed that is diametrically opposed to the understanding of the painting that has surrounded it for more than 60 years. In this manner, I will serve as a medium as I give a voice to not only the artist, who is deceased, but also to the sitters in the painting, who are also deceased. I hope you enjoy this journey, and I sincerely hope that after reading this book you will look at works of art somewhat differently than you do now – if that is indeed the case, then I will feel as if I have had some degree of success.
And so the first chapter ends – and an adventure begins. Of course, many of you know the ultimate secrets held within the painting Jane Eleanor Sherman Lacey and Her Son Edward, but I promise you that you do not know the whole story. This book will provide details I have not shared in past writings or presentations – and even some new perspectives on the Taubman Museum of Art and its leadership will come to light. So stay tuned!