With armloads of cash, the NPYL has, as I’m sure you know, digitized thousands of items which are now available on a ridiculously procrastination-worthy (it’s research, I tell you) site.
In my current quest for watercolor boxes and miniature inspiration, I found the Anne Wagner album particularly interesting. The pages in the book compile verses, mottoes, collages, locks of hair, and a portrait silhouette. In all likelihood, Anne Wagner had a watercolor box not unlike this one coming up at Sotheby’s on Thursday.
Every young lady of some means would have had a watercolor box suited to her station (they came in a variety of sizes), and young ladies with leisure time occupied themselves with diaries, commonplace books, amateur silhouettes, and paintings. Diana Sperling is one of the better-known examples of amateur artists, with drawings occasionally appearing at auction. The best of these watercolors give us a literally transparent look at the long 18th century from inside.
Museums try to connect the people of the past to the people of the present, and sometimes in focusing on similarities critical differences are missed.
It’s not just that the people of the past accepted racism, slavery, and sexism. They literally saw the world differently. I’ve watched contemporary amateur artists try to recreate the imagery of the past, and it’s hard. I wonder, as I try my own had at the task, if we can manage it. Color sensibilities were different; taste was different (checks from hell, remember?). My own style is more graphic and bold than an 18th or 19th century artists’– more Fairfield Porter than Edward Malbone.
We are, each of us, products of our environment and our time. Can we really recreate the past? We can dress correctly, carry the right stuff (or almost no stuff at all), but how can we overcome our own thought barriers, our own vision? I think it’s by attempting that effort that we can do better at replicating the past whether we try in four dimensions, or in two– and acknowledge the unbridgeable gap to the past.