December 1, 2009
Recently, the Smithsonian American Art Museum welcomed home a seminal work of landscape painting after a four-month vacation at the Whitney Gallery of Western Art, located at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.
Thomas Moran’s 1893-1901 canvas, “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” is impressive not only in terms of its masterful execution and sheer size—14 feet by 8 feet—but in terms of how it codified images of the United States’ natural wonders of the West in the minds of Americans.
Thomas Moran was born in England in 1837 but his father soon uprooted his family to the United States, settling in Pennsylvania. Although he initially trained to be an engraver, Moran decided to study painting and drew inspiration from Pennsylvania’s forests. His love of literature and fascination with nature imbued his landscapes with fantasy-like qualities.
In the summer of 1871, Moran made his first journey to Yellowstone, known as “the place where hell bubbled up.” Easterners had at best only a vague idea of how this alien landscape actually looked. Having been asked to provide illustrations for a magazine piece on Yellowstone, Moran joined geologist Ferdinand Hayden, leader of the first government-sponsored survey of the region, on his expedition. During this two-month trip, Moran produced numerous watercolor sketches, which would not only become the first images of Yellowstone to be seen by Easterners, but they would also be used by Hayden (and others) to persuade Congress to designate Yellowstone as a national park. This came to pass in 1872.
To move the painting from the Smithsonian to a museum out west was nothing short of an elaborate feat. But former senator Allen Simpson of Wyoming asked if it would be possible to borrow the giant picture of the Grand Canyon that Moran painted after a second journey to Yellowstone in 1892. Simpson said the painting was a necessary element for the 100-year anniversary of Park County—which contains the majority of Yellowstone National Park—and the 50th anniversary of the Whitney Gallery.
Eleanor Harvey, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s chief curator, started negotiating with Simpson and recalls him saying, “You figure out how much it’s going to cost to get it off the walls, in a travel frame, in a truck, out here, and we’re good for it.” The Center raised excitement about the painting and generated the money for the move, rolled out the red carpet when it arrived, and made a huge fuss over it while it was out there, according to Harvey.
Harvey went with her family to Yellowstone in August. “I gave a lecture on it [the painting] while I was over there and they had advertising on the walls outside of the building that said, ‘Come see a masterpiece from the Smithsonian.’”
Harvey notes that 200,000 people came through that small museum in Wyoming in a six-month period of time in part to come see Moran’s painting. From her stand point, moving the painting was expensive, it was time consuming, it was complicated, and it was worth it. The people of Wyoming treated it like a visiting celebrity and they “really made it count.” Harvey reflects. “It was one of those win-win stories that warms your heart.”
For visitors who come to see the painting, Harvey offers the following thoughts on Moran’s work: “He reminds us why, in Ken Burns’ words, the national parks were America’s ‘Best idea.’ He has a way of creating a heroic landscape that is seductive and tantalizing and makes us want to be there. Every time I look at a Moran, I wish that I was standing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon or wherever it is that he takes you.”
November 18, 2009
Stroll through the main hall of the National Portrait Gallery this winter, and you are likely to see Shephard Fairey’s already iconic “Hope” poster of President Barack Obama, followed by the very simple and powerful depiction of the late senator Ted Kennedy. And then there is the museum’s newest addition to this gallery of America’s who’s-who, a 1971 portrait of opera singer Marilyn Horne. “The painting serves as a biography of Ms. Horne,” says curator of painting and sculpture Brandon Fortune, “and allows us to tell the story of American opera in the twentieth century.”
Marilyn Horne is celebrated as one of the most remarkable voices of the 20th century. Her five-decade career as a vocalist began when she was just four years old when she sang at a rally for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Horne went on to study music at the University of Southern California and launched her professional career in 1954 as the singing voice for Dorothy Dandridge’s in the film Carmen Jones, a modern reworking of the Bizet opera Carmen. Horne later went on to forge a career as an opera singer, tackling roles in Norma, Semiramide and Anna Bolena.
Last Thursday, the 75-year-old mezzo-soprano arrived at the museum to make the donation. The portrait’s portrayal of the young Horne with long, dark, brunette hair, smooth, light skin and sparkling eyes, which Horne described as “in the bloom of my youth,” complemented the opera star’s now graying hair, her full, happy grin and her still sparkling eyes.
The work was created by artist John Foote in 1971 to honor Horne’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma. Foote attended Boston University before moving to Florence to study art. The artist was also present at the dedication, and the pair posed for numerous photos for the public, standing beside the creation that brought them both such obvious pride.
NPG’s director Martin Sullivan thanked the legendary team of artist and muse, expressing the honor it was to now have “this historical American gem” a part of the collection. Horne assured him that it was her honor in a genuine sing-song voice. As the dedication ended and the crowd of people, of which Horne described as “her family by choice,” snapped their last photos, Horne looked at her portrait with satisfaction for the last time, her only request before departing was, “please keep me among Obama and Kennedy.”
November 5, 2009
They are everywhere. Those quirky, bendy straws that make the satisfying crunching sound when flexed. They are in every soft drink, every restaurant… even when we don’t ask for them, those bendable straws magically appear in front of us. They’re one of the most undistinguished of utilitarian items of our time, yet few have surely ever paused to think about how they came to be.
Thankfully, for all those now hung-up on the history of the FlexStraw, the American History Museum has slurped up some straw stats to quench your thirst for knowledge.
The FlexStraw owes its existence to Joseph B. Friedman, (1900 – 1982) an independent American inventor, who came up with numerous interesting ideas that never really succeeded in the marketing world. When he was just 14, his list of inventions included an ice cream dispenser and the “pencilite”—a pencil with a light—creations that eventually granted him nine U.S. patents and even more in Great Britain, Australia and Canada. However, it was while working as a realtor in San Francisco, California in the 1930s, that Friedman experienced his most “prolific patenting period,” according to the museum. Six of his nine U.S. patents were issued then, one proving to be his most successful invention—our friend, the flexible drinking straw.
His “Eureka!” moment came when he was in an ice cream parlor with his young daughter, Judith. The tiny girl was struggling to get some height on a stiff straw while seated at the counter. Friedman had an idea. He began to experiment with an upgrade.
According to the Archives Center at the American History Museum, Friedman took a paper straight straw, inserted a screw and using dental floss, wrapped the paper into the screw threads, creating corrugations (see drawing at right). After removing the screw, the altered paper straw would bend conveniently over the edge of the glass, allowing small children, including his daughter Judith, to better reach their beverages. A U.S. patent was issued for this new invention under the title “Drinking Tube,” on September 28, 1937. Friedman attempted to sell his straw patent to several existing straw manufacturers beginning in 1937 without success, so after completing his straw machine, he began to produce the straw himself.
Today, from 12 to 12:30, you can see the machine that was used to make the FlexStraw, samples of the straw, and other items from the exhibit, “The Straight Truth About the Flexible Drinking Straw” at the “Meet the Museum” event held most Thursdays at the museum.
October 30, 2009
As the final days of the month draw near, that sugar-seeking holiday is upon us again; the holiday when we indulge our inner monster and make recreation of horrifying our friends. Now is the season for zombie couture, anything goes so long as it’s bloody, gross, funny or edgy. And if you’ve been invited to a Halloween party and are still searching for a costume with just the right flare, look no further than the Smithsonian. The collection is stocked with creative crunch-time costumes for your trick-or-treating convenience.
Amelia Earhart: In Night At the Museum – Battle of the Smithsonian, actress Amy Adams plays this powerful woman accessorized with inspirational tips from the museum’s Air and Space collection. Don a (still stylish) brown leather jacket, coif your hair into a sexy early-20th century bob, carry a miniature plastic plane and you instantly become the iconic aviatrix.
The Artist Formerly Known As: If you’re feeling a fit of 1980s electro-funk coming on (no, it’s nothing like the symptoms of H1N1) on Halloween night, cue American History’s “Yellow Cloud,” the guitar formerly owned by the Purple One himself. *Sequin jacket and high heels not provided by the Smithsonian.
Julia Child: It might be a tad difficult to tote around her kitchen, which is housed in its entirety at the National Museum of American History, however, in light of the recent film “Julia & Julia,” grab a wooden spoon, an apron and mimic Meryl Streep’s manicotti mannerisms.
Batman: Artist Mark Newport’s work (knitted superhero costumes) is currently being featured at the Renwick Gallery. The loose and not-at-all-form-fitting costumes question the validity of superheros. Obviously knitting an entire Batman costume would be impossible on our hurried schedule before the party, so ATM blogger Abby Callard suggests a shortcut: buy a Batman costume that is a few sizes too big, throw in a knitted hat or gloves and call yourself “Sloppy Batman.”
With Balloon Boy costumes bound to be this year’s version of 2008′s popular Sarah Palin costume, there’s no place like the National Air and Space Museum for aspiring ballooonists. Get inspired by the curious “Balloon Farm” photo, circa 1892, in our photo gallery. Perhaps a few plastic bags could do the trick, but don’t get offended if people think your costume is full of hot air.
Annie Oakley: If you dress up in a cowgirl outfit and tote around a rifle, you could be Annie Oakley. But you could also wear the same getup, and walk down the sidewalk belting out “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” and your costume becomes Ethel Merman all the way. Take a few tips from Merman’s visage from the collections of the National Postal Museum. Portrait Gallery.
If you and your date are feeling a bit pinched from the recession, and have resorted to scarfing up fountain change to pay for your Starbucks, you could both go as “Loose Change,” picking up tips and ideas from the National Numismatic Collection at the American History Museum, home to 450,000 coins, medals and decorations and 1.1 million pieces of paper money (including the recently acquired “Confederate Treasury horde” of cancelled Confederate paper money).
View our photo gallery of last minute Halloween costume ideas.
October 6, 2009
Take a step back in time and spend an evening on the wings of Orville and Wilbur Wright tomorrow night at the National Air and Space Museum. October 8, 1909 marked the moment when the Wright brothers began the first training of American military pilots in College Park, Maryland. In honor of this centennial, a panel of experts will discuss the history of the 1909 Wright Military Flyer and the beginnings of U.S. combat and reconnaissance aircraft operations.
Ken Hyde, president of the Wright Experience, a College Park-based historical organization, and a 2000 inductee into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame, has been involved in aviation all his life. But tomorrow night you can witness another of his greatest passions: education. “Our goal at the Wright Experience is to inform kids that math and science is interesting. And we do that through flight,” declares Hyde, who takes his message to children at nearby schools. “It’s exciting to follow the Wright’s thinking process, how they discovered how to make their product.”
The discussion opens at 7.30 tomorrow night with Hyde and his business partner, Paul Glenshaw, as well as other expert panelists, including National Air and Space Museum curators Peter Jakab and Tom Crouch; College Park Aviation Museum Director, Cathy Allen. The presentation also includes rarely seen early photographs and film footage of the flyer. “There’s never a dull moment in this job… when we find a missing letter or a missing piece of the puzzle, it’s amazing. You never know what’s going to happen next,” says Hyde.