Posts Tagged ‘snow’

What Man Says, What Nature Says

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

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Photos of Glover Park yesterday at dusk: a hand-printed sign guarding a shoveled-out parking space, and a sunset view from the edge of the park.

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Hand-printed warning sign, guarding parking space cleared of snow

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Sunset over Glover Park in Washington, DC, January 29, 2016 at 5:05 PM

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More examples of parking-space “dibs” signs, made by city folks in DC and Philadelphia as they dug their way out of the blizzard of 2016, can be found here.

One Mo’ Time: Snow falling in DC, March 30, 2014, at 5pm

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

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“Snowflakes on my head and shoulders make me happy …”

[Apologies to John Denver]

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Jesse with soon-to-bloom daffodils

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“A treat please?”

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Vallie Fletcher: “Snow in the City”

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

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Today I was the winning bidder at auction for this painting:

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I have an interest in American paintings depicting winter in the city. Budgetary limitations mean I keep my eye open for works by little known artists or by wholly unknown “Sunday” artists. An example of the latter is the painter James Jefferys, whom I profiled last year (see post, here). The fun of coming across these sparsely-documented painters is that it offers an opportunity to do a bit of detective work of one’s own.

This snow scene is a colorful oil on board, 16 by 12 inches, signed in the lower left. The artist, Vallie Fletcher (1874-1939), appears in American artists references and other sources. Those records indicate she was born in Beaumont, Texas. Her art studies took her to the Cooper Union in New York City and the Art Students League (she is mentioned in an 1899 catalog), although she returned west and was known as a “Texas artist.” Other than participating in regional competitions (for example, the 1927 Edgar B. Davis Wildflower Competition in San Antonio; she was not a winner), she did not leave much of a mark in the art world.

Regardless of of her lack of renown, I think she successfully achieves in this painting something direct and honest. The painting shares an approach to the urban landscape that was adopted by many of the best American painters of the 20th century.

My detective work started with a read of the scene depicted and the style of its execution. It looked to me to have been a spontaneous undertaking completed in a single afternoon. Some may object to using the term “en plein air” in this instance, since it seems Fletcher was comfortably positioned indoors, in a room on the second or third floor of the neighboring house, looking out through her window. Yet it’s possible the day grew warm enough for her to open the window, and, if so, describing it as an “open air” painting would not be incorrect.

Where was this painted?

The chief clue to the location is the gold-domed structure in the distance. It has the look of a state capitol building. Using Google Images I found these pictures of the capitol building in Denver, Colorado:

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It is a match, I believe. Even within the limitations of her loose painterly style, Fletcher has accurately captured the pillars and banding of the two-tiered masonry wedding cake that supports the gilded dome and cupola.

When did Fletcher paint this view?

She died at the end of the 1930’s, but the Keystone Cops-looking vehicle parked on the street suggests to me the preceding decade. A notation (whether it is in the artist’s hand is unclear) appears on the reverse of the framed painting:

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So, then, my working assumption is that Fletcher was in Denver and painted this view on April 25, 1928.

Is there anything to support this? Did it snow on that day, in that city? And if it did, was the storm sudden, surprising, and short-lived? Was it the kind of event that would keep the artist indoors? Was the cover of snow an evanescent subject she was eager to capture in paint?

Meteorological records maintained by the National Weather Service indicate that in Denver, on April 25, 1928:  RAIN CHANGED TO SNOW … WHICH BECAME HEAVY AND TOTALED 7.4 INCHES IN DOWNTOWN DENVER. DUE TO MELTING … THE MAXIMUM SNOW DEPTH ON THE GROUND WAS 4.0 INCHES AT 6:00 PM. THIS WAS THE LAST SNOW OF THE SEASON. SOUTHEAST WINDS WERE SUSTAINED TO 19 MPH WITH GUSTS TO 20 MPH.

Which is to say, Vallie Fletcher likely kept the window closed.

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The circular porch, budding off the corner of the house, is a feature of many American Victorian-period homes of the late 1800’s.  See here and here.

Reserve Your Cleared Parking Space Now!

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Photos of a “reserved” parking spot on my street in Washington, DC, February 13, 2010. It’s nice to see the tradition of using two metal lawn chairs as space savers is being upheld, well into the 21st century.

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So here’s the difference between Philadelphia (where I grew up) and Washington, DC (where I live): In Philadelphia it is understood that if you take the time to clear a parking space in front of your house after a snow storm, you then have a valid claim to its exclusive use. Sweat equity confers upon you that right and interest. Digging out gives you dibs. No questions asked.

But in Washington, questions are asked, ethics are examined, situational nuances are parsed. Commentators turn to Locke and Hobbes for guidance. See, for example, the lively discussion engendered by the article: “Can Shovelers “Reserve” Parking Spots They Clear?” in the Washington Post, here; additional views here and here.  BTW, WaPo’s online poll, which has received 5000+ votes so far, finds 76% answering “Yes”.  The reaction is more even-handed (but less even-tempered) in the dozens of comments posted by readers.

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UPDATE, December 11, 2016: The Oxford University Faculty of Law requested permission to reproduce the third photo to illustrate its announcement of an April 2017 event, “From Collective Legal Consciousness to Legal Consciousness of Collective Dissent.” https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/events/collective-legal-consciousness-legal-consciousness-collective-dissent

 

This morning’s Japanese snowfall

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

I awoke this morning to a Hiroshige-like scene of bare tree limbs filled with cottony snow:

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Below is Utagawa Hiroshige‘s “Evening Snow at Asukayama” (1837-38), a Japanese wookblock print from his series, “Eight Views from the Neighborhood of Edo”:

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It’s not clear whether the pack animal in the second picture came from an early Honda dealership.

December 19, 2009 Snow Storm

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

It snowed in Washington, DC, on Saturday, December 19, 2009. About 16 inches blanketed my neighborhood. For kids and dogs it was time for play and tail-wagging:

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James A. Jefferys, American Painter (1889-1969)

Friday, May 15th, 2009

In the preface to his book of essays, “L’Envers et L’Endroit” (“The Wrong Side and the Right Side,” 1958), Albert Camus wrote:

I know this with sure and certain knowledge: a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.

Most people cannot claim the mantle of artist. Still, most of us face the same urge to recapture early joys. This is sometimes disparagingly referred to as “reliving your childhood.” You see it at baseball games, where old men sit in the stands vicariously joining in the play on the field. You see it when a new mother selects a first doll for her daughter. You saw it last year when many Americans who, 40 years before, had joined Robert F. Kennedy in his improbable and sadly aborted 100-day quest for the Presidency, found themselves rejuvenated by another political campaign powered by hope and renewal.

I love snow for a simple reason: it instantly transports me back to childhood. To capture that feeling and make it available in every season, I collect art depicting snow in the city. One of the pieces in my collection is this 10-by-12 inch oil sketch, “Drifting Snow,” dated 1910, of an intersection in Philadelphia:

James A. Jefferys, Drifting Snow, Manayunk, 1910

The artist, James A. Jefferys, lived in the city’s Manayunk neighborhood. He indicated the scene’s location in a hand-written inscription on the verso: “Drifting Snow. Sketched from 2nd floor front Room of H.D. Richards showing R.R. Gate Tender at Cresson & Short Leverings St Manayunk Phila 2-14-1910 By James A. Jefferys [?]20 Grape St”. To 21st century eyes, the picture’s most interesting detail may be the train engine entering from the right. There’s something odd about this vision of a train encroaching on an urban streetscape normally reserved for less daunting vehicles. It puts me in a surrealistic mood. I’m ready to imagine the train’s next stop is someone’s living room, as recorded in Magritte’s painting, “Time Transfixed.”

Historical notes: In 1929-1930, Reading Railroad replaced the Cresson Street train tracks with an elevated structure. The name Manayunk is derived from the Lenape Indian word “manaiung“, which means “river” or “where we go for drink.” Manayunk is an old blue-collar industrial neighborhood (textile and paper mills thrived in the 19th century) currently undergoing gentrification. It rises from the banks of the Schuylkill upriver from Wissahicken Creek, a few miles from center-city Philadelphia.

As for the artist, a Google search uncovered only sparse information about James Jefferys’ presence in Manayunk. Geneology sites contain references that supply birth and death dates of 1889-1969 and show his continual presence in Philadelphia (interrupted by service in World War I).  Yet I’ve found nothing about his activity as a painter; no records of his artistic training, exhibitions, or awards.  Possibly he was a self-taught artist.  The 1910 painting shows a careful but tentative hand of a novice painter (he was only 21 at the time) uninfluenced by academic training. He kept painting, though. Possibly he worked in a related field such as sign-making, illustration, advertising or publishing. This early sketch reveals an intuitive sense of atmosphere and color. To my taste the painting is pleasing and very American.

Three years after buying the snow sketch I came across, at auction, another painting by Jefferys that I thought would be a fine addition to the collection. I was happy to place the winning bid for this 1938 oil on canvas:

J.A. Jefferys, "Boone & Grape Sts., Manayunk"

[Boone and Grape Streets, Manayunk, oil on canvas, 1938, 20 x 24 inches, signed and dated lower left recto; inscribed on verso: “Boone & Grape Sts / J.A. Jefferys / 4310 Terrace ST / Myk PA”.  Rago Arts and Auction Center, Lambertville, NJ, Fine Art Auction, May 15, 2008, Lot 226.]

Jefferys’ note on the verso of the smaller snow scene, done nearly three decades before this painting, placed his residence somewhere on Grape Street. This means he would have been very familiar with the street’s trecherous upper reaches, depicted here. The Terrace Street address  listed on the back of the 1938 work places him just two short blocks from Boone and Grape. I imagine him walking out the front door of his modest row house one cold day during the Great Depression, turning left up Terrace Street. A few steps into his trek he thinks twice about whether to take a detour down the steep Cotton Street steps leading directly to Boone.  He decides to keep on the safer sidewalk, on up to Grape Street, where he turns left to make the final trudge downhill to the intersection at Boone. There, in front of him, is a scene of immediate activity and distant calm. He is glad to have come upon something demanding to be captured on canvas.

What were Jefferys’ working methods as an artist? Did he do a pencil sketch then and there? Did he bring a camera? Or did he leave the house carrying a fresh canvas, easel, and plein air materials, instinctively knowing this would be a productive day?

If you stand at the same vantage point today, as you can do in absentia thanks to Google Maps Street View, it is clear Jefferys took some liberties with distant perspective, bending space to create a more thrilling atmosphere. That is what artists do.

Repeating elements seen in his 1910 sketch, the upper portion of the picture features mills and factories, the soft hills beyond the river, and finally a spacious wintry gray sky. But Jefferys’  talents have moved well beyond the primitive mode of 1910, now embracing a style similar to that of John Sloan and of a younger cohort of social realist painters who emerged in the 1930s. He has well captured in paint a landscape cushioned in white, the cold air alive. He introduces a stronger narrative. The foreground tableau is a tale of play and toil, where boys’ shouts compete with the muffled metalic scraping  of shovels handled by the old man at left and old woman at right. Tiresome work is consigned to the margins, peripheral to the central energy of sledders, who evade a snowball fight and zoom like dare-devils deeper into the world.

I am struck by how the composition, whether by chance or intention, is so reminiscent of one of the most beloved paintings in art history, Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow.

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In an interesting  online essay entitled, “How Can We Be Composed?- Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow,” Nancy Huntting quotes from Eli Siegel’s commentary in Art as Composition:

“Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow is a picture that tells us, Everything can be composed. Lines can be composed. The general direction of the picture is at a slant, or diagonal; the trees are assertively vertical; there are horizontal lines with the snow. Varying white shapes differ and coalesce. Houses, as volumes, mingle with snow as weight, and with space. Birds are diagonal, vertical, horizontal. The immediate in the picture mingles with a various middle ground, and a spacious, rising, misty background. Here is reality’s plenty caught hold of by Bruegel and arranged.”

Siegel’s formal analysis helps explain why a painting is so arresting. But it forgets the power of the sentimental elements (using the “s” word in its non-pejorative sense) of a painting — elements which, to an opened heart, provide pleasures all their own.

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UPDATE (August 2009)

In the Comments section, below, you’ll find an email from the artist’s grandson, Jim Jefferys, who came across this blog posting and wrote to me in June, 2009.  A few months later he sent along some photos and these additional information about his grandfather’s artistic efforts:

“The first picture is a snow scene with a chimney in center (oil on canvas, rather large – 36 inches square). This painting was to be given to the first male Jefferys in each generation. After me it goes to my son. … The painting I’m told was a fireplace that my great, great grandfather built when he came to this country. The building, after years and years of neglect, is the way my grand father saw it and painted it on a snowy day. A lot of his snow scenes were painted outdoors when it was snowing. My aunt can tell you he would take her as a little girl sledding in Manyunk, with oils, brushes and easel in tow. So, that’s the answer to your one question — he did paint in the snow.”

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“The second picture is the old Mill inn in Hatboro PA. which still stands to this day. [Note: unfortunately, the JPEG file for this painting could not be opened.] I was born and raised in that area. This building is still there and even though it has had renovations it still looks the same. The painting (watercolor) was completed on the day I was born. It was given to my father the next day for him to hold for me. Third picture (oil on canvas) is of Valley Green in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. The building still there today and looks the same. I used to go trout fishing there when I was 16 years of age. It was one of my father’s favorite pictures.”

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“Fourth picture [JPEG file was not openable] is a castle in Germany he did during  WWI (oil on canvas). He also did a portrait of Von Hindenburg when he was there after Germany surrendered. That picture is around somewhere, as one of the relatives has it. Fifth picture [JPEG file not openable] is a small painting of a run-down farmhouse (oil on canvas). I don’t know anything about it, just that I liked it and my grandfather gave it to me after I graduated from high school. Sixth picture is a watercolor of Dad’s Place in North Wildwood, NJ. It is still there and I was with my grandfather when he started the painting , back when we did not have bug spray for green flies, etc. I asked for the painting and he gave it to me. He knew if he gave it to me I would not forget the good times I had going to the shore with him.”

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“Seventh picture is down the shore somewhere, probably the same area,      but this home is probably gone from storms now. It was a twin set (my    sister has the other) and was painted the same summer as the Dad’s Place picture.”

Copy of pic25834

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UPDATE (September 2014)

Here are photos of a 1942 watercolor by the artist, depicting the church and rectory of Saint John the Baptist in Manayunk. These photos were provided to me recently by Rev. John J. Kelly (see Comments section) who found the picture in a back room of the rectory. He writes: “The painting is quite realistic and a fine depiction of Rector street. On the left is Saint John’s, two schools and the  Church which still stands. On the Right is the Rectory  which still stands; so too do the walls at the top of the street and on Rector street.  It appears that the houses are all still intact. What is noticeably different is at the bottom of Rector street there is no high wall and SEPTA train tracks are missing from the painting.”

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For comparison purposes, below is a detail of Jefferys’ 1938 painting, Boone and Grape St., Manayunk, showing the spire of Saint John the Baptist church and the roofs of two schools, from a higher perspective.

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UPDATE – April 2015:

A new Google search for “James A. Jefferys” uncovered additional biographical information. The future artist was born in March of 1889 and died in July of 1969. The year 1938, when Jefferys painted the snow scene he titled Boone and Grape Street, Manayunk, shown at the beginning of this article, was a year of tragedy for the artist. In 1938 he lost both of his parents: (James Jefferys, 1851-1938) and mother (Anna Judge, 1864-1938).

The July 18, 1969 edition of the Des Moine Register newspaper published a short obituary for James A. Jefferys. It provides intriguing details about the artist’s early years:

“James A. Jefferys, 80, a portrait and landscape artist who painted European royally at the front during World War I, [died] in Philadelphia. He painted portraits of King Albert of Belgium and the Prince of Wales and later Edward VIII when they visited the front. He also made pen and brush sketches of battles.”