You’re Among Friends, South of the Border by Frederic Whitaker

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Eleonor Botoman – Fall 2016 Scholarship Winner

EleonorBotomanPortrait_editMeet Eleonor Botoman, a freshman at Barnard College, who is majoring in English and Art History. We would like to congratulate Eleonor on being selected as one of three recipients of our Frederic Whitaker and Eileen Monaghan Whitaker Foundation Scholarships for the Fall 2016 term. As part of the application process, Eleonor was asked to submit an essay response to a question about the Whitakers and their work. You can read Eleonor’s artist statement and essay below:

 

Artist Statement

As a double major in English and Art History, I’ve set my sights on exploring the art world through art criticism. I currently attend Barnard College, a women’s college in New York City, and I’ve spent my first year studying art history and architecture, researching internship opportunities for next fall, and wrote for the Journal of Art Criticism (JAC). This new student publication had its first issue release in early May and I am currently writing more pieces to be published in the summer and fall semester. I’ve also contributed to Postcrypt Art Gallery, an organization atColumbia University that puts on themed exhibitions of student artwork covering a wide range of mediums from installations, digital design, paintings, and sculpture.

Being in New York, I’ve been able to discover new developments in the art world by exploring all of the museums and galleries just a few subway stops away, and my professors, experts in the art history and architecture field, have guided me through not only the history of art, but also where the future of art is going.

As I begin my writing classes in the fall, I’m eager to develop my writing skills and use the analytic knowledge I gain from English to produce criticisms and theories of my own. I want to question artistic choices, draw comparisons and relationships across movements, understand the artist’s influences and inspirations, and place contemporary works into greater historical contexts. The skills I learn in writing will help me articulate my ideas in ways as creative as the artists I choose to discuss. However, I don’t want to keep all of my learning strictly on-campus.

With the fall semester just a few months away, I’ve already begun applying to internships in different organizations in order to further immerse myself within the art world. Some of these organizations include Artsty.net, a website that not only produces articles but also keeps track of artists’ profiles and pieces as well as guides to auctions and various galleries. There is also Magnus, a new app that identifies the work of art you’re looking at and provides you with all of its information including the artist, the gallery it belongs to, and the current sale price. I am also looking to work for ArchDaily, an architecture journal that looks at up-and-coming architects, explores new developments in design, and studies the impact of contemporary projects (both residential and public works) on the world today.

Essay Question: Compare and contrast Frederic Whitaker and Eileen Monaghan Whitaker’s watercolors depicting Mexican culture

Mexico has been a source of inspiration for many writers and artists over the years, from the Beat poets’ trips south of the border to Diego Rivera’s grand murals of indigenous people. The Whitakers felt this strong pull to Mexico, and captured their awe in beautiful watercolor paintings. Both Eileen and Frederic’s works project emotion into the viewer. The flickering effects of the watercolor evoke a bright Mexican energy. Frederic and Eileen’s pieces may share subject matter, but their individual perception of Mexico causes them to splinter into two subjects of focus: Eileen studies the Mexican people while Frederic documents the Mexican earth, bringing a narrative quality to the forefront of his compositions. In an exploration of their differences, the watercolor artists together produce a whole, richly dynamic image of the power of this Latin-American land.

Eileen Whitaker explores Mexico through its people. Her warm portraits use vivid color to bring a face to a kind of Latin-American energy. She captures moments of daily life, brightened with whites and reds. The figures themselves, however, stand almost rigid poses. She does not use Impressionist brushstrokes to create her pictures. Subjects are rendered to as close a realism that can come with watercolor paints, people documented as if each moment she sees is a photograph. Princess Mariposa (1989) captures the woman with a realistic lightness and her dreamy expression with the rainbow patterned fabrics of her traditional dress. However, there is no intense overlapping of motifs or color in the composition. The mural in the corner, the leaves, the hummingbird, and the butterflies that bloom from behind the woman are included as motifs to further emphasize her identity. The flat white wall ensures no distraction. Eileen sees the people and their lives as the true expression of Mexican tradition, worn in their clothing.

Frederic’s interpretation of the lives of Mexican people emits a more rugged and masculine quality. In the Poultry Merchant (1967), he uses rougher strokes, yet overlaps the washed out tones to create delicate shadows and streaks of sun-brightened white across the feathers. Unlike Eileen, he does not paint the Mexican people with emotion. The merchant’s face appears with only a few minimal strokes while the chickens, the blanket, and his handkerchief are rendered with precision. Eileen captures the expressive quality of the locals’ faces, punctuating their portraits with richly colored cloth, while Frederic defines the Mexican people by traditional objects they use in their lives, carrying into a greater narrative quality of his series of paintings. Two paintings show this documentary quality: Dawn, Nov 2nd (1968) and the Lettuce Pickers (1966).¹ One takes place on an urban street while the other shows men at work in the fields, however Frederic produces two very similar studies on the power of the Mexican landscape. Watercolor is not a painting medium that encourages exact lines so the artist must make the choice to place the most important aspect of the painting right at the foreground where the image can be meticulously rendered. In both Dawn, Nov 2nd and the Lettuce Pickers, he places Mexico at the forefront while the flickering forms of the people linger towards the background. Only one individual sits close to the viewer in Dawn, Nov 2nd, and it should be noted that he wears the most elaborate costume. The Lettuce Pickers appear as generalized forms as well, but in the foreground Frederic places a cardboard box in the corner as a symbol of their agricultural work. He brings the rows of lettuce forward before stretching them all the way towards back of the canvas, sending the viewer’s eye back into a vast and fertile land. Eileen shows individual identities but Frederic uses the Mexican people to create a larger history of a collective identity. Their faces have a formless quality, only enough to differentiate a person within a group. In the darkened daylight of Dawn, Frederic punctuates the men with bright yellow caps. In the Lettuce Pickers, hats play a similar role. This is a symbol of male traditional dress, a practical one that keeps them cool under the hot southern sun. The Lettuce Pickers could become faded into the monotony of the green field, but their bright hats emphasize their hard work. As with the boxes, the hats are a symbol of hardworking spirit, similar to Eileen’s representation of the women’s energy in electric fabrics.

A final point of contrast between the two artists arises with Frederic’s use of a darker palette. Eileen doesn’t shy away from duskier tones, but she prefers bright pinks to her husband’s shadowy blues. This comparison is drawn between two paintings: Eileen’s Se Vende Ajos (1990) and Frederic’s Flower Market (1977). Both pieces address the bustling Mexican marketplace, however there is variation within color schemes. Eileen’s painting projects warmth with hues of orange, reds, and purples. The figures are arranged so that each item for sale can be represented. Oranges and garlic are presented by the merchants and fabrics draping in the background are only partially blocked by the man in the center while the rest of their patterns are unobstructed. The scene is inviting, decorated for the viewer. Frederic’s work, on the other hand, shows a louder, busier scene. All of the shapes reduce in definition to enhance the frenzied setting. The women’s dresses merge together in tones of blues and purples. Sellers carry clouds of blossoms. The sky is darker, drawing attention to the flowers and the dynamic movement of the crowd. In Eileen’s painting, the man engages with the viewer, welcomes them into the selling space. Frederic places the viewer behind the women sitting in the shade with their children. They do not participate, perhaps because they cannot keep up with the chaos of the market, and the viewer is encouraged to observe in order to learn about the culture. Frederic’s paintings capture a dynamic story of Mexican life while Eileen’s works follow a more stagnant tradition of portraiture and elegant expression of culture. 

¹Unbeknownst to the author, the setting for Frederic Whitaker’s watercolor painting “Lettuce Pickers” was Salinas, California, not Mexico, as suggested. This is an understandable misconception as the painting is included with collections featuring Mexico and Mexican culture, and details regarding where “Lettuce Pickers,” was painted were not available to the author as of the writing of this essay.

Yesenia Brambila – Fall 2016 Honorable Mention

Meet Yesenia Brambila, a junior at New York University, who is majoring in Classics and Fine Arts. We would like to congratulate Yesenia on being selected as one of three recipients of our Fall 2016 Honorable Mention Commendations for a Frederic Whitaker and Eileen Monaghan Whitaker Foundation Scholarship. As an applicant for the Art History emphasis scholarship, Yesenia was asked to submit an essay responding to a question about the Whitakers and their work. You can read her essay and artist statement below:

Artist Statement

The ancient world of the Greeks and Romans and the art they produced have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. Every course I take at NYU is an attempt to understand this era of art more and to bridge the gap between my time and theirs. I have never been as passionate about anything as I am with this. My dream is to receive a doctorate in this area and to become a professor of classical art. Though I would be the first in my family to receive a doctorate, I believe I am capable of doing it because I have the work ethic and dedication needed to achieve this dream. I joined the Presidential Honors Scholars Program at NYU for the opportunity to write a senior’s honor thesis in the Classics (which, as a soon to be junior, I have already started conducting research for). And for the past two semesters, I have taken two languages (French and Latin) at once. Next semester, I plan to continue with Latin while adding on both Ancient Greek and German. I do all these things not only to prepare myself for graduate school, but to give myself a better understanding of the ancient world. 

Essay Question: Compare and contrast Frederic Whitaker and Eileen Monaghan Whitaker’s watercolors depicting Mexican culture

In their watercolor paintings, Frederic Whitaker and Eileen Monaghan Whitaker show that though they share both a similar style and a similar interest in depicting Mexican culture, the two artists focus on various aspects of this subject. While Frederic Whitaker shows a greater interest in painting the full picture of Mexican culture, Eileen Monaghan Whitaker shows a greater interest in the people that represent this culture. Rather than choosing to depict all of the elements that compose Mexican culture, Eileen focuses instead on the personalization of the figures she depicts. 

It is evident that these artists shared not only a marriage, but also thematic content in their works. For example, Eileen’s “Bird Watcher” and Frederic’s “Birdwatchers” is a clear example of the two artists sharing a specific subject. But, they represent them in their own unique ways. In Eileen’s version of this subject, the main, and only, figure in the painting has her back turned to us and she is assumingly watching the bird in front of her. With the figure placed so close to the foreground and her back turned, it’s as if the viewers are meant to feel as though they are intruding on the woman, which gives this scene a sense of intimacy. Frederic’s somber and gray version of the scene, on the other hand, is composed of two figures with one of them holding an infant on her back. The figures are shown side-by-side in profile. The viewers are able to follow their downcast eyes to the numerous birds at their feet. And so, unlike Eileen’s version, here the viewer is not an intruder, but simply a spectator to the scene.

In these paintings, both artists also share stylistic elements in their depiction. For example, both provide merely hints of the background to the scene. Both backgrounds are painted with quick and wispy strokes and so the viewers can understand that they are not what is important in understanding this scene. Also, though the use of color in these paintings will soon be elaborated on, a continuity in the color scheme is visible in both paintings throughout their respected scenes. The vibrant colors in Eileen’s depiction are visible in every area such as the figure, the bird, and the vague background, just as the somber tones are visible in Frederic’s figures, birds, and his just as vague background.   

These color schemes are significant towards understanding the difference between the way these artists represent this Mexican culture. Despite the fact that her only figure has her back turned to the viewers, Eileen shows a concern for personalizing the woman. In the painting, she wears a colorful dressing and a headdress that matches its vibrant color scheme. A large, jeweled earring hangs from the ear visible to the viewers. With all these elements of personalization, we are able to get a sense of what this woman’s tastes in clothing and jewelry are. To contrast this, Frederic’s scene lacks both vibrant colors and personalization. His two figures wear large, dark cloaks that hang down their bodies which enhances their hanging heads and downcast eyes and except for their gaze towards the birds, there is no sense of their interests. This imagery of hanging and dark colors is typically associated with mourning, and it is through this association that the somberness within the scene is translated.

Now, this somberness does not suggest that Frederic believes Mexican culture itself to be somber and melancholic. In terms of what it says about the culture, his painting’s lack of personalization and the placement of the figures gives the spectators a direct view of the scene. Frederic does not rely on the identity of his figures to tell the story of this culture. He relies on the full composition of the work to tell a complete story of this culture, while Eileen tells a complete story over the shoulder of a vibrant and tasteful woman.

Of course, one painting cannot act as an indication of an artist’s entire body of work, and therefore act as a spokesperson for that artist’s approach to their subject; however, these two works are appropriate for illustrating the connections and discrepancies between a husband’s and a wife’s work. In their explicit sharing of a subject and implicit variations in that subject’s presentation, the comparison of Eileen’s “Bird Watcher” and Frederic’s “Birdwatchers” can be regarded as a microcosm to the comparison of the artists themselves. These are the paintings that show just to what extent Frederic Whitaker and Eileen Monaghan Whitaker differ in their depictions of Mexican culture. And they show just how important not only style and subject are, but the eyes of the artist translating that subject into painting.