Christina Robertson Portrait Painter to the Tsar(ina)s

I’d never heard of Christina Robertson before I toured the castles and palaces of St.  Petersburg and saw  her  portraits of women dressed in   resplendent finery and cascading ball gowns.  Her pictures stood apart from the other portraits.  There was nothing timid or withholding about them but they had a kind of delicate sensibility that is hard to describe.  I don’t want  to call it feminine, but her paintings convey the feeling that the artist understood her subjects a little bit better than a male painter might.  Or maybe I’m totally wrong and just intrigued by the idea that a woman born in Scotland, who was a wife and a mother could end up as a court painter in Russia in the 19th Century.

Roberson was born in Scotland and trained by an uncle.  She quickly became a popular portrait and miniature painter, and was the first woman invited to join the Scottish Royal Academy of Art in 1824.  Her husband with whom she had eight children was also an artist, but it appears that her career took her to Paris by the 1830’s where she had a number of Russian clients.  She decided to pursue her fortunes in Russia and traveled  to St. Petersburg  around 1837-38.  She made the journey alone which was highly unusual.  Travel was extremely difficult in those days. Imagine plodding along forever on muddy roads in a coach that pitched and jerked and that had nothing to absorb the shocks of the highway on your rear end.  If  part of the journey took place on a ship, you had to deal with rough accommodations and were hostage to the unpredictable whims of the weather.

After a successful exhibition in 1839, she received a commission to paint the portraits of Empress Alexandra and Tsar Nicolas, I. Other commissions followed.

Mikhailovsky Palace (1)

In 1841, she returned to her family and studio in England but left them again in 1849 for Russia.  She continued to be a popular court painter in St.Petersburg and received many more commissions.  She died in St. Petersburg in 1854. Some interesting questions remain:   Why did she travel and leave her family behind as she did? Was it financial necessity or to find artistic freedom?   And why don’t we know more about her?  She died in Russia after the start of the Crimean War  and it’s possible that her reputation suffered because of that association.

You can see most of her work at  the Hermitage Museum.  Click here for some examples.

Mikhailovsky Palace (2)

Let’s Get Dirty (In the Pottery Studio)

Pottery is my first love.  It comes before polymer, before metal smithing, before lamp working, before everything. From the time I was a little kid, I knew that as soon as I tried it I would love it.

 

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I didn’t have pottery classes of any kind in school.  Well, I did get to go to a paint your own pottery shop with my Girl Scout troop and paint a candle holder for my mother and a fish dish that could be an ash tray or hold change for my father.  Except my mother didn’t burn candles and my father kept his coins in a change purse.  But I had fun.  I still have the candle holder somewhere.

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In fact, I didn’t get to take a pottery class until I had graduated from college.  I was working for the summer in Atlantic City managing some rooming houses who had a rather exotic clientele.   I found out that there was a class at the local Community College.  I convinced a friend that “he really wanted to take a pottery class.”   I didn’t have wheels and needed a way to get there.  Surprisingly,  he acquiesced. 

The first time I sat down at a wheel, I smacked a ball of clay on the wheel head, turned the wheel on and watched in horror as the ball of clay shot across the room and bounced off a table.  Everyone froze.    After that, I was more careful.  Much more careful.

And you would think that now that I am retired and have all the time in the world to write blog posts, that I would not leave them until the last minute. “But no,” she said.  Because I am spending most of my time in the pottery studio.  I have not made any pottery in 25 years and I have a whole new group of victims  friends upon whom to bestow my clay creations.

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I am trying some new things; I have never made glazed beads before or used a bead tree and I am having fun with that.

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I am throwing pots and then altering the forms.  And I am trying different surface treatments including screen printing using underglazes.

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Making a decent print and transferring it to the clay is challenging and there are several methods of doing it.  If I get interesting results, I will post them.

 

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And I do tend to get grimy in the studio.   Not as grimy as the guy in the scraps bucket, but pretty close!

 

 

 

A Day at the Museum

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We use glass every day. It’s so ubiquitous that most of the time it fades into the background.  We  literally look right through it and don’t even see it.  That’s good when you are driving a car or staring through your bifocals.  But,  if you have ever walked through a plate glass window, you will quickly remember that glass is present.  (Unless you’re Criss Angel.)

As I said in last week’s post, glass is basically melted sand. What I did not know when I wrote last week’s post was that the invention of the blow pipe made it easier to make glass and cheaper too.  Now, even though I barely passed high school chemistry, I know from my own glass experience that mixing air with the fuel makes it burn hotter and cleaner and makes for more efficient glass melting.  So the blow pipe was a big deal. And though we can trace the first glass back to 3500 BCE, transparent glass did not appear until Venetian glass maker Angelo Barovier created it in the 15th Century.  Even then, having clear glass windows was an expensive proposition and there were many more advancements in glass technology and manufacturing before we got to the glass we know today.  But if you think you know a lot about, glass you probably don’t know the half of it.  That’s why you should take a trip to the Corning Museum of Glass.

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Patty looking through a magnifying lens

The stated mission of the Corning Glass Museum is to “tell the world about glass.”  Any comprehensive exploration of glass  straddles the line between art and science. There’s probably no other artistic medium (aside from pottery) that does this so obviously and the scientific developments in glass have been dramatic. What I like most about the museum is that it pays attention to both sides of this fascinating substance.  

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We started the day with a glass blowing demonstration.

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Glass frit and colorants

From there we went to the modern Art Glass

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Corning GM(GlassFiber)3

Corning GM(Lynx)2

Then worked our way through the ancient glass and the history of glass exhibits.

Corning GM44

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From there, we hopped over to the scientific glass portion where I learned about lenses, telescopes, safety glass and glass with thermal properties.

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Patty and I staring into a thermal camera

The museum building itself is beautifully designed and a very relaxing space.

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We only scratched the surface on our visit; there are all kinds of activities and classes including Master Classes for lamp workers and glass blowers taught by top artists from around the world.    Click here  to go to Corning’s YouTube site which contains dozens of videos on every aspect of glass you can imagine.  Click here to go to my Flickr page and see the other pictures I took at the Museum

 

 

 

A Detour in Corning, NY

I don’t know about you, but it has always mystified me  how ancient peoples discovered processes like glass making.  I mean, we have all heard about how Rouquefort cheese came to be-you know the Shepard leaves his goatskin of milk in the moldy cave, finds it  6 months later and voila! Quelle fromage! But that was an accident.  And in his play John and Mary Doe, playwright  Christopher Durang  speculates on how a caveman might have invented the, er-if you really must know, click here.    But glass?  Glass is basically sand that is heated to about 1700 degrees F. until it melts.  (The color and other characteristics the glass might have comes from added chemicals.)  Historians believe that glass making  started around  3500 BCE in Mesopotamia and that  the first  glass was made in coastal north Syria, Mesopotamia or ancient Egypt.   But who wakes up one day and tells his wife or his boss that he is going to the beach so he can bring back some sand and try to melt it?  I mean, seriously.  But where would we be without glass?  In the dark probably.

It was in this spirit that intrepid fellow traveller Patty and I decided to make a detour on our way home from the Morrisburg Polymer Clay Retreat and stop in Corning, NY, home to the famed Corning Museum of Glass.    We got into Corning the evening before our planned visit and got to explore the town a little.  Here’s what we saw.

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Corning is a charming town nestled into the rolling hills of Southern New York State on the Chemung River. It’s home to Corning Incorporated and to the Corning Museum of Glass.   Corning is also home to the Rockwell Museum (not to be confused with the Norman Rockwell Museum)  which specializes in American Art. The main of the town street is dotted with restaurants, art galleries and antique shops.  It really looks like it would be a nice place to spend a day or two window shopping, dining, visiting the museums and enjoying the countryside.

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We stayed in the Staybridge Suites right next to the museum so we could get an early start the next morning.  It was a good choice and I recommend it.

 

Next week: The Corning Museum of Glass.