Friday, February 19, 2010

Ed Hannigan

“Ed Hannigan: Covered,” a retrospective exhibition of Marvel and DC comic book covers and drawings by Hannigan from the 1970s and ‘80s, opened at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco on Feb. 13. The 58-year-old West Chesterfield, New Hampshire, artist drew Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four and other famed comics heroes.

A companion book “Ed Hannigan: Covered” has been published by The Hero Initiative and Marvel Comics to benefit Hannigan, whose ability to work is now very much hampered by multiple sclerosis. (Jim McLauchlin of the Hero Initiative says “all proceeds minus printing costs will go to Ed.”)

“MS has affected my motor functions, especially walking, which I can barely do, and my hands,” Hannigan writes to me. “Also affected are eyesight and co-ordination, memory and concentration and it is extremely fatiguing, among other things. I can ‘work’ but not very well, and not at a professional level. I plan to stop drawing all together very soon because it is becoming too difficult.”

Hannigan was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1951, went to high school in Ashland, Massachusetts, and moved to New Jersey in 1971, where he found work with Marvel Comics. His first job was lettering the texts of comic books. He moved on to adding Zip-A-Tone shading to comics drawings, before getting the chance to draw his first comic book cover for “Planet of the Apes.”

He found success at Marvel designing comic book covers for himself and other artists to draw. He also illustrated and wrote some stories. But, the museum writes, “When the comics business contracted in the early 1990s, Ed was forced to find other employment. He end up doing computer graphics for a publisher in Massachusetts for nine years. In the course of those years, he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, which at first was a minor annoyance, but soon progressed to a major disability.”

“Ed Hannigan: Covered,” 655 Mission Street, San Francisco, Calif., Feb. 13 to June 20, 2010.

Pictured: Comic book covers that Hannigan designed and penciled and then others – including John Byrne, Al Milgrom, Joe Rubinstein and others – inked.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

“Golden Legacy” at Eric Carle Museum

Of all the books Richard Scarry illustrated, his masterpiece may be 1963’s “I Am a Bunny” (pictured at left). The writing by Ole Risom is straightforward and simple, the tale of Nicholas the bunny, who lives in a hollow tree, picks daffodils in spring, watches frogs in summer, leaves falling in autumn, and snow in winter. It is a basic introduction to the seasons.

But in Scarry’s gouaches and watercolors, the scenes come rivetingly alive – when tiny bunny blows dandelion seeds in the air, or huddles under a toadstool to keep dry during a rainstorm. Scarry animates the scenes through careful use of scale (that little bunny caught up in the swirling forces of nature), light and vivid color (this is before he switched to the more spare pencil and watercolor style of his later work). He captures a child’s sense of wonder at all the newness of the world.

Four of Scarry’s paintings from the book are among the treasures included in “Golden Legacy: Original Art from 65 Years of Golden Books” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. The exhibit, which was organized by the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature in Abeline, Texas – and which unfortunately I’ve not had a chance to see – showcases 60 original illustrations, including Alice and Martin Provensen’s gouaches for “The Color Kittens” (1949); Gustaf Tenggren’s gouaches for the “Tawny Scrawny Lion” (1952); Mary Blair’s knock out gouaches for “I Can Fly” (1951); Tibor Gergely’s gouaches and watercolors for “Tootle” (1945) and “Scuffy the Tugboat” (1946); Aurelius Battaglia’s gouaches for “Little Boy with a Big Horn” (1950); and Feodor Rojankovsky’s gouaches and watercolors for “The Three Bears” (1948). The artwork all comes from the Random House archive – disturbing evidence that the publisher claimed not just publication rights, but the original paintings as well. Also note that Tenggren’s paintings for the landmark 1942 book “The Poky Little Puppy” – said to be the best selling children’s picture book ever – are represented here only by a digital print reproduction.

Little Golden Books was launched in 1942 as a collaboration between Western Publishing and Simon & Schuster. The idea was to produce quality illustrated books at bargain prices. To keep manufacturing costs low, the books were generally printed with paperboard covers, cheaper paper, and staple bound (the staples hidden behind the trademark gold foil spine). The roster of illustrators included members of the European émigré community who had gathered in New York as World War II flared (Rojankovsky, Gergely); Disney Studios alums (Tenggren, Martin Provensen, Blair – she was the key designer of the “It’s a Small World” ride); and other originals (Leonard Weisgard, Eloise Wilkin, Richard Scarry, and Hilary Knight).

Central to the line’s success was that it was sold primarily in grocery stores, drug stores and the like – a pioneering example of the mass marketing of books. The books could be uneven, but Golden Books’ powerhouse artists produced a library of classic children’s literature. But that under sells their achievement. The best – like Scarry’s “I Am a Bunny” or Blair’s “I Can Fly” (pictured above) – are astonishing works of art, some of the finest art produced in the past century.

“Golden Legacy: Original Art from 65 Years of Golden Books,” Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, 125 West Bay Road, Amherst, Massachusetts, Nov. 24, 2009, to Feb. 28, 2010.

"Picturing the World: The Art of Alice and Martin Provensen" at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in 2006.

Pictured from top to bottom: Alice and Martin Provensen from "The Color Kittens." Copyright © 1949, 1958, renewed 1986 by Random House, Inc.; Richard Scarry from "I Am a Bunny." © 1963 Golden Books Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.; Gustaf Tenggren from "Tenggren's Tawny Scrawny Lion."copyright © 1952, ren. 1980 by Random House, Inc.; Richard Scarry from "I Am a Bunny."; Mary Blair from "I Can Fly." Copyright © 1951 Western Publishing, Company, Inc. Copyright renewed 1979. All rights reserved.; Garth Williams from "The Giant Book of Elves and Fairies." Copyright © 1951, ren. 1979 by Random House, Inc.; Illustration by Gustaf Tenggren from "The Poky Little Puppy." copyright © 1942, ren. 1970 by Western Publishing Company, Inc.; Richard Scarry from "I Am a Bunny."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

From Boston Expressionism to Lowbrow

Below is my review of "David Aronson: The Paradox," "Henry Schwartz: The Eternal Footman," "Gerry Bergstein: Effort at Speech" at the Danforth Museum in Framingham, Massachusetts. In it I discuss the connections of art from Boston Expressionism to Lowbrow. I'll be speaking about this subject at the Danforth at 3 p.m. March 21.

Alternative Universe

Boston Expressionism in context

In the 1930s and '40s, Boston painters developed a moody, mythic realism. They mixed social satire with depictions of street scenes, Biblical scenes, and mystical symbolic narratives, all of it darkened by the shadow of the Great Depression and World War II.

It became known as Boston Expressionism, or sometimes figurative expressionism, and it was "for a time the center of this line of [expressionist] development" in America, as Brooklyn Museum of Art curator John Baur wrote in his 1951 book Revolution and Tradition in Modern American Art. The painter Bernard Chaet, who grew up around Boston and taught art at Yale for years, relates how Willem de Kooning told him that when de Kooning and Jackson Pollock discovered Boston Expressionist Hyman Bloom's fiery kinetic paintings of chandeliers and Christmas trees at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1942, they thought him the first Abstract Expressionist.

But the Bostonians have come to be left out of today's art histories and dismissed as backward provincials because their expressionist realism did not fit into the triumphant narrative of abstract art — particularly as it was made in New York. "I never delved into complete abstractionism because it didn't speak to me of human experience," Boston Expressionist Henry Schwartz explained last year. (Schwartz, who was born in 1927, died this past February.) "It was decorative. Kokoschka called it 'patches for the pants.' "

Instead, the official version of events goes like this: in 1907, Pablo Picasso and his pal Georges Braque invented Cubism. That launched a fine-art Manhattan Project aimed at breaking down art to its atomic essence — from Pollock's drips to Ad Reinhardt's minimalist black monochromes to Sol LeWitt's conceptual-art recipes for paintings and drawings that might or might not be executed. Yet now, with the rise of street artists like Shepard Fairey (who was featured at the Institute of Contemporary Art this year) and the "pop surrealism" of lowbrow art, Boston Expressionism — which is on display in the shows of Schwartz, David Aronson (born 1923), and Gerry Bergstein (born 1945) at Framingham's Danforth Museum of Art — looks more and more like an early example of a remarkably resilient movement.

Despite being ignored and even discouraged by New York–centered officialdom, the expressionist-realist strain kept sprouting across the country. It didn't matter that the artists remained ignorant of kindred spirits elsewhere off art's beaten path, or that historians failed to connect the dots among related developments in, say, Boston, Chicago, and California. This art remained invisible to most who didn't experience it first-hand in part because the artists themselves received scant national press. But it kept popping up as a genetic mutation in isolated archipelagos, willing itself into existence.

Boston Expressionism bears similarities to the social-realist art of Ben Shahn, to the works of American Regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, and to Alfred Stieglitz's circle of European-inspired Modernists (especially Marsden Hartley) of the 1920s and '30s. But the influence of socially engaged German Expressionism — both indirectly and directly via German Expressionist Karl Zerbe, who came to Boston after being driven out of Germany by the Nazis — may be its distinguishing characteristic. And that is what separated it from New York, which favored more apolitical French Cubism, Surrealism, and Dada, with their focus on the formal nature of art.

"David Aronson: The Paradox" is part of a series of Boston Expressionist retrospectives that director Katherine French has organized at the Danforth. It showcases 23 works by the Sudbury painter, who was one of the founders of Boston Expressionism, along with Bloom, Jack Levine, and Aronson's teacher Zerbe. Aronson paints religious and mythic scenes, often in shallow, stage-like settings. "The Resurrection" (1944), pictured at left, his finest work here, depicts a tall, skinny, blue-black Jesus rendered in distorted perspective; he's lying in a coffin and crowned with thorns. All is ashen except for the garland of glowing roses and the bright-blue musician angels floating around the body. What stays with you is that explosion of color and Jesus's fleshiness and serene, tender expression.

The German influence on Aronson is most apparent in his 1947-'52 canvas "Marriage at Cana," a large busy scene of clowns and carnival barkers that closely echoes the style and composition of German Expressionist painter Max Beckmann's 1942 triptych "Actors." Aronson helped organize a large Beckmann exhibition at the Boston Museum School in 1946. Like Beckmann, he suggests stories in his symbolic scenes, but just what those stories might be remains elusive.

As the years pass, Aronson's scenes take on a soft, shimmering quality and his figures often assume curiously detached expressions, whether they're crowning Jesus with thorns or dancing across a banquet table. Characters in his 1958 painting "The Golem" (above) have lumpy gold faces resembling masks sculpted from clay. The golem seems to lie inside a coffin smiling as a man — a rabbi? — floats in the air at left. Three individuals observe at right. A parrot flaps above the group. Aronson is still dealing with heroic or mythic themes, but the urgency of "The Resurrection" has been pasteurized out. That corresponds with the way the air went out of the sails of Boston Expressionism in general — a development that, in retrospect, one can't help associating with Boston's becoming disconnected from the great art debates of the day.

The nine paintings in "Henry Schwartz: The Eternal Footman" focus on his depictions of classical-music concerts and self-portraits (mostly while listening to classical music). Born in Winthrop, Schwartz studied with Zerbe after Aronson, and he was a fiend for classical music, but he wrestled with his favorite German composers' anti-Semitism. He was most interesting when his conflicted feelings led to subject matter like ghouls or scantily clad women — or scantily clad women as ghouls. "Orient Heights: The Spirit of Anne Frank Singing 'Das Lied von der Erde'" (1991) depicts a showgirl or perhaps an opera diva singing Mahler as diamond tears drip down her face. Wraith-like racehorses charge up her arm. Smoking chimneys stand in a wreath upon her bosom, like an apparition of the Holocaust.

"Gerry Bergstein: Effort at Speech" presents 30 gonzo paintings and drawings by one of Schwartz's students. (More of the Cambridge artist's work is at Gallery Naga, 67 Newbury Street, through December 19.) The Danforth show starts off with 1980s allegories of isolation symbolized by neon-lit telephones in vast, lonely bedrooms. By the '90s, a canvas like "Map #2" (1991) is resembling a jumble of Post-Its stuck on a wall. The parts seem to represent everything that's on Bergstein's mind — doodles of fruit, a chopped-up heart, a telephone pole, a slice of pizza, bones, eyes, fingers, test tubes.

But the history of art is what's most on his mind, and it's rendered with increasingly trompe-l'oeil verisimilitude. "Oops!" (2001) is a painting made to look like a self-portrait cobbled together from a patchwork of doodles and art-history postcards stuck to a chalkboard. His hand holds a paintbrush — made of paint as thick as cake frosting — that seems to have splashed white across the thing, as if it were a parody of Abstract Expressionism. The title and "Oh God" have been chalked in the corners like orgasmic exclamations.

Paintings from the mid 2000s show the artist wrestling with planets or Towers of Babel, as if sheer will could keep the world from disintegrating. Bergstein also assembles tour de force 3-D collages, like Art Broke My Heart (2009), a sculpture of a heart constructed from art-history reproductions and images of fruit and hummingbirds. Sometimes he photographs everything and then reworks the print-outs with paint. I wish he'd take on a meatier subject than sampling art history, but his skill with painting and collage is riveting.

The style of early Boston Expressionism had echoes in the haunted figures — whose flesh seemed to wither before your eyes — that Ivan Albright painted in Chicago during the 1920s and '30s. By the 1950s, a group of dark expressionist realists — dubbed the Monster Roster and including Leon Golub and Nancy Spero — were also active in the Windy City. In San Francisco, the sunnier expressionist scenes of David Park and Richard Diebenkorn typified the Bay Area figurative school.

Eccentric expressionist realism grew hotter, funkier, and funnier while offering ever more impressive feats of traditional artistic skill in the 1960s and '70s with Chicago's cartoony Hairy Who (Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Roger Brown, Karl Wirsum), Bay Area funk (Robert Arneson), and Haight-Ashbury psychedelia (Robert Crumb, Victor Moscoso). Since the 1970s, lowbrow's mutant blend of comics, cuteness, pop, and painterly chops has flowered in California (Robert Williams, Gary Panter, Gary Baseman, Tim Biskup, Camille Rose Garcia, Mark Ryden, Barry "Twist" McGee, Margaret Kilgallen) and inspired an international movement. It's received a significant boost from the lowbrow magazine Juxtapoz, which Williams founded in 1994 to give this sort of art its first regular national coverage. Over the past 15 years, folks like John Currin and Dana Schutz have become big in New York working similar territory.

In the '90s, Providence became nationally influential for the psychedelic monster expressionist screenprinters and cartoonists affiliated with its Fort Thunder and Hive Archive collectives (Mat Brinkman, Brian Chippendale, Jim Drain, Xander Marrow, Jungil Hong, Paper Rad); some of those artists even landed in the Whitney Biennial. In Boston, cartoony artists like Ron Rege Jr. clustered around Tom Devlin's comics publishing house, Highwater Books, which helped lay a national groundwork for a more artistically ambitious comics printed as beautifully designed art books. (Disclosure note: Highwater has published my work.)

Today, you might find descendants of Boston Expressionism in Bergstein and in the visionary eccentric-realist art of locals like Raul Gonzalez (at Carroll and Sons, 450 Harrison Avenue, through December 20), Mary O'Malley, Elaine Bay, Resa Blatman (at Suffolk University Art Gallery, 75 Arlington Street, through January 17), Laylah Ali, Derek Aylward, Caleb Neelon, Ria Brodell, and Hannah Barrett. Boston Expressionism is no longer identified by that name — it's traded gloom and doom for sunny pop culture, and the artists themselves may have no sense of being its heirs. But that moody, eccentric strain of expressionist realism continues to thrive.

"David Aronson: The Paradox," and "Henry Schwartz: The Eternal Footman," from Nov. 21, 2009, to Feb. 28, 2010. "Gerry Bergstein: Effort at Speech" from Nov. 18, 2009, to March 14, 2010. At the Danforth Museum, 123 Union St., Framingham, Massachusetts.

Aug. 27, 2009: Hyman Bloom has died at 96.
June 15, 2009: Providence art books: Monster.
June 8, 2009: New England Lowbrow?
Feb. 22, 2009: Henry Schwartz, Arthur Polonsky.
May 31, 2007: Ron Rege Jr..
Dec. 16, 2006: 'Wilderland’ at Second Gallery.
Dec. 31, 2006: Hyman Bloom and Boston Expressionism.
Sept. 28, 2006: Print the legend: Providence’s ‘Wunderground’.

Originally published in the Dec. 16, 2009, Boston Phoenix.

Pictured from top to bottom: David Aronson, “Adoration of the Magi,” 1947; “Trinity,” 1943; “The Paradox,” 1942; “The Resurrection,” 1944; “Christ in the House of Simon,” 1947-50; “The Golem,” 1958; Henry Schwartz, “Orient Heights: The Spirit of Anne Frank Singing ‘Das Lied von der Erde,” 1991; Gerry Bergstein, “Self Portrait,” 1980; “Oops!” 2001; “Location, Location Location,” 2003; Henry Schwartz, “Budget Symphony,” 1977; “Pierrot Lunaire,” 1991.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Big Red & Shiny celebrates 6 years

...and seeks birthday gifts

Big Red & Shiny, the Boston-based nonprofit online art journal, is looking for gifts to help it celebrate its sixth birthday. Namely, editor-in-chief Matthew Gamber writes, "Our goal with the fundraiser is to raise enough money to bring the production of the publication to the next level. We've already begun by recreating the interface for the site, allowing readers to more easily search past articles and reviews, along with shows and calls for entry. This is a first step to our transformation, and the fundraiser will bring us take us to the next step." To help them out, go here.

New England Art Awards photos, press

Here (finally) are photos from the 2009 New England Art Awards, which were held at the Burren in Somerville, Massachusetts, on Feb. 8. Thanks to Jane Cunningham for taking these great shots.

Above, Brandeis student Brian Friedberg (right) accepts the people’s choice and critics’ pick award for “public exposure” that was awarded to the Protests of Brandeis officials’ plans to close the school’s Rose Art Museum. Greg Cook (left) of The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research shuffles through his notes.

The Boston Globe’s “Names” celebrity news column reported:
“When the 2009 New England Art Awards were handed out the other night, the efforts of Brian Friedberg were not overlooked. The Brandeis student took home the Public Exposure Award for his protests to keep the Rose Art Museum from closing. (You’ll recall that Jehuda Reinharz, Brandeis’ president, announced a plan to sell the art and shutter the museum, but that was put on hold after an international outcry.) ‘I accepted the award on behalf of a lot of people,’ Friedberg told us yesterday. ‘We created spectacles that were meant to put pressure on the school.’ As an example, he and his merry band of art lovers hung a huge, homemade ATM sign outside the museum. ‘We were calling attention to the university’s plan to use the museum as a cash machine,’ said Friedberg. ‘And it worked.’”

More news about the 2009 New England Art Awards: “This is the second annual award list organized by Greg Cook the publisher/ editor of The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research. A gala celebration was held at the Burren in Somerville. You had to be there.”

Bowdoin Daily Sun: “Wethli Wins 2009 New England Award for Painting.”

Somerville Journal: “Somerville artists win at New England Art Awards.”

Portland Phoenix: “New England Art Awards honor Maine artists.”

Rhode Island State Council on the Arts blog: “Congratulations! Rhode Islanders Win New England Art Awards.” “New England Art Awards are what's Cookin.'”

“On the town” with

New Bodega: “Greg invented an award and people are excited to win it.”

Boston Globe: “Malden's Sand T wins New England art award.”

Big Red & Shiny: “The New England Art Awards Winners.”

Photos by Jane Cunningham of Gloucester. Pictured from second to top to bottom: The splendid Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band plays at the beginning of the Awards Ball. New England Journal of Aesthetic Research executive director Jasper Percival Cook steps up to the mic. The executive director is helped onto the stage by Kari Percival. Greg Cook awards the critics' pick and people's choice award for best historical show to Boston Museum of Fine Arts curator Frederick Ilchman for organizing "Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice.” Greg Cook presents the people’s choice prize for “group show featuring local artists to one of the gentlemen from the Megapolis Audio Festival. A few crowd shots.

New England Art Awards thanks

The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research would like to thank the many wonderful people who helped make the New England Art Awards a success:
  • Six people, mostly volunteers, helped put together the ballot by seconding the nominations: Scott Davis, a painter based in Waldoboro, Maine; Franklin Einspruch of; Christian Holland of; Dennis Kois, director of DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum; Boston painter Matt Murphy; and Neal Walsh of AS220.
  • 18 art journalists and bloggers from Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont voted: Marc Awodey of Burlington 7 Days and Vermont Art Zine. Ed Beem of Yankee Magazine. Joel Brown of and Boston Globe. Greg Cook of The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, the Boston Phoenix, the Providence Phoenix. Franklin Einspruch of Mark Favermann of Berkshire Fine Arts. Ken Greenleaf of Portland Phoenix. Shawn Hill of Art New England. Christian Holland of Big Red and Shiny. Annie Larmon of Portland Phoenix. JL of Modern Kicks. Cate McQuaid of Boston Globe. Francine Miller of Artforum. James Nadeau of Big Red and Shiny. Matthew Nash of Big Red and Shiny. Doug Norris of Art New England, South County Independent. Meighan O'Toole of My Love For You is a Stampede of Horses and Juxtapoz. Sand T of Making the Art Scene.
  • The kind folks at the Burren for their hospitality.
  • Chris Braiotta for all his help lining up robots to handle the automated nominations and voting.
  • Jane Cunningham, the official Awards Ball photographer.
  • Kathy Bitetti.
  • Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band of Cambridge.
  • Josh Reynolds, who provided some sound gear.
  • More than 80 people who submitted nominations.
  • and last but not least the more than 1,880 people from across New England who voted.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Alswang named director of Florida museum

Hope Alswang, who suddenly and unexpectedly resigned from her post as director the RISD Museum last August, has been named director and chief executive officer of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, the Palm Beach Daily News has reported.

Alswang has offered little public explanation about her departure from RISD, but it seems she may have been pushed out in a clash with RISD President John Maeda, who began that job in June 2008. Alswang told the Florida newspaper that she left RISD because "there was a change in administration."

She is expected to begin work in Florida on April 15. The museum's staff includes contemporary art curator Cheryl Brutvan, who arrived at the museum a year ago after having worked at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

Gilbert Stuart's Washingtons

For Presidents Day, here's a report from our archives on colonial Rhode Island and Boston painter Gilbert Stuart's portraits of George and Martha Washington:
The painter Gilbert Stuart left Ireland and sailed for New York City in March 1793, abandoning debts he'd amassed during 18 years in London and Dublin and scheming to find his greatest subject. After years of painting British bigwigs, the 37-year-old aimed to return to his native soil to paint the first American president, George Washington. He told a friend, "There I expect to make a fortune by Washington alone."

"George and Martha Washington: Gilbert Stuart's Athenaeum Portraits," on view at the Boston Athenaeum through May 13, 2006, is a glimpse into Stuart's success.

Though the Stuart paintings are frequently shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, which has owned them jointly with the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., since 1979, this show returns them to the place where they were first publicly shown. The Athenaeum presents them with more than 35 related works from its collection to add context and show how Stuart's portraits of the first couple became the model for later representations, including the portrait on the dollar bill.

When Stuart returned to America, the artist from Kingston, R.I., was considered one of the greatest portraitists of his generation and a charmer, despite his reputed alcoholism, stubbornness, vanity, unpredictable delays, and penchant for taking half-payment upfront for portraits he failed to deliver. He won a letter of introduction to President Washington and arrived in Philadelphia, then the federal capital, in November 1794.

After producing an initial portrait of Washington, Stuart got a commission from Martha Washington, who wanted paintings of herself and the president for their home, Mount Vernon. In the Athenaeum's two small, sleepy galleries, you often have these portraits all to yourself, and the experience is like having a royal audience.

George and Martha seem conscious that they are posing for posterity. George is stern and sober, with ruddy cheeks, powdered hair, and eyebrows bent slightly as if to say "Don't trifle with me." The 64-year-old's jaw is apparently distorted by a new set of false teeth. Martha is a stout 65-year-old, with a twinkle in her eyes and a faint grin. Stuart completed their faces, but the rest is barely dashed in.

These became the most famous images of the couple. But why? Stuart's stately portrait of Washington captures not just the man, but the institution, The President. And it didn't hurt that he painted at least 75 (generally inferior) copies of Washington. He called them his "hundred-dollar bills" because of his asking price. Though he'd paint the next four presidents and dozens of other luminaries, the Athenaeum portraits remain his best known works.

Martha Washington tried for years to get Stuart to turn over the paintings. She died in 1802 without even receiving a copy. Some say Stuart purposely left the canvases unfinished so he could truthfully say they weren't done.

The paintings' influence is made clear in this show. It is Stuart's Washington we see in other works, such as an anonymous artist's etching made a year after Washington died in 1799, in which he winces in pain on his deathbed.

The exhibit is filled out by mid-19th-century prints depicting Washington's biography: Washington courting Martha, Washington as a gentleman farmer, Washington crossing the Delaware. But it's the relics from the couple themselves that are most memorable -- books signed by George, a tiny, tattered pincushion that a granddaughter supposedly fashioned from the silk gown Martha wore when she married.

Stuart spent his last two decades painting and running up debts in Boston. At his death in 1828, they buried him in a cheap coffin in the Central Burying Ground on Boston Common. Soon after, a group of eminent Bostonians purchased the two portraits for the Athenaeum from Stuart's widow for $1,500.

Stuart had apparently kept the canvases tacked to his studio door. He seemed to know that their value lay in their having been worked on only in the presence of the couple. A friend once asked him if he ever intended to finish them. "No," Stuart said, "and as this is the only legacy I can leave to my family, I will let it remain untouched."
Pictured from top to bottom: Gilbert Stuart, "George Washington,"1796, and "Martha Washington (Martha Dandridge Custis)," 1796, both jointly owned by Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and the National Portrait Gallery.

Originally published in the May 3, 2006, Boston Globe.