Learning from the Past — by Looking to Your Roots

Revised from an article in The Artist’s Magazine
by Cathy Johnson

Life, like art, is full of surprises, and a simple coincidence may affect your whole outlook. In my case, a long-dormant interest in history was rekindled a few years ago by a visit to a nearby site. Living history was being demonstrated, and it looked fascinating.

It’s a different way of looking at the world and at our place in it, and dressing the part as well as finding out all you can to make what you’re demonstrating as accurate as possible. Whether it’s the French and Indian War or 1812 or the American Revolution, the idea of recreating the time period is like stepping, yourself, into the pages of history.
Since all I was comfortable enough to share with the public (and a public specifically interested in history) was art, natural history, and writing, I had to find a way to offer what I knew–and do it correctly.

Fort Osage National Historic Site, where I began my weekend re-enacting, is on a spectacular bluff overlooking the Missouri River. Founded in 1808, it was the second outpost in the Louisiana Purchase, and was visited by several naturalists–including Thomas Nuttall–who sketched their finds. William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, designed and built the fort, and drew not only the plan for the buildings, but the plants and animals found on the earlier expedition–as apparently did Meriwether Lewis.

Obviously if I was to portray an artist and naturalist of the time period, I was not going to be able to waltz out there with my drafting tape, Saran Wrap and Liquid Frisket, tools I sometimes rely on today to create special effects. I couldn’t draw with a fiber-tipped pen, and my nylon backpack didn’t cut it for carrying supplies. I had to find the right tools for the job at hand, and discover how to use them properly.

What did William Clark use? Or the naturalist John Bradbury, who visited the fort in 1811, or–in a slightly later time period–Audubon himself? Studying what they did, and what they had to work with, gave me a start in honing my interpretation.

Sounds easy–but it wasn’t. Reams have been written about the artists who recorded this country’s early days, from the men and women who discovered the plants and animals in Colonial America to those who explored the new Western frontier. We know who they were–we recognize the names of John White, the artist-governor of the second colony in 1585, Albert Bierstadt, Anna Maria von Phul, Gilbert Stuart, Carl Bodmer, John James Audubon, Charles Willson Peale and his family of artists. (His niece, Sarah Peale, lived and worked here in Missouri.)

What is harder to discover is how these artists worked–what kinds of pigments were available and how they were formulated; what kind of brushes were sold or made by the artists themselves? What papers were available in the New World? How did these earlier artists create resists to preserve the white of their paper? (I can tell Bodmer did it by looking at his paintings, I just can’t tell you how. Not yet, anyway.)

Many people have been extremely helpful. Historians from Colonial Williamsburg, Fort New Salem–and Fort Osage–have been full of information about what showed up on their inventories and what was available at the time, even to the extent of helping me find reproduction supplies.

The technical advisor at Winsor-Newton, an art-supply giant, sent me two books on the subject, and offered invaluable information on what his company made and sold, and when–they’ve been producing fine watercolors since 1832. Before that time, Joseph Emerton, the Reeves family and others were the “artists’ colourmen” for artists in Britain and the Colonies. D’Arches papermills was likewise helpful. D’Arches was founded in 1492, so obviously these handmade papers were appropriate. China slant-tile palettes were available two hundred years ago, and are still in modern catalogs. An 1857 artist’s catalog shows red sable “hair pencils” in goose quill, duck quill and crow quill sizes, made from real quills that determined the size of the brush. I have seen similar brushes in paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries. These are very similar to quill-wrapped fashion-design brushes recently discontinued and to the squirrel-hair brushes that are still easily obtained.

When you know what was sold and when, you know a lot more about how our artistic forebears worked. There are many fine books on antiques and artifacts that tell when steel pens were first available in this country (circa 1800 or earlier, according to some accounts), how to cut a quill pen, or what kinds of inkwells were used when. You can even spot a wooden watercolor box at Colonial Williamsburg (I have a reproduction from Fort Lee, an historic site in New Jersey.)

This treasure hunt into the past has not only revitalized my interest in painting but in my cultural and historical roots, as well. I’m getting a handle on how and why people made art–and the reasons were as diverse as the artists themselves. I’ve explored folk art and fine art, and learned that many early “naive” pieces, painted plain and flat, were done that way for a reason–not that the artist couldn’t do any better as I’d always been told, but because that’s what the client could afford. Work with more detail–including shadows that suggest roundness–simply cost more! I’ve discovered artists like Deborah Goldsmith, Ruth Bascom and Eunice Pinney, who supported themselves with their work. Jane Colden was a Colonial botanist who drew her finds and collected them in a book. Maria Martin did backgrounds, plants and insects for many of Audubon’s prints. Maria Sibylla Merian went to South America to study insects, reptiles, and plants; her watercolors of her finds are wonderful. (A recent show at Linda Hall Library in Kansas City featured some of her work to illustrate New World discoveries of plants, animals, etc.) Add these and many others to the more familiar male names for a much more complete picture of the artists of America’s past.

Not every artist was well-known, of course, or an explorer, botanist or accomplished painter of portraits. Then, as now, many worked just for their own pleasure, or to illustrate a journal, like Lewis Miller or the German immigrant Liwwat Boke. Coming across one of these is a delight; these artists often drew their day to day life in such a way that we have a clear window on the past and on the lives of more common people.

Return to Articles Main Page