A Whale of a Time

When it’s a hot, gross, sweltering August day in New York City one can find relief in an air conditioned movie theater. An even better option, in my opinion, is to get out of dodge completely and find yourself on a boat 15 miles out from Montauk harbor, where it’s a few degrees cooler, a lot breezier, and the whales are surfacing and putting on a show. Finally, after years of wanting to do so, I went whale watching, and it was everything I imagined it would be; a friendly group of fellow watchers, a great ship crew of hard working young people, and a brilliant expert marine biologist narrating our excursion. Throw in clear blue skies, passing pleasure boaters and fishermen, and the marvelous undulations of the rolling Atlantic waters, and you have a perfect summer experience.

Five finback whales and two minke whales graced us with their presence. Of the five finbacks, two were a mother and her calf. Love! The babies are born in the winter so the calf was approximately six months old. When momma surfaced and then took her deep terminal dive to search for food, the little one soon followed her lead. It was beautiful to see. Whales can stay underwater for around 7-10 minutes before coming back up for air. Amazing creatures.

Cresli (Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island), which organizes the summer whale watches, posted the day’s report on its website:

I am an animal lover through and through. But I have always held a special place for marine wildlife, particularly marine mammals. I don’t really know why exactly, it’s not like I grew up around boats or spent time on the ocean other than sunbathing at Jones Beach. But on Sunday when I saw the dorsal fin of the first minke whale rise out of the water and then ease back underneath with such elegance and cool – sophistication almost – I was in complete awe. Their manner of movement is so distinct. There’s nothing else like it in the natural world. And when the fin whale, at a further distance from our boat, came up to breathe and spouted 30 feet into the air, I was doubly in awe. Our marine biologist explained that the spout may appear like a fountain of actual water but it isn’t. It’s warm air being expelled from the whale’s lungs. Unlike humans and all other mammals, cetaceans have to breathe through conscious effort. And that effort appears so effortless on observation. While the whales were certainly aware of our presence out there on the water, temporarily encroaching on their habitat, they just went about their business attending to the important matters of life in the wild; feeding, breathing, raising babies. Not trying to impress us, but impressing us anyway. I adore these animals. Big, strong, and intelligent, and also graceful and gentle.

Beautiful watercolors of cetaceans by Scottish wildlife painter and illustrator Archibald Thorburn:

The international commercial whaling ban went into effect in 1986, but some countries get around it through loopholes or just flat out defiance. Japan, Norway, and Iceland are the most guilty culprits. An exception to the whaling moratorium is supposed to be for “scientific” reasons, but that is pretty much a crock of shit, as the whale meat is still being sold on the market for consumption, and the scientific research claim is just BS. And Japan continues its horrific annual dolphin slaughter at Taiji by claiming that dolphins and other small cetaceans are not protected by the whaling ban. (If you haven’t seen the Oscar winning documentary “The Cove” please do see it.)

A seagull that hitched a ride on our boat:

So where are my photos of the whales? I don’t have any! I had planned to take pictures but I soon realized that, honestly, unless you’re a professional photographer with a serious camera and a gigantic lens, it isn’t worthwhile to try and snap crappy iPhone pictures of whales on a whale watch. The length of time in which they’re visible is a brief window – just a precious few seconds. And in those precious seconds I’d rather watch them with my own eyes and relish the experience and not deal with taking a picture.

But I do have a human photo for you. This lady had not only a great camera, but a great hat too!


A dear friend of mine – someone very special to me – had a birthday this weekend. So I emailed him an artwork that I knew would make him smile. It did 🙂 Then, while modeling today, it occurred to me that it might make a fun Museworthy Halloween post.

The work is a ‘self-portrait’ by Jamie Wyeth – son of Andrew Wyeth and grandson of N.C. Wyeth. Yes, it is a man with a pumpkin head. I will let Jamie Wyeth himself explain how this painting came to be, with an excerpt from an interview he gave with a public radio station in Boston:

“I had been elected to the National Academy of Design in New York, and one of the requirements was that you give a portrait, a self-portrait of yourself. Well, I didn’t want to do myself in a self-portrait, but I love pumpkins. It’s the sinisterness, the Halloween I’ve always loved. It’s a little bit edgy. So I did it and of course they were furious and rejected it.”

Pumpkinhead, 1972:


That Jamie Wyeth submitted this odd, quirky pumpkinhead as his ‘self-portrait’ membership requirement to a panel of stuffy academicians might be my new favorite art anecdote. A scion of a family of great artists, who have been unfairly dismissed by the fine art establishment as mere “illustrators”, submits an offbeat work instead of something safe and traditional. Gotta love it. Team Wyeth all the way!

Happy Halloween everyone! I’ll see you all very soon with cool stuff, photos, updates, drawings and dispatches from the modeling platform. Peace, friends.

Départ pour le Sabbat by Albert Joseph Pénot, 1910:


“Girls On Rocks” – Art and Illustration from Maxfield Parrish

What is it about a girl on a rock? For decades that imagery has appeared in art, illustration, photography, and advertising (and more than a few men’s personal fantasties 😉 ) So it makes sense that the prolific and popular 20th century artist and illustrator Maxfield Parrish, would produce many works with the girls on rocks theme. All highly idealized, all fanciful, vividly colored and meticulously executed.

Son of an engraver and landscape artist father, Maxfield Parrish was a Philadelphia native. After attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and studying under the renowned Howard Pyle, Parrish soon found himself in the midst of what is termed the “Golden Age of Illustration”, at the turn of the century. In fact, he became one of its illustrious shining stars. When the great Norman Rockwell calls you his “idol”, you have definitely made your mark.

Hired for commission after commission, Parrish created the illustrations for the popular children’s books of the day, like Mother Goose, The Arabian Nights, and countless magazine covers for Colliers, Harper’s, and Ladies’ Home Journal. Maxfield Parrish enjoyed a steady income and tremendous popularity, at the height of his fame receiving over $2000 per illustration. He and his wife Lydia settled in Cornish, New Hampshire, where they lived comfortably off the revenue from advertising royalties and frequently entertained a virtual who’s who of guests, among them President WIlson and his wife Ellen, journalist Walter Lippman, and the legendary actress Ethel Barrymore, just to name a few.

With the luxury of financial security, Parrish decided to turn his attention to oil painting. This allowed him to not only choose his own subjects but to work from life models. One of Parrish’s favorite models was Kitty Owen, the granddaughter of the famous orator, lawyer, and politician William Jennings Bryant. She is the model for this painting, Wild Geese. The pose, incidentally, is the “upward dog” in yoga. Yay Kitty! Namaste 🙂

This is Kitty again in Canyon, from 1923:

It’s been a fairly common practice for artists to enlist their children as models for their art. Matisse famously used his daughter Marguerite and Maxfield Parrish followed in Matisse’s footsteps when he used his daughter Jean for several of his works. This is Jean as a lovely teenager, in Stars from 1926:

Though his images may have been dreamy and imaginative, giving off a feeling of “make-believe” and almost mythical in nature, Maxfield Parrish’s painting technique was, in reality, very methodical and labor-intensive. He would apply thin layers of varnish in between layers of opaque pigment, repeatedly, until he achieved the desired effect. His uncanny knack for using color, particularly blue, led to the creation of a specific shade of cobalt named “Parrish blue” in his honor. You can read Parrish himself explaining his painting technique in depth on this informative page.

Here is Jean again in Ecstasy. Parrish created this work shortly before Jean went off to Smith College. It is perhaps an affectionate tribute of farewell from a father to his daughter, now an adult, embarking on her independent life. I find the whole standing on a rocky crag while looking upwards toward the sky, a very apt visual metaphor. Exultant, with arms raised confidently and the world at her feet, she is ready to venture into new discoveries:

Susan Lewin first came to the Parrish family as a 16 year-old au pair for the Parrish children, but her role over the years expanded to include housekeeper, studio assistant, model and possibly Maxfield’s lover. Having modeled for more paintings, murals, and illustrations than any of his other models, Susan Lewin can be considered Maxfield Parrish’s most important and influential muse. That her close companionship with the artist lasted well over 50 years, only solidifies her muse status. This is Susan in Griselda from 1910. A beautiful standing pose:

Then, in 1931, Maxfield Parrish famously announced to the Associated Press, “I’m done with girls on rocks”. Whaaaat??? Done? How could he? And his new genre? Landscapes. Boooooo!!! 😆

Urban Trauma

Well, I’ve done it again. Another day, another muscle pull. This time it really hurts. This time I had sensations of tearing, tingling, and a few sharp, excruciating spasms thrown in for good measure. Makes me long for the good old days of a simple dull ache. I arrived at the National Academy last night practically buckled over in pain. Something happened to my left internal oblique muscle, and it isn’t good 😥

So how does something like this happen, even to a physically fit person like myself? Here’s how; you blame the city of New York and its transit system. I was on the uptown B train which runs along the west side. Overconfident little miss queen of balance and yoga that I am, I didn’t hang onto anything and instead, stood unanchored and freestyle in the crowded rush hour subway car. My modeling bag on the ground between my feet was my only source of stability. Look Mom! No hands! As the train approached 86th Street, the conductor slammed on the brake, the train lurched, and those of us passengers with the “I’m so cool I don’t have to hang onto the bar” attitude, got tossed around like ragdolls. I hit a man and almost fell onto him. “I’m so sorry!”, I said to him. Finally the train came to a halt, I exited, and right away I felt the burning sensation on my left side. So I’m guessing the sudden, violent lurch of the B train, and my stupid refusal to grab hold of a pole, caused a muscle pull.

Then it was onto the crosstown bus, another ten ton swerving city vehicle, filled to capacity, on which I felt like I could cry out in agony and scream bloody hell. Then came the walk up Fifth Avenue, during which my normally brisk, robust gait transformed into that of a slow 80 year old woman with brittle bones and bad legs. “Ow, ow, ow, ouch!”, I kept saying under my breath. When I finally arrived to the National Academy, where I struggled to open their ridiculously heavy door, I hobbled into the lobby, threw my bags on the floor, and promptly laid down on the bench outside the office. I held my midsection and uttered anguished noises. Everyone who walked by stopped and asked,”Claudia, are you ok? Claudia? What’s wrong?”. Injured model alert! She’s down!!!

I couldn’t pose for Dan Gheno’s drawing class of all things. He’s my friend who I love, and I felt absolutely terrible about it. Everyone, including Dan, was concerned for me. They actually wanted me to go home! But I hate to disappoint people. HATE it. Even though everyone was totally understanding and sympathetic, I still feel just awful. In my mind, this is an unfortunate and unacceptable glitch which mars my normally pristine work record. Oh well. Guess I’m human after all.

I talked to my doctor today, and he told me what I already knew; that it’s likely a tear with some hemorrhaging and there’s nothing I can really do except rest and apply heat. I also told him the subway story and he said “Yep. That’ll do it”. So I had to cancel my job at FIT tonight (Another cancellation! Gee whiz. I can’t stand doing this!). But I’m determined to make it to my Friday job at the Studio School. My modeling may be awful, but at least I’ll be there.

I’d better post some art fast before I continue whining and moping like a baby and babbling on about my work ethic, my reliability, blah, blah. Yes, it’s tiresome, I know. This image will do nicely. Seems to represent how I feel; melancholy, helpless, indolent. I also chose it because it shows off the figure’s left side, which is my temporarily disabled and pain-addled side. Hey, at least she can stretch and bend over. I’m jealous!

This is Eve, by the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite poetry and book illustrator Emma Florence Harrison:


Jane Avril – Muse of the Moulin Rouge

An absent father. An alcoholic, abusive mother. A misdiagnosed mental illness and a stint in an insane asylum. Such cruel adversity to be hoisted upon a young girl in Paris. What would become of her? On paper, the neglected girl would seem doomed for a life of anonymity, unhappiness, and destitution. But a girl with tenacity and a will to survive could overcome the odds.

Born out of wedlock in the Belleville section of Paris, Jane Avril suffered brutal beatings at her mother’s hands. Although her father was a wealthy Italian aristocrat, he abandoned Jane and her mother and took no responsibiilty for his daughter’s welfare or upbringing. At the age of 16, Jane fled her home and lived in the streets, a scared and troubled runaway. When she was picked up by authorities, they determined that she was mentally impaired and placed her in the pysch ward of Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital.

But it was in that psych ward, of all unlikely places, where Jane discovered purely by chance that she possessed a certain talent; a talent for performing, for movement, for dance, for showmanship. The hospital workers organized a party for the patients. At that party, the teenage Jane got up and danced. Her spirited routine impressed everyone, and the hospital staff realized then that Jane was not mentally ill after all, but just a girl who had suffered through tremendous stress, neglect, and ill-treatment, and had to cope with it all alone. She had been deprived of love, nurturing, and an outlet for her expression. Now she had found one.

Jane was released from the hospital but did not return to her mother’s house. And who can blame her? Instead, she seized her freedom and explored Paris, determined to find her way. She performed in the dance halls and cabarets of Montmartre, and worked any day jobs she could find, such as a cashier at the World’s Fair, until she finally ended up at the creme de la creme of Paris nightclubs; the Moulin Rouge.

The timing of Jane’s arrival at the famed Moulin Rouge could not have been more opportune. The celebrated cabaret dancer Louise Weber – known by her stage name “La Goulue” – was finally stepping down after years as reigning headliner. In need of a replacement, the Moulin Rouge hired the young newcomer Jane Avril, and took a chance that she could fill the formidable shoes of the famous Louise Weber. Jane was more than up to the task and filled those shoes with ease.

Unlike the bawdy and bodacious Weber, Jane’s style was more graceful and feminine, her body more thin and lithe, her steps more nimble and smooth. Her obvious charm and appeal were an instant hit, and the regulars of Parisian nightlife warmly embraced her. Among those regulars was the artist Toulouse-Lautrec.

Jane and Lautrec would become very close friends, and possibly brief lovers. Lautrec was attracted not just to Jane’s stage presence and dance talent, but to the sadness he saw inside her, the wounds she had sustained during her difficult youth. He recognized that Jane was inherently a loner in spite of her popularity and lively profession. Jane and Lautrec were both outsiders in some respects, and this was possibly the reason they formed such a strong bond. Some of Lautrec’s most famous posters and lithographs feature Jane Avril as the subject.

Toulouse-Lautrec poster of Jane:

Toulouse-Lautrec used Jane as a model offstage as well. Here, in Divan Japonais, Jane is posed not as a dancer, but a woman dressed elegantly in black, sitting in the audience at the Divan Japonais cabaret. The Divan was a brand new club in Montmartre, decorated with a Japanese theme. The club’s owner commissioned this poster from Toulouse-Lautrec to advertise the new establishment. Lithographed posters saw a surge in popularity during the 1890s and 1900s, largely due to developments in color printing techniques. I really like this poster. I think it’s one of Lautrec’s best, and Jane makes a terrific subject:

Jane gave birth to a son and in 1910 married artist Maurice Biais. She quit dancing and moved out of Paris to live a quiet domestic life. But it was not to be. Jane’s marriage was an unhappy one, and Maurice often disappeared for days at a time. When he died in 1926, Jane was left penniless. It seemed like she had come full circle, back to a life of anonymity, poverty, and tough times. She was the lonely runaway girl all over again. Or was she?

In 1941, the elderly Jane Avril was tracked down by a persistent group of admirers. They pulled her out of obscurity to honor her with a “grand-finale” tribute in Paris. At that bittersweet event, white-haired Jane – former can-can girl and artists’ muse – got up on stage and once again performed a dance to an appreciative audience. Once again, she dazzled the crowd. Just like she did regularly at the Moulin Rouge. And just like she did back when she was 16, in that hospital pysch ward. She did it again . . . Jane did it again 🙂 Can you imagine what that moment must have been like for her? To realize that she was not forgotten, that her name and career still meant something to people, that her spirit was still alive? If it were me, I’d have been a wreck! Falling apart emotionally and crying my eyes out.

The Nicole Kidman character in the 2001 film Moulin Rouge is based on Jane Avril. The real Jane died in a nursing home in 1943. She was 75 years old. She is interred at Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.