June 10, 1819: Gustave Courbet is born.
Beauty, like truth, is relative to the time when one lives and to the individual who can grasp it.
June 7, 1848: Paul Gauguin is born.
This colorful (with regards to both his art and personality) French post-Impressionist was born in Paris, but he spent much of his early childhood in Lima, Peru, which undoubtedly influenced his later art. In 1888, he spent several months painting in Arles alongside Vincent Van Gogh, with whom he shared a volatile relationship. Like Van Gogh, he suffered from bouts of depression, and Gauguin’s domineering, arrogant personality contributed greatly to Van Gogh’s eventual mental deterioration. Van Gogh’s famous ear-cutting incident occurred after a desperate quarrel with Gauguin, and some even allege that Gauguin himself did the deed; despite this, Gauguin remained in contact with Vincent after leaving Arles. In the 1890s, Gauguin traveled (and eventually settled in) French Polynesia, and the philandering Frenchman found the local women to be worthy painting subjects (as well as worthy subjects for other activities).
In the early years of his career, Gauguin painted with Pissarro and Cézanne and participated in Impressionist exhibitions, but his later works were also highly influential to artists like Matisse, Picasso, and Derain, and the artistic movements to which they belonged. He differed from Van Gogh in one particular (and vital) aspect - whereas Van Gogh’s great muse was nature and his surroundings, Gauguin believed that the artist “should not copy nature too much… Art is an abstraction.”
June 1, 1857: Les Fleurs du mal is published.
Charles Baudelaire’s controversial book of poetry was divided into six sections, those being “Spleen and Ideal”, “Parisian Scenes”, “Wine”, the eponymous “Flowers of Evil”, “Revolt”, and “Death”. The first edition of Les Fleurs du mal sold out within a year of its publication, made possible largely by the scandal that arose because of Baudelaire’s “obscene” works, which according to judges incited in his readers “the excitement of the senses by a crude realism offensive to public decency”. The second edition, released in 1861, was published missing six poems (all of which remained banned until 1949).
Some choice lines…
Lesbos, of sultry twilights and pure, infertile joy,
Where deep-eyed maidens, thoughtlessly disrobing, see
Their beauty, and are entranced before their mirrors, and toy
Fondly with the soft fruits of their nubility;
Lesbos, of sultry twilights and pure, infertile joy! (“Lesbos”)
The strong beauty kneeling before the frail beauty,
Superb, she savored voluptuously
The wine of her triumph and stretched out toward the girl
As if to reap her reward of sweet thankfulness. (“Women Doomed”)
To punish your bombastic flesh,
To bruise your breast immune to pain,
To farrow down your flank a lane
Of gaping crimson, deep and fresh. (“To One Who is Too Gay”)
When she had sucked my marrow dry, I turned,
Languid, to give her back the kiss she earned,
Only to view, I fond and amorous,
A viscid wineskin, nidorous with pus… (“The Vampire’s Metamorphoses”)
May 26, 1895: Dorothea Lange is born.
Dorothea Lange was a prominent American photographer who worked most extensively through the Great Depression, during which she photographed the unemployed and homeless for the Resettlement Administration, and later the Farm Security Administration. One of her most famous photographs - “Migrant Mother” (actually one in a series of photographs) - is one of the most iconic of that era.
During World War II, Lange was assigned by the War Relocation Authority to cover the rounding up and internment of Japanese-American - in fact, if you see a photograph of that event, it’s likely a Dorothea Lange piece. Dozens of her photographs, especially those that portrayed conditions within the camps, were impounded and censored by the U.S. government.
Though she was a native of New Jersey, Lange spent a substantial amount of her career working in California, and in 2008, she was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, stating that “her passion for people and the art of photography left us with era-defining images of 20th century America.”
May 24, 1844: Samuel Morse opens a telegraph line connecting Washington D.C. and Baltimore.
Samuel Morse developed the electric telegraph and his eponymous code in 1836; by 1843, the U.S. government had appropriated to him $30,000 for the construction of an experimental 61 km telegraph line that would run from Washington D.C. to Baltimore - this line was completed in early 1844. It officially opened on May 24, 1844, when Morse sent the words “What hath God wrought” (a biblical quote from the Book of Numbers) from the Capitol to Baltimore. By 1861, telegraph lines spanned the continent, connecting the East and West coasts and rendering most other forms of communication obsolete.
Morse’s 1844 telegraph transmitted messages at a speed of thirty characters per minute, a speed that is simulated above. As telegraphs became more advanced (and operators more skilled), much higher transmission speeds were made possible as well.
May 22, 1844: Mary Cassatt is born.
Born in Pennsylvania, this ”grande dame” of Impressionism moved to Paris in her early twenties to hone her artistic talents. In the 1870s, she was invited by Edgar Degas to display her works at an Impressionist exhibition. In joining this group, she befriended Degas himself, as well as Berthe Morisot, another prominent female Impressionist. She ultimately participated in four Impressionist exhibitions, although her paintings differed from those of many of her colleagues in subject matter. Many of her paintings were portraits, especially of women and their children. By the mid-1880s, Cassatt had begun to drift away from strict Impressionism (which itself was overshadowed by the dawn of the 20th century by other more avant-garde movements like Cubism). While she was not well-known in her native country, France did not forget her artistic contributions - she was awarded the Legion d’honneur in 1904.
May 18, 1804: Napoleon is proclaimed “Emperor of the French”.
This date also marked the French Senate’s adoption of the Constitution of the Year XII, which established the First French Empire and declared Napoleon Bonaparte (who was, at the time, “First Consul”) Emperor Napoleon I. He held this title until his second abdication in June of 1815, following his defeat at Waterloo.
As Emperor, his full titles were:
His Imperial and Royal Majesty Napoleon I, By the Grace of God and the Constitutions of the Republic, Emperor of the French, King of Italy, Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine and the Grand Duchy of Frankfurt, Mediator of the Helvetic Confederation.
Napoleon, as First Consul, held a virtual dictatorship over France by the year 1800, but his new title (and his coronation) recalled the traditions of Charlemagne and the Roman emperors of antiquity. This was not an uncommon trend in Europe at the time- the same year, the title “Emperor of Austria” was proclaimed, and in 1801, it was even suggested in England that the King be granted the title “Emperor of the British Isles” instead. Across the oceans, the former French colony of Haiti named its leader (Jean-Jacques Dessalines) Emperor of Haiti.
Distancing himself from the distasteful legacy of the old French monarchs, Napoleon emphasized his respect for the rights and happiness of his subjects and still referred to the nation as “the Republic” at his coronation. He also claimed that “to be a king is to inherit old ideas and genealogy. I don’t want to descend from anyone… The title of Emperor is greater.“
Viktor Vasnetsov’s illustrations for Alexander Pushkin’s “The Song of the Wise Oleg”:
Oleg, the wise Prince, roused to arm,
Cried: “Vengeance on the ruthless horde
Of raiding Chosars! Field and farm
My men shall put to fire and sword!
May 15, 1848: Viktor Vasnetsov is born.
Viktor Vasnetsov was a Russian artist, primarily known for his paintings of historical figures, religious subjects, and perhaps most of all, his depictions of the folklore and mythology of Russia. It was not until Vasnetsov moved to Paris from Saint Petersburg, however, that he developed a fascination with these subjects. He was also a member of the Peredvizhniki (Передви́жники), a group of realist artists who favored reform and realistic portrayals of the common Russian people - although Vasnetsov himself was criticized for “undermining” their principles. But even if he did not adhere entirely to the agenda of these “Wanderers”, Vasnetsov developed his own distinct style that bridged the gap between the rich culture of Russia’s past and the changing landscape of its present and future.
May 14, 1804: The Lewis and Clark Expedition begins.
The Corps of Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, consisted of over four dozen members, a motley group of officers and military men, fur trappers, a blacksmith, a fiddle player, a slave, and a dog named Seaman. They disembarked from Camp Dubois (near Hartford, Illinois) nine weeks after the Louisiana Territory was transferred from France to the United States. One of the expedition members wrote enthusiastically on May 14, the first day of the expedition:
A sense of duty, and of the honour, which would attend the completion of the object of the expedition; a wish to gratify the expectations of the government, and of our fellow citizens, with the feelings which novelty and discovery invariably inspire, seemed to insure to us ample support in our future toils, suffering and dangers.
The group made contact with many Indian tribes, with whom they remained relatively peaceful - save for the Sioux, described by Clark as “vilest miscreants of the savage race”. In the winter of 1804-05, the group met Toussaint Charbonneau and his pregnant Shoshone wife Sacagawea, nicknamed “Janey”. Sacagawea would prove indispensable in the coming years not only as a guide and interpreter, but as a symbol of the peaceful intentions of the expedition. Clark, who seemed fond of her and her son, wrote that “a woman with a party of men is a token of peace.”