Memory

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Memory

United States, 1870
Paintings
Oil on mahogany panel
Canvas: 20 5/16 × 14 3/4 in. (51.59 × 37.47 cm) Frame: 27 × 21 × 3 in. (68.58 × 53.34 × 7.62 cm)
Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison Collection (33.11.1)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

Memory is one of Vedder’s most symbolic paintings....
Memory is one of Vedder’s most symbolic paintings. Although it at first appears to be a straightforward nocturnal view of the beach and ocean, upon close scrutiny one sees a faint human face emerge in the cloudy sky. Similar images of a floating head appear in a group of Vedder’s drawings from the late 1860s. Later he would be fascinated by the related classical motif of the head of Medusa. The theme of floating and severed heads was popular with the English Pre-Raphaelites, and at the end of the century it became a characteristic motif of the symbolists. Artists used such imagery to suggest states of mind and ideas of a personal nature rather than to describe the material world. The art historian Regina Soria has identified two of the artist’s drawings as bases for the museum’s painting: The Face in the Clouds, 1866 (Wunderlich & Co., New York, as of 1987), which was illustrated in Vedder’s autobiography The Digressions of V. (p. 287), and a small drawing done the next year with the title Memory inscribed on its original mat (LACMA, see illustration). As the 1867 drawing was executed on March 19, the birthday of Carrie Rosekrans, Vedder’s fiancée at that time, it has been assumed that the head in the two drawings and the oil painting was that of Rosekrans. If the drawings were intended to be portraits of Rosekrans, they would have had to have been done from memory for she was not with Vedder at the times of their execution. Actually, it is difficult to ascertain either the sex or the age of the face in any of the three. The head may be that of a child. When Vedder painted Memory, Rosekrans was pregnant with their first child, and some seven years later he was commissioned by a Mr. and Mrs. J. R. Dumaresq to make a similar painting using the face of their recently deceased son. Will South has noted that at least one contemporary of Vedder’s, English critic William Davies, referred to the head in the drawing Memory with the neuter "it" (Art Pictorial and Industrial: An Illustrated Magazine 1 [September 1870]: 49). In none of Vedder’s own writings does he suggest a particular person or type as the model for the floating head. Perhaps the ambiguity of the sex and age of the head was intentional, for such imagery accords well with the artist’s lifelong fascination with imaginative subjects and his enthusiasm for a sense of mystery. According to the artist’s annotation of the 1866 drawing The Face in the Clouds, he was inspired to create such a meditative image by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, "Break, Break, Break" (published 1842), in which the poet contemplates the sea and broods over the memory of lost ones. In Vedder’s painting the insubstantial, miragelike face, in contrast to the sharp reality of the shore and waves, suggests the transitory nature of life and the dreamlike quality of memory. In its quiet, mysterious mood the painting is quite evocative. The mauve palette and spectral quality of the night lighting also place Memory within the formal and conceptual tenets of late nineteenth-century symbolism. In fact, Memory ranks as one of the earliest symbolist images by an American.
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About The Era

After the centennial of 1876 the foremost place for American artists to show was no longer New York but Paris....
After the centennial of 1876 the foremost place for American artists to show was no longer New York but Paris. By the late nineteenth century the Paris Salon was the most important exhibition space in the Western world. Artists from many nations would submit their best works to its annual exhibition. The honor of being accepted presaged an artist’s future success. Thousands of paintings, sculptures, and works on paper were presented at each Salon; the exhibition halls were so crowded that paintings were hung to the ceiling with sculptures scattered about. To be hung “on the line” (at eye level) meant a work of art ranked among the best in the show. Since a painting might be skied (hung near the ceiling), many artists painted on a large scale to ensure that their work could be seen no matter where it was placed.
Contrary to earlier periods, American painting in the late 1800s was no longer dominated by a single aesthetic. Munich-school paintings—narrative scenes, often based on literature or history and painted in a dark palette—as well as small figure paintings in the realist tradition were popular in both France and the United States. Large portraits represent the academic style that dominated official taste during this era. Bright, sun-drenched scenes by a more progressive group of artists, the impressionists are diametrically opposite in color, mood, and concept to muted tonalist and symbolist works. Whereas the impressionists celebrated contemporary life with all its transformations, the tonalists and symbolists created hazily illuminated, dreamlike imagery.
Sculptures range from academic examples of idealized mythological imagery to expressions of the newer interest in the emotive potential of the human form. Equestrian bronzes by Frederic Remington demonstrate that at the turn of the century there was a continuing enthusiasm for heroic depictions of the West despite the increased internationalism of American taste.
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Bibliography

  • About the Era.
  • Stein, Roger B. Seascape and the American Imagination. New York: C.N. Potter, in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1975.
  • Hoopes, Donelson F.  American Narrative Painting.  Los Angeles:  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1974.
  • About the Era.
  • Stein, Roger B. Seascape and the American Imagination. New York: C.N. Potter, in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1975.
  • Hoopes, Donelson F.  American Narrative Painting.  Los Angeles:  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1974.
  • Moure, Nancy Dustin Wall.  Pertaining to the Sea.  Los Angeles:  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976.
  • Kaplan, Julius.  Symbolism, Europe and America at the end of the nineteenth century: an exhibition at the Art Gallery, California State College, San Bernardino, April 27-June 10, 1980.  San Bernardino, Calif.: California State College, 1980.
  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Museum Associates, 1991.
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