Thoughts on Bates College Museum of Art Collection, Christa Cornell, March 2022

The Bates College Museum of Art selected works by Thomas Cornell that capture his intellectual interests and the broad techniques and media he used over 43 of his 50 years as an artist. These notes on the Bates collection, which includes five drawings, twelve prints, and two paintings, reflect its history, how he went about the work, and what it meant to him.

While Cornell was an Amherst College senior in 1958-59, driving to Smith to study independently with Leonard Baskin, he ordered a monkey head from a biology lab, and was amazed that they actually sent it to him. His friends later remembered that Cornell basically disappeared from college life after that, as he sequestered himself in a basement to make The Monkey, a letterpress book with twelve etchings. The 1863 essay he chose by Thomas Huxley, On the Natural History of the Man-Like Apes, is from the first book devoted to human evolution. Cornell was raised as a Christian Scientist and found himself questioning religious tenets while a teenager. The Monkey was an effort to confront humanity’s place in and connections with the natural world. In addition to the etchings in the book, Cornell made small etching plates to emboss the leather cover and decorate the title pages, and he made one large profile of a monkey, the print in the Bates collection. It appears to have sugar-lift in the background with deeper tones defining the ridges of the face. Hairs are deeply etched, with their blackness often highlighted by areas left white. The mouth is open, and the overall impression is of a creature crying out for empathy.

Two years and 89 recorded prints later, at age 24, Cornell made Frog, with the creature laid out in the familiar dissection position. The importance of science and observation to understand and learn is clear in the print. The etched lines are more delicate here, rendering anatomical features with care. Ten years after Monkey, Cornell made Snapping Turtle, Second State, using etching and aquatint. He was living on a Bowdoinham farm and the turtle was eating the fish in his pond. With a couple of Bowdoin students, they caught the turtle and put it in his young daughter’s plastic swimming pool so he could etch the head and form of the creature from direct observation. Throughout his life, Cornell returned to techniques and images, and in this second state of the turtle print Cornell repeats the dark background he used in both the Monkey print and second state of the Frog print. Here, the dark aquatint in the second state creates the impression of a turtle swimming through dark waters. The print resonates with compassion for the natural world, with the aquatint forming crusty layers on the turtle, indicating its age and experience.

Working from direct observation, using whatever models he could, was important throughout Cornell’s life. He made many self-portraits as he was the most convenient model, and he drew and painted friends. Bates College Museum has three graphite portraits and three portraits that are prints. With historical work, Cornell based his images on multiple visual and textual references and felt free to use his imagination, too. (In our 39 years together, there was only one time that he relied on a single photograph, and he declared that painting a failure; he found photos too flat to provide the information necessary to bring a work alive.)

In late 1962, he spent more than a year creating the 21 final portraits for a fine press book, The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf. These portraits are of French revolutionaries who advocated for the poor and for a more egalitarian society, issues he cared about throughout his life. Immediately after this major project, he burst free from the 6” x 9” format and made the larger portraits, Leonardo and Michelangelo, artists he’d been studying in those early years. The power of his gestural lines seen in his Monkey are here, along with layers of fine patterned markings to define the facial contours. Michelangelo had a broken nose, as did Cornell; Cornell never had it repaired and knew he felt this extra early affinity with Michelangelo. The eyes in the portrait boldly meet our gaze. There was no edition of this print but the Bates sheet has a thin wash on some of the edges, showing Cornell’s thoughts to add an additional layer of aquatint. Cornell didn’t so much “finish” work, thinking it was “perfected”; he generally just moved on in his enthusiasms. In both Leonardo and Michelangelo, significant tone is left on the image; he liked to avoid overly wiping the ink on the plate.

In the same year as these portraits, 1964, when Cornell was 27 years old, civil rights was a pressing concern, and Cornell spoke out and created relevant art. He established the Tragos Press to engage students, making small books and broadsides with them; two publications included essays by William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass alongside Cornell’s woodcut portraits. He worked closely with Marvin Sadik at the Bowdoin Museum on the exhibition, The Portrayal of the Negro in American Painting. In the next year or two, he made nine portraits of Frederick Douglass, with the Bates portrait being the largest. Here he is a man of the cloth in his dark garb, and his jaw is firmly set, indicating the resolve required of him. There is a large variety of line made with Cornell’s stylus, from delicate small marks defining the nose, to broad generally parallel marks defining facial contours, to the playful dance of curves that make the mustache, eyebrows, and hair. Cornell’s aquatint background gives Douglass a halo and also an afro. It is the coming together of these disparate parts, the complexity of the art and the meaning behind it, that makes it marvelous.

The final etched portrait in this collection was made late in Cornell’s life, and is printed in colored inks, but also has hand coloring such that each print is slightly different. It is a portrait of Edith Wharton made for a fine press edition of Ethan Frome in 2002. Cornell decided to go ahead with this project even though he’d done nothing similar for years. The New England tale concerns the cruelty of poverty and the plight of women at that time, fitting the themes of equality persistent throughout his career. The portrait itself shows the author essentially wearing her two small dogs as accessories. Even though it was made so much later, the same distinctive hand as in the earlier prints is clear in the variety and types of lines. Here the page is filled and balanced between subject and background, organic tree shapes sit before geometric architectural arches.

The earliest graphite portrait is from 1970 when Cornell shared a studio on Canal Street in NYC with Bob Birmelin. It is a direct frontal portrait, showing them both as serious young artists. Birmelin’s glasses sit heavily on his face, the contours are carefully shaded, Cornell’s appreciation for organic form is seen in the hairs sprouting atop his head, while the bare outlines of the room and his shirt, as well as the shape of his skull, give geometric form to the drawing. The subjects of the other two portraits are Miriam Palmer, a model and friend, and a young man Cornell met in a Brunswick coffee shop. Cornell was a talker and a teacher, friendly and engaging. It was natural for him to take time with others, ask questions, and occasionally invite acquaintances to the studio for more talk while he worked. The pastel of the young man with a goatee and bracelets is the latest drawing in the Bates collection. Cornell always admired Degas, studying his work closely throughout the 1980s, and he accumulated an impressive collection of pastels around that time, which he used for the rest of his life. This drawing, with graphite, conté and pastel, is notably refined. You can see his lines searching for the correct place to define the shape of the head, the size of the ear. It was summer and the shadows are greenish, reflecting light off the trees outside the broad studio windows on Maine Street. In contrast to this portrait, many of his pastels of nude models have more expressive gestures.

Likewise, The Birth of Dionysos pastel is drawn with a looser hand. The surfaces are alive with the vibrancy of layered pastel, the colors hot, exciting. He would have done this from his head, meaning his memory of all the observational model work done over the years. For instance, his model from New York City, Elaine, is the standing figure to the right, although this drawing was made in Maine; and he drew me and studied me gardening over the years in the various shoveling, squatting positions although I did not model for this specific pastel. The figures are arranged as a writer might arrange a novel’s characters. Cornell’s Dionysos is based on Euripides’ The Bacchae. The play is harsh, and Cornell always kept its lessons close to his heart. Pentheus’ arrogant male power and laws, which Cornell associated with corporate power and the military-industrial state, cannot win over the power of the Greek gods, who for Cornell stand in for Nature and natural law. So Dionysos leads people to understand that our primary duty must be to nurture each other and the land. Like many artists before him, Cornell also draws from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in his portrayal of the half-god infant Dionysos entrusted to nymphs for safekeeping. In Cornell’s Birth of Dionysos paintings, pastels and drawings, Dionysos, Nature itself, becomes an infant we must nurture. It is in our human nature to respond to a baby, and by extension, we must respond to perishing species and weakened soils. Cornell wanted to inspire; he wanted viewers to be intrigued, excited by the work, including its ideas.

The oil sketch of the same subject chosen for the Bates collection is a remarkable pairing. Here, the colors are a little more subdued but still saturated, laid out in relatively flat forms that remain alive with the paint handling. It is still a farm scene, with Dionysos’ messenger gesturing to the land, but the Narcissus figure has taken prominence in the left foreground. In the pastel, he is a green lump, filling the composition but impossible to distinguish. In the oil sketch, he is a reclining figure, head dangling back, arm limp in the water. Narcissus, of course, dies in the myth as he could love nothing but his own reflection. Cornell calls for a rebirth, as with the spring flower, by finding love in others. In the 50” x 66” painting of the same name, also done in 1979, my brother modeled for the dying Narcissus laying there with green shadow as his grieving partner looks on in amazement at new life.

An additional Dionysian print in the Bates collection, Dionysian Composition 2, was done nearly a decade earlier. It is one of three Dionysian lithographs from 1969. In 1971 he wrote, “Most of the early work relates to my search for philosophical content that would justify a life’s work.” It turns out that these lithographs were the beginning of Cornell’s lifelong fascination with multi-figure compositions centered on people’s search to find harmony with each other and to find a way to live in harmony with Nature. This three-color litho seems to be a night scene, lit in the center by an unseen fire. Dionysos stands on steps, there just to raise him up, smiling at the scene in a wooded clearing. People touch and dance, a mother reaches for her child, several animals, wild and not, peacefully watch. It’s hard to imagine Cornell in a New York City lithographic print shop, drawing these complex scenes on litho stones, from his imagination, while all around him the rest of the art was decidedly abstract or the simple shapes of pop art.

Yet Cornell was confident and independent. Although he remained grateful for what he learned at Yale’s School of Art and Architecture, he left early because he wasn’t interested in cutting edge and was disdainful of art centered on inside jokes and personal references unknowable to others without explanations. He wanted to make work that might inspire people in need of beauty and hope and inspiration. He loved Poussin’s combination of intellect and elegance in his bacchanals and the late landscapes of Blind Orion, Landscape with Phocion and The Four Seasons. He made a copy of The Infant Bacchus Entrusted to the Nymphs of Nysa. So, Cornell made his Dionysian compositions in prints and oils, and he made his Four Ages, and he made his series of Bathers paintings. Contemporary life continues to unfold and relate to his work with new intensity, as we grapple with social relations and the climate crisis. The complexity of his work rewards long viewing; its quest to inspire people to work for balance with the natural world is forthrightly about social justice.

The three Bacchant etchings are mature Cornell prints. The plates were taken outside and he worked from models. There’s a mystery to Woman and Dog on a Limb and a sense that the human and animal are in sync on their quest. Resting Women shows two women, drawn from a single model, one touching the other, both leaning on a fallen tree limb. Cornell enjoyed the accidental marks that sparkle across the plate, adding tone to the leafy scene. The undergrowth takes full center stage in Bacchant in the Woods; Nature enables the woman who is both exhausted from her revelries but also sinking into the ground, relaxed in her freedom from household chores. He saw this series of prints as feminist works.

On the same plot of land, Cornell made Basswood Tree, a rare etched landscape in his body of work and one that shows rich textural variation. It was a beautiful old tree near the edge of an embankment to tidal waters. Cornell enjoyed the big leaves and he immortalized it when it was just beginning to show its ill health with falling branches. The tree has since been lost to eroding land. There is a distant lobster boat. No work by Cornell is purely “wild” landscape as people’s impact on earth is so great.

The darkness of Basswood is contrasted by the light in the oil landscape, Brunswick Farm 4. Throughout his life, beginning with his series of monkey prints, Cornell remained true to his intention to learn from direct observation, painting landscapes when weather permitted and still life in the winter. He returned to favorite places repeatedly, painting this scene five times between 1981 and 1984. The elm and maple shapes stand out in the open fields of farmland, the colors and patterns of grasses and hills flow into the distance. The clouds show his study of 19th century French landscape. He loved what he did and how he fit into the history of art.

Christa Cornell