Wednesday, October 31, 2012
October 31 is the baptismal date of Flemish painter Johannes Vermeer, born in Delft (1632), who created some of Western art’s most exquisite paintings. Only 35 or 36 works are attributed to him, most showing figures in interiors, all admired for an intense sensitivity to light and color and for captivating, poetic images. Little is known for certain of his life or artistic background, though he painted slowly, had 14 children and died in debt and relative obscurity. His work was rediscovered in 1866. In recent years he has been heralded as a master, amid speculation that he used a camera obscura – an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings onto a surface – to achieve the precise positioning, perspectives and stunning light effects in his compositions. Pictured: the renowned “Girl With a Pearl Earring” (1665).
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
October 30 is the birthdate of John Adams, a Founding Father, second President of the United States and previously the first Vice President in George Washington’s two terms. During his single term Adams endured vicious attacks by the Jeffersonian Republicans and the dominant faction in his own Federalist Party led by Alexander Hamilton, a bitter enemy. When he was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in 1800, he retired to his home, Peacefield (pictured), in Quincy, Massachusetts. The house, which dates back to 1731, was bought by John and Abigail Adams in 1787. During John’s long absences (spanning 12 years), Abigail managed the house and greatly expanded it, adding what is now the right side of the front facade, with a fine hallway and large parlor on the ground floor and a large study above.
Monday, October 29, 2012
The exuberance of the 1920s began to unravel on October 29, 1929 – Black Tuesday – when investors lost billions of dollars on the New York Stock Exchange. Tickertapes failed to cope with the trading of more than 16.4 million shares (a record). The Twenties’ excess had lured people to speculate in the market on margin with borrowed money, so that by 1929, two out of every five dollars in bank loans went to stock purchases. Loans totaled $8.5 billion – more than the entire amount of currency circulating in the U.S. Consumer goods increasingly were bought on credit. From their peak on September 3, stock prices began to slide on a lack of confidence, and the Crash fed an ongoing, slow-motion economic collapse. By 1933, nearly half of U.S. banks had failed and unemployment approached 30 percent of the workforce.
Sunday, October 28, 2012
The United States began a destructive era in its history on October 28, 1919, when Congress passed the Volstead Act, which implemented the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition; it then overrode President Wilson’s veto on the same day. The law defined “intoxicating liquors” that were prohibited and set forth enforcement rules, which proved largely ineffective. Prohibition was not entirely about booze. It represented a growing conflict between urban and rural values; it imposed mainly rural Protestant ideals on urban, non-Protestant populations; and reflected “nativistic” notions that America’s greatness resulted from a white Anglo-Saxon ancestry. Repealed in 1933, Prohibition led to multi-faceted corruption and criminal activity in America, loosening of morals in the 1920s, and the illicit joys of speakeasies (pictured).
Saturday, October 27, 2012
October 27 is the birthdate of poet Dylan Thomas, born in Wales in 1914. He became popular in his lifetime, owing to broadcasts and recordings of his poetry, and perhaps even more famous after his death (1953) from alcoholic overdose. He gained attention with Eighteen Poems (1934), an emotionally and sexually charged collection, and achieved fame with poems that include "Do not go gentle into that good night," "And death shall have no dominion," and the well-known Under Milk Wood, evoking life in a Welsh seaside town. His poetic style played against strict verse forms, and his themes focused on the process of life, death and new life as a magical transformation linking the generations. Thomas had a deep connection with Wales but – incredibly – decried any notion of "Welshness" in his poetry.
Friday, October 26, 2012
October 26 is the birthdate of Charles "C.W." Post, founder of Postum Cereal Co. and creator of Grape Nuts cereal. He suffered from work-related nervous breakdowns and stomach ills, and he traveled widely to seek a cure for the latter, including a stay at John Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. This led to Post’s concoction of Grape Nuts, which had nothing to do with grapes or nuts but consisted of wheat and barley formed into a batter baked into rigid sheets, which were then broken and run through a coffee grinder to produce "nut"-sized kernels. The cereal had a long history of borderline-crackpot health claims (pictured). Post’s daughter, Marjorie Merriweather Post, inherited a vast fortune at age 27 when her father killed himself. She famously married four times and turned Post into General Foods, Inc.
Thursday, October 25, 2012
“Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” … October 25 is the birthdate of Pablo Picasso, artist in many media. Born in Malaga, Spain, near Gibraltar, his father was a professor of drawing who raised him for a career in academic art. Picasso had his first exhibit at age 13 and later quit art school to study painters including El Greco. In 1900 he went to Paris, the art capital of Europe, where he would spend much of his life, and by 1905 his art was favored by American collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein. His early work is renowned for its “periods” (1901 through 1919) – the Blue Period followed by the Rose, the African-influenced and two phases of Cubism. Pictured: The scandalous “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon” (1907), which embraced Primitivism, abandoned perspective and began a revolution in modern art.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
The Cathedral of Chartres was dedicated on October 24, 1260, in the presence of King Louis IX (Saint Louis) of France. Located 50 miles southwest of Paris, the French High Gothic structure is the most recent of five buildings at the site. It was constructed rapidly between 1194 and 1250 and has seen only minor changes since the 13th century. The exterior’s heavy flying buttresses allowed for very large stained glass windows, the majority of which survive intact in original form. The north rose window (pictured, detail), depicting the Virgin Mary with Christ child at its center, is one of the greatest artistic achievements of human hands. It is fraught with symbolism – five concentric circles, each with 12 smaller windows – teaching lessons that link mankind with the divine. Chartres is now a World Heritage Site.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
October 23 is the approximate birthdate of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Roman statesman and general. Lifelong friend and lieutenant of Octavian, who became Emperor Caesar Augustus, he was the commander who won the naval Battle of Actium against the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII of Egypt. This victory enabled Octavian to consolidate his power over Rome and its dominions, effectively starting the end of the Roman Republic. Agrippa was elected an aedile (public official) of Rome in 33 BCE and focused on embellishing the city with improvements and magnificent buildings. He commissioned what is now the Pantheon (pictured) as a temple to all of Rome’s gods (later rebuilt by Hadrian). Partly because of Agrippa, Augustus could later boast that "he had found the city of brick but left it of marble."
Monday, October 22, 2012
50 years ago: On October 22, 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis arose as President John F. Kennedy announced in a televised address to the nation that he had ordered a naval blockade of Cuba in response to the discovery (via photographic proof) that the Soviets had installed missiles there. He told frightened Americans that the missiles could reach a huge geographic region in the Americas. The Soviet action, he said, was a "clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace" and warned that retaliation was an option if missiles were launched. The crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war while Kennedy and Khrushchev negotiated. At one point, U.S. armed forces went to DEFCON 2, the highest military alert ever reached in the post-World War II era, as commanders prepared for full-scale war.
Sunday, October 21, 2012
The Guggenheim Museum in New York opened to the public on October 21, 1959, six months after the death of its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. It exhibits collections of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, early Modern and contemporary art. Critics have loved or hated the building’s cylindrical design, featuring interior ramped galleries descending from its skylight in a long, continuous spiral. Some believe the building itself overshadows artworks shown inside, and paintings and other art are difficult to display in shallow, concave exhibition niches with tilted walls. Others believe the design is harmonious with art. The founder’s niece, art patron Peggy Guggenheim, famously called it “my uncle’s garage” on Fifth Avenue. It has been expanded and renovated twice since 1992, fixing structural defects in the process.
Saturday, October 20, 2012
October 20 is the birthdate of English architect Sir Christopher Wren, who changed the public face of London after the Great Fire of 1666 by supervising the rebuilding of 52 churches, including his greatest single design, St. Paul's Cathedral (completed 1710). Other great Wren buildings include the south front of Hampton Court Palace and Trinity College library, Cambridge. In Wren's age, the profession of architect did not exist; it was a gentlemanly activity for a well-educated man, viewed as a branch of applied mathematics. An early Wren design was the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford (1668, pictured), on the grounds of the Bodleian Library. It’s the site of music recitals, lectures and Oxford’s graduation ceremonies. Handel performed here, including the first performance of his third oratorio, Athalia (1733).
Friday, October 19, 2012
The American Revolution effectively ended on October 19, 1781, at Yorktown, Virginia, with a decisive victory over British Army and Naval forces commanded by Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis. Victorious Continental Army troops were led by General George Washington, combined with French troops led by the Comte de Rochambeau. The surrender of Cornwallis, who had been encircled and besieged, caused the British government to negotiate an end to hostilities (starting in 1782). Cornwallis surrendered 7,087 officers and men, 900 seamen, 144 cannons, 15 galleys, a frigate and 30 transport ships. Claiming illness, he did not attend the surrender, where British bands played the song "The World Turned Upside Down." Pictured: “Surrender of Cornwallis” by John Trumbull, U.S. Capitol Rotunda (1820).
Thursday, October 18, 2012
On October 18, 1922, the British Broadcasting Company Ltd. was founded as the world's first national broadcasting organization, providing experimental radio services. The BBC arose 25 years after Guglielmo Marconi made a commercial success of radio with his Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company (later Marconi Co.) in Britain. A consortium of six companies, including Marconi, GE and Western Electric, the BBC made its first radio transmission in November 1922 in London. Until the development and popularization of TV, radio was the broadcast medium on which people in the United Kingdom relied, and it united the nation. The term “BBC English” (a.k.a. Received Pronunciation, or RP) referred to the upper-class Standard English accent used in BBC broadcasts. The term – and the accent – are now outmoded.
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
On October 17, 1965, the 1964/1965 New York World's Fair closed its gates for the last time. Its theme was "Peace Through Understanding," dedicated to "Man's Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe," symbolized by the 12-story, stainless-steel Unisphere, built by United States Steel. Dominated by corporate exhibitors including IBM, the Bell System, Disney and GM with its exciting “Futurama,” the fair ran for two six-month seasons in each year. In the calm before the Vietnam War, it was a shameless extravaganza of consumer goods, transportation (Ford introduced its new Mustang) and technology (especially phones and computers). Attendance of 51 million was below expectations, and final finances were a mess. The Unisphere still stands in Flushing Meadows, Queens.
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
“Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.” … October 16 is the birthdate of Oscar Wilde, epigrammatic Irish author and poet who became London's most popular playwright in the early 1890s. As an Oxford student he espoused the philosophy of aestheticism led by Walter Pater and John Ruskin. He combined his ideas of art’s supremacy with themes of decadence, duplicity and beauty in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), the Faustian story of a hedonistic young man who came to believe that the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and sensual fulfillment. Wilde delighted in shocking the ethical sensibilities of the middle class, but he paid dearly for his contempt for the bourgeois beliefs of complacent Victorians that art must teach social education and moral enlightenment.
Monday, October 15, 2012
English historian Edward Gibbon claimed October 15, 1764, as the date on which he was inspired to write his monumental History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (six volumes, 1776- 1788). On his Grand Tour of Europe, he had a “Capitoline vision” in Rome, while listening to friars sing vespers in the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter, whereby he resolved to write a history of the Eternal City, later extended to the entire Empire. His great work maintains that the Roman Empire fell to barbarians largely due to a gradual loss of civic virtue and martial spirit among citizens who had outsourced their military defense to mercenaries. Gibbon also argued that Christian belief in an afterlife fostered Roman indifference to the present, undermining their allegiance to the Empire. Pictured: Temple of Jupiter, Capitoline Hill, Rome.
Sunday, October 14, 2012
October 14 is the birthdate of Dwight D. ("Ike") Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, previously a five-star Army general during World War II and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. A permanent legacy of his presidency is the Interstate Highway System, which he championed and is officially named after him. The project, antithetical to mass transit, was justified on the basis of national security and the preparedness and mobility of the U.S. military in case of war. Construction began in 1956 with German autobahns as a model. The system was proclaimed complete on October 14, 1992, when a spectacular section in Glenwood Canyon, CO, was opened. Its total length is more than 47,000 miles, and construction costs have been estimated at roughly $500 billion in today’s dollars.
Saturday, October 13, 2012
The Whirlpool Galaxy, one of the most famous deep sky objects, was discovered on October 13, 1773, by French astronomer and comet-hunter Charles Messier, who compiled an astronomical catalog of nebulae and star clusters eventually known as the 110 "Messier objects." His catalog, still in use, was intended to help observers distinguish between permanent and transient sky objects. Also known as M51a (in the Messier catalog), the Whirlpool Galaxy is a grand-design dwarf spiral galaxy, estimated to be 23-25 million light-years from our own Milky Way. It is interacting with a smaller companion galaxy, M51b (pictured). Easily observed even with binoculars, it is a popular target for study in understanding galaxy structure (particularly those with spiral arms) and interactions between galaxies.
Friday, October 12, 2012
October 12 is the birthdate of Ralph Vaughan Williams (b. 1872), English composer of symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music and film scores. He composed nine symphonies, including the evocative A London Symphony (No. 2, 1913), and a large body of orchestral works, including “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” “Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves,’” “Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus,” “The Lark Ascending” and many others. As musical editor of the English Hymnal (1906) he collected and arranged a large body of hymns. In 1904, he began transcribing and preserving English folk songs and carols, which were fast becoming extinct with the breakdown of the oral tradition. Vaughan Williams’ work is quintessentially English – mystical, lyrical, melodic, subtly patriotic and nostalgic yet timeless.
Thursday, October 11, 2012
October 11 is the birthdate of Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, who preferred, from a young age, her middle name. The niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, she was born into a world of wealth and privilege in New York’s high society (among the "swells"). When Eleanor was eight her mother died from diphtheria, and her alcoholic father died less than two years later, so she was raised by her maternal grandmother. In 1902, she met her father's fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom she married in 1905 over the firm resistance of Franklin’s mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt. The couple settled in a house in New York provided by Sara. Only when Franklin was elected a New York State senator (1910) and the couple moved to Albany did Eleanor win some independence from Sara. Pictured: the couple in 1906.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
October 10 is the birthdate of Jean-Antoine Watteau, one of the most brilliant and original painters of the 18th century. He lived only 36 years but affected the development of Rococo art in France and all of Europe, even sowing seeds of what became Impressionism. Rising from the provinces to fame in Paris during the Régence of the duc d'Orléans, he often painted aristocratic figures in lush, idyllic scenes (the term “fête galante” was coined to describe them) that betrayed a modern sense of sober melancholy and the ultimate futility of life. Curiously, Watteau’s art appears prominently in Stanley Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Barry Lyndon.” Pictured: detail, “Mezzetin” (1718-20), a commedia dell'arte character. This painting was once owned by Catherine the Great.
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
October 9 is the birthdate of British musician and composer John Lennon. Art was one of Lennon's first loves. He began drawing long before he had a guitar, often sketching comical cartoons he included in his self-made school magazine, “The Daily Howl.” When he failed all his school exams, he managed to get accepted at the Liverpool College of Art, where he disrupted classes and ridiculed teachers. He was thrown out of the college before his final (third) year. In 1969 he created an infamous portfolio of erotic drawings, entitled "Bag One," which he gave to Yoko Ono as a wedding gift. He continued to draw, usually in a quasi-calligraphic style, until his assassination in 1980 at age 40. Pictured: a well-known self-portrait.
Monday, October 8, 2012
30 years ago – On October 8, 1982, the musical Cats made its debut on Broadway. It had first premiered in London in May 1981. Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats is based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939), a collection of poems he wrote for his godchildren. The show, which featured the wildly popular song “Memory,” tells the story of the Jellicle tribe of cats and their process of identifying one cat for a new life (via something called the “Heaviside Layer”). In 1997, after 18 years, Cats became the longest-running musical in Broadway history (6,138 performances), and closed in September 2000 (after 7,485 performances). Its record was surpassed in 2006 by The Phantom of the Opera, also by Lloyd Webber, but it remains Broadway's second longest-running show.
Sunday, October 7, 2012
On October 7, 1868, Cornell University was inaugurated and a class of 412 men was enrolled the next day. The university was formally founded in April of the next year as New York State’s land grant institution, resulting from the Morrill Act (1862) that granted federally controlled land to the states to establish colleges for teaching practical skills ("without excluding ... classical studies"). This was a response to the industrial revolution and changing social class. State Senator Ezra Cornell offered his farm in Ithaca as a site and a $500,000 endowment from his personal fortune (he had founded Western Union). Cornell and Andrew Dickson White focused on all fields of knowledge, from the classics to the sciences and from the theoretical to the applied. These ideals, unconventional for the time, are embodied in Cornell's motto: "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study."