Thursday, February 28, 2013
Writer and philosopher Michel de Montaigne was born on February 28, 1533, near Bordeaux, France, into a wealthy and noble family. Raised in Latin, he did not learn French before age 6. In his lifetime he was a statesman in various political positions. In 1571, he retired to a castle he had inherited, where he began writing his large philosophical work, Essais ("Attempts" or "Trials"), first published in 1580, which established the “essay" as a literary genre. It contains some of the most influential essays ever written. Declaring that “I am myself the matter of my book,” Montaigne embodied the spirit of skepticism and doubt in his famous phrase, “Que sçay-je?” (“What do I know?” in Middle French). Covering topics such as religion, education, friendship, love and freedom, Montaigne’s essays do not promote beliefs or truths. Rather, they constitute a search for and engagement with knowledge of the self, which leads to truth.
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Author John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He started writing in the 1920s and saw his first success with Tortilla Flat (1935), a short-story cycle set in post-war Monterey. His next works were three Depression-era novels about California farm-workers: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), the titles of which were suggested by his first wife, Carol Henning. The story of the Joads, tenant farmers driven from Oklahoma in the Dust Bowl, was widely read in America and earned Steinbeck both praise and condemnation for its New Deal political views, sympathy with workers and negative depiction of capitalism. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. Although farmers vilified Steinbeck as a propagandist for socialism, the Nobel committee, in awarding him the 1962 Prize for Literature, called The Grapes of Wrath a great work. Pictured: first edition.
Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Businessman Levi Strauss was born on February 26, 1829, in Bavaria, Germany. He emigrated to the United States at age 18 to help with his brothers’ wholesale dry goods business in New York. In 1853 he settled in San Francisco and founded his own business, Levi Strauss & Co., to profit from the late years of the California Gold Rush. He sold clothing, bedding, combs, handkerchiefs and other fine dry goods shipped from his brothers, and canvas for prospectors’ tents. In 1872, he partnered with a Nevada tailor, Jacob Davis, to make men's “waist overalls” from canvas, and in 1873 they patented the use of copper rivets to strengthen the pants’ stress points. They later substituted a more suitable, twilled cotton cloth produced in New Hampshire, now known as denim. In the 1890s Strauss made the first Levi’s 501 jeans, the forerunner of today’s blue jeans. Modern jeans appeared in the 1920s. Pictured: advertising from the 1890s, 1950s.
Monday, February 25, 2013
February 25, 1841, is the birthdate of French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Born in Limoges, France, as a boy he painted designs on fine china, and later studied paintings in the Louvre. During the 1860s, he often could not afford to buy paint. He began exhibiting works at the Paris Salon in 1864, but did not gain fame until 1874, when six of his paintings were hung in the first Impressionist exhibition. Perhaps the best-loved and most prolific Impressionist, Renoir’s works celebrate beauty in subjects that include charming children, lush flowers, delightful social scenes and, above all, feminine sensuality. He suggested detail through soft touches of saturated color, blending figures into their social milieu. Renoir said of art: “Why shouldn't art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world.” Pictured: “Luncheon of the Boating Party” (“Le déjeuner des canotiers,” 1881), which includes at least 10 of Renoir’s friends. His future wife is holding the dog.
Sunday, February 24, 2013
Artist Winslow Homer was born on February 24, 1836, in Boston. As a youth he was apprenticed as an illustrator and, in the 1850s and’60s, he became a major contributor to Harper’s Weekly, which sent him to the front during the Civil War, where he famously depicted a Union sharp-shooter. He was an oil painter for much of his life, acclaimed for maritime scenes such as “Breezing Up” (1876), when, suddenly in 1873, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, he took up watercolor, which had become an accepted artistic medium. He was drawn to the stark but beautiful coastline of Maine, where he settled in 1883, but escaped winters by traveling to Florida, Cuba, the Bahamas and Bermuda. In those locations he captured dazzling tropical color and light in watercolors marked by spontaneous freshness, immediacy and unrivaled beauty. Pictured: “Fishing Boats, Key West” (1903), in which positive white spaces are unpainted.
Saturday, February 23, 2013
German-born British composer George Frideric Handel was born on February 23, 1685, in Halle, Saxony. He had a strong propensity for music, though his father objected. He became the music master (Kapellmeister) to prince Georg, Elector of Hanover, who would become King George I of England, where Handel settled permanently in 1712 and composed for Queen Anne. He introduced previously uncommon instruments in his works, including several types of viola, the lute and its cousin the theorbo, trombones, French horn, the lyrichord (a type of harpsichord), double bassoon, bell chimes and the harp. Handel composed a vast number of works, including 42 operas, 29 oratorios, 16 organ concerti, chamber music and more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets. He is eternally famous for his oratorio Messiah (1742). Mozart praised Handel, and Beethoven said he was "the master of us all ... the greatest composer that ever lived.”
Friday, February 22, 2013
Frank W. Woolworth opened his first “five cent” store in Utica, NY, on February 22, 1879. As a sales assistant in a dry goods store in nearby Watertown, he persuaded the co-owner to lend him $300 to open his own store. His inspiration was a table with items selling for just five cents that always sold out. The store failed within three weeks, but he opened stores in Pennsylvania (adding 10-cent items). During the next 30 years, Woolworth coaxed friends and family to enter the business, and in 1911, 586 stores merged to form the F.W. Woolworth Company. Woolworth became immensely wealthy by pioneering several retail practices, including: buying merchandise directly from manufacturers, attaching fixed prices to items instead of bargaining, and using self-service display cases for customers to examine goods (eliminating the need for salespeople). The chain in the United States (now Foot Locker) folded in July 1997.
Thursday, February 21, 2013
“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.” So begins the preamble to The Communist Manifesto (Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei) by political theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published in London on February 21, 1848. It was also serialized in a German-language newspaper. The first chapter opens with the words, "The history of all hitherto existing societies has been the history of class struggles." The pamphlet then argues that the exploitation of one class by another is the motivating force behind all historical developments, in which class relationships are defined by society’s means of production. Class antagonism results, revolution occurs, and a new ruling class emerges. This process, driven by vast economic forces, is the "march of history." Capitalist society would be replaced by socialism, then communism. In today’s imbalanced society, concerns about capitalism are increasingly relevant.
February 21, 1907, is the birthdate of poet Wystan Hugh Auden, who published works as W. H. Auden. He was born in York, England, studied at Oxford, and later became a U.S. citizen. He is admired for his wide-ranging intellect, technical virtuosity in writing in many verse forms, use of vernacular speech, and his frequent focus on popular culture, society and religion, and major political and cultural events. His most admired poems include "Musée des Beaux Arts" (“About suffering they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters”) … “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (“Teach the free man how to praise”) … “Lullaby” (“Lay your sleeping head, my love,/ Human on my faithless arm”) … and "September 1, 1939" (“Defenceless under the night/ Our world in stupor lies”). … His poem "Funeral Blues" ("He was my North, my South, my East and West ") was popularized by its use in a 1994 movie.
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened on February 20, 1872, in its first home on Fifth Avenue (at 54th Street) in New York. It later moved north on Fifth Ave., in what was still farmland with unpaved streets, to a new building at 82nd Street by architect Calvert Vaux. That structure was engulfed by multiple expansions made through 1910, including the Beaux-Arts facade, Great Hall and Grand Stairway we see today. Now the largest art museum in the United States, the Met consists of more than 20 structures, encompassing more than 2 million square feet of floor space. The permanent collection contains more than two million works, curated in 17 departments, including classical antiquity and Ancient Egypt; European painting and sculpture; American and modern art; holdings of African, Asian, Oceanic, Byzantine and Islamic art; and much more. The tops of the columns on the front façade are still unfinished.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
50 years ago: Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published on February 19, 1963. The revolutionary and influential book originated in Friedan’s 15th-reunion survey of her Smith College classmates in 1957, in which she identified "the problem that has no name": many women were unhappy with their lives as housewives, limited in their possibilities, wasting their talent and potential. Friedan objected to 1960s mainstream media images that fostered the expectation that women in post-War America, amid modern appliances, should be naturally fulfilled in the roles of housewives and mothers (i.e., the “mystique”). Though the book focused on suburban, upper middle-class women, it is credited with launching the large-scale “second-wave” (post-war) feminism that addressed sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights and many de facto and legal inequalities. Pictured: the first edition.
Monday, February 18, 2013
February 18, 1848, is the birthdate of artist and glassmaker Louis Comfort Tiffany. His Art Nouveau creations included stained glass windows, mosaic lamps, furniture, textiles, ceramics, enamels, metalwork and jewelry. The son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of Tiffany & Co. (1837), he started out as a painter but became a glassmaker from about 1875. He designed the interior of Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, CT, and Pres. Chester A. Arthur hired him in 1881 to redecorate the White House public rooms. His Tiffany Studios, which became part of Tiffany & Co. in 1902, created a famous range of iridescent glass he called “Favrile” (“handmade”), which was treated with metallic oxides to produce a luxurious surface, seen in his vases and hanging- and table-lamps. His earliest jewelry designs were exhibited at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Pictured: “View of Oyster Bay,” stained glass, 1908.
Sunday, February 17, 2013
Businessman and originator of mail order Aaron Montgomery Ward was born on February 17, 1843, in Chatham Township, NJ. As a traveling salesman for dry goods retailers, including the forerunner of Marshall Field & Co., he devised a plan to sell general merchandise directly to rural customers who wanted products available in cities but were at the mercy of sellers that often overcharged, failed to deliver or cheated on quality. He founded Montgomery Ward & Company in Chicago in 1872 with a strategy of buying goods at low cost for cash, eliminating intermediaries, accepting catalog orders by mail and delivering goods to the nearest railroad station. His first catalog was one-sheet price list of 163 items. In 1904 Wards mailed three million catalogs (known as the "Wish Book"), each weighing 4 pounds. In 1939, Wards created "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as a Christmas promotion. Pictured: 1934 catalog.
Saturday, February 16, 2013
Dutch botanist and early geneticist Hugo de Vries was born on February 16, 1848, in Haarlem, the Netherlands. He studied botany at Leiden University, where he was influenced by Charles Darwin's idea of “pangenesis” (a hypothetical mechanism for heredity), and then studied at Heidelberg. In 1889, unaware of the biological work of Gregor Mendel in the 1860s, he published Intracellular Pangenesis, postulating that different characteristics of organisms have different hereditary carriers and that specific traits come in particles he called “pangenes.” This term was shortened to “genes” by Danish botanist Wilhelm Johannsen in 1909. Experimenting with the evening primrose (pictured), de Vries introduced the term “mutations” for the plant’s suddenly appearing variations and new varieties. His work The Mutation Theory (1900–1903) suggested that evolution might occur more rapidly than Darwin believed.
Friday, February 15, 2013
Composer Harold Arlen was born as Hyman Arluck on February 15, 1905, in Buffalo, NY. His twin brother died the next day. He played the piano as a youth and became a vaudeville accompanist in New York. In 1929 he began composing songs with lyricist Ted Koehler, including hit standards “Get Happy,” “Let’s Fall in Love” and “Stormy Weather.” In the 1930s in California, Arlen composed for movies, including all the music for MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz” (pictured, 1939) with lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. Later he composed numerous hits with lyricist Johnny Mercer, including "That Old Black Magic," "Come Rain or Come Shine"" and "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)." His most famous song, "Over the Rainbow," won an Oscar but was initially cut from the movie. It was voted the 20th century's No. 1 song by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Thursday, February 14, 2013
On February 14, 1924, the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (C-T-R) was renamed International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) by its new Chief Executive, Thomas J. Watson, Sr., who had been hired away from National Cash Register. He rose quickly at CTR after the death or departure of key figures in the company. IBM manufactured devices such as commercial scales, industrial time recorders, food slicers and punch-card tabulators. Watson’s slogan "THINK" became a lodestar for the company, which focused on making huge, customized tabulators for businesses and much of the U.S. government. In the 1930s, IBM’s German subsidiary, known as Dehomag, provided valuable punch-card technology to the Third Reich (which was a major customer), assisting Hitler in conducting a census for ethnic identification and “cleansing.” Pictured: IBM supercomputer, Columbia University, 1954.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Artist Grant Wood was born on February 13, 1891, near Anamosa, Iowa. His home was in Cedar Rapids, where he began painting at an early age and later worked in many media. In the 1920s he studied painting in Europe and was influenced by 15th-century Flemish artist Jan van Eyck. With John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton, Wood was a key proponent of Regionalism in the 1930s, which rejected European abstraction in favor of figurative representation of rural American themes. Wood’s “American Gothic” (1930), now a cultural icon, epitomizes the movement. Wood first painted a small, Carpenter Gothic-style house in Eldon, Iowa, then added "the kind of people I fancied should live in that house." His sister and his dentist separately posed as the farm couple. The three-pronged hay fork is echoed in three elements within the painting. The dour, pinched-faced portrait displeased many Iowans.
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
A consecration ceremony was held on February 12, 1914, for construction of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Designed as a Greek Doric temple by Beaux-Arts architect Henry Bacon, its exterior is lined with 36 Doric columns, one for each state of the Union at Lincoln’s death. The names of all 48 states at the time of completion in 1922 are carved around the memorial’s top. Full texts of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address are inscribed on the south and north interior walls, respectively. Daniel Chester French’s statue of Lincoln is 19 feet in both height and width, and the sculptor studied plaster casts of Lincoln's hands and face, made five years before the assassination. Lincoln’s seated, contemplative pose reflected a political desire to show the Savior of the Union rather than the Great Emancipator. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., dramatically altered that emphasis.
Monday, February 11, 2013
The trial of Nazi mass-murderer Adolf Eichmann began on February 11th, 1961, in Jerusalem. He was charged with crimes against humanity and the Jewish people. He had become a Nazi early in Hitler’s rise, joining the SS (Schutzstaffel, or “Protection Squadron”) in Austria in 1932. He was assigned to the Dachau concentration camp near Munich, and by 1942 he masterminded the Holocaust as the meticulous "Transportation Administrator" for the “Final Solution,” overseeing rail transportation that took Jews and other groups to death camps in Poland. He boasted that his rail network’s efficiency had sent 5 million Jews to their deaths. Eichmann fled to Buenos Aires in 1947, where Israelis captured him in 1960. He was sentenced to death in late 1961 and hanged in 1962. Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, focused on “the banality of evil” evident in Eichmann’s plea, “I blindly obeyed my orders.”
Sunday, February 10, 2013
German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht was born on February 10, 1898, in Augsburg, Bavaria. A lifelong Marxist, his "epic theatre" explored drama as a forum for political ideas. He focused on destroying what he considered theatrical illusions, rejecting "Aristotelian" drama that forces identification with the hero. He believed that emotional catharsis (terror and pity) prevented an audience from thinking. Brecht’s musical adaptation of The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper, 1928) with composer Kurt Weill is a fierce Socialist critique of the capitalist world, famous for the song “Mack the Knife.” He wrote Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) to counter the rise of Fascism and Nazism following the invasion of Poland. The Life of Galileo (1945) deals with the protagonist's self-hatred for renouncing his convictions. Brecht is thought to have had no fewer than three mistresses at any given time throughout his adult life.
Saturday, February 9, 2013
On February 9, 1942, SS Normandie burned and sank at Pier 88 in New York while being converted to a troop ship at the start of World War II. The largest ship of its time, it is considered the grandest and most beautiful ocean liner ever built, with a distinctive clipper-ship bow. It entered service in May 1935 for the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (French Line) and was the first liner to cross the Atlantic in less than four days. Offering seven accommodation classes, its technical innovations included an early form of radar. Its luxurious interiors in Art Déco and Streamline Moderne styles included a vast first-class dining salon (the largest room afloat). Split funnel intakes, diverted to the ship’s sides, allowed for huge, open public spaces. After the fall of France in 1940, Normandie was seized by U.S. authorities for war use. Sabotage was suspected, but a welder’s torch destroyed her. Pictured: poster by A.M. Cassandre (1935).
Friday, February 8, 2013
Actor James Dean was born on February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana. He grew up in California, then in Fairmount, Indiana, with his aunt after his mother’s death. Though raised a Quaker, his life and career interests were influenced by a Methodist pastor, Rev. James DeWeerd, with whom he was sexually involved. In 1951 Dean moved to New York, studied at the Actors Studio and worked briefly in television. A theater role led to his starring performance in Elia Kazan’s “East of Eden” (1955), which foreshadowed his role as Jim Stark in “Rebel Without A Cause” (1955). Both characters are angst-ridden, misunderstood outcasts who crave a father figure’s approval. Dean was twice Oscar-nominated for Best Actor, as Cal Trask in “Eden” (his only movie that he viewed in its entirety) and as Jet Rink in “Giant” (1956). He died during filming of the latter in September 1955 when he crashed his Porsche Spyder in California.
Thursday, February 7, 2013
Charles Dickens, prolific and preeminent author of the Victorian era, was born on February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, England. Despite early poverty and very little education, he wrote 15 novels, five novellas and hundreds of short stories and non-fiction pieces, nearly all marked by humor, complex plots, colorful characters with astounding names, and sharp observation of society. His fame began with the serial publication of The Pickwick Papers (1836). His second novel, Oliver Twist (1839), fiercely criticized the poverty, crime and social stratification of Victorian society. After separating from his wife in 1858 and conducting lucrative reading tours, he wrote A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861). Novelist Virginia Woolf observed that Dickens’ great power lies in "characters who exist not in detail, not accurately or exactly, but abundantly in a cluster of wild yet extraordinarily revealing remarks."
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
On February 6, 1952, Elizabeth II (Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor) became monarch, Head of the Commonwealth and queen regnant of seven Commonwealth countries, on the death of her father, King George VI, at age 57. The King had acceded to the throne in 1936 on the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII. Elizabeth then became heir presumptive, at age 10. The stress of World War II and heavy smoking (leading to lung cancer) took their toll on George VI, forcing Princess Elizabeth to assume royal duties, including a tour of Australia and New Zealand by way of Kenya. At the moment the King died, Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, were near Mount Kenya in a hotel built into the tops of trees; it afforded guests a view of local wildlife in total safety. Elizabeth’s coronation on June 2, 1953, was the first to be televised. Pictured: Elizabeth in Kenya’s Treetops Hotel, and returning to England as Queen.
Tuesday, February 5, 2013
The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, was opened to the public for the first time on February 5, 1852. Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, its collections consist of three million works of art and artifacts, including the world’s largest collection of paintings, housed in six historic buildings on an historic street, the Palace Embankment, on the Neva River. It includes the vast Winter Palace, the residence of Russian tsars that was stormed and looted in the October 1917 revolution. Catherine’s collection included works by Rembrandt, Rubens, van Dyck, Veronese, Frans Hals, Raphael, Holbein, Titian and others. In the 1930s the Soviet government secretly sold more than 2,000 valuable works to foreigners. U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon acquired 21 of the Hermitage’s works in 1931 and later donated them as a nucleus of the National Gallery of Art. Pictured: the Hermitage and works by Raphael, Matisse.