If you were born in the month of September, your birth flower is the aster. Its name is derived from the Greek word for star because the bloom is star-shaped. The virgin goddess Astraea believed there were not enough stars in the sky. She wept, and asters sprouted where her tears fell. Asters are symbolic of love, justice, innocence, wisdom, and faith, and they were used, to decorate altars to the gods. References to Astraea can be found in the works of Shakespeare, Dryden, Milton, and Browning, and the American author Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ovid (8 CE) tells the story that Astraea abandoned Earth during the Iron Age because of the wickedness of the people, and she ascended into heaven as the constellation Virgo. Thus, asters are an illustrious flower.
“Bouquet of Asters” (1859) (18.5”x24”) was painted by the French artist Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), who is credited with starting the Realist movement. In 1851, Courbet exhibited two very large paintings. One “The Burial at Ornans” (10’4’’x 21’8’’) depicted the funeral of a common person on a dark and dreary day. Its subject and size scandalized the art viewing public. This lower-class subject was his initial foray into Realism. His interest in painting flowers was caused by a brief visit to his friend’s estate where he encountered extensive gardens and a greenhouse. Enchanted by the flowers, he painted several works during his visit. In this casual bouquet, Courbet has included asters of all colors: pink, red, white, lilac, and mauve. Although he was not thinking about the meaning of the different colors, as did the Victorians, he included several white and pink asters to center the composition. White and pink represent innocence, purity, and love. The red asters represent passion and love. The purple asters represent admiration and dignity, and the lilac asters represent faithfulness.
Courbet included several other flowers, knowing that they did not all bloom at the same time but added variety of shape and color. The realist in his nature did not permit him to place the flowers in a fancy setting. A common clay jug and simple dish that could be found in homes of the common people are arrangement on a well-worn wooden table. One of Courbet’s unique painting techniques was to use a palette knife to apply the paint, adding a rough texture to the work. He used the palette knife to create some of the petals of the yellow and orange flowers, the clay jug, and the table.
“Asters” (1880) by Claude Monet illustrates the contrast in style between Courbet’s Realism and Monet’s Impressionism. Monet’s brushwork is obvious in each of the petals. The star shape is apparent, but the specific colors of the asters dissolve into a riotous profusion of dashes of yellow, purple, orange, blue, red, and green. The Impressionists preferred the colors of the rainbow. Monet has also included white and black in the bouquet. In Impressionistic fashion, he also created the wall behind the flowers with the same colors rather than the black background of Courbet’s work. Monet’s vase, also created using the same color palette, appears to be porcelain, and the wooden table has been given a very polished surface and decorative rounded edge.
If you were born between September 22 and October 22, your Native American animal totem is the raven, a symbol of intelligence, foresight, a bearer of magic, and a messenger. Throughout history ravens have held a special place in religion and myth. In the Old Testament there are eleven mentions of the raven, the first in Genesis 8:7 when Moses sent a raven to see if the flood waters had receded. The raven went out and came back several times until it did not return because it found land. “Elijah Fed by Ravens” (early 20th Century) (26’’x16’’) (SAAM) depicts the story in Kings 17:2-6: God sent ravens to feed Elijah while he was hiding in the desert from the evil king. In this carved wood panel, two black ravens supply Elijah with bread and meat. This work falls into the vague category of folk or primitive art created by an untrained artist. The work has simple shapes, a unique interpretation of trees, and like all folk or primitive art, touches that intangible experience that speaks to viewers.
Ravens hold a major place in Norse mythology. “Odin Enthroned and Flanked by His Ravens Huginn and Muninn” (1882) is an illustration for the 13th Century Poetic Edda, the first written version of the Norse saga. Carl Emil Doepler (1824-1905), a German illustrator, painter, and costume designer, illustrated episodes for the Prose Edda in 1882. The entire title is Odin enthroned holding his spear Gungnir, and wolves Geri and Freki flanked by his ravens Huginn and Muginn. Odin is the one-eyed All-Father of Norse legend who sacrificed one eye in order to be able to see everything that occurs in the world. Odin made the ravens Huginn (old Norse for thought), and Muginn (old Norse for memory) his messengers. He gave them the ability to fly over the world quickly, to understand any language they heard, and to return to him as messengers. The ravens were considered intelligent, and they gave excellent advice and represented a source of power. In battle, ravens feeding on dead warriors was considered a sacrifice to Odin and a means to enter Valhalla. Odin also was known as “the raven god.”
Carl Emil Doepler created the costumes for the premier presentation of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Bayreuth Festival in 1876. The festival was Wagner’s idea; he wanted it to be in a small town where the viewers could concentrate more on the opera than anything else. The keystone was laid on May 22, 1872, Wagner’s 59th birthday. The opening performances of The Ring took place from August 13 to 17, 1876.
In the Native American Haida culture, the story of Raven starts with the beginning of humankind. Raven was alone, but one day on Rose Spit beach, on Haida Gwaii, Ravan found an extraordinarily large clamshell with noise coming from inside it. Several small creatures were trying to emerge from the shell. Raven encouraged them to come out and to see the world. After a bit of time, overcome by curiosity, they came out of the partly opened clamshell and became the Haida men. After that, Raven helped the Haida to find fresh water, salmon, and to build fish traps. He also found small chiton shells (a marine mollusk), which he opened to find small women inside. After he introduced them to the men, they followed the normal path of life. Raven was never lonely again.
“The Raven and the First Men” (1980) was carved by Canadian Bill Reid (1920-1998). His mother was descended from the Tanuu, Haida Gwai, and his father was American. Reid’s Haida name was Yaahl Sqwansung, The Only Raven. Reid was a multitalented artist, writer, and broadcaster, who fully turned to creating art in1952, adapting Haida designs. In 1973, Vancouver industrialist Walter Koerner commissioned Reid to make a large version of his “The Raven and the First Men.” The sculpture is carved from a laminated yellow cedar block (6’2’’x6’4”) that took over a year to properly combine and dry for carving. Reid and his assistants began to carve the block in the fall of 1978. It was unveiled and dedicated on April 1, 1980, by Prince Charles. The Bank of Canada issued a $20 bank note depicting “The Raven and the First Men” (September, 2004) as part of the Canadian Journey series to recognize and celebrate Canada’s history, culture, and achievements. Reid is considered to be one of the most significant Canadian artists of the 20th Century.
Ravens are thought to be intelligent and resourceful by all cultures. They are also considered tricksters who can be harmless, heroic, cruel, or selfish. Charles Dickens had many household pets, three of which were ravens, all named Grip. The ravens pecked at his children and pets and stole their food. A raven named Grip is a main character in Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge. Ravens lived in the Tower of London in England, one of them named Grip. The legend says that if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the kingdom and the Tower will fall. One of Grimm’s fairytales is titled The Seven Ravens. Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter poses the question at the tea party, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” Paul Gauguin titled a painting “Nevermore” (1897) that depicted a dreaming woman watched over by a raven.
Finally, a Maryland contribution: Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” (1845) has been illustrated many times. French artist Gustave Dore created between 20 and 30 drawings for the publication of The Raven just before his death in January 1883. The drawings were turned over to Harper and Brothers in New York City, and 14 master engravers translated the drawings onto steel plates. The 10,000 copies with 26 engravings each were advertised as a Harper and Collins Christmas gift book costing $10. Dore’s work received high praise and Poe’s poem sold exceedingly well.
After a competition to name a football team and after more than 100 names were entered, a football team was named the Ravens in 1996 after the famous Baltimore poet’s poem.
Note: Looking at the Masters writer will be on vacation next week.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.