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 Adolphe Yvon  (1817 - 1893)

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Lived/Active: France      Known for: portrait and figure painting, teaching

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

The following was published in The New York Times, February 26, 2013

Offending Mural Is Uncovered, for Brief Peeks

ALBANY — For the last decade or so, one of New York’s most curious and controversial pieces of public art has been hiding, Oz-like, behind a big green curtain.

The work in question is a 19th-century mural titled The Genius of America, a sprawling 30-foot-long fantasy at the State Education Building whose depictions include angels, babies and women in togas; Gen. George Washington and a god of war; and what seems to be a group of colonial zombies rising from the grave.
Amid that symbolic swirl, in the lower right corner, is a striking and some say unsettling image: a slave in loincloth being held under the arms by a well-dressed white man.

It was that image and its potential symbolism — was the slave being lifted or restrained? — that led state education officials to hide “Genius” behind heavy emerald-color drapery in 2000, after department staff members, some of them African-American, complained that the mural was offensive.

As the years passed, the mural, which was painted in the 1870s by a Frenchman named Adolphe Yvon, was all but forgotten.

But late last year, the department, led by its first African-American commissioner, John B. King Jr., decided to delicately pull back the curtain — for a single hour, once a month — to allow people to make up their own minds about the mural, though with new explanatory brochures and placards to put the painting in context. The mural was first installed in the early 1950s in Chancellor’s Hall at the State Education Building, opposite the State Capitol.

“I thought we should make it accessible,” Dr. King said, “but that we should also tell the story.”

As such, the unveiling of The Genius of America is both a limited return to the spotlight for a significant piece of public art and a real-time experiment of how New Yorkers’ racial sensitivities have changed after a decade that saw the nation’s first black president and the state’s first black governor. Will the painting again offend or merely mystify people who will wonder what all the fuss was about? Will more explanation clarify or confuse the painting’s meaning?

No one knows for sure yet. But the painting, and the push to let it be seen, received a thumbs-up from at least one early critic: Wade S. Norwood, a member of the New York State Board of Regents, who is black.

“I see it to be dated and stilted, but that was the stylistic portrayal of many of the figures in that painting,” said Mr. Norwood, who viewed it in January. “And that’s an important thing for the New York State Education Department to teach.”

Controversies over public art are hardly limited to New York.

In January, the Newark Public Library covered a charcoal drawing by the artist Kara Walker after complaints from staff members about her depiction of a slave in a sexual act with a white man. (The decision was later reversed, said Wilma Grey, the library’s director, after “explanatory text about the artist and her work were made available to the staff.”)

And murals, which are more permanent and often use allegorical and sometimes lesser-known historical imagery, can be particularly troublesome, including works said to be anti-Semitic (the John Singer Sargent mural at the Boston Public Library) or sexist (the Michael Spafford murals in Washington State).

In the case of “Genius,” Dr. King said he could definitely see “paternalism about the way that the white figure is standing above the African-American figure.” But again, he added, in “in the context of 1870, that’s not a surprising characterization of race in America.”

Dr. King said he did not even know the mural existed until he was asked about it last fall by a reporter from The Times Union of Albany as part of a series of articles on the 100th anniversary of the education building. He said he decided to take a look and, surprisingly, liked what he saw.

“I was struck by the sheer scale of it,” said Dr. King, who became education commissioner in 2011.

In November, he decided that the curtain should be drawn back monthly. Before the first viewing in January, he asked officials at the New York State Museum to develop a series of instructional materials, including details to put the painting in historical context.

Mark A. Schaming, the museum’s director, called the painting “a majestic work of art.”

“If you go to Paris,” he said, “you see these kinds of paintings in the Louvre.”

Mr. Schaming added that while the artist’s exact intent was not completely clear, because Genius is based on an earlier Yvon painting, dating to 1858, the slave image might be “more about abolition than about emancipation.”

The new brochure and a Web site explain that the painting, and all the angels, and generals and zombies therein, was not meant to be literal and, moreover, that “this ‘lesson’ in American virtues can be seen as outdated and offensive.”

“The romantic images conceived by the artist contrast sharply with reality,” the brochure reads. “Indeed, late-19th century America was not a land of opportunity for all.”

The painting was commissioned by Alexander T. Stewart, a department store tycoon, for his Fifth Avenue mansion. But when it was delivered — weighing 600 pounds and the size of a squash court — it did not fit. So it was shipped north to Stewart’s Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs.

That hotel eventually foundered and was demolished in 1952. Before that happened, though, the painting was offered to the state.

“The contractor said, ‘You want this thing?’ ” said Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the Education Department.

“And the chancellor of the Board of Regents apparently said, ‘Yeah, sure, let’s do it.’ ”

The mural ended up in Chancellor’s Hall. The ornate ceremonial chamber has been used over the years for things like teleconferencing. a rehearsal space for a men’s chorus and, of course, department meetings, which is where the objections from staff members arose in 2000.

While the mural was still technically available for viewings after it was covered, Mr. Dunn, the department spokesman, said he could not remember anyone seeing it over the last decade.

“To their credit, it wasn’t torn down, it wasn’t walled over,” he said, adding, “But, you know, you’ve got to climb a ladder, a rickety ladder” to pull that curtain back.

That made an unveiling early this year all the more theatrical, as Dr. King presented the mural to a group of staff members, offering an explanation of its history and context.

Not a single objection was raised, which he said might offer proof that “over the last decade and a half our sensibilities on race have evolved.”

Or maybe, he said, the staff members just did not notice the lower right corner.

“I have to say if I saw the mural in a museum,” he said, “I don’t think it would have stood out to me.”


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Adolphe Yvon (1817-1893) studied under Paul Delaroche, rose to fame during the Second Empire, and then finished his career as a teacher.  Later, Napoleon III admired his battle scenes: naturally he glorified the carnage of Napoleon I’s campaigns. 

Yvon became an officer of the Légion d’Honneur in 1867, and painted Napoleon III’s portrait the following year (unlocated). Yvon was known as the leading teacher of drawing at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (1863-83).  A few Americans received instruction from him, including Christian Schussele, Alfred Wordsworth Thompson, William Sartain, and J. Alden Weir.  The latter took Yvon’s afternoon life-drawing class starting in the fall of 1874. 

Yvon provided the subject for compositional sketches for his students, for example, The Assassination of Julius Caesar, for which he specified how it should be done: “Caesar covers his head with his toga . . . he was shoved to the base of Pompey’s statue, which became bathed in his blood.” (Archives of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Archives Nationales, AJ52 63).  Alexander Stewart, the American collector, commissioned Yvon to paint The Reconciliation of the North and the South (lost) in 1870.  His Portrait of President Carnot (1888) appeared at the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Eaton, D. Cady, A Handbook of Modern French Painting. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1909, p. 284; Thierry, A., “Adolphe Yvon: Souvenirs d’un peintre militaire,” Revue des Deux Mondes 71 (1933): 844-873;  Trapp, Frank, “Adolphe Yvon,” in From Monet to Cézanne: Late 19th Century French Artists. The Grove Dictionary of Art. London: Macmillan, 2000, pp. 421-422.

Written and submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.

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