Saturday, August 31, 2013

Painting on Velvet

When I was a kid during World War II,  we spent part of our summer months on the farm of my aunt and uncle.  In those days of food rationing, the country fare was lavish and delicious.  My farm stays brought me in close proximity to a good sized picture that hung on the wall of the dining room.  It was of the “Last Supper” and painted on black velvet.  It was one of the most interesting piece of art an eight year old had ever seen.

As shown here, replicas of DiVinci’s masterpiece can still be found,  although my ardor for the art form has cooled considerably in ensuing years.   Just recently, however, I came across a book called “Black Velvet Masterpieces” by Carl Baldwin and Caren Anderson, the founders of the Velveteria Museum in Portland, Oregon.  Their enthusiasm kindled in me a desire to know more about this often derided and scorned art form.
Edgar Leeteg's Polynesian Girl

Baldwin and Anderson attempt to explain the lure of painting on velvet.  They contend and I quote:  “Velvet paintings seem to call out to the viewer, inviting them to experience the paintings in a tactile way.  They have an inner luminescence that plays on the senses and lures you in.”   That sensuous quality may be the reason that so many of the subjects involve nudity.

The availability of that subject matter may have been the reason that several of the earliest artists on velvet were drawn to the islands of the South Pacific.

Leeteg's Conch Blower
An itinerant painter of billboards and posters, Edgar Leeteg was enticed to Tahiti by a friend’s promise of “opportunity in the Garden of Eden.”  Although Leeteg previously painted on canvas, he had, like me, had seen religious paintings on velvet.  That medium was perfect he said, “ for capturing the beauty of
McPhee's "La Belle de Tahiti"
the Polynesian race.”  To his credit he also captured other elements of island life.

Perhaps inspired by the paintings of Paul Gauguin, other artists were arriving on Pacific islands, Among them was Charles McPhee, an Australian who moved to Western Samoa in 1939.  After World War II he moved to Tahiti where he met Leeteg and was inspired to take up painting on velvet.  He chose many of the same subjects as the master and actually married one of Leeteg’s models.  Although both men found their early customers among tourists, their fame spread to the extent that galleries in the U.S. (particularly Hawaii), Australia and New Zealand began showing and selling their velvet art.

What had begun largely as a vehicle for religious images quickly became more profane.  Although is still very possible to find velvet paintings of angels, the Virgin Mary and the Christ, today Jesus may be coupled with an iconic figure of a much later day, Elvis Presley.  In fact, painting Elvis on velvet could be considered a cottage industry.

Other celebrities and political figures also are frequently found limned on velvet.  The Republican Party commissioned a limited edition series of such artworks to memorialized their leaders.  They called it the “Patriotic Portraits Collectible.”   Among the subjects was Richard M. Nixon,  whose credentials as a patriot might be questioned by some.  If the former president looks vaguely Latino, it may be because it was painted by a Mexican south of the border in Tijuana.

Mexico, by the way, is a major source of contemporary paintings on velvet.  Favorite subjects include animals,  particularly fierce ones like lions, tigers and panthers -- or conversely, those of a cuddly sort, including puppies, kittens and bunnies.   Ever since Margaret Keane gave the world the soul sad children with eyes as big as saucers, tots with the oversized orbs also have been a staple of the trade.

Landscapes have not been a major subject on velvet.  The reason logically is the inability to depict a sunlit scene compatible with the totally black background.  Moonlight, however, becomes velvet.  It became part of a velvet painting of the Golden Gate Bridge with the lights of San Francisco in the background.  Finding the picture appealing,  I asked my wife if it might be a good addition to our recreation room walls.  She replied,  “How lowbrow can you get?"  Guess not.

As a last picture, it seemed appropriate to me to get back to the basics of why velvet paintings of certain subject matter seem to be so popular for back rooms, bars and man caves.  This purple on black image captures the essence of velvet:  sensuous,  luminous and tactile.

Finally, a word must be said about the “Velveteria,”  the museum opened by Anderson and Baldwin in 2005 to show some of their collection of more than 2,000 paintings on velvet.  Rising rental costs forced the couple to close the museum in January 2010.  They subsequently packed up their paintings and moved to Southern California where they have hoped to open another museum.  Although I have watched for a possible announcement of an opening, none has been forthcoming.  Their book, “Black Velvet Masterpieces” is still available and contains information and many examples from their collection.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Savoring the Saloons of Times Gone By

Just recently I have been reading a book called “Watering Holes of Yore: The Saloons that Made Texas Famous,”  by multiple authors.  Over the years for my own edification, I have collected a number of photographs of old time saloons.   Now it occurs to me to share them on this blog.   They include two saloons that I personally have visited and one, at the end, that is an all-time favorite.

The first establishment shown here is a Texas saloon, but not one covered in the book I have referenced.  My fascination is with the imaginative way that the proprietors have rendered the word “whiskey.”  Obviously with tongue firmly in cheek,  they have proclaimed it “The Road to Ruin.”  Yet the front door is open wide and the gents on the porch obviously have left the bar to have their pictures taken.   This photo identified the state but not the town.  It reputedly was taken in the 1880s.

The next photo replicates the theme.  From the designation as the “Lone Star Saloon” and the symbol provided, it might be assumed that it was located in Texas,  the Lone Star State.   Wrong.  This establishment was located in Corona, New Mexico.   The date given for it was 1919.  By that time Texas was fully into the Temperance Movement and increasingly legal restrictions were being put on saloons and drinking.  By contrast New Mexico was still wide open.

The next image is from South Dakota and although it has no sign,  the passengers on the stage coach stopping there would know that strong drink was to be had inside.  This photo is from an earlier article I wrote on a Western character known as “Devil Dan” Roberts.   As cowboy, he rode up to a stage stop saloon very much like this one in 1886.  Roberts was employed by the VVV Ranch on the Belle Fourche River and was heading for Deadwood for the Christmas holidays when he dropped into the saloon to warm up from the frigid Dakota weather.

A holiday dance was in progress and the saloon owner, who had been nipping at his own booze all day,  was heading to bed to sleep it off.   He asked Devil Dan, who did not drink,  to look after the business. The well-likkered cowboy crowd got rowdy and began to break up the furniture and knock out windows.  Dan let them have their way but as the men sobered up he made them pay for the damages.  The next morning the owner sold the place to Roberts for $125 and departed.  Dan repaired the damage and appears to have taken to the role as saloonkeeper.  After running the  establishment for a few months, he apparently sold it and leased the Cliff House, a larger stage coach station and saloon, in nearby Deadwood.

The next picture is from Creede, Colorado.  Two men standing in the open doorway of the “Holy Moses Saloon,”  which is next to the narrow, rocky canyon walls that surround the town,  located in Mineral County.   Note that the building is rather ramshackle with a broken cornice and a barrel lying out front.  A note on the photo says that the man standing in the white shirt and vests was the owner and the sheriff of Creede whose name was William Orthen.   His saloon was the first liquor den in town.

A much better known lawman cum saloon keeper was Judge Roy Bean, who billed himself as the “Law West of the Pecos.”  For about 16 years, Bean lived a prosperous and relatively legitimate life as a San Antonio businessman. In 1882, he moved to southwest Texas, where he built his famous saloon, the Jersey Lilly, and founded the hamlet of Langtry. Saloon and town alike were named for the famous English actress, Lillie Langtry. Bean had never met Langtry, but he had developed an abiding affection for her after seeing a drawing of her in an illustrated magazine. For the rest of his life, he avidly followed Langtry's career in theater magazines.

Before founding Langtry, Bean had also secured an appointment as a justice of the peace and notary public. He knew little about the law or proper court procedures, but residents appreciated and largely accepted his common sense verdicts in the sparsely populated country of West Texas.  By the 1890s, reports of Bean's curmudgeonly rulings, including an occasional hanging,  had made him nationally and internationally famous.  Before his death, even Lillie Langtry had dropped by.

The following photo of the gents standing in front the El Paso Saloon has intrigued me for the wide variety of headgear they sport, as well as the varied positions of their hands.  Several look as if they might be preparing to draw and shoot.  Despite the name it is not possible from the picture to identify the town.  El Paso Hotels with saloons were located not only in El Paso but also in Fort Worth and San Antonio.   I assess the date as about 1910 or after. The advertising sign over the door for Fredericksburg Beer on tap has a definite  20th Century look.

The photo following caught my eye for the 20 mule team in the foreground and the row of saloons in back. Thirsty customers had a choice of the “The Yellowstone Bar,”  “The Butler Saloon,” or the “High Grade Bar” and so on down the line of watering holes in the town of Rawhide, Nevada,  at the 1908 height of the Gold Rush. In the short span of two years the town went from its peak population of 7,000 people (March to June, 1908), to fewer than 500 by the latter part of 1910. Helping push the decline of the Rawhide even further along was a fire that swept through town in September 1908, along with a flood the following September, from which many residents did not recover or rebuild.

When the original mines worked out the remaining gold and silver from the veins, more people left Rawhide. There remained only a few  who eked out a livelihood working in the mines, or processing the ore, or just working their own claims and prospecting.  Most of the saloons had closed and the town became a hollow shell of what it once was.  By 1941 only a few hardy souls were left in Rawhide, and the post office was closed.  Today it is a “ghost town” with only photos to remember its heyday.

The only watering hole in color and one I have actually visited is “Big Nose Kate’s Saloon.”  This place got its start as the Grand Hotel in Tombstone, Arizona, as the Grand Hotel.  Opening in September, 1880, it was consider one of the state’s premier hotel, boasting thick carpeting and costly oil paintings.  The lobby was equipped with three elegant chandeliers and more luxurious furnishings, while the kitchen featured both hot and cold running water and facilities to serve as many as 500 people efficiently.

It is said that Ike Clanton and the two McIaury brothers stayed at the Grand the night before the famous gunfight at the O. K. Corral.  Now the place is named for the erstwhile girl friend of another participant in the famous showdown, Doc Holliday.  I was in Tombstone a few years ago and stopped into Big Nose Kate's to look around and have a beer. Sadly, it appears no different than the other touristy bars and restaurants along the main drag, but the history is still there.

The final photo is not in the Far West but from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  But, you say, it looks more like a church than a saloon.  Yes it does.  The building was constructed as a Methodist house of worship in the late 1800s only to find itself smack dab next to Milwaukee’s ever-expanding Pabst brewery.  The perfumes of beer production wafted over the structure frequently.  After Prohibition the church was sold to the brewery which made the first floor into a restaurant and bar and used the upstairs for a training center.  They called it the “Forstkeller” and supplied it with fresh beer daily.  It was my favorite watering hole for years and even after leaving Milwaukee in 1961, I always walked in the door at least once on every visit to town.  Unfortunately, both the Forstkeller and Pabst have been shut for many years.

There they are,  nine of my favorite saloon scenes.  Just looking at them makes me thirsty.  Think I will head out for a tall cold one.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Bowser Selling Booze

In December of 2009,  I posted on this blog an illustrated article that was entitled “Dogs Playing Poker.”  It chronicled the work of Artist Cassius Marcellus Collidge who did a series of 16 paintings in 1903  and after for a Minnesota advertising firm that wanted something different in a campaign for cigars.  Over time the pictures have reached iconic status,  with two originals commanding as much as $590,000 at auction and spawning plenty of imitators.

In recent months it has come to my attention that a number of distilleries and liquor dealers, as well as an occasional brewery, both pre- and post-Prohibition, have picked up on this theme.  As a result, a number of artifacts can be found that feature “man’s best friend” in merchandising alcoholic beverages.  Or as I have entitled this post,  “Bowser Selling Booze.”

The first example is an image of four dogs play poker that is taken directly from a Collidge painting.  It appears on a metal color lithographed tip tray. In addition to the requisite cigar,  the image adds a bottle of what we must assume was “Old Saratoga Whiskey.”   The tray was issued by Rosskam, Gerstley & Co., a Philadelphia based liquor distributor founded about 1869.  The principals were William Rosskam, the president, Louis Rosskam and Isaac Gerstley.  They were rectifiers,  buying whiskey and compounding and blending it to taste.  They featured a blizzard of house brands, of which Old Saratoga was their flagship.

Rosskam, Gerstley also used the same doggy image on a trade card for Old Saratoga,  emphasizing that it “Beats Any Pat Hand.” “Pat Hand” was the name Collidge gave this painting.  Through vigorous and imaginative advertising like this,  the Philadelphia company built a clientele extending both  East and West,  opening offices in both New York City (on prestigious Broadway) and Chicago.   National Prohibition, however, put Rosskam, Gerstley “into liquidation.”

Another liquor outfit that saw a merchandising advantage in a Collidge painting was the Charles A. Grove Sons of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  On a framed wooden sign, given to favored saloons carrying Grove brands,  were two dogs both smoking cigars and drinking from lidded steins.  Strictly speaking, they were not playing cards but one senses that a game could break out at any time.  This liquor dealership featured a limited number of whiskey brands, chiefly the two advertised here,  “Golden Rod” and “Spring Grove.” The Grove sons,  Charles E. and George F., were forced to shut down their firm in 1919 after more than two decades in business.

The Lehnert Brewery of Catasauqua, Pennsylvania, focused in on one of the two dogs shown in the Grove sign to create a color lithographed, four inch tip tray.  Located in a town of some 6,500 residents near Allentown,  the brewery was founded in 1867 and had a series of owners until acquired by Charles L. Lenhart in 1906.  He made a series of improvements to the old facility,  building a three story brew house and bottling house, creating new storage cellars and updating machinery.  Although a small facility, Lehnert was able to produce 8,000 barrels of beer and porter annually.

The next bar sign is a British import.  Four collies are seen sitting around a table with a bottle of Black & White Scotch prominently displayed.  Although no cards are evident, all manner of smoking materials are.  In addition to the long clay pipes that each dog is puffing, the table holds cigarettes, a cigar and matches. This image apparently predates the use of the black and white scottie dogs that have dominated the Black & White Scotch whiskey ads and image of in contemporary times.  It is difficult to date an import item like this because Britain did not experience Prohibition but a guess is that it is a product of the early 20th Century.

Among the many post-Prohibition American imitators of the Collidge dogs was “Old Charter Bourbon Whiskey.”  This brand was established in 1874 by A.B. Chapeze who was operating a distillery on the Bardstown, Kentucky, branch of the L & N Railroad.  According to Internet sources,  sales were assigned under contract  to Wright & Taylor,  a Louisville wholesale house.   After Prohibition the brand name was sold to a series of large distilling outfits, among them Schenley Distillers, which appears to have marketed it from 1937 until 1987.  As a result, my surmise is that the lithographed tray shown here and the bar mirror that replicates the image can be attributed to Schenley.

At this point we leave the Coolidge dogs and their imitators to focus on whiskey men who used other representations of dogs to advertising their products.  One of the more bizarre  is a trade card for Phoenix Bourbon,  the product of a San Francisco wholesale liquor dealership named Naber, Alfs & Brune.  The illustration,  signed by A. Burk, shows two dogs in hats and smoking cigars contemplating a  bottle of booze while, apparently unnoticed by the pooches, a bevy of bosomy women emerge as flowers from a plant.  One dog has asked the other:  “Did you say Phoenix Old Bourbon?”

This firm began its life under completely different ownership in 1871.  Over ensuing years as other ownership came and went in 1880,  three partners got together and Naber, Alfs and Brune was formed, destined to become one of the West Coast’s largest liquor dealers. Surviving fire, earthquake and the departure of Naber and Brune, the firm managed to continue high profitability until the coming of Prohibition.

The “Chum’s Whiskey” lithographed tray depicts a man in a tuxedo toasting his dog,  a large shaggy canine who appears interested in imbibing a bit of liquor himself.  This artifact was issued by the Scranton (Pennsylvania) Distributing Co.  This firm, located at 509 Lackawanna Avenue, appears to have been a grocery supply house that also featured its own brand of whiskey.  A bottles of Chum’s is conspicuous on the tray.  The idea was, I suppose, that the man and dog were chummy.

The final dog image is a spoof of the iconic “His Master’s Voice” ads and is connected to the whiskey trade.  “Old Tucker Whiskey” was a lead brand of the Brown-Foreman Company in the pre-Prohibition era.  This Louisville, Kentucky, outfit was formed by George Brown and George Foreman in 1891 and has survived to the present day.  It chose the image for the label and other artifacts involved with its Old Tucker brand.  Note that the gramophone has been replaced by a whiskey jug and the horn by a funnel.  The bulldog:  “Suspects His Master.”

There they are, ten merchandising images of dogs being employed to sell whiskey and beer. For more than 100 years, it would appear, the idea of “man’s best friend” also being in favor of a an alcoholic beverage or two has captivated the minds of ad men worldwide.  To date there has been no outcry from animal lovers or Prohibitionists about the juxtaposition of doggies and drink.   As a result bowser can still be found selling booze.