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Column Like You See 'Em

Today’s post comes from Isabel Long, Art Center Summer Docent and Skidmore College class of 21.

Acanthus plant, photographed by Robert Wallace ( 432244614/in/photostream/).

Before this summer I had only ever been to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center as a visitor, but with more experience and education I have made new fascinating connections about, and with, the collection. When I walked into the atrium, I noticed acanthus leaves on a limestone French capital on loan to the Art Center. The thirteenth-century engaged cluster capital resembles three Corinthian capitals pushed together. Imagine what the architects of the Temple of Apollo Epikurios at Bassae would think if they could see how their initial idea of a new type of column capital had developed so many centuries later. The object causes me to wonder: did the medieval artisan who carved this capital simply work from a pattern in the workshop, or perhaps did they take inspiration from Roman exemplars in France made during the Roman occupation a thousand years earlier? (The Romans did use the Corinthian capital with its array of acanthus leaves frequently.) Had the designer seen original Greek capitals, or a living acanthus plant?

Jasper Francis Cropsey American, 1823-1900 Evening at Paestum, 1856 Oil on panel Gift of Matthew Vassar 1864.1.21

Continuing into the Hudson River School gallery, a group of paintings depict scenes from Europe painted by American artists who had made the Grand Tour and studied the works of European masters and the scenery around them. One such painting, Jasper Cropsey’s Evening at Paestum of 1856, depicts a well-known Greek temple ruin. After a semester of learning about ancient Greek art and architecture, I instinctually looked closer at the structure to attempt to identify the architectural order it belongs to. Based on the triglyph-metope frieze above the columns, combined with the pancake-like shape of the column capitals, I identified the structure as being made in the Doric order.

In the current exhibition, Master Class: Northern European Art 1500-1700 from the Permanent Collection, prints, sketches, and a photograph depict a wide variety of subjects, including architectural elements. Hiding in the background, Ionic capitals lurk on engaged capitals in Abraham Jansz. van Diepenbeeck’s The Mass of Saint Gregory. The curved scrolls help ground the visionary scene in reality. Ionic columns are not out of place in religious buildings— note its classical use in the magnificent Temple of Hera at Samos from the sixth century BCE. Diepenbeeck successfully used the Ionic form to allude to a greater sense of grandeur while not detracting from his main subject with unnecessary detail.

Abraham Jansz. van Diepenbeeck Flemish, 1596-1675 The Mass of Saint Gregory, Nd Black lead, pen, brown ink, brown wash heightened with white on light brown prepared paper Purchase, Francis Woolsey and Helen Silkman Bronson, class of 1924, Fund 1995.19

After gaining context and understanding of column forms, discovering them in art and architecture is exhilarating. Here in the Hudson Valley, Greek Revival architecture took hold in the nineteenth century, offering enthusiasts an abundance of columns to enjoy. In Poughkeepsie a grand example of the Ionic form can be seen in the structure of the Vassar-Warner Home, built in 1835. Recognizing the different forms of columns both in art and out in the world has been one of the joys of learning about Greek architecture. Knowing more about the different styles informs my viewing, adding depth to my visual historical understanding.

The author contemplates a column capital.
Doric (left) and Ionic (right) capitals. Drawing by Isabel Long.

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