Historical Figures® News: 2012

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Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Lincoln Biography

Finding Lincoln

I began my career as a monologist in 1959, my focus was on the history of England and Europe. This is what my studies and research had prepared me for. In late 1962 my managers told me I should prepare a monolog on American subjects. My audiences were Americans who wanted to hear their own history. I contested the notion, and declared the audiences would want to hear something new to them. I was contradicted and told it was just the opposite – Americans wanted to hear about what they knew and familiar to them. Perplexed and dumbfounded, I had to consider the wishes of the professionals representing me.

That year I was booked for the mid-west. While I had a few days layover in Chicago, I decided to look into a talk on Abraham Lincoln. I went down to Springfield, saw the Lincoln home and neighborhood. But having heard of the village of "New Salem" where Lincoln spent several years, I decided to visit that site.

My hotel agreed to arrange for a limousine to take me out to the location. This was February and the "village," an historic site was closed for the season, yet this proved to be a remarkable experience.

Rutledge Tavern                      Photo by Larry Senalik
Without the crowds and covered in snow, the reconstructed village appeared much as it had in the 1830s. We tramped around in the snow, peering into windows and taking in the setting. The Rutledge Inn was still in operation as the site caretaker’s home, and we were invited inside for coffee and cake. Sitting by the original fireplace with the friendly hosts and their stories of New Salem's history and restoration, I had the surreal feeling of being transported back in time. Overall it was one of the most remarkable "research" experiences I've ever had.

Later that week I visited the Chicago Historical Society Museum, where I was graciously received and my request to see some of Lincoln’s clothes was granted. This also proved to be a one-of-a-kind moment. I was taken to a small room with table and chair. Minutes later a staff member entered with an arm load of clothing, a hat, an umbrella and placed them on the table and left! I was all alone with Lincoln’s clothes – no gloves, no staff oversight.
Lincoln's Clothes                             photo from Huffington Post
I measured and made notes as fast as I could and before I was interrupted I tried on Lincoln’s hat! It sank down over my small skull, almost to my chin - Lincoln had a large head. This was an extraordinary research experience, one that would never be possible today. I will remember that moment always!

With these site visits, many biographies, and the help of Dr. Jay Monaghan and the Wyles Library (UCSB), The Smithsonian Institution, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, I embarked on a biographical study of Lincoln, illustrated with portrait Figures (now in the Museum of Ventura County Collection). My objective was a visual record of Lincoln at various stages of his life.

The Rail Splitter
The early portrait as the famous “rail splitter was our starting point. Many artists have attempted this image before me. We all worked from the literary descriptions and, while each had his own interpretation, there are distinct threads of similarity throughout all efforts.

The Springfield Lawyer
The next represented his Springfield days as lawyer and politician in the Illinois legislature. This was also the time of his marriage and family development. His appearance in the white suit is derived from photos of him his sensible summer suit of white linen.
Lincoln as Young Springfield Lawyer 1858
The New President
The third image was to show his new beard on the day of his inauguration in 1860, and to show that he had yet to abandon his out-of-date blanket or shawl, which was being replaced in most men’s wardrobes. A number of his shawls have survived; the one copied here is in the Smithsonian.

Lincoln as a new President in 1861
The Thoughtful Chief Executive
The next portrait was a pensive pose with glasses and something he was reading or studying. Inspired by either the address he was to give at Gettysburg or his previous decision to issue the emancipation proclamation.

Lincoln as Chief Executive in 1863
The Tragic End
Finally the tragic portrait of his last moments at the Ford Theater. He was ill and dying of Marfan’s disease, a slow and debilitating illness. The cost of the war, the responsibilities of his office and personal tragedies were prodigious for any human to bare. He was emaciated from illness and shrunken by life, but they say he was happy that night with the end of the carnage and the delight he always took in the theatre. Perhaps there was just a trace of a smile in his face. It would all be over momentarily.
Lincoln at Ford Theater in 1865
 My business manager was correct. The Lincoln monolog has been the most popular piece I’ve ever attempted. I’ve learned to love it as well. Abraham Lincoln is an irresistible subject for all time. 
 Editor's Note - Mr. Stuart created many supporting characters for the Lincoln biography, including among others Ann Rutledge, Mary Lincoln in 1842, Mary Lincoln in 1863, Stephen A.Douglas, Edwin M.Stanton, Ulysses S.Grant, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Enslaved African, John Wilkes Booth.

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Notes from George Stuart . . .

Empress Revised

Queen Elizabeth I of Russia in formal gown
Russian Empress Elizabeth I debuts new gown. 

When I discovered I was in the good company (many artists ‘reworked’ previously finished pieces: Mozart, Rubens, Tennyson), I felt comfortable re-doing earlier Historical Figures. Obvious errors in judgment and questionable craftsmanship continued to nag me. Many of the Figures have therefore been changed or modified over the years.

Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (Russia) is among the latest to receive a revision. It turned into a one year plus effort, with three of us taking nine months to just produce the ornamental passementerie border of the gown. Researching the correct style for her period, finding a suitable fabric and enhancing that fabric, took weeks with alternating delays, mistakes and makeovers. The project was finished just before things got out-of-hand! I think the results of our frustrations were worth it.  - G. S.

Nixon Sparks Collection

Tzu An Empress— unseen beauty under vest.
The Manchu Figures were begun in the 1970s, with Mr. Nixon's discovery of China! I thought it an ideal subject for American audiences. I soon discovered that Chinese embroidery would be a huge obstacle to surmount. The first phase of that work was produced in Taiwan, in the '70s. A second attempt in the '80s was halted because we lost connection with the Taiwan embroiderers. It wasn’t until 2001, and through the internet, that we found embroiders in mainland China. They were the embroiderers that, for centuries, had produced the exquisitely embroidered garments of the Imperial court!

Director, Mr. LU Zhengliang  of the Suchow Embroidery Works was intrigued by the idea of creating the appropriate designs in one quarter scale to fit the Historical Figures. The results are beyond remarkable and the quality is comparable to anything done in the Chien Lung, 18th Century. The embroidery alone makes these Figures priceless!  - G. S.       

Mr. Schiffer

As we age we do not like any form of change in our routine or lifestyle. The recent departure of our MVC Director Tim Schiffer has been a real change for us all.
I was here at the first year the Museum opened at its present site. I have seen five directors come and go. Each time has been a bit of a drama.
Mr. Schiffer’s association with the Museum has been the longest, if memory serves. And, it has been my good fortune to have worked with him from the beginning, in complete
harmony. A “first” I needn’t add. 
Even though he had responsibility for the entire Museum operation with all its demands and special needs, he always made me feel that the Figures collection was important enough to give it his attention when needed.
He and his staff worked with me to enhance the Smith Gallery, and budgeting was found for an elaborate and much-needed conservation process to save the Figures.
Mr. Schiffer managed the Smith Endowment to make possible some magnificent embellishments on several Figures.  All of this was done with grace and encouragement.
This Curator Emeritus is very grateful for these past years with Mr. Schiffer as Director. The Historical Figures Collection can only hope for similar support in the next administration.
Mr. Schiffer will be missed.    


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Thursday, March 08, 2012

Political Strategist Niccolo Machiavelli Joins Renaissance Historical Figures

Niccolo Machiavelli  (1469- 1527) by George Stuart
In the five hundred years since his death, the reputation of Niccolo Machiavelli has risen to where he is now considered the major political thinker and strategist of the Renaissance.  His most famous writing, The Prince has been  read and studied by generations worldwide. The pamphlet is a distillation insights Machiavelli gained during his years as a diplomat in the turbulent times around 1500.

Renaissance Italy is credited by many for bringing the Europe out of the Dark Ages. The period around the beginning of the 16th century was particularly interesting to George Stuart. While art and science flourished in the northern City States, the collision of politics, power and religion was leaving Italy, and most of Europe in a constant state of war and turmoil.

Nothing in politics was simple and little was as it seemed or represented. Alliances were made and broken, princes rose and fell, armies marched pillaged nearly everywhere.

Carte foyers renaissance italie
In this chaos in 1492 and again in 1527, the city state of Florence (Fiorenze ) ousted the famous and infamous De Medici dynasty and established a republic. With no standing army, Florence appeased the French armies with bribes and depended on extraordinary political intelligence to assess the powers of Europe and to stay in their favor, or at least out of their way.

Their eyes and ears at the Vatican and the courts of France, Spain and Naples was an obscure second level diplomatic envoy called Niccolo Machiavelli. With no military power and only modest funds, Florence depended on the communications from Machiavelli to report on court politics and to assess how the fledgeling republic might remain out of the clutches of the much bigger players. 

In his recent biography of Machiavelli, Miles J.Unger describes how the young Florentine came to this position and how his political observations and weak negotiating strength led him to write The Prince. The political treatise was essentially a job application he presented to the returning De Medici. Machiavelli was rebuffed, but his treatise has become a must-read for princes, politicians and businessmen alike.

"The Prince," the most famous job application'?
 "Although [the Prince] is relatively short, the treatise is the most remembered of his works and the one most responsible for bringing the word "Machiavellian" into wide usage as a pejorative term. It also helped make "Old Nick" an English term for the devil, and even contributed to the modern negative connotations of the words "politics" and "politician" in western countries." -  Wikipedia.

Unger paints a less sinister view of Machiavelli as a typical, middle class male looking for work in the bureaucracy of Florence. His writing ability was demonstrated in popular plays and commentaries. His talent, and some help, landed him a government job in the foreign affairs department.

Machiavelli avoided politics, and could speak to all sides of contemporary issues. In his writings however, Machiavelli favored a Florence as republic over a principality.

Florence had a history of paying large ransoms to keep invading armies, so the city was rarely sacked and much of the 16th century buildings, art treasures and Renaissance flavor remains today.  But when it came to the defense of Florence, Machiavelli was a hawk by today's standard. He advocated a standing citizens army augmented by mercenaries. Machiavelli had no military training or battle experience, so his plans were plausible in theory, but fell short on details of execution, and were not adopted by the republic.

His position for many years as emissary to the Vatican and the thrones of European power afforded the opportunity to observe, assess and write about power politics. Ultimately he had little choice. As the representative of a weak but moderately wealthy city state, Machiavelli soon recognized that wits had to trump war or Florence would cease to exist as a republic, or even an independent city state. He had good reason for concern. After all, the neighboring Papal States were once independent.

One gets the feeling from Unger's book that Machiavelli was fascinated by the art of diplomacy - or the lack there of -  in the foreign affairs of Florence. Yet his thinking on the topic seems clearly objective and rational. Indeed, one gets the feeling he was as exacting and cautious as if a medieval philosopher dissecting a rare insect.

In service of the republic, Machiavelli was a tireless traveler and worker, spending many consecutive months away from his family, friends and associates. His superiors came to depend on his dispatches of fact and assessment from the capitols of Europe. Although his reports were insightful and his advice often followed, he was not promoted or financially rewarded.

When Florence returned to De Medici control, Machiavelli lost his position. He then wrote The Prince to prove his worth to the reinstated De Medici family and gain their favor.  In spite of some connections within the De Medici family, he was not accepted. Perhaps in the end he was too republican. Only after his death did friends publish The Prince - and the rest is history!
See Machiavelli in Ventura!
On March 6th, Stuart's Machiavelli will join the other Historical Figures of the Renaissance and Reformation in an exhibit running until May 20, 2012 at the Museum of Ventura County. Mr. Stuart will give three entertaining monologs on the period over the next few months. We are all looking forward to his take on Machiavelli and his times.  

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