Monday, June 15, 2015

Answer: A few questions about art history...

Well THAT was interesting! 

WHEN I wrote the "Art History" Challenge, I didn't think it would be quite so interestingly complex. As I was writing, I thought maybe it would take a few minutes to resolve, and it would be one of the easier / more-fun Challenges.  

I didn't realize that this would open a whole can of worms!  

Let's work through each of them one at a time.  

1.  Gentle SearchResearcher--what IS a "pony ballet" in the context of Glackens' time?  

This was, I thought, fairly straight-forward--a pony ballet is a chorus line.  At least, that's what I'd always thought.  But then when I started looking at images, I realized that the phrase "pony ballet" is tough to search for NOW because the phrase gets tangled up with animated ponies performing balletic dances.  On the other hand, one gets a sense for what a "pony ballet" is from a quick Image search: 


As you can see in the lower left corner,  the men of Littleton, NH dressed up as ballerinas, and give one sense of "pony ballet."  (That is, men performing as cross-dressed ballerinas - a men's "pony ballet.")  If you do a search for [ "pony ballet" men ] you'll find all kinds of male dance troupes that are called "pony ballets."  Here's a lovely example from Columbia University, 1929, in a performance of "Oh Hector."  

From Columbia College Today (1929). 

But Glackens' painting of 1910 is clearly of a woman (or is the disguise THAT good?).  So, what gives?  

As I looked through the images, one of the photos I found was of some dancers in a 1903 performance of "Mr. Bluebeard" at the Knickerbocker Theatre.  Thinking that this was a potentially useful phrase, I did a search for: 

     [ pony ballet "Mr. Bluebeard" ] 

which led me to a book about American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle. (2010, Oxford University Press)  This seems like a great reference work (the reviews of the book are very positive, it's from a well-known university press, and is extensive--see the table-of-contents). 

In that book appears the line (p 221) "The show's pony ballet .... heightened the vogue for the diminutive chorines."  

This sounds like another interpretation!  Roughly, small chorus line girls...  

Another hit a bit farther down the SERP leads to the original cast for "Mr. Bluebeard," listing Elizabeth Hauman, Lonie Hauman, Beatrice Liddell, Eva Marlow, Dorothy Marlowe, Seppie McNeil, and Carolyn Poltz as "the pony ballet."  

Curious about them, I did a search on their names and found that they ALSO performed in "Piff Paff Pouf"... 

Evelyn Marlowe, Beatrice Liddell, Seppie McNeil, Lizette Hawman, Dorothy Marlowe, Louise Hawman, Carrie Poltz and Ada Robertson) in their ‘radium’ dance in Piff, Paff, Pouf,  Casino Theatre, New York, 2 April 1904
The article describing the pony ballet also says that: 
The eight little dancing girls who compose the English Pony ballet of Piff, Paff, Pouf, live on the community plan. Miss Beatrice Liddell, of their number, acts as financial manager for the Ponies. Their salaries go into one fund, and at the end of the week the unused balance (and it is usually a pretty good sum) is sent to a certain London bank. The Ponies realize that they cannot always be pretty and supple, and are preparing for that time while the sun shines. 
The Fort Wayne Evening Sentinel, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Saturday, 10 June 1905, p. 16f/g
I will remain quiet about the wisdom of them dancing in costumes covered in radioactive "radium paint"...  "while the sun shines..."  

Another query for [ pony ballet girls ] shows even more young/small chorus girls as members of the pony ballet.  That's pretty convincing. Around the time Glackens was painting, pony ballet dancers were either "small chorus dancers" OR "men cross-dressing as ballet dancers."  

2.  How many completed paintings did Renoir create in his lifetime?

Such a simple question, such a complex answer.  

But I have to admit, this is the kind of thing I should have anticipated. 

Whenever you have a definitive question (that is, one that you think would have a simple, single answer), you HAVE to think ahead of time about whether or not the value is clearly defined. 

I first thought of trying: 

     [ complete list Renoir paintings ] 

which gives this very nice result: 

But be careful: that scrolling list of images across the top is NOT the complete list of all Renoir paintings!  Note that it doesn't actually say that it is... you have to be careful that the search results might not be exactly what you asked for.  

I looked at the 3rd hit here ("Complete list of Pierre Auguste Renoir's oil paintings") and found there were 940 paintings listed there (with thumbnail images for each--I figured that by copying out the entire text of the page, pasting it into a text file, then counting the number of lines by using a text editor).  

A partial list from a poster company that claims this is top of the "Complete List of Renoir's oil paintings"

This approach wasn't working for me.  There are lots of documents claiming to have a "Complete list" of all the Renoir paintings, but many of them are missleading (e.g., this book whose title is "Delphi Complete Works of Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Illustrated) (Masters of Art Book 11)" but whose author is Pierra-Auguste Renoir!  When you look at the book, it's obviously a shortened list of the real works.  Disappointing.  

So I changed tactics and did a simple search: 

     [ Renoir number of paintings ] 

This also gives a number of decent sites, many with "number of paintings" in their texts.  

UNFORTUNATELY, these sites disagree in the number of paintings they believe he did.  The web museum site lists the number at 1736.  The Wikipedia entry on Renoir in giving an overview of his work gives us the first hint of a problem--not only are there oil paintings AND prints AND porcelain sketches, but the article says "several thousand."  

Luckily, this search also led me to a Yahoo QA (question-answering) site with the question "How many paintings did Renoir paint altogether?"   (I have to say that in general, I find Yahoo's QA site to be fairly low quality... but I often check the answer to see if there's anything I can learn from the answer. In this case, there definitely was something to learn.)  

In the Yahoo QA article, the answer is given as "more than 4000 paintings" with a dead link (even the Wayback Machine didn't have it).  In yet another Yahoo QA page, the answer is "about 6000 paintings."  

BUT... the article did mention the CATALOGUE RAISONNE DE L’ŒUVRE PEINT, which, when I looked it up, is actually catalogue raisonné--it is a comprehensive, annotated listing of all known artwork by a particular artist in a particular medium or all media.  (If only I, like Ramon and Luis, had known that to start with!)

So, all we have to do is find the  catalogue raisonné for Renoir. 

     [ Catalogue raisonné Renoir ] 

The first hit is for the Bernheim-Jeune catalouge raisonné (there are several), and looking at the description of the book we find the phrase "... we identified and reproduced 4019 paintings,148 pastels, 382 drawings and 105 watercolors for a total of 4654 works listed and reproduced."

If we believe this result, then the answer is (currently) 4019 paintings.  But remember that Renoir also did a few sculptures, so this isn't his complete output.  (I said "currently" because these are the paintings we know about.  Remember that works of J.S. Bach are still being discovered despite the BWV "complete" enumeration of all his works.  (BWV = Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, the numbering system identifying compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach. The prefix BWV, followed by the work's number, is the shorthand identification for Bach's compositions. The works are grouped thematically, not chronologically.)  

But as Rosemary pointed out in the comments, it's somewhat unclear if all of the results are authentic--could some be fakes?  As with many famous (and expensive) art/artists, the works can be sometimes seen as... suspect.  

Jon-the-Unknown also brought up the issue that the Wildenstein catalouge might be incomplete, AND that Renoir might have created other works that he gave other signatures, encrypting his own signature.  But this is currently speculative.. and maybe a future SearchChallenge.  

3. How many of all of Renoir's works feature a cup of hot chocolate?  It would be really handy to have the online list of all Renoir's works, but if we just do a simple Image search: 

Note that I used OR to synonymize "chocolate" with "chocolat" since I don't know whether or not the picture will be titled in English or French.  There are lots of hits, but only 3 different images show up, these three right here.  

That wasn't too difficult... but I'm not sure how complete it is.  I checked the other lists available online (e.g., the list of 940 from above), and found these 3 works.  But until the masterlist of the catalouge appears online, this will have to do.  

4.  Given his paintings, how long did Henri Rousseau live in a jungle landscape?

My query 

     [ Henri Rousseau jungle ] 

took me to the Wikipedia article which has the surprising line "..even though he never left France or saw a jungle. Stories spread by admirers that his army service included the French expeditionary force to Mexico are unfounded." 

Well, THAT's interesting.  But I thought I should look for another biography or two to make sure that he didn't slip in a half-year in Tahiti, or something similar.  

     [ Henri Rousseau biography ] 

leads to many (short) biographies, many of which obviously quote Wikipedia, so you have to discount them a bit.  But looking at several of them (bio1, bio2, bio3) they all tell the same story:  born in Laval (France), moved to Paris and stayed there, retiring to paint full time when he was 49 to paint full-time.  I tried looking for some online books, but there aren't any full-text available, so I checked a few books in Preview (that is, you can search, but not necessarily read all of the pages) and found... nothing.  There weren't even any vacations to exotic locales... 

So the Wikipedia story seems to be correct: Despite his tendency to paint wild jungle scenes, Rousseau didn't ever actually live in a jungley landscape.  It was all out of his imagination (and a few visits to French greenhouses)!  

Search Lessons: 

* Even simple and obvious questions might turn out to be quite complex.  This was certainly the case with the "how many paintings?" question.  There were a number of different answers, and given the ambiguity in the question, it's not a surprise.  When answering questions like this, be sure to get clarity on what you're seeking!   
* Pay attention:  You'll learn useful things.  Before starting this search, I didn't know what a Catalogue raisonné was--now I do.  Even though it was painful to find an online version (and, as we learned, somewhat controversial), it's still a useful concept to know.  
* Use one result to bridge to the next.  I did a single search to find a photo of the "English pony ballet in Mr. Bluebeard...".  Using the title of that photo, I was able to find books on the topic.  Take what you find in place X, and leverage that phrase (or unusual name) to find more on the topic.  

And... of course, the biggest lesson: These simple questions can have more depth than you might expect. 

Nice job, SearchResearchers!  

Until Wednesday... Search on! 


  1. Hi Dan and all the searchers,

    I didn't have time to post my answers to this challenge but about the "Pony Ballet" I found a very interesting illustrated article in the 1902 "San Francisco Call" that I think you could appreciate (I did a news search for early XXth century papers I think):

  2. Hello Dr. Russell.

    Fantastic Challenge. I like the lessons and your answer. Now I have more tools and more knowledge.

    I also didn't know about for example Catalogue raisonné.

    One question, what query do you suggest to search for example Chocolate in paintings. That is without Renoir? I was thinking about thus while reading about carrots history and their amazing timeline. Maybe other authors painted hot Chocolate cups, right? I'll try later to find both objects in paintings.

    Until Wednesday.

  3. Great blog! Might the pony ballet be so named because the dancers all "pony up" in a line?