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The ‘Gainsborough’ Portrait That Got Away


(photo: Kehinde Wiley)


 SEP 22, 2010 2 PM

Cincinnati Art Museum has an important new exhibition on display through Jan. 2 called Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman. Organized by Benedict Leca, curator of European paintings, sculpture and drawings on the occasion of the cleaning/restoration of the museum’s own Gainsborough portrait of “Ann Ford (Mrs. Thicknesse),” it brings together the 18th-century British artist’s paintings of women from top museums around the world.

A key theme of the show is that these women worked with the artist to defy gender roles of the time. Thus, they were “modern women.”

But there is one portrait planned for the show that got away. Strangely, it would have been new — one of the first, if not the first, portrait commissioned by the museum since Andy Warhol’s 1985 rendering of Pete Rose — Grace Jones by Kehinde Wiley.

This takes a little explaining. Wiley is a thirtysomething New York-based African-American artist who has found fame with his paintings of young black males in the manner of art’s past masters of portraiture. Jones, born in Jamaica, became an icon of dance music, fashion and film in the 1980s for her tall, androgynously avant-garde looks. The idea of commissioning Wiley to paint an iconic contemporary woman of the arts — and put the result in the Gainsborough — was Leca’s. The artist proposed Jones as his subject.

“The point of the show is to restore agency and self-direction to these (Gainsborough) women, just as Kehinde Wiley himself is re-inscribing black men into this preserve of traditional white-male power,” Leca says.

So Leca, with approval from art museum trustees, flew to New York to propose the project to Wiley.

“And then he said Grace Jones is the one we want to do,” Leca says. “And he was over the moon. His assistant would call me once a month and say, ‘Benedict, What’s up? Have you gotten through to Grace Jones?’ ”

That turned out to be a problem. Jones is reclusive. Wiley wanted a sitting, from which he would take a photograph to base his work. Leca says Wiley’s powerful dealer, Jeffrey Deitch (now director of LAMOCA), even had Alexander McQueen ready to create a dress for the sitting. But then McQueen died Feb. 11.

Leca had contacted Jones’ agent in London and wrote to Jean Paul Goude, the French fashion photographer to whom she is close. And he wrote directly to Jones through another photographer. No response.

“You’re talking about a Pop diva who has been around forever,” Leca says. “She doesn’t need exposure. The heartbreaking thing is we had it all in place and Grace Jones just couldn’t be found.”

On another note, Cincinnati Art Museum was the first American art museum to stage a retrospective of the artist — in 1931. Looking into that history, Leca found a 1934 Cincinnati Post article in which writer Eugene Segal recounts that the artist’s most famous portrait, The Blue Boy,” had a secret Cincinnati exhibition in 1922. The California collector Henry Edward Huntington bought it from a British duke for a record price, causing an outcry in England, and had it shipped to California. (It is now on display at the Huntington Library and has never been loaned.)

“Halfway down, they stopped in Cincinnati,” Leca says, citing the article. “They called the various directors, who came down in the middle of the night and opened up the box, looked at ‘The Blue Boy,’ packed it back into the box and off it went. I don’t think anybody knows about that. I looked at the minutes of the directors around that time and nowhere is it mentioned by anyone except Segal.”


The forgotten ’70s band Jade gets a new life

James Aumann was doing his usual tax-collecting work as Warren County Treasurer late last year when he received an email about a secret from his long-ago past.

It was from Darren Blase, co-owner of Northside’s Shake It Records store. He wanted to know if the county treasurer was the same James Aumann who once led an obscure and short-lived local rock group called Jade.

The band had issued one album in 1971, Faces of Jade, on a small Cincinnati label called General American Records. It appears to have been barely released.

“I called him and said, ‘Darren, this is Jim Aumann. I give up – you found me,’” Aumann recalled recently.

Blase wasn’t threatening to embarrass Aumann, a Republican who, in 2012, was elected unopposed to his third term. Instead, he was interested in reissuing the vinyl album on his Shake It record label because he liked it so much.

“I was really pretty astounded,” said Aumann, 65. “Obviously back when we did this record, we were hoping for big things. I was hoping to make a living from this. When it didn’t happen, it was seriously disappointing.”

Aumann had quit Miami University to pursue Jade at the time. When that failed, he went into banking – getting a degree in finance from American Institute of Banking and rising to become vice president of Warren County’s old Community National Bank. Fifteen years ago, he was hired to be the county’s chief deputy treasurer and he then moved up.

On Friday, Shake It will debut its vinyl reissue of Faces of Jade, with original album-cover art. It will be for sale at the store to launch Black Friday, the kick-off for the Christmas shopping season. There is a new 500-copy pressing (on green vinyl, with download code included). It will also be available via Shake It’s website,, starting on Dec. 2.

Blase believes that Faces of Jade holds up well as an example of the way a regional American band was inspired by the sophisticated, boundary-breaking rock and pop of the Beatles. Its 10 songs are artistically ambitious. Aumann and the band used the studio to create songs with ambitiously ornate instrumental and vocal arrangements, innovative recording techniques, and substantial melodies. In short, it wasn’t just garage rock. Parts of songs like “Prelude Willow’s End” and “My Mary (More Than Ever)” fit well into the psychedelic-rock genre of the time; other passages are more folk-pop.

“It’s such an odd record for Cincinnati,” said the 46-year-old Blase. “Nothing here was ever on my radar that’s this overtly Beatles-influenced a kind of sound.

“On top of that, I found my copy of that Jade record at Mole’s (a used record on Short Vine), probably in 1985,” he said. “I would buy everything that had a Cincinnati address on it. I had no expectations of what it was – it looked kind of hippieish. It still had its 99-cents price sticker.”

Actually, the international audience for collectible rock had also discovered Jade. A bootleg CD of the album had appeared in Europe last decade, and music-oriented blogs like Robots for Ronnie and Tyme-Machine have praised the group.

In Jade, Aumann played keyboards and was a songwriter and singer who worked on arrangements. Other members were guitarist/songwriter/singer Randy Morse, bassist/singer Nick Root, drummer Timothy Nixon and business/songwriting partner and co-producer David Smith. The band was active from roughly 1970-1973.

Aumann believes he had a gift early for music composition. “I could write vocal parts in my head,” he said. “My dad and I used to do a lot of singing and harmonizing when I was growing up, and so did my brother and I.”

While at Mason High School, he and Smith played together in a band called the Villains. That ended with college, but Aumann continued writing at Miami University. Smith visited him from Ohio State in 1969, heard the song “Willows” and suggested recording it and several more. The two first cut the songs with studio musicians at Lockland’s Artists’ Recording Studio. But access there ended when the studio’s president died of a heart attack.

They realized they couldn’t afford to continue recording with expensive studio musicians, so they sought other band members. They decided to call themselves Jade. They found the other members from area bands and started recording at Mount Healthy’s Jewel Recording Studio. And they made contact with a record company.

Aumann thinks highly of the band members he and Smith chose. Morse turned out to be a substantial writer, himself, contributing “Well,” ”We (Got to Make It Thru)” and two other songs to the album.

Now 63, Morse went on to a career in the tech industry but has also played guitar regularly in Nashville, his home for the past 20 years.

“Though we’re not ‘rich and famous,’ we created music that has been appreciated beyond our wildest imagination, over 40 years later,” he said, via email. “A real artist is not in it for the money, though it validates our work.” (After sending this email, Morse had to go to a hospital with a minor stroke, Aumann said, adding that he is doing well.)

Nixon, 63, lives in Mason and is an ATM technician for Diebold Inc. Smith, 65, is semi-retired and lives in West Chester. Root, 61, of Fort Thomas, said in an email he has continued playing music off and on in this area. He joined Aumann and Morse for a reunion this year.

Aumann had never received money from Faces of Jade until Blase recently sent $145 for songwriting/publishing rights.

That’s a milestone, but Aumann says he is not yet ready to quit his prestigious day job to resume a music career. (He’s actually recorded some music at home.)

“As Darren said, if this does really well, we can probably all go out for a nice dinner,” he said.



Courbet in Cincinnati


(Gustave Courbet)

It’s a small painting and not a famous one, but Gustave Courbet’s “Sunset, Vevey, Switzerland,” is something of a conquering hero at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
It’s on display in a gallery next to a Monet seascape and back from being on loan to a major 2006-2007 traveling exhibit, Courbet and the Modern Landscape, that brought it to the Getty Center in Los Angeles, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts and Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum.
And during that time, its fascinating history emerged. It was the first painting by Courbet, the masterful and daring 19th-century French realist, to be acquired by an American museum. It entered Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection back in 1887, a gift from a liberal Ohio governor and judge, George Hoadly, who sympathized with Courbet’s radical politics.
“I find the part about Hoadly’s history fascinating,” says Betsy Wieseman, who was curator of European painting and sculpture at Cincinnati Art Museum when this painting was loaned to the exhibit. She now is curator of Dutch painting at London’s National Gallery, but talked for this story while still in Cincinnati.
Truth be told, “Sunset, Vevey” struggled for attention among the 45 paintings in the Courbet and the Modern Landscape show, which this writer saw in Los Angeles. It depicts a shoreline — jagged rocks, calm water and sky tinged with the melancholy red of low clouds. Larger landscapes in that exhibit more dramatically contrasted the darkness and light, the lushness and barrenness, of nature. But few had as interesting a background.
The show, curated by the Getty, offered landscapes done between the years 1855 and 1877. The artist, who lived from 1819-1877, is far better known for his scenes of everyday French life and his frank portrayals of nudes. (He is not generally considered an Impressionist.)
The artist, who lived from 1819 to 1877, hated the academic painting of his day, which often told allegorical stories with religious or mythological figures. He refused to paint an angel, he once said, because he had never seen one. And to him the palette knife was just like a brush, a way to apply oil paint to a canvas. Today, that technique is common. But in Courbet’s time, it was a breakthrough. It made him a modernist.
And a confirmed rebel — artistically and politically.
In 1873, Courbet fled to Switzerland after the collapse of the radical/revolutionary Paris Commune, which he supported. Paris had first held out against the Prussians after Emperor Louis Napoleon III’s government fell during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. It then rebelled against Adolphe Thiers’ French government, which had signed an armistice ending the war. When the Thiers’ government restored order in Paris, it found Courbet responsible for encouraging the destruction of a column at Place Vendome honoring Napoleon Bonaparte and his legacy of imperial power.
Forced into exile, Courbet battled depression and poverty in Switzerland during his final years. But he had an admirer in Cincinnati — Hoadly, a respected lawyer who had joined the firm of future U.S. Sen. and Gov. Salmon P. Chase in 1846.
From 1851 to 1866, he held positions as a Cincinnati Superior Court judge and city solicitor before starting his own firm. A Democrat who had become a Republican because he opposed slavery, he switched back in the 1870s and was elected governor in 1884-1886. (These facts come from the Internet site
In 1873, while a Cincinnati lawyer, he commissioned Moncure Daniel Conway — a controversial abolitionist and writer living in England at the time — to buy a work from Courbet. Hoadly kept the painting while he was governor, a troubled tenure in which he was criticized for his reluctance to use the state militia to put down a Cincinnati rebellion that resulted in the burning of the Hamilton County Courthouse.
Shortly after completing his term, he donated “Sunrise, Vevey” to the Cincinnati Art Museum. The museum has a letter from him to A.T. Goshorn of the Cincinnati Museum Association, dated Jan. 15, 1887, which reads in part:
“I sympathized very strongly (and still do) with two acts of Mr. Courbet’s political life: first, his destruction of the Column Vendome, which I regarded as an emblem of the subjugation of France to imperialism; and secondly his attempted protection during the Commune of the residence, and valuable objects it contained, belonging to M. Thiers. With this feeling I ordered the picture.”
Hoadly went on, in his letter, to describe the painting as “impressionist” — Courbet is rarely if ever considered one by art historians — and to warn Goshorn that he may not like it. “Indeed works of the impressionist school are not likely to give much pleasure,” he wrote.
“Sunset, Vevey” was not the first Courbet to be seen in a U.S. museum — Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts had displayed one earlier. But it shows how much of a commitment purchasing one was, given the artist’s outspoken political nature.
Cincinnati has three Courbets in its collection, including “The Forest in Winter,” which also was loaned for the exhibit. It had displayed “Sunset, Vevey” among its French paintings of the Barbizon school, which favored naturalistic outdoor settings and peasants and farmers at work. But about two years ago, Wieseman moved it to the Impressionist works. “It looks more natural next to Monet, Renoir, Sisley,” she said. “I see why Hoadly said it was an Impressionistic painting.”

Benedict Leca, the art museum’s brand-new curator of European painting and sculpture, said he has no plans to move it, even if it isn’t technically an Impressionist work: “Thematically, it works well right next to that Monet.”