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Woman Sewing: By hand 2

Posted: 22 Apr 2018 04:30 AM PDT

In the first of these three articles, I looked at paintings of women sewing by hand from Velázquez in the 1640s to Renoir in 1882. This article concludes coverage of hand sewing from then into the early twentieth century.

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Nicolae Grigorescu (1838–1907), Old Woman Darning (date not known), cardboard, 55 x 40.5 cm, Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest, Romania. Wikimedia Commons.

I suspect that Nicolae Grigorescu’s undated Old Woman Darning was painted in or near Vitré in Brittany, where he painted en plein air during the 1880s. She is sat in the sunshine on the grass of her wild garden, against a backdrop of washing, her clothing plain and intended for such chores. She has brought out a small pile of clothing which needs her sewing skills, and rests on the grass next to her. Her sewing is an opportunity to escape from her cottage and enjoy the fine weather.

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Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Woman Sewing (1885), media and dimensions not known, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

My second painting by Vincent van Gogh dates from 1885, when he was painting the rural poor in Nuenen, and shows a Woman Sewing. Sewing relies greatly on vision, and that vision on light. With their small windows, the cottages here were generally dark and gloomy, forcing this woman to position herself diagonally to the incoming light.

This lighting effect transforms the painting, with her hands represented by simple brushstrokes for the thumbs and forefingers alone; she has also become faceless with full shadow.

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Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918), Seamstress (1885-87), oil on canvas, 26.7 × 21.6 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Ferdinand Hodler’s Seamstress from 1885-87 enjoys the brighter and more even lighting in a living room, where she bends her head over her work, withdrawn in her concentration.

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Eva Bonnier (1857–1909), Dressmakers (1887), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Eva Bonnier was a fine Swedish portraitist, whose Dressmakers (1887) explores very different effects of backlighting. Two women are collaborating on the making of a dress for a special occasion, although here they are working quite independently, each almost oblivious of the other.

The woman to the right wears a thimble, and sews with orange thread, her scissors left open on the table in front of her.

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Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), Woman Sewing (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Mary Cassatt’s undated Woman Sewing may have been painted in the 1880s, and is another plain view of a woman at her needlework, with a vase of lilac-coloured flowers behind her shoulder. It is reminiscent of the far earlier painting by Velázquez, expressed using Impressionist colour and brushwork.

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Harriet Backer (1845–1932), Kone som syr (Woman Sewing) (1890), oil on canvas, 33 x 41 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Harriet Backer’s Kone som syr (Woman Sewing) (1890) looks contre-jour into the bright light flooding in through the window, as a woman (designated a wife in the Norwegian title) sits at her sewing, retaining complete anonymity as she faces into the light. A quick oil sketch, its highly gestural depictions of potted plants, table, and chair go beyond Impressionism.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Christine Lerolle Embroidering (c 1895), oil on canvas, 82.6 × 65.8 cm, Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

In Christine Lerolle Embroidering from about 1895, Renoir shows the older daughter of the artist, patron and collector Henry Lerolle. She is working with an embroidery frame made of bamboo. Christine would have been eighteen at the time that this was painted, and was already a favourite of Renoir’s. In the background, her father and a friend are studying one of the paintings in the family collection.

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Emil Rau (1858-1937), Young Couple in Front of a Farmhouse in Upper Bavaria (date not known), oil on canvas, 110 x 132.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

For the German painter Emil Rau working in Munich, wifely sewing was part of the domestic bliss of this Young Couple in Front of a Farmhouse in Upper Bavaria (date not known). The pink-cheeked young wife sits looking lovingly at her husband, not paying attention to her needlework. Rau’s work was frequently used as illustrations in the popular family newspaper Die Gartenlaube.

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Eugene de Blaas (1843–1932), The Friendly Gossips (1901), oil on canvas, 97.8 × 121.9 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Eugene de Blaas was an Austrian artist who painted mainly in and around Venice. His painting of The Friendly Gossips from 1901 shows the social side of sewing, as three young women chat and joke together while they work through their sewing and repair baskets. They are most probably unmarried daughter(s) and friend(s) within a middle class home, and the young man peering cautiously round the door looks as if he has turned to up woo one of them.

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Anna Ancher (1859–1935), Two Little Girls Being Taught How to Sew (1910), media not known, 64 x 54.4 cm, Skagens Museum, Skagen, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

Following her earlier marvellous explorations of light and its effects, Anna Ancher, the Danish Impressionist and Skagen artist, painted Two Little Girls Being Taught How to Sew in 1910. The girls’ mother/teacher stands sewing in the rich light from a window to the right. Cast shadows on the plain pale lemon wall behind are complex: the sun is low in the sky, and those shadows fall from a large houseplant at the right, and external branches too.

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Edmund Blair Leighton (1852–1922), Stitching the Standard (1911), oil on canvas, 98 × 44 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Edmund Blair Leighton was one of the last British academic painters, who specialised in legend from the age of chivalry. In Stitching the Standard from 1911, a young princess sits in a cutout at the top of the castle wall, sewing the black and gold flag to be flown from the castle. She comes straight from Arthurian legend, or a fairy tale, and emphasises how needlework was deemed an acceptable activity for women of all classes.

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Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940), Madame Vuillard Sewing (1920), oil on cardboard, 33.7 x 35.8 cm, National Museum of Western Art 国立西洋美術館 (Kokuritsu seiyō bijutsukan), Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

My final painting of sewing by hand takes us well into the twentieth century, in Édouard Vuillard’s late painting of his wife Madame Vuillard Sewing from 1920. Its colours and style show the remains of his time as one of the Nabis, but by this time he was largely painting portraits.

Madame Vuillard doesn’t even look up, but continues to work on what looks like the darning of a pair of grey socks or gloves.

Sewing by hand has, in general, remained thoroughly respectable, and an activity which can safely be shown of a woman. The artist can show one or more women concentrating on the close-held task at hand, or engaging in conversation with sewing as a thread of cohesion between them. They can emphasise the timeless nature of hand-sewing, its tranquillity, and intense concentration.

Because sewing is demanding of vision, it is important that the act of sewing takes place in good lighting. The artist can use that to develop an image around backlighting (into the light, contre jour), with its high contrast, or across the image with resulting shadow play.

But above all else, at least the act of sewing provided the opportunity for women to appear in their own right in paintings which were not simple portraits of them. My third and concluding article tomorrow looks at the impact of the sewing machine.

Last Week on My Mac: Apple Support and Demand

Posted: 22 Apr 2018 12:00 AM PDT

I started motorcycling when British bikes – Norton, Triumph, BSA – were notorious for their poor quality. They handled and performed superbly, but you could easily tell where a British bike had been parked, by the oilstains it had left on the ground.

Devoted owners would strip them down, replace and machine every component until it fitted and worked perfectly – a laborious process then known as blueprinting.

When I went soft and switched to cars, I was told a story of one of the world’s most reputable and successful high-quality car manufacturers.

Apparently, when they first built each car on their production line, their build quality was atrocious. Doors didn’t fit properly, panels were out of shape, and so on. They attained their final high quality through laborious and costly defect rectification, rather than building their cars right first time.

I can’t help but feel that Apple should learn from those, even if the latter story is more apocryphal than true. Not that Apple products are poorly built: despite the occasional troublesome component or model, my experience is that the great majority of Apple products are built excellently, even down to their packaging. Nor that Apple has to fix a lot of its products during the warranty period: again, with occasional exceptional models, most Apple hardware lasts longer than their spares support.

It’s actually another of Apple’s great strengths that points to one of its great weaknesses.

Last week, taking a single screenshot on my iPad Pro took me half an hour to get it in the right format, another half hour or so with Apple Support on Twitter, and 37 minutes on the phone with Apple Support to follow up. It took nearly two hours of my time to address an issue which could have been clarified in a single online search.

It was also a pro problem on an iPad Pro, in a field in which Apple has in the past been a great innovator and leader: publishing. All I wanted was my screenshot in PNG rather than JPEG format, so that it would be ready for pre-press for print.

The problem should never have happened in the first place. Whoever decided to change image format in iOS 11 shouldn’t ever had done so, as it baffles and annoys, and breaks pro workflows. Assuming, though, that there was a good reason for turning perfectly good PNG images into JPEGs, this should have been made plain in the user documentation for iOS 11.

Back in Classic Mac days, Apple produced superb printed documentation. For those complex technical issues which keep cropping up, its reference works were the Inside Macintosh series. Lovingly prepared by specialist technical authors using Macs and regular commercial Mac software, there was very little which they didn’t detail.

As I worked a lot with numerics in those days, my favourite was the hard-backed reference to SANE, the Standard Apple Numerics Environment. Every single arithmetic and mathematical call was explained in detail, even down to the algorithms used and their potential inaccuracies and errors.

Since then, Apple has seemingly abandoned its efforts to keep pace with documentation. In my sessions with Apple Support, it was clear that Apple’s own staff were unable to find any documentation which was relevant to my problem.

Apple Support is second to none. Its staff are meticulously polite, do everything that they can to understand the problem and to help, and make the whole experience as positive as possible. I do occasionally hear of customers who have less than perfect experiences with them, but I know of no other support service – apart possibly from the Samaritans – which attracts and deserves such consistent high praise.

Much of the time, though, Apple Support is providing information which should be readily obtainable by the user, of whatever level of expertise, from Apple’s documentation. In my case this week, it would only have taken a couple of lines in a list of changes for iOS 11.x, and I would have saved well over an hour.

Back in the days of printed user manuals and Inside Macintosh, there was another important principle in Apple’s design: if the only way a user could understand how to do something was to read the documentation, then that task was poorly designed.

In my case, with screenshots and image formats, there was a prior piece of good, consistent design: all iOS screenshots were in PNG, unless the user deliberately converted them using an app. To have iOS arbitrarily decide that some screenshots will be saved in PNG, and others in JPEG, is unfortunately typical of the bad and inconsistent design which has been steadily creeping into macOS and iOS.

Apple Support has to be wonderful now because there’s hardly anywhere else to go to find things out about our Macs and other Apple products, and because those products (operating systems in particular) have become so needlessly complicated that working out our own solutions is often impossible.

Like old British motorbikes and the legendary car manufacturer, Apple Support is fixing for users what shouldn’t be broken in the first place.