PHOENIX ART MUSEUM
Beginnings: A Virtual Visit
Text + Images Courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum

Above: Carl Oscar Borg, Egyptian Evening (Noche egipcia), c. 1911. Oil on canvas. From the Municipal Art Collection, by exchange.

In The Beginning
Happy New Year! As we mark the conclusion of a truly extraordinary year, we ring in 2021 with a great deal of hope for a new year that will be improved though imperfect. In honor of the new start, we celebrate beginnings, from new babies and the first rays of morning light to a fresh blanket of snow and those rare moments of ‘before.’ Discover works in the PhxArt collection, new lists of recommended readings, viewings, and listenings, and a little bit of retail therapy in honor of all those New Year’s resolutions. 

Above, top left: Annie Lopez, The Almost Real History of Art in Phoenix, 2007. Cyanotype. Top right: Workshop of Gerard David, Madonna and Child with Two Music-Making Angels (La : y el Niño con dos ángeles que tocan música), 1498. Oil on oak panel.  Bottom left: Lew Davis, Morning at the Little Daisy, Jerome (Mañana en Little Daisy, Jerome), 1936, 1936. Oil on panel. Bottom right: Joseph Stella, Morning Glory (Campanilla), 1920s-1930s. Pencil and watercolor.

Above: Carl Oscar Borg, Egyptian Evening (Noche egipcia), c. 1911. Oil on canvas. From the Municipal Art Collection, by exchange.

The First Object
Today, the collection of Phoenix Art Museum numbers more than 20,000 objects representing millennia of global art history. But the beginning of that collection, made possible through 60 years of donations and gifts, was a tiny seed—a single work of art. In fact, the first object acquired for the collection of Phoenix Art Museum was purchased more than 44 years before our doors ever opened. 

In the early 20th century, women civic leaders in the Phoenix community envisioned a future art center for the city, which would both present works of art and provide arts education in the Valley. In 1915, that group of women, known as the Phoenix Women’s Club, raised a little more than $100 through an early version of crowdsourcing, with individual gifts as small as $0.01. They purchased Egyptian Evening (c. 1911) by Carl Oscar Borg, a Swedish artist born in 1879 in Grinstad parish in the Dalsland province. Borg emigrated to the United States in 1901, later studying art at the California Art Institute. His oil painting Egyptian Evening features an Egyptian family collecting reeds along the banks of the Nile River and was presented at the Arizona State Fair, where it was purchased for $125, now the equivalent of more than $3,200.

After this initial acquisition, the Phoenix Women’s Club purchased one new work per year. These artworks came to form the basis of the collection of Phoenix Art Museum, which was first established as the Phoenix Federal Art Center before ultimately becoming the institution we know today on November 18, 1959, more than 61 years ago.

Figure Studies
As the Greek philosopher Plato once observed, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.” For any creative, however, the beginning can be the most difficult stage of a new project, idea, or design, representing that first barrier that must be overcome before the creative process can unfold.

For some artists, a new work starts with the first brushstroke on canvas, but for others, it begins with a figure study, in preparation for the final piece to come. Figure studies can serve as a more informal means for artists to sketch out, plan, and imagine a new work of art, using media that provide greater flexibility, such as pencil, charcoal, and watercolors on paper. For artists working in large formats such as murals, for example, paper-based figure studies offer a manageable scope for the planning and conception of the larger work.

Historically, figure studies were a more affordable way to practice, as pigment, oil paints, and canvas were made from substances that were not always easily accessible. As such, practicing a work with simpler tools and materials allowed artists to pinpoint potential pitfalls and difficulties and thus conserve their limited supplies. Two-dimensional figure studies, known as esquisses, were used by some artists to plan for three-dimensional works, while many sculptors would also create 3-D models, or maquettes, a practice still common today. 

However, some artists use figure studies not in preparation for a future work but to further develop their technical skills or gain a greater sense of confidence with a particular subject matter. For example, some may focus on specific parts of the human figure, identifying and rendering those small but specific aspects of the body or form over and over to achieve greater detail or a desired effect.

Regardless of intention, figure studies provide a fascinating glimpse into any artist’s process. Many of these studies are exceptional in their own right and have been acquired into the Museum’s collection for historical preservation, serving as a record of those first bursts of creativity, the very beginnings of a work before it transforms from the stuff of imagination into the art of our reality.

Explore these examples of figure studies from the Museum’s collection.

Above: Pietro Testa, Figure Studies (Estudios de figura), not dated. Chalk on paper. Gift of the Carl S. Dentzel Family Collection. Right: Maynard Dixon, Hopi Men, Study for the mural (Hombres hopi, estudio para el mural), 1925. Gouache, board. Museum purchase with funds provided by Western Art Associates.