Shadow Box Art – Creating a Tiny Universe In a Box

Shadow box artists create unique little universes in their boxes. It is an old art form where objects, both two and three dimensional, are placed within a box that is designed to display them. One side is open to allow the viewer to see this small tableau. Also, it doesn’t have to be a box, but any container that can hold a collection of objects.

One thing about shadow box art is that artists love to collect objects that when put together present a surprise to the viewer. However, shadow boxes are also created for other reasons:

As a gift for a special occasion, award presentation, or as a commemorative, containing items relating to an occasion such as a wedding, anniversary, graduation, job promotion or the birth of a baby. The objects grouped together have some personal meaning to the receiver of the gift.

Used as a way to display a collection of like items such as marbles, shot glasses, thimbles, etc into a showcase frame.

Miniature room boxes are used to create cute realistic representations of a room. These boxes are often 12″ square and inside the box a scene is created in miniature.

Then there is the naval shadow box from which this art form had its beginnings.

According to some accounts of naval history and tradition, when a sailor retires and is departing the ship for the last time, it’s considered bad luck for the sailor’s shadow to touch land before he does. Thus, the sailor’s shipmates would construct a sturdy box, hand-crafted of the finest materials, in which to display mementos of the sailor’s accomplishments – thereby symbolically creating a “shadow” of the sailor. The box safely contains the sailor’s “shadow” until he is safely ashore, at which time the shadow box can be given to the sailor in a presentation ceremony.

Another account has it that, when a sailor would join a ship’s crew, he would join that ship for his entire career. During the sailor’s voyages to ports of call around the world, he would collect many trinkets, souvenirs, and reminders of his travels. As space aboard ship was at a premium, these items tended to be small. When the sailor went ashore for the last time, his shipmates saw to it that a special ceremonial box was constructed for him. The box would hold all the possessions that had been collected during those many voyages, and would simultaneously symbolize the sailor’s career and time aboard ship.

We are also familiar with the military one where an American flag is placed inside a triangular shadow box to symbolize that the country has benefited from the faithful service of the deceased. This is then given to the soldier’s family.
Police departments and fire departments use shadow boxes in considerably the very same way the military does. On retirement they are normally presented as a symbol of their dedication and outstanding service.

Not just an art form but a tiny stage to hold a universe of memories, shadow boxes enchanted the Victorians, the Surrealists, and continue to enchant us today. Perhaps the ultimate, 21st century “shadow box” is the 3D TV experience. Here you have all of the same components but now created in pixels of light!

  “Painting With Words” – Leona M Seufert

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Capturing Dance

Dance is poetry in motion, emotions given form, an art that exists both in space AND time. Modern artists and photographers delight in having dancers for their subject matter. Just check out our current exhibit by Mansa K Mussa  and you can see how the modern artistic eye doesn’t just create a static painting or photograph of dancers but tries to enhance the entire visual experience with images that tell a story.

Native Americans and the cultures of the Indian subcontinent always have had a colorful, powerful, dance tradition. However, our western dance was not always colorful or packed with motion. But as societies changed, as music changed, so did dance. And that opened the floodgates for artists to try to capture what now a video camera can so easily do. But is modern video as emotionally packed as an artist’s rendition of a dancer’s routine?

Here are some famous artists who took dancers as their subject matter:

Toulouse-Lautrec 1864- 1901


He is famous for his paintings of Can-Can dancers at the Moulin Rouge. At the Moulin Rouge is an oil-on-canvas painting painted between 1892 and 1895. It is one of a number of works by Toulouse-Lautrec depicting the Moulin Rouge cabaret which was built in Paris in 1889. (for his bio http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_de_Toulouse-Lautrec)

Henri Matisse, 1869- 1954

“Matisse was a French artist, known for his use of colour and his fluid and original draughtsmanship. He was a draughtsman, printmaker, and sculptor, but is known primarily as a painter. Matisse is commonly regarded, along with Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, as one of the three artists who helped to define the revolutionary developments in the plastic arts in the opening decades of the 20th century, responsible for significant developments in painting and sculpture…”
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Matisse)
He did 3 works that deal with the subject of dancers each repeating the same composition as in La Danse but altering the colors and the style somewhat. Wickipedia’s entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dance_(painting) gives a good description of all three.

Edgar Degas


“A French artist famous for his work in painting, sculpture, printmaking and drawing. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism although he rejected the term, and preferred to be called a realist. A superb draftsman, he is especially identified with the subject of the dance, and over half of his works depict dancers. These display his mastery in the depiction of movement, as do his racecourse subjects and female nudes.”
“From 1870 Degas increasingly painted ballet subjects, partly because they sold well and provided him with needed income after his brother’s debts had left the family bankrupt.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Degas

 Marc Chagall 1887 – 1985

 “Chagall was a Russian-French artist associated with several major artistic styles and one of the most successful artists of the 20th century. He was an early modernist, and created works in virtually every artistic medium, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints.”
“He had two basic reputations, writes Lewis: as a pioneer of modernism and as a major Jewish artist. He experienced modernism’s ‘golden age’ in Paris, where ‘he synthesized the art forms of Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism, and the influence of Fauvism gave rise to Surrealism’” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Chagall

Louis Kronberg

Called the American Degas for his portraits of ballerinas, Kronberg was born in Boston, and studied at the Boston Museum School, under Edmund C. Tarbell and Frank Weston Benson, where he earned a Longfellow Traveling Scholarship. Kronberg also studied at the Art Students’ League, New York, and at the Académie Julian (1894–1896) under Jean-Paul Laurens and Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, and privately with Raphaël Collin. In Paris, Kronberg became enamored with the works of Edgar Degas and proficiently painted ballet and Spanish dancers within theatre settings.

For capturing the dance, artists also had their “muses”. As we can see, ballet dancers were an inspiration for many artists. Their poses, costumes and choreographed movements inspired lively, yet socially sanctioned views of the female dancer. Then along came Isadora Duncan with her “modern” dance breaking all the rules. During her career, all the arts were reaching out in new directions, searching for new and exciting forms of expression and inspiration and they found that inspiration in Isadora Duncan. Painters and artists of all media worked diligently to catch Isadora‘s essence through the movement of her dance, while photographers sought to capture her moving mercurial image on film. Max Eastman said, “It was never easy to coax Isadora Duncan into a photographer’s studio. Like a wild and wise animal, she fled from those who sought to capture the essence of her — which was motion — by making her stand still.”

In the 21st century dance and artistic mediums have radically changed from Toulouse-Lautrec’s and Degas’ time. But one thing hasn’t changed, the artist’s desire to capture a subject that is mercurial, beautiful, and loaded with emotion. Dancers will continue to be artists’ muses and inspire creative works as they always have.
                     “Painting With Words” – Leona M Seufert