The Arts on the Stamps of the World — February 12

An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.


By Doug Briscoe

Today’s subjects are a ballerina, a photographer, a writer, a gospel singer, an actor, three painters, and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova was born on this date (O.S. January 31) in 1881. The identity of her biological father is not known for certain. She was about three years old when she was adopted by her mother’s second husband, Matvey Pavlov. Anna Pavlova fell in love with ballet in childhood, when she saw a production of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. The choreography was by Marius Petipa, with whom Pavlova would work in years to come, having her first great success in Adam’s Giselle in 1906. Her best known work, however, was choreographed for her by Michel Fokine: “The Dying Swan,” based on Saint-Saëns. She also worked for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, but was not comfortable with the avant-garde style of modern dance and composers like Stravinsky (even the Stravinsky of The Firebird). She founded her own company and moved to London in 1912. Pavlova is also known for having popularized the Jarabe Tapatío (Mexican Hat Dance) outside Mexico when she added it to her repertoire in 1919. Since 1924 it has been that country’s national dance and is taught in grade schools throughout Mexico. A dessert named for her was created during a tour of New Zealand and Australia in the 1920s. Wikipedia describes it as “a meringue cake with a crisp crust and soft, light inside, usually topped with whipped cream and fruit.” Each of the two countries has laid claim to the confection with a stamp of its own! The Cuban stamp was issued just two years ago to mark the hundredth anniversary of Pavlova’s first appearance in that country. Pavlova famously refused treatment on being told that a necessary operation would mean the end of her dancing career—“If I can’t dance then I’d rather be dead”—and she died of pleurisy on January 23, 1931, not quite fifty years old.

One of the painters of Hudson River School, Thomas Moran (1837 – August 25, 1926), like the School’s founder Thomas Cole, was born in the north of England. Early on he worked as an illustrator for Scribner’s. Greatly influenced by J. M. W. Turner, Moran was noted as a colorist and became one of the foremost painters of American landscapes, especially of the West. He came from a family of artists: his brothers Edward (1829–1901), John (1831–1902), and Peter (1841–1914) were all painters, as were his wife Mary Nimmo (1842–1899) and two nephews. His work has been featured on two US stamps: a detail from Cliffs of Green River (1871) and Grand Canyon (1912).


Eugène Atget (1857 – 4 August 1927) was one of the forerunners of documentary photography. He undertook to make a photographic record of all of the streets and buildings of Paris before they were lost to modernization. (His devotion to city life is also demonstrated by many typical street scenes and by his series of photographs of prostitutes.) Atget began as an actor, or rather, an actor manqué, as he failed his first entrance exam for acting class and, when he did gain admission, was expelled because his military service prevented him from attending all the classes. He did join a travelling troupe of actors only to give it up after his vocal cords were damaged by an infection. After this, he tried painting, but again could make no satisfactory progress, and finally turned to photography in 1888. Luckily, he had no money worries and could pursue his work freely, but alas, though he did sell thousands of photos, his work was mostly ignored until after his death, despite being championed by Man Ray and Berenice Abbott in his later years. The stamp is one from a set of six honoring French photographers.

The Polish writer Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer (kah-ZEE-m’yesh PSHAIR-va TET-my-er; 1865 – 18 January 1940) studied classics and philosophy before embarking on a career in journalism. The author of seven (or eight) collections of poetry, more than a dozen novels, and five plays, he was president of the Society of Writers and Journalists in 1921. Przerwa-Tetmajer loved the beauty and folklore of the Tatra mountains, and these were often the subject of his writings. Tragically, he contracted syphilis and was afflicted with blindness and mental illness; he probably would not have lived long even if the Nazis hadn’t thrown him (and all the others patients) onto the street from a hospice in 1940. He died in a Warsaw hospital shortly thereafter.

The multitalented Max Beckmann (1884 – December 27, 1950) was not only a painter, but also a sculptor and writer. He served as a volunteer medical orderly in World War I and was traumatized by the experience. The effect of this can be seen in the dramatic turn his paintings took, with their distorted figures. Despite his great critical and popular success in the Weimar years, Beckmann was one of the artists persecuted by the Third Reich, as early as 1933 being vilified as a “cultural Bolshevik” and having his work labeled “entartete.” The Nazis stripped museums of his paintings, some for inclusion in the notorious 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition. In that year, Beckmann and his wife left Germany for the Netherlands, but for ten years he was unable to get a visa for the United States. What he accomplished in Amsterdam, however, was of great power and included some of his finest work in the form of a number of large-scale triptychs. He finally did come to America after the war and lived the rest of his life here, succumbing to heart attack on a street corner in New York. The 1974 German stamp reproduces Beckmann’s Large Still-life with Telescope (1927).

American gospel singer Roberta Martin (1907 – January 18, 1969) was also the composer of about seventy songs and the arranger of nearly 300 more. She was born in Arkansas and moved to Chicago at age ten. There she studied piano and may have gone on to a career as a concert pianist had she not met Thomas A. Dorsey, the “Father of Gospel Music”, while accompanying a choir at a Baptist church. With Theodore Frye she formed the Martin-Frye Quartet, later (1936) renamed the Roberta Martin Singers. She encouraged and assisted many aspiring gospel artists and directed the choir at Chicago’s Pisgah Baptist Church for years.


Just a few years ago Canada honored Lorne Greene (1915 – September 11, 1987) and three other Canadian actors in a block of four stamps. Born Lyon Himan Green to Russian Jewish immigrants, he was called “Chaim” by his mother, and it seems no one exactly knows when he adopted his stage name. He started in radio and with his sonorous tones earned the nickname “The Voice of Canada”, which metamorphosed into “The Voice of Doom” after he was assigned to read lists of soldiers killed in World War II. Greene himself also served with the Royal Canadian Air Force in those years. Later, of course, he moved on to television (portraying Beethoven in a 1955 episode of You Are There!) and movies (playing the prosecutor in Peyton Place). Most famously, though, he was Ben Cartwright on Bonanza from 1959 to 1973. He was co-host of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC with Betty White from 1962 to 1972, played Commander Adama on Battlestar Galactica, and, as a keen environmentalist, was host of the Canadian nature documentary series Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness.

We don’t know the birth date (or even the birth year) of the German artist Albrecht Altdorfer, who died on this date in 1538. He was born around 1480 in Regensburg and worked there until he was about thirty, returning in his later years. Altdorfer, held to be the first landscape painter in the modern sense and the leader of the Danube School, also produced many engravings and drawings besides his paintings in other genres. After serving Emperor Maximilian I in Innsbruck, he worked mostly as an architect during the Reformation. Back in Regensburg, wealthy and prominent, he joined the city’s council and as such, most regrettably, was in some capacity concerned with the expulsion of the Jews from the city and the razing of the synagogue. In its place a church and shrine to the Virgin Mary were put up. We see here two examples of Altdorfer’s work—that is, his creative work—a detail from his 1518 Resurrection of Christ, currently in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and one of his many etchings, Landscape With Fir Trees.

George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” had its first performance in this day in 1924. In 2006, Liechtenstein issued a set of stamps with lighthearted representations of eight favorite pieces from the classical repertoire, one of them the beloved Rhapsody.

I regret the absence of stamps for German writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (1777 – 23 January 1843) and the great novelist and poet George Meredith (1828 – 18 May 1909).

A graduate of the University of Massachusetts with a B.A. in English, Doug Briscoe worked in Boston classical music radio, at WCRB, WGBH, and WBUR, for about 25 years, beginning in 1977. He has the curious distinction of having succeeded Robert J. Lurtsema twice, first as host of WGBH’s weekday morning classical music program in 1993, then as host of the weekend program when Robert J.’s health failed in 2000. Doug also wrote liner notes for several of the late Gunther Schuller’s GM Recordings releases as well as program notes for the Boston Classical Orchestra. For the past few years he’s been posting a Facebook “blog” of classical music on stamps of the world, which has now been expanded to encompass all the arts for The Arts Fuse

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