Welcome to Part III of my survey of art history. The five Art History 101 lists contain every work of art that was on at least two of the 18 ‘Best Works of Art’ lists that I collected from the Internet and books. Although most of the resources available to me focused almost exclusively on the art of Western Civilization, the list does identify some of the most significant artworks produced by the artists of Asia, Africa and South America. Because I believe visuals are essential for discussing the visual arts, I have included images of the art works, In most cases, you can click on the images to enlarge them. (I have tried to use public domain images where possible. In other cases, I believe this is a fair non-commercial use for educational purposes. If there are copyright concerns, please let me know.) Each entry includes the date of the work, the artist’s name, the name (or names) of the work, the style or culture associated with the work, and the location where the work was produced. In addition, I have included a brief essay with description (including measurements), artistic materials used, background and interpretation. Much of the information in these essays comes from Wikipedia or from the website of the museum or other site where the artwork is located. If you’re looking for Art History 101 – Part I (Prehistoric Era-1300), you can find it here. For Part IIA (1400-1499), go here. Part IIB (1500-1599) is here. Part IV (1800-Present) is here.
1600-1601: Caravaggio: Conversion of St. Paul on the Way to Damascus [Baroque; Italy]
When Tiberio Cerasi, treasurer-general for Pope Clement VIII sought artists to decorate his chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, he selected two of the best painters working at the time: Annibale Caracci and Caravaggio, who had made a name for himself with the first two St. Matthew paintings in the Contarelli Chapel (see below). Caravaggio painted two canvases for the Cerasi Chapel in 1600-1601, The Crucifixion of St. Peter and The Conversion of St. Paul on the Way to Damascus (also known as The Conversion on the Way to Damascus and The Conversion of Saul). The Conversion that hangs in the Cerasi Chapel (first image) is Caravaggio’s second attempt at the subject. The first, more conventional rendering, with an angel, was rejected by the executor of Cerasi’s estate (Cerasi died in 1601), although some experts suspect that the executor rejected the painting so he could keep it for himself (second image). The second version, made with oils on a canvas measuring 7.6 ft. tall by 5.75 ft. wide, has a simpler composition than the first but is also highly theatrical. We see no angel, only a heavenly light illuminating the horse’s flank. Having heard the voice of Jesus, Paul lies on the ground in state of religious ecstasy, his hands raised in prayer and awe. The groom seems unaware of what has happened and is more concerned about the horse than the fallen rider. Caravaggio effectively uses the technique of tenebrism – the horse, groom and Paul are spotlit against a black, featureless background. The contrary diagonals of the horse and Paul create a sense of tension, as does the horse’s raised leg. Some scholars have criticized the composition for showing “too many legs”, but others find that the fence of horse and human legs heightens the sense that the foreshortened body of Paul is being pushed backwards, towards the picture plane and into the viewer’s space. In this and other paintings from the period, Caravaggio is in some ways inventing the Baroque style, the philosophical underpinnings of which can be traced to the Council of Trent (1545-1563), in which the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church endorsed visceral religious art that spoke to the illiterate populace by appealing to the senses, not the intellect.
1601: Caravaggio: Supper at Emmaus [Baroque; Italy]
Painted with oils on a canvas measuring 4.7 ft. high by 6.4 ft. wide, Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus depicts a story from the Gospel of Luke in which two of Christ’s disciples meet him on the road after he rose from the dead but do not recognize him until, at lunch, he blesses the bread. Caravaggio (born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio) paints the precise moment of recognition, using the new Baroque style. The figures are real people with all their flaws. Caravaggio is less concerned with depth and perspective than with bringing the scene forward to connect with the viewer. In gestures of astonishment and disbelief, the disciples reach their arms toward the plane of the painting, as if trying to draw us in. The basket of fruit leans over the table edge so precariously, we worry it will fall on our floor, not theirs. In contrast to all the activity in the foreground, the back of the room is essentially featureless, though claustrophobically close. Supper at Emmaus is now at the National Gallery in London.
1599-1602: Caravaggio: Scenes from the Life of St. Matthew, Contarelli Chapel
[Baroque; Rome, Italy]
When French cardinal Matthieu Cointerel (Contarelli in Italian) died in 1585, he left money to decorate a chapel in Rome’s San Luigi dei Francesi Church with scenes from the life of St. Matthew, his name saint. Contarelli’s heirs commissioned Mannerist painter Giuseppe Cesari to paint frescoes but by 1593, Cesari had only completed one of the three walls. In 1599, Caravaggio was commissioned to finish the project by making two paintings for the walls using oils on canvas. By July 1600, Caravaggio had painted two Baroque masterpieces: The Calling of St. Matthew (first image, oils on canvas measuring 10.6 ft. tall by 10.8 ft. wide) and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (second image, measuring 10.6 ft. tall by 11.25 ft. wide), on facing walls. The original plan had been that Flemish sculptor Jacques Cobaert would create marble statues of Matthew and an angel for the altar, but when Cobaert delivered the statues, the church elders rejected them and instead commissioned Caravaggio (whose first two paintings had already caused a sensation) to paint The Inspiration of St. Matthew (third image, measuring 9.6 ft. tall by 6.1 ft. wide). The church rejected Caravaggio’s first version, which became known as St. Matthew and the Angel: they didn’t like St. Matthew’s crossed legs and bare feet, and disapproved of the angel-muse’s overly familiar attitude toward the saint. The painting was destroyed by bombing in 1945 during World War II. (See black and white photo of St. Matthew and the Angel in fourth image.) Caravaggio delivered an acceptable representation in about 1602. To discuss each of the pieces in turn: (1) The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600), depicts the moment when Jesus and St. Peter approach Matthew and Jesus beckons the tax collector to “Follow me.” Scholars praise the painting for Caravaggio’s use of light and shadow; they also note that Jesus’ finger recalls the finger of Michelangelo’s God in the Creation of Man on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Experts disagree about which figure represents St. Matthew. While most agree it is the bearded man who is the same model as the other two paintings, some suggest that the bearded man is pointing to the younger man whose head is looking down at the money. Others have noted that while the men at the table wear contemporary clothing, Jesus and St. Peter are clad in the timeless robes of Classical antiquity, thus distinguishing the earthly sphere from the heavenly. (2) The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600) was the first of the St. Matthew paintings that Caravaggio painted. Scholars have identified this work as a turning point in the move from Mannerist to Baroque style. Caravaggio expertly uses chiaroscuro to highlight the drama of the precise moment just before the assassin plunges his sword into Matthew, at the same time that the saint reaches out for a palm frond (symbol of his martyrdom) offered by an angel only he can see. (3) The Inspiration of St. Matthew (1602), the last of the St. Matthew paintings, addresses the criticisms that the church fathers made of the first version. The angel floats above St. Matthew, in a swirling drapery, and enumerates a point with his fingers, while the saint, kneeling below, watches and learns. The glowing yellows and oranges of Matthews robes pop out of the sea of darkness behind him, while his leg, stool and arm threaten to break the picture plane and enter the viewer’s space, in quintessential Baroque fashion.
1602-1603: Caravaggio: The Entombment of Christ [Baroque; Italy]
In some ways, The Entombment of Christ (also known as The Deposition) is a typical Caravaggio painting. Using tenebrism, the artist isolates a group of figures in a spotlight, while the background is nearly invisible. The chiaroscuro effects of this type of lighting are highly dramatic. The figures here – the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Aramithea, Nicodemus, and the dead body of Jesus – are arranged in a diagonal composition that begins with Magdalene’s hands raised to heaven and ends with Jesus’s hand and shroud connecting with the cold stone in which he will be buried. The people are real, not idealized. Caravaggio represents the Madonna as an older woman, whose hand reaches out to touch her son. The man in orange holding Jesus is foreshortened, sending him into the viewer’s space, along with the body of Jesus and the massive stone slab. In a graphically realistic detail that tells us that Jesus is truly dead, the man carrying him has slipped his hand around Jesus’s side and his fingers have entered the wound made by the soldier’s sword. The Entombment of Christ, which was made with oils on a canvas measuring 10 ft. tall by 6.7 ft. wide, was commissioned by Alessandro Vittrice for the Santa Maria church in Vallicella, part of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. It is now located in the Pinacoteca Vaticana in Vatican City.
1608: Caravaggio: The Burial of St Lucy [Baroque; Italy]
Caravaggio arrived in Sicily in 1608 after he escaped from a jail on the island of Malta by using ropes to climb down a sheer rock cliff. His friend Mario Minniti (the model for Bacchus and other paintings) found him a commission on short notice – he would paint The Burial of St. Lucy as an altarpiece for the church of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro in Syracuse. St. Lucy was a 4th Century martyr and Syracuse’s patron saint. After she refused to give up her Christianity, attempts to arrest her failed because a miracle kept her rooted to a single spot, where someone eventually decapitated her. St. Lucy was buried in catacombs over which the Santa Lucia church was built. Inspired by the cavernous rooms of the church and the catacombs beneath it, Caravaggio filled the upper portion of the canvas with empty space (so much so that in reproducing the painting, many web sites show only the lower portion). This space, though, is essential for creating the illusion that we are present at a martyr’s burial in the early days of Christianity, when asserting one’s religion could be a mortal decision. Down below in the foreground are a matching pair of gravediggers, while St. Lucy lies on the ground behind them (Caravaggio originally painted her with her head almost completely detached, but later reconsidered), and above her is a group of clerics and mourners. The space is so large that the gravediggers and a soldier are twice the size of the figures huddling in the background. Even though this is a religious service for a martyr, the religious figures stay in the background and the honest labor of gravedigging takes center stage. The Burial of St. Lucy (also known as The Deposition of St. Lucy) was made with oil on canvas measuring 13.4 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide. It was recently moved to the Museo Regionale di Arte Medioevale e Moderna (the Palazzo Bellomo) in Syracuse, Sicily.
1609: Adam Elsheimer: The Flight into Egypt [Mannerism/Baroque; Germany/Italy]
Adam Elsheimer, a German Baroque painter working in Italy, painted small landscapes designed for the cabinet, a private room in a spacious home. Possibly Elsheimer’s last painting, The Flight into Egypt measures 12.2 in. tall by 16 in. wide and was painted with oils on a sheet of copper. In it, the artist depicts a familiar story from Matthew’s Gospel in an unfamiliar way. According to the Gospel, it was nighttime when Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus into Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter of the firstborn, but previous artists depicted the flight into Egypt as a daytime event. Elsheimer was the first painter to meet the challenge of telling the story in a nocturnal setting. The work contrasts the few, limited light sources (the moon, Joseph’s torch and the shepherds’ fire) with the vast darkness of forest and sky. The overall effect is of the holy family seeking the small pools of light (hope and warmth) amid the unknown mystery and fearful power of the darkness. Elsheimer was an amateur astronomer and may have had access to a telescope (which was invented in The Netherlands in 1608), which would explain the accuracy of his depictions of the Milky Way, Ursa Major (the Big Dipper), other stars and the moon, all of which are consistent with the sky in Rome during June 1609. The Flight into Egypt is now at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.
c. 1611-1613: Artemisia Gentileschi: Judith Slaying Holofernes (Judith Beheading Holofernes) [Baroque; Italy]
(1) First version (1611-1613)
(2) Second Version (1614-1618)
In the Book of Judith, Assyrian general Holofernes is preparing to destroy the people of Israel when he falls in love with Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow from the village of Bethulia. Taking advantage of Holofernes’ fondness for her, Judith invites herself into his tent one night and waits until he gets drunk. When he passes out, she cuts off his head, saving herself and the Jewish people. The story has generated many works of art, but until the Baroque era, Judith was usually shown with the head of Holofernes post-decapitation. Caravaggio was one of the first to ratchet up the violence with his painting from 1598-1599 depicting the act of decapitation itself (third image). Artemisia Gentileschi, a distinguished painter and first woman member of Florence’s Accademia di Arte del Disegno at a time when women artists were not easily accepted, had certainly seen Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. She painted the theme twice, both paintings are referred to as Judith Slaying Holofernes or Judith Beheading Holofernes: (1) The first version was made in 1611-1613, using oils on a canvas now measuring 5.2 ft. tall by 4.1 ft. wide, although scholars believe it has been trimmed considerably on the left side (first image). The painting is now located in the National Museum of Capodimonte in Naples, Italy. (2) The second version, from 1614-1618, is considerably larger than what remains of the first canvas and appears to show the full intended composition for both paintings, including Holofernes’ legs on the left (second image). It was painted with oils on a canvas measuring measuring 6.5 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide and is now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Both paintings are highly dramatic, as Judith and her maid fight against a very conscious Holofernes. One can see the determination and physical exertions of both women and feel the pressure of Judith’s hand on the blade as she saws through living flesh. In the later painting, Gentileschi is less influenced by Caravaggio; also, she has added a realistic spurt of blood from Holofernes’ jugular vein to let us know that Judith has hit her mark (in contrast with the unrealistic blood spurts from Caravaggio’s treatment). Contemporaries might have recognized another meaning to the scene: Judith’s rage at Holofernes may echo Gentileschi’s rage at painter and former tutor Agostino Tassi, who raped Gentileschi when she was 18 years old. Gentileschi attempted to save her honor by marrying Tassi but he reneged, so she took the daring step of coming forward and accusing Tassi publicly. He was eventually convicted of rape after a trial in which she was tortured with thumbscrews to see if she was telling the truth, but he received a full pardon and was never punished.
1610-1614: El Greco: Laocoön [Mannerism; Italy]
According to Greek mythology, the Trojan priest Laocoön saw through the ruse of the Trojan horse and tried to warn his countrymen. When the pro-Greek gods found out, they sent sea serpents to kill the priest and his sons so the Trojan horse plan could succeed. A Hellenist marble sculpture of the event had been unearthed in Rome in 1506 – El Greco had probably seen it. In addition, according to legend, the Trojans founded the city of Toledo, Spain, El Greco’s home town. El Greco pictures Laocoön in his final struggle with the snake; he has fallen to the ground and only has enough energy to send a leg toward his remaining son in a desperate attempt to help, while another son lies dead next to him. The living son wrestles another serpent while pointing, either deliberately or by accident, to the Trojan horse on its way to the city, which is not Troy, but Toledo. This change of venue has led some to speculate that El Greco meant some allegorical meaning, perhaps a comment on the Spanish Inquisition that was then wreaking havoc on the population. Another mystery is the identity of the witnesses on the right side of the canvas, consisting of three heads but only two complete bodies, they may be the gods who sent the sea serpents. El Greco’s Mannerism is evident in the elongated, contorted yellow and green figures, the dark, emotionally-charged rocks and landscape below and gray, swirling clouds above. Laocoön was made with oil on canvas measuring 4.7 ft. tall by 6.3 ft. wide. The only mythological subject El Greco ever painted, it is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
1608-1614: El Greco: Opening of the Fifth Seal (The Vision of St. John) [Mannerism; Spain]
El Greco painted The Opening of the Fifth Seal (also known as The Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse and The Vision of St. John) for the side altar of the church in the Hospital of St. John the Baptist, just outside the walls of Toledo. The work was among the last that El Greco undertook and he died before finishing it. A large upper section of the painting was lost after being trimmed in 1880, changing the composition and confusing the meaning. For a time the painting was titled Profane Love. It was not until 1908 that an art historian proposed that the subject was The Opening of the Fifth Seal from the Book of Revelation, in which Christian martyrs receive the white garments of salvation. It may be that the missing upper portion depicted the Lamb of God opening the fifth seal. The trimming increased the relative importance of St. John the Evangelist in the composition. An elongated figure in an oversized robe, he spans the entire height of the reduced canvas, raising his arms and looking heavenward. The Opening of the Fifth Seal was made with oil on canvas measuring 7.4 ft. tall by 6.5 ft. wide and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Some scholars believe it was a source for the composition of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
1611-1614: Peter Paul Rubens: Descent from the Cross [Baroque; Antwerp, Belgium]
In 1611, Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens received a commission from the Confraternity of Arquebusiers to create an altarpiece for the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp. Rubens painted a triptych, using oils on wood panels, depicting the Visitation of Mary with Elizabeth on the left, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on the right, and the Descent from the Cross in the center. While rooted in the Baroque tradition and the work of Caravaggio, Rubens’ centerpiece (measuring 13.8 ft. tall by 10.8 ft. wide) also draws from the Venetian School. We see ladders on each side of the cross, and at the top, two unidentified workers taking down the pale corpse of Jesus, while holding the shroud they will use to wrap the body. A little lower, we see Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea preparing to accept the body. Still lower, St. John assists on the right and the three Marys (the Madonna, Mary Magdalene and Mary Cleopas) stand or kneel on the left. The Madonna reaches out to her son, while Jesus’ lifeless, punctured foot rests poignantly on Mary Magdalene’s shoulder. Rubens’ The Descent from the Cross is located in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium.
1612-1614: El Greco: The Adoration of the Shepherds [Mannerism; Spain]
Nowhere is El Greco’s belief that the divine has a physical presence more apparent than in The Adoration of the Shepherds, a painting he was working on at the time of his death in 1614. The vertical composition centers on the infant Jesus, from whom a light shines beacon-like on the faces of those gathered around him. They raise their hands as if warming themselves by the light of his divine fire. Like all of El Greco’s later works, the figures are elongated and distorted, and placed in impossible poses and postures. While there is a swirl of dance-like motion among these figures, they have little substantiality and do not exist in a real architectural space. When we look up, we see the foreshortened supernatural creatures flying at a dizzying angle. The spiritual energy generated by the incarnation has distorted not only shapes but colors, and El Greco’s palette of glowing, dissonant hues creates a visual vocabulary for the metaphysics of transcendence. The Adoration of the Shepherds was made with oils on canvas measuring 10.5 ft. tall by 5.9 ft. wide. The painting was originally placed in the Monastery of Santo Domingo El Antiguo in Toledo, but is now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
1617-1618: Peter Paul Rubens: The Rape of the Daughters of Leuccipus [Baroque; Flanders]
The term “Rubenesque” arose from the fleshy women figures in paintings like The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, which Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens made using oils on a canvas measuring 7.3 ft. tall by 6.8 ft. wide in 1617-1618. The painting shows brothers Castor (left) and Pollux abducting Phoebe and Hilaeira, the daughters of Leucippus, whom they will force to marry them. Thematically, the work is controversial because of an apparent ambivalence on the part of the subjects: Castor and Pollux seem less than enthusiastic about the abduction; and in some ways, the women seem a bit too enthusiastic, not fully objecting. Some scholars have read Rubens as ascribing to a then-popular theory (among men, presumably) that women enjoy being taken against their wills. From the point of view of art history, the work is a masterpiece of the Baroque style. There is intense drama among the men, women and horses, who twist and bend in unlikely ways, but the composition, which runs along two crossing diagonal lines to form an X, is almost classical in its unity. The spatial gap between the two women’s bodies is a source of dramatic tension, as the eye wishes to see one massive pink fleshy mass, and there are several visual rhymes. Rubens’ treatment of light and color – particularly the flesh tones of the nudes – is masterful. The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (also known as The Abduction of the Daughters of Leuicippus) is now at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.
1624: Frans Hals: The Laughing Cavalier [Baroque; The Netherlands]
We know very little about the subject of The Laughing Cavalier, the famous portrait by Dutch Golden Age painter Frans Hals, except that he was 26 when Hals painted him in 1624. There is no evidence that he was a cavalier, and he is definitely not laughing. The current title arose in the late 19th Century during an exhibition in London and has stuck. Hals animates the portrait by having the subject turn and smile while looking straight at the viewer, and by choosing a low angle. The angle also emphasizes the subject’s elaborate outfit, and gives the viewer a close-up look at the cupids and other love symbols on his sleeves. A close look at the painting, made with oils on canvas measuring 2.7 ft. high by 2.2 ft. wide, shows that, foreshadowing the Impressionists, Hals often used quick, broad brushstrokes, sketching out details in a way that creates an illusion of realism at a distance. The Laughing Cavalier is now located in the Wallace Collection in London. Random Trivia: The logo for McEwan’s, a Scottish-based brewer, is loosely based on The Laughing Cavalier, with the addition of a frosty mug of ale.
1622-1625: Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Apollo and Daphne [Baroque; Italy]
In his Metamorphoses, Ovid relates a tale in which Cupid punishes the god Apollo for a slight by making him fall in love with Daphne, a beautiful river nymph, while at the same time shooting Daphne with an arrow that makes her incapable of falling in love. Apollo chases Daphne relentlessly until she is exhausted and Apollo finally catches up to her. A distressed Daphne then prays to her father, the river god Peneus, to either take away her beauty or transform her body. As Apollo reaches out to touch Daphne, she begins to be transformed into a laurel tree. When Apollo finally places his hand on her, he only touches tree bark, although he can feel her heart beating underneath. It was this moment that Bernini captured in his 8-ft.-tall marble sculpture Apollo and Daphne, which was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (first and second images). In order to justify the presence of a pagan myth in a Catholic cardinal’s home, Borghese had a moral lesson engraved on the original base of the statue: “Those who love to pursue fleeting forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands.” A more applicable lesson may be that within a sculpture of cold stone we may find a beating heart that is the true representation of real life. The statue is Bernini’s most admired, although some scholars believe that a member of Bernini’s workshop, Giuliano Finelli, sculpted some of the details of Daphne’s metamorphosis. Apollo and Daphne is now in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Random Trivia: Lady GaGa used Apollo and Daphne as cover art for one of her albums.
1611-1629: Unknown Artists: Mosaics, Imam Mosque (formerly Shah Mosque)
[Islamic/Persian; Isfahan, Iran]
The Shah Mosque (known since the 1979 revolution as Imam Mosque; also known as Masjed-e Jameh Abbasi, Masjed-e Shah or Masjed-e Imam) is located in Naghsh-i Jahan Square in Isfahan, Iran. It was built between 1611 and 1630 under Persian leader Shah Abbas I, of the Safavid Dynasty, and was designed by architect Shaykh Bahai. Both the building and the 475,000 mosaic tiles that decorate it combine Islamic (mostly Arab) traditions with local Persian styles. For example, unlike monochrome domes found in other traditions, Persian domes such as the Shah Mosque’s are covered with colorful tiles, both outside (second image) and in, where there is a sunburst pattern (third image). Shah Abbas wanted the mosque to be completed in his lifetime (it was not to be) so he asked the builders to invent new, faster techniques, such as the haft rangi (seven-color) style of making tile mosaics, in which instead of firing small individual tiles of a single color, each large tile (17-20 in. square) incorporates multiple colors. (The seven colors are: dark blue, light blue, white, black, yellow, green and bisquit.) The resulting tiles are quicker to make and allow for more colorful designs. They shimmer in direct sunlight, although they are less vivid in shadowy rooms than earlier Safavid and Timurid mosaics. Among the most elaborate mosaics are those on and inside the four iwans or large formal entrance halls. The entrance iwan, or gateway includes two minarets and a recessed half-moon with stalactite tilework (fourth image). Around the rim of the 108-ft tall iwan, royal calligrapher Reza Abbasi, using white script on dark blue, inscribed verses praising Muhammad and his cousin and son-in-law Ali, as well as the date of the groundbreaking. Although the dominant color of the interior mosaics is blue, some of the halls include a brighter arrangement of yellows and greens (fourth image). As with almost all Islamic art, there are no depictions of humans or animals; aside from the inscriptions, the designs in the Imam Mosque are generally abstract.
1632: Rembrandt: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp
[Baroque/Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands]
In January 1632, 26-year-old Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was just beginning his career. His commission from the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons to paint a group portrait for their board room may have been his first group portrait. To complicate matters, the portrait would be taken at a public dissection. The Guild allowed just one such event each year, and it was a true social occasion, with members of the public, dressed for the theater, paying admission to watch the Praelector Anatomiae expound on the mysteries of human anatomy. By law, the cadaver was the body of an executed criminal. Therefore, the Guild scheduled the public dissection for January 16, 1632, the day that convicted armed robber Adriaan Adriaanszoon (alias Aris Kindt) was to be hanged. Rembrandt sketched as a preparator performed the dissection of the cadaver’s left arm and when Dr. Nicholaes Tulp stepped in to begin the lesson. In the resulting group portrait, known as The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Rembrandt represented the anatomy of the arm with remarkable accuracy (although medical experts note that Rembrandt has the flexor compartment originating at the lateral epicondyle, where it should be the medial epicondyle). More importantly for those who commissioned the portrait, Rembrandt portrays each man as a unique individual who is engaged in the lesson. (For posterity, one of the figures is shown holding a list of the names of the portrait subjects.) Rembrandt has grouped his subjects into a triangular composition, with Dr. Tulp, the only one in a hat, in a featured position; light illuminates each of the men’s faces and the cadaver. Instead of painting nine separate individuals, Rembrandt has created a unified mass to which each individual contributes. Some experts believe that the figures at the top and far left were added at a later date. This is the first painting that the artist signed simply as “Rembrandt” and one critic has noted that the cadaver’s navel is also in the shape of an “R.” The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, which was made with oil on canvas measuring 7.1 ft. tall by 5.5 ft. wide, was originally hung in Anatomical Hall in Amsterdam, home of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons. It is now at Mauritshuis in The Hague, The Netherlands. Twenty-three years later, Rembrandt painted a companion piece – The Anatomy Lesson of Jan Deijman – but it was damaged by fire in 1723 and only a fragment remains.
1629-1633: François Duquesnoy: Statue of St. Andrew [Baroque; Flanders/Italy]
During the 1630s, an aesthetic battle raged between Classical and Baroque sculptors. Flemish-born François Duquesnoy, who lived in Rome most of his life. was thought to possess a mixture of characteristics, although some labeled him a classicist. When Pope Urban VIII decided to place marble statues in the octagon of St. Peter’s Basilica to represent important relics possessed by the Vatican, Duquesnoy was one of the four sculptors he chose, along with Andrea Bolgi, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Mochi. Duquesnoy was charged with the Statue of St. Andrew, one of the 12 apostles, who, according to legend, was martyred on a diagonal or saltire cross. As for the relic, the Vatican had received a skull reported to be St. Andrew’s in 1462. Duquesnoy sculpted a 14.8 ft. tall St. Andrew Looking up to heaven, one arm outstretched, the other carrying his cross. The draperies are considered Classical in style, while the upper body and head are more theatrical, in keeping with the Baroque. Although one critic described the piece as “static and posed”, another noted that the entire composition “accentuates the diagonals.”
1633: Francisco de Zurbarán: Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose [Baroque; Spain]
The only work that Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán ever signed and dated, Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose is, on one level, a beautiful arrangement of ordinary objects: lemons, oranges and orange blossoms, a rose, plates, a basket, and a cup, lined up, equidistant, on a table, with the largest in the center, against a background too dark to decipher. The artist focuses our attention on the narrow space of the tabletop. One art historian noted three complementary elements: (1) the dark, atmospheric background; (2) the warm tones of the fruit and basket; and (3) the cool tones of the metallic plates and ceramic cup. Some scholars have suggested additional levels of meaning. Zurbarán’s other paintings usually had religious themes, and scholars have found Christian symbols here as well: the three equally distant items may refer to the Holy Trinity. The rose, water, and oranges may honor the purity and virginity of the Madonna. On this table, or altar, these ordinary items, like bread and wine, may be transformed by the presence of the divine into elements of the sacred. Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose was made with oil on canvas measuring 2 ft. tall by 3.6 ft. wide. It is now in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.
1634: Diego Velázquez: The Surrender of Breda [Baroque; Spain]
In 1629, 30-year-old Diego Velázquez, court painter for Spanish king Philip IV, set off to Italy for an 18-month artistic education. On the voyage, Velázquez accompanied Spanish general Ambrogio Spinola, who was returning to his home in Genoa, then a Spanish protectorate. Only four years earlier, Spinola had won his most illustrious victory. In 1624, during the war of Dutch independence from Spanish rule (also known as the Eighty Years’ War), Spinola ignored the orders of his superiors and lay siege to the heavily fortified Dutch city of Breda. After an 11-month siege, Justin of Nassau surrendered to Spinola, giving Spain a significant victory. Spinola was praised not only for his military skill but also the reasonableness of the terms of surrender. Just a year after Velázquez and Spinola sailed together, Spinola died during the siege of Casale, after political intrique had tarnished his reputation. In 1634, Velázquez painted Spinola’s victory at Breda for the Salón de Reinos in Philip IV’s new Buen Retiro Palace on the outskirts of Madrid. The Surrender of Breda was one of 12 paintings of Spanish military victories by various Spanish painters that decorated the royal reception room. Made with oils on a canvas measuring 10.1 ft. tall by 12 ft. wide, The Surrender of Breda shows Spinola (drawn from memory) accepting surrender from Justin of Nassau. Justin hands Spinola the key to the city, which forms the center point or ‘key’ to the composition. Some scholars believe that Velázquez painted The Surrender of Breda as a way of rehabilitating the image of his traveling companion. Both the historical record and the personal recollections of Velázquez support the painting’s depiction of Spinola as showing restraint, respect and dignity in victory. Ironically, the Dutch permanently recaptured Breda soon after Velázquez painted his canvas. The Surrender of Breda is now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
1635: Anthony van Dyck: Charles I at the Hunt [Baroque; Flanders/England]
At less than five feet tall, diminuitive English monarch Charles I was looking for an artist who could make him look like a king and court portraitist Daniel Mytens was not getting the job done. Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck had gained a reputation in Italy and Flanders as a superb portraitist, and he had gained Charles I’s attention by assisting his agents in building the king’s art collection and by sending Charles a few of his own works, including a portrait of Charles’s sister, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia. In 1632, Charles I made van Dyck his new principal court painter, granting him a knighthood and an annual salary of 200 pounds. Given van Dyck’s specialty, it is not surprising that his finest works during this period are his portraits of the king, which are accurate depictions but never reveal his below average stature. Charles I at the Hunt (also known as Le Roi à la chasse and Charles I, King of England, at the Hunt) is a 1635 portrait of Charles I in an informal setting, made with oils on a canvas measuring 8.7 ft. tall and 6.8 ft. wide. The king appears to be taking a break from a hunting trip to survey his domain – the lands and sea spread out below – when he turns to the viewer with a look of both supreme confidence and utter indifference. Van Dyck deliberately chose a low angle to depict the king to avoid drawing attention to his height, and placed him in the left, brighter side of the canvas, away from the shadows that engulf the bowing horse and courtiers. To ensure that the king’s face stands out against the bright sky, van Dyck used a black hat as a frame. While there are few definitive royal accoutrements (except for the cloak the groom holds and the statement, “Charles I, King of Great Britain” inscribed on a rock), there is no doubt that this is not just a nattily dressed aristocrat, complete with fashionable teardrop earring, but a king who knows how to play at the aristocrats’ sports without compromising his power and majesty. It is, perhaps, a sign of his confidence in himself and his power that he allowed himself to be portrayed in this informal manner. Van Dyck died in 1641, while Charles I was still on the throne; eight years later, the Puritans overthrew the king and eventually beheaded him. Charles I at the Hunt is now at the Louvre in Paris.
1636-1637: Pieter Jansz. Saenredam: Interior of Grote Kerk in Haarlem
[Baroque; The Netherlands]
Grote Kerk, also known as St. Bavo’s Church, was the largest church in Dutch artist Pieter Saenredam’s home town of Haarlem in the Netherlands. Grote Kerk began its life in the Middle Ages as a Gothic-style Roman Catholic church, but by the 1630s, the Protestant revolution had swept through the Netherlands, taking paintings and sculptures out of the churches and whitewashing the walls. Stripped of icons, the post-Reformation church interior emphasized the pure lines of the architecture, something that Saenredam spent much of his time capturing in a number of splendid paintings of Grote Kerk and other Protestant churches. He combined a dedication to realism with a willingness to alter the facts to make a better picture. He studied perspective and made measurements of the churches, but he also felt free to alter perspective rules (as in Interior of Grote Kerk at Haarlem, above) and omit furniture and other clutter from the final product. Made with oils on oak panel measuring 1.9 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide, this 1636-1637 work was one of several views of Grote Kerk that Saenredam painted over the years. This view is from the north side of the choir, east of the north transept. Saenredam’s Interior of Grote Kerk at Haarlem is now in the National Gallery in London.
c. 1637: Peter Paul Rubens: Horrors of War (Consequences of War) [Baroque; Flanders/Italy]
Flemish Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens was an accomplished diplomat as well as an artist, so it is no surprise that his allegorical painting Consequences of War (also known as Horrors of War) contains rich political insights. Commissioned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand II de’ Medici, Consequences of War is a commentary on the Thirty Years War then raging in Europe. Rubens places a blood-red Mars at the center of the composition. The Fury Alecto leads Mars into battle, while his lover Venus tries ineffectually to hold them back. A woman in black, symbolizing Europe, grieves at the destruction. Elsewhere, a trampled book, a broken lute, a fallen architect and scattered arrows stand for war’s devastating impacts on learning, building, and art. By placing two children beside Venus, Rubens reminds us of the traumatic effects of war on the young. Consequences of War, which was made with oils on a canvas measuring 6.75 ft. tall by 11.3 ft. wide , is now in the Pitti Palace in Florence.
c. 1635-1638: Adriaen Brouwer: The Bitter Draught (The Bitter Tonic)
[Baroque; Flemish; The Netherlands]
In The Bitter Draught (also known as The Bitter Potion and The Bitter Tonic), a coarse-looking man has just had a taste of a particularly bitter medicine, possibly a common anti-malaria tonic. Flemish painter Adriaen Brouwer’s portrait is an almost-scientific study of bitter taste and its effects on the human face. Until now, representations of taste in high art had been reserved for showing subjects enjoying food at meals. Rarely had a human expression of such rank disgust been the focus of a work of art. Brouwer used warm browns and reds for his palette, with ample use of white to highlight, create movement, and to mix with red for the flushed skin of the face. The Bitter Draught, which was painted with oils on a wood panel measuring 18 in. tall by 13.8 in. wide, is now in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut (Städel Museum) in Frankfurt, Germany.
1633-1639: Pietro da Cortona: Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power (The Triumph of Divine Providence) [Baroque; Rome, Italy]
Italian artist Pietro da Cortona painted the massive fresco titled The Triumph of Divine Providence (also known as Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power) on the ceiling of the grand salon in the Palazzo Barberini, home of Rome’s powerful Barberini family, between 1633 and 1639 (first image). The fresco was intended to celebrate the family’s power and good fortune, particularly the election of Maffeo Barberini to pope (as Urban VIII) in 1623. In true Baroque fashion, the work as a whole – all 4,300 square feet of it – is filled with a swirling, ecstatic energy. Allegorical figures abound in the crowded composition: scholars have identified Truth, Beauty, Peace, Chronos (Time, eating his children), the Three Fates, Immortality (carrying a crown of stars), Hercules, Vulcan, Minerva and St. Peter, to name a few. (See second image showing detail with Divine Providence, Immortality, Time and the Three Fates.) The mythological content is so complex that visitors to the Palazzo receive a detailed guidebook to help them decipher the many symbols, including those specifically referring to the Barberinis: the family’s coat of arms and squadrons of giant bees, the family mascot. Cortona also added plenty of trompe-l’oeil effects, including the apparent crumbling of the marble frame due to the weight of Providence, in one case, and Vulcan at his forge, in another. Some art historians have suggested that the fresco was intended to dispel any notion that Maffeo Barberini’s election to the papacy was rigged, a powerful rumor at the time. Instead, the fresco shows that Pope Urban VIII is in his place because of Divine Providence. The fresco may also have been intended to demonstrate the supremacy of Catholicism over its rival religions, although the reliance on figures from Classical mythology may have undermined that message somewhat.
1642: Rembrandt: The Night Watch [Baroque/Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands]
The painting by Dutch Golden Age artist Rembrandt van Rijn commonly known as The Night Watch does not depict a watch (which only occurs in times of danger) and does not take place at night. The members of a local militia commissioned Rembrandt to paint their portrait as they marched from their headquarters, during the day, in formation. The painting’s unwieldy original title is The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch Preparing to March Out, but is now officially known as either Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq or The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch. . The work demonstrates Rembrandt’s signature expertise in employing the technique of tenebrism, using dramatic lighting to draws the viewer’s attention to certain elements of the composition, while keeping the rest in shadow or complete darkness. The viewer focuses on the two leaders of the militia and a young girl, who carries the traditional symbols of the militia company. This large oil-on-canvas work (measuring 11.9 ft. tall by 14.3 ft. wide, first image) has suffered numerous indignities through the years. First, the glazes Rembrandt used have darkened over the centuries, causing the loss of some details, especially in areas outside the brightly-lit focal points. Second, when The Night Watch was moved to Amsterdam Town Hall in 1715, the canvas was trimmed on all four sides so it could fit on the wall between two columns. The trimming cut off portions of figures on the right and eliminated two figures on the left, changing the balance of Rembrandt’s composition. (A 17th Century copy of the untrimmed work by Gerrit Lundens is shown in the second image.) Finally, on three separate occasions (in 1911, 1975 and 1990), vandals have damaged the painting, although restoration work has repaired most of the damage. The Night Watch is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
1642: Jusepe de Ribera: The Club-Footed Boy [Baroque; Spain/Italy]
The subject of the painting known as The Club-Footed Boy, The Clubfoot, or The Boy with the Club Foot was a Neapolitan boy who was severely disabled and so poor that he had to beg for a living. Yet Jusepe de Ribera does not present him to us as an object of pity, condescension, sentimentality or even derision. Ribera uses a low angle to give the diminutive boy some stature, and he fills the canvas with his stunted body so we see him as a fellow human being. Most importantly, he does not idealize. The boy is playful – he wears his crutch like a soldier wears his rifle – and he is also clever. Being a beggar means being a performer, and here, he is performing for the artist, striking a pose. Ribera could have used the darker side of his palette to remind us of the horrors of poverty, but instead he paints the sky blue, the clouds white and the trees green. At bottom, Ribera never lost his roots in Spanish realism, even after many years in Italy. In the boy’s hand is a paper with the words in Latin, “Give me alms, for the love of God.” Italians of the 17th Century would have known that this was not Ribera’s attempt to tug at the viewer’s heartstrings – the paper was a type of permit or license that beggars had to carry to be allowed to solicit. Ribera knew that we do not need to see the boy’s misfortunes in order to claim him as a brother – it was enough to grant him a little dignity. The Club-footed Boy was made with oils on a canvas measuring 5.4 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide. It is now in the Louvre in Paris.
1648: Nicolas Poussin: Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion [Baroque; France/Italy]
Born and raised in France, Nicolas Poussin absorbed the French Baroque style, a classically-infused style that restrained many of the excesses of the Italian Baroque. It is not surprising, then, that when Poussin relocated to Rome at the age of 30 (where he would remain, with few exceptions, until his death), he introduced a new style of painting that rejected the most flamboyant Baroque affectations. In the 1640s, Poussin began an entirely new genre, the classical landscape. These paintings told stories from classical literature in the context of a much larger landscape that dwarfed the human figures. Poussin devoted two classical landscapes to the story of Phocion, an Athenian general who sought to restrain the excesses of his people, but in so doing incurred the wrath of a powerful few, who charged him falsely with treason and executed him. The Athenian leaders refused to allow Phocion to be buried in Athens, so they brought his body to nearby Megara and burned it there. In Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion (also known as The Ashes of Phocion Collected by his Widow and The Widow of Phocion Collects his Ashes), Poussin shows a landscape dominated by a great central hill with a temple, surrounded by trees on both sides. In the foreground, cloaked in shadows, is Phocion’s widow, on her knees, collecting her husband’s ashes, while her maidservant keeps watch. A man appears to spy on them, while a storm gathers. The entire composition is rational and restrained, a counterweight to the dramatics of the Baroque. Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion was made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.8 ft. tall by 5.8 ft. wide. It is now in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, England.
1650: Diego Velázquez: Portrait of Pope Innocent X [Baroque; Spain]
Painted with oils on a canvas measuring 3.75 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide, the Portrait of Pope Innocent X is considered by some scholars to be the best portrait ever made. Diego Velázquez, who was court painter for King Philip of Spain, visited Italy from 1649 to 1651. Due to his fame as an artist, Velázquez received an audience with Pope Innocent X, where the pontiff accepted the artist’s offer to paint his portrait. The artist renders faithfully the grandeur of the Pope’s garments and symbols of office – the use of color is considered unequalled – but in realizing the Pope’s face, Velázquez goes beyond outer appearances to reveal a fierce determination (some have called it ruthlessness) just beneath the surface. Legend has it that Innocent X, upon first seeing the portrait, said “Troppo vero!” (“All too true!”) Nevertheless, the Pope hung the painting in his chambers, and it is now in his family museum, the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome. Random Trivia: Twentieth Century Irish-British artist Francis Bacon used the Portrait of Pope Innocent X as the starting point for a number of truly unsettling paintings, including Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953) (second image).
1648-1651: Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) [Baroque; Italy]
According to a 17th Century account, when Pope Innocent X sought proposals for a new fountain in the Piazza Navona in Rome, across from the Palazzo Pamphili, Innocent’s family palace, he contacted every major architect and sculptor in Rome except Gian Lorenzo Bernini, arguably the most famous sculptor in Italy at the time, probably due to the influence of Bernini’s rivals. A powerful friend of Bernini’s convinced the artist to ignore the snub, create a design and make a model of it, and then arranged for the model to be displayed anonymously in a room in the Palazzo Pamphili. When the Pope saw the design, he judged it the best and commissioned Bernini to make the fountain. The centerpiece of the fountain is a 115-ft.-tall Egyptian obelisk (actually a copy of an obelisk made in Rome in 81 CE), topped with the Pamphili family emblem of a dove with an olive branch (first image). The structure below consists of what one critic called “a mountainous disorder of travertine marble” adorned with numerous sculptures, including a palm tree, a lion and a horse, and anchored at the corners by semi-prostrate river gods, one each for the four continents where Christianity had spread (second and fourth images). Bernini selected different sculptors for each river god: (1) Jacopo Antonio Fancelli carved the Nile River of Africa. The god wears a cloth over his face in recognition that the source of the Nile had not yet been discovered. (2) Antonio Raggi created the Danube River of Europe. Because, of the four rivers, the Danube is closest to Rome, its god displays Pope Innocent X’s coat of arms. (3) Claude Poussin sculpted the Ganges River of Asia (third image). The god carries an oar to show that the Ganges is navigable. (4) Francesco Baratta carved the Rio de la Plata of America. The god sits on a pile of coins to show the potential for riches in the New World, but the god shows fear of a serpent, reminding us that those who are rich fear thieves. Scholars have praised the revolutionary design of the fountain, and its dynamic fusion of architecture and sculpture.
1647-1652: Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa [Baroque; Rome, Italy]
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (also spelled The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa) is a masterwork of the High Roman Baroque style and its emphasis on theatricality and appealing to the senses of the viewer. The life-sized white marble sculpture of St. Teresa and an angel is set in an elevated space in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome (second image). The statue was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Cornaro, who had chosen the church of the Discalced Carmelite order of nuns and priests for his burial chapel. Teresa of Ávila, who described her experience of religious ecstasy in almost sexual terms, had become the first Discalced Carmelite saint in 1622. Saint Teresa appears to lean back on a cloud as she experiences a vision of an angel who has plunged his arrow into her heart, causing her physical pain but spiritual joy (first image). Bernini, who was also an architect, sets the sculptural group in a niche where natural light can filter through a hidden window in the church dome. A moan escapes from St. Teresa’s throat as her face and body express her love of God through the metaphor of physical ecstasy (third image).
1646-1653: Alessandro Algardi: Pope Leo Driving Attila from Rome [Baroque; Italy]
Italian sculptor Alessandro Algardi was out of fashion in the early 1640s. Although he was getting commissions, his more formal, classical style was not nearly as popular as the vivacious theatricality of Bernini and the other High Baroque sculptors. Then, in 1644, the wind began to blow in Algardi’s direction. Pope Innocent X was a fan of the severe style, and he commissioned Algardi to create what would become the largest high relief sculpture in the world at that time. The subject of the relief was the legendary moment in 452 CE when Pope Leo I confronted Attila the Hun at the gates of Rome and convinced him (with the assistance of soldier angels flying down from heaven) not to pillage and loot the city. Entitled Pope Leo Driving Attila from Rome or The Meeting of Leo I and Attila, the marble relief, which is located in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, is 24.6 ft. tall (first image). The pope stands on the left, stern and full of courage, while Attila, on the right, is dejected and fearful. The two figures – each more than nine feet tall – emerge almost completely from the marble background and beyond the edge of the relief panel into the viewer’s space. Above them, the warrior angels are coming to the rescue – a supernatural event that apparently only Pope Leo and Attila can see (second image). While the story dated to 452 CE, the message to the pope’s enemies was clear: If you cross me, I may bring divine retribution down upon you. The marble panel was a tremendous success for Algardi, who, sadly, died within a year, barely having had time to enjoy his good fortune. Algardi’s achievement had ripple effects throughout the art world. Illusionistic reliefs, which, like Algardi, had fallen out of fashion, surged in popularity and the art form saw true development for the first time in decades.
1653-1654: Rembrandt: Aristotle with a Bust of Homer
[Baroque/Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands]
When commissioned by Sicilian nobleman Don Antonio Ruffo for a painting of a philosopher, Dutch Baroque artist Rembrandt van Rijn chose to portray Ancient Greek thinker and scientist Aristotle, dressed as a wealthy 17th Century man and wearing a gold chain from his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great, lost in thought beside a bust of the Ancient Greek poet Homer (first image). Some scholars have interpreted the piece as contrasting the pure life of art, represented by Homer, with the compromises necessary to achieve Aristotle’s material success. To focus our attention and create drama, Rembrandt uses tenebrism, a technique in which some areas are unlit and black while the critical portions are illuminated. The painting was made using oils on a canvas measuring 4.7 ft. tall by 4.5 ft. wide. Formerly known as Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, the name of the painting was changed by its new owner, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to, simply, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer. Random Trivia: On July 21, 2013, The New Yorker published a cartoon by Michael Crawford updating Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, courtesy of The Simpsons (second image).
c. 1654-1655; c. 1655-1660: Jacob van Ruisdael: The Jewish Cemetery
[Baroque; The Netherlands]
First Version (1654-1655)
Second Version (1655-1660)
Dutch physician and landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael made two versions of a composition based on the Portuguese-Jewish Cemetery at Ouderkerk near Amsterdam. The larger of the two, which is in the Detroit Institute of Arts, dates from 1654-1655 and measures 4.7 ft. tall by 6.2 ft. wide (first image), while the second version, which is in Dresden, Germany’s Gemäldegalerie, is 2.7 ft. tall by 3.1 ft. wide and dates to 1655-1660 (second image). Scholars describe both paintings as atypical Ruisdael works in that they are moralistic, allegorical and continue a tradition known as ‘vanitas’ pictures, in which the artist reminds the viewer that this life and all its pleasures are fleeting and that death awaits us all. Ruisdael goes further, however, and provides hints (the rainbow, a patch of blue sky, the illuminated grave) that there is hope for salvation in the afterlife. To create these and other landscapes, Ruisdael constructed landscapes that never existed. While the three central graves were present, as a contemporary sketch by Ruisdael proves, the rest of the scene in both versions of The Jewish Cemetery is pieced together from disparate elements. The actual cemetery occupied level ground; the hill, the rushing stream and the dead beech never existed, at least not here. Ruisdael borrowed the ruins behind the graves from nearby Egmond: an ancient abbey church for the Detroit version and a ruined castle for the painting in Dresden. For Ruisdael, the emotional impact of the paintings was more important than whether the landscape depicted had an exact counterpart in nature; others painted what they saw, but he painted imagined scenes that triggered powerful emotions, prefiguring the Romantics. Ruisdael had a difficult time finding buyers for his emotional landscapes, which followed a Germanic tradition not afraid to explore desolation and other dark themes. Unfortunately, the fashion at the time was for lighter fare, in the Italian style. Ruisdael did receive considerable praise, then and now, for his cloud-filled skies, which dominate many of his works. One reason, perhaps, that he is not better known, is that the dominant color in most of his paintings is green, and the green paints he used have darkened considerably over the centuries, hiding the brilliance of the original color from contemporary viewers.
1656: Diego Velázquez: Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) [Baroque; Spain]
Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) is famous for its ambiguous point of view, its snapshot-like reality, and the questions it raises about reality and illusion. At the apparent center of the painting stands the Infante Margaret Theresa, daughter of King Philip IV of Spain, attended by her entourage (first image). While at first glance the composition seems balanced, Velazquez has not established a central point toward which all the perspective lines converge. The king and queen are represented by their reflections in the mirror at the back of the room (second image), implying that they are watching the scene. By placing the viewer in the same spot as the royals, the painter gives us their perspective. Velázquez also painted himself standing before a large canvas at left, the tallest figure in the room. Las Meninas itself is large, measuring 10.4 ft. high by 9 ft. wide, and is now located at the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Random Trivia: The red cross of the Order of Santiago that Velázquez wears in Las Meninas was received long after the painting was finished, and was added by order of King Philip IV after the painter’s death.
1656: Rembrandt: Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph
[Baroque/Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands]
In Chapter 48 of the Book of Genesis, Joseph brings his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim to his father, the patriarch Jacob, for his blessing. When Jacob blesses Ephraim, the youngest son, first, Joseph questions him, and Jacob explains that while both sons will father great kingdoms, Ephraim’s will be greater than Manasseh’s. In painting the scene, Rembrandt makes two important changes to the Bible story. First, he omits the questioning by Joseph. Instead, Joseph tenderly guides his father’s hand as he blesses Ephraim. Second, although the Bible story does not mention Joseph’s Egyptian wife Asenath, Rembrandt has given her an essential role in the blessing scene. Asenath stands apart from the blessing, but her approval is evident. Her quiet dignity gives the scene an emotional gravitas and her presence balances the composition. She is the link between the dying world of Jacob and the future that lies ahead for her, Joseph and especially their children. As one scholar commented, Rembrandt’s choice of warm yellows, browns and reds creates a mood that is ‘both intimate and sacred, both tender and solemn.’ As usual, Rembrandt carefully manipulates the light and dark areas, using chiaroscuro and tenebrism to emphasize the emotional intensity of this intimate moment. The painting is called, among other things, Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph, Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph and Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh. It was made with oils on a canvas measuring 5.7 ft. tall by 6.8 ft. wide and is now located in the Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Germany.
1657-1658: Johannes Vermeer: The Milkmaid [Baroque/Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands]
Painted with oils on a canvas measuring 18 in. tall by 16 in. wide, Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid portrays not a milkmaid but a kitchen maid, who is pouring milk while making bread pudding from leftover bread. While most prior depictions of maids emphasized their alleged amorous nature (and there are some possible hints here – including a Cupid on the baseboard tiles), the overall tone is one of respect for hard work and other domestic values. Art historians praise Vermeer’s treatment of light, handling of color and creation of the illusion of physicality. They also note Vermeer’s early use of tiny dots of paint, or pointilles, particularly for rendering the bread, long before Georges Seurat pioneered Pointillism in the 19th Century. The Milkmaid is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
1658-1660: Pieter de Hooch: A Dutch Courtyard
[Dutch Golden Age/Delft School; The Netherlands]
Pieter de Hooch was a contemporary of Jan Vermeer and both were residents of Delft for a period in the 1650s, when de Hooch painted A Dutch Courtyard, one of many scenes of everyday life that usually involved men (often soldiers) and women (often servants) drinking, paying cards, performing domestic chores and engaging in romantic dalliances. Scholars praise de Hooch’s use of clear perspective, the clarity of his light and his creation of harmonious compositions through “the geometry of architectural elements.” His dedication to composition and perspective outweighed his interest in documenting reality, so that many of his scenes, including A Dutch Courtyard, from 1658-1660, may not correspond to actual locations. While the courtyard itself may be a composite, de Hooch has faithfully rendered the tower of Nieuwe Kerk, Delft’s Gothic landmark. The elements of A Dutch Courtyard, also known as Two Soldiers and a Woman Drinking in a Courtyard, are typical. Two soldiers sit at a courtyard table, apparently drinking and smoking, while a woman and girl seem to be serving them. The girl is bringing a brazier of hot coals, presumably to light the soldiers’ long-stemmed clay pipes, but instead of serving, the woman standing at the table appears to be drinking, while the men look on. Art historians have identified the vessel the woman holds to her mouth as a ‘pass glass’ used in drinking games. Concentric circles were drawn on the glass, and the person playing the game had to drink exactly to the next circle. So it may be that the soldiers have asked their server to join in their game. One of the soldiers holds a tankard that was probably used to fill the glass. It may be that de Hooch is giving us a glimpse of an aspect of life in a classified society, where sometimes members of the soldier caste invited a member of the servant class to interact on the level of equals. The overall tone is of quiet amusement as de Hooch soothes the entire scene with a calm, even light. A Dutch Courtyard was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.3 ft. high by 1.9 ft. wide. It is now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
1660: Rembrandt: The Denial of Saint Peter [Baroque/Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands]
All four Gospels relate the story of Jesus’s Last Supper prediction that Peter, his first disciple and ‘rock’, would deny him three times during the night of his arrest “before the cock crows. Peter swears his loyalty, but later that night, as Peter follows the arrested Jesus, he has three encounters with people who ask him if he is with Jesus or who identify him as one of the disciples. In each case, fearing for his safety, Peter denies it. When the cock crows, Peter remembers Jesus’s statement and weeps. In Rembrandt’s version, titled The Denial of Saint Peter, a group of three, including at least one soldier, stands around Peter, the largest figure in a small room. The young man closest to Peter (possibly a servant of the high priest Caiaphas) holds a candle to his face accusingly, and Peter’s pale cloak reflects the accusing candlelight. Peter makes a gesture of denial, presumably to accompany his words. His face registers not only the righteous indignation of the accused, but also astonished, dejected recognition as he finds himself doing what he swore he would not. In the background, barely visible, Jesus, under arrest, turns and looks back at Peter before the soldiers take him away, the prophecy fulfilled. Scholars believe Rembrandt’s composition was influenced by engravings of the paintings of Flemish artist Gerard Seghers made by Schelte a Bolswert and A. de Paullis, but that the color scheme is completely original. The Denial of Saint Peter, also known as The Denial of Peter, Peter Denying Christ and Peter Denies Christ, was made with oils on a canvas measuring 5.1 ft. high by 5.6 ft. wide. It is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
1660-1661: Jan Vermeer: View of Delft [Baroque/Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands]
Seventeenth Century Dutch painter Johannes (Jan) Vermeer painted View of Delft, his hometown, from the second floor window of a tavern on the opposite side of the Lange Geer canal (first image). View of Delft, which measures 3.2 feet tall by 3.9 feet wide, is known for its intricate and original treatment of light and shadow. A shaft of sunlight illuminates some of the buildings, including the tower of the New Church on the right, which houses the grave of Willem of Orange (see detail in second image). While the painting appears to be a faithful representation of the cityscape, comparison with contemporary sketches by others shows that Vermeer made numerous changes to enhance the artistic effect he sought. Vermeer’s View of Delft is now in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Random Trivia: Vermeer’s View of Delft features prominently in a scene in Volume 5 of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.
1662: Rembrandt: Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild (The Staalmeesters)
[Baroque/Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands]
Called by many names (e.g., Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, The Wardens of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, The Syndics of the Clothmakers’ Guild, The Sampling Officials, and The Staalmeesters), Rembrandt’s group portrait of the government-appointed body that determined the quality of cloth sold by Amsterdam weavers is a masterpiece of the genre. The five syndics sit at a table covered with a Persian-style rug on a raised platform, while their attendant (in the back, hatless) stands ready to assist (first image). A book lies open on the table, but all five men are facing the viewer. Scholars disagree about what activity the men are engaged in. According to one theory, the syndics are making a presentation to an audience of Drapers’ Guild members and the book is a list of accounts. Others believe the men are conducting a private working meeting in which they are assessing a length of Persian-style rug against exemplars from a swatch book. In either case, Rembrandt’s genius was to create a portrait that defines the group, while also portraying the men as individuals. Each of the syndics is posed uniquely and shows a different facial expression, so that a range of complementary emotions greets the viewer. Each syndic is given equal weight in the composition. X-ray analysis shows that Rembrandt rearranged the positions of the men a number of times before arriving at a favored combination. Yet Rembrandt did not allow this emphasis of individuality to compromise the unity of the group. Three horizontal lines join the composition together: (1) along the table edge and the arm chair on the left; (2) through the hats and heads of the four seated syndics; and (3) the wainscoting on the wall above the figures’ heads. The hat of the man half-standing up forms a scalene triangle with the other hats. Furthermore, Rembrandt’s trademark chiaroscuro technique creates a light-filled space that isolates and unites the men between the front of the desk (where a warm, soft glow emanates from the redness of the rug) and the wall behind them. The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild was made with oils on a canvas measuring 6.3 ft. high by 9.2 ft. wide. It was commissioned by the Drapers’ Guild and hung in the Guild hall in Amsterdam until 1771. The painting is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Random Trivia: Rembrandt’s group portrait of The Staalmeesters is the logo for Dutch Masters cigars (second image).
1665: Johannes Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring
[Baroque/Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands]
Girl with a Pearl Earring, which measures 17.5 in. high by 15 in. wide, is considered a tronie, a painting of a person in costume or in character, not intended to be a formal portrait. The pearl earring may symbolize chastity, while the exotic turban was a fashionable accessory in Europe beginning in the 15th Century. Many have speculated about the artist’s model, who may have appeared in other Vermeer works. Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel of the same name theorizes that she was a maid who became Vermeer’s love interest. Others say she is Vermeer’s daughter Maria. Girl with a Pearl Earring is now in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
1667: Rembrandt: The Jewish Bride [Baroque/Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands]
The identity of the couple in Dutch artist Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride is unknown -it is not even clear that they are Jewish. The current title arose from a now-debunked 19th Century theory that the painting showed a Jewish father giving his daughter a necklace on her wedding day. A number of scholars believe the figures represent Old Testament couple Isaac and Rebekah, either as authentic Biblical figures or as part of a contemporary tradition in which men and women (and couples) had their portraits painted while dressed as figures from history or the Bible. Rembrandt uses his mature technique here, which involved smearing thick layers of paint on the canvas to bring out texture. Scholars note that his overall composition, use of color and shading all contribute to the effect of capturing an intimate moment between husband and wife. The Jewish Bride, made with oils on a canvas measuring 4 ft. tall by 5.5. ft. wide, is now located at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
1668-1669: Rembrandt: The Return of the Prodigal Son
[Baroque/Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands]
Perhaps the last canvas Rembrandt completed before his death in 1669, The Return of the Prodigal Son is a subdued yet powerful meditation on the power of forgiveness. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable of a man with two sons. One stays at work, obeys his father and works hard. The other runs off and squanders his inheritance on liquor and prostitutes. Yet when the second, prodigal son returns home, the father welcomes him with open arms and throws a big party, while the other brother smolders. The theological point is that, according to Christian teaching, God will forgive us and welcome us into eternal life no matter what we have done in the past, as long as we repent. The father is the key figure – his hands express warmth and tenderness, but also support and strength. By his use of light, Rembrandt directs our eyes to the disheveled appearance of the returning prodigal, dressed in rags, shoes falling off, yet unwilling to sell his last good possession – a short sword. The older brother, at right, is clearly unhappy with the situation, while another wealthy man, who is unidentified, looks on with interest, and a servant seems truly moved. The woman hiding in the shadows on the left may be the prodigal’s mother – her attitude toward the scene is ambiguous. By facing the prodigal son away from us, Rembrandt transforms an individual into anyone and Everyman, and the moment of family drama attains universal significance. Though near the end of his life, Rembrandt demonstrates that he is still the master of light, shadow and color, as well as emotional depth, in this large (8.6 ft. tall by 6.7 ft. wide) canvas, which is now in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
1670: Johannes Vermeer: The Art of Painting [Baroque/Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands]
In The Art of Painting, the artist Jan Vermeer allows the viewer a privileged look at the process of making art and in so doing, seeks to elevate the status of art and the artists who make it. A colorful tapestry curtain (a framing device known as a repoussoir) is drawn back to reveal the creative act in progress. An unusually well-dressed artist (probably a Vermeer self-portrait), appears to be painting his model as Clio, the Muse of History (first image). An accurate copy of Claes Janszoon Visscher’s 1636 map of The Netherlands hangs on the back wall (see detail in second image). The light enters the room from the back left and illuminates portions of the room, highlighting certain details and creating shadows elsewhere. The square tiled floor allows Vermeer to demonstrate his control of linear perspective. The painting held a special place in Vermeer’s heart – he never sold it, even when he was in debt – but his family lost control of it after Vermeer’s death in 1675. In 1813, it was purchased for 50 florins by Bohemian-Austrian Count Czernin, whose descendant Count Jaromir Czernin sold it (possibly unwillingly) to Adolf Hitler in 1940 for 1.65 million Reichsmarks. During World War II, the Nazis protected the painting from Allied bombs in a salt mine. The Americans retrieved it in 1945 and gave it to the Austrian government. The Czernin family has sought the return of the painting since the 1960s, without success. The Art of Painting, also known as An Allegory of Painting and The Artist in His Studio, is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
1671-1682: Pierre Puget: Milo of Croton Attacked by a Lion [Baroque; France]
According to Greek legend, Milo of Croton (also known as Crotona, a Greek colony in southern Italy) was a huge figure who was considered one of the strongest men on earth in the 6th Century BCE. A champion wrestler, he once carried a live ox through the Olympic stadium and then ate the entire beast in a single day. Late in his life, he is said to have been walking in the forest when he saw an oak tree partly split open. He tried to wrench it apart using a wedge, but the wedge fell and his hand was caught in the tree. Trapped, the defenseless Milo was the victim of a vicious lion attack that left him dead. In 1670, French sculptor Pierre Puget convinced the King’s minster Jean-Baptiste Colbert to commission sculptures for the gardens of the new Palace of Versailles. Colbert ordered statues of Milo of Croton and Perseus and Andromeda. In 1682, Puget completed Milo of Croton, a marble statue standing 8.8 ft. high, and delivered it to Versailles in 1683 (two views in first and second images). It was given a place of honor, at the entrance of the Green Carpet. In the sculpture, we see Milo, his left hand trapped, writhing in agony as the lion leaps on him from behind. On the ground, we see a cup Milo won at the Olympic games, useless now in his hour of need. Puget’s twisting hero and ferocious lion, with their strong diagonals and violent movements, have more than a little of the Baroque in them. Still, the classicism for which French sculptors were known is evident in the geometric framework of the piece. In 1820, Puget’s Milo of Croton was moved to the Louvre in Paris, where it remains.
1701: Hyacinthe Rigaud: Portrait of Louis XIV [Baroque; France]
French portratist Hyacinthe Rigaud painted four generations of Bourbon monarchs, their family, friends and officials and knew how to present royalty in the best light. He painted his larger-than-life Portrait of Louis XIV (made with oils on a canvas measuring 9.2 ft. tall by 6.25 ft. wide) in 1701, when the Sun King was 63 years old and at the height of his power. The purpose of the portrait was to glorify the kingship, not the king, and as a result, scholars believe, Rigaud probably idealized the Bourbon monarch’s appearance. To emphasize his royal power, Louis wears his coronation robes (adorned with the fleur-de-lys, symbol of the House of Bourbon) and carries his scepter (upside down), with his crown nearby. He pulls back his robes to reveal his legs (a possible reference to his skill as a dancer) and also the Sword of Charlemagne, which was used in coronation ceremonies. Rigaud was careful to drape the large column in the rear in such a way that it does not appear taller than the king, who dominates the composition. The Portrait of Louis XIV was so popular that Rigaud made multiple copies of it, including one for the king himself, who gave away the original as a gift for the king of Spain. The portrait is now in the Louvre in Paris.
1717: Antoine Watteau: The Embarkation for Cythera [Rococo; France]
The Greek island of Cythera was the birthplace of Venus, and by extension, of love. In The Embarkation for Cythera, French artist Antoine Watteau depicts loving couples in an amorous aristocratic party known as a “fête galante” (first image). Classical elements include a statue of Venus and a bevy of hovering Cupids. Although the painting is known by such titles as The Embarkation for Cythera, Voyage to Cythera and Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera, some critics have noted that the figures appear to be leaving Cythera after having paired up, not preparing to go to the island (see detail in second image). The painting played an important role in Watteau’s career because he presented The Embarkation for Cythera to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture as his required reception piece after being granted admission. The work was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.2 ft. tall by 6.4 ft. wide and is now located at the Louvre in Paris. A somewhat different version, usually referred to as Pilgrimage to Cythera, painted in 1718-1719, hangs in the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin (third image).
1718-1719: Antoine Watteau: Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles [Rococo; France]
Both Pierrot and Gilles were stock comedic characters of French pantomime and Commedia dell’Arte, with similar costumes and roles. The Pierrot character was a buffoon (but often treated sympathetically) that was introduced to French audiences by a traveling Italian acting troupe in the late 17th Century. In the traditional story, Pierrot loves Columbine, who breaks his heart when she leaves him for Harlequin. Watteau, whose work as assistant to painter Claude Gillot brought him into contact with the theater, depicts other Commedia dell’Arte characters – the Doctor on his donkey, the lovers Leander and Isabella, and the Captain – who seem to ignore the sad clown, possibly a self-portrait. Watteau painted in the Late Baroque, or Rococo style. Some have speculated that the large canvas (measuring 6.1 feet tall by 4.9 feet wide) was intended as a theatrical sign for a performance at a café or fairground. As for the title, the painting was generally known as Gilles until the 20th Century, when a critical mass of scholars decided that Watteau had painted Pierrot, not Gilles, leading to the Louvre’s awkward title, Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles.
c. 1725-1730: Canaletto: The Stonemason’s Yard (Venice: Campo Santa Vidal and Santa Maria Della Carita) [Venetian Landscape; Venice, Italy]
Born Giovanni Antonio Canal in Venice, Canaletto painted highly detailed and accurate landscapes (known as vedute) of his hometown, many of which were purchased by English tourists. The Stonemason’s Yard, an early work considered one of Canaletto’s best, is somewhat atypical in that it reveals a side of the city that many tourists would not have seen. For that reason, scholars believe it was probably made for a Venetian patron. In the foreground is Campo Santa Vidal, a small square in front of the Santa Vidal Church (which is unseen, behind the viewer) . Masons are using the Campo to store (and work on) the stones they are using to repair the Santa Vidal. Behind the Campo is the Grand Canal, with its gondolas, running parallel to the picture plane. Across the canal is the Medieval church of Santa Maria della Carità, with its campanile (belltower), which collapsed in the 1740s, and, to the viewer’s right, the Scuola Grande della Carità (now the Gallerie dell’Accademia). Modest residential apartments, with their flared chimney pots and open windows, frame the Campo in the foreground. Throughout the painting, Venetians old and young go about the activities of daily living. Those who have studied the painting attribute its warm tonality to the reddish brown background layer that Canaletto painted over. Others have noted that the strong diagonals of sun and shadow as storm clouds disperse overhead help to define the space and articulate the lines of the architecture. The Stonemason’s Yard, which was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4 ft. high by 5.3 ft. wide, is now in the National Gallery in London.
1730: Canaletto: The Bucintoro Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day
[Venetian Landscape; Venice, Italy]
Venice is a city of festivals and ceremonies. Every year on Ascension Day (the day commemorating Jesus’s ascension into heaven), the Doge of Venice set out on the Bucintoro (or Bucentaur), the ceremonial state barge, into the Adriatic Sea, where he cast a gold ring into the water as a symbol of Venice’s marriage to the sea, and then returned to the Molo, the wharf in front of the Doge’s Palace. In 1729, the Imperial ambassador to Venice, Count Bolagnos, commissioned Canaletto to make two paintings, one showing the Ascension Day festival and the other the presentation of his credentials to the Doge. The resulting two paintings are The Bucintoro Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day (see image above) and The Reception of the Ambassador in the Doge’s Palace. The Bucintoro Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day was one of several Canaletto canvases memorializing the Ascension Day festivities over the years, but its grander proportions (it was made with oils on a canvas measuring 6 ft. tall by 8.5 ft. long) and more dramatic use of red distinguishes it from the others. We look diagonally across the canal to the Bucintoro parked at the Molo wharf in front of the Doge’s palace, which is at center right. In the foreground, the canal is crowded with brightly-festooned boats, creating a sense of controlled chaos. The painting is currently in a private collection.
c. 1732-1733: William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress (series of eight) [Rococo; UK]
In 1732-1733, William Hogarth painted eight scenes from the life of the fictional Thomas Rakewell, heir to a rich merchant, a moral tale of about irresponsibility and living in excess done in the rococo style. In 1735, Hogarth had the paintings engraved, with some alterations, and then published as prints. The eight chapters of the Rake’s decline and fall are as follows: (1) The Heir: Tom’s father is dead and Tom has his fortune; he buys new clothes and rejects his pregnant fiancée, Sarah; (2) The Levee: Tom is attended by various hangers-on offering their services, including music, fencing, quarterstaff and dancing teachers (first image); (3) The Orgy: Tom’s watch is stolen at a drunken orgy at the Rose Tavern, a famous brothel; (4) The Arrest: Sarah intervenes to prevent bailiffs from arresting Tom for debts as he takes a sedan chair to a party, has his cane stolen and has oil poured on his head; (5) The Marriage: Tom marries a rich old maid to get out of debt, while Sarah arrives too late (second image); (6) The Gaming House: Tom looks to heaven to help after gambling away his new wife’s money, while a fire breaks out; (7) The Prison: Tom is now in debtors’ prison, where Sarah and his wife lament his state, and there are signs that he is losing his sanity; (8) The Madhouse: Insane and violent, Tom ends up in Bedlam (Bethlehem Hospital) mental asylum, where Sarah, still ignored, continues to comfort him. The original eight paintings, each made with oils on a canvas measuring 2 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide, are now located in Sir John Soane’s Museum in London.
c. 1735-1736: Jean-Siméon Chardin: The Young Schoolmistress [Rococo; France]
The domestic scenes of French painter Jean-Siméon Chardin had a near-universal appeal. Chardin had a light touch, but it was grounded in realism and a sense of shared moral values. He did not preach or oversentimentalize his subjects, who were usually fairly well off but not filthy rich. The rich bought his paintings and the middle class bought prints from engravings of the same paintings. The Young Schoolmistress (also known as The Little Schoolmistress) shows a young girl teaching a lesson to a much younger girl, possibly her sister. We see the teacher in profile, pursing her lips and pointing at a page in a schoolbook. She may be sounding out a letter or a word. The younger girl also points and looks as if she might be about to make a sound. Chardin’s choice of angle and use of light creates a warm, positive mood as we watch primary education occurring on a small scale. To emphasize the difference between older and younger, teacher and unformed student, Chardin paints the older girl sharply, while the younger girl exists in a kind of haze. They work at a piece of furniture with doors that lock. The key extends from the door at the left to catch the light and in so doing thrusts the painting forward toward the viewer, connecting us with this private scene. The Young Schoolmistress was painted with oils on a canvas measuring 2 ft. tall by 2.2 ft. wide. Chardin first exhibited it at the Salon of 1740. It is now in the National Gallery in London.
1744: Jean Baptiste Pigalle: Mercury Attaching His Wings (Mecury Tying His Sandals) [Neoclassicism; France]
In 1740, Jean-Baptiste Pigalle brought his terracotta sculpture of the messenger god Mercury with him to Paris. The model showed the god sitting on a rock, tying on his winged sandals, or talaria, and posed dynamically. The twisted shape of his crouching torso, the upward slant of his limbs and shoulder, his face turned skyward, not looking at his hands, and the weight of his left leg on his toes all created the powerful impression of imminent action. Pigalle offered the terracotta to the Art Academy as an admission piece, but the officials asked him to come back with a marble version. Pigalle first made a larger plaster version of his Mercury, added a plaster statue of Venus giving Mercury a message and exhibited them both at the 1742 Paris Salon. In 1744, he presented the Academy with a marble Mercury and was promptly admitted. (This marble Mercury measures 1.9 ft. tall, 1.1 ft. wide and 1.1 ft. deep and is now in the Louvre in Paris – see first image). In 1746, the Royal Administration ordered Pigalle to make two more life-size marble statues of Mercury and Venus, which Louis XV presented to Frederick of Prussia in 1748. The statues can be found on the grounds of the Sans-Souci Castle in Berlin. In 1753, a life-size cast was made in lead, which is also in the Louvre and measures 6.1 ft. tall, 3.5 ft. wide and 3.4 ft. deep (second image). Scholars have praised Pigalle’s creation (which has been called Mercury Tying His Sandal, Mercury Attaching His Wings, Mercury Attaching His Sandals, Mercury Fastening His Heel-Wings, Mercury Fastening His Sandals and Mercury Tying His Talaria) for its concentration of form and concentrated pose, such that it has become an allegory of speed. It is such an iconic image that soon after 1744, other artists began incorporating it into their paintings.
1739-1745: Guillaume Coustou the Elder: The Marly Horses [Baroque; France]
In 1739, French king Louis XV commissioned sculptor Guillaume Coustou the Elder to create two statues of horses being restrained by their grooms for the grounds of Château de Marly, a small French royal residence. The king sought a reimagining of the classical-era Horse Tamers from the Piazza Quirinale in Rome (third image). The resulting statues were the foremost achievements of Coustou’s career and among the finest examples of Baroque sculpture (first and second images). Coustou carved two groups from blocks of Carrera marble – each with a groom and a horse (with the models selected personally by Louis XV in 1743). Each groom reaches up to grasp the reins of a rearing horse – the overall composition of each group is similar but with significant variation in pose and expression. Art historians have noted the tangible realism of the work, the spirited impetuosity of the figures, and the equestrian elegance and power that emanate from the energetic marble horses. Each group measures approximately 11 ft. tall, 9 ft. long and 4 ft. wide. Coustou delivered the sculptures to Château de Marly in 1745, and they soon became known as the Marly Horses or the Horses of Marly. In 1794, they were moved to Paris and installed on high plinths on the Place de la Concorde, at the entrance to the Champs Elysées until 1984 when concerns about weather damage led to their replacement by concrete replicas. The original Marly Horses, also known as Horses Being Restrained by their Grooms and the Horse Tamers, are now in the Louvre in Paris.
1743-1745: William Hogarth: Marriage à-la-mode (series of six) [Rococo; UK]
Marriage à-la-mode is a series of six satirical oil paintings, each measuring 2.3 ft. tall by 2.9 ft. wide, by 18th Century English artist William Hogarth that the artist used as the basis for making engraved copper plates and ultimately paper prints. The series satirizes the upper classes, particularly marriages arranged between the bankrupt old guard seeking funds (symbolized by the Earl of Squanderfield) and the nouveau riche, seeking status (symbolized by the miserly merchant). The chapters of the story are: 1. The Marriage Settlement (first image): The Earl, whose building project is bankrupt, arranges for his dissolute (and syphilitic) son to marry the daughter of the wealthy merchant. 2. The Tête à Tête (second image): A morning scene after some months of marriage makes it clear that both members of the couple have been unfaithful. 3. The Inspection: The husband and his ‘girlfriend’ receive bad news at the physician’s office regarding their venereal diseases. 4. The Toilette: The Earl having died, the son ascends, but is also clearly a cuckold thanks to Silvertongue, the lawyer who arranged the marriage. 5. The Bagnio: The son walks in on the Countess and her lover and is killed. 6. The Lady’s Death: The lover is hanged for murder, and the Countess commits suicide. Each frame contains many symbolic and allegorical details that support the theme of the painting and add to the satirical impact. The original paintings are now in the National Gallery in London.
1748–1750: Thomas Gainsborough: Mr. and Mrs. Andrews [Romanticism; UK]
Members of the landed gentry, Robert Andrews, aged 22, married Frances Carter, age 16, in November 1748. As part of Frances’ dowry, she brought to the marriage a portion of her father’s estate near the town of Sudbury, and when they had their portrait taken a year or two later, they made sure that the extensive property was included. Mr. Andrews’s rifle and dog imply that his crops and livestock are so well managed, he has plenty of time for a relaxing hunting break. By devoting so much of the canvas to the well-groomed estate, Gainsborough drew upon the trend of less formal ‘conversation piece’ portraits, in which a group of subjects engages in an activity instead of sitting in a formal pose. This portrait is a hybrid, since Mr. and Mrs. Andrews do pose for the artist, although in a less formal setting. (In fact, scholars believe that the married couple probably posed in a studio with their fine bench and dog and were placed in the landscape through the magic of painting.) Gainsborough grew up in the same neighborhood as Robert and Frances, but somewhat further down the social ladder, which may explain the disdainful expression on Mrs. Andrews’s face. What is not explained is the patch of bare canvas on Mrs. Andrews’s lap. Gainsborough apparently intended to show her holding something – freshly-killed game, a baby, a dog, flowers – but for some reason delivered the painting to the family unfinished. The unusually shaped portrait (made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.3 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide) stayed in the Andrews family’s private collection until 1960. The work did not come to public view until 1927 when it was exhibited in Ipswich and caused a sensation with its charm and freshness. In 1953, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews was chosen as one of four paintings sent to Paris to represent British art in an exhibition celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. The painting is now in the National Gallery in London.
1751; 1752: François Boucher: Portrait of Marie-Louise O’Murphy [Rococo; France]
François Boucher’s paintings embodied the Rococo style: voluptuous, playful, idyllic, florid, elegant, favoring delicate colors and curving forms, and often exploring the pleasures of eroticism. Boucher was connected with the French court through his patron Madame de Pompadour, the king’s primary mistress. Possibly in that capacity, he met a much younger mistress of the king’s, a 14-year-old seamstress of Irish descent named Marie-Louise O’Murphy, and had her pose for him nude. (Some sources claim that Boucher met and painted the girl before she met Louis XV.) Two very similar portraits exist, the second more obviously in the style of an Oriental odalisque; both combine a childlike naivete with a more open eroticism. It is not clear if these are two separate portraits or whether one is a copy of the other. Both paintings were made with oils on a canvas measuring 1.9 ft.. tall by 2.4 ft. wide. The painting in the first image, from 1751, is known as Resting Girl (Louise O’Murphy), Resting Maiden, Reclining Girl, Mademoiselle O’Murphy and Portrait of Marie-Louise O’Murphy. It is now located at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany. The painting in the second image, from 1752, is known as Reclining Girl, Blond Odalisque, Nude Lying on a Sofa and Marie-Louise O’Murphy. It is located at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Miss O’Murphy, who bore a daughter for the king (after an earlier miscarriage) only stayed with the court for two years. After she attempted to displace Madame de Pompadour from her post as mistress-in-chief, Miss O’Murphy was banished from court and married off to a lesser noble, who was killed in battle two years later.
1750-1753: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: Frescoes, Würzburg Residence [Rococo; Italy]
In 1750, in response to a commission from Karl Philipp von Greiffenklau, the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg, Germany, Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and his sons traveled from Italy to paint frescoes on the walls and ceilings of the Würzburg Residence, the palace of the Prince-Bishops of what was then the episcopal principality of Würzburg, but is now a city in the German state of Bavaria. Considered the last great Venetian painter, Tiepolo painted in the Baroque style with hints of the coming Rococo. Critics use the term sprezzatura to describe the way that Tiepolo was able to combine precise rendering of images, dramatic poses and tension-creating color schemes to keep the pictures engaging, with a soft, romantic quality that eases tension without sacrificing liveliness. Tiepolo’s most celebrated fresco, Apollo and the Four Continents (also known as The Allegory of the Planets and the Continents), covers the vault over the main staircase and measures 62 ft. by 100 ft., covering 7,287 square feet (first image). The fresco depicts Apollo and other deities in the center, surrounded by the continents of Europe, America, Asia (second image) and Africa (third image), each with representative landscapes, animals and a female allegorical figure. Elsewhere, in the Imperial Hall, Tiepolo painted the allegorical Apollo Presenting Beatrice of Burgundy to Frederick Barbarossa on the ceiling (fourth image) as well as two historical events on the walls: the Marriage of Emperor Frederick to Beatrice (fifth image) and the Investiture of Herold as Duke of Franconia, each of which measures 13 ft. high and 16.4 ft. wide. Scholars acknowledge that the frescoes are the pinnacle of Tiepolo’s career and a high point of 18th Century artistic achievement.
1756: François Boucher: Madame de Pompadour [Rococo; France]
François Boucher painted numerous portraits of Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV. While Madame de Pompadour occasionally employed other artists, she kept returning to Boucher, perhaps because he was so successful at hiding the effects of aging. In Boucher’s 1756 portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour, scholars have noted, the artist emphasizes not the subject’s femininity or youth so much as her role as sponsor of the Enlightenment: she is pausing from reading a book to have her portrait taken; nearby, her writing table is well stocked, quill pen at the ready; and behind her, a bookcase is filled with reading material (first image). Despite the intellectual pretensions of the portrait, it might be said that its true subject is the enormous green dress the Madame is wearing (and which her dog stares at so adoringly). With its Rococo decoration and innumerable folds and frills, the lush green dress is a tribute to opulence and excess and Boucher treats it with the attention it demands (see detail in second image). To Madame de Pompadour, at least, dressing extravagantly was consistent with living in the Age of Reason. Boucher’s 1756 portrait of Madame de Pompadour was made with oils on canvas measuring 1.9 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide and is now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Subsequent portraits of Madame de Pompadour by Boucher include a 1758 likeness, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (third image) and another from 1759, now at the Wallace Collection in London (fourth image).
1765: Francesco Guardi: The Grey Lagoon (Gondolas on the Lagoon)
[Venetian Landscape; Italy]
By 1765, Venice had become a city of the past. The civilization that had made Venice a world power was now in decline. It is fitting, then, that in The Gray Lagoon, landscape painter Francesco Guardi evokes a sense of ennui, as a few lonely gondolas slowly make their way across the once-thriving lagoon. The composition is refined and well-balanced composition: a single gondola floats in the foreground, the gondolier slowly and steadily moving his craft to the left, while behind it spreads an enormous expanse of gray water, broken up near the horizon by more gondolas and a series of buildings, which mark the edge of an island. The buildings are so distant that they barely form a break between the gray sea and the blue-gray sky (with tinges of pink). Scholars have noted the influence of Canaletto in Guardi’s painting, which was made with oils on a canvas measuring 1 ft. high by 1.4 ft. wide. They also see a precursor to 19th Century landscape painting. Some have speculated that this small canvas was once part of a larger work, but no one has ever located any other portions. The Gray Lagoon, also known as Gondolas on the Lagoon, is now in the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan.
1767: Jean-Honoré Fragonard: The Swing [Rococo; France]
The original title, The Happy Accidents of the Swing, better illustrates the playful attitude of this iconic Rococo painting, Fragonard’s best-known work. In a creamy pastel pink and green paradise, an elderly man (the libertine nobleman who commissioned the painting asked for a Bishop, but Fragonard refused to go that far), accompanied by two cherubim, pushes a young lady (possibly his wife) on a swing. She impetuously kicks off her shoe in Cupid’s direction, while giving her young lover, hiding below in the foliage, a scandalous peek beneath her dress at her legs. The frivolous nature of this and similar works of the time led to a campaign by Enlightenment philosophers for serious art showing man’s nobility. Despite these criticisms, Fragonard was a highly regarded artist among the French aristocracy, but fell out of favor when revolution arrived in 1789. The Swing, made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.6 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. wide, is now in the Wallace Collection in London. Random Trivia: The cover art of Little Feat’s album Sailin’ Shoes pays homage to The Swing.
1767–1768: Joseph Wright of Derby: An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
Like many of his time, English artist Joseph Wright of Derby was fascinated with science and progress and he wanted to use his art to celebrate the intellectual advancement of mankind in the 18th Century. In particular, he wanted to invest painted scenes of scientific discovery with the same reverence accorded to historical and religious scenes. An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump depicts a man – possibly an itinerant lecturer in natural philosophy – recreating Joseph Boyle’s 1659 vacuum (or air) pump experiment, in which air is removed from a container for a group of spectators. To demonstrate the vacuum, a bird is placed in the container – when all the air is removed, the bird dies. (The idea that a rare and expensive cockatoo, as shown here, would be used in the experiment is probably a bit of poetic license on Wright’s part.) Consistent with Wright’s beliefs about the importance of science, while he shows some of the spectators expressing concern about the bird, most of them seem in awe of the scientific discovery. An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump was one of a number of candelit scenes that Wright painted in the 1760s. He excelled at painting the dramatic chiaroscuro effects resulting from the unusual and challenging lighting choice. An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, which was made with oils on a canvas measuring 6 ft. tall by 7.87 ft. wide, is now in the National Gallery in London.
c. 1770: Thomas Gainsborough: Jonathan Buttall (The Blue Boy) [Romanticism; UK]
During a visit to Bath, England in about 1770, English artist Thomas Gainsborough painted a portrait of Jonathan Buttall, the son of a wealthy merchant and friend of the artist. In what may be an homage to Anthony van Dyck, the 17th Century Dutch painter who worked for the English Court, Gainsborough had his subject dress in a style common 140 years earlier. Some scholars believe that Gainsborough chose the color scheme to refute the theory of his rival Joshua Reynolds that blue was appropriate only as a background hue. Over time, the portrait, which was painted with oils on a canvas measuring 5.9 ft. tall and 4 ft. wide, acquired the nickname The Blue Boy. In 1921, American Henry Edwards Huntington bought The Blue Boy for a record $728,800 and brought it to California, but not before 90,000 British subjects lined up to pay their respects. The Blue Boy is now in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
1770: Benjamin West: The Death of General Wolfe [Neoclassicism; US/UK]
Born in Colonial Pennsylvania, Benjamin West obtained the sponsorship of two wealthy Philadelphians to go to Italy to study art. After several years copying the masters, West moved to London in 1763, where he painted the king’s portrait, taught numerous American painters and co-founded the Royal Academy of Art. The Death of General Wolfe (painted with oils on a canvas measuring 4.9 ft. high by 7 ft. wide) is a landmark in the genre of history painting. First, while most history paintings plumbed the distant past, West memorializes an event of very recent history – the death of British general James Wolfe in 1759 at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec during the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War). Second, against the advice of friends and experts, West dressed his figures in historically accurate clothing, thus rejecting the tradition of making the event seem timeless by draping the characters in the togas of classical antiquity. The break with tradition is particularly stark here, where Wolfe is shown (accurately) wearing the somewhat plain red uniform of a field officer, not a major-general’s dress finery. Ironically, however, for all West’s attention to historical accuracy, the painting contains numerous fictions. The majority of the individuals pictured at the death scene are identifiable, and they were not present at the battle. The messenger fortuitously arriving to tell the dying Wolfe that the French are defeated (symbolized by the fleur-de-lys) is also a fiction. So is the native American warrior (in the pose of The Thinker), although West’s intention in adding a representative of the indigenous people was probably to place the scene definitively in the New World. Perhaps most outrageous was West’s decision to pose Wolfe in a manner that reminds us of Jesus in various Lamentations and Depositions, and implies that, like Jesus, Wolfe was a martyr to a good cause. The technique was effective, because prints made from an engraving of the painting were soon best sellers in England and elsewhere. As for the future of history painting, the popularity of The Death of General Wolfe meant that recent events were fair game and togas were no longer de rigueur. The Death of General Wolfe is now in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
c. 1770: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: Abraham and the Three Angels [Rococo; Italy]
The Book of Genesis tells us that the childless couple consisting of 99-year-old Abraham and his 90-year-old wife Sarah had pitched their tent in a grove of trees in Mamre, when three pilgrims arrived. Abraham and Sarah welcomed the three men, washed their feet and prepared a meal for them. The pilgrims then revealed that they were angels sent from God to announce that Sarah would give birth to a child, Isaac, who would father the Israelite nation. Venetian Rococo master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo painted the story at least twice, once as a fresco for the Episcopal Palace at Udine, in 1726 and again, for an unidentified church more than 40 years later near the end of his life. The later painting, made with oils on a canvas measuring 6.5 ft. tall by 4.9 ft. wide and known as Abraham and the Three Angels, depicts the dramatic moment in the grove when the angels reveal their true purpose (first image). Abraham falls to his knees and clasps his hands in prayer, while the central angel, whose chest is lit with an almost-heavenly light, points to the side, possibly to Sarah, as he announces the startling news of her impending childbirth. We see a pilgrim’s gourd and red staff in the lower right to remind us that these angels arrived as pilgrims, and the shared food in a basket at lower left, to remind us that Abraham and Sarah welcomed them. The composition is full of dynamic movement along contrasting diagonals. The forward motion of the central angel, with one foot moved forward onto a lower elevation, sets up a tension with the angel’s pointing arm, and Abraham’s own diagonal. The vibrant color scheme (particularly the red, gold and blue of the three foreground figures) gives the scene an emotional intensity, especially set against the dark background. A comparison with Tiepolo’s much earlier version, a fresco from 1726 known as The Three Angels Appearing to Abraham, is instructive (second image). While the earlier painting is more brightly lit with beautiful colors, and all the elements are clearly distinguished, it has a static quality. The angels stand high above Abraham in their heavenly sphere, with no acknowledgement that just moments before, they were pilgrims in need of washing and eating. The later painting, by contrast, shows us that these angels were just breaking bread with Abraham in the guise of common pilgrims. Instead of lifting them far above Abraham to emphasize their heavenly natures, Tiepolo has the figures overlap – Abraham’s head, though bowed, is still far about the lowest foot of the center angel – and the angels, though standing above Abraham, are still within the same space as their former host. Tiepolo’s second painting on the theme is also darker than the first, with dramatic chiaroscuro effects and swirling draperies, echoed by the clouds in the background. Abraham and the Three Angels is now at the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
1773-1774: Pompeo Batoni: Thomas William Coke [Neoclassicism; Italy]
Pompeo Batoni was a talented painter living in Rome who became the portraitist for British subjects making the Grand Tour of Europe who needed a unique artistic souvenir to bring back. Batoni placed his aristocrats in unmistakably Classic surroundings, with Greco-Roman architecture, marble ruins, marble sculpture, and sometimes even the Colisseum in the distance, but he also made sure to display the symbols of his sitters’ wealth and status. In Batoni’s hands, the formula produced over 200 portraits of Britain’s elite, no two alike. Batoni’s portraits drew from the French Rococo and the classicism of Bologna, but by the early 1770s, Batoni had begun to look back at English portraiture of the 17th Century, specifically that of Anthony van Dyck. The Portrait of Thomas William Coke, later 1st Earl of Leicester, made while Coke was on his Grand Tour, shows Batoni’s indebtedness to van Dyck (first image). There are clear parallels between Batoni’s Coke and van Dyck portraits such as Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick (1632-1642) (second image). Even the brown and white spaniel gazing up at the subject has a van Dyck precedent. Surrounded by classical indicia, the future Earl of Leicester wears a costume from a masquerade ball: a white and silver silk suit, the pink cloak lined with ermine, a lace collar trimmed with a pink bow and a hat with ostrich feathers, which intrigues the canine. The result is a memento much more satisfying than a postcard. The Portrait of Thomas William Coke, which was make with oils on a canvas measuring 8.1 ft. tall by 5.6 ft. wide, is now in the Collection of Viscount Coke, in Holkham Hall, Norfolk, England. Although Holkham Hall is still the residence of the Coke family, it is open to visitors.
1776: Jean Baptiste Pigalle: Voltaire [Neoclassicism; French]
In the 1770s, when sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle set out to immortalize Voltaire, the lion of the French Enlightenment, neither Pigalle nor Voltaire was a young man. Pigalle’s goal was to present the truth, in form, expression and gesture. He spent eight days at Voltaire’s home in Ferney working on his head and face. Later, he had an elderly soldier pose nude for the body. The result was a life-size (4.9 ft. tall, 2.9 ft. wide, 2.5 ft. deep) marble sculpture of a mostly nude Voltaire (there is a cloth in his lap), seated, with a dynamic pose and a facial expression that seems to show a belief in mind over matter (see two views in first and second images). The placement of the head on the body is somewhat awkward, but otherwise the anatomy of the human form is rendered naturally and without idealizing. The contemporary reaction to Pigalle’s Voltaire was loudly and universally negative. One head of state offered to buy the statue a coat. The public was not ready to see its intellectual giant presented to them as a frail old man. The statue remained in Pigalle’s studio until his death in 1785. Its reputation rehabilitated over time, Voltaire now sits at the Louvre in Paris.
1778: John Singleton Copley: Watson and the Shark [Romanticism; US/UK]
Born in colonial Boston, John Singleton Copley first made a name for himself as a painter of American portraits, but he moved to England in 1774, in part to escape the Revolution, and there he began to take up history paintings. One of his first was Watson and the Shark, painted with oils on a canvas measuring 6 ft. high by 7.5 ft. wide (first image). The painting tells the story of Brook Watson, a British merchant of Copley’s acquaintance, who lost his right leg to a shark in the waters off Havana, Cuba in 1749, when Watson was a 14-year-old cabin boy. The attack occurred while Watson was swimming alone, and it took three attempts by rescuers before he was saved. Copley’s canvas, which was commissioned by Watson himself, depicts the third, successful rescue attempt. The artist plays down the gore of the true story – there is a trace of blood, but the loss of the leg is merely hinted at. In order to see Watson’s body (which was modeled on the Borghese Gladiator, from 100 BCE) in the surf, Copley made the water translucent. The men in the boat show a range of facial expressions. Scholars agree that the shark, while frightening, is not rendered realistically: sharks have no lips, their eyes don’t face forward, and they don’t blow air from their nostrils. Copley exhibited Watson and the Shark at the Royal Academy in 1778, where it caused a sensation. At his death, Watson donated the painting to Christ’s Hospital of London; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. purchased it in 1963. Copley painted a full-size copy for himself, which is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Another smaller copy, with a more upright composition, is in the Detroit Institute of Arts (second image).
1781: Jean-Antoine Houdon: Portrait of Voltaire, Seated [Neoclassicism; France]
When Enlightenment intellectual hero Voltaire returned to Paris in 1778 after a 20-year exile, he stopped by the studio of French neoclassical sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon to have a portrait bust made. Houdon sketched Voltaire, now 84, as a man with a weary face, few teeth left, deep lines and a compressed smile. In the course of the sitting, Houdon also made some full-length sketches of Voltaire sitting. Only a few months after returning from exile, Voltaire died. His niece, Mme. Denis, asked Houdon to produce a life-sized statue based on his sketches. The result was Portrait of Voltaire, Seated (also known as Voltaire, Seated, or simply Voltaire) which shows Voltaire sitting in a chair, looking to his right with a warm, thoughtful expression. He is covered in the robes of classical antiquity, in sharp contrast to Jean-Baptiste Pigalle’s controversial nude of a few years earlier. The early results were so promising that Catherine the Great commissioned another copy. Houdon completed both white marble sculptures in 1781. One is now in the foyer of the Comédie-Française in Paris (first image); the other is in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (second image). Various smaller versions exist, including the original maquette, many of them made with plaster.
1781: Henry Fuseli: The Nightmare [Romanticism; Switzerland/UK]
Born in Switzerland and trained as a minister, Henry Fuseli decided on art instead, and he moved to London in 1779 to pursue painting. Ever since Fuseli exhibited the The Nightmare (made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.3 ft. tall by 4.2 ft. wide) at the Royal Academy in 1782, viewers have been fascinated and disturbed, while critics and scholars have offered multiple interpretations. At the most simple level, we see a woman sleeping, throat exposed and vulnerable, in a position commonly believed at the time to produce nightmares. Two of the elements of her nightmare are visible: a gruesome incubus sitting on her chest, staring at the viewer, and a horse with devilish white eyes emerging from behind a red curtain. The whites and golds of the woman’s body and clothing shimmer brightly against the much darker, shadowy room and figures surrounding her, thanks to Fuseli’s expert use of the chiaroscuro technique and a Gothic-Romantic style. Viewers then and now sense a smoldering sexuality pervading The Nightmare. Some have suggested that the incubus is Fuseli and the woman his unrequited love, Anna Landholdt. Others say it speaks generally to sublimated sexual instincts. Some even interpret the horse piercing through the curtains to be a phallic symbol. The incubus gazes directly at us, perhaps seeking our conscious complicity in some heinous act. The painting was Fuseli’s most renowned, and prints from a 1783 engraving of the work by Thomas Burke were very popular. Visitors to Sigmund Freud’s Vienna office report that he had a print of The Nightmare on his wall. Fuseli himself painted a number of versions, with variations (one includes a sexually suggestive statue of a man and a woman on the night table). The distinctive image was also much plagiarized and parodied. The original painting of The Nightmare is now in the Detroit Institute of Arts, in Detroit, Michigan.
1770-1782: Étienne-Maurice Falconet: Monument to Peter the Great (The Bronze Horseman) [Rococo; France]
When Russian Empress Catherine the Great commissioned a statue of Tsar Peter the Great (Peter I) for the center of St. Petersburg (the city bearing his name), her intentions were complex. Catherine was a German princess who married Peter I’s grandson, then overthrew him in a coup and seized the throne herself. The statue was designed to help her gain legitimacy for her rule by identifying herself with one of the great Russian leaders of the past, known for his Western reforms. She brought in French Rococo sculptor Étienne Maurice Falconet, who had never sculpted a horse before, to make a larger-than-life bronze equestrian statue of Peter. Falconet designed a dramatic piece of contrasting elements, with a calm, classically-robed Peter pointing to the West with equanimity, while his horse, filled with raw naturalism, rears up explosively at the edge of a cliff and tramples a serpent symbolizing Peter’s enemies (see second image, above). The Tsar’s face was sculpted by Falconet’s 18-year-old assistant (and possible mistress) Marie-Anne Collot, using Peter’s death mask and portraits. The right hand was modeled on a Roman-era bronze. Casting the immense bronze sculpture required technical innovations by Falconet and his chief caster Emelyan Khailov. It was also dangerous; at one point, the mold broke, releasing molten bronze and starting several fires. A proper pedestal to serve as a stage for the action was a crucial part of the design, and Falconet looked long and hard before he found the perfect boulder: a 1653-ton block of red granite nicknamed Thunder Stone. Hundreds of workers dug the stone out of the ground and then waited until winter to drag it nearly four miles over the frozen ground to the Gulf of Finland, where a ship waited to take it to St. Petersburg. All the while, masons and sculptors were carving the block to Falconet’s specifications, reducing the final pedestal to a trim 1378 tons. A grand unveiling took place in August 1782 (but without Falconet – due to a quarrel with Catherine the Great, he had left for Paris in 1778), revealing a monument that reached 45 feet into the air (25 ft. for the pedestal; 20 ft. for the bronze statue), with the engraving, “Catherine the Second to Peter the First, 1782” in both Russian and Latin (first image). Peter sits firmly on the rearing horse, his hand pointing to the West (second image). Fifty years later, Alexander Pushkin wrote a poem in which the horse and rider come alive, called The Bronze Horseman, and thus coined a new name for the monument. A myth also arose that St. Petersburg (also known as Leningrad) would never fall to an enemy as long as the Bronze Horseman still stood. During the Siege of Leningrad in World War II, the monument was covered with sandbags and a wooden shelter, and survived the bombing unharmed.
1784-1785: Jacques-Louis David: Oath of the Horatii [Neoclassicism; France]
Jacques-Louis David’s The Oath of the Horatii, measuring 4.27 ft. tall by 5.47 ft. wide, is considered a paragon of the Neoclassical style. According to a legend, a dispute between Rome and the city of Alba Longa was resolved by a ritual duel by three brothers of the Roman family the Horatii and three brothers of the Curiatii family of Alba Longa. David chose to paint an imagined moment when the Horatii brothers salute their father, who holds their swords, while their mother and siblings weep in sorrow. In keeping with the Neoclassical style, the background is deemphasized in favor of the foreground figures; there is a central perspectival vanishing point (at the point where the father holds the swords); the painter’s technique is not emphasized; no brushstrokes are visible; and straight lines and symmetry (here, groups of three) abound. The political symbolism – the duty of citizens to support their nation, even to the death – could not have been lost on those who viewed the painting at the Paris Salon in 1785, just four years before the Revolution erupted. The Oath of the Horatii is now in the Louvre in Paris.
1788: Kitagawa Utamaro: Poem of the Pillow [Edo Period; Japan]
The Poem of the Pillow was a large printed book of color woodblock prints made by Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro for the publisher Tsutaya Jusaburo. It was the first of many such collaborations. The style of the paintings is Ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world), in this case, an erotically-charged story with explicit content known euphemistically as “spring pictures.” Utamaro, who was familiar with the brothels and courtesans of Edo (now Tokyo), avoids the cliches of the erotica common at the time. He presents the scenes from a low angle, and places his very large figures so that they seem to expand beyond the picture frame. The first image shows an angry woman holding a letter she found in her lover’s pocket. It is now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The second image, called Lovers in an Upstairs Room, shows two lovers engaged in sexual intercourse that is cleverly concealed from the viewer. It is now in the British Museum in London.
1787-1793: Antonio Canova: Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (Psyche Awakened by Eros; Psyche and Cupid) [Neoclassicism; Italy]
According to a story in Apuleius’ 2nd Century novel The Golden Ass, after Cupid fell in love with Psyche, Cupid’s mother Venus tried to end the romance by giving Psyche an impossible task: to go to the Underworld and bring back a jar with part of Proserpina’s beauty, with instructions never to open the jar. Psyche could not resist, of course, and found that the jar contained, not beauty, but a sleeping darkness that put Psyche into a coma-like state of unconsciousness. Cupid flew down to find the sleeping beauty and used one of his arrows to awaken her, after which she reached up to kiss him. It is this moment that Italian Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova captures in his marble sculpture Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, which measures 5.1 ft. tall by 5.5 ft. wide (first image). The composition consists of two intersecting diagonals, and includes details such as Cupid’s quiver, the arrow he used to prick Psyche, and the jar she carried (see detail in second image). Canova’s treatment of the marble to render skin, draperies and rock has won him significant praise from art historians, who have also noted the way the artist has combined classical elements with a more modern sensuality. There is no single viewpoint that allows one to take in all aspects of the sculpture – a fact that some have criticized. In fact, when the work was installed at the Louvre in Paris, Canova had it equipped with a handle so it could be rotated. Canova made a second version of the grouping in 1796; it is now in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
1793: Jacques-Louis David: Death of Marat [Neoclassicism; France]
Painter Jacques-Louis David and journalist Jean-Paul Marat were both ardent supporters of the French Revolution; both were members of the Jacobins and the Montagnards, radical groups opposed to the more conservative Girondists. On July 13, 1793, Girondist Charlotte Corday lied to gain access to Marat’s room, where he was bathing in oatmeal for his eczema condition, and stabbed him to death. The government asked David to paint Marat’s portrait. The result is an idealized work, made with oils on a canvas measuring 5.4 ft. tall by 4.2 ft. wide, depicting the dying Marat as a martyr of the Revolution, holding Corday’s false petition in his hand. As such, it echoes many paintings of Christian martyrs, particularly the various depictions of Christ’s descent from the Cross. The elements combine to make Death of Marat a powerful blend of outrage and compassion. The painting was praised until the fall of Robespierre and the end of the Reign of Terror, after which David himself became a target of the Thermidorian Reaction. The painting was only rediscovered in the mid-19th Century. Death of Marat is now located at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.
1794: William Blake: The Ancient of Days [Romanticism; UK]
The Ancient of Days was originally published as the frontispiece to William Blake’s 1794 poetic polemic Europe a Prophecy. It shows Urizen – a figure in Blake’s complex mythology who represents conventional reason and law – crouching in or before a sun-like circular design, while he stretches his left arm downward with an open compass in his left hand, held at a 70-80 degree angle. Golden rays emanate from the yellow circle/sphere, as dark clouds either part or encroach. According to Blake, he saw the image in a vision. Some have linked the painting to a statement in the Book of Proverbs, “when he set a compass upon the face of the earth.” Blake hand-colored every print of his books, so each existing copy of Europe a Prophecy (there are 13 known versions) contains a somewhat different version of The Ancient of Days. The version in the first image is from Copy K, which is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. The version in the second image is from Copy D, which is in the British Museum in London.
c. 1795-1799: Henry Raeburn (?): The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch (The Skating Minister) [Romanticism; UK/Scotland]
The Skating Minister is the short name for a small portrait of Church of Scotland minister Reverend Robert Walker, made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.5 ft. high by 2.1 ft. wide, with the official title The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch. In addition to being minister of Canongate Kirk, Walker was a member of the Edinburgh Skating Club, which may have been the world’s first such organization. The club usually met on Duddingston Loch, where Reverend Walker is shown skating on Duddingston Loch. The Reverend is a confident skater (the position of his arms alone tells us this) who exhibits perfect control on the much-scarred ice. Some scholars have drawn an analogy between the intellectual and scientific accomplishments of the 18th Century Scottish Enlightenment and the coolly rational exercise of the Skating Minister. There is significant controversy about the identity of the artist who painted Rev. Walker’s portrait, which has become an icon for Scottish heritage and adorns t-shirts and coffee mugs. The work was attributed to renowned Scottish portrait painter Henry Raeburn in part because Raeburn and Walker were acquaintances, and certain aspects of the style matched Raeburn’s other work, although it was agreed that there were aspects of the painting that were unlike any other Raeburn painting. For example, Raeburn normally painted life-size portraits of figures at rest, so a small portrait of a figure in motion would be unique in his oeuvre. In 2005, a museum curator suggested that The Skating Minister had been painted by French artist Henri-Pierre Danloux, who had visited Edinburgh several times in the late 1790s and who commonly painted smaller portraits, often of subjects in motion. X-ray analysis also revealed that, where Raeburn always used lead white paint as underpainting on his subjects’ faces, there is no lead white paint under Walker’s face. Despite the mounting evidence in favor of Danloux, some experts still believe that the work should be attributed to Henry Raeburn. The Skating Minister is now located at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh.
To continue on to Art History 101 – Part IV (1800-Present), click here.