This is Part 1 of a meta-list of the most highly-regarded paintings, sculptures and various other works of visual art. For Part 2, go HERE. To create the list, I collected approximately 18 lists of “Best Works of Art” from websites and books and combined them into one list. Here are the paintings and sculptures (and several pieces of decorative art) on three or more of the original source lists, beginning with the artworks that were on the most lists. The numbers in bold (starting with 13 in Part 1 and 4 in Part 2) indicate the number of original source lists that contained that work of art.
Each listing contains the following information: (1) artist(s) name (if known), (2) artwork title (including alternative titles), (3) date(s) of creation, and (4) location where the original can be seen. I have tried to provide one or more public domain images for all the artworks. In most cases, you can click on the image to enlarge it. The captions for the images contain a short essay with additional information, which may include the size of the work, the medium and materials used to create it, style and technique, interpretation, social and political context, provenance, and random trivia.
Warning No. 1: although I tried my best to find lists that contained art from all places and all times, most of the lists I found focused on the art of Western Civilization, and most of those lists focused almost exclusively on Western European and North American art. From this skewed perspective, the Italian Renaissance is the creative pinnacle of mankind’s artistic achievement (and yes, they are mostly men: dead, white men). If I had room to publish every work of art on any of the lists, you would see more diversity, but less critical consensus on quality. Once I restrict the focus to works cited on three or more lists, the Western bias becomes quite plain. I have also published a five-part chronological list of works of art on two or more of the 18 “Best Art” lists, called Art History 101, which has a somewhat more worldly complexion, although Asia, Africa and South America are still seriously underrepresented.
Warning No. 2: The heavy emphasis on Western European artists working between 1300 and 1700 also means that many of the most highly regarded paintings contain Christian religious imagery. At that time, most people viewing the art would have been familiar with these stories and symbols, but today many folks trying to appreciate these works are not Christian, or may not otherwise be as familiar with Christian imagery as the average Renaissance European. The same goes for the mythology of Greece, Rome and other cultures, which often provide the subject matter for works of art. Reading up on Christian religious images and Greco-Roman mythology may help to put the art in context.
Warning No. 3: Some of the images below portray the unclothed human form. I don’t think there is anything obscene about any of these images, but there is at least one statue of a naked man where you can clearly see his kibbles n’ bits, which some folks may find offensive.
Despite my concerns about diversity – religious, geographical, or otherwise – a quick look through this list leaves no doubt that, whether or not these are the “best” works of art of all time, as my title confidently proclaims, they are all significant artistic achievements and worthy of your consideration.
For a chronologically-organized history of visual art, check out the Art History 101 lists, starting HERE.
DON’T FORGET: IN MOST CASES, YOU CAN CLICK ON THE IMAGES TO ENLARGE THEM
On 13 “Best Art” Lists
Giotto (Giotto di Bondone): Frescoes, Scrovegni Chapel (Arena Chapel) (c. 1305) Padua, Italy
Italian banker Enrico Scrovegni, like most 14th Century Christians who loaned money in return for interest, was concerned about his salvation. The Bible contained a proscription against usury, and for many centuries the only people willing (or allowed) to lend money were non-Christians. By the early 14th Century, Christians had begun to enter the banking business, but with anxiety. Years earlier, Dante had assigned Enrico Scrovegni’s banker father Reginaldo Scrovegni to the Seventh Circle of Hell in his Inferno. When Enrico Scrovegni built a new family palace in Padua, he made sure that a private family chapel was attached. Because the chapel was built on the site of a former Roman arena, it is sometime referred to as the Arena Chapel. Scrovegni commissioned Proto-Renaissance Italian artist Giotto di Bondone (known as Giotto) to paint frescoes on the chapel walls. Giotto painted a series of 37 frescoes – most of them 6.5 feet square – on the chapel walls, finishing the project by the time of the chapel’s dedication on March 25, 1305. Most of the frescoes depict scenes from the life of Christ and the life of Mary, with an immense fresco of the Last Judgment for the wall above the entrance, and various other images throughout the room (see first image above). The fresco technique requires the artist to mix pigments with wet plaster and work quickly on a section of wall before the plaster dries, and the borders of the sections are visible on each fresco. The Scrovegni Chapel frescoes mark the beginning of the new, humanistic style that would blossom in the Renaissance. Giotto is breaking away from the flat, stylized representations of Medieval and Gothic art by infusing the scenes with more emotional intensity, drawing figures with greater solidity, and constructing more naturalistic environments for the characters. In the Kiss of Judas (second image above), part of the Life of Christ cycle, Giotto presents not the kiss but the tense face-to-face confrontation between Jesus and Judas, while soldiers rush in and the apostles fight back in a frenzy of action. Giotto marshals every detail – lighting, expressions, gestures, even the folds of their clothes – to heighten the drama. The Last Judgment, on the west wall of the chapel and measuring 32.8 ft. tall by 27.6 ft. wide, depicts Jesus sitting in judgment over the souls of the saved and the damned. Although the chapel was privately-owned, the Scrovegnis allowed it to be used as a public worship space on certain occasions, such as the Feast of the Annunciation. It is clear that Scrovegni hoped that the chapel and its religious art would help him overcome the sin of usury and achieve salvation. To emphasize the point, Giotto painted a likeness of Enrico Scrovegni in The Last Judgment fresco, showing him offering a model of the chapel to the Virgin Mary.
Matthias Grünewald: The Isenheim Altarpiece (1509-1515) Musée Unterlinden, Colmar, France
Altarpieces were painted and/or sculpted panels set behind the altar of a church that depicted religious scenes, often with multiple doors providing different views when open or closed. The Isenheim Altarpiece was designed for the hospital chapel of the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, France, where the monks specialized in hospital work. The altarpiece contains a sculpted scene by Niclaus of Hagenau when fully open but is best known for Grünewald’s paintings. The overall scheme is intended to relate the sufferings of Jesus and the saints to the work being done by the monks to heal the sick. The first view (first image above), with the wings closed, shows the Crucifixion in the center, and two protectors of the sick, St. Sebastian (being martyred) on the left wing and St. Anthony on the right wing. The predella below shows the Lamentation over Christ’s Dead Body. In keeping with the theme of healing the sick, the Crucifixion scene shows Christ’s twisted torso afflicted with plague-like sores. The center panel measures 9 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide and each wing is 7.5 ft. tall by 2.5 ft. wide, while the predella is 2.5 ft. high by 11 ft. wide. The second view shows the Annunciation, the Nativity (with a concert of angels) and the Resurrection (see second image above). The third view contains two paintings of events in the life of St. Anthony, with sculpted figures of St. Anthony, St. Augustine and St. Jerome in the center (see third image above). The paintings use the most recent Renaissance techniques, but they are used in service of an expressionistic Gothic realism that inspired 20th Century Expressionists such as Otto Dix and George Grosz. The Isenheim Altarpiece is now at the Unterlinden Museum at Colmar in Alsace, France. Random Trivia: German composer Paul Hindemith based a symphony and an opera, both called Mathis der Maler, on Matthias Grünewald and The Isenheim Altarpiece.
On 12 Lists
Francisco Goya (Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes): The Third of May, 1808 (1814)
Museo del Prado, Madrid
In February 1814, after the Spanish had finally expelled Napoleon and his French troops after seven years of occupation and war, artist Francisco Goya approached the provisional Spanish government seeking permission to create a painting that would “perpetuate … the most notable and heroic actions of our glorious insurrection against the Tyrant of Europe.” On May 2, 1808, the people of Madrid rose up against occupying French troops, the event that sparked the War of Spanish Independence. Permission granted, Goya chose to depict the events of the day after the failed uprising – May 3, 1808. At dawn that day, French troops rounded up and summarily shot hundreds of Spaniards suspected of being involved in the Dos de Mayo revolt. In The Third of May, 1808, Goya imagines one of the French firing squads and its Spanish victims, An unarmed man in a glowing white shirt bravely confronts the rifles of the faceless French soldiers. He holds his arms up in a manner that simultaneously suggests outrage, a willingness to die for a righteous cause and, as scholars have noted, the posture of Christ on the cross. Goya presents this man to us as a tragic victim of injustice and cruelty, but also as a martyr and a hero. With its non-religious subject, its realistic treatment of war and its powerful emotional content, The Third of May 1808 is considered one of the first modern art masterpieces. Made with oils on a canvas measuring 8.8 ft. tall by 11.4 ft. wide, Goya’s The Third of May, 1808 is now at the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) Museum of Modern Art, New York
Spanish painter Pablo Picasso’s 1907 portrait of five prostitutes from a Barcelona brothel caused nothing less than an artistic revolution; it heralded a new modernism in art, including the birth of Cubism. Painted in Paris during the summer of 1907 using oil paints on a canvas measuring 8 ft. tall by 7.7 ft. wide, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon breaks all the rules: Picasso makes little attempt to create the illusion of three-dimensionality; he ignores the rules of perspective and abandons the idea of proportionality. Space in the painting’s world is fragmented and compressed; sharp angles abound – even a slice of cantaloupe becomes a lethal weapon. His women are not beautiful; their sharp-edged bodies seem capable of violence. In perhaps the most shocking of the painting’s shocks, the two figures on the right possess grotesque features influenced by Iberian sculpture and perhaps (although Picasso denied it) African masks. While on a surface level the painting may be ‘about’ sex, it is even more about the act of seeing and the act of making art. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso shows us that three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional canvas is an illusion, and that perhaps the only way an artist can create truthfully is to expose the nature of that illusion. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos): The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586)
Iglesia de Santo Tomé, Toledo, Spain
Born on the island of Crete, Doménikos Theotokópoulos (known as El Greco) spent most of his life in Spain, where he painted his most-praised work, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (also known as The Burial of Count Orgaz). Made with oils on a canvas measuring 15.7 ft. tall by 11.8 ft. wide, the painting depicts a 14th Century Spanish legend in which St. Stephen and St. Augustine descend from heaven to bury Don Gonzalo Ruíz, a Toledo noble and knight who had been generous to the Church (see first image above). El Greco was commissioned to paint the scene in the side-chapel of the Virgin in his parish church of Santo Tomé in Toledo, Spain. The painting was famous in El Greco’s lifetime for its accurate portrayals of many Toledo notables (including a self-portrait, see second image above). Painting in the Mannerist style (with elements that hearken back to the Byzantine), El Greco divides the canvas between the heavens and the earth, but does not ground the scene by providing a horizon line or a perspectival vanishing point, omissions that serve to emphasize the supernatural quality of the events depicted. Scholars have particularly praised El Greco’s adept use of color in the work, from the black and gold of the nobles’ clothing to the grays and ochres in the heavenly scene, and the touch of bright red contrasting with Mary’s deep blue cloak. The painting remains in the Santo Tomé Church in Toledo.
Diego Velázquez: Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) (1656) Museo del Prado, Madrid
Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) is famous for its ambiguous point of view, its snapshot-like reality, and the questions it raises about truth and illusion (see first image above). At the apparent center of the painting stands the Infante Margaret Theresa, daughter of King Philip IV of Spain, attended by her entourage, but while 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 (see second image, above), implying that they are watching the scene, and that the painter has placed the royals in the same location as the viewers, giving 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.
Masaccio (Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone): Frescoes, Brancacci Chapel (1424-1428)
Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence
Of the 15 frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence’s Santa Maria del Carmine Church, scholars believe that at least six are attributable to Italian artist Tommaso Masaccio. Masaccio had begun as the assistant to the commissioned artist, Masolino da Panicale, but he eventually took over the project (although he, too, left it unfinished, to be completed by Filippino Lippi). Of the six Masaccio frescoes in the chapel, The Tribute Money (8.1 ft. tall by 19.6 ft. wide), which depicts the story of Peter and the tax collector from the Gospel of Matthew (see first image above), and The Expulsion of Adam and Eve (also known as Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, measuring about 7 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide) (second image above), are considered high points of Early Renaissance style, with an emotional intensity, substantiality, and use of perspective not seen in Gothic and Medieval painting. The frescoes were restored in the 1980s and fig leaves were removed from Adam and Eve (see second image above). Other Masaccio frescoes from the Brancacci Chapel shown in the images above are: (3) St. Peter Heals the Sick with His Shadow; and (4) The Distribution of Alms and Death of Ananias.
Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni): David (1501-1504)
Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence
Michelangelo carved his 17-ft. tall marble statue of the Biblical hero David from a block of Carrara marble that other artists had abandoned. Instead of showing David with the dead Goliath, as was standard, Michelangelo has depicted the hero in the moment after he has decided to fight the giant but before the actual battle. The David was originally commissioned to be one of several statues on the roof of Florence’s cathedral, and this upward looking perspective may explain why the figure’s head and hands are oversized compared to the rest of the body. After Michelangelo completed the work, cathedral officials decided it would be impossible to raise the 6-ton statue to the roof, and decided to place it in the public square outside the Palazzo della Signoria, where it was unveiled in 1504. In 1873, because of weather damage, the statue was moved to the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, where it remains (see two views of statue above). In 1882, a replica was installed in the original location. In 1991, a man smuggled a hammer into the museum and used it to destroy part of the David’s left foot, which was later restored.
Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1510) Museo del Prado, Madrid
Made with oil paints on oak panels measuring almost 13 ft. long and more than 7 ft. tall, Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych with two side panels that close over the center (see first image above). The left panel shows God with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the right panel shows the torments of Hell. The ambiguous central panel may show either the temptations of earthly life or a lost earthly paradise (see detail in the second image above). The view when the side panels are closed is a transparent globe showing earth during the Creation before the creation of man, probably on the Third Day of Genesis, Chapter 1 (see third image above). Bosch’s unique vision has a long legacy. In particular, his fantastic creatures and contraptions proved inspirational for the Surrealists centuries later. The Garden of Earthly Delights is now at the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
Leonardo da Vinci: Mona Lisa (1503-1505) Musée du Louvre, Paris
Italian Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci painted his portrait of Lisa Gherardini (also known as Lisa del Giocondo or La Gioconda) on a 2.5 ft. tall by 1.7 ft. wide panel of Lombardy poplar with oil paints. The model’s pose is reminiscent of traditional Madonna paintings, with aerial perspective showing an idealized landscape. The composition is pyramidal, as with many of Leonardo’s works, but Leonardo creates a distance by inserting the arm of the chair between the subject and the viewer. The Mona Lisa, with the subject’s enigmatic expression, is considered the most famous painting in the world. It has been studied, copied and parodied and has been used in over 2,000 advertisements. Visitors to the Louvre in Paris, where it is located, view the painting for an average of 15 seconds each.
Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni): Frescoes, Sistine Chapel
Ceiling (1508-1512) Vatican Palace, Vatican City
The Sistine Chapel, the Papal Chapel of the Vatican, was built between 1473 and 1481. Various artists painted frescoes on the walls between 1481 and 1508 (including Botticelli’s Punishment of the Rebels and Perugino’s Delivery of the Keys), when Michelangelo began work on the ceiling. Michelangelo, who was given permission to determine the content of his frescoes, painted nine scenes on the themes of the Creation of the World, God’s Relationship with Man, and Man’s Fall from Grace. He also painted various Biblical and Classical figures on the pendentives and around the windows. Contrary to myth, Michelangelo did not lie on his back but stood upright on scaffolding while executing the work, which required him to tilt his head backward for long periods. A major restoration from 1980-1999 revealed again the brilliance of the original colors, although some critics attacked the restorers, saying they had gone too far. The images above show: (1) the entire ceiling and (2) the Creation of Man.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Hunters in the Snow (1565) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted The Hunters in the Snow (also known as The Return of the Hunters) with oil paint on wood panel measuring 3.8 feet tall by 5.3 feet wide (see first image, above). It is one of a series of paintings by Bruegel depicting either the months or the seasons commissioned by Niclaes Jonghelinck, a wealthy Antwerp merchant. This and other paintings depict the terrible winter of 1565, part of the Little Ice Age that befell Europe from 1400-1850. The craggy Alpine peaks in the distance seem out of place for the Netherlands (see second image, above). Together with the birds, the crags hint at a symbolic undertone to this highly detailed and realistic slice-of-life scene. The Hunters in the Snow is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Théodore Géricault: The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819) Musée du Louvre, Paris
The Raft of the Medusa, which is painted on an immense canvas measuring 16 ft. tall by 23.5 ft. wide, depicts the moment when survivors of the wrecked French frigate Méduse finally spied a ship heading in their direction (see first image above). The Méduse ran aground in 1816 due to the incompetence of its captain. Lack of adequate lifeboats forced at least 147 passengers and crew to crowd onto a makeshift raft, where lack of food and water led to starvation, murder and cannibalism. After 13 days at sea, the 15 who remained alive spotted their rescuers (see second image above) – it was this moment that Théodore Géricault, then a relatively unknown 27-year-old French artist, chose to paint in all of its grisly detail. In researching the painting, Géricault interviewed survivors and constructed a scale model of the raft. When Géricault exhibited The Raft of the Medusa at the 1819 Paris Salon, its vivid representation of suffering and death repelled the then-dominant Neoclassicists, but the rising Romanticists found it powerful and praised its politics. The Raft of the Medusa is now considered a seminal work in the history of French Romantic art. Made with oils on canvas, The Raft of the Medusa is now located in the Louvre in Paris. Random Trivia: The model for the foreground figure with downturned face and outstretched arm was French painter Eugène Delacroix, a friend of Géricault’s.
Vincent van Gogh: The Starry Night (1889) Museum of Modern Art, NY
Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh painted The Starry Night in June 1889 while staying at a sanitarium in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in southern France in an attempt to cure his ever-worsening mental illness. The swirling turbulent sky contrasts with the peaceful sleeping town below. Some have interpreted the painting as an expression of hope, while others see it as a symptom of van Gogh’s illness. The Starry Night shows the view from van Gogh’s sanitarium window, although he invented the cypress tree, presumably to balance the composition. Instead of painting at night, van Gogh painted the scene during the day from memory. While van Gogh’s treatment of the night sky depicts an emotional reality instead of a literal one, his observations of the moon and stars were accurate enough to allow modern astronomers to determine the date of the painting and pinpoint van Gogh’s location. The Starry Night was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.4 ft. high by 3 ft. wide and is now located at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Grant Wood: American Gothic (1930) Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
One of the most recognized pieces of American art, American Gothic depicts two figures standing in front of the Dibble house in Eldon, Iowa. The house was built in the Carpenter Gothic style; it was the architecture that first interested American painter Grant Wood, who thought that adding a Gothic window to an ordinary frame house was pretentious, and gave the work its title. Wood made a pencil sketch of the house while visiting Eldon in August 1930; he returned the next day (with the permission of the owners) to make another sketch using oils on paperboard. When Wood returned to his studio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he recruited his sister Nan to pose for the woman and his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby, to pose for the man. Although there is some evidence that Wood’s initial intent was to portray a husband and wife, Nan insisted that she was supposed to be the farmer’s daughter, not his wife, and Wood never disputed her interpretation. Wood entered the painting in a contest at the Art Institute of Chicago; it won third place and a cash prize of $300. Contemporary critics and the public interpreted the painting as a biting satire of small-town rural America, but at some point during the Great Depression, American Gothic acquired a reputation as a tribute to the steadfast pioneer spirit. Wood’s iconic image was even selected for a patriotic poster by the U.S. Government during World War II. In modern times, the painting has been the source of many parodies, mostly affectionate, and is considered a cultural icon. American Gothic, made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.4 ft. tall by 2 ft. wide, is now in the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois.
Pablo Picasso: Guernica (1937) Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid
An anti-war icon, Guernica was Picasso’s impassioned response to the bombing of a Basque Country village by German and Italian warplanes supporting Franco’s Nationalists on April 27, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso painted Guernica, made with oils on a canvas measuring 11.5 ft. tall by 25.5 ft. wide, for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, where he was living at the time. Ironically, the theme of the Exposition was a celebration of modern technology. Guernica was painted using a palette of mostly black, white and gray to set a somber tone. Among the elements of the work are: (1) on the left, a bull stands over a grieving woman holding a dead child; (2) the bull’s tail becomes a flame with smoke; (3) in the center, a horse with a gaping wound in its side falls in agony; (4) beneath the horse lies a dead soldier; his severed arm holds a broken sword from which a flower grows; (5) a lightbulb/evil eye/sun (lightbulb is ‘bombilla’ in Spanish, while ‘bomba’ is Spanish for bomb) hangs over the horse’s head; (6) a woman floats into the room through a window to witness the horror, while her long arm holds a lamp near the lightbulb; (7) a woman stares up blankly at the lightbulb; (8) instead of tongues, daggers emerge from the mouths of the bull, the horse and the grieving woman; (9) there is a drawing of a dove with an olive branch on the wall, and a crack in the wall lets light in from outside; and (10) a man on the far right raises his arms in terror as fire engulfs him from above and below. Interpretations of the mural are many and varied and often contradict one another, although all agree that this is Picasso’s protest against the bombing of Guernica in particular and war in general. Picasso’s response to questions about the meaning of his work was, “This bull is a bull and this horse is a horse.” After the Fascists won the Civil War, Picasso refused to allow the painting to go to Spain as long as they remained in power. As a result, Guernica was sent to New York and exhibited at Museum of Modern Art until 1981, after the restoration of democracy in Spain. Upon its arrival in Spain, Guernica was displayed in the Casón del Buen Retiro, part of the Museo del Prado in Madrid. In 1992, the painting was moved to a specially-constructed gallery in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.
Duccio (Duccio di Buoninsegna): Maestà Altarpiece (1308-11)
Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena
Duccio di Buoninsegna painted the Maestà Altarpiece for the city of Siena. The original piece, made with tempera and gold on wood panels measuring 15.4 ft. high by 16.4 ft. wide, contained paintings on the front and rear that indicated a step away from Gothic and Byzantine styles and toward a more realistic representation of people and things. The front consisted of the large Madonna and Child with saints and angels at center (see first image above), with a predella containing scenes from Christ’s childhood and additional portraits and scenes above. The rear contained 43 small scenes showing the Life of Christ and Life of the Virgin (see second image above). Unfortunately, in 1711, the altarpiece was dismantled and sawed into pieces, which were distributed to various locations. In 1956, an attempt was made to bring all the extant pieces back together in Siena’s Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, but it was only partially successful. Portions of the altarpiece may be found in museums around the world.
Jan van Eyck: Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (1434-1435) Musée du Louvre, Paris
The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, also known as Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin, was commissioned by Nicolas Rolin, the chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy, for his parish church in Autun, France (see first image, above). It was common practice to paint the donor into the painting, but before the Renaissance, such figures were painted on a much smaller scale than the saints and religious icons. Here, Rolin and the Madonna are equal size, a reflection of the humanism that characterized the Renaissance. Jan van Eyck, a master of the Early Netherlandish school, is known for his attention to detail. Here, note the intricacies of the floor tiles, the crown that the angel is holding, the carvings on the columns, and the landscape outside, with churches, a garden and additional figures (see second image, above). The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, made with oils on a wood panel measuring 2.2 ft. high by 2 ft. wide, is now in the Louvre in Paris.
Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi): The Birth of Venus (1486)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Sandro Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus in 1486 for the Medici family of Florence, using tempera on a canvas measuring 5.7 ft. high by 9.1 ft wide. In Roman mythology, Venus was the goddess of love, beauty and sex. In one of her representations, Venus Anadyomene, she was said to have been born from the sea as an adult woman. This aspect of her myth was the basis for one of Hesiod’s odes, which was revised by Italian Renaissance poet Angelo Poliziano. Botticelli shows the wind gods Zephyr and Aura bringing a nude Venus to the shore, while she stands in a contrapposto pose on a seashell (symbol of female sexuality). She poses shyly in the famous Venus Pudica stance, waiting for one of the Graces to cover up her nudity with a cape. Scholars have noted that Venus’s pose is impossible: she is putting too much weight on one leg to stay balanced, and her position on the seashell would cause it to tip forward. The Birth of Venus is now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni): The Last Judgment (Fresco, Sistine Chapel Altar Wall) (1534-1541) Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace, Vatican City
Twenty-five years after painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo returned to paint a giant fresco of The Last Judgment on the altar wall. The fresco, which measures 45 ft. tall by 39 ft. wide, shows Christ’s second coming and the division of the saved from the damned (see first image above). At the top of the composition, angels bring the symbols of Christ’s passion, including the cross and crown of thorns. Due to Michelangelo’s reputation, he was able to negotiate a significant amount of artistic freedom in exercising the commission from Pope Paul III. Nevertheless, the nudity of many of the figures in the fresco alarmed some clerics. Even before the painting was complete, the Pope’s master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, called the work “disgraceful” and said that it was more appropriate for the “public baths and taverns.” In response, Michelangelo painted Cesena’s face on Minos, judge of the underworld, giving him donkey ears and wrapping a serpent around him to cover (and bite!) his genitals (see second image above). When Cesena protested, the Pope reportedly quipped that he could do nothing because his jurisdiction did not extend to Hell. After Michelangelo’s death in 1564, the Vatican ordered Daniele da Volterra to paint over many of the figures’ genitalia. Many of these fig leaves were removed over 400 years later during the extensive cleaning between 1980 and 1994. Restorers relied heavily on a copy of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment commissioned by Cardinal Allesandro Farnese and painted by Marcello Venusti in 1549, before the fig leaves were added. (Venusti’s copy, now in the Museo da Capodimonte in Naples, is shown in the third image above.) Unfortunately, the restorers found that in some cases Volterra had scraped off the offending material and painted on fresh plaster instead of merely painting over the original, thus permanently marring the masterpiece.
Edvard Munch: The Scream (1893) National Gallery, Oslo; Munch Museum, Oslo
Norwegian Expressionist Edvard Munch said that he painted The Scream of Nature, now known as The Scream, to commemorate an incident in which the clouds turned blood red and he “sensed a scream passing through nature.” The painting has now become a pop culture icon. Munch painted four versions of The Scream between 1893 and 1910, all of which are shown above: (1) The Scream, 1893, made with tempera and crayon on cardboard, measuring 3.1 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide, now in the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway: (2) The Scream, 1893, made with crayons on cardboard, now in the Munch Museum in Oslo; (3) The Scream, 1895, made with pastels on cardboard, measuring 2.6 ft. tall by 1.9 ft. wide, now in a private collection (sold at auction for $120 million in 2012); and (4) The Scream, 1910, made with tempera on cardboard, now at the Munch Museum in Oslo. Munch also made approximately 48 black and white lithographic prints of the image from a lithographic stone he made in 1895. Thieves stole the 1893 version from the National Gallery in 1994, but it was recovered a few months later. The 1910 version in the Munch Museum was stolen in 2004 and recovered in 2007. Random Trivia: Penciled into the sky of the 1893 version of The Scream in the National Gallery are the words (in Norwegian), “Could only have been painted by a madman.” No one knows who scribbled it there, but Munch never removed it.
Thutmose (attrib.): Bust of Queen Nefertiti (c. 1345 BCE) Agyptisches Museum, Berlin
In 1912, while excavating the workshop of Ancient Egyptian sculptor Thutmose in Amarna, Egypt, German archaeologists led by Ludwig Borchardt found a painted bust of Nefertiti, queen of Egypt and wife of Akhenaten, who ruled from 1352 to 1336 BCE. (There is some evidence that Nefertiti herself may have ruled Egypt, either with her husband or after his death.) The bust is composed of a limestone core with painted layers of stucco; it is 19 inches tall and weighs 44 pounds. There is no inlay in the left eye. The “Nefertiti cap crown” is recognizable in other portraits of the queen. The cobra symbol, or uraeus, on her forehead has been damaged. According to experts, the bust with its slender neck and very large head does not possess many of the attributes of the new Amarna style that developed under Akhenaten, but hearkens back to more Classical forms. This bust may have been a sculptor’s modello that was kept in the studio to be used as the basis for other portraits of the queen. CT scans reveal that earlier versions of the bust show a much older queen, with wrinkles on her face and neck and a swelling on her nose, but that the final layers of stucco eliminated these flaws. After discovering the bust, Borchardt brought it back to Germany, where it has been ever since, despite requests from Egypt to repatriate it since the 1930s. There is considerable controversy over the removal of the bust from Egypt. There are allegations that when Germany and Egypt divided up the finds of Borchardt’s dig, the Germans downplayed or actively disguised the nature and value of the bust, showing Egyptian officials only a poorly-taken photograph and ensuring that it was thoroughly wrapped up when Egyptian authorities conducted an inspection. To complicate matters, at the time, Egypt was under the control of European powers. The Bust of Nefertiti is now in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, where the queen has her own room.
Unknown Artists: Terracotta Army (246-208 BCE) Tomb of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang,
Shaanxi, Xi’an, China
The Terracotta Army consists of approximately 8,000 unique, life-size sculpted soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, 150 cavalry horses, and various pieces of armor, weapons, and non-military figures and implements (see first image above). They are part of an immense burial complex for the Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China and were intended to protect the emperor in the afterlife. The archaeological treasure was discovered in 1974 by a group of farmers digging a well. Each terracotta warrior has a unique face (see second image above). Position and uniform are consistent with the rank and special skills of each soldier. The figures were constructed in separate pieces in workshops by government laborers and local craftsmen, then assembled and painted (very little of the paint remains), then arranged in the tomb according to rank and duty. Although most of the figures are made of terracotta, items such as a 1/2 life-size team of horses and chariot are made of bronze, silver and gold (see third image above).
Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi: St. Ansanus Altarpiece (1333-1335) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Known by various names (e.g. St. Ansanus Altarpiece; The Annunciation; The Annunciation with Two Saints; The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus), this Gothic altarpiece from the early 14th Century was painted by Simone Martini and his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi using tempera, gold leaf and lapis lazuli on wood panel for the St. Ansanus side altar in the Siena Cathedral. Measuring 8.6 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide, the Annunciation scene in the central panel is praised for its realism and symbolic detail, from the dove amidst a mandorla of angels, to Angel Gabriel’s cloak, still whirling from his flight, and the olive branch he carries, and Mary’s arabesque gown, startled expression and reading book.
The Limbourg Brothers: Les Très Riches Heurs du Duc de Berry (1411-1416)
Musée Condé, Chantilly, France
Les Très Riches Heures is a Book of Hours, a type of prayer book, that was created for John, Duke of Berry. The book, which measures 11.8 in. high and 8.5 in. wide, contains a total of 206 sheets of vellum, with 66 large miniatures and 65 small paintings made with tempera. The book begins with a series of calendar pages and a zodiac, followed by numerous prayers. Most of the work was done by the three Dutch Limbourg Brothers (Paul, Jean and Herman) between 1411-1416, but they left the project unfinished, so it was completed by others, including Jean Colombe, in the 1480s. Seen above are: (1) The page for January, showing the exchange of New Year’s gifts among the Duke’s family and friends (note battle mural on the back wall); (2) the page for October, with workers in the fields and the Louvre Castle; and (3) the zodiac with the signs displayed on the body of a young man, then again in the frame surrounding the two figures.
Piero della Francesca: The Resurrection of Christ (c. 1463-1465)
Pinacoteca Comunale, Sansepolcro, Italy
Piero della Francesca painted The Resurrection of Christ on the wall of a communal meeting hall in his home town of Sansepolcro, in Tuscany, Italy. Measuring approximately 7.5 ft. tall by 6.5 ft. wide, the fresco depicts Christ as he leaves the tomb, while four soldiers – one of whom is a self-portrait of the painter – sleep. The flag with a red cross on a white background was a common symbol of the Resurrection. The painting survived World War II due to the refusal of British artillery officer Tony Clarke to shell Sansepolcro after having read accounts of the painting’s importance to art history. In gratitude, Sansepolcrans named a street after Clarke. As it happened, the Germans had already retreated so the bombing would have been pointless. The meeting hall where Piero painted the Resurrection fresco (and where it remains) is now the Museo Civico of Sansepolcro.
Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi): La Primavera (c. 1477-1482)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
La Primavera, also known as Spring or Allegory of Spring, was painted by Sandro Botticelli using tempera on wood panels measuring 10 ft. wide and 6.67 ft. tall. The work was commissioned by a member of the Medici family. The references to Spring and love (Venus and Cupid especially) have led some scholars to believe that the painting was made for the May 1482 wedding of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, a cousin of the Medicis. On the far right, Zephyr, the March wind, is kidnapping the nymph Chloris (see second image above). After Zephyr marries Chloris, she is transformed into Flora, the goddess of Spring, who is shown in a floral gown scattering flowers (see third image above). At the center, Venus presides, with her son Cupid flying above her. Next to Venus, the Three Graces are dancing while Mercury provides protection. In addition to the mythological figures, Botticelli has accurately depicted 500 different plant species in La Primavera, including 190 different flowers, and, of course, orange trees, the Medici family symbol (see fourth image above). La Primavera is now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-1652)
Capella Cornaro, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome
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-size 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 (see first image above). 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 (see second image above). 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 (see third image above).
Georges Seurat: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1886)
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
French Post-Impressionist Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte (sometimes called A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte – 1884) is the most famous example of pointillism, a technique in which the artist uses small dots of color instead of brushstrokes, which the eye then perceives as figures and other shapes (see first image above). At the time the work was painted, the island of Grand Jatte in the Seine was far from the center of Paris and was known as a recreational retreat for the bourgeoisie, with its own prostitutes, possibly symbolized by the woman fishing in the lower left. The painting forms a companion piece to the large Bathers at Asnières of the same year, which shows working class Parisians on the banks of the Seine across from Grand Jatte (see second image above). One of the boys in Bathers at Asnières is calling over to Grand Jatte, creating a link between the two paintings. In contrast to Bathers at Asnières, which is set in glaring sunlight, many of the people on Grande Jatte are in shade. One of the people who is not in shadow is a young girl dressed in white in the center of the painting who stares directly at the viewer and seems to be silently questioning us. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte, made with oils on a canvas measuring 7 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide, is now in the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois.
Paul Cézanne: The Large Bathers (1898-1906)
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Cézanne’s The Large Bathers (also known as The Bathers or Les Grandes Baigneuses) is the last and the largest in a series of ‘bathers’ paintings he created around the turn of the century. Cézanne disliked labels and movements, and this painting shows why. The grouping of nudes and triangular structure hearken back to Renaissance forms and themes – the subject of Diana bathing with her maidens may have been an inspiration – but the details of the figures are modern: strangely-posed, faceless, lacking sensuality, in some cases only half-drawn – and the scene in the distance appears to be contemporary, not mythological. The bowing trees create a stage on which the women may perform, yet, as noted by curator Joseph Rishel, despite the motion and activity, “there is a profound sense of eternal calm and resolution.” Cézanne based the nude figures on his drawings or other paintings, not live models, which only adds to the flatness of the figures, anticipating the forms of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon a year later. Scholars generally agree that Cézanne had not finished the painting at the time of his death in 1906, although some believe that its unfinished state adds to its exalted and serene quality. The Large Bathers was made with oils on a canvas measuring 8 ft. tall by 7 ft. wide and is now located in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Salvador Dali: The Persistence of Memory (1931) Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Persistence of Memory is Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali’s most famous creation (other than perhaps himself). Dali and other surrealist painters, who drew much of their inspiration from the theories of Sigmund Freud, presented dream-like imagery in a highly realistic and exact style. In addition to the four ‘soft’ or ‘melting’ pocket watches (one covered by ants, a symbol of decay), Dali paints a gruesome self-portrait in the center, a sort of monster with one closed eye, who may be dreaming. The background landscape and the looming mountain casting an immense shadow over the foreground reference Dali’s native Catalonia. Small but thought-provoking, The Persistence of Memory was made with oils on a canvas measuring 9.5 in. tall by 13 in. wide and is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Jan and Hubert van Eyck: The Ghent Altarpiece (1432) St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium
The Ghent Altarpiece (also known as Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) was made for the Church of St. John the Baptist (now St. Bavo Cathedral) in Ghent, Belgium, where it is still located. The large altarpiece (11 ft. tall by 15 ft. wide when open) consists of 12 panels, eight of them with hinged shutters. The commission from merchant and mayor Joost Vijdt was given to Hubert van Eyck, but many scholars believe Hubert’s brother Jan painted most or all of the piece. When closed, the altarpiece shows the Annunciation, imitation statues of two saints, and portraits of the donor and his wife, Joost Vijdt and Lysbette Borluut (see second image, above). The fourth image above shows the donor portrait and the ‘sculpture’ of John the Baptist in detail. The brightly-colored interior panels show: (top row) God the Father, dressed as the Pope, Mary, St. John the Baptist, musical angels and Adam and Eve and (bottom row) a grand celebration of Jesus as the Lamb of God (see first image, above). The third image above shows the Adoration of the Lamb in detail, showing the Lamb of God bleeding into the Holy Grail. The style combines aspects of International Gothic, Byzantine and Romanesque, but the lack of idealization (see, for example, the individualized faces of the angels) and the attention to detail indicate a new artistic conception that may show the influence of the Italian Renaissance.
Jan van Eyck: The Arnolfini Portrait (Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife) (1434)
National Gallery, London
The Arnolfini Portrait (painted on three vertical oak panels measuring 2.8 ft. high by 2 ft. wide) is one of the earliest masterpieces made with oil paint. Van Eyck applied layer after layer of thin translucent glazes to create intense tones and colors. The painting is designed to emphasize the wealth of its subjects – Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini (if in fact he is the man in the picture) was a well-to-do Italian merchant living in Bruges, Flanders (see first image, above). It was assumed since the 19th Century that this was a portrait of Arnolfini and his wife, but in 1997, art historians discovered that Arnolfini married six years after the death of Jan van Eyck, so unless there was an earlier marriage, the subjects may have been misidentified. Some of the objects in the room have symbolic value. The dog, for example, is a symbol of marital fidelity. In a tour de force of technique, van Eyck creates an image in the mirror on the rear wall showing the two portrait subjects as well as two other figures standing in the doorway, one of whom may be a self-portrait of the artist (see second image, above). The Arnolfini Portrait (also known as Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife) is now in the National Gallery in London.
Rogier van der Weyden: Descent from the Cross (Deposition of Christ) (c. 1435)
Museo del Prado, Madrid
Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden was commissioned by the Leuven guild of archers to make this large panel painting (7 ft. tall by 8.5 ft. wide) of Christ being lowered from the cross into the arms of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, which originally hung in the guild’s chapel (see first image). In honor of the donor guild, Christ’s body approximates the shape of a crossbow. This is an early depiction of the swooning Mary figure (echoing her son’s pose), which soon became standard iconography, although it has no basis in Scripture. The painting is considered one of the most unique and influential of the 15th Century and was copied many times. Scholars have pointed out the vividness of the colors and the realistic facial expressions, including a tearful St. John reaching down to help Mary (see second image above). Mary Magdalene’s grief is expressed through her entire body (see third image above). One art historian compared the “undulating lines, swaying poses and counterposes of figures” to counterpoint in polyphonic music. The Descent from the Cross is now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
Hugo van der Goes: The Portinari Altarpiece (c. 1475) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
A triptych, the Portinari Altarpiece (measuring 8.3 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide) was commissioned by Italian banker Tommaso Portinari for the church in Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova hospital (see first image, above). Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes, using oil paints on wood, depicted the Adoration of the Shepherds in the center panel (see second image above), with the Portinari family and their patron saints on the side panels (see first image above). In a break from traditional iconography, the infant Jesus is placed on the ground, on a ‘blanket’ made of golden rays, instead of lying on a crib or on his mother’s lap (see second image above). A separate narrative goes on in the background of each panel: (1) the left wing shows Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem; (2) the center panel shows the angel appearing to the shepherds; and (3) the right panel shows the Three Magi on their way to see Jesus (see third image above). When the painting arrived in Florence in 1483, its naturalistic depiction of the figures influenced Domenico Ghirlandaio and other Italian painters.
Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni): Pietà (1497-1499)
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
Pietà refers to the pose of Mary holding the body of Jesus after his Crucifixion – Michelangelo Buonarroti’s late 15th Century masterpiece was the first Italian sculpture on the subject. Michelangelo depicts Mary as younger, calmer and less sorrowful than in other versions of the scene. Made of Carrara marble and measuring 5.7 ft. tall by 6.4 ft. wide, the Pietà was commissioned by Cardinal Jean de Bilhères and was originally intended for his funeral monument. The sculpture was the only work that Michelangelo ever signed, reportedly after he overheard someone attributing the work to artist Cristoforo Solari. The Pietà is located in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino): The School of Athens (1510-1511)
Stanza della Signatura, Vatican Palace, Vatican City
Measuring 16.5 ft. high by 25 ft. wide, The School of Athens is one of several frescoes that Italian Renaissance artist Raphael painted on the walls of a suite of reception rooms in the Vatican Palace. The School of Athens, an allegorical painting on the topic of philosophy, adorns one wall of the Stanza della Segnatura (Room of the Signatura) and bears the inscription “Causarum Cognito” (“Seek Knowledge of Causes”). The frescoes on the other three walls represent Poetry and Music, Theology and Law. With impeccable attention to the laws of perspective, Raphael shows an open forum that recedes into the background. At the center, at the perspectival vanishing point, Plato (holding the Timaeus) and Aristotle (with the Nicomachean Ethics) walk and talk together (see second image above). The remaining figures represent other philosophers, but there is some dispute about their identities. Most scholars agree that Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid, Ptolemy and Zoroaster are among those pictured. As models for some of the figures, Raphael drew upon his fellow artists; art historians have found portraits of Leonardo da Vinci (as Plato), Michelangelo (as Heraclitus), Donatello (as Plotinus), Bramante (as Euclid or Archimedes), and Raphael’s own self-portrait (as Apelles) in The School of Athens (see third image above, far right). Random Trivia: Rock band Guns n’ Roses used two of the figures from The School of Athens in the cover art for their Use Your Illusion albums.
Albrecht Altdorfer: The Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529) Alte Pinakothek, Munich
German artist Albrecht Altdorfer received a commission from Duke William IV of Bavaria to paint eight works to hang in the Duke’s Munich residence, the most highly regarded of which is The Battle of Alexander at Issus, also known as Alexander’s Victory and The Battle of Issus. This masterpiece depicts the 333 BCE battle in which Alexander the Great defeated Darius III of Persia (see first image above). The work, which measures 5.2 ft. tall by 4 ft. wide, is a prominent example of a world landscape painting: by ignoring the normal rules of perspective, Altdorfer shows us the details of a battle (see second image above), but also a grand overview of the known world. The dramatic sky is significant on metaphorical and symbolic levels. Although Altdorfer’s grand scale, level of detail and official banner inscription all suggest an intent to depict the historical event accurately, the painting contains numerous inaccuracies and anachronisms, some of which are surely deliberate. For example, Alexander’s men wear 16th Century armor and Darius’s troops are dressed as 16th Century Turks (see third image above). These elements lead scholars to believe Altdorfer intended to compare Alexander’s victory over the Persians with the contemporary struggle between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, as exemplified by the Siege of Vienna in 1529 (the year of the painting), where an outnumbered collection of Europeans repulsed an attack by Suleiman the Magnificent and his Ottoman warriors. The Battle of Alexander at Issus is now at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.
Paolo Veronese (Paolo Caliari): The Wedding at Cana (The Wedding Feast at Cana) (1562–1563) Musée du Louvre, Paris
Measuring 22 ft. tall by 32.5 ft. wide and weighing 1.5 tons, The Wedding Feast at Cana (also known as The Wedding at Cana) is the largest painting in the Louvre (see first image, above). Veronese received a commission from the Benedictine Monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice to paint the Gospel story in which Jesus changed water into wine. Veronese painted the work in the Mannerist style of the late Renaissance. Veronese combines ancient and contemporary details; some of the 130 guests are intended to represent current religious and political figures such as King Francis of France, Queen Mary of England, Emperor Charles V and Ottoman leader Suleiman the Magnificent (see second image above, with Suleiman in rear, wearing gold and turning to his right). Presumably because the Benedictine monks took a vow of silence, no one in the painting is speaking. The only guest looking directly at the viewer is Jesus, who sits at the center (see third image above). The painting hung in Venice from 1563 to 1797, when Napoleon looted it and brought it to Paris. The Louvre began restoring the painting in 1989, but two mishaps occurred in 1992 – a leaking air vent spattered the canvas with water, and then a support collapsed and the metal framework tore five holes in the canvas. The restored Wedding Feast at Cana remains in the Louvre in Paris.
Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn): The Jewish Bride (1667)
The identity of the subjects of 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.
Antoine Watteau (Jean-Antoine Watteau): The Embarkation for Cythera (1717)
Musée du Louvre, Paris
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” (see first image above). 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, above). The painting played an important role in Watteau’s career; 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 (see third image above).
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: Frescoes, Würzburg Residence (1750-1753) Würzburg, Germany
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, 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 used precise rendering of images, dramatic poses and tension-creating color schemes to keep the pictures engaging, while at the same time combining these characteristics 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 an area of 7,287 square feet (see first image above). The fresco depicts Apollo and other deities in the center (see second image, above), surrounded by the continents of Europe, America, Asia and Africa (see third image above), each with representative landscapes, animals and a female allegorical figure. In the Imperial Hall, Tiepolo painted the allegorical Apollo Presenting Beatrice of Burgundy to Frederick Barbarossa on the ceiling (see fourth image above) as well as two historical events on the walls: the Marriage of Emperor Frederick to Beatrice (see fifth image above) 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.
Joseph Wright of Derby: An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1767–1768)
National Gallery, London
Like many of his time, English artist Joseph Wright of Derby was fascinated with science and progress; 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.) Although some of the spectators express concern about the bird, most of them seem in awe of the scientific discovery, thus supporting Wright’s beliefs about the importance of science. 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.
Katsushika Hokusai: Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji – No. 1: The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1830-1833) Various museums
Between 1826 and 1833, Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai created 46 different color woodblock prints depicting Mount Fuji in a variety of different contexts. The prints belong to the artistic genre of ukiyo-e, or ‘pictures of the floating world.’ The first 36 prints were published in 1831 under the title Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. They were so popular that Hokusai printed 10 additional views in the following years. The most famous of the original 36 prints is The Great Wave off Kanagawa (also known as The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa and literally translated as Off Kanagawa, the Underside of a Wave), shown above. It shows three boats being threatened by a large wave, while Mt. Fuji is a relatively small figure in the distance. The boats pictured are oshiokuri-bune, fast boats used to transport live fish to market. Each boat has eight rowers and two other passengers. Based on the typical size of such boats and Hokusai’s reduction of the vertical scale by 30%, scholars have estimated the height of the wave to be 32-39 feet. Copies of the print, each of which measures 10.1 in. tall by 14.9 in. wide, can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum in London, the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois, the Guimet Museum in Paris, and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, among others. Although none of the other prints has attained the fame of The Great Wave off Kanagawa, they are all quite remarkable. Three other prints from the series are shown above: (2) No. 6: The Coast of Seven Leagues in Kamakura; and (3) No. 2: South Wind, Clear Sky (also known as Red Fuji).
Édouard Manet: Olympia (1863) Musée d’Orsay, Paris
French artist Édouard Manet shocked the crowds at the 1865 Paris Salon with his sensational portrait of a well-to-do courtesan (Olympia was a common name for prostitutes in Manet’s Paris) in a classical pose that seems to mock Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538). Because Manet refused to idealize the nude figure and instead personalized her as a woman of the world boldly confronting us with her gaze, he forces the viewer to confront her raw sexuality, and not some high-minded allegory of Beauty. His style, too, rejects the illusions of Renaissance and Classical art and instead begins to hint that a painting is two dimensional – a very modernist notion – by reducing modeling and flattening some of the three-dimensionality of the figures. Olympia was made with oil paints on a canvas measuring 4.3 ft. tall by 6.2 ft. wide. It is now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-1881)
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir often painted his friends into his artworks, and The Luncheon of the Boating Party is no exception. For example, (1) the woman playing with the dog is Aline Charigot, who would later become Renoir’s wife; (2) the woman at the center drinking from a glass is actress Ellen Andrée (from L’Absinthe); and (3) the man in the straw hat on the right is painter Gustave Caillebotte. The setting for the luncheon is the balcony of the Maison Fournaise along the Seine in Chatou, France. Critics have praised Renoir’s treatment of light, which enters from the area between the two figures leaning on the railing and then reflects off the white shirts and tablecloth to fill the composition, leaving no room for darkness or gloom. The Luncheon of the Boating Party, made with oil paints on a canvas measuring 4.25 ft. tall and 5.67 ft. wide, is now at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
Édouard Manet: A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) Courtauld Gallery, London
Manet’s last major painting, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère has sparked lively scholarly debate for its treatment of perspective, as well as its implications regarding the relationships of men and women. The central character is a barmaid, who is standing in front of a huge mirror that reflects her, a customer and the rest of the establishment. The bowl of oranges on the bar may symbolize prostitution, which was common at Folies-Bergère – but Manet leaves us guessing about the barmaid’s true profession. Although some have stated that the reflections are physically impossible – where is the man we see in the mirror facing the barmaid? – a reenactment of the scene proved that the painting is accurate if the viewer is standing off to the side and not in the center. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.2 ft. tall by 4.3 ft. wide, is now located at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.
Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty (1970) Great Salt Lake, Utah
Spiral Jetty is a site-specific earthwork sculpture that American artist Robert Smithson constructed on the northeastern short of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, a site selected because of the presence of salt-tolerant bacteria and algae that turn the water a blood-red color, and also because it was far from the galleries and museums of the New York art world. The environmental sculpture, which slowly changes over time, consists of a counterclockwise coil 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide that juts into the lake. In its immensity, the piece hearkens back to the ancient monuments of prehistoric times. Construction required moving 6,650 tons of rock and earth, and took six days. Spiral Jetty may be visible or submerged depending on the lake’s water level. The photo in the first image shown above was taken in April 2005 when the sculpture became visible again after three decades under water. The photo in the second image above was taken in 2011. Smithson, who died in 1973, also made a film documenting the project, also called Spiral Jetty (1970).
Unknown Artist: Funerary Mask of Tutankhamun (1333-1323 BCE) Egyptian Museum, Cairo
Tutankhamun was an 18th Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh who ruled from 1332-1323 BCE, during the New Kingdom. He ascended to the throne at age 9 and died 10 years later at age 18. His tomb was discovered nearly intact by Howard Carter and George Herbert, Earl of Carnavon, in 1922. The tomb contained the pharaoh’s mummy, encased in three coffins fitted inside one another. Inside the innermost case, the explorers found the funerary, or death mask. Made of solid gold inlaid with colored glass and semiprecious stones (including obsidian, quartz, and lapis lazuli), the mask is 21 in. tall by 15.5 in. wide and includes representations of the goddesses Nekhbet (the vulture) and Wadjet (the cobra), the nemes (the striped head cloth of the pharaohs) and the traditional false beard. The mask was designed to ensure that the pharaoh’s soul would recognize his body and return to allow his resurrection.
Myron: The Discus Thrower (Palombra Discobolus) (460-450 BCE)
Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome
The Discobolus (also known as The Discus Thrower) was a bronze mid-5th Century BCE Greek sculpture by Myron. The original is lost and is known only by Roman copies, the most famous of which is the 5.1 ft. tall Palombara Discobolus, which dates from the 1st Century CE and was discovered in 1781 (see image above). Adolf Hitler bought it in 1938 and brought it to Munich. It was returned to Italy in 1948. The statue is known for its depiction of athletic energy and a well-proportioned body as well as rhythmos, a quality of harmony and balance. According to one critic, Myron creates a sense of balance and order by having the discus thrower’s arms and back create two completely congruous intersecting arcs. On some copies of the statue, the head has been improperly restored in a position facing down instead of looking back toward the discus.
Phidias (attrib.): Parthenon Frieze (c. 443-438 BCE) British Museum, London, UK; Athens, Greece
The Parthenon Frieze is a low-relief marble sculpture that originally decorated the upper portion of the interior of the Parthenon, a temple on the Acropolis in Athens dedicated to Athena. According to Plutarch, Phidias oversaw the work, which consisted of 114 marble blocks, each 3.3 feet high, totaling 524 feet in length, 80% of which remains. There are two parallel lines of figures with 378 gods and humans, including all the Attic tribes, and 245 animals. The first image above depicts the deities Poseidon, Apollo and Artemis. Scholars disagree about whether the scene depicted in the frieze is contemporary, historical or allegorical. According to one theory, the frieze represents the Panathenaic Procession, an annual religious event. Large portions of the frieze were damaged or destroyed by Venetian bombing in 1687, when the Ottomans used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine. In a controversial series of events, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, removed much of the frieze between 1801 and 1812; as a result, a large portion of the Parthenon frieze is now in the British Museum as part of the Elgin Marbles. Although many have argued for the return of the frieze to Athens, where portions of it remain, most experts have concluded that the UK acquired it legally.
Unknown Artists: Pergamon Altar Frieze (c. 180 BCE) Pergamon Museum, Berlin
The Pergamon Altar Frieze is carved in high relief around the base of the Pergamon altar, a massive structure constructed in the ancient city of Pergamon in Asia Minor (now Turkey) during the reign of King Eumenes II in the 2nd Century BCE. The altar and its friezes are among the most significant works of Hellenistic art. The largest frieze (made of Proconnesian marble and measuring 7.5 ft. tall by 370.7 ft. long) depicts the Gigantomachy, a battle between the Giants and the gods of Olympus. The first image above shows Hecate fighting Klytios, on the left, and Artemis fighting Otos, on the right. The second image shows Athena in battle. Another, smaller frieze on the inner court walls shows scenes from the life of Telephus, legendary founder of Pergamon. The altar and friezes were excavated by Carl Humann between 1878 and 1886. By arrangement with the Turkish government, he brought them to Germany, where the various fragments were restored and put on display in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
Alexandros of Antioch: Venus de Milo (Aphrodite of Milos) (130-100 BCE)
Musée du Louvre, Paris
The Venus de Milo is a Greek marble sculpture of Aphrodite (Roman name Venus) made by Alexandros of Antioch in the 2nd Century BCE during the Hellenist period. It stands 6.7 ft. tall. The statue was found by a Greek peasant, Yorgos Kentrotas, and a French naval officer, Olivier Voutier, in the ruins of the ancient city of Milos on the Aegean island known variously as Milos, Melos or Milo, then part of the Ottoman Empire. At the time it was discovered, the statue was in several pieces, which included part of the left arm and the left hand holding an apple, as well as a plinth with an inscription by Alexandros. By the time the French bought the statue from the Turks and brought it to the Louvre in Paris, the arms had disappeared. Then, soon afterwards, the plinth with Alexandros’ inscription also vanished, presumably because the Hellenistic time frame was considered less prestigious than an older Greek provenance. Scholars have been searching for the missing pieces ever since.
Agesander, Athenodoros & Polydorus: Laocoön and His Sons (c. 42-19 BCE)
Museo Pio Clementino, Vatican City
According to Pliny the Elder, he observed a marble statue of Laocoön and His Sons in the home of the future emperor Titus between 70 and 79 CE that was made by Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydoros, three sculptors from the Greek island of Rhodes. In 1506, a marble statue that seemed to match the one described by Pliny was discovered in a Roman vineyard beneath the remains of the Baths of Titus. The group, which measures 6.8 ft. tall, 5.3 ft. wide and 3.7 ft. deep, shows Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents, as related in several Greek myths and the Aeneid, in punishment by pro-Greek gods for uncovering the secret of the Trojan Horse. The style is considered Hellenistic “Pergamene baroque” and a figure in the Pergamon Altar Frieze bears a striking similarity to the figure of Laocoön here. The sculpture had an enormous influence on the Renaissance artists who saw it, particularly in the way it depicted the suffering of the characters. Scholars disagree about the date of the piece. Some believe it is a marble copy dating to 14-37 CE of a bronze original from c. 150-140 BCE. Others believe it is an original work created some time between 50 BCE and 68 CE. Based on an unscientific survey of websites, the majority view is that it is an original sculpture made between 42 and 19 BCE. Laocoön and His Sons was purchased by the Vatican and is now at the Museo Pio-Clementino in Rome. Various restorations have been proposed over the centuries, but most changes have not been permanent. The right arms of the figures, which were missing, were replaced by replicas for certain periods. In 1540, for example, the Vatican gave Laocoön a new right arm that extended upward. In 1906, Ludwig Pollak discovered part of a marble arm in a Roman builder’s yard near the spot where the original statue was found. He gave it to the Vatican. In 1957, the Vatican’s experts finally decided that the arm, which was bent, belonged to Laocoön, so it replaced the extended arm that had been added in 1540 (see second image above showing previous pose with extended arm).
Eadfrith of Lindisfarne: Lindisfarne Gospels (c. 700-715) British Museum, London
The illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels was produced in a monastery on Lindisfarne (also known as Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland in the UK. Eadfrith, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 until his death in 721, is presumed to be the artist. The book, which measures 14.4 inches high and 10.8 inches wide, was originally encased in a leather binding covered with jewels and precious metals made by Billfrith the Anchorite, but this treasure was looted by the Vikings sometime after their first raid in 793. The original Latin text is written using insular majuscule script and the art is considered an early and prime example of the insular or Hiberno-Saxon art of the British Isles in the post-Roman period. In the 10th Century, Aldred, Provost of Chester-le-Street, inserted a word-for-word Old English translation between the lines of the Latin text and a short history of the book, noting that it was made in honor of 7th Century St. Cuthbert, an earlier Bishop of Lindisfarne. The style of the illuminations incorporates Christian and pre-Christian imagery, including Celtic, Germanic and Irish artistic traditions. Each Gospel is introduced by a portrait of the evangelist – the portrait page of St. Matthew is shown in the first image above. St. Matthew’s cross-carpet page (folio 26v), with its cross surrounded by swirling knots and spirals, is shown in the second image above. The Lindisfarne Gospels is now located in the British Library in London.
Unknown Artist: The Book of Kells (c. 800) Trinity College Library, Dublin
The Book of Kells is an illustrated manuscript containing the four Christian Gospels and other writings. The book, which measures 13 in. high by 10 in. wide, was created in one or more of the English and Irish monasteries founded by St. Colomba, probably Iona, in England, and then Kells, in Ireland, where it remained until the mid-17th Century, when it was moved to Dublin and eventually to the library of Trinity College. The artist’s finest achievements are the initial pages, in which the first letter of the Gospel is elaborated into a world of figures and designs (such as with the the Gospel of John, shown in the first image above and the somewhat less elaborate incipit of the Gospel of Matthew, in the third image above), and the 10 surviving full-page illuminations, including Christ Enthroned (see second image above). The Book of Kells is considered the most extravagant and complex example of Insular Art. All 680 pages are viewable online HERE.
Masaccio (Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone): The Holy Trinity (1428)
Santa Maria Novella, Florence
Measuring 21.9 ft. tall by 10.4 ft. wide, Masaccio’s Holy Trinity fresco sends a very simple message: accept the saving grace of the Christian God, or spend eternity in darkness. For artists, however, the work sent a different message, because it demonstrated the ways in which they could use Brunelleschi’s rules of perspective to create images that tricked the eye (tromp l’oeil) into seeing depth on a flat surface. When Renaissance artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari was commissioned in the mid-1500s to renovate the chapel in Florence’s Santa Maria Novella church, where the Holy Trinity was painted, he constructed a new screen and altar directly in front of the fresco to both hide it and prevent its destruction. Masaccio’s masterpiece was not revealed again until another round of renovations in 1860. Even then, the lower portion of the fresco depicting the skeleton and tomb was not reunited with the upper portion until 1952. The first image shows the entire fresco with the tomb below; the second image shows the upper portion only.
Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi): David (c. 1435-1440)
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
Early Renaissance Italian artist Donatello made two statues of the Biblical David. The second sculpture, which is the more highly regarded of the two, shows the young hero, having slain Goliath, standing with his foot on the giant’s head (see second image, above), and carrying Goliath’s immense sword (see first image, above). Standing 6.2 ft. tall, Donatello’s David is the first unsupported bronze statue of the Renaissance and the first freestanding nude male sculpture in any medium since Greek and Roman times. David was considered a symbol of Florence, and the Medici family commissioned the statue for their palace courtyard as a political statement about their place in the Florentine power structure. While the statue’s beauty is undisputed, some have commented on its departures from traditional forms. Some find the boy’s nudity odd, given his hat and boots. Some find the figure too effeminate or androgynous. Others claim that the very aspects some find ‘odd’ are intended to demonstrate that David’s victory over Goliath was not a result of strength, but of God’s will. Some scholars believe Donatello’s loving attention to the nude male form indicates that he was homosexual. The David is now in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence.
Andrea Mantegna: Frescoes, Camera degli Sposi (1465-1474) Castello San Giorgio, Mantua, Italy
In the mid-1400s, Ludovico III Gonzaga commissioned Andrea Mantegna to paint frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi, or bridal chamber, of the Ducal Palace in Mantua, Italy. The major frescoes include a court scene on the north wall, a meeting scene on the north wall, and an oculus on the ceiling (see first image above). Each fresco creates the trompe-d’oeil illusion of additional space beyond the wall or ceiling: the ceiling oculus, for example, appears to open into the sky above, with various characters peering over the edge down into the room (see second image above). It is one of the first di sotto in sù ceiling paintings. The meeting and court scenes show the patron with friends, family and dignitaries. The frescoes remain in the bridal chamber in the northeast tower of the Castle of San Giorgio in Mantua.
Leonardo da Vinci: Lady with an Ermine (c. 1490) Czartorski Collection, Krakow, Poland
Leonardo da Vinci painted Lady with an Ermine, measuring 21 in. tall by 15 in. wide, using oil paints, which had only recently been introduced to Italy. The subject of the three-quarter portrait is Cecilia Galleriani, the 16-year-old mistress of Leonardo’s employer, Ludovico Sforza. Miss Galleriani’s simple clothes make it clear that she is not an aristocrat. The ermine symbolizes purity, for legend had it that it would rather die than dirty its white coat. As with many of da Vinci’s paintings, the painting follows a spiraling pyramid compositional structure. It is also notable for the detailed attention the painter paid to the subject’s hand, reflecting Leonardo’s interest in anatomy. Lady with an Ermine is located in the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, Poland.
Correggio (Antonio Allegri da Correggio): Jupiter and Io (c. 1530-1532)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Jupiter and Io is a voluptuous late Renaissance oil painting by Italian artist Correggio illustrating a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which Jupiter, the king of the gods, takes on the shape of a smoky gray cloud to seduce Io, a mortal river nymph (see first image above). Jupiter and Io was one of a series of paintings on the subject of The Loves of Jupiter, as related in the Metamorphoses, that was commissioned by Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. The series of paintings was initially intended for a private room in the Duke’s palace, but they were given instead to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V during a visit to Mantua. Other paintings in the series include: Ganymede Abducted by the Eagle (1531-1532) (see second image above); Leda with the Swan (1531-1532) (see third image above) and Danaë (c. 1531) (see fourth image above), Jupiter and Io, the most highly regarded painting in the series, has a dreamlike sensuality. Jupiter’s face emerges from the cloud to give Io a kiss on the cheek, while Io, her substantial body twisted in the throes of ecstasy, pulls Jupiter’s cloud-engulfed hand closer around her waist. Jupiter and Io was made with oils on a canvas measuring 5.4 feet tall by 2.3 feet wide and is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Hans Holbein the Younger: The Ambassadors (1533) National Gallery, London
Ostensibly a double portrait of two French diplomats, most likely Jean de Dinteville, a landowner (left), and Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur (right), German painter Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors contains many mysteries. The table between the two men, in the center of the composition, contains numerous symbols of religion and science or commerce, including two globes, a quadrant, a torquetum, a polyhedral sundial, an Oriental carpet, a Lutheran hymn book, and a lute with a broken string (a symbol of discord). A half-hidden crucifix hangs in the upper left and the floor tiles bear a pattern that English viewers would have recognized from Westminster Abbey. (Holbein spent much of his working life in England, where The Ambassadors was painted.) Most bizarre is an anamorphically-rendered skull in the bottom center, which can only be seen properly if the painting is approached from the side. The skull represents death and mortality, which lurk unrecognized in our midst, but it may also be an example of Holbein showing off his grasp of technique. The entire ensemble raises more questions than it answers, but appears to ask the viewer to enter into a debate about the interaction between science and religion, between the concerns of the rising scientific and merchant class and those of the clergy – are they in conflict or can they coexist? The Ambassadors is now in the National Gallery in London.
Johannes Vermeer: View of Delft (1660-61) Mauritshuis, The Hague
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. 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. 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.
Johannes Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) Mauritshuis, The Hague
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.
Johannes Vermeer: The Art of Painting (1670) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
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 (see first image, above). An accurate copy of Claes Janszoon Visscher’s 1636 map of The Netherlands hangs on the back wall (see detail in second image, above). 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.
Antoine Watteau (Jean-Antoine Watteau): Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles (1718-1719) Musée du Louvre, Paris
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.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard: The Swing (1767) Wallace Collection, London
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.
Jacques-Louis David: Oath of the Horatii (1784-1785) Musée du Louvre, Paris
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.
Jacques-Louis David: Death of Marat (1793) Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels
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. The second image is Marat (Sebastião) (2008) by Brazilian artist Vic Muniz’s Pictures of Garbage series. The work, made entirely from recycled garbage, is a portrait of a man who earns his living by finding resellable material in a huge garbage dump.
John Constable: The Hay Wain (1821) National Gallery, London
When British painter John Constable presented a landscape entitled Landscape: Noon at the 1821 Royal Academy summer exhibition, it barely caused a stir. Constable, who grew up in the Suffolk countryside and had detailed personal knowledge of the English landscape and the implements of agriculture, painted with a realism that apparently offended those who preferred the idealized landscapes of Claude Lorrain and his school. Three years later, Constable exhibited the same painting, renamed The Hay Wain, at the 1824 Paris Salon (see first image above). Here in France (home of Claude Lorrain), the work’s true beauty was recognized, and Charles X awarded The Hay Wain the exhibition’s Gold Medal. In the painting, Constable depicts a large farm cart, or hay wain, crossing the River Stour, which forms the border between Suffolk and Essex counties (see detail in second image above). Although on the one hand, Constable is presenting a picturesque scene of his beloved English countryside, there are other themes: the effect of the Industrial Revolution on the agrarian lifestyle; finding one’s purpose through working with the land; the idea of England as as earthly paradise. As was his practice, Constable made a full-sized oil sketch of the scene on site (the sketch is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London), and then returned to his London studio to paint the final work. The farmer’s cottage at left still stands, although most of the trees are gone, and the spot is now a tourist attraction. The Hay Wain, made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.3 ft. high by 6.1 ft. wide, is now in the National Gallery in London.
Eugène Delacroix (Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix): Death of Sardanapalus (1827)
Musée du Louvre, Paris
In Lord Byron’s telling, Sardanapalus, the last king of Assyria, was at war with the Medes, when he realized that he was facing imminent military defeat. To avoid the humiliation of capture or death at the hands of his foe, Sardanapalus decided to commit suicide by immolation. First, however, he ordered the destruction of all his worldly possessions, including the murder of his many slaves and concubines. French artist Eugène Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus depicts the chaotic scene in Sardanapalus’s lush private chambers, as his orders are carried out. While the canvas is full of activity, two of the concubines stand out: one, in the lower right, is being stabbed in the chest by a bearded man in a turban; another, almost in the center, splays her nude upper body on the king’s bed in a last desperate plea for mercy. Sardanapalus, reclining near the top of the canvas in shadow, is nonplussed, his mind made up – he only watches and waits for his turn. Delacroix’s large canvas (measuring 12.1 ft. high by 16.2 ft. wide) is a Romantic feast for the eyes. Full of bold, vivid colors, exotic clothing and decoration (including the elephant heads at the foot of the bed), the painting is essentially tragic. To ensure the emotional reaction he seeks, Delacroix deliberately disorients the viewer: the only visible architecture is the wall on the right – there are no floors or ceilings to anchor us in a solid space. The composition, while carefully organized, has no clear symmetry and seems to pull in many directions at once; the lines of perspective too, are difficult to discern. The unsettling feeling induced in the viewer by the subject matter and the technique contrasts strongly with the numb, silent, motionless and emotionless figure who set all this chaos in motion, Sardanapalus. At first glance, Death of Sardanapalus appears to depict the death of everyone but the titular king. But maybe Delacroix’s title is telling us that, in a way, Sardanapalus is already dead. Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, made with oils on canvas, is now at the Louvre in Paris.
Arnold Böcklin: The Isle of the Dead (five versions) (1880-1886)
Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel Switzerland; Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig
Symbolism was a movement of poets, painters and other artists who rejected naturalism and realism in favor of spirituality, the imagination and dreams. In 1880, Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin created what he called a ‘dream image’ of a small boat approaching an island on which rocky cliffs and cypress trees surround a number of carved tombs. Böcklin did not title his works, but an art dealer, borrowing a phrase from one of Böcklin’s letters, gave the work the title Isle of the Dead. Böcklin eventually painted five versions of Isle of the Dead, four of which are shown in the images above: (1) the first, made with oil on canvas in 1880, is now in Kunstmuseum Basel in Basel, Switzerland (see first image above); (2) the second, somewhat smaller version, painted with oil on wood in 1880 for Marie Berna, is now in Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (see third image above); (3) the third version was painted in 1883, and is now in the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin (see fourth image above); (4) the fourth version, which is not pictured above, was painted in 1884 and hung in a Berlin bank, but was destroyed during a World War II bomb attack; and (5) the fifth version was painted in 1886 on commission from the Museum of Fine Arts in Leipzig, where it remains (see third image above). When Böcklin’s patron Marie Berner saw the first version of Isle of the Dead, she asked the artist to make a version for her, but she requested that he paint a female figure and a coffin in the boat, in memory of the recent death of her husband. Böcklin did so, and included these elements in all future versions of the painting, as well as adding them to the original version. Beginning with the 1883 version, Böcklin began painting his initials on one of the burial chambers on the right side of the island.
Auguste Rodin (François-Auguste-René Rodin): The Kiss (1889) Musée Rodin, Paris
The marble sculpture by Auguste Rodin now known as The Kiss originally bore the title Francesca da Rimini. According to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Francesca was a 12th Century noblewoman who fell in love with her husband’s younger brother Pablo while they read the story of Lancelot and Guinevere together, but were discovered and killed by Francesca’s husband before they could consummate their love. Rodin initially created a small sculpture of the two nude lovers embracing, about to kiss, for The Gates of Hell, a large-scale work based on The Divine Comedy and intended for the doors of a new art museum. The lovers’ lips never touch and Pablo still holds a book in his hand, implying that they were interrupted by their murderer. At some point, Rodin decided to exhibit the piece separately. In 1888, the French government commissioned a life-size marble version of Francesca da Rimini. When the statue was first exhibited in public in 1893, critics substituted the more generic title, The Kiss. The eroticism of the figures was controversial at first, but eventually the piece became so popular that Rodin received commissions to make numerous marble copies and bronze casts, which may be found in museums around the world. The original life-size marble version of The Kiss, measuring nearly 6 ft. tall, 3.7 ft. wide and 3.8 ft. deep, is now at the Musée Rodin in Paris (see images above). Other large-scale marble versions made in Rodin’s lifetime are located at the Tate Modern in London and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.
Paul Gauguin (Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin): Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-1898) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Having moved to Tahiti from France to live like a primitive, by 1897, French post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin was a penniless outcast, suffering from syphilis and a debilitating case of eczema. He intended Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? to be his masterpiece and final statement, after which he would commit suicide. He did make an unsuccessful suicide attempt soon after completing the piece, but survived until 1903, when he finally succumbed to the syphilis. The canvas, which incorporates aspects of local Tahitian custom and mythology, should be read from right to left: first infancy, then young adult life, and finally an old woman reconciled to death, with a white bird that, according to Gauguin, “represents the futility of words.” The blue idol at rear left represents The Beyond. The three questions inscribed at the top left of the painting echo those of a Catholic school catechism Gauguin had studied as a boy in Paris: “Where does humanity come from?” “Where is it going to?”, “How does humanity proceed?” Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.6 ft. high and 12.3 ft. wide; it is now located in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Gustav Klimt: The Kiss (1908-1909) Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna
Measuring nearly 6 feet square, Austrian Symbolist Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, also known as Lovers, was painted on canvas using oil paints with applied layers of gold leaf. Made during Klimt’s Golden Period, The Kiss is a prime example of the Viennese Art Nouveau style, while also incorporating elements of the Arts and Crafts movement. The use of gold and the overall flatness of the painting (with the exception of the area around the faces) hearkens back to the Christian iconography in Medieval and Byzantine art, such as the mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna that inspired Klimt. Also, both figures are crowned with halo-like bands of leaves (the man) and flowers (the woman), further creating the sense of the eternal. The Kiss is located in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna.
Marcel Duchamp: Nude Descending a Staircase #2 (1912)
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The invention of photography gave scientists and artists like Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Jules-Marey a new way to study the movement of humans and other animals, dissecting their actions into fragments of a second to reveal what could not be seen otherwise (see Muybridge’s study in the second image above). It is likely that French Modernist Marcel Duchamp was inspired by photographs of this sort, as well as by the the Cubists and the Italian Futurists, when he painted Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (see first image above). Unfortunately, perhaps because Duchamp’s work did not fit neatly into preexisting categories, he found rejection on all sides. The Cubists at the 1912 Paris Salon des Indépendants rejected the painting because it was “too Futurist” and because they felt that painting a nude descending the stairs was “ridiculous.” When Duchamp exhibited the painting at the 1913 Armory Show in New York, the criticism was cacophonous, with one critic calling it “an explosion in a shingle factory.” An art magazine held a contest to ‘find the nude’, and even Teddy Roosevelt registered his disgust. In fact, the painting is very much within the Cubist tradition, with its monochrome palette and deconstruction of forms. What sets the piece apart is the addition of the element of movement. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.8 ft. tall by 2.9 ft. wide, is now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Claude Monet (Oscar-Claude Monet): Water Lilies (Les Nymphéas) (1914-1926)
Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris
During the last 30 years of his life, French Impressionist painter Claude Monet created approximately 250 paintings of the water lilies in the ponds of his home in Giverny, France. As a group, the paintings are called Les Nymphéas or The Water Lilies, although many pieces have individual titles. The 250 paintings are distributed in museums all over the world. Monet donated eight of his final Water Lily oils-on-canvas murals – including some of the most abstract – to the French government; they are displayed in specially-designed oval rooms in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, where the giant canvases curve to allow the viewer to feel completely immersed in them. Each mural is 6.5 ft. tall; if lined up, they would span 298.5 feet. Each painting depicts a specific place in the gardens at a specific time; the flat surface of the water fills the canvas so we see no ground, no horizon line and no sky (although the sun, clouds and sky are reflected in the water, as are the trees and vines along the banks of the ponds). The figures are simplified and the painting is sometimes rough, with multiple layers of paint and obvious brushstrokes. Monet encounters the two-dimensions of the canvas directly in a way that anticipates the Action Painters of the 1950s. The images above show all or part of three of the Orangerie paintings: (1) The Water Lilies – The Clouds, three panels (1920-1926); (2) The Water Lilies – Morning with Willows (The Morning Willows), three panels (1918-1926); and (3) The Water Lilies – Setting Sun, single panel, (1920-1926).
Edward Hopper: Nighthawks (1942) Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
The most famous work by American artist Edward Hopper, and one of the most recognizable American works of art, Nighthawks depicts a much simplified and enlarged version of a restaurant in Hopper’s Greenwich Village, New York neighborhood (see first image above). According to notes made by Hopper’s wife Josephine, she was the model for the woman at the counter, and the two men in suits are both Hopper self-portraits. Her notes refer to the man in the suit next to the woman as “night hawk” due to his beak-like nose; she refers to the man with his back turned as “sinister.” Hopper’s treatment of artificial light at night here and elsewhere is considered masterful. The image has been copied and parodied in popular culture, most famously by Gottfried Helnwein, whose best-selling 1984 poster Boulevard of Broken Dreams inserts Humphrey Bogart, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe for the patrons, and Elvis Presley for the waiter (see second image above), substituting celebrity kitsch for the original’s dangerous and lonely anonymity. Nighthawks, made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.75 ft. tall by 5 ft. wide, is now located at the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois.
For Best Works of Art of All Time – The Critics’ Picks, Part 2, click HERE.