Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1

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 more than 30 lists of “Best Works of Art” from websites and books and combined them into one list. This list contains the paintings and sculptures (and several pieces of decorative art) on four or more of the original source lists, organized by rank, that is, with the artworks that were on the most lists at the top. Part 1 begins with the artwork that was on the most lists and ends with the artworks that were on 6 lists.  Part 2 includes the works of art on 4 or 5 of the original source lists.

Note: This is a meta-list that combines multiple lists made by critics, academics and other experts.  These are not my personal opinions.

Each listing contains the following information: (1) artist(s) name(s) (if known), (2) artwork title (including alternative titles), (3) date(s) of creation, (4) dimensions of the work, (5) medium or materials used and (4) location where the original can be seen. I have also written a short essay for each artwork with additional information, which may include style, technique, interpretation, social and political context, provenance, and random trivia.

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.

Warning No. 1: Although I tried to find lists of the best art from all places and all times, most of the lists I found focused on the art of Western Civilization, and some of those lists focused almost exclusively on Western European and North American art.  I apologize for the ethnocentric biases of my sources.

Warning No. 2: The heavy emphasis on Western European artists working between 1300 and 1700 also means that many of the most highly regarded works 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 art-viewing European of that time. 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 imagery 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.

For a much more comprehensive, chronologically-organized history of visual art that contains every work of art on two or more of the 30+ source lists, check out the Art History 101 lists, starting HERE.

On 22 Lists
Leonardo da VinciMona Lisa (1503-1506) Musée du Louvre, Paris
mona lisa parody Marcel_Duchamp,_1919,_L.H.O.O.Q
Italian Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci painted the portrait of Florentine noblewoman Lisa del Giocondo (born Lisa Gherardini) known as the Mona Lisa 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, but Leonardo’s use of aerial perspective showing an idealized landscape in the background is innovative. The Mona Lisa’s famous smile is typically described as enigmatic. “One of the charms of the [Mona Lisa] is that she appears radiant one moment and then serious and sardonic the next”, noted Richard Alleyne of The Telegraph. The composition is pyramidal, as with many of Leonardo’s works, but Leonardo creates a sense of distance by inserting the arm of the chair between the subject and the viewer. Although Francesco del Giocondo most likely commissioned this portrait of his wife, Leonardo almost certainly never delivered a finished painting to his patron. While most critics agree that major work was completed by 1506, the artist continued to work on the painting for the rest of his life; it was still in his studio in France at his death. The Mona Lisa (also known as La Gioconda) is considered the most famous painting in the world, as well as the most valuable (estimated 2018 value of $650 million). The painting’s fame is in large part the result of significant attention in the newspapers when it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 and later recovered. The Mona Lisa has been studied, copied and parodied and has been used in over 2,000 advertisements. Two such parodies are shown above: a print by Eugène Bataille (a.k.a. Sapeck) of Mona Lisa smoking a pipe, which was published in Le Rire in 1887 (see second image); and Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (loosely translated by Duchamp as “there is a fire down below”) which was published in 1920 along with a Dada manifesto in the journal 391 (see third image). Random Trivia: According to one theory, Leonardo painted two versions of the Mona Lisa and the version in the Louvre is the later of the two, having been begun around 1513, not 1503 as traditionally thought. But the other, earlier version (if it exists) has never been found.

Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni): Frescoes, Sistine Chapel
Ceiling (1508-1512) Vatican Palace, Vatican City
sistine chapel ceiling
michelangelo sistine chapel sun and moon
 sibyl sistine chapel
The Sistine Chapel, the Papal Chapel of the Vatican, was built between 1473 and 1481 by Pope Sixtus IV, for whom it is named. Various artists painted frescoes on the walls between 1481-1482. The southern wall included stories from the life of Moses (including Botticelli’s Punishment of the Rebels) and the northern wall depicted stories from the life of Jesus (including Perugino’s Delivery of the Keys), but the ceiling was painted blue with stars. Pope Julius II, who was also responsible for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica, commissioned Michelangelo (more known as a sculptor than a painter) to paint religious-themed frescoes 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. The specific scenes, all referenced in the Book of Genesis are (in chronological order): (1) God separates the light from the darkness; (2) creation of the sun, the moon and vegetation; (3)  God separates the land from the sea; (4) creation of Adam; (5) creation of Eve; (6) original sin and banishment from the garden of Eden; (7) the sacrifice of Noah; (8) the flood; (9) the drunkenness of Noah. Michelangelo
 also painted various Biblical and Classical figures who were thought to have predicted Christianity on the pendentives and around the windows, and the ancestors of Jesus around the upper windows. Contrary to myth, Michelangelo did not lie on his back but stood upright on wooden scaffolding while executing the work, which required him to tilt his head backward for long periods, causing him significant pain. 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 show: (1) the entire ceiling; (2) the Creation of Man; (3) the Creation of the Sun, the Moon and Vegetation (note that God is mooning the viewers); (4) the Prophet Joel; and (5) the Libyan Sibyl. Random Trivia: Other decorations in the Sistine Chapel include (1) 20th Century replicas of tapestries designed by Raphael for Pope Leo X and originally installed in 1519 (the originals were looted during the Sack of Rome in 1527) and (2) Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, over the altar wall, commissioned by Pope Clement VII in 1536 but completed under Pope Paul III in 1541. Random Trivia: In 1509, soon after beginning the project, Michelangelo wrote a poem to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia lamenting his experience of painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In the poem, the artist complains about the physical discomforts of painting over his head and about the paint falling back onto his face (“My brush, above me all the time, dribbles paint so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!”) and concluding “I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.”

On 20 Lists
Diego VelázquezLas Meninas (The Maids of Honor) (1656) Museo del Prado, Madrid

 velazquez in las meninas
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. 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 detail in second image), 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. 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 to the painting by order of King Philip IV after the painter’s death (see detail in third image).

Pablo PicassoLes 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. 

Pablo PicassoGuernica (1937) Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid
Guernica detail guernica detail 2
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. (The fourth image is a photograph of Picasso working on Guernica.) 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 light bulb/evil eye/sun (light bulb is ‘bombilla’ in Spanish, while ‘bomba’ is Spanish for bomb) hangs over the horse’s head (see detail in second image); (6) a woman floats into the room through a window to witness the horror, while her long arm holds a lamp near the light bulb; (7) a woman stares up blankly at the light bulb; (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 person on the far right raises his arms in terror as fire engulfs him from above and below (see detail in third image). 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.

On 19 Lists
Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni): David (1501-1504) Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence
 michelangelo david front
david replica david-duomo-firenze
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 depicted the hero in the moment after he has decided to fight the giant but before the actual battle. He holds a sling in his left hand and a rock in his right. The David was originally commissioned to be one of several statues on the roof of Florence’s cathedral (or Duomo), 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, it was immediately recognized as a masterpiece. Cathedral officials abandoned the idea of putting the statue on the Duomo roof, in part due to the difficulty of safely lifting 6.4 tons of marble 262 feet into the air. Instead, they decided to place it in the public square outside the Palazzo della Signoria (the seat of Florentine government), where it was unveiled in 1504 and quickly became a symbol of the underdog Florentine Republic. In 1873, because of weather damage, the statue was moved to the Galleria dell’Accademia. In 1882, a replica was installed in the original location (see third image). Random Trivia: (1) 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 using marble from the same quarry that provided the original stone. (2) The plan to place other statues on the roof of the Duomo never came to fruition, but in 2010, as part of the Florens 2010 forum, a fiberglass replica of the David was installed temporarily on the cathedral’s roof (see fourth  image.)

Vincent van GoghThe 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 represents an imaginary version of the view from van Gogh’s sanitarium window that is not an accurate depiction but is enhanced, for example by a cypress tree that appears to connect the heavens with the Earth, and a church steeple that would not have been out of place in Van Gogh’s native Holland. 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.

On 18 Lists
Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi): The Birth of Venus (1486)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Birth of Venus 2
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 (a 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. In keeping with the Renaissance’s rediscovery of classical antiquity and the move towards humanism and away from the medieval focus on religion, The Birth of Venus is one of the first large-scale paintings with a subject from Classical mythology since the Roman Empire; it also contains one of the first large nude figures since antiquity.  Random Trivia: 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. 

Francisco Goya (Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes): The Third of May, 1808 (1814)
Museo del Prado, Madrid
Third of May_Francisco_de_Goya
The Second of May
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 asking for commissions to create painting that would “perpetuate … the most notable and heroic actions of our glorious insurrection against the Tyrant of Europe.” The results were The Second of May, 1808 (also known as The Charge of the Mamelukes, see second image) and The Third of May, 1808 (see first image), works that depict glory in both victory and defeat. On May 2, 1808, the people of Madrid rose up briefly against occupying French troops, the event that sparked the War of Spanish Independence. At dawn on May 3, 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. The Third of May, 1808 was made with oils on a canvas measuring 8.8 ft. tall by 11.4 ft. wide. 

Edvard MunchThe Scream (1893) National Gallery, Oslo; Munch Museum, Oslo
munch the scream 3 The Scream by Edvard Munch Munch_-_The_Scream_-1910 tempera
Norwegian Expressionist Edvard Munch said that he painted The Scream of Nature, now known as The Scream, to commemorate a personal experience when he witnessed the clouds turn 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 had it removed.

On 17 Lists
Giotto (Giotto di Bondone): Frescoes, Scrovegni Chapel (Arena Chapel) (c. 1305)
Padua, Italy

 giotto scrovegni detail
Like most 14th Century Christians who loaned money in return for interest, Italian banker Enrico Scrovegni 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 father Reginaldo to the Seventh Circle of Hell in his Inferno as a punishment for his money lending ways. Not surprisingly, then, 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 Italian artist Giotto di Bondone (known as Giotto) to paint frescoes on the chapel walls. Giotto, who is now recognized as an important precursor to the Renaissance artistic style, 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.  The frescoes on the side walls show scenes from the life of Jesus and the life of his mother Mary, as well as faux architectural designs. Over the entrance wall, Giotto painted an immense fresco of the Last Judgment, to remind churchgoers as they left the chapel of their future options: eternal bliss or eternal damnation (see overview of chapel in third image). 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 (see first image), 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. In the Lamentation of Christ, another panel from the Life of Christ cycle (see second image), note the way the line of the rock wall leads the viewer’s eye to Christ’s face; the emotional expressions on the faces of the mourners, including the angels; and the inclusion of figures with their backs turned to us – a realistic detail that anchors the composition. The Last Judgment, 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 (see fourth image).

Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1510) Museo del Prado, Madrid
bosch earthly delights detail 1 Bosch,_The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights,_central_panel_-_Detail_
bosch hell detailBosch_- _The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_exterior_(shutters)
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). The left panel shows God with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (see detail in second image showing God presenting Eve to Adam) and the right panel shows the torments of Hell, specifically tailored for each type of sin (see detail in fourth image, showing punishment for the sin of avarice). The ambiguous central panel may show either the temptations of earthly life or a lost earthly paradise (see detail in third image). According to the curator of the Museo del Prado, “The centre panel depicts a Paradise that deceives the senses, a false Paradise given over to the sin of lust.” Note that all three panels include the same high horizon line, thus linking the narratives. The view when the side panels are closed is a transparent globe showing Earth during the creation, probably on the Third Day (Genesis, Chapter 1), with a tiny God at upper left and two Latin inscriptions: “For he spake, and it was done” and “For he commanded, and they were created” (see fifth image). Bosch’s unique vision has a long legacy. In particular, his fantastic creatures and contraptions provided inspiration for the Surrealists centuries later.

Matthias GrünewaldThe Isenheim Altarpiece (1509-1515) Musée Unterlinden,
Colmar, France
isenheim 1
Isenheim 2
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 (see first image), 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). 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). 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. 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 16 Lists
Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-1652) Capella Cornaro, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome
bernini ecstasy of st theresa

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is a masterwork of the High Roman Baroque style of the Counter-Reformation 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). 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. St. 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). 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. To complete the theme of religious event as theater, Bernini’s design for the Cornaro chapel includes a balcony on either side of the main event, where the Cardinal’s relatives look on.

On 15 Lists
El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos): The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586) Iglesia de Santo Tomé, Toledo, Spain
El_Greco_-_The_Burial_of_the_Count_of_Orgaz_detail el greco detail
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).  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. It also includes a self-portrait (see second image) and a portrait of the artist’s illegitimate son, Jorge Manuel (see detail in third image). 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. 

Grant Wood: American Gothic (1930) Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

American-Gothic subjects gordon-parks-american-gothic-30
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 Wood Graham to pose for the woman and his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby, to pose for the man (see second image showing the models with the painting). 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 was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.4 ft. tall by 2 ft. wide. Random Trivia: Perhaps the most powerful critique of American Gothic is Gordon Parks’ 1942 photographic portrait of Ella Watson, an African-American government worker, which he also entitled American Gothic (see third image).

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Masaccio (Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone): Frescoes, Brancacci Chapel (1424-1428) Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence
The Tribute Money is one of Masaccio's frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel.
 masaccio st peter healing the sick masaccio distribution of alms
Of the 15 frescoes focusing on the story of St. Peter in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence’s Santa Maria del Carmine Church, at least six are attributed to innovative 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). Masaccio was the first Renaissance painter to incorporate the lessons of single-point perspective and treatment of light to create solid bodies (that cast shadows) that inhabited a recognizable three-dimensional space. 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), 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) (see second image), 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 above are: (3) St. Peter Heals the Sick with His Shadow; and (4) The Distribution of Alms and Death of Ananias.

Théodore GéricaultThe Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819) Musée du Louvre, Paris
GÉRICAULT_raft of the medusa
Medusa_horizon_detail raft of the medusa delacroix
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). 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 detail in second image) – 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 liberal 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 (see detail in third image). 

Salvador Dali: The Persistence of Memory (1931) Museum of Modern Art, New York
dali persistence of memory
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. Random Trivia: More than 20 years after painting The Persistence of Memory, Dali revisited and updated his earlier work on a considerably larger canvas (see second image). Known as The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, the 1954 painting is at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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Unknown Artists: Terracotta Army (246-208 BCE) Tomb of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang,
Shaanxi, Xi’an, China
terracotta army 
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).  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). 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).

Johannes VermeerGirl 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, and is 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.  

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 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.  

Claude Monet (Oscar-Claude Monet): Water Lilies (Les Nymphéas) (1914-1926) Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris
monet water liliesMonet_-_The_Water_Lilies_-_Setting_Sun
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).  Random Trivia: Late in life, Monet suffered from cataracts, which blurred his vision and limited his ability to see certain colors (particularly blue and violet). Some critics believe these vision problems had a significant effect on his later work, although others point out that his style did not change markedly after two eye surgeries in 1923.

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Jan van EyckThe Arnolfini Portrait (Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife) (1434)  National Gallery, London
Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait 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. 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. 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.  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). 

Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni): Pietà (1497-1499) St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

Pietà_(Vesperbild)_MET_DT345345 Florentine Pieta
Pietà refers to the pose of Mary holding the body of Jesus after his Crucifixion; the subject originated in the art of northern Europe in the early 14th Century, where is was known as a Vesperbild. The second image shows an early German example of a Vesperbild from c. 1375-1400, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 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 but was eventually moved to a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The Pietà is the only work that Michelangelo ever signed, reportedly after he overheard someone attributing the work to artist Cristoforo Solari, one of his competitors. Late in his life, Michelangelo carved a second Pietà, known as The Florentine Pietà (or The Deposition), which includes his self-portrait as Joseph of Arimathea. It is now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence (see third image). Random Trivia: On Pentecost Sunday, May 21, 1972, Hungarian-born Australian geologist Laszlo Toth attacked the sculpture with 15 blows of a geologist’s hammer while shouting, “I am Jesus Christ; I have risen from the dead!” He broke Mary’s arm and knocked off part of her nose and one of her eyelids. Most of pieces were found and restored, but some marble had to be taken from the back of the statue to replace pieces that were looted by onlookers. 

Pieter Bruegel the ElderThe Hunters in the Snow (1565) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Bruegel_Hunters_in_the_SnowHunters in the snow detail
The Hunters in the Snow (also known as The Return of the Hunters) is one of a series of paintings by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicting either the months or the seasons (and scenes of daily life appropriate to each time of year). The series was commissioned by Niclaes Jonghelinck, a wealthy Antwerp merchant; four other paintings from the series still exist: (1) The Gloomy Day (late winter/early spring), at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria; (2) The Hay Harvest (early summer), now in Prague Castle, in the Czech Republic; (3) The Harvesters (late summer) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; (4) The Return of the Herd (autumn), also at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Painted with oil paint on wood panel measuring 3.8 feet tall by 5.3 feet wide, The Hunters in the Snow, a winter scene, contrasts the happy scene of skaters in the distance with the weary hunters and their dogs in the foreground, who appear to have little to show for their efforts. This and other paintings of that period reflect the terrible winter of 1565, part of the Little Ice Age that befell Europe from 1400-1850. The craggy Alpine peaks Bruegel painted in the distance (see second image) are not found in the Netherlands, but Bruegel would have seen the Alps on his visit to Italy in the 1550s. Together with the birds, the crags hint at a symbolic undertone to this highly detailed and seemingly realistic slice-of-life scene.

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 is the most famous example of pointillism, a technique in which the artist uses small dots of color instead of brushstrokes, which the eye at a distance perceives as figures and other shapes (see first image). 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 – for men? – in the lower left). The painting serves as a a companion piece to the large Bathers at Asnières of the same year (now at the National Gallery in London), which shows working class Parisians on the banks of the Seine across from Grand Jatte (see second image). 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 was made with oils on a canvas measuring 7 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide. Random Trivia: In the John Hughes film Ferris Bueller Day’s Off (1986), one of the characters engages in a cinematic dialogue with the painting that ends with a staring contest with the young girl in white.

Edward HopperNighthawks (1942)  Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper 2
boulevard of broken dreams
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 New York City neighborhood of Greenwich Village (see first image). 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. Nighthawks was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.75 ft. tall by 5 ft. wide. Random Trivia: 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), substituting celebrity kitsch for the original’s dangerous and lonely anonymity.  

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Thutmose (attrib.): Bust of Queen Nefertiti (c. 1345 BCE) Agyptisches Museum, Berlin
 bust of nefertiti
nerfertiti room
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. The absence of an inlay in the left eye (see second image) supports a theory that the bust was a sculptor’s modello that was kept in the studio to be used as the basis for other portraits of the queen. 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 Egyptian forms. 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. As befitting a queen, the Bust of Nefertiti now has her own room at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin (see third image).

Alexandros of Antioch: Venus de Milo (Aphrodite of Milos) (130-100 BCE)
Musée du Louvre, Paris
venus de milo 1
venus de milo 2 
The Venus de Milo is a partially-nude 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 (see statue in first image and detail showing the head in second image). 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 from the Classical period. Scholars have been searching for the missing pieces ever since.

Duccio (Duccio di Buoninsegna): Maestà Altarpiece (1308-11)
Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena

maesta duccio 2
duccio entry into jerusalem healing blind man
On June 9, 1311, a solemn procession led by bishops, monks, and priests escorted an immense painted altarpiece through the streets of Siena, Italy and into the Duomo (Siena Cathedral). The painting was the Maestà Altarpiece. The creator of this masterpiece was Duccio di Buoninsegna, Siena’s 14th Century artistic genius. 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 in a style 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, with a predella containing scenes from Christ’s childhood and additional portraits and scenes above (see first image). The rear contained 43 small scenes showing the Life of Christ and Life of the Virgin (see second image). Unfortunately, in 1711, the altarpiece was dismantled and sawed into pieces, which were distributed to various locations, although the largest image showing Mary Enthroned in Majesty, remained in Siena. 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 now be found in museums around the world. Images shown above are Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (which is located in Siena) (see third image) and The Healing of a Man Born Blind, which is in the National Gallery, London (see fourth image).

Leonardo da Vinci: The Last Supper (1495-1498) Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan
last supper detail last supper perspective
viridiana last supper mash last supper
When Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, asked Leonardo da Vinci to paint The Last Supper on a wall of the Sforza mausoleum, Leonardo decided to forego the fresco technique, which limited his palette, and try something new. It turned out to be a big mistake. Instead of mixing pigment with wet plaster, fresco-style, Leonardo decided to prepare the wall with a mixture of gesso, pitch and mastic, add a layer of plaster and a brightening agent (white lead), wait for it to dry and then paint on the dry plaster using tempera. The mixture never set properly and bits of the mural began flaking off almost immediately. Add humidity, Allied bombs in World War I, angry anti-clerical French troops, a doorway cut out of the painting in 1583, and numerous botched restorations, and it is amazing there is anything left of Leonardo’s work. Measuring 15.1 ft. tall by 28.8 ft. wide, the painting is now on the end wall of the dining hall of the convent of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church in Milan. Leonardo’s Last Supper depicts the moment in the Gospel of John when Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him. The reactions of the various disciples, painted in groups of threes, are shown with vivid facial expressions and gestures. Note also that, without looking, both Jesus and Judas are reaching for the same piece of bread (see detail in second image); when their hands meet a moment later, it will be a sign that Judas is the betrayer. The painting is an excellent example of single-point perspective, as all the perspective lines meet at a vanishing point on or just above Jesus’ head (see third image). A comprehensive but highly controversial restoration project that ended in 1999 removed much of the overpainting to reveal a changed and more subdued Last Supper, although it is still not clear how much of what remains is original. Random Trivia: The painting has been much imitated and parodied, including tableaux vivant in the films Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961) (see fourth image), MASH (Robert Altman, 1970) (see fifth image), and Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014).

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino): The School of Athens (1510-1511) Stanza della Signatura, Vatican Palace, Vatican City
school of athensplato and aristotle school of athens detail
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 detail in second image). 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, Raphael is the figure looking at us). 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.

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The Limbourg Brothers: Les Très Riches Heurs du Duc de Berry (1411-1416) Musée Condé, Chantilly, France
 Les_Très_Riches_Heures_du_duc_de_Berry February
les_tres_riches_heures_du_duc_de_berry_octobre les_tres_riches_heures_du_duc_de_berry-zodiac
A prime example of the International Gothic style, Les Très Riches Heures is a Book of Hours, a type of prayer book, that was created for John, Duke of Berry in France. 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 some of the pages attributed to the Limbourgs: (1) The page for January, showing the exchange of New Year’s gifts among the Duke, his family and friends (note depiction of painted battle mural on the back wall); (2) the page for February, showing workers warming their feet by a fire; (3) the page for October, with workers in the fields in the foreground and the Louvre Castle in the rear; and (4) the zodiac with the signs displayed on the body of a young man, then again in the frame surrounding the two figures.

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 in the new Mannerist style. 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). 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 executing the original commission from Pope Clement VII in 1536. Nevertheless, the nudity of many of the figures in the fresco alarmed some clerics. Even before the painting was complete, the master of ceremonies for new Pope Paul III, 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 detail in second image). 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’ genitals. 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.) 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.

Auguste Rodin: The Thinker (28 full-size casts) (1880) University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky (1904); National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo (1904); Legion of Honor, San Francisco (1904); Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan (1904); Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen (1904); Musée Rodin, Paris (1906); Prince Eugen Museum, Waldemarsudde, Sweden (1908)
gates of hell detail lorenzo de medici
The sculpture now known as The Thinker originated as a small part of a large commission for the entrance of a new art museum that eventually became The Gates of Hell. For that project, French sculptor Auguste Rodin planned to create a series of figures based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, including Dante himself, The Poet, who would be depicted thinking about and planning his masterpiece.  In about 1880, Rodin sculpted a small plaster statue in of The Poet, a sitting figure with his head resting on the fist of a bended arm, which would occupy a prominent place in the center of the top register of The Gates of Hell (see detail of a bronze cast of The Gates of Hell in second image). Because The Poet would be seen from below, Rodin made the arms and shoulders larger than anatomy required. At some point, Rodin decided The Poet should have a life of his own, outside The Gates of Hell. He reworked the figure, removed its robes, making it a nude, and renamed it The Thinker, in part because of its resemblance to Michelangelo’s sculpture of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici with the nickname “Il Pensieroso”, or “The Thoughtful One” (see third image). Rodin eventually made a larger plaster version, which he first exhibited in 1888.  In 1902, Rodin supervised the first of a number of full-size bronze casts, which now sits in front of Grawemeyer Hall at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. Over the years, 28 bronze and plaster casts have been made, although fewer than 10 were completed before Rodin’s death in 1917. The casts are scattered in museums and universities around the globe. Each full-sized cast of The Thinker is 6.2 ft. tall, 3.2 ft. wide and 4.6 ft. deep. The size of the plinth beneath the statue is a matter up to the owner’s discretion.

Robert SmithsonSpiral Jetty (1970) Great Salt Lake, Utah
spiral jetty spiral jetty
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. Images above show: (1) a photograph taken in April 2005 when the sculpture became visible again after three decades under water; (2) a 2009 scientifically-enhanced photograph showing the red algae bloom in the Great Salt Lake; and (3) a 2011 photo.  Smithson, who died in 1973, also made a film documenting the project, also called Spiral Jetty (1970).

On 9 Lists
Myron: The Discus Thrower (Palombara Discobolus) (460-450 BCE) Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome
hitler and discobolus discus thrower
The Discobolus (also known as The Discus Thrower) was a mid-5th Century BCE statue by Ancient Greek sculptor Myron. The bronze original is lost and is known only by Roman marble 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. 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. Random Trivia: (1) Adolf Hitler bought the Discobolus from Italy in 1938 and brought it to Munich, Germany (see second image). It was returned to Italy in 1948. (2) The Roman marble copy of Myron’s statue at the British Museum known as the Townley Discobolus was improperly restored: the head is facing down instead of looking back toward the discus (see third image).

Phidias (attrib.): Parthenon Frieze (c. 443-438 BCE) British Museum, London, UK; Athens, Greece

Parthenon-frieze-bbparthenon frieze
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, the artist Phidias oversaw the work, which consisted of 114 marble blocks, each 3.3 feet high, totaling 524 feet in length. There are two parallel lines of figures with 378 gods and humans, including all the Attic tribes, and 245 animals. 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. A significant portion of the frieze was damaged or destroyed by Venetian bombing in 1687, when the Ottomans used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine, although 80% remains in some form. In a controversial series of events, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, removed much of the frieze from Greece 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. The images above show three portions of the frieze; the section in the first image shows the deities Poseidon, Apollo and Artemis.

Unknown Artists: Pergamon Altar Frieze (c. 180 BCE) Pergamon Museum, Berlin
pergamon altar
pergamon altarpergamon altarThe 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 (see first image). 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 second image above shows Hecate fighting Klytios, on the left, and Artemis fighting Otos, on the right. The third 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.

Agesander, Athenodoros & PolydorusLaocoön and His Sons (c. 42-19 BCE) Museo Pio Clementino, Vatican City
laocoon and his sons
 laocoon - earlier pose
In his Natural History (c. 77-79 CE), Pliny the Elder describes a marble statue of Laocoön and His Sons that he saw 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 (see second image). 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 Vatican Museums. Various restorations have been proposed and carried out over the centuries. 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 and 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 third image showing previous pose with extended arm).

Eadfrith of LindisfarneLindisfarne Gospels (c. 700-715) British Museum, London
Lindesfarne lindisfarne carpet page
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. The illustrations are attributed to Eadfrith, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 CE until his death in 721 CE. 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 CE. 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 original Latin text is written using insular majuscule script; 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. 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 first image shows the portrait page of St. Matthew. The second image shows St. Matthew’s cross-carpet page (folio 26v), with its cross surrounded by colorful swirling knots and spirals.  

Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi: St. Ansanus Altarpiece (1333-1335) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Simone_Martini_The_Annunciation_and_Two_Saints 2
Known by various names (e.g. St. Ansanus Altarpiece; The AnnunciationThe Annunciation with Two Saints; The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus), this altarpiece in the International Gothic style from the early 14th Century was painted by Sienese artists 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 symbolism, 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. Embossed in the gold leaf between Mary and Gabriel is the Gospel text (in Latin), “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” The bright colors (not obvious in this photo), intricate detail and curving shapes are all hallmarks of the International Gothic style, which integrated some Northern European traits into French and Italian painting.

Jan and Hubert van EyckThe Ghent Altarpiece (1432) St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium

adoration of the lambGhent Altarpiece ghent altarpiece closed
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. 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 third image). 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). The second 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, see third image) and the attention to detail indicate a new artistic conception that may show the influence of the Italian Renaissance.

Rogier van der Weyden: Descent from the Cross (Deposition of Christ) (c. 1435)
Museo del Prado, Madrid

deposition st john Weyden,_Rogier_van_der_-_Descent_from_the_Cross_-_Detail_Mary_Magdalene
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). Mary Magdalene’s grief is expressed through her entire body (see third image). One art historian compared the “undulating lines, swaying poses and counterposes of figures” to counterpoint in polyphonic music. 

Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi): David (c. 1435-1440) Museo Nazionale del
Bargello, Florence
 david from behind
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 third image) and carrying Goliath’s immense sword. 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 the Roman Empire. 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 find homoerotic elements in Donatello’s depiction of the young David, such as the feather running up his inner thigh. 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.

Albrecht AltdorferThe Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529) Alte Pinakothek, Munich

the-battle-of-issus- Albrecht_altdorfer battle of alexander
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). 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 detail in second image), 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 detail in third image). 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. 

Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn): The Night Watch (1642)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Rembrandt_-_The_Nightwatch 2
night watch detail lundens night watch copy
The painting by Dutch Golden Age artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn commonly known as The Night Watch does not depict a watch (which only occurs in times of danger) and does not take place at night. The members of a local militia commissioned Rembrandt to paint their portrait as they marched from their headquarters, during the day, in formation. The painting’s unwieldy original title is The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch Preparing to March Out, but is now officially known as either Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq or The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch. The work demonstrates Rembrandt’s signature expertise in employing the technique of tenebrism, which uses dramatic lighting to draw the viewer’s attention to certain elements of the composition, while keeping the rest in shadow or complete darkness. The lighting focuses the viewer’s attention on the two leaders of the militia and a young girl who carries the traditional symbols of the militia company (see detail in second image). This large oil-on-canvas work (measuring 11.9 ft. tall by 14.3 ft. wide) has suffered numerous indignities through the years. First, the glazes Rembrandt used have darkened over the centuries, causing the loss of some details, especially in areas outside the brightly-lit focal points (and leading some to assume that it takes place at night). Second, when The Night Watch was moved to Amsterdam Town Hall in 1715, the canvas was trimmed on all four sides so it could fit on the wall between two columns. The trimming cut off portions of figures on the right and eliminated two figures on the left, changing the balance of Rembrandt’s composition. (A 17th Century copy of the untrimmed work by Gerrit Lundens is shown in the third image.) Finally, vandals have damaged the painting on three separate occasions (in 1911, 1975 and 1991), although restoration work has repaired most of the damage.  

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: Frescoes, Würzburg Residence (1750-1753) Würzburg, Germany
tiepolo wurzburgtiepolo apollo  tiepolo africa
tiepolo allegorical ceiling tiepolo wedding
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 at Würzburg, 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).  The fresco depicts Apollo and other deities in the center (see second image), surrounded by allegorical representations of the continents of Europe, America, Asia and Africa (see Africa in third image), 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) as well as two historical events on the walls: the Marriage of Emperor Frederick to Beatrice (see fifth image) and the Investiture of Herold as Duke of Franconia, each of which measures 13 ft. high and 16.4 ft. wide. Scholars acknowledge that the frescoes are the pinnacle of Tiepolo’s career and a high point of 18th Century artistic achievement.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) Musée d’Orsay, Paris
French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette paints a portrait of a Sunday afternoon at a popular outdoor café and dance hall in Montmartre, then a rural hilltop village an hour’s walk from Paris.  The Moulin de la Galette, named after the flat brown bread made from the flour ground by its historic windmill, was a weekend destination for working men and women, as well as writers and artists. They came dressed in their best clothes to eat galettes, drink, dance and gaze down on Paris from a scenic overlook. Like all the Impressionists, Renoir liked to paint scenes of everyday life, but no Impressionist had previously shown average people amusing themselves on such a large canvas (4.3 ft. tall by 5.7 ft. wide), thereby giving an apparently trivial subject heightened significance. Like all Impressionists, Renoir liked to study the effects of light: here, he paints the sunlight filtering through the acacia trees and mixing with lamplight to create a dappled patchwork of bright patches and shadows. Critics then and now marvel at the way Renoir makes the light seem to flicker and dance. Scholars also comment on Renoir’s effective use of bright colors – there is not a touch of black in the canvas – and the resulting tone of carefree celebration. Note that, although Renoir appears to depict a typical crowd at the Moulin, he loaded the canvas with portraits of his friends, as well as a few professional models. One of those friends, writer Georges Rivière (pictured at the table in the foreground), in his review of the 1877 Impressionist Exhibition, described Bal du Moulin de la Galette (also known as Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette and The Ball at the Moulin de la Galette) as a “page of history, a precious and strictly accurate portrayal of Parisian life.”  The work was made with oils on canvas. Renoir painted a second, smaller version of the painting (measuring 2.5 ft. tall by 3.7 ft. wide) that is in a private collection; it was purchased at auction for $78 million in 1990.

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 (a symbol of prostitution, a profession practiced regularly at the Folies-Bergère) on the bar may be a hint that she is more than a mere bartender, but Manet leaves us guessing. 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 (see diagram in second image). A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.2 ft. tall by 4.3 ft. wide.

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. Tragically, they 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 bold 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.

On 8 Lists
Unknown Artist: Venus of Willendorf (28,000-25,000 BCE) Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna
The Venus of Willendorf figurine.
During the Upper Paleolithic era (c. 28,000-18,000 BCE), the Gravettian culture flourished in parts of Europe. The culture is known for its many bone, stone, or clay statuettes of women, usually with large breasts, bellies, thighs, hips and buttocks, that are referred to as Venus figurines, even though they predate the Greco-Roman Venus mythology by many thousands of years. Many of the figurines are either headless or faceless. The 4.25 in. tall carved limestone figurine known as the Venus of Willendorf was found in 1908 at a Paleolithic site in the Danube valley of Austria, near the town of Willendorf. The figure has the exaggerated features of the typical Venus figurine.  It has no face, only streaks that may be hair, and no feet, so it could not stand by itself. There are traces of red ochre on the figurine, indicating it was once painted. The type of limestone used was not found locally, indicating the existence of a trade network. The purpose of the Venus of Willendorf and other Venus figurines is debated, but the sculptor’s emphasis on the female body’s sexual and childbearing characteristics has led many to conclude that this and other such figurines were fertility goddesses or otherwise played a role in fertility rituals.

Unknown Artist: Funerary Mask of Tutankhamun (1333-1323 BCE) Egyptian Museum, Cairo
tutankhamen funerary mask
king tut mask side view King_Tut_Mask_back
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. The most significant fact about him from the point of view of Egyptian history was the campaign during his reign to erase all images related to his father, the monotheist Akhenaten, in order to return to the traditional polytheistic Egyptian religion. His reign as Pharaoh would be a mere footnote were it not for the discovery of his nearly intact tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter and George Herbert, Earl of Carnavon. By that time, most Egyptian tombs had been looted and plundered for their precious goods long ago. Tutankhamen’s 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. Random Trivia: Tut’s beard broke off in 2015, requiring a restoration project.

Unknown Artist: Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions (c. 645-635 BCE) British Museum, London
lion hunt
injured lion
Ashurbanipal was the last powerful king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. He ruled from 668 until his death in about 627 BCE and his empire collapsed less than 20 years after his death. Since the mid-10th Century BCE, the Assyrians had controlled a huge portion of the Middle East, including all or part of 13 modern nations. Ashurbanipal is referred to in the Hebrew Book of Ezra as Asenappar, and some say he is the figure known elsewhere as Sardanapalus. His capital, Nineveh, located along the Tigris River in what is now northern Iraq, was destroyed by Assyria’s enemies in 612 BCE. When British archaeologists excavated the ruins of Nineveh in 1853, they discovered an elaborate frieze from the North Palace depicting the king hunting and killing lions (in one case in hand-to-paw combat, see first image), as well as a banquet celebrating a military victory. Showing the king conquering lions not only documented his sporting activities, but also symbolized his power to protect his people from their enemies. The sculptor also shows true sympathy for the noble beasts as they struggle to fight back, even when pierced by multiple arrows (see second image). The relief sculptures are known as Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions, the Lion Hunts of Ashurbanipal, or simply the Lion Hunt Frieze.

Unknown Artist: Winged Victory of Samothrace (Nike of Samothrace) (c. 200-190 BCE) Musée du Louvre, Paris
Nike of Samothrace
nike of samothrace reconstruction 2 nike of samothrace reconstruction 1
Created in Greece during the Hellenistic period, a severely damaged depiction of the goddess Nike, or Victory, was discovered in 1863 on the island of Samothrace, now a part of Greece but then belonging to the Ottoman Empire. Winged Victory of Samothrace (also known as Nike of Samothrace), a marble statue standing 8 ft. tall, is displayed perched on the bow of a ship at the top of a staircase in the Louvre. The head and arms have never been found, but portions of the right hand were located and are on display in a separate case in the Louvre in Paris. Only the left wing is original; the right wing is a symmetrically identical version of the left, made of plaster. Scholars praise the statue for its combination of motion and stillness, and the realistic rendering of the drapery. According to one theory, the sculpture was meant to honor a sea battle and represents the goddess as she descends from the sky, hand cupped to her mouth, ready to deliver a victory shout to the fleet. See the second and third images for two proposed reconstructions of the original.

Unknown Artist: Frescoes, Villa of the Mysteries (c. 60-40 BCE) near Pompeii, Italy
Villa of the mysteries
villa of the mysteries fresco
The Villa of the Mysteries is a Roman villa located near the ruins of Pompeii in southern Italy. The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE covered it with many feet of volcanic ash and tufa, preserving it for future generations. When the villa was excavated in 1909, a remarkable series of frescoes was discovered in the triclinium, or formal dining room. The frescoes are nearly 10 feet tall and run around the four walls of the room for a total of 56 feet. The meaning of the frescoes is subject to debate: some scholars believe they depict the initiation of a young woman into a Dionysian cult; others say they represent marriage rituals.

Apollodorus of Damascus (attrib.): Trajan’s Column (113 CE) Rome, Italy
  Detail of Trajan's Column.
ancient rome trajans column 3
Trajan’s Column was built to celebrate Roman Emperor Trajan’s victories over the Dacians in 101-102 CE and 105-106 CE.  The column itself, which consists of 20 marble drums, each 11 feet in diameter, is 98 feet tall; with the pedestal included, it rises 125 feet from the ground (see first image above). A bas relief showing the events of the Dacian Wars spirals around the column for a total of 625 feet, with nearly 2,500 figures depicted, including 59 representations of Trajan himself (see Trajan addressing his troops in third image). A spiral staircase inside the column leads to an observation deck. In antiquity, a statue of Trajan topped the column, but it disappeared during the Middle Ages. Pope Sixtus V placed a bronze statue of St. Peter atop the column in 1587. Random Trivia: To see the relief’s narrative up close, visit the Museo della Civiltà Romana (Museum of the Roman Civilization) in Rome, which has a set of replicas of the 20 marble drums that make up the column arranged at floor level for easy reading.

Unknown Artists: Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1075) Centre Guillaume le Conquerant, Bayeux, France
bayeux tapestry
bayeaux tapestry

Not a true tapestry, the Bayeux Tapestry is actually an embroidered cloth. Measuring 224 ft. long by 1.6 ft. tall, it contains an illustrated narrative of the Norman Conquest of England and events leading up to it. The tapestry consists of nine panels with fifty scenes, each with a caption in Latin, embroidered with colored woolen yarns on a linen cloth. The final portion has been lost. Although legend attributes the tapestry to French artists, scholars now believe that skilled Anglo-Saxon seamsters made the work in England in the 1070s. It was probably commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother Bishop Odo, Earl of Kent and founder of the Bayeux Cathedral in Normandy, where the tapestry was first mentioned in a 1476 inventory. In addition to historical scenes involving William, Duke of Normandy, Harold, Earl of Wessex (later King) and King Edward the Confessor, the tapestry includes the first depiction of a harrow, a newly-invented farm implement, and the first image of Halley’s Comet, which appeared in March/April 1066. The images above show: (1) William the Conqueror lays siege to Conan at Dinan and (2) Harold crossing the Channel to Normandy. A Victorian replica of the tapestry, with explanatory narrative, may be viewed online HERE.

Jan van EyckMadonna of Chancellor Rolin (1434-1435) Musée du Louvre, Paris

The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin was commissioned by Nicolas Rolin, the chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy, for his parish church in Autun, France.  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 detail in second image). The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, also known as Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin was made with oils on a wood panel measuring 2.2 ft. high by 2 ft. wide.

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.

Hugo van der Goes: The Portinari Altarpiece (c. 1475) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
portinari altarpieceportinari_child portinari right wing
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.  Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes, using oil paints on wood, depicted the Adoration of the Shepherds in the center panel, with the Portinari family and their patron saints on the side panels (see first image). 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). A separate narrative goes on in the background of each panel: the left wing shows Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem; the center panel shows the angel appearing to the shepherds; and the right panel shows the Three Magi on their way to see Jesus (see detail of right panel in third image). When the painting arrived in Florence in 1483, its naturalistic depiction of the figures influenced Domenico Ghirlandaio and other Italian painters.

Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi): La Primavera (c. 1477-1482)  Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Botticelli-primavera primavera detail primavera detail 2
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). After Zephyr marries Chloris, she is transformed into Flora, the goddess of Spring, who is shown in a floral gown scattering flowers. 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 (see third image), as well as orange trees, a Medici family symbol.  

Leonardo da Vinci: Lady with an Ermine (c. 1490) Czartorski Collection, Krakow, Poland
lady with an ermine
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. 

Correggio (Antonio Allegri da Correggio): Jupiter and Io (c. 1530-1532)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
leda-and-the-swan danae
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).  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); Leda with the Swan (1531-1532) (see third image) and Danaë (c. 1531) (see fourth image).  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.

Giambologna (Jean Boulogne): The Rape of the Sabine Women (1581-1583) Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signora, Florence
Giambologna_sabine giambolgona rape-of-the-sabine-women
Born Jean de Boulogne in Flanders, Giambologna acquired his Italianized professional name after he moved to Italy in 1550.  In 1581, his patrons the Medicis provided him with a large block of marble, from which he sculpted three nude figures in vertical composition as a showcase of his talent, without a prescribed subject. It was only after the sculpture was complete and Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, decreed that it be put on public display in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria that the subject was declared to be The Rape of the Sabine Women, referring to the story from Ancient Roman history in which the Romans solve their disputes with the neighboring Sabine tribe by forcibly abducting their young women and marrying them, thus creating blood ties between the groups. The Rape of the Sabine Women (also known as Rape of a Sabine) stands 13.4 ft. tall and presents no obvious front view; the viewer must look at all sides (see two views in images above) to appreciate the complex composition. At the peak, a young woman struggles to escape from her powerful young abductor, while below them, an older man crouches in fear. The piece is an exemplar of the Mannerist style with its twisting figures and dynamic diagonals. The statue joined other famous sculptures in the Loggia dei Lanzi, including Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa.

Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn): The Jewish Bride (1667)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Rembrandt_-_The_Jewish_Bride 2
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 was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4 ft. tall by 5.5. ft. wide. 

Antoine Watteau (Jean-Antoine Watteau): The Embarkation for Cythera (1717)
Musée du Louvre, Paris   
watteau cythera
Watteau_-_pilgrimage to cythera
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). 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 CytheraVoyage 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. 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).

Jean-Honoré FragonardThe 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 was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.6 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. wide. Random Trivia: The cover art of Little Feat’s album Sailin’ Shoes by Neon Park (a.k.a. Martin Muller) pays homage to both Fragonard’s The Swing and Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy.

Katsushika Hokusai: Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji – No. 1: The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1830-1833)  Various museums
The_Great_Wave_off_Kanagawa 2hokusai Red_Fuji_southern_wind_clear_morning hokusai
Hokusai Ejiri_in_the_Suruga_province jeff wall sudden gust of wind
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) (first image). 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 museums all over the world (including 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) but they are not always on display. Although none of the other prints from Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji has attained the fame of The Great Wave off Kanagawa, they are all quite remarkable. Two other prints from the series are shown: No. 2: South Wind, Clear Sky (also known as Red Fuji) and No. 26: Hodogaya on the Tōkaidō. Random Trivia: Canadian art photographer Jeff Wall recreated No. 10 in the series, Ejiri in Suruga Province (see fourth image) as A Sudden Gust of Wind (1993) (see fifth image).

Édouard Manet: Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass(1863)
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
dejeuner l'herbe
raimondi judgment of paris pastoral concert
Originally titled La Bain (The Bath), Édouard Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon in the Grass) was considered obscene by many contemporaries. The 1863 Paris Salon rejected the painting, so Manet exhibited the large canvas at the Salon des Refusés. Manet borrowed the grouping from the lower right side of Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving of Raphael’s drawing The Judgment of Paris (see second image) and there is precedent for a group of two men in modern clothing and two nude women in Titian’s The Pastoral Concert (see third image). Multiple light sources, the out-of-proportion bather, and other oddities have spawned multiple explanations. Some scholars have theorized that the figures are not outdoors but in the artist’s studio. The website goes further, positing that the bathing woman is not a three-dimensional figure but a painted canvas and that the nude woman boldly gazing at us is the model. Manet’s painting was made with oils on a canvas measuring 6.8 ft. high by 8.7 ft. wide.

Claude MonetThe Water Lily Pond (The Japanese Footbridge) (1899) (series)

Beginning in 1899, Monet made 18 oil paintings of the wooden Japanese footbridge over his water lily ponds in his gardens at Giverny. As with his other series, he was exploring the different qualities of light by using the same subject at different times of day and year and varying types of weather. The paintings completed in the first year of the series include: The Water-Lily Pond at the National Gallery in London (2.9 ft tall by  3.0 ft wide) (first image); Bridge over a Pond of Waterlilies, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (3.0 ft tall by 2.4 ft wide) (second image); The Japanese Footbridge, at the National Gallery of Australia, Melbourne; and Water Lily Pond (Green Harmony), at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The third image is a 1917 photograph (using the autochrome color process) of Claude Monet at Giverny with the Japanese footbridge.

Paul CézanneThe Large Bathers (1898-1906) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

French painter Paul 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, which anticipate 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.

Claude MonetReflection of Clouds on the Water Lily Pond (Water Lilies) (1920) Museum of Modern Art, New YorkMonet_Reflections_of_Clouds_on_the_Water-Lily_Pond
Monet_Reflections_of_Clouds_on_the_Water-Lily_Pond Monet_-_Reflections_of_Clouds_on_the_Water-Lily_Pond detail
In the last years of his life, the ponds of Claude Monet’s Giverney, France garden provided him with endless material for his increasingly abstract paintings.  Reflections of Clouds on the Water Lily Pond, part of the Water Lilies series, is a 1920 triptych that shows the reflection of the blue sky, clouds and trees in the water of the pond, along with the water lilies and water lily pads floating on the surface (see first image). In the large paintings he began after the death of his wife in 1911, Monet sought to create the illusion of “an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank.”  By showing us only the water’s surface, with no horizon or land, Monet eliminates conventional clues to vantage point, immersing the viewer in the space between the water’s surface and the light (see detail in second and  third images). Each oil-on-canvas panel of the triptych is 6.5 ft. tall by 13.9 ft. wide; the overall work is 6.5 ft. tall by 41.8 ft. wide.

7 Lists
Unknown Artists: Cave Paintings, Lascaux Caves (c. 15,000-13,000 BCE) Montignac, France
lascaux hall of bullslascaux
lascaux 2

During the Upper Paleolithic period between 17,000 and 15,000 years ago, humans painted almost 2000 figures in the Lascaux Caves in southwestern France.  Most of the paintings depict large grazing animals such as deer and horses using various mineral pigments, particularly black and red. The Great Hall of the Bulls includes a 17-ft wide black bull or auroch, the largest painted figure in cave art (see first image, at right). There is one human figure (see third image) shown next to a dead bull and a bird on a stick, as well as a number of abstract or geometric designs. Many theories have been proposed for the purpose of the paintings, including aiding in religious ceremonies, improving hunting success or documenting past hunts. Some scholars believe there are astronomical charts incorporated in the designs. The caves were discovered in 1940 by 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat and opened to the public in 1948. Due to the damage caused by carbon dioxide from 1,200 visitors per day, the caves were closed to the public in 1963. Since 1998, the art has been threatened by various types of fungus, including black mold.

c. 800 CE: Unknown ArtistThe Book of Kells [Celtic Christian; Insular Art; England/Ireland]

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 beginning of the Gospel of John, shown in the first image and the Gospel of Matthew – second image), and the 10 surviving full-page illuminations, such as Christ Enthroned (see third image). The Book of Kells is considered the most extravagant and complex example of Insular Art. All 680 pages are viewable online HERE.

Unknown Artists: Relief Sculptures, Chartres Cathedral (c. 1145-1220) Chartres, France
chartres cathedral royal portalchartres north transept
Chartres Cathedral (also known as Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Chartres) is a Roman Catholic cathedral located in Chartres, France. Begun in the Romanesque style in 1145, the cathedral was reconstructed in the French Gothic style after an 1194 fire, with most of the work completed between 1194 and 1220. Religious sculptures and carvings decorate the west, north and south entrances (also called portals or porches), with each portal’s reliefs addressing a separate theological subject. The carvings of the west entrance, known as the Royal Portals (portions of which may have survived from the pre-1194 structure), focus on the nature of Jesus. The north entrance celebrates the Old Testament and Christ’s immediate ancestors, while the south entrance relates the history of the Catholic Church since Christ’s death. During the French Revolution, anti-clerical protesters destroyed some of the sculptures on the north porch, before being stopped by local townspeople. A plan by Revolutionaries to dynamite the cathedral was derailed by an architect who noted the resulting rubble would block the streets for months. The images shown above are: (1) the central tympanum of the Royal Portal, on the west façade, showing Christ in majesty at the Second Coming/Last Judgment; (2) the tympanum of the central portal of the north transept, depicting the Coronation of the Virgin (Glorification of Mary) and other scenes; (3) door jamb statues showing the Visitation; and (4) detail from the bases of three door jamb statues. 

Unknown ArtistsRelief Sculptures, Reims Cathedral (1211-1305) Reims, France
reims sculpture 2
Rheims Cathedral Kings of Francereims sculpture Reims Cathedral the damned
The place where France crowned its kings, Reims Cathedral (also known as Notre-Dame de Reims) was built in the French Gothic style primarily between 1211-1275, although some work continued into the early 14th Century. The exterior and interior of the cathedral are covered with hundreds of relief sculptures of religious figures and subjects, with some of the statues almost completely detached from the substrate. As one scholar observed, the sculpture of Reims Cathedral is not mere ornamentation but is integral to the architectural composition. Because the construction extended over such a long period, and because sculptors from different schools and cities were employed, the sculptures present a wide variety of styles. Shown above are: (1) the Coronation of the Virgin, in the central portal of the west façade; (2) a portion of the gallery of French kings, with Clovis being baptized in the center, was carved in the early 14th Century in the upper level of the façade, above the rose window; (3) two jamb statues from the west façade’s central portal shows the Annunciation with the Virgin Mary and one of Reims’ famous smiling angels, carved in the style of the Remois Workshop, from c. 1245-1250; and (4) a depiction of the damned (including clergy) entering Hell’s cauldron, from the Last Judgment in the south portal of the west façade. German artillery shelled the cathedral in September 1914, causing significant damage, but after years of restoration work, the cathedral’s doors opened again in 1938. In 2011, the people of Reims celebrated the cathedral’s 800th birthday.

Andrei RublevThe Holy Trinity Icon (Trinity) (1408-1425) Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Russian artist Andrei Rublev painted religious icons, which differ from other paintings of religious subjects in that they are intended to convey the inner spiritual meaning of the subject matter and serve as a focus of worship. Rublev, who was canonized as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church, is best known for the Holy Trinity Icon (also known simply as Trinity), which depicts the three angels who appeared to Abraham at Mamre, as related in the Book of Genesis. Christian tradition connects the angels with the three persons of the Christian trinity (from left to right, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Rublev used tempera to paint the icon, which measures 4.6 ft. tall and 3.75 ft. wide and contains several layers of symbolism. Like many older icons, there has been considerable damage, repainting and other alteration over the years with attempts at restoration beginning in the 20th Century. 

Masaccio (Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone): The Holy Trinity (1428) Santa Maria Novella, Florence
masaccio memento mori
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 was among the first paintings to demonstrate 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. Renaissance artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari praise for the work in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1st ed. 1550) shows the high regard for Masaccio’s achievement: a barrel vault [is] drawn in perspective, and divided into squares with rosettes that diminish and are foreshortened so well that there seems to be a hole in the wall.” It is ironic, then, that it was Vasari who was commissioned to renovate Florence’s Santa Maria Novella church, where the Holy Trinity was painted. Ordered to construct a new screen and altar, he placed them directly in front of the fresco – both hiding it from view but also saving it from destruction. Masaccio’s masterpiece was not revealed again until another round of renovations in 1860, at which time it was transferred from plaster to canvas. Even then, the lower portion of the fresco, a memento mori showing a skeleton and tomb (with the Latin inscription “What you are I once was; what I am, you will be”) 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; the third image shows the memento mori. Random Trivia: It was traditional to paint the donors who commissioned the painting into the composition, but Massacio breaks with tradition (and demonstrates another tromp l’oeil effect) by painting the donors in front of the plane of the religious image, thus making it appear that they are in the space occupied by the viewers.  

Lorenzo Ghiberti: The Gates of Paradise (East Doors of Florence Baptistery) (1425-1452) Baptistery, Florence

gates of paradise 2Ghiberti
The Gates of Paradise is the name coined by Michelangelo for the gilded bronze relief sculptures carved by Italian artist Lorenzo Ghiberti for the east doors of the Florence Baptistery.  This was the second set of door panels carved by Ghiberti for the building.  In 1401, at the age of 23, he won a contest to create 28 panels with scenes from the New Testament for what are now the north doors, a project he finished in 1423. In 1425, Ghiberti received a commission to create 10 panels with scenes from the Old Testament for the east doors. This project, which involved a dangerous gilding process, took him 27 years to finish. The second set of doors incorporates the newly discovered rules of perspective and the scenes have a naturalism that is absent from the north door reliefs.  The doors are 17 ft. tall, and each panel is 2.6 ft square (see first image). The panels depict: (1) The Story of Adam and Eve (see second image); (2) The Story of Cain and Abel; (3) The Story of Noah; (4) The Story of Abraham; (5) The Story of Isaac; (6) The Story of Joseph; (7) The Story of Moses; (8) The Story of Joshua; (9) The Story of David; and (10) The Story of King Solomon (see third image). Between the panels, narrow borders contain 20 full-length portraits and 24 heads in roundels of prophets and evangelists (see border in third image), including a Ghiberti roundel self-portrait (see fourth image, shown pre-restoration). In 1990, the panels in the Baptistery doors were removed and replaced by replicas in order to protect the originals from weather damage. Serious conservation efforts had begun in 1966 after a flood dislodged six of the panels. The originals were brought to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where they recently underwent a 27-year-long restoration and cleaning. 

Unknown Artist: Statue of Coatlicue (c. 1300-1500) Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City
coatlicue coatlicue rear
In Aztec mythology, Coatlicue (“The One with the Skirt of Serpents”) is the goddess who gave birth to the moon, the stars and the gods Quetzalcoatl, Xoloti and Huitzilopochtli. She is also the patron goddess of women who die in childbirth. The Statue of Coatlicue, which was made between 1300 and 1500, is made of andesite and stands 8.9 ft. tall (see front in first image and rear in second image). The statue depicts a myth in which Coatlicue became pregnant after picking up a ball of feathers and her children, fearing illicit sexual behavior, decapitated her, causing her to give birth to a god and also causing blood to gush from her neck in the form of two serpents. She wears a necklace of human skulls and hearts and a skirt made of snakes. Europeans discovered the statue during a building project in Mexico City in 1790; they found it gruesome but casts were made to show at exhibitions. When Mexican Indians began paying tribute to the statue, the Europeans buried it. In 1933, another almost identical statue was found, but with a skirt of hearts instead of snakes. 

Hans Holbein the YoungerThe Ambassadors (1533) National Gallery, London
the ambassadors holbein
ambassadors detail
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) (see detail in second image). 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 (see third image). 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? 

Paolo Veronese (Paolo Caliari): The Wedding at Cana (The Wedding Feast at Cana) (1562–1563) Musée du Louvre, Paris
wedding at cana veronese wedding at cana detail WeddingFeastDetail_Jesus
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).  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, 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). 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 – all the damage was repaired.  

1599-1602: Caravaggio: Scenes from the Life of St. Matthew, Contarelli Chapel
(1599-1602) San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Italy

When French cardinal Matthieu Cointerel (Contarelli in Italian) died in 1585, he left money to decorate a chapel in Rome’s San Luigi dei Francesi Church with scenes from the life of St. Matthew, his name saint. Contarelli’s heirs commissioned Mannerist painter Giuseppe Cesari to paint frescoes but by 1593, Cesari had only completed one of the three walls. In 1599, Caravaggio was commissioned to finish the project by making two paintings for the walls using oils on canvas. By July 1600, Caravaggio had painted two Baroque masterpieces: The Calling of St. Matthew (first image, oils on canvas measuring 10.6 ft. tall by 10.8 ft. wide) and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (second image, measuring 10.6 ft. tall by 11.25 ft. wide), on facing walls. The original plan had been that Flemish sculptor Jacques Cobaert would create marble statues of Matthew and an angel for the altar, but when Cobaert delivered the statues, the church elders rejected them and instead commissioned Caravaggio (whose first two paintings had already caused a sensation) to paint The Inspiration of St. Matthew (third image, measuring 9.6 ft. tall by 6.1 ft. wide). The church rejected Caravaggio’s first version, which became known as St. Matthew and the Angel: they didn’t like St. Matthew’s crossed legs and bare feet, and disapproved of the angel-muse’s overly familiar attitude toward the saint. The painting was destroyed by bombing in 1945 during World War II (see black and white photo of St. Matthew and the Angel in fourth image). Caravaggio delivered an acceptable representation in about 1602. To discuss each of the pieces in turn:
(1) The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600), depicts the moment when Jesus and St. Peter approach Matthew and Jesus beckons the tax collector to “Follow me.” Scholars praise the painting for Caravaggio’s use of light and shadow; they also note that Jesus’ finger recalls the finger of Michelangelo’s God in the Creation of Man on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Experts disagree about which figure represents St. Matthew. While most say it is the bearded man (who is the same model as the other two paintings), some suggest that the bearded man is pointing to the younger man whose head is looking down at the money. Others have noted that while the men at the table wear contemporary clothing, Jesus and St. Peter are clad in the timeless robes of classical antiquity, thus distinguishing the earthly sphere from the heavenly.
(2) The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600) was the first of the St. Matthew paintings that Caravaggio painted. Scholars have identified this work as a turning point in the move from Mannerist to Baroque style. Caravaggio expertly uses chiaroscuro to highlight the drama of the precise moment just before the assassin plunges his sword into Matthew, at the same time that the saint reaches out for a palm frond (symbol of his martyrdom) offered by an angel only he can see.
(3) The Inspiration of St. Matthew (1602)the last of the St. Matthew paintings, addresses the criticisms that the church fathers made of the first version. The angel floats above St. Matthew, in a swirling drapery, and enumerates a point with his fingers, while the saint, kneeling below, watches and learns. The glowing yellows and oranges of Matthews robes pop out of the sea of darkness behind him, while his leg, stool and arm threaten to break the picture plane and enter the viewer’s space, in quintessential Baroque fashion.

Jan VermeerView of Delft (1660-1661) Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands

view of delft detail tower Vermeer-view-of-delft-detail-boats
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 at a time when cityscapes were not popular subjects for painting (see first image). It is one of the few works by Vermeer that do not depict an interior space. View of Delft, which measures 3.2 feet tall by 3.9 feet wide, is known for its intricate and original treatment of light and shadow. A shaft of sunlight illuminates some of the buildings, including the tower of the New Church on the right, which houses the grave of Willem of Orange (see detail in second image). Art critic Martin Bailey has suggested that Vermeer used a camera obscura to paint View of Delft: “The pointillist technique that Vermeer used to suggest reflections flickering off the water, most easily visible on the two herring boats on the right, is evidence that he probably used a camera obscura to help compose the picture; diffused highlights such as these would appear when a partially focused image was obtained from this device.” (Vermeer, 1995, pp. 60-62.) (See detail showing herring boat in third image.) While the painting appears to be a faithful representation of the cityscape, comparison with contemporary sketches reveals that Vermeer made some changes to enhance the artistic effect he sought, including spreading the buildings more widely along the waterfront. Random Trivia: Vermeer’s View of Delft features prominently in a scene in Volume 5 of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

Jacques-Louis DavidDeath 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. Random Trivia: The second image shows Marat (Sebastião) (2008) from Brazilian artist Vic Muniz’s Pictures of Garbage series. The work, made almost entirely from recycled garbage, is a portrait of a man who earns his living by finding resellable material in a huge garbage dump.

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. 

Édouard ManetOlympia (1863) Musée d’Orsay, Paris
manet olympia
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. Random Trivia: Yasumasa Morimura’s Portrait (1988) engages in a dialogue with Manet’s Olympia by replacing the central figure with a nude man (the artist himself), among other changes (see second image). Morimura has recreated numerous works of art as ironic self-portraits that challenge underlying assumptions about those works.  

Auguste RodinThe Burghers of Calais (1884-1889) Calais, France; Glyptoteket, Copenhagen (1903); Royal Museum, Mariemont, Belgium (1905); Victoria Tower Gardens, London (1915)

During the Hundred Years’ War, English troops under King Edward III laid siege to the port town of Calais, France for over a year, while King Philip VI of  France ordered the city not to surrender. By 1347, the people of Calais were starving and ready to give in. According to legend, Edward offered a compromise: he would spare the city if six citizens would surrender to him by walking out of the gates bareheaded, wearing nooses around their necks and carrying the keys to the city.  Eustache de St. Pierre, a wealthy town leader, was first to volunteer; five other burghers soon joined him. The six walked out the city gates together, believing they faced certain death. Instead, Queen Philippa convinced Edward to spare their lives. In 1884, when the leaders of Calais voted to erect a monument to Eustache de St. Pierre, sculptor Auguste Rodin surprised the selection committee by making a model honoring all six burghers, which won the competition. Rodin delivered the first full-sized bronze cast of The Burghers of Calais, measuring 6.6 ft tall by 6.7 ft. wide by 6.4 ft. deep, to the town of Calais in 1889 (first image). Seeing the six burghers not as heroes but as ordinary citizens who acted heroically, Rodin specified that the sculpture be placed at ground level, so that today’s ordinary citizens could meet the burghers eye-to-eye. Instead, Calais’ town leaders initially placed the statue on a high pedestal, consistent with standard practice. It was not until 1926 that the sculpture was brought down to earth with a low pedestal, as Rodin had specified. Three additional bronze casts were made during Rodin’s lifetime, and eight more since Rodin’s death in 1917, reaching the maximum of 12 casts allowed under French law. (The second image shows detail from a full-sized bronze cast that was made in 1908 and placed in Victoria Tower Gardens in London in 1915.) Casts of individual members of the group have also been made. Scholars and critics have praised the work for its humanism, its individualized treatment of each figure and its rendering of the burghers’ weary anguish and resignation as a form of heroic self-sacrifice, although some of Rodin’s contemporaries criticized the sculpture because it did not glorify the heroes and did not include allegorical figures and other classical indicia of heroism. Over time, however, Rodin’s rendering of ordinary people rising to meet extraordinary circumstances has become an icon.

Claude MonetWater Lilies (1905) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Monet 1905 Water Lilies Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA
After painting various subjects in his career, beginning in about 1897 and continuing to the end of his life in 1926, Claude Monet restricted his focus to the gardens at his Giverny home, particularly the water garden and the water lilies that grew there. His early paintings showed the water lilies in the context of the landscape around the water, including trees, sky and horizon line. By 1905, when Monet painted Water Lilies, he had abandoned the rules of conventional landscape painting to focus exclusively on the surface of the water.  The 1905 painting, which was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.9 ft. tall by 3.3 ft. wide, renders the water lilies and the pads beneath them in perspective, as they recede into the background.  The surface of the water shows the reflections of the unseen sky, clouds and trees.  There is no horizon line to anchor the viewer to a universe outside this patch of water.  Instead, the artist asks us to explore the interplay of the real and the reflected.  

Marcel DuchampNude Descending a Staircase #2 (1912) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Duchamp_-_Nude_Descending_a_Staircasemuybridge nude descending a staircase
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).  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). 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 was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.8 ft. tall by 2.9 ft. wide.

Umberto BoccioniUnique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) Various locations
Unique_Forms_of_Continuity_in_Space boccioni Unique_Forms_of_Continuity_in_Space
Futurism was a major Italian art movement of the first half of the 20th Century. Futurists wanted to take a radical step way from Classical and Renaissance precedents to embrace instead the speed and progress of the modern age. Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni was trained as a painter, but he occasionally experimented with new forms of sculpture, the most highly-regarded of which is Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. The sculpture depicts a faceless, armless figure – human, super-human or man-machine – striding dynamically through the air. Boccioni wanted to show the ‘synthetic continuity’ of motion in contrast to ‘analytical discontinuity’ represented by Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, for example. To achieve this goal, Boccioni sculpted not only the moving figure but also the space it moves through; we see curling tongues of the atmosphere itself as they flare out around the body of the figure.  Boccioni made a plaster cast of the statue in 1913, but a bronze cast was never made in his lifetime (he died in 1916). The original plaster cast is located at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea in São Paulo, Brazil. After Boccioni’s death, a number of bronze casts were made from the original plaster sculpture of Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, each measuring 3.6 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide by 15.5 in. deep.  The casts are located as follows:
(1) Collection of Gianni Mattioli, Milan (c. 1925-1926);
(2) Museum of Modern Art, New York (1931 cast) (without the base) (second image above);
(3) Museo del Novecento, Milan (1931 cast) (without the base);
(4) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1949 cast) (first image above);
(5) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1949 cast);
(6) Museu de Arte Contemporânea, São Paulo, Brazil (1960 cast);
(7) Collection of Paolo Marinotti, Milan (1972 cast); and
(8) Tate Modern, London (1972 cast).
Random Trivia: In 1998, the Italian government chose Unique Forms of Continuity in Space as the image on the back of the 20-cent Euro coin.

Andy WarholCampbell’s Soup Cans (series of 32) (1962) Museum of Modern Art, New York
warhol campbell's soup
In 1962, Campbell’s sold 32 varieties of soup in cans.  American pop artist Andy Warhol was looking for a subject for a series of silkscreened prints and a friend suggested “something you see every day, like a Campbell’s Soup can.”  Warhol, a big fan of Campbell’s soup, thought it was a great idea.  He stenciled a Campbell’s Soup can on paper, leaving a blank space for the name of the type of soup, and made 32 silkscreened prints with synthetic polymer paint of a red and white can on a white background, measuring 20 in. tall by 16 in. wide. He then hand-painted or stenciled the names of the individual soup flavors onto the 32 prints. The results shocked the art world, while at the same time establishing Warhol as a leader in the Pop Art movement.  The mechanized process and the sameness of the results blurred the distinction between art and commerce, a blurring that would only increase later on when Warhol began using photos instead of stencils to make prints. If someone could reproduce a commercial product’s label and sell it as their own, then what was the role of originality, creativity and technical skill in making art? For art museums, a more pressing question loomed: although Warhol indicated that he preferred to have the 32 canvases stay together, he gave no instructions for displaying them.  At the first exhibition, in 1962, the curator set them on shelves as if at a grocery store.  When New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired the set of paintings, it displayed them in a grid with the canvases arranged in order of the date that the soup variety was first issued (see first image).  In 2011, however, MOMA rearranged the paintings in single file along the walls in one room; this is the way they were first displayed in July, 1962 at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles.

6 Lists
Unknown Artist: Khafre Enthroned (Statue of Chephren) (c. 2570-2550 BCE) Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo, Egypt
Khafre side
The fourth Egyptian Pharaoh of the Old Kingdom’s Fourth Dynasty, who built the second pyramid at Giza, is known by many names, including Khafra, Khafre, Khefren and Chephren. Little is known about him except that Egypt was peaceful, prosperous and united during his reign. Some believe the face on the Great Sphinx belongs to Khafre. The life-size diorite gneiss Statue of Khafre (which measures 5.5 ft. tall, 3.1 ft. long and 1.9 ft. wide) was designed as a vessel for the pharaoh’s ka (soul) after death. The statue (see first image), which is carved in the round (in contrast to relief), is not a portrait but a timeless ideal of an ageless, perfect, man-turned-god. Protecting Khafre’s head from behind is Horus the hawk-god (see second image).  Khafre wears the nemes headdress and the uraeus (symbol of the cobra-god) on his forehead. His throne is made of two stylized lions and engraved on it are the symbols of a united Egypt: lotus plants (for Upper Egypt) and papyrus plants (for Lower Egypt). The dark stone used to carve the statue came from quarries 400 miles away – proof of Khafre’s power, influence and ability to coordinate the work of hundreds. 

Unknown ArtistHead of an Akkadian Ruler (Sargon, King of Akkad) (c. 2400-2200 BCE) Iraqi National Museum, Baghdad, Iraq
Sargon of Akkad conquered the Sumerian city-states in the 23rd and 22nd Centuries BCE and formed a united empire, based in the city of Akkad, where he reigned from c. 2334-2279 BCE. The dynasty he founded ruled even longer. The Akkadian empire included Mesopotamia, parts of Iran, Asia Minor and Syria. In excavations of the ruins of the Assyrian city of Nineveh in present-day Iraq, archaeologists found a bronze head of an Akkadian king measuring 12 in. tall and dating to c. 2400-2200 BCE. Some scholars believe the head, which is wearing the traditional wig-helmet of Sumerian rulers, was attached to a full-body statue of Sargon.  Others believe it is Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin.  There are significant signs of intentional damage to the head, which may indicate a deliberate attempt by subsequent conquerors to deface symbols of Akkadian power. 

Unknown Artist Artemision Bronze (Zeus or Poseidon) (c. 460 BCE) National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece
artemision bronze  artemision bronze 2
Archaeologists have discovered very few Classical Greek sculptures because most of the statues from that period were made of bronze, which was later melted down for reuse. One of the few Greek bronze sculptures that survived was found at the site of an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Cape Artemision in Greece in 1926. The 6.9 ft. tall bronze statue of a nude male is a depiction of either Zeus about to fling a lightning bolt or Poseidon about to pitch his trident (most scholars favor the Zeus interpretation based on the angle of the arms and the concern that a trident would obscure the god’s face). The figure’s eyes, eyebrows, lips and nipples would likely have been filled with various materials (bone, silver, copper, etc.) for a more dramatic appearance. The figure was carved in the Early Classical or Severe style that preceded the Classical style of the later 5th Century. Scholars praise the work for the sense of strength, balance and movement and the close attention to the anatomy of the nude male body. To emphasize the sense of imminent movement, the unknown sculptor has made the arms longer than they would be if anatomically correct, a choice that was only available to the artist when working with bronze – had this been a marble statue, the arms would have fallen off without supports. The figure’s head has become a Greek cultural symbol, featuring on a postage stamp and bank note.  

LysipposThe Farnese Hercules (The Farnese Herakles) (bronze original, c. 370-310 BCE; marble copy by Glykon, c. 218 CE) Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy
Farnese Hercules
Hercules Louvre hercules print
The Farnese Hercules is a marble sculpture made in the early 3rd Century CE by Glykon of Athens for the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. It is an enlarged copy of a 4th Century BCE bronze original by Lysippos, which is now lost. The sculpture shows a weary 10.3-ft.-high Hercules resting on his club, over which is draped the skin of the Nemean lion (referencing his first labor); behind his back he holds the immortality-giving apples of the Hesperides (referencing his eleventh labor, see second image). The statue was rediscovered in 1546 (in various pieces) and was soon thereafter purchased by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who placed it in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. It remained there until 1787, when it was moved to its current home in Naples at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Many marble and bronze copies of the lost Lysippos sculpture have been made, both full-sized and miniature, including some in ancient times. An older but much smaller (1.4 ft tall) bronze copy, from either 3rd Century Hellenist Greece or 1st Century CE Rome, known as Hercules Resting, was found at Fogliano, Umbria, Italy in the late 19th Century and is now in the Louvre (see third image). Random Trivia: When the Farnese Hercules was first discovered, it was legless, so Guglielmo della Porta was commissioned to sculpt legs in 1560. Even though the original marble legs were soon discovered nearby, Michelangelo persuaded the Farnese family to keep the new legs to prove that contemporary sculptors were just as good as those of ancient times. The Farnese Hercules with della Porta’s legs can be seen in a print made from an engraving by Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius, who visited Rome in 1592 (see fourth image). The original legs were restored to their owner in 1787. 

Unknown ArtistDying Gaul (The Dying Galatian) (lost bronze original, c. 230-220 BCE; marble copy, 1st-2nd Century CE) Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy

First misidentified as a Dying Gladiator, the statue now known as Dying Gaul or Dying Galatian is believed to be a 1st or 2nd Century CE Roman copy, in marble, of a Greek bronze original from 230-220 BCE. The statue commemorates the victory of Attalos I, in defense of Greeks living in Pergamon (on what is now the Turkish coast) against Celtic migrants from Gaul who settled in nearby Galatia. Measuring 3 ft. tall by 6.1 ft. long by 2.9 ft. deep, the statue shows a mortally wounded Gaul (a puncture wound is visible in his lower right chest) lying on his shield, with a sword, belt and trumpet beside him. (See first image – photo courtesy of Jean Pol Gradmont). He is nude except for a metal neck ring, or torc. While the sculpture reminds the viewer that the Greeks were victorious, it also shows respect and compassion for the fallen adversary, who hovers between life and death. TheDying Gaul has undergone a number of revisions since its discovery at the Villa Ludovisi outside Rome in the early 1600s: the left leg has been reassembled from several pieces, for example, and the Gaul’s original long hair had broken off, leading 17th Century artists to ‘rework’ it. (See second image. For more on the restorations, go here.) The emotional depth of the piece made it a favorite of artists and art lovers. Artists engraved and copied it, thus giving many more a chance to see it. Lord Byron commented on it in Child Harold’s Pilgrimage and Thomas Jefferson included it on a list of potential acquisitions for a planned Monticello art museum. Despite Jefferson’s dream, the Dying Gaul remains in Rome, at the Capitoline Museums.

Unknown ArtistArch of Constantine (c. 315 CE) Rome, Italy
The Arch of Constantine is a triumphal arch built in 315 CE to commemorate the victory of Emperor Constantine over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 CE. Located between the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill in Rome, the marble and brick arch is 68.9 ft. tall, 84.9 ft. wide and 24.3 ft. deep. There are three archways: the center archway is 37.7 ft. high and 21.3 ft. wide; each of the two lateral archways is 24.3 ft. tall and 11.1 ft. wide.  Each face of the arch is divided by four Corinthian columns made of Numidian yellow marble. The original carving on the arch, particularly the historical frieze along the tops of the lateral archways, shows a decline in artistic skill and technique since the 1st Century CE. Either to associate Constantine with good emperors of the past, or in recognition of their own inadequacy, the artists incorporated portions of other emperors’ reliefs and statues into the arch, in some cases reworking the faces of the other emperors (Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius) to resemble Constantine. (See second image, with older roundels of Emperor Hadrian and more recent frieze below.) A bronze inscription has been lost, but the remaining spaces for the letters allow one to read the Latin statement. The inscription’s statement that Constantine was “inspired by the divine” has been interpreted by some as a politic way of referencing the emperor’s unexpected conversion to Christianity at Milvian Bridge in 312 CE.

Unknown ArtistMosaics, Basilica of San Vitale [(c. 527-548 CE) Ravenna, Italy

The Basilica of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy is one of the few Byzantine churches that has survived to the present essentially unchanged. Built from 527-548 CE, while Ravenna was under the rule of the Ostrogoths, St. Vitale contains some of the finest mosaics outside Istanbul. The artistic style is in the Hellenistic-Roman tradition, which includes bright colors, some perspective and vivid depictions of plants, birds and landscapes. The program of mosaics includes numerous Bible stories and figures, angels, plants, birds and other animals. The presbytery vault (see first image) contains a mosaic of Jesus, robed in purple, sitting on a blue globe and handing the crown of martyrdom to St. Vitale. On a side wall of the apse is a mosaic of Roman Emperor Justinian I and a retinue carrying the traditional gifts for a religious procession (see second image). To the right of Justinian are clergy, including Bishop Maximian, to whom the Basilica was dedicated. To the left are administration officials and soldiers. The message seems to be that the Emperor is head of church and state. The halo around Justinian’s head and the number of his retinue (12 – same as the Apostles of Christ) indicate an even closer connection between the Emperor and the deity. A nearby mosaic shows Empress Theodora, looking like a goddess, and her retinue (see third image).

Unknown ArtistDescent of the Ganges (Arjuna’s Penance) (c. 650 CE) Mahabalipuram, India
At Mahabalipuram in India, an enormous bas relief (96 ft. wide by 43 ft. high) is carved on two boulders of pink granite separated by a fissure (first image). The carving includes over 100 figures, many of them life size, representing humans, animals, Hindu gods and other mythological figures. The reliefs were made during the reign of Narasimhavarman I of the Pallava Dynasty, who ruled from 630-668 CE. Many scholars believe the sculptures depict the story of the descent of the holy river Ganges at the order of Shiva, with Bhagiratha leading the way. In the second image, an emaciated Bhagiratha is shown doing penance outside his hermitage. As evidence for the Descent of the Ganges interpretation, the remains of a cistern have been found atop the fissure that was used to create a waterfall effect. The third image shows a serpent deity carved into the fissure. Others believe the carvings tell the story of Arjuna, one of the major protagonists of the Mahabharata, performing a penance in order to obtain a weapon called the Pashupatastra from Lord Shiva. Some have even posited that both legends are included on the boulders. In 1984, UNESCO designated the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, including the reliefs known as Descent of the Ganges reliefs, as a World Heritage Site.

Unknown ArtistsRelief Sculptures, Temple of Borobudur (c. 800-825 CE) Java, Indonesia


Borobudur is a Mahayana Buddhist temple built in the 9th Century CE during the Sailendra Dynasty on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia. It was abandoned some time after the 11th Century and rediscovered in 1814 during the British occupation of Java. In addition to the magnificent architecture and statuary (see aerial view of temple in the third image), the temple walls contain 2,672 panels of bas relief carvings, covering a total of 27,000 square feet. There are 1,460 narrative and 1,212 decorative panels. The narrative panels tell the story of Sudhana and Manohara, from the Avatamsaka Sutra, as well as the life of the Buddha (see first image), including his past lives. The panels also depict various aspects of daily life in Java. For example, the second image shows an 8th Century wooden double outrigger sailing ship used in trade. The Temple of Borobudur was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.

Unknown ArtistsCapitoline Wolf (Capitoline She-Wolf) (c. 1020-1155 (wolf); 15th Century (Romulus and Remus)) Musei Capitolini, Rome
capitoline museums she wolf 1
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The bronze sculpture (measuring 2.5 ft. tall by 3.75 ft. long) of a she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, has a long and controversial history. Until very recently, it was believed that the sculpture of the wolf was made by an unknown Etruscan artist in the 5th Century BCE to commemorate the founding of Rome. It has been in the Musei Capitolini in Rome since 1471, when Pope Sixtus IV donated it. The wolf’s Etruscan origin was supported by references to a bronze wolf sculpture in Classical literature, including Cicero’s De Divinatione, and by the analysis of Johann Winckelmann, an 18th Century German art historian. Winckelmann also recognized that the sculptures of Romulus and Remus were added in the late 15th Century, during the Renaissance, possibly by Antonio Pollaiolo (see second image). In the late 19th Century, some art historians questioned the early date, proposing a Carolingian or Medieval time frame, but their concerns were ignored. In 2006, however, Italian art experts Anna Maria Carruba and Adriano La Regina made a strong case, based on evidence that the bronze wolf was cast in one piece, that the wolf was Medieval in origin. Preliminary results of radiocarbon testing announced in 2008 indicated a 11th-12th Century date range for the wolf sculpture. The date is of more than academic interest, as the Capitoline Wolf has been a symbol of Roman and Italian heritage for centuries. Mussolini sent replicas all over the world and the image adorns contemporary t-shirts and posters.

Claus SluterThe Well of Moses (1395-1405) Chartreuse de Champmol (Hospital de la Chartreuse), near Dijon, France

well of moses
In the late 14th Century, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, ordered the building and decoration of a Carthusian monastery just outside Dijon so the monks would pray for his soul and to provide a burial site for him and his heirs. A number of artists provided artwork for the monastery, including Dutch sculptor Claus Suter, who created a massive limestone sculpture for the center of the main cloister. It consisted of a crucifixion scene, with Mary Magdalene (and possibly another) at the foot of the cross where Jesus was hanging, and below it, a hexagonal base with statues of six prophets who foresaw Christ’s death, each standing about 5 ft., 8 in. tall, and six weeping angels (see the fourth image for an imagined reconstruction). The sculptures were painted in vibrant colors – some paint remains. Unfortunately, during the French Revolution, anti-clericalists destroyed the upper portion of the sculpture (fragments are on display in a nearby museum), leaving the base, which has acquired the name the Well of Moses. In each of six niches, Suter has created life-sized statues of Moses, David, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Daniel and Isaiah. (Moses’ horns in this and other artworks come from a Hebrew phrase that can be translated as either ‘horns’ or ‘rays of light.’) Each prophet carries his prophecy on a scroll and each one is individually detailed with a unique expression and personality (see Moses in first image and King David and Jeremiah in second image). Unlike Medieval relief sculptures, these figures appear to be independent of the stone behind them, and there is a sense of movement expressed by the bodies beneath the drapery. The angels, who top the slender colonnettes that separate the planes of the hexagon, also have individualized gestures and expressions (see third image). The Well of Moses is located in the central courtyard of what was the main cloister of Carthusian monastery Chartreuse de Champmol, (now the Hospital de la Chartreuse) outside of Dijon, France. 

Piero della FrancescaThe Flagellation of Christ (1455-1460) Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino, Italy
Art critic Kenneth Clark called Piero della Francesca’s The Flagellation of Christ “the greatest small painting in the world.” Painted with oils and tempera on wood panel measuring 1.9 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide, The Flagellation of Christ is notable for the artist’s deft use of perspective in contrasting the three men in the right foreground with the scene in the open air building, left rear, which almost certainly depicts the whipping of Christ as described in the Gospels. As for the identities of the three men on the right, and some of the figures on the left, there are a plethora of theories. Many scholars believe that the figures on the right are contemporaries of Piero, or represent other men from the recent past. The theory that the right and left sides of the painting occur in different eras finds support in the unusual lighting: the flagellation scene is lit from one direction, while the three men are lit from another. The time warp theory might also explain why the men on the right are ignoring the violence going on behind them. One common explanation is that the young man in the middle is Oddantonio da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, with his two advisors, all three of whom had been murdered in 1444. Other scholars point to evidence contradicting that theory. As for the less controversial left side, most scholars agree that the sitting man is Pontius Pilate, and the man with his back turned is Herod, but this is not accepted by all. In fact, one art historian believes that the person being flogged is not Jesus but St. Jerome.

Niccolò dell’Arca: Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c. 1460-1463 or 1485-1490) Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna, Italy
lamentation dell arca
lamentation 2      
Scholars cannot reach consensus on the date that Italian sculptor Niccolò dell’Arca created the seven-piece terracotta group Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Compianto sul Cristo morto) for the sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita in Bologna, where it is still located.  One group gives a date near 1460, probably 1463, while another faction asserts a much later date of 1485-1490. Whatever the date, all agree that the life-sized figures, especially the six who are gathered around the dead body of Jesus (the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary Clopas, Salome, John the Apostle, and Joseph of Arimathea), show extraordinary drama and pathos in their stances and facial expressions (see detail in second image). This combination of realism and expressionism in the figures, which were originally painted, was very influential on other Early Renaissance artists. Art historians have noted some Burgundian influences in the carving, derived either from the influence of Catalan sculptor Guillem Sagrera, who worked on the Castel Nuovo in Naples in the 1450s or from a possible trip dell’Arca took to France in the 1460s. Random Trivia: Sculptors in Bologna used terracotta because there was little quarried marble in the vicinity. Ironically, the less pliable marble would probably not have allowed Niccolò dell’Arca to carve the highly detailed facial expressions that make his figures so life-like.

Piero della FrancescaThe Legend of the True Cross (The History of the True Cross) (1458-1466) San Francesco Church, Arezzo, Italy]

constantine-s-dream piero della francesca Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Arezzo
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Between 1452 and 1466, Piero della Francesca painted a cycle of frescoes in the main choir chapel (Cappella Maggiore) of San Francesco Church in Arrezo, Italy on the theme of the Legend of the True Cross (also known as The History of the True Cross) (see first image). Taken from the popular 13th Century book The Golden Legend, these tales follow the cross that Jesus was crucified on from the time the tree was a seed until the recent past. The cycle is considered one of the masterpieces of Early Renaissance painting, with Piero della Francesca excelling in composition, perspective and use of color. Several of the chapel’s frescoes are shown in the above images:
(2) Constantine’s Dream, in which the Roman Emperor, on the eve of battle, dreams of a cross and hears the instructions, “By this sign you shall conquer.” Constantine converts to Christianity and leads his troops to victory. The fresco measures 10.8 ft. tall by 6.2 ft. wide.
(3) Exaltation of the Cross, measuring 12.8 ft. high by 24.5 ft. wide, shows Heraclius carrying the cross back to Jerusalem, when a group of passersby kneel down to worship it.
(4) Finding and Recognition of the True Cross, measuring 11.7 ft. tall by 24.5 ft. wide. This fresco shows Constantine’s mother and others who had been searching for the cross finally find it and recognize it as the true cross when a dead youth is miraculously resurrected.
(5) The Battle between Heraclius and Khosrau, measuring 10.8 ft. tall by 24.5 ft. wide. After Persian king Khosrau stole the true cross, Eastern Emperor Heraclius went to war against him to retrieve it. This fresco shows Heraclius’s victory.

Andrea Mantegna: Frescoes, Camera degli Sposi (1465-1474) Castello San Giorgio, Mantua, Italy
mantegna camera degli sposi
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Andrea_Mantegna camera degli sposi
camera degli sposi meeting
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). 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). It is one of the first di sotto in sù ceiling paintings. On the north wall over the fireplace, in what is known as the court scene, Mantegna shows Ludovico Gonzaga (sitting), discussing a document with his secretary Marsilio Andreasi, while surrounded by his wife, daughters, sons and dog (see third image). The west wall contains the meeting scene – a fresco of a meeting that never happened among Ludovico Gonzaga, his son Francesco (who had recently become a cardinal), another son, two grandsons, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III and Danish king Christian I (see fourth image).

Leonardo da Vinci
Virgin of the Rocks (I) (1483-1486) Musée du Louvre, Paris
  virgin on the rocks angel 1 virgin on the rocks angel 2   
For reasons that are still unclear (although there are plenty of theories), Leonardo da Vinci painted two very similar versions of the Virgin of the Rocks. Virgin of the Rocks I, which is now in the Louvre in Paris, was probably painted first and is considered the primary version (see first image). Painted with oils on wood panel, it was later transferred to a canvas measuring 6.5 ft. tall by 4 ft. wide. The painting shows the Madonna, the young Jesus, the young John the Baptist and an angel. The central event of the painting is John’s adoration of Jesus, who makes the sign of Benediction in return. Two side panels of angels playing musical instruments are associated with the work, although they are believed to be painted by Leonardo’s assistants (see second and third images). All three were commissioned for an altarpiece by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan. Virgin of the Rocks is an excellent example of the sfumato painting technique, which Leonardo described as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane.” It also has the triangular composition that Leonardo often used. Consistent with Leonardo’s polymath interests, scholars have determined that the geological and botanical details of the painting are scientifically accurate. The other version of Virgin of the Rocks (which is still on the original wood panels) is in the National Gallery in London, as are the angel side panels. Differences from the Louvre version include: the figures are larger; Mary and Jesus have haloes; John the Baptist holds a staff; the angel is not pointing and her eyes are cast down; there is no red in the robes; and the plants are not botanically accurate.  

Andrea MantegnaLamentation over the Dead Christ (c. 1480-1490) Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy

Do artists paint for themselves or for others? Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ (also known as Lamentation over the Dead Christ), made with tempera on canvas measuring 2.2 ft. high by 2.7 ft. wide, raises this question. There was no known commission for the piece, which was found unsold in the artist’s studio after his death; it is not known if Mantegna ever showed the painting to anyone else. An atypical treatment of a commonplace religious subject, Mantegna’s Lamentation presents Christ’s body at a highly unusual angle that required a dramatic use of the technique of foreshortening, forcing the artist to bend the laws of perspective somewhat by, for example, reducing the size of Christ’s feet so they would not block our view of Christ’s body. Our eyes are drawn to Christ’s bare upper chest, his genitals (modestly covered by linens), and the holes in his hands and feet. The weeping Madonna and St. John barely make it into the frame, and unlike most lamentation scenes, none of the mourners is in physical contact with Christ’s body. Instead, Jesus’s body lies alone, untouched, on a cold marble slab, perhaps to remind Christians of the bleak reality of death. After Mantegna died and the painting was discovered, the artist’s son sold it to pay off some of his father’s debts. 

Unknown ArtistsMoai (c. 1200-1500) Rapa Nui; Easter Island, Chile

 moai pukao
Between 1250 and 1500 CE, artists on the Polynesian island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) carved 887 moai, huge human-like statues with oversized heads and no legs. Most of the statues were made from tuff, a rock made from compressed volcanic ash, which erodes easily; 13 moai were carved from basalt, 22 from trachyte and 17 from a delicate volcanic rock called red scoria. The average moai measures 13 ft. tall by 5 ft. 3 in. wide at the base and weighs 13.8 tons. The tallest moai is 33 feet tall and the heaviest statue weighs 86 tons. Almost half the moai are located at the main quarry at Rano Raraku, but hundreds were transported to various parts of the island’s perimeter, where they were usually set on stone platforms called ahu (see first image). (How Rapa Nui’s inhabitants moved these immense rock statues is a mystery.) Almost all of the moai faced inland to protect the people, but seven faced the sea to help sailors find the island. During clashes between rival clans, most of the moai were pulled down, but archaeologists have begun restoring them, complete with white coral eyes, pupils made from black obsidian or red scoria, and sometimes a large red scoria hat called a pukao (see third image). Scholars believe that the moai represented both living faces (aringa ora) or deified ancestors (aringa ora ata tepuna) and they would have possessed both political meaning and sacred religious power. Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is located in the Atlantic Ocean and is part of the nation of Chile.

Michelangelo: Dying Slave (1513-1516) Louvre, Paris
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genius of victory Atlas_Slave_Michelangelo
The marble statue known as the Dying Slave was originally meant to be paired with the Rebellious Slave statue as part of Michelangelo’s elaborate plans for the Tomb of Pope Julius II. After the pope’s death, the Vatican ordered the plans for the tomb to be significantly scaled down, and the Dying Slave and Rebellious Slave, along with many of the other planned figures, were no longer necessary.  In 1546, Michelangelo gave them to his friend Roberto Strozzi, in gratitude for allowing the artist to convalesce in Strozzi’s Roman home during a serious illness. Both the Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave are now at the Louvre in Paris. In the 1520s, Michelangelo began work on five other statues that were not needed for the downsized tomb: The Genius of Victory, which he completed and is now in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence (see second image), and four unfinished statues – the Young Slave, the Atlas Slave (see third image), the Bearded Slave and the Awakening Slave – which are all at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. Random Trivia: Documents from Michelangelo’s time refer to the figures not as slaves but as prisoners (“prigioni”). The term ‘slaves’ was applied only in the 19th Century. 

Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola): Madonna of the Long Neck (1535) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Parmigianino_-_Madonna_with the long neck
Originally titled Madonna and Child with Angels and St. Jerome, Parmigianino’s unfinished Mannerist masterpiece soon acquired the nickname Madonna of the Long Neck for the extra vertebrae he added to Mary to give her neck a swanlike undulation. Elongated figures such as Mary’s are a hallmark of Mannerist art, which rejected the naturalism of the High Renaissance in favor of taking Renaissance trends to their logical conclusion, even if that meant a tribute became a critique. Here, for example, the artist’s commission required a portrait of St. Jerome. The result (in a portion of the piece Parmigianino’s did not finish due to his untimely death) is a (intentional or unintentional) parody of perspective, with a distant Jerome looking tinier than the gigantic Pieta-posed Christ child (who somehow stays balanced on Mary’s double wide lap). Because Jerome needs the right side, Parmigianino crams all the angels into the left, ignoring symmetry, while eroticizing them in ways that must have scandalized (or perhaps titillated) contemporaries. Measuring 7 ft. tall by 4.3 ft. wide and painted with oils on wood panel, the Madonna was commissioned by Italian noblewoman Elena Bacardi for her family chapel in a Parma church.  

Maqsud of Kashan: Ardabil Carpets (1539-1540) Victoria and Albert Museum (restored version), Los Angeles County Museum, Los Angeles (incomplete version)
In about 1539-1540, during the reign of Shah Tahmasp I, of the Safavid Dynasty in Persia, Maqsud of Kashan (along with 8-10 assistants) made two carpets, probably in Tabriz in what is now Iran. Each carpet had a silk foundation, with a wool pile, 300-350 knots per square inch, and measured 34.5 ft. long by 17.5 ft wide. The subtle, almost abstract design includes a central medallion, at the center of which is a roundel shaped like a geometrical pool from a traditional Islamic garden. Maqsud signed and dated each carpet and added a couplet from a ghazal by poet Hafez Shirazi. After completion, the carpets were taken to the shrine of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili (d. 1334) in the town of Ardabil, where they remained for at least 300 years. After an earthquake in the 1870s, the shrine sold the carpets. By 1890, when British carpet broker Ziegler & Co. bought the carpets, they were in horrendous condition. The carpet broker decided to cannibalize one of the carpets to obtain material to repair the other. When he had completed the job, he sold the restored Ardabil Carpet to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (see first and second images). The other carpet, which is incomplete, was sold on the private market until finally J. Paul Getty bought it and eventually donated it to the Los Angeles County Museum in 1953 (see third image). Random Trivia: For years, scholars were puzzled by the difference in size between the two lamps in the rug pattern. Eventually, they realized that it was a trick of perspective: when one looks at the larger lamp from the position of the smaller lamp, both lamps appear to be the same size.

Johannes VermeerThe Milkmaid (1657-1658) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Painted with oils on a canvas measuring 18 in. tall by 16 in. wide, Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid portrays not a milkmaid but a kitchen maid, who is pouring milk while making bread pudding from leftover bread. While most prior depictions of maids emphasized their alleged amorous nature (and there are some possible hints here – including a Cupid on the baseboard tiles), the overall tone is one of respect for hard work and other domestic values. Art historians praise Vermeer’s treatment of light, handling of color and creation of the illusion of physicality. They also note Vermeer’s early use of tiny dots of paint, or pointilles, particularly for rendering the bread, long before Georges Seurat pioneered Pointillism in the 19th Century. 

Joseph Wright of DerbyAn Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1767–1768)
National Gallery, London
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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 was made with oils on a canvas measuring 6 ft. tall by 7.87 ft. wide. 

Henry FuseliThe Nightmare (1781) Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit, Michigan
Henry_Fuseli_-_The_NightmareBurke_The_Nightmare_engraving fuseli 1791 nightmare
Born in Switzerland and trained as a minister, Henry Fuseli decided on art instead, and he moved to London in 1779 to pursue painting. Ever since Fuseli exhibited the The Nightmare (made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.3 ft. tall by 4.2 ft. wide) at the Royal Academy in 1782, viewers have been fascinated and disturbed, while critics and scholars have offered multiple interpretations. At the most simple level, we see a woman sleeping, throat exposed and vulnerable, in a position commonly believed at the time to produce nightmares. Two of the elements of her nightmare are visible: a gruesome incubus sitting on her chest, staring at the viewer, and a horse with devilish white eyes emerging from behind a red curtain. The whites and golds of the woman’s body and clothing shimmer brightly against the much darker, shadowy room and figures surrounding her, thanks to Fuseli’s expert use of the chiaroscuro technique and a Gothic-Romantic style.  Viewers then and now sense a smoldering sexuality pervading The Nightmare. Some have suggested that the incubus is Fuseli and the woman his unrequited love, Anna Landholdt. Others say it speaks generally to sublimated sexual instincts. Some even interpret the horse piercing through the curtains to be a phallic symbol. The incubus gazes directly at us, perhaps seeking our conscious complicity in some heinous act. The painting was Fuseli’s most renowned, and prints from a 1783 engraving of the work by Thomas Burke were very popular (see second image). Fuseli himself painted a number of versions, with variations. The 1791 version, now at Goethe House in Frankfurt, includes a sexually suggestive statue of a man and a woman on the night table (see third image). The distinctive image was also much plagiarized and parodied. Random Trivia: Visitors to Sigmund Freud’s Vienna office report that he had a print of The Nightmare hanging on the wall.

Jacques-Louis DavidOath 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.  

William BlakeThe Ancient of Days (1794) Various locations
Blake - Ancient of Days blake ancient of days
ancient of days ancient of days copy_E_1794_Library_of_Congress_object_1
The Ancient of Days was originally published as the frontispiece to William Blake’s 1794 poetic polemic Europe a Prophecy. It shows Urizen – a figure in Blake’s complex mythology who represents conventional reason and law – crouching in or before a sun-like circular design, while he stretches his left arm downward with an open compass in his left hand, held at a 70-80 degree angle. Golden rays emanate from the yellow circle/sphere, as dark clouds either part or encroach. According to Blake, he saw the image in a vision. Some have linked the painting to a statement in the Book of Proverbs, “when he set a compass upon the face of the earth.” Blake hand-colored every print of his books, so each existing copy of Europe a Prophecy (there are 13 known versions) contains a somewhat different version of The Ancient of Days. The images shown above are:
(1) Copy D, British Museum, London
(2) Copy K, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England, UK
(3) Copy B, Glasgow University Library, Glasgow, Scotland, UK
(4) Copy E, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

John ConstableThe Hay Wain (1821) National Gallery, London
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Constable_hay wain
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 Lorraine and his school. Three years later, Constable renamed the painting The Hay Wain and exhibited it at the 1824 Paris Salon (see first image). 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). 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 Hay Wain was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.3 ft. high by 6.1 ft. wide. Random Trivia: The farmer’s cottage at left still stands, although most of the trees are gone, and the spot is now a tourist attraction.

Eugène Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People (1830) Musée du Louvre
liberty leading
French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix was inspired to create Liberty Leading the People by the July 1830 Revolution that deposed French King Charles X for violating the constitution and replaced him with Louis-Philippe.  In this pyramidal composition, Liberty, a bare-breasted woman carrying the French flag and a musket and wearing a Phrygian cap (symbol of freedom in the French Revolution), climbs over the bodies of the fallen to lead representatives of three classes – the bourgeoisie, the students and the urban proletariat – to storm a barricade. Delacroix uses the free brush strokes that characterize the Romantic style to create a sense of energy and forward movement. Because of the incendiary political subject, the work was rarely permitted to be displayed during Delacroix’s lifetime.  Liberty Leading the People was made with oils on a canvas measuring 8.3 ft. tall by 10.7 ft. wide.

Claude Monet: Impression, Sunrise (1872) Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris
French painter Claude Monet barely sketched in the details of this view of Le Havre harbor at sunrise. He explained later that he was not trying to paint the harbor, but to paint the feeling evoked by the view at that particular moment. For this reason, he called it an impression. After Monet included the small canvas in an 1874 exhibition, critics picked up on the word and used it disparagingly against Monet and other ‘impressionists.’ Not cowed, Monet and his cohort adopted the term and began calling themselves Impressionists. Neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone has pointed out that Monet’s orange sun has the same brightness, or luminescence, as the sky and clouds – in contrast to reality – so that the primitive black-and-white portion of our brains does not see the sun, while the color-perceiving primate portion of our brain does, setting up a conflict of vision. Monet also uses aerial perspective to create a sense of depth – note the three boats along a straight line, each farther away, each lighter in color. Impression: Sunrise was made with oils on a canvas measuring 1.6 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. wide.

James McNeill WhistlerNocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket (c. 1875) Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler believed the purpose of art was not to represent physical reality but to use visual phenomena as the inspiration for artistic arrangements that plumbed deeper truths and evoked personal emotional reactions. His series of night paintings, or Nocturnes, sought to capture the sense of space and the void that arises in the darkness. Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket was inspired by a fireworks display at Cremorne Gardens in London. Yellow dots and flashes, billowing smoke, water and land, and vague figures all coalesce into an almost abstract impression of a moment that anticipates many of the innovations of modernism. Not all appreciated Whistler’s sense of the void, however. Respected London art critic John Ruskin wrote that, with his Nocturne, Whistler was “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler sued for libel but won only a token farthing – the loss of reputation and court costs eventually bankrupted him. Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket was painted with oils on a canvas measuring 23.7 in. tall by 18.3 in. wide.

Pierre-Auguste RenoirLuncheon of the Boating Party (1880-1881) The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
Luncheon_of_the_Boating_Party 2
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 was made with oil paints on a canvas measuring 4.25 ft. tall and 5.67 ft. wide.

John Singer SargentThe Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
sargent Daughters_of_Edward_Darley_Boit
sargent daughters
John Singer Sargent and Edward Darley Boit were both American expatriates in Paris, so it was not unusual that in 1882 Sargent would paint the four young daughters of lapsed lawyer Boit and his heiress wife Isa in the foyer of their Paris apartment. What was unusual was the painting that resulted (first image). Despite paying tribute to Diego Velázquez’s Las MeninasThe Daughters of Edward Darley Boit breaks many of the rules of portraiture: the painting is square, but its composition is asymmetrical (one critic called it “four corners and a void”). Sargent does not place the girls in a formal arrangement but shows them separated from one another and not interacting. Two giant Japanese vases tower over the girls, such that one observer quipped that Sargent had painted a portrait of the vases and a still life of the daughters. Most unsettling are the figures of the two oldest girls: both are partly hidden in shadow, and one is turning to the side, her face obscured. While the white pinafores (worn to protect fine clothes) indicate that the girls may be at play, the overall tone is anything but playful. Some scholars have interpreted the dark space in the center of the painting as adulthood, into whose shadowy uncertainty the girls gradually recede as they age, no longer able to bask in bright sun of childhood. Sr. Wendy has even suggested that Sargent may have intuited the Boit girls’ futures: none of the four ever married, and the oldest two were plagued by mental illness. The painting, which was made with oils on a canvas measuring 7.5 feet square, stayed in the family until 1919, when the daughters of Edward Darley Boit donated it to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; years later, their heirs donated the pair of Japanese vases, which now stand on either side of the painting as silent sentinels (second image).

Frédéric Auguste BartholdiStatue of Liberty (1886) Liberty Island, New York
 statue-of-liberty 3

Officially titled Liberty Enlightening the World, by its French designer, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the Statue of Liberty was a gift from the French government to the American people. The dimensions of the work are on a colossal scale: the distance from the ground to the tip of Liberty‘s torch is just over 305 feet, including the 65-ft. tall foundation, the 89-ft. tall pedestal by Richard Morris Hunt and the statue itself, which measures slightly more than 151 ft. tall (see first image, showing statue and pedestal and second image image, showing statue). The exterior of the massive statue consists of copper sheets (which have developed a greenish patina over time), with an internal support structure and spiral staircases designed by Gustave Eiffel and Maurice Koechlin (see fifth image). Lady Liberty is a neoclassical-style allegorical figure, dressed in the stola and pella (gown and cloak) worn by Roman goddesses, and crowned with a seven-rayed diadem (see third image).  In her right hand she raises a torch, symbol of progress (see fourt image) and her left hand holds a tabula ansata inscribed with the date of American independence, July 4, 1776. She stands on a broken chain, a detail not visible from ground level. Although Bartholdi conceived of the idea in the early 1870s, it took many years to fund and realize the project. Bartholdi himself selected the site, a piece of federal property then called Bedloes Island (now Liberty Island), during a visit to New York; he oriented the statue to face ships arriving from the Atlantic Ocean. After Bartholdi designed and built the statue’s right arm with its torch in 1876, he brought it to Philadelphia to exhibit in the Centennial Exhibition, after which it stood for several years in New York City’s Madison Square Park, before returning to France. Work on the statue was completed in 1884. It was then disassembled and shipped to New York, but it could not be reassembled until the Americans raised funds for and built the granite and concrete pedestal, designed by Richard Morris Hunt. The pedestal was completed April 1886; reassembly of the statue took several more months. President Grover Cleveland dedicated the monument on October 28, 1886; Bartholdi was present but did not speak. In honor of the occasion, Emma Lazarus, a poet who had been working with European refugees, wrote the famous sonnet, The New Colossus, which is engraved on a plaque in the museum at the base of the statue.  Major renovations to the aging statue took place in 1984-1986.

Henri MatisseThe Dance (II) (1910) State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
matisse the dance
matisse music 1910
Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 by William Blake 1757-1827
Commissioned by Russian art collector Sergey Shchukin, Henri Matisse’s The Dance (II) (see first image), has two companion pieces. The first is The Dance (I) (1909), a preliminary sketch for The Dance (II) with a similar composition but a very different color scheme and emotional resonance (see second image). It is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The second is Music (1910), which was also commissioned by Shchuckin and hung with The Dance in the collector’ s home until the Russian Revolution (see third image). Matisse may have borrowed his composition of five nudes dancing from the circle of five dancers in William Blake’s 1786 watercolor Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing (see fourth image). The bold simplified color scheme and loosely drawn figures, together with the lack of genuine perspective (the dancers farthest from the viewer are the same size as the closest figures), create a sense of flatness and two-dimensionality, but the painting – the colors in particular – also generates a frenzied, primitive energy, even ecstasy, that some have likened to the orgiastic rituals depicted in Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.  Scholars and art historians have long debated the meaning of the gap in the circle, where the hands of the dancers closest to us do not meet.  Does it mean that there is an unresolved tension among the dancers – an incompleteness?  Or, it is an invitation to the viewer to join the circle?  The Dance (II) was made with oils on a canvas measuring 8.5 ft. tall by 12.8 ft. wide.  

Giorgio de ChiricoThe Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914) Private Collection
Born in Greece to Italian parents and schooled in Germany, Giorgio de Chirico spent much of his adulthood in Turin, Italy.  When World War I broke out, he enlisted in the Italian Army, but spent the war on the home front, where he could develop his theories about painting.  With Carlo Carrà, he founded the short-lived metaphysical art movement, a precursor to surrealism.  Melancholy and Mystery of a Street is a typical work for de Chirico’s metaphysical period.  He presents the viewer with an Italian square that looks real and unreal at the same time.  A girl, in silhouette, rolls a hoop past a vehicle of some kind with open doors toward the source of the light, but also toward an ominous shadow of what may be a friend, an enemy or just a statue. De Chirico deliberately chooses very different perspectival vanishing points for the buildings on the right and left, and while the only source of light appears to be the sun coming from the top of the painting, there is perhaps a second, unseen light source illuminating the open-doored vehicle.  The overall effect is that of a dream (or nightmare), an effect that the surrealists would adopt in their works. Melancholy and Mystery of a Street was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.8 ft. high by 2.3 ft. wide; it is currently in a private collection.

Constantin BrâncușiBird in Space (1923) Various locations
brancusi bird in space met brancusi bird in space bronze

In creating Bird in Space, Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși eliminated almost all the attributes of a bird – wings, beak, claws, feathers – leaving only a representation of the bird’s movement.  Brâncuși said that Bird in Space reduced reality to the essential, but critics have noted that achieving the grace and balance to transform a piece of marble or bronze into a soaring abstracted concept of a bird requires both skill and inspiration.  The originalBird in Space was made from white marble in 1923.  After that, Brâncuși made six more marble sculptures and cast nine bronze versions. Information about 11 of the 16 casts is provided below:
(1) Bird in Space (1923) white marble, measuring 4.7 ft. tall by 6.5 in. in diameter, now at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (see first image);
(2) Bird in Space (1923-1924) white marble, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;
(3) Bird in Space (1924), bronze, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;
(4) Bird in Space (1925-1926) bronze, now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, California;
(5) Bird in Space (1926) bronze, now at the Seattle Art Museum in Seattle, Washington;
(6) Bird in Space (1927) bronze, now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, California;
(7) Bird in Space (1928) bronze, measuring 4.5 ft. tall, by 8.5 in. wide, 6.5 in. deep, now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (see second image);
(8) Bird in Space (1931) bronze, now at the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, California;
(9) Bird in Space (c. 1931-1936) two sculptures: one in white marble and one in black marble, each measuring 6 ft. tall by 1.4 ft. in diameter, now in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra (see third image);
(10) Bird in Space (c. 1941) bronze, now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and
(11) Bird in Space (date unknown) bronze, now in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy.

For Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked, Part 2, click HERE.

2 thoughts on “Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Today Is the First Frame of the Rest of Your Life: The Art Lists Redux | Make Lists, Not War

  2. fordfan96


    These lists are very interesting. Can you tell me what the 18 lists that were used are? Same with the TV show, literature, poetry, and classical music lists?


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