Best Works of Art of All Time – The Critics’ Picks, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a meta-list of the most highly-regarded paintings, sculptures and various other works of visual art. For Part 1, go HERE. To create the list, I collected approximately 24 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 (Las Meninas was on 16 out of 24 – no piece of art was on every list) and ends with the artworks that were on 6 lists. Part 2 includes the works of art on 5 or 4 of the original source lists. The numbers in bold indicate the number of original source lists that contained that work of art.

Please 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. If I had room to publish every work of art on any of the lists, you would see more diversity, but less critical consensus on quality. Once I restrict the focus to works cited on three or more lists, the Western bias becomes quite plain. I have also published a five-part chronological list of works of art on two or more of the 24 “Best Art” lists, called Art History 101, which has a somewhat more worldly complexion, although Asia, Africa and South America are still seriously underrepresented.

Warning No. 2: The heavy emphasis on Western European artists working between 1300 and 1700 also means that many of the most highly regarded 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 images and Greco-Roman mythology may help to put the art in context.

Warning No. 3: Some of the images below portray the unclothed human form. I don’t think there is anything obscene about any of these images, but there is at least one statue of a naked man where you can clearly see his kibbles n’ bits, which some folks may find offensive.

Despite my concerns about diversity – religious, geographical, or otherwise – a quick look through this list leaves no doubt that, whether or not these are the “best works of art of all time”, as my title so confidently proclaims, they are all significant artistic achievements and worthy of your consideration.

Works on 5 “Best Works of Art” Lists
Unknown Artists: Cave Paintings, Chauvet Cave (30,000-28,000 BCE) Ardèche, France
chauvet rhinos
chauvet cave paintings   
The Chauvet Cave, which contains hundreds of paintings by Paleolithic humans, was discovered by three French speleologists led by Jean-Marie Chauvet in 1994.  Due to the fragile nature of the art, the cave is closed to the public, although Werner Herzog was able to bring in a film crew to make his 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Almost all the paintings are of animals – 13 species are depicted, including some that are extinct.  (See rhinoceroses in first image and horses in second image, above.)  Unlike most cave paintings, a significant number of predator animals are depicted (e.g., cave lions, panthers, bears and cave hyenas), and there are scenes of animals interacting, such as two woolly rhinoceroses fighting. Some of the techniques used are also unusual. For example, the artists prepared the rock surface before painting by scraping off debris; they also etched around the outlines of some figures to create a three dimensional effect. In addition to animal figures, the artists made red hand prints and hand stencils, and painted abstract markings throughout the caves. While theories for the purpose of the paintings abound, the scientific community has been unable to reach consensus.

Unknown Artist: Bison Licking Insect Bite (Bison with Turned Head) (c. 18,000-10,000 BCE), Musée des Antiquités Nationales, St. Germain-en-Laye, France
bison licking insect bite
At some point between 18,000 and 10,000 BCE, a member of the Upper Paleolithic Magdalenean culture made a spear thrower out of a reindeer antler. The artist used the natural contour of the antler to carve a bison with his head turned back so it appears that it is licking or biting an insect bite on its back. In 1912, three boys found a 4.1 in. fragment of the spear thrower at Abri de la Madeleine in the foothills of the Pyrenees, at the spot where the Volp River disappears underground, near Tursac in Dordogne, France.

Unknown Artist: Statue of Chephren (Khafre Enthroned) (c. 2570-2550 BCE)
Egyptian Museum, Cairo
khafre 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 above), 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 (second image, above).  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. The statue is now in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.

Unknown Artist: Victory Stele of Naram-Sin (c. 2250-2200 BCE) Musée du Louvre, Paris
victory-stele-of-naram-sin  naram sin
The grandson of Sargon of Akkad, Naram-Sin led the mighty Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia at its height, c. 2254-2218 BCE. The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, a pink sandstone block standing 6.6 ft. tall and dated c. 2230 BCE, commemorates Naram-Sin’s defeat of the Lullibi, a tribe in the Zagros Mountains. Naram-Sin towers over his enemies and his own troops and wears the horned helmet of a deity (see second image above). The story is told in successive diagonal narrative lines, an innovation over the boxed stories then standard. The Elamites stole the stele in the 12th Century BCE, breaking off a portion in the process, and brought it to Susa, in what is now Iran, where it was discovered in 1898.  The Victory Stele is now in the Louvre in Paris.

Unknown Artist: Ishtar Gate (c. 575 BCE) Pergamon Museum, Berlin
ishtar gate 3 ishtar dragon 
In about 575 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II, King of the Babylonian Empire and destroyer of the First Temple in Jerusalem, ordered the construction of a new gate in the north section of the city of Babylon, to be dedicated to the goddess Ishtar. The gate had two sections – the front gate smaller than the one behind it – and was constructed of glazed blue bricks, with bas reliefs of aurochs (young bulls) and dragons (see second image above) with giant cedar doors. The road leading into and out of the gate was lined by 50-ft.-tall walls made of glazed brick and decorated with lions and geometric designs. In an inscription plaque on the gate, Nebuchadnezzar II explains the purpose of the project: “Both gate entrances of Imgur-Ellil and Nemetti-Ellil following the filling of the street from Babylon had become increasingly lower. Therefore, I pulled down these gates and laid their foundations at the water table with asphalt and bricks and had them made of bricks with blue stone on which wonderful bulls and dragons were depicted. I covered their roofs by laying majestic cedars length-wise over them. I hung doors of cedar adorned with bronze at all the gate openings. I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that people might gaze on them in wonder.”  Beginning in 1902, a German expedition led by Robert Koldewey began excavating the ruins of Babylon in Iraq and found the remains of the fabled Ishtar Gate and the processional way leading into the city.  Over the next 12 years, the material was brought to Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, where the smaller, frontal portion of the gate was reconstructed using the original bricks, with the project completed in 1930. The reconstructed Ishtar Gate measures 47 feet high and 100 feet wide; the reconstruction does not include the cedar doors.  The larger, second gate remains in storage.

Unknown Artist: Frescoes, Villa of Agrippa Postumus (c. 11-1 BCE) Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Archaeological Museum, Naples
fresco detail   agrippa-postumus
The wealthy citizens of Ancient Rome built villas along the coast of the Bay of Naples, some of which were preserved by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE.  Among the most magnificent was the villa of Agrippa, the friend and son-in-law of Emperor Augustus, in the town of Boscotrecase.  In 11 BCE, Agrippa died and left the villa (also known as the Imperial Villa and the Villa of Augusta) to his infant son Agrippa Postumus, although the household was run by Julia, Agrippa’s widow. Around this time, Julia had the villa extensively renovated, which included painting numerous frescoes on the walls of the bedrooms, or cubicula. The frescoes, which were likely painted by Roman artists, are among the finest examples of the Third Style, which flourished during the reign of Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) and emphasized decorative whimsy and elegant weightlessness over realism and the illusion of depth and substance. The villa was discovered in 1903 during construction of a railway line and excavations occurred until 1906 when the villa was again buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. The frescoes were removed and placed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Archaeological Museum in Naples.  Shown in the first image above is detail of the central panel from the north wall of Cubiculum 16, known as the ‘red room.’  In the second image, a ceremony takes place in a landscape with a tower.

Unknown Artist: Arch of Constantine (c. 315 CE) Rome
arch-of-constantine constantine-arch-detail
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 above, 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 Artist: Mosaics, Basilica of San Vitale (c. 527-548) 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 left image above) 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 right image above). 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.

Unknown Artist: The Book of Kells (c. 800) Trinity College Library, Dublin

The Book of Kells 
is an illustrated manuscript containing the four Christian Gospels and other writings. The book, which measures 13 in. high by 10 in. wide, was created in one or more of the English and Irish monasteries founded by St. Colomba, probably Iona, in England, and then Kells, in Ireland, where it remained until the mid-17th Century, when it was moved to Dublin and eventually to the library of Trinity College. The artist’s finest achievements are the initial pages, in which the first letter of the Gospel is elaborated into a world of figures and designs (such as with the the Gospel of John, shown in the first image above and the somewhat less elaborate incipit of the Gospel of Matthew, in the third image above), and the 10 surviving full-page illuminations, including Christ Enthroned (see second image above). The Book of Kells is considered the most extravagant and complex example of Insular Art. All 680 pages are viewable online HERE.

Unknown Artists: Relief Sculptures, Temple of Borobudur (c. 800-825 CE) Magelang, Java,
Indonesia Siddharta_Gautama_Borobudur
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, 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, above), including his past lives.  The panels also depict various aspects of daily life in Java. The second image above, for example, shows an 8th Century wooden double outrigger sailing ship used in trade.

Unknown Artist: Capitoline Wolf (Capitoline She-Wolf) (c. 12th-13th Century) Musei Capitolini, Rome
capitoline museums she wolf 1
capitoline museums 2
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 above). 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 12th or 13th Century date for the 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.

Unknown Artist: Relief Sculptures, Reims Cathedral (c. 1211-1305) Reims, France
reims sculpture 2
Rheims Cathedral Kings of France
reims 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 showing the Annunciation with one of Reims’ famous smiling angels, carved in the style of the Remois Workshop, from c. 1245-1250; and (4) 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.

Nicola Pisano: Pulpit, Pisa Baptistry (1255-1260) Pisa, Italy

pisa baptistry             pisa baptistry 2    pisano adoration of the magi 
The marble pulpit in the Pisa Baptistry by Italian sculptor Nicola Pisano is considered one of the precursors of the Renaissance, particularly in its incorporation of Classical Greco-Roman elements into the Gothic style. The heavily carved pulpit stands 15.25 ft. high on seven marble columns, three of which rest on lions (see first image above). The octagonal base of the center column shows lions vanquishing prey. The columns are topped with Corinthian capitals, which in turn form the bases for deep relief sculptures of personified virtues, prophets and evangelists. Fortitude (third image, above) is represented by a nude Hercules, a Classical figure in a posture that might be described as proto-contrapposto. Between the columns are Gothic trefoil arches. The uppermost register consists of a hexagonal series of relief panels, separated by small columns, that represent episodes from the life of Jesus (see second image above, showing the Annunciation and Nativity and fourth image, showing The Adoration of the Magi). These scenes recall the crowded carvings on Roman sarcophagi, which Nicola had studied.

Claus Sluter: The Well of Moses (1395-1406) Chartreuse de Champmol, Dijon, France
well of moses  well of moses 2   514px-Well_of_Moses,_Angel_01

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 Sluter, who created a massive limestone sculpture for the center of the main cloister. It consisted of a crucifixion scene, with Mary Magdalene 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. (One conception of the original is shown in the fourth image above, although there is debate about the number of figures in the original.) The sculptures were painted in vibrant colors – some paint remains. Unfortunately, during the French Revolution, the upper portion of the sculpture was destroyed (fragments are on display in a nearby museum), leaving the base, which has acquired the name, the Well of Moses (see first and second images above). In each of six niches, Sluter 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 ‘horn’ or ‘ray of light.’)  Each prophet carries his prophecy on a scroll and each one is individually detailed with a unique expression and personality (see King David and Jeremiah in first image;, Moses 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 above).  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.

Fra AngelicoThe Annunciation (c. 1441-1446) San Marco Museum, Florence
In 1439, Fra Angelico transferred to the priory of San Marco in Florence, which was sponsored by the Medici family.  It was at San Marco that Fra Angelico painted some of his most important works, many of them frescoes painted on the walls for the benefit of the other monks.  Standing at the bottom of the staircase to the second floor, a monk looking up would have seen a large fresco of The Annunciation, the story from the Gospel of Luke in which an angel visits Mary to inform her that, although she is a virgin, she will bear a child who will be the Son of God.  Measuring 7.5 ft. tall by 10.5 ft. wide, the fresco’s unusual perspective lines are based on a viewer looking up from the bottom of the stairs. The work is remarkable for its spare quality – there is none of the clutter of objects and symbols common in other Annunciations, maybe because the monks already knew the story and did not need guidance. The left side of the painting is almost two-dimensional in its flatness. Even Angel Gabriel and the Madonna are less substantial than some figures from earlier Renaissance works. It is as if Fra Angelico is aware of the new styles but is not quite ready to adopt them. The lighting is also odd, with a strong light source at the upper left, but few shadows.  Still, the moment at the center contains much for the monks to contemplate, including the way the angel and Madonna lean in toward each other, their mirrored hand gestures, the expressions in their eyes, and even the rainbow of color in the angel’s wings.  The Annunciation remains in the Convent of San Marco in Florence where Fra Angelico painted it, now known as the Museum of San Marco.

Paolo UccelloThe Battle of San Romano
Part I
: (c. 1438-1440) National Gallery, London
battle of san romano I
Part II: (c. 1435-1455) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Uccello_Battle_of_San_Romano_II Uffizi
Part III: (c. 1455) Musée du Louvre, Paris
Uccello battle of san romano iii
Florentine painter Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano consists of three paintings depicting events from a 1432 battle between Florence and Siena. All three were painted on poplar wood panels using egg tempera with walnut and linseed oils and gold and silver leaf, the latter of which has oxidized to gray or black. Each panel measures approximately 6 ft. high by 10.5 ft. wide. The first panel shows Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano (first image, above) and is at the National Gallery in London. The second panel is Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino unseats Bernardino della Ciarda at the Battle of San Romano, (second image, above) and is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The final painting is The Counterattack of Michelotto da Cotignola at the Battle of San Romano (third image, above), which is in the Louvre in Paris. The paintings were designed to be hung high on three walls of a room, and Uccello’s use of perspective presumes that viewers are looking up, not straight ahead. All three paintings were commissioned by the Bartolini Salimbeni family, although once Lorenzo de’ Medici saw them, he decided he had to have them, so he bought one and stole the other two.

Piero della FrancescaThe Flagellation of Christ (1455-1460) Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Palazzo Ducale, 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. The Flagellation of Christ is in the collection of the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino, Italy.

Michael Pacher: Altarpiece of the Church Fathers (1484) Alte Pinakothek, Munich
Michael_Pacher_-_Altarpiece_of_the_Church_Fathers 2Church_Fathers_-_Vision_of_St_Sigisbert   Church_Fathers_-_St_Augustine_Liberating_a_Prisoner
Austrian painter and sculptor Michael Pacher created the Altarpiece of the Church Fathers (also known as the Altarpiece of the Early Church Fathers, and the Church Fathers Altarpiece) for the Augustinian monks of the Neustift Monastery near Brixen in northern Italy in 1484. The altarpiece is a triptych, with a center panel measuring nearly 7 ft. tall and 6.5 ft. wide and two side panels each measuring 7 ft. tall and 3 ft. wide. When closed, the outer painted panels show St. Sigisbert having a vision (second image above) and St. Augustine liberating a prisoner (third image above), but the true masterpieces are the interior panels from which the piece draws its name.  Pacher has set up the four fathers of the Early Christian church in separate rooms, with projecting canopies and foreshortened floor tiles, creating a trompe-l’oeil effect of true depth (see first image, above).  Each church father is accompanied by a dove (the Holy Spirit) and a memento of one of his legends. From the far left: (1) St. Jerome, who was said to have taken a thorn from a lion’s paw, pets a lion; (2) St. Augustine sits with the boy from a story in which Augustine saw the boy on the beach trying to transfer the ocean into a small pool using only a clam shell; the boy told Augustine that it was as likely that he would move the ocean as it was that Augustine would understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity with his rational mind; (3) Pope Gregory I, who was so impressed by a story of Roman Emperor Trajan’s kindness that he prayed for Trajan to be released from purgatory to be baptized, here gets his opportunity as Trajan rises from the flames; and finally, (4) St. Ambrose, shown with a rocking baby who refers either to a story from St. Ambrose’s infancy, when a swarm of bees landed on his face, leaving a drop of honey, thus ensuring his sweet tongue for oratory, or to the child who told Ambrose that he must be made a bishop. Throughout the piece, Pacher’s painting shows many sculptural elements and combines elements of both Gothic and Early Renaissance styles. The Church Fathers Altarpiece is now at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

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

Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ (also known as Lamentation over the Dead Christ) is an atypical treatment of a typical religious subject. Made with tempera on canvas measuring 2.2 ft. high by 2.7 ft. wide, the work was never sold; Mantegna’s son’s found it in his studio after Mantegna died and sold it to pay off his father’s debts. To present Christ’s body at this unusual angle Mantegna employed an extreme example of the technique of  foreshortening while also bending the laws of perspective somewhat.  For example, he reduced the size of Christ’s feet from what perspective rules required so they would not block our view of Christ’s body.  Our eyes are drawn to Christ’s bare upper chest, his genital area (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. Jesus’s body lies alone, untouched, on a cold marble slab, perhaps to remind Christians of the reality of his death.

Giorgione (Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco): The Tempest (1506-1508) Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice
giorgione tempest
Measuring 2.7 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide and painted with oil on canvas, The Tempest was created by Italian Renaissance artist Giorgione for the Venetian noble Gabriele Vendramin. Considered the most representative of Giorgione’s few surviving works, some have dubbed The Tempest the first true landscape painting. There is no scholarly consensus on how to interpret the painting, but the most common theories include: (1) a shepherd or a soldier ignores a Gypsy woman nursing a baby, while a storm brews behind them (this interpretation follows a 1530 catalog describing the painting as “the little landscape on canvas with a tempest, gypsy woman and a soldier…”); (2) after being expelled from Eden by God (represented by the lightning), Adam and Eve stop so that Eve can nurse her son Cain; (3) Joseph, Mary and Jesus rest during their flight into Egypt to escape Herod; (4) a family portrait of Giorgione, his wife and their child; (5) the goddess Demeter nurses one of the twins she had with Iasion, who stands and looks, unaware that Zeus is preparing to kill him with a thunderbolt; and (6) Paris the shepherd watches as his wife Onenone, the mountain nymph, nurses their son Corythus. Each interpretation has its own meaning for the lightning, the stork/crane and the broken columns. As one critic pointed out, “none of [the interpretations] is totally convincing.” The Tempest is now at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.  Random Trivia:  X-ray analysis shows that in place of the man at left, Giorgione had originally painted a nude female.

Titian (Tiziano Vecelli): Venus of Urbino (1538) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
titian venus of urbinoVenetian master Titian painted the canvas known as Venus of Urbino (measuring 3.9 ft. tall by 5.4 ft. wide) for Guidobaldo II Della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, probably for his 1534 wedding, to adorn a cassone, or bridal chest. To achieve the naturalism of the piece, Titian applied 10-15 thin translucent layers of oil paint. In determining the subject and pose, Titian drew from Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (1510), which Titian finished, but with dramatic changes. Titian’s Venus is no ideal goddess or allegory of Beauty (there are no Classical indicia, for example): she is a real woman, sensual, alluring and comfortable with her body. She gazes directly at the viewer, confident in her physicality while exuding amorous feelings. Venus carries posies in one hand – a gift from her lover – and shyly hides (or casually draws attention to?) her genitals with the other. The love being celebrated is marital, Titian reminds us, by including the dog (symbol of fidelity) and the maids looking for clothes in a cassone. The maid scene balances the composition, given Titian’s bold decision to bisect the painting with a featureless screen, which serves the purposes of emphasizing Venus’s light head and torso against a dark background and also creating a private space for Venus and those who dare to meet her gaze.  Venus of Urbino is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Agnolo Bronzino: Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time (c. 1545) National Gallery, London
Bronzino  monty python foot
Florentine Mannerist Agnolo Bronzino painted Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time for a wealthy patron to give to Francis I of France. Measuring 4.75 ft. tall by 3.8 ft. wide, the allegorical painting has spawned multiple theories (and titles), particularly about the identities of the peripheral figures. All agree that the central figure is Venus, with her son Cupid engaging her in an incestuous embrace, the transgressive act that elicits such a strong reaction from the others, who may include Folly (right center), Time (right top), Jealousy (left center), Oblivion (left top); and Pleasure or Fraud (between Venus and Folly, with honeycomb). Bronzino posed the three central characters in the twisting figura serpentinata posture so popular in Mannerism. Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time (also known as An Allegory with Venus and CupidAllegory of the Triumph of Venus, Allegory of Love with Venus and Cupid and Allegory of Lust) is now in the National Gallery in London. Random Trivia: Terry Gilliam used Cupid’s right foot (reversed) in the animated intro to the Monty Python TV series (see second image).

TintorettoThe Last Supper (1592-1594) Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice
Italian artist Tintoretto (born Jacopo Comin) consciously sought to unite the Florentine use of line with the Venetian use of color, but he was also a Mannerist, in that he explored compositions and techniques that broke the rules of the High Renaissance. When Tintoretto painted The Last Supper (using oils on canvas measuring 12 ft. tall by 18.7 ft. wide) for the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, which was designed by Andrea Palladio, he ignored past precedents. In the famous Last Supper in Milan, Leonardo da Vinci used single-point perspective focused on a central Jesus at a table that paralleled the picture plane and used diffuse, even, natural lighting. Tintoretto’s disjointed composition uses a diagonal table with perspective lines that never quite meet; Jesus, pictured at the moment of the Eucharist (“this is my body…”) is off-center, and the right side of the canvas is filled with minor characters, including a curious cat and a maid whose face is completely in shadow. The only light sources in the dark room are a mystical lamp overflowing with flame and smoke, and the powerful glow of Jesus’ halo. The existence of haloes on Jesus and the apostles (except Judas) is another break with recent tradition and in some ways a return to medieval iconography; even more of a departure are the swarms of translucent angels hovering around the ceiling. High Renaissance humanism sought to depict the spiritual realm using only the elements of the natural world; Mannerists like Tintoretto felt comfortable depicting mystical phenomena directly. Tintoretto’s The Last Supper remains in the San Giorgio Maggiore church in Venice.

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

  caravaggio st matthew and the angel
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 above, oils on canvas measuring 10.6 ft. tall by 10.8 ft. wide) and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (second image above, 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, above, 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 the fourth image, above.) Caravaggio delivered an acceptable representation in about 1602. To discuss each of the pieces in turn: (1) The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600), depicts the moment when Jesus and St. Peter approach Matthew and Jesus beckons the tax collector to “Follow me.” Scholars praise the painting for Caravaggio’s use of light and shadow; they also note that Jesus’ finger recalls the finger of Michelangelo’s God in the Creation of Man on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Experts disagree about which figure represents St. Matthew. While most agree it is the bearded man who is the same model as the other two paintings, some suggest that the bearded man is pointing to the younger man whose head is looking down at the money. Others have noted that while the men at the table wear contemporary clothing, Jesus and St. Peter are clad in the timeless robes of Classical antiquity, thus distinguishing the earthly sphere from the heavenly. (2) The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600) was the first of the St. Matthew paintings that Caravaggio painted. Scholars have identified this work as a turning point in the move from Mannerist to Baroque style. Caravaggio expertly uses chiaroscuro to highlight the drama of the precise moment just before the assassin plunges his sword into Matthew, at the same time that the saint reaches out for a palm frond (symbol of his martyrdom) offered by an angel only he can see. (3) The Inspiration of St. Matthew (1602)the last of the St. Matthew paintings, addresses the criticisms that the church fathers made of the first version. The angel floats above St. Matthew, in a swirling drapery, and enumerates a point with his fingers, while the saint, kneeling below, watches and learns. The glowing yellows and oranges of Matthews robes pop out of the sea of darkness behind him, while his leg, stool and arm threaten to break the picture plane and enter the viewer’s space, in quintessential Baroque fashion.

Anthony van Dyck: Charles I at the Hunt (1635) Musée du Louvre, Paris
Charles I-Van Dyck
At less than five feet tall, diminuitive English monarch Charles I needed an artist who could make him look like a king and court portraitist Daniel Mytens was not getting the job done. Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck had gained a reputation in Italy and Flanders as a superb portraitist, and he had gained Charles I’s attention by assisting his agents in building the king’s art collection and by sending Charles a few of his own works, including a portrait of Charles’s sister, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia. In 1632, Charles I made van Dyck his new principal court painter, granting him a knighthood and an annual salary of 200 pounds. Given van Dyck’s specialty, it is not surprising that his finest works during this period are his portraits of the king, which are accurate depictions but never reveal his below average stature. Charles I at the Hunt (also known as Le Roi à la chasse and Charles I, King of England, at the Hunt) is a 1635 portrait of Charles I in an informal setting, made with oils on a canvas measuring 8.7 ft. tall and 6.8 ft. wide. The king appears to be taking a break from a hunting trip to survey his domain – the lands and sea spread out below – when he turns to the viewer with a look of both supreme confidence and utter indifference. Van Dyck deliberately chose a low angle to depict the king to avoid drawing attention to his height, and placed him in the left, brighter side of the canvas, away from the shadows that engulf the bowing horse and courtiers. To ensure that the king’s face stands out against the bright sky, van Dyck used a black hat as a frame. While there are few definitive royal accoutrements (except for the cloak the groom holds and the statement, “Charles I, King of Great Britain” inscribed on a rock), there is no doubt that this is not just a nattily dressed aristocrat, complete with fashionable teardrop earring, but a king who knows how to play at the aristocrats’ sports without compromising his power and majesty. It is, perhaps, a sign of his confidence in himself and his power that he allowed himself to be portrayed in this informal manner. Van Dyck died in 1641, while Charles I was still on the throne; eight years later, the Puritans overthrew the king and eventually beheaded him. Charles I at the Hunt is now at the Louvre in Paris.

Johannes Vermeer: View of Delft (1660-61) Mauritshuis, The Hague

Seventeenth Century Dutch painter Johannes (Jan) Vermeer painted View of Delft, his hometown, from the second floor window of a tavern on the opposite side of the Lange Geer canal.  View of Delft, which measures 3.2 feet tall by 3.9 feet wide, is known for its intricate and original treatment of light and shadow.  A shaft of sunlight illuminates some of the buildings, including the tower of the New Church on the right, which houses the grave of Willem of Orange. While the painting appears to be a faithful representation of the cityscape, comparison with contemporary sketches by others shows that Vermeer made numerous changes to enhance the artistic effect he sought. Vermeer’s View of Delft is now in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Random Trivia: Vermeer’s View of Delft features prominently in a scene in Volume 5 of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

Rembrandt: The Return of the Prodigal Son (1668-1669) State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
prodigal son
Perhaps the last canvas Rembrandt completed before his death in 1669, The Return of the Prodigal Son is a powerful but subdued meditation on the power of forgiveness.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable of a man with two sons. One stays at work, obeys his father and works hard. The other runs off and squanders his inheritance on liquor and prostitutes. Yet when the second, prodigal son returns home, the father welcomes him with open arms and throws a big party, while the other brother smolders. The theological point is that, according to Christian teaching, God will forgive us and welcome us into eternal life no matter what we have done in the past, as long as we repent. The father is the key figure – his hands express warmth and tenderness, but also support and strength. By his use of light, Rembrandt directs our eyes to the disheveled appearance of the returning prodigal, dressed in rags, shoes falling off, yet unwilling to sell his last good possession – a short sword. The older brother, at right, is clearly unhappy with the situation, while another wealthy man, who is unidentified, looks on with interest, and a servant seems truly moved. The woman hiding in the shadows on the left may be the prodigal’s mother – her attitude toward the scene is ambiguous.  By facing the prodigal son away from us, Rembrandt transforms an individual into anyone and Everyman, and the moment of family drama attains universal significance. Though near the end of his life, Rembrandt demonstrates that he is still the master of light, shadow and color, as well as emotional depth, in this large (8.6 ft. tall by 6.7 ft. wide) canvas, which is now in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Johannes VermeerThe Art of Painting (1670) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

In The Art of Painting, the artist Jan Vermeer allows the viewer a privileged look at the process of making art and in so doing, seeks to elevate the status of art and the artists who make it. A colorful tapestry curtain (a framing device known as a repoussoir) is drawn back to reveal the creative act in progress.  An unusually well-dressed artist (probably a Vermeer self-portrait), appears to be painting his model as Clio, the Muse of History (see first image, above).  An accurate copy of Claes Janszoon Visscher’s 1636 map of The Netherlands hangs on the back wall (see detail in second image, above). The light enters the room from the back left and illuminates portions of the room, highlighting certain details and creating shadows elsewhere.  The square tiled floor allows Vermeer to demonstrate his control of linear perspective. The painting held a special place in Vermeer’s heart – he never sold it, even when he was in debt – but his family lost control of it after Vermeer’s death in 1675. In 1813, it was purchased for 50 florins by Bohemian-Austrian Count Czernin, whose descendant Count Jaromir Czernin sold it (possibly unwillingly) to Adolf Hitler in 1940 for 1.65 million Reichsmarks.  During World War II, the Nazis protected the painting from Allied bombs in a salt mine. The Americans retrieved it in 1945 and gave it to the Austrian government. The Czernin family has sought the return of the painting since the 1960s, without success. The Art of Painting, also known as An Allegory of Painting and The Artist in His Studio, is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Antoine Watteau (Jean-Antoine Watteau): Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles (1718-1719)  Musée du Louvre, Paris

Both Pierrot and Gilles were stock comedic characters of French pantomime and Commedia dell’Arte, with similar costumes and roles. The Pierrot character was a buffoon (but often treated sympathetically) that was introduced to French audiences by a traveling Italian acting troupe in the late 17th Century. In the traditional story, Pierrot loves Columbine, who breaks his heart when she leaves him for Harlequin. Watteau, whose work as assistant to painter Claude Gillot brought him into contact with the theater, depicts other Commedia dell’Arte characters – the Doctor on his donkey, the lovers Leander and Isabella, and the Captain – who seem to ignore the sad clown, possibly a self-portrait.  Watteau painted in the Late Baroque, or Rococo style.  Some have speculated that the large canvas (measuring 6.1 feet tall by 4.9 feet wide) was intended as a theatrical sign for a performance at a café or fairground. The painting was generally known as Gilles until the 20th Century, when a critical mass of scholars decided that Watteau had painted Pierrot, not Gilles, leading to the Louvre’s awkward title, Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles.

William Hogarth: Marriage à-la-mode (series of six) (1743-1745) National Gallery, London
hogart marriage 1 Hogarth marriage 2
Marriage à-la-mode is a series of six satirical oil paintings by 18th Century English artist William Hogarth, who used them to make engraved copper plates from which he then produced inexpensive paper prints. The series satirizes the upper classes, particularly marriages arranged between the bankrupt old guard seeking funds (symbolized by the Earl of Squanderfield) and the nouveau riche, seeking status (symbolized by the miserly merchant). The chapters of the story are: 1. The Marriage Settlement (see first image above): The Earl, whose building project is bankrupt, arranges for his dissolute (and syphilitic) son to marry the daughter of the wealthy merchant. 2. The Tête à Tête: A morning scene after some months of marriage makes it clear that both members of the couple have been unfaithful (see second image above). 3. The Inspection: The husband and his ‘girlfriend’ receive bad news at the physician’s office regarding their venereal diseases. 4. The Toilette: The Earl having died, the son ascends, but is also clearly a cuckold thanks to Silvertongue, the lawyer who arranged the marriage. 5. The Bagnio: The son walks in on the Countess and her lover and is killed. 6. The Lady’s Death: The lover is hanged for murder, and the Countess commits suicide. Each frame contains many symbolic and allegorical details that support the theme of the painting and add to the satirical impact. The original paintings, each measuring 2.3 ft. tall by 2.9 ft. wide, are now in the National Gallery in London.

Benjamin West: The Death of General Wolfe (1770) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Born in Colonial Pennsylvania, Benjamin West obtained the sponsorship of two wealthy Philadelphians to go to Italy to study art. After several years copying the masters, West moved to London in 1763, where he painted the king’s portrait, taught numerous American painters and co-founded the Royal Academy of Art. The Death of General Wolfe (painted with oils on a canvas measuring 4.9 ft. high by 7 ft. wide) is a landmark in the genre of history painting. First, while most history paintings plumbed the distant past, West memorializes an event of very recent history – the death of British general James Wolfe in 1759 at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec during the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War). Second, against the advice of friends and experts, West dressed his figures in historically accurate clothing, thus rejecting the tradition of making the event seem timeless by draping the characters in the togas of classical antiquity. The break with tradition is particularly stark here, where Wolfe is shown (accurately) wearing the somewhat plain red uniform of a field officer, not a major-general’s dress finery. Ironically, however, for all West’s attention to historical accuracy, the painting contains numerous fictions. The majority of the individuals pictured at the death scene are identifiable, and they were not present at the battle.  The messenger fortuitously arriving to tell the dying Wolfe that the French are defeated (symbolized by the fleur-de-lys) is also a fiction. So is the native American warrior (in the pose of The Thinker), although West’s intention in adding a representative of the indigenous people was probably to place the scene definitively in the New World.  Perhaps most outrageous was West’s decision to pose Wolfe in a manner that reminds us of Jesus in various Lamentations and Depositions, and implies that, like Jesus, Wolfe was a martyr to a good cause. The technique was effective, because prints made from an engraving of the painting were soon best sellers in England and elsewhere. As for the future of history painting, the popularity of The Death of General Wolfe meant that recent events were fair game and togas were no longer de rigueur.  The Death of General Wolfe is now in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Henry Fuseli: The Nightmare (1781) Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan

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 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 as 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. Fuseli himself painted a number of versions, with variations (one includes a sexually suggestive statue of a man and a woman on the night table).  The distinctive image was also much plagiarized and parodied. The original painting of The Nightmare is now in the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit, Michigan. Random Trivia: Visitors to Sigmund Freud’s Vienna office report that he had a print of The Nightmare on his wall. 

William Blake: The Ancient of Days (1794) Multiple locations
blake ancient of days  Blake - Ancient of Days
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 verse from the Book of Proverbs that begins: “When he set a compass upon the face of the earth…”  Blake hand-colored every print of his books, so each existing copy of Europe a Prophecy (there are 13 known versions) contains a somewhat different version of The Ancient of Days. The version in the first image is from Copy K, which is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. The version in the second image is from Copy D, which is in the British Museum in London.

Eugène Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People (1830) Musée du Louvre, Paris

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, made with oils on a canvas measuring 8.3 ft. tall by 10.7 ft. wide, is now in the Louvre in Paris.

Jean-François Millet: The Gleaners (1857) Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Jean-François Millet was one of a group of like-minded French painters who became known as the Realists. Reacting against Romantic idealism, advocates of Realism eschewed fantasy and believed in creating art that represented reality as they saw it. In the hands of Millet, Realism meant painting the poor rural and urban workers who sustained the economies of Europe. The Gleaners shows three peasant women in a just-harvested field who are exercising their right to glean, that is, to collect grain left behind. Millet contrasts their lonely, back-straining work with the wealth and abundance of the landlord farmer shown in the background. Millet made sketches of the gleaners he saw near his home in Barbizon for seven years before creating this oil painting. The critics savaged The Gleaners: to the upper classes, drawing attention to the poverty of the lower classes was inviting an uprising; for the bourgeoisie, unkempt peasant women were not a proper subject for art. As time passed, however, the painting proved inspirational, even leading French filmmaker Agnes Varda to document modern salvagers in The Gleaners and I (2000). Millet’s The Gleaners, made on a canvas measuring 2.75 ft. tall by 3.7 ft. wide, is now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

James McNeill Whistler: Nocturne 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 in a way 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 Ruskin 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 and is now in the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit, Michigan.

John Singer Sargent: The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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 (see first image above). 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 seen in profile, her face obscured by darkness. 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 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 (see second image above).

Arnold BöcklinThe Isle of the Dead (five versions) (1880-1886) Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel Switzerland; Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig
Bocklin isle of the dead baselbocklin isle of the dead again bocklin isle of the dead
Arnold_Böcklin_-_Isle of the dead new york
Symbolism was a movement of poets, painters and other artists who rejected naturalism and realism in favor of spirituality, the imagination and dreams. In 1880, Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin created what he called a ‘dream image’ of a small boat approaching an island on which rocky cliffs and cypress trees surround a number of carved tombs. Böcklin did not title his works, but an art dealer, borrowing a phrase from one of Böcklin’s letters, gave the work the title Isle of the Dead. Böcklin eventually painted five versions, four of which are shown in the images above: (1) the first, made with oil on canvas in 1880, is now in Kunstmuseum Basel in Basel, Switzerland (see first image above); (2) the second, somewhat smaller version, painted with oil on wood in 1880 for Marie Berna, is now in Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (see third image above); (3) the third version was painted in 1883, and is now in the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin (see fourth image above); (4) the fourth version, which is not pictured above, was painted in 1884 and hung in a Berlin bank, but was destroyed during a World War II bomb attack; and (5) the fifth version was painted in 1886 on commission from the Museum of Fine Arts in Leipzig, where it remains (see third image above). When Böcklin’s patron Marie Berner saw the first version of Isle of the Dead, she asked the artist to make a version for her, but she requested that he paint a female figure and a coffin in the boat, in memory of the recent death of her husband.  Böcklin did so, and included these elements in all future versions of the painting, as well as adding them to the original version. Beginning with the 1883 version, Böcklin began painting his initials on one of the burial chambers on the right side of the island.

Auguste Rodin: The Burghers of Calais (1884-1889)  Calais, France; Glyptoteket, Copenhagen (1903); Royal Museum, Mariemont, Belgium (1905); Victoria Tower Gardens, London (1915)
In the 14th Century, during the Hundred Years’ War, English troops under King Edward III laid siege to the port town of Calais, France for over a year. Although France’s Philip VI 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. Wealthy town official Eustache de St. Pierre 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, one of the entries, by sculptor Auguste Rodin, surprised the selection committee with a model honoring not just one but all six burghers, which won the competition. Rodin delivered a 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. Seeing the six burghers not as larger-than-life heroes but as ordinary citizens who acted heroically, Rodin specified that the sculpture be placed at ground level, so that 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, filling the maximum of 12 casts allowed under French law. Casts of individual members of the group have also been made. Many 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 for failing to sufficiently glorify the heroes and for not including 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.

Paul Gauguin (Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin): Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-1898) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
gauguin where do we come from
Having moved to Tahiti from France to live like a primitive, by 1897, French post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin was a penniless outcast, suffering from syphilis and a debilitating case of eczema. He intended Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? to be his masterpiece and final statement, after which he would commit suicide. He did make an unsuccessful suicide attempt soon after completing the piece, but survived until 1903, when he finally succumbed to the syphilis. The canvas, which incorporates aspects of local Tahitian custom and mythology, should be read from right to left: first infancy, then young adult life, and finally an old woman reconciled to death, with a white bird that, according to Gauguin, “represents the futility of words.” The blue idol at rear left represents The Beyond. The three questions inscribed at the top left of the painting echo those of a Catholic school catechism Gauguin had studied as a boy in Paris: “Where does humanity come from?” “Where is it going to?”, “How does humanity proceed?” Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.6 ft. high and 12.3 ft. wide; it is now located in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Umberto Boccioni: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) Museu de Arte Contemporânea, São Paulo, Brazil (plaster cast, 1913); Museum of Modern Art, New York (bronze cast, 1931); Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (bronze cast, 1949); Museo del Novecento, Milan, Italy (bronze cast, 1949); Tate Modern, London (bronze cast, 1972)
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 (see images above). 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). Bronze casts, each measuring 3.6 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide by 15.5 in. deep, were made from the original plaster sculpture in 1931, 1949 and 1972. The plaster and bronze versions of Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space are found in museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Random Trivia: In 1998, the Italian government chose Unique Forms of Continuity in Space as the image on the back of the nation’s 20-cent Euro coin.

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. We see an Italian square that looks real and unreal at the same time. A girl in silhouette rolls a hoop past an unidentified vehicle with open doors in the direction of a source of bright 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 a strong light source (perhaps the sun) appears to be shining from the the upper right corner of the painting, a second unexplained light source illuminates 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. 

Andy Warhol: Campbell’s Soup Cans (series of 32) (1962) Museum of Modern Art, New York
warhol campbell's soup
In 1962, 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. At the time, Campbell’s sold 32 varieties of soup in cans. 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 soup cans, it displayed them in a box shape (see image, above) with the canvases arranged in order of the date that the soup variety was first issued. In 2011, however, MOMA made rearrangements to the order.

On 4 Lists
Unknown Artist: Seated Woman of Çatal Hüyük (c. 6000 BCE) Museum of
Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey
The figurine known as the Seated Woman of Çatal Hüyük is made of baked clay and was sculpted in a large Neolithic settlement in southwestern Turkey. Archaeologist James Mellaart discovered the sculpture in 1961 while excavating Çatal Hüyük, also known as Çatalhöyük, which was occupied from 7500-5700 BCE. Most scholars agree that the sculpture, which is 6.5 in. tall without the reconstructed head, depicts a fertile Earth Mother goddess sitting on a throne with arm rests in the shape of leopards or panthers, in the act of giving birth. The head and right arm rest were missing from the original, and have been replaced with restorations. The figure bears a striking resemblance to images of the Earth Mother goddess Cybele, a focus of worship in the 1st Millenium BCE and thereafter, and may be a precursor. (See 4th Century BCE statue of Cybele from Asia Minor in the second image.)

Unknown Artists: Stonehenge (2600-2400 BCE), Salisbury Plain, England, UK
Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument set on Salisbury Plain in the west of England that is composed of earthworks and numerous stones. The original circular earth bank and ditch, with an opening to the northeast, date to 3100 BCE, while erection of most of the stones probably occurred between 2600 BCE and 2400 BCE (see third image, above). Further rearrangements of the smaller bluestones continued until 1600 BCE. The purpose of Stonehenge is much debated among scholars. Some say it is an astronomical observatory due to its alignment with the summer solstice; others that it is a temple for sacred rites of healing or death. There is evidence of many prehistoric burials at or near the site and a long avenue that connects it with another prehistoric site. The standing stones at Stonehenge appear to be descended from an earlier tradition of standing timber structures, remnants of which have been found at Stonehenge and elsewhere. The builders switched from timber to stone in about 2600 BCE, beginning with bluestones measuring about 6.6 ft. tall, 3-5 ft. wide and 2.6 ft. thick. Later, the builders began using much larger sarsens, made of limestone, to create the famous sarsen circle. (See first and second images, above.) Given this history of working with wood, it is not surprising that the techniques used to link the stones come directly from carpentry. Mortise and tenon joints allow the horizontal lintel stones to fit snugly atop the standing stones. In addition, the lintels themselves were fitted to each other using tongue and groove joints. The stones were dressed to create either a smooth or dimpled surface. To maintain perspective, each standing stone widens toward the top and the lintels are shaped to curve slightly. The surfaces of the stones that face the inside of the circle are smoother than the outer surfaces. There are 30 standing stones and 30 lintels (many of them fallen) in the 108-ft diameter circle. Each standing stone is 13 ft. tall, almost 7 ft. wide, 3.5 ft. thick and weighs 25 tons. The lintels are 10 ft. long, 3.2 ft. wide and 2.6 ft. thick. Those who have studied the ruins do not believe that the circle of stones was ever completed, despite numerous imaginative paintings to that effect. Inside the stone circle were five trilithons (each consisting of two standing stones capped by a lintel) arranged in a horseshoe shape.  (See second image, above.) These are larger than the stones in the circle, ranging from 20-24 ft. tall.  At the very center lies a stone known as the Altar Stone, which dates to the time of the bluestones.  At the northeastern entrance stood Portal Stones, only one of which remains, although it has fallen (see third image, above).  Farther from the circle are four Station Stones and the Heelstone, which is located beyond the entrance. How the prehistoric people moved the heavy stones from locations that ranged from 10-125 miles away is the source of much speculation but no certainty.

Unknown Artist: Head of an Akkadian Ruler (c. 2400-2200 BCE) Iraqi Museum, Bagdad
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 wearing the traditional wig-helmet of Sumerian rulers that measured 12 in. tall and dated to c. 2400-2200 BCE. Some scholars believe the head is that of Sargon himself and may have been attached to a full-body statue of the ruler. Others believe it is Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin. There are significant signs of intentional damage to the head, indicating a possible political motivation by subsequent conquerors to deface symbols of Akkadian power.  The head is now in the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad.

Unknown Artists: Olmec Colossal Heads (17) (c. 1500-1000 BCE) Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico (7); Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City (2); Museo Comunitario de San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, Texistepec, Mexico (1); Parque-Museo La Venta, Villahermosa, Mexico (3); Museo del Estado de Tabasco, Villahermosa, Mexico (1); Museo Comunitario de Tres Zapotes, Mexico (1); Plaza, Santiago Tuxtla, Mexico (2)
olmec head 2olmec head 1   
The Olmecs of Gulf Coast Mexico were the first civilization of Mesoamerica. Flourishing from 1500-400 BCE, the Olmecs were the precursors of the Maya and the Aztecs. The artistic legacy of the Olmecs includes 17 basalt boulders carved into colossal heads, most of which were made between 1500 and 1000 BCE. Each head has individualized facial features and a unique headdress. Most scholars believe they represent Olmec leaders. The heads range from 5 to 11 feet tall and from 6 to 50 tons. They were found at four locations, with 10 heads found at San Lorenzo lined up in two rows.  The colossal heads shown in the images above are: (1) San Lorenzo head #1 in the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa; (2) San Lorenzo heads ## 3 and 4 in the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa.  The facial characteristics of some of the heads have led some to speculate that the Olmecs had roots in Africa, although there is little evidence to support this theory. Scholars have traced the source of the basalt boulders to the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas, nearly 100 miles away. How the Olmecs transported the massive stones through forests and swamps without wheeled vehicles is a mystery.  All 17 Olmec heads are still in Mexico.

Euphronios & Euxitheos: Euphronios Krater (Sarpedon Krater) (c. 515 BCE) National Etruscan Museum, Villa Giulia, Rome
Euphronios krater
euphronios krater
Ancient Greek artist Euphronios was famous for painting scenes on pottery, but only one of his works has survived intact – the Euphronios Krater (also known as the Sarpedon Krater). The terra cotta krater (a bowl used to mix wine with water) measures 18 in. high and 21.7 in. in diameter and has a capacity of 12 gallons. It was made by a potter named Euxitheos. One side of the krater depicts the death of Sarpedon in the Trojan War, with the god Hermes directing Sleep and Death to carry Sarpedon’s body to Greece for burial (see first image above). The other side shows 6th Century Athenian youths arming themselves for war (see second image above). Euphronios was a painter of the late Archaic period; he was a member of the Pioneer Group, which was known for its naturalistic style and anatomical accuracy. The krater was apparently looted from an Etruscan tomb near Cerveteri, Italy in 1971 and purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1972. In 2006, after it became clear that the item was stolen, the Met agreed to return the krater to Italy, where it was put on display in 2008 in the National Etruscan Museum in Rome.

Kritios (attrib.): Kritios Boy (c. 480 BCE) Acropolis Museum, Athens
Kritos Boy
The free-standing marble nude known as Kritios Boy (for its resemblance to the work of Greek sculptor Kritios) marks the end of the Archaic Period and the beginning of the Early Classical phase of Greek art. Unlike the kouros, with its stiff stance, idealized symmetry, direct gaze and impersonal smile, Kritios Boy, well below life size at 3.8 ft. tall, stands in a contrapposto pose (the first known to art history), with all his weight on one leg, the other free to bend, and all the anatomically accurate shifts of muscle and bone that accompany such a stance. The non-smiling figure does not meet the viewer’s eye, but seems lost in thought, perhaps about to move. The torso and legs were discovered in 1865 in a ceremonial dump on the Acropolis, after Athens was desecrated by the Persians, but the head, which appears to have been severed deliberately, was found 23 years later some distance away. The statue is now at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, not far from where it was found. Some art historians have connected the rise of lifelike sculpture celebrating the perfectability of the human form at about this time (c. 480 BCE) with political developments in which the city-state of Athens has developed democratic government and, in 490 BCE, united the other Greek polities to defeat the Persians.

Unknown Artist: Relief Sculptures, Persepolis (c. 518-465 BCE) near Shīrāz, Fars region, Iran

Persepolis lion and bull
The Persian city known as Persepolis (in modern day Iran) was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire from about 515-330 BCE.  Archaeologists believe that Cyrus the Great (reigned 559-530 BCE) selected the site of the city, but that Darius I (reigned 522-486 BCE) began construction of many of the city’s buildings, including the Apadana Palace, although some of these were completed during the reign of Darius’s son, Xerxes the Great (reigned 486-465 BCE). Gray limestone was the primary building material.  In the center of the city is a large stone terrace with staircases leading to the top, on which several buildings were located.  At the center of the terrace, on an elevated platform, stood the Apadana Palace, an immense audience hall, with 72 columns with sculpted capitals and two monumental staircases. Throughout the city, relief sculptures are carved into the limestone, particularly along the various staircases. The stairs to Apadana Palace depict a ceremonial procession of vassal states bringing culturally-appropriate gifts to the king. The relief sculptures shown above are: (1) Darius I receiving tribute, a relief from the Treasury Building, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Tehran; (2) relief on the Apadana stairs showing the earth (shown as a bull) fighting with the sun (shown as a lion) on Nowruz, the vernal equinox when, according to the Zoroastrian religion, the powers of the lion and bull are equal; (3) a Mede in traditional costume following a Persian in the ceremonial procession on the north stairs of Apadana Palace; (4) the Bactrian delegation, with their two-humped camel, in the ceremonial possession on the southern wall of the eastern stairs at Apadana Palace. Despite the efforts of Darius, Xerxes and his son Artaxerxes, the glory of Persepolis was short-lived. In 330 BCE, Alexander the Great invaded the city and looted it, after which he burned it down. A small community lingered on for a short time, but eventually the site was abandoned.

Unknown Artist: Artemision Bronze (Zeus/Poseidon of Artemision) (c. 460 BCE)
National Archaeological Museum, Athens
artemision bronzeArchaeologists 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.  The statue is located in the National Archaelogical Museum in Athens.

Unknown Artist: Riace Bronzes (Riace Warriors) (c. 460-420 BCE) Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia, Reggio Calabria, Italy
Riace bronzes riace bronzes
In 1972, vacationing Roman chemist Stefano Mariottini was snorkeling off the coast of Calabria, near Riace, when he saw an arm sticking out of the sand at the bottom of the sea. When he touched it, he realized it was made of metal, and he called the police. Mariottini had stumbled upon two 5th Century BCE bronze statues made in Ancient Greece, in near perfect condition. There is no agreement about the identity of the sculptor, but there is no doubt that the statues are prime examples of the transition period between the archaic and early Classical styles of Greek sculpture. Statue A is a young warrior standing 6.7 ft. tall and was created about 460-450 BCE. Statue B, which was sculpted about 430-420 BCE, is a mature warrior standing 6.4 ft. tall. Both figures are nude, bearded males portrayed in a contrapposto pose with their weight on their back legs. Their eyes are made of calcite; teeth of silver and lips and nipples of copper. They are missing their spears and shields, as well as helmets or other headgear. The sculptor has included so many realistic features that the idealized geometry and anatomical anomalies are not obvious. There is no consensus about who the warriors represent, but some have suggested they come from a group of statues representing the Seven Against Thebes at Argos or Athenian warriors in the Battle of Marathon monument at Delphi. How the sculptures arrived at Riace is also not clear. They may have been booty from the Roman occupation of Greece, or perhaps they were being brought to a Greek temple in Italy.

Praxiteles (?): Hermes and the Infant Dionysus (c. 350-330 BCE) Archaeological Museum, Olympia, Greece.
hermes and dionysus
According to Greek myth, Zeus impregnated a mortal woman named Semele. When he revealed his divinity to her, she died of shock, but Zeus saved the unborn child by sewing it inside his thigh.  When the baby – the future god Dionysus – was born, Zeus gave him to Hermes to hide from his wife Hera with the mountain nymphs. Hermes played with Dionysus while transporting him, at one point teasing the infant by holding a bunch of grapes outside his reach. This story became a favorite of Classical Greek artists. In 1877, German archaeologist Ernst Curtius was excavating the ruins of the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece, when he discovered a partial marble statue of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus (also known as Hermes of Praxiteles or Hermes of Olympia) in excellent condition, including a massive limestone and marble base. Over the years, additional pieces of the statue have been found but most of Hermes’s right arm is missing, as are Dionysus’s arms (except for his right hand). It is presumed that the missing pieces show Hermes holding the grapes from the story, and Dionysus reaching for them. The statue, made of high quality Parian marble, stands nearly 7 ft. tall (12 ft. with the base). The front of the head and torso are highly polished, although the back and other areas seem unfinished. There is also evidence that the statue was painted and that parts were covered in gold leaf. Based on the style and a comment by writer Pausanias in the 2nd Century CE, the work has been attributed to famous sculptor Praxiteles, although many scholars dispute that conclusion. If so, this would be the only known original Praxiteles work. There is little question, however, that the statue exhibits many elements of the Late Classical style for which Praxiteles was known. There is a naturalism, intimacy, almost sentimentality that are absent from earlier Classical art. Hermes stands in an unbalanced, exaggerated contrapposto that is almost an S-curve and the entire composition shows a sensuousness of form and playfulness of subject that was not previously associated with portraits of the gods. The piece is now at the Archaeological Museum at Olympia, Greece.

Unknown Artist: Lion Capital of Ashoka (c. 250 BCE) Archaeological Museum, Sarnath, India
ashoka lion capital
Ashoka the Great ruled (and expanded) the Mauryan Empire, which, at its peak, encompassed most of what is now India and Pakistan, as well as parts of current-day Iran and Afghanistan. During Ashoka’s 36-yr. reign (268-232 BCE), he erected a series of stone pillars at important Buddhist sites. The pillars average 40-50 ft. tall and weigh up to 50 tons each. Many of the pillars contain inscribed edicts and capitals in the form of carved animals. Many of the pillars and capitals were destroyed by Muslim iconoclasts. Nineteen pillars and six animal capitals remain, including the Lion Capital of Ashoka from Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh (see image above). The Lion Capital consists of four lions standing back to back on a base with an elephant, a bull, a horse, a lion and 24-spoked chariot wheels in bas relief, atop a bell-shaped lotus. There is evidence that a Wheel of Dharma was originally placed atop the carved lions. Some scholars believe the Lion Capital shows the spread of Dharma or the Maurya Empire in all four directions. Others say it symbolizes the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The Lion Capital is the national emblem of India, and the base on which the lions are standing is depicted on the Indian flag.  Including the base, the Capital stands 7 ft. tall. It is located at the Archaeological Museum in Sarnath, India.

Unknown Artist: Dying Gaul (The Dying Galatian) (c. 230-220 BCE) Capitoline Museums, Rome (marble copy, 1st-2nd Century CE)

At 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 above – 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. The Dying 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 above. 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. Random Trivia: Thomas Jefferson included The Dying Gaul on a list of potential acquisitions for a planned Monticello art museum. Despite Jefferson’s dream, the statue remains in Rome, at the Capitoline Museums.

Unknown Artist: Ara Pacis Augustae Friezes (13-9 BCE) Museo dell’Ara Pacis, Rome
Ara_Pacis Relief  Ara-Pacis-priestsara pacis
The Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Augustan Peace, was commissioned by the Roman Senate in 13 CE to commemorate the return of Emperor Augustus from military victories in Hispania and Gaul. The altar is dedicated to the goddess Peace, and sends a message that Augustus has brought a Golden Age of peace, prosperity and abundance, with a subsidiary message that the Emperor is pious and supports the state religion. The altar is surrounded by a precinct, with two long side walls and two partial front and back walls with large open entrances. Two tiers of relief sculpture friezes adorn each side of the outer precinct walls. The lower portion of the friezes on all four sides consists of spiraling vegetation in coherent patterns, along with frogs, lizards, birds and other wildlife, to show harmony in nature (see third image, above). The upper panels on the front and back (east and west) walls consist of allegorical or mythological scenes of peace and abundance, including a panel on the east wall interpreted as a goddess (possibly Peace, Italia, Tellus, or Venus) with twins amid a scene of fertility and prosperity (see first image, above). The upper friezes on the north and south walls consist of a procession of figures, possibly representing the event dedicating the altar itself. The figures in the procession are not idealized but are individual portraits of Augustus and his family, members of the Senate and members of the priestly colleges (see second image, above). There are non-Romans depicted, and also children, which was unusual in Roman art. The Ara Pacis Augustae was built in a section of Rome located on the flood plain of the Tiber River. Over the centuries, it was gradually buried under more than 12 feet of silt. The altar was rediscovered in the early 20th Century; its resurrection was used by Mussolini as a symbol of Italy’s resurgence under Fascism. A major reconstruction was undertaken to piece together the existing fragments, and sculptors were brought in to carve new reliefs where there were gaps, creating much controversy. In 2006, a new Ara Pacis Museum building was designed to protect and house the altar.

Unknown Artist: Ludovisi Sarcophagus (250-260 CE) Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome
Also known as the Great Ludovisi Sarcophagus, the Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus and the Via Tiburtina Sarcophagus, the Ludovisi Sarcophagus is a 5-ft. tall Roman burial container made of Proconnesian marble. The scene of Romans battling the Goths is sculpted in very high relief, with overlapping figures and many elements completely free of the background surface. The sarcophagus was discovered in 1621 and takes its name from its first modern owner, Ludovico Ludovisi. Carved at a time when the Roman Empire was in crisis, the design and details are considered unclassical or anti-classical, with highly expressive facial expressions and postures, especially among the defeated barbarians.

Unknown Artists: Nazca Lines (200 BCE to 500 CE) Nazca Desert, Peru
nazca monkey
Nazca spider
The monkey and spider figures shown in the images above are two of the many ancient geoglyphs that have been found in a 190 sq. mi. area of the Nazca Desert in southern Peru. The monkey is 310 ft. by 190 ft.; the spider is 150 ft. long. In addition to creating 70 animal and plant figures, the artists drew 300 geometric figures and over 800 straight lines. The artists made these enormous designs by removing the reddish iron oxide coated pebbles from the ground, uncovering the lighter lime-filled clay beneath. The clay then combined with mist to form a hard layer that resists erosion.  Although some of the figures can be identified from nearby hills, most of them can only be seen in their entirety from the air. The purpose of the lines is unclear: some may mark the rising and setting of the sun and other heavenly bodies; others may have been designed to communicate with the gods, designate paths to places of worship or plead with the gods for water. Erich von Daniken’s theory that the lines were formed by alien astronauts has been thoroughly debunked.

Unknown Artists: Descent of the Ganges (Arjuna’s Penance) (c. 650 CE)
Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India
The Descent of the Ganges.

At Mahabalipuram in India, Hindu artists of the 7th Century CE carved an enormous bas relief measuring 96 ft. wide by 43 ft. high into two boulders of pink granite separated by a fissure (see first image, above). 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 above, an emaciated Bhagiratha is shown doing penance outside his hermitage. The discovery of the remains of a cistern atop the fissure that was used to create a waterfall effect lends support to the Descent of the Ganges interpretation. 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 suggested that the relief sculptures depict both legends.

Unknown Artist: Mosaics, Great Mosque of Damascus (Umayyad Mosque) (705-715 CE) Damascus, Syria
mosaic 2 mosaics
The Great Mosque of Damascus, or Umayyad Mosque, was built between 705-715 CE on the site of a Christian cathedral. After being conquered by Alexander the Great and then the Romans, Damascus became a Christian city during the Byzantine era, until Muslim Arabs under Khalid ibn al-Walid captured the city in 634-635 CE. When the Umayyad Caliphate began in 661, the Umayyads made Damascus the capital of the Islamic world. The sixth Umayyad caliph, al-Walid I (who reigned from 705-715) decided to build a mosque in Damascus that would accommodate the full congregation for Friday prayers. He enlisted builders and artists from the entire region. The interior (first image above) and exterior (second image above) of the mosque were decorated with elaborate mosaics. In addition to the geometric designs familiar from the Dome of the Rock, which had been built just a few years earlier, al-Walid’s mosaics depicted fanciful landscapes and architecture: trees, flowers, rivers, castles, houses, gardens and fountains. In keeping with Islamic tradition, no mosaics depicted men, women or animals of any kind. Not long after the completion of the Great Mosque, the Umayyad Caliphate came to an end, and their successors in the Abbasid Caliphate ignored the mosque. It was not until the 11th Century, under the Seljuk Turks, that the neglected mosque received much-needed renovations. Two centuries later, the Mamluks conducted extensive renovations, with a particular focus on restoring the mosaics. Unfortunately, the mosque was damaged by serious fires in 1339, 1400 and, most recently, 1893.  While some of the original 715 CE mosaics still exist, many of the designs are restorations of varying quality.

Unknown Artist: Animal Head Post, Oseberg Viking Ship Burial (c. 815-825 CE) Viking Ship Museum, University of Oslo, Bygdoy, Norway
animal head post 2   
In 1904, archaeologists discovered an intact Viking burial ship under a mound of earth in Oseberg, Norway. The ship, which dates to the early 9th Century, contained two women’s bodies and a significant amount of grave objects. Among the objects were five wooden posts carved into the heads of animals. They have slots for handles indicating they were carried. They may have had some magical or religious significance. The post shown in the first and second images, above, shows the 5 in. tall head of a roaring animal (perhaps a lion) with protruding eyes, while the intricate carving shows tightly interwoven animals in an interlacing serpentine pattern. The post is in the Viking Ship Museum, at the University of Oslo, Bygdoy, Norway.

Unknown Artist: Ebbo Gospels (c. 816-835 CE) Bibliothèque Municipale, Épernay,
ebbo 1ebbo gospels 3    
The Ebbo Gospels is an illuminated manuscript  that was produced at the Benedictine abbey at Hautvillers, France in th 9th Century. The book, which measures 10 in. tall by 8 in. Wide, draws its name from a poem to Ebbo, the Archbishop of Rheims, that is printed in the manuscript. The book contains a number of illuminated pages, including portraits of the Evangelists. The unknown artist has drawn the figures in an energetic style (sometimes called the shivering style) in agitated poses, which generates a level of emotion new to Carolingian art. As a result of these innovations, the Ebbo Gospels became very influential. The figure of St. Matthew, in particular, is considered a masterpiece (see first image, above). He writes with one hand while the other holds an ink horn, and tiny angel hovers in the upper right corner. The pinks and greens of the portrait are new colors for Carolingian art. See also the portrait of St. Mark in the second image, above. The figures and landscapes have been influenced by the Late Classical style, which may have come to France from Greek artists fleeing Byzantine iconoclasm, but the frenzied energy and emotion are new. Scholars have remarked that many of the images in the Ebbo Gospels appear to be based on illustrations in the Utrecht Psalter, another 9th Century manuscript. The Ebbo Gospels are now in the Bibliothèque Municipale at Épernay, France.

Fan Kuan: Travellers among Mountains and Streams (c. 1000-1020) National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
Chinese landscape painter Fan Kuan, who lived during the Song Dynasty, is best known for Travellers Among Mountains and Streams (also known as Travelers by Streams and Mountains) (see first image above), a hanging scroll made using ink and color on silk and measuring 6.75 ft. tall by 2.5 ft. wide. Little is known about Fan, who spent much of his life as a recluse in the mountains of Shanxi. His love for the mountains, and his Neo-Confucian belief that nature is the source of absolute truth, is evident in this work. The scale of the painting gives the viewer a sense of the immensity of nature, which dwarfs the human elements, including men leading a pack of mules out of a wood, and a temple in the forest on the cliff (see detail in second image above). Yet Fan also manages to capture the way that all these parts fit together to form a harmonious whole. Scholars have noted a paradox in the style of the Travellers Among Mountains and Streams: on the one hand, it is a seminal work that established an ideal in monumental landscape painting to which others aspired; on the other hand, Fan Kuan’s composition, which relies on a central massive element, and his mechanical brush strokes used for the foliage are archaic techniques that look backward instead of breaking new ground. The scroll is now in the National Palace Museum, in Taipei, Taiwan.

Cimabue: Santa Trinita Maestà (Madonna and Child Enthroned with Eight Angels) (c. 1280-1290) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Born Cenni Di Pepi in Florence in about 1240, Cimabue was a key figure in the transition from Byzantine artistic styles to those of the Renaissance. The altarpiece Cimabue painted for the main altar of the Santa Trinita Church (known variously as Santa Trinita Maestà, Madonna Enthroned, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Eight Angels, and Santa Trinita Madonna) shows the Virgin Mary on a throne with the infant Jesus on her lap, surrounded by eight angels.  Although the work is considered part of the Byzantine tradition, Cimabue takes steps toward a more naturalistic approach, such as softer expressions on the faces of the figures, that would blossom in the work of his pupil Giotto di Bondone. In the Santa Trinita Maestà, which was painted with tempera on wood panel measuring 12.7 ft. tall by 7.3 ft. wide, Cimabue retained many characteristics of Byzantine art, including figures that lack volume and solidity, a composition that lacks depth and consistent perspective, an abundance of gold, stylized faces and elongated noses and fingers. Unlike Giotto, Cimabue relies on line instead of modeling to define shapes. Cimabue is moving beyond the Byzantine tradition in creating a sense of depth through the architecture. The space beneath the throne from which the four prophets peer at us seems to have real dimensions. The Madonna’s right foot, resting on (and extending beyond) the throne’s step possesses a hint of three dimensionality. The Santa Trinita Madonna is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti: The Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government (c. 1337-1340)
lorenzetti allegory of good gov
In the early 14th Century, the City of Siena commissioned Ambrogio Lorenzetti to decorate the walls of the room where the leaders of the city-state met (known variously as the Sala della Pace, or Room of Peace, the Sala dei Nove, the Salon of Nine, or the Council Room), which was located in the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s city hall, with allegorical frescoes on the topic of good and bad government.  Lorenzetti painted three frescoes: (1) the Allegory of Good Government, on the north wall (see first image  above); (2) the Effects of Good Government on the City and the Country (sometimes called Peace), on the west wall (see second image – City – and third image – Countryside, above); and (3) the Allegory of Bad Government its Effects on the City and the Country (sometimes called War), on the east wall (see fourth image above).  Each fresco is 25.3 ft. tall, and combined, the three frescoes are 47.2 ft. long. The paintings, which are unusual in their secular subject matter, are considered masterworks of the early Renaissance. Lorenzetti, who was strongly influenced by Simone Martini, combines Byzantine and Classical forms in an original way, with more naturalism than his mentor. Scholars believe he studied the art of classical antiquity. The frescoes include experiments with perspective (for example, Lorenzetti makes an effort to reduce the size of figures that are intended to be farther away from the viewer) and to portray physiognomy realistically. Lorenzetti’s depictions of places and figures combine idealization and realism. For example, scholars have noted that the depiction of Siena in the Effects of Good Government on the City is accurate in parts, and fanciful in others.  Some experts believe the frescoes contain a second narrative involving the children of the gods for whom the planets are named; this theme may explain the dancers in the center of the City, who may be interpreted as the children of Venus. With regard to perspective, experts have pointed out that the perspective of the Allegory of Good Government appears to be a mistake, unless one assumes that the scene is being perceived from the point of view of the figure of Justice. For the Bad Government fresco, Lorenzetti unsettles viewers by requiring them to read the narrative from right to left. This fresco, which was originally on an exterior wall, has suffered considerable moisture damage.

Gentile da Fabriano: Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece (1423) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

fabriano predella
Tempera on panel. 80 x 111 in.  International Gothic style. Italian.  First image: entire altarpiece with frame.  Second image: Nativity scene from predella.

Donatello: The Feast of Herod (1423-1427) Bapistery, Siena Cathedral, Siena

Donatello’s The Feast of Herod is one of six bronze panels, measuring 1.97 ft. square, that are located in the base of the hexagonal baptismal font in the baptistry of the Siena Cathedral (see first image above). The piece is remarkable for its use of the principles of linear perspective, recently rediscovered by Brunelleschi, to create the illusion of depth, particularly rare in a relief sculpture. The story takes place on three levels and chronologically follows the dance of Salome, after which Herod grants her any wish and she, at her mother’s bidding, asks for the head of John the Baptist. In the far background, in low relief, an executioner shows the head to someone, perhaps Salome. In the middle background, also in low relief, two men watch a woman playing a musical instrument. In the foreground, in high relief, Herod and his family react in horror to the head of John the Baptist (see second image above), while Salome, sinuous in her dance costume, watches and gloats (see third image above). The use of orthogonal lines in the floor tiles emphasizes the sense of real space. Donatello also demonstrates his ability to depict true human emotion, particularly in the faces and gestures of Herod and the young men sitting at the table.

Robert Campin (?): The Mérode Altarpiece (The Annunciation Triptych) (c. 1425-1428) The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Early Netherlandish triptych known as the The Mérode Altarpiece or The Annunciation Triptych was created from 1425-1428 (although some experts date it to 1427-1432) using oil paints on oak panels. Most experts believe that Robert Campin painted the triptych with the assistance of members of his workshop (including Rogier van der Weyden), although some believe the work is a copy of a Campin original. The entire triptych measures 2.1 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide (see first image above); the left wing, measuring 2.1 ft. tall by 0.9 ft. wide, shows the donor, his wife and a messenger (the wife and messenger were probably added later, after the donor married); the center panel, measuring 2.1 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. wide, shows the Annunciation; the right wing shows Joseph in his workshop, making a mousetrap (see third image, above). The small size of the triptych leads experts to believe that it was intended for private devotional use. The painting includes many examples of Early Netherlandish attention to detail, and the technique of applying thin layers of oil paint over an opaque base allowed the artist to create illusionistic effects. The triptych abounds with religious symbolism. The center panel actually shows the Virgin Mary at the moment before she recognizes the Angel Gabriel is present. At the same time, a tiny Jesus flies down from the window with his cross, a sign of the Incarnation (see second image, above). The just-snuffed candle may show the transformation of God into man. Similarly, the mousetrap Joseph is making may allude to St. Augustine’s writings, in which he describes the Incarnation of Jesus as a mousetrap to catch the Devil. Perhaps unintentionally, the triptych seems to imply that Joseph and Mary were living together before they were married. Based on other details, the donor who commissioned the work was probably from Mechelen, Belgium, possibly a member of the Ingelbrecht family. The name Mérode comes from one of the families that owned the piece, which is currently at the Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. There is another version of the central panel in a private collection in Brussels – some experts believe it may be Campin’s original.

Jan van Eyck: Portrait of a Man (Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban) (1433) National Gallery, London

Early Netherlandish artist Jan van Eyck made Portrait of a Man (also known as Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban) with oils on a wood panel measuring 10 in. tall by 7.5 in. wide in 1433. The picture frame and the painted panel are part of the same piece of wood (see first image above). On the frame, van Eyck has painted a inscription in Latin at the bottom (“Jan van Eyck Made Me on October 21, 1433”) and a motto in Greek at the top (“As I Can”), which contains a pun on I =Ich/Eyck. The letters are painted to appear as if they are carved into the wood. Light enters the painting from the left, and the subject, with his direct gaze and bright red headpiece, appears to emerge from the dark background, a use of tenebrism. Despite the painting’s nickname, the subject is wearing not a turban but a chaperon, a common form of 15th Century male headgear with a hood and a hanging tail known as a cornette, here wound up over the upper portion, or bourrelet, perhaps to keep it out of the way while the subject paints. In fact, some experts believe the painting is a self-portrait; the National Gallery in London, where the work has been since 1851, has given it the title, Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?). Although there is no direct evidence to support this theory, there are some circumstantial clues: the clothing is appropriate for van Eyck’s social position; the personal motto only appears on a small number of paintings and never as prominent as here; the subject gazes directly at the viewer; and the painting of the intricate folds in the chaperon requires a prodigious talent.  In addition, as noted, the way the cornette of the chaperon is tied up on the subject’s head would be a sensible precaution for a painter.  A more technical clue is the fact that the subject’s left eye is sharply focused on some object in front of him, while the right eye appears only vaguely engaged in the act of looking. This effect would result if van Eyck was painting his own eyes by looking at them in a mirror. Some scholars have speculated that van Eyck used this small portrait as a calling card or advertisement of his skills, so that customers could compare it with the face of the living artist standing before them. Perhaps to ensure that the painted van Eyck would match the real one, even on a bad day, the subject is shown with bloodshot eyes (see second image above), a bit of beard stubble, and some sagging of the flesh around the cheeks. This is clearly no idealized portrait.

Jacopo della QuerciaPorta Magna, San Petronio Church (1425-1434) Bologna, Italy
porta magna

In the first quarter of the 15th Century, Sienese sculptor Jacopo della Quercia received a commission to provide bas relief panels for the central portal of the basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, Italy. The program included: (1) 10 panels with stories from the Book of Genesis, in low relief; (2) portrait busts of 18 Prophets; (3) the Madonna and Child with Sts. Ambrose and Petronius in the bezel; and (5) 5 scenes from the New Testament on the lintel. Jacopo della Quercia began the work in 1425 and continued until 1434, when he left it incomplete. The work was finished by Domenico da Varignana (St. Petronius), Antonio Minello (prophets), Anthony Ostiglia (prophets) and Amico Aspertini (Moses).  Michelangelo relied heavily on the Porta Magna to design his Sistine Chapel ceiling. The images shown above are: (1) a full view of the Porta Magna; (2) the Creation of Adam; (3) Original Sin, showing Adam, Eve, the serpent and the apple; and (4) on the bezel, Madonna and Child, St. Ambrose and St. Petronio, with five New Testament scenes on the lintel below.

Konrad Witz: The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1444) Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva
According to the Gospel of John, after Jesus died and rose from the dead, seven of his disciples spent all night fishing without luck. In the morning, a man called from shore and asked if they had caught anything.  When they said no, he told them to put the net on the right side of the boat; when they did, they caught 153 large fish. One of the disciples recognized the man as Jesus and called out, at which point Peter jumped in the water to meet him.  A number of painters have depicted this story, including German-born Swiss painter Konrad Witz, who painted The Miraculous Draught of Fishes in 1444 as part of the altarpiece for St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva. Most of the altarpiece is lost, but The Miraculous Draught of Fishes is one of four surviving wings. Made with oils on a wood panel measuring 4.3 ft. tall by 5 ft. wide, the painting’s importance to art history is based not on its figures, but on the realistic landscape. Witz substituted Lake Geneva for the Sea of Galilee, and in doing so, was able to paint an accurate and realistic depiction of an actual landscape, not the imaginary, idealized landscape found in so much earlier art. Furthermore, the landscape has been promoted from a minor element seen through a window to a major component of the composition. In addition to his landscape painting prowess, Witz used the work to examine the properties of reflections on water. Note, however, that the resurrected Jesus casts no reflection. The Miraculous Draught of Fishes is now in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva.

Piero della FrancescaThe Baptism of Christ (c. 1448-1450) National Gallery, London
The Baptism of Christ, by Italian artist Piero della Francesca, measures 5.4 ft. tall by 3.8 ft. wide and was painted with tempera on wood panel. It was commissioned by the Camaldolese Monastery, in Sansepolcro, Italy. Piero was fascinated by perspective and geometry and his paintings have a level of abstraction that is unusual for his time. Examples of Piero’s mathematical composition abound: (1) John the Baptist’s hand, the bowl, Christ’s hands and the dove (representing the Holy Spirit) form an axis that divides the painting into two symmetrical halves; (2) the large tree divides the painting according to the Golden Mean; (3) the angles made by John’s arm and leg are equivalent; and (4) a horizontal line runs from the man taking off his shirt on the right, through John’s belt and Christ’s waist to the belts of the angels. The painting may contain references to the Council of Florence, which sought to unite Western and Eastern rite churches and was supported by Camaldolese monk St. Ambrose Traversari. The Baptism of Christ is now in the National Gallery in London.

Jean Fouquet: The Melun Diptych (c. 1450-1452) Staatliche Museen, Berlin (left wing), Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp (right wing), Louvre, Paris (self-portrait medallion)
Jean_Fouquetmelun diptych

The Melun Diptych, which was made with tempera on two wood panels, each measuring 3 ft. high by 2.8 ft. wide, was created by French artist Jean Fouquet for Étienne Chevalier, treasurer to King Charles VII, to hang over the tomb of Chevalier’s wife. The name of the piece comes from the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame in Melun, where it originally resided. The left wing contains a portrait of Chevalier beside his patron saint, St. Stephen, shown with a rock to remind us that he was stoned to death (to drive the point home, blood drips from a wound on the saint’s head). Fouquet adeptly uses the rules of linear perspective to create the illusion of space receding into the background. The left wing is in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin. The right wing is another matter entirely. Entitled Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels (or Madonna and Child), the panel depicts the Virgin Mary ‘sitting’ on an ornate throne with the baby Jesus on her lap. Mary, who may be a posthumous portrait of the king’s mistress Agnès Sorel (called by some ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’) has ghostly marble skin, a fashionable shaved hairline and is wearing the equivalent of 15th Century haute couture.  And there is the problem of the exposed breast; one commentator described it as “pneumatic”, another termed it “gravity-defying.” There is no indication that Jesus is breastfeeding, so the gratuitous partial nudity seems to serve no purpose but to titillate those paying their respects to the dear departed Mrs. Chevalier, while creating what Dutch historian Johan Huizinga described as an “air of decadent impiety.”  To add to the extreme oddity of the scene, the background is full of red and blue angels who interlock, Escher-like, to create a two-dimensional surface. In an attempt to explain the unnatural color scheme, one scholar theorized that Fouquet meant to honor the red, white and blue of the French flag. To further disorient the viewer, in depicting the heavenly space in the right panel, Fouquet completely abandoned the rules of perspective he employed so well on the left.  Ironically, the unnatural and otherworldly aspects of the painting make it seem much more modern than a typical 15th Century religious painting. Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels is at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. The two wings of the diptych have been seen together only once in the past 200 years, at a 1904 exhibition in France.  A 2.4 in. medallion with Fouquet’s portrait was originally attached to the frame; it is now in the Louvre in Paris (see third image above).

Andrea Mantegna: St. James Led to His Execution (c. 1453-1457) Ovetari Chapel, Church of Eremitani, Padua, Italy (destroyed)

Fresco measuring 14 by 11 feet.  Destroyed on March 11, 1944 by Allied bombs during World War II.  Ignores rules of perspective.  Also called St. James Led to Martyrdom; St. James on His Way to Execution. Image: Black and white copy or photograph?

Benozzo Gozzoli: The Procession of the Magi (The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem)  (c. 1459-1462) Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence
Gozzoli_magimagi south wall   magi west wall   
After renowned architect Michelozzo di Bartolomeo designed and built a new Florentine home for the powerful Medici family, Palazzo Medici, the family commissioned Fra Angelico’s former student, Benozzo Gozzoli, to paint frescoes on the walls of the Palazzo’s chapel. Gozzoli painted The Procession of the Magi on three walls of the large hall, which is now known as the Magi Chapel. Each of the three kings and his retinue receives a wall, with Caspar, the youngest king, leading the procession on the east wall (shown in first image above), Balthasar following on the south wall (see second image, above) and Melchior, the oldest, bringing up the rear on the west wall (see third image, above).  Among the kings’ entourages are portraits of the Medicis, their friends and business associates, political and religious leaders as well as at least one Gozzoli self-portrait. The style is International Gothic, but in creating the sumptuous landscapes, Gozzoli may have been influenced by the Medicis’ large collection of Early Netherlandish tapestries. When the Riccardi family moved into what is now called the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in the mid-17th Century, they made architectural changes that required cutting a hole in the south wall of the Magi Chapel to make a new door. The fresco was saved by removing part of the wall, cutting it in two pieces and building a new, jutting corner wall, but gone was the simple symmetry of Gozzoli’s original design. Random Trivia: One of the reasons the 15th Century frescoes are so well preserved is that the walls are hollow – the Medicis had a maze of secret passageways built into the Palazzo to allow quick escapes. The unusual construction significantly reduced moisture, which is a fresco’s worst enemy.

Niccolò dell’Arca: Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c. 1460-1463 or 1485-1490)
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna
lamentation 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 faction gives a date near 1460, probably 1463, while another 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. 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.

Dierec Bouts: The Last Supper (1464-1467) Church of St. Peter, Leuven, Belgium
bouts altarpiece   bouts detail        bouts detail 2
Dieric Bouts was an Early Netherlandish painter who was influenced by Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. Made with oil paints on wood panel measuring 5.9 ft. tall by 4.9 ft. wide, The Last Supper was the central panel of an altarpiece for St. Peter’s Church in Leuven and was commissioned by the Leuven Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament. There were four smaller panels on the wings of the altarpiece (called the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament or the Altarpiece of the Last Supper) with scenes from the Old Testament (see first image, above). Bouts’ Last Supper is one of the first northern European examples of the strict application of the rules of linear perspective developed in Italy; the main room has a single vanishing point on the mantle above Christ’s head; the small room and outside landscapes also have vanishing points. The composition and color scheme are highly unified. The apostles are not highly individualized or emotionally expressive; they seem frozen in space and time as Jesus consecrates the host. Meanwhile, four servants dressed in Flemish attire look on, including two who peek through a window from the kitchen (see second image, above). There are glimpses of outdoor landscapes through narrow windows (see second and third images, above). The altarpiece is located in St. Peter’s Church in Leuven, Belgium.

Giovanni Bellini: St. Francis in the Desert (St. Francis in Ecstasy) (c. 1480) Frick Collection, New York

st francis rabbit
By choosing to use oil paints – which were very new to Italy – to paint a portrait of St. Francis, Giovanni Bellini proved to his fellow Italian painters that the new medium could render light and the effects of light in ways that could not have been achieved with tempera.  Painted on three joined poplar wood panels and measuring 4.1 ft. tall by 4.7 ft. wide, St. Francis in the Desert (also known as St. Francis in Ecstasy or St. Francis in the Wilderness) uses natural lighting effects to create the sense of a heavenly visitation upon the founder of the Franciscans (see first image, above).  Some believe the painting is meant to tell the story of St. Francis receiving the stigmata, or wounds of Christ, in his side and on his hands and feet, while on a solitary retreat near Mt. La Verna in the Apennines in 1224 and point to the marks on his hands and one foot. Others some argue that St. Francis, who is shown with his mouth open, is singing the Canticle of the Sun, a song he composed, in response to the presence of God. They note that in typical representations of saints receiving the stigmata, we usually see an angel shooting dart-like rays of light.  The work is unusual in other ways: consistent with the Renaissance’s celebration of the natural world, St. Francis is almost dwarfed by the vast landscape around him such that if he were removed, the painting could stand on its own. Bellini has taken care to depict many of the plants and animals that share the world with St. Francis (see detail of hare in second image above). In addition, many of the objects in the painting double as references to Christian stories or teachings. To choose just a few examples related to Moses, the dry tree at left may represent the burning bush that spoke to Moses; the water issuing from the rocks at right may remind us of Moses striking the rocks at Horeb to start water flowing; and St. Francis’ bare feet and nearby sandals recall God’s words to Moses to take off his sandals on holy ground. Followers of St. Francis would have made many other connections. St. Francis in the Desert is now at the Frick Collection in New York.

Michael Pacher: St. Wolfgang Altarpiece (1471-1481) St. Wolfgang Church, Abersee, Austria
st wolfgang
st wolfgang altarpiece 2
Born and raised in the Tyrol section of Austria, painter and sculptor Michael Pacher took a trip to Padua, Italy at some point prior to 1471 that forever changed his style.  From studying the frescoes of Andrea Mantegna, Pacher learned the rules of perspective, foreshortening and other Renaissance techniques and went on to fuse these principles with Northern Gothic realism to achieve a sublime hybrid style.  In 1471, he received a commission from Abbott Benedict of the Mondsee Monastery to create an altarpiece for the monastery’s St. Wolfgang Church in Abersee. A decade later, Pacher delivered (and personally installed, according to records) the massive altarpiece, measuring nearly 40 ft. tall from tip to base, and more than 21 ft. wide. The St. Wolfgang Altarpiece, which remains in its original location, has two sets of moving hinges, permitting three separate views. Monday through Saturday, both sets of doors are closed and viewers see four painted scenes from the life of St. Wolfgang, flanked by carved figures of St. George and St. Florian, in armor. On Sunday, the first set of doors is opened to see eight painted scenes from the life of Christ, including the Death and Resurrection of Lazarus (see third image above). On holy days, both sets of doors are opened (see first image, above) to see a central sculpted scene of the Coronation of the Virgin, carved from lindenwood and painted (see second image above) flanked by four painted scenes: the Nativity, the Circumcision, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and the Death of the Virgin. The predella underneath is closed except on holy days. When closed, the predella shows paintings of four Fathers of the Church: Pope Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. Jerome. When the predella is open, the viewer sees a central panel with a carved scene of the Adoration of the Magi, flanked by two painted panels: the Visitation and the Flight from Egypt. Towering over all these sculptures and paintings is a carved Crucifixion scene, with Jesus, his mother and various saints and angels, that is visible at all times. Throughout the piece, whether in painting or sculpture, Pacher demonstrates his ability to depict substantial human figures who are moving in space and shown realistically from multiple angles, one of the achievements of Renaissance art.

Leonardo da Vinci: The Adoration of the Magi (1481-1482) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
the-adoration-of-the-magi-DaVinci   adoration detail
Leonardo da Vinci was in his late twenties in 1481 when he received a commission for an altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Magi from the Augustinian monks of San Donato a Scopeto in Florence. He worked very hard on the preliminary drawings and completed an underdrawing for an oil painting on wood panels measuring 8.1 ft. tall by 8 ft. wide but he never finished the painting – the Duke of Milan made him an offer he couldn’t refuse and Leonardo left Florence.  Someone, probably not Leonardo, according to the most recent research, added the groundwork layer of brown and yellow ocher paint to the underdrawing and in so doing altered some of the original design. What remains is an atypical Adoration of the Magi. The Virgin is the peak of a triangular composition that draws many features from Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden’s Entombment of Christ, from 1460. In Christian lore, the date of the Adoration, also the Epiphany, signaled the triumph of Christianity over the pagan world. This may explain the Classical building in the left rear (possibly based on the 4th Century Basilica of Maxentius, which legend has it would stand until a virgin gave birth) , and the battle raging in the right rear (see detail in second image above).  Nothing in prior depictions of the event prepares us for the grotesque and emaciated forms of some of the figures. Some art historians believe that the young man on the bottom right is a self-portrait of the artist, copied from an earlier bust. After Leonardo left for Milan, the monks reassigned the commission to Filippino Lippi, who provided his Adoration of the Magi altarpiece, based largely on Leonardo’s design (without the grotesque elements), to San Donato a Scopeto in 1496. Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi is now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Pietro Perugino: Delivery of the Keys (Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter) (1481-1482) Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace, Vatican City
Perugino - Giving the Keys
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells Peter that he will give him (and through him according to Catholic tradition, to the Roman Popes) the keys to the kingdom of heaven, that is, the authority to be his representative on earth. Taking the Bible passage literally, Pope Sixtus IV commissioned Florentine painter Piero Perugino to paint a fresco on the wall of the Sistine Chapel showing Jesus giving an actual set of keys to St. Peter. Perugino’s fresco, called Delivery of the Keys (known by many other titles, including Christ Handing the Keys to Peter, Jesus Handing the Keys to Peter, Christ Giving the Keys to Peter, Christ Giving the Keys of Heaven to St. Peter and The Giving of the Keys to St. Peter), and measuring 10.8 ft. tall by 18.3 ft. wide, presents a master class in linear one-point perspective (see first image above). The diagonal lines dividing up the foreshortened pavement tiles reach a vanishing point in the doorway of the central building, creating the illusion of depth and distance. The use of aerial perspective sustains the illusion of reality, leading the eye back to a distant horizon. The line (almost a frieze) of figures in the far foreground spreads out from the central pair of Jesus and the kneeling St. Peter; Perugino keeps them below the horizon line. The other apostles and various contemporary Roman figures are rendered with specificity and elegance, but with feet firmly planted on the ground. Some experts believe that Perugino included a self-portrait in the fifth figure from the right edge. Unusually, Judas is pictured with the other apostles (fifth figure to the left of Jesus). Somewhat incongruously, Perugino sets out two other New Testament stories in the middle distance: The Tribute Money on the left, and The Stoning of Jesus on the right. The central building is an imaginary octagonal Temple of Solomon, flanked by two triumphal arches that would have been familiar to Romans as the Arch of Constantine (echoed by Botticelli on the opposite wall). Scholars believe that Perugino relied heavily on the work of Andrea del Verrocchio in painting the figures; one expert has pointed out that the poses of the foreground figures on one side of the painting seem to repeat on the other side, only in reverse. Over the years, a legend arose that during the conclave to select a new pope, the person who slept in the room beneath Perugino’s fresco would be elected. Scholars who set out to test the legend were able to identify three cardinals who slept in the room during the conclave who were selected as pope. Perugino’s Delivery of the Keys fresco is located on the northern wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

Giovanni Bellini: San Giobbe Altarpiece (1487) Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

To satisfy his commission for an altarpiece for the San Giobbe (St. Job) Church in Venice, Venetian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini painted a sacra converzatione, that is, a portrait of Mary and Jesus surrounded by an informal grouping of saints (left: St. Francis, John the Baptist, Job; right: St. Sebastian, St. Louis, St. Dominic) (see first image above). To create the altarpiece, which is also known as Madonna with Child, Saints and Angels, and Enthroned Madonna of San Giobbe, Bellini used oil paints on wood panels measuring 15.4 ft. high by 8.5 ft. wide. There is some dispute about the date of the work.  While many date it to c. 1487, others say it was painted in the early 1470s, based in part on a 1581 document stating that the San Giobbe Altarpiece was Belllini’s first use of oil paints. The work was almost immediately recognized as a masterpiece. Bellini creates an illusion of depth to the space and substantiality to the figures. To enhance the realism – the illusion that there is an actual niche in the wall – he painted the columns to match the real columns in the church, and chose a light source that appears to be coming from the actual windows of the church.  Art historians marvel at Bellini’s ability to paint reflected light and to show modeling and shadows so they give form and substance to the figures and architecture. Although all the saints with their colorful garments occupy the lower half of the painting, the stunning gold half dome above them creates a sense of balance and draws the eye up to see how it catches the light. On a human level, St. Francis (with the stigmata wounds) gestures for us to join the conversation, as does the Madonna. Even the musical angels are positioned so they form a triangle pointing up at Jesus and Mary (see second image, above). The San Giobbe Altarpiece is now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.  Random Trivia: Bellini painted another portrait of St. Job onto the church garment worn by St. Louis.

Domenico Ghirlandaio: An Old Man and His Grandson (1490) Musée du Louvre, Paris

An Old Man and His Grandson is a painting by Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio made using tempera on wood panel measuring  2 ft. high by 1.5 ft. wide. Despite the title, which is not original, there is no direct evidence about the identity of the man and boy in the double portrait. Their clothes indicate that they come from the aristocracy, and the entire composition indicates that they have strong feelings of love for each other. Their eyes meet on a diagonal line, while the boy’s left hand reaches out to touch the old man in a moving gesture of affection. This connection between the two is reinforced by the red garments worn by both. The old man’s deformed nose is probably afflicted with rhinophyma, a non-fatal skin disease, according to physicians who have examined the painting. Ghirlandaio made a drawing of the same man, possibly after his death. The painting had been seriously scratched and otherwise damaged until a major cleaning and retouching in 1996 restored much of its former condition. It is located in the Louvre in Paris.

Albrecht Dürer: Self-Portrait (1498) Museo del Prado, Madrid

German painter Albrecht Dürer painted his second of three adult self-portraits at age 26, after he had returned from a visit to Italy, where he felt that artists were treated with more respect than in his native land. Here, he presents himself in a haughty, self-confident pose, with the stylish clothing of an effeminate dandy, complete with silk gloves. The artist’s intent appears to be presenting himself to his home audience as a master artist worthy of their praise. The landscape outside the window has been analyzed in numerous ways – a reminiscence of Italian travels, a reflection of inner mental states, or a prediction of things to come. Dürer made the Self-Portrait with oil paints on wood panel measuring 20.5 in. tall by 16.1 in. wide. At various points in its existence, the work was owned by Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain. The 1498 Self-Portrait is now located at the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

Albrecht Dürer: The Apocalypse (Apocalypse with Pictures) (1498) Various locations
Durer_Apocalypse four horsemen
In 1498, German artist Albrecht Dürer published a new edition of the Book of Revelation originally entitled The Apocalypse with Pictures, in both German and Latin. The book contained 15 woodcut prints by Dürer illustrating the terror and calamity of St. John’s apocalyptic visions so dramatically that his prints soon made him famous throughout Europe. The timing of the book couldn’t have been better. It was 1498 and many Christians believed that the year 1500 might bring the Apocalypse predicted in the Bible. Dürer’s woodcut technique was astonishing – he defied the limitations of the process and created highly detailed, realistic monochrome images. Each book, which measured 15.2 in. tall by 11 in. wide, emphasized the illustrations by placing them on the right (or recto) page, with the text on the left (verso) side. While the entire set of prints received acclaim, the most famous was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in which Dürer effectively uses parallel lines and strong diagonal motion to depict Death, Famine, War and Plague wreaking havoc (see first image, above). Other prints shown above are: (2) St. John Devouring the Book; (3) Opening the Fifth and Sixth Seals; and (4) The Woman Clothed with the Sun and the Seven-Headed Dragon

Unknown Artists: Moai (1250-1500) 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, above). (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 second image, above). 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
Originally to be part of the tomb of Pope Julius II, Dying Slave was paired with Rebellious Slave. Marble. 7 feet, 4 inches high.

Titian: Pesaro Madonna (Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro) (1519-1526) Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice
titian pesaro
When Venetian Renaissance painter Titian received a commission from Jacopo Pesaro, a Bishop and the pope’s naval commander, to paint an altarpiece with the Madonna and Child for the family chapel in the Franciscan church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, the artist knew exactly where the painting would be hung – on the left side of the church near the entrance – and so he made an historic decision. Because most viewers would approach the painting from the left, Titian decided to place Jesus and Mary in the upper right portion of the canvas, thus breaking hundreds of years of religious painting tradition in which the Madonna and Child were placed in the center. This decision not only changed art history, but it opened up numerous possibilities for Titian and those who came after him. In the Pesaro Madonna (also known as Madonna of the Pesaro Family, Madonna with Saints and Members of the Pesaro Family and Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro), Titian creates a series of scalene triangles, one beginning with Mary, another with St. Peter, below her on the staircase, in contrast to the isoceles triangles of earlier paintings, that connect the kneeling donor (on the left) with the saints above him. Consistent with the off-center composition, the perspectival vanishing point is far to the right. Using the postures and gestures of the saints, and the placement of St. Peter’s keys and the banner held by the soldier (who holds a captured Turk – a reference to Pesaro’s 1502 victory over the Turks), Titian creates a series of diagonals that impart movement and energy.  In particular, the contrasting positions of Mary and Jesus link the viewer to both the donor on the left (through St. Peter), and the donor’s family on the right (through St. Francis). In contrast with the energetic gesturing of the saints, the Pesaro family inhabit a more mundane world, pictured in profile (but for one curious child) and a little flat. The Pesaro Madonna was made with oils on a canvas measuring 16 ft. tall by 8.8 ft. wide and possesses the bright colors for which Venetian painters were famous. The large columns in the center of the painting are unprecedented, but x-ray analysis indicates that they may be a later addition and not painted by Titian. The canvas remains in the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice.

Albrecht Dürer: The Four Apostles (1526), Alte Pinakothek, Munich
durer apostles 1   durer apostles 2
As the Protestant Reformation swept through Northern Europe in the 16th Century, everyone had to make a choice whether to adopt the new faith or stay with the Roman Catholic church. For artists, the Reformation had significant consequences for their ability to make a living. The Roman church was the primary source of artistic commissions, while the new Protestant churches were wary of religious imagery.  German artist Albrecht Dürer’s paintings of Four Apostles were made without a commission and then presented to the Town Council of Nuremberg. The two panels show John and Peter (on the left, first image) and Mark and Paul (on the right, second image), with their attributes:  John (open book), Peter (keys), Mark (scroll) and Paul (Bible). In his representation of the apostles, Dürer has taken care to emphasize Protestant values over Roman Catholic ones.  John and Paul were favorites of Martin Luther, so they are placed in front.  Peter, the apostle who most represents the Roman church, is depicted as old and somewhat out of touch, as he reads along from the Gospel of John in John’s Bible. The focus on reading the Bible reflects Luther’s belief that individuals should maintain a personal relationship with God by reading Scripture, preferably in their native language. To that end, quotations from the Bible in German taken from Martin Luther’s translation are displayed on the bottom of each panel. Dürer used oil paints on lindenwood panels, each one 7.1 ft. tall by 2.5 ft. wide. The paintings are now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

Jacopo Pontormo: The Deposition of Christ (1525-1528) Capponi Chapel, Church of Santa Felicità, Florence

The Deposition of Christ (also known as The Deposition from the Cross) is Florentine painter Jacopo Pontormo’s masterpiece. It was painted with oils on wood panels measuring 10.25 ft. tall by 6.3 ft. wide, as the altarpiece for the Capponi Chapel in Florence’s Santa Felicità Church, where it remains. Portormo painted in the Mannerist style – the figures seem flatter than in the High Renaissance; there is less attention paid to strict perspective or simple, direct compositions like da Vinci’s pyramids. Instead, the figures in the Deposition form a swirling, dancing mass, going several directions at once, and they do not have the weight and substance of figures from the recent past. Other breaks with the past include Pontormo’s decision to remove many of the trademark objects and symbols of a typical deposition, such as the cross or a ladder. (The absence of a cross has led some to interpret the painting as the entombment of Christ instead of his deposition.) Similarly, the landscape and backgrounds are reduced to a minimum. What we see is movement, strong (even histrionic) emotions and bright patches of color.

Maqsud of Kashan: Ardabil Carpet (1539-1540) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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 carpet to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The other carpet, which was now missing its border, 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.  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.

Tintoretto (Jacopo Comin): The Crucifixion (1565) Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice tintoretto crucifixionTintoretto (born Jacopo Comin) was a Venetian painter whose style combined aspects of Mannerism, the Venetian School (esp. Titian) and the work of Michelangelo. The Crucifixion is a massive canvas (measuring 17 ft. tall by 40.2 ft. wide) that hangs in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, along with many other Tintoretto paintings. The extremely busy and energetic composition focuses attention on a muscular and engaged Jesus and the cluster of grieving followers, but the artist fills in the many minor characters, from the two thieves about to be crucified to the soldier about to bring Jesus a vinegar-filled sponge, to the workers performing various tasks. Above it all is the holy light, ready to take Jesus to heaven.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Peasant Wedding (The Peasant Wedding Feast) (1567) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Scholars tell us that Bruegel’s The Peasant Wedding (also known as The Peasant Wedding Feast) is a fairly accurate depiction of life among farm workers in mid-16th Century Belgium and The Netherlands (see first image above). According to tradition, the contented bride sits against a green curtain, with a paper crown on her head (and another hanging above) and does nothing (see second image above, with detail). It’s not clear which man is the groom – he could be the man pouring the beer or the one asking for more. The food is bread, porridge and soup, which is being carried on a door taken off its hinges. Two men play pijpzaks, a version of the bagpipes. The room is a barn or threshing floor, and there is a season’s worth of grain stacked up, creating the back wall. There is a significant amount of drinking going on – probably beer, although art historians who read this as an updated story of the Marriage at Cana believe the plentiful liquid is wine. The figures in conversation at the far right of the table may be the Franciscan priest who married the couple and the wealthy landlord. While many see the painting as a celebration of peasant life and reward after hard work (shown by the rake and corn), some interpret it as a screed against gluttony. To create The Peasant Wedding, Bruegel used oil paints on wood panel measuring 4.1 ft. high by 5.4 ft. wide. Bruegel’s painting is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio): Supper at Emmaus (1601) National Gallery, London
Caravaggio-Supper_in_Emmaus 3
Painted with oils on a canvas measuring 4.7 ft. high by 6.4 ft. wide, Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus depicts a story from the Gospel of Luke in which two of Christ’s disciples meet him on the road after he rose from the dead but do not recognize him until, at lunch, he blesses the bread. Caravaggio (born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio) paints the precise moment of recognition, using the new Baroque style. The figures are real people with all their flaws. Caravaggio is less concerned with depth and perspective than with bringing the scene forward to connect with the viewer. In gestures of astonishment and disbelief, the disciples reach their arms toward the plane of the painting, as if trying to draw us in. The basket of fruit leans over the table edge so precariously, we worry it will fall on our floor, not theirs.  In contrast to all the activity in the foreground, the back of the room is essentially featureless, though claustrophobically close. Supper at Emmaus is now at the National Gallery in London.

Adam Elsheimer: The Flight into Egypt (1609) Alte Pinakothek, Munich
Elsheimer-Flight into egypt
Adam Elsheimer, a German Baroque painter working in Italy, painted small landscapes designed for the cabinet, a private room in a spacious home. Possibly Elsheimer’s last painting, The Flight into Egypt measures 12.2 in. tall by 16 in. wide and was painted with oils on a sheet of copper. In it, the artist depicts a familiar story from Matthew’s Gospel in an unfamiliar way. According to the Gospel, it was nighttime when Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus into Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter of the firstborn, but previous artists depicted the flight into Egypt as a daytime event. Elsheimer was the first painter to meet the challenge of telling the story in a nocturnal setting. The work contrasts the few, limited light sources (the moon, Joseph’s torch and the shepherds’ fire) with the vast darkness of forest and sky. The viewer experiences both anxiety and relief as the holy family seeks out the small pools of light (providing warmth and hope) amid the unknown mystery and fearful power of the darkness. Elsheimer was an amateur astronomer and may have had access to the recently-invented telescope, which would explain the accuracy of his depictions of the Milky Way, Ursa Major (the Big Dipper), other stars and the moon, all of which are consistent with the sky in Rome during June 1609. The Flight into Egypt is now at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

Peter Paul Rubens: Descent from the Cross (1611-1614) Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium
In 1611, Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens received a commission from the Confraternity of Arquebusiers to create an altarpiece for the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp. Rubens painted a triptych, using oils on wood panels, depicting the Visitation of Mary with Elizabeth on the left, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on the right, and the Descent from the Cross in the center. While rooted in the Baroque tradition and the work of Caravaggio, Rubens’ centerpiece (measuring 13.8 ft. tall by 10.8 ft. wide) also draws from the Venetian style. We see ladders on each side of the cross, and at the top, two unidentified workers taking down the pale corpse of Jesus, while holding the shroud they will use to wrap the body. A little lower, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea are preparing to accept the body. Still lower, St. John assists on the right and the three Marys (the Madonna, Mary Magdalene and Mary Cleopas) stand or kneel on the left. The Madonna reaches out to her son, while Jesus’ lifeless, punctured foot rests poignantly on Mary Magdalene’s shoulder. Rubens’ The Descent from the Cross is located in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium.

Peter Paul Rubens: The Rape of the Daughters of Leuccipus (1617-1618) Alte Pinakothek, Munich
The term “Rubenesque” arose from the fleshy women figures in paintings like The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, which Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens made using oils on a canvas measuring 7.3 ft. tall by 6.8 ft. wide in 1617-1618. The painting shows brothers Castor (left) and Pollux abducting Phoebe and Hilaeira, the daughters of Leucippus, whom they will force to marry them. Thematically, the work is controversial because of an apparent ambivalence on the part of the subjects: Castor and Pollux seem less than enthusiastic about the abduction; and in some ways, the women seem a bit too enthusiastic, not fully objecting.  Some scholars have read Rubens as ascribing to a then-popular theory (among men, presumably) that women enjoy being taken against their wills. From the point of view of art history, the work is a masterpiece of the Baroque style. There is intense drama among the men, women and horses, who twist and bend in unlikely ways, but the composition, which runs along two crossing diagonal lines to form an X, is almost classical in its unity. The spatial gap between the two women’s bodies is a source of dramatic tension, as the eye wishes to see one massive pink fleshy mass, and there are several visual rhymes. Rubens’ treatment of light and color – particularly the flesh tones of the nudes – is masterful. The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (also known as The Abduction of the Daughters of Leucippus) is now at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

Unknown Artist: Mosaics, Imam Mosque (formerly Shah Mosque)
(1611-1629) Isfahan, Iran
shah mosque 2Shah mosque 1
dome of shah mosque     shah mosque 3   
The Shah Mosque (known since the 1979 revolution as Imam Mosque; also known as Masjed-e Jameh Abbasi, Masjed-e Shah or Masjed-e Imam) is located in Naghsh-i Jahan Square in Isfahan, Iran. It was built between 1611 and 1630 under Persian leader Shah Abbas I, of the Safavid Dynasty, and was designed by architect Shaykh Bahai. Both the building and the 475,000 mosaic tiles that decorate it combine Islamic (mostly Arab) traditions with local Persian styles. For example, unlike monochrome domes found in other traditions, Persian domes such as the Shah Mosque’s are covered with colorful tiles, both outside (see third image above) and in, where there is a sunburst pattern (see second image above). Shah Abbas wanted the mosque to be completed in his lifetime (it was not to be) so he asked the builders to invent new, faster techniques, such as the haft rangi (seven-color) style of making tile mosaics, in which instead of firing small individual tiles of a single color, each large tile (17-20 in. square) incorporates multiple colors. (The seven colors are: dark blue, light blue, white, black, yellow, green and bisquit.) The resulting tiles are quicker to make and allow for more colorful designs. They shimmer in direct sunlight, although they are less vivid in shadowy rooms than earlier Safavid and Timurid mosaics. Among the most elaborate mosaics are those on and inside the four iwans or large formal entrance halls. The entrance iwan, or gateway (see fourth image above), includes two minarets and a recessed half-moon with stalactite tilework. Around the rim of the 108-ft tall iwan, royal calligrapher Reza Abbasi, using white script on dark blue, inscribed verses praising Muhammad and his cousin and son-in-law Ali, as well as the date of the groundbreaking. Although the dominant color of the interior mosaics is blue, some of the halls include a brighter arrangement of yellows and greens (see first image above). As with almost all Islamic art, there are no depictions of humans or animals; aside from the inscriptions, the designs in the Imam Mosque are generally abstract.

Peter Paul Rubens: Horrors of War (Consequences of War) (c. 1637) Pitti Palace, Florence
Rubens-Horrors of War
Flemish Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens was an accomplished diplomat as well as an artist, so it is no surprise that his allegorical painting Consequences of War (also known as Horrors of War) contains rich political insights. Commissioned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand II de’ Medici, Consequences of War is a commentary on the Thirty Years War then raging in Europe.  Rubens places a blood-red Mars at the center of the composition. The Fury Alecto leads Mars into battle, while his lover Venus tries ineffectually to hold them back. A woman in black, symbolizing Europe, grieves at the destruction. Elsewhere, a trampled book, a broken lute, a fallen architect and scattered arrows stand for war’s devastating impacts on learning, building, and art. By placing two children beside Venus, Rubens reminds us of the traumatic effects of war on the young. Consequences of War, which was made with oils on a canvas measuring 6.75 ft. tall by 11.3 ft. wide , is now in the Pitti Palace in Florence.

Diego Velázquez: Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome
Portrait of Pope Innocent X.

Painted with oils on a canvas measuring 3.75 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide, the Portrait of Pope Innocent X is considered by some scholars to be the best portrait ever made. Diego Velázquez, who was court painter for King Philip of Spain, visited Italy from 1649 to 1651. Due to his fame as an artist, Velázquez received an audience with Pope Innocent X, where the pontiff accepted the artist’s offer to paint his portrait. The artist renders faithfully the grandeur of the Pope’s garments and symbols of office – the use of color is considered unequalled – but in realizing the Pope’s face, Velázquez goes beyond outer appearances to reveal a fierce determination (some have called it ruthlessness) just beneath the surface. Legend has it that Innocent X, upon first seeing the portrait, said “Troppo vero!” (“All too true!”) Nevertheless, the Pope hung the painting in his chambers, and it is now in his family museum, the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome. Random Trivia: Twentieth Century Irish-British artist Francis Bacon used the Portrait of Pope Innocent X as the starting point for a number of truly unsettling paintings (see Bacon’s 1953 Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X in second image above).

Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn): Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1653-1654) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Rembrandt's Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.michael-crawford-aristotle-with-a-bust-of-homer-new-yorker-cartoon
When commissioned by Sicilian nobleman Don Antonio Ruffo for a painting of a philosopher, Dutch Baroque artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn chose to portray Ancient Greek thinker and scientist Aristotle, dressed as a wealthy 17th Century man and wearing a gold chain from his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great, lost in thought beside a bust of the Ancient Greek poet Homer. Some scholars have interpreted the piece as contrasting the pure life of art, represented by Homer, with the compromises necessary to achieve Aristotle’s material success. To focus our attention and create drama, Rembrandt uses tenebrism, a technique in which dramatic lighting focuses the viewer’s attention on the key elements of the composition, while the rest of the canvas remains in shadow or darkness. The painting was made using oils on a canvas measuring 4.7 ft. tall by 4.5 ft. wide. Formerly known as Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, the name of the painting was changed by its new owner, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to, simply, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer. Random Trivia: On July 21, 2013, The New Yorker published a cartoon by Michael Crawford updating Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, courtesy of The Simpsons (see second image above).

Johannes Vermeer: The 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), Vermeer’s overall tone is one of respect for hard work and other domestic values. Art historians praise Vermeer’s treatment of light, handling of color and creation of the illusion of physicality. They also note Vermeer’s early use of tiny dots of paint, or pointilles, particularly for rendering the bread, long before Georges Seurat pioneered Pointillism in the 19th Century. The Milkmaid is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Jacob van Ruisdael: The Jewish Cemetery
Version 1: (c. 1654-1655) Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
jewish cemetery
Version 2: (c. 1655-1660) Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden
Ruisdael Jewish Cemetery
Dutch physician and landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael made two versions of a composition based on the Portuguese-Jewish Cemetery at Ouderkerk near Amsterdam. The larger of the two, which is in the Detroit Institute of Arts, dates from 1654-1655 and measures 4.7 ft. tall by 6.2 ft. wide (see first image, above), while the second version, which is in Dresden, Germany’s Gemäldegalerie, is 2.7 ft. tall by 3.1 ft. wide and dates to 1655-1660 (see second image, above). Scholars describe both paintings as atypical Ruisdael works in that they are moralistic, allegorical and continue a tradition known as ‘vanitas’ pictures, in which the artist reminds the viewer that this life and all its pleasures are fleeting and that death awaits us all. Ruisdael goes further, however, and provides hints (the rainbow, a patch of blue sky, the illuminated grave) that there is hope for salvation in the afterlife. To create these and other landscapes, Ruisdael constructed landscapes that never existed. While the three central graves were present, as a contemporary sketch by Ruisdael proves, the rest of the scene in both versions of The Jewish Cemetery is pieced together from disparate elements. The actual cemetery occupied level ground; the hill, the rushing stream and the dead beech never existed, at least not here. Ruisdael borrowed the ruins behind the graves from nearby Egmond: an ancient abbey church for the Detroit version and a ruined castle for the painting in Dresden. For Ruisdael, the emotional impact of the paintings was more important than whether the landscape depicted had an exact counterpart in nature; others painted what they saw, but he painted imagined scenes that triggered powerful emotions, prefiguring the Romantics. Ruisdael had a difficult time finding buyers for his emotional landscapes, which followed a Germanic tradition not afraid to explore desolation and other dark themes. Unfortunately, the fashion at the time was for lighter fare, in the Italian style. Ruisdael did receive considerable praise, then and now, for his cloud-filled skies, which dominate many of his works. One reason, perhaps, that he is not better known, is that the dominant color in most of his paintings is green, and the green paints he used have darkened considerably over the centuries, hiding the brilliance of the original color from contemporary viewers.

Hyacinthe Rigaud: Portrait of Louis XIV (1701) Musée du Louvre, Paris
Louis_XIV_of_France Hyacinthe Rigaud 1701 Louvre
French portratist Hyacinthe Rigaud painted four generations of Bourbon monarchs, their family, friends and officials and knew how to present royalty in the best light. He painted his larger-than-life Portrait of Louis XIV (made with oils on a canvas measuring 9.2 ft. tall by 6.25 ft. wide) in 1701, when the Sun King was 63 years old and at the height of his power. The purpose of the portrait was to glorify the kingship, not the king, and as a result, scholars believe, Rigaud probably idealized the Bourbon monarch’s appearance. To emphasize his royal power, Louis wears his coronation robes (adorned with the fleur-de-lys, symbol of the House of Bourbon) and carries his scepter (upside down), with his crown nearby. He pulls back his robes to reveal his legs (a possible reference to his skill as a dancer) and also the Sword of Charlemagne, which was used in coronation ceremonies. Rigaud was careful to drape the large column in the rear in such a way that it does not appear taller than the king, who dominates the composition. The Portrait of Louis XIV was so popular that Rigaud made multiple copies of it, including one for the king himself, who gave away the original as a gift for the king of Spain. The portrait is now in the Louvre in Paris.

William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress (series of eight) (c. 1732-1733) Sir John Soane’s Museum, London
Hogarth-Rake's Progress No. 2
hogarth rake  
Between 1732 and 1733, William Hogarth painted eight scenes from the life of the fictional Thomas Rakewell, heir to a rich merchant, a moral tale of about irresponsibility and living in excess done in the rococo style. In 1735, Hogarth had the paintings engraved, with some alterations, and then published as prints. The eight chapters of the Rake’s decline and fall are as follows: (1) The Heir: Tom’s father is dead and Tom has his fortune; he buys new clothes and rejects his pregnant fiancée, Sarah; (2) The Levee: Tom is attended by various hangers-on offering their services, including music, fencing, quarterstaff and dancing teachers (see first image, above); (3) The Orgy: Tom’s watch is stolen at a drunken orgy at the Rose Tavern, a famous brothel; (4) The Arrest: Sarah intervenes to prevent bailiffs from arresting Tom for debts as he takes a sedan chair to a party, has his cane stolen and has oil poured on his head; (5) The Marriage: Tom marries a rich old maid to get out of debt, while Sarah arrives too late (see second image, above); (6) The Gaming House: Tom looks to heaven to help after gambling away his new wife’s money, while a fire breaks out; (7) The Prison: Tom is now in debtors’ prison, where Sarah and his wife lament his state, and there are signs that he is losing his sanity; (8) The Madhouse: Insane and violent, Tom ends up in Bedlam (Bethlehem Hospital) mental asylum, where Sarah, still ignored, continues to comfort him. The original eight paintings, each made with oils on a canvas measuring 2 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide, are now located in Sir John Soane’s Museum in London.

Thomas GainsboroughMr. and Mrs. Andrews (1748–1750) National Gallery, London
Members of the landed gentry, Robert Andrews, aged 22, married Frances Carter, age 16, in November 1748. As part of Frances’ dowry, she brought to the marriage a portion of her father’s estate near the town of Sudbury, and when they had their portrait taken a year or two later, they made sure that the extensive property was included. Mr. Andrews’s rifle and dog imply that his crops and livestock are so well managed, he has plenty of time for a relaxing hunting break. By devoting so much of the canvas to the well-groomed estate, Gainsborough drew upon the trend of less formal ‘conversation piece’ portraits, in which a group of subjects engages in an activity instead of sitting in a formal pose. This portrait is a hybrid, since Mr. and Mrs. Andrews do pose for the artist, although in a less formal setting. (In fact, scholars believe that the married couple probably posed in a studio with their fine bench and dog and were placed in the landscape through the magic of painting.) Gainsborough grew up in the same neighborhood as Robert and Frances, but somewhat further down the social ladder, which may explain the disdainful expression on Mrs. Andrews’s face.  What is not explained is the patch of bare canvas on Mrs. Andrews’s lap. Gainsborough apparently intended to show her holding something – freshly-killed game, a baby, a dog, flowers – but for some reason delivered the painting to the family unfinished. The unusually shaped portrait (made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.3 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide) stayed in the Andrews family’s private collection until 1960. The work did not come to public view until 1927 when it was exhibited in Ipswich and caused a sensation with its charm and freshness. In 1953, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews was chosen as one of four paintings sent to Paris to represent British art in an exhibition celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. The painting is now in the National Gallery in London.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Le Carceri d’Invenzione (The Imaginary Prisons) (series of etchings) (1750, revised 1761) Various locations

Issued 14 unnumbered etchings in 1750. Revised and numbered in 1761 and adding two more for total of 16.  First image: Number 11.  Second image: Number 6.

John Singleton Copley: Watson and the Shark (1778) National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Born in colonial Boston, John Singleton Copley first made a name for himself as a painter of American portraits, but he moved to England in 1774, in part to escape the Revolution, and there he began to take up history paintings. One of his first was Watson and the Shark, painted with oils on a canvas measuring 6 ft. high by 7.5 ft. wide. The painting tells the story of Brook Watson, a British merchant of Copley’s acquaintance, who lost his right leg to a shark in the waters off Havana, Cuba in 1749, when Watson was a 14-year-old cabin boy. The attack occurred while Watson was swimming alone, and it took three attempts by rescuers before he was saved.  Copley’s canvas, which was commissioned by Watson himself, depicts the third, successful rescue attempt. The artist plays down the gore of the true story – there is a trace of blood, but the loss of the leg is merely hinted at.  In order to see Watson’s body (which was modeled on the Borghese Gladiator, from 100 BCE) in the surf, Copley has made the water translucent. The men in the boat show a range of facial expressions. Scholars agree that the shark, while frightening, is not rendered realistically: sharks have no lips, their eyes don’t face forward, and they don’t blow air from their nostrils. Copley exhibited Watson and the Shark at the Royal Academy in 1778, where it caused a sensation. At his death, Watson donated the painting to Christ’s Hospital of London; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. purchased it in 1963. Copley painted a full-size copy for himself, which is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Another smaller copy, with a more upright composition, is in the Detroit Institute of Arts (see second image, above).

Étienne Maurice Falconet: Monument to Peter the Great (The Bronze Horseman) (1770-1782) Senate Square, St. Petersburg
bronze horseman
When Russian Empress Catherine the Great commissioned a statue of Tsar Peter the Great (Peter I) for the center of St. Petersburg (the city bearing his name), her intentions were complex. Catherine was a German princess who married Peter I’s grandson, then overthrew him in a coup and seized the throne herself. The statue was designed to help her gain legitimacy for her rule by identifying herself with one of the great Russian leaders of the past, known for his Western reforms. She brought in French Rococo sculptor Étienne Maurice Falconet, who had never sculpted a horse before, to make a larger-than-life bronze equestrian statue of Peter. Falconet designed a dramatic piece of contrasting elements, with a calm, classically-robed Peter pointing to the West with equanimity, while his horse, filled with raw naturalism, rears up explosively at the edge of a cliff and tramples a serpent symbolizing Peter’s enemies (see second image, above). The Tsar’s face was sculpted by Falconet’s 18-year-old assistant (and possible mistress) Marie-Anne Collot, using Peter’s death mask and portraits. The right hand was modeled on a Roman-era bronze. Casting the immense bronze sculpture required technical innovations by Falconet and his chief caster Emelyan Khailov. It was also dangerous; at one point, the mold broke, releasing molten bronze and starting several fires. A proper pedestal to serve as a stage for the action was a crucial part of the design, and Falconet looked long and hard before he found the perfect boulder: a 1653-ton block of red granite nicknamed Thunder Stone. Hundreds of workers dug the stone out of the ground and then waited until winter to drag it nearly four miles over the frozen ground to the Gulf of Finland, where a ship waited to take it to St. Petersburg. All the while, masons and sculptors were carving the block to Falconet’s specifications, reducing the final pedestal to a trim 1378 tons. A grand unveiling took place in August 1782 (but without Falconet – due to a quarrel with Catherine the Great, he had left for Paris in 1778), revealing a monument that reached 45 feet into the air (25 ft. for the pedestal; 20 ft. for the bronze statue), with the engraving, “Catherine the Second to Peter the First, 1782” in both Russian and Latin (see first image, above). Fifty years later, Alexander Pushkin wrote a poem in which the horse and rider come alive, called The Bronze Horseman, and thus coined a new name for the monument. A myth also arose that St. Petersburg (also known as Leningrad) would never fall to an enemy as long as the Bronze Horseman still stood. During the Siege of Leningrad in World War II, the monument was covered with sandbags and a wooden shelter, and survived the bombing unharmed.

Francisco Goya (Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes): Charles IV of Spain and His Family (1800) Museo del Prado, Madrid
goya charles iv and family
Critics and scholars have debated for years whether Francisco Goya’s portrait of Charles IV of Spain and 12 members of his family is intended to be a realistic but neutral portrayal of the royals, or some combination of parodic caricature and critical political commentary.  If the latter is the case, it would have taken a lot of nerve for Goya, who was essentially the official court painter, to bite the hands that fed him. In fact, it was the king’s idea to have a group portrait. Instead of scheduling everyone to visit Goya in his studio (which is apparently the setting of the portrait, with Goya’s giant canvases on the walls), Goya went to court and sketched 10 portraits separately, then obtained approval from each adult subject for their portrayal. Based on the results, it appears that the royal family was comfortable with being portrayed in a realistic manner – ‘warts and all’, in other words. Goya arranged the figures in a shallow space on the canvas, in what some scholars have described as a frieze. But what appears to be either a straight line of figures or mere chaos, is actually carefully organized according to political realities. Although the queen is in the center (as she would be in a portrait of any Spanish family), the two men closest to the picture plane are the monarch Charles IV, on the right, his head against the lightest background, and, waiting to emerge from the shadows, his son and successor, the future Ferdinand VII, on the left. Other family members are arranged according to importance. Two women family members were not available to Goya so he painted one turning her head and another is seen in profile. While the faces certainly vary in attractiveness, Goya made sure that the clothing, jewelry and medals were all stunning – Goya’s treatment of the light reflecting off the silver of the military medals and jewels creates a royal constellation of gleaming stars from one end of the canvas to the other. Almost all the women are wearing arrow-shaped hairpins, which may have been designed by the court jeweler, Leonard Chopinot. Art historians have noted Goya’s homage to Velázquez’s Las Meninas. He has even included a shadowy self-portrait at a tall easel nearly identical to the one in that earlier portrait of Spanish royalty. A significant difference, of course, is that the king and queen are inside the picture this time, not outside looking in, leading some to wonder if Goya imagined that he and his portrait subjects were all looking out at a mirror that was reflecting back the image Goya was painting. Known by various names, including Charles IV of Spain and His FamilyCharles IV and His Family and The Family of Charles IV, the painting was made with oils on a canvas measuring 9.2 ft. tall by 11 ft. wide. It is now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

J.M.W. Turner: Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway (1844)
National Gallery, London
The Romantics were known for their worship of nature and spirit; they were generally skeptical of technology and what others called ‘progress.’ So when English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner debuted Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway in 1844, he raised a few eyebrows. Many interpreted the work as a tribute to the power and energy of the relatively new railway technology. Others, spotting a hare running for its life on the bridge (impossible to see in most reprints), see a more critical (or perhaps equivocal) message about the impacts of the railway on traditional ways of life.  By engulfing the scene in rain and smoke, Turner creates a hazy, almost abstract quality at first glance. Upon closer inspection, many details emerge: the hare, the railroad bridge (identified as the Isambard Brunel-designed Maidenhead Railway Bridge on the Thames), the Thames itself, a fishing boat, a second bridge for carriages, a farmer ploughing his field and locals lining the river bank to cheer the still-novel locomotive. Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, made with oils on a canvas measuring 3 ft. tall by 4 ft. wide, is now in the National Gallery in London.

George Caleb Bingham: Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
fur traders
black fox
Missouri painter George Caleb Bingham spent a great deal of time watching boats on the Missouri River, so it is no surprise that in 1845, when he returned from a winter stay in central Missouri with a number of paintings and sketches, one of them was a genre scene of traders on a canoe (see first image above). Bingham had named the painting French Trader and Half-breed Son, but the American Art-Union, where he brought it to be sold, changed the title to Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, for fear of causing offense. Painted with oils on a canvas measuring 2.4 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide, the work depicts a trader and his son in a dugout canoe containing a pile of furs, a dead duck and an animal on a leash. The older man wears a liberty cap (popular during the time of the French Revolution) and glares at the viewer. His son, with the rifle that presumably shot the duck, is smiling.  Although the water is moving, the entire scene appears still and calm. A number of snags are visible sticking out of the water. As for the leashed animal, there is furious debate about its identity. Most lay viewers believe it is a cat, but most art historians have concluded that it is a bear cub. One website makes a strong case that it is a black fox, which had the most valuable fur of all (see second image above). Some art historians believe that the trapping lifestyle depicted in Fur Traders Descending the Missouri had passed by 1845 and that Bingham’s canvas recalls an earlier time. Scholars refer to the style of the painting as luminism; an offshoot of the Hudson River School, luminism is characterized by attention to detail, focus on the effects of light, aerial perspective, a lack of visible brushstrokes, calm and tranquil scenes, and reflective water. Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri,which was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.4 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide, is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

John Everett MillaisOphelia (1851–1852) Tate Britain, London
Millais Ophelia
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Hamlet kills Ophelia’s father, Ophelia goes mad. While she is gathering flowers by the river, a branch snaps and she falls into the river. Instead of trying to save herself, she sings “snatches of old tunes” while her dress fills with water and drags her under to her death. English Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais chose to paint Ophelia afloat in the river in the act of singing, hands aloft, “as if incapable of her own distress,” in Shakespeare’s words. To do so, he found a spot along the Hogsmill River in the County of Surrey that approximately matched the description in Hamlet. He then painted the landscape, up to 11 hours a day, six days a week, for five months in 1851. In the process, he confronted insects, wind, cold and even a farmer who called the police for trespassing. The result was a brilliantly colorful and botanically accurate depiction of the riverbank. He then brought the picture to his studio, where his model (and future wife) 19-year-old Elizabeth Siddal put on an elaborate silvered gown that Millais had bought and lay in a heated bathtub while Millias painted his Ophelia in the Hogsmill. The resulting work was not immediately accepted as a masterpiece, although it has since developed almost iconic status. Ophelia was made consistent with the principles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of which Millais was a founding member: it contains abundant detail, intense colors and a complex composition, and it acknowledges that mimesis, or imitation of nature, is central to art’s purpose.  One of the most important technical innovations of the Pre-Raphaelites was to replace the dark background such as bitumen used by most artists with a white ground, or even a wet, white ground, to bring out a shimmering brilliance in their colors. Ophelia, which was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.5 ft. tall by 3.7 ft. wide, is now in the Tate Britain in London.

Thomas Eakins: Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (The Champion Single Sculls) (1871) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Thomas_Eakins_Max_Schmitt_in_a_Single_Scull 2eakins max schmitt detail
In 1870, American painter Thomas Eakins returned to Philadelphia after several years studying art in Paris, where Realism was then dominant. An athlete and rower, Eakins began to sketch the scullers on the Schuylkill River, including his good friend and top rower Max Schmitt. On October 5, 1870, Eakins sketched while Schmitt won the singles championship. A year later, Eakins exhibited his first (and arguably best) rowing painting, then titled The Champion Single Sculls, more commonly known as Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (see first image above). The painting, which was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.7 ft. high by 3.8 ft. wide, is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Random Trivia: Eakins added a self-portrait – he is the rower in the middle distance, closer to the bridge (see second image above).

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 contrary to reality, Monet has given the orange sun the same brightness, or luminescence, as the sky and clouds. As a result, only the primate portion of our brains, which sees in color, perceives the sun; for the more primitive black-and-white portion of our brains, the sun disappears into the background. This creates what neurobiologists call 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 and is now in the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris.

Thomas Eakins: The Gross Clinic (1875) Philadelphia Museum of Art & Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 
Some experts have called The Gross Clinic (also known as Portrait of Samuel D. Gross), by a then-relatively unknown Thomas Eakins, the most important American painting of the 19th Century. The painted scene takes place in the surgical amphitheater of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Renowned physician and professor of medicine Samuel D. Gross, with bloodstained hands, is conducting surgery on a patient with osteomyelitis of the femur with the assistance of four other surgeons. Eakins personally observed the surgical procedure, a more conservative approach to treating the ailment than the traditional response of amputating the leg. The patient’s leg is exposed and the incision is visible, but it is hard for the viewer to determine the exact position of the rest of the anaesthetized patient’s body, or whether the patient is a man or a woman. In the stadium-style seats behind Gross sit medical students, including one who is a self-portrait of Eakins. Behind Gross, a woman, presumably the patient’s mother, covers her face with her hands in anxious distress. Although all acknowledged the excellence of Eakins’ talent, the committee for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition rejected the painting, apparently because of the graphic nature of the images. Others found that the inclusion of the crying mother was overly melodramatic. Modern critics find the contrast between the mother’s emotional reaction and the calm rationality of the doctors to send an important message about the growth and advancement of medicine into a true science. Having been rejected for the Centennial, the painting was exhibited in an army hospital until Jefferson Medical College finally purchased it. Recently, the Medical College was forced to sell the painting and for a time it looked as though it would leave Philadelphia. In response, a public campaign raised enough funds (along with the sales of some lesser known works) to keep The Gross Clinic in Philadelphia as a co-possession of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. The oil-on-canvas painting, which measures 8 ft. high by 6.5 ft. wide, recently underwent a significant restoration, in part to undo damage done by a 1917 restoration.  

Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi: Statue of Liberty (1886) Liberty Island, NY
statue of liberty 2   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 and the statue itself, which measures slightly more than 151 ft. tall (see first and second images above). 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. 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 above). In her right hand she raises a torch, symbol of progress (see fourth image above), while in her left hand, she 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. In 1876, after Bartholdi designed and built the statue’s right arm and torch, he brought it to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, after which it stood for several years in New York City’s Madison Square Park, before returning to France. When work on the statue was completed in 1884, it was 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, poet Emma Lazarus, 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. After nearly a century of lighting her lamp beside the golden door, Liberty underwent major renovations in 1984-1986.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: At the Moulin Rouge (1892-1895) Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.
Toulouse-Lautrec At_the_moulin_rouge_

Born into an aristocratic family, but disabled by childhood injuries to his legs, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec found solace in his art and the company of the entertainers and others who frequented the clubs in the somewhat seedy Paris neighborhood of Montmartre. Toulouse-Lautrec was a regular at the Moulin Rouge, a Montmartre cabaret that opened in 1889.  At the Moulin Rouge introduces us to the club’s world of the singers, dancers, artists and hangers-on, but does so with a caution: the viewer is barred from entry by the balustrade that cuts off the left lower corner of the painting, yet also leads the eye into the center of activity. On the other side of this barrier, we see on the right English dancer May Milton, her half-face lit an eerie green by the artificial lights; in the middle, a group of artists and entertainers conversing together at a table; in the right background, the cabaret’s star dancer, La Goulue (Louise Weber), fixing her hair, and, in the left background, the artist himself, accompanied by his cousin Gabriel Tapié de Céléyran. At the Moulin Rouge, made with oils on a canvas measuring 4 ft. tall by 4.6 ft. wide, is located at the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois.  Random Trivia: Toulouse-Lautrec was not only a Moulin Rouge customer; he also designed and painted advertising posters for the venue, including a famous 1891 poster featuring La Goulue (second image).

Paul Cézanne: Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry (1897)
Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland

French painter Paul Cézanne was a pivotal figure in art history. Early in his career, while based in Paris, he embraced Impressionism. In the 1880s, however, he returned to his birthplace in the south of France and began his more experimental Post-Impressionist phase. He became fascinated with local peak Mont Sainte-Victoire as a subject; he would paint the mountain and its surrounding landscape at least 60 times. In 1895, Cézanne discovered the abandoned Bibémus Quarry, known for its orange stone. The same year, he climbed Mont Sainte-Victoire for the first time. In 1897, Cézanne rented a stone cabin at the quarry and began painted from there. The quarry is the setting for his 1897 work, Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry (see image above). Cézanne sought to render the shapes of objects so as to capture their true essence, without regard for what he saw as the superficial truth of realism. Consistent with this philosophy, Cézanne rejected traditional one-point perspective in favor of what scholars have called ‘primitive emotional perspective.’ In Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry, he creates the appearance of one plane, with a vertical axis by using the same size brush strokes for the orange rocks in the foreground, the mountain in the background, and the trees throughout. To emphasize the importance of the mountain and the illusion that the entire landscape is close to the picture plane, Cézanne paints Mont Sainte-Victoire leaning forward (not back, as in photographs), outlines it in blue, and makes it twice as large as it actually appears from the quarry. Curiously, according to art lovers who have visited Bibémus Quarry, there is no spot where both the quarry rocks and Mont Sainte-Victoire are visible, raising the likelihood that Cézanne has created a composite of two separate views. For a fascinating experiment in recreating Cézanne process using photographs, see Phil Haber’s blog here. Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.1 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide; it is now located in the Baltimore Museum of Art in Baltimore, Maryland.

Claude Monet: Water 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 (see image above), 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. Water Lilies is now located in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Henri Rousseau: The Dream (1910) Museum of Modern Art, New York
rousseau the dream
Self-taught Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau never traveled outside his native France, but that did not stop him from painting 25 jungle scenes, including The Dream. He visited the zoo and the Jardin des Plantes, a combination zoo/botanical garden, in Paris, and there he found enough exotic animals and plants to fill his canvases. But Rousseau was no realist; he stylized his lions and lotus flowers into decorative motifs. In The Dream, made with oils on a canvas measuring 6.7 ft. tall by 9.8 ft. wide, a nude woman on a sofa is apparently dreaming of the jungle at night, listening to a snake charmer play his instrument while the wild beasts hide among the foliage. The surreal juxtaposition of domestic and wild elements charmed the critics and the large work was a surprise success for Rousseau, after many years of ridicule by the art world. Rousseau’s first success was also his last – he died shortly exhibiting The Dream.  The Dream is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Henri Matisse: The Dance (II) (1910) State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
matisse the danceMatisse Dance 1909 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 above), 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 above). The second is Music (1910) (see third image above), which was also commissioned by Shchukin and hung with The Dance in the collector’s home until the Russian Revolution. 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 above). 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 incompleteness or unresolved tension among the dancers? Or it is an invitation to the viewer to join the circle? The Dance (I), from 1909, was made with oils on canvas measuring 8.5 ft. tall by 12.8 ft. wide, and is located at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Dance (II), from 1910, was made with oils on a canvas measuring 8.5 ft. tall by 12.8 ft. wide. It is now in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Wassily Kandinsky: Composition VII (1913) Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
kandinsky composition vii
Did Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky have synethesia? In a famous anecdote, Kandinsky attended a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin and saw colors associated with the musical sounds, after which he decided to become a painter. For Kandinsky, artists’ attempts to represent objects and figures in their works of art were preventing colors from being able to express emotions and bring about spiritual enlightenment. He sought to release colors from the prison of representational art and allow them to sing. It is not surprising, given Kandinsky’s belief in the connection between color and sound, that many of his works are titled “Composition” or “Improvisation.” Composition VII, made with oils on a canvas measuring 6.6 ft. tall by 9.9 ft. wide, was Kandinsky’s largest statement of his theories before World War I. Although the casual viewer may see only random lines and patches of color, Composition VII was the result of careful planning – Kandinsky made over 30 preparatory paintings and drawings before he finally began the final piece. From a central eye-like oval spreads a chaotic maelstrom of colliding shapes and colors with no clearly identifiable objects. There are echoes of religious themes from earlier works – the Deluge, the Last Judgment – but the overall sense is of Armageddon destroying this world to allow for the birth of a Utopian future. In Composition VII, Kandinsky has finally shed convention and produced a pure painting. Kandinsky’s painting is now located in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Oskar Kokoschka: The Bride of the Wind (1913-1914) Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland

The Bride of the Wind (also known as Bride of the Wind or The Tempest), by Austrian Expressionist Oskar Kokoshka, shows two lovers in a strange bed reminiscent of a giant seashell, apparently outdoors – mountains loom in the background, and something moon-like sits in the sky. There are swirling masses of paint surrounding the couple. Are they in a boat in a storm? In their bed in a room? Or do the violent brushstrokes tell us of the inner thoughts of the man who cannot sleep, or the dreams of his partner? There is a powerful turbulence expressed by the forms and colors in what is considered Kokoschka’s masterpiece. The Bride of the Wind is considered an allegorical painting, but it is also a double portrait of the artist (on the left, wide awake and staring) and his lover Alma Mahler (on the right, sleeping and beautiful). Critics disagree about whether Kokoshka painted The Bride of the Wind before or after Mahler left him and he became creepily obsessed with her, to the point of commissioning a life-size mannequin in her image. The Bride of the Wind was made with oils on a canvas measuring 5.9 ft. tall by 7.2 ft. wide and is now located at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Basel, Switzerland.

Kazimir Malevich: Black Suprematic Square (Black Square) (1915) State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

suprematist exhibition larger   
After Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, modernist painters looked for new ways to express their dissatisfaction with artistic tradition. Cubists disassembled the three-dimensional form and reassembled it as two-dimensional planes. Others ignored perspective, used primitive techniques of drawing and composition, or altered color schemes to emphasize their unreality. None of these rebellions satisfied Russian painter Kazimir Malevich.  He believed that painters needed to reject nature altogether and focus instead on geometry, rationality and what he called “the supremacy of pure feeling.” According to the movement that Malevich called Suprematism, no painter should try to represent the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional canvas. Art is not a conduit for appreciating the natural world; it is a world unto itself. Art is not a representation of something else; it is a representation of itself. All Malevich’s Suprematist paintings represent this philosophy, but none so much as Black Square (also known as Black Suprematic Square) from 1915, a type of painted manifesto (see first image above). In the center of a white square measuring 2.6 feet on each side, Malevich painted a black square – what he called “the zero of form.” The idea was simple, bold, and highly controversial. Black Square, first exhibited in December 1915 with other Suprematist compositions (see photo of exhibition in second image above), consists of a square of the color that is the absence of color on top of a square of the color that contains all colors. Over the years, Malevich made many other paintings, but he returned three more times to the black square like a touchstone: each one slightly different in size, texture and hue. The original Black Square is in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow (see first image above), as is a version from 1929. The Black Square in the State Russian Museum is 3.5 ft. square and made in 1923. The smallest version, measuring 1.7 ft. square, is marked 1913, but most scholars believe it dates to the late 1920s or early 1930s. This version of Black Square is now at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, after it was donated by a Russian citizen who bought it at auction for $1,000,000. 

Claude Monet: Reflection 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 and second images, above).  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 third image above). 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. Reflections of Clouds on the Water Lily Pond is now located in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Constantin Brâncuși: Bird 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 original Bird in Space was made from white marble in 1923 (see first image above). 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, made in 1923 with white marble, measuring 4.7 ft. tall by 6.5 in. in diameter; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York;
(2) Bird in Space, made in 1923-1924 with white marble, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;
(3) Bird in Space, made in 1924 with bronze, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;
(4) Bird in Space, made in 1925-1926 with bronze, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California;
(5) Bird in Space, made in 1926 with bronze, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington;
(6) Bird in Space, made in 1927 with bronze, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California;
(7) Bird in Space, made in 1928 with bronze, measuring 4.5 ft. tall, by 8.5 in. wide, 6.5 in. deep, Museum of Modern Art, New York (see second image above);
(8) Bird in Space, made in 1931 with bronze, Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena, California;
(9) Bird in Space, two sculptures made in c. 1931-1936, one with white marble and one with black marble, each measuring 6 ft. tall by 1.4 ft. in diameter, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (see third image, above);
(10) Bird in Space, made in c. 1941 with bronze, Museum of Modern Art, New York; and
(11) Bird in Space, made at an unknown date with bronze, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy.

Max Beckmann: Departure (1932-1933) Museum of Modern Art, New York
beckmann departure   beckmann departure center panel detail
German artist Max Beckmann created his first triptych, Departure, as the Weimar Republic was crumbling and Hitler’s Storm Troopers were committing mayhem and murder in the streets of Berlin. In this time of chaos, Beckmann looked back to a Gothic religious form, the triptych, that signified a time when the dominant institution in the community proclaimed common beliefs through art. Here, however, the beliefs portrayed by Beckmann are anything but common. As one scholar has noted, the three panels of Departure contain highly specific representational images, but are not susceptible to any obvious interpretation. Beckmann himself was harassed by patrons and admirers to provide an explanation, but his responses, while intriguing, were mostly cryptic. The overall scheme appears to be tragedy, horror and despair on the dark, outer panels, with hope and freedom in the brighter, less crowded center panel (see first image above). A. Left Panel. We see four figures, three columns, a still life and a mirror/crystal ball. The central figure, known as the executioner, carries a weapon with a bag of fish at the end of it. Around him are three victims: (1) a ghostly white, possibly nude man stands with his arms over his head, bloody stumps where his hands used to be, arms tied together and around a column, with a gag across his face, facing outward; (2) a clothed man stands with his back to us, facing a column, standing in a barrel of liquid, hands tied at the wrists; and (3) a woman kneels on the floor, nude except for a tight corset around her middle, her arms over her head, tied at the wrists, she is face down on the crystal ball, which seems to display a building with windows; she kneels on an upside-down newspaper (Zeitung in German), although only the word “Zeit” or “Time” is visible. B. Right Panel. We see a stage with a proscenium arch with five figures in front of it and stairways in the background, on which people perch, watching. The figures are: (1) a uniformed blindfolded bellboy with a large fish; (2) a woman with one exposed breast carrying a lamp; (3) a man tied upside down to the woman’s front with his hands tied behind his back and his head facing the woman and touching the stage; (4) a very small, but amply endowed, human figure (possibly a naked child) behind the woman; and (5) in front of the stage, a man wearing a Louis XI costume wearing a bass drum. C. Center Panel (see detail in second image above). We see five human figures on a boat in the ocean: (1) a hooded man stands next to an oar in the left foreground, wearing a red drapery and yellow arm bands, and holding a very large fish with both hands; (2) a man with a yellow crown (which seems to float on the horizon), a blue drapery and a yellow waistband holds a net full of fish with his left hand and makes the Christian sign of blessing with his right. Sitting in the background but visible between the two men in the foreground are (3) a woman with a yellow arm band, a Phrygian cap and a necklace/collar, holding the leg of a naked yellow-haired child with her right hand; (4) a barely-visible man with a cap holding the same child with his right hand; the child’s head obscures the man’s right eye; and (5) the yellow-haired child. Interpretations abound so I will only mention a few. All three panels feature fish. In Beckmann’s mythology, fish may represent the male phallus, the male life force, the will, or abundance/fecundity. In Christian iconography, the fish is a symbol of Jesus, who asked his disciples to become ‘fishers of men.’ The crowned figure in the boat holding a net full of fish may be Christ or a Christ-like being. Some find political meaning in the images – the sadism and tragedy represented in the side panels may have been inspired by the Nazi atrocities going on at the time. In addition, the drummer in the right panel resembles Joseph Goebbels, Nazi propagandist, with what might be one of millions of Nazi posters pasted to his drum. Others say that the painting condemns the state’s oppression of art and artists – they note that the executioner in the striped shirt resembles Beckmann himself. As possible support for such topical interpretations, Beckmann was on the verge of departure himself; he would flee Germany after his work was condemned in the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich beginning in July 1937. Others believe that a specific anti-Nazi interpretation oversimplifies the timeless and universal aspects of Departure. Beckmann said as much when he described the center panel to his patron Lilly von Schnitzler in February 1937: “The King and Queen, Man and Woman, are taken to another shore by a boatsman who they do not know, he wears a mask, it is the mysterious figure taking us to a mysterious land. … The King and Queen have freed themselves, freed themselves of the tortures of life – they have overcome them. The Queen carries the greatest treasure – Freedom – as her child in her lap. Freedom is the one thing that matters – it is the departure, the new start.” From the three panels of Departure flow a stream of unanswered questions: If the man with the crown is the King and the woman is the Queen, then who is the other man holding the child? Why is the face of the woman on the stage in shadow, when she is holding a lamp? Are we seeing the same characters in all three panels at different stages of life? Are the columns in the torture chamber a reference to depictions of The Flagellation of Christ? Why is the executioner so small? Why is there a still life in the middle of a torture chamber?  (Are we in an artist’s studio? Is there a connection to the still life in Les Demoiselles D’Avignon?) Has the woman in the left panel been raped? Enough. Departure was made with oils on canvas in three panels. Each side panel is 7 ft. tall by 3.3 ft. wide; the center panel measures 7 ft. tall by 3.8 ft. wide. Beckmann’s triptych is now located at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

René Magritte: The Human Condition
I.  (1933) National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
II. (1935) Simon Spierer Collection, Geneva
Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte gave the name The Human Condition to two different paintings with the same theme. In both works, we see an artist’s easel set up in front of a landscape. In both works, the painting on the canvas blends perfectly with the actual view, and appears to represent the exact image that is otherwise blocked by the canvas. The painting style is hyperrealistic yet the landscapes (one inland and one seaside) are somewhat bland. The most interesting (and unexplained) detail of either painting is the black ball on the orange floor of the 1935 Geneva version. Scholars have interpreted the paintings as a commentary on both human perception and the nature of art.  When we look at the world, what we see is not the reality, but a mental representation created by our brains, using information provided by our eyes. In a similar way, a two-dimensional painting cannot reproduce nature, but can only provide a representation of it. Art, then, makes overt a delusion that is normally covert:  that we cannot gain direct access to the world of our perceptions, whether we are attempting to perceive reality or artistic representations of reality. Both versions of The Human Condition were made with oils on canvases measuring 3.2 ft. high by 2.7 ft. wide.

Georges Rouault: The Old King (1916-1936) Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
French artist Georges Rouault began painting The Old King in 1916, but didn’t finish until 20 years later, in 1936. Considered a masterpiece of Rouault’s Expressionist style, The Old King, which shows an unidentified ancient monarch in profile, hearkens back to the stone reliefs of Assyria and Egypt, and portraits on Greek and Roman coins. The portrait expresses the burden but also the majesty and mystery of kingship in those times. Rouault introduces more modern themes by placing springs of white flowers in the king’s hand, instead of a scepter or crown. According to one scholar, “the white flowers, —by embodying the fragility of life, the inevitability of death, and the inexorable cycles of birth and decay—, confront the king with the limits of his power. Thus, a symbol that speaks of spring, innocence, and renewal gives a dark and bitter twist to the meaning of the traditional royal icon.” Rouault had studied stained glass technique, which is reflected in the thick black outlines surrounding compartments of glowing reds, blues and other colors. The Old King was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.5 ft. tall by 1.8 ft. wide and is now located at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Frida Kahlo: The Two Fridas (1939) Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City
Born in Mexico to a German father and a Mexican (Spanish/Indian) mother, Frida Kahlo was torn between two identities. When she married muralist Diego Rivera, he encouraged her to explore her traditional heritage. When Kahlo painted The Two Fridas, at 5.7 ft. square her largest canvas, she and Rivera were divorcing after 10 tempestuous years. In the double self-portrait, we see on the right the Frida that Rivera loved wearing traditional peasant garb, with her heart exposed but intact. In one hand she holds a small medallion with a picture of Rivera as a child. An artery leads from the medallion to Frida’s heart and then to the heart of the Frida on the left, the one that Rivera did not love. She wears the white dress of European colonials and her heart is broken. She tries to cut off the flow of blood from the artery, but it continues to drip, creating a pool on her dress. The two Friedas, already connected by the blood of Rivera’s memory, hold hands, echoing a portrait of Kahlo and Rivera at the time of their wedding. The message seems to be that, damaged heart or not, Frida can put her trust in herself. Frida Kahlo was embraced by the Surrealists, who found a kindred spirit in her dreamlike imagery and irrational juxtapositions, but her work has also been characterized as folk art due to its heavy reliance on symbols and images from native Mexican cultures. The Two Fridas, made with oils on canvas, is now in the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City.

Jackson Pollock: One: Number 31, 1950 (1950) Museum of Modern Art, New York
Some people want to believe that Jackson Pollock was an idiot savant or a pure automatic artist, whose works are the result of unconscious chance processes, like a natural landscape, not made by human hands. But the evidence proves otherwise. Although chance plays a role in every drip painting, including One: Number 31, 1950, Pollock controlled the timing and extent of any random factors, and he made many important conscious choices throughout the process. A slow movement created a thick line; a quick flick of the wrist, a thin one. Pollock also chose how big to make the canvas; which colors to use; when to use glossy paint, when to use matte; when to allow paint to puddle; when to prop up the painting to allow puddles to drip down; whether to paint wet on wet, or wait for the paint to dry before making another pass over the canvas. In One: Number 31, 1950 (at 8.8 ft. tall by 17.4 ft. long, it is one of Pollock’s largest canvases), “calligraphic looping cords of color animate and energize every inch of the composition, which seems to expand visually despite its enormous size,” one critic noted, adding that, “The density of interlacing liquid threads of paint is balanced and offset by puddles of muted colors and by allover spattering.” Unlike some of Pollock’s drip paintings, One: Number 31, 1950 has a well-defined border – another conscious choice. The painting was made with oils and enamels on canvas and is now located at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Jasper JohnsPainted Bronze: Ale Cans (1960) Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland
johns painted bronzeAmerican artist William de Kooning once complained/joked that gallery owner and art dealer Leo Castelli could sell anything, even a couple of beer cans.  American artist Jasper Johns, famous for his reworkings of the American flag, heard the story and decided that two beer cans would make a good sculpture. A student of Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, Johns was interested in the difference between an object and an artistic representation of the object. Johns took two gold-colored cans of Ballantine Ale and cast them in bronze. One is punctured, hollow and light; the second has no holes in it and is much heavier. Johns painted the cans to look like Ballantine Ale cans and placed them on a small pedestal. The entire piece is 5.5 in. tall, 8 in. wide and 4.75 in. deep. At first glance, they appear to be real beer cans, but close inspection reveals brush strokes and blurred writing. So that no one would miss the point that these were not really beer cans, Johns titled the piece Painted Bronze (also known as Painted Bronze (Ale Cans) to distinguish it from another sculpture with the same title). Some commentators interpret the pair of cans as a representation of Johns’s close relationship with Robert Rauschenberg, which took a turn for the worse about this time when Rauschenberg moved to Florida. This theory may explain why Johns painted the word “Florida” on one of the cans. Epilogue: Although he never sold any actual beer cans, Leo Castelli sold Painted Bronze for $900. Painted Bronze is now located at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Basel, Switzerland.

Antony Gormley: Angel of the North (1998) Gateshead, England, UK
angel of the north
Angel of the North is a steel sculpture by British artist Antony Gormley that stands atop a former coal mine in Gateshead, UK. The angel stands 66 ft. tall, with a wingspan of 177 ft. and the wings are curved forward at a 3.5 degree angle. The body weighs 110 tons, while each wing is 55 tons. Built to withstand 100 mph winds, the sculpture is anchored to bedrock 70 feet underground by 660 tons of concrete. Gormley intended the Angel to be a symbol of hope for a part of England that was having difficulty transitioning from the industrial economy of the past – symbolized by the closed coal mine – and the information age of the future. Located next to the A1 highway, the Angel is large enough to be seen by drivers passing at high speeds. According to Gormley’s instructions, the Angel has no pedestal and no spotlight for night illumination. Random Trivia: A bronze model of the statue (known as a maquette) used in fundraising in the 1990s became the most valuable item ever appraised on the TV show Antiques Roadshow, where it was valued at one million pounds in 2008. The same year, a human-sized maquette was sold at auction for two million pounds.

For a chronologically-organized history of visual art that contains significantly more works of art, check out the Art History 101 lists, starting HERE.

5 thoughts on “Best Works of Art of All Time – The Critics’ Picks, Part 2

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    1. beckchris Post author

      Thanks so much for your comment, Fionn. I think we may both be right. My understanding is that there were two Ardabil Carpets and that one ended up in the US, while the other is in the UK. The story is told well at and also at Another article talks mostly about the Victoria and Albert carpet, but mentions the LACMA carpet at the end:


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