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 18 lists of “Best Works of Art” from websites and books and combined them into one list. The complete list gives the paintings and sculptures (and a few pieces of decorative art) on three or more of the original source lists. The numbers in bold indicate the number of original source lists that contained that work of art. Part 1 begins with the most-listed artworks (two sets of paintings that were one 13 of the original source lists) and ends with works of art that were on 5 of the lists I found. Part 2 contains the works of art that were on 4 or three of the original 18 lists.
For each artwork, I have included (either in the heading or in the accompanying essay): (1) artist(s) name (if known), (2) artwork title (including alternative titles), (3) date of creation, and (4) location where the original can be seen. I have tried to provide one or more public domain images for all the artworks. In most cases, you can click on the image to enlarge it. The essays may include the size of the work, the medium and materials used to create it, style and technique, interpretation, social and political context, provenance, and random trivia.
Warning No. 1: Although I tried my best to find lists that contained art from all places and times, the majority of lists I found focused on the art of Western Civilization, specifically Western Europe and North American art. This perspective places the Italian Renaissance at the apex of mankind’s creative achievements while ignoring or undervaluing art from other times and places. The complete list, which contains all the works that were included on at least one of the 18 source lists, has quite a bit of diversity (although it lacks the same consensus regarding quality), but once I restrict the focus to works cited on more than one list, the Western bias becomes plain. I have also published a five-part list of all works of art on two or more of the original 18 “Best Art” lists in chronological order, titled Art History 101, that has a somewhat more worldly complexion, although Asia, Africa and South America are still seriously underrepresented.
The heavy emphasis on Western European artists working between the late 1300s and the late 1600s also means that many of the most highly regarded paintings contain Christian religious imagery. At that time, everyone looking at 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 Christianity as the average Renaissance European. Reading up on Christian imagery (and Greco-Roman mythology for that matter) may help. Despite my concerns about diversity, religious, geographical, or otherwise, a quick look through this list leaves no doubt that, whether or not these are the “best” works of art of all time, as my title confidently proclaims, they are all significant artistic achievements.
Warning No. 2: Some of the images below portray the unclothed human form. I don’t think there is anything obscene about them, but there is at least one statue of a naked man where you can clearly see his kibbles n’ bits. I hope no one is offended.
For a chronological history of visual art, check out the Art History 101 lists, starting HERE.
DON’T FORGET: YOU CAN CLICK ON THE IMAGES TO ENLARGE THEM
4 “Best Artworks” Lists
Unknown Artists: Cave Paintings, Chauvet Cave (30,000-28,000 BCE) Ardèche, France
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: Venus of Willendorf (28,000-25,000 BCE) Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna
During the Upper Paleolithic era (c. 28,000-18,000 BCE), the Gravettian culture flourished in parts of Europe. The culture is known for its many bone, stone, or clay statuettes of women, usually with large breasts, bellies, thighs, hips and buttocks, that are referred to as Venus figurines, even though they predate the Greco-Roman Venus mythology by many thousands of years. Many of the figurines are either headless or faceless. The 4.25 in. tall carved limestone figurine known as the Venus of Willendorf (see images above) was found in 1908 at a Paleolithic site in the Danube valley of Austria, near the town of Willendorf. The figure has the exaggerated features of the typical Venus figurine. It has no face, only streaks that may be hair, and no feet, so it could not stand by itself. There are traces of red ochre on the figurine, indicating it was once painted. The type of limestone used was not found locally, indicating the existence of a trade network. The purpose of the Venus of Willendorf and other Venus figurines is debated, but the sculptor’s emphasis on the female body’s sexual and childbearing characteristics has led many to conclude that this and other such figurines were fertility goddesses or otherwise played a role in fertility rituals.
Unknown Artists: Cave Paintings, Lascaux Caves (c. 15,000-13,000 BCE) Montignac, France
During the Upper Paleolithic period between 17,000 and 15,000 years ago, humans painted almost 2000 figures in the Lascaux Caves in southwestern France. Most of the paintings depict large grazing animals such as deer and horses (see third image, above) using various mineral pigments, particularly black and red. There is one human figure (see first image above) and a number of abstract or geometric designs. The Great Hall of the Bulls (see second image above) includes a 17-ft wide black bull or auroch, the largest painted figure in cave art. Many theories have been proposed for the purpose of the paintings, including aiding in religious ceremonies, improving hunting success or documenting past hunts. Some scholars believe there are astronomical charts incorporated in the designs. The caves were discovered in 1940 by 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat and opened to the public in 1948. Due to the damage caused by carbon dioxide from 1,200 visitors per day, the caves were closed to the public in 1963. Since 1998, the art has been threatened by various types of fungus, including black mold.
Unknown Artist: Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions (c. 645-635 BCE) British Museum, London
Ashurbanipal was the last powerful king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. He ruled from 668 until his death in about 627 BCE. The empire collapsed less than 20 years later. Since the mid-10th Century BCE, the Assyrians had controlled a huge portion of the Middle East, including all or part of 13 modern nations. Ashurbanipal is referred to in the Hebrew Book of Ezra as Asenappar, and some say he is the figure known elsewhere as Sardanapalus. His capital, Nineveh, located along the Tigris River in what is now northern Iraq, was destroyed by Assyria’s enemies in 612 BCE. When British archaeologists excavated the ruins of Nineveh in 1853, they discovered an elaborate frieze from the North Palace depicting the king hunting and killing lions (in one case in hand-to-paw combat, see first image above), as well as a banquet celebrating a military victory. Showing the king conquering lions not only documented his sporting activities, but also symbolized his power to protect his people from their enemies. The sculptor also shows true sympathy for the noble beasts as they struggle to fight back, even when pierced by multiple arrows (see second image above). The relief sculptures, which are known as Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions, the Lion Hunts of Ashurbanipal, or simply the Lion Hunt Frieze, are now in the British Museum in London.
Euphronios & Euxitheos: Euphronios Krater (Sarpedon Krater) (c. 515 BCE)
National Etruscan Museum, Villa Giulia, Rome
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 with a capacity of 12 gallons and was made by potter 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.
Lysippos: The Farnese Hercules (c. 370-310 BCE) marble copy by Glykon (c. 218)
Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy
The Farnese Hercules is a marble sculpture made in the early 3rd Century CE by Glykon of Athens for the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. It is an enlarged copy of a 4th Century BCE bronze original by Lysippos, which is now lost. The sculpture shows a weary 10.3-ft.-high Hercules resting on his club, over which is draped the skin of the Nemean lion (referencing his first labor); behind his back he holds the immortality-giving apples of the Hesperides (referencing his eleventh labor). The statue was rediscovered in 1546 (in various pieces) and was soon thereafter purchased by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who placed it in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. It remained there until 1787, when it was moved to its current home in Naples at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Many marble and bronze copies have been made, both full-sized and miniature, including some from ancient times.
Unknown Artist: Winged Victory of Samothrace (Nike of Samothrace) (c. 200-190 BCE) Musée du Louvre, Paris
Created in Greece during the Hellenistic period, a severely damaged depiction of the goddess Nike, or Victory, standing 8 ft. tall, was discovered in 1863 on the island of Samothrace, now a part of Greece but then belonging to the Ottoman Empire. The head and arms have never been found, but portions of the right hand were located and are on display in a separate case in the Louvre in Paris. Only the left wing is original; the right wing is a symmetrically identical version of the left, made of plaster. Scholars praise the statue for its combination of motion and stillness, and the realistic rendering of the drapery. According to one theory, the sculpture was meant to honor a sea battle and represents the goddess as she descends from the sky, hand cupped to her mouth, ready to deliver a victory shout to the fleet.
Unknown Artist: Frescoes, Villa of the Mysteries (c. 60-40 BCE) near Pompeii, Italy
The Villa of the Mysteries is a Roman villa located near the ruins of Pompeii in southern Italy. The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE covered it with many feet of volcanic ash and tufa, preserving it for future generations. When the villa was excavated in 1909, a remarkable series of frescoes was discovered in the triclinium, or formal dining room. The frescoes are nearly 10 feet tall and run around the four walls of the room for a total of 56 feet. The meaning of the frescoes is subject to debate: some scholars believe they depict the initiation of a young woman into a Dionysian cult; others say they represent marriage rituals.
Apollodorus of Damascus (attrib.): Trajan’s Column (113 CE) Rome, Italy
Trajan’s Column was built to celebrate Roman Emperor Trajan’s victories over the Dacians in 101-102 CE and 105-106 CE. The column itself, which consists of 20 marble drums, each 11 feet in diameter, is 98 feet tall; with the pedestal included, it rises 125 feet from the ground (see second image above). A bas relief showing the events of the Dacian Wars spirals around the column for a total of 625 feet, with nearly 2,500 figures depicted, including 59 representations of Trajan himself with his troops (see first image above). A spiral staircase inside the column leads to an observation deck. In antiquity, a statue of Trajan topped the column, but it disappeared during the Middle Ages. Pope Sixtus V placed a bronze statue of St. Peter atop the column in 1587.
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
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
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 Artists: Relief Sculptures, Temple of Borobudur (c. 800-825 CE)
Magelang, Java, Indonesia
Borobudur is a Mahayana Buddhist temple built in the 9th Century CE during the Sailendra Dynasty on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia. It was abandoned some time after the 11th Century and rediscovered in 1814 during the British occupation of Java. In addition to the magnificent architecture and statuary, 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 Artists: Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1075) Centre Guillaume le Conquerant, Bayeux, France
Not a true tapestry, the Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth measuring 224 ft. long by 1.6 ft. tall, contains an illustrated narrative of the Norman Conquest of England and events leading up to it. The tapestry consists of nine linen panels with fifty scenes, each with a caption in Latin, embroidered with colored woolen yarns on a linen cloth. The final portion has been lost. Although legend attributes the tapestry to French artists, scholars now believe that skilled Anglo-Saxon seamsters made the work in England in the 1070s. It was probably commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother Bishop Odo, Earl of Kent and founder of the Bayeux Cathedral in Normandy, where the tapestry was first mentioned in a 1476 inventory. In addition to historical scenes involving William, Duke of Normandy, Harold, Earl of Wessex (later King) and King Edward the Confessor, the tapestry includes the first depiction of a harrow, a newly-invented farm implement, and the first image of Halley’s Comet, which appeared in March/April 1066. The images above show: (1) William the Conqueror lays siege to Conan at Dinan and (2) Harold crossing the Channel to Normandy. A Victorian replica of the tapestry, with explanatory narrative, may be viewed online HERE.
Unknown Artists: Relief Sculptures, Chartres Cathedral (c. 1145-1220) Chartres, France
Chartres Cathedral (also known as Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Chartres) is a Roman Catholic cathedral located in Chartres, France. Begun in the Romanesque style in 1145, the cathedral was reconstructed in the French Gothic style after an 1194 fire, with most of the work completed between 1194 and 1220. Religious sculptures and carvings decorate the west, north and south entrances (also called portals or porches), with each portal’s reliefs addressing a separate theological subject. The carvings of the west entrance, known as the Royal Portals (portions of which may have survived from the pre-1194 structure), focus on the nature of Jesus. The north entrance celebrates the Old Testament and Christ’s immediate ancestors, while the south entrance relates the history of the Catholic Church since Christ’s death. During the French Revolution, anti-clerical protesters destroyed some of the sculptures on the north porch, before being stopped by local townspeople; a plan by Revolutionaries to dynamite the cathedral was derailed by an architect who noted the resulting rubble would block the streets for months. The images of Chartres’ relief sculptures shown above are: (1) the central tympanum of the Royal Portal, on the west façade, showing Christ in majesty at the Second Coming/Last Judgment; (2) the tympanum of the central portal of the north transept, depicting the Coronation of the Virgin (Glorification of Mary) and other scenes; (3) detail from the bases of three door jamb statues; and (4) door jamb statues showing the Visitation.
Andrei Rublev: The Holy Trinity Icon (Trinity) (1408-1425) Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Russian artist Andrei Rublev painted religious icons, which differ from other paintings of religious subjects in that they are intended to convey the inner spiritual meaning of the subject matter and serve as a focus of worship. Rublev, who was canonized as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church, is best known for the Holy Trinity Icon, which depicts the three angels who appeared to Abraham at Mamre, as related in the Book of Genesis. Christian tradition connects the angels with the three persons of the Christian trinity (from left to right, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Rublev used tempera to paint the icon, which measures 4.6 ft. tall and 3.75 ft. wide and contains several layers of symbolism. Like many older icons, there has been considerable damage, repainting and other alteration over the years with attempts at restoration beginning in the 20th Century. The Holy Trinity Icon, also known simply as Trinity, is now at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
Paolo Uccello: The Battle of San Romano
Part I: (c. 1438-1440) National Gallery, London
Part II: (c. 1435-1455) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Part III: (c. 1455) Musée du Louvre, Paris
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 Francesca: The 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.
Lorenzo Ghiberti: The Gates of Paradise (East Doors of Florence Baptistery) (1425-1452) Baptistery, Florence
The Gates of Paradise is the name coined by Michelangelo for the gilded bronze relief sculptures carved by Italian artist Lorenzo Ghiberti for the east doors of the Florence Baptistery. This was the second set of door panels carved by Ghiberti for the building. In 1401, at the age of 23, he won a contest to create 28 panels with scenes from the New Testament for what are now the north doors, a project he finished in 1423. In 1425, Ghiberti received a commission to create 10 panels with scenes from the Old Testament for the east doors. This project, which involved a dangerous gilding process, took him 27 years to finish. The second set of doors incorporates the newly discovered rules of perspective and the scenes have a naturalism that is absent from the north door reliefs. The doors are 17 ft. tall, and each panel is 2.6 ft square (see first image above). Between the panels, narrow borders contain 20 full-length portraits and 24 heads in roundels of prophets and evangelists, including a Ghiberti roundel self-portrait (see border in third image; roundel self-portrait in fourth image). In 1990, the panels in the Baptistery doors were removed and replaced by replicas in order to protect the originals from weather damage. Serious conservation efforts had begun in 1966 after a flood dislodged six of the panels. The originals were brought to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where they recently underwent a 27-year-long restoration and cleaning (see third image above, showing Solomon and the Queen Sheba). Three of the restored panels toured the U.S. in 2007-2008, including Adam and Eve (see second image above).
Piero della Francesca: The 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.
Leonardo da Vinci: Virgin of the Rocks (I) (1483-1486) Musée du Louvre, Paris
For reasons that are still unclear (although there are plenty of theories), Leonardo da Vinci painted two nearly identical versions of the Virgin of the Rocks. Virgin of the Rocks I, which is now in the Louvre in Paris, was probably painted first and is considered the primary version (see image above). Painted with oils on wood panel, it was later transferred to a canvas measuring 6.5 ft. tall by 4 ft. wide. The painting shows the Madonna, the young Jesus, the young John the Baptist and an angel. The central event of the painting is John’s adoration of Jesus, who makes the sign of Benediction in return. Two paintings of angels playing musical instruments are associated with the work, although they are believed to be painted by Leonardo’s assistants (see second and third images above); all three were commissioned for an altarpiece by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan. Virgin of the Rocks is an excellent example of the sfumato painting technique, which Leonardo described as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane.” It also has the triangular composition that Leonardo often used. Consistent with Leonardo’s polymath interests, scholars have determined that the geological and botanical details of the painting are scientifically accurate.
Andrea Mantegna: Lamentation 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.
Unknown Artist: Statue of Coatlicue (c. 1300-1500)
Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City
In Aztec mythology, Coatlicue, (“The One with the Skirt of Serpents”), is the goddess who gave birth to the moon, the stars and the gods Quetzalcoatl, Xoloti and Huitzilopochtli. She is also the patron goddess of women who die in childbirth. The statue, which was made between 1300 and 1500, is made of andesite and stands 8.9 ft. tall (see front and rear of statue in first and second images, above). The statue depicts a myth in which Coatlicue became pregnant after picking up a ball of feathers and her children, fearing illicit sexual behavior, decapitated her, causing her to give birth to a god and also causing blood to gush from her neck in the form of two serpents. She wears a necklace of human skulls and hearts and a skirt made of snakes. Europeans discovered the statue during a building project in Mexico City in 1790; they found it gruesome but casts were made to show at exhibitions. When Mexican Indians began paying tribute to the statue, the Europeans buried it. In 1933, an almost identical statue was found, but with a skirt of hearts instead of snakes. The Statue of Coatlicue is now at the National Museum of Archaeology in Mexico City.
Giorgione (Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco): The Tempest (1506-1508)
Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice
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.
Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola): Madonna of the Long Neck (1535)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Originally titled Madonna and Child with Angels and St. Jerome, Parmigianino’s Mannerist masterpiece soon acquired the nickname Madonna of the Long Neck for the extra vertebrae he added to Mary to give her neck a swanlike undulation. Elongated figures such as Mary’s are a hallmark of Mannerist art, which rejected the naturalism of the High Renaissance in favor of taking Renaissance trends to their logical conclusion, even if that meant a tribute became a critique. Here, for example, the artist’s commission required a portrait of St. Jerome. The result (in a portion of the piece Parmigianino’s did not finish due to his untimely death) is a parody of perspective, with a distant Jerome looking tinier than the gigantic Pieta-posed Christ child (who somehow stays balanced on Mary’s double wide lap). Because Jerome needs the right side, Parmigianino crams all the angels into the left, ignoring symmetry, while eroticizing them in ways that must have scandalized or perhaps titillated contemporaries. Measuring 7 ft. tall by 4.3 ft. wide and painted with oils on wood panel, the Madonna was commissioned by Italian noblewoman Elena Bacardi for her family chapel in a Parma church. Madonna of the Long Neck is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Titian (Tiziano Vecelli): Venus of Urbino (1538) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Venetian 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
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 Cupid, Allegory 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).
Tintoretto (Jacopo Comin): The Crucifixion (1565) Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice Tintoretto (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.
Giambologna (Jean Boulogne): The Rape of the Sabine Women (1581-1583) Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signora, Florence
Born Jean de Boulogne in Flanders, Giambologna acquired his professional name after he moved to Italy in 1550. In 1581, his patrons the Medicis provided him with a large block of marble, from which he sculpted three nude figures in vertical composition as a showcase of his talent, without a prescribed subject. It was only after the sculpture was complete and Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, decreed that it be put on public display in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria that the subject was declared to be The Rape of the Sabine Women, referring to the story from Ancient Roman history in which the Romans solve their disputes with the neighboring Sabine tribe by forcibly abducting their young women and marrying them, thus creating blood ties between the groups. The Rape of the Sabine Women (also known as Rape of a Sabine) stands 13.4 ft. tall and presents no obvious front view; the viewer must look at all sides (see two views in first and second images, above) to appreciate the complex composition. At the peak, a young woman struggles to escape from her powerful young abductor, while below them, an older man crouches in fear. The piece is an exemplar of the Mannerist style with its twisting figures and dynamic diagonals. The statue joined other famous sculptures in the Loggia dei Lanzi, including Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa.
Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio): Supper at Emmaus (1601)
National Gallery, London
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
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: Horrors of War (Consequences of War) (c. 1637) Pitti Palace, Florence
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.
Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn): The Night Watch (1642)
The painting by Dutch Golden Age artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn commonly known as The Night Watch does not depict a watch (which only occurs in times of danger) and does not take place at night. The members of a local militia commissioned Rembrandt to paint their portrait as they marched from their headquarters, during the day, in formation. The painting’s unwieldy original title is The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch Preparing to March Out, but is now officially known as either Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq or The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch. . The work demonstrates Rembrandt’s signature expertise in employing the technique of tenebrism, using dramatic lighting to draw the viewer’s attention to certain elements of the composition, while keeping the rest in shadow or complete darkness. The viewer focuses on the two leaders of the militia and a young girl, who carries the traditional symbols of the militia company. This large oil-on-canvas work (measuring 11.9 ft. tall by 14.3 ft. wide) has suffered numerous indignities through the years. First, the glazes Rembrandt used have darkened over the centuries, causing the loss of some details, especially in areas outside the brightly-lit focal points. Second, when The Night Watch was moved to Amsterdam Town Hall in 1715, the canvas was trimmed on all four sides so it could fit on the wall between two columns. The trimming cut off portions of figures on the right and eliminated two figures on the left, changing the balance of Rembrandt’s composition. (A 17th Century copy of the untrimmed work by Gerrit Lundens is shown in the second image above.) Finally, vandals have damaged the painting on three separate occasions (in 1911, 1975 and 1991), although restoration work has repaired most of the damage. The Night Watch is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Diego Velázquez: Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome
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.
Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn): Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1653-1654) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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.
William Hogarth: Marriage à-la-mode (series of six) (1743-1745) National Gallery, London
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.
Thomas Gainsborough: Jonathan Buttall (The Blue Boy) (c. 1770)
Huntington Library, San Marino, CA
During a visit to Bath, England in about 1770, English artist Thomas Gainsborough painted a portrait of Jonathan Buttall, the son of a wealthy merchant and friend of the artist. In what may be an homage to Anthony van Dyck, the 17th Century Dutch painter who worked for the English Court, Gainsborough had his subject dress in a style common 140 years earlier. Some scholars believe that Gainsborough chose the color scheme to refute the theory of his rival Joshua Reynolds that blue was appropriate only as a background hue. Over time, the portrait, which was painted with oils on a canvas measuring 5.9 ft. tall and 4 ft. wide, acquired the nickname The Blue Boy. In 1921, American Henry Edwards Huntington bought The Blue Boy for a record $728,800 and brought it to California, but not before 90,000 British subjects lined up to pay their respects. The Blue Boy is now in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
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.
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.
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.
Édouard Manet: Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) (1863)
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Originally titled La Bain (The Bath), Édouard Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon in the Grass) was considered obscene by many contemporaries. The 1863 Paris Salon rejected the painting, so Manet exhibited the large canvas at the Salon des Refusés. Manet borrowed the grouping from the lower right side of Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving of Raphael’s drawing The Judgment of Paris and there is precedent for a group of two men in modern clothing and two nude women in Titian’s The Pastoral Concert. Multiple light sources, the out-of-proportion bather and other oddities have spawned multiple explanations. Some scholars have theorized that the figures are not outdoors but in the artist’s studio. The website everypainterpaintshimself.com goes further, positing that the bathing woman is not a three-dimensional figure but a painted canvas and that the nude woman boldly gazing at us is the model. Manet’s painting, which was made with oils on a canvas measuring 6.8 ft. high by 8.7 ft. wide, is now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Thomas Eakins: Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (The Champion Single Sculls) (1871)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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.
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.
Auguste Rodin: The Thinker (28 full-size casts) (1880)
University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky (1904); National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo (1904); Legion of Honor, San Francisco (1904); Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan (1904); Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen (1904); Musée Rodin, Paris (1906); Prince Eugen Museum, Waldemarsudde, Sweden (1908)
The sculpture now known as The Thinker originated as a small part of a large commission for the entrance of a new art museum that eventually became The Gates of Hell. For that project, French sculptor Auguste Rodin planned to create a series of figures based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, including Dante himself, The Poet, who would be depicted thinking about and planning his masterpiece. In about 1880, Rodin sculpted a small plaster statue in of The Poet, a sitting figure with his head resting on the fist of a bended arm, which would occupy a prominent place in the center of the top register of The Gates of Hell. Because The Poet would be seen from below, Rodin made the arms and shoulders larger than anatomy required. At some point, Rodin decided The Poet should have a life of its own, outside The Gates of Hell. He reworked the figure, removed its robes, making it a nude, and renamed it The Thinker, in part because of its resemblance to a Michelangelo work with that nickname. Rodin eventually made a larger plaster version, which he first exhibited in 1888. In 1902, Rodin supervised the first of a number of full-size bronze casts, which now sits in front of Grawemeyer Hall at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. Over the years, 28 bronze and plaster casts have been made, although fewer than 10 were completed before Rodin’s death in 1917. The casts are scattered in museums and universities around the globe. Each full-sized cast of The Thinker is 6.2 ft. tall, 3.2 ft. wide and 4.6 ft. deep. The size of the plinth beneath the statue is a matter up to the owner’s discretion.
John Singer Sargent: The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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 Meninas, The 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).
Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi: Statue of Liberty (1886) Liberty Island, NY
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.
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. (See second image above, showing a full-sized bronze cast made in 1908 and placed in Victoria Tower Gardens in London in 1915.) 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.
Henri Matisse: The Dance (II) (1910) State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
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.
Giorgio de Chirico: The 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.
Kazimir Malevich: Black Suprematic Square (Black Square) (1915)
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
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 (see third image above). 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.
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.
Antony Gormley: Angel of the North (1998) Gateshead, England, UK
Angel of the North (sometimes referred to as The 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.
Unknown Artist: Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel (c. 38,000 BCE)
Ulmer Museum, Ulm, Germany
In 1939, archaeologist Robert Wetzel was excavating caves in the German Alps – where people of the Aurignacian culture lived 45,000-35,000 years ago during the Upper Paleolithic Era – when he noticed something unusual. In the Stadel-Höhle Cave in Hohlenstein, Wetzel and Otto Völzing found approximately 200 fragments of ivory from a mammoth tusk that showed signs of carving, but they had little time to study their find due to the outbreak of World War II. No further study occurred for 30 years when, in 1969, Joachim Hahn reassembled the ivory fragments into a standing figure with the characteristics of both a human and an animal (which Hahn identified as a male cave lion), which became known as the Lion-Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel. Carbon dating of nearby organic material at the time gave an approximate date of 30,000 BCE. Twenty years later, after more fragments were found in the previously-excavated material, Elisabeth Schmid conducted additional reconstruction, after which she decided that the figure was intended to be female. In 2010, scientists returned to the original cave and found 1000 additional fragments. Scientists removed the glue and filler from the 1989 reconstruction and put the figurine together again with the new fragments included. The development of more sophisticated dating techniques led scientists to revise the date of the figure to about 38,000 BCE, which would make the Lion Man not only the oldest zoomorphic sculpture ever found, but one of the oldest known figurative sculptures of any kind. The Lion Man was carved using a flint stone knife and stands 11.7 inches tall, 2.2 in. wide, and 2.3 in. deep, making it one of the largest figurines from this era. Scholars have put forth various theories for the purpose of the figurine: some say it represents a man-lion god; others say it is a charm for hunting or avoiding predation; others believe it represents a shaman wearing a lion mask – but there is no consensus. The figurine is now in the Ulmer Museum in Ulm, Germany.
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
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: 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.
Unknown Artist: Thinker of Cernavoda (Ganditorul) (c. 5000 BCE)
National Museum of Romanian History, Bucharest
The Thinker of Cernavoda (also known as the Thinker of Hamangia and Ganditorul) is a sculpture of a sitting human figure resting his head on his hands in what appears to be a contemplative gesture. This and a companion figurine of a sitting woman (see image, above) were made by one or more artists of the late Neolithic Hamangia culture, which occupied much of what is now Romania and Bulgaria between 5250 and 4500 BCE. The Hamangian settlement at Cernavoda, where the figurines were found in 1956, contained a large necropolis, or cemetery. The Thinker is 4.5 in. tall and 2.9 in. across at the shoulders. It is made of terracotta, a ceramic made of clay, and is unglazed. Unlike many sculptures from the same period, the Thinker and the Sitting Woman contain no ornamentation or engravings; instead, their surfaces are smooth. They are also among the few prehistoric art objects that do not appear to relate to either fertility or hunting. Both terracottas are in the National Museum of Romania in Bucharest.
Unknown Artist: Statue of Chephren (Khafre Enthroned) (c. 2570-2550 BCE)
Egyptian Museum, Cairo
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
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 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)
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.
Unknown Artist: Ishtar Gate (c. 575 BCE) Pergamon Museum, Berlin
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: Capitoline Wolf (Capitoline She-Wolf) (c. 480-470 BCE?/12th-13th Century?) Musei Capitolini, Rome
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. 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: Artemision Bronze (Zeus/Poseidon of Artemision) (c. 460 BCE)
National Archaeological Museum, Athens
Archaeologists have discovered very few Classical Greek sculptures because most of the statues from that period were made of bronze, which was later melted down for reuse. One of the few Greek bronze sculptures that survived was found at the site of an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Cape Artemision in Greece in 1926. The 6.9 ft. tall bronze statue of a nude male is a depiction of either Zeus about to fling a lightning bolt or Poseidon about to pitch his trident (most scholars favor the Zeus interpretation based on the angle of the arms and the concern that a trident would obscure the god’s face). The figure’s eyes, eyebrows, lips and nipples would likely have been filled with various materials (bone, silver, copper, etc.) for a more dramatic appearance. The figure was carved in the Early Classical or Severe style that preceded the Classical style of the later 5th Century. Scholars praise the work for the sense of strength, balance and movement and the close attention to the anatomy of the nude male body. To emphasize the sense of imminent movement, the unknown sculptor has made the arms longer than they would be if anatomically correct, a choice that was only available to the artist when working with bronze – had this been a marble statue, the arms would have fallen off without supports. The figure’s head has become a Greek cultural symbol, featuring on a postage stamp and bank note. 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
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.
Unknown Artist: Frescoes, Villa of Agrippa Postumus (c. 11-1 BCE)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Archaeological Museum, Naples
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
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 right 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: Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels (c. 550-600 CE)
St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt
Nestled at the base of Mt. Sinai in the Egyptian desert lies St. Catherine’s Monastery, home to many rare religious icons and illustrated manuscripts, including the 6th Century icon Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels. These works of art exist because St. Catherine’s isolation allowed it to escape persecution and repeated waves of iconoclasm over the centuries. Like all icons, Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels, also known as Virgin and Child with Angels and Saints George and Theodore; and Virgin and Child Enthroned, was not intended to be a work of art but a focus of worship. The icon, which measures 2.2 ft. tall by 1.7 ft. wide, was made in the last half of the 6th Century using encaustic, in which the artist added colored pigments to heated beeswax, which he then poured onto prepared wood and manipulated with a special brush. Two soldier saints (George and Theodore), feet planted firmly on the ground and staring blankly forward, flank the Virgin Mary, who holds the baby Jesus on her lap. Behind them, two other angels, with near transparent haloes, stare in awe at the hand of God reaching down from heaven, sending a shaft of holy light onto Mary and her son, who look off to the right, failing to meet our gaze. According to one scholar, the viewer is drawn first to the soldiers, the most ordinary, then to the central Virgin and Jesus, and up to the second set of angels, who direct the gaze to the hand of God, thus showing the believer the path to salvation.
Unknown Artist: Mosaics, Great Mosque of Damascus (Umayyad Mosque) (705-715 CE)
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: Relief Sculptures and Murals, Tikal (300-869) Guatemala
Tikal was a major Mayan city in what is now northern Guatemala. The Mayans built dozens of limestone structures, including enormous temples and pyramids, over a period from 4th Century BCE to 900 CE, although the city reached its peak between 200 and 900 CE. Throughout the temples and other structures, the Mayans carved relief sculptures, with or without hieroglyphics, on limestone walls, lintels made of sapodilla wood, and standing stones called stelae. They also painted colorful murals on some of the walls. The images shown above are: (1) a wooden lintel from Temple IV showing Tikal ruler Yik’in Chan K’awiil seated on a litter, in celebration of a military victory; and (2) a large stucco mask of a god installed on a platform of Temple 33, flanking a stairway.
Guo Xi: Early Spring (c. 1072) National Palace Museum, Taipei
Guo Xi was a master 11th Century Chinese painter and highly-educated court professional. He wrote an influential treatise on painting entitled ‘The Lofty Message of Forest and Streams’ and developed a new system of brushstrokes that was adopted by many succeeding painters. His masterpiece, Early Spring (1072), is a monumental landscape, the most common type of painting in the Northern Song dynasty (see first image, above). Guo used ink and color on a silk hanging scroll measuring 5.2 ft. tall by 3.5 ft. wide; he signed and dated the work, which was very unusual. Although at first, the painting appears to contain only trees, water, clouds, rocks and various land formations, on closer inspection, the landscape reveals not only a temple and several other buildings, but also various human figures (see detail in second image above). Early Spring is an example of Guo’s innovative technique known as floating perspective (or as Guo called it, “the angle of totality”), which allows the artist to present multiple visual viewpoints simultaneously. In 1759, Emperor Qianlong added a poem to the upper right portion of the painting, with verses describing the scene below.
Unknown Artist: Relief Sculptures, Reims Cathedral (c. 1211-1305) Reims, France
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
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.
Jean Bondol (Hennequin of Bruges), Nicolas Bataille, and Robert Poinçon: The Apocalypse Tapestry (1377-1382) Musée des Tapisseries, Chateau d’Angers, Angers, France
When Louis I, Duke of Anjou, saw an illustrated manuscript given to his brother, Charles V of France, he decided to commission something bigger and better: a huge tapestry containing an illustrated version of the Book of Revelation (also known as the Book of the Apocalpyse), the final book of the Bible, which is attributed to St. John the Evangelist. The book tells the story of the end of the world, in which demons, devils and dragons wreak havoc on the population until Jesus Christ returns to vanquish the evildoers and bring the Last Judgment to mankind. Various versions of the story had been circulating throughout Medieval Europe and were very popular among the Christian populace during those times of war, plague and famine. Louis asked Flemish artist Hennequin de Bruges (also known as Jean Bondol) to design and sketch the scenes and he hired Parisians Nicolas Bataille and Robert Poinçon to weave the massive tapestry using wool, silk, silver and gold. The entire process took only seven years and was completed in 1382. The finished product was 436 feet long in six 78-foot sections and 20 feet high. The Apocalypse Tapestry originally contained 90 separate scenes. In the first image above, an angel blows a trumpet, opening one of the seals of the Apocalypse and causing a shipwreck. The artists included political commentary in the piece: in the second image above, the many-headed lion (the Beast of the Sea) receives the fleur-de-lis (symbol of France) from the many-headed dragon (the False Prophet), a reference to England’s domination of France during the 100 Years’ War. The depiction of Death as a skeleton-headed corpse (see third image above) was an innovation in French religious iconography. The Duke and his family displayed the tapestry for about a century. In 1480, they donated it to Angers Cathedral, where it remained until the French Revolution. Anti-clerical protesters looted the tapestry, cut it up and used the pieces for flooring, to protect orange trees from frost and to fill holes in walls. In 1848, clerics began collecting the surviving fragments, which were returned to the cathedral in 1870. The reconstructed Apocalypse Tapestry is now 328 feet long; of the original 90 scenes, 71 have been found. The front has faded, but it is entirely reversible and the back side still has vibrant color.
Unknown Artist: The Wilton Diptych (c. 1395-1399) National Gallery, London
Painted in the International Gothic style using egg tempera and gold leaf on panels of Baltic oak wood, the Wilton Diptych (named for Wilton House, where it was kept for many years) contains four separate paintings: two on the interior and two on the exterior. Each painting is 20.9 in. tall and 14.6 in. wide; the interior, more complex, scenes are better preserved than the simpler figures on the outer panels. Many factors lead to the conclusion that this diptych was painted for English king Richard II, who reigned from 1377 to 1399. The interior left panel shows King Richard, in a vermilion and gold cloak with his emblems of the white stag and rosemary, kneeling in prayer (see first image above). Standing next to him are two English kings who became saints (Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Confessor) and John the Baptist, Richard’s patron saint. (The presence of the three kings on the left worshiping Christ may allude to the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6, which was Richard’s birthday.) Following Richard’s gaze, we look to the right panel, where Mary holds Jesus, and 11 angels surround them in a flowery meadow (see first image above). Jesus blesses Richard, and an angel draws his attention to the pennant with the English flag and a tiny globe with a castle on an island in a silver seal. Interestingly, all the angels wear Richard’s white stag emblem, as if they are part of his entourage. The unusual number of the angels – 11 – may refer to Richard’s age when he ascended to the throne. The extensive use of expensive pigments such as lapis lazuli for the blue pigment of the garments in the right panel and vermilion on the left for Richard’s robe shows that no expense was spared to make this small object with both religious and political overtones. The outer panels show a white stag with a crown around its neck and a chain on one side, and coats of arms of Richard and other English kings, on the other (see second image above). The existence of the Wilton Diptych, which is now in the National Gallery in London, is considered remarkable considering that few religious images survived a campaign of iconoclasm by the Puritans in the 17th Century.
Claus Sluter: The Well of Moses (1395-1406) Chartreuse de Champmol, Dijon, France
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. 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 image, 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; and Zachariah in the third image above). 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 fourth 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 Angelico: The 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.
Benozzo Gozzoli: The Procession of the Magi (The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem)
(c. 1459-1462) Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence
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
Scholars cannot reach consensus on the date that Italian sculptor Niccolò dell’Arca created the seven-piece terracotta group Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Compianto sul Cristo morto) for the sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita in Bologna, where it is still located. One group gives a date near 1460, probably 1463, while another faction asserts a much later date of 1485-1490. Whatever the date, all agree that the life-sized figures, especially the six who are gathered around the dead body of Jesus (the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary Clopas, Salome, John the Apostle, and Joseph of Arimathea), show extraordinary drama and pathos in their stances and facial expressions. 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
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.
Paolo Uccello: The Hunt in the Forest (c. 1470) Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
The Hunt in the Forest (also known as The Hunt, or The Hunt by Night) was the last major work by Florentine painter Paolo Uccello before he died in 1475. We do not know who commissioned it, but it may have been designed for a spalliera (the back of a bench or the headboard or footboard of a bed) for a prosperous Florentine family. Painted with tempera, oil and gold leaf on a wood panel measuring 2.2 ft. tall by 5.4 ft. wide, The Hunt in the Forest is a fine example of the use of linear perspective (see first image above). The artist used a grid on the wood panels to ensure that objects diminished in size as they became more distant. The perspectival vanishing point also serves the painting’s subject matter, as the dogs chase the roebuck into the distance at the work’s dark center, while the brightly-colored hunters and their entourages hesitate amid the noise and disorganization (see detail in second image above). The scene is remarkable for its setting – a moonlit night in the forest – and its chaos. It is also a rare example of a contemporary secular subject painted for domestic use from this period. It is not clear is whether the scene is supposed to be real or imaginary, but the foliage of the trees was originally lined with gold leaf, giving it a magical sparkle, and there is at least one (probable) Classical reference: the crescents on the horses’ dressings may be crescent moons, symbol of Diana, goddess of the hunt. The Hunt in the Forest is now in the Ashmolean Museum, in Oxford, England.
Giovanni Bellini: St. Francis in the Desert (St. Francis in Ecstasy) (c. 1480)
Frick Collection, New York
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 (or St. Francis in Ecstasy) 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) Abersee, Austria
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
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.
Michael Pacher: Altarpiece of the Church Fathers (1484) Alte Pinakothek, Munich
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.
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 (see first image above). 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 (see pre-restoration painting in second image above). It is located in the Louvre in Paris.
Leonardo da Vinci: The Last Supper (1495-1498) Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan
When Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, asked Leonardo da Vinci to paint The Last Supper on the wall of the Sforza mausoleum, Leonardo decided to forego the fresco technique, which limited his palette, and try something new. It turned out to be a big mistake. Instead of mixing pigment with wet plaster, fresco-style, Leonardo decided to prepare the wall with a mixture of gesso, pitch and mastic, then put on a layer of plaster, and a brightening agent (white lead), wait for it to dry and then paint on the dry plaster using tempera. The mixture never set properly and bits of the mural began flaking off almost immediately. Add humidity, Allied bombs in World War I, angry anti-clerical French troops, a doorway cut out of the painting in 1583, and numerous botched restorations, and it is amazing there is anything left of Leonardo’s work. A comprehensive but highly controversial restoration project that ended in 1999 revealed a somewhat changed Last Supper, although it is not clear how much of it is the original. Measuring 15.1 ft. tall by 28.8 ft. wide, the painting is now on the end wall of the dining hall of the convent of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church in Milan. It depicts the moment in the Gospel of John when Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him. The reactions of the various disciples, painted in groups of threes, are shown with vivid facial expressions and gestures. Note also that, without looking, both Jesus and Judas are reaching for the same piece of bread; when their hands meet a moment later, it will be a sign that Judas is the betrayer. The painting is an excellent example of single-point perspective, as all the perspective lines meet at a vanishing point on or just above Jesus’ head. The painting has been much imitated and parodied, including tableaux vivant in the films Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961) and MASH (Robert Altman, 1970).
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.
Unknown Artists: Moai (1250-1500) Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile
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.
Giovanni Bellini: Portrait of the Doge Leonardo Loredan (1501-1504)
National Gallery, London
Giovanni Bellini was in his seventies when he received the commission to paint the portrait of the newly-elected Doge of Venice, Leonardo Loredan. The Doge was the Chief Magistrate of the Republic of Venice and he served for life; Loredan would serve from 1501 to 1521, two of the most turbulent decades in Venice’s history. Bellini’s portrait, although modestly proportioned at 2 ft. tall by 1.5 ft. wide, shows the viewer a commanding leader in the traditional pose of a Classical portrait bust. First, Bellini breaks with the tradition of painting secular portraits in profile and brings Renaissance humanism into the portrait gallery, with a full-faced view of the subject. Then, Bellini uses his expertise, including the technique of impasto, in which paint is layered on thickly to create raised sections that diffuse light, to create a sense of realism, depth and detail in the ceremonial robes and hat (the corno ducale) and the Doge’s skin. Crucially, he captures the Doge’s steely gaze as he begins his difficult journey as head of state. Even the blue background is shaded from dark down to light, to create the illusion that the sun is shining on the Doge’s face. The Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan is now in the National Gallery in London.
Albrecht Dürer: Adam und Eve (1507) Museo del Prado, Madrid
Germany’s Albrecht Dürer was known as much for his engravings (and the widely-disseminated prints made from them) as for his sublime oil paintings. In 1504, Dürer used his developing theory of the perfectly proportioned human form to make an engraving of Adam and Eve (see 1504 engraving in third image above). Three years later, after his second trip to Italy, Dürer took on the same subject to create a pair of oil paintings, made on wood panels each measuring 6.8 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide, showing a slimmed-down, more natural-looking Adam and Eve (see first and second images above). Scholars believe these are the first two life-size nudes in the history of German painting. Dürer blends the realistic detail of Northern European painting with the Italian treatment of light and shadow to create two figures who emerge from the dark background as fully realized bodies. Their expressions and stances also tell a story. Eve, whose stance has been described as “almost dancing”, has barely taken the fruit from the snake when she is already looking over to Adam with a seductive look. Adam, on the other hand, seems a bit befuddled and is cast as the unwitting victim of Eve’s womanly wiles. Note also that while the paintings consist of two separate panels, the poses of the two figures balance each other as in a traditional diptych. The pair of paintings has had many illustrious owners, from Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II to Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus to kings Philip IV and Charles III of Spain, before arriving at the Museo del Prado in Madrid in 1827.
Giorgione: The Three Philosophers (1506-1509) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
The Three Philosophers, made by Giorgione with oils on a canvas measuring 4 ft. tall by 4.75 ft. wide, was commissioned by Venetian noble Taddeo Contarini. It was one of Giorgione’s last works; he was so ill at the end that Sebastiano del Piombo had to add the finishing touches. Scholars believe that significant portions of the painting were trimmed away over the years, leaving the composition unbalanced. The work received its name in 1525, during the cataloging of the owner’s art, when it was described as “Three philosophers in a landscape.” The true meaning of the scene is a mystery, although many have attempted an explication. Traditionally, the painting was said to show the three Magi standing before a grotto where Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were staying, but the overwhelming weight of scholarship has rejected this interpretation. Some identify the turbaned man as the Muslim philosopher Averroes. Some say the cave that the sitting young man is measuring is Plato’s cave, from which we see the shadows of the Ideal Forms. Others argue that the men stand for three phases of life (young, middle aged and old) , three time periods (Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance) or three religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism). Some have tied the painting to astronomical events, noting that the bearded man is holding a scroll containing the word, “eclipse.” There is consensus on Giorgione’s masterful handling of light and delicate sfumato technique, as well as his bold use of color, all of which combine to create a fully-realized work of art, no matter what its meaning. The Three Philosophers is now at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Leonardo da Vinci: The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c. 1508-1510) Musée du Louvre, Paris
An unfinished masterpiece, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne remained incomplete upon Leonardo da Vinci’s death in 1519, when it was found in his workshop. It is now at the Louvre in Paris. Painted with oils on wood panels and measuring 5.5 ft. tall by 3.7 ft. wide, the work shows three generations of the Holy Family: St. Anne, her daughter Mary and Mary’s son Jesus. The baby holds on to a lamb, symbol of his suffering and death, and his mother tries to pull him away, while grandmother gazes at the child with a contemplative smile. Like so many of Leonardo’s works, the composition is pyramidal, here with a spiraling effect, and the various elements (figures, immediate landscape, distant mountains) are pulled together by expert use of the sfumato technique to create a subtle haze. Sigmund Freud believed he found the outline of a vulture in Mary’s robe, which he felt referred to a vulture Leonardo remembered from childhood. (Unfortunately for Freud, he remembered the story wrong – it was a kite, not a vulture.) The recent controversial cleaning of the painting, which some experts claim removed some of the sfumato and left the painting too bright, led to the resignation of two members of the Louvre staff in protest in 2011.
Raphael: The Sistine Madonna (1512-1514) Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden
The curtains open on a heavenly scene: at the apex is the Madonna, her blue robe still swaying as if she has just arrived on the cloudy platform, and holding an older-than-usual Christ child resting comfortably in his mother’s arms (see first image, above). Below Mary are St. Sixtus, a former Pope, and St. Barbara. Still further down are two cherubs resting on a balustrade, which also supports the papal crown (see second image, above). In the background, just barely visible, are the white faces of cherubs innumerable. Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint a Virgin, Child and Sts. Sixtus and Barbara as an altarpiece for Benedictine basilica of the Monastery of San Sisto in Piacenza. Measuring 8.7 ft. tall by 6.4 ft. wide and painted with oils on canvas, the work soon became known as the Sistine Madonna. In 1754, Polish King Augustus II bought the painting and moved it to Dresden. During World War II, the Sistine Madonna was saved from Allied firebombing, but at the end of the war, the Soviets came into possession of the painting and brought it to Moscow, only to return it to Germany in 1955. The Sistine Madonna is now at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, Germany. Random Trivia: Since at least the beginning of the 20th Century, the two cherubs at the bottom of the Sistine Madonna have become cultural icons and have been used as decoration and on such items as t-shirts, postcards and wrapping paper.
Hans Holbein the Younger: The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520-1522)
Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland
The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb is a macabre study of the humanness of Jesus and the horror of death. Lying on a stone slab within a claustrophobic wooden box (see first image, above), rigor mortis setting in, flesh beginning to rot, Jesus’ dead eyes look toward heaven and his open mouth seems about to speak (see second image, above). Scholars do not know what the unusually long, narrow piece – it is 1 ft. high by 6.5 ft. long and painted with oils and tempera on limewood panel – was intended for: the predella of an altarpiece, the top of a tomb or a stand-alone piece for gruesome meditation? No one knows. We do know that, according to legend, Holbein’s model was a body fished out of the Rhine. We also know that Fyodor Dostoyevsky was so obsessed with the painting that his wife had to drag him away from it for fear that it would trigger an epileptic seizure; he later had a character in The Idiot comment that the painting could make someone lose his faith. The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb is in the Kunstmuseum Basel in Basel, Switzerland.
Jacopo Pontormo: The Deposition of Christ (The Deposition from the Cross) (1525-1528) Church of Santa Felicità, Capponi Chapel, 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.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Tower of Babel (1563) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
The story of the Tower of Babel comes from the Book of Genesis: God’s people, led by King Nimrod (possibly pictured in lower left) decide to join together to build a tower in Babylon that will reach the heavens. This attempt to challenge God incurs his wrath, and he creates the many languages of earth, which force groups to disperse. In this work, using oils on wood panel and measuring 3.7 ft. high by 5.1 ft. wide, Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder shows the tower being constructed. Having recently visited Rome, Bruegel chose the Colisseum for his model, which Christians of his day would have seen as a sign of overarching pride and persecution by the Roman Empire. Bruegel’s eye for detail and knowledge of construction techniques blinds us at first, and we believe that all is well. But on further inspection, it becomes clear that there are serious flaws in the tower’s design: (1) there are no stable horizontals, but only a winding spiral; (2) the arches are perpendicular to the ground, which causes instability (in fact, some have already collapsed); and (3) the lower floors were not completed before work on the upper floors commenced, a sure sign of trouble to come. The messages are clear: don’t play God, and pride goeth before a fall (or, here, a collapse). The Tower of Babel is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Census at Bethlehem (1566)
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels
Painted by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder with oils on oak panel measuring 3.8 ft. tall by 5.4 ft. wide, The Census at Bethlehem (sometimes called The Numbering at Bethlehem) appears at first glance to be a contemporary winter scene in a Flemish village, seen from above, with folks going about their business and children playing in the snow. Upon closer inspection, however, we see people lined up to pay the tax collector and a young couple – the man carrying a carpenter’s saw and the woman in blue sitting on a donkey – just arriving. According to the Gospel of Luke, the Roman emperor wanted a count of everyone in the empire, so Joseph and his fiance Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, traveled from Galilee to Bethlehem, Joseph’s family seat, to be counted and pay a tax. The artist’s innovation was to place the Biblical scene in a familiar context, to which his viewers could relate, and to depict the main characters as just two ordinary people in a crowded village square – Bruegel positions Joseph and Mary off center and does not draw attention to them. Bruegel managed to insert some political commentary as well: at the time, Protestants in the Netherlands were rebelling against the strict Catholic rule of Spain and the Hapsburgs. By placing the two-headed eagle of the Hapsburgs on the door of the tax collector, Bruegel was commenting on the ongoing political troubles. The census was not a frequent subject for artists, and winter landscapes were also rare. Perhaps as a result, this painting spawned over a dozen copies, including several by the artist’s son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The Census at Bethlehem is now at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.
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.
Tintoretto: The 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
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.
Artemisia Gentileschi: Judith Slaying Holofernes (Judith Beheading Holofernes)
1st Version: (c. 1611-1613) National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples
2nd Version: (c. 1620) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
In the Book of Judith, Assyrian general Holofernes is preparing to destroy the people of Israel when he falls in love with Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow from the village of Bethulia. Taking advantage of Holofernes’ fondness for her, Judith invites herself into his tent one night and waits until he gets drunk. When he passes out, she cuts off his head, saving herself and the Jewish people. The story has generated many works of art, but until the Baroque era, Judith was usually shown with the head of Holofernes post-decapitation. Caravaggio was one of the first to ratchet up the violence with his painting from 1598-1599 depicting the act of decapitation itself (see third image above). Artemisia Gentileschi, a distinguished painter and first woman member of Florence’s Accademia di Arte del Disegno at a time when women artists were not easily accepted, had certainly seen Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. She painted the theme twice, both paintings are referred to as Judith Slaying Holofernes or Judith Beheading Holofernes: (1) The first version was made in 1611-1613, using oils on a canvas now measuring 5.2 ft. tall by 4.1 ft. wide, although scholars believe it has been trimmed considerably on the left side (see first image above). The painting is now located in the National Museum of Capodimonte in Naples, Italy. (2) The second version, from 1614-1618, is considerably larger than what remains of the first canvas and appears to show the full intended composition for both paintings, including Holofernes’ legs on the left (see second image above). It was painted with oils on a canvas measuring measuring 6.5 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide and is now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Both paintings are highly dramatic, as Judith and her maid fight against a very conscious Holofernes. One can see the determination and physical exertions of both women and feel the pressure of Judith’s hand on the blade as she saws through living flesh. In the later painting, Gentileschi is less influenced by Caravaggio; also, she has added a realistic spurt of blood from Holofernes’ jugular vein to let us know that Judith has hit her mark (in contrast with the unrealistic blood spurts from Caravaggio’s treatment). Contemporaries might have recognized another meaning to the scene: Judith’s rage at Holofernes may echo Gentileschi’s rage at painter and former tutor Agostino Tassi, who raped Gentileschi when she was 18 years old. Gentileschi attempted to save her honor by marrying Tassi but he reneged, so she took the daring step of coming forward and accusing Tassi publicly. He was eventually convicted of rape after a trial in which she was tortured with thumbscrews to see if she was telling the truth, but he received a full pardon and was never punished.
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.
Frans Hals: The Laughing Cavalier (1624) Wallace Collection, London
We know very little about the subject of The Laughing Cavalier, the famous portrait by Dutch Golden Age painter Frans Hals, except that he was 26 when Hals painted him in 1624. There is no evidence that he was a cavalier, and he is definitely not laughing. The current title arose in the late 19th Century during an exhibition in London and has stuck. Hals animates the portrait by having the subject turn and smile while looking straight at the viewer, and by choosing a low angle. The angle also emphasizes the subject’s elaborate outfit, and gives the viewer a close-up look at the cupids and other love symbols on his sleeves. A close look at the painting, made with oils on canvas measuring 2.7 ft. high by 2.2 ft. wide, shows that, foreshadowing the Impressionists, Hals often used quick, broad brushstrokes, sketching out details in a way that creates an illusion of realism at a distance. The Laughing Cavalier is now located in the Wallace Collection in London. Random Trivia: The logo for McEwan’s, a Scottish-based brewer, is loosely based on The Laughing Cavalier, with the addition of a frosty mug of ale.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625) Galleria Borghese, Rome
In his Metamorphoses, Ovid relates a tale in which Cupid punishes the god Apollo for a slight by making him fall in love with Daphne, a beautiful river nymph, while at the same time shooting Daphne with an arrow that makes her incapable of falling in love. Apollo chases Daphne relentlessly until she is exhausted and Apollo finally catches up to her. A distressed Daphne then prays to her father, the river god Peneus, to either take away her beauty or transform her body. As Apollo reaches out to touch Daphne, she begins to be transformed into a laurel tree. When Apollo finally places his hand on her, he only touches tree bark, although he can feel her heart beating underneath. It was this moment that Bernini captured in his 8-ft.-tall marble sculpture Apollo and Daphne, which was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (see first and second images, above). In order to justify the presence of a pagan myth in a Catholic cardinal’s home, Borghese had a moral lesson engraved on the original base of the statue: “Those who love to pursue fleeting forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands.” A more applicable lesson may be that within a sculpture of cold stone we may find a beating heart that is the true representation of real life. The statue is Bernini’s most admired, although some scholars believe that a member of Bernini’s workshop, Giuliano Finelli, sculpted some of the details of Daphne’s metamorphosis. Apollo and Daphne is now in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Random Trivia: Lady GaGa used Apollo and Daphne as cover art for one of her albums.
Unknown Artist: Mosaics, Imam Mosque (formerly Shah Mosque) (1611-1629) Isfahan, Iran
The Shah Mosque (known since the 1979 revolution as Imam Mosque; also known as Masjed-e Jameh Abbasi, Masjed-e Shah or Masjed-e Imam) is located in Naghsh-i Jahan Square in Isfahan, Iran. It was built between 1611 and 1630 under Persian leader Shah Abbas I, of the Safavid Dynasty, and was designed by architect Shaykh Bahai. Both the building and the 475,000 mosaic tiles that decorate it combine Islamic (mostly Arab) traditions with local Persian styles. For example, unlike monochrome domes found in other traditions, Persian domes such as the Shah Mosque’s are covered with colorful tiles, both outside (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.
Diego Velázquez: The Surrender of Breda (1634) Museo del Prado, Madrid
In 1629, 30-year-old Diego Velázquez, court painter for Spanish king Philip IV, set off to Italy for an 18-month artistic education. On the voyage, Velázquez accompanied Spanish general Ambrogio Spinola, who was returning to his home in Genoa, then a Spanish protectorate. Only four years earlier, Spinola had won his most illustrious victory. In 1624, during the war of Dutch independence from Spanish rule (also known as the Eighty Years’ War), Spinola ignored the orders of his superiors and lay siege to the heavily fortified Dutch city of Breda. After an 11-month siege, Justin of Nassau surrendered to Spinola, giving Spain a significant victory. Spinola was praised not only for his military skill but also the reasonableness of the terms of surrender. Just a year after Velázquez and Spinola sailed together, Spinola died during the siege of Casale, after political intrique had tarnished his reputation. In 1634, Velázquez painted Spinola’s victory at Breda for the Salón de Reinos in Philip IV’s new Buen Retiro Palace on the outskirts of Madrid. The Surrender of Breda was one of 12 paintings of Spanish military victories by various Spanish painters that decorated the royal reception room. Made with oils on a canvas measuring 10.1 ft. tall by 12 ft. wide, The Surrender of Breda shows Spinola (drawn from memory) accepting surrender from Justin of Nassau. Justin hands Spinola the key to the city, which forms the center point or ‘key’ to the composition. Some scholars believe that Velázquez painted The Surrender of Breda as a way of rehabilitating the image of his traveling companion. Both the historical record and the personal recollections of Velázquez support the painting’s depiction of Spinola as showing restraint, respect and dignity in victory. Ironically, the Dutch permanently recaptured Breda soon after Velázquez painted his canvas. The Surrender of Breda is now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
Anthony van Dyck: Charles I at the Hunt (1635) Musée du Louvre, Paris
At less than five feet tall, diminuitive English monarch Charles I was looking for an artist who could make him look like a king and court portraitist Daniel Mytens was not getting the job done. Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck had gained a reputation in Italy and Flanders as a superb portraitist, and he had gained Charles I’s attention by assisting his agents in building the king’s art collection and by sending Charles a few of his own works, including a portrait of Charles’s sister, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia. In 1632, Charles I made van Dyck his new principal court painter, granting him a knighthood and an annual salary of 200 pounds. Given van Dyck’s specialty, it is not surprising that his finest works during this period are his portraits of the king, which are accurate depictions but never reveal his below average stature. Charles I at the Hunt (also known as Le Roi à la chasse and Charles I, King of England, at the Hunt) is a 1635 portrait of Charles I in an informal setting, made with oils on a canvas measuring 8.7 ft. tall and 6.8 ft. wide. The king appears to be taking a break from a hunting trip to survey his domain – the lands and sea spread out below – when he turns to the viewer with a look of both supreme confidence and utter indifference. Van Dyck deliberately chose a low angle to depict the king to avoid drawing attention to his height, and placed him in the left, brighter side of the canvas, away from the shadows that engulf the bowing horse and courtiers. To ensure that the king’s face stands out against the bright sky, van Dyck used a black hat as a frame. While there are few definitive royal accoutrements (except for the cloak the groom holds and the statement, “Charles I, King of Great Britain” inscribed on a rock), there is no doubt that this is not just a nattily dressed aristocrat, complete with fashionable teardrop earring, but a king who knows how to play at the aristocrats’ sports without compromising his power and majesty. It is, perhaps, a sign of his confidence in himself and his power that he allowed himself to be portrayed in this informal manner. Van Dyck died in 1641, while Charles I was still on the throne; eight years later, the Puritans overthrew the king and eventually beheaded him. Charles I at the Hunt is now at the Louvre in Paris.
Pieter Jansz. Saenredam: Interior of Grote Kerk in Haarlem (1636-1637)
National Gallery, London
Grote Kerk, also known as St. Bavo’s Church, was the largest church in Dutch artist Pieter Saenredam’s home town of Haarlem in the Netherlands. Grote Kerk began its life in the Middle Ages as a Gothic-style Roman Catholic church, but by the 1630s, the Protestant revolution had swept through the Netherlands, taking paintings and sculptures out of the churches and whitewashing the walls. Stripped of icons, the post-Reformation church interior emphasized the pure lines of the architecture, something that Saenredam spent much of his time capturing in a number of splendid paintings of Grote Kerk and other Protestant churches. He combined a dedication to realism with a willingness to alter the facts to make a better picture. He studied perspective and made measurements of the churches, but he also felt free to alter perspective rules (as in Interior of Grote Kerk at Haarlem, above) and omit furniture and other clutter from the final product. Made with oils on oak panel measuring 1.9 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide, this 1636-1637 work was one of several views of Grote Kerk that Saenredam painted over the years. This view is from the north side of the choir, east of the north transept. Saenredam’s Interior of Grote Kerk at Haarlem is now in the National Gallery in London.
Pietro da Cortona: Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power (The Triumph of Divine Providence) (1633-1639) Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica (Palazzo Barberini), Rome
Italian artist Pietro da Cortona painted the massive fresco titled The Triumph of Divine Providence (also known as Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power) on the ceiling of the grand salon in the Palazzo Barberini, home of Rome’s powerful Barberini family, between 1633 and 1639 (see first image, above). The fresco was intended to celebrate the family’s power and good fortune, particularly the election of Maffeo Barberini to pope (as Urban VIII) in 1623. In true Baroque fashion, the work as a whole – all 4,300 square feet of it – is filled with a swirling, ecstatic energy. Allegorical figures abound in the crowded composition: scholars have identified Truth, Beauty, Peace, Chronos (Time, eating his children), the Three Fates, Immortality (carrying a crown of stars), Hercules, Vulcan, Minerva and St. Peter, to name a few. (See second image above showing detail from the fresco with Divine Providence, Immortality, Time and the Three Fates.) The mythological content is so complex that visitors to the Palazzo receive a detailed guidebook to help them decipher the many symbols, including those specifically referring to the Barberinis: the family’s coat of arms and squadrons of giant bees, the family mascot. Cortona also added plenty of trompe-l’oeil effects, including the apparent crumbling of the marble frame due to the weight of Providence, in one case, and Vulcan at his forge, in another. Some art historians have suggested that the fresco was intended to dispel any notion that Maffeo Barberini’s election to the papacy was rigged, a powerful rumor at the time. Instead, the fresco shows that Pope Urban VIII is in his place because of Divine Providence. The fresco may also have been intended to demonstrate the supremacy of Catholicism over its rival religions, although the reliance on figures from Classical mythology may have undermined that message somewhat.
Jacob van Ruisdael: The Jewish Cemetery
Version 1: (c. 1654-1655) Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
Version 2: (c. 1655-1660) Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden
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.
Rembrandt: The Return of the Prodigal Son (1668-1669)
State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
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.
Hyacinthe Rigaud: Portrait of Louis XIV (1701) Musée du Louvre, Paris
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.
Canaletto: The Stonemason’s Yard (Venice: Campo Santa Vidal and Santa Maria Della Carita) (c. 1725-1730) National Gallery, London
Born Giovanni Antonio Canal in Venice, Canaletto painted highly detailed and accurate landscapes (known as vedute) of his hometown, many of which were purchased by English tourists. The Stonemason’s Yard, an early work considered one of Canaletto’s best, is somewhat atypical in that it reveals a side of the city that many tourists would not have seen. For that reason, scholars believe it was probably made for a Venetian patron. In the foreground is Campo Santa Vidal, a small square in front of the Santa Vidal Church (which is unseen, behind the viewer) . Masons are using the Campo to store (and work on) the stones they are using to repair the Santa Vidal. Behind the Campo is the Grand Canal, with its gondolas, running parallel to the picture plane. Across the canal is the Medieval church of Santa Maria della Carità, with its campanile (belltower), which collapsed in the 1740s, and, to the viewer’s right, the Scuola Grande della Carità (now the Gallerie dell’Accademia). Modest residential apartments, with their flared chimney pots and open windows, frame the Campo in the foreground. Throughout the painting, Venetians old and young go about the activities of daily living. Those who have studied the painting attribute its warm tonality to the reddish brown background layer that Canaletto painted over. Others have noted that the strong diagonals of sun and shadow as storm clouds disperse overhead help to define the space and articulate the lines of the architecture. The Stonemason’s Yard, which was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4 ft. high by 5.3 ft. wide, is now in the National Gallery in London.
William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress (series of eight) (c. 1732-1733)
Sir John Soane’s Museum, London
In 1732-1733, William Hogarth painted eight scenes from the life of the fictional Thomas Rakewell, heir to a rich merchant, a moral tale of about irresponsibility and living in excess done in the rococo style. In 1735, Hogarth had the paintings engraved, with some alterations, and then published as prints. The eight chapters of the Rake’s decline and fall are as follows: (1) The Heir: Tom’s father is dead and Tom has his fortune; he buys new clothes and rejects his pregnant fiancée, Sarah; (2) The Levee: Tom is attended by various hangers-on offering their services, including music, fencing, quarterstaff and dancing teachers (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 Gainsborough: Mr. 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.
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.
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).
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 The Nightmare (made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.3 ft. tall by 4.2 ft. wide) at the Royal Academy in 1782, viewers have been fascinated and disturbed, while critics and scholars have offered multiple interpretations. At the most simple level, we see a woman sleeping, throat exposed and vulnerable, in a position commonly believed at the time to produce nightmares. Two of the elements of her nightmare are visible: a gruesome incubus sitting on her chest, staring at the viewer, and a horse with devilish white eyes emerging from behind a red curtain. The whites and golds of the woman’s body and clothing shimmer brightly against the much darker, shadowy room and figures surrounding her, thanks to Fuseli’s expert use of the chiaroscuro technique and a Gothic-Romantic style. Viewers then and now sense a smoldering sexuality pervading The Nightmare. Some have suggested that the incubus is Fuseli and the woman his unrequited love, Anna Landholdt. Others say it speaks generally to sublimated sexual instincts. Some even interpret the horse piercing through the curtains to be a phallic symbol. The incubus gazes directly at us, perhaps seeking our conscious complicity in some heinous act. The painting was Fuseli’s most renowned, and prints from a 1783 engraving of the work by Thomas Burke were very popular. Visitors to Sigmund Freud’s Vienna office report that he had a print of The Nightmare on his wall. Fuseli himself painted a number of versions, with variations (one includes a sexually suggestive statue of a man and a woman on the night table). The distinctive image was also much plagiarized and parodied. The original painting of The Nightmare is now in the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit, Michigan.
Étienne Maurice Falconet: Monument to Peter the Great (The Bronze Horseman) (1770-1782) Senate Square, St. Petersburg
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 Wor II, the monument was covered with sandbags and a wooden shelter, and survived the bombing unharmed.
Antonio Canova: Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (Psyche Awakened by Eros; Psyche and Cupid) (1787-1793) Musée du Louvre, Paris
According to a story in Apuleius’ 2nd Century novel The Golden Ass, after Cupid fell in love with Psyche, Cupid’s mother Venus tried to end the romance by giving Psyche an impossible task: to go to the Underworld and bring back a jar with part of Proserpina’s beauty, with instructions never to open the jar. Psyche could not resist, of course, and found that the jar contained, not beauty, but a sleeping darkness that put Psyche into a coma-like state of unconsciousness. Cupid flew down to find the sleeping beauty and used one of his arrows to awaken her, after which she reached up to kiss him. It is this moment that Italian Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova captures in his marble sculpture Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, which measures 5.1 ft. tall by 5.5 ft. wide (see first image, above). The composition consists of two intersecting diagonals, and includes details such as Cupid’s quiver, the arrow he used to prick Psyche, and the jar she carried (see second image, above). Canova’s treatment of the marble to render skin, draperies and rock has won him significant praise from art historians, who have also noted the way the artist has combined classical elements with a more modern sensuality. There is no single viewpoint that allows one to take in all aspects of the sculpture – a fact that some have criticized. In fact, when the work was installed at the Louvre in Paris, Canova had it equipped with a handle so it could be rotated. Canova made a second version of the grouping in 1796; it is now in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
Henry Raeburn (?): The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch (The Skating Minister) (c. 1795-1799) National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh
The Skating Minister is the short name for a small portrait of Church of Scotland minister Reverend Robert Walker, made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.5 ft. high by 2.1 ft. wide, with the official title The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch. In addition to being minister of Canongate Kirk, Walker was a member of the Edinburgh Skating Club, which may have been the world’s first such organization. The club usually met on Duddingston Loch, where Reverend Walker is shown skating on Duddingston Loch. The Reverend is a confident skater (the position of his arms alone tells us this) who exhibits perfect control on the much-scarred ice. Some scholars have drawn an analogy between the intellectual and scientific accomplishments of the 18th Century Scottish Enlightenment and the coolly rational exercise of the Skating Minister. There is significant controversy about the identity of the artist who painted Rev. Walker’s portrait, which has become an icon for Scottish heritage and adorns t-shirts and coffee mugs. The work was attributed to renowned Scottish portrait painter Henry Raeburn in part because Raeburn and Walker were acquaintances, and certain aspects of the style matched Raeburn’s other work, although it was agreed that there were aspects of the painting that were unlike any other Raeburn painting. For example, Raeburn normally painted life-size portraits of figures at rest, so a small portrait of a figure in motion would be unique in his oeuvre. In 2005, a museum curator suggested that The Skating Minister had been painted by French artist Henri-Pierre Danloux, who had visited Edinburgh several times in the late 1790s and who commonly painted smaller portraits, often of subjects in motion. X-ray analysis also revealed that, where Raeburn always used lead white paint as underpainting on his subjects’ faces, there is no lead white paint under Walker’s face. Despite the mounting evidence in favor of Danloux, some experts still believe that the work should be attributed to Henry Raeburn. The Skating Minister is now located at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Francisco Goya: The Naked Maja (La Maja Desnuda) (c. 1797-1800) Museo del Prado, Madrid
While nude women had been a commonplace of painting and sculpture for centuries, until Goya’s Naked Maja (La Maja Desnuda), artists who wanted to be taken seriously provided a non-erotic explanation for the nudity. The nudity was consistent with the figure’s mythological nature or with the religious of historical subject being depicted; if not, then the subject’s nudity was excusable because she was sleeping, trying to hide or otherwise unaware that she was being observed. With The Naked Maja, Goya caused a scandal because he made no such excuses for the nudity of the woman subject. First, she is a very human model, someone a contemporary viewer might have passed on the street, who is not presented to us as a character from myth or history (see first image above). The companion piece with the same model clothed, The Clothed Maja (La Maja Vestida), proves the point (see second image, above). Second, the subject is very much aware of the artist’s (and therefore, the viewer’s) gaze, and boldly gazes back, perhaps even inviting an erotic encounter. Like real women, she has pubic hair, which Goya presents for perhaps the first time in the history of art. Goya apparently made the painting for Spanish Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy, who placed it in a special room where he kept all his nude paintings, where it was first observed by a visitor in 1800. According to some accounts, de Godoy had rigged the Naked Maja and Clothed Maja paintings so that one first saw the Clothed Maja and then, with a flick of a switch, the Naked Maja appeared in its place, creating the illusion that the woman’s clothing had been removed by some kind of magic. In 1808, the Spanish Inquisition learned about the painting and hauled both the Prime Minister and Goya before the inquisitors to answer for their alleged depravity. Goya’s answers are not recorded, but the painting was subsequently sequestered for years. The terms maja and majo refers to certain members of the lower classes at the time who enjoyed dressing in elaborate outfits that were exaggerated versions of traditional Spanish peasant clothing. Scholars have long debated the identity of the model. Some believe it was the Duchess of Alba, a Spanish aristocrat who featured in a number of Goya’s paintings and who was also linked romantically with Goya. Others believe that Manuel de Godoy’s mistress Pepita Tudó was the model. In either case, according to legend, the model asked Goya to alter her face so she would not be recognized, so we may never know the maja’s name. The Naked Maja, made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.2 ft. tall by 6.2 ft. long, is now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: The Valpinçon Bather (The Bather; The Bather of Valpinçon) (1808) Musée du Louvre, Paris
When French Neoclassical artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres won the Prix de Rome, he went to Italy to study at the French Academy in Rome. Ingres, a discipline of Jacques-Louis David, told a friend that exposure to the Italian masterpieces required him to “begin my education again.” One of the first works he completed while in Rome was the painting now known as The Valpinçon Bather (after one of its owners), which was originally titled Seated Woman. The Bather, painted with oils on a canvas measuring 4.7 ft. tall by 3.2 ft. wide, is a direct result of the Italian influence on Ingres’ style. Although the work was not praised by contemporaries, its reputation rose after the Universal Exhibition of 1855, when the influential Goncourt brothers compared the color of the nude’s body with Rembrandt’s works. Critics have remarked on Ingres’ ability to paint a voluptuous and sensual woman while still conveying a sense of her chasteness. Ingres balances warm, sensual elements of the painting such as the sinuous curves of the woman’s body, the green curtains, white curtain and bed linens with cooler components: the delicate, diffuse light, the woman’s modest pose and hidden face, the flesh tones and marble bathtub. Critics have also commented on the relative flatness of the figure, in contrast to the more substantial, modeled nudes of the Renaissance or even the Romantic painters. There is no mythological excuse for the nudity, but unlike Goya’s The Naked Maja, the Bather keeps her back to us, allowing the viewer to maintain the illusion that the subject is not aware of being watched, or is turning away out of modesty. Ingres returned to the curve of the model’s back several times in his career, reusing the Bather as the mandolin player in the foreground of The Turkish Bath, from 1863. The Valpinçon Bather is now at the Louvre in Paris.
Francisco Goya (?): The Colossus (1808-1812) Museo del Prado, Madrid
The Colossus (also known as The Giant, The Panic, or The Storm) portrays a giant with a clenched fist, either standing or striding in a valley through clouds that encircle his waist, while in the foreground people and animals flee in terror (see first image above). The painting is the source of two controversies: first, what does it mean? and second, did Goya paint it? Many scholars believe that the painting is an allegory about the Peninsular War, which began in 1808 when Napoleon’s French armies invaded Spain. Under one theory, the angry giant represents the French behemoth that was invading Spain and terrorizing the public. A second theory holds that the giant stands for the strength of the Spanish people as they rise up to throw out the French invaders and establish their independence. The second theory gains support from the 1810 poem The Prophecy of the Pyrenees, by Juan Bautista Arriaza, which tells of a giant rising from the mountains to defend Spain against Napoleon in the light of the setting sun, clouds encircling his waist, and the Pyrenees reduced to stumps next to his limbs. (Query, though, why the populace is fleeing in terror from a giant who is there to save them.) The artist is working within the Romantic style, and the composition has been described as centrifugal, with elements moving along diagonal lines toward the margins (except for a stubborn mule, who stands motionless). X-ray evidence reveals that in an earlier composition, the giant faced forward, toward the viewer. The Colossus, which was made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.8 ft. tall by 3.4 ft. wide, has much in common with Goya’s Black Paintings and a later Goya etching called The Giant, from 1814-1818 (see second image, above). Nevertheless, there has been raging debate since at least 2001 about whether Goya painted The Colossus. Some scholars allege that The Colossus shows signs of slow, insecure brushstrokes, inferior colors and materials and mistakes of proportion and perspective that are inconsistent with Goya’s other work. Furthermore, some art historians believe that markings they interpret as the initials “A.J.” indicate that Goya’s assistant Asensio Juliá is the painter. As a result of the dispute, the Museo del Prado, where The Colossus is located, changed its attribution from Francisco de Goya to “Follower of Goya” in 2008. As of the present date, the debate rages on in articles, books and press releases with no end in sight.
J.M.W. Turner: Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) Tate Britain, London
The landscape paintings of English Romantic artist Joseph Mallord William Turner, especially those made in his later years, have little in common with traditional landscape art. Instead of bucolic scenes of rural serenity, Turner’s landscapes are full of motion, even chaos. Such is the case with his Snow Storm: Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, from 1842. Legend has it that Turner had himself tied to the mast of a ship to find out what a storm at sea was like. Whether or not the story is true, Turner has certainly captured in this portrait of a storm-tossed ship named the Ariel the essence of man’s inability to overcome the wild power of the natural world. The composition consists of swirls of wind-driven storm clouds and waves that create a vortex, at the center of which, in a pocket of light, is a struggling ship, its white sail a beacon amid the dark forces that surround it. Turner used light brush strokes and a muted palette to achieve this dramatic effect, which would inspire the Impressionists later in the 19th Century. Unfortunately, most contemporary critics (with the exception of the brilliant John Ruskin) were befuddled by the work, one even asking “where the steam-boat is – where the harbor begins, or where it ends- …” Another famously called it “soapsuds and whitewash.” Only after Turner’s death was the importance of his later works fully appreciated. The painting was made with oils on a canvas measuring 3 ft. tall by 4 ft. wide, and is now in the Tate Britain in London. Random Trivia: Turner’s original title for the piece was a mouthful: Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel Left Harwick.
George Caleb Bingham: Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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 academic term that did not exist in 1845. 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 Millais: Ophelia (1851–1852) Tate Britain, London
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.
Gustave Courbet: The Painter’s Studio (1855) Musée d’Orsay, Paris
After being tagged as a ‘realist’, French artist Gustave Courbet began to paint works that did not fit inside the box the art world had put him in. One of the most challenging of these works was a piece with the full title, The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Life as an Artist, but most often referred to as The Painter’s Studio or L’Atelier (see first image above). The Paris Salon of 1855 rejected the work and several other Courbet offerings, so he set up his own exhibit with the goal of showing art that draws its essence from the artist’s individual liberty, art that is alive. Scholars have written many pages trying to identify the ‘real’ and the ‘allegory’ in Courbet’s sprawling canvas, which measures nearly 12 ft. tall by 20 ft. wide. The central group consists of the bearded Courbet, in profile, painting a Realist landscape, a young boy to our left, looking at the painting, a nude woman with drapery (presumably a model) looking at the painting over Courbet’s shoulder, and a playful white cat (see second image above). We might interpret this scene as follows: the painter must have knowledge of classical forms (the nude), but the best judge of his work is the common man. A more sarcastic interpretation: even a little boy could appreciate great art better than the professional critics. Looking to the right, we see a group of well-dressed individuals, many of whom have been identified as supporters of Courbet’s art, including his patron Alfred Bruyas, critic Champfleury, writers Georges Sand and Charles Baudelaire and philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. These are the individuals Courbet has relied on as friends and business associates in his career. On the left, we see Emperor Napoleon III as a hunter, some stereotypical characters, including some in Spanish dress, a number of poor and perhaps mentally ill folks, a skull, and a nude man hanging from a wooden contraption. These may be the people who have been left behind by France’s Revolution, or perhaps characters from the paintings that have inspired Courbet. Art historians have recognized Courbet’s debt to Spanish painters such as Ribera and Velázquez, particularly Las Meninas, in organizing and lighting this complex composition. Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio, which was made with oils on canvas, is now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Frederic Edwin Church: Cotopaxi (1862) Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
American landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church studied under Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School, but unlike other members of the School, Church wandered far from home to find subjects, from Arctic icebergs to ruins in Syria, and volcanoes in South America. Cotopaxi is a volcano in Ecuador that was particularly active during the mid-19th Century. In 1855 and 1857, Church painted it as a sleeping giant, with a snowy peak (see second image above, showing 1855 painting). His 1862 version lets out all the stops, showing the volcano as it erupts, sending a plume of black smoke and ash to dim the setting sun (see first image above). Critics have pointed out contrasting elements coexisting in the painting’s world: hot and cold, calm and turbulent, light and dark. Some have ascribed religious meaning to the work: despite the attempts of the forces of evil to conquer the world, God’s light will continue to shine, providing a beacon of hope in the darkness. Despite Cotopaxi’s fury, the sunshine continues to illuminate the relatively peaceful scene in the foreground of this large oil-on-canvas work, which measures 4 ft. tall and 7 ft. wide. Given that Church painted Cotopaxi in 1861-1862, the eruption may also refer to the cataclysm of the American Civil War. The painting is located at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit, Michigan.
Gustave Moreau: Orpheus (1865) Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Like many of his fellow Symbolists, French painter Gustave Moreau was fascinated by the story of Orpheus. According to Greek myth, the gifted musician Orpheus enticed the Maenads (worshippers of Bacchus) with his music, but then refused their amorous advances. In their anger, they tore him apart and threw his head and lyre into a river. In his Orpheus, made with oils on a wood panel measuring 5 ft. tall by 3.3 ft. wide, Moreau added an epilogue of his own devising, in which a Thracian girl retrieves the head of Orpheus and his lyre from the river. In Moreau’s imagined scene, the girl gazes at the face of the dead Orpheus, which is strangely similar to her own, in a bizarre landscape reminiscent of some Italian Renaissance backgrounds. Music-playing shepherds perch improbably on a huge rock formation at upper left, balanced by a pair of turtles promenading in the lower right near the girl’s bare feet, a possible reference to the legend that a turtle’s shell was used to make the first lyre. The entire image is suffused with a yellowish twilight haze. Some critics have attributed the painting’s dreamlike imagery to the artist’s opium-fueled hallucinations. Orpheus, also known as The Head of Orpheus and Thracian Girl Carrying the Head of Orpheus,is now located at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Random Trivia: As a model for the head of Orpheus, Moreau used a cast of the face of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave.
Ilya Repin: Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-1873) State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
In Barge Haulers on the Volga, Russian realist Ilya Repin depicts 11 men dragging a barge against the current on the Volga River. Repin had just recently left the Academy and was now one of the Peredvizhniki, or Wanderers, a group of Russian painters who rejected the Academy’s philosophy and sought to capture Russian life and people realistically. Instead of idealizing the haulers or dramatizing their plight to create political propaganda, Repin individualizes his subjects. Each of the 11 is unique in clothing, manner and attitude. In the center, a young man strains against the leather harness and stands erect, while the other men lean forward, some almost on the point of collapse. The difficulty of the work is palpable, but Repin manages to capture the dignity of the workers while at the same time implying that they are oppressed – the resemblance to a chain gang may not be coincidental. Repin also adds a note of irony, or perhaps hope: the distant smoke of a steamship tells us that this ancient method of dragging ships may soon become extinct. Barge Haulers on the Volga was made using oils on a canvas measuring 4.3 feet high by 9.2 ft. long; it is now in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Gustave Moreau: The Apparition (1874-1876)
Version 1: Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris
Version 2: Musée du Louvre, Paris
The Apparition, by French Symbolist Gustave Moreau, shows King Herod’s daughter Salome, in her dancing costume, at the moment that John the Baptist’s severed head appears to her in a vision. The others in the room – Herod, his wife Herodias and a man who may be the executioner – seem bored. Art historians disagree about whether Salome’s haunting vision takes place before or after she asked for and received the Baptist’s head on a platter. If before, it is an image of Salome’s wish fulfilled; if after, it may be an image of remorse, like Banquo’s ghost. Scholars have traced elements of The Apparition to Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa (the head of John the Baptist), a Japanese print (the halo around the head) and the Alhambra (the interior architecture and decoration). Moreau made at least two versions of The Apparition: one made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.6 ft. tall by 3.4 ft. wide is in the Musée National Gustave Moreau in Paris (see first image above); the second, a watercolor measuring 3.4 ft. tall by 2.3 ft. wide, is in the Louvre in Paris (see second image above).
Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) Musée d’Orsay, Paris
French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette (also known as Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette and The Ball at the Moulin de la Galette) paints a portrait of a Sunday afternoon at a popular outdoor café and dance hall in Montmartre, then a rural hilltop village an hour’s walk from Paris. The Moulin de la Galette, named after the brown bread made from the flour ground by its historic windmill, was a weekend destination for working men and women, as well as writers and artists. They came dressed in their best clothes to eat galettes, drink, dance and gaze down on Paris from a scenic overlook. Like all the Impressionists, Renoir liked to paint scenes of everyday life, but no Impressionist had previously shown average people amusing themselves on such a large canvas (4.3 ft. tall by 5.7 ft. wide), thereby giving an apparently trivial subject heightened significance. Like all Impressionists, Renoir liked to study the effects of light: here, he paints the sunlight filtering through the acacia trees and mixing with lamplight to create a dappled patchwork of bright patches and shadows. Critics then and now marvel at the way Renoir makes the light seem to flicker and dance. Scholars also comment on Renoir’s effective use of bright colors – there is not a touch of black in the canvas – and the resulting tone of carefree celebration. Note that, although Remoir appears to depict a typical crowd at the Moulin, he loaded the canvas with portraits of his friends, as well as a few professional models. One of those friends, writer Georges Rivière (pictured at the table in the foreground), in his review of the 1877 Impressionist Exhibition, described Bal du Moulin de la Galette as a “page of history, a precious and strictly accurate portrayal of Parisian life.” The work, which was made with oils on canvas, is now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Renoir painted a second, smaller version of the painting (measuring 2.5 ft. tall by 3.7 ft. wide) that is in a private collection; it was purchased at auction for $78 million in 1990.
Gustave Caillebotte: Paris Street, Rainy Day (Paris Street – Rainy Weather) (1877)
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
Independently wealthy French artist Gustave Caillebotte provided significant financial support for the Impressionists. He bought their paintings (over 60 of them), funded their exhibitions, and sometimes even paid their rent. Although many scholars group Caillebotte with the Impressionists because of his interests in the effects of light and in painting everyday life, he differed from them in both technique and tone. First, Caillebotte eschewed the characteristics loose brush strokes of the Impressionist style; he tended to paint much more in the Realist style. Second, in contrast to the boisterous partiers of Renoir or the serene landscapes of Monet, Caillebotte’s works often have an unsettling quality. He was not afraid to explore the darker side of human nature. Paris Street, Rainy Day may be the best example of Caillebotte’s dark side. Since the 1850s, Emperor Napoleon III and his administrator Baron Haussmann had been remaking Paris, tearing down ancient structures and putting up large, geometrical buildings, set along wide, spacious boulevards such as the Carrefour de Moscou (now the Place de Dublin) shown in Paris Street, Rainy Day. Although the painting has the feeling of a snapshot (and in fact does owe a great deal to the new art of photography), Caillebotte deliberately arranged the figures (and their umbrellas) to create an effect of loneliness and alienation. The modernization of Paris, Caillebotte is saying, has a dehumanizing effect on the population. Caillebotte used a large canvas, measuring 6.9 ft. tall by 9 ft. wide, to make his statement. To emphasize the lack of unity, he employed two-point perspective, with two vanishing points. He also played with realism by making the boulevard seem broader (and thus more alienating) than in actuality. Caillebotte died in 1894 at age 45; he donated his collection of Impressionist paintings to the French government but Paris Street, Rainy Day remained in the Caillebotte family until 1955. The Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois acquired the painting in 1964.
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.
Gustav Klimt: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (Adele Bloch-Bauer I) (1907)
Neue Galerie, New York
Were Adele Bloch-Bauer and Austrian painter Gustav Klimt more than just painter and subject? We know that when Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish industrialist, commissioned a portrait of his wife Adele, a beautiful socialite and hostess of a prestigious salon, Klimt spent three years on the project. We also know that Klimt’s design for Bloch-Bauer’s gold and silver dress includes open eyes, almond shapes and other symbols with erotic meaning (see first image above). We know that Adele Bloch-Bauer dedicated a room in her house to Klimt’s paintings and drawings, as well as a photograph of the artist himself. But ultimately, when the gossip fades away, the painting must stand on its own. Made using oils, silver and gold on a canvas measuring 4.5 ft. square, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was made in Klimt’s ‘Golden Period’, which was inspired by his visit to St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, and its Byzantine mosaics, particularly the gold-inlaid portrait of Empress Theodora (see second image above). Klimt, a member of the Vienna Secession, painted Adele Bloch-Bauer in the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) style, which looked to natural forms and structures for inspiration, but also treated design and decoration as seriously as human figures. Klimt painted a second, less well-regarded portrait of the subject, Adele Bloch-Bauer II, in 1912 (see third image above). Adele, who had always been sickly, died in 1925 at 43. In 1938, the Nazis annexed Austria and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer fled to Switzerland, leaving behind all the Klimt paintings, which were confiscated by the government. After the war, Bloch-Bauer’s nieces and nephews fought the Austrian government in court, finally receiving custody of five Klimts, including the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, in 2005. (The story is dramatized in Simon Curtis’s 2015 film Woman in Gold.) Cosmetics giant Ronald Lauder bought the golden portrait for a record $135 million in 2006 for his Neue Galerie in New York, where it remains.
Henri Rousseau: The Dream (1910) Museum of Modern Art, New York
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.
Georges Braque: The Portuguese (Le Portugais) (1911) Kunstmuseum, Basel, Germany
Some critics have stated unequivocally that French Cubist Georges Braque’s The Portuguese represents a man with a guitar. More people might agree with the statement that The Portuguese is a representative example of the art movement known as Analytic Cubism. One of the goals of the Analytic Cubism developed by Braque and Pablo Picasso in 1908-1912 was to present the world as we actually see it – all sides, top, bottom, inside and out – simultaneously. To achieve that goal, they deconstructed objects and flattened the fragments on the canvas, at the same time downplaying color to emphasize structure. What we see are complex, multiple views of objects and figures, presented as overlapping monochromatic planes. In some cases, it is difficult or impossible to determine what objects or figures have been deconstructed. At the same time, Cubists are drawing attention to the two-dimensionality of the canvas, rejecting attempts at creating three-dimensional illusions through perspective, foreshortening and modeling. By stenciling the letters “D BAL” (possibly a fragment of ‘Grand Bal’, or Grand Ball) directly on the canvas, Braque is drawing our attention to its flat surface. He is also, intentionally or not, laying the groundwork for collage, which was the basis for Synthetic Cubism, which Braque and Picasso developed beginning in 1912. The Portuguese was made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.8 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide, and is now located in the Kunstmuseum Basel in Basel, Switzerland.
Franz Marc: The Tiger (1912) Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich
German Expressionist painter Franz Marc played an important role in the development of abstract art. Marc was a founding member, with Wassily Kandinsky, of Der Blaue Reiter group, which was intensely concerned about color and, inspired by Van Gogh and Gauguin, believed that certain colors could be linked to specific emotional and spiritual states. In Tiger (also known as The Tiger), Marc explores the theory of color with luminous reds, purples and greens in the background, while the yellow and black of the tiger signal ominous imminent aggression. But Marc is also indebted to Cézanne geometric shapes and the Analytic Cubism of Picasso and Braque. Shape and color exist in tension with one another: here, the angular blocks of the tiger’s body conceal it among the similar background shapes, while the colors set it apart and thrust it forward. The Tiger was painted with oils on a canvas 3.6 ft. high by 3.7 ft. wide and is now located in the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich, Germany. Franz Marc died at Verdun in 1916 during World War I.
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)
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. Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is now located in 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 20-cent Euro coin.
Wassily Kandinsky: Composition VII (1913) Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
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 (see image above). 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.
Giorgio de Chirico: The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913) Tate Modern, London
The Uncertainty of the Poet is an example of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico’s ‘metaphysical art’, which sought to create images that evoke, in his words, “the profound and solitary joy of revelation” (see image above). Like the Surrealists who would later claim him as their godfather, de Chirico presents ordinary objects in irrational relationships with their settings and each other. The Uncertainty of the Poet, with its twisting marble torso, bunch of bananas and distant train, tells no story, but creates visual poetry that is reminiscent of the imagery of dreams. Some critics have pointed out that de Chirico sets up a contrast between timeless objects (the marble statue) and fleeting phenomena (the decaying fruit), although one commentator has suggested that what appears to be a damaged statute is actually a headless, limbless creature made of living flesh. To increase the sense of unreality, de Chirico deliberately breaks the rules of perspective: there is no logical connection between the building with the arches and the low brick wall behind it, for example; the train appears to be very distant, but it also seems very close to the end of the building, which is not far away. The train itself appears to be riding on the brick wall, unless there is a more distant trestle and train track that happens to be the same height as the wall. Most confusing of all is the top of a sailing vessel that seems to be in the same plane as the train, yet there is no other sign of water. The 1913 oils-on-canvas painting measures 3.5 ft. tall by 3.1 ft. wide and is located at the Tate Modern in London.
Robert Delaunay: The Windows (Simultaneous Windows) (series of 22) (1912-1914)
Various museums and private collections
As French artist Robert Delaunay pushed the boundaries of Cubism into an exploration of color and vision that he called Simultaneism (but poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s term Orphism – from Orpheus – caught on instead), he began painting works along common themes, creating series that contain multiple individuals. These include the Saint-Sévrin series (1909–10); the City series (1909–11); the Eiffel Tower series (1909–12); the City of Paris series (1911–12); the Window series (1912–14); the Cardiff Team series (1913); and the Circular Forms series (1913). In the Windows series, comprised of 22 or 23 paintings and sketches created mostly in 1912, with a few in 1913 and 1914, Delaunay approaches the level of complete abstraction. The only representational object in most of the works in the series is a central triangle denoting the Eiffel Tower. Among overlaid swathes of translucent contrasting and complementary colors, yellow predominates, perhaps a reference to the Parisian sunshine streaming through an open window. In each of the Windows series, Delaunay seeks to depict the process of vision and the ways that light structures vision. Many of the series are in private collections, but a number are on exhibit in museums around the world:
(1) Windows Open Simultaneously (First Part, Third Motif) (1912), made with oils on a canvas measuring 18 in. tall by 14.8 in. wide, is at the Tate Modern in London (first image above):
(2) Simultaneous Windows on the City (1912), made with oils on a canvas measuring 18 in. tall by 15.7 in. wide, is now in the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Hamburg, Germany (second image above);
(3) Windows Open Simultaneously (First Part, Third Motif) (1912), made with oils on a canvas measuring 1.9 ft. tall by 4.1 ft. wide, is now in the Guggenheim Museum in New York (third image above) ;
(4) Simultaneous Windows (2nd Motif, 1st Part) (1912) is in the Guggenheim Museum in New York;
(5) The Three Windows, the Tower and the Wheel (1912) is in the Guggenheim Museum in New York;
(6) Windows (1912) is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York;
(7) The Window (1912) is in the Musée de Grenoble in Grenoble, France; and
(8) A Window (1912) is in the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
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.
Auguste Rodin: The Gates of Hell (1880-1917)
Musée d’Orsay, Paris (plaster, assembled in 1917); Rodin Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (bronze, cast in 1926-1928); Musée Rodin, Paris (bronze, cast in 1926-1928); National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo (bronze, cast in 1930-1933); Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland (bronze, cast in 1949); Stanford University Museum of Art, Palo Alto, California (bronze, cast in 1981); Rodin Gallery, Seoul, Korea (bronze)
In 1880, the French government commissioned Auguste Rodin to design pair of brass doors for a new decorative arts museum in Paris, based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Five years earlier, Rodin had visited Florence, where he had studied Lorenzo Ghiberti’s doors for the Florence Baptistery, dubbed The Gates of Paradise. Rodin conceived an elaborate sculpture based on Dante’s Inferno, to be known as The Gates of Hell. He imagined a Hell with no gravity, which would allow him more freedom in choosing positions and postures for his sculpted figures. When the plans for the decorative museum were put on hold indefinitely, Rodin decided to keep working on the project, which was unfinished at the time of his death in 1917. Among the figures are the originals for The Thinker (see detail in fourth image above), The Kiss and The Three Shades, all of which Rodin made for The Gates but also enlarged into independent pieces. Over the 37 years that he worked on The Gates of Hell, Rodin moved away from the idea of depicting specific stories from the Inferno and began to focus on expressing universal truths and powerful emotions through his figures (see detail in third image, above). After Rodin’s death, the plaster pieces were assembled to produce a version of The Gates of Hell, measuring 19.7 ft. tall by 13.1 ft. wide by 3.3 ft. deep, with 186 figures. The plaster original is now in the Musée d’Orsay (see first image, above), which is, ironically, at the same location as the never-built decorative arts museum. No bronze casts of The Gates of Hell were made in Rodin’s lifetime. The first two bronzes were cast in 1926-1928 and are now in the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia and the Musée Rodin in Paris. Six other bronze casts now exist, including one in the Kunsthaus Zürich, cast in 1949 (see second image, above).
Egon Schiele: The Embrace (The Loving; Lovers (II); Couple (II)) (1917)
Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna
A protege of Gustav Klimt and together with Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, a member of the Vienna Secession, Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele was known (and was notorious) for making sexually explicit works of art featuring himself, girls and young women, and his model/mistress Valerie Neuzil. After Schiele’s marriage to Edith Harms in 1915, his work gradually became more concerned with love and intimacy than the objectification of sexual acts. The Embrace, from 1917, shows a nude couple, presumably Schiele and his wife, in a tender moment. Neither face is visible, but the way the woman has wrapped her arms around her lover expresses a deep tenderness. A light-colored ruffled blanket frames the contrasting light and dark bodies, and the woman’s abundant dark hair overlaps the man’s shorter dark hair. The couple on the bed seems to float against the yellow background. The Embrace, made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.2 ft. tall by 5.5 ft. wide, is now located in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna. Sadly, a year after Schiele painted The Embrace, Edith, six months pregnant, died in the flu epidemic of 1918. Egon Schiele died of the same illness three days later, at age 28.
Edward Hopper: Early Sunday Morning (1930) Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
American realist painter Edward Hopper once told the story of a late-night discussion with college friends about what a room would look like when no one was looking at it. Hopper’s 1930 painting Early Sunday Morning may be an answer to that question – it is a view without a viewer. The viewpoint is that of someone standing directly across the street from the row of storefronts. The time is early morning (not necessarily Sunday – Hopper blamed someone else for the title) and the rising sun casts long shadows. While the scene was inspired by Seventh Avenue in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, Hopper has eliminated or blurred identifying details so this could be an urban streetscape almost anywhere, at least anywhere that is seemingly devoid of living beings. In an early version of the painting, a tenant stood in one of the second floor windows, but Hopper painted over the figure, leaving us with the unsettling sense that, for some reason, the people who live behind those shades and curtains are missing from the painting’s world. There are other unsettling signs. A tall object outside the frame to the right casts a very long shadow that slices through the middle of the sidewalk. The dark rectangle in the upper right corner may be a modern skyscraper menacing the old-fashioned neighborhood. Even the many horizontal lines and forms that appear to extend past the right and left edges of the canvas (storefronts, sidewalk, curb, street) bring on a feeling of desolation that even the warm light of early morning on red stone cannot dispel. Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.9 ft. high by 5 ft. wide; it is now in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Salvador Dali: Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Did Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dali have the ability to see the future? Most scholars agree that Dali created preparatory sketches for Soft Construction with Boiled Beans in 1934 and completed it in early 1936, about six months before Generalissimo Francisco Franco began the Fascist uprising that sparked the Spanish Civil War. Yet most scholars also agree that the painting’s depiction of two halves of a gruesome man-monster battling each other (Dali himself described it as “a vast human body breaking out into monstrous excrescences of arms and legs tearing at one another in a delirium of auto strangulation”) refers directly to Spain’s political schism. Even Dali agreed, as shown by his decision to retitle the work Premonition of Civil War. Perhaps the political turmoil preceding the war, as it rumbled through the collective unconscious and onto Dali’s sketch pad, made the gigantic creature(s) inevitable. As usual, Dali takes bizarre, unlikely and grisly distortions of everyday objects and figures and paints them in a hyperrealistic style, perhaps to make sure that we believe in their reality despite the urging of our rational minds to disregard them. The parallelogram-forming monsters exist in the arid landscape of Dali’s Spanish homeland. A normal-sized man peers over a giant hand. Boiled beans are scattered about, perhaps a reference to the Catalonian custom of offering beans to the gods. An inexplicable box or chest of drawers provides support for the arm/leg/torso of the lower giant. Note that, assuming Dali was intending to make a political statement, he did not take sides (unlike Picasso in Guernica, which came down squarely on the side of the Republicans). In fact, not long after the Spanish Civil War began, Dali’s right wing politics led the Surrealists to eject him from their group, leading Dali to shout, “I am Surrealism!” Soft Construction with Baked Beans (Premonition of Civil War), made with oils on a canvas measuring about 3.3 ft. square, is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, 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.
Pierre Bonnard: Nude in the Bath (series) (1935-1946) Various locations
French artist Pierre Bonnard’s idiosyncratic style borrowed elements from both the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements. A member of a group of French painters called the Nabis, he was best known for his daring and opulent use of color, his complex perspective and witty details. Bonnard’s process involved drawing the subject from life (sometimes taking photographs), taking notes on the colors and then taking his drawing and notes to the studio, where he painted the canvas. In 1925, he married one of his models, Marthe de Meligny, who featured in nearly 400 works, many of them intimate scenes of domestic life. De Milgny suffered from a chronic illness for which the treatment was frequent bathing, which explains the many paintings of her in the bathtub from 1925 until her death (and after, given Bonnard’s tendency to rework his paintings). Some commentators have noted that the tub takes on the role of a sarcophagus, while Bonnard’s rendering of flesh can approximate the rotting of a corpse. Others see a more benign treatment of a domestic scene. The bathtub paintings Bonnard made in the 1930s and 1940s, which all have similar titles, are considered some of his greatest achievements; they all feature colorful tiles and an eternally young de Milgny. They include:
(1) Nude in the Bathtub (1935), in a private collection (first image, above);
(2) The Bather (1935), in a private collection (second image, above);
(3) Nude in the Bath (1936), in a private collection;
(4) Nude in the Bath (1936), measuring 3 ft. high by 4.8 ft. wide, in the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris;
(5) The Large Bath (Nude) (1937-1939), measuring 3 ft. high by 4.7 ft. wide, in a private collection; and
(6) Nude in Bathtub (Nude in the Bath and Small Dog) (1941-1946), measuring 4 ft. high by 4.9 ft. wide, in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (third image, above).
Jackson Pollock: Number 11, 1952 “Blue Poles” (1952) National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
By 1952, American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock had been creating so-called ‘drip paintings’ (also known as action paintings) for five years, and he was about to change direction again. The drip painting that began life as Number 11, 1952 and is now generally known as Blue Poles (a name either given or approved by Pollock), which was made with enamel and aluminum paint and embedded glass on a canvas measuring 6.9 ft. tall by 16 ft. wide, marks a departure from earlier drip paintings in at least two ways. First, the color palette is strikingly bold compared with the prior work: orange and ivory splashes create a festive mood, which the blue of the ‘poles’ complements. It is the poles themselves that signal the most significant break with the past. These eight long straight bars, possibly made by dipping a length of wood in blue paint, impose a form and structure on the art work. Angled and of differing lengths, the poles compartmentalize and tame the chaotic rhythms of the swirling, dripping color around and, because they were painted last, below them. It is as if Pollock felt it was time to exert more control over the unbridled emotional upheavals of the drip technique. Like so many great works of art, Blue Poles is no stranger to controversy. According to the New York Times, fellow artists Tony Smith and Barnett Newman may have collaborated with Pollock on Blue Poles, although others (including Newman himself and Pollock’s widow, painter Lee Krasner) swore that, no matter what may have happened in the early stages, the final painting is Pollock’s alone. Another controversy arose when the government of Australia paid a record price for Blue Poles in 1973, to the confusion of the many citizens who were unaware of Pollock’s importance to modern art or who did not believe that Pollock’s work had such value. The controversy gave some public figures an opportunity to use the public’s lack of information about the painting and Abstract Expressionism as a way to score political points, but the painting came to Australia nevertheless, and is now located at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
Francis Bacon: Study After Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953) Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa
In Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon transformed a 17th Century character study into a deeply disturbing modern image (see first image above). Instead of gazing at the viewer with a complex look of calm self-confidence with a touch of viciousness, the pontiff now wears the face of a horrified character from the Odessa Steps sequence of Sergei Eisenstein’s classic silent film Battleship Potemkin. (Bacon had a photo of the screaming woman pinned on the wall of his studio, like a chloroformed beetle, see second image above). The color scheme has gone from regal and ostentatious to garish, and there are various lines and shapes whose meaning is not immediately obvious. The Screaming Pope (as this and the 40+ similarly-themed paintings are sometimes called) appears to be trapped inside some kind of box or cage (it vaguely resembles a boxing ring, or, as some have thought, the electric chair), although it is not clear whether the yellow ‘ropes’ are inside or outside the Pope’s white satin gown. Below, strips of blue and tan of indeterminate nature emanate from the Pope or his robe. From above, strips of some ghastly translucent curtain hang down in front of the Pope’s face (or do they rise up?) , placing the agonized Pope behind a barrier and beyond our help – we can only watch through the translucent blinds as he suffers through an eternal moment of searing pain. And yet we continue to watch. Although Bacon is not referred to as a post-modernist, what he is doing here fits squarely within the post-modern sensibility (though perhaps without the crucial element of irony). He takes an iconic work of art and modifies it to create something entirely new and completely unlike the original, yet completely derivative, commenting on it (this is a “study”, after all), and at the same time commenting in a larger way on how artists use the art that came before them – to imitate, pay homage, parody, critique, transform, even destroy. Some art historians have suggested a political interpretation for the image: They propose that Innocent X is actually a stand-in for 20th Century Pope Pius XII, who looked the other way as Hitler ravaged Europe and slaughtered the Jews, and is now getting his comeuppance, courtesy of Bacon. Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X was made with oils on a canvas measuring 5 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide. It is now located in the Des Moines Art Center in Des Moines, Iowa, because, after all, Des Moines deserves a masterpiece, too. Random Trivia: It is said that Bacon’s studio walls were covered with photographs and other copies of Velázquez’s papal portrait, but when the artist visited Rome in the 1950s and finally had an opportunity to see the original Portrait of Pope Innocent X in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, he very publicly declined.
Robert Rauschenberg: Bed (1955) Museum of Modern Art, New York
American artist Robert Rauschenberg was interested in the space between life and art. His combines took everyday objects (like the wood frame, sheets, pillow and quilt of Bed), assembled them and applied ‘art’ to them. In the case of Bed, Rauschenberg scribbled with a pencil and splattered dripping paint a la Jackson Pollock. Then he hung the resulting construction on the wall. So Rauschenberg made his bed, but he made sure that neither he nor anyone else could lie in it. This, then, was the space between life and art: a bed that looked like a work of art; a work of art that looked like a bed hanging on a wall. Art historians see Bed and other works by Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns as the beginnings of the post-modern irony of Pop Art, or at least an ironic commentary on the dominant style of the day, Abstract Expressionism. Each Abstract Expressionist had a unique individual style; Rauschenberg doesn’t care about uniqueness – he is happy to imitate Pollock. The Abstract Expressionists believed that they could imbue the artwork with the essence of their souls, the interior of their dream lives. Bed mocks such pretensions: “Here is where I dream,” Rauschenberg sneers, “Try and titrate the essence of my soul from this.” Rauschenberg’s Bed, which measures 6.25 ft. tall, 2.6 ft. wide and 8 in. deep, hangs on a wall at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Jasper Johns: Painted Bronze: Ale Cans (1960) Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland
American 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.
Claes Oldenburg: Floor Burger (Giant Hamburger) (1962) Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
Born in Sweden, Claes Oldenburg, who became an American citizen in 1953, is considered the foremost sculptor of the American Pop Art movement. Pop artists shared not a style but an attitude. They rejected the Academy and the introspective elitism characterized by Abstract Expressionism. They drew inspiration from Dada, especially Dada’s playful side, but not to the point of being anti-Art. In acting out this playful, anti-elitist attitude, they filled their works with the objects, images and icons of mass-produced, commercial culture, with all its crassness and cliches intact. Along with their challenge – Why can’t a soup can be art? – they also acknowledged the seductive power of consumerism. Oldenburg’s particular variation on the Pop Art attitude was to take everyday objects and transform them so that they are completely recognizable but no longer functional – except as art. He achieved this goal by using two very simple methods: (1) making the object much larger than usual or (2) making the object much softer than usual. In Floor Burger (also known as Giant Hamburger), Oldenburg used both methods. Using canvas stuffed with foam and cardboard boxes, he constructed a very soft, but very large hamburger, which he then painted with realistic colors using acrylic paints to show a bun with a meat patty inside and a pickle on top. The sight of a 4.3 ft. tall, 7 ft. wide hamburger – even one that is clearly not made of bread and meat – is bound to spark a reaction, if only amusement. Because we can’t eat it, we have time to look at it, to think about hamburgers, even food in general, from an aesthetic perspective. What will we think the next time we look at a real hamburger? Oldenburg’s sculptures of giant ice cream cones and binoculars have often elicited controversy, and Floor Burger was no different. Back in 1962, when the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada paid $2000 for the work, a group of students marched in protest, carrying a 9-ft-tall ketchup bottle they had made for the occasion. Oldenburg’s only comment: “I only wish they had made it out of something soft.”
Andy Warhol: Campbell’s Soup Cans (series of 32) (1962) Museum of Modern Art, New York
In 1962, Campbell’s sold 32 varieties of soup in cans. American pop artist Andy Warhol was looking for a subject for a series of silkscreened prints and a friend suggested “something you see every day, like a Campbell’s Soup can.” Warhol, a big fan of Campbell’s soup, thought it was a great idea. He stenciled a Campbell’s Soup can on paper, leaving a blank space for the name of the type of soup, and made 32 silkscreened prints with synthetic polymer paint of a red and white can on a white background, measuring 20 in. tall by 16 in. wide. He then hand-painted or stenciled the names of the individual soup flavors onto the 32 prints. The results shocked the art world, while at the same time establishing Warhol as a leader in the Pop Art movement. The mechanized process and the sameness of the results blurred the distinction between art and commerce, a blurring that would only increase later on when Warhol began using photos instead of stencils to make prints. If someone could reproduce a commercial product’s label and sell it as their own, then what was the role of originality, creativity and technical skill in making art? For art museums, a more pressing question loomed: although Warhol indicated that he preferred to have the 32 canvases stay together, he gave no instructions for displaying them. At the first exhibition, in 1962, the curator set them on shelves as if at a grocery store. When New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired the 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.
Andy Warhol: Marilyn Diptych (1962) Tate Modern, London
Just days after Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962, Andy Warhol bought a publicity still photograph of her from the 1953 movie Niagara. This photo formed the basis for Marilyn Diptych, made with acrylic paints on a canvas measuring 6.7 ft. high by 9.5 ft. wide. The diptych consists of 50 reproductions of the publicity photo, 25 on the left, painted with bright but unrealistic colors, 25 on the right in black and white, fading as we move to the right. By titling this painting a diptych, Warhol hearkens back to the tradition of altarpieces in Roman Catholic churches of the Middle Ages; each panel of the diptych would show a scene from the life of Jesus or one of the saints. Warhol’s title tells us that he believes Monroe, a celebrity and a tragic figure, is a secular saint. The use of a publicity photo means that we are always looking at the celebrity as shaped by the Hollywood machine, not the real person. The multiple images remind us of the 24-frames-per-second that generate the illusion of reality in the movies. On the left, the Technicolor Marilyn appears as we see her in the movies and the publicity machine. On the right, we get a glimpse of the dark reality of fame, and the fading mortality of Marilyn’s star. Warhol shows that even in the midst of mechanically appropriating mass produced images, he can use the creative process to achieve an original and powerful result. Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych is now located in the Tate Modern in London.
David Hockney: A Bigger Splash (1967) Tate Modern, London
British painter David Hockney spent a lot of time in California during the 1960s and during that time he became fascinated with the ubiquitous phenomenon of the backyard swimming pool. He painted several small works on the subject in 1964 and 1966. Then, in 1967, inspired by a photo in a book about pools, Hockney began painting a large white duck canvas with acrylic paints, which he had recently discovered. He created a border for the painting by placing masking tape along the edges. Then, using a paint roller, he painted the large blue sky, blue water, and patio, then brushes to paint details like the trees, shrubs and chair. The modern single-story house came from a notebook of architectural sketches Hockney had made. He arranged the composition so that the border between the patio and the pool (which is left unpainted) divides the painting in half. The house and the edge of the pool all line up with the horizontal lines at the top and bottom margins of the canvas. The yellow diving board jutting out from the corner on a diagonal sends motion and energy to the central splash, and beyond it to the empty director’s chair. Presumably, the person who was sitting the chair is the same as the person who has just dived into the water. Hockney said that his primary goal was capturing and freezing the splash, which was normally a split-second phenomenon. He joked in an interview about taking two weeks to paint a splash that takes two seconds. The absence of any visible human life, yet the knowledge that there is someone underneath the water, creates a tension, as does the contrast between the calm sunny day and the violence of the splash. Hockney’s A Bigger Splash was made with acrylic Liquitex on a white cotton duck canvas measuring 7.9 ft. tall by 8 ft. wide. It is now at the Tate Modern in London. Random Trivia: Why A Bigger Splash? Because the painting is larger than two previous splash paintings made in 1966.