Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a meta-list of the most highly-regarded paintings, sculptures and various other works of visual art. For Part 1, go HERE. To create the list, I collected approximately 30 lists of “Best Works of Art” from websites and books and combined them into one list. This list contains the paintings and sculptures (and several pieces of decorative art) on three or more of the original source lists, organized by rank, that is, with the artworks that were on the most lists at the top. Part 1 begins with the artwork that was on the most lists and ends with the artworks that were on 6 lists. Part 2 includes the works of art on 4 or 5 the original source lists. Part 3 (STILL UNDER CONSTRUCTION) will include all the works on 3 of the original source lists.

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

Each listing contains the following information: (1) artist(s) name(s) (if known), (2) artwork title (including alternative titles), (3) date(s) of creation, (4) dimensions of the work, (5) medium or materials used and (4) location where the original can be seen. I have also written a short essay for each artwork with additional information, which may include style, technique, interpretation, social and political context, provenance, and random trivia. I have tried to provide one or more public domain images for all the artworks. In most cases, you can click on the image to enlarge it.

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

Warning No. 2: The heavy emphasis on Western European artists working between 1300 and 1700 also means that many of the most highly regarded works contain Christian religious imagery. At that time, most people viewing the art would have been familiar with these stories and symbols, but today many folks trying to appreciate these works are not Christian, or may not otherwise be as familiar with Christian imagery as the average art-viewing European of that time. The same goes for the mythology of Greece, Rome and other cultures, which often provide the subject matter for works of art. Reading up on Christian religious imagery and Greco-Roman mythology may help to put the art in context.

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

On 5 Lists
Unknown ArtistLion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel (c. 38,000-33,000 BCE) Ulmer Museum, Ulm, Germany
lion man 1 lion man 2
In 1939, Dr. 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, Dr. Joachim Hahn was able to reassemble the ivory fragments into a standing figure with the characteristics of both a human and an animal (specifically, a cave lion). Hahn believed it was a male figure.  Carbon dating of nearby organic material placed the approximate date of the figurine at 30,000 BCE. After more fragments were found in the previously-excavated material, Elisabeth Schmid conducted additional reconstruction in 1989. Schmid believed the figure was female.  Then, 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 has 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.  As for the purpose of the figurine, scholars have put forth various theories – 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. 

Unknown Artists: Cave Paintings, Chauvet Cave (30,000-28,000 BCE) Ardèche, France
chauvet rhinoschauvet cave paintings lions chauvet cave 
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, horses in second image and lions in third image.)  Unlike most cave paintings, a significant number of predator animals are depicted (e.g., cave lions, panthers, bears and cave hyenas), and there are scenes of animals interacting, such as two woolly rhinoceroses fighting. Some of the techniques used are also unusual. For example, the artists prepared the rock surface before painting by scraping off debris; they also etched around the outlines of some figures to create a three dimensional effect. In addition to animal figures, the artists made red hand prints and hand stencils, and painted abstract markings throughout the caves. While theories for the purpose of the paintings abound, the scientific community has been unable to reach consensus.

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

Unknown ArtistSeated Woman of Çatal Hüyük (c. 6000 BCE) Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey
seated woman
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 spelled 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 Millennium BCE (see 4th Century BCE statue of Cybele from Turkey in second image). 

Unknown ArtistThe Thinker of Cernavoda (5000 BCE) National Museum of Romania, Bucharest
thinker and sitting woman
The Thinker of Cernavoda (also known as Ganditorul and the Thinker of Hamangia) is a terracotta 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 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. 

Unknown Artist: Victory Stele of Naram-Sin (c. 2250-2200 BCE) Musée du Louvre, Paris
naram sin
The grandson of Sargon of Akkad, Naram-Sin led the mighty Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia at its height, c. 2254-2218 BCE. The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, a pink sandstone block standing 6.6 ft. tall and dated c. 2230 BCE, commemorates Naram-Sin’s defeat of the Lullibi, a tribe in the Zagros Mountains (first image). Naram-Sin towers over his enemies and his own troops and wears the horned helmet of a deity (see detail in second image). 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.

Unknown Artist: Ishtar Gate and Processional Way (c. 575 BCE) Pergamon Museum, Berlin, Germany
ishtar gate 3 ishtar dragon lion-processional-way-pergammon
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 (second image) with giant cedar doors. The road leading into and out of the gate, known as the processional way, was lined by 50-ft.-tall walls made of glazed brick and decorated with lions (third image) 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 ArtistRelief Sculptures, Persepolis (c. 518-465 BCE) near Shīrāz, Fars region, Iran
Persepolis_-_Royal_audience_low-relief Persepolis_Apadana_noerdliche_Treppe
Persepolis lion and bull Persepolis_relief_with_camel
The Persian city known as Persepolis (in modern day Iran) was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire from about 515-330 BCE. Archaeologists believe that Cyrus the Great (reigned 559-530 BCE) selected the site of the city, but that Darius I (reigned 522-486 BCE) began construction of many of the city’s buildings, including the Apadana Palace, although some of these were completed during the reign of Darius’s son, Xerxes the Great (reigned 486-465 BCE). Gray limestone was the primary building material. In the center of the city is a large stone terrace with staircases leading to the top, on which several buildings were located. At the center of the terrace, on an elevated platform, stood the Apadana Palace, an immense audience hall, with 72 columns with sculpted capitals and two monumental staircases. Throughout the city, relief sculptures are carved into the limestone, particularly along the various staircases. The stairs to Apadana Palace depict a ceremonial procession of vassal states bringing culturally-appropriate gifts to the king. The relief sculptures shown above are: (1) Darius I receiving tribute, a relief from the Treasury Building, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Tehran; (2) a Mede in traditional costume following a Persian in the ceremonial procession on the north stairs of Apadana Palace; (3) relief on the Apadana stairs showing the earth (shown as a bull) fighting with the sun (shown as a lion) on Nowruz, the vernal equinox when, according to the Zoroastrian religion, the powers of the lion and bull are equal; (4) the Bactrian delegation, with their two-humped camel, in the ceremonial possession on the southern wall of the eastern stairs at Apadana Palace. Despite the efforts of Darius, Xerxes and his son Artaxerxes, the glory of Persepolis was short-lived. In 330 BCE, Alexander the Great invaded the city and looted it, after which he burned it down. A small community lingered on for a short time, but eventually the site was abandoned. 

Unknown ArtistRiace Bronzes (Riace Warriors) (c. 460-420 BCE) Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia, Reggio Calabria, Italy
Riace bronzes  riace bronzes
In 1972, vacationing Roman chemist Stefano Mariottini was snorkeling off the coast of Calabria, near Riace, when he saw an arm sticking out of the sand at the bottom of the sea. When he touched it, he realized it was made of metal, and he called the police. Mariottini had stumbled upon two 5th Century BCE bronze statues made in Ancient Greece, in near perfect condition. There is no agreement about the identity of the sculptor, but there is no doubt that the statues are prime examples of the transition period between the archaic and early Classical styles of Greek sculpture. Statue A is a young warrior standing 6.7 ft. tall and was created about 460-450 BCE. Statue B, which was sculpted about 430-420 BCE, is a mature warrior standing 6.4 ft. tall. Both figures are nude, bearded males portrayed in a contrapposto pose with their weight on their back legs. Their eyes are made of calcite, the 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.

PraxitelesAphrodite of Knidos (Aphrodite of Cnidus; Venus Pudica) (350-330 BCE (bronze original); best marble copy, Colonna Venus, 1st Century CE) Vatican Museums, Vatican City
venus-cnidus-colonna Female head of Cnidian Aphrodite type
The lost statue known as Aphrodite of Knidos (or Cnidus), or Venus Pudica was considered the crowning achievement of Late Classical Greek sculptor Praxiteles.  Made for a temple in the Greek city of Knidos, the marble statue was believed to be the first life-size nude female sculpture.  The goddess Aphrodite has just laid her drapery aside and modestly holds her hand over her genitals as she prepares for a ritual bath that will restore her purity. The figure stands in a contrapposto pose, and the statue is designed to be viewed from all sides. Famous even in the 4th Century, the statue’s home of Knidos became a tourist destination. According to legend, a young man found the goddess of love so arousing that he broke into the temple at night and tried to copulate with her. Unfortunately, the original was destroyed in a fire about 475 CE, but not before many copies were made by Roman sculptors. Based on descriptions of the original, scholars believe that the copy most faithful to the original is the statue known as the Colonna Venus, located in the Vatican Museums (see first image). The Kaufmann Head, now in the Louvre, is also considered a faithful copy (second image). Random Trivia: Visitors to the Vatican Museums may now observe the Colonna Venus in full, although during the 19th and early 20th centuries, in an excess of modesty, the Vatican covered Aphrodite’s legs with tin draperies. 

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

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

Unknown ArtistLudovisi Sarcophagus (c. 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. The Ludovisi Sarcophagus is now located in the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome.

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

Unknown ArtistsNazca Lines (200 BCE-500 CE) Nazca Desert; Peru

The Monkey, Condor and Spider (or Ant?) shown above are three of the ancient geoglyphs found over a 190 sq. mi. area in the Nazca Desert (also spelled Nasca) in southern Peru. The monkey is 310 ft. by 190 ft.; the condor is 446 feet long and the spider is 150 ft. long. In addition to 70 depictions of animals and plants, the artists drew 300 geometric figures and over 800 straight lines. The designs were made by removing the reddish iron oxide coated pebbles from the ground, uncovering the lighter lime-filled clay beneath, which combines with mist to form a hard layer that resists erosion. Although some of the shapes can be made out from nearby hills, the full effect of the figures can only be obtained from the air. The purpose of the lines is unclear: some of the lines may mark the rising and setting of the sun and other heavenly bodies; others may have been designed to communicate with gods living in the sky, to designate paths to places of worship or to plead with the gods for water. Erich von Daniken’s theory that the lines were made by alien astronauts has been thoroughly debunked. UNESCO World Heritage Site (1994).

Unknown ArtistsMurals, Ajanta Caves (c. 200 BCE-650 CE) Maharastra, India

Carved into a basalt cliff in the Aurangabad district of India’s Maharashtra state are nearly 30 Buddhist temple-caves that contain some of the earliest and best examples of Classical Indian mural painting. Most of the caves served as viharas, residence halls for Buddhist monks (each of which includes a small shrine), while five of the caves are chaitya-grihas, which are stupa halls containing Buddhist shrines. Each cave contains numerous works of religious art, including paintings created using a fresco technique. Most scholars believe the caves were built in two phases. The first phase probably lasted from 100 BCE to 100 CE (although some say 300 BCE to 100 BCE), during the Satavahana Dynasty, and follow the Hinayana (Theravada) form of Buddhism. The early caves are numbered 9, 10, 12 13 and 15A. The second period of cave-building probably took place from the 4th to the 7th centuries CE, during the Vakataka Dynasty, although at least one scholar believes the second phase was much shorter, from 460-480 CE. The second phase follows the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and includes caves 1-8, 11 and 14-29. The caves were used on and off in later centuries, possibly as shelter for travelers, with scattered references to them in medieval literature and as late as a 17th Century survey during reign of Akbar the Great. The Western world discovered the caves in 1819 when British soldier John Smith stumbled upon them during a tiger-hunting expedition. The Ajanta Caves became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
First image: Bodhisattva Padmapani, from Cave 1 (second phase).
Second image: A scene from the Life of the Buddha, showing two kings, from Cave 10 (first phase) (photo by Prasad Pawar).
Third image: Scene from the Mahanipata Jataka: In his palace, King Mahajanaka announces his decision to renounce the worldly life.  From Cave 1 (second phase).
Fourth image: Overall view of the Ajanta Caves site.

Unknown ArtistMosaics, Great Mosque of Damascus (Umayyad Mosque) (705-715 CE) Damascus, Syria
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 and exterior 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. (First image: interior mosaics; second image: exterior mosaics.)

Unknown Artists: Moche Portrait Vessels (c. 100-800 CE) Various locations
moche portrait vessel 5  
moche portrait vessel 2     
The Moche culture that flourished in present-day Peru between 100-800 CE produced ceramic vessels carved into individualized and naturalistic three-dimensional representations of human faces, known as Moche Portrait Vessels. Close to 1000 vessels have been discovered, representing nine basic mold types. The vast majority of the portraits are of adult men; they occasionally portray physical defects such as harelips, missing eyes, or in one case, an apparent paralysis. These are the earliest realistic depictions of human faces in the Americas. Although most of the vessels portray the head of the subject, some include the entire body. Many of the portrait vessels contain stirrup spouts, a feature of ceramic vessels in a number of Pre-Columbian cultures. The handle, which resembles a stirrup, forms part of the spout for the vessel. Most of the vessels are 6-12 in. tall. The smallest vessel is just over two inches tall while the largest is just under 18 inches high. The typical portrait vessel is painted with red on a pale cream background, but some are painted with white over a red and black background. The purpose of these elaborately decorated vessels is a subject of debate. While some experts believe they were designed to be placed in tombs, there is evidence that they were used in everyday life to hold liquids. The portrait vessels shown in the images above are:
(1) Portrait of a Ruler wearing headgear with two birds, Museo Nacional Antropologia in Lima, Peru;
(2) Portrait Vessel measuring 8.3 in. tall, 6.5 in. wide and 5.5 in. deep, c. 50-800 CE, at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland;
(3) Portrait Vessel, showing earflares, c. 100-500 CE, Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts; and
(4) Portrait Vessel of a Ruler, c. 100 BCE-500 CE, Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois. 

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

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

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

Guo XiEarly Spring (c. 1072) National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
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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 1072 masterpiece, Early Spring, is a monumental landscape, the most common type of painting in the Northern Song dynasty (first image). 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). 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: Our Lady of Vladimir (Virgin of Vladimir) (c. 1100-1130) State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
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The Virgin of Vladimir is a religious icon that was probably painted in Constantinople about 1130. It has been in Russia since 1131 and is venerated by the Russian Orthodox Church as the protectoress of Russia. The icon is of the Eleusa type, in which the infant Jesus nestles tenderly against his mother’s cheek. It was sent to the town of Vladimir by Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky and the Assumption Church was built to house it. The icon came to Moscow in 1480. Over the years, the icon, painted with tempera on wood and measuring 40.9 in. tall by 27.2 in. wide has suffered serious damage, including fires in 1195 and 1238. Much of the painting of the clothing is from restorations in the 13th, 15th and 16th centuries. The icon has been copied many times over the centuries and is one of the few that survive from the early 12th Century. Many legends have grown up around the icon, which is also known as Virgin of Vladimir, Theotokos of Vladimir, Vladimir Mother of God, and Our Lady of Vyshhorod.  

Unknown ArtistsShiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance (c. 950-1200 CE) Various locations
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Images of the Hindu god Shiva dancing are found in India as early as 5th Century CE, but it was during the Chola Dynasty (c. 860-1279 CE) that the classical iconography developed. Ancient Sanskrit writings tell the story of Shiva dancing as Nataraja in Chidambaram, the golden hall in the center of the universe, for the other gods. In his dance, Shiva shows with movements his power to create and destroy. In his lower right hand he holds the damaru, a drum whose vibrations created the world; in his upper right hand, he makes the abhaya gesture, which protects, preserves and removes fear; his upper left hand holds the fire of destruction, or agni, his right foot tramples apasmara purusha, the personification of illusion; he lifts his left leg and points to it with the gaja hasta gesture, to show it is a refuge for troubled souls. Surrounding the dancing Shiva is a flaming halo. The Shiva Nataraja iconography was propagated through many bronze statues produced in the state of Tamil Nadu during the Chola Dynasty and are often referred to as Chola Bronzes. Many such icons are located in temples and museums throughout the world. Most were made small enough to carry. The largest Chola bronze, dating from 1100-1200, is located at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and measures 5 ft. tall by 3.75 ft. wide (see first image). More typical is Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a Chola bronze statue from the 11th Century, measuring 26.9 in. tall by 22.2 in. wide (see second image). One variation to the basic design is a non-circular halo that tapers at the base, as in the Shiva Nataraja in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a Chola Dynasty bronze dating from 950-1000 CE and measuring 30 in. tall by 22.5 in. wide (see third image).

KoshoKuya Preaching (The Sage Kuya, Saint Kuya) (c. 1185-1206) Rokuharamitsu-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan
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Kuya-Shonin was a 10th Century Japanese itinerant Buddhist priest who founded the Rokuharamitsuji temple in Kyoto in 951 CE. Kuya pioneered a new way of practicing Buddhism that would become known as Jodo, or New Land. According to this philosophy, one could achieve rebirth in the New Land through faith and by reciting the name of Amida, the celestial Buddha, using a six-syllable phrase called the nembutsu: “Namu Amida Butsu.” Two hundred years after Kuya’s death, one of the great sculptors of the Kamakura Period, Kosho, created his portrait in wood. Standing 3.8 ft. tall, Kuya Preaching was originally painted and had inset crystal eyes. He is sculpted in a realistic style – even his veins are visible. Dressed as a pilgrim, he wears wrinkled peasant’s clothing and straw sandals and carries an antler-topped staff and a gong with a stick to strike it (see first and second images). Most importantly, however, Kosho depicts Kuya in the act of reciting the nembutsu, as symbolized by the six tiny Amidas emerging from his mouth (see third image). The statue is kept in the same Kyoto that Kuya-Shonin himself founded over 1000 years ago.

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

Unknown Artists: Ife Heads (c. 1200-1400) National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria; British Museum, London
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In 1938, workers digging a foundation for a house in the Wunmonije compound in Ife, Nigeria discovered a treasure trove of brass sculpted heads. They were made by artists of the Yoruba culture during a period of cultural and political hegemony in the region between 1200 and 1500. The heads – which are life-size or near life-size – are remarkable for their depiction of individual facial features. Scholars believe that some or all of the heads represent royalty or members of the upper classes. Most of the heads are located in the National Museum of Nigeria but at least one is located in the British Museum in London (see first image).

Jacopo della QuerciaFonte Gaia (1414-1419) Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy (replica statues); Santa Maria della Scala (originals)
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The Fonte Gaia is a large fountain located in the Piazza del Campo at the center of Siena, Italy. The original fountain was built in 1342-1346, but the rectangular white marble frame with its many sculptures was added in 1419 by noted Sienese artist Jacopo della Quercia. The central bas relief figure is the Madonna and Child, surrounded by allegorical figures of the Virtues, the Creation of Adam, and the Flight from the Garden of Eden. Freestanding statues of Roman historical women Rea Silvia and Acca Larentia, both pictured with Romulus and Remus, stood atop the end columns, and two wolves, representing the she-wolf that raised Romulus and Remus, spouted water. The original sculptures were removed and replaced by copies made by Tito Sarrocchi between 1858 and 1866. The reconstruction omitted the two freestanding nude figures. The original sculptures, which are in poor condition, are now in the museum of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena. The images shown above are: (1) a view of the present-day Fonte Gaia fountain, with Sarrocchi’s copies: (2) Jacopo della Quercia’s original Madonna and Child; (3) Della Quercia’s statue of Rhea Silvia, with her sons Romulus and Remus; (4) an angel with a portion of the marble frame from the original Fonte Gaia;  and (5) the original allegorical figure of Wisdom.

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


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

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

Paolo UccelloThe Battle of San Romano
Part I
: (c. 1438-1440) National Gallery, London
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Part II: (c. 1435-1455) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
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Part III: (c. 1455) Musée du Louvre, Paris
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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.

Dieric BoutsThe Last Supper (1464-1467) St. Peter’s Church, Leuven, Belgium bouts altarpiece bouts detail bouts detail 2
Dieric Bouts was an Early Netherlandish painter who was influenced by Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. Made with oil paints on wood panel measuring 5.9 ft. tall by 4.9 ft. wide, The Last Supper was the central panel of an altarpiece for St. Peter’s Church in Leuven and was commissioned by the Leuven Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament. There were four smaller panels on the wings of the altarpiece (called the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament or the Altarpiece of the Last Supper) with scenes from the Old Testament (see first image). 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). There are glimpses of outdoor landscapes through narrow windows (see second and third images).

Hans MemlingSt. John’s Altarpiece (Altarpiece of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist) (1474-1479) Memling Museum, St. John’s Hospital, Bruges memling st john
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The St. John Altarpiece is a triptych made by German-born Flemish painter Hans Memling with oils on oak panels (see first image). The center panel measures 5.7 ft. tall by 5.7 ft. wide; each wing is 5.8 ft. tall by 2.6 ft. wide. It was made for the chapel of St. John’s Hospital in Bruges and is dedicated to the patron saints of the hospital, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. The center panel takes the form of a sacra conversatione with saints gathered around the Virgin Mary and Jesus. John the Baptist stands at left, while events from his life shown in the outdoor space behind him; John the Evangelist stands on the right. St. Catherine sits at the left, while St. Barbara sits on the right. Mary sits on a throne with an Oriental carpet (known as a Memling carpet) beneath her, reaching almost to the picture plane, while above two blue angels hold her crown. The infant Jesus puts a ring on St. Catherine’s finger, symbolizing her spiritual commitment to God, leading some to refer to the center panel as the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. Scholars have noted that the composition of two standing and two sitting saints around the Virgin was very unusual. Also unusual was the breaking up of the architecture to allow almost continuous views of the background landscape, which allowed Memling to paint scenes from the saints’ lives there. (Even the carvings at the top of each capital represent aspects of the saints’ lives.) Each wing is dedicated to one of the St. Johns. The left wing shows the beheading of John the Baptist: the executioner, his back to us, places the head on Salome’s platter, while the headless body lies on the ground (second image). The right wing shows John the Evangelist writing the Apocalypse on the island of Patmos, with the key events of the Book of Revelation depicted. Experts believe this is the first time that the entire Apocalypse story was presented in a single painting. Two concentric rainbows show God enthroned, with four beasts and 24 elders, while the Lamb of God breaks the seven seals on God’s lap (third image). Elsewhere, Memling shows a giant angel emerging from the water, while a seven-headed dragon in seen in the background (fourth image). When the doors of the triptych are closed, it reveals portraits of the four donors (two priests and two nuns) kneeling before their patron saints (fifth image).

Giovanni BelliniSt. Francis in the Desert (St. Francis in Ecstasy) (c. 1480) Frick Collection, New York
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By choosing to use oil paints – which were very new to Italy – to paint a portrait of St. Francis, Giovanni Bellini proved to his fellow Italian painters that the new medium could render light and the effects of light in ways that could not have been achieved with tempera. Painted on three joined poplar wood panels and measuring 4.1 ft. tall by 4.7 ft. wide, St. Francis in the Desert also known as St. Francis in Ecstasy or St. Francis in the Wilderness) uses natural lighting effects to create the sense of a heavenly visitation upon the founder of the Franciscans (see first image). 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 bird, donkey and hare in second and third images). 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.

Michael PacherSt. Wolfgang Altarpiece (1471-1481) St. Wolfgang Church, St. Wolfgang im Salzkammergut, Austria

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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 (see first image). 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 fourth image). On holy days, both sets of doors are opened to see a central sculpted scene of the Coronation of the Virgin, carved from lindenwood and painted (second image) flanked by four painted scenes: the Nativity, the Circumcision (third image), 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 VinciThe Adoration of the Magi [(1481-1482) Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

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). 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 Filippo 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. 

Michael Pacher: Altarpiece of the Church Fathers (1484) Alte Pinakothek, Munich Michael_Pacher_-_Altarpiece_of_the_Church_Fathers 2
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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. 

Giorgione (Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco): The Tempest (1506-1508) Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice
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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.”  Random Trivia:  X-ray analysis shows that in place of the man at left, Giorgione had originally painted a nude female.

Jacopo PontormoThe Deposition of Christ (1525-1528) Capponi Chapel, Santa Felicità Church, Florence, Italy

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. Pontormo 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.

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

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

Benvenuto CelliniPerseus with the Head of Medusa (Perseus) (1545-1554) Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy
perseus front perseus with base
perseus base relief
When Florentine sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini proposed a large bronze sculpture of Perseus with the Head of Medusa to Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, the Duke recognized a political opportunity. The marble statues of David and Hercules in the Loggia dei Lanzi, in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, were symbols of the Republic, which the Medicis had overthrown. Placing a statue of Perseus in the Loggia holding up the head of the snake-headed Gorgon Medusa, which turned all who looked upon it to stone, and facing it toward the statues of the Republic, would make a political statement as well as a clever joke. Cellini’s masterpiece stands 18 ft. tall, with three separate parts. At the top is Perseus, sword in hand, weight on one foot, holding up the Medusa’s head while bowing his own. The hero is nude but for his winged cap, winged sandals and sash. He stands on Medusa’s headless body, which gushes blood from the neck, and the reflective shield that allowed him to outsmart the Gorgon. Directly beneath Medusa’s body (her arm hanging down links the two registers) is a four-sided marble base with four niches, containing bronze statuettes of Jupiter, Athena, Mercury and Danaë (see detail in second image). Carved in the marble are goats’ heads, to represent the Duke’s zodiac sign, Capricorn, while on the corners are carved images of Diana of Ephesus. The marble base continues below the niches, where Cellini has installed a bronze panel containing a relief sculpture of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from Cetus (see detail in third image). Scholars believe this is the first time since Ancient Rome that the base of a sculpture included figurative sculpture integral to the work as a whole. 

TintorettoThe Crucifixion (1565) Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy tintoretto crucifixion
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 (see second and third images, showing detail of the work at left and right, respectively). Above it all is the holy light, ready to take Jesus to heaven.

TintorettoThe Last Supper (1592-1594) Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice Tintoretto_-_The_Last_Supper
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. 

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

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

Gian Lorenzo BerniniFountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) (1648-1651) Piazza Navona, Rome

According to a 17th Century account, when Pope Innocent X sought proposals for a new fountain in the Piazza Navona in Rome, across from the Palazzo Pamphili, Innocent’s family palace, he contacted every major architect and sculptor in Rome except Gian Lorenzo Bernini, arguably the most famous sculptor in Italy at the time, due perhaps to Bernini’s support of Innocent’s predecessor Pope Gregory XV and the influence of Bernini’s many enemies. A powerful friend of Bernini’s convinced the artist to ignore the snub, create a design and make a model of it, and then arranged for the model to be displayed anonymously in a room in the Palazzo Pamphili. When the Pope saw the design, he judged it the best and commissioned Bernini to make the fountain. The centerpiece of the fountain is a 115-ft.-tall Egyptian obelisk (actually a copy of an obelisk made in Rome in 81 CE), topped with the Pamphili family emblem of a dove with an olive branch (first image). The structure below consists of what one critic called “a mountainous disorder of travertine marble” adorned with numerous sculptures, including a palm tree, a lion and a horse, and anchored at the corners by semi-prostrate river gods, one each for the four continents where Christianity had spread. Bernini selected different sculptors for each river god: (1) Jacopo Antonio Fancelli carved the Nile River of Africa. The god wears a cloth over his face in recognition that the source of the Nile had not yet been discovered (see second image). (2) Antonio Raggi created the Danube River of Europe. Because, of the four rivers, the Danube is closest to Rome, its god displays Pope Innocent X’s coat of arms (see third image). (3) Claude Poussin sculpted the Ganges River of Asia (see second image). The god carries an oar to show that the Ganges is navigable. (4) Francesco Baratta carved the Rio de la Plata of America. The god sits on a pile of coins to show the potential for riches in the New World, but the god shows fear of a serpent, reminding us that those who are rich fear thieves (see third image). Scholars have praised the revolutionary design of the fountain, and its dynamic fusion of architecture and sculpture. 

Rembrandt: The Return of the Prodigal Son (1668-1669) State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
prodigal son
Rembrandt The_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son detail
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 (see second image) 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.

Johannes VermeerThe Art of Painting (1670) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
In The Art of Painting (also known as An Allegory of Painting and The Artist in His Studio), the artist Jan Vermeer allows the viewer a privileged look at the process of making art and in so doing, seeks to elevate the status of art and the artists who make it. A colorful tapestry curtain (a framing device known as a repoussoir) is drawn back to reveal the creative act in progress.  An unusually well-dressed artist (probably a Vermeer self-portrait), appears to be painting his model as Clio, the Muse of History (see first image, above).  An accurate copy of Claes Janszoon Visscher’s 1636 map of The Netherlands hangs on the back wall. The light enters the room from the back left and illuminates portions of the room, highlighting certain details and creating shadows elsewhere. The square tiled floor allows Vermeer to demonstrate his control of linear perspective. The painting held a special place in Vermeer’s heart – he never sold it, even when he was in debt – but his family lost control of it after Vermeer’s death in 1675. In 1813, it was purchased for 50 florins by Bohemian-Austrian Count Czernin, whose descendant Count Jaromir Czernin sold it (possibly unwillingly) to Adolf Hitler in 1940 for 1.65 million Reichsmarks.  During World War II, the Nazis protected the painting from Allied bombs in a salt mine. The Americans retrieved it in 1945 and gave it to the Austrian government. The Czernin family has sought the return of the painting since the 1960s, without success. 

Hyacinthe RigaudPortrait of Louis XIV (1701) Musée du Louvre, Paris

French portraitist 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.  

Antoine Watteau (Jean-Antoine Watteau): Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles (1718-1719) Musée du Louvre, Paris
watteau pierrot
Both Pierrot and Gilles were stock comedic characters of French pantomime and Commedia dell’Arte, with similar costumes and roles. The Pierrot character was a buffoon (but often treated sympathetically) that was introduced to French audiences by a traveling Italian acting troupe in the late 17th Century. In the traditional story, Pierrot loves Columbine, who breaks his heart when she leaves him for Harlequin. Watteau, whose work as assistant to painter Claude Gillot brought him into contact with the theater, depicts other Commedia dell’Arte characters – the Doctor on his donkey, the lovers Leander and Isabella, and the Captain – who seem to ignore the sad clown, possibly a self-portrait. Watteau painted in the Late Baroque, or Rococo style.  Some have speculated that the large canvas (measuring 6.1 feet tall by 4.9 feet wide) was intended as a theatrical sign for a performance at a café or fairground. The painting was generally known as Gilles until the 20th Century, when a critical mass of scholars decided that Watteau had painted Pierrot, not Gilles, leading to the Louvre’s awkward title, Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles.

William Hogarth: 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 (first image); (3) The Orgy: Tom’s watch is stolen at a drunken orgy at the Rose Tavern, a famous brothel; (4) The Arrest: Sarah intervenes to prevent bailiffs from arresting Tom for debts as he takes a sedan chair to a party, has his cane stolen and has oil poured on his head; (5) The Marriage: Tom marries a rich old maid to get out of debt, while Sarah arrives too late (second image); (6) The Gaming House: Tom looks to heaven to help after gambling away his new wife’s money, while a fire breaks out; (7) The Prison: Tom is now in debtors’ prison, where Sarah and his wife lament his state, and there are signs that he is losing his sanity; (8) The Madhouse: Insane and violent, Tom ends up in Bedlam (Bethlehem Hospital) mental asylum, where Sarah, still ignored, continues to comfort him. Each of the original eight paintings was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide. 

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

Thomas Gainsborough: Mr. and Mrs. Andrews [(1748-1750) National Gallery, London andrews
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.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Le Carceri d’Invenzione (The Imaginary Prisons) (series of prints from etchings) (1750, 1st edition; 1761, 2nd edition) Various locations
Piranesi no 6Giovanni_Battista_Piranesi_-_Le_Carceri_d'Invenzione_-_Second_Edition_-_1761_-_05_-_The_Lion_Bas-Reliefs
A Venetian who spent most of his career in Rome, Giovanni Battista Piranesi was fascinated with architecture, especially Ancient Roman architecture, and the vast majority of his artistic output consists of highly-detailed etchings (made into prints) of Roman buildings, monuments and ruins. These etchings combine a Neo-Classical dedication to realism with a sense of play and even some social commentary.  But Piranesi’s most well-known works do not reproduce any existing Roman architecture. The bizarre and complicated spaces of the 16 prints in Le Carceri d’Invenzione are all the products of Piranesi’s imagination, filtered through his formidable knowledge of architecture and engineering.  No 18th Century Italian prison ever looked like these mysterious and foreboding chambers of horror. The architecture is fanciful and sometimes defies the laws of physics (which has led to comparisons with M.C. Escher). Elaborate machinery and instruments of torture dwarf the few tiny figures in these images, leading some to find a critique of the Italian justice system (or that of Ancient Rome?). Piranesi published 14 of the prints in 1750; 11 years later, he released a new version, with the etchings much reworked and two additional scenes.  The 1761 version is more complicated, more detailed and more sinister than the originals. First image: Title Page (1st edition). Second image: Lion Bas Reliefs (2nd edition). Each print measures 2.1 ft. tall by 1.6 ft. wide.

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.  

John Singleton CopleyWatson and the Shark (1778) National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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

Jean-Antoine HoudonPortrait of Voltaire, Seated (1781) Comédie-Française, Paris; State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Houdon,_voltaire,_1781 houdon-Voltaire_Seated Hermitage
When Enlightenment intellectual hero Voltaire returned to Paris in 1778 after a 20-year exile, he stopped by the studio of French neoclassical sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon to have a portrait bust made. Houdon sketched Voltaire, now 84, as a man with a weary face, few teeth left, deep lines and a compressed smile. In the course of the sitting, Houdon also made some full-length sketches of Voltaire sitting.  Only a few months after returning from exile, Voltaire died. His niece, Mme. Denis, asked Houdon to produce a life-sized statue based on his sketches. The result was Portrait of Voltaire, Seated (also known as Voltaire, Seated, or simply Voltaire) which shows Voltaire sitting in a chair, looking to his right with a warm, thoughtful expression. He is covered in the robes of classical antiquity, in sharp contrast to Jean-Baptiste Pigalle’s controversial nude of a few years earlier. The early results were so promising that Catherine the Great commissioned another copy. Houdon completed both white marble sculptures in 1781. One is now in the foyer of the Comédie-Française in Paris (first image); the other is in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (second image). Various smaller versions exist, including the original maquette, many of them made with plaster. 

Étienne-Maurice FalconetMonument to Peter the Great (The Bronze Horseman) [(1770-1782) Senate Square, St. Petersburg, Russia The_Bronze_Horseman_(St._Petersburg,_Russia)

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

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

Jean-François Millet: The Gleaners (1857) Musée d’Orsay, Paris gleaners
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 was made on a canvas measuring 2.75 ft. tall by 3.7 ft. wide.

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

James McNeill WhistlerArrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871) Musée d’Orsay, Paris
whistler the artist's mother
black lion wharf
For James McNeill Whistler, the important aspects of a painting were not the people or objects depicted but the arrangements of color and form on the canvas and the emotions they aroused. In an attempt to connect painting with the more abstract art form of music, Whistler often named his works with musical terms: symphony, harmony, nocturne or as here, arrangement. (Whistler only added the subtitle “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” after complaints from exhibitors.) Known colloquially by the nickname Whistler’s Mother, the painting was made with oil paints on a canvas measuring 4.7 ft tall by 5.3 ft wide. Contemporary critics were upset with the unsentimental portrait, the spare palette and the lack of ornamental detail, but the painting has become an icon, acquiring along the way a sentimental patina that would Whistler would have certainly objected to. Random Trivia: Framed on the wall is one of Whistler’s prints, Black Lion Wharf (1859) (see second image).

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

Vincent Van GoghThe Potato Eaters (1885) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam van gogh potato eaters
Vincent Van Gogh wanted to show the dignity and hard life of the peasants without sentimentalizing them, so for his portrait of a peasant family eating dinner, he deliberately chose unattractive models. At this early stage in his career, Van Gogh was much influenced by the artistic movement known as the Hague School, especially the work of Jozef Israëls, whose 1882 painting Peasant Family at the Table (see second image), may have been a model for Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters.  Made with oil paints on a canvas measuring 2.7 ft. tall by 3.7 ft wide, the work is now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Random Trivia: Van Gogh was an avid collector of prints and believed that the emotional impact of such smaller works could be great, while large canvases could leave the viewer cold. Before completing the oil painting, Van Gogh created an engraved version of The Potato Eaters (see third image), one of his few experiments with the medium.

Vincent Van GoghCafé Terrace at Night (1888) Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands

Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh was living in Arles, France in 1888, when he became attracted by the idea of painting en plein air at night. He had read a passage by Guy de Maupassant describing the bright cafés on the boulevard in Paris and was inspired to translate that imagined scene onto canvas. A café on the Place du Forum, with its large outdoor seating area and bright yellow lamp that lit up even the cobblestones in the road, seemed like the perfect spot, so one day in September 1888, van Gogh set up his easel. The result is the painting known as Café Terrace at Night or The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night. “Here you have a night painting without black,” van Gogh announced in a letter to his sister. The dark blue sky with swirling stars above is van Gogh’s first attempt to paint the night sky as he saw it, a project that would lead him to The Starry Night a year later. Café Terrace at Night was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.6 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. wide.

Vincent Van GoghThe Night Café (1888) Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut Van Gogh The_Night_Café

Van Gogh joked that he painted this all-night café, where he had a room, as “revenge” for the owner taking so much of his money. In a letter to his brother, Van Gogh described the establishment as one where ” ‘night prowlers’ can take refuge … when they have no money to pay for a lodging, or are too drunk to be taken in.” The artist stayed up all night for three nights and slept during the day to create The Night Café. The painting was made with oils on a canvas measuring 2.4 ft tall by 3 ft wide. Random Trivia: Van Gogh also painted a watercolor of the interior of the same café, which is in a private collection (see second image).

Vincent Van GoghSelf-Portrait (1889) Musée d’Orsay, Paris

In December 1888, while living in Arles, France with fellow painter Paul Gauguin, Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh experienced a mental breakdown; after an argument with Gauguin, Van Gogh cut off a portion of his right ear. After several hospital stays, he committed himself to a mental asylum in Saint-Rémy in May 1889.  He began painting again in September 1889, but remained at the asylum (with a number of visits to Arles) until discharged in May 1890. On July 29, 1890, he committed suicide.  During the last 10 years of his life, Van Gogh created at least 43 self-portraits. A form of visual diary, the paintings record the changes in Van Gogh’s painting style as well as his physical and mental decline. Scholars have noted the critical self-analysis and questioning of identity that Van Gogh undertakes in these highly revealing portraits. Van Gogh’s letters indicate that he was consciously seeking to capture something in these painted works that could not be captured by photography, then a relatively new technology; he looked to the brutal honesty of Rembrandt’s self-portraits as a model.  Van Gogh painted the September 1889 Self-Portrait (catalogue number F627) nine months after he cut off his ear and four months after he arrived at the asylum. Unlike Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe and Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear from January 1889 (the latter painting shown in the second image), which draws attention to the self-mutilation, here he paints himself from the left, hiding the injury. He wears a suit, not his usual working pea jacket. There is an anxious inward stare in his eyes; as one art historian put it, he has the look of “a man trying to hold himself together.” The dominant green and turquoise blue, normally calming colors, conflict jarringly with the blazing orange of his beard and hair, whose undulations are amplified by the churning energy of the swirls of the background. This Self-Portrait (also known as Portrait of the Artist) was painted with oils on a canvas measuring 2.1 ft. tall by 1.8 ft. wide.

Vincent Van GoghWheatfield with Crows (1890) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam van gogh wheatfield with crows
During the final months of his life, Vincent Van Gogh entered into a period of unusually high artistic productivity, sometimes finishing a canvas every day. He had moved to Auvers-sur-Oise in May 1890 and was working closely with Dr. Paul Gachet. Using unconventially-shaped double square canvases, Van Gogh painted Auvers and its environs, including the wheat fields outside the town. He painted Wheatfield with Crows in July 1890, the last month of his life,  We see turbulent fields of wheat under an equally turbulent sky. Dozens of crows fly above the wheat, although it’s unclear where they are going, if anywhere. There are three separate paths – the two in the foreground seem to come from nowhere and lead nowhere; the central path enters the wheatfield but it is not clear where or whether it will end. Most scholars now reject the theory thatWheatfield with Crows was Van Gogh’s final painting. Nevertheless, Van Gogh’s suicide on July 29, 1890 has influenced some to interpret the turbulent sky as Van Gogh’s mental state; the dead-end roads as the end of his life; and the crows as death and/or resurrection. A letter Van Gogh wrote at the time mentions two paintings, one of which might be Wheatfield with Crows, that he describes paradoxically as embodying “sadness and extreme loneliness” yet also showing the “health and restorative forces of the countryside.”  Wheatfield with Crows was made with oils on a canvas measuring 1.6 ft. tall by 3.4 ft. wide.

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

George Minne: Boy Kneeling at the Spring (The Kneeling Youth) (1898) Musee d’Orsay, Paris (bronze); Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands (bronze); Neue Galerie, New York (marble), Museum of Modern Art, New York (plaster); National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia (plaster), Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, Belgium (plaster)
george-minne youth kneeling

Belgian Symbolist George Minne made numerous bronze and plaster statuettes of a boy or youth kneeling, apparently before a fountain, known as Kneeling Youth or Boy Kneeling before a Fountain. Minne also made a group of five kneeling figures to be placed around actual fountains, called The Fountain of Kneeling Youth (sometimes nicknamed The Narcissus Fountain, although there is no evidence Minne intended to represent the mythical Narcissus). The pose is self-contained and introspective. According to the curators of the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, the kneeling figures represent “the externalisation of a complex emotional condition, in which self-protection, internalisation and narcissism blend together.” These qualities are emphasized in The Fountain of Kneeling Youth by having the figures facing away from the viewer and toward the center of the fountain. Versions of The Fountain of Kneeling Youth are located at the Folkwang Museum, Hage, Germany (marble); the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent (bronze) and in a public garden in Brussels, Belgium (bronze). Random TriviaThe Fountain of Kneeling Youth located in the garden behind the Parliament building in Brussels is known locally as “de vijf pissers.”

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

Wassily KandinskyComposition VII [(1913) State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
kandinsky composition vii
Did Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky have synethesia?  In a famous anecdote, Kandinsky attended a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin and saw colors associated with the musical sounds, after which he decided to become a painter. For Kandinsky, artists’ attempts to represent objects and figures in their works of art were preventing colors from being able to express emotions and bring about spiritual enlightenment. He sought to release colors from the prison of representational art and allow them to sing. It is not surprising, given Kandinsky’s belief in the connection between color and sound, that many of his works are titled “Composition” or “Improvisation.” Composition VII, made with oils on a canvas measuring 6.6 ft. tall by 9.9 ft. wide, was Kandinsky’s largest statement of his theories before World War I (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.  

Unknown Artist(s)Nkisi Nkondi Nail Figures [(c. 1875-1920) Various locations
nkisi nkondi berlin nkisi nkondi female figure
nkisi nkondi figure Brooklyn_Museum Nkisi_Nkondi,_Congo,_c._1880-1920
71.3 Nkisi_NKondi_Mangaaka
At least as far back as the 16th Century and into the early 20th Century, religious leaders of the Kongo peoples who lived in what is now Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola in Central Africa utilized carved figures known as Nkisi Nkondi (also known as Nail Figures or Power Figures) to aid the villagers with their spiritual and physical needs. The figures, usually but not always male, were used to protect the village, prove guilt or innocence, heal sickness, end disasters, take revenge and settle legal disputes.  The figures obtained their supernatural power from medicinal substances deposited into cavities carved into the head or stomach of the statue.  The religious specialists, or nganga, who made the figures often used reflective glass for the eyes and medicine cavity covers.  When a particular result was achieved or agreement reached, the parties would drive a nail or other sharp object into the figure.  (The earliest known confirmed use of nails for the figures was in 1864.)  The figures’ mouths are usually open to allow them speak the truth, and their expressions and gestures are usually aggressive, to alert viewers that they have the potential to hunt down wrongdoers (the word ‘nkondi’ comes from the verb ‘to hunt’). Six examples of Nkisi Nkondi figures are shown above:
(1) Nkisi Nkondi, made by Yombe people in present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo with wood, iron and ceramic; measuring 3.8 ft. tall, late 19th century-1904, now in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin;
(2) Nkisi Nkondi (female), made by Vili people, late 19th Century, now in the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama;
(3) Nkisi Nkondi, made by Kongo people in what is now Democratic Republic of Congo, with wood, iron, glass mirror, resin and pigment, measuring 2.8 ft. tall by 1.1 ft. wide by 0.9 ft. deep, now in the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York;
(4) Nkisi Nkondi, from what is now Democratic Republic of Congo, c. 1880-1920, now in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania;
(5) Power Figure made by Kongo people in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo with wood, natural fibers, nails, glass and metal, measuring 15.75 in. tall, 9.75 in. wide, 7.25 in. deep, early 20th century, now at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and
(6) Nkisi N’Kondi, made by Kongo people in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola with wood, paint, metal, resin and ceramic, measuring 3.9 ft. tall, late 19th Century, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

René MagritteThe 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 (and the same size, 3.2 ft. high by 2.7 ft. wide).  In both works, an artist’s easel is 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 are somewhat bland.  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. Similarly, a two-dimensional painting cannot reproduce nature, but only provide a representation of it.  Art, then, merely makes overt a delusion that is normally covert: we cannot gain direct access to the world of our perceptions, whether we perceive reality or artistic representations of reality.

Frida KahloThe Two Fridas (1939) Museum of Modern Art, 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.

Pierre Bonnard: Nude in the Bath (series) (1935-1946) Various locations
nude-in-the-bathtub-1935-1 bonnard bathtub 4
bonnard bathtub 1 Bonnard bathtub 3
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) The Bather (1935), in a private collection (first image, above);
(2) Nude in the Bathtub (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 in Paris (third image, above);
(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 (fourth image, above).

Jackson PollockNumber 1, 1950 “Lavender Mist” (1950) National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
pollock lavender-mist
sand painting pollock lavender mist detail
In 1947, American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock began creating a new type of painting in which the action of making the art became a process of discovering what the painting wanted to be. He rejected representation and narrative. Inspired by Navaho sand painting (see second image above), Pollock took his canvases off the easel and placed them unstretched and unprimed on the floor of his barn. He used synthetic resin-based paints called alkyd enamels and industrial house paints, put aside paintbrushes and worked with pieces of wood, glass and metal instead.  He walked, almost danced around (and on) the canvas, spilling, throwing and spraying paint over it until it reached an emotional peak. Sometimes he would hang the canvas on a wall for a time, to allow gravity to pull the paint earthward.  When finished, there were layers of paint covering the canvas, thicker in some places than others. In the first years of the drip technique, the palette of the paintings wavered between black and white, on the one hand, and muted earth tones, on the other. Pollock also generally rejected descriptive titles, which implied that the painting was ‘about’ something other than itself, in favor of numbers and dates. He created in relative obscurity – although critic Clement Greenberg was an early booster – until August 8, 1949, when Lifemagazine asked, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” After that, Pollock was a superstar. Greenberg is to blame for the title Lavender Mist that has attached to the drip painting that Pollock titled Number 1, 1950 (see first image). Even though there is no lavender in the painting and “Lavender Mist” sounds like a perfume or a tacky landscape painting, Pollock agreed to add it as a subtitle. The large-format canvas, measuring 7.2 feet tall by 9.8 ft. wide, contains many layers of paint, mostly black, white, russet, orange, silver and stone blue, which do create a mauve, possibly even lavender glow. Thick long streaks of black, often near the edges of the canvas, present focal points of emphasis, but, as one critic noted, “The eye is kept continually eager, not allowed to rest on any particular area.” Instead of looking at a finished product, a work that has reached its resting point of equilibrium, “everything is in flux, caught in the act of becoming”, as one scholar pointed out.  Texture is also an element that Pollock chooses to manipulate through random processes as well as conscious control. In some spots, the multiple layers of paint create a three-dimensional architecture of paint rising from the canvas (see detail in third image). Perhaps to emphasize the primitive aspects of spattering paint on a large surface, Pollock signed the work by placing his handprints in one of the upper corners, like a prehistoric cave painter.  Number 1, 1950 “Lavender Mist” was made with oils, enamels and aluminum on canvas.

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

Jasper Johns: Painted Bronze: Ale Cans (1960) Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland
johns painted bronze
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.

Antony GormleyThe Angel of the North (1998) Gateshead, England, UK
angel of the north
Angel of the North is a steel sculpture by British artist Antony Gormley that is located in Gateshead, England atop a former coal mine.  It stands 66 ft. tall, with a wingspan of 177 ft. across.  The wings are curved forward at a 3.5 degree angle. The body weights 110 tons; the wings are 55 tons each.  Built to withstand 100 mph winds, the sculpture is anchored to bedrock 70 feet underground by 660 tons of concrete.  The artist has said that one of his intentions was for the Angel to become the focus of people’s evolving hopes and fears.  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 1 million pounds in 2008.  A human-sized maquette was sold at auction for 2 million pounds in 2008.

On 4 Lists
Unknown ArtistsCave Paintings, Altamira Cave (c. 13,000-11,000 BCE) near Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain altamira polychromes
AltamiraBison (1)
In 1879, amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola was exploring the recently discovered Altamira Cave, near Santillana del Mar in Cantabria in the north of Spain, accompanied by his 8-yr-old daughter Maria, when his daughter shouted, “Daddy, there are painted bulls on the ceiling!” Together, the de Sautuolas had discovered the first known prehistoric cave paintings. The sophistication of the artwork was such that the traditional archaeological establishment rejected the notion that these remarkable paintings were made by primitive humans and de Sautuola was accused of forgery.  It wasn’t until after other cave paintings were discovered that, in 1902, the Altamira cave paintings were accepted as authentic. Scholars believe that the cave was inhabited during two periods: the Upper Solutrean, about 16,500 BCE, and the Lower Magdalenian, between 14,500 and 12,000 BCE, and that most of the painting occurred during the latter period.  The cave is best known for its polychrome paintings of bison and other animals on a ceiling, using pigments made from charcoal, ochre and haematite. By using the contours of the cave and using water to dilute the pigments into lighter and darker shades, the artists manage to create three-dimensional and chiaroscuro effects that were not rediscovered until the Renaissance. While most of the painting dates from between 13,000 and 11,000 BCE, when a rock collapse closed the entrance of the cave, scientists recently dated a claviform (club-shaped) marking to 33,600 BCE, long before the other dates given for habitation and painting of the cave. After years of tourism, the carbon dioxide in the breath of visitors began to damage the paintings, and Spain closed the cave in 1977, only to reopen it in 1982 with much restricted access. Recently, the associated museum created a complete replica of the cave and its paintings. 

Unknown ArtistPalette of Narmer (c. 3100-3000 BCE) Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo, Egypt
palette of narmer front 
Also known as the Great Hierakonpolis Palette, the Palette of Narmer is a 2.1 ft tall carved piece of siltstone takes the shape of a palette for grinding cosmetics but its larger than usual size may indicate that it was a votive offering. The palette, which shows the victorious Pharaoh Narmer wearing the crown of upper Egypt on one side and the crown of lower Egypt on the other, appears to celebrate the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt but it is not clear if the images depict an actual historical battle or serve as mythical or symbolic representation of unification. The palette also marks one of earliest examples of hieroglyphics. Art historians point out that even at this early date, the conventions of Egyptian art (legs and head in profile; body facing forward; mathematical precision) are already well established. 

Unknown ArtistStandard of Ur (c. 2600-2400 BCE) British Museum, London Standard of ur war
standard of ur
When a member of Leonard Woolley’s archaeological team found a badly fragmented and decayed wooden box covered with mosaics in the grave of Ur-Pabilsag, a Sumerian king, Woolley was able to preserve the crumbling artifact by placing wax on the soil after removing each piece of the box. The result of this painstaking process was a nearly complete impression of the mosaics, which then was used to reconstruct the artifact.  Woolley identified the box as a standard, a type of flag, but later research is inconclusive on the question of the purpose of the object.  One theory is that it was the sound box for a musical instrument. After reconstruction (which involved some guesswork), the box measures 19.5 in. long by 8.5 in. deep at the base. The width of the box narrows from bottom to top, creating a trapezoid (see second image, above).  Both long sides contain three levels of mosaics made from shell, limestone and lapis lazuli, using bitumen as glue.  One side contains the story of a war victory (see first image, above); the other is a banquet or feast (see second image, above).  The depiction of chariot movement on the bottom row of the war mosaic is particularly inventive. The end panels show imaginary animals.  In both large mosaics, the king is depicted in the top row; he is larger than anyone else and he breaks through the frame, demonstrating his power. Note that the chariots have solid wheels – spoked wheels had not yet arrived in Sumer – and the animals pulling the chariots are donkeys or onagers, since domesticated horses had not yet reached Mesopotamia. 

Unknown ArtistRam in a Thicket (c. 2600-2400) University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; British Museum, London
ram 2 ram-thicket
In 1928-1929, while excavating a grave in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, the ancient capital of Sumer in modern-day Iraq, archaeologist Leonard Woolley discovered a pair of statuettes, each 16.5 in. tall, made of a variety of materials. Although the figures were damaged and their wooden cores had rotted, he was able to preserve them sufficiently for restoration. Although the animals depicted appear to be goats, the sculptures reminded Woolley of the story in the Book on Genesis in which Abraham, about to kill his son Isaac, sees a ram caught in a thicket, and he named each statuette Ram in a Thicket.  Each goat is covered with gold leaf over a wooden core.  Their ears are made of copper and their horns and the fleece on their shoulders is made of lapis lazuli. The fleece on their bodies is made of shell.  Their genitals are gold and their bellies are silver.  The tree and flowers are covered in gold leaf.  The artist used bitumen to glue the parts to each other.  Each goat stands on a small pedestal decorated by a mosaic made from shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli. Silver chains that originally attached the goats to the trees have completely decayed.  Art historians believe that the two figures may have faced each other and that the tubes rising from their shoulders supported a bowl or other object. One of the figures is in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia (first image). The other is in the British Museum in London (second image).

Unknown ArtistsCycladic Figurines (c. 3300-3200) Various locations
Cycladic_figurine_female,_3200–2800_BC,_AshmoleanM,_AN_1946.118,_142402 Cycladic_figurine,_female,_marble,_Crete,_2800-2200_BC,_AM_Chania,_076188
About 3300 BCE, people living in the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean Sea began sculpting human figures out of marble. They continued to make the objects for the next 1000 years. Different styles and subjects evolved, but the most typical Cycladic figurine is a female with her arms folded in front of her and an etched pubic triangle. Some of the figures are naturalistic but many of them are stylized and schematic. Experts debate the meaning and use of the figures. All were found buried in tombs. Some link them to the older Venus figurines and call them idols, but most dispute that characterization. Four examples are shown:
(1) Marble figurine from Naxos, Louros type (3200–2800 BCE); Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England, UK

(2) Marble figurine from Crete, Koumasa variety (2800–2200 BCE); Archaeological Museum of Chania, Crete, Greece
(3) Marble figurine, attributed to the Bastis Master, Spedos type (c. 2600-2400 BCE), measuring 24 3/4 inches tall; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
(4) Marble figurine from Syros, Greece (2600-2300 BCE); 18 inches tall; National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece.

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

Unknown ArtistNebamun Hunting Fowl in the Marshes (c. 1390-1350 BCE) British Museum, Londonnebamun
In 1821, Greek grave-robber Giovanni d’Athanasi discovered in Thebes, Egypt the tomb of a minor official (“a scribe who counts the grain in the granary of divine offerings”) named Nebamun, who lived in the late 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom, about 1350 BCE. The walls of his tomb-chapel contained exquisitely painted scenes, meant to represent the happiness of the afterlife. Using a crowbar, d’Athanasi removed several of the scenes from the walls and sold them to a collector, who brought them to the British Museum.  Because d’Athanasi was unhappy with his fee, he never told anyone where the grave was located and took the secret to his grave. One of the most remarkable scenes, painted a secco with paint on dry plaster, is known variously as Nebamun Hunting Fowl in the Marshes, Nebamun Hunting in the Marshes, Fowling in the Marshes, and Nebamun Hunting Birds. Measuring 2.7 ft. tall by 3.2 ft. wide, the painting shows Nebamun on a boat in the marshes, hunting birds. His wife and daughter are present. A cat with a gilded eye, who may represent the Sun-god, also hunts for birds.  A caption in hieroglyphics states that Nebamun is enjoying himself and seeing beauty. A matching scene with Nebamun catching fish is known only from photos. The hunting scene is not meant to be realistic or historical – Nebamun’s wife is dressed for a party, and their daughter would not normally join a hunting expedition. Instead, the painting shows an idealized family outing in the afterlife.  The panel is in the British Museum in London.

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

Unknown ArtistHuman-Headed Winged Bulls (Lamassu) (c. 710-705 BCE) Musee du Louvre, Paris; Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
Stitched Panorama lamassu louvre 2
lamassu louvre 1 Lammasu chicago
A lamassu or shedu is a winged, human-headed bull god whose image was used to protect the entrances to the palaces of Assyrian kings during the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which flourished in northern Mesopotamia (parts of modern day Iraq, Syria and Turkey) from 911-605 BCE. Assyrian king Sargon II, who reigned from 722-705 BCE, decided to build a new capital city at Dur-Sharrukin (modern day Khorsabad). The main entranceways to Sargon II’s palace were protected by pairs of lamassu, carved in high relief out of blocks of gypsum alabaster, and ranging from 13.8 to 16 ft. tall. The intimidating lamassu were intended to frighten intruders and convey the king’s power as well as serve as architectural supports. While the lamassu at Sargon’s palace all follow the same basic pattern, there are some variations. Some of the lamassu look straight ahead, while some look to the side. Some have the hooves of bulls, while some have lions’ paws. In all cases, the bulls have five legs – this allows them to appear steady and firm when viewed from the front, but striding forward when seen from the side. There are at least four lamassu from Sargon II’s palace on display in museums: (1) a pair of forward-facing lamassu at the Louvre, measuring 13.8 ft. tall by 14.3 ft. long (first and second images); (2) a sideways-facing lamassu at the Louvre (third image); and (3) a sideways-facing lamassu at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago measuring 16 ft. tall by 16 ft. long (fourth image). Sargon II’s plans for Dur-Sharrukin were never completed. The king was killed in battle in 705 BCE and his successor moved the capital to Nineveh, abandoning Dun-Sharrukin to the desert sands.

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

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

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

LeocharesApollo Belvedere (Apollo of the Belvedere; Pythian Apollo) (c. 350-320 BCE (bronze original); marble copy, 120-140 CE) Vatican Museums, Vatican City
The original Greek bronze statue of Apollo attributed to Leochares is lost, but a Roman marble copy known as Apollo Belvedere from 120-140 CE may be seen in the Vatican’s Museo Pio-Clementino. Standing 7.3 ft. tall, the statue shows the god Apollo just after shooting an arrow (the bow is missing), possibly killing the Python, the serpent of Delphi. Scholars have praised the unusual contrapposto pose, in which Apollo is depicted both facing front and in profile, and the way in which the hanging cloak sets off the god’s physique. A missing right arm and left hand were replaced during the Renaissance by a pupil of Michelangelo’s. Strangely, the critical reputation of the piece, which was discovered in 1489, reached a peak in the 18th Century, and has been declining ever since. Nevertheless, the figure had a significant influence on other artists, including Albrecht Dürer, Antonio Canova and Jean-Francois Millet.

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

Unknown ArtistObelisk of Axum (Axum Stele) (c. 300-400 CE) Axum, Ethiopia

The Kingdom of Axum (also spelled Aksum) was born in the 2nd Century BCE in present-day Ethiopia and thrived into the 10th Century CE, becaming one of the first African communities to adopt Christianity. Obelisks or stelae are found throughout the Axum territories and are believed to have been markers for underground burial chambers. Most stelae are small, but those for kings and nobles were immense and were decorated with carvings of false doors and windows and other architectural features. After the adoption of Christianity in the 4th Century CE, the Kingdom outlawed the practice of making stelae. The Axum Obelisk (also known as the Axum Stele) is made of granite, stands 79 ft. tall and weighs 176 tons (see first image). In addition to two false doors at the base and numerous false windows, it has a semicircular crown that was once enclosed by metal frames. The history of the stele is complex.  At some point in its history, it collapsed and broke into five pieces. In 1935, when Italy conquered Ethiopia, the Italians brought the stele back to Italy as war booty and erected it in Rome. There it remained until 2005, when, after many political discussions and practical difficulties, Italy began returning the stele to Ethiopia. It was finally restored and erected at its original location in 2008. There are several other very large stela at the same site. One, known as the Great Stele, measuring 108 ft. tall, apparently collapsed as it was being erected, and still lies broken on the ground. The largest stele that has never broken is King Ezana’s Stela, at 70 ft. tall (see second image). In 1980, the site of the stelae was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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 Sts. 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. St. Catherine’s Monastery and its environs were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002. 

Master Hugo: The Bury Bible (c. 1135) Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, England, UK
Bury bible 3 bury bible 5
Master Hugo was a 12th Century lay English artist, possibly the first professional artist in English history, who spent most of his career at the Benedictine Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk County, England. He illuminated the first (and possibly the second) volume of the Bury Bible in about 1135, in the Romanesque style. Only the first volume of the Bible, containing the Old Testament through the Book of Job, survives. The Bury Bible, measuring 20 in. tall by 14 in. wide, had a powerful influence on English art. Scholars see the color patterns, Byzantine draperies and the haunted eyes and expressive gestures of some of the figures as evidence of a new style drawing from the art of southern Italy, Cyprus, Byzantium and possibly Palestine. The first image contains two scenes of the life of Moses. The second image is the frontispiece for the Bible with the opening initial. The entire Bible may be viewed HERE.

Unknown Artist: Stained Glass, Chartres Cathedral (c. 1200-1235)  Chartres, France
Rosace nord de la cathédrale de Chartreschartres stained glass 2 

There are 176 windows in Chartres Cathedral, and every one is filled with stained glass. This decision by the designers of the church has resulted in a darker than usual interior (in other churches, some windows are filled with clear glass, which improves lighting inside but detracts from the effect of the stained glass), but has produced the most spectacular collection of stained glass ever seen. For much of the cathedral’s history, the multicolored light filtering through these stained glass windows was the primary light source for the interior. Despite weather, wars and revolutions, 152 of the original 176 windows are still intact. Construction of Chartres Cathedral took place in 1145, but a fire in 1194 destroyed much of the older building and required an almost complete reconstruction during the early 13th Century. The majority of the stained glass windows visible today were made and installed between 1200 and 1235, but four lancet windows contain stained glass from c. 1145-1160, including three windows underneath the rose window in the west facade: the Passion window to the south, the Infancy of Christ window in the center and the Tree of Jesse window to the north. The fourth pre-1194 window is known as The Blue Virgin, in the south ambulatory. The subjects depicted in these windows include stories from the Old and New Testament, the lives of the saints as well as typological cycles, signs of the zodiac, labors of the months and other symbols. In addition to the many tall, thin lancet windows, there are three large circular rose windows in the cathedral. The images shown above are: (1) The north transept rose window (34.4 ft. in diameter), which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the center (the oculus) sit the Virgin and Child, who are surrounded by 12 small oval windows, four of them depicting doves symbolizing the four gifts of the spirit, and the rest showing angels with candles.
(2) Detail from the Good Samaritan window, a typological lancet window, in which God warns Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
(3) Detail from a clerestory window depicting the burial of St. Mary by Zosimus, with help from a lion.
(4) A portion of a lancet window (29.6 ft. high by 7.3 ft. wide) containing scenes of the life of Charlemagne, who reputedly brought a relic to the cathedral.

Unknown Artist: Relief Sculptures, Amiens Cathedral (1220-1240) Amiens, France
amiens reliefs
Amiens Cathedral ameins 3 - st firmin
ameins 4 - south portal Amiens_West_Q_22b_U_Obadiah_feeds_the_prophets_hidden_in_the_cave amiens-cathedral-lights
Amiens Cathedral in Amiens, France, also known as Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens, is a 13th Century French Gothic structure that is home to an enormous array of relief sculptures. The three portals in the western façade of the cathedral were designed and carved between 1220 and 1240 in a simplified version of the Antique Revival style. The central portal presents the Last Judgment (see first and second images). The north portal celebrates locally-important saints, particularly St. Firmin (see third image), while the south portal focuses on the Virgin Mary. The tympanum shows Mary’s death, assumption into heaven and coronation (see fourth image). Other sculpture on the west façade includes a large number of quatrefoils in groups that highlight certain topics, such as the Prophets (see fifth image, showing Obadiah feeding the prophets hiding from Jezebel). Higher up on the western façade are larger than life size sculptures of 22 kings beneath the rose window. Researchers have discovered that the west façade was once painted in multiple colors. Through sophisticated technology, it is possible to project the colors onto the cathedral to approximate what it would have looked like with the painting in place (see sixth image). The south transept portal also has impressive relief sculptures from 1240-1260 with scenes from the life of St. Honoré.

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

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

Unknown ArtistThe Wilton Diptych [(c. 1395-1399) National Gallery, London Wilton_diptych
wilton diptych outer panels
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). 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). 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). The existence of the Wilton Diptych is considered remarkable given that few religious images survived a campaign of iconoclasm by the Puritans in the 17th Century.

Gentile da Fabriano: Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece (1423) Uffizi Gallery, Florence GentileDaFabriano_AdorationOfTheMagi
fabriano predella
The often eye-dazzling International Gothic style favored brilliant color and abundant detail over realistic depictions of figures and space.  In his Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece, Italian painter Gentile da Fabriano brought the International Gothic style to its culmination, just a few years before the Early Renaissance style emerged in the works of Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio. The altarpiece, which was painted with tempera paints on wood panels and measures 10 ft. tall by 9.25 wide, was commissioned by Palla Strozzi, a wealthy Florentine patron of the arts, for a chapel in the Santa Trinita church. (He and his son are depicted among the retinue of the Three Kings.) The ornate frame is crammed full of figures in elaborate 14th Century costumes, rich in scenery and populated by many animals, including exotic specimens like leopards and lions. The backstory of the Magi is told in the three arches: first, they see the star (left), then they go to Jerusalem (center), then to Bethlehem (right), and finally (in the foreground), they present gifts to the baby Jesus. The predella (the supporting panels at the bottom of the main frame) contain three additional scenes: two of them (the nativity scene, shown in second image, and the flight into Egypt) include some novel experiments with night lighting and multiple lighting sources.  The Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece is now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

Donatello: The Feast of Herod (1423-1427) Bapistery, Siena Cathedral, Siena feast of herod
Donatello’s The Feast of Herod is one of six bronze panels, measuring 1.97 ft. square, that are located in the base of the hexagonal baptismal font in the baptistry of the Siena Cathedral (see first image). The piece is remarkable for its use of the principles of linear perspective, recently rediscovered by Brunelleschi, to create the illusion of depth, particularly rare in a relief sculpture. The story takes place on three levels and chronologically follows the dance of Salome, after which Herod grants her any wish and she, at her mother’s bidding, asks for the head of John the Baptist. In the far background, in low relief, an executioner shows the head to someone, perhaps Salome. In the middle background, also in low relief, two men watch a woman playing a musical instrument. In the foreground, in high relief, Herod and his family react in horror to the head of John the Baptist (see second image), while Salome, sinuous in her dance costume, watches and gloats. The use of orthogonal lines in the floor tiles emphasizes the sense of real space. Donatello also demonstrates his ability to depict true human emotion, particularly in the faces and gestures of Herod and the young men sitting at the table.

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

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

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

Piero della FrancescaThe Baptism of Christ (c. 1448-1450) National Gallery, London
piero baptism
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. 

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

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

DonatelloEquestrian Statue of Gattamelata [(c. 1453) Piazza del Santo, Padua, Italy

The Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata is a bronze equestrian statue that has stood in the Piazzo del Santo in Padua, Italy since Donatello completed the commission in 1453. The Republic of Venice commissioned Donatello to create a monument to a revered military leader (“condotiero”) Erasmo da Narmi (1370-1443), known by his nickname Gattamelata (“speckled cat”). Measuring 11.1 ft tall by 12.8 ft long on a 26.5 ft by 13.4 ft base, the statue – the earliest extant equestrian statue of the Renaissance – revived the Classical iconography of depicting heroes on horseback. In order to create a sense of movement, Donatello angled the head of the horse and lifted its left foreleg, but concerns over balancing the horse on three legs led him to place a sphere beneath the lifted leg. 

Donatello: Penitent Magdalene (Mary Magdalene) (c. 1453-1455) Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy

Carved from white poplar wood and standing 6.2 ft tall, Donatello’s ultra-realistic Mary Magdalene (also known as the Penitent Magdalene) shown suffering the symptoms of abstinence and fasting, shocked and awed contemporaries and stands apart from the rest of Donatello’s ouevre in both style and substance. Although the story of Mary Magdalene going into the desert to fast and repent from her life as a prostitute has no basis in the Gospels, it was a popular subject for artists in the Renaissance and afterwards. Scholars believe that concept of the penitent Magdalene resulted from a conflation of the character in the Gospels with St. Mary of Egypt, a 4th Century CE former prostitute who fasted in the desert while repenting her sins. Probably originally placed in the Baptistery of the Florence Cathedral, the sculpture was originally painted and gilded. Experts are divided over whether the statue’s dominant feature is the pathetic weakness of the emaciated penitent or the inner emotional strength she displays despite her condition. In support of the latter view, art historian Martha Levine Dunkelman wrote: “She can be read as a representation of continuing physical and emotional tenacity in the face of adversity – her suffering having increased her power.”  Note: While most experts date the statue to the 1450s, some believe it was made much earlier, in the 1430s. 

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

Early Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna painted six frescoes showing scenes from the life of St. James on a wall of the Ovetari Chapel of the Eremitani Church in Padua, the most highly-regarded of which was St. James Led to His Execution. In the fresco (which measures 14 ft. tall by 11 ft. wide), Mantegna – who loved to give himself perspectival problems to solve – deliberately ignored the strict rules of one-point linear perspective in having no single point where all lines meet. He presented what is called a “worm’s eye view” – looking up at the figures from below – while also preserving the sight lines from the chapel so that viewers would not be disoriented. This and the other five frescoes are only known from black and white photographs, however, because on March 11, 1944, during World War II, Allied bombs hit the church, leaving only fragments of Mantegna’s artwork (see first image). There is a preparatory study for the fresco (c. 1455) in the collection of the British Museum (see second image).

Benozzo Gozzoli: The Procession of the Magi (The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem)  (c. 1459-1462) Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence Gozzoli-Procession
magi south wall magi west wall   
After renowned architect Michelozzo di Bartolomeo designed and built a new Florentine home for the powerful Medici family, Palazzo Medici, the family commissioned Fra Angelico’s former student, Benozzo Gozzoli, to paint frescoes on the walls of the Palazzo’s chapel. Gozzoli painted The Procession of the Magi on three walls of the large hall, which is now known as the Magi Chapel. Each of the three kings and his retinue receives a wall, with Caspar, the youngest king, leading the procession on the east wall (see first image), Balthasar following on the south wall (see second image) and Melchior, the oldest, bringing up the rear on the west wall (see third image).  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.

Antonio Pollaiuolo: Hercules and Antaeus (c. 1470-1475) Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy

This highly-polished bronze statuette (also known as Hercules (or Heracles) Slaying Antaeus), 1.5 ft tall, depicts the story of Hercules meeting the giant Antaeus, who could not be defeated as long as his feet remained on the earth, his source of strength. Italian painter and sculptor Antonio Pollaiuolo shows the moment when Hercules (wearing the pelt of the Nemean lion) lifts Antaeus off the ground and holds him close while Antaeus begins to expire, his mouth open in a dying scream. 

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

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

san_giobbe_ bellini san giobbe detail
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). 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). 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 (see third image).

Andrea del VerrocchioEquestrian Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni (1480-1488) Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, Italy

Like Gattamelata, who was the subject of Donatello’s 1453 equestrian statue, Bartolomeo Colleoni was a condottiero who served as a military leader in the service of the Republic of Venice. Andrea del Verrocchio’s bronze Equestrian Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni (also known as the Bartolomeo Colleoni Monument) was created 30 years after Donatello’s Gattamelata and stands 12.9 ft tall, excluding the pedestal. Del Verrocchio was the first sculptor to solve the mechanical engineering problems raised by depicting a horse with one foot off the ground. (Donatello had ducked the issue by placing his horse’s raised foot on a bronze sphere.) 

Veit StossSt. Mary’s Altarpiece (Altarpiece of Veit Stoss) (1477-1489) St. Mary’s Basilica, Kraków, Poland

veit stoss coronation of mary
veit_stoss_krakow_altarpiece closed
The gargantuan St. Mary’s Altarpiece in St. Mary’s Basilica in Kraków, commonly known as the Altar of Veit Stoss, after the Polish sculptor who created it, measures 42 ft. tall by 36 ft. wide when the doors of the triptych are fully open (see first image). At the time of its completion in 1489, it was the largest altarpiece known; some of the sculpted figures in the centerpiece are nearly 9 ft. tall. The figures are carved out of linden wood, while the rest of the structure is made of oak and larch. The center panel, which is carved and painted, depicts the death of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by the 12 apostles, below, and the Assumption of Mary above. The interior of the wings show six scenes of the Joys of Mary. On top of the structure is the Coronation of Mary in heaven, with Sts. Stanislaus and Adalbert (second image). When closed, the altarpiece shows 12 painted scenes of the life of Jesus and the life of Mary (third image). The style is primarily Gothic, but Veit Stoss, a transitional figure, had begun to adopt some of the naturalism associated with the Renaissance. The people of Poland attempted to hide the altarpiece from the Germans by distributing its sculptures in boxes, but soldiers discovered the valuable artwork and brought it to Nuremberg Castle in Germany, where it survived Allied bombing raids. In 1946, Germany returned the altarpiece and Poland conducted a 10-year restoration. The altarpiece was replaced in St. Mary’s Church in 1957, where it remains.

Domenico Ghirlandaio: An Old Man and His Grandson (1490) Musée du Louvre, Paris
old man and grandson
An Old Man and His Grandson is a painting by Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio made using tempera on wood panel measuring  2 ft. high by 1.5 ft. wide. Despite the title, which is not original, there is no direct evidence about the identity of the man and boy in the double portrait. Their clothes indicate that they come from the aristocracy, and the entire composition indicates that they have strong feelings of love for each other. Their eyes meet on a diagonal line, while the boy’s left hand reaches out to touch the old man in a moving gesture of affection. This connection between the two is reinforced by the red garments worn by both. The old man’s deformed nose is probably afflicted with rhinophyma, a non-fatal skin disease, according to physicians who have examined the painting. Ghirlandaio made a drawing of the same man, possibly after his death. The painting had been seriously scratched and otherwise damaged until a major cleaning and retouching in 1996 restored much of its former condition. 

Albrecht Dürer: Self-Portrait (1498) Museo del Prado, Madrid
durer self portrait
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. 

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

Tilman Riemenschneider: Altar of the Holy Blood (Holy Blood Altarpiece) (1499-1505) St. Jakob Church, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

Riemenschneider 1
riemenschneider 2 riemenschneider 3  
Installed in the St. Jakob Church in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, the Holy Blood Altarpiece is a late Gothic masterpiece (see first image) by German sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider. The altarpiece name comes from a rock crystal reliquary cross housed in it that is said to contain a drop of Jesus’s blood. The triptych’s center panel depicts the deeply carved figures of the Last Supper with Riemenschneider’s characteristic attention to inner emotions (see second image). The limewood figures are not painted, in a break from tradition. Also unusual is the placement of Judas, the betrayer (identified by his purse, carrying 30 silver pieces) at the center of the composition. Riemenschneider captures the moment that Jesus gives him bread, thus showing he knows that Judas will betray him. The wings are carved in low relief, with Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey on the right (see third image), and the agony in the garden of Gethsemane on the right (see fourth image). Various other figures adorn the space above and below the central panels.

Tilman RiemenschneiderHergottskirche Altarpiece (St. Mary Altar; Creglingen Altarpiece) (1505-1508) Germany]

Herrgott center panel
The altarpiece in the Herrgottskirche (Holy God Church). in Creglingen, Germany was designed to house a relic, a host found by a farmer in the 14th Century. For this reason, it is sometimes called the Corpus Christi Altarpiece, although it is also referred to as  the Altar of Mary and St. Mary’s Altar due to the representation of the Assumption in the center panel. It is also called, more generically, the Herrgottskirche Altarpiece and the Creglingen Altarpiece. Carved by German sculptor Tilman Riemanschneider, the triptych measures 30.2 ft. tall and 12.1 ft. high when fully opened (see first image). The Assumption in the 6-ft. wide center panel shows Mary with the 12 apostles (see second image). The left wing shows the Visitation and the Annunciation in low relief. The right wing, also in low relief, shows the Nativity and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Above the main panels is a depiction of the Coronation of Mary. Below in the predella are the Adoration of the Magi, a non-biblical scene of a five-year-old Jesus giving a speech, and the reliquary, where the farmer’s host was kept until it was lost (or eaten). Throughout the piece, but particularly in the center panel, Riemenschneider’s linden wood figures possess a fluidity and motion derived from the flowing lines of their garments. Scholars are in some disagreement about the date of the piece. While some date it to 1495-1499, most believe it was made after the Holy Blood Altar in Rothenburg, and assign it dates of 1505-1508.

GiorgioneThe Three Philosophers (1505-1509) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria giorgione three philosophers
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.

Albrecht DürerMelencolia I (print) (1514) Various locations

In 1513-1514, German artist Albrecht Dürer created three copper engravings that have become known as the Master Engravings. One of these was the 1514 engraving Melencolia I, prints of which may be found in museums all over the world (see first image, above). Measuring 9.5 in. by 7.3 in., the monochrome print announces its title by means of a bat-like creature carrying a banner in the background, where a  beacon of light and a rainbow over the ocean appear to bring hope. In the foreground, however, melancholy rules. A winged figure sits dejected, head in hand, next to a putto in the same state. The winged figure holds a caliper and is surrounded by the unused tools of mathematics, geometry and carpentry, including a magic square that adds up to 34 in every direction and gives us the date of the print (see detail in second image). One scholar called the print a spiritual self-portrait of the artist himself. While medieval thought saw melancholia as the worst of the four humors, associated with black gall and often leading to insanity, Renaissance thought identified melancholy as the mood of the artistic genius. An influential treatise listed the creative imagination as the first and lowest of the three states of mind (beneath reason and spirit), which perhaps explains the “I” in the title. At least one art historian has noted the irony of Dürer identifying with a paralyzed and powerless artist when he was in fact at the peak of his artistic powers and productivity in 1514.

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

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

Giulio Romano (Giulio Pippi): The Fall of the Giants (1530-1532 or 1532-1534) Palazzo del Te, Mantua, Italy

The Fall of the Giants is an immense Mannerist-style fresco in the Sala dei Giganti at the Palazzo del Te in Mantua. It relates the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which giants attempt to overthrow the gods on Mt. Olympus by piling up mountains to reach them.  In response, Jupiter and Juno send down a hail of thunderbolts, throwing the rebellion into chaos. Giuliano Romano’s fresco represents the moment when the rebellion begins to collapse, and the effect of the entire fresco (which covers two adjoining walls – see first image – and the ceiling above – see second image) is that it is collapsing in on the viewer. This effect is enhanced by a gradual downslope in the floor as one approaches the walls, which depict the jumbled scene of desperate giants scrambling to stay alive amid the tumbling boulders dislodged by the gods’ thunderbolts (see detail in third image).

Pieter AertsenButcher’s Stall (Butcher’s Stall with the Flight Into Egypt) (1551) Museum Gustavianum, University Art Collections, Uppsala, Sweden butcher stall
Dutch painter Pieter Aertsen was one of the originators of the inverted still life, in which a narrative in the background is almost obscured by the still life in the foreground. The painting, which has acquired an overabundance of titles, including Butcher’s StallMeat StallButcher’s Stall with the Flight into EgyptMeat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms, Meat Pantry of an Inn, with the Virgin Giving Alms, and Meat Still Life, presents at first glance a close-up view of fresh raw meat hanging in a butcher’s stall, with the flayed head of an ox eyeing the viewer blankly. The still life, which appears chaotic but actually forms a coherent composition, speaks of abundance and invites us to indulge. Behind the sausages and pretzels, however, are other stories. In the background to the right we see a woman of ill repute and a man who may be her customer (some experts say he is the Prodigal Son from the Bible story) outside a tavern, where the ground is littered with oyster shells, a reputed aphrodisiac. To the far left, citizens go to church. Left of center, we see a man with a woman on a donkey – despite the lack of divine attributes, we know it is Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and Joseph on the way to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath (see detail in second image). Mary is giving alms to a needy boy out of her meager possessions. The message is clear: when there is so much abundance, no one should go without. The example of the holy family should be heeded, particularly by those who have more. Butcher’s Stall was made with oil on wood panels measuring 4 ft. tall by 4.9 ft. wide. 

Pieter Bruegel the ElderThe Census at Bethlehem (1566) Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels Bruegel__The_Census_at_Bethlehem_
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.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Peasant Wedding (The Peasant Wedding Feast) (1567) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna Bruegel_Peasant_Wedding_
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). 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 detail in second image). 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. 

Nicholas HilliardYoung Man among Roses (c. 1585-1590) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Nicholas Hilliard was renowned as a miniaturist (including painting illuminated manuscripts), goldsmith and portrait painter. He worked for the courts of Elizabeth I and James I and painted the miniature portraits of many in court circles.  Young Man among Roses is an oval miniature portrait, a common medium at the time for giving as a calling card or as a personal memento to the object of one’s amorous feelings. Such miniatures were painted in watercolor on vellum, which was then mounted on a card, sometimes a playing card. Young Man among Roses (also known as A Young Man Leaning Against A Tree Amongst Roses) is actually somewhat larger than the average miniature, at 5.3 in. tall by 2.9 in. wide. The man pictured in this miniature is believed by some experts to be Robert Deveraux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who was romantically linked with Queen Elizabeth I. By showing the subject surrounded by five-petaled eglantine roses, Elizabeth’s personal symbol, some believe the Earl (if it is he) is boldly declaring his love for the Virgin Queen herself. The Latin quote above the subject’s head provides another intriguing clue. It translates as “… a praised faith/Is her own scourge, when it sustains their states/Whom fortune hath depressed.” No matter the subject or his object, scholars agree that the miniature captures the charm and freshness of Hilliard’s best work, which, though conservative by continental European standards, embodies the spirit of Elizabethan England. Scholars have noted the influences on Hilliard’s work of Hans Holbein’s portraits and French art, via Hilliard’s visits across the Channel in the late 1570s.

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

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

Artemisia GentileschiJudith Slaying Holofernes (Judith Beheading Holofernes)
(1) First version (1611-1613) National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples, Italy

(2) Second Version (1614-1618) Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

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). 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, now in Naples, was made in 1611-1613, using oils on a canvas now measuring 5.2 ft. tall by 4.1 ft. wide, although scholars believe it has been trimmed considerably on the left side (first image).  (2) The second (Florence) version, from 1614-1618, is considerably larger than what remains of the first canvas and appears to show the full intended composition for both paintings, including Holofernes’ legs on the left (second image). It was painted with oils on a canvas measuring measuring 6.5 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide. 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: Descent from the Cross (1611-1614) Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, BelgiumThe_Descent_from_the_Cross_(Rubens)
descent from the cross
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, see second image) 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. 

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 (also known as The Abduction 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. 

Frans HalsThe Laughing Cavalier (1624) The 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  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 BerniniApollo and Daphne [(1622-16225) Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy
In his Metamorphoses, Ovid relates a tale in which Cupid punishes the god Apollo for a slight by making him fall in love with Daphne, a beautiful river nymph, while at the same time shooting Daphne with an arrow that makes her incapable of falling in love. Apollo chases Daphne relentlessly until she is exhausted and Apollo finally catches up to her. A distressed Daphne then prays to her father, the river god Peneus, to either take away her beauty or transform her body. As Apollo reaches out to touch Daphne, she begins to be transformed into a laurel tree. When Apollo finally places his hand on her, he only touches tree bark, although he can feel her heart beating underneath. It was this moment that Bernini captured in his 8-ft.-tall marble sculpture Apollo and Daphne, which was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. 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. Random TriviaApollo and Daphne is one of the artworks included in the cover art for Lady Gaga’s 2013 album Artpop.

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

Diego VelázquezThe Surrender of Breda (1634) Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain Velazquez-Surrender of Breda
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 Bredawas 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. 

Diego Velázquez: Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome
bernini pope innocent X bacon study after velazquez's portrait
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, in the same room as Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s 1650 bust of the Pope (see second image). Random Trivia: Twentieth Century Irish-British artist Francis Bacon used the Portrait of Pope Innocent X as the starting point for a number of truly unsettling paintings (see Bacon’s 1953 Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X in third image).

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 that updates Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, courtesy of The Simpsons (see second image).

Jacob van Ruisdael: The Jewish Cemetery
Version 1: (c. 1654-1655) Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan jewish cemetery

Version 2: (c. 1655-1660) Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden Ruisdael Jewish Cemetery
Dutch physician and landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael made two versions of a composition based on the Portuguese-Jewish Cemetery at Ouderkerk near Amsterdam. The larger of the two, which is in the Detroit Institute of Arts, dates from 1654-1655 and measures 4.7 ft. tall by 6.2 ft. wide (see first image), 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). 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.

Pierre PugetMilo of Croton Attacked by a Lion (1671-1682) Musée du Louvre, Paris
milo of croton 2 milo of croton
According to Greek legend, Milo of Croton (also known as Crotona, a Greek colony in southern Italy) was a huge figure who was considered one of the strongest men on earth in the 6th Century BCE. A champion wrestler, he once carried a live ox through the Olympic stadium and then ate the entire beast in a single day. Late in his life, he is said to have been walking in the forest when he saw an oak tree partly split open. He tried to wrench it apart using a wedge, but the wedge fell and his hand was caught in the tree. Trapped, the defenseless Milo was the victim of a vicious lion attack that left him dead. In 1670, French sculptor Pierre Puget convinced the King’s minster Jean-Baptiste Colbert to commission sculptures for the gardens of the new Palace of Versailles. Colbert ordered statues of Milo of Croton and Perseus and Andromeda. In 1682, Puget completed Milo of Croton, a marble statue standing 8.8 ft. high, and delivered it to Versailles in 1683. It was given a place of honor, at the entrance of the Green Carpet. In the sculpture, we see Milo, his left hand trapped, writhing in agony as the lion leaps on him from behind. On the ground, we see a cup Milo won at the Olympic games, useless now in his hour of need. Puget’s twisting hero and ferocious lion, with their strong diagonals and violent movements, have more than a little of the Baroque in them. Still, the classicism for which French sculptors were known is evident in the geometric framework of the piece. In 1820, Puget’s Milo of Croton was moved to the Louvre, where it remains.  

CanalettoThe Stonemason’s Yard (Venice: Campo Santa Vidal and Santa Maria Della Carita) (c. 1725-1730) National Gallery, London canaletto stonemason
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 was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4 ft. high by 5.3 ft. wide. 

Antonio CanovaPsyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (Psyche Awakened by Eros; Psyche and Cupid) (1787-1793) Musée du Louvre, Paris; State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

According to a story in Apuleius’ 2nd Century novel The Golden Ass, after Cupid fell in love with Psyche, Cupid’s mother Venus tried to end the romance by giving Psyche an impossible task: to go to the Underworld and bring back a jar with part of Proserpina’s beauty, with instructions never to open the jar. Psyche could not resist, of course, and found that the jar contained, not beauty, but a sleeping darkness that put Psyche into a coma-like state of unconsciousness. Cupid flew down to find the sleeping beauty and used one of his arrows to awaken her, after which she reached up to kiss him. It is this moment that Italian Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova captures in his marble sculpture Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, which measures 5.1 ft. tall by 5.5 ft. wide (first image). The composition consists of two intersecting diagonals, and includes details such as Cupid’s quiver, the arrow he used to prick Psyche, and the jar she carried (see detail in second image). Canova’s treatment of the marble to render skin, draperies and rock has won him significant praise from art historians, who have also noted the way the artist has combined classical elements with a more modern sensuality. There is no single viewpoint that allows one to take in all aspects of the sculpture – a fact that some have criticized. In fact, when the work was installed at the Louvre in Paris, Canova had it equipped with a handle so it could be rotated. Canova made a second version of the grouping in 1796; it is now in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.  

Francisco Goya (Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes): The Naked Maja (La Maja Desnuda) (c. 1797-1800) Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
naked majagoya the clothed maja
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).  The companion piece with the same model clothed, The Clothed Maja (La Maja Vestida), proves the point (see second image). 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. Both The Naked Maja and The Clothed Maja were made with oils on canvases measuring 3.2 ft. tall by 6.2 ft. long.

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

Jean Auguste Dominique IngresGrande Odalisque (1814) Musée du Louvre, Paris
By 1814, the battle lines had been drawn between the invisible brush strokes and noble subjects of the Neoclassicists and the Romanticists, who sought to communicate emotional immediacy and human individuality with a style that did not insist on realism. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, who studied with Ur-Neoclassicist Jacques-Louis David, identified with the Neoclassicists, but his paintings include elements of Romanticism. The Grande Odalisque is Neoclassical in its almost photorealistic painting style, but the subject matter and presentation was pure Romanticism. The viewer sees a nude woman who is presented to us as an odalisque, a concubine and member of a Middle Eastern (then called Oriental) harem. The Eastern furnishings, decorations and jewelry – with a hookah, no less – tell viewers that this is a strange, exotic world completely unlike our own, thus giving them permission to gaze upon the nude female form. The bizarre compromise reached by Western Civilization in the early 19th Century was that it was immoral to present nudity in art unless it involved mythological figures (Titian’s Venus of Urbino, e.g.) or exotics, such as the odalisque. Ingres Neoclassicism gave way to his Romantic impulses in painting the nude figure – his desire to create flowing lines and sensual curves  overrode his commitment to anatomical realism, allowing him to add five vertebrae to the odalisque’s spinal column, reduce the size of her head, make one are longer than the other, and place her legs in positions that no contortionist could recreate.  These distortions – criticized at the time as lack of skill – were deliberate attempts by Ingres to transcend the merely real and capture an ideal beauty he saw in his imagination. The Grande Odalisque was painted with oils on a canvas measuring 2.9 ft tall by 5.3 ft wide.

Francisco Goya (Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes): Disasters of War (series of 82 prints) (1810-1820) Various locations
Goya Disasters of War-_No._03_-_Lo_mismo Disasters of War, No. 18 (of 82):
Disasters of War No._59_-_De_qué_sirve_una_taza- Disasters of War No._62_-_Las_camas_de_la_muerte
Disasters of War No._71_-_Contra_el_bien_general Disasters of War-_No._80_-_Si_resucitará-
Spanish artist Francisco Goya made a series of over 80 prints between 1810 and 1820 that he called  Fatal Consequences of Spain’s Bloody War with Bonaparte, and Other Emphatic Caprices but which are now generally referred to as The Disasters of War.  The world only learned of these powerful works of art in 1863, long after Goya’s death, because the prints contain such incendiary, unmediated and politically sensitive material that Goya never dared to publish them.  In fact, at the same time that Goya was making The Disasters of War, he continued to paint portraits of Spanish and French rulers and generals in his role as court painter to the Spanish crown.  The underlying events that form the background for the prints were the Dos de Mayo uprising of 1808, the Peninsular War of 1808-1814, and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814. To make the prints, Goya used several different intaglio printmaking techniques, including etching, aquatint, engraving and drypoint, on copper plates. Scholars divide the prints into three thematic groups: Nos. 1-47 focus on the Peninsular war and its impact on soldiers and civilians; Nos. 48-64 address the 1811-1812 famine in Madrid, during the French occupation; and Nos. 65-82 criticize in allegorical fashion the Bourbon restoration, which, with the support of the Catholic Church, rejected Spain’s liberal 1812 constitution and other reforms.  The six images above are taken from all three groups: (1) No. 3: Lo mismo (The same) shows an ax-wielding civilian about to cut off a soldier’s head; (2) No. 18: Enterrar y callar (Bury them and keep quiet) shows an anguished couple amid a landscape strewn with dead bodies; (3) No. 59: De qué sirve una taza? (What good is a cup?) shows a woman offering a cup to one of two starving women; (4) No. 62: Las camas de la muerte (The beds of death) depicts a shrouded woman walking past bodies awaiting burial; (5) No. 71: Contra el bien general (Against the common good) shows a winged devil sitting on a rock writing a book; and (6) No. 80: Si resucitará? (Will she live again?) shows an allegorical figure symbolizing Truth lying unconscious before a mob of hooded monks while a masked figure beats the ground with a weapon.  Goya produced two albums of proofs but only one was complete.  He gave it to his friend Juan Agustín Ceán Bermúdez, and it is now in the British Museum in London.  The copper plates for the images, which passed from Goya to his son Javier, are now in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid.  The first edition of 80 prints was published in 1863, of which 500 impressions were made.  Further editions of varying quality were made in 1892 (100 impressions); 1903 (100 impressions), 1906 (275 impressions), and 1937. Approximately 1000 prints have been made from each of the 80+ copper plates; these prints are spread throughout the world’s museums and private collections, including Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain, British Museum, London, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California, Pomona College Museum of Art, Claremont, California.  (Note: Not all the museums have the prints on permanent display.) 

Francisco Goya (Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes): Saturn Devouring His Son (from The Black Paintings) [(1819-1823) Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Goya Saturn Devouring His Son
goya saturn sketch Rubens saturn devouring   
On the wall of his dining room, Spanish artist Francisco Goya painted a gory mural of Saturn Devouring His Son (first image). The most famous of the 14 Black Paintings Goya painted on the walls of his house between 1819 and 1823, Saturn Devouring His Son received its title from a friend of Goya’s after the artist’s death.  Most scholars believe the painting refers to the Greek myth in which Cronus (also known as Saturn), one of the Titans, ate each of his first five newborn sons in order to defeat a prophecy that one of them would overthrow him. (His wife gave birth to the sixth son, Zeus, on a secluded island to save him from his brothers’ fate – Zeus did overthrow his father.) Goya had made a chalk drawing of the same subject in 1796-1797 (second image) that referred back to Peter Paul Rubens’ 1636 treatment of the myth, also called Saturn Devouring His Son (third image). Scholars note that Goya’s Black Painting of Saturn shows a “cannibalistic ferocity” not present in these earlier works: Saturn emerges from the blackness, kneels with hands clutching a headless figure, his eyes bulging, hair askew, and mouth wide open ready to chomp down on his son’s arm.  Many have speculated about why Goya returned to this theme late in his life. Some believe it refers to the many children he and his wife lost – only one son survived beyond childhood. Others find political meaning – Saturn as the Spain that devours its own.  At least one scholar does not believe the painting depicts the Saturn myth at all, because (1) it lacks Saturn’s iconographical attributes; (2) the figure being eaten is not an infant; and (3) the figure being eaten appears to be female. The painting, which is also known as Saturn and Saturn Devouring His Children, was made with oils on plaster wall and transferred to a canvas measuring 4.7 ft. tall by 2.6 ft. wide. 

J.M.W. Turner: Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) Tate Britain, London
turner snow storm
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. 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.  

J.M.W. Turner: Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway (1844) National Gallery, London Turner_-_Rain,_Steam_and_SpeedTurner Rain Steam Speed detail rabbit
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 (see detail in second image), 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 plowing his field and locals lining the river bank to cheer the still-novel locomotive. Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway was made with oils on a canvas measuring 3 ft. tall by 4 ft. wide.

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

Frederic Edwin ChurchCotopaxi [(1862) Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan Cotopaxi
church - cotopaxi 1855
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 1855 painting in second image; it is located at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas). 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 (first image). 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.  

Jean-Baptiste CarpeauxThe Dance (La Danse) (1865-1869) Musée d’Orsay, Paris
carpeaux la danse plaster cast genius of the dance
When Charles Garnier was building his new Opera House in Paris, he selected four Prix de Rome winning sculptors to create statues for the façade, each representing one of the arts. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux received the commission for The Dance. He designed an exuberant stone group, measuring 13.8 ft. tall, 9.8 ft. wide and 4.7 ft. deep, depicting the Spirit of Dance (also known as the Genius of the Dance), a winged youth with a tambourine, encircled by five dancing nymphs or Bacchantes (see stone sculpture in first image and original plaster version in second image). With their leaning and swaying postures, the figures contain an energy and centrifugal force that seems to push them outside the sculptural space. The figures interact with each other and express their joy with ebullient smiles. The piece has little of the Neoclassical rationality that was prevalent at the time, but hearkens back instead to the theatricality of the Baroque. As a consequence, Carpeaux’s merry band clashed stylistically with the other three façade sculptures, which were much more reserved, restrained and Neoclassical in form. Conservative members of the public were outraged by the realism of the nude figures; one protester even threw a bottle of ink at the sculpture. The public outcry led the Palais Garnier to ask Carpeaux to produce a more suitable substitute. When he refused, another sculptor was commissioned to provide a tamer version of The Dance.  Fortunately for Carpeaux and art history, war with Germany intervened and the plans to remove the sculpture were shelved. The Dance remained at the Opera House until 1964 when concerns over damage from acid rain and other causes led the original piece to be brought indoors. Both the stone sculpture and the original full-size plaster cast are now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, while a replica by Paul Belmondo occupies the original location at the Opera House. Random Trivia: A cast of the full group is in the collecton of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Denmark. Separate bronze casts of the Genius of the Dance are located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (see third image) and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

Ilya RepinBarge Haulers on the Volga (1870-1873) State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
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. 

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

Gustave CaillebotteParis Street, Rainy Day (Paris Street – Rainy Weather) (1877) Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
Caillebotte Paris_Street;_Rainy_Day
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 acquired the painting in 1964.

John Singer SargentPortrait of Madame X (1884) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Sargent Madame_X_1884
  Madame X sketch
In 1883, John Singer Sargent scored a coup: Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, the beautiful young American in Paris who was married to French banker Pierre Gautreau, agreed to the suggestion of Sargent – another expatriate American – that he paint her portrait and display it at the Paris Salon. The process was a difficult one, as Madame Gautreau was disinclined to stay still long enough to be painted, but after some preliminary studies, Sargent produced what he believed was his best work: a dramatic standing pose showing Mme. Gautreau in profile in a daring black dress, one strap falling from her shoulder. Sargent presented the painting at the 1884 Salon, but instead of glory, he received humiliation: the critics savaged the picture, which was considered overly erotic and lacking in decorum. In an attempt to respond to his critics, Sargent repainted the strap in its usual position, but it was not until many years later that the painting’s excellence – particularly its rendering of the skin tone, the dress and the handling of color – was recognized. Portrait of Madame X or simply Madame X was painted with oil paints on a canvas measuring 7.7 ft tall by 3.6 ft wide. The second image shows unfinished 1884 study (now at the Tate in London) without the right shoulder strap. The third image is a watercolor of Mme. Gautreau that Sargent painted in 1882-1883 (now at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston), titled Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast. The fourth image is an 1883-1883 Sargent drawing of Mme Gautreau with the same dress sitting on a couch, which is in the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Vincent Van GoghSunflowers (series) (1888) Various locations
“The sunflower is somewhat my own,” Vincent van Gogh told his brother Theo. Van Gogh, a Dutch artist living in France, painted numerous paintings of sunflowers in his short career. He portrayed sunflowers in all stages of growth, from full bloom to withered stalks. The invention of new yellow pigments allowed Van Gogh to paint a multitude of shades of yellow. While in Paris in 1886-1888, he painted four paintings of sunflowers run to seed that are not held in vases. In August 1888, in Arles, he painted four paintings of Sunflowers in vases with different numbers of flowers and different color schemes. Most dramatic was the royal blue background (second image), but most sublime was the painting of yellow flowers in a yellow vase against a yellow wall (fourth image). Van Gogh signed the two he liked best (images three and four) and hung them in the bedroom where Paul Gauguin would stay for several months. In January 1889, possibly to fulfill a request from Gauguin, Van Gogh painted three copies of the August 1888 paintings, but with variations on the color schemes.  The four paintings from August 1888, shown in the images above, are: (1) Sunflowers, oils on a canvas measuring 2.4 ft. tall by 1.9 ft. wide, in private collection; (2) Sunflowers, oils on a canvas measuring 3.2 ft. tall by 2.3 ft. wide, formerly in private collection in Japan, destroyed by fire on August 6, 1945; (3) Sunflowers, oils on a canvas measuring 2.9 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide, at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, Germany; and (4) Sunflowers, oils on a canvas measuring 3 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide, at the National Gallery in London.  A replica of (3) is located in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Replicas of (4) are located in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Sompo Japan Museum of Art in Tokyo.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: At the Moulin Rouge (1892-1895) Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois Toulouse-Lautrec At_the_moulin_rouge_
toulouse lautrec moulin rouge poster
Born into an aristocratic family, but disabled by childhood injuries to his legs, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec found solace in his art and the company of the entertainers and others who frequented the clubs in the somewhat seedy Paris neighborhood of Montmartre. Toulouse-Lautrec was a regular at the Moulin Rouge, a Montmartre cabaret that opened in 1889. At the Moulin Rouge introduces us to the club’s world of the singers, dancers, artists and hangers-on, but does so with a caution: the viewer is barred from entry by the balustrade that cuts off the left lower corner of the painting, yet also leads the eye into the center of activity. On the other side of this barrier, we see on the right English dancer May Milton, her half-face lit an eerie green by the artificial lights; in the middle, a group of artists and entertainers conversing together at a table; in the right background, the cabaret’s star dancer, La Goulue (Louise Weber), fixing her hair, and, in the left background, the artist himself, accompanied by his cousin Gabriel Tapié de Céléyran. At the Moulin Rouge was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4 ft. tall by 4.6 ft. wide. Random Trivia: Toulouse-Lautrec was not only a Moulin Rouge customer; he also designed and painted advertising posters for the venue, including a famous 1891 poster featuring La Goulue (second image).

Paul Cézanne: Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry (1897) Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland Cezanne - Mont_Sainte-Victoire_Seen_from_the_Bibemus_Quarry_1897
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’s 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.

Henri RousseauThe Sleeping Gypsy (1897) Museum of Modern Art, New York Rousseau - The Sleeping Gypsy
The avant-garde artists of fin-de-siècle Paris were drawn to the work of Henri Rousseau, a toll-collector and self-taught artist whose painted fantasies possessed the sharp colors and precise outlines of popular prints. Here, an African woman sleeps beneath a full moon in a bleak treeless landscape next to her water jar and mandolin. A lion passes by (in reality or a dream) without harming her. Perhaps, as some bloggers have suggested, the lion is the gypsy’s traveling companion and protector. The Sleeping Gypsy was made with oils on a canvas measuring 4.2 ft. tall by 6.6 ft. wide. 

Gustav KlimtPortrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (Adele Bloch-Bauer I) (1907) Neue Galierie, New York adele block bauer klimt adele II
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).  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, where its Byzantine mosaics, particularly the gold-inlaid portrait of Empress Theodora, made a deep impression. 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 second image). 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. 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.

Constantin BrâncușiThe Kiss (1907-1908) Muzeul de Arta, Craiova, Romania (original)
brancusi-kiss1 brancusi kiss 3
brancusi the kiss cemetery brancusi the kiss 1912
Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, who spent most of his working career in France, first created The Kiss in 1907-1908; he exhibited a plaster version in the Armory Show in 1913. The sculpture couples unity with duality, as two figures emerge from a single block of material and become one. The figures are cut under the breastline and the fragmented bodies stand directly on the floor.  The profile of the figures’ partial eyes merge until they appear to be one cyclopian eye shared by both individuals. In creating The Kiss, Brâncuși abandoned the traditional method of building up a model from clay or plaster and instead created the figure by direct chiseling in stone. For the stone versions, Brâncuși brought out the character of the stone by the irregular treatment of its surface. Brâncuși returned to the motif of The Kiss again and again through his career. The earliest versions of The Kiss show a naturalistic treatment of the motif that hearkens back to the naivety of medieval figurative ornamentation. As time progressed, the arms became flatter, the bodies more elongated and the hair more distinctly linear, tending further toward abstraction. Three versions are shown in the images above:
(1) & (2) The Kiss, 1907-1908, made of Marna limestone and measuring 11 in. tall by 10.25 in. wide by 8.5 in. deep, is now in the Muzeul de Arta in Craiova, Romania;
(3) The Kiss, 1909-1910, made of stone and measuring 2.9 ft. tall by 0.9 ft. wide by 0.6 ft deep, is now in Montparnasse Cemetery at the grave of anarchist Tatiana Rachewskaia, who committed suicide after a failed love affair;
(4) The Kiss, 1916, made of limestone and measuring 1.9 ft. tall by 1.1 ft. wide by 0.8 ft. deep, is now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Georges BraqueThe Portuguese (Le Portugais) (1911) Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland

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. 

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.

Odilon RedonThe Cyclops (c. 1914) Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo, The Netherlands
Redon Cyclops
Instead of trying to recreate nature, French painter Odilon Redon took the visions of his imagination and applied the laws of nature to them, or as Redon put it, “putting – as far as possible – the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.”  In The Cyclops, Redon reworks the myth of one-eyed Polyphemus, making him a shy giant observing (instead of eating) the object of his affection, the naiad Galatea, as she sleeps naked among the flowers.  Redon’s style, if not his subject matter, draws much inspiration from the Impressionists.  Scholars are in significant disagreement about the date of the work.  In an unscientific poll of Internet sources (including several books), I found the following: (1) 1898 – four votes, including Wikipedia; (2) 1898-1900 – four votes; (3) 1904 – one vote; and (4) 1914 – 14 votes, including the Kröller-Müller Museum label.  Based on these results, I have listed the date as c. 1914.  The Cyclops was made with oils on cardboard mounted on wood panel measuring 2.2 ft. tall by 1.7 ft. wide.  

Kazimir Malevich: Black Suprematic Square (Black Square) (1915) State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
suprematist exhibition larger   
After Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, modernist painters looked for new ways to express their dissatisfaction with artistic tradition. Cubists disassembled the three-dimensional form and reassembled it as two-dimensional planes. Others ignored perspective, used primitive techniques of drawing and composition, or altered color schemes to emphasize their unreality. None of these rebellions satisfied Russian painter Kazimir Malevich.  He believed that painters needed to reject nature altogether and focus instead on geometry, rationality and what he called “the supremacy of pure feeling.” According to the movement that Malevich called Suprematism, no painter should try to represent the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional canvas. Art is not a conduit for appreciating the natural world; it is a world unto itself. Art is not a representation of something else; it is a representation of itself. All Malevich’s Suprematist paintings represent this philosophy, but none so much as Black Square (also known as Black Suprematic Square) from 1915, a type of painted manifesto (see first image). 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.” “It is from zero, in zero, that the true movement of being begins,” Malevich said of Black Square. 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, showing Black Square in the corner, where a Russian religious icon would normally be), 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, as is a version from 1929. The Black Square in the State Russian Museum is 3.5 ft. square and made in 1923. The smallest version, measuring 1.7 ft. square, is marked 1913, but most scholars believe it dates to the late 1920s or early 1930s. This version of Black Square is now at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, after it was donated by a Russian citizen who bought it at auction for $1,000,000. 

Pablo PicassoThree Musicians (two versions) (1921) Museum of Modern Art, New York; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
picasso three musicians
picasso three musicians philly
By 1921, the modern art movement known as Cubism had passed through several phases: analytic (1907-1911), synthetic (1912-1914) and crystal (1914-1918), and some thought the movement was dead. But in the early 1920s, Pablo Picasso and others returned to the style, creating a number of important works in the process. Picasso’s two 1921 paintings entitled Three Musicians is a painting that recalls the paper cutout collages and other multimedia experiments of synthetic cubism, though it does so using only oil paints. As with other Cubist works, the emphasis is on the flatness of the canvas – little or no effort is made to create the illusion of three-dimensionality. We see a trio of instrument-playing men dressed up as characters from 17th and 18th Century commedia dell’arte: muticolored Harlequin, Pierrot, all in white, and the darkly-shrouded Monk. Picasso may have meant the three to represent himself (Harlequin) and two of his close friends from pre-war days: the French poet Apollinaire (Pierrot), who died in the 1918 flu epidemic; and Max Jacob (the Monk), also a poet, who entered a monastery the same year Picasso made the paintings. The version in New York’s Museum of Modern Art is more famous (see first image), but Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Michael Taylor asserts that that their version of Three Musicians is more daring in its “far more aggressive use of its materials” (see second image). (

Paul KleeThe Twittering Machine (1922) Museum of Modern Art, New York

Paul Klee was associated with a number of different artistic movements during his career, including the Bauhaus, whose motto was “Art and Technology – A New Unity.” That motto may help viewers to make sense of Klee’s deliberately smudgy Twittering Machine, which looks so much like an illustration for a children’s book that it is common for parents to hang prints of it in their children’s bedrooms.  But is it simply a whimsical machine with mechanical birds – a type of steampunk music box? Critics and scholars have attributed a myriad of meanings to the piece – not surprisingly, perhaps, as one thing critics seem to agree on is that Klee deliberately left his works open to multiple interpretations. Questions include: are these real live birds or some kind of animatronic robot birds? (Klee like to show living beings and mechanical analogs in his work – such as birds alongside airplanes.) If real, are they perched on the machine or tied to it involuntarily? Are the positions of their bodies meant to show a type of musical notation? (Klee was the son of a musicologist and grew up around music.) What will happen if someone turns the lever at far right? And what is the purpose of the large rectangular pit beneath the contraption? Is it, as some suppose, a trap that awaits the unwary? Twittering Machine was made with watercolor and oils on paper backed with cardboard. Random Trivia: (1) Klee’s Twittering Machine was on display in a Berlin museum in 1937 when the Nazis declared it ‘degenerate art’ and banned its display. Fortunately for art lovers, instead of destroying the work, the Nazis sold it to an art dealer to raise funds, and that dealer sold it to MOMA. (2) The musical aspects of Twittering Machine have inspired a number of composers to set the piece to music, such as the fourth movement of Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes by Paul Klee, a 12-tone piece from 1959.

Marcel Duchamp: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-1923) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (original)
The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even. duchamp bride stripped bare
Marcel Duchamp worked on The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass), for eight years before finally concluding that it was “definitively unfinished” but ready to exhibit.  After a 1926-1927 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, the large piece was damaged in transport, creating swirls of cracks in the glass.  Now, Duchamp concluded, the piece was finished.  He patched up the pieces, added a clear layer of glass to each side and enclosed it all in an aluminum frame (see images above).  According to Duchamp’s complex and (intentionally?) obscure notes, the work represents a conflict between the Bride in the upper panel (the Bride’s Domain) and the nine Bachelors in the lower panel (the Bachelor’s Apparatus).  Duchamp’s notes speak of a state of perpetual desire and various erotic proceedings.  The work, not truly either sculpture or painting, and certainly far from the Readymades for which Duchamp was famous, changes with the changing light and based on who or what is visible on the other side of the glass. The Large Glass is made with oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, dust, and two glass panels, and measures 9.1 ft. tall by 5.8 ft. wide by 3.4 in. deep.  The original is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in a location specifically selected by Duchamp. Duchamp also authorized three replicas, which are located in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden (1961); the Tate Modern in London (1966) and the Komaba Museum in Tokyo.

Edward HopperEarly Sunday Morning (1930) Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
hopper early sundayAmerican 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, as long as the neighborhood is apparently devoid of living things.  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 people live behind those shades and curtains but they 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 down the middle of the sidewalk. The dark rectangle in the upper right corner may be a skyscraper menacing the 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. 

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

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

Andrew WyethChristina’s World [(1948) Museum of Modern Art, New York
Wyeth Christinas World
American artist Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World is beloved by people who don’t know much about art as a beautifully understated and profoundly moving painting, while many critics and art historians find the work drab, kitschy and overly sentimental.  (For example, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York published a list of the most important works of art in its collection, Wyeth’s famous painting, which New York’s Museum of Modern Art bought in 1948, was not mentioned.)  Wyeth met Anna Christina Olson in the 1940s on one of his summer trips to Cushing, Maine, where Olson and her brother lived in a picturesque farmhouse on a hill. When Wyeth first saw Olson, he watched from a window while she, 55 years old at the time, slowly crawled across a field up to the house.  Wyeth and his wife Betsy befriended Christina, who had a degenerative muscle disorder, possibly polio, and did not want to use a wheelchair, and he eventually decided to paint a scene with a composite figure that would represent Christina’s dignity and struggle.  For the figure’s legs, torso and head, Wyeth used Betsy, then in her mid-20s, as the model.  An aunt sat as the model for the figure’s hair, and Christina herself modeled for the figure’s arms and hands. Wyeth rearranged the buildings of the farm to more properly balance the asymmetrical composition. Employing a style known as magic realism, Wyeth recorded the arid landscape, rural house, and shacks with great detail, painting minute blades of grass, individual strands of hair, and nuances of light and shadow.  Known for his muted palette, Wyeth’s use of pink in Christina’s dress, while conservative by Expressionist standards, emerges as a shock of vibrant color against the surrounding landscape.  Wyeth’s subdued tones were in part a result of his choice of materials. In 1942, he switched from oil paints to quick-drying egg tempera, the medium of choice in Medieval Europe. Christina’s World was made with egg tempera on a gessoed wood panel measuring 2.7 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide. 

Francis BaconStudy After Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953) Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa
bacon study after velazquez's portrait
diego-velazquez-pope-innocent- Still-from-Battleship-Pot-001
In Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon transformed a 17th Century character study (see second image) into a deeply disturbing modern image (see first image). 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 third image). 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 Pamphilij, he very publicly declined.

Robert RauschenbergMonogram [(1955-1959) Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden
rauschenberg monogram
Legend has it that American artist Robert Rauschenberg would roam the streets of New York City looking for interesting trash to turn into art.  In the 1950s, Rauschenberg was experimenting with ‘combines’ – neither paintings nor sculptures, these works of art put non-traditional materials and objects, including other folks’ trash, together in innovative ways.  According to another story, Rauschenberg, who grew up on a farm, was forever traumatized when his father slaughtered his favorite goat.  When Rauschenberg ran across a stuffed Angora goat in an office supply store, it sparked the idea for one of his most highly-regarded combines, Monogram.  Just describing Monogram feels like a subversive act: A stuffed goat stands on a raised platform containing a large oil/collage painting and several objects.  The goat’s face is painted with a bright mix of colors, and a car tire encircles its midsection. Directly behind the goat, a dirty tennis ball rests on the surface of the painting.  A wooden police barrier and a rubber shoe heel are also involved.  Some scholars have noted that goats like to consume everything, even items not normally considered consumable.  Similarly, Rauschenberg believes that we can made anything into art.  Others believe that the goat treats the collage/painting beneath its feet as a pasture in which to graze, and the dirty tennis ball is its gastrointestinal response to the art of the past.  Artnet’s Jerry Salz calls Monogram “a love letter, a death threat and a ransom note.”  Monogram was made with oil, paper, fabric, printed paper and printed reproductions on canvas, metal, wood, rubber shoe heel, tennis ball, Angora goat, and rubber tire.  It measures 3.5 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide by 5.4 ft. deep. 

Claes OldenburgFloor Burger (Giant Hamburger) (1962) Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada
oldenburg floor burger
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 WarholMarilyn 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 while he is mechanically appropriating mass produced images, he can use the creative process to achieve an original and powerful result.  

Donald JuddUntitled (installation of 100 mill-aluminium boxes) (1982-1986) The Chiniti Foundation, Marfa, Texas
donald juddJudd-100-untitled-works-in-mill-aluminum-detail-1982–86-aluminum.-2009 Photo-Douglas-Tuck
When Minimalist American artist Donald Judd purchased a decommissioned Army base in Marfa, Texas, he chose two former artillery sheds to house an art installation.  He modified the sheds to house the installation and designed the installation to fit the sheds. First, he replaced the garage doors with continuous walls of square windows (divided into quarters) that extend from floor to ceiling and bathe the rooms with sunlight.  He also added a galvanized iron vaulted roof on top of the original flat roof.  Inside the buildings, Judd installed 100 mill aluminum boxes (48 in one building, 52 in the other), each one measuring 3.4 ft. tall by 6 ft. wide by 4.2 ft. deep (see first and second images above).  The boxes were constructed by the Lippincott Company of Connecticut and installed between 1982 and 1986.  While the exterior dimensions of the 100 boxes are identical, each box is unique: some are whole, some are transected, some have recesses or partitions. In a 2007 Texas Monthly essay , author Jim Lewis describes how the boxes – without actually representing or symbolizing anything in particular – have lessons to give about space and time and how we perceive them.  According to Lewis, “What [Judd] was after, and what he achieved, was … a specific engagement of the senses, called forth by that metal with that surface, arranged in those forms, in that building, awash in that light, in that landscape.”  After spending a month at Marfa, Lewis also recognized that, sitting three-in-a-row in rooms with glass walls, the reflective metal boxes take on the role of “sundials, calendars, clocks: They measure time as elegantly as they apportion space.”  Note:  The second image above is a 2009 photograph by Douglas Tuck.

Jeff KoonsPuppy (1992) Guggenheim Bilbao, Bilbao, Spain; Brant Foundation Art Study Center, Greenwich, Connecticut
puppy Bilbao
Jeff Koons is an American artist whose work includes aspects of Pop Art, Minimalism and Dada.  He is known for creating artworks using the visual language of advertising and the entertainment industry, and likes to play with the boundaries of high and low culture, ‘turning kitsch into art’ as one critic put it.  When Koons was excluded from the 1992 Documenta 9 exhibition in Kassel, Germany, he entered an exhibition in Arolsen, 40 miles from Kassel, and stole the show with Puppy, a topiary sculpture of a West Highland terrier measuring over 40 ft. tall, with a frame of wood and stainless steel, on which approximately 20,000 flowering plants grew.  Some saw it as a “monument to the sentimental”, while Koons himself described the piece with a straight face as “a modern-day Sacred Heart of Jesus.”  Koons rebuilt the sculpture in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia in 1995 with a stainless steel frame and 70,000 plants.  The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation purchased Puppy in 1997 and installed it in front of Guggenheim Bilbao, where it remains. The 70,000 flowering plants, including marigold, begonias, impatiens, chrysanthemums, lobelias and numerous varieties of petunias, grow in 25 tons of soil, watered by an internal irrigation system.  As one critic pointed out, Puppy can be read as an analogy for certain aspects of our culture, which