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Famous Paintings Reviewed

Famous Paintings eBook 2017

Posted by Susan Benford

Announcing an updated Famous Paintings ebook! With vital facts about 250 paintings - from Renaissance art through Pop art - and linked articles exploring the art history behind over 200 famous painters and their works. 

The free Famous Paintings ebook provides:
famous paintings ebook

  • each painting's size, year of creation, and medium;
  • blog posts examining the work and its creator; 
  • artist's name and lifespan; and
  • art museum and city where the work may be seen.

Download Famous Paintings ebook 

So Who Chose These Famous Paintings?

Lots of art historians and experts, in 17,000 pages of art history books! We reviewed 25 art history books (see below) used in AP art history, art appreciation, and college art history courses. 

 art history booksThen we tallied which paintings were used to exemplify the work of the most famous painters in Western art history from the 1400s through 1960s. We purchased image rights from art museums, secured introductory essays (written by art historians), added the facts above, and published them on hefty 4" by 6" sturdy Cards.  The result? Masterpiece Cards. 

Take a look at a sample Masterpiece Card - there is nothing like them (and we guarantee that you'll agree!)
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Famous Art Museums: Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Posted by Susan Benford

frida kahlo self portrait monkeyThe Albright-Knox Art Gallery is one of those rare art museums with an art collection that belies its size and location.  It's one of those regional art museums, like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Frick Collectionthat invariably delights. 

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Monkey. Oil on canvas, 1938.  16" by 12".

It turns out that this opinion is shared with esteemed company (which I discovered after my visit!). Thomas Hoving, past president of the Metropolitan Museum, said:

"The Albright-Knox Art Gallery should be on everyone’s list to see, for it’s an overwhelming art experience. Small, intimate, and seductive, the museum has one of the most thumping modern and contemporary collections in the world."

This art museum is especially strong in post-war American and European paintings. In no particular order, here are some of the works of art currently displayed:

Self-Portrait with a Monkey, Frida Kahlo

  • One of the most widely recognized Frida Kahlo paintings, Self-Portrait with a Monkey (above) is diminutive at 16" by 12".   Nonetheless, Kahlo conveys intense confidence and power while simultaneously applying paint in a dainty manner. The detail - in the veins of the various leaves behind her, in the monkey's fur, in the hair on her upper lip - is exacting and even somewhat shocking.  

Explore more Frida Kahlo paintings here.

The Liver is the Cock's Comb, Arshile Gorky
  • Gorky TheLiverIsTheCocksComb 260 1 resized 600One of the first American Abstract Expressionists, the Armenian-born Arshile Gorky (1904-1908) was, by 1944, painting in a style that synthesized Cubism, automatism, and Surrealism.  

The Liver is the Cock's Comb - arguably his best known painting - is a blend of biomorphic and sexually suggestive shapes painted frenetically but with exacting precision.  Gorky uses thin black lines to delineate form, as if carving and defining known shapes.

Arshile Gorky, The Liver is the Cock's Comb. Oil on canvas, 1944. 73 1/4" by 98".

  • soutine carcass of beefCarcass of Beef, Chaime Soutine

The Russian painter Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) flaunts his prowess as a master of color in Carcass of Beef (right). His brushstrokes, as in Little Pastry Cook, are explosive and lush with paint.

Chaim Soutine, Carcass of Beef.  Oil on canvas, ca. 1925.  

The carcass, which nearly overwhelms the picture plane, is an alive, pulsating and menacing personality.  

beckmann hotel lobby resized 600

  • Hotel Lobby, Max Beckmann

    Hotel Lobby is equally foreboding.  Knowing that Beckmann's art was informed by the cruelty and suffering of World War II, it's hard to read this Beckmann painting as just a crowded hotel lobby.

Max Beckmann, Hotel Lobby.  Oil on canvas, 1950.  56" by 35".  Albright-Knox Art Gallery, NY.

The man with his back to the viewer (center foreground) might be eating at the table glimpsed over his left ear, but he might also be blocking the crowd from exiting.  The ambiguity is unsettling (and pure Beckmann). 

Explore more Max Beckmann paintings. 

Read about more famous artwork at the Albright-Knox!


Tags: famous paintings, art museums, Albright-Knox

Famous Paintings: Lady with an Ermine

Posted by Susan Benford

Given that Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519) died nearly five centuries ago, it seems unlikely that there would be still be major discoveries about this Italian Renaissance master.

But "unlikely" happens.

The French scientist Pascal Cotte spent three years using a pioneering reflective light technology to examine A Lady with an Ermine, and discovered that Leonardo painted three iterations of this work: one without an  3 versions of Lady with an Ermine ermine and one with a gray ermine preceded the final version with a larger, white ermine.

This discovery is not only important technically (in the words of art historian Martin Kemp, "It helps explain why he [Leonardo] had so much difficulty finishing paintings"), but also is important because it may shift interpretation of one of the world's most famous paintings.

Art historians generally concur that the portrait is of Cecilia Gallerani (1473 - 1536). By numerous accounts, she was a glamorous, highly intelligent, and charming young woman whose father served at the court of Ludovico Sforza, the powerful Duke of Milan (and also the patron of Leonardo da Vinci for 18 years).

Cecilia had been betrothed at the age of 10 to the nobleman Giovanni Stefano Visconti in an arrangement dissolved in 1487. Around 1489, she became the favorite mistress of Ludovico Sforza, who had been betrothed to Beatrice d'Este (1475-1497) since 1480.

To avoid angering Beatrice, Ludovico had Cecilia removed from the ducal palace in 1491 and taken to a location where she shortly thereafter gave birth to their son, Cesare.  

More history is in order.  In 1488, Ludovico was awarded the insignia of the chevalric Order of the Ermine by the King of Naples.  Thereafter, the Duke of Milan was known as "l'Ermellino", the ermine.  Given that nickname, the presence of the ermine in this portrait takes on significance in two ways:

  • first, it is a reference to Cecilia's surname because the sound of "Galle-rani" echoes the Greek word for ermine, gale, and
  • figuratively, the portrait shows Ludovico, as his symbolic animal, being lovingly caressed by Cecilia.

Lsdy with an ErmineThe three discrete versions unearthed by Cotte suggest that Leonardo reworked the portrait between 1488 and 1490, most likely to suggest the growing intimacy between Ludovico and his young mistress.

Lady with an Ermine is unusual in other ways, too.  It is the only of all 15-16 Leonardo da Vinci paintings on a jet black background; additionally, Leonardo deviated from the typical compositional format of Italian Renaissance art in which the head and body faced the same way.  Here, the two are at opposing angles with Cecilia's upper body turned to the left and her head turned to the right.  The sinuous curve of her disproportionately large right hand corresponds with the figure of the ermine, whom she seems to be protecting.

Circa 1490. Oil on walnut, 21" by 15 1/2 ".  Czartoryski Museum, Krakow.

By having the sitter avert her eyes, Leonardo da Vinci invites the viewer to contemplate Cecilia's state of mind.

While she appears contemplative and content in this 1490 portrait, that must have changed: Beatrice and Sforza married in 1491. Documentary evidence indicates that Lady with an Ermine remained in Cecilia Gallerani's possession.  

Perhaps it provided some solace.    

Explore other Leonardo da Vinci paintings, Benois Madonna, Madonna Litta, the recently authenticated Savior of the World, and The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. 

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Famous Painters: Clara Peeters

Posted by Susan Benford

Although Clara Peeters is recognized as one of the founders of still life painting, nearly nothing is known about her life, teachers, or patrons.  Equally remarkable, the Prado Museum, nearly 200 years old, is holding its first solo exhibition of a female painter. Introducing Clara Peeters.

She was born in the Netherlands around 1588-1590, and was most active from 1611-1612.  A contemporary of famous painters like Rubens, Jan Brueghel the Elder, and van 
Clara Peeters still life painting

Above: Still Life with Raisins, 1611.  Oil on panel, approximately 20" by 29". Prado Museum, Madrid.

Dyck, Peeters was a dedicated still life painter committed to depicting the true appearance of objects.  This distinguishes her on two fronts:

  • when she began working in still life painting in the early 17th century, there were but a few works of this genre held in collections in Southern Netherlands; and
  • her pursuit of realism was in contrast to the idealism that was typical of Renaissance paintings.

There are just 40 known paintings by Peeters, of which 30 are signed.  As noted by art historian Maria Cruz de Carlos, the collection at the Prado includes over 5,000 male artists and 21 female artists, with many works labeled "anonymous".  Some of these anonymous works are likely to be by women, who were seldom encouraged to pursue art.

We can only hope that in time, more works as stunning as these will be attributed to Peeters, one of the few women artists in early modern Europe.

Still Life with Raisins (or Still Life with Flowers, Gilt Goblet, Dried Fruits, Sweets, Bread Sticks, Biscuits, Wine and a Pewter Flagon)

With such a dearth of biographical information, the objects in her paintings offer clues about her life and the lives of her clients.  Here, the precious objects are those typically associated with prosperity, education, and culture, including items like seashells, silver-gilt goblets and cups, silver salt cellars, and glittering gold coins.  Her success is also suggested by inclusion of her artwork in collections in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Madrid, a rarity for female artists.

Still Life with Raisins creates a remarkable sense of three dimensional space and realism.  Her use of tenebrism (in a tenebrist painting, most objects or figures are in shadow while some are illuminated dramatically) reminds us that tenebrists, especially Caravaggio, deeply influenced Baroque artists.

This composition breaks with typical still life paintings by ignoring the compositional symmetry typical of the time.  The artist, dressed in a headdress, ruff and high dress, captured her self-portrait in the reflections on the silver-gilt goblet and the pewter jug. Concurrently, Still Life with Raisins retains other commonly seen elements of this genre: repetition of objects that seem almost casually strewn on a table.

Still Life with Flowers and Goblets (or Still Life with Flowers, Gilt Goblets, Coins and Shells)

Peeters included her self portrait, reflected on various shiny surfaces, in eight of her paintings (six of these are included in the Prado exhibition).  Clara Peeters paintingsStill Life with Flowers, Gilt Goblets, Coins and Shells, 1612.  Oil on panel, approximately 26" by 22". Saatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe, Germany

In Still Life with Flowers, Gilt Goblets, Coins and Shells, there are at least six self portraits on the goblet on the right; she is grasping her brushes and palette and portraying herself as a committed, serious painter.  

In the context of her time, this stance is understandable and bold: she was working in an art world run by all-male art guilds. Curiously, at least six of the panels she painted upon have marks on them indicating they were prepared in the Antwerp painter's guild, where she was not a registered member.

Again here, the items painted here are exotic, pricey objects that would have been displayed in "cabinets of curiosity" of 17th century wealthy citizens.

Still Life with Fish, Candle, Artichokes, Crabs and Prawns

This remarkably executed work is considered one of Clara Peeters' finest paintings. As noted by Alejandro Vergara, the art exhibition's curator and the Prado's Chief Curator of Flemish and Northern School Painting:

"The rhythmic contrast between rounded and jagged shapes (as in the colander and the artichoke) and between patterns (in the surface decoration of the stoneware jug and the scales of the fish and holes of the colander) is characteristic of her art." 1/

On the lid of the stonewear jug, there is another self-portrait; here, the artist wears a large headpiece.  The previously burned but unlit candle is likely a vanitas theme about the unavoidable passage of time.

And then there are the artichokes.  This vegetable, a rarity until the second half of the 16th century, was regarded as an aphrodisiac.  They appeared in several other Peeters' paintings as well as in works by Jan Brueghel the Elder. 

Still Life with Fish, Candle, Artichokes, Crabs and Prawns is also the earliest known fish still life painting, and may perhaps be the earliest ever painted.  Roughly one-quarter of her existing works are fish still life paintings, leading to the hypothesis that she became somewhat of a specialist.  

True or not, Peeters was indisputably an innovator.

Clara Peeters still lifeAbove: Still Life with Fish, Candle, Artichokes, Crabs and Prawns, 1611. Oil on panel, approximately 22" by 32".  Prado Museum, Madrid.

1/ Vergara, Alejandro (ed.), El Arte de Clara Peeters, Madrid y Amberes, Museo Nacional del Prado, Koniklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, 2016, pp. 96.

Interested in learning about other female artists who defied the odds and became famous painters? Read about Sofonisba Anguissola and Artemisia Gentileschi, contemporaries of Peeters, and explore this brief survey of female artists. 

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Famous Paintings to Start the Art History School Year

Posted by Susan Benford

With another year of art history starting in high schools and colleges, I have consolidated some earlier posts about the famous paintings and artwork typically studied at the start of an academic year.  Dig in!

Cave Paintings

Chauvet CaveConsidered to be among the most famous artwork ever made, cave paintings are indisputably among the oldest works ever created by humankind.  Images in the Chauvet caves in southwest France are believed to be some 32,000 years old, based on recent radiocarbon dating. 

In the Altamira caves of Spain, which date to approximately 12,500 BCE, artists incorporated the textures and irregularities of the cave walls into their paintings to create strong three-dimensional images. Conversely, the Lascaux caves in southern France are the best preserved of all cave paintings - a chalk covering the walls rendered them waterproof, permitting the images to remain comparatively intact.

Right: Big Horn Rhino, Chauvet caves, France.

The Terracotta Warriors

Terracotta Warrior armorImagine becoming the first Emperor of China -- at the age of 13.  That is but one fascinating fact about Qin Shi Huang (259 BC - 210 BC), who created a clay and bronze army of some 8,000 soldiers (along with their horses, chariots, and weaponry) to guard him in the afterworld. These Terracotta Warriors, discovered in 1974, are one of the greatest achievements in Chinese art.

And one of the most astonishing, too.  A Chinese historian claims that 700,000 workers were conscripted to build the Terracotta Warriors and mausoleum for Qin Shi Huang... and took 11 years to do so. 

Left: Armor worn by a Terracotta Warrior

Uccello, The Battle of San Romano

This masterpiece of Renaissance art depicts the 1432 battle between Siena and Florence. Painted as a tryptych, or on 3 separate panels, The Battle of San Romano at one time hung in Lorenzo de' Medici's private living quarters in the Medici Palace. 

With this work, Paolo introduced linear, or one point, perspective.  Note how the broken lances in the National Gallery panel create receding lines, or orthogonals, which converge on a fixed "vanishing point". 

Battle of San RomanoNow, these Paolo Uccello paintings are individually owned by the National Gallery (London), the Uffizi Gallery (Florence), and the Louvre (Paris).  Although it would be magnificent to view the original Battle of San Romano as a tryptych, each merits a visit to any of these art museums just to see it alone!

Right: Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano. Tempera on wood panel, approx. 6' x 10'7".  National Gallery, London.

Ghent Altarpiece

Created by brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece is, like The Battle of San Romano, one of the seminal works of Renaissance art.  Unquestionably, it is also one of the most powerful religious works in the entirety of art history.

Ghent Altarpiece is a polyptych, or multi-paneled work, that consists of 24 panels of different sizes and shapes aligned into two rows; when the altarpiece is closed, twelve panels are visible; when open, another twelve are.

The open altarpiece (below) depicts a popular theme in Renaissance art, the Redemption of Man.  God is portrayed in the Franciscan manner as a benevolent Father, superseding earlier beliefs in a harsh and judgmental one.  The bottom registry, or row of panels, depicts Ghent Altarpiece's most famous artwork, the Adoration of the Lamb by All Saints.  

Ghent Altarpiece closedThe closed altarpiece consists of three rows: the top shows two Old Testament prophets and two sybils announcing the inevitability of the Annunciation; the middle row shows the Annunciation itself; and the bottom row depicts John the Baptist, who holds a lamb, and John the Evangelist, who are flanked by a man and woman believed to be the donors of Ghent Altarpiece

Left: Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck. Completed 1432. Tempera and oil on wood,  11'6" by 15'1".  Cathedral of St. Bavo, Ghent. 

Arnolfini Portrait

While art historians agree that this portrait is indeed by Jan van Eyck, there is little agreement about any other aspects of this work, despite its being nearly six centuries old.

Some art historians contend that this is a wedding portrait of Giovanni de Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, citing the matrimonial references in the painting like the unshod feet of the couple; this signalled the sanctity of the bedroom and its status as a holy place.  Others, however, believe that this is simply a portrait and may be in honor of the recently deceased wife.  The praying figure of St. Margaret hints at her intervention for the newly departed.

It is doubtful that there will ever be certainty about this work (or perhaps six more centuries are needed)/  One sure thing, though, is that Giovanni is 30 years old or younger.  How can this be known? In 15th century Flanders, a marriage ultimatum was given to unmarried men who were thirty, with names of those who failed to marry recorded in the dreaded "Book of Disgrace".

Arnolfini PortraitRight: Jan van Eyck.  Arnolfini Portrait, 1434.  Oil on wood.  32 1/4" x 23 1/2".  National Gallery, London.

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Famous Painters: Edgar Degas

Posted by Susan Benford

Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was born into a prominent aristocratic family whose surname was de Gas, which Degas found too pretentious to adopt; nor did he often use his full first name, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar.   

Edgar-Degas-Bellelli-Family.gifHe abandoned his pursuit of law at 18 years of age, and in 1855, entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts to study with Lamothe, a former pupil of Jean-August-Dominque Ingres (1780-1867).  His influences came from famous painters including Raphael (1483-1520), Titian (c. 1490-1576), Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), and above all, by Ingres, whose belief in the primacy of drawing as the foundation of all art left a lifelong impression on Degas.

Degas is most immediately associated with artwork featuring ballet - over half of his prolific output, including both paintings and sculptures, focuses on this subject - and with impressionist painters.  Yet that is too narrow an understanding of a man who bridged the divide between the Renaissance traditions of painting and the movement among modern artists who wished to break with them.  Degas worked in a variety of media - sculpture, pastel, printmaking, drawing, and photography, in addition to painting - and with each, investigated space, light, and controlled, elegant movement.

The Bellelli Family, 1858-60.  Oil on canvas, 6'7" by 8'5 1/2".  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Here are four Degas paintings that give an overview of one of the most famous painters of the 19th century.

The Bellelli Family

Edgar Degas toured Italy in the late 1850s to study and copy works from old master and Renaissance painters.  While he was in Florence, he stayed with Gennaro and Laure Bellelli, his paternal aunt.  The Bellelli Family, a life-sized family portrait, is fraught with domestic tension and sorrow.  

On the back wall is a Degas drawing of Laure's late father, Rene Hilaire, a prominent banker who solidified the family's financial well-being.  Laure, dressed in mourning, shows the only physical contact in the portrait, her limp hand draped on the shoulder of her daughter, Giovanna.  Laure averts her gaze both from the viewer and Gennaro, who is symbolically barricaded from his family by the vertical edges of the mirror and fireplace, and the desk behind
Giulia, the daughter on the right.  His back is toward the viewer and his face is in the shadows to further emphasize his detachment.

Note the headless dog in the lower right corner, a nod to Degas' interest in the photographic practice of capturing partial images.

The Dance Class

Edgar Degas was far more interested in ballet rehearsals and training than in polished performances.  

Here, a class of ballerinas relaxes after finishing a class, with some girls fidgeting, stretching, and gossiping in the back of the room.  


The dancers are there with women who appear to be their mothers, which opens up a mystery: when The Dance Class was created in the 1870s, ballet was considered a disreputable activity because many dancers subsequently became prostitutes.  

Are the mothers there to protect their daughters from this fate... or to attain the most lucrative offers?

This strongly diagonal composition places the renowned ballet dancer, Jules Perrot, in its center; the empty swath of floor behind him intensifies his commanding presence.  Although we feel that we are viewing this classroom from the left hand corner, the closest ballerinas have their backs toward us and none makes eye contact, generating a quality of being simulatenously present and invisible.  

Although many consider him one of the foremost Impressionist painters, Degas shunned plein air painting and only worked in his studio.  X-ray examination of The Dance Class reveals frequent alterations, including two dancers who were initially in the foreground facing the viewer.  It is not surprising, then, that he once claimed,

No art is as unspontaneous as mine.  What I do is the result of contemplation and the study of the old masters.

This Degas painting has a rich provenance: it was exhibited in the 1867 Salon and was merely titled, Family Portrait; it was subsequently sold at a 1889 Christie's auction to Theo van Gogh, brother of Vincent van Gogh.

The Dance Class, a. 1873-75.  Oil on canvas, 33 1 /2" by 29 1/2".  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

In a Cafe (The Absinthe Drinker)

Like his peer and rival, Edouard Manet, Degas believed in incorporating modern subjects in his artwork.  In Edgar-Degas-Absinthe-Drinker.gifthe late 19th century, this included the widespread trend of drinking absinthe, a highly alcoholic spirit popular among bohemian French artists and cafe goers.

Again, the idiosyncratic perspective provides the sense of immediacy that a photograph does, as if the viewer stumbled upon two red-eyed, despondent patrons who sit side-by-side but are absorbed in their individual thoughts.

In a Cafe (L'Absinthe), 1876.  Oil on canvas, 36 1/4" by 26 3/4".  Musee d'Orsay, Paris. 

Yet the entire scene was meticulously staged.  The man is the engraver, Marcellin Desboutin, and the woman is the acress Ellen Amedee; each were close friends of the artist.  Perhaps he was speaking of The Absinthe Drinker when he observed,

A painting requires as much fraudulence, trickery, and deception as the perpetration of a crime.

It is no wonder, then, that he didn't consider himself one of the Impressionist painters, who painted outside with spontaneous brushstrokes to capture the immediacy of light. Degas was heavily involved, however, in organizing the first exhibition of Impressionist paintings in 1874; his Absinthe was shown in the third such show.

In the same year, his father died and the family learned that his bank was in significant debt.  Degas disposed of his personal art collection, his house, and his inheritance to avert financial ruin for his brothers, and then had to earn his living as a professional artist.

Blue Dancers (Danseuses bleues)

Dancers appeared in Degas paintings throughout his career, transitioning from figures who were graceful to symbolic of Parisian vices to gestural by the late 1880s.

Edgar-Degas-Blue-Dancers.jpgIn his later career, his colors became more intense while his ballerinas became blurred and remarkably distant from the realism of his earlier works.

Edgar Degas had served in the artillery during the Siege of Paris in 1871, and suffered a significant eye injury that impaired his vision and likely contributed to the lack of fine detail in his work as he aged; he ultimately stopped painting completely in 1912.

For more Degas paintings and artwork, visit the Museum of Modern Art's show, Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty.  Running until July 24, 2016, it explores the diversity of his work, and includes 120 monotypes along with 60 associated paintings, drawings, pastels, and prints. If you get to see it, send along your review, please!

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Danseuses bleues (Blue Dancers), ca. 1893.  Oil on canvas, approximately 33 1/2" by 30".  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.


Famous Painters: Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun

Posted by Susan Benford

Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun (1755-1842) was born of humble parentage to Jeanne Massin and the portraitist Louis Vigee.  Like Angelica Kaufmann, Vigee-Le Brun was a precocious artist whose talent was discovered Elisabeth-Vigee-Le-Brun-self-portrait.jpgand encouraged at a young age.  Together, these female artists stood out among their 18th century peers of both genders. 

Vigee-Le Brun lost her father when she was twelve, forcing her mother to remarry for economic neccesity.  By the time she was 15, Vigee-Le Brun had not only established her own studio, but also was attracting prestigious sitters -- and a reputation as a brilliant portraitist.

Self-Portrait, 1790.  Oil on canvas, approximately 39" by 32". Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

In 1776, she married the leading art dealer in Paris, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun.  Two years later - at 23 years old - she was summoned to Versailles to paint the portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette.  Her portrait so delighted the Queen that Vigee-Le Brun became a court artist who was well compensated and promoted by the Queen.  Although Mssr. Le Brun's profession technically disqualified Elisabeth from membership in the prestigious Academie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture, Marie Antoinette's intervention secured the young painter's admission, making Elizabeth one of four female artists so honored.

In 1787, she showed at the Paris Salon, where her gender caused a commotion.

Marie Antoinette and Her Children

Over the next decade, Elisabeth painted 30 or so portraits of the Queen, of which the most famous is Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787).  


One of the last portraits created by Vigee-Le Brun before the Queen was imprisoned and executed during the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette is shown as unidealized and human, more mother than matriarch.  The portrait was intended to belie public perception that the Queen was extravagant, out of touch with her subjects, and immoral.

The pyramidal composition centers Marie Antoinette as its focus, lovingly surrounded by her children:

  • Maria Therese Charlotte is nestled into her mother's arm on the left;
  • Louis Joseph, the dauphin, or oldest son of the King of France, is on the right and points to the empty cradle of a recently deceased sibling; and
  • Louis Charles, the Duke of Normandy and the second dauphin

Typical of Vigee-Le Brun portraits, this work shows the painter's technical prowess and sympathy with her sitters. 

Above: Marie Antoinette and Her Children, 1787. Oil on canvas, approximately 41" by 32".  Chateau de Versailles, Verailles. 

Self Portrait with Julie

In the years preceding the French Revolution, Vigee-Le Brun was heavily criticized in the anti-establishment press. Retrospectively, this vitriol was incited by a host of factors: her extensive success in a male-Elisabeth_Vige-Le_Brun-Self-Portrait-Julie.jpgdominated profession; her frequent commissions from the courts of Europe; and her comport with upper stratums of society. Due to her closeness with the French monarchy, Vigee-Le Brun was also accused of being a bourgeois and a social climber. 

In 1789 after the Revolution, Vigee-Le Brun fled Paris with her daughter, Julie, and moved to Italy where she painted Self Portrait with Julie.

A touching tribute to mother-daughter love, Self Portrait with Julie is at once unidealized and dignified.  The artist herself recalls allegorical or mythological figures, while nine year old Julie radiates tenderness and a desire for maternal protection.  

In 1794, she returned to Paris to learn that she was no longer a citizen and to divorce her husband. She was subsequently welcomed in other countires including Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, England and Russia, where she became a patron of Czarina Catherine II.  

Self-Portrait with Julie, 1789.  Oil on canvas, approximately 48" by 75".  Musee du Louvre, Paris.

Remarkably, she received five honorary memberships in these countries' art academies. Even more remarkably, her complete oeuvre of 800 paintings (of which 600 were portraits) permitted her to amass a considerable fortune, making her a rarity among female artists... then and today.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition, Vigee-Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, will be open until May 15, 2016.

 Like reading about the remarkable feats of women artists?

Explore this survey of ten female artists who rocked the art history world from the 16th to 20th centures.





Famous Paintings: Oedipus and the Sphinx

Posted by Susan Benford

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the star pupil of Neoclassical painter Jacqeus-Louis David, was the last avid proponent of the French Classical style championed initially by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665).  

Fascinated by Italian Renaissance paintings, especially those by Raphael, Ingres' early history paintings received Ingres-Vow-Louis_XIII.jpgmixed reviews even after he won the Prix de Rome in 1801. Ironically, he was forced to paint portraits to earn income...
and it is these Ingres paintings that are now most esteemed. It was not until his Vow of Louis XIII that he solidified his reputation: its favorable review in the Salon of November 1824 cemented his role as the defender of French Classicism.  

One of his most famous paintings, Oedipus and the Sphinx, is grounded in the myth of Oedipus outlined in Sophocles' play, Oidipos Tyrannos (Oedipus the King).

After King Laios, Oedipus' father, is told by an oracle that his son would one day kill him, the King drives a stake through his son's foot and abandons him on a mountaintop.  The young boy, saved and raised by a shepherd family, is forewarned by the oracle that his fate is to kill his father and marry his mother.  

Determined to outrun destiny, Oedipus leaves home for Thebes.  On his way there, he kills a man who wouldn't let him pass on the road, and later encounters the Sphinx, a frightening monster with the head, face and shoulders of a woman, the body of a lion, and wings of a bird.

HermesSandals1.jpgShe permits passage only to those who can solve her riddle: "What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?".  Oedipus correctly answered "Man" in his various ambulatory phases as a baby, adult and old man.  In gratitude for his victory over the Sphinx, Thebans offered their widowed queen, Jacosta, as a wife to Oedipus.

Hermes with the Sandal.  Roman copy after an original by Lysippos, created cca 320 BC.  Louvre, Paris.

Years later when an extensive plague ravages Thebes, the Oracle decries that it will end only when the murder of King Laios is solved.  The sole witness testifies that the man Oedipus killed when fleeing home was indeed his father the King; Oedipus' wife, Jacosta, is biologically his mother so that he has committed both patricide and incest.

The painter had his model assume the identical pose as in the classical statue of Hermes with the Sandal. The pose intentionally accentuates musculature. His torso deviates from any classical ideal, while his profiled head looks like a Greek statue.


To explain such incongruities, the painter stated,

"To express character one can allow a certain degree of exaggeration, which is even necessary on occasions when it is a question of capturing and emphasizing an element of the beautiful."

Indeed, Ingres is defining (and granting himself) artistic license.

The conspicuous, ghoulish foot in the lower left reminds us:

1. of those who were unsuccessful in resolving the riddle and perished;

2. of the riddle's reliance on walking;

3. of the meaning of the word "Oedipus" which means "swollen foot" in Greek.

Want to read more? Explore more famous paintings by Ingres, including his Grande Odalisque.

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Vincent van Gogh Paintings: Three Pairs of Shoes

Posted by Susan Benford

Despite the modern popularity of Vincent van Gogh paintings, the early years of van Gogh (1853-1890) offered nary a hint of his future fame.


Shoes, 1886.  Oil on canvas, approximately 15" by 18".  Vincent van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Born in Groot-Zundert, Holland, to a Calvinist pastor, Vincent van Gogh dropped out of school in 1869 to work for an art dealer; he was fired seven years later. He then spent two years as a lay preacher working with impoverished miners; he was denied ordination because he was considered "overly passionate" by Calvinist authorities. 

In 1880 at the age of 27, Vincent van Gogh resolved to become an artist.  In his brief career spanning only one decade, he created 1,000 paintings, including 70 in the last 70 days of his life.

Art historians know that in 1886, Vincent purchased a pair of well-worn shoes from a Parisian flea market. Earlier in the year, he had focused on floral still life paintings, but for autumn and winter, he needed a new motif.

Introducing the most famous pair of shoes in modern art.

The Cologne's Wallraf Richartz Museum mounted a 2009 exhibition entitled, Vincent van Gogh: Shoes, and explored the impact of this painting (see above) on art history and modern philosophy about art (for the curious, don't miss detailed sniping and polysyllabic putdowns among art historians and philosophers, including Martin Heidegger, Meyer Schapiro, and Jacques Derrida).

There are five van Gogh paintings of shoes (two of these van Gogh artworks are in Amsterdam's van Vincent-van-Gogh-Paintings-Three-Pairs.jpegThree Pairs of Shoes, 1886-1887.  Oil on canvas, 19 5/8" by 29 9/16".  Bequest from the Colelction of Maurice Wertheim, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

Gogh Museum; one is in the Baltimore Museum of Art; one is at the Met).  None has been more extensively researched than Three Pairs of Shoes owned by the Harvard Art Museums (formerly known at the Fogg Museum).  It is one of the famous paintings donated to Harvard in 1950 by Maurice Wertheim.

Three Pairs of Shoes has elements of still life paintings - the six boots are arranged intentionally on a white display cloth often seen in that genre - and also elements of portraiture.  Each shoe, which would have been immediately recognizable to Parisians as a laborer's workboot, exudes its own personality.  For any doubting that an inanimate object can convey personality, look no further than Three Pairs of Shoes. As in so much of van Gogh's artwork, the heavy paint application, or impasto, enhances details like the nail heads.

Art historians noticed that textural ridges in the painting, or its topography, didn't precisely relate to the contours of the shoes.  When examining the work under raking light, or light that casts shadows, they observed groups of circular brushstrokes that suggested a painting underneath.  

Indeed, even with the naked eye one can see occasional patches of color seeping through in areas that are worn or cracked.  Using x-radiography, conservators have created images of the underlying still-life (read more about the process and see the x-radiographs in van Gogh's Three Pairs of Shoes.)  

Recent technical research suggests that there are 40 paintings by van Gogh that have been painted over.  May the research begin! 

Want to give the gift of art appreciation?

Masterpiece Cards is your answer! This boxed set of art history Cards is a survey of art history to have and hold. box_cards_checklist_6.jpg Covering nearly six centuries, the Cards have brilliant reproductions, key facts, and an essay introducing the work's meaning and artist.  There's nothing like these - we promise! And no batteries are required.  Explore a sample. 

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Can't get enough of van Gogh artwork?

We can't either.  Read an overview of van Gogh paintings up until 1889; famous paintings by van Gogh in the Hermiage; the iconic Starry Night; and van Gogh paintings from 1889 to 1890. 

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Monet Paintings at the Marmottan Monet Museum

Posted by Susan Benford

Art museums often deliver surprises, some of which are statistics like this one: the world's most extensive collection of Monet paintings is in the Marmottan Monet Museum of Paris.


Nympheas, 1903.  Oil on canvas, approximately 29" by 36".  Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris.

The museum inherited its Monet artwork from Michel Monet, Claude's son.  Its collection spans the painter's lifetime: in addition to such landmark Impressionist paintings as Impression, Sunrise, the Musee Marmottan Monet has numerous landscapes from the 1880s and 1890s, and many paintings from his beloved garden at Giverny. 

The Monet water lilies steal the show.

Monet-water-lilies-Nympheas-1915Nympheas, 1915.  Oil on canvas, 4'3" by 5'.  Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris.

Students of Monet paintings know that he often painted the same scene or object in different light at different times of day. His wonder at the effect of light lasted his lifetime.  Some of the recurring motifs explored in different lighting conditions included the Rouen cathedral; poplars; haystacks; Paris' train station, the Gare Saint-Lazare; and his garden.  


Le Pont de l'Europe, Gare Sainte-Lazare, 1877. Oil on canvas, 25" by 32". Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris.

In Le Pont de l'Europe, the steam from the trains captures light and melds seamlessly into the sky.  For the 1877 Impressionist exhibition alone, Monet exhibited seven variations of this train depot. This work has a traditional foreground and vanishing point between the two buildings, and while broaching abstraction, still retains elements of traditional painting.

Most vestiges of academic painting disappeared in the last thirty years of his life, when Monet focused almost exclusively on the motif of water lilies (Les Nympheas in French); there are 250 Monet paintings of Monet-water-lilies

Nympheas.  Oil on canvas, 41" by 29".  Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris.

water lilies alone.  In discussing them, he declared:

"The subject is not important to me; what I want to reproduce is what exists between the subject and me."

Claude Monet repeatedly ignored prevailing, popular artistic trends (think of the Nabis, Pointillists, Fauvists and Cubists).  Toward the end of his life, he completely eliminated the subject from his work, paving the way for the birth of abstract art.  Nowhere is this better seen than in one of his last Nympheas, above: inarguably, Monet's later impressionist paintings were the foundation of abstraction.




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Famous Painters Blogroll

Anguissola, Three Sisters Playing Chess and Phillip II of Spain

Beckmann, Blind Man's Buff

Beckmann, Departure; Self-Portrait in Tuxedo; Sinking of Titanic

Bingham, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri

BonheurPlowing in the Nivernais

Bonheur, The Horse Fair

Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights

Botticelli, Primavera

Caillebotte, Gustave, The Floor Scrapers; The House Painters; Pont de l'Europe; Paris Street, Rainy Day; Fruit Displayed on a Stand

Caravaggio, Fashion and Art History

CaravaggioConversion of St. Paul

Caravaggio, Young, Sick Bacchus and Basket of Fruit

Caravaggio, Cardsharps and Fortune Teller

Caravaggio, St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy

Caravaggio, Taking of Christ (Kiss of Judas)

Caravaggio Paintings at the Villa Borghese

Cave Paintings

Cezanne, Bathers 

Cezanne, Card Players

Cezanne, Madame Cezanne Paintings

Cezanne, Most Famous Paintings

Cezanne, Red Dress series

Copley, Paul Revere

David, Death of Marat 

David, Death of Socrates

David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps

de Kooning, Retrospective at MoMA (Part I)

de Kooning,Excavation and Painting, 1948 

de KooningWoman I

Degas, The Bellilli Family, The Dance Class, In a Cafe (Absinthe Drinker)

Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People  

Diebenkorn, The Ocean Park Series

Duncanson, Robert Seldon.  Art History Welcomes Duncanson 

Durer, The Four Apostles

El Greco, Burial of Count Orgaz

El Greco, View of Toledo

FontanaPortrait of a Noblewoman

Frankenthaler, Color Field Painting and Mountains and Sea

Gainsborough, The Blue Boy

Gentileschi, Artemisia.  Judith Beheading Holofernes

Gentileschi, Artemisia.  Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting 

Ghent Altarpiece.  

GiorgioneThree Philosophers 

Goya, Duchess of Alba

Goya, Family of Charles IV

Goya, Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta

Goya, The Third of May 1808 

Goya, Duchess of Alba; Saturn Devouring his Son; Two Old Men; Half-Submerged Dog; Black Paintings

Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece

Hals, Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard

Hals, The Laughing Cavalier

Hals, Regents of St. Elizabeth's Hospital

Hopper, Nighthawks

Ingres, Grande Odalisque and Portrait of Madame Moissetier

Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx

Isenheim Altarpiece

Kahlo, Renowned Frida Kahlo Paintings.  

Angelica Kauffmann.  Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting and David Garrick.  

Klimt, The Kiss and Adele Bloch-Bauer

Lawrence, Great Migration Series

Leonardo, Lady with an Ermine

Leonardo, Painter at the Court of Milan, National Gallery, London 

Leonardo, La Bella Principessa 

Leonardo, New Mona Lisa

Leonardo, Benois Madonna and Madonna Litta 

Leonardo, Savior of the World(Salvator Mundi) 

Leonardo, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne

Leyster, Famous Female Painters

20 Louvre Paintings not to Miss 

ManetA Bar at the Folies-Bergere

Manet, Luncheon in the Studio

Manet, The Old Musician

Manet, Street Singer

MantegnaDead Christ

Matisse Paintings, In Search of True Painting

Matisse, The DanceThe Music

Matisse, The Cone Collection

Matisse, The Red Studio

Matisse, The Yellow Dress

Michelangelo, Crucifixion with the Madonna

Michelangelo, Famous Paintings

Michelangelo, La Pieta with Two Angels (latest attribution?)

Michelangelo, St. John the Baptist Bearing Witness

Modersohn-Becker, Famous Female Painters

Monet, Impression, Sunrise

Monet, Nymphaes, Le Pont de l'Europe

Monet Paintings at the Marmottan Monet Museum

Monet, Waterlilies

Morisot, Famous Paintings

MorisotMore Famous Paintings

Munch, The Scream

O'Keeffe, Jack in the Pulpit

Peeters, Clara

Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror

Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust

Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein

Picasso, Las Meninas

Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ

Pippin, Domino Players and Cabin in the Cotton

Poussin, Assumption of the Virgin

Raphael, Sistine Madonna

Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer 

Rembrandt, Night Watch

Rembrandt paintings at Frick Show

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait at an Early AgeJeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, The Jewish Bride

Rembrandt, The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild

Rubens, Venus and Adonis

Sanchez Cotan, Spanish Still-life

Sargent, El Jaleo

Sargent, Madame X

Sargent, Smoke of Ambergris

Steen, The Christening Feast 

Steen paintings at Frick Show

Tanner, The Banjo Lesson and The Thankful Poor

Titian, Assumption of the Virgin

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne

Titian, Man with a Glove

Titian, Nymph and Shepherd, Allegory of Prudence, Jacopa Strada, St. Jerome, Slaying of Marysas

Titian, Rape of Europa

Turner, J. M. W, The Fighting Temeraire

Uccello, Battle of San Romano

van der Weyden, St. Luke Drawing the Virgin

van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait

van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb

van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece

van Gogh, The Potato Eaters

van GoghMemory of Garden at Etten; Tatched Cottages; White House

van Gogh,  Portrait of Madam Trabuc; Morning: Going Out

van Gogh, Starry Night

van Gogh, Three Pairs of Shoes

Vincent van Gogh paintings up to 1889

Vincent van Gogh paintings, 1888-1890

Vigee-LeBrun, Marie Antoinette and Her Children, Self Portrait, Self-Portrait with Julie

Velazquez, Juan de Pareja

Velazquez, Pope Innocent X

Velazquez, Overview of Famous Paintings

Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Vermeer, Saint Praxedis

Vermeer, The Kitchen Maid

Vermeer, The Allegory of Painting

VermeerGirl with the Red Hat

Vigee-LeBrun, Marie Antoinette and Her ChildrenSelf PortraitSelf-Portrait with Julie

Warhol, Campbell's Soup Cans

Warhol, Marilyn Diptych and Gold Marilyn 

Warhol, Mao 

Whistler, Whistler's Mother

Anders Zorn

Famous Paintings by Art Museums

Learn about famous paintings to see in these art museums:

Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY). One of those intimate, small art museums with a stellar collectionExplore famous paintings at the Albright-Knox. 

Art Institute of Chicago: Plan to see these famous paintings at the Art Institute -- and download an ebook about them.

Louvre Museum, (Paris): one of the largest art museums in the world! Know which Louvre paintings not to miss in this sortable ebook. 

Mauritshuis Museum: explore works by renowned Dutch painters

Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City): download the ebook, Famous-Paintings-Metropolitan-Museum, to learn its must-see masterpieces. Or read the blog post, "Famous Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum". 

National Gallery (London): with 2300 famous paintings alone in its European painting section, discover highlights to see!  Art Paintings to See at the National Gallery.

Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam): 10 famous paintings not to miss

Washington, D.C. Art Museums: Explore forty famous paintings in Washington, DC in this article.

Whitney Museum of American Art.  Don't miss these 10 famous paintings at the Whitney.

Most Popular Posts

Michelangelo PaintingsThe Torment of Saint Anthony; The Manchester Madonna;Holy Family (Doni Tondo); and Entombment

Cave Paintings: explore this prehistoric art in Spain and France.

Picasso's Las Meninas: 58 Picasso paintings inspired by Velazquez's Las Meninas

Ghent Altarpiece: the van Eyck masterpiece, one of the most famous artworks ever made. 

10 Famous Paintings at the Prado. Don't miss a one of these.

Survey of Renaissance Paintings: want to know what Renaissance paintings were all about? Start with 20 of its most famous painters in this sweeping survey! 

Discover more of readers' favorite art history blog posts. 

Female Artists

While we long for the time when artists are artists and genderless, that time isn't yet here.

These are a few of the female artists who've left lasting legacies in the history of painting:

Sofonisba AnguissolaThree Sisters Playing ChessPhillip II of Spain

Rosa Bonheur.  Plowing in the Nivernais.  Horse Fair.

Lavinia Fontana. Portrait of a Noblewoman.

Helen Frankenthaler. Color Field Painting and Mountains and Sea. 

Artemisia Gentileschi.  Judith Beheading Holofernes.  Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting.

Frida Kahlo.  Frida and Diego Rivera.  The Two Fridas.  The Love Embrace of the Universe. 

Angelica Kauffmann.  Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting.  David Garrick.

Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun.  Self-Portrait; Marie Antoinette and Her Children; Self-Portrait with Julie

Judith Leyster.  Self-Portrait.  The Proposition. 

Paula Modersohn-Becker. Self-Portrait with an Amber Necklace. Still Life with Goldfish. 

Berthe Morisot.  Refuge in Normandy.  The Cradle. 

Georgia O'Keeffe. Jack in the Pulpit Series. 

Survey of Female Artists

Art History Beyond Europe

A few forays into art outside Europe:

African Art and Bocio

African Mask of Idia


Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Great Wave

The Terracotta Warriors