An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
Piero della Francesca (ca. 1420-1492) is in a legion of famous painters who were lost to art history for centuries -- in his case, for over four. The works of Piero, along with artists including Sandro Botticelli (1446-1510) and Jan Vermeer (1632-1675), were among those "re-found" in the 19th century by artists, collectors, critics, and art historians.
None was more influential in rediscovering Piero della Francesca than Roberto Longhi (1890-1970), an Italian art historian. Through his 1914 article, "Piero dei Franceschi e lo sviluppo della pittura veneziana," ("Piero Francesca and the Development of Venetian Painting"),
Piero della Francesca. The Baptism of Christ, 1450s. Tempera on wood, approximately 5' 6" by 3'10". National Gallery, London.
Longhi launched Piero's journey from relative obscurity to present acclaim as one of the most famous painters of the Italian Renaissance. Longhi's subsequent book, Piero della Francesca, was published in 1927 and is still considered the preeminent formal analysis of Piero.
Influenced by investigations into perspective by Paulo Uccello (ca. 1397-1475), Piero became so knowledgeable that he published a treatise in 1474. This fascination with linear
perspective and mathematical and geometrical precision is evident in one of his earliest extant works, The Baptism of Christ.
In Christian belief, the Trinity is the collective name for "the one nature of God" - God the Father; God the Son, who is Christ; and the Holy Spirit. In The Baptist of Christ, the dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit witnessing Christ's baptism (note how its shape resembles a cloud).
Right: Geometric Analysis of The Baptism of Christ.
It is speculated that a portrayal of God the Father may have been in a roundel or medallion above the work; it is certain that The Baptism of Christ was originally the central section of a polyptych, a work comprised of four or more painted or carved panels hinged together.
The Baptism of Christ exemplifies many developments in painting during the first portion of the 15th century, including:
chiaroscuro, or using shadow and lighting to create three dimensional shapes;
realism (the greenish hue to Christ's skin is a result of green underpainting wearing through and is not the original color of his flesh);
perspective and proportionality; and
descriptive landscape (behind Christ is Piero's home town of Sansepolcro in Tuscany).
Compositionally, Baptism has a pronounced central vertical: the dove is aligned with the baptismal water St. John the Baptist is pouring; it is aligned with the tip of Christ's beard; the beard is positioned just above Christ's praying hands, which are aligned with his navel.
Yet despite the exacting linear perspective in The Baptism of Christ, this monumental composition doesn't feel mathematical or contrived but is instead mysteriously spiritual and quiet.
Perhaps that is why Piero della Francesca is widely recognized as a timeless artist, and is deservedly one of the most famous painters in the early Renaissance.
Why do you believe Baptism has such stillness to it? What has Piero done to convey this?
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
Anyone involved with art history or art has, I suspect, fretted that emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) often comes at the expense of the arts. Further, the instantaneous availability of information has left many learning experiences on fast forward, overshadowing perceptions and knowledge that seep in only over time.
John Singleton Copley. A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham), 1765. Oil on canvas, 30 3/8 x 25 1/8 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
An antidote? Explore how Jennifer L. Roberts, a professor of art history and architecture at Harvard, tackles this: she requires each student to sit in front of a painting for three hours. She reports that after initial (and predictable) grumbling, they subsequently thank her.
Read how Roberts teaches art history (and so much more) in this brilliant article, in which she shares her own study of John Singleton Copley's Boy with a Flying Squirrel - you'll learn riveting history about it, and discover how she teaches that looking isn't the same as seeing.
Do you agree with Roberts that students need to now be taught deceleration and patience? If you teach, how have you incorporated this study into your classroom?
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
One of the most highly regarded Velazquez paintings, Pope Innocent X is the signature work in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, a private art collection of 650 works by famous painters including Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael and Velazquez. This comparatively little known museum is a jewel.
Diego Velazquez. Portrait of Innocent X, 1650. Oil on canvas, 4' 8" by 3' 11". Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome.
Giovanni Battista Pamphilj (pronounced Pom-fee-lee) became a cardinal in 1629 and was elected to the throne in 1644 as Pope Innocent X. Giacinto Gigli (1594-1671), an Italian who wrote about Baroque Rome, described the Pope:
He was tall in stature, thin, choleric, splenetic, with a red face, bald in front with thick eyebrows bent above the nose [...] that revealed his severity and harshness...".
How ironic that such an unkind person is memorialized in a portrait now considered one of the finest of the 17th century -- and of all Velazquez paintings.
Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) was the court painter for Spain's Philip IV, who granted permission for Velazquez to travel to Rome to paint Pope Innocent X. For unknown reasons, however, the Pope didn't immediately grant an audience to the great Spanish painter, who bided his time and painted his manservant in another marvelous portrait, Juan de Pareja (below, left).
Velazquez paints Pope Innocent X in the traditional three-quarter pose utilized in papal portraiture since Raphael. Pope Innocent X is an explosion of red and crimson hues, with a red velvet armchair in front of a red door; red skin tones; his red cape and red camauro, or papal headdress.
While Velazquez pays homage to traditional papal portraiture, he concurrently presents a man who looks irritable and angry, as if he might explode. That tension is amplified by the shadows which don't sync with the illumination: Pope Innocent X is lit from the right, but Velazquez has painted a menacing shadow behind the Pope's chair on the right, too.
Alessandro Algardi, Bust of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj. Galleria Doria Pampilj.
Pope Innocent feels as if he's about to rise from his chair while grasping a petition signed "Velazquez" in his left hand. It's as if Velazquez is telling us that something isn't right here.
And that's true.
Pope Innocent X's sister-in-law, Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj (1594-1657), convinced him that it was immoral for the Vatican to collect taxes from brothels, offering instead to perform this unseemly work herself. When police interfered with the brothels, Olimpia had the family coat of arms installed over their doorways.
Need we mention that the clergy were the main patrons of these houses of disrepute?
Olimpia was unquestionably the most powerful woman in Baroque Rome, amassing considerable influence and enormous wealth due only partially to her illicit, amorous relationship with Pope Innocent X. When visiting dignitaries began calling on her prior to seeing him, Innocent X exiled her.
Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj, an heir who resides in the familial palace, considers Portrait of Innocent X "a turning point in the
Diego Velazquez. Juan de Pareja, 1648. Oil on canvas, 32" by 27 1/2". Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Purchase, Fletcher Fund, Rogers Fund, and Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton deGroot
history of Western art" because it allegedly depicts the humanity and vulnerability of its subject, rather than his power alone. According to Prince Pamphilj, Innocent X, when first shown the completed portrait, exclaimed, "E troppo vero!" -- or, "It's too true!".
I don't find humanity and vulnerability here, but see an implacable, unforgiving and forbidding man.
Conversely, Olimpia recalibrated the way in which she lived the rest of her life: she re-populated S. Martino al Cimino, the town to which she was exiled, with prisoners she had released and prostitutes she relocated from nearby Rome. Each couple was given a house and the opportunity to build a new life alongside Olimpia for the remainder of her life.
Do you see the humanity and vulnerability in Portrait of Pope Innocent X that the Prince does? Why is this portrait so enduring? And what was the Velazquez's intent in painting illogical shadows?
Please share your thoughts.
Curious about famous paintings?
Look at 250 Masterpieces in Western painting, a set 4" by 6" Cards that reproduce and analyze famous paintings. Covering 5+ centuries from Renaissance paintings through Pop Art paintings, the Cards also provide key facts and an introductory essay about each painting.
Think "Art History in a Box"!
New subscribers to this blog are automatically entered for a free set of Masterpiece Cards given away each month, a $75 value!
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
Among the most famous artwork in Rome's Villa Borghese are Caravaggio paintings that span the career of this brilliant but volatile painter.
And each one of them has fascinating art history behind it.
Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio (1571-1610), was born in Milan, not in the northern Italian town of Caravaggio, as was believed until several years ago. In Milan, he studied with Simone Peterzano, a former pupil of Titian, but left neither personal history nor works of art there.
Caravaggio. Boy with Basket of Fruit, 1593-94. Oil on canvas, approximately 27" by 26". Gallery Borghese, Villa Borghese, Rome.
Caravaggio relocated to Rome in late 1592, and apprenticed briefly in the studio of the Cavalier d’Arpino and his brother, Bernardino Cesari, specializing in painting fruits and vegetables. Unlike the typical 16th century artist, Caravaggio rejected the current academic training the devoted years to drawing sculptures and copying artwork made by famous painters.
Instead, he recaptured realism in art and pioneered dramatic lighting effects now known as tenebrism.
Caravaggio paintings in the initial phase of his career feature still lifes and people often found on the street, like cardcheats or cardsharps, fortune-tellers, and beggars. His style was equally pioneering: Caravaggio eschewed initial sketches and painted directly onto the canvas.
Regardless of his less academic and formal style, Caravaggio developed a core of faithful Roman patrons. Among the most significant of these was the legendary art patron Scipione Borghese (1576-1633), whose uncle, Camillo Borghese (1552-1621), became Pope Paul V in 1605. Shortly thereafter, the new Pope gave his favorite nephew the title of Cardinal.
Right: Caravaggio. Self-Portrait as Bacchus (Sick Bacchus), ca. 1593-94. Oil on canvas, 26" by 21". Gallery Borghese, Villa Borghese, Rome.
The remarkabe Caravaggio paintings in the Villa Borghese include these famous paintings:
Boy with a Basket of Fruit, ca. 1593-94
This early work (above, left) demonstrates Caravaggio’s mastery of realistic depictions of nature, imperfections and all. Highlights are captured on individual grapes, whose veined, mottled leaves drape over the basket. On the lower right, a dying leaf nearly floats; together with the browning fruit in the center, Caravaggio hints that the bounty and pleasures of life are fleeting.
The overt sensuality of the young man suggests that these pleasures also include the carnal. The cleft in the ripe, golden peach is repeated in the lad's chin, while its lusciousness is echoed in his bare right shoulder.
Self-portrait as Bacchus (Sick Bacchus), ca. 1593-94
Many 16th century painters believed that moonlight offered optimal lighting for painting. This, according to the Borghese Gallery, likely accounts for the greenish, waxy pallor of Bacchus' (or Caravaggio's) complexion (above, right). The intent of the Bacchus iconography remains unclear, despite extensive art historical debate about it.
What is clear is that Scipione Borghese longed for this work, as well as Boy with a Basket of Fruit, which were both in the hands of the Cavalier d'Arpino. On the orders of Pope Paul V, these Caravaggio paintings were confiscated and the Cavalier was jailed -- and was freed only when he "gave" the paintings to Cardinal Scipione Borghese.
Madonna of the Palafrenieri, 1605-06
Originally commissioned for the Saint Anne Chapel in St. Peter's, Madonna of the Palafrenieri was heavily criticized for its alleged lack of decorum and dignity.
Mary teaches the young Jesus how to kill a menacing serpent, a symbol of heresy and evil. Both she and Saint Anne, the patron saint of the confraternity of the Palafrenieri
Caravaggio. Madonna of the Palafrenieri, ca. 1605-06. Oil on canvas, approximately 9'7" by 7'. Gallery Borghese, Villa Borghese, Rome.
who commissioned the work, are depicted as ordinary women. They, like Jesus, are not idealized by Caravaggio.
Although it isn't known specifically why the confraternity refused to accept the painting, it hung in Saint Peter's for a mere two weeks in April 1606 before Madonna of the Palafrenieri was re-gifted to Cardinal Scipione Borghese.
Saint Jerome, 1606
The joy of seeing this painting is discovering that Caravaggio painted the quill pen with one assertive brushstroke. That, along with lengthy brushstrokes in the white cloth and the roughness of the books, cloak and saint's beard, have convinced some art historians that Saint Jerome is unfinished.
Although St. Jerome is typically portrayed as a penitent, Caravaggio shows him as a devoted scholar, reading and annotating scriptures.
Saint Jerome was commissioned by Scipione Borghese and was included in the Borghese Gallery inventory of 1693.
Caravaggio. Saint Jerome, 1606. Oil on canvas, 3' 10" by 5'. Gallery Borghese, Villa Borghese, Rome.
Curiously, St. Jerome was subsequently attribued to the Spanish painter, Jusepe di Ribera (1591-1652).
St. John the Baptist, 1610
One of the last attributed Caravaggio paintings, St. John the Baptist was a favored subject in Caravaggio paintings. Other versions include those in the Galleria Corsini, Rome; the Nelson-Atkins, Kansas City; and the Capitoline Museum, Rome.
Yet again, Caravaggio's rendition of the subject matter is atypical. This Saint John is pensive, and looks more like a resting shepherd than a renowned saint.
Caravaggio. Saint John the Baptist, 1610. Oil on canvas, approximately 5' by 4' 2". Gallery Borghese, Villa Borghese, Rome.
David with the Head of Goliath, 1606
Like many Caravaggio paintings, David with the Head of Goliath has long been the subject of debate: in this case, the controversy focuses on dating the work and whether the heads of Goliath and David are self-portraits of Caravaggio.
The Borghese Gallery provides some clarity, dating it at 1609-1610.
Giovanni Pietro Bellori, the biographer (and curator to Pope Clement X), documented in 1672 that Goliath was Caravaggio's self-portrait. Recent conjecture suggests that David was also a self-portrait, despite his similarity to Saint John.
The rapid brushstrokes in David with the Head of Goliath pay homage to late Titian paintings.
Known for his volatile temper and fits of rage, Caravaggio murdered a man, Ranuccio Tommasoni, in May 1606. Although his influential patrons had shielded him from other legal infractions, there was no recourse here. Ironically, Caravaggio was sentenced to death by Pope Paul V.
Caravaggio. David with the Head of Goliath, 1606. Oil on canvas, 4' 2" by 4' 4". Gallery Borghese, Villa Borghese, Rome.
Many art historians believe that Caravaggio painted David with the Head of Goliath as a admission of guilt and remorse by depicting himself as the decapitated head of David. He presented David, along with St. John the Baptist, to the papal court as a (highly unusual) request for a papal pardon.
Tragically, Caravaggio died in exile before learning that the pardon had been granted.
Can't get enough of Caravaggio, either? Explore:
And feel free to weigh in on your favorites.
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
There's a reason art history considers the 1913 "International Exhibition of Modern Art", or "Armory Show", one of the most significant art exhibitions ever held.
The period between 1890 and 1914, known now as the era of "Modernism", was one of the most prolific and revolutionary periods in Western culture.
Revamping and questioning accepted norms and conventions was widespread
in science, exemplified by the work of Charles Darwin (1809-82) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955);
in music, poetry and literature, where works by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), James Joyce (1882-1941), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), and T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) were among those who challenged the status quo; and
in philosophy, by thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55) and Karl Marx (1818-83).
Right. Marcel Duchamp. Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912. Oil on canvas, 57 7/8" by 35 1/8". Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Painting was no exception.
The Armory Show of 1913 introduced some 300,000 people to modern art paintings and sculpture. An exhibition at the New York Historical Society, The Armory Show at 100, revisits the lasting influence of the legendary exhibition.
A group of progressive American artists, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, decided to organize a 1913 show of their artwork. Midway through the planning, however, they opted to create an international exhibition, ultimately assembling roughly 1,350 works of modern art.
Left. Henri Matisse. Blue Nude (Souvenir of Biskra), 1907. Oil on canvas, 36 1/4" by 55 1/4". Baltimore Museum of Art.
These works were arranged as a small retrospective from the mid 19th century to Impressionism to Post-Impressionism to Fauvism to Cubism, suggesting that artworks were an outgrowth of their predecessors. Half the exhibition was devoted to American art (and of that, fully 20% of the artworks were by women); half of the show was European art.
Although the intent of the show was to educate, it instead shocked and enraged viewers.
The curators at the New York Historical Society remind us that Gilded Age portraiture defined artistic taste in the early 20th century. Modern art was an affront to accepted taste. As Patricia Cohen of the New York Times wittily observed, "Imagine Mozart hearing Metallica."
Left. Henri Matisse. Le Luxe (II), 1907. Distemper on canvas, 82 1/2" by 54 3/8". Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.
To the annoyance of American artists, press attention focused almost exclusively on Marcel Duchamp and Henri Matisse. It's not a surprise that they stole the limelight: these two modern painters were demanding a new way of seeing art. Their spin on modernism featured forms and colors unfamiliar to the viewing public.
Nude Descending A Staircase was first conceived to illustrate a poem about a person climbing a stairway to the stars. While not strictly a Cubist painting, Nude does employ the Cubist principles of fragmentation. DuChamp painted its title directly onto the lower left of the painting; as this is the only way the viewer knows that the figure is nude, DuChamp is wryly commenting about the ways in which language circumscribes interpretation.
Nude provoked controversy and criticism, with even President Theodore Roosevelt weighing in to say it reminded him of a Navajo rug in his bathroom.
The thirteen Matisse paintings in the show faired equally poorly in public opinion.
Blue Nude caused outright anger.
I'd guess that's because Matisse jettisoned the tradition of the reclining nude that dated back to the Renaissance -- and added further insult by painting his nude anatomically inaccurately in riotous colors.
Right. Henri Matisse. The Red Studio, 1911. Oil on canvas, 5' 11 1/4" by 7' 2 1/4". The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund.
Art students in Chicago, where the 1913 Armory Show traveled after New York, burned Matisse paintings in effigy - and protest.
Scholar Laurette E. McCarthy recently discovered two installation photographs showing how the Matisse paintings were hung in the 1913 exhibition.
Blue Nude was flanked by Luxe II on its left, and Red Studio on its right.
Although the photo is grainy, imagine the impact of this wall of Matisse paintings.
It's a solid step to understanding the outcry and frenzy of the 1913 Armory Show.
The Armory Show at 100 continues through February 23, 2014.
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
The Scream by Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is one of the most famous paintings in Western art history -- and perhaps the most powerful Expressionist painting ever made. It certainly is the most readily recognized.
Edvard Munch spent his childhood in Oslo, the second of five children born to a prominent Norwegian family. Both parents and a younger brother died when Munch was young. By the age of 17, Edvard Munch discovered painting as a tool to articulate his feelings of depression and fear of death.
Although Edvard Munch received little formal training, his style matured in the 1890s after his exposure in Paris to works of Paul Gauguin and to van Gogh's Arles paintings. Their energetic brushwork and bold colors provided a subjective vocabulary for personal interpretation of subjects.
Edvard Munch. The Scream, 1893. Tempera and casein on cardboard, 36 by 29". Munch Museum, Oslo.
These painters were among those experimenting with the direct expression of emotion as the primary element in painting, rather than the Impressionist aesthetic that valued style, form and color more highly.
Edvard Munch viewed art making as a quest to express his most privately-held feelings and beliefs, saying
In my art I have tred to find an explanation for life and to discover its meaning. I also intended to help others understand life."
To acheive this goal, Munch created The Frieze of Life, his lifelong series of paintings in which he sought to resolve elementary questions about life. This grand view of the purpose of art was not unusual, and was similarly pursued by artists in works such as
The Frieze of Life consists of many well-known Munch paintings, including The Scream (and for Edvard Munch fans, other iconic works like Anxiety; Kiss; Vampire; Madonna and Death in the Sickroom, all at the Munch Museum, Oslo).
Picture taken 20 February 2007 of a trepan mummy from Chachapoya kingdom in Peru, displayed as part of the exhibition 'La saga de l'homme, l'homme expose' (The man saga, the man exposed) in the Paris 'Musee de l'Homme' museum. AFP PHOTO FRANCOIS GUILLOT
But no other Munch paintings convey the angst seen in The Scream, which, according to Thomas Hoving,
...truly stands alone in art. Before Munch, no one in history portrayed human fear and pain outside of specific depictions of gladiatorial contests, battles and hand-to-hand combat, the torturing of saints, or people being attacked by fierce animals." (1)
As with van Gogh, Munch's deteriorating mental condition underlies his work. But an important distinction exists between Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh: van Gogh translated his agitation and duress into symbols like cypress trees, sunflowers and menacing skies (read more about Vincent van Gogh paintings), where Edvard Munch painted his pain literally.
Some art historians believe that he suffered a panic or anxiety attack, recreated in The Scream. Munch wrote in his diary,
"One evening I was walking along a street, tired and ill, with two friends: the city and the fjord lay below us. The sun was setting and the clouds turned blood red. Then I heard the colours of nature scream - and that shrill cry echoed over the fjord." (2)
Other art historians reference the 1883 Indonesian volcano, Krakatoa, whose eruption generated deafening sound waves that traveled 1,500 miles, cloaking Europe in preternatural blue and red sunsets for half a year.
After seeing these effects in present day Oslo, Edvard Munch wrote,
... I sensed a great, infinite scream pass through nature."
Yet another inspiration for The Scream may have been a Trepan mummy from the Peruvian Chachapoya kingdom (above right, the only image I could find). The Trepan mummy was shown at Paris' Trocadero Museum, and likely at the 1889 World's Fair.
Its angst is similar to that of The Scream.
Regardless of what inspired Edvard Munch, though, the agony in The Scream is excrutiating: the sound is so overpowering and crippling that it distorts the face of the figure, who vainly cups his ears to protect them. Notably, the two figures in the left background are unaffected, suggesting that the figure's turmoil may only be internal.
The Scream is a universal symbol of suffering.
Is there any alternative explanation?
1. Hoving, Thomas. Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization. New York: Workman Publishing Company, 1997. Page 64.
2. Edvard Munch, From My Diary, 1929.
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
An exhibition showcasing Dutch painters, titled Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis, opens at the Frick on October 22. Although this show is a scaled-down version of Girl With a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis, which previously traveled to the De Young and High Art Museums, the Frick exhibition will showcase fifteen remarkable Dutch paintings.
The portraits, genre scenes, vanitas paintings and landscapes by these Dutch painters define the Dutch Golden Age.
Johann Vermeer - Girl With a Pearl Earring
In the 17th century, Holland was the most urbanized and wealthy European country, with riches accumulated from its dominant maritime trade. A popular means to demonstrate this newly found wealth was through portraiture, including a subset called tronies. These bust-length portraits were
Right. Johann Vermeer. Girl with a Pearl Earring, ca. 1665. Oil on canvas, approximately 17 1/2" by 15". Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague
studies of facial expressions and postures rather than exact likenesses of the sitter, who was often dressed in exotic clothing.
Indisputably, the most renowned tronie is Girl with a Pearl Earring.
The full brilliance of Girl with a Pearl Earring is only realizable when one is able to study its
diversity of brushstrokes: those on the face of the girl, whose identity remains unknown, are smooth and yield her flawless skin, while those in her jacket collar are few, bold, and thickly painted. The semicircular brushstrokes in her turban, atypical attire for 17th century Holland, are readily discernible.
Rembrandt. "Tronie" of a Man with a Feathered Beret", 1634 - 40. Oil on panel, 5'3" by 3'11". Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague
The Girl With a Pearl Earring is simply mesmerizing. No wonder she has earned her own room in all three U. S. venues.
The Frick is uniquely positioned to add its own twist: Girl with a Pearl Earring will be shown near the three Vermeer paintings owned by the Frick, Girl Interrupted at Her Music (purchased in 1901 for $26,000), Officer and Laughing Girl (purchased in 1911 for $225,000), and Mistress and Maid.
Tronie of a Man with a Feathered Beret
The man in Tronie of a Man with a Feathered Beret (above right) turns toward the viewer as if preparing to speak. Rembrandt's skill in capturing such spontaneous instances results from careful manipulation of light and shade, a talent apparent in many Rembrandt paintings, including his Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild of 1662.
Remarkably, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) conveys that the man with a feathered beret is arrogant, as if he deigns to regard the viewer.
Mythological and Biblical nudes such as Susanna recur in Rembrandt's work. After disrobing in preparation for a bath, Susanna discovers two men, barely visible in the bushes, spying on her. Embarrassed, she vainly shields her nakedness while gazing outward, as if the viewer were a complicit voyeur.
Rembrandt. Susanna, 1636. Oil on panel, approximately 19" by 15". Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague
Portrait of an Elderly Man
In one of Rembrandt's last dated portraits, an unknown, unkempt man, with an unbuttoned jacket and loose collar, is slumping in his chair. Typical of the style of later Rembrandt paintings, some of the work is rendered with precision while some is loosely executed.
Rembrandt. Portrait of an Elderly Man, 1667. Approximately 2' 8" by 2' 3". Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague
Here, the elderly man's face is captured realistically, while his cuffs and hands are executed with only several decisive strokes. Rembrandt even scratched into wet paint to create the sitter's hair.
Frans Hals - Jacob Olycan and Aletta Hanemans
Frans Hals' (1582/83-1666) reputation as one of the leading portrait painters in the first half of the 17th century arose mainly from his talent in portraying sitters in a lively manner, as evidenced by the paired, or pendant, portraits of Jacob Olycan and Aletta Hanemans.
Frans Hals. Aletta Hanemans, 1625. Approximately 4'1" by 3'2". Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague
Frans Hals. Jacob Olycan, 1625. Approximately 4'1" by 3'2". Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague
These portraits were likely commissioned to commemorate the couple's marriage in 1624 when Jacob, a beer maker, was 29 and Aletta was 19. Their expensive clothing featuring brocade, lace and satin attests to their prosperity.
Pieter Claesz - Vanitas Still Life
The vanitas still life conveys a common theme in much of 17th century Dutch painting: time is fleeting, and rather than become attached to worldly goods, opt instead for a God-fearing lifestyle.
Each object in Vanitas Still Life conveys the finiteness of life, the passage of time, and the inevitability of death - the crumbling book pages; the skull; a watch; and wispy smoke. The undeniable admonishment from Pieter Claesz (1596/97-1660) is to lead a virtuous life.
Carel Fabritius - The Goldfinch
Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) is at last earning his due.
Historically overlooked as likely having been the teacher of Johann Vermeer, or simply as a link between he and Rembrandt, Fabritius is now applauded as one of the most accomplished Dutch painters of the Golden Age.
Pieter Claesz. Vanitas Still Life, 1630. Oil on panel, approximately 15" by 22". Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague
His mastery of illusionism is exemplified by his diminutive painting, The Goldfinch. The life-size bird, often kept as a pet in 17th century Holland, is tethered to its perch by a delicate chain. The angle of the goldfinch and its perch suggests that The Goldfinch was to be hung high on a wall.
Nicholas Maes - Old Lacemaker
Apprenticed to Rembrandt for several years, Nicholas Maes (1634-93) portrays here an idealized 17th century Dutch woman: from her orderly kitchen, she works studiously to make her own lace, indicating her feminine virtue.
Compositionally, Maes located the lacemaker and cabinet parallel to the picture plane, which, along with a somber palette, contributes to the intimacy of this work. Below, right.
Carel Fabritius. The Goldfinch, 1654. Oil on panel, approximately 13" by 9". Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Gerard ter Borch - Woman Writing a Letter
Ter Borch (1617-81) painted portraits and genre scenes of middle-class, affluent life in 17th century Holland. He was intrigued by the effect of light and shade, and was renowned for his skill in painting textures, especially satin.
That skill is apparent in Woman Writing a Letter. The heft of the oriental rug is palpable, while the light reflecting from the woman's dress and earring are perfectly executed. Below, left.
As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young
Jan Steen (1626-1679) was a highly regarded genre painter who portrayed the middle class instead of the upper and royal classes often painted by contemporary Dutch painters. In many of his nearly 800 paintings, Steen offers a moral lesson, typically as straightforward as that in As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young: children often replicate the behaviors modeled by adults, so it's best to lead one's life accordingly.
Read more about As the Old Sing, So Writter the Young.
Girl Eating Oysters
At first glance, this stunning still life is a simple scene of a young girl eating oysters on a table holding a Delft pitcher, a tray with a partially eaten roll, a pile of salt and a paper cone with peppercorns spilling from it.
But in the mid 17th century when Steen painted Girl Eating Oysters, they were widely considered aphrodisiacs. So this seemingly innocent, flirtatious girl is loaded with sexual innuendo, further reinforced by the bedroom with a curtained window behind her. Below, right.
Jacob van Ruysdael - View of Haarlem from the Bleaching Grounds
Considered the most accomplished landscape painter of the Dutch Golden Age, Jacob van Ruysdael (ca. 1629-82) was noted for his realistic sky and clouds, as exemplified by View of Haarlem from the Bleaching Grounds - the firmament occupies 2/3 of this Ruysdael painting.
Gerard ter Borch. Woman Writing a Letter, ca. 1655. Oil on panel, approximately 15" by 11". Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague
The subtle gradation in his clouds creates a credible sky with the sun breaking through to the pure dune water; it was believed to be the best possible to bleach local linens. See below, right.
Adriaen Coorte - Still Life with Five Apricots
Still Life with Five Apricots (below, left) is typical of over 60 signed paintings by Adriaen Coorte (ca. 1665-1707/10), which often are:
- small in scale;
- of fruits or vegetables, with occasional shells or nuts;
- displayed on a stone table; and
- brilliantly illuminated against a dark background.
Nearly nothing is known of Coorte's life, including the year and location of his birth and death, and even whether he supported himself as a painter; it is known that he was penalized in 1696 for selling his work without being a member of the local painters' guild.
Jan Steen. Girl Eating Oysters, ca. 1658-60. Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis runs October 22, 2013 to January 19, 2014.
Jacob van Ruysdael. View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds. Oil on canvas, 1670-1675. Approx. 22" by 24". Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Adriaen Coorte. Still Life with Five Apricots, 1704. Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
Of all the famous painters whose artwork graces the Prado Museum, none is more extensively represented than Franciso de Goya (1746-1828). With nearly 150 Goya paintings, 500 hundred drawings, and his series of engravings, the Prado holds the most thorough collection of Goya artwork in the world.
Charles III of Spain appointed Goya court painter in 1786; his successor, Charles IV, named him principal painter in 1789. By then, Goya was one of the most sought-after portrait painters, having worked during the 1780s for the aristocracy, including the dukes and duchesses of Osuna and Alba.
Francisco de Goya. The Duchess of Alba, 1797. Oil on canvas, 82 1/2" by 58 1/6". The Hispanic Society of America, New York.
Two pivotal events shaped the rest of Goya's life:
an illness in 1792 rendered him nearly stone deaf, leaving him embittered yet more sympathetic to others' suffering, and
the Spanish War of Independence (1808-1814), which left Goya disillusioned after the Napoleonic invasion brought cruelty and death rather than Enlightenment ideals to absolutist Spain.
Here is a brief overview of some of the most influential works by Goya.
Duchess of Alba
One of Goya's best known portraits, the Duchess of Alba was widely considered to be one of the best-looking women in Spain. She is clothed in the maja style, swathed with ornate, expensive fabrics in her veil and dress. With her right forefinger, the Duchess points to an inscription just uncovered in modern times. It reads, "Solo Goya" or "Only Goya". The rings on her right hand are inscribed with the names "Alba" and "Goya", hinting at a romantic relationship between the two.
That supposition has persisted for over two centuries but has never been proven.
The Family of Charles IV
This crown commission displays the royal family in a grand hall suggested by the scale of the paintings behind the family. In Goya's early years as court painter, he painted what became one of his most famous paintings, The Family of Charles IV.
Here, the influence of Velazquez is visually apparent - Goya includes himself as a painter in the left of this royal family portrait, just as did Velazquez in his own royal portrait, Las Meninas.
Francisco de Goya. The Family of Charles IV, 1800. Oil on canvas, 9'2" by 11'. Prado Museum, Madrid.
In the left foreground dressed in blue is Prince Ferdinand, who went on to stage a coup d'etat, overthrowing his parents in 1808. He installed himself as a despot, eliminated free speech and ousted liberals like Goya, who fled Spain in 1824. Read more about the history of The Family of Charles IV.
The Third of May, 1808
With his profound disgust at the horrors of war, Goya became one of the early creators of artwork for ordinary people rather than for church or state. As the Spanish War for Independence dragged on and the promised institution of Enlightenment became a lost cause, he commented:
I witnessed how the noblest ideals of freedom and progress were transformed into lances, sabres, and bayonets.
No where is this sentiment more powerfully articulated than in The Third of May, 1808.
Two rebel Spaniards fired on 15 soldiers in Napoleon's army, which resulted in French troops subsequently executing nearly 1,000 citizens from Madrid and nearby towns. This ruthlessly direct portrayal of man's inhumanity remains one of Goya's most memorable paintings. Read more about The Third of May, 1808.
Francisco de Goya. The Third of May, 1808. Oil on canvas, 1814. 8'9" by 11'4". Prado Museum, Madrid.
The Black Paintings
None of Goya's artwork is more haunting than the 14 works called the "Black Paintings."
In 1819, Goya (1746-1828) purchased a country house, whose walls he covered with a series of murals which became the "Black Paintings." Although there were some minor modifications to the works when they were conserved and transferred to canvas, the series shares common themes of death, fright and evil.
And unclear meaning.
None of these Goya paintings was commissioned, so it seems reasonable to conclude that the "Black Paintings" convey his preoccupations as an elderly man – and his abandonment of the academic training that characterized his earlier career as a court painter.
Three of these Goya paintings convey a general feel for these enigmatic "Black Paintings."
Saturn Devouring His Son
The theme of Saturn Devouring His Son is derived from Greek mythology. After a prophecy foretold that one of Saturn's twelve children would overthrow him, he countered by devouring them. The children, though, were actually immortal gods who were transformed into the Olympians -- and who fulfilled the prophecy.
Saturn Devouring His Son is so powerful and grotesque that it is difficult to inspect closely.
Luminous blood – made all the more dramatic by its contrast with the near-black background - gushes over a limp, genderless child and
Francisco de Goya. Saturn Devouring His Son, 1821-23. Oil on wall, transferred to canvas, approximately 4’ 8” by 2’ 8”. Prado, Madrid.
Saturn’s hands as he crushes and consumes it. Saturn’s frantic, manic energy, pulsating in his crazed eyes, feels barely containable within the confines of the canvas.
Perhaps Goya is suggesting that the evils of mankind – here, cannibalism and murder – are barely containable as well.
Two Old Men Eating
Although titled Two Old Men Eating, it’s not clear that the figure on the right actually is a man. His ghostlike, cadaverous appearance suggests he might be an apparition, or even Death itself.
Goya has chosen a near monochromatic palette for the barely formed figures who are painted in deep, thick paint with fast, wide brushstrokes; the intensely, near-black background contributes to the nightmarish quality.
Francisco de Goya. Two Old Men Eating, 1820-23. Mixed technique on wall, transferred to canvas. Approximately 19” by 33” . Prado, Madrid.
Half-Submerged Dog, or The Dog
Half-Submerged Dog, conversely, has an abstract beauty to it (possibly because I prefer imagining that the dog is swimming, not drowning). The dog’s eyes are eerily human and convey anxiety and struggle, with an uncertain outcome. The looseness of the brushwork, the simplified composition and the lack of formal organization seemingly presage abstract painting.
Few famous painters have left such an enduring legacy on subsequent generations.
The loose, free-flowing brushwork in his late paintings anticipated Impressionism, while his incorporation of the world of dreams and the freedom of his response to reality presaged developments in 20th century art, especially Expressionism and Surrealism.
Which painters do you think have been most influenced by Goya? What do you think his most profound legacy is?
Francisco de Goya. Half-Submerged Dog, 1819-23. Mixed technique on wall, transferred to canvas, approximately 4’ 4” by 2’ 7”. Prado, Madrid.
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
It's remarkable that one of the most famous painters of the Spanish Golden Age has only six existing works after shaping Spanish still life painting for nearly a century.
Introducing Juan Sanchez Cotan.
Near the end of the 16th century, still life painting emerged as a specific genre at nearly the same time in Spain, the
Juan Sanchez Cotan. Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit, 1602. Oil on canvas, approximately 27" by 35". Prado, Madrid.
Netherlands and Northern Italy. Three factors were behind this simultaneity:
- the Baroque taste for naturalistic portrayal of nature;
- the growing affluence of the bourgeois, who sought art with new subject matter; and
- the revived interest in ancient erudition and efforts to surpass the creations of Zeuxis, an ancient Greek painter who allegedly portrayed grapes so realistically that birds pecked his canvases.
The first known painter of Spanish still lifes was Blas de Prado, although none of his works survives. It is believed he instructed Juan Sanchez Cotan (1560-1627), who is the first Spanish still life painter with existing works.
The earliest of these Cotan paintings – and likely the earliest known Spanish still life, or bodegon - is Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit. It exemplifies the mastery that Juan Sanchez Cotan brought to the genre: everyday objects are instilled with a dignity that monumentalizes them.
In Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit, everyday objects are arranged in different planes protruding from the pictorial space. On the far right is a cardoon, a thistle-like relative of the artichoke.
Juan Sanchez Cotan. Still Life with Thistle, 1602. Oil on canvas, approximately 24" by 32". Granada Museum of Fine Arts, Granada.
Its dominant curves soften the composition’s rigid right angles and geometry. Intense lighting from the side creates volumes and shadows with tenebrism contemporaneous to Caravaggio’s.
That same year, Cotan created Still Life with Thistle, which shares similarities with Still Life with Game. He again features a cardoon or thistle; the pictorial plane is parallel to the viewer; and volume is again accentuated by the contrast between the vegetables and the near black background.
But Still Life with Thistle is a far simpler composition in which the typical focus point - the center - is nothing but blackness. As with all still lifes, the objective is realism -- and Cotan achieves it masterfully.
The best known Juan Sanchez Cotan painting is his Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber. Here the irregularly rounded vegetables and fruits are juxtaposed against the geometry of a cupboard, which often had foods suspended from string
Juan Sanchez Cotan. Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber, c. 1602. Oil on canvas, 27 1/8" by 33 1/4". San Diego Museum of Art.
to prevent rot. A strong arc bending from the upper left to lower right corner draws the eye into this trompe l'oeil rendering.
For nearly all of the 17th century, Spanish still life painting followed Juan Sanchez Cotan's model of a brilliant light source illuminating objects against a solid, dark background. Although Sanchez Cotan enjoyed some success as a painter - it's known that he loaned a substantial amount to his friend, El Greco - Spanish still life paintings weren't highly sought after until the mid 20th century. Until then, the Spanish court preferred still lifes from the Netherlands as decorations for their courts.
Shortly after completing Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, Sanchez Cotan renounced his earthly possessions, abandoned his studio (including this painting) and joined
the Carthusian monks. Some viewers see religious overtones in Cotan's paintings, claiming that he through his realism he strove to demonstrate the brilliance of God's creations; others see these works simply as phenomenal still lifes.
In either case, it is inarguable that Sanchez Cotan rightfully belongs in the ranks of famous painters for his enduring contributions to Spanish still life painting.
Question: How and why do Juan Sanchez Cotan paintings feel timeless over 400 years after their creation?
Like reading about famous painters and art history?
Join this art history blog from Masterpiece Cards, a boxed set of art history flashcards that reproduce and examine 250 of the most famous paintings in Western art history. Plus, by joining the blog, you're entered to win a free set, given away monthly.
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
As discussed in exploring earlier Vincent van Gogh paintings, van Gogh invited Gauguin to visit in Arles, France, and the two artists painted and discussed art for nine weeks starting in September, 1888. Tensions between the two rose, however, and van Gogh suffered a psychotic episode, after which he hurled a knife at Gauguin, and later cut off part of his own ear. Gauguin left Arles, where van Gogh stayed in the hospital before voluntarily entering an asylum near Saint-Remy.
Vincent van Gogh. Pieta (after Eugene Delacroix), September, 1889. Oil on canvas, approx. 29" by 24". van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
4. Vincent van Gogh Paintings from St. Remy, 1889 - 1890
During the period in which van Gogh was forbidden to leave this asylum, he painted still-lifes, the asylum garden, and resumed his practice of painting copies of prints, such as his Pieta (after Eugene Delacroix), left.
The son of a protestant minister, van Gogh distanced himself from formal Christianity and believed he could serve God by being an artist. Although his subject matter often had biblical associations - the sower, the harvester, the olive tree - van Gogh seldom painted biblical subjects, preferring instead to make "translations in colour" of works he felt depicted Christian themes appropriately.
Right. Eugene Delacroix, Pieta. Lithograph.
In his Pieta (after Eugene Delacroix), the face of Christ is that of van Gogh - clearly he considered their suffering similar. In a letter to Theo, he stated
"The figure of Christ has only been painted by Delacroix and Rembrandt in the way that I perceive him."
Van Gogh's passion for landscape - which he shared with the Impressionists - fully blossomed during his tenure at St. Remy. In his Wheatfield with a Reaper, the arc of the scythe is echoed in the long, undulating lines of yellow wheat.
Vincent explained this work to Theo:
I then saw in this reaper – a vague figure struggling like a devil in the full heat of the day to reach the end of his toil – I then saw the image of death in it, in this sense that humanity would be the wheat being reaped. (...) But in this death nothing sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold."
Vincent van Gogh. Wheatfield with a Reaper, 1890. Oil on canvas, approximately 2' 5" by 3". Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Examine this enlargement of the small, powerful brushstrokes of Wheatfield with Reaper.
Vincent van Gogh. The Sower, 1888. Oil on canvas, approximately 13" by 16".
Interest in van Gogh paintings was slowly developing from fellow artists like Camille Pissarro; Theo sold a painting, The Red Vineyard, at an art exhibition in Brussels; and several favorable reviews of van Gogh paintings were published in newspapers.
5. Final Vincent van Gogh Paintings from Auvers - 1890
Van Gogh checked out of the asylum in May, and at the recommendation of Theo and Camille Pissarro, moved to an artists' village near Paris, Auvers-sur-Oise. Between May and July, 1890, van Gogh produced nearly a painting a day, writing Theo in July about two canvases:
“They depict vast, distended wheatfields under angry skies, and I deliberately tried to express sadness and extreme loneliness in them.”
At the same time, Vincent added:
"I am almost certain that these canvases illustrate what I cannot express in words, that is, how healthy and reassuring I find the countryside.”
Vincent van Gogh. Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds, 1890. Oil on canvas, approximately 3' 3" by 1' 8". Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
This panoramic landscape (right), one of the last van Gogh painted, exudes the atmospheric intensity of a pending storm. The roiling storm clouds on the left, painted in short, impasto brushstrokes, pull your eyes to the right where they fade into the dark blue-black horizon (use Zoomify to see the array of these hues in Wheatfield under Thunderclouds).
Because Theo was considering starting his own business, he told his brother that their financial situation would worsen; although Vincent became more anxious about the future, he still was painting one work a day. One of these was Wheatfield with Crows, painted in mid-July.
Vincent van Gogh. Wheatfield with Crows, 1890. Oil on canvas, approximately 3' 3" by 1' 8". Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
It's hard to fathom that he found the countryside "healthy and reassuring" here with the cut off, dead-end paths and thickets of crows. According to the van Gogh Museum, however, Wheatfield with Crows was not a premonition of van Gogh's suicide, which happened in late July, 1890.
I'm more inclined to think that we can't know.
What do you see in Wheatfield with Crows -- a "healthy and reassuring" countryside, signs of his pending self-inflicted death, or what?