An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
Inarguably, Diego Velazquez is one of the most famous painters in the entirety of Western art history. He lived and worked during the Golden Age of Spanish painting, and he ruled it. The history of Spanish painting is the simple lineage from El Greco to Velazquez to Francisco Goya to Pablo Picasso.
Lesser known is that Diego Velazquez was also one of the most influential and talented curators who ever lived.
Diego Velazquez. Water Seller of Seville, 1618-1622. Oil on canvas, 41" by 31". Aspley House, London.
Results are in the Prado. The Spanish king Philip IV sent Velazquez to Italy in 1649 - 1650 to purchase paintings for new apartments in the royal palace. Velazquez returned with works by many of the famous painters he most admired, including Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. These, along with the Prado's Velazquez paintings, are among its grandest masterpieces.
But first some background on Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). Born in Seville, Spain, as Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, he was apprenticed -- at age 12 - to Francisco Pacheco, a mediocre Mannerist painter who was Censor of Paintings for the Spanish Inquisition. From Pacheco, Velazquez learned the naturalistic style and muted earth-toned palette which typified his earliest works like Water Seller of Seville (1618-1622). One of three versions (the others are in the Uffizi and the Walters Art Museum), this Water Seller reveals his ability to capture minute detail and naturalness in figures.
After marrying Pacheco's daughter in 1618, Velazquez traveled to Madrid in 1622 to seek royal patronage from Philip IV. The following year, Velazquez painted the portrait that would launch his career.
Portrait of Philip IV, 1623-1627
This is the first full-length portrait of the king painted by Velazquez during nearly four decades of affiliation. Despite the limited palette of mostly browns, greys, and black,
Velazquez imbues Philip IV with remarkable humanity and elegance. Here, Philip is surrounded by, or adorned with, references to his legacy and responsibilities:
- his sword, for defense of Spain
- the paper Philip grasps, representing administration;
- the Golden Fleece, a recognized emblem of the Spanish monarchy; and
- his desk, alluding to administration of justice.
Philip IV named Velazquez court painter that year, and as an indication of his esteem for the painter, provided Velazquez a workshop within the Royal Gallery. In later years, Velazquez amended this Portrait of Philip IV by shortening his cloak and repainting his legs closer together.
Diego Velazquez. Portrait of Philip IV, 1623-1627. Oil on canvas, 76' 6" by 3' 4". Prado Museum.
Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan, 1630.
Painted during his first trip to Italy in 1629, Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan reflects influences from Michelangelo and Greco-Roman statuary. It portrays the moment from Ovid's Metamorphoses when Apollo informs Vulcan that his wife, Venus, is romantically involved with Mars.
Velazquez brilliantly captures dramatic expressions on all the workers, who are situated around the anvil in different poses designed to showcase his talent in portraying the male nude. The tenebrism, or pronouced contrast between the lights and darks, is skillfully used to mold the workers' bodies and accentuate objects in the forge, as in a still life.
Below left: Diego Velazquez. Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan, 1630. Oil on canvas, 7' 5" by 9' 6". Prado.
Surrender at Breda (The Lances), 1634-1635
Here Velazquez captures the 1625 surrender of the city of Breda, the port of entry to Holland, after it was conquered by Spanish troops commanded by Ambrosio Spinola. To emphasize the generosity and clemency of Spain, Spinola has dismounted; by disallowing Justin of Nassau, who governed Breda, to fall to his knee, Spinola demonstrates their equality.
Below right: Diego Velazquez. Surrender at Breda (the Lances), 1634 - 1635. Oil on canvs, 10' by 12'. Prado.
Behind Spinola are a row of lances held by the conquering troops. Designed to reinforce Spain's power and order, their prominence has given Surrender at Breda its popular Spanish nickname, Las Lanzas.
Note the paper in the lower right corner.
Often used as a vehicle for a painter to sign his work, Velazquez has left the signature paper blank -- confident that all would know who created this masterpiece.
Juan de Pareja, 1648
Philip IV sent Velazquez back to Italy not only to purchase artwork but also to paint a portrait of Pope Innocent X. For reasons that remain unclear, the Pope did not grant an immediate audience to Velazquez who, during his wait, painted a portrait of his loyal manservant, Juan de Pareja (ca. 1610-1670).
Juan de Pareja is shown half-length, turned at a three-quarter view but gazing intently at the viewer. His lace collar is so thin and feathery it looks as if it just freshly landed; the folds and creases in his jacket are dense and well-worn. But it's the hole in the sleeve that commands attention - despite the elegance of the pose and painting, that simple tear belies his grandeur, telling us unequivocally that this is a lower class man, Velazquez portrait and all.
Diego Velazquez. Juan de Pareja, 1648. Oil on canvas, 32" by 27 1/2". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, Fletcher Fund, Rogers Fund, and Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton deGroot.
Learn more about this Valezquez masterpiece, and compare it to the Portrait of Pope Innocent X, which Velazquez painted the following year (and discover why the name "Innocent" was an astounding misnomer).
Las Meninas or The Family of Philip IV, 1656.
Las Meninas is both the most well-known painting by Diego Velazquez and in all of the Prado.
During Velazquez's second Italy trip, Philip IV had remarried; the new queen, Mariana of Austria, and her children were new subjects the king wished Velaquez to paint.
Las Meninas appears to capture a moment in time akin to a snapshot, yet that overlooks the complexity of the space Velazquez concocted. In the center foreground is the Infanta Margarita flanked by two meninas, or maids of honor. One curtsies to the Infanta while the other offers water from a ceramic jug. To the right and farther forward are two court jesters, a dwarf and a midget with his foot on the reclining mastiff.
Behind the curtsying menina are two other attendants, while Velazquez himself appears pensively painting at the left. In the open, lit doorway is the royal chamberlain.
What is going on here?
Behind the Infanta's head is a mirror in which the king and queen are reflected, projecting them into the same physical space as the viewer.
Diego Velazquez. Las Meninas, or The Family of Philip IV. Oil on canvas, 10' 5" by 9'. Prado Museum.
One interpretation is that the Infanta unexpectedly entered the studio in which Velazquez is painting the royal couple. Conversely, Velazquez may be working on this enormous canvas in which he is creating this very picture. Or have the kind and queen just entered the room to find the Infanta and her entourage alread there?
It was not uncommon for painters of the 17th century to portray themselves in the company of nobility and patrons, but Velazquez's pride is unmistakeable -- he wears the red cross of the Order of Santiago, an ancient group of nobility to which he long sought membership. It was awarded him two years after Las Meninas was finished (and only then by papal dispensation), fueling rumor that Philip IV had painted it there.
Below. Detail of Las Meninas.
The truth is that Velazquez himself added the red cross, a prideful acknowledgement that he was in the same class as Spanish nobility.
There are only 120 known Velazquez paintings (and the Prado has fifty), and most are neither signed nor dated. How astounding that the legacy of Diego Velzaquez remains so profound nearly four centuries later!
What qualities of Velazquez's work do you feel contribute to his fame, despite such limited output?
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
Garden of Earthly Delights is a series of superlatives: the best-known work of Hieronymous Bosch (ca. 1450-1516), one of the most famous paintings in Western art history, and one of the most influential, inspirational works for Surrealist painters of the 20th century.
Hieronymus Bosch (also spelled Jheronimus Bos) was born Jerome van Aeken in the small Netherland town of 's-Hertogenbosch, from which his name is derived. A member of the third generation of a family of painters, Hieronymus Bosch was an orthodox Catholic whose style was anything but orthodox -- over five centuries later, it remains baffling how Bosch crafted a style so remote from the leading Netherlandish painters of his time, Jan van Eyck (ca. 1370/90-1441) and Rogier van der Weyden (ca. 1400-1464). Forty Hieronymous Bosch paintings are known to exist; none is dated, and only seven, including Garden of Earthly Delights, are signed.
Hieronymous Bosch. Garden of Earthly Delights, ca. 1500-1505. Oil and grisaille on wooden panel. Center panel is 7'2 1/2" x 6'4 3/4". Each wing is 7'2 1/2" x 3'2". Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Although painted in the triptych format often used for altarpieces, Garden of Earthly Delights is clearly a secular work - the imagery is (and remains) inappropriate for religious settings.
When the wings of the triptych are closed (see bottom left), it shows a massive sphere depicting the world on the third day of Creation, before life began.
When opened, though, Garden of Earthly Delights is a dizzying, dazzling array of enigmatic and provocative scenes best contemplated through the beliefs of its creator. Hieronymus Bosch was a fundamentalist moralist who believed that mankind has been flawed and damned since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden.
Hieronymous Bosch. Garden of Earthly Delights, ca. 1500-1505. Oil and grisaille on wooden panel. Left wing. 7' 2 1/2" x 3'2". Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Let's examine each of the three panels.
Here, Hieronymus Bosch portrays his vision of Paradise and the Garden of Eden on the last day of Creation.
From top to bottom, one sees the first animals God fashioned and in the center, the Fountain of Life. Eve has just been created from Adam's rib; they are surrounded by a verdant landscape populated by imaginary and real animals including unicorns, giraffes and a three-headed bird, lingering by the pool. Half way down on the right is the Tree of Knowledge, with a snake coiled around its trunk; this was the sole source of forbidden fruit in a landscape laden with other varieties.
Note the hints of dissonance, even in Paradise: in the foreground, animals prey upon and devour those who are smaller and weaker.
This panel in Garden of Earthly Delights is indisputably the most cryptic and baffling.
Hieronymous Bosch. Garden of Earthly Delights, ca. 1500-1505. Oil and grisaille on wooden panel. Central panel. 7' 2 1/2" x 6'4 3/4". Museo del Prado, Madrid.
The world’s four rivers are on the horizon, grounding this scene on Earth; note how the landscape is continuous across all panels of the triptych.
The overarching theme appears to be hedonism, especially the seeking and satisfaction of sexual desires. In the center is the Bath of Venus, a pool filled with naked, bathing women. Encircling them is a procession of naked men and women who are gawking shamelessly while astride deer, camels, unicorns and horses.
In medieval times, the phrase “riding a horse” was a metaphor for having sexual relations, while the “bath of Venus” referred to being in love.
Overlooking the Bath of Venus is a fantastic castle-like tower housing five turrets. Throughout, miniature, naked humans frolic, kiss and cavort among themselves and with marine animals, gigantic birds and flowers. The landscape is populated by enormous strawberries and succulent grapes, some of which are being plucked and devoured. Imaginary beasts wander around, seemingly oblivious to the carnality around them.
In the bottom right corner are the sole clothed figures; they are Adam and Eve, seemingly hiding from the chaos around them.
The rampant imagination of Hieronymous Bosch is on full display in this vision of the land of the damned. This depiction of an inferno – perhaps Hell itself – shows tiny humans receiving punishments and tortures matching their sins; they suffer below a sky filled with fire and brimstone.
Hieronymous Bosch. Garden of Earthly Delights, ca. 1500-1505. Oil and grisaille on wooden panel. Right wing. 7' 2 1/2" x 3'2". Museo del Prado, Madrid.
About mid-ground on the far right, for instance, is a rodent-bird-like creature sitting in an elevated chair and sporting a cauldron as its cap (see bottom right); it devours sinners, and later expels their remains into a pit of human waste and vomit.
Such was the fate of those committing the sin of gluttony.
Those who indulged the pleasures of the flesh are impaled and crucified by musical instruments, classical symbols for lust and love. Soldiers are impaled on spears; one in armor is consumed by a dragon. All are suffering and are on the brink of death, but will suffer eternally because no one dies in Hell.
In the center is an off-white-broken-eggshell monster with a hauntingly evil human face and stubby legs; he appears to be the ringmaster orchestrating the suffering of these sinners.
Interpretations of Garden of Earthly Delights
The lack of information about Bosch's life has done nothing but fuel speculation about the meaning of Garden of Earthly Delights.
To the extent that one can interpret Hieronymous Bosch at face value, Garden of Earthly Delights seems to be about the perils of hedonism and most particularly, the sin of lust. Given that Bosch was a fundamentalist moralist, this is one compelling interpretation.
Hieronymous Bosch. Garden of Earthly Delights, ca. 1500-1505. Oil and grisaille on wooden panel. Detail of right wing. 7' 2 1/2" x 3'2". Museo del Prado, Madrid.
But various other interpretations abound. Some consider Bosch a heretic guilty of horrific immorality, while others believe that the meaning of Garden of Earthly Delights was known only to the elite of Bosch's era. Or that Hieronymous Bosch belonged to a secret sect of atheistic nudists.
A more recent interpretation is that Hieronymus Bosch, like Leonardo da Vinci, blended science and piety in his paintings. In medieval times, the practice of science was considered a means of attaining salvation; alchemy, a precursor to chemistry, strove to transform matter through distillative processes into a perfect form, with divine intervention.
Considering the bizarrely shaped vessel-objects in all panels of the Garden, it is plausible that they are flasks and funnels used in the distillation processes of alchemy. Add that to the prevalent fear in 1500 that the world was coming to an end, as detailed in the Book of Revelation, and you have another interpretation: Bosch believed that alchemy could "distill" the human race back to the innocence of Adam and Eve.
Hieronymous Bosch. Garden of Earthly Delights, ca. 1500-1505. Oil and grisaille on wooden panel. Closed view. 7' 2 1/2" x 6'4 3/4". Museo del Prado, Madrid.
What is certain about Garden of Earthly Delights is this: although its enigmas have fascinated viewers (and baffled art historians) for over five centuries, definitive answers are unlikely to ever be known.
Was Hieronymus Bosch such a genius that he intended this? Which interpretation of Garden of Earthly Delights do you find most persuasive?
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
Smoke of Ambergris is a rarity in John Singer Sargent paintings - it is his take on Orientalist art.
The Orient, encompassing present-day Greece, Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East, had captivated Western artists for centuries. Famous painters like Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1430-1507) and Rembrandt (1606-1669) depicted figures in Middle Eastern garb, while Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) mastered Oriental genre scenes featuring harems.
John Singer Sargent. Self Portrait, 1906. Oil on canvas. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
After Napoleon invaded and overtook Egypt in 1798, however, the French presence attracted Western visitors. In 1809, the French government published the first volume of a 24 volume set title, Description de l'Egypte, fueling more fascination with the Orient.
Among those transfixed by Orientalism in art was John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who began Smoke of Ambergris during his visit to North Africa in 1879-1880.
A woman standing below a Moorish arch is draped in an elaborate garment and holds a shawl over her head to capture ambergris smoke wafting out from a silver censer. Ambergris, a gelatinous, intestinal substance from sperm whales, was used in the Near East as:
- an alleged aphrodisiac;
- a component in perfume; and
- an alleged ward against evil spirits.
John Singer Sargent. Smoke of Ambergris, 1880. Oil on canvas, 54 3/4" by 35 11/16". Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.
These diverse uses add to the ambiguity in Smoke of Ambergris, which also blends an array of Oriental images and cultural details. The woman's robes and mantle were typical dress for both genders living in North Africa, for example, but her jewelry and costume come from other areas.
So this is an imaginary scene.
One of two John Singer Sargent paintings in the Paris Salon of 1880, Smoke of Ambergris merits its fame due to his masterful technique: it is a symphony of whites, creams, and beiges with discrete touches of orange and red. Sargent's brushwork is so phenomenal - there isn't a superflous brushmark - that it becomes as secondary subject of the painting.
In an article about John Singer Sargent in Harper's New Monthly Magazine of October 1887, Henry James observed,
"The picture is exquisite, a radiant effect of white upon white, of similar but discriminating tones."
Explore more John Singer Sargent paintings, Madame X and El Jaleo. And if you aren't a subscriber, please join our community of art history fans who enjoy famous paintings.
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
With 9.2 million visitors in 2013, the Louvre was the most frequently visited art museum in the world. Although the Louvre collection consists of some 38,000 objects from prehistory through the 19th century, visitors primarily come to see the renowned collection of Louvre paintings in this 100 acre (40 hectare) art museum.
Paolo Uccello. The Battle of San Romano, ca. 1435-1440. Wood, 71 1/2" by 125". Louvre.
Enough facts and figures.
I'm thinking about your feet; the limited timeframe most art museum visitors have; and choosing which Louvre paintings are must-see.
Here are 20 of the most famous paintings in the Louvre (according to Masterpiece Cards' research):
1. Paolo Uccello. The Battle of San Romano, ca. 1435 - 1440. One of the most famous Renaissance paintings anywhere, The Battle of San Romano was long believed to have been commissioned by the de Medicis. Recent research, though, suggests that it was actually commissioned by Lionardo Bartolini Salimbeni, who helped instigate the battle portrayed here. This panel is one of three about the Battle of San Romano, which commemorates the 1432 victory of Florence over Siena; the other panels are in the National Gallery, London and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
2. Enguerrand Quarton. Pieta de Villeneuve d' Avignon, ca. 1450. One of the most significant works in religious art, Quarton's Pieta is a standard Christian scene that seems to embody all human and spiritual grief. This Pieta is not the typical idealized scene but instead features angular figures with abstracted faces highlighted against a luminous background.
3. Leonardo da Vinci. The Virgin of the Rocks, ca. 1483-86. The largest painting Leonardo
da Vinci ever finished, The Virgin is one of two versions of this theme; the other is in the National Gallery in London. In this enigmatic Leonardo painting, the Virgin sits between the infants Christ and Saint John the Baptist in the care of an angel.
4. Leonardo da Vinci. The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, ca. 1503-1506. Although underpainting shows in this unfinished work, Virgin and Child demonstrates three pictorial techniques either created or perfected by Leonardo.
Left: Leonard da Vinci. The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, ca. 1503-06. Oil on wood, 66" by 44". Louvre.
Additionally, the enigmatic smile of Saint Anne is reminiscent of that of Mona Lisa. Explore two more famous paintings by Leonardo, the Benois Madonna and the Madonna Litta.
5. Leonardo da Vinci. The Mona Lisa, ca. 1505. The calm, wistful countenance of Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini, a/k/a Mona Lisa, is the most famous and mocked portrait in the entirety of Western history of art. Read about an alleged newly discovered Leonardo painting that might be Mona Lisa's sister!
6. Titian. Le Conceret Champetre (Pastoral Concert), ca. 1509-1510. A group of four are gathered in a verdant landscape, and are stumbled upon by a shepherd and his flock. Despite extensive art history research, no literary reference has been found for Pastoral Concert. Centuries later, its meaning remains uncertain, as does any record of its early ownership: its existence was first documents in 1671 when it was purchased by Louix XIV.
Explore other Titian paintings not in the Louvre, including Rape of Europa, Man with a Glove, and Bacchus and Ariadne.
7. School of Fontainebleau. Diana the Huntress, mid-16th century. The first School of Fontainebleau consisted of mainly unidentifiable artists. Diana the Huntress was created around the same time that a Hellenistic scuipture of Diana, goddess of the hunt, arrived in France as a gift from Pope Paul IV Carafa to Henri II. Many art historians believe that this Diana is the king's mistress, Diane de Poitiers, known for supporting the arts -- and dominating Henri II.
Right: School of Fontainebleau. Diana the Huntress, mid-16th century. Oil on wood, transferred to canvas, approximately 75" by 52". Louvre.
8. Peter Paul Rubens. The Disembarkation of Maria de' Medici at the Port of Marseilles on November 3, 1600. One of a series of 21 Rubens paintings commissioned by and about the life of the Queen of France, wife of Henry IV. Completed between 1621 and 1625, these Rubens paintings all hang in the Louvre. Learn about another Rubens paintings, Venus and Adonis.
9. Jusepe de Ribera. The Club-Footed Boy, 1642. A Spaniard who worked all his life in Naples, Ribera introduced social realism in painting and the influence of Caravaggio to France.
10. Hyacinthe Rigaud. Portrait of Louis XIV. 1701. This larger-than-life-sized portrait (it's 9' 2" tall) draws attention to the king's legs -- of which he was quite proud - and makes no effort to camoflage the red built-up heels he work to compensate for his short stature.
11. Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Betrothal in the Village, 1761. From 1759 until the 1770s, Greuze's paintings of everyday life (genre scenes) were stars of the Paris Salons. Betrothal in the Village, shown in the Salon of 1761, received rave reviews for its authenticity.
12. Jacques-Louis David. The Oath of the Horatii, ca. 1784. David rejected the extravagance and opulence of the Baroque and Rococo eras, and with fellow 18th century painters, promoted Neoclassicism; now, painting was dominated by subject matter from ancient Greece and Rome, and by unadorned line and color. Later, David paintings became political propaganda about the French Revolution. Explore other Jacques-Louis David paintings not in the Louvre.
Hyacinthe Riguad. Portrait of Louis XIV, 1701. Oil on canvas, 9'2" by 7'10 3/4". Louvre.
13. Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. Self Portrait with Daughter, 1789. After her talent was discovered at an early age, Vigee-Brun became a popular portraitist for members of the aristocracy. After she was summoned to Versailles to paint Queen Marie Antoinette, Vigee-Lebrun was commissioned to paint over 20 portraits of the Queen and her family.
14. Marie Benoist. Portrait of a Negress, 1800. A student of both Jacques-Louis David and Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, Benoist sealed her reputation with this Portrait when it was shown in the Salon of 1800, six years after slavery had been abolished in France. After earning commissions from Napoleon and a gold medal in 1804, Benoist had to stop exhibiting when her husband was appointed to a public, high position of state.
15. Antoine-Jean Gros. Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Victims of the Plague at Jaffa, 1804. Twenty-three feet long, this painting is pure political propaganda, commissioned to showcase Napoleon's brave and humanitarian sides as he compassionately touches the sore of a plague victim. What is ignored here is that Napoleon poisoned these same men in his earlier retreat from Jaffa.
16. Pierre-Paul Prud'Hon. Empress Josephine, 1805. This portrait, commissioned by Napoleon, shows his beautiful and melancholic wife shortly after their coronation. It seems as if Empress Josephine is contemplating her bleak future: she has failed to produce any heirs after sixteen years of marriage. As a consequence, Napoleon declared their union null and void, and remarried.
17. Ingres. Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1808. At the age of 20, Ingres was the pupil of, and aide to, Jacques-Louis David. While Ingres portrays here the Greek myth about Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx, he also introduces distinctly unclassical elements, like Oedipus' muscled torso.
18. Ingres. Valpincon Bather, 1808. Ingres has a reputation of painting a woman's back as he feels it ought to be, rather than anatomically correctly; this is demonstrated by the extra vertebrae of Valpincon Bather and in his controversial Grande Odalisque, also in the Louvre.
Theodore Gericault. Raft of the "Medusa", 1819. Oil on canvas, 16' by 23'6". Louvre.
19. Theodore Gericault. Raft of the Medusa, 1819. After the French frigate Medusa hit a reef, its captain, selected passengers and senior officers comandeered all available lifeboats for themselves. The remaining 149 passengers and crew were crammed onto a wooden raft which the captain cut loose from a lifeboat. Only 15 of the 149 survived. Through Raft of the Medusa, Gericault become instrumental in publicizing this scandal.
20. Eugene Delacroix. Dante and Virgil, 1822. Delacroix captures the Romantic revival of interest in Dante's Inferno. In this Delacroix masterpiece, Dante and his guide, Virgil, are in a listing bark near the internal city of Dis;its burning towers are visible in the background. The viewers sees the backside of Charon, Hades' boatman, and the writhing bodies of damned souls grasping onto and biting the bark. Explore another Delacroix work, Liberty Leading the People.
Although these twenty Louvre paintings are an infintesimal part of the Louvre collection, they nonetheless survey over 400 years of art history, showing works by some of the most renowned painters, then and now.
Like reading about famous works like these Louvre paintings?
Imagine "Famous Paintings in a Box", a set of art history cards that:
- reproduce 250 of the most influential paintings ever made; and
- provide analysis of these famous works.
All packed onto a 4" by 6" Card, ready to read, take with you to a museum, teach your children, learn yourself, referesh your memory, or...
You get it.
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
Art historians have generally agreed that there are 36 authenticated Vermeer paintings -- until this week, that is. Researchers from the Rijksmuseum and Vrije Universiteit have announced a new attribution to Johann Vermeer (1632-1675).
Attributed to Johann Vermeer. Saint Praxedis, 1655. Oil on canvas, 40" by 32 1/2".
Credible 17th and 18th century sources reference at least six Vermeer paintings that are not presently accounted for. Only one of these, Saint Praxedis, has in recent years been seriously considered for inclusion in the canon of Johann Vermeer.
Many art historians consider Saint Praxedis to be the work of the 17-century Italian painter Felice Ficherelli, who painted a nearly identical version of the painting with the same title (right). In 1986, Arthur Wheelock, Jr., the esteemed curator of Northern Baroque painting at the National Gallery of Art, expressed full confidence that Saint Praxedis was indeed an authentic Vermeer.
The debate has not stopped since. (Read this excellent history about the history of authenticating Saint Praxedis).
Right. Felice Ficherelli. Saint Praxedis, ca. 1640-1645. Oil on canvas, 41" by 32". Collection Fergmani, Ferrarra.
Although Saint Praxedis is signed "Meer", its subject matter and style are atypical of Vermeer's.
Saint Praxedis was painted when Vermeer was in his early 20s, a period in which he was heavily influenced by Italian art and had just converted to Christianity. That, coupled with tests indicating that the white lead paint of Saint Praxedis is identical to that in
Vermeer's Diane and Her Companions, has swayed some authorities. Others point out that the ultramarine blue is also typical of Vermeer paintings.
I'm not an art historian; I'm not trained in authentication; and I'm not persuaded that Saint Praxedis is the real deal.
Vermeer initially created history paintings, including biblical and mythological paintings, so
the theme of Saint Praxedis is unusual but not impossible. When you look at the Vermeer painting previously considered the oldest, Diana and Her Companions, you are reminded what unites all Vermeer paintings, regardless of subject matter: the quality of his light.
Johann Vermeer. Diana and her Companions, ca. 1653-1656. Oil on canvas, 38 3/4" x 41 3/8". Mauritshuis, The Hague.
My case is simple: compare two other Vermeer paintings created at nearly the same time, Diana and her Companions and Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (left), with Saint Praxedis, and it is nearly inconceivable that they were created by the same artist.
Johann Vermeer. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, ca. 1654-1655. Oil on canvas, 63" by 55 7/8". National Gallery of Scotland.
Disbelief in a Vermeer attribution of Saint Praxedis was succintly expressed by Jon Boone in 2002:
In looking at Saint Praxedis, one does have a hard time understanding its attribution to Vermeer. It is a second-rate copy of a mediocre painting by an undistinguished artist, with certain features – such as the awkward wrap-around hands –antithetical to Vermeer’s sensibility as well as his draftsmanship. While the face itself is beautiful, certainly more charming than that of the original, it is still a facsimile face, a close copy of the source...
The simplest explanation covering all the facts of the case is that the painting is a copy executed either by the original painter, Ficherelli, in Florence, or by another artist in Ficherelli’s circle. The later signatures on the painting likely refer to one or several of the many artists at the time with the name of Meer or van der Meer, not Johannes Vermeer of Delft.
Do you believe that Saint Praxedis is by Vermeer? What persuades you so?
For a timeline of all fully attributed Vermeer paintings, check out essentialVermeer.com.
And stay tuned -- this is a story I'll be following!
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An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
Many of the most famous paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) were created during the years Britain and Napoleonic France were battling. Turner paintings can be broadly divided into two groups:
- realistic, topographical paintings designed to convey information, and
- paintings in which Turner altered details to convey his opinions of current events, history, politics and nature.
Joseph Mallord William Turner. Self-Portrait, ca. 1799. Oil on canvas, approximately 29" by 23". Tate, London.
Born in Covent Gardens, London, where his father was a wigmaker and barber, Turner became a student at the Royal Academy Schools when he was just 14 years old. There, he studied works by established painters like Claude Lorrain and emulated his style, becoming a master of Romantic landscape paintings. By the age of 27, Turner was a full academician.
And perhaps a bit quirky. Turner painted in secrecy in his studio, using an assumed name and refusing to teach any pupils. (1)
Joseph Mallord William Turner, known as JMW Turner, was a painter of diverse subjects and moods who often depicted current events; deemed "the painter of light", Turner was the first painter to jettison light brown priming in favor of pure white (2), which accentuated the brilliance of his colors.
His skill in handling light is shown in one of Turner's most famous paintings, The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1838.
All Britons knew the HMS Temeraire because she was instrumental in the Battle of Trafalgar between British and French fleets: on 21 October 1805, Admiral Nelson, the British commander, trounced the invading French fleet despite its six ship advantage.
Joseph Mallord William Turner. The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1838. Oil on canvas, 35 1/4" by 48". National Gallery, London.
Tragically, this national hero died from a gunshot wound aboard the Victory, the Temeraire's sister ship.
The Temeraire thus insured Britain's naval dominance for another century. According to contemporary records, the Temeraire not only decoyed French fire away from Admiral Nelson and Victory but also captured two French ships -- with the death of Nelson, the Temeraire was the hero of Trafalgar.
Painted thirty-three years after this victory, The Fighting Temeraire doesn't only commemorate a pivotal battle. It also records repercussions of the Industrial Revolution which, by 1838, had rendered such sailing ships irrelevant. Pulled by a steam-driven paddle boat from the British town of Sheerness to Rotherhithe, the Temeraire is headed to a scrap yard.
Curiously, though, the Temeraire is travelling east and away from the sunset, although Rotherhithe is actually west of Sheerness.
Turner has shifted from creating a historically accurate painting to one in which he paints his opinion: the parallel between the setting sun and the demise of the Temeraire is inescapable. Perhaps, too, Turner presages the end of Britain's global dominance that was historically secured by its naval prowess.
Why do you suppose Turner chose not to show the Temeraire sailing toward the sunset, as was historically true?
1. Frederick Hartt. A History of Painting: Art. Sculpture. Architecture. (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 1993). 4th Edition, 897.
2. Hartt 897.
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
Max Beckmann (1884-1950), Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), are three famous painters known for creating numerous self-portraits over their entire lifetimes.
Over the course of Beckmann's, he painted forty self-portraits, portraying himself in roles including clown, medical attendant, circus director, king and acrobat, and in garb ranging from prisoner wear to formal evening wear.
It is fitting that the earliest surviving painting by Max Beckmann is a self-portrait (left).
Max Beckmann. Self-Portrait, Florence, 1907. Oil on canvas, 38 1/2 x 35 1/2". Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg.
Born into a wealthy family in Leipzig, Beckmann became well-versed in early Renaissance painters from the Netherlands and Germany as well as famous Dutch painters of the 17th century. In 1903 he settled in Berlin, a hub for Art Nouveau and German Impressionism, and began creating murals and depicting contemporary disasters such as The Sinking of the Titanic.
In that work, lifeboats are overflowing with hordes of desperate passengers mashed together while in the distance, the Titanic remains upright. The water teems with flailing arms and legs, and dead bodies. Although Beckmann had no personal connection to the sinking of the Titanic - it is believed he painted this rendition from newspaper photographs - he clearly was influenced by grand history paintings like Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People.
Max Beckmann. The Sinking of the Titanic, 1912-13. Oil on canvas, 8' 8" x 10' 10". St. Louis Museum of Art.
Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art at the St. Louis Museum of Art, comments that in The Sinking of the Titanic,
"(Beckmann) is trying to project himself in the German art world as an ambitious, grand painter of contemporary life."
Beckmann served in the medical corps in the trenches of Flanders during World War I, after which he suffered major depression and hallucinations. He abandoned his earlier academic, classical style of painting and adopted a more expressive style, focusing most frequently on themes of the inner self and the mysteries of life. This lifelong search for internal reality appears in many Max Beckmann paintings, like Self-Portrait with Red Scarf of 1917. His post-war anxiety and angst is palpable, even in the security of his studio.
Max Beckmann. Self-Portrait with a Red Scarf, 1917. Oil on canvas, 31" x 24". Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart.
By 1927, Max Beckmann was recognized as one of the leading German painters. The government honored him, and awarded him a prestigous teaching position in Frankfurt. Beckmann wrote an essay titled, "The Artist in the State", which articulated his belief that artists belonged to the social elite and should be included in the leadership of the Weimar Republic.
That confidence dominates his Self-Portrait in Tuxedo, in which Beckmann's stripped down, detail-less image fills the frame.
Color has been stripped down, too, with backlighting emphasizing his shadowy head and hand. Beckmann stares directly at the viewer in a conflicted image: is he showing his discomfort with German politics? Is he exuding arrogance or confidence? Is his stance a swagger or not?
Max Beckmann. Self-Portrait in Tuxedo, 1927. Oil on canvas, 55 1/2" x 37 3/4". Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA
It became clear that Hitler didn't believe modern artists belonged in Germany, let alone in its ruling class.
After Hitler became chancellor in 1933, he vowed to excise all modern art in Germany. 590 Max Beckmann paintings were confiscated from German art museums (including Self-Portrait with a Red Scarf), he was fired from his teaching post, and when the Degenerate Art Show opened in Munich, with ten Max Beckmann paintings, he and his wife fled Germany for Amsterdam.
Self-Portrait in Tuxedo was seized by the Nazis and sold abroad in 1937.
After a decade of hiding from the Nazis, Beckmann accepted a teaching post at Washington University in St. Louis, living in the United States for the rest of his life.
In the thirties and forties, Beckmann continued to shun all labels describing his work- for instance, he never considered himself a disciple of Expressionism, widespread in 1920s Germany - and continued his figurative painting which often used, like the Expressionists, bold colors and distorted shapes.
In the last twenty years of his life, Beckmann created nine triptyches, inspired by those of Hieronymus Bosch. Departure, one of the best known, is laden with allegory and symbolism echoing his early study of the Old Masters.
Max Beckmann. Departure, 1932-35. Side panels 7' 3/4" x 39 1/4", center panel 7' 3/4" x 45 3/8". Oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, described Departure as
an allegory of the triumphal voyage of the modern spirit through and beyond the agony of the modern world.
The side panels show life as an endless misery of torture, sadism and agony. Although Beckmann claimed to be apolitical, the left panel surely references the rise of dictatorship that prompted widespread emigration from Germany. Beckmann commented about Departure:
On the right wing you can see yourself trying to find your way in the darkness, lighting the hall and staircase with a miserable lamp dragging along tied to you as part of yourself, the corpse of your memories, of your wrongs, of your failures, the murder everyone commits at some time of his life - you can never free yourself of your past, you have to carry the corpse while Life plays the drum.
The center panel, which Beckmann called The Homecoming, resolves this despair with its message of freedom. According to him, "The King and Queen have freed themselves of the tortures of life - they have overcome them... Freedom is the one thing that matters - it is the departure, the new start."
Beckmann seldom spoke of the meaning of his paintings, believing that viewers' interpretations would be similar to his so he didn't need to provide a "key." His description of Departure is rare - do you interpret it as he did? Let us know!
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
The New York Historical Society show, Audubon's Aviary: Parts Unknown, showcases a breathtaking display of Audubon prints.
If you've ever had the slightest interest in birds or the work of John James Audubon (1785-1851), this show will stoke it.
The New York Historical Society functioned until 1870 as both an art and a natural history museum. It owns all 435 watercolor models for the 435 plates in the
John James Aububon. Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), Havell plate no. 211, 1821. Watercolor, oil, pastel, graphite, gouache, black ink, and collage on paper, laid on card. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.211
priceless John James Audubon book, The Birds of America, engraved by Robert Havell. Parts Unknown, the second of three shows collectively titled The Complete Flock, focuses on what many consider the best Audubon prints, his water birds and waders.
John James Audubon was America's first famous watercolorist whose efforts to preserve wildlife are belatedly being appreciated. He single-handedly transformed the field of ornothological illustration by showing all birds life-sized.
His astonishing mastery of watercolor is reason alone to see this show, which lasts until May 26, 2014. Don't miss the audio guide to the calls and songs associated with each species.
Right: John James Aububon. Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica). Havell plate 213, 1833. Watercolor, graphite, gouache, black ink, and black pastel with touches of glazing. 14 1/2 " by 21 7/16". Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
Shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power as chancellor in 1933, he commissioned construction of a Munich museum to exhibit what he considered ideal artwork. Its debut exhibition in July 1937 was titled the "Great Germany Art Exhibition" and featured artwork primarily selected by the chancellor himself.
Prominent in this show was The Four Elements (left) by Adolf Ziegler, Hitler's favorite artist who was charged with expunging modern art from German museums.
His purge totaled some 20,000 pieces of modern art to be destroyed, sold, or hidden, and were featured in a government-sponsored exhibition titled "Entartete Kunst", or "Degenerate Art". This show, which opened the day after the "Great Germany Art Exhibition", was intended to demonstrate how modern art was polluting German culture.
Adolf Ziegler. The Four Elements: Fire, Water and Earth, Air. Oil on canvas, before 1937. Left to right: 67" by 33"; 67" by 75"; 63" by 30".
All styles of modern art - abstraction, Cubism, Dada, Expressionism, Surrealism - were castigated and deemed an affront to the Apollonian "classical" society Hitler envisioned. In three years of traveling throughout Germany and Austria, the Degenerate Art exhibition was seen by an estimated three million people. Remarkably, Jews were held culpable for the threat that modern art posed to Germany - even though they represented only 6 of the 112 painters whose works were exhibited.
Right: Max Beckmann. Departure, 1932-35. Side panels 7' 3/4" x 39 1/4", center panel 7' 3/4" x 45 3/8". Oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
"Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937" runs at New York's Neue Galerie until June 30th, and is well worth enduring the queue.
Ziegler's Four Elements, so beloved by Hitler that it hung over his fireplace, is exhibited alongside one of the most famous paintings by Max Beckmann, Departure. Famously reticent about the meaning behind his work, Max Beckmann quipped,
"If people cannot understand it of their own accord,... there is no sense in showing it."
Although Departure is rich with enigma and personal meaning, it was created during a
horrific time in Germany and clearly alludes to these events. The side panels convey the cruelty and brutality of life, with the men's faces either hidden or averted in secrecy. The center panel, which Max Beckmann referred to as The Homecoming, indisputably carries the iconography of freedom.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. A Group of Artists: Painters of the Brucke. Oil on canvas, 1925-26. Museum Ludwig, Cologne.
Beckmann described Homecoming by saying,
The Queen carries the greatest treasure - Freedom - as the child in her lap. Freedom is the one thing that matters - it is the departure, the new start.
The meaning of Beckmann's triptych was clear enough - Germany's Nationalist Party denounced Departure so viciously that Beckmann emigrated to the Netherlands.
The disdain shown to Max Beckmann, though, paled in comparison to the Nationalists' dislike for the modern art painters of Die Brucke, founded by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Fritz Bleyl. Started in 1905, Die Brucke (The Bridge) painters
envisioned themselves as the conduit (or bridge) between historic German art and modern art.
Their untraditional, dynamic brushwork and bold color diverged radically from prevalent style.
Not surprisingly, Kirchner's A Group of Artists: Painters of the Brucke, was featured in the
Degenerate Art show (all told, 639 works by Kirchner were confiscated as "degenerate.")
Although Kirchner depicts himself and his fellow artists as nonchalant and casual, ostracism took a toll: a year after painting A Group of Artists, Kirchner killed himself while in exile.
Vasily Kandinsky. Several Circles, 1926. Oil on canvas, 55 1/4" by 55 3/8". Guggenheim.
Other seemingly benign modern art paintings were also confiscated, like Several Circles (above) by Vasily Kandinsky. While it doesn't have any discernible message critical of the Nationalists, it was guilty of being too modern.
Several Circles directly nods to 2014: it was sold by the German art dealer, Hildenbrand Gurlitt, whose son, Cornelius Gurlitt, is embroiled in an international controversy over the rightful ownership of allegedly family paintings.
Right. Max Beckmann. Self-Portrait with Horn, 1938. Oil on canvas, approximately 43" by 40". Neue Galerie, New York.
By 1938, Hitler had grown increasingly vocal with threats of sterilizing and imprisoning degenerate artists, prompting Beckmann to flee to Amsterdam. He immediately painted Self-Portrait with Horn, one of over 80 Max Beckmann self-portraits. His robe is reminiscent of prison garb, and he looks ready to blow his horn and sound an alarm - perhaps a clarion call. Underneath his signature is the letter "A", which he added to all works painted from Amsterdam.
One of the jewels of "Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937" is a bulging ledger book with painstakingly typed lines detailing, line by line, all the degenerate art confiscated in 1937 and 1938.
Some paintings, still unaccounted for, are symbolized by missing frames hanging throughout the Neue Galerie; an "X" in the ledger denotes those known to have been destroyed.
The enormity of the ledger, on loan from the Victoria and Albert Gallery in London, steals the show.
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An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
Horace Pippin (1888-1946), now one of the most renowned African American artists, began painting as physical therapy to recover from an arm injury sustained in World World I. This self-taught artist kept an illustrated journal of his war time experiences that would later inform his artwork.
Horace Pippin. Self Portrait, 1944. Oil on canvas adhered to cardboard, 8 1/2" by 6 1/2". Metropolitan Museum of Art.
During the onset of Pippin's painting career in the 1930s, the lifestyle of the South was being explored and celebrated in media like George Gershwin's opera, Porgy and Bess (1935), and the book Gone With the Wind (1936). It was during this period that Horace Pippin was discovered through his painting, Cabin in the Cotton.
The art critic and curator, Christian Brinton (1870-1942) and the illustrator, N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945) spotted Cabin in the Cotton in the window of a shoe repair shop in Pippin's home town, West Chester, Pennsylvania. After the popular actor Charles Laughton purchased Cabin in 1940, Horace Pippin was on his way to becoming one of the most lauded American painters of the mid-twentieth century.
The range of subjects Pippin painted was diverse: interior scenes, portraits, landscapes and even a series of works about the abolitionist, John Brown (whose killing was allegedly seen by Pippin's grandmother, a former slave). It was his fortune that self-taught American painters and their "primitive" styles were in vogue in the 30s when Cabin in the Woods was discovered. Its saturated palette and thick, textured brushstrokes became typical of Pippin's style.
According to the Art Institute of Chicago, the painting's composition references the opening and closing scenes in a 1932 film starring Bette Davis and titled... Cabin in the Woods. That same year, two popular singers, Cab Calloway and Bing Crosby, each produced his own version of a song of the same name.
I'd add "brilliant marketer" to Pippin's list of talents!
Horace Pippin. Cabin in the Cotton, 1933-37. Oil on canvas mounted on Masonite, 18" by 33". Art Institute of Chicago.
Domino Players is one of the most famous paintings by Horace Pippin, and is a characteristically intimate interior setting. By invoking childhood memories of every day life of his family and friends - as they played games, sewed, tended children, smoked - he offered a rare, insider's glance into African American family life. Here, a young boy, likely Pippin or his younger brother, peers directly at the viewer, pleading for sympathy with his boredom. The cold neutral palette of the spartan room is punctuated by the colors of the quilt and the intense reds scattered throughout the painting.
Horace Pippin. Domino Players, 1943. Oil on composition board, 12 3/4" by 22". Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.
There is an undercurrent of ambiguity and danger here, too: the open scissors on the floor seem disproportionately scaled and the flames in the fire resemble pointed, sharp teeth.
Although different in mood than Domino Players, The Barracks shares a similar palette of "restrained colors, black, white, gray, with touches of red", according to Duncan Phillips, the founder of the Phillips Collection. It clearly references his stint in the New York 15th
National Guard, an African American unit that became the 369th Infantry Regiment after incorporation into the U. S. Army.
Horace Pippin. The Barracks, 1945. Oil on canvas, 25 1/4" by 30". Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.
In The Barracks, Pippin captures the stark, claustrophobic life of the soldier while painfully reminding the viewer that even in war and national crisis, segregation prevailed.
Despite his recognition as one of the leading America painters of his time, Pippin's total output comprised only about 140 paintings, mainly due to his immobile arm. One of the last of these was his Self-Portrait (above, left), one of only two self portraits painted during his brief life of 56 years.
Question: Do you see lurking danger in the scissors and fire (and perhaps even in the jagged red flames of the oil lamp)?