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Matisse Paintings: The Yellow Dress

Posted by Susan Benford

The world's most extensive collection of Matisse paintings and artwork is found at the Baltimore Museum of Art, amassed by the incomparable Cone sisters, Claribel (1864-1929) and Etta (1870-1949). 

Etta Cone began what would become the 3,000 object Cone Collection with her 1898 purchase of five Impressionist paintings by the American painter, Theodore Robinsoncone-sisters (1852-1896).  Over time, she and Claribel amassed 500 works by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), a collection conisting of:

  • 42 Matisse paintings
  • 18 sculptures
  • 36 drawings
  • 155 prints
  • 7 illustrated books
  • 250 drawings, prints, and copper plates from Matisse's first illustrated book, Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé.

Above: Claribel Cone, Gertrude Stein, and Etta Cone. June 26, 1903. Settignano/Fiesole. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Cone Archives.

The Cones' first purchase of a Matisse painting was his 1905 unfinished work,matisse paintings yellow pottery resized 600 Yellow Pottery from Provence (left).  Although the Cones didn't acquire artwork during the war years of 1906 to 1922, they resumed collecting in the early 1920s with their purchases of Mattisse paintings featuring odalisques.  

In 1929, Matisse was living in Nice and wrestling with a painting block (as incomprehensible as that seems for such a prolific painter).

In September, he began work on what would become The Yellow Dress but abandoned it henri_matisse-1930several weeks later to visit Tahiti and the United States.  It was on this trip that Matisse completed his renowned mural for the Barnes Foundation, Alfred Barnes' Philadelphia art museum.

Matisse then returned to Nice, and again tackled The Yellow Dress, with two more rounds of working and abandoning it. His frustration is evident in a letter discussing his feelings toward The Yellow Dress:

During my trip, even while strongly impressed by what I was seeing every day, I often thought of the work I had left unfinished.  I might even say I thought of it constantly. 1. 

Many Matisse paintings of the 1920s featured women in interiors with shuttered windows, highly patterned backgrounds and decorative clothing. Those elements are present in The Yellow Dress and remained mostly intact during Matisse's frequent re-workings.

Right: Henri Matisse upon arriving in New York, 1930.  

These pentimenti (singular: pentimento) signalled a new direction for Matisse.

The woman herself was altered in every dimension, as Matisse wrestled between direct perception and conceptualization:

  • her arms changed in position, length and girth;

  • her posture was altered;Matisse paintings yellow dress

Henri Matisse.  The Yellow Dress, 1929-1932.  Oil on canvas, 39 1/4" by 31 3/4".  Baltimore Museum of Art. 

  • the level of detail of her dress disappeared; and

  • the volume of the woman vanished until she became flatly painted.

As the Baltimore Museum describes her, though, she commands a "monumental pose and central position".  Matisse's pentimenti and luscious brushstrokes and layered colors are a wonder -- it's as if Matisse is thinking aloud, paintbrush in hand

Which other Matisse paintings do you think marked turning points in his career? Do you prefer the heavily applied paint of The Yellow Dress, or Matisse's more translucent paintings in which the canvas appears? Do tell.

Tags: Matisse paintings, Henri Matisse, mattisse

Matisse Paintings: In Search of True Painting

Posted by Susan Benford

The pairs, trios and series of Matisse paintings in the Met’s show, In Search of True Painting, resoundingly dispel the notion that Henri Matisse (1869-1954) painted hurriedly and with ease.

Matisse still life with purro 1 resized 600Rather, we learn that painting was often laborious for Matisse, despite the freshness and looseness of finished canvases.  These multiple Matisse paintings were 

Henri Matisse.  Still Life with Purro I, 1904.  Oil on canvas, 23 14" by 28 1/2".  The Phillips Family Collection.

vehicles by which he could “push further and deeper into true painting”, calculating, adjusting and experimenting all the way.

He was wildly successful. Because a photographer recorded these iterations during the 1930s, we gain an intimate look at Matisse's process and at the process of painting itself. Each is profoundly instructive.

matisse still life with purroMatisse’s academic training required copying old master paintings in the Louvre.  As he began foraging for his own artistic style, Matisse tweaked that traditional technique and began copying works of contemporary artists he most admired:

  • Paul Cezanne (1839-2906);
  • Paul Gauguin (1848-1903);
  • Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), and
  • Paul Signac (1863-1935).

Matisse would also paint a still-life composition in the manner of other artists in his effort to understand their painterly choices.  In the Matisse paintings, Still Life with Purro, I and II, look how he evokes Cezanne and Signac.  While such imitation of 

Above right. Henri Matisse.  Still Life with Purro II, 1904-5.  Oil on canvas, 11" by 14".  Private collection.

other painters’  styles was educational, French critics in the early 1900s concluded that Matisse was unoriginal, with one, Charles Morice, stating that he found in Henri Matisse “no sign of a powerful, creative individuality.”

Starting in 1907 and for a subsequent decade, Matisse created over a dozen pairs of paintings of the same size, with the same subject matter, and in a style of his own. It is these Matisse paintings that start “In Search of True Painting”. 

Young Sailor I and Young Sailor II

One of Matisse's first pairs is Young Sailor I and II, believed to have been created in 1906 during Matisse’s stay in Collioure.  With its hints of Cezanne-like brushwork, Young Sailor I (left) has the hallmarks of Fauvism with its unnatural, expressive color and energetic brushstrokes.  Observe the highly thinned paint running over the model’s matisse young sailor resized 600thumb and thigh, as if Matisse is drawing attention to his painterly process. 

Left. Henri Matisse.  Young Sailor I, 1906.  Oil on canvas, 39 1/4" by 32".  Collection of Sheldon H. Solow.

Right.  Henri Matisse.  Young Sailor II, 1906.  Oil on canvas, 39 7/8" by 32 5/8".  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998.

Young Sailor II has a backstory.  In 1906, Matisse first encountered African sculpture at the same time self-taught, naïve painters like Henri Rousseu – who had been reviled in the Salon des Independents for years – were being praised for their novel styles. 

It was in this evolving, fluctuating visual environment that Matisse painted Young Sailor II.  Note the sailor's almond-shaped eyes, flat color and deformation. When first showing these two works to his friend and collector Leo Stein, an unconfident Matisse claimed that Young Sailor II was created by the mailman in Collioure!

Luxe I and Luxe II 

Matisse had clarified his indifference toward “anatomical exactitude” as he sought the essence of a subject.  This approach is apparent in the Matisse paintings, Luxe I and Luxe II, his next major pair of works.

matisse le luxe resized 600

Left. Henri Matisse. Luxe I, 1907.  Oil on canvas, 82 5/8" by 54 3/8".  Centre Pompidou, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris.

Right.  Henri Matisse.  Luxe II, 1907-08.  Distemper on canvas, 82 1/2" by 54 3/8".  Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.

Luxe I appeared in the 1907 Salon d’ Automne with the title Le Luxe (esquisse).  An esquisse, or sketch, was a known category of work in 19th century academia; it was a quick or spontaneous exercise to explore a solution to a pictorial challenge, was smaller than its associated final work, and was deemed a private artistic endeavor.

But not so in the hands of Matisse, who not only presented Luxe I (esquisse) as finished artwork but further defied tradition by making it the identical size as Luxe II.  

Le Luxe II depicts nearly the identical motif with only a few compositional modifications from its predecessor. In the second canvas, Matisse has simplified the forms into flat planes of color, nearly eliminating visible brushstrokes. The show's curators postulate that after his trip to Italy in 1907, Matisse may have been referencing Giotto's frescoes in Padua. Certainly his use of distemper in Luxe II yielded a matte effect evoking frescoes.

The Dream

Matisse continued painting in pairs, altering his brushwork, composition, style, color and detail as he created nudes, interiors, views from his window, and the cliffs of Etretat.  In 1916 he began a series of paintings featuring the Italian model, Laurette, abandoning his practice of creating a pair of paintings.  

Critical reception, however, waned.  Critics alleged that his serial paintings were monotonous and his themes were outdated.  With Dada and Surrealism challenging traditional subject matter, Matisse was perceived as antiquated.

In the early 1930s, Matisse retained a photographer to record his paintings as he progressed; in 1945, a Parisian show featured six Matisse paintings and photographs of their evolution.

matisse the dream


Left: Henri Matisse.  The Dream, 1940.  Oil on canvas, 31 7/8" by 25 5/8".  Private Collection.

Right: January 7, 1940 photograph.  Archives Matisse, Paris.

The Dream began as a lovely woman asleep on a marble table amid fruit, plants and an urn.  Ultimately, she "has become an angel sleeping on a violet surface, the most beautiful violet I've seen", as Matisse described to his son.

Subsequent workings of The Dream eliminate the initial ornamentation and decorative elements as details of the figure disappear.  The balance of color and the simplification of her form become the focus of the painting.  

Matisse dream with photos

Met installation of Mattise's The Dream with photographs.

Matisse welcomed the public display of his finished paintings surrounded by photographs documenting his process.  Who could still contend that Henri Matisse worked spontaneously and dashed off paintings? 

Painters and non-painters alike will leave this show even more in awe of Henri Matisse. The freshness and seeming spontaneity of these heavily worked paintings are further proof of Matisse's genius. I can't imagine a more rewarding and education art exhibition.

In Search of True Painting will be at the Metropolitan Museum until 17 March 2013.  

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Tags: Matisse paintings, In Search of True Painting, Henri Matisse

Matisse, Modern Art, and The Cone Collection

Posted by Susan Benford

The world's largest collection of Matisse paintings was amassed by sisters Claribel Cone (1864-1929) and Etta Cone (1870-1949). cone collectionSelections from this modern art collection, which also features famous artwork by Gauguin, Van Gogh,

Claribel Cone, Gertrude Stein, and Etta Cone. June 26, 1903. Settignano/Fiesole. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Cone Archives

Picasso, and Cezanne, are presently on display in "Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore" at the Jewish Museum in New York.

The Cone sisters were two of 13 children from a wealthy family in the textile business, Cone Mills (a supplier of denim to Levi Strauss, among others). Etta and Claribel, one of the first female medical doctors in the U. S., became intrigued by modern art from their visits to Paris and friendship with Leo and Gertrude Stein (read about the famous paintings in the Stein collection and the Picasso painting Portrait of Gertrude Stein). 

matisse paintingsAlthough the Cones were old-fashioned in mannerism and dress (sporting full-length skirts after knee-length ones were in style), there was nothing old-fashioned about their early embrace of modern art. Between fall 1905 and winter 1906, the Cones befriended Matisse and Picasso, attended the Salon d'Automne, and purchased their first Matisse painting, Yellow Pottery from Provence, an unfinished piece dated 1905. 

Although clearly a work of modern art, this painting is instantly recognizable as a still life, and is one of the subjects - including nudes, portraits and landscapes - included in the Cones' collection of 500 Matisse masterpieces.  By the time the New York Armory Show of 1913 introduced modern art to the public at large, the Cones had already amassed a significant collection, including Yellow Pottery and works by Manet, Cezanne, Picasso and Renoir.

matisse paintingsThe Cones' purchased little artwork from 1906 to 1922, largely due to the world wars, but began in the 1920s to acquire Matisse paintings of odalisques, typically scantily-clad women in North African or Middle Eastern attire.

Henri Matisse, Seated Odalisque, Left Knee Bent, Ornamental Background and Checkerboard, 1928.  Oil on canvas, 21 5/8" by 14 7/8".  Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. 

Matisse's 1912-1913 travels to Algeria and Morocco inspired these odalisque paintings, which dominated his work in the 1920s. Among these included in the show are Standing Odalisque Reflected in a Mirror and Seated Odalisque, Left Knee Bent. As daughters of a textile merchant, the Cones were clearly attracted by the vivid, ornate fabrics that hallmark these works. 

matisse paintingsAnother Matisse painting from this era is Large Cliff with Fish.  According to Claude Duthuit, Matisse's grandson, Etta

Henri Matisse, Large Cliff with Fish, 1920.  Oil on canvas, 36 5/8" by 29". Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

was repulsed by the image of so many dying fish; an impoverished Matisse countered that his daughter kept throwing water on the fish so they could be released at the painting's conclusion.  Whether Etta believed this tale isn't known, but this Matisse painting is a part of the Cone Collection.

When it became apparent the Cones possessed the most extensive collection of Matisse artwork, he ensured that they received what he matisse-paintingsconsidered to be his best.  Of Two Girls, Red and Green Background, 1947 - the last Matisse painting to enter the Cone Collection - Matisse said, "I am certain that it will be seen as one of my best paintings."

It's a beauty, and one of many reasons to see this show and to visit the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Henri Matisse, Two Girls, Red and Green Background, 1947, Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection

Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters will be at the Jewish Museum until 25 September 2011. 

Tags: famous paintings, Matisse paintings

Famous Paintings: Red Studio

Posted by Susan Benford

matisse red studioSome famous paintings seem to forcibly pull you into them. 

Mark Rothko crystallized why this is so when he observed,

"The reason I paint them [large pictures]... is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human.  To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereo-opticon view or with a reducing glass.  However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn't something you command."

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.

And so it is with The Red Studio, one of the most remarkable Matisse paintings, and for me, one of the most stunning paintings in the whole of the history of painting.

Braque, Picasso and other Cubists had been experimenting with the geometry of pictorial space since 1906, five years before Matisse completed Red Studio. His brilliant exploration of this geometry, though, makes The Red Studio a milestone in the history of painting

On the one hand, the theme of The Red Studio - the artist's studio - is conventional and had been repeatedly explored by other famous painters. Handled by Henri Matissethough, Red Studio becomes a unique exploration of redefining space by manipulating line and color.

The Red Studio interior is a uniform shade of red that blankets floor, table, and ceiling. Volume is hinted at subtly with angled lines and with delineation of where the floor meets the wall. There is no such definition in the corner, whose existence the viewer must deduce from the angles of paintings tilted against the wall. That corner is, oddly, an immediate focus in this work - realizing its absence, you search for how this famous painter conveys volume and depth. 

You're in the painting, just as Rothko said. It's pure brilliance.

The white lines are not painted; instead, Matisse has allowed slivers of underpainted yellows and blues to show through.  Furniture is captured this way, conveying its immateriality compared to what is of value here, the Matisse paintings, sculptures, and tools. (In the upper right hangs Le luxe (II), part of the recently concluded Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago and MoMA).

The book accompanying the Matisse exhibition describes The Red Studio as "radically spare", but I don't find this Matisse painting spare in any sense. Instead, Matisse offers proudly the fruits of his creativity, differentiating them from the flat, red expanses and from the ghost-like white lines of objects.  With the handless grandfather clock, he's intimating that time stands still in his magical, personal room.


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Tags: famous paintings, Matisse paintings, Red Studio

More Matisse Paintings

Posted by Susan Benford

Matisse completed one of his most famous paintings, Bathers by a River, after reworking it from 1909 to its completion in 1916-1917. This masterpiece, a main draw at MoMA's art exhibition, Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917, is a landmark in art history. Its import is not only recorded by art history experts, but also by Henri Matisse himself -- when the

matisse bathers by river

Henri Matisse, Bathers by a River.  Oil on canvas, 1916-1917.  8' 6 1/2" by 12' 10 3/4".  Art Institute of Chicago.  Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, 1953.158.

Director of the Art Institute of Chicago wrote in 1953 to inform Matisse of the Institute's purchase of Bathers, Matisse responded that it was one of the five most pivotal paintings of his career. Examining Bathers by the River and its textured surfaces reveal how Matisse altered art history with this ground-breaking work of art.matisse photo

In preparation for this Matisse exhibition, art conservators removed old varnish and inpainting from Bathers to unearth a phenomenal surprise.  Some areas which were considered damaged were instead areas in which Matisse scratched, scraped and incised this transformative work.  

Henri Matisse painting Bathers by a River, May 13, 1913. Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn.

These "modern methods of construction", as Matisse labelled them, had been virtually obscured, and marked a radical departure from the European notion of smooth painted canvases lacking any trace of brushwork. Instead, Matisse paintings in this era show him exploring and finding form on canvas as he worked, leaving a brushwork trail of reworked areas.

Matisse initially started Bathers by the River in 1909 at the request of Russian businessman Sergei Shchukin.  This patron, whose collection of Matisse paintings would later form the core of the Hermitage's extensive collection, had earlier commissioned two Matisse paintings, Dance and Music, to hang in his Moscow home. Shchukin wanted a third Matisse painting for his home, but rejected Matisse's initial conception for Bathers; it shows a 1909 naturalistic watercolor of five nude woman, two of whom were bathing in a waterfall.  Shchukin's rejection may have spurred Matisse to experimentation -- in doing so, he revolutionized the history of painting.

Some of the reworkings of Bathers have been corroborated by black and white photos, eye-witness accounts, and new digital x-ray techniques.  Conservators identified seventeen distinct color stages of Bathers between 1913 and 1916!  Stephanie D'Alessandro, an Art Institute of Chicago co-curator of this art exhibition, points out, "In the finished picture, you can see green and blue from the very earliest version of Bathers". And you can also see an expose of the creative process in one of the most famous painters in art history!

The Matisse exhibition will be at MoMA until October 11, 2010.

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Tags: art history, Matisse paintings, art history flashcards

Famous Paintings by Matisse

Posted by Susan Benford

trubestky palaceSome of the most famous paintings in the world were created by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), indisputably one of the most famous painters in the entirety of art history.

After receiving his legal degree in 1888, he regretted his career choice and opted for art school instead. He began studying in Paris with William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1891, but subsequently moved to the more progressive studio of Gustave Moreau. In these years, Matisse built a modest art collection of Cezanne paintings, Gauguin paintings and work by other Paris-based artists. Matisse later commented that his acquisition of Cezanne’s Bathers was profoundly influential.

matisse danceHenri Matisse.  The Dance, 1909-1910. Oil on canvas, 8'6" by 12'10".  Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

This influence is plainly visible in two of the most acclaimed Matisse paintings, the pendant, or paired, works known as Dance (La Danse) and Music (La Musique).  Both art paintings were commissioned in 1909 by the Russian merchant, Sergei Shchukin, who was a leading collector of late 19th and early 20th century art. By 1914, Shchukin had acquired 37 Matisse paintings; the bulk of these were bequeathed to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and form the core of its expansive collection of Matisse paintings.

In 1910, Matisse submitted La Danse and La Musique for the Salon d’Automne, the Salon or art exhibition organized in 1903 as an alternative to the more conservative Paris Salon. Although these monumental nudes were gender-neutral, this pair of Matisse paintings provoked a scandal that culminated with Shchukin's rejection of them.  

The famed art collector intended for La Danse and La Musique to adorn the stairwell of his Moscow house, the Troubetzkoy Palace (top right).  He claimed, though, that the sexuality of these Matisse paintings would offend his daughters and Russian friends. After protestations from Matisse, Shchukin recanted after one "explicit" portion was “touched up”.

matisse music


Henri Matisse.  The Music (La Musique), 1910.  Oil on canvas, 8'6" by 12'9". Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Inspiration for La Danse came to Matisse from various sources, including the dance floor of the Parisian cabaret, Moulin de la Galette, and from two previous art paintings, Joie de Vivre (1905) and an earlier version of Dance (now  at the Museum of Modern Art in New York).

The nudes of the Hermitage La Danse are amorphous, mythical creatures who skip and dance as if they were vying to unite Man, Earth and Heaven. Matisse’s palette of only green, red, and blue captures, as he wished, "the bluest of blues for the sky" and "the greenest of greens for the earth".  This simple but powerful palette captures the joyous vitality of his dancers. 

In the pendant painting, though, this palette seems incongruous with the placidity of the musicians - the figures sanguinely sit or play instruments and the reds, blues, and greens appear muted.  Although La Musique lacks the vitality of its pendant, La Danse deservedly is one of the most famous paintings in the world.

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Velazquez, Overview of Famous Paintings

Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Vermeer, Saint Praxedis

Vermeer, The Kitchen Maid

Vermeer, The Allegory of Painting

VermeerGirl with the Red Hat

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

Warhol, Campbell's Soup Cans

Warhol, Marilyn Diptych and Gold Marilyn 

Warhol, Mao 

Whistler, Whistler's Mother

Anders Zorn

Famous Paintings by Art Museums

Learn about famous paintings to see in these art museums:

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

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

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

Mauritshuis Museum: explore works by renowned Dutch painters

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

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

Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam): 10 famous paintings not to miss

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

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

Most Popular Posts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discover more of readers' favorite art history blog posts. 

Female Artists

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

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

Sofonisba AnguissolaThree Sisters Playing ChessPhillip II of Spain

Rosa Bonheur.  Plowing in the Nivernais.  Horse Fair.

Lavinia Fontana. Portrait of a Noblewoman.

Helen Frankenthaler. Color Field Painting and Mountains and Sea. 

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

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

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

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

Judith Leyster.  Self-Portrait.  The Proposition. 

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

Berthe Morisot.  Refuge in Normandy.  The Cradle. 

Georgia O'Keeffe. Jack in the Pulpit Series. 

Survey of Female Artists

Art History Beyond Europe

A few forays into art outside Europe:

African Art and Bocio

African Mask of Idia


Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Great Wave

The Terracotta Warriors