Famous Paintings to Start the Art History School Year

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

Cave Paintings

Big Horn Rhino, Chauvet caves, France.

Big Horn Rhino, Chauvet caves, France.

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

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

The Terracotta Warriors

Armor worn by a Terracotta Warrior

Armor worn by a Terracotta Warrior

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

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

Uccello, Battle of San Romano

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

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

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

Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano. Tempera on wood panel, approx. 6′ x 10’7″.  National Gallery, London.

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

Ghent Altarpiece

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

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

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

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

Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck. Completed 1432. Tempera and oil on wood,  11’6″ by 15’1″.  Cathedral of St. Bavo, Ghent.

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

Arnolfini Portrait

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

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

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

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

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

Intrigued by the art history behind famous paintings?

So is Masterpiece Cards, the publisher of this blog and of a unique set of art history flashcards, 250 Masterpieces in Western Painting.

Each 4″ by 6″ Masterpiece Card features a faithful reproduction of a famous painting on its front; the back presents key facts and an art historian’s introduction to the work.  So you can compare works, arrange them chronologically, or plan a museum visit!

Look at some samples – there is nothing like them, we promise!

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By |2018-03-23T17:26:10+00:00September 14th, 2016|Art History Beyond Europe & Before 1400|0 Comments

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