Art Historical Inside Jokes

Follow Greetings from Italia! My first two weeks here have been full of pasta, sunshine, and adjusting to countryside-Italian living. In addition to visiting an olive oil mill, adventuring into the nearby town of Orvieto and seeing its beautiful duomo, or … Read More

Greetings from Italia! My first two weeks here have been full of pasta, sunshine, and adjusting to countryside-Italian living. In addition to visiting an olive oil mill, adventuring into the nearby town of Orvieto and seeing its beautiful duomo, or cathedral (more on that later), and sampling the local pizza, I've been thoroughly ensconced in art historical education. One of my professors here in Amelia (see my last post) is an expert in early seventeenth-century Italian art, and so naturally, he began our first class by talking about Caravaggio. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is perhaps one of the most important and influential figures in the history of western art. He was also, incidentally, a total rebel. He was quick to anger, and was at one point arrested for killing a man over a disputed tennis match. The drama in his personal life directly translated into his art, as his command of drastic changes from light to dark (also known as chiaroscuro) make his scenes emotionally moving and incredibly engaging. He was also, unsurprisingly, incredibly full of himself, and deemed himself the most famous painter in Rome. He even went so far as to call himself "The Better Michelangelo," referring, of course, to his preeminent predecessor, Michelangelo Buonarroti, while simultaneously referencing his given name. His comparison of himself to Michelangelo, however, did not stop there. At the end of the sixteenth century, Caravaggio began his so-called Saint Matthew Cycle, which consisted of three paintings depicting the life of Saint Matthew for the San Luigi dei Francesi church in Rome. One of the first paintings he completed was The Calling of Saint Matthew, which depicts the moment at which Christ calls Matthew to be one of his disciples.
caravaggio calling saint matthew
[caption id="attachment_4043" align="aligncenter" width="528"] Caravaggio's Calling of Saint Matthew[/caption] Caravaggio intentionally inserted a sort of wink to his forebear in a small detail that often goes unnoticed. Namely, the hand of the figure in the upper-right hand register mirrors that of the hand of Adam in Michelangelo's masterpiece The Creation of Adam. [caption id="attachment_4044" align="aligncenter" width="475"] Detail of Caravaggio's Calling of Saint Matthew with detail of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam[/caption] By making this visual homage, Caravaggio asserts his own position within the art historical canon while also reinforcing the religious message of his painting. The implied cue to the viewer of the painting is that Caravaggio is as talented - and as important - as Michelangelo, which was a pretty grand statement to make at that time. It may seem like a silly coincidence, but Caravaggio never did anything unintentionally. And besides, it's these kinds of visual jokes and puns that keep art historians such as myself trudging along the hard road of academia.

Art Historical Humor

Follow Despite reports to the contrary, art historians can be funny, that’s why this post is dedicated to “Art Historical Humor.” Sure, our jokes are nerdy to the point of embarrassment and potentially oblique (in other words, not funny to … Read More

Despite reports to the contrary, art historians can be funny, that's why this post is dedicated to "Art Historical Humor." Sure, our jokes are nerdy to the point of embarrassment and potentially oblique (in other words, not funny to anyone else), but we try. One of my favorite instances of art historical jocularity came about two weeks ago, when Amsterdam celebrated the reopening of the Rijksmuseum, a Dutch national treasure whose main building had been closed for ten years due to a major renovation. The reopening of the museum was celebrated throughout Europe, and art and architecture critics have hailed it as a vast improvement. In order to publicize the museum's rebirth, the museum staff called upon a modern phenomenon - the flashmob - combining tradition and the new age with singular style. Taking place in a popular shopping mall, staff members recreated one of the museum's most well known and beloved paintings, Rembrandt van Rijn's Night Watch.
rembrandt night watch
rembrandt night watch painting Widely considered to be Rembrandt's masterpiece, the 1642 oil on canvas measures approximately 12 by 14 feet, and is one of the finest examples of Rembrandt's mastery of chiaroscuro. The eponymous night watch is led by Captain Frans Banning Cocq (the central figure, marked by a red sash) and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch (in yellow), accompanied by a cast of characters, all of whom are portrayed in the flashmob recreation. See? What did I tell you? Our humor is top-notch.
It has long been said that art feeds the soul as well as the mind, and now it seems the Duchess of Cambridge would agree. The Mirror reported yesterday that the Princess, Kate Middleton hosted a charity reception at London's National Portrait Gallery, one of the city's most esteemed art institutions, to celebrate the power of art in the lives of children. Natalie Evans reports:
 "Kate will honour the work of one of her chosen charities, The Art Room, which uses painting and drawing to build the self-esteem, self-confidence and independence of young people. The event will also celebrate the launch of the Pledge for the Future appeal, the charity's new fundraising initiative, and its 11th anniversary. The organisation maintains a dedicated art room in a number of secondary and primary schools in Oxford - running sessions from one to four days a week - and works with more than 20 other schools."
Art therapy, developed as early as the 1940s, promotes self-expression through a multitude of media, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, and music, in order to encourage communication and creativity.The Art Room, the charity endorsed by Middleton, works primarily with 5-16 year olds in order to work through emotional difficulties as well as build up a sense of accomplishment and self-worth. Whether by creating yourself or by admiring the work of others, art certainly has a way of transforming our experience. In what ways has art been therapeutic in your life?
children painting art
[caption id="attachment_3738" align="aligncenter" width="528"]children painting canvas art Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons[/caption] Follow me on Google+

Acquiring Cubists

Follow The big news item in the art world last week was the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s announcement on Tuesday that philanthropist Leonard A. Lauder will be giving his highly esteemed collection of Cubist paintings, drawings, and sculptures to the … Read More

The big news item in the art world last week was the Metropolitan Museum of Art's announcement on Tuesday that philanthropist Leonard A. Lauder will be giving his highly esteemed collection of Cubist paintings, drawings, and sculptures to the prestigious New York City museum. The gift - clocking in at almost 80 pieces worth over a billion dollars - is the biggest in the museum's history. Lauder, a longtime collector and patron of the New York art world (he has been an active trustee, president, and chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, just to name one example), told the New York Times that from the very beginning, he envisioned it as a museum-quality collection. By all accounts, he has certainly met his goal; his collection, which he began assembling in 1976 and is still growing today, is considered to be one of the best and most important private collections of the early 20th-century movement. We here at Gallery Direct are happy to announce an acquisition of our own. Much like the Met, we too have recently added a considerable number of Cubist masterpieces to our holdings, and we are thrilled to be able to bring them to you. I remember when I was in college, a professor asked our class a rhetorical question. Wanting to make a point about how the Cubists created a whole new aesthetic in the world of art, he asked how many of us had a piece of Cubist art on our walls at home. He did not expect anyone to respond in the affirmative. His intention was to illustrate how Cubist art did not adhere to traditional notions of beauty, and was thus less likely to adorn someone's walls than, say, a landscape by Monet. But I surprised him by raising my hand - I just happened to have a print of one of my favorite Picassos above my desk at the time - but his point was well taken. One does not typically think of having a Picasso or a Braque above the fireplace - but why not? The best rule of thumb for picking art is to go with what you love, and I loved sitting down at my desk every day and being confronted with a piece of art that was challenging and thought-provoking. That's why Gallery Direct is dedicated to breaking down the barriers between fine art and everyday decor. Why shouldn't you have a museum-quality image in your home? No good reason, as far as I'm concerned. Our recent acquisitions most heavily feature the work of two artists in particular, Juan Gris and Franz Marc. Gris developed his own, unique take on Cubism, often harmonizing colors rather than using monotones, and is particularly well known for his works in collage. His work also demonstrates the popular Cubist motif of incorporating typography and painted typeface into his work, thereby inserting a sort of identifiable referent in what might otherwise be an "unreadable" painting. [caption id="attachment_3666" align="aligncenter" width="222"] Juan Gris, Bottle and Fruit Bowl[/caption] [caption id="attachment_3665" align="aligncenter" width="205"] Juan Gris, Fruit Dish, Glass, and Newspaper[/caption] Marc, heavily influenced by the concomitant German Expressionist movement, had a proclivity for choosing natural subjects and depicting them in an abstract manner. His use of bright, bold colors was motivated by a desire to infuse his work with emotional weight and meaning. [caption id="attachment_3667" align="aligncenter" width="247"] Franz Marc, Colorful Flowers (Abstract Forms)[/caption] [caption id="attachment_3668" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Franz Marc, The Mandrill[/caption] So, what are your thoughts on Cubism? Check out Gallery Direct's new collection and let us know what you think!
In 1508, famed High Renaissance painter and architect Raphael was given the commission that would make his career. The young artist was asked by Pope Julius II and his personal architect Donato Bramante to create the massive frescoes that adorn what are known today as the Stanze di Raffaello, or Raphael Rooms, of the Vatican Palace. Raphael's first conquest was the Stanza della Segnatura, which now contains four of his most beautiful and well-known frescoes, The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament,The Parnassus, Cardinal and Theological Virtues, and, his masterpiece, The School of Athens. Each of these four frescoes was meant to represent the four areas of human knowledge: religion, poetry, jurisprudence, and philosophy. Toward the end of 1509, Raphael began his second fresco of the series, The School of Athens, representing philosophy. Since its creation in the Apostolic Palace, it has been endlessly revered and contemplated.

Raphael's intricate fresco, measuring approximately 25 by 16 feet, contains nearly 60 figures in a beautifully arranged and appointed background. For hundreds of years, art historians and scholars of philosophy, classics, and mathematics have attempted to identify the different figures, though it seems that Raphael was intentionally vague in the majority of the depictions, with a few exceptions. What we can be sure about is that the two central figures represent Plato (on the left) and Aristotle (on the right). Raphael depicts Plato pointing to the heavens and Aristotle gesturing toward the earth - a commentary on their respective philosophies. Other figures that can be identified with some degree of certainty include Pythagoras, Socrates, Diogenes, Ptolemy, Heraclitus, and Euclid. Despite the many questions about the identities of the figures, what remains clear is that Raphael is representing thinkers from across myriad schools, time periods, and geographical locations from classical antiquity. Thus, he is not attempting to depict an historical moment, but rather a thematic representation of Greek philosophy at its finest. Identifying the figures becomes even more difficult when one realizes that they often have double identities - one from antiquity, and one from Raphael's own time. Many have speculated, for example, that Plato can also be identified as Leonardo da Vinci, Heraclitus has the visage of Michelangelo, and that Euclid shares features with Bramante. [caption id="attachment_3470" align="aligncenter" width="437"] Detail, Raphael's Plato with Leonardo da Vinci's 1510 self-portrait[/caption] So, why did Raphael choose to imbue his figures with this double identity? During the Renaissance, ancient Greek and Roman writers and thinkers experienced a renewed popularity, and were respected as the premier philosophers throughout history. By blurring the line between figures from classical antiquity and his own peers, Raphael asserts that the thinkers of the Renaissance were on par with their formidable predecessors. The artist also blatantly includes an image of himself, gazing out to the viewer. In addition to his commentary on the relative status of the Renaissance in relation to antiquity, Raphael boldly breaks with tradition regarding his representation of the idea of philosophy. While those who came before him tended to represent philosophy in a purely allegorical way (or at least in a way in which the allegory or ideal of philosophy is given more importance than its human practitioners), Raphael humanizes his topic. He does not forsake the allegorical depiction of philosophy, but rather makes it almost secondary relative to the rest of the subjects. The personification of philosophy, often called Philosophia, appears in the accompanying tondo (an Italian term for a round painting or sculpture). The tondo above the The School of Athens announces the subject of the work, in the same fashion as the other frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura. The beautiful Philosophia sits upon a throne, flanked by two cherubim bearing the words "Causarum Cognitio," a reference to Cicero meaning, "Knowledge of causes." She holds two books, one entitled "Morals," the other, "Nature." This is a classical depiction of Philosophy, and yet within the context of The School of Athens, the figure is relatively diminutive. The tondo is merely six feet in diameter, and because it is over 25 feet off the ground, it is hardly easy to see from eye level. Furthermore, while tradition dictates that the depiction of Philosophy should be the focal point of a work, Raphael isolates her from the rest of his work. While she may loom over the individual practitioners of the art of philosophy, the latter are nonetheless the primary subjects, overwhelming the former in size, number, and relevance. By making the practitioners the focal point of his fresco, Raphael humanizes and indeed secularizes the practice of philosophy. Like so many of his compositions (a personal favorite is the cherubim detail in his Sistine Madonna), Raphael's School of Athens truly rewards careful study and contemplation.

The Mysteries of Mona Lisa

Follow “The most famous painting in the world” – The Mona Lisa. La Joconde. La Gioconda. Leonardo’s masterpiece. The portait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, is instantly recognizable to virtually everyone in the Western world. The Mona Lisa … Read More

"The most famous painting in the world" - The Mona LisaLa Joconde. La Gioconda. Leonardo's masterpiece. The portait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, is instantly recognizable to virtually everyone in the Western world. The Mona Lisa practically has a cult following - but why? People crowd around the small portrait at the Musée du Louvre in Paris every day just to get a glimpse of the world's most famous smile, even from a distance. When I was living in Paris, I was taking an art history course that had me walking through the miles upon miles of galleries of the Louvre at least once a week. I spent hours taking it in and soaking up as much as I possibly could. Sometimes, I would go early on a Tuesday morning, and I would feel like the only person around - until I got to the Salle des États where The Mona Lisa is housed. No matter the time of day or week, there was always an admiring crowd surrounding the approximately 21 x 30 in. painting. Clearly there's something special about this painting. It is easily the most parodied work - from famed Dadaist Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. to one of Gallery Direct's own artists, Randy Slack.

The painting, created by Leonardo da Vinci between 1503 and 1519, has been the subject of much speculation and mystery for hundreds of years. Theories about its creation abound, and studies are still being done today as to the origins and formal qualities of the painting. In fact, reported this week that Alfonso Rubino has performed a geometrical analysis on La Joconde, revealing that Leonardo "worked the geometry found in his design of the Vitruvian Man into his paintings." According to Dr. Markus Frey of the Mona Lisa Foundation, not only is this a groundbreaking find, but is also confirms that a painting that was thought to be an earlier version of The Mona Lisa is in fact genuine.

The "Earlier Version," according to recent carbon dating, was created sometime between 1410 and 1450. There are so many theories as to the creation of the painting that an earlier version is sure to prove to be fuel for the proverbial fire. Theories about The Mona Lisa range from topics such as pregnancy, Bell's Palsy, high cholesterol, secret societies, biblical references, and many more.

The Mona Lisa has inspired people for centuries, but not always in a good way. In 1911, a worker at the Louvre, Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian patriot, stole the small poplar panel right from the wall of the Louvre, believing that despite the fact that the painting was completed in France and legally sold to the French king after da Vinci's death, the painting belonged to the artist's home country of Italy.

After biding his time for two years, however, Peruggia attempted to sell The Mona Lisa to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Officials at the Uffizi immediately notified the Louvre, at which point it was returned to Paris after an extended tour throughout Italy.

The painting has also been the target of many iconoclastic attempts. It was attacked twice in 1956, first by acid and then by a thrown rock, at which point it was decided that it could no longer be displayed without the protection of a bulletproof-glass case. Even after the case was added, however, it was the subject of vandalism in 1974 and more recently in 2009.

So why does this painting inspire people so much - whether it be to artistic creation, endless research, conspiracy theories, criminal activity, or violence? The enigmatic smile, the beautiful and slightly surreal landscape in the background, the facial geometry, the bodily arrangement of the portrait, the identity of the sitter, and numerous other inquiries have captured the world's attention.

Personally, as a student of art history (who admittedly does not focus on the Renaissance, and is by no means a da Vinci scholar), the formal execution of the painting is at the heart of the matter. Putting aside all of the theories and mysteries surrounding it, The Mona Lisa is, above all, an exemplar of Renaissance fastidiousness and ingenuity. The amount of detail and precision that was exercised by da Vinci is the most captivating element of the painting. The bizarre landscape, the ethereal veil that floats above her delicate curls, every fold on her dress, the considered use of sfumato - all suggest to me that the painting was created by an exceedingly patient, practiced, and loving hand. When I look at La Joconde, I envision the artist, meticulously tending to each line, each shadow on the relatively small panel. I see a life dedicated to artistry and aesthetic integrity.

So what do you think? Does The Mona Lisa inspire you? What do you think she's smiling at?