Thursday, April 30, 2009

"St. Joseph the Carpenter" by Georges de la Tour

Georges de la Tour was born on March 13, 1593 in the province of Lorraine, which was at that a duchy (independent, ruled by a duke).( bit of history - In 1624, after the Duke's death, and European monarchs began fighting over the duchy and in 1631 Lorraine was taken over by France.) There is not much known about his training or education. He was influenced early on by the works of Caravaggio. What La tour is most known for is his use of light. His paintings usually are set at night with the figure(s) sitting or standing by by a candle. The contrast, known as
chiaroscuro* is striking. The works are simply painted, not dramatic. And the majority of his painting during this second phase of his work are primarily religious.
St. Joseph the Carpenter is a perfect example of the simplicity of La Tour. A son is helping his father by holding the candle so the father can see. But this is no ordinary child. This is Christ. Now look at the wood Joseph is shaping. It is a prefiguration of a cross. And the child Jesus looks on, obediently and accepting.**

The painting below is The Education of the Virgin Like many of La Tour's works, there is a question whether the painting is a copy of his original,one done in his workshop, or possibly painted by his son Etienne. if it is not a Georges de la Tour, it is certainly done in his style.
Georges de la Tour was forgotten by the art world until the 20th century - a german scholar named Hermann Voss rediscovered La Tour in 1915. Some of his work had been mistaken for Vermeer. In 1935 an exhibition of his paintings in Paris began a revival of his works.
*chiaroscuro – the interplay of light and shade in drawing and painting; a work stressing that interplay (Italian chiaro ‘clear, bright’ + oscuro ‘dark, obscure’.)
** This sentence comes from John Rupert Martin's book Baroque
Go to for more of his works.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Oath of the Horatii by Jacques Louis David

Jacques Louis David's "Oath of the Horatii" is one of the most important paintings in the history of France.
Commissioned by the Administrator of Royal residences in 1784, it was exhibited in 1785 at the Salon. The picture made David's career.
The story behind the painting comes from a story from first told by Livy. It takes place in the pre-Republic period during the wars between Rome and Alba, in 669 B.C. It has been decided that the feud between the 2 cities be resolved by a duel between 2 groups of 3 champions each. The 2 groups are the three Horatii brothers and the three Curiatii brothers. And here is where the theme of the painting comes in - which takes precedence -love of family or love of country. One of the Curiatii sisters is married to a Horatii brother and one of the Horatii sisters is engaged to a Curiatii brother. The father of the Horatii brothers tells his sons they must fight the Curiatii despite the laments of the women.
Recent archeaological discoveries at Pompeii and Heculaneum had sparked great interest in Europe of stories of what was called "The Heroic Age" of Rome so the story was familiar to most of the French people. The picture created a sensation and though not revolutionary in intent, its Neoclasical style soon became the semivoice of the revolution. David created a program for arousing patriotic zeal. After this painting, art became much more political.
The painting shows three groups, the father, the brothers, and the sisters all against the backdrop of a rather massive setting. Each side group reacts to the father in the middle, one with enthusiasm, one with sorrow.

For a discussion of Neo Classical art go to Socrates by David

Thursday, April 23, 2009

St. George and the Dragon.

Today is the feast day of St. George (ca 275/281- 303).
St. George was a soldier in the army of the Emperor Diocletian. He was martyred on April 23, 303. The earliest stories of St. George and the dragon were in the 11th century, brought back from the Crusades.There have been so many representations of St. George fighting the dragon that I thought I would present several of them for comparasion.
This one on the left is an Orthodox Bulgarian icon from Alciato's Book of Emblems first published in 1531.

The one below was painted by Rogier van der Weyden (born ca.1400 in Tournai, Belgium). At the time he died in 1464 he was considered the greatest painter in Europe. His St. George was painted between 1432-1435. The National Gallery's website has a whole kids site relating to this painting

This painting below is by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Rubens was a Flemish Baroque painter who was greatly influenced by Italian Renaissance painting. Notice the difference between this depiction of St. George and the other 2. Rubens is known for his movement, color, drama and this painting has all three. This St. George comes sweeping in to rescue the maiden, full of bravado. He WILL slew the dragon.
The next painting is by Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898)The pre-Raphaelite. This painting is one of seven St. George paintings commissioned by the artist Myles Foster for his home.
By the way, the Pre-Raphaelite movement was founded in 1849 by a group of English painters, authors, and poets including Dante Gabriel Rossitti, his brother William, Frederic George Stephens, and William Holman Hunt. Their intention was to take art back to he time of before Raphael and Michelangelo, before what they considered to be mechanistic approach in art. Romanticism was their prevailing theme and many of their works focused on myths and legends. The King Arthur legend is often found among their works. They are considered by some to be the first avant- garde movement.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

"Aristotle with a Bust of Homer" by Rembrandt

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669) Rembrandt is considered one of the greatest of all European painters and the greatest Dutch painter. Although his full name was Rembrandt van Rijn, is usually just referred to as Rembrandt. The period during which he lived and painted is known as the "Dutch Golden Age" He achieved some financial success in his younger years but his later life was marked by personal tragedy and financial hardships. But he remained popular throughout his life and taught nearly every important Dutch artist.
His greatest paintings were portraits, self portraits, and scenes from the Bible. Rembrandt did many self-portraits, beginning in his youth and continuing through 1669, the year that he died. They form a kind of auto-biography
Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer
was painted in 1653 and had been commissioned by the Sicillan collector Antonio Ruffo. This was the first painting to sell for more than 1 million dollars. It was purchased in 1961 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for 2.5 milion dollars. I seem to remember it hanging in the lobby of the museum, near the front door. Don't know if they still have it there.
This imaginary portrait shows Aristotle, looking a bit worn, at the bust of the legendary (maybe mythical) epic poet Homer. Aristotle is dressed to the nines, a medillion with Alexander the Great's picture hangs from the gold chain. A reminder, I guess, that Aristotle had been Alexander's tutor. Aristotle's opulance represents his worldly success and the simple, humble bust of Homer represents spiritual values. Aristotle seems to being lost in thought, perhaps meditating on what he gave up to attain his success.

Self Portrait -1640

Self-Portrait 1661

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Incoming Tide" by Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) one of the finest of the American artists. A landscape painter and printer, his primary subjects were of marine scenes, especially the ocean. He was raised outside of Boston - actually in Cambridge which was a rural area at the time. His father was a businessman and his mother an amateur watercolorist. He was apprenticed to a Boston commercial lithographer at the age of 19. This lasted about 2 years. He then went on to do free-lance illustration. This he did for nearly 20 years.
Most artists are known for working in only one medium - oils, watercolor, etc. Winslow was successful in a variety -wood engraving, oils, watercolor, etching. In 1861 Harper's magazine sent Homer to the front lines of the Civil War battles and for the next four years he produced sketches of battle scenes and camp life. He began doing paintings of some of his sketches. His painting Home, Sweet, Home(1863), drew critical acclaim and was sold quickly.As a result, he was elected an Associate Academician at the National Academy and became a full Academician in 1865. After the war he turned to scenes of childhood and young women, reflecting the country's longing for simpler times.
He spent the year 1867 in Paris. He did not do any formal study but practised painting landscapes, while at the same time he continued to do illustrations for Harper's.
In 1875 he quit working as an illustrator and decided to try and live on his earnings as a painter. In 1882 he moved to Prout's Neck, Maine, living just 75 feet from the ocean. Except for family members, he rarely saw people. After the death of his father, he began to travel at times, painting the warmer ocean of the Caribbean.
Incoming Tide was painted in 1883 at Scarboro, Maine. It is a watercolor on paper, as most of his seascapes are. It is one of Homer's first purely marine pictures, completely absent of any human figures. It depicts the elemental forces of nature, which became his primary inspiration in later years. A friend later recalled Homer's attraction to inclement weather: "[W]hen I knew him he was comparatively indifferent to the ordinary and peaceful aspects of the ocean....But when the lowering clouds gathered above the horizon, and tumultuous waves ran along the rockbound coast and up the shelving, precipitous rocks, his interest became intense." *
*from the website of the National Gallery

Go to the following link for a short video of the area near Homer's home

Other paintings
Breezing Up: A Fair Wind 1876

Home, Sweet, Home(1863)

The Coming Storm (1901)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Salisbury Cathedral from Bishop's Grounds" by John Constable

John Constable (1776-1837) was an English landscape painter. Before Constable, landscape artists painted from their imagination. The landscape would usually be a backdrop to tell some mythical story. (althought there are some Dutch landscape artists, such as Jacob van Ruisdael) For instance, the 17th century Baroque artist Claude Lorrain. He is known for landscapes but they usually tell some story (see example below). Constable, an admirer of Lorrain, wanted to paint what was around him, to paint scenes of everyday life. Definitely not popular in the"Age of Romanticism."
Constable was always looking to develop new techniques to convey light and movement. He would use broken brushstrokes, usually in small dabs to create an impression of sparkling light. He did many studies of skies and clouds and even studied the works of meteorologists of the time.
Although not popular during his lifetime, his work greatly influenced later artists, especially the Impressionists.
"Salisbury Cathedral from Bishop's Grounds" was painted in 1825. It measures 2ft 10 5/8ins x 3ft 87ins and hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Constable did several paintings of this cathedral, each slightly different from the other in terms of sky or perhaps the season of the year. The original was commissioned by the Bishop of Salisbury in 1722 but was rejected because he felt the sky was too dark. On the left is the Bishop and his wife walking.
This particular version is considered unfinished. Another version came the following year and hangs in the Frick Museum in New York.

Claude Lorrain's
"Landscape with Apollo and Mercury" 1645

Other Constable works:
"Mill in Gillingham, Dorset" 1826

"Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows" 1831

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)Baroque artist. Born and lived in Delft, the Netherlands. Because he worked slowly, he did not produce many paintings - about 34. He also liked to use bright colors which were often expensive. His favorites were ultramarine, cornflower blue, yellow. Most of his paintings are of interiors of ordinary life or portraits. You often get the feeling that you are intruding into someone's life.
There is a transparency in his paintings which he achieved by using a technique called pointille, which is applying paint to the canvas in loosely granular layers.
"The Music Lesson" was painted between 1662 and 1665. It measures 28 7/8ins by 25 3/8 ins. It is in the Royal Collection at St. James Palace, London.
A young woman is playing a virginal, a base viola lays on the floor behind her. Her music teacher is watching intently. You get the feeling that perhaps there is more to their relationship, at least on the part of the teacher. The painting is characterized by the use of perspective which draws our eye to the back of the room. But Vermeer has placed other objects in front which we notice first - the table,the bass viola, the chair. By doing this, Vermeer has , in a sense, protected the privacy of the pair. Light enters the windows, casting subtle shadows. An interesting element is the mirror hanging above the virginal. We see the image of the young woman as well as the viola. There is also an image of legs of an easel. It is as if Vermeer was putting himself in the picture.

"Comparing the girl with her reflection we can notice that the back of her head, directly seen, is more conventionally perceived, more recognizable, perhaps more touching, her reflected face, its detail dissolved, its humanity suspended in light, has a deeper kind of completeness. The face is reflected not only in the mirror but also in the painter's temperament. For the first time we have the sense that he has a use, however oblique, for the whole of human appearance." Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer, 1952

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca

Piero della Francesca (c. 1415- October 12, 1492) was an Italian painter of the Early Renaissance. During his lifetime he was known as a mathematician and geometer , as well as an artist. His mathematical background is obvious in his paintings, especially when it comes to perspective.
"The Resurrection" was finished around 1460. The fresco hangs in the Museo Civico of Sansepolcro (Tuscany) which was the artist's hometown. It measures
7ft 5ins by 6ft 7ins.
Christ is the center of the picture portrayed at the moment of His Resurrection, strong and ready to begin the next phase. The sleeping soldiers beneath are symbolic of human frailties. Like the apostles in Gethesemane. The soldier in brown is said to be a self portrait of Piero.
You can see a definite geometric design with the soldiers forming the base of a triangle, or pyramid and Christ at the pinnacle.
Then there is the background landscape, which in a sense are two different landscapes. On the left, the trees are bare, it is winterlike. On the right, we have spring. The Resurrection has led us from the bleak and barren to the new, fresh beginnings, new hope for mankind.
Interesting tidbit - Sansepolcro escaped artillery fire during World War 2 because the British captain charged with the task had read an essay by Aldous Huxley which described The Resurrection as "the greatest painting in the world". Captain Antony Clarke had never seen the painting but at the last moment (shelling had already begun)remembered where he had heard of Sansepolcro and ordered his men to stop. A message received later informed them that the Germans had already retreated from the area — the bombardment hadn't been necessary and the town, along with its famous painting survived.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Michelangelo's "Pieta"

In keeping with Holy Week, I present Michelangelo's "Pieta". This is truly a beautiful and moving piece of art. I was fortunate to have seen it in person when I was a child - about 10 or 11 I think. It was at the Vatican Pavillion at the World's Fair in New York in the 1960s. Even at that young age I could see that this was something out of the ordinary.
Created in 1499 out of a single piece of marble, the "Pieta" stands 5ft 5.5 ins by 6 ft 4.8 ins. It was commissioned by the French Cardinal Jean de Billheres for his funeral monument. It now stands in St.Peter's Bascilica in the Vatican.
The theme is one which popular North of the Alps where the portrayal of pain had always been connected to the idea of redemption; it was called "Vesperbild''.
"The Pieta" combines the Renaissance ideals of classical beauty with a naturalism. There have been several theories (of course) of why Michelangelo depicted Mary as very young. He himself said that her youth symbolizes her incorruptible purity. Some have compare the positioning of Mary holding the dead Christ with the Madonna holding the baby Jesus. Personally, I find that quite a moving idea. A mother holding her dead son but seeing only the child she once carried in her arms.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was born March 6, 1475 in the region of Tuscany, Italy.(That means he was 22 when he sculpt the "Pieta"!) He died in 1564 in Rome.
On May 21, 1971, the statue was severely damaged when when a mentally disturbed geologist named Laszlo Toth walked into the chapel and attacked the Virgin with a geologist's hammer while shouting "I am Jesus Christ."After the attack, the work was painstakingly restored and returned to its place in St. Peter's, and is now protected by a bullet-proof acrylic glass panel.

Click the "pieta" link above to see more photos of the "Pieta"

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Last Supper by Leonardo DaVinci

Another famous DaVinci painting. But how could I not with it being Holy Thursday.
First of all, this is not a painting with secret messages, Mary Magdelene is not sitting next to Jesus, Peter is not threatening anyone with a knife. For some reason people like to imagine all sorts of things with regard to Leonardo's paintings, especially this one. Dan Brown didn't help the situation with his "Da Vinci Code".
"The Last Supper" was painted between 1495-1498.It measures 15ft by 29ft and covers the back wall of the dining hall at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. It was painted for Leonardo's patron Duke Ludovico Sforza and his duchess Beatrice d'Este.
The scene depicts the scene of the first Eucharist at the moment when Jesus has just announced that one of the twelve will betray Him. Each of the apostle have obvious reactions. You can almost hear them. "Do you hear what he just said?" "No one here would do such a thing!" Peter's temper is in play and he is swinging the knife around in his anger.
The apostles are seated in groups of three. Starting from the left, the apostles in the first group are Bartholomew, James the Minor, and Andrew. Next we have Judas, Peter, and John. Judas seems to be holding a small bag (30 pieces of silver?) and his face is shadowy. Peter looks furious. It is the figure of John,because he seems effeminate, that some claim is actually Mary Magdelene. But John was usually painted in an effeminate way by most artists of the period because of his youth .Besides if that is Mary Magdelene, where is John? It would make no sense for Leonardo to leave out John.
Christ is in the center, His calmness keeps things from getting out of hand.
Thomas, James the Major, and Philip are the next group. Matthew, Thaddeus, and Simon at the right end.
As you can see, the painting is not in the best condition. This is because Leonardo experimented with the paints. The preferred method of fresco painting at the time was tempera on wet plaster. Leonardo decided to try using dry plaster. It resulted in a more varied palette but it turned out not to be very durable.

Detail from Castagno's "Last Supper" John is on the right, sleeping.

El Greco's "Last Supper"

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Christ Entering Jerusalem by Giotto

Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267 – January 8, 1337, near Florence, Italy), known as Giotto, is considered the most revolutionary artist of his time. His work is like a bridge between the Gothic and Byzantine art of the Middle Ages and the art of the Renaissance. The later 16th century biographer Giorgio Vasari says of him "...He made a decisive break with the ...Byzantine style, and brought to life the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years."
Giotto's masterwork is paintings in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, also referred to as the Arena Chapel, completed around 1305. This fresco cycle depicts the life of the Virgin and the life of Christ. It is regarded as one of the supreme masterpieces of the Early Renaissance.

Christ Entering Jerusalem was painted between 1305-1306. It is one of the murals in the Arena Chapel. Giotto tried to simplify his compositions, no extra elements, just the essentials. He balances the building on the right with the boy climbing the tree. Christ links the two sides.Whereas Byzantine and Gothic art tended to be flat, Giotto gives us a more three-dimensional painting.
Below is a painting by Duccio of the same subject. Duccio was a contempoary of Giotto, a little younger. There are more details, more figures in his painting. The figures are more elongated, less real. Now a modern viewer looking at the Giotto painting may think, "that doesn't look natural to me." But you need to look at it with 14th century eyes.
Another difference is the perspective. Giotto places his figures in the foreground, pulling us into the scene. Duccio's view is from above. His figures seem to be almost floating.

Giotto was also an accomplished architect, as many of the Renaissance artists were.
The murals of the Arena Chapel were commissioned by Enrico degli Scrovegni. For more information (and photographs) go to:

Friday, April 3, 2009

Day One - Mona Lisa

I thought I would start off with "Mona Lisa" as it is one of the most famous, if not the most famous, paintings in the world; but perhaps most people don't know her background.
Also known as "La Gioconda", "Mona Lisa" is actually a portrait of the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. It was painted by Leonardo Da Vinci between 1503-06. It is painted on wood and measures 30 x 20 7/8 in (77 x 53 cm). It "resides" in the Musee du Louvre, Paris.
The painting is one of the first to set the subject against the backdrop of a landscape. Leonardo uses a pyramid design in placing the figure and the light illuminates her face against the darkness of her hair, clothing, etc. This draws us to her, yet keeps her at a distance at the same time. Thus there is a mysterious element about her.
Leonardo uses a technique called "sfumato"* which blurs the outlines and gives the painting a kind of smoky feeling. There is a feeling of calm about the painting.
It is her smile that has attracted viewers for generations. The slight opening of the lips at the corners of the mouth was considered a sign of elegance at that time.*
The portrait was never really finished and Francisco del Giocondo never received it. Leonardo was said to consider it a favorite and carried it with him. Eventually it wound up in the possession of the King of France, Francis I.
The "Mona Lisa" has been used in many, many ad campaigns, and in parodies of modern artists.
Below are two examples.

by Peter Max

Twice the painting has been damaged by vandals, but it was able to be restored.

1 sfumato:(noun) - A word, from the Latin (via Italian) fumare ("to smoke"), used to denote a painting technique. Sfumato means that there are no harsh outlines (as in a coloring book) present; areas blend into one another through miniscule brushstrokes, which makes for a rather hazy, albeit more realistic, depiction of light and color. An early, wonderful example of sfumato can be seen in Leonardo's Mona Lisa. (from Art Histort 101,

2 This bit of information is from an essay titled "On the Perfect Beauty of a Woman by Firenzuola, a 16th century writer.