Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Sunday on La grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat (1859-1891) was a French, Post-Impressionist (or Neo-Impressionist) artist who invented a technique known as pointillism. He was from a wealthy family and attended L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts. After a year of military service, he returned to Paris and devoted 2 years to just doing black and white drawings. He wanted to master drawing before moving on to painting. In 1883, he produced his first major painting The Bathers. This painting was rejected by the Salon. Subsequently, he and a few other artists formed the Société des Artistes Indépendants. An ironic note. The established school of painting at this time was the Impressionists (Monet, Renoir) which several years before was the anti-establishment school of painting. In 1884 he began work on his masterpiece A Sunday on La Grande-Jatte.
A Sunday on La Grande-Jatte took two years to finish. Obviously a very patient man, Seurat placed small precise brush strokes of different colors next to each other. These dots of color would blend together when looked at from a distance.He had study the new sciences of color theory and opticals and wanted to put them to the test in his paintings. Seurat believed that an artist could use color to create emotion and harmony in art the same way a musician uses counterpoint to create harmony in music. He believed that scientific use of color was just like any other natural law and he was obsessed with proving his point. He says in a letter to Maurice Beaubourg, "Art is Harmony. Harmony is the analogy of the contrary and of similar elements of tone, of color and of line, considered according to their dominance and under the influence of light, in gay, calm or sad combinations"
Seurat's theories can be summarized as follows: The emotion of gaiety can be achieved by the domination of luminous hues, by the predominance of warm colors, and by the use of lines directed upward. Calm is achieved through an equivalence/balance of the use of the light and the dark, by the balance of warm and cold colors, and by lines that are horizontal. Sadness is achieved by using dark and cold colors and by lines pointing downward.*
A Sunday on La Grande-Jatte is his greatest work. It shows people of different walks of life and social classes enjoying various activities in the park, Le Grande Jatte, which is an island in the River Seine. He spent two years on this painting, visiting Le Grande Jatte and making more than 30 oil sketches in preparation for the final painting. The painting is 10 feet long. It hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.
As with most major paintings (and other art forms, literature, etc) scholars have different theories about the painting. Some think it represents hostility between the social classes. They all congregate there but no one looks or speaks to each other. For others it shows the growing middle class at leisure. I tend towards the latter because Seurat's purpose centered around his theories of color. don't think he would have bothered making any kind of political statement.
An interesting aside - in 1984 a new Stephen Sondheim musical opened based on this painting. "Sunday in the Park with George" starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. I never got to see it in person but I did see the televised version (I also have the original cast album). It was glorious. It fictionalized Seurat's life, of course but I believe it caught his spirit.
Below is a link to youtube - the final number of the first half ,when the painting is finished.

Georges Seurat was only 31 when he died,most probably of diptheria. He produced 7 major paintings and 60 smaller ones.

* near bottom of article.

Other seurat works:(top) The Bridge at Courbevoie (1886-87); (bottom) La Parade de Cirque (1887-89) also called Invitation to a Sideshow

Sunday, May 24, 2009

"Relativity" by M.C. Escher

Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972) was born in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. His father was a civil engineer. He is considered one of best and probably the most famous of graphic artists. Over his lifetime, Escher made 448 lithographs and over 2000 drawings and sketches. He illustrated books and also designed tapestries, postage stamps, and murals.
Although Escher did some realistic works,(his early works were of the Italian countryside) his primary works involved optical illustions, explorations of infinity, and impossible structures. He became fascinated with the Regular Division of the Plane when he visited the Alhambra, a 14th century Moorish castle in Grenada Spain (see photo below).
Escher did not have mathematical training but mathematics play a huge role in his work. This influence emerged in his work around 1936 after he began studying George Pólya's academic paper on plane symmetry groups
"This paper inspired him to learn the concept of the 17 wallpaper groups (plane symmetry groups). Utilizing this concept, Escher created periodic tilings with 43 colored drawings of different types of symmetry. From this point on he developed a mathematical approach to expressions of symmetry in his art works. Starting in 1937, he created woodcuts using the concept of the 17 plane symmetry groups."*In 1941, Escher wrote his first paper, now publicly recognized, called Regular Division of the Plane with Asymmetric Congruent Polygons, which detailed his mathematical approach to artwork creation. George Pólya's
Relativity is a 1953 lithograph depicts a kind of serene world where the laws of gravity do not seem to apply. It's a sort "world of the future" type of scene with everyone dressed alike in lycra-like attire. Everyone is going about their day-to-day existence. These types of figures are found in other Escher works.
But there are actually three sources of gravity. They are perpendicular to each other. Each inhabitant lives in one of these gravity wells. Each staircase services 2 of the gravity wells.What makes the picture confusing is that all gravity sources are depicted in one space. Each park is in one gravity well but of the doors save one seem to be leading to basements below the parks.
This is one of Escher's most popular works. I am sure many of you have seen it used on other items - gift wrap, jigsaw puzzles, etc. In fact I did a puzzle with this picture on it.

Some other of M.C. Escher's works (upper left) Still Life with Street (his first "impossible" work)
(upper right) Drawing Hands. (bottom left) Regular division of the Plane III (bottom right) The Alhambra

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck

Jan (also known as Johannes) Van Eyck was a 15th century painter from the Netherlands who is considered one of the best Northern European artists of the 15th century. He came from a family of painters but none achieved the success of Jan. Van Eyck has been called the "Father of Oil Painting" because of the misinformation perpetuated by Giorgio Vasari, the 16th century painter and biographer of the Renaissance artists. He credited Van Eyck with inventing oil painting. But his masterful techniques brought to light qualities of the oil paints never before realized. He would build up layers of transparent glazes which would then give him a surface on which he could capture the smallest detail. This would also preserve the colors.
Van Eyck spent several years as a court painter, first for John of Bavaria and then for Philip the Good of Burgandy.He was with the Burgandy Court, living in Bruges, from about 1425 until his death in 1441.
Van Eyck, unlike most of his contemporaries, was paid a very substantial salary and did not have to rely on commissions to make ends meet (although he did take on private clients) . Also unusual for his time was the fact that he signed and dated his works, on the frame of the painting. The frame was considered an important part of the painting and often the frame and the painting were painted together.
The Arnolfini Portrait was painted in 1434 and hangs in the National Gallery in London. It is one of the most analyzed paintings by art historians. For a long time it was thought to represent an announcement of an engagement or marriage (thus its alternative title, The Betrothal of Arnolfini, among several others). And the woman is probably not pregnant. The lifting of the skirt is often found in 15th century paintings of virgin saints.
Instead of signing the frame of this picture, Van Eyck signed the painting in an ornate script over the mirror. The inscription says "Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434" (Jan Van Eyck was here, 1434) There are 2 figures reflected in the mirror, as if they were just coming in. The man is lifting his hand as if he is greeting him. It is speculated that one of these figures is Van Eyck himself. (see detail of picture above).
The picture is supposedly of Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and his bride, Giovanna Cenami, but it has been established that they did not marry until 13 years after this painting was done. It is now believed to be Arnofini's cousin, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini.
The details in this painting are extraordinary and unusual for the time. The clothing, ornaments, room decor all show that these were people of wealth. Even the oranges under the window were symbolic of wealth as they were very expensive in Bruges.

Some other paintings by Jan Van Eyck (left) St. Jerome (right) Madonna and Child

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Thomas More" by Hans Holbein the Younger

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497- 1547) was a German artist and printmaker. He is considered one of the greatest portrait painters of the 16th century, indeed of all time. His father - you guessed it - Hans Holbein the Elder, was an artist of the late Gothic period.
While still in Germany, Holbein mostly produced religious works - paintings, murals, and designing stained glass and prints. He occasionally painted portraits, making a name for himself with portraits of Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch humanist.
Holbein traveled to England in 1526 in hopes of finding work. He had a recommendation from Erasmus and was able to get into the inner circle of Thomas More, statesman and humanist and part of the court of Henry VIII, where he added to his already excellent reputation. Holbein returned to Basel, Germany for 4 more years than returned to England where he was able to get into the good graces of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. By 1535 he was the King's Painter to Henry VIII. In this role he not only painted the royal portraits but designed jewelry, plate, and other precious objects.
Holbeins portraits went beyond just capturing the physical appearance. His portraits show details of clothing, jewelry, and other embellishments. He used objects in the paintings to allude to the sitter's position in society or to an event in the sitter's life.
His portrait of Sir (Saint) Thomas More is one of Holbein's most well- known portraits. It hangs in the Frick Museum in New York. I have had the privilige of seeing it a few times. It was painted in 1527 and measures 29 1/2 " by 23 3/4". It is oil paint on oak panel.
Thomas More was a diplomatic envoy and Privy Councillor in the Court of Henry VIII. He was elected Speaker for the House of Commons in 1523. In 1529 he became Lord Chancellor. He served in that office for three years. When the king wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon More resigned and refused to recognize the king's claim to be head of the Church in England (Act of Supremacy). More was arrested, convicted of high treason,and beheaded. He was canonized a saint of the Catholic Church in 1935.
This portrait of More shows someone of importance, which he was. The medillion he wears does not represent a specific office, just that he was in service of the King. The rendering of his clothing, to me, is remarkable. The velvet, the fur seem real; if you could touch the painting you would expect to feel those fabrics. There were a couple of other paintings of St. Thomas More but they have not survived. A drawing of More and his family - including father, children, and grandchildren - is in the Tate Gallery in London. As with many of Holbein's subjects, these portraits are they only pictures of Thomas More, the only way we know what he actually looked like.
Holbein died in 1543 during the plague in London.
For more information on St. Thomas More - This is a very comprehensive site with a biography, his works, articles and essays about him, links, and a discussion forum.
Other portraits by Holbein top row - Henry VIII; Erasmus
Bottom row - Woman with Squirrel; Anne of Cleves

Saturday, May 16, 2009

"Rain, Steam, and Speed" by Joseph Turner

Joseph Turner was born on April 23, 1775 in London. His father taught him to read and that was the extent of his education. He loved to draw and by age 13 was selling his drawings in his father's barber shop. At 15 he was asked to exhibited one of his paintings at the Royal Academy and by 18 he had his own studio. His reputation grew rapidly and success came to him at a young age. By 27 he was a full member of the Royal Academy.
He began to travel throughout Europe. Venice, Italy became of source of inspiration for him and many of his paintings are set there. He studied the effects of the sea and the sky in different types of weather. Eventually his paintings evolved into a sort of romantic interpretation of the landscape instead realistic interpretation. Indeed, although Turner was an inspiration to the Impressionists, he is considered part of the Romanticism movement that began in the latter half of the 18th century and grew during the Industrial Revolution.
The painting Rain, Steam, and Speed , the Great Western Railway is an example of Turner's later work, a good example of the style for which he is famous. It is a watercolor and was painted before 1844, which was the year it was exhibited. Most artists at this time disdained the Industrial Revolution and much of the work of this time is of a back to nature type. For example, Constable in art, William Wordsworth in poetry, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe in literature. They are all considered part of the Romanticism movement. But Joseph Turner differed with them on the industrial age. He admired what was going on and he successfully combined nature with industry in many of his paintings. He was an especially big fan of the railways and chose one of the most advanced engines for this painting,known as the "Friefly Class"; and the bridge it is crossing at Maidenhead was a masterpiece of engineering by the greatest bridge - builder of his time, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.*

Other examples of Turner's work:The Grand Canal, Venice 1835 oil on canvas (left) and Warkworth Castle, Northumberland - Thunder Storm Approaching at Sun-Set 1799,watercolor on paper (right) .

Joseph Turner became more and more eccentric over the years and eventually isolated himself from everyone. One day he disappeared from his home and was missing for many months. He was found hiding in a house in Chelsea near death. He died the following day, Dec. 19,1851

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sleepy Baby by Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt (1845-1926) was born in Pennsylvania. Her father was a stockbroker and financier. When Mary was a child the family often traveled throughout Europe, even living in France and Germany for four years. At the age of 15 she decided that she would become an artist and in 1861 enrolled in Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. But she felt she needed to study in Europe. In 1866 she began lessons in Paris. In 1868 she exhibited for the first time at the Salon.
Mary often saw the works of Edouard Manet in Paris and she was greatly influenced by his works.
In 1870 she had to return to the U.S. because of the Franco-Prussian War. She was very unhappy and nearly gave up painting. In 1871 she was able to return to Europe and in 1874 settled permanantly in Paris.
In 1877 Mary met Edgar Degas who advised her to join the Impressionists. In her own words, “I accepted with joy. Now I could work with absolute independence without considering the opinion of a jury. I had already recognized who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet, and Degas. I took leave of conventional art. I began to live.”
"Sleepy Baby" is a typical example of Mary's work. It was painted in 1910 and the medium is pastels on paper. It hangs in the Dallas Museum of Art. She started on the mother-child theme in the 1880s and after 1900 concentrated solely on that theme and is these are her most well known paintings.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Edgar Mueller's 3-D street art

Just a short bit on an interesting new form of art - 3-D street art. Edgar Mueller is the foremost of the street artists. Born in 1968 in Germany,he began to devote himself exclusively to street painting at the age of 25. Here are a few examples of his works.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Chrysler Building - New York City

And now for something completely different. A little architecture. My sisters and I grew up with an awareness of architecture. Our dad was an architect. And growing up in New York certainly exposed us to a lot of beautiful architecture - and ugly architecture. I remember when the World Trade Center built my dad would rant on how ugly it was. Two tall skinny boxes. (Not only that,for the first several months shadowy images of the 2 buildings would appear on our tv screen).Compare those buildings with the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. These 2 Art Deco buildings are just plain beautiful. I was going to write about the Empire State Building. It has always had a special place in our family. My mother worked for the architects -Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon (15 years after it was built) but I have to admit I prefer the Chrysler building.
The Chrysler Building was finished just months before the Empire State Building. It was built between 1928-1930 (the Emp St B was finished in 1931). It is located at 405 Lexington Ave (corner of 42nd St.).There are 77 floors, 319.5m (1048 feet) high, 29961 tons of steel, 3,826,000 bricks, near 5000 windows. Cost: $ 20,000,000. The style is Art Deco. The architect was William Van Alen.
Art Deco was a style popular from about 1925 -1939. It appeared in all of the decorative arts - architecture, interior design, furniture- as well as in the visual arts, including fashion, film, and painting. It is based on geometrical shapes. Often materials such as aluminium,stainless steel, lacquer, and inlaid wood, as well as exotic materials, such as sharkskin and zebraskin, were used. Sweeping curves, sunbursts,chevron patterns, stepped forms are all common in the design.

"The design, originally drawn up for building contractor William H. Reynolds, was finally sold to Walter P. Chrysler, who wanted a provocative building which would not merely scrape the sky but positively pierce it. Its 77 floors briefly making it the highest building in the world—at least until the Empire State Building was completed—it became the star of the New York skyline, thanks above all to its crowning peak. In a deliberate strategy of myth generation, Van Alen planned a dramatic moment of revelation: the entire seven-storey pinnacle, complete with special-steel facing, was first assembled inside the building, and then hoisted into position through the roof opening and anchored on top in just one and a half hours. All of a sudden it was there—a sensational fait accompli."— Peter Gossel and Gabriele Leuthauser. Architecture in the Twentieth Century. p209.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

"The Unicorn Tapestries"

There are seven tapestries in this series, although one of them is lost. Only a couple of fragments remain. They were woven between 1495 and 1505. These tapestries were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1937 through a donation of John D. Rockefellar. They hang in the Museum's annex "The Cloisters" which is located in upper Manhattan on the Hudson River. The Cloisters just happen to be one of my most favorite places in New York.
The first tapestry, The Start of the Hunt shows a group of hunters starting off to search for the unicorn. They are not really dressed for hunting, more like noblemen. This is followed by the Unicorn at the Fountain. In this one the unicorn uses his magical horn to remove venom from the fountain. The third, The Unicorn Leaps into the Stream,is more vicious with the hunters having cruel looks on their faces. In the fourth, The Unicorn Defends Himself, the unicorn fights back, kicking people and other animals. The fifth tapestry, The Unicorn is Captured by the Maiden, is the lost tapestry. It is in fragments because of mishandling over the years. The sixth tapestry is The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle. The unicorn is brought to the Lord and Lady of the castle who want the magical horn. The seventh tapestry, The Unicorn in Captivity,is the most famous of the seven. Here the unicorn is alive once again and living within a fence.
There are basically two interpretations of the tapestries. One is the Christian interpretation. The unicorn represents Christ, thus his resurrection in the seventh tapestry. The other is that the tapestries were made for a celebration of a marriage, with the unicorn representing the bridegroom.
What is striking about the tapestries is the flora and fauna found in the works. They are for the most part symbolic. All are shown in full bloom, even though they would be from different seadsons. The plants have been woven so accurately that they have all been identified.
For instance, the pink carnations on the left. They symbolize earthly and divine love, betrothal and marriage, Christ and the Virgin.
The tapestries are made with wool warp and wool, silk, silver and gold wefts.
It is not known who commissioned the tapestries. Each tapestry has the letters A and a reversed E joined together with a bow. Some say that this represents Anne of Brittany, twice queen of France. In the third tapestry the initials F and R are sewn into the sky. This , some say, represents the noble La Rochfoucald.
For a comprehensive look at the tapestries click the link at the top of this page. This will bring to the Metropolitan Museum's site on the Unicorn Tapestries.