What do you see? The Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower) or The Cathedral of Florence in The Piazza del Duomo is one of the most recognized buildings and piazzas in the world. The piazza includes the Florence Cathedral, Giotto’s Campanile (The Bell Tower), and the earliest building, the Baptistery. The octagonal dome, with its lantern and golden ball at the top, dominates the view. It is hard to move your eyes from the cupola but the golden orb and cross demand attention as they rest above the lantern and point skyward to the glory of God.
Looking at the exterior, the inlay of different colored marbles (green, pink, and white) in neat geometrical design is unique to Tuscany. The graceful circular windows interrupt the repetitious geometric patterns beneath the dome and add to the power of the dome itself. The continuation of the circular windows provides interest in the long exterior of the nave. On the right of the image is the separate Campanile or Bell Tower. Just to the right of the Campanile is the Baptistery (see images below). Incorporated into the three buildings are three main styles:
Definitions of Architectural Styles:
Where? Gallery 17 of the Legion of Honor Museum
What do you see? A life-size depiction of a scene before a 17th-century Russian wedding. The girl dressed in white in the center is about to get married to the tsar. She looks pale, and her sister is at her feet. The bride did not choose her partner, and she is not looking forward to the wedding and the rest of her life. She will have to give up her happy life as a teenager and faces a life in which she will have to do whatever the tsar demands. Most of her female friends and family members surrounding her share the somber mood.
The mood is in stark contrast with the sumptuous, colorful outfits of the wedding guests. Tradition prescribes that only women can be present while the bride is prepared for the wedding. An exception is made for the little boy sitting on the left. However, the man entering the room – possibly the bride’s father - is not welcome and is urged to leave the room.
Backstory: The bride’s name is Maria Ilyinichna Miloslavskaya. She is about to get married to the 18-year old Tsar Alexis I. Makovsky created two versions of this painting. The first version is on display in Serpukhov`s Museum of History and Art. This version is much less colorful and almost eight times smaller than the version in the Legion of Honor.
Makovsky used his second wife as the model for the bride in this painting. When this painting was traveling through the United States in 1893, Michael Henry de Young bought the painting. He left the painting for the museum that was eventually named after him, the De Young Museum, which forms together with the Legion of Honor Museum the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Bridal theme: Makovsky enjoyed painting the 17th-century life of the Russian upper class. He created several portraits and large paintings on this topic. Among his paintings is also The Choice of the Bride in the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico. In this painting, potential brides for the tsar line up and the tsar can choose who he wants to marry. The young women have no say in this as the tsar’s word is law.
Who is Makovsky? Konstantin Yegorovich Makovsky was born in 1836 in Moscow. The artistic gene ran in the family as his father and brothers were artists as well. He was one of the most successful Russian painters of his generation and loved to spend his earnings on traveling across the world. He died in 1915 in Saint Petersburg.
His works are a combination of the Realist and Academic art styles. He painted a variety of themes, including historical and mythological topics, genre pieces, and portraits. His most famous mythological work is probably The Judgment of Paris in the Faberge Museum in Saint Petersburg. A nice example of Makovsky’s portraits is the Portrait of Varvara Bibikova in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
Fun fact: The size and colors make this painting look very impressive. One is inclined to think at first glance that Makovsky painted a happy occasion. But a better look at the bride tells a different story. This story is emphasized by the faces of the other guests in the room. They do not look happy either. However, Makovsky did not make an effort to express much emotion on these faces. They mostly look dull and expressionless.
While Makovsky was an accomplished portrait painter, he clearly did not make a big effort in painting meaningful faces and expressions. Instead, he focused on the coloring, which was his main interest during this stage of his career.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster
Where? Room 254 of the New Hermitage building in the Hermitage Museum
What do you see? Six(!) people in front of an arched doorway. On the left, an old man lovingly embraces a young and bold man who bows his head in humility. This is his son who returned home after a long time. While the father is dressed in beautiful clothes, the son is not. He wears old clothes with holes in it, and his sandals are worn and broken. He still wears the dagger on his belt that he needed to defend himself in the outside world.
On the right, at a little distance, is the older son of the old man. Dressed in a red cloak, he has his hands folded while holding a cane. He looks at his younger brother with a mix of disapproval and envy. It is not certain who the other three people in this painting are. The woman in the middle background may be a sister or the mother of the prodigal son. The seated man with a mustache may be an older servant.
On the top left, barely visible, is the silhouette of a female servant. Rembrandt uses light to emphasize the important aspects of the painting. The father and son are fully in the light, the older son is partially in the light, and the other people are in the darkness.
Where? Gallery 201 at The Art Institute of Chicago
What do you see? A busy, rainy street near the Saint-Lazare station in Paris. The canvas is divided in half by an axis, a tall green streetlamp. Walking on the right of it, in the foreground, are a couple dressed in the latest Parisian fashion. As they walk arm in arm beneath an umbrella, looking off to the left side of the canvas, a stranger passes them with his back to the viewer. Judging by the young woman’s brown dress and diamond earring, the pair are likely of the upper class. The men in the middle ground appear to be dressed in a similar fashion.
Further down the canvas are some traces of the working class. Behind the man’s umbrella, a painter dressed in white carries a ladder across the street. Behind the woman, a baker looks out her window. Two carriage drivers can be seen on the left side of the street lamp.
Backstory: Exhibited at the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877, Paris Street; Rainy Day was celebrated by many. The natural scene of a real Parisian street painted in a realistic fashion calls back to Caillebotte’s interest in photography. However, the painting’s style cannot be characterized as entirely realist or academic.
Caillebotte features an unusual asymmetrical composition and cropped figures. On the right side of the canvas, the man and woman’s legs are out of frame and the stranger with his back to the viewer is split in half. This detail may be overlooked by modern viewers but was considered radical by Caillebotte’s contemporaries. The cropped composition may have been inspired by his interest in photography.
Featuring unsaturated colors and dim light, the painting has a gloomy and slow feeling. Subtly showing the division between the bourgeoisie and the working class, Caillebotte’s palette suits the daunting disparity that is most heavily felt by the workers.
Who is Caillebotte? Gustave Caillebotte was born in 1848 in Paris and died in Gennevillers in 1894. He grew up in a wealthy family and began painting in the studio of Leon Bonnat. In 1873, Caillebotte began his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts and shortly after became acquainted with Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet.
With his money, he was able to support many artists like Edgar Degas, Camille Pissaro, and Alfred Sisley. Although he did not participate in the first one, Caillebotte exhibited eight paintings in the Second Impressionist Exhibition of 1876, one of which was The Floor Scrapers in the Musée d’Orsay. Caillebotte’s academic style combined with an Impressionist influence produced a unique and modern style of art.
Never truly sticking to one style of painting, Caillebotte aimed to depict modern life for what it really was in the realist sense. Nonetheless, an Impressionist influence is evident in his loose brushstrokes and “cropped” paintings.
Fun fact: On the ground floor of the center building in the background, there is a green “pharmacie” sign with yellow letters. Nowadays, the same building, located in between Rue de Moscou and Rue Clapeyron, still has a pharmacy.
Where? Santa Maria delle Grazie Dominican Church and Convent in Milan
Commissioned by? Ludovico Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan between 1494 and 1499, for the renovations he had planned for the church and convent.
What do you see? The Last Supper where Jesus and the 12 apostles are sharing their final meal before the crucifixion. The fresco is designed so that the space in which the last supper takes place looks like an extension of the architecture of the room itself.
In the center is Christ. His outstretched arms touch the table. The 12 apostles are divided, first into two groups of six on each side, and second, into subgroups of three. Each subgroup is a tightly-knit group in composition. Scan the row of heads and see the wave-like arrangement, surging and ebbing.
The ceiling of the room is painted as if coffered, and the coffers provide a clear sense of depth to the mural. In the background are three windows with a view to the landscape. The center window behind Christ, has a semicircular pediment, suggestive of a halo. The right wall is illuminated and the left is in shadow.
Backstory: Leonardo da Vinci always carried a sketch book with him. He looked for facial expressions, bodily movement, and believed the artist had “two principal things to paint, man and the intention of his mind.” He has frozen these 13 men in a moment of time and by doing so, he captured all the drama and excitement of the Gospel verses in The Last Supper. Few sketches remain but below is an early version.
Da Vinci had indicated great concern about painting Christ’s face. Christ is larger than the others (hierarchical perspective) and this is also of theological importance. The spatial isolation of Jesus gives added importance to his image. Da Vinci also used the most expensive paint for Christ—ultramarine.
It is hard to imagine the reactions of the friars and nuns as they entered the refectory to see the mural for the first time (before the mural started to deteriorate). The light, bright, stunning colors of a well-known story told in a brand-new fashion must have been almost shocking. Gone were the traditional halos, the flat facial expressions, the formalism, and instead, a band of 13 young men are seen reacting to an announcement that none of them could believe would happen. The humanism of Da Vinci was a great surprise. In the silence of their shared meals it must have given them much to contemplate.
Restoration: Leonardo da Vinci had no experience painting frescos before he started on this mural and used an experimental technique similar to painting on a wooden panel. As a result, the painting is in very poor state as Da Vinci painted on an outside wall with no space to prevent water damage, and he painted with a mixture of oil paint and tempura. The paint did not adhere to the wall and it was decaying even during Da Vinci’s lifetime.
Numerous restoration attempts have been made over the centuries, but they usually caused further problems. In 1979, a small group of Italian art restorers began a huge project to properly do the job. It took them 20 years to complete.
Symbolism: Christ’s simple pose is complex in detail and meaning—he is silent, sad, and submissive. His right hand extends toward Judas, whose hand is near his. Christ’s hand is palm down, accusing Judas. “The hand that betrayeth me is with me on the table.” At the same time, Christ’s right hand refers to the glass of wine, the symbol of his blood used in the Mass, while his left hand extending to the bread refers to the symbol of his body.
The triangular pose of Christ is a reference to the Holy Trinity, an emblematic abstraction of his words, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” The hand with the forefinger pointing straight upward to the right of Christ, belongs to Thomas. His probing finger refers to the physical resurrection of Christ and points to heaven as a harbinger of the physical ascension.
Refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie: The Last Supper measures 460 cm x 880 cm (15 ft x 29 ft) and covers the end wall of the refectory (dining hall) of the monastery. Painting the mural was not easy and a hazardous task as it was placed 15 feet above the floor. The theme of the Last Supper was a traditional one for refectories.
The opposite wall of the refectory is covered by the Crucifixion fresco by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano, to which Leonardo da Vinci added figures of the Sforza family in tempura; these figures have deteriorated in much the same way as those in The Last Supper. Da Vinci worked very thoroughly but slowly and Montorfano was finished before him, to the consternation of Duke Sforza who exhorted Da Vinci to finish his project.
Who is Da Vinci? Leonardo da Vinci was born April 15, 1452 near Vinci in Tuscany. He was the illegitimate son of a 25 year old aspiring lawyer/notary, who had come home for the summer and met the young peasant girl Caterina. He was already engaged to be married but these occurrences were not particularly remarkable at that time.
His paternal grandfather took custody of Leonardo after the birth. The fact that Leonardo was not a legitimate son may have been quite fortunate, as the first legitimate son would have had to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. His grandfather allowed him free reign to pursue other interests.
When Leonardo was 15 years old, he was sent to Florence to work as an apprentice to Andrea del Verrocchio. He excelled and by the time he was 25, he had his own studio with students. He applied to the Duke of Milan and moved there when he was 30.
In 1499, following the Duke’s fall from power, he left Milan and spent a short time in Venice. He returned to Florence in 1500 and in 1516 he moved to France at the invitation of King Francis I. He died there in 1519 at age 67. Among his most famous works are the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and the Madonna Litta in the Hermitage Museum.
Fun fact: The rules of perspective that were used, bring about an unusual effect. This is especially true when looking at the table. The top of the table is always visible, no matter the angle at which you look at the painting. The nuns and friars in the refectory would be sitting well below the mural and it was important that they could see the bread and wine in this fresco.
Another interesting aspect of the fresco is the bottom center of the mural, where a doorway has been cut into the painting. In 1652, the kitchens were relocated to the room behind the refectory and they wanted easier access to the room. They cut out a good portion of the painting, included the feet of Jesus.
Fortunately, in 1520, Giampietrino had made a copy of the original in oil on canvas. We can see Jesus’ feet and also the salt cellar spilled by Judas that is no longer visible in the original fresco by Da Vinci. This copy by Giampietrino was very important for the restoration of The Last Supper between 1979 and 1999.
Where? Room E204 of the J. Paul Getty Museum
What do you see? The Ancient Roman god Jupiter (Zeus in Greek mythology) is disguised as a beautiful white bull. He just seduced Europa and takes her away on his back into the sea. He has his tail up as an indication that he is happy with the successful abduction.
Europa sits on top of the bull, holding a horn with her right hand, and fearfully looks back at her servants on the shore. They are the Virgins of Tyre (where Europa lived as well), with whom Europa was playing before she got abducted. They watch in disbelief how Europa gets abducted. The woman in blue has dropped the flower garland they made for the bull in her lap and raises her hands up in the air. The other woman looks at Europa while folding her hands as if she resigns in Europa’s fate. In the background is the horse carriage with four horses that had brought Europa to the beach.
The story of Jupiter and Europa? This story is based on the second book of Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid (Amazon link to Metamorphoses). At the end of the second book, in lines 833 till 875, Ovid describes how Jupiter falls in love with Europa. She was the daughter of a king in an Eastern land.
Jupiter asks his son Mercury to go to that land and drive the herd of royal kettle to the beach, where Europa is playing with her servants. Jupiter disguises himself as a tame white bull and puts himself among the royal kettle. Europa recognizes his beauty and starts to play with him. While a bit afraid at first, she eventually climbs on his back, and Jupiter takes that opportunity to walk into the water and escape with her on his back.
This story has also inspired other painters. Titian painted The Rape of Europa in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and Jean-François de Troy painted The Abduction of Europa in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Background: This painting is one of only few paintings by Rembrandt in which he included an extensive landscape. The Getty Museum acquired it in 1995 for about $27 million, which was a new record for a Rembrandt painting at that time. They bought it together with another painting by Rembrandt, Daniel and Cyrus before the Idol Bel, which is also still in the Getty Museum.
Who is Europa? A figure in Greek mythology. She was born as the daughter of a king of a land somewhere near current-day Lebanon. She is primarily known by the story on her abduction by Jupiter who brought her to Crete. She was still a virgin before the got abducted.
Jupiter and Europa get three children together: Minos (who will become the king of Crete), Rhadamanthus, and Sarpedon. After their death, these three sons became the judges of the Underworld.
The continent of Europe is named after Europa, as Jupiter took her from Asia to this new continent. Also, one of the moons of the planet Jupiter is named after her (many moons of Jupiter are named after lovers of Jupiter).
Who is Rembrandt? Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in Leiden, The Netherlands, in 1610. In 1631, he moved to Amsterdam where he initially ran a very successful painting business. He painted The Abduction of Europe in the year after his arrival in Amsterdam. He stayed there for the rest of his life and died in 1665. During his life, he experienced many challenges, like the death of his wife and children and financial trouble, but he always remained productive.
Nowadays, he is considered one of the most famous artists that ever existed. Rembrandt did not paint many mythological paintings during his career. He preferred religious subjects, like Saul and David in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, or portrait paintings of individuals or groups, like he did in his famous The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Fun fact: Rembrandt included some great details in this painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself: Poster or canvas.
Where? Room X on the First Floor of the Kunsthistorisches Museum
Commissioned by? Niclaes Jongelinck, a Belgian art collector and banker.
What do you see? In the left foreground, a group of peasant hunters and their dogs trudge through heavy snow as they return home from a search for food. It looks like their day was largely unsuccessful as only one hunter carries the cadaver of a small fox, and the dogs look somewhat underfed. Slowly, they pass by a group of villagers roasting corn over a fire at the inn on the far left. The sign hanging above the inn falls lopsided, skewed, maybe by the wind.
In front of the hunters are the footprints of a small animal, perhaps a rabbit that has escaped them. The dogs continue sniffing at the ground in the hopes of finding it. The hunters can already see their village. Tiny figures and silhouettes are scattered across the frozen waters as they play curling, hockey, and skate around in groups. Even further behind them are more white and brown houses surrounded by dead trees and black birds, bridges, and pointed towers all dwarfed by the massive snowy mountains that loom over the entire scene.
Backstory: Pieter Bruegel the Elder created Hunters in the Snow as part of his series, the Seasons. Bruegel painted scenes of autumn, winter, early spring, early summer, and summer and a sixth painting of spring has not survived. The surviving pieces of this series include: The Gloomy Day, The Harvesters, The Return of the Herd, and The Hay Harvest. Two of these paintings are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, one is in Prague, and the last painting is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The six part series once included a painting of spring that was lost.
The Seasons were commissioned for the dining room of Nicolaes Jonghelinck, a wealthy merchant and art collector from Antwerp. It’s likely that the paintings were spread out as a frieze on all four walls of the room, creating an immersive experience for the viewer. Hunters in the Snow is Bruegel’s depiction of winter.
As with all his pieces, Bruegel packs each of his works with such great detail that many of the miniature scenes he creates are impossible to see with the naked eye. With these details, he crafts a realistic and immersive scene that draws viewers in and plants them into a familiar but fantastical world. Much of his work is concerned with the life of the peasant whom he respected. He gave viewers a look into the parts of their daily life.
Who is Bruegel the Elder? Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a Dutch painter who was born near Breda in 1525. Bruegel began his art career in 1555 at the Antwerp School of Art, where he created many engravings, mostly on the topic of sin, learning from the style of Hieronymous Bosch. In 1563, Bruegel left Antwerp and moved to Brussels where he would remain until his death. During this time, Bruegel began to paint more, creating his Seasons series as well as his Massacre of the Innocents in the Royal Collection in London. Much of his work was focused on day-to-day life and reality, standing in contrast to the Renaissance movement in Italy during this time.
Towards the end of his life, Bruegel painted in a “large-figure” style that sought to imitate the rhythm of dance. Works in this style include his The Blind Leading the Blind and The Land of Cockaigne. His attention to reality and detail made him one of the world’s first truly modern painters. Bruegel died in Brussels in 1569.
Fun fact: Bruegel the Elder incorporated many details in his paintings, something that was characteristic of the Northern Renaissance style. A century before, Jan van Eyck had started this style. But Bruegel took this to another level. Some of these details can barely be seen with the naked eye. One of these includes a little hunter with a rifle shooting at some birds on the right side of the painting. With these minuscule details, Bruegel is able to create a world full of depth and truth.
Where? Many museums own a woodblock print of this work, including the Art Institute of Chicago, British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but this work is usually not on permanent display.
What do you see? A giant wave off the shore of the Kanagawa prefecture dwarves three boats — one in the foreground, one in the middle ground, and one in the background. The perfect curves of the wave’s form the relentless rocking feeling that terrifies the occupants and rowers on the tiny boats. Perhaps they are fishermen. Above them, it’s raining seafoam, represented with delicate white specks and claw-like crests.
In the distance, standing before a grey haze is Japan’s great Mount Fuji. The mountain balances the downward curve of the wave while emphasizing the enormousness of the wave.
Backstory: Hokusai created The Great Wave as part of a series of landscapes titled Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjurokkei). Mount Fuji, a sacred spiritual site in Japanese culture, appears in every print in the series, but is not conspicuous in every piece. Often, it appears in the background of the prints such as in the case of The Great Wave off Kanagawa.
The scenes that Hokusai created surrounding Mount Fuji were drastically different, varying in season, setting, and overall atmosphere. There are serene scenes such as Inume Pass in the Kai Province, lonesome scenes such as Tama River in Musashi Province, and intense scenes like The Great Wave.
Showing the important landmark from several locations, Hokusai emphasized the permanence and stillness of Mount Fuji. No matter the condition of life, the mountain would remain exactly where it stands.
Ukiyo-e: Ukiyo-e, meaning “pictures of the floating world,” was the major art style of the Edo period, which was popular between 1603 and 1868 in Japan. During this time, under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, ideas like sensuality and tranquility were promoted, prompting the creation of a genre of art depicting leisurely daily life.
Ukiyo-e began on silk screens depicting life in the urban sphere. The genre blew up when ukiyo-e artists began creating woodblock prints. The medium allowed for mass production and mass consumption. These images of courtesans, kabuki, daily activity, and nature soon spread to Europe once Japan opened its ports in 1853 spurring the Impressionist movement and inspiring artists such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Who is Hokusai? Katsushika Hokusai was a prominent printmaker and painter of the Edo period. He was born in 1760 and died in 1849 after a long career of art making. When he was 19 years old, he studied under Katsukawa Shunsho who gave him the skills to begin producing his own unique artworks when he was 20. After a dispute with his teacher, Hokusai ended his studies and began making sketches for woodblock prints that would be turned into picture calendars alongside his own prints of portraits of women. Soon he became a major player in the ukiyo-e movement, competing with Hiroshige and creating illustrations and paintings for popular fiction books.
A practicing Buddhist, Hokusai paid special attention to nature, and, in his own time, he produced many landscape paintings and prints including Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji in which his unique style became more prominent. He also painted birds and flowers with bright, intense colors. Hokusai was careful to depict daily life without any exaggerations but with great beauty.
Towards the end of his life, Hokusai grew weak in both his health and skill. Nonetheless, before his death at the age of 89, Hokusai created numerous works depicting mystical images such as demons and dragons, a change of pace from his typically realist style.
Fun fact: French composer Claude Debussy is said to have been influenced by Hokusai. When Japan opened its ports in 1853, the japonisme movement took over Europe. People quickly got their hands on Japanese goods like furniture and artwork that they would use to decorate their homes. As a student in Rome, Debussy frequently purchased Japanese goods. One of the prints that he discovered and hung on the walls of his home in Paris was The Great Wave which is said to have inspired his masterpiece, La Mer.
Where? Room 2 of the Musée d’Orsay
What do you see? A beautiful Venus is born from the foam of the sea. It looks as if she has just awakened from a deep slumber. She languidly rests her head upon a small wave that is beginning to form on the far right. The waters seem to conform to her twisted contrapposto, perfectly following the shape of her waist. Upon first glance, her eyes are shut. But a closer look reveals that they are half-open, pointed upwards as she looks into the crook of her right elbow. Her golden hair flows from beneath her left arm, floating beside her in the blue-green waters.
Above her is a pastel sky decorated with thin clouds and five cherubs that are celebrating and announcing her arrival with horns made of seashells. The three cherubs closest to her face peer over her body with playful curiosity, arms stretched out, perhaps preparing to wake her.
Backstory: Alexandre Cabanel exhibited The Birth of Venus in the Paris Salon in 1863 in a “Salon of Venuses”. During this time, many artists were painting female nudes shrouded in the mythology of the birth of Venus. The European idealized female nude, a tradition that traces back to the Venus of Urbino by Titian, was experiencing a revival in the 19th century in works like Cabanel’s, as well as the Grande Odalisque by Ingres, and the Maja Desnuda by Goya. The mysticism of the story gave artists room to produce semi-erotic works without offending the public. Cabanel’s Venus is posed in a much more provocative way than Olympia by Manet, but because of Manet’s more realistic and confrontational take on his nude, he received a great deal of criticism in the same year.
What is contrapposto? Contrapposto is a pose that was developed by the Greeks. In contrapposto, the figure rests its weight on one leg and bends the other. The axis of the shoulders and the hips are positioned in opposite directions to create a sense of dynamism and depth. This creates a natural resting pose that makes the figure come alive.
Who is Alexandre Cabanel? Alexandre Cabanel was a French painter born in 1823 in Montpellier, in the south of France. When he was seventeen years old, he enrolled in the Ecolé des Beaux-Artes in Paris. Following his first exhibition in 1844, Cabanel was awarded the Prix de Rome. His work was quickly popularized at the Paris Salon. Cabanel primarily painted in the Academic style and drew inspiration from the Rococo art movement. His works centered around classical, religious, and historical themes. The Birth of Venus, his most famous painting, was exhibited at the Paris Salon and later purchased by Napoleon III. In his later life, Cabanel served as a juror for the Salon and returned to the Ecolé des Beaux-Artes as a teacher. He died in Paris in 1889 at the age of 65.
Fun fact: Following the creation of the original, Alexandre Cabanel sold reproduction rights to Adolphe Goupil, an art dealer and publisher. Working with copyist Adolphe Jourdan, Cabanel was able to produce numerous replicas of his take on The Birth of Venus. One of these replicas is on display in the Dahesh Museum in New York. Another one belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art but is not on permanent display.
Where? Room 96 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Cardinal del Monte, who gave it as a gift to Ferdinando I de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany
What do you see? A depiction of the head of Medusa painted on a circular and curved wooden shield. Medusa is a figure described in Greek mythology. With her glance she could turn people who looked at her into stone. Instead of normal hair she has living, venomous snakes on her head. The snakes are watersnakes from the Tiber river as those were the best type of snakes Caravaggio could find nearby. I count at least eight snakes on her head. The blood streams out of her head as she has just been killed by the Greek demigod Perseus.
This painting shows the moment that Medusa is looking at the reflective shield that Perseus is holding (which according to the myth actually happened just before she got beheaded). She realizes that her head is separated from her body, but that she is still conscious. You can see this realization by the horror in her eyes. As the painting is created on a shield, Caravaggio’s idea was that this painting actually represents the view of the shield as held by Perseus just after he killed Medusa. It is also interesting to have a closer look at Caravaggio’s use of light and shadow in this painting. Do you see how Caravaggio used these contrasts to show the head of Medusa as a three-dimensional object?
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisa da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was trained by Simone Peterzano, who was in turn trained by Titian. He used a realistic painting style, paying attention to both the physical and emotional state of the subjects he painted. He combined this with a beautiful contrast between light and shadow in his paintings. He was a brilliant and unconventional artist.
During his life he received quite some commissions for religious paintings. However, Caravaggio always knew to how add some dark elements to the painting. He liked to use beggars, criminals, and prostitutes as models for his paintings, which would often give unexpected outcomes for familiar biblical scenes. Two beautiful examples of his religious paintings are the Death of the Virgin in the Louvre and The Entombment of Christ in the Vatican Museums.
Who is Medusa? In Greek mythology, Medusa was one of three sisters (Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa) who were often referred to as Gorgons. Both Stheno and Euryale were immortal, but Medusa was not. They were daughters of Phorcys (a sea god) and his sister Ceto (a sea goddess).
According to the Roman poet Ovid, Medusa was a beautiful young woman. However, after Poseidon (the god of the sea) made love to her in Athena’s temple, Athena (the goddess of wisdom and war) changed her beautiful locks into living, venomous snakes (in other mythological stories the three sisters were already born with snakes on their heads). Medusa had a horrific facial expression that could turn people (or according to some, only men) who looked at her into stone.
The Greek hero Perseus, a demigod, used a shining shield that he got from the goddess Athena to avoid looking at her directly and succeeded to cut off her head. He used her head as a weapon afterwards as it retained its power to turn people who looked at it into stone. Perseus ultimately gave the head of Medusa to the goddess Athena, who placed the head on her shield (which is what is depicted in this painting). When the head of Medusa was cut off, two creatures arose from Medusa’s body: Pegasus, a winged horse, and Chryasor, a giant with a golden sword.
Medusa in art? Medusa has been a popular subject in art. Famous artists have used her story as the inspiration for their artwork. Well known versions include:
Fun fact: Monica Favaro and colleagues published an academic study about the materials that were used in this painting and the evolution of these materials over time.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links).