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: Rivera Court C200, Level 2 (formerly Garden Court) of the Detroit Institute of Art.
Commissioned by: Edsel Ford and Wilhelm Valentiner
What do you see? On four walls of the court, Diego Rivera painted 27 panels with highly allegorical scenes pertaining to the history of Detroit and the development of its industry. The dominant theme is the auto industry and its place in the city’s life. Many panels depict the lives and work of the workers of the Ford Motor Company. The murals are full of symbolism and address questions like how to achieve the balance between the use and abuse of both nature and people. And the symbolism of the murals begins with their layout.
East Wall: This wall faces the sunrise, consistent with the new dawn, new beginning, new life in which man and nature are in harmony. The scene has a child in the center, placed in the bulb of a plant and shielded by roots, fruits and vegetables native to Michigan. Both ends of the main scene lead to the upper panels featuring large nude figures holding grain and other goods of the earth symbolizing both the giving nature and appreciation of humans.
North Wall: This wall relates to darkness or the inner side of reality. In this case, the reality is human work represented by the auto workers building a car. Above the many figures engaged in the variety of tasks are the orange and red of the giant furnace which is blasting fire. The conveyer belts and assembly lanes are attended by the muscled-up men around the two milling machines, which, in turn, direct the viewer’s eye deep into the composition and towards the glazing furnace; here steel is melting for the molds of parts—the soon-to-be automobiles. The art here is more direct and representational.
South Wall: This wall delves back into symbolism. Central to the understanding of the scene is the stamping press, located on the right side of the wall. If one considers Rivera’s Mexican background and the allegorical character of many of his murals, the resemblance of the shape of the press to that of Coatlicue -- the Aztec earth-mother goddess, who lived off human hearts -- becomes apparent. The deity oversaw both creating and annihilating life. In the context of the Detroit Industry Murals, Coatlicue ruled and gave meaning to the sacrificial character of the factory work. The finished car in the upper mid-section gives the illusion of completeness, but there is more…
West Wall: This wall completes the cycle; it also contrasts with the serene character of the southern wall. Here, the bombers and planes warn of the dual nature of the technological advancements. The west wall faces sunsets and symbolizes finality.
Smaller panels: In addition to the scenes on the main planes of the walls, there are numerous smaller panels. For example, the upper north and south panels show large figures in different colors, recognizing the value of diversity in the workforce (red for iron ore, white for limestone, yellow for sand and black for coal and diamond). Each color corresponds with the material used for auto manufacturing; each has a value of its own and is indispensable like the representatives of the many races, who are all in the task together. The materials symbolize the strengths of each race.
Another smaller panel on the upper right side of the north wall features a baby being vaccinated, held by the parents accompanied by three men. A horse and a cow help decipher the symbolic reference to the nativity scene.
Background: Some allegories in the murals were perceived as controversial. For instance, the nudes present on panels were thought to be pornographic, the nativity scene was read as blasphemous, and the idea that a multiracial workforce was a positive thing was not shared by everyone in the United States. Additionally, Rivera’s political views were visible in most of his works. As a staunch communist, he was one of the founders of the Mexican Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors, in 1922. Another mural by him, Man at the Crossroads (1934), in Rockefeller Center in New York City, was removed in 1934 after it was discovered to have featured Vladimir Lenin and the Soviet May Day Parade. The Detroit Industry Murals have survived mainly thanks to the support of Edsel Ford, the son of Henry Ford and president of the Ford Motor Company. But the decision only followed the uproar of protests from the Catholic Church, students, workers, attacks by the press and the Detroit City Council’s debate on their fate; thousands of signatures had been signed under the petition to destroy them.
Who is Rivera? Diego Rivera was born on December 8, 1886 in Guanajuato, Mexico and died on November 24, 1957 in Mexico City. He showed strong artistic talent early in life. He attended the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts when he was approximately 12 years old, finishing it in 1905. The government sponsored his intense, long travel-study through Europe where he met several prominent artists, including Modigliani who painted a portrait of him. He showed six paintings in the 1910 exhibit sponsored by The Society of Independent Artists in Paris. His style evolved quickly; after initial impressionistic marks present in the Breton Girl and House Over the Bridge, Rivera absorbed Cubism fully by 1913. His trip to Italy in 1920 resulted in fascination with the Renaissance fresco. When he returned to Mexico, the fascination translated into mural painting, for which he is now arguably best known.
Diego Rivera’s political life was colorful and an integral part of his art. The Mexican Revolution and the Revolution of 1917 sealed forever his staunch devotion to communism and belief in the revolutionary mission of arts. But his many commissions in the United States were among reasons, for which he was also called by many a charlatan and a “millionaire artist for the establishment.” He was expelled from the party in 1929, for disloyalty to the Comintern, but, in reality, for the catch-all sin of Trotskyism. Leo Trotsky lived with Rivera for some seven months in the 1930s while in exile. He is featured in Arsenal along with Rivera’s third wife, Frida Kahlo.
Fun fact: The Detroit Industry Murals were finished in a relatively short period of time; after about a month of preliminary drawings, Rivera started to work on them in July 1932 and finished in March 1933. One of the most intriguing friendships Rivera developed during that time was with Edsel Ford, son of the Ford Motor Company founder and president. He was anti-communist, anti-union and pro-business magnate of capitalism, yet he is the one who paid for a substantial part of the Detroit Industry Murals.
Where? Room 31 of the Musée d'Orsay
What do you see? An open-air dance in Montmartre (a hill and district in Paris). On the table in the foreground sits a 16-year old model in a striped dress. Her name is Estelle. Probably, her older sister, Jeanne Samary, stands behind her and is in conversation with the painter Franc Lamy. Renoir used Jeanne Samary more often as a model for his paintings, such as in The Swing which is also in the Musée d’Orsay. The man on the right side of the other side of the table is George Rivière, the biographer of Renoir, and the man smoking a pipe on the left is the printmaker Norbert Goeneutte. People are dancing behind them under the acacia trees. The dancing women are mainly local people, and the men are mostly friends of Renoir. On the bottom left, a child is playing with her mother. This painting may be painted on a Sunday afternoon when the dance hall was open to families with children. On the top, we can identify some chandeliers that are hanging in the trees, as well as some lights on a pole on the right.
The effects of light: Renoir paid careful attention to the effect of the sunlight on the dancing people. It seems to be a sunny day, but the trees block part of the sunlight. We can see the brighter and darker areas in the painting by looking at the ground and the colors of the dresses of the woman. Look also at the man sitting with his back toward us in the right foreground. He has some light patches on his jacket and head. This is the result of the sunlight shining through the trees.
Backstory: This painting is also known as ‘Bal du Moulin de la Galette’ and ‘Au Moulin de la Galette.’ Moulin de la Galette was the name of a neighborhood dance hall located next to a windmill (moulin is French for windmill). Renoir also painted a smaller version of this painting which is in a private collection. In that version, he leaves out more details. This painting was sold in 1990 for $78.1 million, which is still a record for a Renoir painting. It is uncertain which of the two versions has been painted first. The current version is in the Musée d’Orsay since 1986 when it was transferred from the Louvre. Renoir used loose brush strokes to paint this work, and the painting lacks quite some detail. On the Impressionist exhibition where this painting was first shown to the public, some people were confused and thought that Renoir did not finish his painting yet. However, Renoir left out many details on purpose as he understood that the human eye could fill in the details when looking at the painting. This allowed him to focus on the effects of light and movement, and create a bright and happy painting of the public dance.
Open-air dance halls? The Moulin de la Galette was an open-air dance hall in Paris in the 1870s. Open-air dance halls were very popular in 19th-century France and were a great source of entertainment for the people. Most people went there not to dance, but just to watch the dancers and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. Renoir is the only Impressionist artist to depict this theme in his paintings. Renoir attended most of the events at the Moulin de la Galette, sometimes accompanied by other artists like Degas, and liked to dance there as well. To watch the dancers at the Moulin de la Galette, you had to pay a quarter French franc. The Moulin de la Galette first opened around 1833
Who is Renoir? Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) is a French painter from Limoges in the middle of France. When Pierre-Auguste was three years old, his family moved to Paris where they lived close to the Louvre. It was a dream of him to have his work on display in the Louvre and in the last year of his life, he visited the Louvre where he could see his own work hanging among the masterpieces that he admired as a child. He is one of the founders of Impressionism, together with artists like Cézanne, Degas, Manet, and Monet. The Impressionists focused on the effects of light and often painted outside. Renoir’s opinion about art was that it should be pretty and he mostly painted very happy scenes. Two good examples are The Apple Seller in the Cleveland Museum of Art and A Girl with a Watering Can in the National Gallery of Art.
Fun fact: Renoir paints an open-air dance in Montmartre, a neighborhood in Paris that was popular among artists in the second half of the 19th century. It was the home to artists like Degas, Manet, Monet, Picasso, and Van Gogh. Renoir lived there as well and rented a studio close to the dance hall depicted in this painting. He brought the canvas from his studio to the dance hall to paint the dance. Many people that he knew participated in the dance. The story goes that, on some days, when it was windy, some of his friends there had to help him to keep the canvas straight while he was painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 642 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Commissioned by? Niclaes Jongelinck, a Belgian art collector and banker.
What do you see? This painting depicts the late summer harvest in Belgium. Imagine yourself standing on top of the hill in the foreground observing and listening to this 16th-century agricultural scene. Against a background of low hills and a valley, you can see more than 40 people in this painting engaged in various activities (the longer you look at this painting, the more people you discover). In the right foreground, next to the large pear tree (you can see the pears hanging in the tree), a group of hungry people is eating and drinking. They are consuming bowls with milk and cereals, pears from the tree, bread, and cheese. The person on the left of this group already fell asleep with his pants half open. You can see a church tower hidden behind the trees, just to the right of the large tree in the foreground. To the left of this group, a young man with a jar of water walks up the hill through the path that cuts through the beautiful golden wheat field. Several people are mowing the grain strains with scythes, others are binding the strains together into sheaves, and others carry the sheaves down the hill. You can also see a cart full of wheat driving down the hill. There are many more details that you can discover. For example, on top of the wheat field on the left are two birds searching for food. On the complete right, you can see a person in a tree shaking out the apples that the kids on the ground are picking up. In the middle background, you can see the sea with several boats on it.
Backstory: This painting on the harvest by the peasants in Belgium is part of a series of paintings by Bruegel that shows the agricultural activities that are usual for the different months of the year. The series probably consists of six paintings and The Harvesters represents the months July and August. Four other paintings of this series have survived: The Gloomy Day, Hunters in the Snow, The Return of the Herd, and The Hay Harvest. Three of these paintings are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the other one is in Prague. The sixth painting in this series has probably not survived (though some people think that the full series even consisted of 12 paintings). Typical for Bruegel, he did not romanticize this agricultural scene but painted a realistic picture of the peasants in late summer.
Modifications to this painting: The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired this painting in 1919. When they cleaned the painting and analyzed it, they noticed that Bruegel modified this painting on the canvas itself. Under the painting, an initial drawing of Bruegel was discovered, before he started painting it. Bruegel made several changes to this painting while painting it. For example, the right hand of the sleeping man next to the tree was in an awkward position, and Bruegel decided later to add a cap to this man that was slipping from his head to cover up this hand. If you look carefully, you can still see the bottom of his right arm through the cap. Another example is that he first painted the church and later decided to add a branch to the pear tree to cover part of the church tower. You can see the rest of the church tower under the branch. The reason that you can see these modifications is that Bruegel used only a thin layer of paint that became somewhat transparent over time.
What is humanism? Pieter Bruegel the Elder was one of the early painters that abandoned the religious or classical themes in his paintings and focused instead on the people. This focus on people was in line with the humanist movement in society. Bruegel seemed to have been well-educated and had many humanist friends. Humanism puts the human being central and focuses on the values and behaviors of people. The impact of humanism on art was a focus on realistic depictions of people and their environments. This realism can clearly be observed in the works of Bruegel.
Who is Bruegel the Elder? Pieter Bruegel the Elder was born between 1525 and 1530 in Breda in The Netherlands and died in 1569 in Brussels (his name is sometimes spelled as Brueghel). Opposite to the popular High Renaissance style developed in Italy during that time, Bruegel used a more realistic painting style which we now classify as the Northern Renaissance style. Bruegel was a specialist in genre art (scenes from everyday life) and specifically in painting landscapes and depicting peasants. The artistic talent ran in the Bruegel family, and several people in his family tree were accomplished painters as well, including the two sons of Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger.
Fun fact: A group of about ten people in the middle of the paintings is playing a game. This game is identified as cock throwing, which was especially popular in England. On the left, you can see a rooster tied to a branch hanging in the air. The goal of the game was that people would throw sticks at the rooster until it died. The person who killed the rooster could keep it. Cock throwing is a so-called blood sport, a category of games that involved the killing or injuring of animals. These blood sports were quite popular in the 16th century. An even more popular blood sport around that time was cockfighting, a sport that is still practiced in some countries nowadays.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 822 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
What do you see? Van Gogh described this painting to his brother as follows: “I have a canvas of cypresses with a few ears of wheat, poppies, a blue sky, which is like a multicolored Scotch plaid; the former painted with a thick impasto like the Monticellis [works of a painter who Van Gogh adored], and the wheat field in the sun, which represents the extreme heat, very thick too; I think that these would make it more or less clear to him [the art dealer Alexander Reid, who was a friend of Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo; Van Gogh has also painted a portrait of Alexander Reid] that he could not lose much by remaining friends with us.” The painting shows a large ripe gold-colored wheat field which is ready for harvest. On the right are two darker cypresses that draw the attention. To the left are lighter and smaller cypresses. The whirling clouds and blue mountains in the background complete this landscape. You can almost feel the wind that is affecting the clouds and the wheat field. This movement is emphasized by the impasto technique used for this painting, in which the paint is applied in thick layers.
Backstory: Van Gogh painted this wheat field (by some referred to as a cornfield) with cypresses when he was in a mental asylum in Saint Remy in the south of France. He painted this when he was allowed to make short walks and paint outside of the asylum. He was particularly impressed by the cypresses he saw there as he felt that this tree reflected some of his emotions. Van Gogh liked this painting so much that he repeated this painting three more times. One version is in the National Gallery in London (and was acquired in 1923 for ₤300, which was similar to the price of a house at that time). Another (smaller) version is part of a private collection. The last version (a pen drawing) is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Symbolism: Van Gogh used his paintings to express his ideas of the meaning of life. The wheat fields represent the cycle of life, where people celebrate their growth, but at the same time are susceptible to the powerful forces of nature. The cypresses are a symbol of stability in a wild landscape (though at the same time the cypress was associated with cemeteries and death in the south of France, though many believe that this was not the intended meaning of the cypresses for Van Gogh).
Who is Vincent van Gogh? Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) was born in The Netherlands. His work is classified as post-impressionism. His work includes landscapes, portraits, self-portraits, and still lifes. Well-known are his depictions of cypresses, sunflowers, and wheat fields. In 1886, Van Gogh moved to Paris, where he connected with the French Impressionists, such as Paul Gauguin and Claude Monet. In 1888, Van Gogh moved further south in France to Arles where he painted his famous series of sunflower paintings, including the version that is in the National Gallery in London . A year later he moved to a nearby mental asylum in Saint Remy, due to his poor mental state, but continued to produce his paintings. During this time, he produced not only this painting but also The Starry Night which is in the Modern Museum of Art in New York. Van Gogh was a heavy drinker and smoker, and his mental state is often reflected in his paintings. In 1890, Van Gogh died at 37 years old from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
What is post-impressionism? Post-impressionism is a French art movement which developed in response to Impressionism. It is an extension of Impressionism, which is characterized by paintings with bright colors, real-life subject matters, and a thick application of paint. Post-impressionism extended on impressionism by adding emotions and symbolism to the paintings to reflect the artist’s state of mind. Besides Van Gogh, well-known painters in this movement include Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Paul Cézanne.
Fun fact: On the list of the 100 most expensive paintings ever sold, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Vincent van Gogh are best represented. Van Gogh has most paintings on this list (at least seven). For example, Wheat Field with Cypresses was bought in 1993 for $57 million and donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, unlike Picasso and Warhol, Van Gogh did not get rich during his life. In fact, the only known painting that Van Gogh sold during his life, The Red Vineyard, was sold for 400 Belgian Francs, which is worth about $1,500 nowadays.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links)
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
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 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 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.
Emotions in this painting: Like few others, Rembrandt is able to convey the emotions of the subjects in his painting. He has lived an eventful life and knows what it is to miss his children. People recognize the emotions in this work and this is the main reason that many are deeply touched by this work. You can see the father’s love in the embrace, and the tenderness in the way he puts his hands on his son’s back. Looking at his face, we can identify multiple emotions at the same time: grief about his son’s past behavior, relief that his son is back, and the love in being able to embrace his son. Rembrandt is able to include multiple emotions at once in this painting, which is different from some earlier work that he did on this subject as illustrated in the two pictures below. The first picture is an etching from 1636 and the second one a drawing from 1642.
The parable of the prodigal son: Luke 15: 11-32 describes a famous story that Jesus told to the Pharisees about a rich man and his two sons. The parable illustrates the Christian ideal of mercy. It relates to Luke 15:7, where Jesus says that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who regrets his sins than over 99 good people who need no change. The parable describes that the younger of two sons asked his father for his share of the inheritance and left. He wastes his money and lives like a fool until he runs out of money. One day, he realizes how foolish he has been and decides to return home to his father and beg him for forgiveness. The father is very happy to get his son back and organizes a big party. The older son, however, is not so happy. While his younger brother was wasting his money and feasted with prostitutes, he has continued to work hard for his father’s business and has never gotten such a big party. The father tells the older son that everything he has is also owned by him, but that on this day he celebrates the life of his youngest son.
Backstory: This is the last major painting Rembrandt painted during his life, and it is probably the best-known of his religious works. The painting combines two elements from the Biblical story. The meeting between the father and the younger son, and the separate meeting between the father and the older son. According to Luke 15, the older brother is not present when the father is reunited with his youngest son. However, just like in the parable that Jesus told, it is not clear in this painting whether the oldest son will walk away from his younger son or will eventually welcome him back as well.
Moral message: Rembrandt did not use any clear symbols to convey the main message of this painting. He just shows the emotions of the father and the two sons, which convey two important Biblical lessons. The father shows what mercy is and the son shows that you can always ask for forgiveness for your mistakes. And the older son? He is not sure yet whether he can put his jealousy aside and forgive his younger brother.
The Prodigal Son by other artists: To better understand what makes this painting by Rembrandt so special, it is helpful to compare Rembrandt’s version with those of some famous colleagues of him. In 1654/1655, Guercino painted a colorful and idealized version of The Return of the Prodigal Son in the Timken Museum in San Diego. And between 1667 and 1670, Murillo created his version in the National Gallery of Art, and Jan Steen painted the same subject, on display in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. All versions have their unique elements, but none of them comes close to the powerful way in which Rembrandt incorporates human emotions.
Who is Rembrandt? Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) was a very talented painter from The Netherlands. He is considered as one of the most influential Baroque painters. Rembrandt had an eventful life in which he experienced many extreme situations of prosperity and adversity. Earlier in his career he was financially very successful, happily married, and got children. However, soon after, three of his children died in childhood, his wife died at age 32, and he faced financial difficulties. As illustrated by the current painting, Rembrandt was very good in painting human emotions. He painted many realistic self-portraits during his life in which his face reflects his state of mind and the events in his life. Rembrandt’s most famous work is The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. However, he has also painted an occasional mythological work of very high quality, like The Abduction of Europa in the Getty Museum.
Fun fact: Look at the hands of the father in this painting. They are quite different. His right hand has a lighter color than the left hand. And, the fingers on the right hand are longer and thinner than those on the left hand. The right hand is feminine, and the left hand is masculine. The reason for these differences has been debated quite a bit over the years. One explanation is that the hands represent both the hand of the father and the mother of the prodigal son as God can assume both roles for us.
Where? Room W204 of the Getty Museum
What do you see? In the foreground are blooming blue irises with green stems and leaves with pointy tips. One the left is a single white iris with large petals. In the background are orange marigolds. The flowers are planted in the red-brown earth. On the top right is a meadow lit up by the Mediterranean sunlight. Van Gogh used bright blue and violet colors for the irises and this color contrast nicely with the other colors in this painting. The contrast makes the flowers stand out and makes the flowers come alive. Van Gogh also used the contrast in texture, and you can see that the different elements in this painting have their unique look and texture. For example, the earth in the foreground has a rough texture which contrasts nicely with the smooth texture of the stems and leaves of the irises. The somewhat disorganized petals of the irises also contrast with these smooth leaves and stems. The marigolds in the background have again a different texture. Van Gogh was probably sitting on the ground while painting these irises, which emphasizes the presence of the green stems and leaves.
Backstory: Van Gogh painted this work several days after he was admitted to the mental asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. In his first letter from the asylum to his brother Theo, Vincent wrote that he was focusing on painting irises and lilies. These colorful flowers may have provided him with feelings of hope that may have helped him temporarily with his mental state. However, one year after he was admitted to the asylum, he died because of a self-inflicted gun wound. His death was the result of a troubled life, though not everybody could understand that. Monet commented on the death of Van Gogh that he could not understand how a man that loved flowers so much and could depict them in such a beautiful way could be unhappy with his life.
What are irises? There are almost 300 different types of irises. The iris exists in many different colors, explaining its name which is derived from the Greek word for rainbow. The most common color for irises is violet-blue, which is the color of the irises depicted in Van Gogh’s painting. The iris can grow from a root or a bulb. Irises have a long stem and one or more six-lobed petals. For bearded irises, the type depicted in this painting, three of these petals curve up and the other three bend down. These irises grow up to about 120 centimeters.
Why irises? The simplest explanation is that irises where blooming in the garden of the asylum to which Van Gogh was admitted. Van Gogh was not allowed to leave the asylum and its garden in the first month, so the availability of the blooming irises was a good reason to paint them. Another reason that he painted irises was that Van Gogh loved flowers and flower paintings. Flowers are colorful, and they allowed Van Gogh to experiment with different colors. Van Gogh liked to play around with different colors to provide contrasting effects and to make certain elements in his painting stand out more. His use of colors was inspired by Eugène Delacroix, who he called ‘the greatest colorist of all.' A third reason is that flowers were a popular subject among the masses and Van Gogh hoped throughout his career for some commercial success (which he never got during his life).
Who is Van Gogh? Vincent Willem van Gogh was born in 1853 in Zundert, The Netherlands. He only started to fully focus on painting in 1883. In 1886 he moved to Paris, and, two years later he moved to the south of France, to Arles. He struggled with mental illness and died in 1890 from the results of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Most of Van Gogh’s famous paintings come from the last three years of his life. Examples include his famous series of sunflowers, of which one version is in the National Gallery in London. Another example is his Wheat Field with Cypresses in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (he made two other versions of that painting, one in the National Gallery and another in a private collection). His later work can be characterized by broad brush strokes, the unique combination of colors, and the use of innovative perspectives and designs.
Fun fact: Irises was sold in 1987 for a record-breaking fee of $53.9 million to the Australian businessman Alan Bond. However, he failed to repay a substantial loan he got from the auction house, and the painting was resold in 1990 to the Getty Museum. Van Gogh created more paintings with irises as the main subject. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art hangs the painting Irises and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has another version of a vase with irises. The National Gallery of Canada exhibits Iris, a painting with a single iris.
Where? Room 506 on Floor 5 of the MoMA
What do you see? A look into the studio of Henri Matisse filled with his recent artworks scattered about the room. Among them are paintings on the walls, a stack of frames in the corner, vases, and ceramic plates. These objects seem randomly placed in the red room. Each painting, sculpture, and object is rendered in relative detail while the furniture in the room is represented with thin, almost invisible, yellow lines. Hardly present are a table, a dresser, two stools, a chair, and a grandfather clock with missing hands. This clock serves as the painting’s central axis and may suggest a disruption of time. Likewise, space is disrupted in the studio. The flatness of the red canvas is contrasted with a distorted perspective with improperly converging orthogonals and furniture that is depicted at varying angles. The curves of the plants on the table and the figures of his paintings contrasts with the rigidity of the picture frames, chairs, and the window on the far left. In this way, balance and harmony are created in the placement and color of the curated menagerie of objects in the studio.
Backstory: The Red Studio, also known as L'Atelier Rouge, is part of a long-standing tradition of depicting the artist in his studio. Courbet, Velázquez, and Vermeer have all created similar paintings that show them at work in their own artistic space. But Matisse removes himself from his studio and instead represents himself with the artworks that are scattered around the room. These are all actual artworks that Matisse created. Matisse thus untraditionally represents himself with his own artworks. Matisse strays from tradition again by painting with reserve lines (rather than painting the entire canvas red and working on top of that layer, he leaves certain areas of the canvas unpainted and these unpainted areas form some of the lines and forms in this work). This can be seen in little gaps in paint near outlines where the bare canvas is revealed. This can be attributed to Matisse’s study of Cézanne’s works which is a departure from the Renaissance style of creating layers of oil paint.
Who is Henri Matisse? Henri Émile Benoît Matisse was born on December 31, 1869 in Le Cateau, France. When he was 22, he moved to Paris to study art. Already influenced by the Impressionists, he grew into a more abstract painter as he traveled the Mediterranean finding inspiration in the light there. When he returned from the Mediterranean, Matisse’s work was exhibited alongside works by Derain and De Vlaminck, artists that were central in the formation of the Fauvist movement. As the Fauvists received great criticism, Matisse’s reputation quickly grew. Finding identity in his Fauvist style, his works became more wild and colorful. In 1910, Matisse travelled to Spain and Morocco to study Islamic art and architecture. There, he found inspiration in patterns and incorporated detailed designs into his artworks. But just seven years later, Matisse retired to Nice and turned to a much more naturalistic style. Despite this regression, Matisse eventually returned to his abstract style in the 1930s only this time with paper cut-outs which include his Blue Nudes. Towards the end of his life, Matisse worked on the stained glass designs for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence in the south of France. He died on November 3, 1954.
Fun fact: The artworks in The Red Studio are all based on actual works by Matisse. These include Nude with a White Scarf (upper left) in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, Female Nude (lower right), and Bathers with a Turtle (upper right) in the St. Louis Art Museum.
Where: 141 Wooster Street, New York City
What do you experience? The Earth Room contains 280 thousand pounds of soil (dirt) filling up the 3600 square feet second floor apartment in the heart of New York City. It measures up to about 22 inches in height and is contained partly by the white walls and partly by a glass barrier only inches taller than the level of dirt.
Unlike most other types of sculptures, which can be experienced at distance (a photograph can give us an idea of the work and artist’s creativity), the Earth Room should be experienced in person. Besides the visual or even tactile levels of perception, the Room evokes an olfactory experience. The visitor can smell the art. The scent of fresh soil can be felt long before you get to see the actual work, while walking up the stairs leading to the second floor of the building where it is located.
The overall impression is similar to that of experiencing the ocean for the first time; one can smell the water long before it becomes available in any other way. In the Earth Room, the scent of the fresh soil intensifies dramatically as we stand in front of the exposition.
How does it remain fresh? Bill Dilworth, the curator of the Earth Room, explains the life that has been happening inside the dirt. Originally from Detroit, Dilworth has lived in New York for about 40 years and has been taking care of the New York Earth Room for nearly 30 of those years. While life in the Earth Room dirt is limited by the enclosed space, and it does not have the same kind of substances present in a natural environment, scientists have claimed that some microorganisms can survive in such conditions for up to 200 years. Tests of dirt samples revealed all sorts of life present. One of Dilworth’s routine tasks is to water the dirt, partly to limit the dusting inside the apartment. One of the side effects of that task is the continued sustainability of life present in the sculpture.
Land Art: The Earth Room represents Land Art, a creative phenomenon of the 60s and 70s. Land Art focuses on experiments with free-form, conceptual post-minimalism and concern with environment. The work is intentionally simple. Yet, its simplicity is what is so puzzling about it and what provokes the desired outcome: a reflection, a thought, and a pause. There is no specific indication as to where the soil in the Room comes from; it is unimportant as it has carried humanity with equal effort throughout the ages, wherever there was soil.
How significant is it for us to realize and how do we perceive the land? Are we making the best use of the earth? Is that even the proper way to think about it? Artists have been making landscapes the subjects of their works for a long time. Why not consider the material—dirt—to have an independent aesthetic quality or even to be one? Those are some of the notions Land Art evokes. Others include the concern about the human impact on that quality. In that sense, art seems to be ahead of theory, as evidenced by the recent outpour of research on the climate change.Working with non-traditional materials, the value of the process itself, and challenging the commercialization of art were at the core of Post-Minimalist movement out of which Land Art grew. The movement challenged the status of commercial merchandise to which art was reduced.
Contrast with city life: A unique feature of the Earth Room is its contrast with city life. The visitor experiences silence and serenity. In the heart of “the city that never sleeps,” the Earth Room’s atmosphere is an oasis of peace and quiet. The earth absorbs while offering a nearly spiritual experience. The feature of solitude is consistent with De Maria’s claim that “Isolation is the essence of land art.” His other work, The Lightning Field (1977), is in New Mexico’s desolate area near Quemado. Another land artist, Robert Smithson, located his earth sculpture, the Spiral Jetty (1970), in Rozel Point, Utah, on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake, making it inaccessible altogether for an in-person experience.
Other Earth Rooms: Originally, there were three Earth Rooms, two in Germany and one in New York, which was the last one installed. They were all initially shown through gallery exhibitions. The New York Earth Room was intended to last three months, but it is now the only Earth Room left. It was taken up by Dia Art Foundation. The foundation has commissioned and/or maintained number of projects, with the goal of helping artists realize their visions, especially those visions which often reach beyond the scope of traditional gallery exhibitions.
Who is De Maria? Walter Joseph De Maria was born in 1935 in Albany, CA and died in 2013 in Los Angeles, CA. In 1960, he moved to New York where he stayed the remainder of his career. His artistic interests included Conceptual, Land, and Minimal Art. Among his famous works are the New York Earth Room, The Lighting Field, The Broken Kilometer, and The Vertical Earth Kilometer.
Fun fact: Initially, about 3500 people annually visited the Earth Room. Nowadays that number is about 16,000. With the growing awareness of human impact on the environment, it seems likely that the number of visitors will continue to rise. The New York Earth Room remains one of the most unique forms of Land Art.
Where? Room 67 on Floor 0 of the Prado Museum
What do you see? The power-hungry god of time, Saturn, stands in the darkness with the corpse of his son in his hands. His grotesque limbs are abnormally long and twisted. The yellow color of his skin gives him a sickly and monstrous appearance. With a mouth as wide as his eyes, he bites pieces of flesh out of his son’s body. The head and right arm have already been devoured. The corpse hangs limp in his firm hands, fingers digging into the back. Surrounded by muted colors and a black background, the blood flowing out of the son’s body is particularly striking. Slowly, the background seems to obscure Saturn’s body as the shadows slowly swallow his right elbow and thighs.
Backstory: In his villa outside of Madrid, Goya created a series of disturbing images which have since been dubbed his Pinturas Negras or Black Paintings. Painted towards the end of his life, these paintings reflected Goya’s pessimistic view towards humanity. The works deal with dark and disturbing themes. One of the most iconic works of this series was Saturn Devouring His Son. The painting was created in his dining room, perhaps in response to the Napoleonic Wars which took place towards the end of his life. Witnessing the Spanish government at its worst, Goya was heavily concerned with topics such as abuse of power and violence. Another example of Goya’s black paintings is Witches’ Sabbath which is also on display in the Prado Museum.
The Myth of Saturn: In Greek and Roman mythology, Saturn was the son of Caelus, the god of the sky. When he realized that Caelus’s rule was tyrannical, Saturn overthrew his father and took his place as a supreme leader. Saturn and his wife, Ops, were soon expecting six children. However, it was prophesied that one of these children would overthrow him, granting him a fate not unlike that of Caelus. In an effort to escape this fate, Saturn devoured five of his children as soon as they were born. Horrified, Ops hid the sixth child, Jupiter, from Saturn and replaced him with a stone wrapped in cloth. Saturn ate the stone and as it passed through his system, it freed the five children that he had swallowed. Later, Jupiter would indeed overthrow his father as a supreme leader and Saturn fled to Latium where he became a god of agriculture.
Who is Francisco Goya? Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes was born in 1746 in Fuendetodos in the Northeast of Spain and died in 1828 in Bordeaux, France. He studied drawing and painting in Zaragoza and joined the studio of José Luzán. Later, he studied under Francisco Bayeu Subías who led him to work on decorations for the royal palace. Goya married Subías’s sister and traveled to Italy after failing in two drawing competitions at the Real Academia des Bellas Artes in San Fernando. Eventually, Goya was appointed painter to the Royal Tapestry Factory in Madrid. His work was reminiscent of Rococo art and focused on day-to-day events. As his work gained more attention, Goya rose to the position of court painter to King Charles III and King Charles IV. Around this time, he began to travel Andalusia to study realism. He was commissioned by the Spanish Court to paint some anti-war pieces such as The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808. Goya lived in a villa outside of Madrid called Quinta del Sordo which used to belong to a deaf man. In the later stages of his life, Goya fell ill to an unknown sickness and suffered a hearing loss of his own. Along with his physical health, Goya’s mental health went into decline. Living through major turmoil in Spain, Goya’s outlook on life became very pessimistic and his work became dark and deeply disturbing. The walls of his villa were covered in murals of “Black Paintings’ which have since been transferred onto canvas and moved into the Prado Museum.
Fun fact: Saturn Devouring His Son is believed to have been inspired by Peter Paul Rubens’ Saturn which was painted in the 1630s. Rubens’s depiction of Saturn appears to have more consciousness and awareness of his decision of eating his son. Goya on the other hand seems to be completely lost in chaos and fear, consuming his child as if it were necessary for his survival.