Where? Floor 5, Gallery 1 of the Museum of Modern Art
When? June 1889
What do you see? This painting is an imaginative version of a starry night in Saint-Rémy in France where Van Gogh was staying at that time. The various elements in this painting are certainly inspired by what Van Gogh observed in reality, but he created his own ideal version of the starry night.
In the painting, we can observe some trees, a village, and mountains under a night sky full of stars (or more precisely a collection of 12 celestial bodies). In the foreground, you can observe a big wavy cypress tree. The cypress is an element that comes back in multiple Van Gogh paintings, such as the Wheat Field with Cypresses in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
On the top right is a crescent moon. The brightest celestial body in the painting, just to the right of the cypress tree, is the planet Venus. The celestial bodies light up the sky (indicated by the use of white paint in the night sky). The church tower in the middle foreground is probably the Saint-Martin church in Saint-Rémy. Van Gogh, however, did not include the dome of the church in this painting. In the village surrounding the church, several houses still have their lights on. On the right side of the painting, between the village and the mountains, you can see a forest.
The curvy lines used for the cypress tree and the clouds in the sky create a sense of movement in this painting. Notice also the clear contrast between the turbulent sky and the quiet life on earth. The cypress in the form of a big fire is the only element that connects the earth and sky with each other.
Backstory: The painting is created between June 16 and 18, 1889 when Van Gogh was staying in the hospital of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole at Saint-Rémy. In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote: “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.” He mixed this view both with some other elements that he observed in the area of Saint-Rémy and his imagination to create this painting.
Van Gogh used thick broad strokes of oil paint to create this painting and it was probably created in a single day (even though the idea for this painting was already occupying his mind for over a year). If you look carefully, you can still see some pieces of the canvas in between the broad strokes of paint.
Symbolism: There is some debate on whether this painting should be interpreted symbolically. One symbolic explanation for this painting centers around the cypress which connects the earth to the sky in this painting. The cypress tree is associated with cemeteries and death. In this painting, it could be the connection between life (which happens on earth) and death (which is when you go to the stars according to Van Gogh).
Van Gogh wrote in one of his letters “We take death to go to a star.” Van Gogh, who would eventually commit suicide, was interested in death and he expressed some ideas that one would go to the stars after death.
Other versions of the Starry Night? Van Gogh was already interested in the idea of painting a starry night in 1888 as expressed in several letters to his friends and brother. Indeed, in 1888 he painted two versions of a starry night. The first version is Café Terrace at Night which is in the Kröller-Müller Museum in The Netherlands. The second version is Starry Night over the Rhône which is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
However, these two paintings did not fulfill his idea of a perfect starry night. Instead of a starry night above a town, he was more interested in a starry night above a landscape and a more imaginative version of the night sky.
Who is Van Gogh? Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was born in Zundert in The Netherlands. At the end of his life, he created many paintings that fall under the Post-Impressionist style. Van Gogh has produced a large number of paintings during his life and most of them have been painted in the last two years of his life.
Vincent van Gogh wrote many letters during his life -- many of which to his brother Theo -- which have been saved. In these letters, he explained his ideas about painting and they form a valuable source to interpret his works. The work of Van Gogh was not really appreciated during his life, but his work has become famous after his suicide in 1890.
Fun fact: While this is nowadays considered to be one of the best paintings by Vincent van Gogh, he did not seem very proud of this painting. When he wrote a letter to his brother Theo after he left Saint-Rémy, he did not mention this painting as a good one. In fact, he listed several paintings, including the Wheatfield with Cypresses, as “a little good.” About the other paintings from that period, including this painting, he writes “the rest says nothing to me.”
His brother Theo seemed to agree that The Starry Night is not his best work. He was worried about the more imaginary nature of this work compared to the somewhat more realistic paintings he created before. He advised Vincent to stick to still lifes and flowers as that would have more therapeutic value for the mentally troubled Vincent.
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, 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.
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 a few important Biblical lessons. The father shows what mercy, a reference to how God forgives sinners who ask for forgiveness. And the younger son shows that you can always ask God for forgiveness for your mistakes. And the older son? He personifies the person who did not make many mistakes yet and followed God. But he also struggles with the idea that God is willing to forgive the mistakes of sinners. In this painting, we can see him struggle with the attitudes of his father and brother, and whether he 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.
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, and the main 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.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Where? The Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, England.
When? About 1800
Commissioned by? Most likely painted for the Golovine family. The painting remained in their possession until approximately 1978, when it was acquired by Gooden and Fox, then it was sold to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in 1980.
What? Oil on canvas, octagonal, 32 7/8 by 26 1/4 inches (83.5 by 66.7 cm.)
What do you see? No matter what room this portrait of Countess Barbara Nicolaievna Golovine is in, it will be the first painting to demand attention. The innovative composition is a half-length figure in an octagonal shape and is further enhanced by an attractive gold frame. Vigée Le Brun has wrapped her subject entirely in a large, thick, rich, red stole with gold embroidered trim. The luxurious wrap is draped carefully but casually, and held gracefully at her neck by one hand, as if she has just come from her boudoir or the bath. The red shawl commands immediate attention. Her loose and free, brown, curling hair tumbles around her face and shoulder, held in place by a deep golden headband that has a twist and texture that adds to the framing of her face. There is a dimple in her chin that augments the slight smile on her face and blends gracefully with the shadows of the light and dark. In fact, the dimple makes her face much more interesting.
The neutral, scumbled background has a diagonal shaft of light cutting across the canvas that adds clarity to her hand and facial features. It is an unusual backdrop that suits the countess’s dynamic pose. She faces us, while her body turns slightly to the left, suggesting motion. There is an erotic hint to the painting but that is over-whelmed by the soft smile and the warmth of her eyes as she engages the viewer. She is pleased to see her visitor, a friend, a well-liked friend, who will be welcomed and entertained with excellent conversation, perhaps a glass of French wine, for she was a member of the Russian Aristocracy, a Princess first, then a Countess, when friendships, manners and virtue mattered more than anything. As the viewer turns away, moving either to the left or right, a glance over a shoulder confirms that her eyes are following as she bids her farewell……it is not a portrait easily forgotten by anyone who views it, and one that many, return to view again and again.
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).
Where? The Oval Drawing Room of the Wallace Collection
What do you see? Golden light pours through the trees of a garden. A young woman in a brilliant pink dress sits on a large swing that is attached to the trees behind her. She kicks off one of her pink shoes (look above her raised foot) in the direction of the statue of a cupid on the left. As her skirt flares upwards, her young lover in the lower left is taken aback by the sight before him. He has his hat in his left hand.
Unaware of the scene in front of him, an older man smiles as he operates the swing in the lower right. Near his feet is a little white dog that perhaps symbolizes an ironic fidelity. The sculpture of the cupid on the left was created by Étienne-Maurice Falconet in 1757 and versions of this statue are in the British Museum, Louvre, and the Rijksmuseum. It is popularly known as Menacing Love, and shows cupid looking down on the scene while putting a finger to his lips saying: “this is a secret.”
Backstory: This painting is also known under the more complete title “The Happy Accidents of the Swing.” This title refers to the erotic references in this painting. The man that is hiding in the bushes on the left has a chance to look at the woman’s legs under her skirt. The slipper that the woman kicks in the air and the hat of the man are a reference to their sexual availability. The statues of the cupids confirm the sexual intentions of the couple even more.
Fragonard’s painting soon gained recognition, and he became popular with a small group of patrons with a taste for erotic works as well as history painting. As such, The Swing played an important role in boosting Fragonard’s artistic career.
Who is Fragonard? Born in 1732, Jean-Honoré Fragonard was a French Rococo painter. As a boy, he had a passion for drawing and eventually became the student of François Boucher. In 1752, Boucher suggested Fragonard to apply to study under Carle Van Loo, the court painter to Louis XV. This involved studying at the French Academy in Rome. While there, Fragonard made many sketches of the countryside and copied many Baroque-style paintings by Hubert Robert. His good work in the Academy was admired by many, and even Louis XV purchased one of his artworks.
Fragonard soon gained more recognition and earned a studio in the Louvre Palace as well as the title of an Academician. Over time, Fragonard painted in many styles: Baroque, Romantic, and Rococo. In addition, he painted a variety of paintings, including landscapes, portraits, party scenes, and religious paintings. As his frivolous Rococo paintings were not also easy to sell, he also created some more traditional works on commission, such as the Education of the Virgin in the Legion of Honor Museum.
What is Rococo? An art style popular between 1720 and 1780 in Europe. The style is relatively chaotic and theatrics, leading to artworks that are full of drama, emotion, and movement. The style is highly feminized and popularly used in the French salons run by women in the 18th century. Some of the most successful artists following this style include François Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and Antoine Watteau.
Fun Fact: Fragonard was not the artist originally commissioned to paint the swing. At first, Gabriel-François Doyen was given the task by an anonymous man of the court. He had requested a painting of his mistress being pushed on a swing by a bishop as he admired her from below. However, Doyen turned him down. Instead, Fragonard took up the task.
Fragonard did not follow all the instructions of the commissioner and kept his own artistic freedom. For example, he decided against painting the man pushing the swing as a bishop. And he included some extra details to the painting such as the little dog, statues of cupids, and the lost slipper.
Where? Second floor, room 846 of the Richelieu wing in the Louvre
When? Between 1626 and 1628
What do you see? A prostitute smiling provocatively. She has half of her breasts exposed. The use of light emphasizes her expression and cleavage. She wears a white linen garment with a salmon-colored bodice on top of it. She has rosy cheeks and looks to her left (our right). It seems that she is seducing a potential client.
By 17th- and 21st-century standards, the woman may not be very pretty. She has a somewhat big nose, not a very smooth skin, and her hair is somewhat unkempt. However, her facial expression is so intriguing that this work leaves a lasting impression on those who view the painting.
Frans Hals used loose and rough brush strokes for this painting. While Hals is known for his loose brush strokes, in this painting he used them more than in most of his other works. The style used for this work helps to make The Gypsy Girl very memorable.
Backstory: Louis La Caze owned this painting in the 19th century. He was a doctor from Paris and an avid art collector. He gave the name The Gypsy Girl to this painting. This title is not very accurate as he did not recognize that Frans Hals actually painted a prostitute (though she may have been a gypsy).
La Caze left this painting for the Louvre after his death in 1869, together with 568 other paintings. When the Louvre received the painting, the influential newspaper Gazette des Beaux-Arts praised Hals as the best painter ever.
Malle Babbe: This painting is also sometimes referred to as Malle Babbe. However, this name is incorrect as Hals has another painting entitled Malle Babbe. This painting is in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. The confusion can be explained as a popular Dutch song, entitled Malle Babbe, was written in 1970. This song was inspired by the Gypsy Girl. However, the writer of the song, Lennaert Nijgh, mistakenly thought that The Gypsy Girl painting was called Malle Babbe.
Who is Hals? Frans Hals the Elder was born in 1582 or 1583 in Antwerp, Belgium, and died in 1666 in Haarlem, The Netherlands. When Hals painted The Gypsy Girl, he was inspired somewhat by the works of Caravaggio. However, Hals differed substantially from Caravaggio as he left out many (distracting) details in his paintings and focused on the composition and the expression of his subjects. This allowed Hals to give his subjects a personality.
While Hals was a popular local painter during his life, his works were largely forgotten after his death. The Impressionist painters rediscovered his work in the 1860s. Artists like Manet and Monet were inspired by the lack of detail, beautiful composition, and the loose brush strokes of Hals. The work of Hals has only gained in popularity since.
Some beautiful works of Hals include his series on the four evangelists, of which Saint John the Evangelist is in the Getty Museum, and the Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Fun fact: Radiographic analysis of this painting revealed that Frans Hals initially wanted to paint a less provocative version of this woman. Her breasts were smaller and less exposed. However, Hals decided to make the painting more provocative. This painting shows more cleavage than any other painting by Hals. The open mouth of the woman is also a telltale sign. Decent women from the 17th century would never be depicted with a smile or open mouth in a portrait as that was considered indecent.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Gallery 225 of the Art Institute of Chicago
What do you see? The sea as seen from Boulogne-sur-Mer, a French beach town on the English Channel, about 60 miles (100 km) South of the border between Belgium and France. Compared to seascapes by earlier artists, Manet used a high horizon line in his paintings, such that the biggest part of this painting is made up by the sea and the ships. Among the numerous sailboats is a steamboat which pollutes the view and the sky with its dark smoke.
The steamboat is leaving from France to England through the English Channel. It leaves a visible trace in the water showing that it has to navigate its way through the asymmetrically scattered sailboats.
Manet uses broad, horizontal brush strokes to paint the sea. Moreover, he uses blue and green pigments for the sea, and in some places, traces of the white canvas are still visible. These relatively bright colors make the sea the focus of the painting. The sea appears flat and calm, and this painting is the most abstract of the seascapes that Manet painted.
Backstory: In July 1864, Édouard Manet went with his extended family on a vacation to a seaside resort in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. It was not just a vacation for Manet because he brought his brushes and easel and created several paintings of the sea and the ships. It was one of the first times that he worked on paintings outside, though he finished the painting in his studio in Paris.
In this painting, he depicts an ugly steamboat among the more graceful sailboats. The first steamboats were developed by the end of the 18th century, and they were an important development as they could carry passengers and freight over large distances. In addition, they were an important innovation for the Navy, and they played an important role in the American Civil War.
Seascapes: Sometimes referred to as Marine Art, the primary theme of the seascape is the sea. Its popularity has come in waves. For example, during the 17th century, seascapes were popular among Dutch artists. During the Dutch Golden Century, artists from The Netherlands painted scenes of sea battles. These paintings were very detailed and showed all the ongoing action of these battles.
Seascapes became popular again among painters in the 19th century, especially after train connections between Paris and the French beaches were established around 1850. Besides Manet, painters like Courbet, Monet, Renoir, and Whistler created beautiful seascapes.
However, J. M. W. Turner had already popularized the theme in the early 19th century. An example of a seascape painting by Turner is The Fighting Temeraire in the National Gallery in London, which he painted in 1838.
Almost three decades later, Manet also started to paint several seascapes. One of his more popular seascapes is his 1864 painting of the Battle of Kearsarge and the Alabama in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The big difference between the 19th-century and 17th-century seascapes is that during the 19th century many details were left out of the paintings and the focus became the composition instead.
Who is Manet? Édouard Manet (1833 – 1883) was a French painter from Paris, France. He painted Steamboat Leaving Boulogne relatively early in his career. Manet’s paintings during that period were unconventional and were not well-received by art critics and the public. The Paris Salon, the biggest art exhibition in the world during the 19th century, rejected most of his works.
Manet also only sold few works and did not receive commissions. However, he persisted in his new style of painting during his career, relying on the financial support of his mother. Nowadays, his works are very popular. A good example is The Rue Mosnier with Flags from 1878 which was acquired by the Getty Museum in 1989 for $26.4 million.
Fun fact: Manet had always been fascinated by the sea. Following the suggestion of his father, he joined a training vessel for a three-month trip to Rio de Janeiro when he was 16 years old. He liked this experience and when he returned in 1849, he attempted the entrance exam to the Navy. However, he failed the entrance exam twice and decided that he wanted to become a painter instead – which was his first love – much to the dislike of his father.
Art lovers nowadays are happy that he became a painter instead. Not only are his works highly admired today, he also has had a major influence on the development of Impressionism, which has become one of the most popular painting styles ever developed.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Where? Room E203 of the J. Paul Getty Museum
What do you see? A young Saint John the Evangelist sits in a room. He has red cheeks and wears a red/pink robe with a bold red cloak over his shoulders. He looks up into the light which represents the divine inspiration for the writing of a Biblical book.
Saint John holds a quill pen (a pen made of a bird feather) in his right hand, and he has just dipped the pen in the pot with ink on the bottom left. He presses his left hand pressed to his heart to indicate his personal faith that helped him to write the Biblical book.
On the right is an eagle which is one of the attributes of Saint John the Evangelist. Frans Hals used broad visible brush strokes to create this painting. His brush strokes are more refined in the face of John. He also makes brilliant use of the light to depict John the Evangelist.
Backstory: This work is one of the few religious paintings by Frans Hals. About eighty percent of his works are individual portraits of upper-class people, wedding portraits, or group portraits. The remainder of his work consists mostly of genre paintings. The painting of Saint John the Evangelist is part of a series of four paintings of the apostles, with the other ones being St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke.
Who is Saint John the Evangelist? The author of the Gospel of John, the fourth book in the New Testament. Before becoming an Apostle of Jesus he was a fisherman. However, it is not certain if the Apostle John is also the author of the Gospel of John, as the author does not clearly identify himself in his writings. He is the only apostle that was not killed because of his faith in Jesus. Some people also attribute the Book of Revelation to him, though this is also a point of debate among scholars.
Who is Hals? Frans Hals the Elder was born by the end of 1582 (or early 1583) in Antwerp, Belgium, and died in 1666 in Haarlem, The Netherlands. His brother and five of his sons were also painters. Frans Hals is primarily known for his portraits. He had a loose painting style, which means that he used relatively few (but long) brush strokes to depict something. You can often see the brush strokes in his paintings. He painted based on his intuition and was uniquely able to capture the emotions and characteristics of the people he painted.
Together with Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals is generally considered the best Dutch painter of his time. While living around the same time, the three of them all had unique styles and never met each other in person.
Another interesting painting of Hals is the Portrait of René Descartes, the father of modern Western philosophy. This painting is in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. There are several copies of this painting among which one is in the Louvre in Paris.
Fun fact: This work is part of a series of four paintings in which Frans Hals depicted each of the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. All four paintings were lost since 1812 and were only rediscovered during the 20th century.
Cornelis Hofstede de Groot mentioned the four paintings in a catalogue raisonné in 1910, but not much attention was given to these mentions as they seemed to be atypical in Hals’ oeuvre. This changed in 1958, when Irina Linnik, an art historian for Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art, rediscovered the paintings of St. Matthew and St. Luke. These two paintings can still be seen in the Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa.
In the 1970s, Claus Grimm identified the painting of St. Mark, which is now in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. The Getty Museum paid $2.9 million for St. John the Evangelist in 1997, when it was rediscovered by Brian Sewell when the painting was brought in for evaluation at the auction house Sotheby’s.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 29 on the fifth floor of the Musée d’Orsay
What do you see? Four figures picnicking on the grass. The two men are dressed in fashionable clothes of the 1860s. The man on the right gestures towards the man in the center who seems to be looking elsewhere. Sitting with them is a nude woman. She looks directly at the viewer with her hand on her chin. Her body is minimally shaded, making her appear flat to the canvas.
In the lower left corner are the woman’s clothes and a basket of fruit and bread. Behind them, a woman dressed in white is wading in a small body of water. She seems to be reaching for something in the water. A black and orange bird flies over her. On the right is a wooden rowboat. Given her position in the background, this woman is painted larger than you would expect based on the laws of perspective; she isn’t much smaller than the figures in the foreground, creating a confusing sense of depth in the painting.
Backstory: Also known as Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, the Luncheon on the Grass was inspired by two famous artworks: The Pastoral Concert by Giorgione and/or Titian in the Louvre and a drawing of the Judgement of Paris by Raphael (of which an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi in the Metropolitan Museum of Art has survived). Despite his knowledge of the old masters, Manet’s work was completely avant-grade and shocking to the Parisian public.
Firstly, it was considered offensive to depict a nude woman, especially if the woman was not a goddess or other mythological character. Manet depicts an average woman, breaking the tradition of idealized female nudes like the Venus of Urbino by Titian or The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. Placing her in a contemporary setting with two trendy Parisian men made for a very shocking and offensive scene.
Secondly, Manet received a lot of criticism for his painting technique, which featured loose brushstrokes, a departure from the refined finish that can be seen in Renaissance paintings.
Thirdly, his rendering of space in this painting is distorted as the woman in the water is abnormally large for her position in the background.
For all these reasons, Luncheon on the Grass was rejected from the Paris Salon. Instead, it was exhibited at the Salon des Refusés in 1863. There, it was still received with ridicule and outrage for its subject matter and technique. People laughed at the painting and some even hit the painting with sticks. Critic Louis Etienne called it a “young man’s practical joke” and a “shameful open sore” in Le Jury et les Exposants.
Who is Édouard Manet? Édouard Manet was born in 1832 in Paris where he died 51 years later. Manet was a Parisian Realist painter who studied under Thomas Couture for six years. Afterward, however, he decided against attending the École des Beaux-Arts.
Early on in his career, he befriended Charles Baudelaire whose work featured urban outsiders such as prostitutes and street entertainers. Baudelaire’s writing inspired Manet to continue painting unusual characters alongside his other works that featured better-known figures such as musicians and writers.
Manet’s avant-garde style that preceded Impressionism was often attacked by the press, but he was also defended by other creatives such as Emile Zola, Claude Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Among his famous paintings are Olympia in the Musée d’Orsay (and painted in the same year as the Luncheon on the Grass) and The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Fun fact: The nude woman in Luncheon on the Grass is modeled after Victorine Meurent who also posed for Manet’s Olympia. She was a working class woman and aspiring painter whose work was actually exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1876. She and Manet had a close relationship, but her willingness to pose nude for his paintings tarnished her reputation. The men in the painting were modeled after Gustave Manet and Ferdinand Leenhoff, Manet’s brother and brother-in-law. respectively.
Where? Pellegrini Chapel of the Church of Sant’Anastasia in Verona
When? Probably 1435-1438, but some scholars say the completion date was between 1444 and 1446
Commissioned by? The Pellegrini family
General Information: This fresco, based on “The Golden Legend”, was painted above the arch, outside the Pellegrini’s funerary chapel in the crown and spandrils of the architecture, to the right of the sanctuary. It was executed, only partly, in true fresco on wet plaster, then elaborated a secco when the plaster dried. Because of these techniques, much of the fine detail and ornaments have scaled off. It has also been exposed to water from ceiling seepages and been severely damaged by this, especially on the left side which contained the dragon. Both sides of the fresco were removed for restoration, the left side in 1891, and the right in 1900. This caused the loss of the metallic and gilt decorations. Pisanello’s fresco was part of a cycle decorating the whole chapel.
The Golden Legend: It tells the tale of St. George and the Dragon. There are many versions. The St. George whom the Pellegrini family selected for its burial chapel, was a soldier who proclaimed the Christian faith, banned under Roman emperor Diocletian and was put to death as a consequence, around 303 AD. The list of his miraculous deeds and the persecutions he suffered has grown longer each century. He became a much-revered patron saint of cities and associations. The version pertinent to this fresco was part of a series compiled by Jacopo de Voragine in the 13th century.
The story finds George, a native of Cappadocia, on the road to the city of Silena in the province of Lybia. Silena had been terrorized by a plague-bearing dragon. It lived in a lake and would come to the city walls and poison all who came within reach of its breath. The citizens of Silena appeased the Dragon by feeding it two sheep a day. When these became scarce, they fed it a single sheep and a single human, chosen by lot. Eventually, the lot fell to the King’s daughter and with much sorrow, he resigned himself to her sacrifice. He sent her down to the lake dressed in regal garments and, there, she happened upon St. George. The princess told St. George to flee, but instead, the saint mounted his horse, armed himself with the sign of the cross, went across the lake, and pierced the dragon with his lance. The princess put her girdle around the dragon’s neck and led it to the city, where, after the citizens agreed to be baptized, St. George slew the dragon with his sword.
What do you see? The painting follows the legend faithfully. Most artists who painted this tale chose to show St. George vanquishing the dragon. Pisanello chose to depict the moments beforehand.
The right side of the fresco: To the right of the white horse in the center is Princess Silena dressed in luxurious garments made of fine fabrics and fur. Her large mass of hair is held in bands of braids and begins very highly on her brow, according to the early 15th century style. Lit candles were used to ensure the correct trim at her forehead and temples.
Resting on the ground to the right and behind her is the sacrificial “sheep”, in the form of a ram. Just behind her is St. George’s squire, carrying St. George’s helmet and the lance that will pierce the dragon. He is a dwarf and was probably a member of the Gonzaga household in Mantua, as he is seen in Pisanello’s Arthurian fresco that was painted there. His horses’ harnesses and the squire’s armor were, originally, decorated with silver and gold, as was popular in chivalric art. The eyes of the squire’s horse are set forward with the effect of engaging the immediate attention of the viewer. Two more horse heads are visible at the right edge with their feet in motion and ready for action. Note the foreshortening of the two horses, one seen from behind and one from the front. This was a new perspectival technique that Pisanello employed.
St. George is clearly defined by his fine clothing and his curly golden locks. He stands to the left of his horse, near the edge of the lake. He has his left foot in the stirrup, ready to mount and ride off in pursuit of the dragon which lurks on the other side of the water. He looks towards the dragon’s lair with eyes wide with fear and anticipation. Next to him are a hound and a companion dog. To the left and further back is a sailboat, ready to transport St. George across the lake to the dragon.
Background of the right side of the fresco: To the back and left of St. George is a group of seven men tucked behind three elaborately decorated horses. They stand near the point of embarkation for the sailboat. On the far left is a foreigner, his twirling moustache, muscular, broad face and narrow eyes indicate a Mongol. His features contain a suggestion of menace. Beside him, a man is turning his head in fear whether because of his frightening neighbor or the dragon is not clear. The elaborate headdress on the Asian man in the middle is seen in many of Pisanello’s drawings, suggesting that these visitors were fairly common to the area at the time. The knight with the ermine hat and collar, bowing his head so hopelessly, is probably the princess’s father.
Directly behind that is a gibbet with two hanging men, who are depicted in great detail as if the viewer were standing beneath the gallows. Over the gallows is a rainbow painted right down to the ground. This is a reference to St. George and symbolizes the divine protection of God. To the left of the hanged men is a dark, foreboding rock that goes to the sea. There is a tower at the top of the rock painted grey and barely distinguishable. The whole scene is atmospheric with foreboding and creates a deep tension.
The towers of the city governed by the princess’s father rise on top of the hill in the background, some of them, adorned with Gothic open-stone ornament. On the far right stands a medieval fortress, the architecture still designed solely for defense.
Pisanello made use of hierarchical perspective in the fresco. We see distance by position and size. Techniques for spatial distancing and the use of linear perspective in painting became common later in the 15th century.
The left side of the fresco: Only few details have survived on this side. Sadly, the dragon in the sea has disappeared completely. The barely discernible scene of his lair, where the creature devoured his prey and offerings from the kingdom, reveals macabre human skulls and bones along with various animal remains. Small parts of an antelope, a deer and lion are visible. An excerpt from George Francis Hill’s book Pisanello fills in the blanks. “The main object apparent in the landscape----is the dragon, crouching toward the right with wings closed and tongue flickering out from between its two open jaws. Below it are apparently two of its brood, wingless; and clearly two human skulls and some bones.”
A comparison with Bono da Ferrara’s St. Jerome and other works, led Hill to the conclusion that this pilgrim, with some faults of “draughtsmanship”, was left by “the master” to be painted by Bono, who was probably in Pisanello’s workshop at the time. The imperfections include “short and feeble arms, hands that are nerveless and the foreshortening of the pilgrim’s right foot is not successful.”
Canting badge: A heraldic device that represents the bearer’s name in a visual pun or rebus. In this case, it shows the pilgrim as a representation of “Pellegrini” which means pilgrim in Italian. The ermine border of this badge ties itself to the man in the ermine hat in the painting and hence to the Pellegrini. It becomes more than just a simple identifying device. The family is then associated with the act of pilgrimage through the represented pilgrim, a message as well as the pun.
The seashell on the pilgrim’s hat is a symbol or proof of pilgrimage or baptism. Baptism is the start of the Christian journey. His presence here becomes appropriate then with the commissioning family and the religious overtones. The Pellegrini were baptized, were Christians, and had made the journey. The prominence of the prayer beads in his hands reinforces his piety but also the fact that the Dominicans were promoting the use of these beads for Catholics in the 15th century.
Backstory: This fresco is also known as St. George and the Princess of Trebizond. There is nothing in the literature to explain why this fresco has two titles. Trebizond is on the Black Sea and is called Trabzon today. It is a provincial capital in northeastern Turkey. Silena lies in the vicinity of modern-day Beirut close to 900 miles away. Commentators debate the city used.
Pisanello was in his late thirties to mid-forties when he painted it. His reputation as one of the most sought-after painters of the day was firmly established. He had spent most of his early artistic life in Northern Italy in the service of warring condottiere and the petty rulers of the various principalities and city states. His art must be seen against the background of Italian battles for territories, shifting alliances amidst the decline of the Byzantine empire, and the fear and uncertainty due to the loss of the empire’s protection of Italian trade routes. The rise of Islamic power was also a major threat. This explains the foreigners with the princesses’ father who do appear to menace, as they menaced Italian trade routes in the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe. Nor can this work be understood without an explanation of the remaining influence of the chivalric code. The crusades were in the distant past but chivalric code still defined the medieval knight system: the paramount importance of religion, the moral and social code of courtesy, the need for generosity, martial valor, and dexterity in arms, supposedly leading to gallant deeds, devotion and loyalty. This has been romanticized in literature, music, legend and art. This social code remained influential to the aristocracy in the first half of the 15th century.
Pisanello was a man of this time. He had one foot in late International Gothic Art – with intense attention to reality and detail – yet his interest in fanciful, imaginary tales and his representation of them remained in Medieval Art. He had kept his association with Verona all his life so it was natural that the Pellegrini family would commission Verona’s most celebrated painter, Pisanello, for their funerary chapel.
Pisanello is documented as living in Verona in 1433 with his widowed 70 year old mother, 4 year old daughter, Camilla and 2 servants. It is not known when he started or how long it took to paint the frescoes. His detailed hatching technique would have been extremely time consuming, as would the application of the silvering, gilding, and pastiglio in details like the horse’s harnesses. (pastiglio is the paste work or low relief decoration normally modelled in gesso on white lead, applied to build up a surface that may then be gilded or painted or left as it is.)
There are very few of his paintings left. However, there are hundreds of drawings. These have been gathered together in The Vallardi Codex in the Louvre. Most are by Pisanello, but also many by his pupils and other artists, including drawing of horses, dogs, wild animals, costumes, heads of Mongols and Tartars, plants, men dangling on the gallows. In much the same way as he built his fresco on the wall, once he completed the composition, he could go to his store of drawings and fill in the necessary details from his patterns.
The architectural structure of the chapel would have been a consideration in his composition and perhaps even determined the precise scene he chose. Pisanello presents us with the novel setting. The viewer is presented not with the event itself, but with imminent action, filled with fear, anticipation, horror of what lies ahead. We see the stoic princess, the fearful father, the brave knight, his squire ready and waiting, and the macabre criminals hanging. On the other side the dragon rages, snorting out smoke and fire, the animal and human remains, the live animals awaiting their fate, unknowing. Who will win…Good or Evil? All viewers would have known the outcome.
The Gibbet: The gibbet with two men hanging has been interpreted in several ways. This may be a touch of realism, since it was customary for hangings to take place outside the city walls. However, they have also been said to be a reminder of man’s mortality, appropriate in a scene which is concerned with Christian conversion. The presence of the rainbow may signal the possibility of redemption, also an appropriate message for the scene. There are also those who suggest political overtones for Verona are implicated in the tale.
However, on further reading of the translation of St. George, Martyr: (Jacobus Voragine: 1275: Beaten and Imprisoned): “he did do raise him on a gibbet; and so much beat him with great staves and broches of iron, that his body was all tobroken in pieces. And after he did do take brands of iron and join them to his sides, and his bowels which then appeared he did do frot with salt, and so sent him into prison. But our Lord appeared to him the of same night with great light and comforted him much sweetly. And by this great consolation he took to him so good heart that he doubted no torment that they might make him suffer.”
St. Georges end, according to the legend, was not pleasant but the clear message was that God will always protect those who believe in him. The rainbow behind the gibbet, descending to the ground, along with the other features in the painting suggest the more religious orientation of protection and redemption for Christians.
Pellegrini Family: The chapel in the Dominican Church of Sant’Anastasia belonged to the Pellegrini clan of merchants who had grown wealthy over several generations. They made their money from the cloth trade. They numbered amongst the most respected families in Verona and were among the highest tax-payers. One of the ways a family could both publicize its status and document a long line of succession was a burial chapel. Their chapel was in the most prominent location in the church, near the choir, which further enhanced their position in society. The Pellegrini had a collection of suits of armor, and they chose the traditional representation of the cult of chivalry for the entrance of this burial chamber. What better way to honor their religion, their family, and their social status than to have Pisanello paint a tale with the lady in distress, a knight in shining armor, the eventual triumph of good over evil, and the baptism and salvation of all concerned? Pisanello painted a world that was perhaps already in decline, but, today, it is a window for the viewer to examine a distant part of European culture.
Who was Pisanello? His exact date of birth is unknown but sometime near 1394 is the best estimate. His father, Puccino di Giovanni di Cereto, was a wealthy cloth merchant and his mother, Isabetta, was a native of Verona. Pisanello is mentioned in his father’s will in 1394. It is believed that following his father’s death, he and his mother moved to Verona and he grew up there. He bought a house in Verona in 1422 and always regarded himself as a Veronese citizen.
The first two decades of his life are obscure, although in 1416 he was referred to as “magister” (master) and by 1424, he was called “pictor egregious” (distinguished painter). A 1425 Gonzaga account book (Mantua) referred to him as “Magester Pisanellus Pictor”. These titles ensure us that his career as an artist was recognized. Between 1415 and 1419 he was in Venice working and studying as a pupil or colleague of Gentile Da Fabriano (1370-1427), a International Gothic painter. Pisanello learned much from him and his influence is visible in his paintings. The two of them worked together on the frescoes in the Doge’s Palace in Venice (which were overpainted in 1479).
Pisanello was in Rome in 1431-1432 completing the fresco cycle of The Life of John the Baptist (destroyed in 1646 during a remodeling of the church) that Da Fabriano had left unfinished because of his death. Pisanello succeeded Da Fabriano as the major Italian exponent of the International Gothic style. While he was in Rome, he must have been accepted into the Papal household as Eugenius called him “beloved son”.
The earliest of all records are from Mantua where he lived and worked for Gianfrancesco Gonzaga and later his son, Lodovico Gonzaga. The family ruled Mantua, and Pisanello worked for them from 1422 to 1447. The patronage of these ruling families provided a livelihood for artists, and their recommendations to others provided further commissions. Pisanello managed to keep a balance and was employed by many of these petty rulers throughout his career.
In the late 1420s, Pisanello was in Milan working for Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milan. In 1426, he made a painting for the Brenzoni Monument in the Church of San Fermo, Verona. This beautifully executed work with the delicacy, illumination, composition, and careful detail to expression, costume, and colors is a testament to his great talent. Close view shows even the eye lashes, painted to perfection by the artist in this delicate rendering of the Annunciation.
He became court artist to Alfonso V of Aragon, King of Naples in 1448-9 with a large stipend of 400 ducats a year. He died probably in Rome between July and October of 1455.
He is most known for his delicate, precise, and beautiful drawings, and for the cast bronze medals he popularized. These were roundel sized and meant to be passed from hand to hand, each bearing personal portrait studies from life. Little is known about his personality, but from his arrest and trial, it appears he had some political passion as well as his prodigious talent.
Fun Fact: Members of the family were buried in the Pellegrini Chapel from 1387. From, Negotiating the Gift: Pre-modern Figuration and Exchange (p. 211): “Investment in church art and investment in mass-sayings were understood to be strongly equivalent to the extent that one could be exchanged for the other. In his last will of 1429, Andrea Pellegrini ordered that his body be buried in his family chapel in the Church of Sant’Anastasia in Verona and that for three years continuously, the mass of St. Gregory shall be said for his soul. He also stipulated that a terracotta statue of him kneeling and saying prayers be completed and placed in the chapel within three years of his death. Why stipulate the same number of years for the saying of masses and for making of the sculpture? When the saying of the masses ceased, the sculpture would be in place. The implication is that the praying effigy would take over the work of the prayers. In this case, Pellegrini was right to assume that the effigy would outlast the workings of the church ritual: the terracotta figure is still there, directly praying towards the altar in the chapel.”
Pisanello’s frescos are linked to the Pellegrini family through the same will. Andrea Pellegrini left the enormous sum of 900 florins for the project. The details from the will, along with the many Christian messages in the fresco make it clear that the Pellegrini were strong in their Christian beliefs and that they sought salvation in life and death. Pisanello was able to represent their desires through his art.