Where? Gallery 201 at The Art Institute of Chicago
What do you see? A busy, rainy street near the Saint-Lazare station in Paris. The canvas is divided in half by an axis, a tall green streetlamp. Walking on the right of it, in the foreground, are a couple dressed in the latest Parisian fashion. As they walk arm in arm beneath an umbrella, looking off to the left side of the canvas, a stranger passes them with his back to the viewer. Judging by the young woman’s brown dress and diamond earring, the pair are likely of the upper class. The men in the middle ground appear to be dressed in a similar fashion.
Further down the canvas are some traces of the working class. Behind the man’s umbrella, a painter dressed in white carries a ladder across the street. Behind the woman, a baker looks out her window. Two carriage drivers can be seen on the left side of the street lamp.
Backstory: Exhibited at the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877, Paris Street; Rainy Day was celebrated by many. The natural scene of a real Parisian street painted in a realistic fashion calls back to Caillebotte’s interest in photography. However, the painting’s style cannot be characterized as entirely realist or academic.
Caillebotte features an unusual asymmetrical composition and cropped figures. On the right side of the canvas, the man and woman’s legs are out of frame and the stranger with his back to the viewer is split in half. This detail may be overlooked by modern viewers but was considered radical by Caillebotte’s contemporaries. The cropped composition may have been inspired by his interest in photography.
Featuring unsaturated colors and dim light, the painting has a gloomy and slow feeling. Subtly showing the division between the bourgeoisie and the working class, Caillebotte’s palette suits the daunting disparity that is most heavily felt by the workers.
Who is Caillebotte? Gustave Caillebotte was born in 1848 in Paris and died in Gennevillers in 1894. He grew up in a wealthy family and began painting in the studio of Leon Bonnat. In 1873, Caillebotte began his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts and shortly after became acquainted with Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet.
With his money, he was able to support many artists like Edgar Degas, Camille Pissaro, and Alfred Sisley. Although he did not participate in the first one, Caillebotte exhibited eight paintings in the Second Impressionist Exhibition of 1876, one of which was The Floor Scrapers in the Musée d’Orsay. Caillebotte’s academic style combined with an Impressionist influence produced a unique and modern style of art.
Never truly sticking to one style of painting, Caillebotte aimed to depict modern life for what it really was in the realist sense. Nonetheless, an Impressionist influence is evident in his loose brushstrokes and “cropped” paintings.
Fun fact: On the ground floor of the center building in the background, there is a green “pharmacie” sign with yellow letters. Nowadays, the same building, located in between Rue de Moscou and Rue Clapeyron, still has a pharmacy.
Where: Room 15 of Level 0 of the British Museum
When: Probably between 490 BC and 460 BC
What do you see? A monumental vase with two mythological scenes painted on the upper part, the neck. The vase is a masterpiece of the red-figure technique and one of the iconic examples of Athenian pottery. The shape of this vase is called a volute krater (named after the spiral handles resembling the volutes of the Ionian columns).
Background: This vase is one of the early works of the Berlin Painter. Carol Moon Cardon situates it in the second group of vases from his early period, falling between 500-490 B.C. The timeframes are often tentative, depending on the source or criteria by which scholars assign them. More generally, its place in art history falls into the Late Archaic period (circa 500 to 470 B.C.) There are four preserved volute kraters by the Berlin Painter, all in the red-figure technique.
The London krater is unique for a variety of reasons; its architectural design resembling the temple is among the most prominent of those. The fact that the painter decided to leave the entire belly of the vase black while placing the narrative and ornamentation on its extremes speaks of his highly sophisticated approach to design and the interpretative role he attached to imagery.
Red-figure technique: The red-figure painting technique appeared in Athens around 520 B.C. in what is known as the Pioneers’ Group—possibly the longest lasting and most influential red-figure workshop known. The Berlin Painter was possibly the student of one of the three most important of the Pioneers, Phintias. Prior to that, until about the second half of the sixth century B.C., the world of the vase painting was dominated by the black-figure technique.
The red-figure technique was actually simpler than the black-figure technique. The main principle in both was the skillful regulation of the flame and oxygen flow through the oven where the vases were fired to assure the proper oxidization of iron, which, in turn, allowed the painter to achieve the desired color. The black-figure technique rested, in principle, on adding varnish to the pre-contoured shapes on the surface of the vase to create fully developed objects and figures, which turned black upon firing; the red-figure technique was the reversal of the process.
Who is the Berlin Painter? Very little is known about the Berlin Painter in terms of the biographical information. It was not common for the vase painters to sign their names at that time. Interestingly, the Berlin Painter inscribed the names of his characters on the London krater. And yet, we do not even know his real name since none of the works attributed to him indicates it.
The nickname “The Berlin Painter” was given to him by the prolific scholar, Sir John Beazley, who attributed the makers of some 30 thousand items of Athenian ceramics. The nickname is based on the amphora located in Antikensammlung in Berlin, excavated in the Etruscan city, Vulci. This amphora served as the “mother-work” of the Berlin Painter--the vase to which other found works and fragments were compared in terms of stylistic details, resulting in matching them to the hands of one maker.
Some of the stylistic details of the Berlin Painter, which revolutionized the red-figure technique, include:
What we know about him as a person, we can only guess from the themes he chose for his imagery; he was fond of animals and nature, probably liked poetry and city festivals and, of course, gave homage to the gods. He avoided the otherwise common themes of bloody combats and gory scenes, or those of debauchery and drunkenness. Even his depictions of satyrs seemed to emphasize their human nature over the animalistic. The Berlin Painter just seems like a mellow, content man.
Other works by The Berlin Painter: In 1911, Beazley assigned 38 vases to the Berlin Painter (“master of the Berlin amphora”) and outlined the characteristics of the Berlin Painter’s renderings. His drawing style was described in 1922 and by 1925 there were already 148 vases attributed to the artist. As of today, over 400 works of pottery and fragments are attributed to the Berlin Painter. Because of their masterful artistry, they are highly appreciated and sought by the world’s museums. In the Gregorian Etruscan Museum in the Vatican Museums, there is the beautiful hydria with Apollo sitting on the winged tripod, playing the lyre, as two dolphins below make their way back into waters.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has 13 vessels. Among them is another hydria, featuring Achilles slaying Penthesilea, the queen of the Amazons. This museum has arguably one of the most exquisite of all vases by the Berlin Painter, the type C amphora with the beautiful walking-singing citharode—youth playing the kithara—on one side and the contest judge on the other side. The Louvre has the largest collection of his vases, for a total of 36. The only cup known to be painted by this artist (although debates over the attribution continue) is in the Agora Museum in Athens. It is called the Gorgos Cup, after the potter Gorgos, who provided the vessel to be decorated. The name "Gorgos" as the maker of the vessel is inscribed on the cup. While some painters were also potters of the vases they worked with (and it is possible the Berlin Painter was among them in some instances), the transition from potter to painter was not at all automatic.
There are also the Panathenaic amphorae painted by the Berlin Painter. Those were the vases that were filled with olive oil and given as prizes to winners of the Panathenaic Games. They were always traditionally done in the black-figure technique. Only highly esteemed painters were commissioned to provide those. Out of 21 vases painted by the Berlin Painter in the black-figure technique, possibly only two are not the Panathenaic amphorae (a fragmented amphora Type A in New York and a hydria in Frankfurt).
While vases, in general, were popular in antiquity and were given as burial offerings to go with the departed close ones, only the wealthy could afford to have a vase decorated by, say, the Berlin Painter or other artists of high esteem. The amphorae given to victors of the games were a sign of the prestige of the artist whom they were commissioned to.
Legacy: There were three immediate students of the Berlin Painter, who were all very important and painted a large number of vessels: The Providence Painter, Hermonax and The Achilles Painter. The last of them, along with his own student, the Phiale Painter, closed the workshop of the Berlin Painter in 425. Although the workshop closed, many features of the Berlin Painter’s innovative style remained with generations of vase painters.
The students of the Berlin Painter and other followers who came even later into the vase painting world (the Harrow Painter, the Tithonos Painter, the Painter of the Yale Lekythos, Alkimachos Painter, just to name a few) carried on the legacy of the master by either adopting his ornamentation style, features of the design (the “less is more” on the vase), or took up shapes which were not popular among the red-figure artists before the Berlin Painter.
The Berlin Painter was not only the master of the already existing technique but developed it as well as expanded the repertoire of shapes which began to be painted in the red-figure technique. He was not just the master of his technique but a thinker and inventor.
Where? Gallery 2 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Some time between 1280 and 1300, the precise date continues to be debated.
Commissioned by? Probably by the Vallombrosans, a monastic order of the Catholic Church.
What do you see? A majestic, Gothic altarpiece, in Byzantine tradition with the remarkable first signs of humanism that would dominate the Renaissance style. It measures 12’8” by 7’4” (385 by 223 cm) and is painted on large vertical wooden panels with golden background. The Virgin Mary is seated on an impressive marble throne, decorated with carvings, gems and mosaic designs, much like those seen in Tuscan churches of the time. She points to Jesus with her right hand, entreating viewers to seek salvation through Christ. The Madonna holds Jesus in the traditional Byzantine manner according to the icon, Hodegetria, meaning, “She who shows the way”.
Jesus is dressed as a philosopher from ancient times and gestures a blessing while holding a rolled scroll in his left hand which is believed to be the scroll of law. The gilding on the clothing and drapery of the material they wear has been done using the Byzantine technique of “agemina”, indicating the application of 2 filaments (2 metals), of the precious golden decoration known as damascene.
If it was commissioned by the Vallombrosan Order, they may well have requested the presence of the four prophets as they placed great emphasis on the Old Testament prophets in their literary and artistic traditions. Many other religious orders were being formed at the time and competition for the loyalty of Florence’s wealthy citizens and their financial support was important to any order. This spectacular and innovative Maestà that Cimabue created would certainly have brought new attention and prestige to the Vallombrosan at Santa Trinita. This large work would have been venerated with the intense devotion that the icons of the Byzantine style demanded, but it would also have been seen as a departure from the purely religious objective.
What is a Meastà? Maestà is the Italian word for “majesty” and refers to the iconic formula of the enthroned Madonna as the Queen of Heaven with the Christ Child in her arms. She may or may not be surrounded by a court of angels and saints. It was a most common subject in the 13th and 14th centuries and was the object of intense devotion.
Innovations: After some of the ancient Greek and Roman painters, Cimabue is one of the first to show linear perspective and to play with spatial features in his art. His figures take on volume and presence as they engage viewers not only in a pictorial story but also an important dialogue.
His elegant angels have carefully designed hairstyles, each wearing decorative head bands. We can see two, wearing fashionable sandals, their bodies fill the volume of their diaphanous, draped clothing to the point that the knees are visible. They fully occupy the same space as the Madonna, helping to emphasize her importance but with more natural appearance. We can still see the elongated bodies and fingers, and the almond-shaped eyes of the Byzantine figures. The Madonna, by her size alone, continues to be the most important figure. Of note is the chiaroscuro effects of light and dark in the shading of the faces, suggestive of a light source, unseen in most Medieval work.
Cimabue’s figures lose the rigidity of Greek and Byzantine art and for the first time since the Roman period, human emotions are seen in Florentine art. This can also be seen, for example, in his Crucifix (1268-1271) in the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence. In this painting, Christ is showing the emotions on his face around the moment of his death.
Who was Cimabue? Cimabue was born c. 1240-45 in Florence and died in Pisa in 1302. He was a very innovative painter and used linear perspective, reintroduced volume and space, and, most significantly, human emotion in his paintings. While not much is known about his life, Cimabue first appeared in recorded history when it was noted that he witnessed the assumption of patronage by Pope Gregory X (Monastery of Saint Damiano) on June 18, 1272 in Rome. That he was in attendance suggests he was an experienced, well known and respected Florentine artist by that time, particularly as he had traveled from Tuscany to Rome for the event.
In art history, he has generally been overshadowed by his younger contemporaries, Giotto (1267-1337) and Duccio (c.1255/60-1319). He was known as a master of mosaics, frescoes and paintings. It has been said of him, “Without Cimabue, there would have been no Giotto.” He is remembered as the man whose style inspired the movement that formed the Florentine School but the School is attributed to Giotto, as he carried it forward into the Renaissance.
Cimabue is also known as Cenni di Pepo or Cenni de Pepi which translates to “bull-head” or “one who crushes the views of others”. A contemporary of his said in 1333 or 1334, “a nobler man than anyone knew, but he was, as a result—so haughty and proud that if someone pointed out any mistake or defect in his work, or if he noted any himself, he would immediately destroy the work no matter how precious it might be.” This information suggests he was a perfectionist and perhaps arrogant along with it.
An example of his fresco work is the Madonna with Child Enthroned, Four Angels and St Francis which he painted in 1278-1280 and can be found in the transept of the Lower Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi.
Fun Fact: Dante, in the Divine Comedy, Canto XI, lines 94-96, in writing about pride, wrote of Cimabue: “In painting, Cimabue thought he held the field, and now it’s Giotto they acclaim—the former only keeps to shadowed fame.” This was written between 1308 and 1321, just a few short years after Cimabue had died. However, some 8 centuries later, Cimabue may well find himself in the limelight once again.
In 2019, a small painting was found in France, in the farmhouse of a woman who had retired. It had hung on the wall for years, thought to be a Greek icon. A sharp-eyed auctioneer noticed it and saved it from the rubbish. It was quickly identified as, Christ Mocked by Cimabue. Christ Mocked sold for $26.6 million in October, 2019, making it the most expensive painting sold from before 1500.
Evidence was not only based on the painting style but also by the worm tunnels that matched up with the panels of wood of two other works by Cimabue: The Virgin and Child with two Angels in the National Gallery in London and The Flagellation of Christ in the Frick Collection in New York. The three paintings below are part of the Diptych of Devotion, which consisted of two doors with four paintings each. This means that the remaining five paintings are still missing today.
Where: Room 208 on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art
What do you see? Two identical clocks hanging on the wall, set in synchronized manner at the same start time, operating with identical batteries. The clocks touch while showing the time which is running out. Inevitably, at some point they will stop; one of them will stop ahead of the other.
Part of the meaning of this work is in the title, the other part is in the action—it can represent two heartbeats. Some may interpret this that one of the heartbeats will stop before the other, leaving one of the lovers on his/her own. But the clocks can also be reset at any point and then the artwork can be interpreted as two perfect lovers who will stay together infinitely.
Background: After finishing “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), Gonzalez-Torres said: “The piece I made with two clocks was the scariest thing I have ever done.” He created this artwork during a time that his partner Ross Laylock was suffering from AIDS. The political and personal reality fueled the art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, as he watched his partner fall victim to the unchartered territory of AIDS. Ross died in 1991.
Gonzalez-Torres was born in Cuba, but after immigrating to the United States at age 11, he became an American citizen. His art can be interpreted as a reflection of both the appreciation and limitations of his rights as a U.S. citizen. It became the expression of both his personal drama and political convictions. But Gonzalez-Torres was careful to not impose a certain meaning to this artwork, allowing viewers to interpret it in their own way.
AIDS epidemic: The peak of Gonzalez-Torres’ creativity coincided with the peak of the AIDS epidemic, the disease which at that time (the 80’s) was not only covered by fear and mystery, but also largely neglected by politics. The word “AIDS” was not mentioned by President Ronald Reagan until the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington, D.C., in 1987. At that time 21 thousand people already had died from the disease which, by then, had spread to 113 countries.
Other works by Gonzalez-Torres: The experience of Gonzalez-Torres’ partner suffering from AIDS, inspired Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled” (Passport) 1991, is a stack of countless sheets of plain, white paper, which the audience can take some sheets from. The stack typically gets replenished, though the exhibitor may also decide to not replenish it anymore at some point. It can be interpreted as a passport with nothing written in it, reflecting a world without borders. While Gonzalez-Torres did not specify how he wanted people to interpret his art, it makes many viewers feel a bit uncomfortable. Instead of feeling his art, the viewer is informed and moved to action.
Who is Gonzalez-Torres: Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996) was an American artist. He was born in Cuba but fled his native country at the age of 11, in the turbulent year of 1968. Some of his artistic ideas can be foregrounded by his biographical experience (like being a refugee and gay), though he never intended for his works to be solely read through a biographical reading. He considered it to be extremely personal, even saying: “I can’t separate my art from my life.” Not having a studio of his own, he worked often with simple, ordinary objects turning them into sculptures or installations, breaking many conventional norms while doing that. The breakaway was mainly in the meaning given to those objects, as they acquired their new, artistic forms. It was not an easy message for viewers to digest.
Legacy: Since his passing in 1996, progress has been made in the United States and other parts of the world regarding the treatment of minorities. The art of Gonzalez-Torres is a contributing factor to this progress. Together with artists like David Wojnarowicz, Essex Hemphil, and Ray Navarro, they spent their artistic lives to make a societal impact. Their art has helped museum visitors understand minorities and contemplate important societal issues.
Where? The French Gallery of the Timken Museum of Art
What do you see? Two lovers rest by a trail in a blooming garden. Their clothes are disheveled and unbuttoned. With one hand, the young man puts flowers into his lover’s hair. In the other hand, he holds her hat, filled with pastel-colored blooms. Resting her arm on his knee, the young lady holds a wreath of blue flowers on her arm. As she looks off to her right, she doesn’t seem to notice the shepherdess entering on the left side of the painting. This woman wears less lavish clothes than the couple, and she carries two baskets of flowers. She tilts her head as the young man flirts with her in an act of playful infidelity. And the young man’s lover doesn’t seem to mind. On the bottom right is a spaniel, which either is the dog of the couple or an ironic symbol of loyalty. Above the scene is a statue of two babies playing and watching the scene unfold.
Backstory: Boucher probably created this painting to decorate the salon of an aristocrat’s country house. Focusing on the theme of love, Boucher sets the intimate and dreamy scene in a beautiful garden. Like most Rococo paintings, the colors and textures of the painting are delicate, soft, and feminine.
Besides romance and coquetry, this painting also shows a romanticization of the peasantry in France during this time. Many aristocrats of this time fantasized about life in the country, working as a farmer or milkmaid. The inclusion of the young shepherdess in this painting may be a nod to this trend. While very beautiful, rococo paintings like Lovers in a Park, were often criticized for their artificiality and unrealistic subject matter.
Who is François Boucher? François Boucher was born in Paris in 1703 where he would die in 1770. His father was a decorator who specialized in embroidery. Boucher studied under François Lemoyne and later under François Cars, an esteemed engraver. During this time, Boucher engraved many of Watteau’s drawings and became familiar with his style very quickly.
In 1723, Boucher was awarded first place in the Academy competition. Afterwards, he traveled to Italy where he studied with Carle Vanloo. Though his style was not heavily influenced by this trip, when he returned to Paris, he became fascinated with fashion and sought to depict it in his works. After being admitted to the French Academy in 1734 for his work, Rinaldo and Armida, Boucher caught the attention of Madame Pompadour who essentially made him her personal painter. It was around this time that Boucher took a young Jean-Honoré Fragonard on as a student.
In 1755, Boucher began working on tapestries for the Gobelins tapestry works, producing pieces for operas and festivals. In 1765, he became the director of the French Academy and Madame Pompadour appointed him First Painter to the King.
Fun fact: A leisure activity for many aristocrats of this time was to dress up in simpler clothes made out of cheaper materials and role play the idealized life of a peasant. The clothes they wore, though plainer than their usual outfits, would be higher quality than what peasants actually wore. The young shepherdess in Lovers in a Park wears clothing in this style.
Where? Santa Maria delle Grazie Dominican Church and Convent in Milan
Commissioned by? Ludovico Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan between 1494 and 1499, for the renovations he had planned for the church and convent.
What do you see? The Last Supper where Jesus and the 12 apostles are sharing their final meal before the crucifixion. The fresco is designed so that the space in which the last supper takes place looks like an extension of the architecture of the room itself.
In the center is Christ. His outstretched arms touch the table. The 12 apostles are divided, first into two groups of six on each side, and second, into subgroups of three. Each subgroup is a tightly-knit group in composition. Scan the row of heads and see the wave-like arrangement, surging and ebbing.
The ceiling of the room is painted as if coffered, and the coffers provide a clear sense of depth to the mural. In the background are three windows with a view to the landscape. The center window behind Christ, has a semicircular pediment, suggestive of a halo. The right wall is illuminated and the left is in shadow.
Backstory: Leonardo da Vinci always carried a sketch book with him. He looked for facial expressions, bodily movement, and believed the artist had “two principal things to paint, man and the intention of his mind.” He has frozen these 13 men in a moment of time and by doing so, he captured all the drama and excitement of the Gospel verses in The Last Supper. Few sketches remain but below is an early version.
Da Vinci had indicated great concern about painting Christ’s face. Christ is larger than the others (hierarchical perspective) and this is also of theological importance. The spatial isolation of Jesus gives added importance to his image. Da Vinci also used the most expensive paint for Christ—ultramarine.
It is hard to imagine the reactions of the friars and nuns as they entered the refectory to see the mural for the first time (before the mural started to deteriorate). The light, bright, stunning colors of a well-known story told in a brand-new fashion must have been almost shocking. Gone were the traditional halos, the flat facial expressions, the formalism, and instead, a band of 13 young men are seen reacting to an announcement that none of them could believe would happen. The humanism of Da Vinci was a great surprise. In the silence of their shared meals it must have given them much to contemplate.
Restoration: Leonardo da Vinci had no experience painting frescos before he started on this mural and used an experimental technique similar to painting on a wooden panel. As a result, the painting is in very poor state as Da Vinci painted on an outside wall with no space to prevent water damage, and he painted with a mixture of oil paint and tempura. The paint did not adhere to the wall and it was decaying even during Da Vinci’s lifetime.
Numerous restoration attempts have been made over the centuries, but they usually caused further problems. In 1979, a small group of Italian art restorers began a huge project to properly do the job. It took them 20 years to complete.
Symbolism: Christ’s simple pose is complex in detail and meaning—he is silent, sad, and submissive. His right hand extends toward Judas, whose hand is near his. Christ’s hand is palm down, accusing Judas. “The hand that betrayeth me is with me on the table.” At the same time, Christ’s right hand refers to the glass of wine, the symbol of his blood used in the Mass, while his left hand extending to the bread refers to the symbol of his body.
The triangular pose of Christ is a reference to the Holy Trinity, an emblematic abstraction of his words, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” The hand with the forefinger pointing straight upward to the right of Christ, belongs to Thomas. His probing finger refers to the physical resurrection of Christ and points to heaven as a harbinger of the physical ascension.
Refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie: The Last Supper measures 460 cm x 880 cm (15 ft x 29 ft) and covers the end wall of the refectory (dining hall) of the monastery. Painting the mural was not easy and a hazardous task as it was placed 15 feet above the floor. The theme of the Last Supper was a traditional one for refectories.
The opposite wall of the refectory is covered by the Crucifixion fresco by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano, to which Leonardo da Vinci added figures of the Sforza family in tempura; these figures have deteriorated in much the same way as those in The Last Supper. Da Vinci worked very thoroughly but slowly and Montorfano was finished before him, to the consternation of Duke Sforza who exhorted Da Vinci to finish his project.
Who is Da Vinci? Leonardo da Vinci was born April 15, 1452 near Vinci in Tuscany. He was the illegitimate son of a 25 year old aspiring lawyer/notary, who had come home for the summer and met the young peasant girl Caterina. He was already engaged to be married but these occurrences were not particularly remarkable at that time.
His paternal grandfather took custody of Leonardo after the birth. The fact that Leonardo was not a legitimate son may have been quite fortunate, as the first legitimate son would have had to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. His grandfather allowed him free reign to pursue other interests.
When Leonardo was 15 years old, he was sent to Florence to work as an apprentice to Andrea del Verrocchio. He excelled and by the time he was 25, he had his own studio with students. He applied to the Duke of Milan and moved there when he was 30.
In 1499, following the Duke’s fall from power, he left Milan and spent a short time in Venice. He returned to Florence in 1500 and in 1516 he moved to France at the invitation of King Francis I. He died there in 1519 at age 67. Among his most famous works are the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and the Madonna Litta in the Hermitage Museum.
Fun fact: The rules of perspective that were used, bring about an unusual effect. This is especially true when looking at the table. The top of the table is always visible, no matter the angle at which you look at the painting. The nuns and friars in the refectory would be sitting well below the mural and it was important that they could see the bread and wine in this fresco.
Another interesting aspect of the fresco is the bottom center of the mural, where a doorway has been cut into the painting. In 1652, the kitchens were relocated to the room behind the refectory and they wanted easier access to the room. They cut out a good portion of the painting, included the feet of Jesus.
Fortunately, in 1520, Giampietrino had made a copy of the original in oil on canvas. We can see Jesus’ feet and also the salt cellar spilled by Judas that is no longer visible in the original fresco by Da Vinci. This copy by Giampietrino was very important for the restoration of The Last Supper between 1979 and 1999.
Where? Room 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? Gallery 632 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
When? Around 1662
What do you see? A young woman opens a leaded window with her right hand, and she holds a water pitcher in her left hand. She wears a blue dress with a blue and gold-like vest (called a bodice) on top of it. She also wears a white collar and an equally white linen head covering. The silver water pitcher is standing on a silver basin.
The table is covered with an expensive and colorful tablecloth with flower patterns. On the right of the table is a box with a blue ribbon and a pearl necklace. Behind the table is a chair with a carved lion on top of it. A blue cloth hangs over the chair. On the top right hangs a map of the seventeen provinces of Hapsburg Netherlands in the 17th century (interestingly, the west of Hapsburg Netherlands is shown on the top, and the north is shown on the right).
The walls in this room are somewhat off-white (which is clear when seen in contrast to the head cover of the woman) and we can see the effects of the sunlight. We can recognize different shadows on the wall left of the woman, but we can, for example, also observe the shadows on the nails in the chair. The light in this painting is gently changing the colors of the various objects.
It is not entirely clear what the woman is doing. It is possible that she wants to water some of the flowers that are outside the window or she may want to clean the window. Note that the window is the same as the left window in The Music Lesson by Vermeer.
Backstory: This painting is also known as Woman with a Water Jug. It is a genre painting depicting an everyday scene from the life of the 17th-century middle class in The Netherlands.
In 1887, Henry Marquand acquired this painting for $800 and later donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was the first Vermeer painting to come to the United States.
Balance and peacefulness: As in many other paintings of Vermeer, this painting shows a balanced composition which results in a very peaceful domestic scene. First, Vermeer achieves this by using a limited number of colors in this painting. He mainly uses the three primary colors: blue, red, and yellow.
Second, Vermeer took many months to complete a single painting, and he added and removed various elements over that period to create the harmony that we see in this final version. For example, based on infrared technology, we know that Vermeer originally included another chair in the left foreground and the map on the wall was bigger and placed much more to the left. However, this created a more chaotic scene, and Vermeer proceeded to update the painting (check here for a virtual reconstruction of the earlier version of this painting). While removing the chair may not have been that much work, completely redoing the map on the wall on a different location was a lot of work and explains why Vermeer took such a long time to complete a painting (and the map turns out to be very accurate).
Who is Vermeer? Johannes Vermeer was born in Delft, The Netherlands, in 1631 and died there in 1675. His father owned a tavern and was an art dealer. Early in his career, Vermeer got some inspiration from works by the followers of Caravaggio and especially their use of light.
Vermeer developed his own style and primarily focused on genre paintings. The domestic scenes that he portrayed have become famous through their realism and excellent use of light and shadow. Besides the current painting, other examples that illustrate his brilliance are The Milkmaid in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
The work of Vermeer was certainly appreciated during his career, but after his death, there was a period of almost two hundred years during which his work was largely forgotten or attributed to other better-known painters. In the second half of the 19th century, his work was rediscovered and quite some well-known paintings were attributed to Vermeer.
Fun fact: As you can see in the paintings above, Vermeer used a lot of blue in his paintings. For this he used the pigment ultramarine (which is a natural pigment made from lapis lazuli). The use of this pigment differentiated him from his contemporaries as lapis lazuli was very expensive.
Most other painters used the much cheaper azurite to create blue. Lapis Lazuli is a rock with a deep blue color, and this rock was not available in Europe but had to come from countries like Afghanistan. Ultramarine is created by grinding lapis lazuli into powder and combining it with a drying oil.
Titian is another well-known artist who often used ultramarine. During the Renaissance, ultramarine was primarily used to paint the robe of the Virgin Mary. The ultramarine pigment remained very expensive until 1826 when synthetic varieties of ultramarine became available.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster
Where? Gallery 45 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned by? Unknown, but possibly Rubens created this as a showpiece for his studio.
What do you see? Daniel is in the lions’ den surrounded by life-size lions. He sits on a colorful red cloth and has a white cloth wrapped around him. His body is tense with his legs crossed and his arms together. Given the light in the background, it seems that this painting captures the moment in the morning after Daniel has spent a full night in the den. Daniel is praying with his hands folded and he is looking up into the air.
Some lions are sleeping, others are looking straight at us, and others are roaring or growling. There are nine lions and lionesses. In the foreground are the bones and a skull as evidence that the lions have already eaten some people. However, a young Daniel is sitting alive in the middle of the den.
Notice that according to the Biblical story, Daniel was much older when he was thrown into the lions’ den, probably around 80 years old.
The painting is based on the Biblical story in the Book of Daniel, chapter 6. In short, Daniel is a high-level administrator for the Persian king Darius. He is doing so well that Darius wants to promote Daniel to be in charge of the full kingdom. The other administrators hatch a plan to trap Daniel. They convince Darius to issue a decree that in the next 30 days no one could pray to any god or human other than king Darius. As Daniel continues to pray to his God, he is sentenced to be thrown into the lions' den which nobody could survive. Darius says to Daniel before he is thrown in the den: “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” A big stone then covers the den.
The next morning Darius checks on Daniel and finds him still alive without any scratch. After that, Darius decided to throw all the administrators and their families in the lions’ den next, and they were all killed before they even reached the floor.
Symbolism: The message of this painting reflects the message from the Biblical story of Daniel in the lions’ den: If you trust in God, he will protect you from no matter what, even from a pride of hungry lions. This story also symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
The lions symbolize the powerful rulers on earth. Daniel is praying and looking upwards to Heaven, which symbolizes his faith in God. The skull in the foreground refers to Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified. The red cloth refers to the blood of Jesus.
Who is Rubens? Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) is a Flemish painter. He was born in Siegen, which is now in Germany, and died in Antwerp, Belgium. Together with Caravaggio, Rubens was one of the most well-known painters of his time. He used a Baroque style of painting.
In 1600, Rubens traveled to Italy, where he stayed for eight years. He spent time in Venice, Florence, and Rome and got inspired by the works of artists like Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian. After this period he moved back to Belgium, where he set up his studio. Together with his many students and apprentices, he produced a very large number of paintings during his life.
Fun fact: Rubens liked to include wild animals in his paintings and was often asked to paint hunting scenes. As he was one of the most dramatic painters of his time, he was perfectly suited to create some crazy hunting scenes. He could study most of these wild animals in the menageries that some of the richest people liked to have around that time. One thing he had to change, however, was to paint the animals like they would behave in the wild as opposed to the often tamed animals he observed in the menageries.
In his different paintings, he included wild animals, such as bears, crocodiles, foxes, hippos, lions, tigers, and wolfs. These hunting scenes were always on commission, and they were a great way for Rubens to earn money. See, for example, the painting of The Tiger Hunt by Rubens.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Where? Room W204 of the J. Paul Getty Museum
What do you see? Two well-dressed people are depicted in a green landscape, probably a forest or park near Paris. On the left is a somewhat shy woman in a long white dress (no, the white dress is not stained like an art critic from that time said, but it is the trademark Impressionist painting style).
he man on the right wears a somewhat informal, but neat set of clothes and a brown hat with a red ribbon around it. He holds the hand of the woman to guide her through the dense, uncultivated terrain. With his left arm, he pushes the bushes aside such that they can continue on the small path they are walking. The woman slightly lifts her white dress and has her head turned over her right shoulder as if she is hesitant to continue down the path. There seems to be some love connection between the two.
The couple is enjoying a relaxed stroll through the landscape, and the painting technique of Renoir makes them blend into the landscape. Renoir used the light in this painting to emphasize the presence of the woman and the path through the forest. The man is standing in the shadow and only parts of his pants, hands, collar, and hat capture some sunlight.
Backstory: In 1989, the Getty Museum paid $17.7 million to acquire this painting. The title of the painting is La Promenade, which means ‘the walk’. However, it is not certain whether Renoir gave this title to the painting or whether it was given later on by auctioneers.
This painting is a direct result of his interactions with Claude Monet, who had advised him in 1869 to use lighter colors. Monet himself also used lighter colors, and you can see some of the similarities between this painting by Renoir and Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son by Monet in 1875, which is in the National Gallery of Art.
The birth of Impressionism: In the 1860s, in France, the government and the powerful art institutions were in control of the type of art that was exhibited. The artists paid a lot of attention to the details and finish of their works. Under the lead of Édouard Manet, a group of artists changed their style to what we now call Impressionism. Manet hosted a twice-weekly meeting with painters such as Cézanne, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and Sisley.
Among other things, the Impressionists wanted to capture quick, transitory moments in time. To do that, they changed the technique of painting. Before, different layers of paint were applied on top of each other, with long waiting times in between each layer to make sure each layer dried properly. Impressionists, however, wanted to paint their observations in a single session and had to immediately apply the right color of paint to the canvas as they could not resort to the underlying layers to create the perfect color.
Who is Renoir? Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was a French impressionist artist. He is often referred to simply as Auguste Renoir and he also signed this painting with A. Renoir. He was a talented singer and wanted to become a professional singer when he was young. However, as singing was a risky career, he switched to painting in which he was also talented.
His early work was inspired by Manet and Pissarro, and by his friend and contemporary, Claude Monet. By 1879, Renoir was considered to be a successful painter, and he took some time to travel around Europe and North Africa to become familiar with the works of Delacroix, Raphael, Titian, and Velázquez. Some of his famous works include A Girl with a Watering Can in the National Gallery of Art and The Large Bathers in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Fun fact: The man is this painting is probably Alfred Sisley, a British impressionist painter who lived most of his life in France. Sisley was a friend of Renoir. They met in art school in Paris in 1862.
The model for the woman in this painting is probably Lise Tréhot. She had a relationship with Renoir and served as a female model for almost all his paintings between 1866 and 1872. While not a lot is known about the exact nature of their relationship, they may have gotten two children together. The first may have died as an infant. In 1868 Lise gave birth to a girl, Jeanne, who was given away to a nurse. Indirect evidence that this was the child of Renoir as well is that he secretly provided financial support to Jeanne during his life, even though he has never publicly acknowledged her as his child.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster