Where: 141 Wooster Street, New York City
What do you experience? The Earth Room contains 280 thousand pounds of soil (dirt) filling up the 3600 square feet second floor apartment in the heart of New York City. It measures up to about 22 inches in height and is contained partly by the white walls and partly by a glass barrier only inches taller than the level of dirt.
Unlike most other types of sculptures, which can be experienced at distance (a photograph can give us an idea of the work and artist’s creativity), the Earth Room should be experienced in person. Besides the visual or even tactile levels of perception, the Room evokes an olfactory experience. The visitor can smell the art. The scent of fresh soil can be felt long before you get to see the actual work, while walking up the stairs leading to the second floor of the building where it is located.
The overall impression is similar to that of experiencing the ocean for the first time; one can smell the water long before it becomes available in any other way. In the Earth Room, the scent of the fresh soil intensifies dramatically as we stand in front of the exposition.
How does it remain fresh? Bill Dilworth, the curator of the Earth Room, explains the life that has been happening inside the dirt. Originally from Detroit, Dilworth has lived in New York for about 40 years and has been taking care of the New York Earth Room for nearly 30 of those years. While life in the Earth Room dirt is limited by the enclosed space, and it does not have the same kind of substances present in a natural environment, scientists have claimed that some microorganisms can survive in such conditions for up to 200 years. Tests of dirt samples revealed all sorts of life present. One of Dilworth’s routine tasks is to water the dirt, partly to limit the dusting inside the apartment. One of the side effects of that task is the continued sustainability of life present in the sculpture.
Land Art: The Earth Room represents Land Art, a creative phenomenon of the 60s and 70s. Land Art focuses on experiments with free-form, conceptual post-minimalism and concern with environment. The work is intentionally simple. Yet, its simplicity is what is so puzzling about it and what provokes the desired outcome: a reflection, a thought, and a pause. There is no specific indication as to where the soil in the Room comes from; it is unimportant as it has carried humanity with equal effort throughout the ages, wherever there was soil.
How significant is it for us to realize and how do we perceive the land? Are we making the best use of the earth? Is that even the proper way to think about it? Artists have been making landscapes the subjects of their works for a long time. Why not consider the material—dirt—to have an independent aesthetic quality or even to be one? Those are some of the notions Land Art evokes. Others include the concern about the human impact on that quality. In that sense, art seems to be ahead of theory, as evidenced by the recent outpour of research on the climate change.Working with non-traditional materials, the value of the process itself, and challenging the commercialization of art were at the core of Post-Minimalist movement out of which Land Art grew. The movement challenged the status of commercial merchandise to which art was reduced.
Contrast with city life: A unique feature of the Earth Room is its contrast with city life. The visitor experiences silence and serenity. In the heart of “the city that never sleeps,” the Earth Room’s atmosphere is an oasis of peace and quiet. The earth absorbs while offering a nearly spiritual experience. The feature of solitude is consistent with De Maria’s claim that “Isolation is the essence of land art.” His other work, The Lightning Field (1977), is in New Mexico’s desolate area near Quemado. Another land artist, Robert Smithson, located his earth sculpture, the Spiral Jetty (1970), in Rozel Point, Utah, on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake, making it inaccessible altogether for an in-person experience.
Other Earth Rooms: Originally, there were three Earth Rooms, two in Germany and one in New York, which was the last one installed. They were all initially shown through gallery exhibitions. The New York Earth Room was intended to last three months, but it is now the only Earth Room left. It was taken up by Dia Art Foundation. The foundation has commissioned and/or maintained number of projects, with the goal of helping artists realize their visions, especially those visions which often reach beyond the scope of traditional gallery exhibitions.
Who is De Maria? Walter Joseph De Maria was born in 1935 in Albany, CA and died in 2013 in Los Angeles, CA. In 1960, he moved to New York where he stayed the remainder of his career. His artistic interests included Conceptual, Land, and Minimal Art. Among his famous works are the New York Earth Room, The Lighting Field, The Broken Kilometer, and The Vertical Earth Kilometer.
Fun fact: Initially, about 3500 people annually visited the Earth Room. Nowadays that number is about 16,000. With the growing awareness of human impact on the environment, it seems likely that the number of visitors will continue to rise. The New York Earth Room remains one of the most unique forms of Land Art.
Where? Room 67 on Floor 0 of the Prado Museum
What do you see? The power-hungry god of time, Saturn, stands in the darkness with the corpse of his son in his hands. His grotesque limbs are abnormally long and twisted. The yellow color of his skin gives him a sickly and monstrous appearance. With a mouth as wide as his eyes, he bites pieces of flesh out of his son’s body. The head and right arm have already been devoured. The corpse hangs limp in his firm hands, fingers digging into the back. Surrounded by muted colors and a black background, the blood flowing out of the son’s body is particularly striking. Slowly, the background seems to obscure Saturn’s body as the shadows slowly swallow his right elbow and thighs.
Backstory: In his villa outside of Madrid, Goya created a series of disturbing images which have since been dubbed his Pinturas Negras or Black Paintings. Painted towards the end of his life, these paintings reflected Goya’s pessimistic view towards humanity. The works deal with dark and disturbing themes. One of the most iconic works of this series was Saturn Devouring His Son. The painting was created in his dining room, perhaps in response to the Napoleonic Wars which took place towards the end of his life. Witnessing the Spanish government at its worst, Goya was heavily concerned with topics such as abuse of power and violence. Another example of Goya’s black paintings is Witches’ Sabbath which is also on display in the Prado Museum.
The Myth of Saturn: In Greek and Roman mythology, Saturn was the son of Caelus, the god of the sky. When he realized that Caelus’s rule was tyrannical, Saturn overthrew his father and took his place as a supreme leader. Saturn and his wife, Ops, were soon expecting six children. However, it was prophesied that one of these children would overthrow him, granting him a fate not unlike that of Caelus. In an effort to escape this fate, Saturn devoured five of his children as soon as they were born. Horrified, Ops hid the sixth child, Jupiter, from Saturn and replaced him with a stone wrapped in cloth. Saturn ate the stone and as it passed through his system, it freed the five children that he had swallowed. Later, Jupiter would indeed overthrow his father as a supreme leader and Saturn fled to Latium where he became a god of agriculture.
Who is Francisco Goya? Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes was born in 1746 in Fuendetodos in the Northeast of Spain and died in 1828 in Bordeaux, France. He studied drawing and painting in Zaragoza and joined the studio of José Luzán. Later, he studied under Francisco Bayeu Subías who led him to work on decorations for the royal palace. Goya married Subías’s sister and traveled to Italy after failing in two drawing competitions at the Real Academia des Bellas Artes in San Fernando. Eventually, Goya was appointed painter to the Royal Tapestry Factory in Madrid. His work was reminiscent of Rococo art and focused on day-to-day events. As his work gained more attention, Goya rose to the position of court painter to King Charles III and King Charles IV. Around this time, he began to travel Andalusia to study realism. He was commissioned by the Spanish Court to paint some anti-war pieces such as The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808. Goya lived in a villa outside of Madrid called Quinta del Sordo which used to belong to a deaf man. In the later stages of his life, Goya fell ill to an unknown sickness and suffered a hearing loss of his own. Along with his physical health, Goya’s mental health went into decline. Living through major turmoil in Spain, Goya’s outlook on life became very pessimistic and his work became dark and deeply disturbing. The walls of his villa were covered in murals of “Black Paintings’ which have since been transferred onto canvas and moved into the Prado Museum.
Fun fact: Saturn Devouring His Son is believed to have been inspired by Peter Paul Rubens’ Saturn which was painted in the 1630s. Rubens’s depiction of Saturn appears to have more consciousness and awareness of his decision of eating his son. Goya on the other hand seems to be completely lost in chaos and fear, consuming his child as if it were necessary for his survival.
Where? The Nachtwachtzaal in the Eregallerij on the second floor of the Rijksmuseum
Commissioned by? The Guild of the Sharp Shooters under the command of Captain Frans Banning Cocq
What do you see? The Amsterdam Guild of the Sharp Shooters which consists of eighteen people. The painting is full of action and movement. In the center, you can see Captain Frans Banning Cocq (the man with the black hat) and his lieutenant Ruytenburch (dressed in white) stepping into the light. The captain is dressed in an elegant black outfit with a red sash. He holds a cane and a glove in his right hand and stretches his left arm forward to indicate that the guild members should start marching. The lieutenant indicates with the lance in his left hand the direction in which they should march. On the right, the drummer confirms that the guild should start marching by hitting the drum. The other men are grabbing their weapons, which include muskets, lances, and pikes. Behind the young girl to the left of the captain is the flag carrier. On the complete left of the painting is the sergeant who is carrying a, so-called, halberd. The man in red is filling his musket with gunpowder. In between the captain and the lieutenant is a man firing his weapon (you can just see the smoke to the left of the hat of the lieutenant). In addition to the members of the guild, some other figures are included. For example, on the right of the painting is a somewhat unfinished dog barking and on the left of the captain are a young boy and a girl running excitedly. The young girl has a dead chicken hanging from her belt (which probably symbolically refers to the emblem of the guild). On the middle top, a shield is included with the names of all the members of the guild.
Backstory: This painting is more formally known as The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch or Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banning Cocq. The city of Amsterdam owns it and the current value is estimated to be over $500 million. Over the years, the paint in this work became darker, and that is the reason that in the 18th century the painting was called The Night Watch. However, there is no clear evidence that this scene is set in the night. This is the largest painting by Rembrandt. It cost the guild at least 1600 guilders and each member contributed their share of money to pay Rembrandt. Not all members of the guild were happy with the final painting. The captain and his lieutenant were obviously happy with their prominent position, but the other members were not as happy as they were shown in the dark. In 1715, the painting was moved from its original location, and pieces from each side of the painting were cut off, whereby the painting lost about 20% of its original size. A copy of the Night Watch by Gerrit Lundens provides an indication of the missing pieces.
Who is Banning Cocq? Frans Banning Cocq (1605-1655) is best known as the Captain of the Guild of the Sharpshooters. This guild protected the city against attacks and uninvited guests. However, Banning Cocq was also the Lord of Castle Ilpenstein and became the mayor of Amsterdam in 1650 (just like his father-in-law had been before).
Who is Rembrandt? Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in Leiden in The Netherlands in 1606 and died in 1669 in Amsterdam. He was a very talented drawer, etcher, and painter. His talent for incorporating light and shadow allowed him to drag the viewer into his often dramatic paintings. In his personal life, Rembrandt suffered a lot of setbacks. For example, around the time that this painting was finished, the wife of Rembrandt died. However, this did not affect his productivity as in the following years he seemed more productive than ever. He also lost three children shortly after birth. Rembrandt was able to create a wide range of different paintings, including genre paintings, biblical paintings, mythological paintings, landscapes, and even animal paintings. Some other well-known works by Rembrandt include Saul and David and The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, which are both in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
Fun fact: The painting has been damaged on several occasions over time. In 1913, a man attacked the painting with a knife. In 1945, the director of the Rijksmuseum fell on top of the painting, though this did not damage the painting. The most significant damage was caused in 1975 when a man hit the painting twelve times with a knife. The damage can be seen in the picture below. In 1990, a man sprayed acid on the painting, but the damage could be limited by an alert security guard who immediately applied demineralized water to the painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links)
CC BY-SA 3.0 NL Nationaal Archief
Where? Many museums own a woodblock print of this work, including the Art Institute of Chicago, British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but this work is usually not on permanent display.
What do you see? A giant wave off the shore of the Kanagawa prefecture dwarves three boats — one in the foreground, one in the middle ground, and one in the background. The perfect curves of the wave’s form the relentless rocking feeling that terrifies the occupants and rowers on the tiny boats. Perhaps they are fishermen. Above them, it’s raining seafoam, represented with delicate white specks and claw-like crests. In the distance, standing before a grey haze is Japan’s great Mount Fuji. The mountain balances the downward curve of the wave while emphasizing the enormousness of the wave.
Backstory: Hokusai created The Great Wave as part of a series of landscapes titled Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjurokkei). Mount Fuji, a sacred spiritual site in Japanese culture, appears in every print in the series, but is not conspicuous in every piece. Often, it appears in the background of the prints such as in the case of The Great Wave off Kanagawa. The scenes that Hokusai created surrounding Mount Fuji were drastically different, varying in season, setting, and overall atmosphere. There are serene scenes such as Inume Pass in the Kai Province, lonesome scenes such as Tama River in Musashi Province, and intense scenes like The Great Wave. Showing the important landmark from several locations, Hokusai emphasized the permanence and stillness of Mount Fuji. No matter the condition of life, the mountain would remain exactly where it stands.
Ukiyo-e: Ukiyo-e, meaning “pictures of the floating world,” was the major art style of the Edo period, which was popular between 1603 and 1868 in Japan. During this time, under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, ideas like sensuality and tranquility were promoted, prompting the creation of a genre of art depicting leisurely daily life. Ukiyo-e began on silk screens depicting life in the urban sphere. The genre blew up when ukiyo-e artists began creating woodblock prints. The medium allowed for mass production and mass consumption. These images of courtesans, kabuki, daily activity, and nature soon spread to Europe once Japan opened its ports in 1853 spurring the Impressionist movement and inspiring artists such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Who is Hokusai? Katsushika Hokusai was a prominent printmaker and painter of the Edo period. He was born in 1760 and died in 1849 after a long career of art making. When he was 19 years old, he studied under Katsukawa Shunsho who gave him the skills to begin producing his own unique artworks when he was 20. After a dispute with his teacher, Hokusai ended his studies and began making sketches for woodblock prints that would be turned into picture calendars alongside his own prints of portraits of women. Soon he became a major player in the ukiyo-e movement, competing with Hiroshige and creating illustrations and paintings for popular fiction books. A practicing Buddhist, Hokusai paid special attention to nature, and, in his own time, he produced many landscape paintings and prints including Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji in which his unique style became more prominent. He also painted birds and flowers with bright, intense colors. Hokusai was careful to depict daily life without any exaggerations but with great beauty. Towards the end of his life, Hokusai grew weak in both his health and skill. Nonetheless, before his death at the age of 89, Hokusai created numerous works depicting mystical images such as demons and dragons, a change of pace from his typically realist style.
Fun fact: French composer Claude Debussy is said to have been influenced by Hokusai. When Japan opened its ports in 1853, the japonisme movement took over Europe. People quickly got their hands on Japanese goods like furniture and artwork that they would use to decorate their homes. As a student in Rome, Debussy frequently purchased Japanese goods. One of the prints that he discovered and hung on the walls of his home in Paris was The Great Wave which is said to have inspired his masterpiece, La Mer.
What do you see? A young dancer of fourteen years old is shown at 70 percent of her real size (the sculpture is a bit taller than 3 foot or about 1 meter). She seems relaxed and is standing in ballet’s fourth position (there are seven positions for the feet in ballet, and the ballerina here has her feet in open fourth position – about 12 inches apart and facing different directions). She is sculpted realistically and Degas intends to show the hard life of a ballet dancer and what it does to her body. Her back leg supports most of her weight. She has thin legs and arms. She holds her arms behind her back and has her hands clasped together. She confidently holds up her chin, pushes her shoulders back, and her eyes are half closed. She wears ballet shoes, a real tutu made of tarlatan, and a gold-colored bodice (a vest) made of linen. She also wears a real ribbon in her plaited hair. Degas used real hair for this sculpture, which he covered in wax.
Backstory: The original wax sculpture in the National Gallery of Art is mixed with some real materials (like the tutu and the ribbon in her hair). The sculpture has been modeled after a fourteen-year-old girl named Marie van Goethem. She lived in Paris and joined the Paris Opera Ballet to escape the poverty of her family. Degas was a frequent visitor at the ballet school and watched their classes and performances. He used Marie not only as a model for this sculpture but also for quite some other works, including many drawing of dancers that he made. One example of such a drawing is Dancer Bending Forward in the Chicago Art Institute. Modeling for Degas was a nice way for Marie to make some extra money. She not only modeled dressed as a ballerina but also nude, which allowed Degas to study her anatomy in detail. In the National Gallery of Art, you can also see two studies in the nude of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Marie graduated from the ballet school in 1880 and would start to perform in ballet performances. However, a couple of years later, in 1882, she missed several rehearsals and was dismissed. After that, we do not know what happened to Marie’s further life.
Copies: The National Gallery of Art holds two statues (the original wax statue and a bronze casting) of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen as well as two nude studies for this statue. When Degas died, about 150 statues were found in his studio of which only one of the versions in the National Gallery of Art had been shown to the public at an exhibition. Many of these statues were in bad shape, but about half of these statues were repaired after his death. The National Gallery of Art has many of these original statues. The surviving family of Degas decided to create about 22 bronze casts of these statues. Because of this, nowadays, bronze copies of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen can be found in many other locations besides the ones mentioned on the top. For example, the statue is also in the Chicago Institute of Art, Harvard Art Museums, Metropolitan Museum of Art (currently not on view), and the Norton Simon Museum. One of the bronze copies of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was sold in 2009 for $19 million.
Who is Degas? Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas (1834-1917) was born in Paris. Whereas he spent most of his life in Paris, he also lived for three years in Italy and spent time in Florence, Naples, and Rome. He started as a more traditional painter by creating historical stories and portraits, but during the 1860s he changed his style and became one of the founders of impressionism, together with artists like Cézanne, Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir. He changed his focus and started to paint scenes from everyday life with a particular interest in dancers, theater, and horseracing. He moved on to focus on more realistic paintings, and one such example is Interior in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He made statues mainly as training to understand the anatomy and movements of people.
Fun fact: When Degas showed this sculpture at an Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1881, many people did not like it at all. For example, some people called the sculpture a monkey. It also did not help that the sculpture was on display in a glass vitrine. Sculptures typically were idealized versions of well-known people created in marble. Instead, Degas created an unknown young girl from Paris, and the girl did not look at all like a goddess. On top of that, he created this sculpture from beeswax and he added objects like a tutu to the statue. Because of the negative reactions Degas got, he removed the statue from the exhibition and stored it in his studio until his death.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Canvas or statue (Amazon links).
Where? Room 702 on the first floor of the Louvre
What do you see? A young courtesan rests atop some brightly colored blue and ochre fabrics from the east. She is surrounded by treasures from the orient—a bejeweled mirror just behind her, a red hookah at her feet, and beautiful patterned drapes that hang from above. She is nude, except for the exquisite oriental headdress atop her head and a few golden bracelets on her wrist. Her elongated right arm holds a beautiful peacock feather fan. She is modestly seductive, her eroticism simultaneously augmented and veiled by the mysticism of the east.
Backstory: La Grande Odalisque was commissioned in 1813 by Napoleon’s sister, Caroline Murat, the Queen of Naples. The painting was admitted into the Salon of 1819 but received harsh criticism for a number of reasons. Firstly, this nude by Ingres was different from many reclining nudes of the past as those were painted in a mythological context, making them more appropriate for public display. The most famous work in this genre is the Venus of Urbino by Titian. Ingres, instead, veiled his nude in the mysticism of the east, a theme emphasized by many neoclassical painters like David and Delacroix. Nonetheless, the eroticism caused much discourse. Secondly, Ingres received criticism for his exaggerated and inaccurate rendition of human anatomy. Influenced by the 16th-century Mannerism art movement, Ingres elongated the body of his subject in numerous areas including her spine, right arm, and left leg.
Who is Ingres? Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was a French painter born in born in 1780 in Montauban. His father was an artist and musician, and his mother was a wigmaker. His parents exposed him to the arts from an early age; he enrolled in art school, studying both sculpture and painting. In 1797, Ingres began studying with Jacques-Louis David, and, in 1799, he was admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Eventually, he won the Grand Prix de Rome, a prestigious art prize. While in Rome, he was commissioned by the Murat family in Naples to paint several portraits, though he never received payment for these paintings because of the fall of Napoleon’s empire. Stranded in Rome with no patronage, Ingres resorted to making portraits for English tourists. Soon, Ingres returned to France where he regained popularity with his The Vow of Louis XIII. However, he also continued to paint portraits including his portraits of Madame Moitessier, of which one version is in the National Gallery in London and another version in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Fun fact: When looking at the woman, you can clearly see in her lower back that she has a few more vertebrae than normal. Critics of La Grande Odalisque often estimated that Ingres had added three extra vertebrae to his figure. However, a study conducted in 2004 showed that Ingres had actually added approximately five vertebrae to his model. This number was calculated by measuring female models and scaling them to the size of Ingres’s painting. Such an elongation suited the personal taste of Ingres who was influenced by Mannerism. He thought long and curved lines accentuated the sensuality and beauty of a figure.
Where? Gallery 85 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned by? Possibly for the art collection of Baron Achille Sellière
What do you see? A young and pretty girl holds a green watering can in her right hand and two daisies in her left hand. She is probably around four years old and wears a knee-length, deep blue dress with extensive white lace on it. She also wears matching blue boots with white lace on the top. She has red lips, blue eyes, and rosy cheeks. She has a red bow in her long curly blonde hair. She seems to be content while watering the flowers. The girl stands on a light-colored footpath in the garden. The colors that Renoir used for the stones and dirt on the footpath contrast nicely with the green grass surrounding it. On the bottom left are a rose bush and some grass. In the background is more grass and a collection of flowers. In this painting, you can clearly see that Renoir applied the colors with individual touches and that he did not mix them on the canvas. This technique is typical of the Impressionist art style.
No Shadow: Interestingly there is no shadow visible anywhere in this painting. The reason is that Renoir wanted to create an illuminating painting where the light radiates from the painting as soon as you see it. This painting is a good example of a painting that stands out from the rest of the paintings in the room in the National Gallery of Art. Another example of such an illuminating painting is Sunflowers by Van Gogh. You can see one of the versions of this painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and this painting also clearly stands out from the other paintings in the room. Another version is in the National Gallery in London. It is, however, also surprising that Renoir did not include a shadow in this painting, as he famously said: "No shadow is black. It always has a color. Nature knows only colors … white and black are not colors."
Backstory: According to some, this painting has been created in the garden of Claude Monet in Argenteuil, France, but this is not certain. The girl in this painting is probably a girl that lived near Renoir, possibly called Mademoiselle Leclere. He picked her because of her prettiness and especially her distinctive eyes. This painting is a classical Impressionist painting as it focuses on the different colors and how they can be used to represent the effects of sunlight. Like many other Impressionist paintings, this work was painted while Renoir was outside (something that was uncommon in the period before Impressionism). However, at the same time, the simplicity of this painting is a first step in the direction of Post-Impressionism which is famous because of artists like Van Gogh.
Who is Renoir? Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was a French impressionist painter. When he was three years old, his family moved to Paris and lived close to the Louvre. As a child, he often visited the Louvre to admire works of art. He developed himself into one of the best Impressionist painters and nowadays you can find some of his work in the Musée d'Orsay. Together with people like Manet, Monet, and Pissarro, he is one of the founders of the Impressionist art style. Renoir said that he painted for fun and painted scenes “which made me want to walk in it.” He continued to enjoy painting until the end of his life, even after he had developed arthritis and it became difficult to hold a brush. Some of his other great works include Dance at Bougival at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and La Promenade in the Getty Museum.
Fun fact: At the time of this painting, Renoir was still in a struggle for money. To generate money, Renoir decided to paint widely attractive scenes of women and children in the hope that these would sell more easily and possibly attract some commissions for portraits. These kind of scenes were in high demand in France at that time. His strategy paid off as by 1879 he had become a successful painter with some money which he used to travel around Europe and North Africa.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 2 of the Musée d’Orsay
What do you see? A beautiful Venus is born from the foam of the sea. It looks as if she has just awakened from a deep slumber. She languidly rests her head upon a small wave that is beginning to form on the far right. The waters seem to conform to her twisted contrapposto, perfectly following the shape of her waist. Upon first glance, her eyes are shut. But a closer look reveals that they are half-open, pointed upwards as she looks into the crook of her right elbow. Her golden hair flows from beneath her left arm, floating beside her in the blue-green waters. Above her is a pastel sky decorated with thin clouds and five cherubs that are celebrating and announcing her arrival with horns made of seashells. The three cherubs closest to her face peer over her body with playful curiosity, arms stretched out, perhaps preparing to wake her.
Backstory: Alexandre Cabanel exhibited The Birth of Venus in the Paris Salon in 1863 in a “Salon of Venuses”. During this time, many artists were painting female nudes shrouded in the mythology of the birth of Venus. The European idealized female nude, a tradition that traces back to the Venus of Urbino by Titian, was experiencing a revival in the 19th century in works like Cabanel’s as well as the Grande Odalisque by Ingres, and Maja Desnuda by Goya. The mysticism of the story gave artists room to produce semi-erotic works without offending the public. Cabanel’s Venus is posed in a much more provocative way than Olympia by Manet, but because of Manet’s more realistic and confrontational take on his nude, he received a great deal of criticism in the same year.
What is contrapposto? Contrapposto is a pose that was developed by the Greeks. In contrapposto, the figure rests its weight on one leg and bends the other. The axis of the shoulders and the hips are positioned in opposite directions to create a sense of dynamism and depth. This creates a natural resting pose that makes the figure come alive.
Who is Alexandre Cabanel? Alexandre Cabanel was a French painter who was born in 1823 in Montpellier, in the south of France. When he was seventeen years old, he enrolled in the Ecolé des Beaux-Artes in Paris. Following his first exhibition in 1844, Cabanel was awarded the Prix de Rome. His work was quickly popularized at the Paris Salon. Cabanel primarily painted in the Academic style and drew inspiration from the Rococo art movement. His works centered around classical, religious, and historical themes. The Birth of Venus, his most famous painting, was exhibited at the Paris Salon and later purchased by Napoleon III. In his later life, Cabanel served as a juror for the Salon and returned to the Ecolé des Beaux-Artes as a teacher. He died in Paris in 1889 at the age of 65.
Fun fact: Following the creation of the original, Alexandre Cabanel sold reproduction rights to Adolphe Goupil, an art dealer and publisher. Working with copyist Adolphe Jourdan, Cabanel was able to produce numerous replicas of his take on The Birth of Venus. One of these replicas is on display in the Dahesh Museum in New York. Another one belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art but is not on permanent display.
Where? Room 2 of the National Gallery
Commissioned by? Alfonso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, to decorate one of the rooms in his Ducal Palace.
What do you see? On the left is Ariadne in a blue dress. She is left behind by Theseus on an island. You can still see the ship of Theseus near the horizon in the middle left of the painting. An almost naked Bacchus is jumping out of his chariot, which is carried by two cheetahs. Bacchus is immediately in love with Ariadne, but Ariadne seems hesitant as she is still dealing with the fact that Theseus left. While her arms and body are still in the direction of the ship of Theseus, her head is turned to Bacchus. Bacchus convinces Ariadne to marry him. Bacchus promises Ariadne to turn the diadem that Ariadne was wearing during their wedding into a constellation of stars, which you can see in the top left of the painting. Bacchus has also brought his entourage of drunk and crazy people on the right. One of his followers is holding the leg with a hoof of a cow that he just ripped off. You can see the head of the cow in the foreground, which is dragged along by a young boy. Completely on the right is a man carrying a barrel of wine and in the foreground, a man is trying to break free from snakes.
Backstory: Alfonse d’Este originally commissioned Raphael and Fra Bartolommeu to make this painting but both died before they could start their work. He then decided to give the work to Titian. This painting is based on the mythological stories of the Latin poets Catullus and Ovid. The story is about Princess Ariadne from the Greek island of Crete. She fell in love with Theseus from Athens and helped him to kill the Minotaur. They left together from Crete, but Theseus abandoned her while she was asleep on the Greek island of Naxos. Ariadne was heartbroken when she discovered that and ran along the beach of Naxos to see if she could see any signs of Theseus. At that moment, Bacchus - the god the wine, fertility, madness, theatre, and religious ecstasy - arrived. Bacchus had fallen in love with Ariadne and asked her to marry him. The painting is famous because Titian is able to paint a moment that is frozen in time in a very energetic scene. Notice also the beautiful use of bright color, typical for the School of Venice, which makes this painting come alive.
Symbolism: Bacchus is wearing a crown of ivy leafs, which is the sacred plant to Bacchus to prevent intoxication (which is what people in the past believed that ivy could do). The constellation of stars (which we now refer to as Corona Borealis) on the top left is in the form of the diadem that Ariadne was wearing when she married to Bacchus. It is a symbol of their marriage. The wine barrel, tambourines, and snakes are all symbols of the lifestyle that Bacchus represents. The cheetahs refer to the collection of wild animals of the commissioner of this painting.
Who is Ariadne? According to Greek mythology, Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, who was the King of Crete. Minos had built a labyrinth, with in the center a Minotaur (a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a human). He put his daughter Ariadne in charge of the labyrinth. Following an earlier dispute with Athens, every seven to nine years, 14 noble citizens from Athens were sacrificed to the Minotaur. One year, Theseus, was among these 14 noble citizens. Theseus became a hero as he killed the Minotaur, but to do that, he received help from Ariadne who was in love with him. Ariadne married in the end to Bacchus and gave him about 12 children. After Ariadne died, Bacchus brought her back from the underworld Hades and she became a Greek goddess.
Why Bacchus? Bacchus was a chronic alcoholic, which made him a great subject for mythological stories and also for artworks. Bacchus was also the inspiration for popular festivals, called Bacchanalia, which were introduced to Rome in the second century before Christ. These festivals contained a lot of alcohol and nudity and were a popular theme in Renaissance art.
Who is Titian? Titian (1488/1490 – 1576) was a painter and greatest member of the Venetian school of painters. He was very talented in painting both portraits and landscapes, which is and was a rare combination. In his teenage years, the Bellini brothers (Gentile and Giovanni) taught him how to paint, but his work was quickly considered to be better than that of the Bellini brothers. Some well-known paintings by Titian are his Venus of Urbino in the Uffizi Museum and Diana and Actaeon which is also in the National Gallery in London.
Fun fact: In the original story on Ariadne and Bacchus, the chariot of Bacchus was drawn by tigers. Instead, Titian painted two cheetahs. This was most likely the case, because Duke Alfonso d’Este did not have tigers, but did have cheetahs, in his menagerie. Collecting wild and exotic animals, called a menagerie, was an impressive way to show off to your guests. Menageries of that time included animals like panthers, leopards, and elephants.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Where? Room 10-14 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between 1482 and 1485
Commissioned by? Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), ruler of the Florentine Republic and one of the most important driving forces of the Renaissance.
What do you see? The goddess Venus is shown naked on top of a shell on the seashore. She is born from the sea as a mature and sexual woman. Her facial expression is very peaceful and innocent. She tries to conceal herself with her hair and arm. This pose of Venus is inspired by the Greek statues made of Venus. For example, you can see the similarity to the positioning of the arms in the statue of Venus de' Medici (which is also in the Uffizi). If you look carefully, it looks like Venus is floating on the shell as the positioning of her feet and body is physically unrealistic. On the left, Zephyr, the god of the west wind, blows Venus to the shore. Meanwhile, Zephyr is carrying the nymph, Chloris. They are surrounded by flowers which are falling from the sky. On the right, Ores, goddess of the seasons, hands a flowered cloak to Venus to cover herself.
Backstory: This is one of the most famous paintings in the world. Venus is born from the sea foam (her Greek name Aphrodite means ‘arisen from foam’). According to the myths, the Greek god Cronus castrated the god Uranus and threw his genitals into the sea. Aphrodite was later born from the foam of his genitals. The theme of the painting is inspired by the poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Amazon link to the book), which consists of 15 books and 240 myths starting from the creation of the world until the deification of Julius Caesar. Ovid (also known as Homer) writes in his work about an adult Venus who is rising from the sea to inspire love.
Symbolism: Violets, the flowers of love, are blowing in the wind on the left. The shell represents feminism. The dress of Ores and the robe she is holding for Venus are decorated with various spring flowers related to the birth theme, including red and white daisies, blue cornflowers, and yellow primroses.
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. According to the myths, she was born from the foam of the sea. This happened when the Titan Cronus castrated Uranus, his father, whose genitals fertilized the sea and led to the birth of Venus. The goddess Venus is known in Greek mythology as Aphrodite. In Latin, Venus means ‘sexual desire’. She is the mother of Aeneas who survived the fall of Troy and fled to Italy. As such, Venus was considered the mother of the Romans and therefore a very popular goddess among the Romans. Perhaps because of this, Julius Caesar claimed to be an ancestor of Venus.
Why Venus? Whereas Mary was the ideal woman to paint from a Christian point of view, Venus represents the moral dangers and shame of the human body. Christianity taught the people to be ashamed of the nude human body. Botticelli was trying to blend the Christian worldview and the arising humanist worldview. From that background, you can understand why Venus is still partly covering her nakedness with her hair (the Venus of Urbino painted in 1538 by Titian will show you a much more explicit depiction of Venus). This is a transition from religious art to Renaissance art. In some sense, Venus represents the opposite of Mary.
Who is Botticelli? Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was a painter that belonged to the Florentine school of painters. He was a student of Filippo Lippi. Botticelli was in love with Simonetta Vespucci (a cousin-in-law of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci), who was already married to Marco Vespucci. Simonetta was known as the greatest beauty of her time and died in 1476. As a result of that Botticelli never married. Throughout his life, he has been inspired by Simonetta, who has served, according to popular belief, as the inspiration for many of his paintings (including this painting). According to his wish, Botticelli was buried at the feet of Simonetta Vespucci.
Fun fact: Many people have noted the ‘cadaverous’ color of Venus, which is not considered very attractive. This was not some macabre fantasy of Botticelli, but merely a consequence of the deterioration of the pigment over time. And if you look carefully, the neck of Venus and her left arm are longer than you would expect. Botticelli incorporated these elongations on purpose as they were considered a form of beauty.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster and canvas.