Where? Kunstmuseum Basel
What do you see? A self portrait of the 20-years old Caterina (also spelled Catharina) van Hemessen. It shows the artist at her easel, working on the outline of a face. She probably looks into a mirror, not at the viewer. She wears the traditional wired head cover (haube) made of fine linen or perhaps delicate cotton that confirms she is at work or may refer to her devoutness. She holds her brushes and palette with the ease and familiarity of an artist. The brushed velvet of her clothing is expensive and proclaims her status and wealth in society. The white of the oak panel on the easel draws attention to the beginning of her drawing.
The portrait of herself seems to be a bit out of proportion, with her head and arms appearing relatively larger than what her body suggests. Note also the cross created by her brush in her right hand and the maulstick (rest or steadying stick used when painting) in her left. Perhaps she is equating her painting ability to a gift from God that she is sharing.
Van Hemessen has reversed the drawing on the panel from what the viewer sees in the finished portrait to provide a triangle from the unseen mirror, to the brush, to her face. She signed her finished painting: "Ego Caterina de Hemessen me pinxi 1548; Etatis suae 20" which translates to; I, Caterina of the Hemessens, painted me in 1548 at the age of 20. She wanted to be remembered.
Backstory: It is one of the oldest self-portraits painted by a woman, but more importantly, she has painted herself seated at the easel. Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), who died the year Caterina van Hemessen was probably born, painted several portraits of himself and is recognized as an early exponent of the self-portrait genre. Dürer never represented any of the paintbrushes, palette, easel, or even an allusion to his craft. Caterina not only makes it clear that she is a painter, she conveys that she is educated, wealthy, and suggests her religious nature.
Caterina's contribution to and development of self-portraiture can be seen in the following years as several of her fellow female artists also eternalized themselves at the easel, including Sofonisba Anguissola (1532–1625), Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–c.1653), Michaelina Wautier (1604–1689), and Judith Leyster (1609–1660).
Where? First floor, room 700 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
What do you see? This painting represents what a revolution feels like for the people involved. The woman in the center, referred to as Liberty, is holding the French tricolor. She stands on top of a barricade, which you can recognize by the pieces of wood and the cobblestones in the foreground.
Liberty represents the struggle of the common people for freedom, but at the same time, she shows the energy and excitement that was part of a revolution. In her left hand, she holds an infantry musket. This is a rifle with a bayonet fixed to it, in case she needed to spear an enemy from close range. Liberty is depicted in a victorious pose, and she is showing her breasts to the people.
Liberty is surrounded by a mix of people from the French society. On her right is a child brandishing a pair of guns. At her feet is a day laborer from the countryside wearing a blue jacket (notice the red, white, and blue pattern in his clothes, resembling the French flag). The man to Liberty’s left, with the black jacket and the top hat, is represents the middle-class people (some say it is Delacroix himself, but there is serious doubt about this claim). The man in white on the left is a factory worker holding a saber.
There is a sharp contrast between the victorious people fighting for the freedom of France and the dead people in the foreground. In the bottom right, you can see a dead soldier and a guardsman. In the background, you can see the smoke of the cannons. In the top right background, the city of Paris is visible with the two iconic towers of the Notre Dame. Finally, the two spars of wood on the right show the signature of the painter, reading “Eug. Delacroix 1830.”
Where? Room 254 of the New Hermitage building in the Hermitage Museum
What do you see? Six(!) people in front of an arched doorway. On the left, an old man lovingly embraces a young and bold man who bows his head in humility. This is his son who returned home after a long time. While the father is dressed in beautiful clothes, the son is not. He wears old clothes with holes in it, and his sandals are worn and broken. He still wears the dagger on his belt that he needed to defend himself in the outside world.
On the right, at a little distance, is the older son of the old man. Dressed in a red cloak, he has his hands folded while holding a cane. He looks at his younger brother with a mix of disapproval and envy. It is not certain who the other three people in this painting are. The woman in the middle background may be a sister or the mother of the prodigal son. The seated man with a mustache may be an older servant.
On the top left, barely visible, is the silhouette of a female servant. Rembrandt uses light to emphasize the important aspects of the painting. The father and son are fully in the light, the older son is partially in the light, and the other people are in the darkness.
Where? Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna
What? Oil on canvas, 250 x 189 cm (8.2 x 6.2 feet)
Commissioned by: Laudomia Gozzadini
Introduction: At first glance, one could easily pass by this portrait as yet another family using fancy clothes and jewelry to tell the world how important and influential they are, however, it would be a mistake to miss this. The painting exposes a dysfunctional family, 16th century style. Knowing who the people are and their backstories is the best way of interpreting the messages that the commissioner of the painting, Laudomia Gozzadini wished to include in her family portrait. She and Lavinia Fontana shared extremely intimate information in order for the artist to paint this artwork. It is a collaboration that is palpable in the painting.
Where? Tate Britain in London
When? c. 1845
Medium and size? Oil on canvas, 90.8 x 121.9 cm; classified as unfinished.
What do you see? The light blue to navy ruins of Norham Castle draw our attention through the narrowing path of the river. The blinding, diffused light of the first rays of sun in the central position and its’ layered swirls of colors, are reflected in the river. The golden mist (called golden fluid by some scholars), spreads across the sky and the river, merging with the blues that predominate and define the background of the landscape. Misty hills and riverbanks are joined together by the morning light but are still recognizable as separate parts of the scene. In the foreground, cattle wander into the river from the shore, barely visible in the grasses. Two of them are suggested by a mere smudge of darker color on the right side of the painting, with one, drinking peacefully in the river. It is a bucolic scene.
Where? Prints are part of the collections of several museum around the world, including the Ashmolean Museum, National Gallery of Art, National Galleries Scotland, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Rijksmuseum.
What? Engraving on laid paper: plate: 30.6 x 20.8 cm; sheet: 54.2 x 42.9 cm.
What do you see? A young nude boy sits on a pile of rocks, intently focused on removing a thorn from his bare foot. The statue sits in the corner of a room or foyer. Puffy clouds visible in the upper part of the window on the left help to define the available light source. Engraving techniques produce the textures that indicate the depth of the walls and the space the statue occupies. Each shadow is created by a multitude of fine lines, overlapping lines, and cross-hatching. The marble pedestal supporting the statue raises the young boy so the viewer can see the scene from below. His right foot does not touch the ground or rest as he tries to remove this thorn without inflicting more pain.
The story and original sculpture date back to a Classical Roman marble that is said to be a copy of an even earlier Grecian bronze rendition lost in the 3rd century B.C. Reproductions of the statue were one of Rome's most widely admired antiquities, and drawings and prints were popular and in demand. A copy of the original ancient statue can be found at Palazzo dei Conservatori, which is part of the Capitoline Museums in Rome. It is recorded as having been there since 1499-1500.
Where? National Museum in Poznań
When? c. 1555
What do you see? Three of Sofonisba Anguissola’s younger sisters at a table in a grand setting, playing a chess game. They are observed by the family housemaid on the top right. It not only provides a glance at some of Sofonisba’s younger sisters who also studied painting at that time, but also showcases the sophistication of the Anguissola family, an aspect that is further emphasized by their luxurious clothing and jewelry.
The painting shows how the oldest of the three portrayed sisters, Lucia, has made the decisive move to win the game. We can see how she holds the black queen in her left hand, indicating that she has defeated her sister. Her younger sister Europa, on the right, has to concede and shows her admiration by looking at her older sister. The youngest of the three, Minerva, grins at Europa to see her reaction.
The Chess Game is a lively scene expressing the interactions between the sisters through their facial expressions, and the oldest sister engages the viewer by directly looking at us, as if asking for some praise for her achievement. And the nurse is still contemplating the sequence of moves that had led to the victory.
Where? Room 90 of the Uffizi Museum
When? c. 1620
Commissioned by? Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo ll De’ Medici. The Grand Duke died in 1621, shortly after the painting was completed. It was only with the help of Artemisia’s friend, Galileo Galilei, that she managed to extract the payment for the agreed sum for the canvas.
Medium and Size: Oil on canvas, 146.5 x 108.0 cm.
What do you see? The moment that Judith, with the help of her maidservant Abra, is beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes. Unlike many other artists, Artemisia Gentileschi chose to portray the scene at its zenith. It is the most powerful and horrific moment to imagine. Holofernes still struggles, his right hand fruitlessly trying to jab at Abra. His soon-to-be lifeless forearm comes to rest in the crook of her shoulder. His right knee is bent in a futile attempt to escape. Abra’s arms press downwards with great strain to hold Holofernes’ left arm down and still. The concentration and intense focus on what she is doing registers in her facial expression. Abra’s hair is covered with a white turban, and she wears a blue dress.
The white sheet and the red coverlet lay rumpled over the commander. The sword's thrust in Judith’s hand produces blood spurts that reach Abra’s arm and Judith’s dress and body. Blood seeps over the bed and down the edges as life drains from him. His face is already losing the expression that gives it life, and it will soon be tucked into the food bag, wrapped in the bejeweled cloth that will be triumphantly removed once the two Jewish women return to their hometown Bethulia.
Judith strains! The force she is expending is visible as she clutches the hair on Holofernes head and presses his head into the mattress with her left arm. Her right arm twists and rotates as the sword makes its cut. She uses the sword of Holofernes. The edge of the cross on the sword digs into the skin of his upper left arm, and we can see the pressure on it. Sleeves rolled up on both the women suggest they had some time to prepare, at least a bit, beforehand. He must have been quite drunk.
The gown that Judith is wearing attests to the seduction that was her purpose. The low cut of the dress exposes her breasts and must have been enticing to Holofernes. Her hair is coiffed in the style of a noblewoman, uncovered, revealing its charms. She apparently was perfumed and prepared to seduce. Artemisia has painted one of her own bracelets on Judith’s arm in this second version of the scene. One cameo depicts Artemis, the ancient goddess of chastity and the hunt. It raises the question of whether Artemisia identified with this goddess?
The textured walls of the tent provide a dark backdrop that not only frames the scene but also produces the contrast between light and dark that intensifies the actions of each individual. The light source comes from the left. The composition of the three figures focuses the viewer’s attention on the central part of the canvas.
Where? Room 10 of the Gallerie dell’Accademia
Commissioned by? Tomasso Rangone, a Venetian patron of the arts and the Guardian Grande of a large confraternity in Venice.
What do you see? Three people carry the dead body of Saint Mark. The person in the brown robe, holding the head of Saint Mark, is the commissioner of this painting, Tomasso Rangone. The bearded man to the right of dromedary is Tintoretto. In the background is a woodpile on which the body of Saint Mark was supposed to be burned and from which the Christians in this painting stole Saint Mark’s body.
The sky in the background is red and dark and contains a lightning strike. The sky refers to the hailstorm that came down at the moment that the killers of Saint Mark wanted to burn him on the pyre. In the left foreground lays a man pulling a cloth. In the original painting, this man was fighting with another man over this a protective cloth of Saint Mark. However, this part of the painting has been cut off.
Behind the scene on the body of Saint Mark, there is a dromedary that escaped from his owner who lays on the ground holding on to the leash. It may be a symbolical reference to the death of Saint Mark as a martyr, but this is not entirely clear.
Perspective: Tintoretto used linear perspective in this painting which becomes clear when looking at the buildings and the white limestone on the floor. He matched the colors in this painting to emphasize this perspective. The colors in the foreground are darker than those in the background. He painted the people in the foreground in dark colors and the smaller people in the background, who are running away from the thunderstorm, are completely white.
Series of Paintings on Saint Mark: This work was commissioned as part of a series of paintings on Saint Mark. The theme of Saint Mark was chosen as Saint Mark is the patron saint of Venice. Tintoretto completed four paintings for the Chapter Room of the Scuola Grande di San Marco. The other three paintings are Miracle of the Slave and Saint Mark Saving a Saracen from Shipwreck in the Gallerie dell’Accademia and the Finding of the Body of St Mark in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan.
Backstory: This painting was commissioned for the Scuola Grande di San Marco, a confraternity in Venice. It is known under a variety of names, including: “Saving of the Body of St Mark,” “The Abduction of the Body of St Mark,” “St Mark’s Body Brought to Venice,” and “Transport of the Body of St. Mark.” The last two names incorrectly label this painting as one that deals with the transport of Saint Mark’s body to Venice.
Saint Mark was killed in Alexandria, Egypt, in 68 AD. He was killed in a horrific way. His killers put a rope around his neck and dragged him through the streets until he was dead. The plan was to burn his body. However, right after he was killed and was put on the pyre, there was a hailstorm which caused his killers to flee, and therefore his body could be recovered by fellow Christians. They buried him with great respect in the Church of Alexandria.
Interestingly, the scene in this painting is supposed to take place in Alexandria, Egypt. However, the architecture in this painting is quite similar to the Piazza San Marco in 16th-century Venice.
Who is Saint Mark? The supposed writer of the Gospel of Mark. He is also the founder of the Church of Alexandria, which was one of the most important churches in Early Christianity. His symbol is a lion, which is illustrated in the painting Saint Mark by Frans Hals in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
In 828 AD, two Venetian merchants stole his body from Alexandria and transported it to Venice. The Doge of Venice stated in his will to build a basilica for Saint Mark where his body would be buried. This is the famous St Mark’s Basilica on the Piazza San Marco in Venice.
In 1063, Saint Mark’s body could not be found anymore, but according to a legend, Saint Mark stuck out his arm from a pillar to reveal the location of his body.
Who is Tintoretto? Jacopo Comin (1518-1594), better known as Tintoretto is one of the three most celebrated painters from Venice; the other being Titian and Veronese. Just like the other Venetian painters, he used beautiful colors in his paintings. The figures he painted were inspired by the Mannerist style as used by Michelangelo.
Tintoretto often painted a group of people in an impressive architectural setting inspired by 16th-century Venice. He also enjoyed developing innovative perspectives. Another example of his style is The Washing of the Feet in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Fun fact: Until around 1815, the painting was in its original location, the Scuola Grande di San Marco in Venice. Then, Napoleon confiscated it, and pieces from the left and the right of the painting were cut, and two pieces were added to the bottom and the top.
The first picture below shows how the painting looked like originally. You can see that the original painting, for example, contained an image of the transparent body of Saint Mark ascending to Heaven. Several angels support him. On the left side of the current version of the painting, we can still see the feet of Saint Mark’s soul and parts of two angels.
The second picture below shows the result after the changes to the painting in the 19th century. In addition to changing the dimensions of the painting, the woodpile was also removed from the painting. Without the woodpile, the painting could be interpreted as the transfer of the body of Saint Mark in 828 from Alexandria to Venice. In 1959, the painting was restored, and the pyre was added back. The pieces that were cut off on the left and right, however, could not be restored.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
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.