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.
Backstory: A story attached to the sculpture suggests the young boy was a slave, and perhaps he stepped on the thorn while treading grapes in the wine harvest. The alternate name for the statue and engraving is "Il Fedele" (The Faithful Boy). This legend involves a shepherd boy who delivered an important message to the Roman Senate and ran without stopping to complete his task before removing the thorn.
Engraving Technique: The original drawing would have been transferred to a metal plate, typically copper, using a burin. This tool is a small, metal rod with a pointed, triangular head. A cut is made beneath the surface of the metal, and the resulting burr, which develops as the plate is cut, is removed, so each line is sharply defined. The edges of the burrs can be polished for even more precision in the final print. Ink is spread over the plate but wiped off the surface, so it only remains in the cuts. Paper (dampened) is firmly pressed against the plate and forced into the design. The ink image appears. It is a complicated and delicate process that requires great skill.
The Spinario is dated 1581, seven years before Scultori's final published engraving. It is one of her less complicated projects but demonstrates the sophisticated techniques required to produce a print. The engraving was based on an unidentified drawing of a copy of the sculpture. No evidence of the person who commissioned the work has been found. It may have been produced and published to sell as one of the popular stories of the time. These small works provided regular employment and constant income for the artist, the engraver, and the publisher. Diana's name is engraved at the bottom left of the print, and at the bottom is the name of the publisher (Claudio Duchetti), the date of the production (1581), and the city (Rome). Duchetti was a print dealer and publisher born in France but active in Italy, first in Venice, then in Rome. He and his uncle, Antonio Lafreri (1512-1577), had business associations with Diana and her elder brother, Adamo Scultori (1530-1585).
Who was Scultori? Diana Scultori was an engraver of mythological and religious subjects. She was born in Mantua in 1547 and died in Rome, 65 years later. Her father, Giovanni Battista Scultori (1503-1575), was an artist, engraver, and sculptor who served the Mantuan Court of the Gonzaga family. He made drawings for and worked in the 1520s with Giulio Romano (1499-1546), a Mannerist painter, architect, and former pupil of Raphael. His access to Romano's art allowed him and his children to reproduce these popular engravings and to establish their reputations in the art of reproductions. Diana was seventeen years younger than her brother. Their father taught both the art of engraving. It was customary for a son to follow in his father's footsteps, but for a woman to be trained in engraving was very unusual. Giovanni, however, saw no reason to teach Diana to draw, which left her dependent on the work of others throughout her career and limited her creativity to copy work.
The Importance of a Name: Diana Scultori belongs to the few Renaissance women who managed to carve careers and reputations for themselves in the contemporary art world. She was the first woman to sign her name on her prints and used several names to identify herself: Diana Mantuana, Diana Mantuvana, or Diana. In 1579, she and her husband were made citizens of Volterra, and she added Diana, Civis Volaterana. The name Ghisi is often attached in error to both herself, her brother, and her father. This was the last name of a close childhood friend who was a pupil of Giovanni but not related. She never used her father's last name as it would have indicated she was a sculptor, and the name, Scultori, was assigned to her years after her death. Instead, the names she used became a marketing tool to promote her work and that of her husband. In this, she was unique.
In 1566, when she was 19, Giorgio Vasari met her in Mantua. His comment was recorded: "but more marvelous, a daughter named Diana also engraves so well that it is a wonderful thing, and when I saw her a very well-bred and charming young lady and her works, which are most beautiful, I was stunned." In 1568, he mentioned her in the second edition of his book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. This is the first published notice of her work, and his approval gave further impetus to her prestige and career.
Time in Rome: Diana Scultori met and married Francesco Capriani of Volterra, in Mantua. He was an architect who had been hired by one of the Gonzagas to come to Mantua in 1565. Sometime between 1570 and 1575, the couple moved to Rome. Francesco was to work for one of the papal Cardinals. Their new home was a gift as long as Francesco redesigned and renovated their house and one other in the area. These renovations also gave them a chance to advertise Francesco's architectural business. They lived in the Campo Marzio region, the traditional neighborhood for artists, and provided a home for Diana's widowed mother and unwed sister. Adamo had moved to Rome in 1566, and he had contacts with the dealer and publishing house, run by Antonio Lafreri. These ongoing family relationships and business connections from Mantua to the Papal court helped Diana and her husband establish themselves quickly in Rome.
She applied for and received a Papal privilege that allowed her to make, sign with her name, and market her own artwork (June 5th, 1575). She was the first woman to obtain this privilege. The license also specified that nobody could reproduce her work on the pain of a hefty fine and immediate ex-communication. She had no such restrictions placed on her regarding the use of other peoples' engravings. This meant that she was free to use her printmaking to help secure commissions for her husband's architectural business and proceed with her career.
Diana and Francesco worked as a team, perhaps the first "power couple" outside of the nobility in history. Francesco produced his architectural drawings, Diana reproduced them for distribution to the elite, the Papal court, or to be sold through a publisher/dealer. She often added lengthy inscriptions that explained the work of art and allowed both their names to be seen, recognized, and referred to others. Dedications inscribed to their clients on the reproductions brought fame and fortune to themselves and added stature to their patrons' reputations. Many other of her reproductions were small devotional pieces that provided financial support for the family.
This is one of Diana's more challenging engravings and represents the Mannerist style popular during the 16th century. There is a focus on the human form with complex compositions that contain several densely populated scenes. Design and technique were demanding for all those involved in producing these engravings, from the artist to the engraver to the printer. Her husband, family, and friends all profited from her ability to make and sell her reproductions, and her astute marketing decisions brought new clients for all concerned. Diana never stepped out of the boundaries that surrounded women of the 16th century. Her husband was the primary wage-earner, and her job was to establish a proper, respected household in Rome. She did that, but in the process, she helped pave the way for women in the future to find possibilities for independence through their own art. In particular, Lavinia Fontana used one of her prints as the basis of one of her paintings.
Both Diana and her husband became members of the Confraternity of San Giuseppi, but as a woman, Diana could only attend religious services and help with the dowering of young girls. Francesco, on the other hand, became fully involved with the fraternity for over ten years. This group would have also been important to the establishment of their social position in Rome. In 1578, when Diana was 31, they had their first and only child, a son, Giovanni Battista Capriani. Durante Alberti (1538-1613), The Renaissance painter, was the child's godfather and confirms the social progress they had made in a short time. Her last known print, The Entombment, after Paris Nogari, is from 1588. (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest)
Fun fact: The importance of Scultori's signature has convinced art historians that she probably did not produce anything after that date. Her husband died in 1594, and she married Giulio Pelosi in 1596, another architect, who was 20 years her junior. There is no evidence of her work after this marriage other than her death in Rome in 1612.
Diana was conservative and conventional in her life, but without arousing suspicion or antagonism, she broke many boundaries imposed on females. She was a businesswoman, an artisan, and a true Renaissance Woman.
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.
Backstory: The parents of Sofonisba Anguissola highly valued intelligence and education, and provided equal opportunities to their daughters and son, something that was quite unique in Renaissance Italy. That the girls played chess is evidence of their sophistication. Chess was already considered a highly intelligent activity during the Renaissance, but it was mainly played by men at that time.
Giorgio Vasari who had seen this painting in the house of Sofonisba’s father in 1566 commented that the work combined diligence, which we can see in the imaginary sfumato background typical for Renaissance art, and quickness, which makes the characters come alive. The only thing lacking according to Vasari was that we cannot hear the protagonists speak.
Who is Anguissola? Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was born in Cremona, about 80 km southeast of Milan as the oldest child of Amilcare Anguissola and Bianca Ponzone, who belonged to the minor nobility. Inspired by Baldassare Castiglione’s advice on the education of women in his Il Cortegiano of 1528, her parents ensured that Sofonisba, her brother, and five sisters all received a solid education and had the opportunity to further develop their talents. While one of her sisters, Minerva, and her brother Asdrubale pursued other artistic interests, Sofonisba and her four other sisters studied painting.
In 1558, her reputation had risen to the level that the influential art patron the Duke of Alba recommended her to the Spanish king, Philip II. He invited her to Madrid to become the lady-in-waiting to his wife, Queen Elisabeth of Valois. She would stay in Madrid for 14 years and would paint numerous portraits for the Spanish court. At age 39, she would marry to a nobleman from Sicily, and they would move back to Italy. She never had children and enjoyed a long and prosperous career.
Among her paintings are two well-known self-portraits, one showing her at the easel at age 24 and another one painted at age 32.
The Anguissola sisters: Today, Sofonisba is the best-known artist of the Anguissola sisters. Her parents stimulated her education, and she painted her family several times. She trained some of her younger sisters as painters. Her sister Elena gave up her art ambitions when she became a nun, and Anna Maria and Europa dedicated themselves to their family after their marriage. In contrast, Lucia, shown on the left of the painting, followed in Sofonisba’s footsteps as a professional artist. Some contemporaries have even mentioned that she had more talent than Sofonisba, but as she would prematurely die in her late twenties that potential was never fully realized.
Fun fact: As a teenager, Sofonisba was apprenticed to two local painters, something that was very uncommon for girls at that time. When Sofonisba completed her training, she started her career as a professional artist, though she did not stop learning. During her early twenties, she regularly traveled within Italy and build up a good network including some influential art patrons and artists. And her father continued to support her, as evidenced by a letter he sent in 1557 to Michelangelo, thanking him for the lessons he had provided to his daughter.
Sofonisba was well-connected in the art world and frequently received visitors in Palermo and she was happy to share her artistic expertise with them. Among her many visitors was the Flemish master Anthony van Dyck, who even painted a portrait of her at age 92. She did not only directly inspire other artists during her lifetime, she has especially inspired many female artists over the next centuries. The fact that she had a successful international career and her life story is relatively well documented, has allowed aspiring female artists and their families to use her life story as an example of how a woman could craft a successful career as an artist.
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? Floor 5, Gallery 1 of the Museum of Modern Art
When? June 1889
What do you see? This painting is an imaginative version of a starry night in Saint-Rémy in France where Van Gogh was staying at that time. The various elements in this painting are certainly inspired by what Van Gogh observed in reality, but he created his own ideal version of the starry night.
In the painting, we can observe some trees, a village, and mountains under a night sky full of stars (or more precisely a collection of 12 celestial bodies). In the foreground, you can observe a big wavy cypress tree. The cypress is an element that comes back in multiple Van Gogh paintings, such as the Wheat Field with Cypresses in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
On the top right is a crescent moon. The brightest celestial body in the painting, just to the right of the cypress tree, is the planet Venus. The celestial bodies light up the sky (indicated by the use of white paint in the night sky). The church tower in the middle foreground is probably the Saint-Martin church in Saint-Rémy. Van Gogh, however, did not include the dome of the church in this painting. In the village surrounding the church, several houses still have their lights on. On the right side of the painting, between the village and the mountains, you can see a forest.
The curvy lines used for the cypress tree and the clouds in the sky create a sense of movement in this painting. Notice also the clear contrast between the turbulent sky and the quiet life on earth. The cypress in the form of a big fire is the only element that connects the earth and sky with each other.
Backstory: The painting is created between June 16 and 18, 1889 when Van Gogh was staying in the hospital of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole at Saint-Rémy. In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote: “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.” He mixed this view both with some other elements that he observed in the area of Saint-Rémy and his imagination to create this painting.
Van Gogh used thick broad strokes of oil paint to create this painting and it was probably created in a single day (even though the idea for this painting was already occupying his mind for over a year). If you look carefully, you can still see some pieces of the canvas in between the broad strokes of paint.
Symbolism: There is some debate on whether this painting should be interpreted symbolically. One symbolic explanation for this painting centers around the cypress which connects the earth to the sky in this painting. The cypress tree is associated with cemeteries and death. In this painting, it could be the connection between life (which happens on earth) and death (which is when you go to the stars according to Van Gogh).
Van Gogh wrote in one of his letters “We take death to go to a star.” Van Gogh, who would eventually commit suicide, was interested in death and he expressed some ideas that one would go to the stars after death.
Other versions of the Starry Night? Van Gogh was already interested in the idea of painting a starry night in 1888 as expressed in several letters to his friends and brother. Indeed, in 1888 he painted two versions of a starry night. The first version is Café Terrace at Night which is in the Kröller-Müller Museum in The Netherlands. The second version is Starry Night over the Rhône which is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
However, these two paintings did not fulfill his idea of a perfect starry night. Instead of a starry night above a town, he was more interested in a starry night above a landscape and a more imaginative version of the night sky.
Who is Van Gogh? Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was born in Zundert in The Netherlands. At the end of his life, he created many paintings that fall under the Post-Impressionist style. Van Gogh has produced a large number of paintings during his life and most of them have been painted in the last two years of his life.
Vincent van Gogh wrote many letters during his life -- many of which to his brother Theo -- which have been saved. In these letters, he explained his ideas about painting and they form a valuable source to interpret his works. The work of Van Gogh was not really appreciated during his life, but his work has become famous after his suicide in 1890.
Fun fact: While this is nowadays considered to be one of the best paintings by Vincent van Gogh, he did not seem very proud of this painting. When he wrote a letter to his brother Theo after he left Saint-Rémy, he did not mention this painting as a good one. In fact, he listed several paintings, including the Wheatfield with Cypresses, as “a little good.” About the other paintings from that period, including this painting, he writes “the rest says nothing to me.”
His brother Theo seemed to agree that The Starry Night is not his best work. He was worried about the more imaginary nature of this work compared to the somewhat more realistic paintings he created before. He advised Vincent to stick to still lifes and flowers as that would have more therapeutic value for the mentally troubled Vincent.
Where? Room 254 of the New Hermitage building in the Hermitage Museum
What do you see? Six(!) people in front of an arched doorway. On the left, an old man lovingly embraces a young and bold man who bows his head in humility. This is his son who returned after a long time. While the father is dressed in beautiful clothes, the son is not. He wears old clothes with holes in it, and his sandals are worn and broken. He still wears the dagger on his belt that he needed to defend himself in the outside world.
On the right, at a little distance, is the older son of the old man. Dressed in a red cloak, he has his hands folded while holding a cane. He looks at his younger brother with a mix of disapproval and envy. It is not certain who the other three people in this painting are. The woman in the middle background may be a sister or the mother of the prodigal son. The seated man with a mustache may be an older servant.
On the top left, barely visible, is the silhouette of a female servant. Rembrandt uses light to emphasize the important aspects of the painting. The father and son are fully in the light, the older son is partially in the light, and the other people are in the darkness.
Rembrandt is able to include multiple emotions at once in this painting, which is different from some earlier work that he did on this subject as illustrated in the two pictures below. The first picture is an etching from 1636 and the second one a drawing from 1642.
The parable of the prodigal son: Luke 15: 11-32 describes a famous story that Jesus told to the Pharisees about a rich man and his two sons. The parable illustrates the Christian ideal of mercy. It relates to Luke 15:7, where Jesus says that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who regrets his sins than over 99 good people who need no change.
The parable describes that the younger of two sons asked his father for his share of the inheritance and left. He wastes his money and lives like a fool until he runs out of money. One day, he realizes how foolish he has been and decides to return home to his father and beg him for forgiveness. The father is very happy to get his son back and organizes a big party. The older son, however, is not so happy. While his younger brother was wasting his money and feasted with prostitutes, he has continued to work hard for his father’s business and has never gotten such a big party. The father tells the older son that everything he has is also owned by him, but that on this day he celebrates the life of his youngest son.
Backstory: This is the last major painting Rembrandt painted during his life, and it is probably the best-known of his religious works. The painting combines two elements from the Biblical story. The meeting between the father and the younger son, and the separate meeting between the father and the older son. According to Luke 15, the older brother is not present when the father is reunited with his youngest son. However, just like in the parable that Jesus told, it is not clear in this painting whether the oldest son will walk away from his younger son or will eventually welcome him back as well.
Moral message: Rembrandt did not use any clear symbols to convey the main message of this painting. He just shows the emotions of the father and the two sons, which convey a few important Biblical lessons. The father shows what mercy, a reference to how God forgives sinners who ask for forgiveness. And the younger son shows that you can always ask God for forgiveness for your mistakes. And the older son? He personifies the person who did not make many mistakes yet and followed God. But he also struggles with the idea that God is willing to forgive the mistakes of sinners. In this painting, we can see him struggle with the attitudes of his father and brother, and whether he put his jealousy aside and forgive his younger brother.
The Prodigal Son by other artists: To better understand what makes this painting by Rembrandt so special, it is helpful to compare Rembrandt’s version with those of some famous colleagues of him.
Who is Rembrandt? Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) was a very talented painter from The Netherlands. He is considered as one of the most influential Baroque painters. Rembrandt had an eventful life in which he experienced many extreme situations of prosperity and adversity. Earlier in his career he was financially very successful, happily married, and got children. However, soon after, three of his children died in childhood, his wife died at age 32, and he faced financial difficulties.
As illustrated by the current painting, Rembrandt was very good in painting human emotions. He painted many realistic self-portraits during his life in which his face reflects his state of mind and the events in his life. Rembrandt’s most famous work is The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. However, he has also painted an occasional mythological work of very high quality, like The Abduction of Europa in the Getty Museum.
Fun fact: Look at the hands of the father in this painting. They are quite different. His right hand has a lighter color than the left hand. And, the fingers on the right hand are longer and thinner than those on the left hand. The right hand is feminine, and the left hand is masculine. The reason for these differences has been debated quite a bit over the years, and the main explanation is that the hands represent both the hand of the father and the mother of the prodigal son as God can assume both roles for us.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Where? The Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, England.
When? About 1800
Commissioned by? Most likely painted for the Golovine family. The painting remained in their possession until approximately 1978, when it was acquired by Gooden and Fox, then it was sold to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in 1980.
What? Oil on canvas, octagonal, 32 7/8 by 26 1/4 inches (83.5 by 66.7 cm.)
What do you see? No matter what room this portrait of Countess Barbara Nicolaievna Golovine is in, it will be the first painting to demand attention. The innovative composition is a half-length figure in an octagonal shape and is further enhanced by an attractive gold frame. Vigée Le Brun has wrapped her subject entirely in a large, thick, rich, red stole with gold embroidered trim. The luxurious wrap is draped carefully but casually, and held gracefully at her neck by one hand, as if she has just come from her boudoir or the bath. The red shawl commands immediate attention. Her loose and free, brown, curling hair tumbles around her face and shoulder, held in place by a deep golden headband that has a twist and texture that adds to the framing of her face. There is a dimple in her chin that augments the slight smile on her face and blends gracefully with the shadows of the light and dark. In fact, the dimple makes her face much more interesting.
The neutral, scumbled background has a diagonal shaft of light cutting across the canvas that adds clarity to her hand and facial features. It is an unusual backdrop that suits the countess’s dynamic pose. She faces us, while her body turns slightly to the left, suggesting motion. There is an erotic hint to the painting but that is over-whelmed by the soft smile and the warmth of her eyes as she engages the viewer. She is pleased to see her visitor, a friend, a well-liked friend, who will be welcomed and entertained with excellent conversation, perhaps a glass of French wine, for she was a member of the Russian Aristocracy, a Princess first, then a Countess, when friendships, manners and virtue mattered more than anything. As the viewer turns away, moving either to the left or right, a glance over a shoulder confirms that her eyes are following as she bids her farewell……it is not a portrait easily forgotten by anyone who views it, and one that many, return to view again and again.
Where? Room 96 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Cardinal del Monte, who gave it as a gift to Ferdinando I de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany
What do you see? A depiction of the head of Medusa painted on a circular and curved wooden shield. Medusa is a figure described in Greek mythology. With her glance she could turn people who looked at her into stone. Instead of normal hair she has living, venomous snakes on her head. The snakes are watersnakes from the Tiber river as those were the best type of snakes Caravaggio could find nearby. I count at least eight snakes on her head. The blood streams out of her head as she has just been killed by the Greek demigod Perseus.
This painting shows the moment that Medusa is looking at the reflective shield that Perseus is holding (which according to the myth actually happened just before she got beheaded). She realizes that her head is separated from her body, but that she is still conscious. You can see this realization by the horror in her eyes. As the painting is created on a shield, Caravaggio’s idea was that this painting actually represents the view of the shield as held by Perseus just after he killed Medusa. It is also interesting to have a closer look at Caravaggio’s use of light and shadow in this painting. Do you see how Caravaggio used these contrasts to show the head of Medusa as a three-dimensional object?
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisa da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was trained by Simone Peterzano, who was in turn trained by Titian. He used a realistic painting style, paying attention to both the physical and emotional state of the subjects he painted. He combined this with a beautiful contrast between light and shadow in his paintings. He was a brilliant and unconventional artist.
During his life he received quite some commissions for religious paintings. However, Caravaggio always knew to how add some dark elements to the painting. He liked to use beggars, criminals, and prostitutes as models for his paintings, which would often give unexpected outcomes for familiar biblical scenes. Two beautiful examples of his religious paintings are the Death of the Virgin in the Louvre and The Entombment of Christ in the Vatican Museums.
Who is Medusa? In Greek mythology, Medusa was one of three sisters (Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa) who were often referred to as Gorgons. Both Stheno and Euryale were immortal, but Medusa was not. They were daughters of Phorcys (a sea god) and his sister Ceto (a sea goddess).
According to the Roman poet Ovid, Medusa was a beautiful young woman. However, after Poseidon (the god of the sea) made love to her in Athena’s temple, Athena (the goddess of wisdom and war) changed her beautiful locks into living, venomous snakes (in other mythological stories the three sisters were already born with snakes on their heads). Medusa had a horrific facial expression that could turn people (or according to some, only men) who looked at her into stone.
The Greek hero Perseus, a demigod, used a shining shield that he got from the goddess Athena to avoid looking at her directly and succeeded to cut off her head. He used her head as a weapon afterwards as it retained its power to turn people who looked at it into stone. Perseus ultimately gave the head of Medusa to the goddess Athena, who placed the head on her shield (which is what is depicted in this painting). When the head of Medusa was cut off, two creatures arose from Medusa’s body: Pegasus, a winged horse, and Chryasor, a giant with a golden sword.
Medusa in art? Medusa has been a popular subject in art. Famous artists have used her story as the inspiration for their artwork. Well known versions include:
Fun fact: Monica Favaro and colleagues published an academic study about the materials that were used in this painting and the evolution of these materials over time.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links).
Where? The Oval Drawing Room of the Wallace Collection
What do you see? Golden light pours through the trees of a garden. A young woman in a brilliant pink dress sits on a large swing that is attached to the trees behind her. She kicks off one of her pink shoes (look above her raised foot) in the direction of the statue of a cupid on the left. As her skirt flares upwards, her young lover in the lower left is taken aback by the sight before him. He has his hat in his left hand.
Unaware of the scene in front of him, an older man smiles as he operates the swing in the lower right. Near his feet is a little white dog that perhaps symbolizes an ironic fidelity. The sculpture of the cupid on the left was created by Étienne-Maurice Falconet in 1757 and versions of this statue are in the British Museum, Louvre, and the Rijksmuseum. It is popularly known as Menacing Love, and shows cupid looking down on the scene while putting a finger to his lips saying: “this is a secret.”
Backstory: This painting is also known under the more complete title “The Happy Accidents of the Swing.” This title refers to the erotic references in this painting. The man that is hiding in the bushes on the left has a chance to look at the woman’s legs under her skirt. The slipper that the woman kicks in the air and the hat of the man are a reference to their sexual availability. The statues of the cupids confirm the sexual intentions of the couple even more.
Fragonard’s painting soon gained recognition, and he became popular with a small group of patrons with a taste for erotic works as well as history painting. As such, The Swing played an important role in boosting Fragonard’s artistic career.
Who is Fragonard? Born in 1732, Jean-Honoré Fragonard was a French Rococo painter. As a boy, he had a passion for drawing and eventually became the student of François Boucher. In 1752, Boucher suggested Fragonard to apply to study under Carle Van Loo, the court painter to Louis XV. This involved studying at the French Academy in Rome. While there, Fragonard made many sketches of the countryside and copied many Baroque-style paintings by Hubert Robert. His good work in the Academy was admired by many, and even Louis XV purchased one of his artworks.
Fragonard soon gained more recognition and earned a studio in the Louvre Palace as well as the title of an Academician. Over time, Fragonard painted in many styles: Baroque, Romantic, and Rococo. In addition, he painted a variety of paintings, including landscapes, portraits, party scenes, and religious paintings. As his frivolous Rococo paintings were not also easy to sell, he also created some more traditional works on commission, such as the Education of the Virgin in the Legion of Honor Museum.
What is Rococo? An art style popular between 1720 and 1780 in Europe. The style is relatively chaotic and theatrics, leading to artworks that are full of drama, emotion, and movement. The style is highly feminized and popularly used in the French salons run by women in the 18th century. Some of the most successful artists following this style include François Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and Antoine Watteau.
Fun Fact: Fragonard was not the artist originally commissioned to paint the swing. At first, Gabriel-François Doyen was given the task by an anonymous man of the court. He had requested a painting of his mistress being pushed on a swing by a bishop as he admired her from below. However, Doyen turned him down. Instead, Fragonard took up the task.
Fragonard did not follow all the instructions of the commissioner and kept his own artistic freedom. For example, he decided against painting the man pushing the swing as a bishop. And he included some extra details to the painting such as the little dog, statues of cupids, and the lost slipper.