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 Louvre. 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.
Where? Room 14 of the Musée d’Orsay
What do you see? The 27-year old writer Émile Zola sits straight in a cushioned chair. He is fashionably dressed as a Parisian dandy, wearing a black jacket with grey pants. One hand rests on his knee, half-clenched. In his other hand, he holds Charles Blanc’s L’Histoire des Peintres, a book about art history. Zola seems to be in thought about something he has just read. The blankness of his expression makes the objects around him the subject of the viewer’s attention. In the background are artifacts from Japan, including an ink well on the desk, a painted screen on the far left, and a print of Utagawa Kuniaki’s Wrestler of Onaruto Nadaemon on the wall. The organized clutter atop his desk accentuates his wit and intellect. Among the books is a light blue pamphlet in which Zola defended Manet controversial painting Olympia. Directly above it is a print of Olympia herself. Behind it is a print of another famous painting, The Triumph of Bacchus by Diego Velázquez.
Backstory: In 1867, Manet had a solo exhibition. His best-known work, Olympia, was put on display for the second time. The work had received much criticism in 1865 for its avant-garde subject matter and “unrefined” style. Upon its second public display, the painting was once again the subject of many harsh comments. Writer Émile Zola came to Manet’s defense and wrote an article in La Revue du XXe siècle. The article praised Manet’s bold style and technique, asking viewers to overlook the “risque” subject matter. Zola later published the article in its own brochure that sits on his desk in this portrait. As thanks, Manet painted Zola’s portrait. Over the course of several months, Zola posed extensively for the portrait in Manet’s studio. According to Zola, these sessions were long and exhausting as Manet did not engage in much conversation when he was painting. Manet’s main emphases in this portrait were Zola’s intellect and the aesthetics of the Far East. With the influx of Japanese goods into France in the mid-nineteenth century, many artists began imitating the flatness and simplicity of Japanese woodblock prints. This movement, known as Japonisme, was a precursor to Impressionism.
Who is Émile Zola? A French writer who was born in 1840 in Paris. He is often credited as a founder of the naturalism movement in literature. He was childhood friends with Paul Cézanne who later introduced him to Manet. Zola was unemployed and lived in poverty for two years of his adult life. It was only when he published his first novel, Claude’s Confession that he was able to land a job as a journalist. Zola went on to write many more novels and published his best-known series, The Rougon Family Fortune. In the 1860s, Zola defended Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists like Cézanne, Manet, Renoir, and Monet.
Who is Manet? Édouard Manet was born in 1832 in Paris where he died 51 years later. He was a Parisian Realist painter who studied in the studio of Thomas Couture for six years. Afterward, however, Manet decided against attending the official art school of the French Academy, the École des Beaux-Arts. Early on in his career, he befriended the poet Charles Baudelaire whose work featured urban outsiders such as prostitutes and street entertainers. Baudelaire’s writing inspired Manet to continue painting unusual characters alongside his other works that featured better-known figures such as musicians and writers. Manet was friends with Monet who he first considered to be a rival. He believed Monet to be copying his work. However, the pair made amends and eventually traveled to Argenteuil together. Many works came out of this trip, including Monet Painting in his Studio Boat.
Fun fact: Manet altered the print of Olympia in his portrait for Zola. Instead of facing the viewer, Olympia is looking at Émile Zola who had publicly defended her after this painting had received so much criticism at the Paris Salon (a very popular yearly art exhibition) of 1865. Three years later, Manet submitted the painting to the Paris Salon of 1868 where it got accepted. The painting received mixed critical reviews. Some thought that the portrait was one of the best at the Salon of that year, while others thought the painting lacked animation and that it looked more like a still life than a portrait.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 621 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Commissioned by? Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, the patron of Caravaggio.
What do you see? Four boys dressed in semi-classical costumes. Three of the boys are playing music. The central figure is holding a lute and is thought to be Mario Minniti, a friend of Caravaggio. His eyes are moist and full of tears. The second boy from the right is a self-portrait of Caravaggio, who is playing a cornetto (a horn-like wind instrument of about two feet long; you can see the end of the instrument on the top right of the painting). The boy on the right is studying the musical score. The boy on the left is representing Cupid and is reaching for some grapes. In the foreground are two open books with musical scores as well as an unused violin. These elements seem to invite the viewer to participate with the musicians.
Backstory: This painting is also known as the Concert of Youths. The boys are practicing madrigals, which are a secular (as opposed to religious) vocal music composition from the Renaissance. The song they are practicing deals with the sorrows of love.
Symbolism: The boy on the left represents Cupid. The gathering of grapes by Cupid represents love. The grapes are also representing the fact that music should make the spirits light. Cupid has wings and arrows. The arrows are the main symbol of Cupid (together with the bow). Cupid typically has two kinds of arrows. Arrows with a sharp golden tip, which can fill someone with uncontrollable desire, and arrows with a blunt tip of lead, which can fill someone with aversion and the desire to flee. Cupid seems to have the latter type of arrows here.
Why musicians? Musical scenes became popular during Caravaggio’s time, mainly due to the Church that started supporting various forms of music. Hence, the inspiration for this theme came from Cardinal Del Monte, who was heavily involved with the Church. Del Monte also organized various concerts at his palace. However, interestingly, the music that is played in this painting is nonreligious.
Who is Francesco Maria del Monte? At age 24, Caravaggio entered the household of the Italian cardinal, diplomat, and art connoisseur, Francesco Maria del Monte (1549-1627). Del Monte paid Caravaggio for his work. Del Monte was an important art collector during his time in Rome and left a collection of about 600 paintings at his death. He commissioned more paintings from Caravaggio, including Bacchus (in the Uffizi Museum) and The Fortune Teller (in the Louvre). In addition to his love for paintings, Del Monte was also a big fan of music which explains the musical theme in The Musicians. In his large house, the Palazzo Madama, the cardinal hosted both artists like Caravaggio and various musicians. He paid for their musical education and gave them a place to stay.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was trained by Simone Peterzano, who was in turn trained by Titian. He used a realistic painting style, paying both attention to the physical and emotional state of the subjects he painted. He combined this with a brilliant contrast between light and shadow in his paintings. Caravaggio had a tumultuous life and was accused of murder, assault, many fights, and has served in prison. However, his sheer brilliance as an artist has given him a place in the history books. His painting style has had a big influence on the development of Baroque painting (which includes drama and an intense contrast between light and dark). Some well-known paintings by Caravaggio are his Medusa in the Uffizi Museum and Sleeping Cupid in the Palazzo Pitti.
Fun fact: This painting has been missing for centuries. While many artists in the 17th century mentioned this masterpiece, it only turned up in 1952, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that the painting had been found and they included it in their museum. Less than two decades before, the painting had been sold for 100 pounds in England, where both the buyer and seller did not recognize that this was the missing painting of Caravaggio (mainly due to the bad state in which the painting was).
Written by Eelco Kappe
Where? Room 97 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Cardinal del Monte, who gave it as a present to Ferdinando I de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany.
What do you see? A young Bacchus is holding a glass of wine in his left hand. He has a wreath of vine leaves and grapes on his head. It seems that he is wearing some makeup on his face. With his right hand, he is playing with the drawstrings of his half-opened robe. Bacchus is sitting on a chaise longue (a Roman type of chair/bench – also called a triclinium). On the stone table in front of him are a ceramic bowl of fruit and a jug of wine. The bowl of fruit contains both healthy and spoiled fruits as well as fresh green leaves and spoiled yellow leaves. Bacchus already seems a bit drunk and extends an invitation to the viewer to join him for a glass of wine and maybe something more… If you look carefully, you can see the ripples in the glass of wine to indicate the movement of the left arm of Bacchus towards the viewer.
Backstory: This painting was created when Caravaggio was staying with his first patron, Cardinal del Monte. True to his unconventional style, Caravaggio painted an imperfect, limited, earthly version of Bacchus. This may be close to some of the figures he met in the many taverns and brothels that he liked to visit. Cardinal del Monte gave it away in 1608 to the Grand Duke of Tuscany on the occasion of the marriage of the Grand Duke’s son Cosimo II. The painting has long been unknown to the public as it stayed for centuries hidden in some of the private quarters of its owners. It was rediscovered in 1913 in the storage of the Uffizi Museum after which it was attributed to Caravaggio.
Symbolism: The bowl with spoiled fruit is an example of a vanitas, which means ‘emptiness’. Vanitas refers in the traditional Christian view to the emptiness and worthlessness of all earthly goods and ambitions. Spoiled fruit is one common way to present this. It was appropriate to depict this fruit with Bacchus as he was associated with fertility and agriculture. Notice also the dirty fingernails of Bacchus. Some interpret this as a warning of the consequences of earthly pleasures, while other just attribute this to the style of Caravaggio (he painted in great detail what he saw, including dirty fingernails). The vine leaves in Bacchus’ hair are one of his sacred symbols, and that is how we can easily recognize him. Finally, it seems that Bacchus is wearing some makeup on his face, which is often associated with sexuality and strengthens the idea that he is inviting the viewer for more than a glass of wine.
Who is Bacchus? Bacchus (in Greek Dionysus) is the god of the wine, fertility, madness, theatre, and religious ecstasy. He is the son of god Zeus and the mortal Semele.
Why Bacchus? Bacchus was a chronic alcoholic and was a good subject to depict the misery of the common people (or as some people think, the miserable state of Caravaggio at the time of the painting). 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. The fact that Bacchus was associated with drinking and other crazy activities made him a popular subject for some less religious artists. Caravaggio has created more paintings in which Bacchus was the subject. For example, around 1593, he created the painting Young Sick Bacchus which is considered to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio. This painting is now in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was trained by Simone Peterzano, who was in turn trained by Titian. He used a realistic painting style, paying both attention to the physical and emotional state of the subjects he painted. He combined this with a brilliant contrast between light and shadow in his paintings. Caravaggio had a tumultuous life and was accused of murder, assault, many fights, and he served in prison. However, his sheer brilliance as an artist has given him a place in the history books. His painting style has had a big influence on the development of Baroque painting (which includes drama and an intense contrast between light and dark). Among his many famous works are his Medusa in the Uffizi Museum and The Musicians in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fun fact: Many experts believe that Caravaggio used a mirror to draw this painting such that he did not have to make the drawing first, but could immediately work on the painting. This means that the model for this painting offered the wine with his right hand, instead of the somewhat awkward way in which Bacchus is using his left hand. Another reason to believe that Caravaggio was using a mirror for this painting is that after a cleaning of the painting a very small self-portrait of Caravaggio working on a painting was revealed in the reflection of the jug of wine (but it is difficult to see).
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Room 83 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Guidobaldo II Della Rovere (1514-1574), the Duke of Urbino (a sovereign of central-northern Italy), commissioned this oil painting for his wife, Giulia Varano (1523-1547).
What do you see? A representation of a beautiful and sensual Venus, the goddess of love, is looking you straight in the eye. She lies naked on top of a white sheet in a room of a big Renaissance palace. Notice the beautifully painted folds in the sheets and the pillows. Venus is only wearing a gold bracelet with black enamels on her right arm, a ring on the pinky of her left hand, and a pearl earring. She has roses in her right hand, and you can see that one of the roses has already fallen on the red bed which has a pattern of black flowers. Her hair, partly woven in braids, is falling over her shoulders. Her body is contrasted with the dark background on the left, emphasizing her nakedness. Notice how the straight lines of the architecture nicely contrast with the curviness of Venus. The two maids in the background are apparently searching for Venus’ clothes in one of the two bridal chests.
Backstory: Guidobaldo II Della Rovere gave this painting to his young wife (who was 15 at the time of the painting), and the painting provides the meaning of marriage. Some people consider this as one of the most erotic paintings in history. But others have a less flattering opinion. The American author Mark Twain described the work as follows in 1880: “The foulest, the vilest, the most obscene picture the world possesses.” The theme of this painting is referred to as a ‘reclining female nude’, a genre that became popular in the early Renaissance. For this painting, Titian was inspired by a painting of the Sleeping Venus (also known as the Dresden Venus) which was started by Giorgione and finished after his death by Titian. And this painting has inspired many future variations on the reclining nude, including Olympia by Édouard Manet.
Symbolism: The painting provides three lessons of marriage for Giulia Varano. She needs to be erotic, faithful, and become a mother. The clear eroticism in the painting should remind Giulia of her sexual obligations in the marriage. The dog laying on the bed is a symbol of marital faithfulness. The maid on the right side, who is overlooking a kid, is a symbol of motherhood. The chests on the right were a typical wedding present in Italy at that time. The white sheets on which Venus is laying represent purity. Venus holds some roses in her hand, which were a symbol of love. Similarly, the red bed on which she is laying also represents love.
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. One of the two children of Venus is Aenaes, who was one of the few people to escape from Troy according to Virgil’s poem Aeneid. Two of the descendants of Aeneas were Remus and Romulus, who founded Rome.
Why Venus? Venus was a symbol of love and sensuality. As this painting was for private use, Venus was a symbolic inspiration for this painting. In reality, a contemporaneous model has been used to depict Venus, most likely Angela del Moro, a friend of Titian.
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. Many of the paintings of Titian throughout his long career contain nudity.
Fun fact: More than 300 works of Titian survived, partly because Titian became very old for his time. While there is quite some discussion about his actual year of birth, he claimed in a letter to the Spanish king, Philip II, to have been born in 1474. That would mean he died at the age of 102. The consensus nowadays is that Titian grossly exaggerated in that letter and that he was born around 1488-1490. Another characteristic of Titian was that, while he was considered to be the leading painter in Venice, he was notoriously greedy.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links)
Where? Room 64 of the Prado Museum
Commissioned by: The Spanish government
What do you see? A scene of a street fight. Napoleon’s Turkish soldiers, the Mamelukes, ride on horses, arms raised with swords. They are recognizable in their turbans and black uniforms. Some of them wear blue shirts and red pants. On the ground are the outnumbered citizens of Madrid. They are peasants and common people recognizable by the dull rags that they wear. A man that appears to be a Spanish soldier stands on the right side in a black uniform. He points his gun towards one of the Mamelukes. In the foreground, a man stabs a white horse as another man on the left raises his arm to stab its rider. Beneath the horse are two dying rebels. Behind, a peasant tackles a Mameluke, jumping off the ground to attack. The numerous blurred faces in the middle ground add to the chaos of the scene. Although the scene looks like a Spanish triumph, the reality of the story is not so.
Backstory: This painting commemorates a true historical event. In this work, Goya shows one of many street fights that broke out on the second of May, 1808, when Spanish citizens rebelled against the French occupation. The Spanish people that rebelled during that day were executed by French firing squads on the next day, and Goya captured that event in a separate painting called The Third of May 1808 which is also in the Prado Museum. The painting of The Second of May 1808 is crammed with the bodies of Mamelukes, Spaniards, and horses that tangle to make for a very chaotic scene. The moment is dramatized with the harsh light on the white horse in the center of the painting and the subtle diagonal drawn from the cadaver (bottom left) to the two soldiers with raised weapons (right of center). The work also uses lighter colors and bright reds that put it in direct opposition to The Third of May 1808, which uses darker tones. Goya puts an emphasis on the sacrifice of the Spanish rebels, showcasing their heroism.
May 2, 1808: This was the day that many citizens of Madrid rebelled against the French occupation. Crowds assembled around the Royal Palace of Madrid protesting French occupation. The French soldiers opened fire on the crowds, triggering street fights and rebellion in other parts of the city. The French armed forces outnumbered the Spanish citizens. Goya captured the events on this day in his painting The Third of May 1808, which is also in the Prado Museum. The painting depicts the Mamelukes (Napoleon’s Turkish soldiers) in a street fight with Spanish rebels. When the conflict had subsided, hundreds of Spanish citizens had died. Many survivors were taken prisoner for execution the next day.
May 3, 1808: The day after the Spanish rebelled against the French army, the rebels were executed by French firing squads. Many surviving Spanish rebels were gathered and shot in several locations in Madrid. Supposedly, most of the executed rebels were peasants, artisans, and beggars. About one hundred deaths by firing squads were reported.
Who is Goya? Francisco Goya 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 Charles IV. His style was cheerful and warm and included paintings like The Parasol in the Prado Museum. But around 1793, he fell ill and became deaf. After this, Goya’s work became filled with darkness, ghosts, and monsters.
Fun fact: During the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939, the collection of the Prado Museum was moved to the League of Nations in Geneva. The truck transporting some of Goya’s works was caught in an accident as it was passing through Girona. The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808 were stored together, and both suffered quite a blow. However, The Second of May 1808 suffered more damage. In the process, the canvas of this painting was damaged. Small pieces of the canvas fell off the left side and were lost on the road. Tear marks and scratches are still visible on the left side of the work despite restoration efforts in 1941, 2007, and 2008.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster
Where? Room 35 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Mary sits on a paved terrace in front of a palace-like building and is reading at a richly decorated desk carved from marble. She gets surprised by a visit of the youthful Archangel Gabriel, who explains to her that she will be the mother of the Son of God. Gabriel raises his right hand to greet Mary and holds a white lily in his left hand. Mary hesitantly raises her left hand to greet the angel. The landscape in the back shows mountains, a sea, and cypresses, all typical elements present in the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. All perspectives – height, width, and depth – converge on Mary, making her the center of attention. Interestingly, the desk of Mary and the palace-like building seem somewhat out of place in this setting, and the figures of Mary (who is usually described as a simple woman) and Gabriel seem to fit better with the bed of flowers and the nature-like background.
Backstory: This painting has been in the Uffizi since 1867. Before that it hung in the San Bartolomeo at Monte Oliveta Church in the countryside of Tuscany. There has been a constant debate on who painted this work. The consensus is now that this painting was created in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio. A popular explanation is that the painting was started by Andrea del Verrocchio, who left a note to his pupil Leonardo da Vinci to finish the painting. This painting is now considered by many to be Leonardo’s first major work, as he made the background, the wings of the angel, and the finishing touches to the painting. The painting is based on Luke 1: 26-38, where the Archangel Gabriel foretells the birth of Jesus to Mary.
Symbolism: The angel holds a Madonna lily in his left hand. This lily represents the purity of Mary and is also the symbol of the city of Florence. Mary can be identified by her dress which is largely blue. The enclosed garden in which Gabriel is kneeling is a symbol of Mary’s virginity. The marble desk or sarcophagus in the middle has been painted after the tomb of Piero and Giovanni de’ Medici which was carved by Verrocchio.
Who is Mary? The Virgin Mary has been the most popular subject in Christian art. She represents four Roman Catholic dogmas, which are at the basis of Catholicism: Perpetual Virginity (when she gave birth to Jesus), Mother of God, Immaculate Conception (Mary was already without sins in the womb of her mother), and the Assumption into Heaven at the end of her life.
Why the Annunciation? The ‘Annunciation’ has already been the subject of art since the fourth century. It has been a very popular theme in Florentine art. It shows the moment that the Archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God.
Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an architect, astronomer, engineer, inventor, mathematician, musician, painter, writer, and much more. He is known to be one of the biggest multi-talents the world has ever seen. The fact that he studied science and nature extensively helped him in his artwork. He has produced a large number of sketches in which he practiced to draw specific human features, such as hand gestures, facial expressions, bone structures, and other anatomical features. Some of his most famous paintings include the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and the Virgin of the Rocks of which one version is in the Louvre and another version in the National Gallery in London.
Fun facts: The wings of the Archangel Gabriel are painted by Leonardo da Vinci and are most likely copied from a bird in flight. However, if you look carefully, these wings have been extended later on by another unknown artist. People have also noticed some rookie mistakes in this painting, indicating that the young Leonardo was still mastering the tricks of perspective. For example, look at the right hand of Mary, which rests on the reading desk. The desk is closer to the viewer than Mary. However, that makes it strange that Mary’s right hand is on the left side of the reading desk. In other words, her right hand is too close to the viewer compared to the rest of her body. Finally, the painting lacks some of the emotions in the faces of the angel and Mary. But Da Vinci would learn over time how to include these emotions, which is clearly visible in his Mona Lisa.
Written by Eelco Kappe
Where? Room 64 of the Prado Museum
Commissioned by: The Spanish government
What do you see? A group of French soldiers on the right point their rifles at a Spanish peasant dressed in white. The French firing squad is about to execute the peasant who stands against a hill with his arms raised like a Christ figure in surrender. At his feet are some of his comrades who have been slaughtered by the firing squad, their blood still running on the dirt. And surrounding them are other people that are next in line to face the firing squad. Some of them cover their eyes as they do not want to witness the gruel scene in front of them. Among the people surrounding the man in white is also a bold-headed monk. He is directly to the left (from our point of view) of the man in the center, and he has his hands clasped in prayer, avoiding the eyes of the soldiers.
Backstory: This painting is a commemoration of a true historical event, Napoleon’s French army invading Spain. This painting shows a particular scene that occurred on May 3, 1808, when the French army decided to execute Spanish citizens that rebelled against them. Francisco Goya was deeply affected by this series of events and decided to create this painting to show the injustice of the French army’s actions. Goya has dramatized the moment. The square lantern in the center pours bright light onto the rebels on the left and the man dressed in white. Goya gives him a Christ-like aura with his arms raised in golden light. The man is made into a martyr while the French soldiers are left anonymous and thus soulless.
May 2, 1808: This was the day that many citizens of Madrid rebelled against the French occupation. Crowds assembled around the Royal Palace of Madrid protesting French occupation. The French soldiers opened fire on the crowds, triggering street fights and rebellion in other parts of the city. The French armed forces outnumbered the Spanish citizens. Goya captured the events on this day in his painting The Second of May 1808, which is also in the Prado Museum. The painting depicts the Mamelukes (Napoleon’s Turkish soldiers) in a street fight with Spanish rebels. When the conflict had subsided, hundreds of Spanish citizens had died. Many survivors were taken prisoner for execution the next day.
May 3, 1808: The day after the Spanish rebelled against the French army, the rebels were executed by French firing squads. Many surviving Spanish rebels were gathered and shot in several locations in Madrid. Supposedly, most of the executed rebels were peasants, artisans, and beggars. About one hundred deaths by firing squads were reported.
Who is Goya? Francisco Goya 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 Charles IV. Around this time, he began to travel Andalusia to study realism. When he returned from his trip, he had fallen ill and gone deaf. Before the decline of his health, much of Goya’s work had been cheerful and warm. After losing his hearing, Goya’s work became dark and filled with monsters, darkness, and ghosts. Witches’ Sabbath in the Prado Museum is an example of such a dark work. It is part of his series of fourteen Black Paintings.
Fun fact: Before painting The Third of May 1808, Goya had worked on a series called The Disasters of War. These gruesome prints showed the violence, gore, and fear that comes from war. Without taking a side in the conflict, Goya expressed great anti-war sentiment. The prints were not published until decades later.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Gallery 28 of the National Gallery of Art
When? Between 1610 and 1614
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Laocoön is the bearded man lying down on the dark rocks in the center foreground. He is attacked by a sea serpent (a type of dragon in mythology). He grabs the serpent with both hands, but, nevertheless, the serpent bites him in the head. This serpent has already killed Laocoön’s son who lies to the right of him. On the left side stands the other son of Laocoön. He also struggles to fend off a serpent while the serpent is about to bite him in his abdomen. The three people on the right are unidentified witnesses to the killing of Laocoön and his two sons, though one of them looks away from the scene. They may represent Greek gods who were behind the punishment of Laocoön and his sons, but this is uncertain. The horse behind Laocoön represents the Trojan horse. The horse is on the way to Toledo, the fortified city in the background depicted under a gloomy sky. The entrance gate to the city is directly behind the horse. It is called the Puerta de Bisagra Nueva and still exists. This gate is decorated with a double-headed eagle.
Backstory: El Greco finished this painting in the year of his death. An inventory of the paintings in his house when he died contained more than 250 paintings, mostly with religious themes, portraits, and city views of Toledo. There were only three works with a mythological theme and all three of those dealt with the killing of Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus. Laocoön is the only known mythological theme that El Greco has ever painted. The three people on the right side of the painting in the National Gallery of Art seem unfinished. It seems likely that El Greco did not have the time to finish their faces before his death.
Mannerism: El Greco was a Mannerist painter, which means that he did not paint the figures in his paintings in a realistic way. He often exaggerated or elongated certain body parts and did not care about the symmetry of his figures. This is nicely illustrated in the current painting. The first signs of mannerism appeared around 1520 and the style was applied until the beginning of the 17th century. Artists like Bronzino, Michelangelo, and Tintoretto used the Mannerist style. One of the most famous Mannerist painting is Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino in the Uffizi Museum.
Symbolism: This painting probably contains a deeper meaning. El Greco painted the scene of Laocoön and his sons in front of Toledo, the city where he lived and the former capital of Spain. He painted Toledo instead of Troy, which is the city where the horse is sent according to Greek mythology. The killing of Laocoön and his sons takes place on a hill just outside Toledo. This would be the same place where prisoners and people who did not agree with the Catholic Church were executed during that time. The painting of El Greco may have been a protest against these actions. However, there is no substantive evidence to back up this interpretation, so the real meaning of this painting remains speculative.
Laocoön and His Sons? According to Greek mythology, Laocoön was a Trojan priest. There are various accounts of his story. Virgil describes the most popular version in the second book of the Aeneid. According to him, when the Greeks left Troy, they left as a gift a very large wooden horse in front of the gates of Troy. Laocoön suspected that this horse was a trick of the Greeks and tried to convince the people of Troy not to accept the gift. To prove that the horse was a trick, he struck the horse with his spear to show that it was hollow. Poseidon and Athena then punished him for his interference and Laocoön and his two sons were attacked and killed by two sea serpents named Porces and Chariboea. The Trojans interpreted this event as a sign that the horse was not a trick and they took the horse into their city walls after which the Greek came out of the horse during the night and defeated the Trojans. A famous statue from antiquity of Laocoön and His Sons is in the Vatican Museums, and a 16th-century copy by Bandinelli is in the Uffizi Museum.
Who is El Greco? Doménikos Theotokópoulos was born in 1541 in Heraklion, Greece, and died in 1614 in Toledo, Spain. He is better known as El Greco, which means ‘the Greek.’ During his twenties and thirties, he spent several years in Italian cities like Venice and Rome. He got inspiration from Italian artists like Michelangelo and Tintoretto. He eventually moved to Toledo, which is near Madrid. El Greco developed a unique style that is difficult to classify as it was so different from all other painters. He was a Mannerist, he was very expressive, and he created some fantasy-like works. His work has inspired many artists over time, including Delacroix, Manet, and Picasso.
Fun fact: El Greco often included nude figures in his paintings. While in the current painting, nudity is somewhat functional as it is based on a mythological story in which people were often depicted nude, he also often included nude figures in his religious paintings. A good example is The Vision of Saint John in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Interestingly, El Greco grew up in Greece where he was exposed to Byzantine art which contained very little nudity. However, he got inspired by the nude figures painted by Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists during his travels through Italy in the 1560s and 1570s.
Where? Room 10-14 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between 1477 and 1482
Commissioned by? Lorenzo de’ Medici as a wedding gift to his cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici
What do you see? This painting is full of allegories (hidden meanings), which leads to much debate on how to interpret the painting. In the meadow, you can see hundreds of different flowers. The blue figure on the right is Zephyr, the god of the west wind. Zephyr is chasing the nymph Chloris, who is associated with flowers and spring. Zephyr’s breath turns Chloris into the woman with the dress decorated with flowers (who is thought to be the goddess of Spring, called Flora). The central figure in the middle is Venus. To the left of Venus, the three Graces (Charites in Greek) are dancing. The Graces are minor deities in Greek mythology. To the left of the Graces is Mercury (Hermes in Greek), the messenger of the Greek gods, who is scattering the clouds with his staff. Some people say that Mercury may be modeled after Lorenzo de’ Medici who commissioned this painting. On top on Venus is Cupid (her son) aiming his flaming arrow at one of the Graces.
Backstory: The painting only got his name, La Primavera in 1550 when Giorgio Vasari saw the painting. This painting is also known as the Allegory of Spring ('primavera' is Italian for 'spring'). While many interpretations have been given to the painting, a popular interpretation is that the painting is inspired by a story from the poet Ovid. In his book Fasti (Amazon link to the book), the nymph Chloris is naked and attracts the first wind of the spring, which is represented by Zephyr. When Zephyr captures her, flowers sprang from her mouth and she turns into the goddess Flora. After Botticelli completed the painting, it was placed in the summerhouse of the Medici family, where would hang next to The Birth of Venus which Botticelli completed a few years later.
Symbolism: Venus represents the goodwill (humanitas) and divides the spiritual values on the left from the material values on the right (the earthly desires shown by Zephyr). Notice that Cupid is blindfolded while aiming his arrow on one of the Graces. This is a reference to the saying that love is blind. In the background of the picture, you can see orange trees, which are a symbol of the Medici family. Venus stands in front of a myrtle bush (the dark leaves behind her), which is a sacred plant for her as it was the first plant she used to cover herself when she arose naked from the sea. The Graces on the left and the right are wearing expensive jewelry in the colors of the Medici family. Some people believe that each of the flowers symbolizes a unique message. At least for some of the flowers the message is clear. For example, the strawberries in the crown of Flora represent seduction and the roses in her hand symbolize love. Finally, the city of Florence is named after the goddess Flora (which is Latin for ‘flower’).
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. Venus is also known in the Greek mythology as Aphrodite. Venus and Mars are the parents of Cupid. In art, Cupid is often depicted together with his mother, Venus.
Why Venus? Nudity was the natural state of Venus, which provided a good excuse to include nudity in an artwork. This was an important reason for her popularity in Renaissance art. Whereas in this painting Venus is still dressed, this will quickly change. A few years later Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus in which she is already largely naked.
Who is Botticelli? Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was a painter who belonged to the Florentine school of painters. The name Botticelli means “little barrel”. He got this name because people described his brother as “fat like a barrel”. Botticelli was initially trained by his brother to become a goldsmith, but at the age of 14, he became an apprentice to the successful painter Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), known from the painting Madonna and Child with Two Angels. Later in his life, Botticelli became a mentor to both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Fun fact: The painting contains over 500 individual flowers and between 170 and 200 different varieties. Most of these flowers were growing in the spring around Florence. Botanical experts are already inspired for centuries by these flowers. They have been able to identify about 130 flowers, including daisies, forget-me-nots, jasmine, lilies, and violets. For the remaining flowers, there is quite some debate on whether these are fantasy flowers created by Botticelli or real flowers that existed in 15th century Florence but are now extinct.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Written by Eelco Kappe
Where? Room 621 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Commissioned by? The Trudaine de Montigny brothers
What do you see? Socrates is sitting on his deathbed in his cell and is reaching for the glass of hemlock to take his own life. He is convicted to death by a jury in Athens for not believing in the Greek gods and for sharing this view with the young people in Athens. You can see the opened shackles laying on the floor. His disciples are gathered around him and cannot believe what is going to happen. The executioner from the state is holding the glass for Socrates while looking away and covering his eyes. Even in the moment just before his death, the illuminated Socrates is teaching to the people around him with his hand up in the air. Plato is sitting at the end of the bed with his back towards Socrates and his eyes closed. He seems in his thoughts, but his ear is prominently depicted to indicate that he is listening to Socrates. Plato has documented several dialogues of Socrates as Socrates himself did not leave any written documents. You can see the scroll and the pot with ink at Plato’s feet to indicate that he will document the final speech of Socrates. Sitting to the right of Socrates is Crito, a good friend of Socrates, who has his arm on his leg. Crito is sitting on a bench with an inscription of the symbol of the Athenian state. The wife of Socrates, Xanthippe, is in the left background in a red robe. She waves at us while walking away.
Backstory: This painting is largely based on a dialogue of Plato entitled Phaedo in which he describes the death of Socrates. In this dialogue, Socrates discusses the life after death on the day before his execution. Socrates discusses various arguments on why the soul is immortal and that there is an afterlife for the soul. For his crimes, Socrates could choose between drinking the glass of the poisonous hemlock or being exiled. Given his ideas that his soul would go to an afterlife and staying true to his beliefs, he chose to drink the glass of hemlock. This painting can be interpreted in a political context. The Trudaine de Montigny brothers were leaders of a movement that called for more open public discussion of political matters and a free market system. The motive behind this painting was to depict Socrates as an example of someone who was willing to die for his ideals. In 1787 reforms to the French political system were abandoned and there were many political prisoners.
What is discussed in Phaedo? Phaedo is the fourth and final dialogue of Plato about the death of Socrates. In Phaedo, the story of Socrates is told about why he thinks that the soul is immortal and that there is life for the soul after a person dies. Phaedo also describes the death of Socrates. In short, the four arguments of Socrates are (i) that the soul already has some knowledge at birth; (ii) the soul is invisible; (iii) non-physical forms, such as the soul, are eternal; and (iv) forms are the cause of all things in this world and cannot die. You can check out the full text of Phaedo here.
Who is Socrates? Socrates is one of the founders of Western philosophy. He was married to Xanthippe and got three sons. Socrates did not write any of his ideas on paper, but some contemporaries, such as Plato, have documented the ideas of Socrates such that his ideas have been saved for future generations. One of his most important contributions to the world is the so-called Socratic method. To solve a problem, Socrates would ask you a question. Based on your answer he would ask you another question, followed by another question, etc. He forced people to critically think about their answers by engaging them in the topic. If some of those answers led to contradicting answers, a certain hypothesis about the problem could be eliminated, and a better one could be formulated. It is basically a test of logic and will help a group of people to determine their views on a certain problem. The Socratic method has led to the currently-used scientific method that academicians use in which one starts with a hypothesis which can be rejected or accepted after research.
Who is Jacques-Louis David? Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was born in Paris. He was a neoclassical painter and together with Antonio Canova he is one of the main representatives of this art style. In his twenties and thirties, he spent quite some years in Rome where he got inspired by the Renaissance paintings and especially by the work of Raphael. David supported the French Revolution and Napoleon, and one of his famous paintings is The Coronation of Napoleon which is in the Louvre. After the fall of Napoleon, he moved to Brussels where he stayed until his death. He loved to make historical paintings while staying true to his neoclassical style. In this painting, you can, for example, see how the body of Socrates resembles an ancient Greek sculpture. One of his most famous students is Eugene Delacroix.
Fun fact: There are several aspects of this painting that Jacques-Louis David changed compared to the historical accounts of the death of Socrates. First, Socrates is about 71 years old when he died, but in this painting Socrates has the body of a middle-aged Greek god. Second, Plato is depicted as an old man in this picture, but at the time of the death of Socrates he is between 24 and 29 years old. Third, there are also some differences between the story about the death of Socrates as described in Phaedo and this painting. In Phaedo, there are 15 people present at his death, while in this painting only 12 other people than Socrates are present. This discrepancy is possibly a reference to the death of Jesus (who had 12 disciples). Also, in Phaedo, the people present are reported to be both laughing and crying at the death of Socrates, but that is not the case in this painting.
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 Francis 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 Francis 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. He did not follow all the instructions of the commissioner and kept his own artistic freedom. For example, he decided against painting the man pushing the swing as a bishop. And he included some extra details to the painting such as the little dog, statues of cupids, and the lost slipper.
Where? Gallery 251 of the Museum of Fine Arts
What do you see? Vibrant colors and bright light make for what appears to be a beautiful sunset over the sea. However, upon further inspection, the scene is actually a dark one. The foreground is littered with the bodies of drowning slaves. Their chained arms reach out of the water to try to survive. And on the bottom right, we can see a single leg sticking out of the water. The slaves are not going to survive as a school of fish are already biting away at their flesh, and some birds are arriving to get their share as well. Behind the drowning slaves, a ship is caught in a storm, waves crashing against its sides as it steers away from the slaves.
Backstory: This painting is also known as Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and the Dying – Typhon Coming On. Turner based Slave Ship off of a true story to illustrate the realities of the slave trade. In 1781, Luke Collingwood, the English captain of the slave ship Zong, set sail with 470 slaves and an inadequate amount of food and water. When crew members and slaves began to fall ill, Collingwood threw 132 slaves overboard to save his ship. He would also receive insurance money for the slaves “lost at sea.” Turner painted the aftermath of this terrible act and adds a touch of justice by sending the ship into a violent storm in the background.
English Abolitionism: Following the Zong Massacre in 1781, Granville Sharp, a leading abolitionist, made an attempt to charge Collingwood with murder. However, because slaves were considered commodities like wood and tea, the captain was ruled innocent. While this may seem like a failure, the Massacre actually raised awareness of the anti-slavery movement and inspired more Englishmen to join the cause. Eventually, slavery was abolished in England in 1833.
Who is Turner? Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in 1775 in London where he died in 1851. He was an English romantic painter who attended the Royal Academy of Arts in London and studied with Thomas Malton. His early works were topographical watercolor paintings and engravings that appeared in books and magazines. In hopes of achieving something greater, Turner completed his first oil painting, Fishermen at Sea, which was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1796. The work received high praise and got him elected as an associate of the Royal Academy. Around this time, Turner made many copies of the works of landscape painter John Robert Cozens. Cozens’s more imaginative style encouraged Turner to experiment with a more whimsical and romantic style that eventually brought him to fame. Turner’s landscapes show a mastery of many different terrains and expertise in color and light that feels somewhat like that of the impressionists of the later 19th century. Among his famous works are his two version of The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons. One version is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the other in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Fun fact: When Slave Ship was first displayed at the Royal Academy, it was accompanied by an excerpt of a poem that Turner wrote. The long poem, “Fallacies of Hope,” was never finished and published. Here is the excerpt:
“Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying - ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?”
Where? Temporary Exhibition Hall on the Ground floor of the Musée d’Orsay
What do you see? A Parisian prostitute, Olympia, lies down on her bed in her apartment. She rests atop a floral cloth, staring directly at the viewer as her servant presents her with a bouquet (perhaps a gift from an admirer or patron). Olympia’s left hand is firmly placed over her private area. She is pale, and her features are not idealized as was typically done by other artists at this time. Instead, Manet painted her realistically. Olympia’s body has dark outlines and broad color that lacks shading. She appears flat and stands in stark contrast to the dark brown and green background behind her. At her feet is a startled black cat with its tail raised.
Backstory: Victorine Meurent served as the model for Olympia. She was a painter herself and served as a model for various artists. Manet liked her as a model because of her petite stature and red hair. Laure served as the model for the maid, and she posed for several other paintings of Manet. Édouard Manet got his inspiration for Olympia from the Venus of Urbino, the iconic Renaissance painting by Titian in the Uffizi Museum. Titian’s painting is a classic example of the female nude as a manifestation of ideal beauty. His reclining nude, like most, was shrouded in perfection and mythology. It was not inherently sexual. In his painting, Manet reduced the female nude to a much more realistic form. There is no beauty or goddess to admire; the viewer is confronted with Olympia’s sexuality as well as the reality of prostitution in Paris. And unlike the demure and reserved reclining nudes of the past, Manet’s modernized version features a woman who addresses the viewer and holds a firm posture.
Controversy: The painting caused quite an uproar when it was displayed in the Paris Salon in 1865. The French public was not ready to receive such a bold painting that deviated so strongly from what they were used to. Over seventy critics condemned the work for a variety of reasons and political cartoons mocking Olympia as ugly surfaced in newspapers and magazines. The realistic style of this painting was not appreciated. Moreover, to show a sex worker as so bold and independent was very unconventional during the time. The idea that Olympia could live so comfortably (with flowers and jewelry) shook critics to the core. In addition, the painting breaks tradition by showing an imperfect female nude who stands in contrast to the flawless depictions of Venus from the past.
Who is Olympia? In 1860s France, “Olympia” was an alias commonly used by prostitutes or courtesans. She is not of lower status as we would expect. Instead, she is shown to be of a higher class, adorned with jewelry and resting on a floral blanket with a servant at her side.
Who is Manet? Édouard Manet was born in 1832 in Paris where he died 51 years later. He was a Parisian realist painter who studied in the studio of Thomas Couture for six years. Afterward, however, Manet decided against attending the official art school of the French Academy, the École des Beaux-Arts. Early on in his career, he befriended the poet Charles Baudelaire whose work featured urban outsiders such as prostitutes and street entertainers. Baudelaire’s writing inspired Manet to continue painting unusual characters alongside his other works that featured better-known figures such as musicians and writers. Manet also had a love for the sea and occasionally liked to capture this in this works, such as the Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While most of Manet’s works can be classified under Realism, he is also one of the masterminds behind the development of Impressionism. The Rue Mosnier with Flags in the Getty Museum is a good example of his Impressionist ideas.
Fun fact: In 1867, Manet held a solo exhibition during the World’s Fair in Paris. Once again, Olympia was on display. When the painting received criticisms once again, writer Emile Zola defended it with a pamphlet that praised Manet’s bold style and technique. He asked viewers to overlook the subject matter and appreciate Manet’s avant-garde approach to art. As thanks, Manet produced a portrait of Zola, Portrait of Emile Zola. It features Zola in his study, reading some of his own works. In the upper right, Manet added a miniature print of Olympia to Zola’s wall.
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 45 of the National Gallery
Commissioned by? Paul Sigisbert Moitessier, the husband of Madame Moitessier.
What do you see? Madame Moitessier is seated on a decorated sofa, also referred to as a canapé. She is wearing a large colorful silk dress with flower patterns. She probably wears a farthingale under her dress, which allows the bottom part of the dress to keep its circular shape. She is looking a bit sensual. For example, look at the blush on her cheeks. Her right hand is casually placed against the side of her head as was often done with Greek statues and she is holding a folding fan in her left hand. You can see the opulence in this painting. Madame Moitessier is wearing expensive bracelets, a ring, a necklace, decorated with various rubies. On the left, you can see a richly decorated screen fan and an expensive vase. Ingres believed that to paint a portrait you have to study the person from all angles and understand all her sides. This is reflected in the mirror that he included in the painting, which shows another side of Madame Moitessier (although it seems unlikely that this mirror is in the correct angle). This side shows her more naturally, with less jewelry. You can also see a candle tree in the mirror.
Backstory: Ingres started with this painting around 1847, but only completed it in 1856 when he was 76 years old. He first got the invitation to paint a portrait of Madame Moitessier in 1844, but he refused that assignment as he was focused on mythological paintings. However, when he later met her, he changed his mind as he was very impressed by her looks which made him remember of Juno (the so-called Junoesque look which means that she looked beautiful and dignified at the same time, just like the goddess Juno).
Who is Madame Moitessier? Marie-Clotilde-Ines Moitessier (1821–1897) was the wife of Paul Sigisbert Moitessier, a wealthy banker and merchant. She was also known by her maiden name De Foucauld, which you can see by the inscription at the top right of this painting. Madame Moitessier was also the aunt of Charles de Foucauld, a famous French priest who was beatified by the Pope in 2005.
Another portrait of Madame Moitessier: In 1851, Ingres painted another portrait of Madame Moitessier that is currently on display in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He painted this second portrait while he had not finished the first one yet.
Who is Ingres? Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) was born in Montauban, in the southwest of France. He was one of the primary neoclassical painters. He considered himself to be a history painter but also painted quite some portraits during his career. Especially early in his career, he painted portraits to sustain himself. Interestingly, nowadays he is famous for the portraits that he painted. His perfectionism may cause part of this fame. He found it very difficult to complete portraits, and he often got very frustrated and overwhelmed by these portrait assignments. A large part of his frustration came from the fact that the richer women that wanted a portrait could not hold their pose for an extended period of time. They tended to stand up and look at the painting and change the position of their dress and jewelry while he was painting them. In the end, however, he delivered stunning portraits.
Fun fact: Ingres started some initial drawings for this painting in 1844. The idea was the Madame Moitessier was sitting with her daughter Catherine at her knee. Ingres, however, became severely frustrated during this process, partly because he found the daughter of Madame Moitessier very difficult to handle. After a few years, he decided that he should eliminate the daughter from this project, though that did not speed up the process. In 1849, the wife of Ingres died and he decided to stop his work on this painting. Only in 1852, after he remarried, he continued his work on this painting to ultimately finish it in 1856.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Gallery 7 of the Legion of Honor Museum
When? About 1773
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? A young Mary comfortably leans back against her mother, Saint Anne, who teaches the Virgin Mary about the Bible. Mary has her finger on the Bible questioning her mother about a certain aspect. However, Mary seems confident as well and enjoys this activity with her mother. Fragonard included strong contrasts between mother and daughter. Mary is tiny and has a pale, doll-like face. Her oversized mother looks like a wise and experienced woman. On the left, they are accompanied by two small angels hovering next to the Bible to give them divine inspiration. On the right, they are joined by a white cat. Fragonard paints a mysterious light source in the background giving this painting a magical feel. The bottom left of the painting probably has been damaged over time, but, interestingly, the vaguely applied pink and brown paints add to the magical feeling of this work.
Background: Fragonard got the inspiration for this painting from earlier works on this theme by Peter Paul Rubens and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Rubens painted the theme between 1630 and 1635 and this work is on display in The Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Between 1730 and 1732, Tiepolo painted the theme multiple times, including a version in the Santa Maria della Fava Church in Venice. Fragonard first copied the works of these artists but then created his own, unique composition of this theme. However, when he finished the work, it was not received well by the art critics of that time. It inspired him to create some other versions of this work.
The youth of Mary: The youth of the Virgin Mary is described in the apocryphal Gospel of James. Mary is the daughter of Saints Anne and Joachim. They were wealthy people, but Anne was infertile. After a desperate prayer to God, an angel appeared to her promising a child that would become famous. Anne became pregnant without intercourse with her husband. When Mary was three years old, her parents brought her to the Temple where she would be raised by the priests and received food from the hand of an angel. When she was 12 years old, God picked Joseph, a widower with older children, to be Mary’s guardian and to become her husband when she was old enough. And when Mary was 16 years old, she became pregnant without having intercourse. Joseph actually only discovered her pregnancy when he came back from a house-building trip when she was already six months pregnant.
The Education of the Virgin: The story of Saint Anne teaching her daughter Mary about the Bible only developed in the 11th century AD. It is not mentioned in the Gospel of James, which is the main source of information about Mary’s youth. In contrast, the Gospel of James mentions that Mary lived with the priests at the Temple between her third and twelfth year. The only skill of Mary mentioned in the gospel is that she was good at weaving. But 11th-century logic told priests and scholars that, as the Mother of Jesus, Mary also had to be able to read and be knowledgeable about the Bible. And so, artists in the next centuries started to depict Saint Anne teaching Mary about the Bible.
Multiple versions: Fragonard created multiple versions of The Education of the Virgin. The version in the Legion of Honor Museum was probably the first version and painted around 1773. After that, he made two drawings of the painting for which he used the same composition but experimented with different lighting effects. During the second half of the 1770s, Fragonard created a second series on this topic. In these later paintings, Mary is no longer looking at the Bible but at her mother instead. The education of the virgin was a theme that multiple artists have used over time. Besides Rubens and Tiepolo, Guido Reni painted between 1640 and 1642 a version in the Hermitage Museum. And between 1842 and 1852, Eugene Delacroix also painted a couple of versions of this theme, one in The National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, and another one is owned by the Louvre.
Who is Fragonard? Jean-Honoré Fragonard was born in 1732 in Grasse in the Southeast of France and died in 1806 in Paris. He started his career as a fairly traditional artist, but during a trip to Italy in his late twenties, he started to become interested in more theatrical works. He got inspired by the works of artists like Hals, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Tiepolo, and decided to create colorful, chaotic paintings about love and happiness. Among these paintings is his best-known work, The Swing in the Wallace Collection in London. However, his new style of painting was not well-received by everybody, and he still continued to paint some more traditional religious works on commission. After the French Revolution in 1789, Fragonard continued to paint, but his name was forgotten quickly.
Fun fact: The theme of the education of the virgin has contributed significantly to the development of female literacy. Whereas in the early Middle Ages only men were depicted holding a book, the increasing popularity of Saint Anne teaching Mary how to read the Bible was a sign to people that it was also important for women to learn how to read. Images of Mary being able to read the Bible did not remain restricted to Saint Anne teaching her. The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci in the Uffizi Museum shows that Mary is reading the Bible when the Archangel Gabriel announces to her that she will be the Mother of Jesus.