Where? Room 9 of the National Gallery
Commissioned by? The Pisano family, probably Francesco Pisani
What do you see? This painting is full of activity. The main attention goes to the two groups of life-size people in the foreground. The painting shows how the family of Persian King Darius (in the center) appears in front of King Alexander the Great and his following (on the right) to ask for mercy. The man on the right, dressed in red and gold, is Alexander the Great. To his right, with the orange cape, is his good friend and advisor Hephaistion who is pointing to himself. Alexander is further surrounded by other high-ranked officers in his army, some of which a carrying a weapon called a halberd.
The woman in blue in the center foreground is the mother of Darius, Sisygambis. She is pleading for mercy on behalf of her family. To her left, dressed in gold is the wife of Darius, Stateira, and to her left are their two daughters in beautiful identical dresses. To the right of Sisygambis is a small figure. Some say that this may be a son of Darius and Stateira, but most consider this to be a random dwarf.
Alexander uses his right hand to silence Sisygambis and his left hand to point at Hephaistion as Sisygambis initially incorrectly spoke to Hephaistion instead of Alexander. The meeting between both groups takes place in an open hall within a big palace. Veronese paints the various figures in this painting in colorful and expensive contemporary Venetian outfits. The other figures in this painting are not important for the story but are basically onlookers just like us (though most of them do not seem to be interested in the main scene).
Backstory: The painting is based on the third book of the "History of Alexander the Great" by Quintus Curtius Rufus (see the full text of this book here) and the third book of the “Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings” by Valerius Maximum.
In 333 B.C., the Greek and the Persians were at war. Darius III was the King of Persia and Alexander the Great was a Greek king and army general. Alexander was aggressively expanding his territories around this time. The Greek just won the Battle of Issus (which is depicted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder). Darius fled the battle, but the Greeks captured his family.
In this painting you can see the family of Darius asking for mercy to Alexander the Great. Typically, mercy was not granted and the family would be enslaved, raped, or killed. In this case, Alexander granted them mercy. Alexander actually married the oldest daughter in this painting, Stateira II, later on. The youngest daughter married later to Hephaistion.
Alexander the Great: This painting shows an important moment in Alexander the Great’s life. Hephaistion is of the same age as Alexander (around 22 years in this painting) and actually taller than him. Because of this, the mother of Darius makes a big mistake by actually addressing the advisor of Alexander instead of himself. You can see that her mouth is open and her fingers are spread as she realizes her mistake. Alexander, however, steps forward and by his hand gestures, you can see that he forgives the mistake and explains that Hephaistion is his advisor.
According to Valerius Maximus, Alexander says: “There is nothing amiss in your having taken him for me, for he too is Alexander.” This gesture shows that, besides Alexander being a great general, he is also a diplomatic leader. At the time that this painting was created, the Venetians were at war with the Turks. So, the Pisano family commissioned this painting to teach the values of Alexander the Great to the visitors to their villa.
Who is Veronese? Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) was born in Verona, Italy. He is especially known for his very large historical paintings. He learned a lot from Titian and Tintoretto, who were contemporaries and were a bit older than him. He used a lot of bright colors in his paintings, something that is typical for the painters from the Venetian School. The reason for this was that the pigments arrived in Italy through the port of Venice and thus the most beautiful colors were widely available there for the best painters.
In his work, Veronese was interested in using historical stories to provide some useful life lessons to the people in Venice. Veronese also liked to include some funny details in his paintings which were not part of the narrative. Often these were a variety of animals. See, for example, also all the animals in his masterpiece The Wedding at Cana, which is in the Louvre. While this was fine to do in paintings with a nonreligious context, he actually would get in trouble when he also did that in paintings with a religious subject.
Fun fact: Veronese included some funny details in this painting. Noticeable is the chained monkey to the left of the family of Darius. Look also at the young boy holding Alexander’s robe who is looking at us. On the bottom right, you can see a boy bending over a shield as he is trying to see what is going on.
On the top right is a gigantic horse, which is the horse of Alexander and is much bigger than the other horses on the left of the painting. You can even look through some of the horses on the left as the paint has become more transparent over time. On the bottom right, you can see a big dog being held back by one of the soldiers, while on the left, you see some small and friendly dogs being held.
Where? Gallery 4 of the National Gallery of Art
When? Between 1440 and 1460
Commissioned by? Most likely the Medici family
What do you see? This tondo in a gold frame shows hundreds of people lining up to worship Baby Jesus. The line starts at the top right of the painting, goes around the back of the stable and the white building, and continues on the left side of the painting where people are entering under the arch.
On the bottom right, the Holy Family is depicted. The Virgin Mary is wearing a blue dress and has Baby Jesus on her lap. You can see some pomegranate seeds next to the left hand of Jesus. To Mary’s right is Saint Joseph. To their left, you can see the typical donkey, ox, and manger.
Behind and to the right of Mary and Joseph, you can see the three shepherds present at the birthplace of Jesus. In front of the line of people are the three Magi (also known as the three wise men or three kings) and behind them is their following. The first Magus is kneeling down in front of Jesus and touches his right foot. Jesus raises his right hand to bless him. The other two Magi are waiting behind him. The horses of the Magi are taken care of in the stable.
Next to the stable is a group of blind and disabled people. Above them is a white architectural structure in decay and on top of this structure stands a group of five almost naked people.
The painting contains various animals, such as cows, horses, camels, a donkey, an ox, a falcon, a peacock, a pheasant, and a dog. The two birds on the right of the stable probably represent a falcon (or a goshawk) attacking a pheasant.
On the top right, next to the mountaintop, you can see even more faces cluttered together. Also, below the arch on the left, you can see sketches of more people and animals.
Backstory: This painting is also known as the Washington Tondo or the Cook Tondo (named after a former owner of the painting). Fra Angelico started this painting, but before completing it, he was called to Rome by the Pope to complete several commissions in the Saint Peter and the Vatican Palace. Fra Filippo Lippi was then commissioned to finish the painting. In addition, it may be the case that several people in the workshops of both friars may have contributed to the painting.
It is not entirely clear who painted which parts of the painting. The general idea is that Fra Angelico painted the figures with the thinner faces (like Mary) and Lippi painted the figures with the broader faces (like Saint Joseph and the Magus holding the foot of Jesus). It is thought that Filippo Lippi completed the majority of the painting.
Symbolism: The painting contains various symbolic references:
Why the Adoration of the Magi? This theme was popular among Renaissance painters and has been painted by, among others, Botticelli, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Leonardo da Vinci. For example, Adoration of the Kings by Bruegel can be found in the National Gallery in London and Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli can be found in the Uffizi Museum in Florence.
An important argument for the popularity of the adoration of the Magi theme is that artists could paint the luxury and colorfulness of the costumes of the Magi and their followers.
This theme reflects the biblical story in Matthew 2 about the three kings who traveled a large distance following a big star to worship Baby Jesus. They brought three gifts for Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Who is Fra Angelico? Born as Guido di Petro around 1395, he was better known as Fra Angelico or Il Beato Angelico. He lived a very pious life and died in 1455. He started his career as a manuscript illustrator and moved on to become a painter of frescos and paintings.
He was beatified in 1982 by Pope John Paul II, because of his pious life and the amazing quality of his paintings. He was especially good in painting the most beautiful depictions of the Virgin Mary. One of his great works is the Coronation of the Virgin in the Uffizi Museum.
Who is Filippo Lippi? Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) was born in Florence. After his parents died and his aunt could not take care of him anymore, he was sent to a Carmelite convent. Unlike Fra Angelico, he lived a far-from-pious life, though he officially remained a friar throughout his life. He left the convent at age 26 and later in his life he even married and got a child, the well-known painter, Filippino Lippi.
The Medici family recognized the talents of Filippo Lippi, and during his career, he completed at least nine paintings for them. One of his most famous works is the Madonna and Child with Two Angels in the Uffizi Museum.
Fun fact: An analysis by the National Gallery of Art has revealed that this painting was created over an extended period of time. It also seems that some of the animals in the painting were not initially included in the design, but only added later on, possibly by another painter than Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi.
Analysis revealed, specifically, that the peacock, falcon, pheasant, and hunting dog were added on top of areas that were already painted. This was probably under the influence of the Medici brothers Piero and Giovanni. Note that the birds are painted bigger than they should realistically be, compared to the rest of the painting, to emphasize their symbolism. They distract the viewer from the real theme of the painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
What do you see? Ugolino is sentenced to starve to death together with his children. This sculpture shows the moment that Ugolino considers cannibalism. He is depicted together with his four children, all naked, but is ignoring his children in this sculpture. He looks desperately in the distance and is biting his fingers and pulls his lip down with them. He holds his head in the palm of his hand. He is contemplating the consequences of his sins. He is sculpted as a muscular man even though he is starving to death. He is bending forward and has his feet on top of each other.
The four children are in different states of suffering, and they beg their father to eat them such that he can stay alive. The oldest boy seems most energetic. He has his fingers in the flesh of Ugolino’s leg to emphasize his begging. The second oldest son on the right is also holding his father with both hands. The second youngest son on the left sits on top of his oldest brother and has already lost most of his remaining energy. He has his left arm on his father’s leg. The youngest son is on the bottom right and while he is the only one with a peaceful expression he appears already dead.
Carpeaux is telling a story with this sculpture, something that is very difficult to do in a sculpture. He was able to sculpt the skin, muscles, and veins very realistically and to express the strong emotions of the different subjects. The more you look at the details of this marble statue, the more "alive" the subjects become. For example, you can see Ugolino’s agony by the curve in his spine, and even the toes of Ugolino are curled to show his agony.
Different versions of this statue: Several sculptures of Ugolino and His Sons have been made. Carpeaux got the idea of creating a sculpture of Ugolino and his sons in 1858. He started by making a plaster version of it, which he completed in 1861. This version is in the Petit Palais in Paris. After that, in 1862, he created a bronze version which is now in the Musée d’Orsay. The final version he created was the marble version in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rodin was inspired by the sculptures of Carpeaux and, in 1881, he made a plaster version of Ugolino and His Children which is in the Musée Rodin in Paris.
Backstory: This work is created under the supervision of Carpeaux and is based on canto 33 of Dante’s Inferno (which is the first part of the Divine Comedy). In this book, Dante travels through the nine circles of hell. Each circle contains people who are convicted in hell for a different sin. In the ninth circle, he meets Count Ugolino della Gherardesca (c. 1220-1289), who was convicted for treachery. In 1288, Ugolino worked together with the archbishop Ruggieri to take control of the factions in Pisa. However, in this process, Ruggieri betrayed him and locked Ugolino up in prison.
More precisely, Ugolino was imprisoned together with his children and grandchildren in a tower and condemned to starve to death. His children begged Ugolino to eat them to survive, and his hunger was stronger than his sadness about his dying children. It is unclear whether Ugolino ate his children in the end.
In Dante’s story, Ugolino’s eternal punishment in hell is that he is stuck up to his head in the icy waste of Antenora which is the punishment for political traitors. Meanwhile, he is chewing the head of Ruggieri (the person who betrayed him in real life) who is also stuck in the ice.
Who is Carpeaux? Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875) was born in Valenciennes, France and died in Paris. In 1854, he moved to Rome, where he got inspired by the Renaissance artists such as Donatello, Michelangelo, and Del Verrocchio.
Carpeaux suffered a lot during his life, both mentally and physically, and you can see that back in some of his extreme works. His sculptures are known for the emotions they evoked among the viewers, and he distinguished himself with his style from his contemporary colleagues. He is considered one of the greatest sculptors of his time, though most people consider Antonio Canova (who was born before him) and Auguste Rodin (who was born after him) to be even better.
Fun fact: The sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is placed very close to the entrance of the Petrie Court Café. It is ironic that this sculpture with the theme of starvation is so close to the Café. While this may be a coincidence in itself, another statue that deals with starvation is also close to the Café. Rodin’s bronze The Burghers of Calais sculpture shows six leaders of the city of Calais who are starving and have a rope around their neck as they will be executed soon. The marble statue of Carpeaux is also next to the statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Antonio Canova.
Where? Room E203 of the J. Paul Getty Museum
What do you see? A young Saint John the Evangelist sits in a room. He has red cheeks and wears a red/pink robe with a bold red cloak over his shoulders. He looks up into the light which represents the divine inspiration for the writing of a Biblical book.
Saint John holds a quill pen (a pen made of a bird feather) in his right hand, and he has just dipped the pen in the pot with ink on the bottom left. He presses his left hand pressed to his heart to indicate his personal faith that helped him to write the Biblical book.
On the right is an eagle which is one of the attributes of Saint John the Evangelist. Frans Hals used broad visible brush strokes to create this painting. His brush strokes are more refined in the face of John. He also makes brilliant use of the light to depict John the Evangelist.
Backstory: This work is one of the few religious paintings by Frans Hals. About eighty percent of his works are individual portraits of upper-class people, wedding portraits, or group portraits. The remainder of his work consists mostly of genre paintings. The painting of Saint John the Evangelist is part of a series of four paintings of the apostles, with the other ones being St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke.
Who is Saint John the Evangelist? The author of the Gospel of John, the fourth book in the New Testament. Before becoming an Apostle of Jesus he was a fisherman. However, it is not certain if the Apostle John is also the author of the Gospel of John, as the author does not clearly identify himself in his writings. He is the only apostle that was not killed because of his faith in Jesus. Some people also attribute the Book of Revelation to him, though this is also a point of debate among scholars.
Who is Hals? Frans Hals the Elder was born by the end of 1582 (or early 1583) in Antwerp, Belgium, and died in 1666 in Haarlem, The Netherlands. His brother and five of his sons were also painters. Frans Hals is primarily known for his portraits. He had a loose painting style, which means that he used relatively few (but long) brush strokes to depict something. You can often see the brush strokes in his paintings. He painted based on his intuition and was uniquely able to capture the emotions and characteristics of the people he painted.
Together with Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals is generally considered the best Dutch painter of his time. While living around the same time, the three of them all had unique styles and never met each other in person.
Another interesting painting of Hals is the Portrait of René Descartes, the father of modern Western philosophy. This painting is in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. There are several copies of this painting among which one is in the Louvre in Paris.
Fun fact: This work is part of a series of four paintings in which Frans Hals depicted each of the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. All four paintings were lost since 1812 and were only rediscovered during the 20th century.
Cornelis Hofstede de Groot mentioned the four paintings in a catalogue raisonné in 1910, but not much attention was given to these mentions as they seemed to be atypical in Hals’ oeuvre. This changed in 1958, when Irina Linnik, an art historian for Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art, rediscovered the paintings of St. Matthew and St. Luke. These two paintings can still be seen in the Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa.
In the 1970s, Claus Grimm identified the painting of St. Mark, which is now in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. The Getty Museum paid $2.9 million for St. John the Evangelist in 1997, when it was rediscovered by Brian Sewell when the painting was brought in for evaluation at the auction house Sotheby’s.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 18 of the National Gallery
Commissioned by? Nicolaas II Rockox, a kind of mayor of Antwerp
What do you see? Samson and Delilah are lying in a bed. The very muscular Samson is almost naked and sleeping on the lap of Delilah. He is only wearing an animal skin (possibly of a lion that he killed with his bare hands) around his middle. Delilah is wearing a white dress with a red satin cloak and has her breasts exposed. Her face shows a gentle expression and her left hand is placed on the shoulder of Samson.
The man behind Samson cuts his hair which was the source of Samson’s extraordinary strength. On the left side, an old woman is holding up a candle to provide enough light to cut Samson’s hair. On the bottom right, below Samson and Delilah, is an expensive woven carpet. On the top right, the Philistine soldiers are waiting outside the door with their weapons to capture Samson after his hair is cut. In the background of the room are various decorations. Notably, on the top left is a statue of Venus and Cupid. A large purple curtain surrounds the statue.
Backstory: This painting was acquired by the National Gallery in 1980 for about $6 million. At that time, it was the second-most expensive painting in the world. This painting hung originally above a very large fireplace in the house of Nicolaas II Rockox. The bottom of the painting was about three foot/meter above the floor. Rubens created the painting such that it is best appreciated when viewed from below, though it is difficult in the current museums to hang a painting that high above the floor. A preliminary study for this painting is in the Cincinnati Museum of Art.
The Biblical story of Samson and Delilah: The story of Samson is described in Judges 13-16. He was a judge of the Israelites and received an immense strength from God to fight his enemies. The only condition to not lose his strength was that he could not cut his hair. He used his strength multiple times against the Philistines, the enemy of the Israelites.
However, as described in Judges 16, one day he falls in love with the Philistine girl Delilah. The Philistines bribe Delilah to help them to capture Samson. Delilah asks Samson multiple times what the secret of his strength is such that the Philistines can get rid of it. After telling a couple of lies first, he finally tells her that the secret is that he cannot cut his hair and that he never did (interestingly, his hair is rather short in this painting).
Delilah makes Samson fall asleep in her lap and a servant cuts his hair. When the Philistines come to capture him, God has left Samson and he has lost his strength. He gets captured by the Philistines and is put in prison. After that Samson got his strength back one more time from God and killed himself and more Philistines than he had done his entire life.
Symbolism: The moral of this painting is that love can cause problems. Some people even suggest that this painting portrays a brothel and if that is the case, the message of Rubens is that you should not visit those.
The crossed hands of the man cutting the hair of Samson symbolize betrayal. The statue of Venus and Cupid in the background shows that the mouth of Cupid is covered by a cloth such that he cannot speak. This is an uncommon way to depict Cupid and symbolizes the belief of Samson that love (represented by Cupid) can lead to bad outcomes.
Who is Rubens? Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) is one of the most famous Baroque painters. Between 1600 and 1608, he spent a considerable amount of time in Italy and visited, among other cities, Venice, Florence, and Rome. He was able to see a lot of art masterpieces there and was particularly inspired by the works of Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. In 1608, he moved back to Antwerp where he started his extensive studio.
Rubens developed a unique painting style with an emphasis on color, movement, sensuality, and light. He created a large number of paintings, including religious ones such as the current painting and Daniel in the Lions’ Den in the National Gallery of Art, and mythological paintings such as Prometheus Bound in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Fun fact: There has been quite some debate over time about whether Rubens actually created this painting. While there is no doubt that Rubens created a painting of Samson and Delilah, the question is whether the version in the National Gallery is the one that Rubens painted or whether the real Rubens has been lost.
An important argument that this may not be a Rubens is related to a copy of the real Rubens painting in 1613 by Jacob Matham. There are several differences between the copperplate engraving of Matham and the painting of Rubens, such as the right foot of Rubens which is not entirely in the painting, the position of the old woman, the statue of Venus and Cupid in the background, and the carpet.
The main argument that this painting is not by Rubens is that the copy by Matham is more in line with the other paintings of Rubens than the painting in the National Gallery. However, nowadays most people believe that Rubens did make the painting in the National Gallery.
Where? Gallery 217C of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art
What do you see? A group of six saltimbanques (who are traveling circus artists) against a pale background with a cloudy blue sky. The people look somber and have little expression on their faces. Picasso intended to picture the isolation and melancholy of these people. The tall harlequin on the left probably represents Picasso. He wears a suit with diamond shapes on it. He holds one hand on his back, and with the other hand he holds a young girl with a basket of flowers.
The obese man to the right of Picasso is a jester with the name Tio Pepe. He wears a bright red suit and a pointed jester hat and holds a bag over his shoulder. The young man to his left only wears his underwear and holds a drum on his shoulder. The boy to his left, wearing a colorful blue jacket, is a juggler.
The woman on the right, with the bright orange-red skirt, probably represents the girlfriend of Picasso, Fernande Olivier. She wears a Mallorcan costume, and she has the same flowers on her head as the small girl has in her basket. To the left of the woman is a Spanish pitcher.
Backstory: Saltimbanques were traveling circus artists who could do a variety of tricks. The word saltimbanques literally means “somersault over a bench.”
Picasso created this painting during five different stages over a period of nine months. He sought for perfection and was not happy with the work at the end of the first four stages.
The people in this painting seem to resemble Picasso and some his friends in Paris. The men from left to right resemble Picasso, Apollinaire, Andre Salmon, and Max Weber, and the woman on the right Fernande Olivier.
Picasso did not name the painting himself as he usually did not give titles to his work. In 1931, Chester Dale bought this painting and it went to the National Gallery of Art after his death in 1962.
What is the Rose Period? The Rose Period refers to the period between 1904 and 1906 in the career of Picasso. It follows the Blue Period, which was between 1901 and 1904. In the Blue Period, Picasso suffered from depression after the suicide of a good friend. He primarily used somber blue and blue-green colors and focused on painting themes like hopelessness, loneliness, and poverty.
In 1904, Picasso got into a good relationship with Fernande Olivier and his style changed to more happy themes and colors. In the Rose Period, he primarily used colors like red, pink, and orange, and focused on themes like acrobats, clowns, and harlequins. His paintings during this period were mainly based on his intuition rather than the direct observation of the people he depicted.
The harlequin dressed in clothes with a checkered pattern was a frequently returning figure in his works, just like you can see in this painting. Another example is At the Lapin Agile in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Who is Picasso? His full name is Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. He was born in 1881 in Malaga, Spain, and died in 1972 in Mougins, France.
When Picasso was 19 years old, he traveled to Paris, the art capital of Europe during that time. Over the next few years, he lived partly in Paris and partly in Barcelona. In Paris, he frequently visited the circus (sometimes multiple times per week) and the theater with friends and found his inspiration to paint circus artists.
In 1905, he met Henri Matisse in Paris and they became friends for life. Picasso created many masterpieces and one of the most famous works he created, right after the Rose Period, is Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Where? Second floor, room 818 of the Richelieu wing in the Louvre
When? Between 1435 and 1440
Commissioned by? Nicolas Rolin, the Chancellor of Burgundy under Duke Philip the Good.
What do you see? Nicolas Rolin kneels down in front of the Virgin Mary who is holding Baby Jesus. Rolin's hands are folded in prayer, and he has an open book on his lap. He does not seem to look at Mary and Jesus. Mary wears a red gown with jewelry in it and looks down with humility. Baby Jesus has his right hand raised to bless Rolin and holds an orb with a cross (called a globus cruciger) in his left hand.
In the background, you can see a city on the left, a river and bridge in the middle, and several church towers no the right, above the head of Jesus.
Backstory: This painting is also known as The Virgin with Chancellor Rolin or The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin. The painting entered the collection of the Louvre in 1805.
Nicolas Rolin commissioned this painting for the Saint Sebastian chapel (the Rolin family chapel) in the Notre-Dame-du-Châtel church in Autun, near Dijon in France. This was the church that Rolin visited when he grew up and where his ancestors were buried. Rolin was the main patron of this church, and there was even an elevated walkway from his house to the church such that he could enter it at any time.
Symbolism: The cross that Jesus holds in his left hand reminds the viewers that Jesus died for the sins of mankind. The three arches in the middle background represent the Holy Trinity, God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The peacocks are a symbol of immortality. The flowers in the middle symbolize different virtues of Mary.
Behind the praying hands of Rolin is a church tower to symbolize his faith. The church towers behind Jesus signify him as the center of the Church. The bridge in the background unites the common people and the Church. Some people have identified the city in the background as the New Jerusalem, but others are not so sure about this interpretation.
Who is Van Eyck? Jan van Eyck was born around 1390 in Maaseik, Belgium, and died in 1441. He is one of the most important representatives of the Northern Renaissance. Until 1429, he was a court painter of Duke Philip the Good, which explains why he was asked for this painting. During this time, he undertook several diplomatic missions across Europe for the Duke. Among other countries, he visited Italy, where he could learn from the innovative Italian painters.
Van Eyck was ahead of his time by using a realistic and naturalistic style in his work. This was, in part, possible because he was one of the first painters who used oil paint. He has had a big influence on future artists, including Sandro Botticelli. One of his most famous works hangs in the National Gallery in London and is The Arnolfini Portrait, which was probably painted a year before the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin.
Fun fact: The capital above the head of Rolin contains some very interesting details. It contains the following scenes:
However, Van Eyck seems to have freely interpreted these Biblical stories as he has altered some details. For example, to the left of Noah, four men are depicted. These men should represent the sons of Noah. However, Noah only had three sons. It seems likely that Van Eyck has altered these scenes to draw some parallels with Rolin’s life. Rolin, for example, had four sons and each of the ‘sons of Noah’ seem to represent the different roles of the sons of Rolin.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 14 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 the 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.
Where? Room X on the First Floor of the Kunsthistorisches Museum
Commissioned by? Niclaes Jongelinck, a Belgian art collector and banker.
What do you see? In the left foreground, a group of peasant hunters and their dogs trudge through heavy snow as they return home from a search for food. It looks like their day was largely unsuccessful as only one hunter carries the cadaver of a small fox, and the dogs look somewhat underfed. Slowly, they pass by a group of villagers roasting corn over a fire at the inn on the far left. The sign hanging above the inn falls lopsided, skewed, maybe by the wind.
In front of the hunters are the footprints of a small animal, perhaps a rabbit that has escaped them. The dogs continue sniffing at the ground in the hopes of finding it. The hunters can already see their village. Tiny figures and silhouettes are scattered across the frozen waters as they play curling, hockey, and skate around in groups. Even further behind them are more white and brown houses surrounded by dead trees and black birds, bridges, and pointed towers all dwarfed by the massive snowy mountains that loom over the entire scene.
Backstory: Pieter Bruegel the Elder created Hunters in the Snow as part of his series, the Seasons. Bruegel painted scenes of autumn, winter, early spring, early summer, and summer and a sixth painting of spring has not survived. The surviving pieces of this series include: The Gloomy Day, The Harvesters, The Return of the Herd, and The Hay Harvest. Two of these paintings are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, one is in Prague, and the last painting is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The six part series once included a painting of spring that was lost.
The Seasons were commissioned for the dining room of Nicolaes Jonghelinck, a wealthy merchant and art collector from Antwerp. It’s likely that the paintings were spread out as a frieze on all four walls of the room, creating an immersive experience for the viewer. Hunters in the Snow is Bruegel’s depiction of winter.
As with all his pieces, Bruegel packs each of his works with such great detail that many of the miniature scenes he creates are impossible to see with the naked eye. With these details, he crafts a realistic and immersive scene that draws viewers in and plants them into a familiar but fantastical world. Much of his work is concerned with the life of the peasant whom he respected. He gave viewers a look into the parts of their daily life.
Who is Bruegel the Elder? Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a Dutch painter who was born near Breda in 1525. Bruegel began his art career in 1555 at the Antwerp School of Art, where he created many engravings, mostly on the topic of sin, learning from the style of Hieronymous Bosch. In 1563, Bruegel left Antwerp and moved to Brussels where he would remain until his death. During this time, Bruegel began to paint more, creating his Seasons series as well as his Massacre of the Innocents in the Royal Collection in London. Much of his work was focused on day-to-day life and reality, standing in contrast to the Renaissance movement in Italy during this time.
Towards the end of his life, Bruegel painted in a “large-figure” style that sought to imitate the rhythm of dance. Works in this style include his The Blind Leading the Blind and The Land of Cockaigne. His attention to reality and detail made him one of the world’s first truly modern painters. Bruegel died in Brussels in 1569.
Fun fact: Bruegel the Elder incorporated many details in his paintings, something that was characteristic of the Northern Renaissance style. A century before, Jan van Eyck had started this style. But Bruegel took this to another level. Some of these details can barely be seen with the naked eye. One of these includes a little hunter with a rifle shooting at some birds on the right side of the painting. With these minuscule details, Bruegel is able to create a world full of depth and truth.
Where? Gallery 6 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned for? Most likely, either the engagement or marriage of Ginevra de’ Benci.
What do you see? The 16- or 17-year old Ginevra de Benci is painted. She is wearing a brown dress with blue laces and gold edges, and a black scarf. Below the dress she wears a subtle white blouse with a golden pin. She has a porcelain-like skin and her hair is styled in ringlets. Her expression is, one the one hand, a bit grumpy, and on the other hand, she seems proud. Her eyes emphasize this. Her left eye (for the viewer) is looking at the viewer, but her right eye seems to be looking down on something. Experts have interpreted the facial expression of Ginevra as an indication that she is not happy with the (upcoming) marriage. Note that Ginevra has only light eyebrows. Shaving the eyebrows was common at that time for women and can also be seen in the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.
Behind Ginevra is a juniper bush. The halo of spikes from the juniper leaves contrast nicely with the depiction of Ginevra. In the right background are the mountains, trees, water, a small town, and the hazy sky, which are typical for Leonardo da Vinci’s style.
Back of the painting: On the back of this painting is another painting from Leonardo da Vinci, called Wreath of Laurel, Palm, and Juniper. It shows a juniper sprig, with a circular arrangement of palm and laurel around it. It also includes the inscription “Virtutem Forma Decorat”, which means “beauty adorns virtue.”
Backstory: This painting was created to commemorate Ginevra de’ Benci’s engagement or marriage to Luigi di Bernardo Niccolini. Sources have shown that the wedding between both of them took place on January 15, 1474. Bernardo Niccolini was twice the age of Ginevra. During the Renaissance, women were typically only depicted when they got engaged or married.
This is the first known portrait that Leonardo da Vinci painted and the only painting of him in the Americas that is available for public viewing. It was bought in 1967 for $5 million.
Symbolism: The juniper bush represents chastity, which was considered to be one of the most important moral standard for women in the Renaissance. At the same time, juniper is a reference to Ginevra’s name as juniper translates into Italian as “ginepro”.
The laurel and palm on the back of the painting symbolize, respectively, the intelligence and moral values of Ginepra. However, the laurel and palm were also the personal emblem of Bernardo Bembo, who was thought to have a platonic affair with Ginevra. Bernardo Bembo was the Venetian ambassador to Florence, and he probably commissioned the back of this painting (and according to some also the front of the painting, but this is not proven).
Who is Ginevra de’ Benci? Ginevra de’ Benci (born in 1457 or 1458) was the daughter of a wealthy Florentine banker. She was considered to be one of the most intellectual people of her time and was a poet. Later in her life, Ginevra was exiled at her own request because of an unknown illness and tragic love affair.
Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was born in the Italian village of Anchiano, which was very close to Vinci, which is where he got his name from. He was an architect, astronomer, engineer, inventor, mathematician, musician, painter, writer, and much more. Leonardo da Vinci is known to be one of the biggest multi-talented people that the world has ever seen. He created this painting while he was still a student of Andrea del Verrocchio. Other well-known paintings by Leonardo da Vinci include his Madonna Litta in the Hermitage Museum and Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre.
Fun fact: About one-third of this painting is missing. At some point in history, someone cut off the lower third of the painting, probably because it was damaged. Based on a drawing of Leonardo da Vinci, it is believed that the part that is cut off probably shows Ginevra folding or crossing her hands in her lap. It is a pity that this part is missing as Leonardo was a specialist in drawing hands. With his diverse interests, he was obsessed by the anatomical correctness when he painted parts of the human body. Ginevra was possibly holding a flower in her hand to symbolize devotion.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas of Ginevra de' Benci; poster of Wreath of Laurel, Palm, and Juniper.