Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 254 of the New Hermitage building in the Hermitage Museum
What do you see? Six(!) people in front of an arched doorway. On the left, an old man lovingly embraces a young and bold man who bows his head in humility. This is his son who returned after a long time. While the father is dressed in beautiful clothes, the son is not. He wears old clothes with holes in it, and his sandals are worn and broken. He still wears the dagger on his belt that he needed to defend himself in the outside world. On the right is the older son of the old man. Dressed in a red cloak, he has his hands folded while holding a cane. He looks at his younger brother with a mix of disapproval and envy. It is not certain who the other three people in this painting are. The woman in the middle background may be a sister or the mother of the prodigal son. The seated man with a mustache may be an older servant. On the top left, barely visible, is the silhouette of a female servant. Rembrandt uses light to emphasize the important aspects of the painting. The father and son are fully in the light, the older son is partially in the light, and the other people are in the darkness.
Emotions in this painting: Like few others, Rembrandt is able to convey the emotions of the subjects in his painting. He has lived an eventful life and knows what it is to miss his children. People recognize the emotions in this work and this is the main reason that many are deeply touched by this work. You can see the father’s love in the embrace, and the tenderness in the way he puts his hands on his son’s back. Looking at his face, we can identify multiple emotions at the same time: grief about his son’s past behavior, relief that his son is back, and the love in being able to embrace his son. Rembrandt is able to include multiple emotions at once in this painting, which is different from some earlier work that he did on this subject as illustrated in the two pictures below. The first picture is an etching from 1636 and the second one a drawing from 1642.
The parable of the prodigal son: Luke 15: 11-32 describes a famous story that Jesus told to the Pharisees about a rich man and his two sons. The parable illustrates the Christian ideal of mercy. It relates to Luke 15:7, where Jesus says that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who regrets his sins than over 99 good people who need no change. The parable describes that the younger of two sons asked his father for his share of the inheritance and left. He wastes his money and lives like a fool until he runs out of money. One day, he realizes how foolish he has been and decides to return home to his father and beg him for forgiveness. The father is very happy to get his son back and organizes a big party. The older son, however, is not so happy. While his younger brother was wasting his money and feasted with prostitutes, he has continued to work hard for his father’s business and has never gotten such a big party. The father tells the older son that everything he has is also owned by him, but that on this day he celebrates the life of his youngest son.
Backstory: This is the last major painting Rembrandt painted during his life, and it is probably the best-known of his religious works. The painting combines two elements from the Biblical story. The meeting between the father and the younger son, and the separate meeting between the father and the older son. According to Luke 15, the older brother is not present when the father is reunited with his youngest son. However, just like in the parable that Jesus told, it is not clear in this painting whether the oldest son will walk away from his younger son or will eventually welcome him back as well.
Moral message: Rembrandt did not use any clear symbols to convey the main message of this painting. He just shows the emotions of the father and the two sons, which convey two important Biblical lessons. The father shows what mercy is and the son shows that you can always ask for forgiveness for your mistakes. And the older son? He is not sure yet whether he can put his jealousy aside and forgive his younger brother.
The Prodigal Son by other artists: To better understand what makes this painting by Rembrandt so special, it is helpful to compare Rembrandt’s version with those of some famous colleagues of him. In 1654/1655, Guercino painted a colorful and idealized version of The Return of the Prodigal Son in the Timken Museum in San Diego. And between 1667 and 1670, Murillo created his version in the National Gallery of Art, and Jan Steen painted the same subject, on display in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. All versions have their unique elements, but none of them comes close to the powerful way in which Rembrandt incorporates human emotions.
Who is Rembrandt? Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) was a very talented painter from The Netherlands. He is considered as one of the most influential Baroque painters. Rembrandt had an eventful life in which he experienced many extreme situations of prosperity and adversity. Earlier in his career he was financially very successful, happily married, and got children. However, soon after, three of his children died in childhood, his wife died at age 32, and he faced financial difficulties. As illustrated by the current painting, Rembrandt was very good in painting human emotions. He painted many realistic self-portraits during his life in which his face reflects his state of mind and the events in his life. Rembrandt’s most famous work is The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. However, he has also painted an occasional mythological work of very high quality, like The Abduction of Europa in the Getty Museum.
Fun fact: Look at the hands of the father in this painting. They are quite different. His right hand has a lighter color than the left hand. And, the fingers on the right hand are longer and thinner than those on the left hand. The right hand is feminine, and the left hand is masculine. The reason for these differences has been debated quite a bit over the years. One explanation is that the hands represent both the hand of the father and the mother of the prodigal son as God can assume both roles for us.
Where? The Nachtwachtzaal in the Eregallerij on the second floor of the Rijksmuseum
Commissioned by? The Guild of the Sharp Shooters under the command of Captain Frans Banning Cocq
What do you see? The Amsterdam Guild of the Sharp Shooters which consists of eighteen people. The painting is full of action and movement. In the center, you can see Captain Frans Banning Cocq (the man with the black hat) and his lieutenant Ruytenburch (dressed in white) stepping into the light. The captain is dressed in an elegant black outfit with a red sash. He holds a cane and a glove in his right hand and stretches his left arm forward to indicate that the guild members should start marching. The lieutenant indicates with the lance in his left hand the direction in which they should march. On the right, the drummer confirms that the guild should start marching by hitting the drum. The other men are grabbing their weapons, which include muskets, lances, and pikes. Behind the young girl to the left of the captain is the flag carrier. On the complete left of the painting is the sergeant who is carrying a, so-called, halberd. The man in red is filling his musket with gunpowder. In between the captain and the lieutenant is a man firing his weapon (you can just see the smoke to the left of the hat of the lieutenant). In addition to the members of the guild, some other figures are included. For example, on the right of the painting is a somewhat unfinished dog barking and on the left of the captain are a young boy and a girl running excitedly. The young girl has a dead chicken hanging from her belt (which probably symbolically refers to the emblem of the guild). On the middle top, a shield is included with the names of all the members of the guild.
Backstory: This painting is more formally known as The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch or Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banning Cocq. The city of Amsterdam owns it and the current value is estimated to be over $500 million. Over the years, the paint in this work became darker, and that is the reason that in the 18th century the painting was called The Night Watch. However, there is no clear evidence that this scene is set in the night. This is the largest painting by Rembrandt. It cost the guild at least 1600 guilders and each member contributed their share of money to pay Rembrandt. Not all members of the guild were happy with the final painting. The captain and his lieutenant were obviously happy with their prominent position, but the other members were not as happy as they were shown in the dark. In 1715, the painting was moved from its original location, and pieces from each side of the painting were cut off, whereby the painting lost about 20% of its original size. A copy of the Night Watch by Gerrit Lundens provides an indication of the missing pieces.
Who is Banning Cocq? Frans Banning Cocq (1605-1655) is best known as the Captain of the Guild of the Sharpshooters. This guild protected the city against attacks and uninvited guests. However, Banning Cocq was also the Lord of Castle Ilpenstein and became the mayor of Amsterdam in 1650 (just like his father-in-law had been before).
Who is Rembrandt? Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in Leiden in The Netherlands in 1606 and died in 1669 in Amsterdam. He was a very talented drawer, etcher, and painter. His talent for incorporating light and shadow allowed him to drag the viewer into his often dramatic paintings. In his personal life, Rembrandt suffered a lot of setbacks. For example, around the time that this painting was finished, the wife of Rembrandt died. However, this did not affect his productivity as in the following years he seemed more productive than ever. He also lost three children shortly after birth. Rembrandt was able to create a wide range of different paintings, including genre paintings, biblical paintings, mythological paintings, landscapes, and even animal paintings. Some other well-known works by Rembrandt include Saul and David and The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, which are both in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
Fun fact: The painting has been damaged on several occasions over time. In 1913, a man attacked the painting with a knife. In 1945, the director of the Rijksmuseum fell on top of the painting, though this did not damage the painting. The most significant damage was caused in 1975 when a man hit the painting twelve times with a knife. The damage can be seen in the picture below. In 1990, a man sprayed acid on the painting, but the damage could be limited by an alert security guard who immediately applied demineralized water to the painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links)
CC BY-SA 3.0 NL Nationaal Archief
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? 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.
Where? Room 17 of the San Diego Museum of Art. A copy of this work is on display in the Statens Museum for Kunst.
When? c. 1636-1638
Commissioned by? King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria
What do you see? A portrait of Henrietta Maria, the Queen of England. She sits on a chair wearing an elaborate blue satin dress which is decorated with jewelry, including a large brooch at her chest and several pieces of jewelry in the form of a fleur-de-lis (a Catholic symbol especially popular in Henrietta Maria’s birth country of France. She also wears a very expensive pearl necklace, earrings, and a diadem. She had received these pearl jewelry from her mother when she married. In her left hand, she has two pink roses. This was her favorite type of flower, and she wanted roses to be included in many of her portraits. On the left, her crown stands on a table. Finally, notice the long pointy fingers of Henrietta Maria, an aesthetic feature considered beautiful during that time.
Backstory: Anthony van Dyck painted many portraits of Queen Henrietta Maria. However, the queen did not pose extensively for each of these portraits. Usually, she posed briefly for Van Dyck such that he could draw the outline of her portrait. The queen was then replaced by a stand-in model who would wear the same clothes as the queen. Van Dyck idealized the portrait of the queen. In reality, she was less pretty than she appears on these portraits. In reality, she was a short woman, but Van Dyck makes her appear as rather tall. The willingness of Van Dyck to idealize his sitters is one of the reasons that the royal family of England kept coming back to him with more commissions.
Who is Queen Henrietta? She was born in 1609 as the daughter of King Henry IV of France. Henrietta Maria of France was 15 years old when she married Charles I who had, months before, become the King of England, Ireland, and Scotland. This made her a queen. She was not very popular in England as she did not master the language well and she was Catholic in a Protestant country. However, she formed a strong bond with King Charles I. Henrietta Maria and Charles I were both art collectors. They commissioned works from some of the leading artists of the day, including Guido Reni, Peter Paul Rubens, and Anthony van Dyck. In 1632, Van Dyck made a family portrait of them which is on display in Windsor Castle.
Other portraits of Queen Henrietta: On August 8, 1632, Charles I commissioned Anthony van Dyck for the first time to paint a portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria. After this first portrait, numerous other portraits of her followed. Most of these portraits were painted by Van Dyck, but for some of them, he got the help of his assistants. Many of the portraits show Henrietta Maria by herself. For example, in 1638, Van Dyck painted the Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria in the Hermitage Museum. In some other portraits, she is depicted together with some members of her family or entourage. One example is Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson in the National Gallery of Art. In total, about 88 portraits of Henrietta Maria are known. These portraits are not only painted by Van Dyck, but also by other painters like Hendrik Gerritsz. Pot and Johannes Vorstermans.
Who is Van Dyck? Anthony van Dyck was born in 1599 in Antwerp. He was a very talented painter who started his training as a painter at age 10 and became an independent artist when he was 16 years old. He became the most important assistant of the leading painter of the day, Peter Paul Rubens, who painted a portrait of Anthony van Dyck in 1627/1628. While he never surpassed Rubens in terms of popularity, he achieved international fame with his work. In 1632, Van Dyck was invited to the court of King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria. That same year, he was knighted by the royal couple. They commissioned numerous portraits from him, not only from members of their own family but also for foreign friends and ambassadors.
Fun fact: An almost identical portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria of England is owned by the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. It is probably of a copy of the version in the San Diego Museum of Art and has been painted by either Van Dyck himself or his workshop. There are a few differences between both paintings. Most noticeable are the brighter colors in the Copenhagen version which are clearly visible when comparing the dress and the crown in both versions. It also seems as if the version in the San Diego Museum of Art has been cut off on all four sides. Moreover, the Copenhagen version shows a bigger cleavage, earrings on both sides, and a curtain in the background that matches with Henrietta Maria’s dress.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Room 15 of the Mauritshuis
When? Around 1665
What do you see? An unknown girl is painted against a black background. The girl is shown from the side but turns her brightly lit face towards the viewer. She is wearing a large, pear-shaped, shining pearl earring. On the top left of the pearl, the light is reflected, while at the bottom there is a less visible reflection of her white collar. The size of the pearl is similar to the size of her eye, which means that it is a very large pearl compared to the pearls we commonly see in contemporary pearls used for jewelry. Vermeer painted similar earrings in Girl with a Flute and Girl with a Red Hat, which are both displayed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The girl in this painting is wearing exotic clothes. She wears a brown-yellow jacket with a white collar and a blue turban around her head with a yellow cloth that hangs down. Her mouth is slightly open, and her red lips contrast nicely with the color of her face. She is looking mysteriously at us. People do not agree on what emotions she expresses. For example, is she happy or is she sad? Notice also the technique of Vermeer in this painting. You can see his brush strokes in her clothing, but her face consists only of invisible brush strokes which adds to the tranquility of this painting. Vermeer included the famous reflection of light in the pearl earring, but when you look carefully, the light also reflects in her eyes and her lower lip.
Backstory: After the death of Vermeer in 1675, the painting was probably owned by Pieter van Ruijven, the patron of Vermeer. After that the ownership of the painting is unclear. However, in 1881, this painting reappeared and was sold at an auction in The Hague for two Dutch guilders and thirty cents to the art collector Arnoldus Andries des Tombe. This amount is equivalent to a bit more than $1 at that time, and this amount would be worth about $28 nowadays. The painting was in a bad state at that moment, and the painter of it was unknown. While restoring the picture, it was discovered to carry the signature of Vermeer. In 1902, Des Tombe died, and his collection of paintings was donated to the Mauritshuis. It stayed there until 2014, but when the Mauritshuis was remodeled, the painting went on a world tour. After it came back, the Mauritshuis swore that the painting would never leave the museum again, just as, for example, The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli in the Uffizi Museum. Nowadays, the painting is also known as the Mona Lisa of the North because of the curious expression of the girl.
What is a tronie? This painting is a so-called tronie. A tronie is a study of a face that stands out, a particular expression of the face, or the expression of a particular character. To create a tronie, an anonymous model was used. In the case of this painting, it is indeed unknown who the model was. The word tronie comes from the Dutch language and means ‘face’. Tronies were particularly popular in the 17th century in The Netherlands and were popularized by Rembrandt. Another example of a tronie is Gypsy Girl by Frans Hals, which is in the Louvre in Paris.
Girl with a Pearl Earring in popular culture? In 1999, the author Tracy Chevalier wrote a fictional book entitled Girl with a Pearl Earring (Amazon link). This book has been inspired by Vermeer’s painting and has been sold over three million times. In 2003 the book was made into a similarly-entitled movie (Amazon link) with Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.
Who is Vermeer? Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was born in Delft in The Netherlands. He lived there his whole life. He married in 1653 with Catharina Bolenes and they got 15 children together. Vermeer took a lot of time to complete a painting, on average about four months. While he was perceived as a good painter by his contemporaries in Delft, he was largely unknown outside his hometown. Vermeer was familiar with the works of some other Dutch painters, but his work has almost not at all been influenced by foreign artists. Other well-known works of Vermeer include The Milkmaid in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and View of Delft, which is also in the Mauritshuis.
Fun fact: Pearls can be found inside the shell of a mollusk. Most pearls come from oysters, but they can also come from snails. The biggest pearl in the world is about 34 kilos (75lbs). So, even though large pearls do exist, it is very likely that the girl in this painting is not wearing a pearl earring, but an earring made of some metal. The reason is the reflection of the light in the earring which would only be possible if it is made of a metal object such as tin or a mix of tin and silver. The painting was initially known under several names, such as Girl with a Turban, but none of these names included the word pearl. However, in 1995, the Mauritshuis changed the name of the painting to the Girl with a Pearl Earring, and despite the doubt about whether it is really a pearl the Mauritshuis decided not to change its name again.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Second floor, room 846 of the Richelieu wing in the Louvre
When? Between 1626 and 1628
What do you see? A prostitute smiling provocatively. She has half of her breasts exposed. The use of light emphasizes her expression and cleavage. She wears a white linen garment with a salmon-colored bodice on top of it. She has rosy cheeks and looks to her left (our right). It seems that she is seducing a potential client. By 17th- and 21st-century standards, the woman is not very pretty. She has a somewhat big nose, not a very smooth skin, and her hair is somewhat unkempt. However, her facial expression is so intriguing that this work leaves a lasting impression on those who view the painting. Frans Hals used loose and rough brush strokes for this painting. While Hals is known for his loose brush strokes, in this painting he used them more than in most of his other works. The style used for this work helps to make The Gypsy Girl very memorable.
Backstory: Louis La Caze owned this painting in the 19th century. He was a doctor from Paris and an avid art collector. He gave the name The Gypsy Girl to this painting. This title is not very accurate as he did not recognize that Frans Hals actually painted a prostitute. La Caze left this painting for the Louvre after his death in 1869, together with 568 other paintings. When the Louvre received the painting, the influential newspaper Gazette des Beaux-Arts praised Hals as the best painter ever.
Malle Babbe: This painting is also sometimes referred to as Malle Babbe. However, this name is incorrect as Hals has another painting entitled Malle Babbe. This painting is in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. The confusion can be explained as a popular Dutch song, entitled Malle Babbe, was written in 1970. This song was inspired by the Gypsy Girl. However, the writer of the song, Lennaert Nijgh, mistakenly thought that The Gypsy Girl painting was called Malle Babbe.
Who is Hals? Frans Hals the Elder was born in 1582 or 1583 in Antwerp, Belgium, and died in 1666 in Haarlem, The Netherlands. When Hals painted The Gypsy Girl, he was inspired somewhat by the works of Caravaggio. However, Hals differed substantially from Caravaggio as he left out many (distracting) details in his paintings and focused on the composition and the expression of his subjects. This allowed Hals to give his subjects a personality. While Hals was a popular local painter during his life, his works were largely forgotten after his death. The Impressionist painters rediscovered his work in the 1860s. Artists like Manet and Monet were inspired by the lack of detail, beautiful composition, and the loose brush strokes of Hals. The work of Hals has only gained in popularity since. Some beautiful works of Hals include his series on the four evangelists, of which Saint John the Evangelist is in the Getty Museum, and the Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Fun fact: Radiographic analysis of this painting revealed that Frans Hals initially wanted to paint a less provocative version of this woman. Her breasts were smaller and less exposed. However, Hals decided to make the painting more provocative. This painting shows more cleavage than any other painting by Hals. The open mouth of the woman is also a telltale sign. Decent women from the 17th century would never be depicted with a smile or open mouth in a portrait as that was considered indecent.
Where? Room 6 of the Prado Museum
When? Around 1600
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? David is tying the hair of Goliath with a rope after he beheaded him. This would allow him to carry the head with him and show it as proof that he killed Goliath. David wears a white fabric that he tucked into his beige pants. He bends down with his left knee on top of the shoulders of the beheaded body of Goliath. David is concentrated on his task and does not show any sign of triumph. It seems a serious and necessary task that he is completing. On the left, we can see the large right hand of the giant. Goliath has thick curly hair and a black beard. We can also see the wound on his forehead where the stone from David’s sling hit him. Caravaggio created a strong contrast between light and dark to emphasize the important body parts in this painting. The right leg, back, and arms of David are in the light, as are the head, shoulders, and right hand of Goliath.
Backstory: The exact date that Caravaggio painted this work is unclear, but experts believe that he created this between 1596 and 1600. The painting was taken to Spain after Caravaggio completed it. There, it had a big impact on the Spanish artists of that time. This painting is based on the Biblical story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. However, this story does not mention that David used a rope to tie the hair of Goliath. This is just a free interpretation of the Biblical story by Caravaggio.
Other versions by Caravaggio: Caravaggio painted David with the Head of Goliath a total of three times at different stages of his career. In 1607, he painted his second version, which is on display in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In this version, David grabs the hair of Goliath to hold his head in his hand. The third version from 1610 is in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. The second and third versions are quite similar. The main differences are the age of the head of Goliath and the way in which David holds his sword.
David and Goliath: 1 Samuel 17 describes the story of David and Goliath. Israel was at war with the Philistines. The Philistines had a hero called Goliath who was over 9 feet (2.75 meters) tall. Goliath proposed every day to the Israelites that instead of letting the armies fight each other, they should send one man to fight him. If Goliath would win the fight, the Israelites would become slaves of the Philistines, and if Goliath would lose, the Philistines would become slaves of the Israelites. David convinced King Saul that he should fight Goliath. He went out of the army camp to meet Goliath, wearing no armor but bringing a walking stick, a sling, and a bag with five smooth stones. He put a stone in his sling and threw it at Goliath, hitting him between his eyes. Goliath fell, and David took Goliath’s sword to kill him by cutting off his head. He took the head of Goliath back to Jerusalem but kept his sword and spear for himself.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was born in Caravaggio near Milan, Italy. In 1592, he fled to Rome to escape a conviction in Milan. Around 1600, he became very popular and was probably the most sought-after painter in Rome. He received the most prestigious commissions, and many people enjoyed the contrasts, drama, and emotions he included in his works. In the years after he painted the first version of David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio painted several other masterpieces, including The Entombment of Christ between 1602 and 1604 in the Vatican Museums and Death of the Virgin between 1601 and 1606 in the Louvre.
Fun fact: X-ray analysis revealed that Caravaggio initially wanted to paint a much more expressive version of Goliath. Underneath the canvas are traces of another design of the head of Goliath. In that design, Goliath has a much more terrifying expression on his face and his eyes almost pop out of his head. This version was more like the painting of Medusa of which Caravaggio painted two versions. The first version from 1596 is in a private collection and the second version, from 1597, is in the Uffizi Museum. However, the unknown commissioner of David with the Head of Goliath in the Prado Museum probably rejected this initial design after which Caravaggio settled on a more conservative version of Goliath’s head.
Where? Gallery 14 of the Legion of Honor Museum
Commissioned by? Joris de Caullery
What do you see? The portrait of a confident, 32-year old member of the civic guard in The Hague. Joris de Caullery is dressed in the costume of a civic guard member. He holds a type of musket (called a caliver) in his right hand and has his left hand on his hip. He wears a shiny shoulder-belt (called a bandolier) in which his sword hangs. Above the shoulder-belt, he wears a gorget, a piece of armor that covers the neck. But we can still see the purple-grey sleeves of his jacket and the sleeveless yellow doublet made of soft leather that he wears on top of the jacket. When he would get into action as a civic guard member, he would add a big piece of armor over that to protect himself. The cords of the doublet near his shoulders were used to attach the arm and shoulder pieces of his armor.
Use of light: The young Rembrandt, only 26 years old, is already revolutionary in the way he incorporates light into his paintings. The contrast between light and dark allows him to emphasize the important elements of this portrait. Rembrandt illuminates parts of the armor and the tunic, as well as the face of Joris de Caullery. The ability to paint the soft flesh and detailed muscles and wrinkles around De Caullery’s eyes sets Rembrandt’s portraits apart from most of his contemporaries. However, this painting is not considered one of Rembrandt’s masterpieces. Over time, he would get even better in incorporating light in his paintings. For example, in this work, it is not so clear where the source of light is located. In later works, Rembrandt would incorporate the light more naturally, and we can understand better where the light is coming from.
Backstory: In 1632, Rembrandt went to The Hague to create several portraits, among which the portrait of Joris de Caullery and a portrait of his son (which has not been identified with certainty yet). The painted came officially in possession of the museum in 1966 through a gift from the Roscoe and Margaret Oakes Foundation.
What is the civic guard? Most cities in the 17th-century Dutch Republic had a civic guard. This was a voluntary organization consisting of citizens of the city to safeguard the city. A civic guard was typically led by one colonel, one provost, and a few captains, lieutenants, and sergeants. These people came from the upper class and taking such a leadership role was an honorary job. These people liked to be portrayed in this role. Frans Hals made several group portraits of the civic guard in Haarlem, including The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1639 in the Frans Hals Museum. And in 1642, Rembrandt made the most famous of these group portraits. The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam shows the leaders of the Amsterdam civic guard. The bulk of the civic guard members, however, consisted of middle- and lower-class citizens of the city. There are few portraits of those people as they did not have the money to commission a portrait.
Who is De Caullery? Joris de Caulerij (or Caullery) lived between 1600 and 1661 in The Hague, close to the Mauritshuis, where he was a member of the civic guard. In 1635, he listed as one of the lieutenants in the civic guard. In his daily life, he worked in the navy where he became a captain and was praised for his courage. After his military career, he became a successful wine merchant. During his life, Joris de Caullery commissioned several well-known artists to make portraits of him and his wife. According to records, these artists included Anthony van Dyck and Jan Lievens. However, these other portraits – possibly except for one – have not been recovered yet.
Who is Rembrandt? Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in 1606 in Leiden and died in 1669 in Amsterdam. Together with Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer, he is considered to be the best painter from the Dutch Golden Age. Rembrandt was very productive during his career and was an excellent draughtsman, etcher, and painter. He painted a large variety of themes, including biblical, mythological, and contemporaneous subjects. Among them is The Return of the Prodigal Son in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Rembrandt also loved to paint portraits of himself, other individuals, and group portraits. Besides his famous The Night Watch, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp in the Mauritshuis in The Hague is also a highly-admired work by Rembrandt.
Fun fact: On Christmas Eve of 1978, thieves stole four 17th-century paintings from De Young Museum (which is together with the Legion of Honor Museum part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). In 1999, three of the four stolen paintings were recovered when they were left anonymously in a box at an auction house in New York. Among the recovered paintings was the Portrait of a Rabbi that was attributed to Rembrandt, though there was (and is) doubt about this attribution. The value of that painting at the time of the theft was estimated at $1 million, and the combined value of the other three paintings was about $75,000. The thieves were not that smart though as during the theft they did not take the portrait Joris de Caullery which hung in the same room and was unequivocally attributed to Rembrandt. The value of this painting was estimated to be $25-40 million in 1989.