Where? Room 702 on the first floor of the Louvre
What do you see? A young courtesan rests atop some brightly colored blue and ochre fabrics from the east. She is surrounded by treasures from the orient—a bejeweled mirror just behind her, a red hookah at her feet, and beautiful patterned drapes that hang from above. She is nude, except for the exquisite oriental headdress atop her head and a few golden bracelets on her wrist. Her elongated right arm holds a beautiful peacock feather fan. She is modestly seductive, her eroticism simultaneously augmented and veiled by the mysticism of the east.
Backstory: La Grande Odalisque was commissioned in 1813 by Napoleon’s sister, Caroline Murat, the Queen of Naples. The painting was admitted into the Salon of 1819 but received harsh criticism for a number of reasons. Firstly, this nude by Ingres was different from many reclining nudes of the past as those were painted in a mythological context, making them more appropriate for public display. The most famous work in this genre is the Venus of Urbino by Titian. Ingres, instead, veiled his nude in the mysticism of the east, a theme emphasized by many neoclassical painters like David and Delacroix. Nonetheless, the eroticism caused much discourse. Secondly, Ingres received criticism for his exaggerated and inaccurate rendition of human anatomy. Influenced by the 16th-century Mannerism art movement, Ingres elongated the body of his subject in numerous areas including her spine, right arm, and left leg.
Who is Ingres? Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was a French painter born in born in 1780 in Montauban. His father was an artist and musician, and his mother was a wigmaker. His parents exposed him to the arts from an early age; he enrolled in art school, studying both sculpture and painting. In 1797, Ingres began studying with Jacques-Louis David, and, in 1799, he was admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Eventually, he won the Grand Prix de Rome, a prestigious art prize. While in Rome, he was commissioned by the Murat family in Naples to paint several portraits, though he never received payment for these paintings because of the fall of Napoleon’s empire. Stranded in Rome with no patronage, Ingres resorted to making portraits for English tourists. Soon, Ingres returned to France where he regained popularity with his The Vow of Louis XIII. However, he also continued to paint portraits including his portraits of Madame Moitessier, of which one version is in the National Gallery in London and another version in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Fun fact: When looking at the woman, you can clearly see in her lower back that she has a few more vertebrae than normal. Critics of La Grande Odalisque often estimated that Ingres had added three extra vertebrae to his figure. However, a study conducted in 2004 showed that Ingres had actually added approximately five vertebrae to his model. This number was calculated by measuring female models and scaling them to the size of Ingres’s painting. Such an elongation suited the personal taste of Ingres who was influenced by Mannerism. He thought long and curved lines accentuated the sensuality and beauty of a figure.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? First floor, room 700 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
What do you see? A moment about two hours before the survivors of a shipwreck are rescued. After spending 13 days on a raft on the open sea – surrounded by big waves – the surviving members of The Medusa noticed a ship on the horizon (see the tiny ship on the horizon above the guy on the right with a red garment around his upper legs). Some of the survivors frantically try to get the attention of the ship. However, they are unsuccessful at first and only two hours later the ship locates the raft and the survivors are rescued. The improvised raft carries 20 people. It seems that there are four or five dead bodies, mostly in the foreground. The survivor that reaches highest is an African man. Géricault gave this man a very prominent place as a political statement against slavery. The man stands with his right leg on a barrel of wine, which is the only liquid they had to drink on the raft. In the left foreground, a father with a red cloth holds the dead body of his son in front of him.
What it the Raft of the Medusa? The Medusa was a French warship. In 1816, it left from Rochefort, France, in the direction of Senegal, where the British would hand over the port of Saint-Louis to the French. The ship carried 400 passengers. Navigational mistakes caused the ship to run aground in shallow water about 30 miles (50 km) from the coast of Mauritania. The ship was damaged, and the passengers needed to be evacuated. However, there were not enough lifeboats to carry everybody. The majority of passengers used the lifeboats to get to the African coast. About 150 people got on an improvised raft of 66 ft (20m) long and 23 ft (7m) wide (see the picture below based on a drawing of one of the survivors). There was very little food on the raft, it was half underwater, and could not be steered. So, these people were lost at sea. Many of them died because of a lack of food, fights, suicide, or cannibalism. When the raft was discovered by a rescue ship 13 days later, only 15 people were alive (of which five died within days after their rescue). Two survivors wrote a book about their experiences and the full text of that book is available for free.
Backstory: Within two months of the rescue, the first accounts of the brutal journey of the raft of the Medusa appeared in French newspapers. These stories caused a big scandal in France and the government tried to cover it up unsuccessfully. Géricault got inspired by these stories and wanted to start a painting about it. He spoke to two survivors to get an even better idea of what they experienced. He picked a specific moment from their survival story as the subject for this large painting. He also tracked down the carpenter that helped to build the raft from the wooden deck of the Medusa and asked him to create a smaller-scale replica in his studio. Many of the preparatory sketches by Géricault for this painting are still available. A more elaborate sketch that is also on display in the Louvre is shown below. All this preparation resulted in a brilliantly-executed painting. According to many, this is the most famous painting from the Romantic art period.
Moral: The moral is one of despair, hope, and persistence. After 13 days, the people on the raft finally see a ship that could rescue them. However, the ship does not seem to see them. Some people in this painting are still trying to get the attention of the ship, while others have already given up, turned around, and sit down in disappointment.
Who is Géricault? Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) was a painter and lithographer from France. He is one of the founders of Romanticism, an art movement that was further developed by Eugene Delacroix. While Géricault received some formal training, he was largely self-educated. He got his inspiration from Michelangelo, Gros, and especially Rubens. He was a specialist in painting horses. His first masterpiece, The Charging Chasseur, which is also in the Louvre, was accepted for the Paris Salon of 1812. Two years later another painting of him got accepted by the Salon, entitled The Wounded Cuirassier, which is on display both in the Louvre and in the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York.
Fun fact: This painting by Géricault was a controversial one and Géricault was aware of that. The painting was a political statement against the government who had failed in appointing a proper captain to the Medusa and, subsequently, tried to cover up their mistakes in handling the aftermath. Géricault used a canvas of 23.6 ft (716 cm) wide and 16.1 ft (491) cm high, making the figures in this painting larger than life-size. He knew that he would not sell this painting as it was too big for a private home and the government would not buy it. The painting got accepted for the 1819 Paris Salon and immediately went viral, becoming the talk of the town. As expected he did not sell it, but he earned some money when the painting toured various exhibitions in Europe – where the painting was well received.
Where? Ground floor, room 403 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
Commissioned by? Colonel John Campbell
What do you see? The moment at which the lifeless body of Psyche is just brought back to life by Cupid. The figures of Cupid and Psyche (except the wings) are positioned in a pyramid shape, which creates a stable form for the sculpture. Cupid sits on one knee on top of a rock and holds Psyche by her head and breast. He has large wings pointing straight up into the air and wears his arrows in a quiver on his back. Psyche reaches up to Cupid and has her hands on his head. She lets her head hang back and they are about to kiss. Her long hair reaches all the way to the ground. She has a cloth wrapped around her lower body. Behind them lays the flask with the ointment that Psyche had collected from the underworld. Directly to the right of the flask is Cupid's arrow, which he used to wake up Psyche.
This story symbolizes the big efforts and challenges a human must undergo to achieve happiness and immortality. Look also at the precision with which Canova created the smooth bodies of Cupid and Psyche. This smoothness contrasts nicely with the wrinkly texture of the sheet wrapped around Psyche and the rougher texture of the rock on which they sit. Near the right foot of Psyche is a handle, which was originally included to turn the sculpture around as it was worth seeing this sculpture from all possible angles.
Backstory: This sculpture is based on a story the Roman writer Apuleius wrote in his book Metamorphoses, chapters four, five, and six (you can download the book here for free). In short, Psyche was considered the most beautiful woman alive, and Cupid fell in love with her. The painting Cupid and Psyche in the Cleveland Museum of Art by Jacques-Louis David shows the couple after they made love. The goddess Venus was jealous of Psyche's beauty and sent her on a very dangerous journey to the underworld to collect a flask with Proserpina’s beauty ointment. Psyche succeeds with the help of Cupid. Venus instructed Psyche not to open the flask, but after she completes the journey, she could not resist and opened it to take some of the content. But instead of becoming more beautiful, the ointment makes her fall in a very deep sleep as Proserpina had filled the flask with sleep of the innermost darkness. Cupid forgives Psyche and revives her. He asks for the help of Zeus who makes Psyche immortal and Cupid and Psyche marry and stay together forever.
Multiple Versions: Antonio Canova created another version of this statue for the Russian art collector Prince Yusupov. This version was made in 1796 and is now in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. It differs somewhat from the current version as Yusupov asked for some changes. For example, he wanted the cloth on Psyche to cover her legs completely. The favorite student of Canova, Adamo Tadolino, inherited the plaster model for this sculpture, which is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He used this model to create at least five known marble replicas of this sculpture with small modifications. He added, for example, small butterfly wings to the back of Psyche and created smaller wings for Cupid.
Who is Psyche? One of the three daughters of an unknown king and queen. She was very beautiful, and people treated her like a goddess. Venus was jealous of her beauty and the way she was treated. She asked her son Cupid to use his arrows to make her marry the ugliest of all human beings. However, when Cupid saw Psyche, he fell in love with her. Psyche's father went to an oracle to ask why her daughter had not married yet. The oracle said that Psyche should be left behind there immediately as otherwise terrible disasters would happen. Next, the god Zephyr blew her away and put her in a palace by herself. There, every night she made love to a person that she was not allowed to see. This person was Cupid. When she discovered this, Cupid fled. To get him back, Psyche followed the instructions of Venus to gather a beauty ointment from the underworld as described above.
Who is Canova? Antonio Canova (1757-1822) was born in Possagno, a small town in the Northeast of Italy. He studied arts in Venice and then moved to Rome at age 23 to start his own workshop. He completed several commissions for the Pope while in Rome. In 1802, he moved to Paris where he created several sculptures for Napoleon. He was inspired by the ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. He revived this classical style and Canova is considered to be the prime neoclassical sculptor. His sculptures are praised because of their perfect form and finish. The careful finish of the human bodies makes his statues look like real flesh and makes them come alive. An example of another great sculpture of Canova is Perseus with the Head of Medusa in the Vatican Museums, and a replica can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fun fact: Canova conducted extensive research to create this sculpture. The position of Cupid is copied exactly from a painting he saw in Herculaneum near Naples. After many sketches, he then created numerous clay figures of the sculpture. Unlike many other sculptors who created small-sized clay models for a sculpture, Canova created the clay models at their real size. This helped him to accurately sculpt his work in marble. Note that the flask and the wings of Cupid are sculpted separately and are inserted into the rest of the sculpture. For example, you can still see some marks on where the wings are attached to Cupid’s back. Finally, Canova had special curved chisel tools designed for him, which he used to carve out the sculpture’s most inaccessible places. This attention to detail makes him one of the most admired sculptors in history.
Written by Eelco Kappe
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.
Interested in a Copy for Yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? First floor, room 710 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
Commissioned by? Prior Bartolomeo Scorlione and the Confraternity for the Chapel of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in the church of San Francesco Maggiore in Milan.
What do you see? The Virgin Mary, the children Jesus and John the Baptist, and an angel are pictured in a triangular composition in a rocky environment. The Virgin Mary sits on the ground, which is referred to as the Madonna of Humility. She is the center of attention in this painting. The right hand of Mary is on the shoulder of John the Baptist (who is the child on the left). The left hand of Mary is right above the head of Jesus, which can be interpreted as a protective gesture. John the Baptist is folding his hands and is praying towards Jesus. At the same time, Jesus, who is directly to the left of the angel, is raising his right hand to bless John the Baptist. The angel most likely represents the Archangel Gabriel, even though the angel looks quite feminine (the painting of androgynous figures was a trademark of Leonardo da Vinci). The angel is pointing towards John the Baptist. In the background you can see the rocky grotto and a river, most likely inspired by the Dolomite Mountains, which are to the northeast of Milan. In the foreground and in the grotto various flowers and plants are depicted (including irises, lilies, and ivy). The painting has been finished using the sfumato technique, the smoky/hazy effects, which creates a somewhat magical atmosphere.
Backstory: The commissioner of this painting wanted Leonardo da Vinci to paint the Immaculate Conception (a Catholic dogma that Mary was born without sin) to serve as the center of an altarpiece for the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. This chapel is part of the Saint Francesco Grande church in Milan, and the chapel was founded before 1335 by Beatrice d’Este, who was the wife of Galleazzo I, the Duke of Milan. On the left and right of this painting would be two paintings of angels playing a musical instrument to complete the altarpiece. On the left is An Angel in Green with a Vielle painted by an associate of Leonardo, possibly Francesco Napoletano. On the right is An Angel in Red with a Lute by Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis. This work is thought to be painted entirely by Leonardo da Vinci, which is not always the case for paintings of Leonardo.
Symbolism: The rocks and caves represent sanctuary. The rocks also refer to Jesus, who is often called the rock of the Christian religion. The flowers and plants are carefully chosen. For example, the palm leaves, which can be seen behind the head of John the Baptist, are a symbol of Mary and a symbol of the victory of Jesus over earthly temptations. The angel is identified based on his wings. Mary is directly visible by her blue. This painting is one of the first known paintings in which the halos are left out. The halos were used in the Middle Ages to indicate that somebody was holy or sacred but were in contrast to the realistic painting style of the Renaissance.
What is sfumato? Sfumato comes from the Italian sfumare, which means ‘to evaporate like smoke’ and Leonardo da Vinci famously used the sfumato technique to create the atmosphere in his paintings. Leonardo applied the sfumato technique when the painting was almost finished by applying a coat of a mix of varnish and black pigment to create a hazy/smoky effect.
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. Leonardo was notorious for being substantially late in delivering his paintings and was not afraid to abandon projects halfway. Leonardo has created various famous portraits, including Ginevra de' Benci (in the National Gallery of Art) and the Mona Lisa (in the Louvre).
Fun fact: Interestingly, there are two versions of this famous painting. The other version of The Virgin of the Rocks is in the National Gallery in London. The version in the Louvre was the first to be completed and is much less conventional. For example, the version in the National Gallery contains halos on top of the heads of John the Baptist, Jesus, and Mary, and John the Baptist is carrying a cross with him (these elements are not present in the version in the Louvre). You can also see a clear difference in the face of Jesus. Also, in the National Gallery version of the painting, the angel is not pointing at John the Baptist and seems to gaze into the distance (as if the angel is dreaming/imagining this scene, instead of participating in it). The reason that there are two versions of this painting is that the Confraternity rejected the first version of Leonardo. It was not traditional enough (for example, no halos and a lack of symbolism) and thus did not suit the purpose of representing the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (which was the sole purpose of the Confraternity). Leonardo da Vinci considered the Louvre version of the painting a real masterpiece in which he could perfectly express his artistic ideas. After the Louvre-version of the painting was rejected, Leonardo created another version of this painting (the version in the National Gallery in London), which included all elements that the Confraternity asked for.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? The original is on the first floor, Room 700 of the Denon wing in the Louvre. A copy by David is in The Coronation Room of the Palace of Versailles.
Commissioned by? Napoleon Bonaparte
Also known as? This painting is officially entitled The Coronation of the Emperor Napoleon I and the Crowning of the Empress Joséphine in Notre-Dame Cathedral on December 2, 1804.
What do you see? A large number of almost life-size figures are present in the Notre-Dame Cathedral for the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte. This painting (979cm x 621cm) is one of the largest works in the Louvre. Napoleon is the person in the middle holding the crown, and the painting shows the moment that Napoleon is about to place the crown on the head of his wife Joséphine who is kneeling on a pillow. Napoleon wears his coronation robe, which is similar to the robes worn by Roman emperors. The person sitting to the right of Napoleon is Pope Pius VII. He blesses the coronation but is participating involuntarily under the pressure of Napoleon. The woman in the white dress sitting on a chair in the center of the painting is the mother of Napoleon. In the left foreground, you can see the two identically dressed (wearing black hats) brothers of Napoleon, Joseph (on the left) and Louis (on the right). To the right of Napoleon’s brothers are his three sisters (also identically dressed). From left to right, they are Caroline, Pauline, and Elisa. To the right of Napoleon's sisters, and again similarly dressed, are Hortense (the daughter of Joséphine) and Julie Clary (the wife of Joseph Bonaparte). In the background, Jacques-Louis David also painted himself as he was present at this event. Finally, look at the expressions of all the 204 faces in the painting. They all look quite serious, signifying the importance of this event.
Backstory: This painting captures an important event in history, and Jacques-Louis David was in the audience that day. On December 2, 1804, the 35-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself during a five-hour ceremony as the first Emperor of France, and he crowned his 41-year-old wife Joséphine as the first Empress. Before the French Revolution of 1789, France was a monarchy, but the revolution turned France into a republic. This painting shows the moment that Napoleon turned France back into a monarchy. He brought in Pope Pius VII from Rome to bless him at the event. The painting is a fairly accurate representation of history, but not everything in the painting is true. Several details are changed to favor Napoleon. For example, the mother of Napoleon, Letizia Bonaparte, was in Rome during the coronation, but she still received a prominent place in this painting. Napoleon's brother Joseph on the left was also not present at the event. When David finished the painting and Napoleon saw it for the first time, he said: “It is not a painting. There are people walking in this picture. Life is everywhere. David, I salute you. You have made me a French knight.”
Two versions: Jacques Louis David finished the original version of this painting in 1807. It was originally on display in the Palace of Versailles but was moved to the Louvre in 1889. Between 1808 and 1822, David painted a second version of this painting for some American businessmen. The Palace of Versailles acquired it in 1947. David painted this copy based on the preparatory drawing he had for the original, and the two versions differ slightly from each other, though the differences are minor.
Who is Napoleon? Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was one of the leaders of the French Revolution in 1789. He was a successful military leader, and he became a general in the French army at age 24. He was the leader of a coup in 1799 and eventually crowned himself as the emperor of France in 1804. Napoleon was married to Joséphine who is crowned in this painting. He divorced her in 1809 because she could not get children (even though she got two children from her previous husband). He later married Marie Louise, the daughter of the Emperor of Habsburg. He died in 1821 while in exile on the remote island Saint Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Who is Jacques-Louis David? Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was considered the best painter of his era. From a young age, he received a great education in arts. In 1774 he won the Prix de Rome, a prestigious art scholarship that allowed him to work for five years at the French Academy in Rome. He abandoned the dominant Rococo style and developed a Neoclassical approach. He was specifically inspired by the works of Raphael and painted many historical scenes inspired by ancient Greece and Rome. For example, in 1787 he painted The Death of Socrates, which is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. During the time of the French revolution, he was involved in politics and devoted himself to Napoleon who knighted him in 1803. In 1812, he painted The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries in the National Gallery of Art. David has taught many other well-known artists, such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Antoine-Jean Gros.
Fun fact: Napoleon thought it to be a good idea to have the Pope bless him in order to turn France into a Christian monarchy. However, it was common that someone who wanted to be blessed by the Pope traveled to Rome. Napoleon wanted instead for the Pope to come to France to establish his dominance in power over the Pope. The Pope, though, initially did not want to travel to Paris without a good religious reason. In the end, the Pope reluctantly agreed, having the idea that by coming to Paris he could get some favorable concessions from Napoleon to the Catholic Church. This, however, turned out to be a false idea and the Pope had to bless Napoleon against his will. Finally, at the moment the Pope wanted to crown Napoleon, he took the crown from the Pope and put it on his own head. This act was seen as a public humiliation of the Pope.
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 has his hands folded in prayer and 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. Above Mary, an Angel with rainbow-colored wings holds a crown. It seems that the Angel is going to crown Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Van Eyck included many interesting details in this painting. Several flowers are growing outside the building, including irises, lilies, and roses. Two peacocks walk around, as well as two magpies to the left of the flowers. Two small figures are in the background. One of them looks at the city while the other looks at the peacock. The meeting between Rolin and the Virgin Mary is situated in a beautiful, Roman-style, palace-like building on top of a hill with a view of the world in the background. You can see the stained glass windows on the top and sculpted figures on top of the columns. 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. 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. The painting entered the collection of the Louvre in 1805.
Symbolism: The cross that Jesus holds in his left hand reminds the viewers that Jesus died for our sins. 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 Rolin? Nicolas Rolin (1376-1462) was the Chancellor of Burgundy under Duke Philip the Good. He was Chancellor for more than 40 years and was instrumental in the successes of Burgundy and France during the 15th century. Together with his second wife, he founded the Hospice the Beaune, a charitable house for poor people to live in. In 1434, he commissioned a large altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden for the hospice. Van der Weyden painted Rolin and his wife on two of the back panels of the altarpiece. He also founded a new religious order called ‘’les sœurs hospitalières de Beaune’, which was a sisterhood of nuns who would care for the poor people in the Hospice.
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. He 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 this painting.
Fun fact: The capital above the head of Rolin contains some very interesting details. It contains the following scenes: Adam and Eve expulsed from Paradise, Abel killing Cain, and Noah’s drunkenness with the Ark on the top left. On the capital on the right side of the room is a scene about Abraham and Melchizedek. 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? First floor, room 711 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
When? Between 1503 and 1517
Commissioned by? Francesco del Giocondo, the husband of Mona Lisa.
What do you see? A half-body portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. She is sitting outside in a chair with a straight posture. Her curly hair hangs on her shoulders, and she has a transparent veil on her head (which may be a sign that she is pregnant). She is wearing a dress with a bit of lace and a scarf over the shoulders. The light skin of her contrasts nicely with the darker tones in the rest of the painting. Note that she has no eyebrows, something that was not uncommon in portraits from that time, though research has shown that the Mona Lisa may originally have had some faint eyebrows. Her hands are crossed and laying on an armrest. She looks at us with an ambiguous expression. Her eyes and her small mysterious smile have been intriguing to viewers all across the world. What is she thinking about and what is she looking at? The background shows a rocky landscape, and Leonardo da Vinci was the first to include such a background in a portrait painting. You can see almost snowy mountains, a winding road on the left and a bridge on the right. It seems that the landscape on the left and the right of Mona Lisa do not match up as the left side is lower than the right side.
Backstory: Mona Lisa means ‘my lady Lisa. The word ‘mona’ is a short version of Madonna, which means ‘my lady’. This painting is also known in Italian as La Gioconda named after her last name. This painting was a very innovative one in the time that it was painted due to its composition and the painting technique used by Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci accepted the commission for this painting during a time in which he had little money. However, soon after he received some big commissions and it took him, therefore, many years to complete this painting. While Leonardo da Vinci was traveling in France, this painting was acquired by King Francis I of France. So, he never delivered this painting to its commissioner. The painting remained in France ever since and Napoleon Bonaparte put the painting in his bedroom. In 1804, the painting was moved to Louvre and people could now see the painting that Napoleon was sleeping with. The painting is now displayed in a climate-controlled room and behind bullet-proof glass.
Sfumato? One of the things that makes this painting so popular is the use of sfumato by Leonardo da Vinci. This is a technique that Da Vinci developed in which he blended colors on the canvas. Sfumato is derived from the Italian word ‘fumo’, which means smoky. When we translate sfumato to English, it means something like soft or blurry. The transitions from light to dark are barely visible on the canvas, and you cannot see the brushstrokes on the painting. This transition is in stark contrast to the impressionist paintings, where the brush strokes are very visible. For example, look at Wheat Field with Cypresses by Van Gogh. The use of the sfumato technique leads to more realistic paintings. Other good examples of the sfumato technique are Da Vinci’s paintings of the Virgin of the Rocks of which one version is in the Louvre and another one in the National Gallery of Art. The sfumato technique had a big influence on other artists, including Raphael, who adopted this technique for some of his portraits.
Who is Mona Lisa? Born as Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini in the Republic of Florence in 1479, Lisa married with Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo in 1495. She was the third wife of Francesco, who was a merchant. He later became a government official in Florence. It seems that their marriage was based on real love, which was not that common during that time, and together they got five children. Francesco came from a family of art lovers and commissioned a painting of Lisa to celebrate the purchase of a new home. Mona Lisa lived a normal life and apart from this painting not much is known about her.
Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452-1519) was born in Vinci in the Republic of Florence. He is considered to be the ultimate Renaissance man as he was not only an artist, but also, amongst others, an astronomer, a geologist, an inventor, a mathematician, a musician, and a writer. Together with Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael, he is considered to be one of the four leading artists from the Renaissance. He created a large variety of art, but he often did not finish his works. Among his surviving works are various magnificent portraits including his Ginevra de’ Benci, which is in the National Gallery of Art.
Fun fact: In August of 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. This theft was a big shock as the Louvre was heavily guarded and it was a big mystery how the painting got stolen. However, it was not a complete disaster as, in 1911, the Mona Lisa was not yet considered to be one of the best paintings in the world yet. The robbery spurred a lot of attention for the painting in the media. One of the popular theories from those days was that Picasso stole the painting. The police even questioned Picasso but found no evidence against him. In 1913, the painting was retrieved when an employee of the Louvre wanted to sell the painting for $100,000 to an Italian museum. After this robbery, the Mona Lisa was suddenly one of the most special paintings in the world, and it has only grown in popularity since. Nowadays, about six million people visit the Louvre, and most of them want to see this painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster of canvas (Amazon links).
Where? First floor, room 700 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
What do you see? This painting represents what a revolution feels like for the people involved. The woman in the center, referred to as Liberty, is holding the French flag. She is standing on top of a barricade, which you can recognize by the pieces of wood and the cobblestones in the foreground. Liberty represents the struggle of the common people for freedom, but at the same time, she shows the energy and excitement that was part of a revolution. In her left hand, she holds an infantry musket. This is a rifle with a bayonet fixed to it, in case she would want to spear the enemies from close range. Liberty is depicted in a victorious pose, and she is showing her breasts to the people. She is surrounded by a mix of people from the French society. On her right is a child brandishing a pair of guns. At her feet is a day laborer from the countryside wearing a blue jacket (notice the red, white, and blue pattern in his clothes). The man to Liberty’s left with the black jacket and the top hat is someone representing the middle-class people (some say it is Delacroix himself, but there is serious doubt about this claim). The man in white on the left is a factory worker holding a saber. There is a sharp contrast between the victorious people fighting for the freedom of France and the dead people in the foreground. In the bottom right, you can see a dead soldier and a guardsman. In the background, you can see the smoke of the cannons. In the top right, you can see the city of Paris in the background with the two iconic towers of the Notre Dame. Finally, in the two spars of wood on the right, you can see the signature of the painter, reading “Eug. Delacroix 1830.”
Backstory: This painting commemorates the July Revolution of 1830 in France. During this revolution, King Charles X of France was brought down. Delacroix wrote in a letter to his brother that if he could not fight for his country, he could at least paint for his country. This painting served as a political poster for the revolution, and the idea was that people would sympathize with the freedom fighters on this painting. It took Delacroix about two months to complete the painting. The next he year he sold the painting to the government for three thousand French francs and, in addition, they awarded him a Legion of Honour, the highest French order for merits by military and civilians which was introduced by Napoleon Bonaparte.
July Revolution: After Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated in 1815, the monarchy was restored in France. On July 25, 1830, King Charles X signed four public announcements that were unfavorable to the common people. These announcements included the end of press freedom and a new voting system that favored the higher classes in society. On July 27, 1830, the citizens of Paris started the July revolution (also called the Second French Revolution) against King Charles X. The civil war lasted three days, and on August 2, 1830, Charles X officially abdicated. His successor was Louis-Philippe, the cousin of Charles X, who became the new king (until he was brought down in the Third French Revolution in 1848).
Symbolism: The woman holding the tricolor represents the goddess of Liberty. The tricolor was the flag of liberty and is now the French national flag (do you also see the tricolor on top of the Notre Dame?). For this painting, Delacroix was inspired by the Venus of Milo (which is also in the Louvre), and by showing Liberty’s breasts, he signals to us that she is partly a goddess. However, at the same time, Liberty represents a person fighting in the revolution. The different caps you see in this painting are representative of the different social classes that participated in the revolution. Do you see the simple hat of the factory worker on the left, the infantry hat of the young man below him who is holding on to the cobblestones, the top hat of the middle class, the cloth of the day laborer at Liberty’s feet, and the student hat of the boy on the right? The red cap that Liberty wears on her head is also a symbol of liberty. This cap is called a Phrygian cap, which is a soft cap in the form of a cone and with the top pulled forward. The Phrygian cap is also called the liberty cap as, especially in artistic works, it represents freedom. This cap was popular during the first French Revolution between 1789 and 1799.
Romanticism? Eugène Delacroix is considered to be the father of French Romantic painting. At the beginning of the 19th century, there was an ongoing debate between Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres on what was a better way of painting. Ingres, who is considered to be a neoclassical painter, believed in the classical ideas such as simplicity, symmetry, and idealized beauty in art. However, Delacroix thought that the expressive potential of colors was much more important. He liked to depict moments of extreme emotions as you can see in this painting.
Who is Eugène Delacroix? Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was born in a small village close to Paris. He has made many large-scale paintings about contemporary subjects, which was a successful strategy to earn money around that time. His work was usually dramatic and romantic, and he knew how to express emotions in a painting. He was inspired by artists such as Titian and Rubens and is considered to be the father of French romanticism. He was a very productive artist, and after his death, 9,140 works were attributed to him, mostly drawings, but also 853 paintings. Many other French artists have been inspired by the works of Delacroix, including Degas, Manet, and Renoir.
Fun fact: The design of the Statue of Liberty in New York has been inspired by Liberty as created by Delacroix in this painting. The Statue of Liberty has been designed by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and has been given by France to the United States, where it was unveiled in 1886. However, several changes have been made to the statue compared to Delacroix’s depiction of Liberty: no nudity, no impression of violence, and a crown instead of a Phrygian cap. Liberty, as depicted in this painting, has also appeared on the French one hundred Franc banknote from 1979 till 1994 and since 1982 Liberty has also been featured on French postage stamps.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links).
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Second floor, room 837 of the Richelieu wing in the Louvre
What do you see? A seated man with long hair inspects an astronomical globe in front of him. Next to the globe lays an astrolabe, an instrument to make astronomical measurements. In front of the astronomer is an open book on astronomy on the table. The book is opened on a section on the stars. There are also some other books on the table, as well as a divider tool. The table is covered with a blue-green, thick tapestry with yellow flower decorations. The astronomer wears a voluminous blue cloak and gently touches the globe with his right hand. He is in the middle of his activities and Vermeer captures a frozen moment in time. It seems that he is making a discovery. The astronomer is the same person as the man in Vermeer’s The Geographer, which he painted one year later. In the background is a large closet with books on top of it. In front of the closet hangs a drawing of a chart with radial lines on it (a celestial planisphere). Below this chart is the inscription of Vermeer’s name and the date of the painting. On the right side of the wall hangs a painting on The Finding of Moses, which may be another painting by Vermeer that has gone missing. The Finding of Moses is also used in the background of Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid in the National Gallery of Ireland. The light is coming through the window on the left and Vermeer masterfully incorporates this light into the painting. The light illuminates the globe, the face and hands of the astronomer, and part of the tapestry of the table.
Backstory: This painting was sold several times together with The Geographer by Vermeer. The two paintings were probably companion pieces given the many similarities between the two (the same man, tapestry, and closet, as well as the similarity in the size and fabric of the paintings). The two professions often went together. A geographer was often also an astronomer at that time, as geography was related to the positioning of the stars. Globe makers at that time usually made both a celestial and a terrestrial globe. The terrestrial globe can be seen in Vermeer’s The Geographer. The Astronomer was considered the better of the two paintings. For example, in 1797, The Geographer was sold for an equivalent of $53 and The Astronomer for $108, both at the same auction. The painting has been in the Louvre since 1983.
Who is Vermeer? Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was a perfectionist in his paintings and did not quickly produce his works to earn money. However, because of this, and the eleven surviving children that he had, he died as a poor man suffering from depression. He often took multiple months to finish a painting and regularly completely repainted big parts of a painting. He is known for his brilliant use of light in his works and may have been inspired by Caravaggio for that. Vermeer had a preference for females in his paintings, and this is only one of two paintings in which a solitary man was depicted (the other one being The Geographer in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt). No known image of Vermeer has ever been painted. He is mainly remembered for his genre pieces, which include The Lacemaker in the Louvre and The Milkmaid in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Fun fact: Jacob Hondius created the celestial globe in this painting in 1600. It is the oldest known celestial globe in the world and is currently on display in the Scheepvaart Museum in Amsterdam (a great picture of the globe can be found on their website). The Dutch book in front of the astronomer is the second edition of Basic Volume on Geography and Astronomy (Google Books link) by Adriaan Metius (which means Adriaan the Measurer) from 1621. It is opened to the first two pages of the Third Book (pages 108 and 109), entitled On the Investigation or Observation of Stars. On the left page of the book is a cartwheel astrolabe invented by Metius, while the right page is full of text. The text describes that measurement tools, geometry, and inspiration from God are necessary for astronomical research.