Where? First floor, room 700 of the Denon wing in the Louvre. A smaller version is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art but is currently not on display.
When? The original is from 1827, and the smaller replica is from 1844.
What do you see? In the center, King Sardanapalus of Assyria, dressed in white, lays in his bed which is covered with bright red sheets. On the front corners of his bed are two large elephant heads. His bed stands on top of a large pyre. You can see some woodblocks making up the pyre behind the black slave in the left foreground and on the bottom right.
While rebellion forces surround his palace, Sardanapalus orders his eunuchs and palace officers to cut the throats of his mistresses. He did not want anyone or anything that gave him pleasure during his life to survive him. He has a calm and disinterested expression which contrast strongly with the cruel scene around him. Notice also that all mistresses and Sardanapalus wear expensive jewelry as the king also wanted his royal possessions to be burned with him on the pyre. On the bottom right is also a collection of crowns and jewelry that are about to go down.
Backstory: Delacroix got his inspiration for the theme of this painting from a play written by the English poet Lord Byron, who in turn was inspired by older texts on the story of Sardanapalus. In 1821, Lord Byron wrote a play called Sardanapalus: A Tragedy (Amazon link to this book) which describes the crazy story of the death of Sardanapalus. In preparation for this painting, Delacroix also consulted some older writings on the death of Sardanapalus. He combined all these sources to create a unique story on the death of Sardanapalus.
We can still identify some figures in this painting based on Lord Byron’s play. For example, the man on the left removing a spear from his chest is Salemenes, the brother-in-law of Sardanapalus. He just came back from the battlefield and will die after he removes the spear. And the woman lying on the bed is Myrrha, the lover of Sardanapalus. According to Lord Byron’s story, she was the only one with Sardanapalus on top of the pyre.
Who is Sardanapalus? According to the Greek writer Ctesias, Sardanapalus lived in the 7th century BC. He was the last king of Assyria, which was a very large empire in the Middle East between the 25th and 7th century BC. He lived an extremely luxurious life and was very lazy. According to Sardanapalus, the main purpose of life was physical desire. He followed his own advice, dressed in woman’s clothes, wore makeup, and was surrounded by many male and female mistresses.
As many people got annoyed by his lifestyle, a group of rebellions formed to defeat Sardanapalus and his troops. Sardanapalus went down in a typical fashion. As some point during the war with the rebellions, he thought that he had defeated the rebellions and started a big party. However, the rebellions came with reinforcements and defeated Sardanapalus, leading to the end of the Assyrian empire. Before he got caught, Sardanapalus burned himself together with many of his eunuchs and mistresses, and most of his royal possessions.
Who is Delacroix? Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was the leader of the Romantic painters in France. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was the main artistic rival during his life. Whereas Ingres was the leader of the school of Neoclassical painting, Delacroix believed in the Romantic style and was inspired by artists like Rubens, Tintoretto, and Veronese.
The style of Delacroix can be characterized by an emphasis on using colors and depicting emotions, and not on providing a clear composition and shapes of the people in his paintings. In 1830, he painted his most famous work, Liberty Leading the People, which is on display in the Louvre as well. The work of Delacroix has been important for the development of Impressionism later in the 18th century. Artists like Degas, Manet, and Renoir greatly admired the work of Delacroix.
Fun fact: This painting is the largest uncommissioned by Delacroix. He had high hopes of this work and created many sketches that are still available for this painting. Below are two pictures of sketches he made that are in possession of the Louvre.
The painting was first exhibited in the Salon of 1828 in Paris. The painting got many negative reviews. One viewer went so far as threatening to cut off Delacroix's hands such that he could never paint again. There were several reasons for these negative reactions, such as the messy composition and incoherent use of colors. Whereas the French State bought earlier paintings of Delacroix, they did not buy this one. Instead, Delacroix took it back to his studio where it stayed until 1845. He only sold the painting after he made a much smaller replica of the painting owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The larger painting was not on public display until 1921 when the Louvre bought it.
Nowadays, this painting is highly appreciated. Looking back, it is one of the early Romantic paintings. Whereas people in the early 19th century were still used to the clarity of the Neoclassical paintings by Ingres and colleagues, the Romantic paintings focused on showing emotions in a more chaotic setting.
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 young woman is leaning forward and is making lace on a blue pillow. She concentrates on her work and holds two pins and two small cylinders with threads around them. She uses a lacemaking technique in which the threads on the cylinders are unrolled onto the pillow. The threads are tied into knots, each stitch is pinned temporarily, and the pins move forward as new knots are made.
The woman wears a yellow dress with a white lace collar. Her hair has a couple of splits, with a braid on top, and, so-called, lovelock on her left (our right). A blue tablecloth with a large flower pattern is on top of the table. You can identify large green leaves and the yellow and red paint is part of the flowers.
On top of the table is a blue pillow, which serves as a workbox for making lace. White and red threads, probably from silk, come out of the cushion on the bottom left. To the right of the pillow is a yellowish book, which is probably a Bible.
Backstory: The Louvre bought this painting in 1870 for 1,254 French francs (which is equivalent to $254 at that time). It is the smallest among all paintings by Vermeer. The painting seems out of focus (even a bit abstract at places), something that Vermeer did on purpose to draw us closer to the painting to observe its details. Combined with its small size, this is indeed what many people do when looking at the painting.
Salvador Dalí has made a copy of The Lacemaker which is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Lacemaker by Vermeer is painted on a canvas with coarse fiber of 12 x 12 threads per square centimeter. Vermeer used the weave of the canvas as the wall in the background of this painting. The canvas for The Lacemaker is identical to the one Vermeer used for his Lady Seated at a Virginal in the National Gallery in London. In fact, the similarity in the canvas has helped to identify that painting as being made by Vermeer.
Who is Vermeer? Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was born in Leiden, The Netherlands. He was a very precise and slow-working artist, which led to paintings with great attention to detail, especially with regards to light effects, and great compositions. The light effects can also be found in this painting. Look, for example, at the sleeve on her right arm where he used simple shadows to paint the folds.
Vermeer used expensive pigments for his paintings, but only used a limited number of colors (only a total of 20 pigments have been identified across his paintings). He is well-known for using the very expensive ultramarine color in his paintings, including in this painting. Some of his most famous works include his Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis in The Hague and The Milkmaid in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Fun fact: Until the 19th century, lace was very expensive and was a great way to signify wealth and fashion. Its status was comparable to owning tapestries and jewelry. Lace was often depicted in white and painters used the whitest paint to include lace in their paintings. Making lace was not easy and was often a profession which required long working hours. Alternatively, it was a way for housewives to make some extra money.
There were even quite some schools for lacemakers where two different techniques were taught. One technique was to make lace using the cylinders (called bobbins) as seen in this painting. Another technique was called needle lace where lace was created using a needle to sew the lace. The courts in many countries included lace elements in the attire of the judges, and this practice has been ongoing for centuries, though many countries have now modernized the attire of the judges.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster
Where? First floor, room 711 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
Commissioned by? The Benedictines of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore to decorate their refectory (silent dining-room).
What do you see? This enormous painting of 7.40yd x 10.87yd (6.77m x 9.94m) shows the biblical story of the wedding at Cana in which Jesus converted water into wine. Jesus is sitting in the middle of the table, and Maria is sitting to the left of him (you can recognize them by their halos). They are surrounded by a mix of biblical figures and Venetian contemporaries of Paolo Veronese, including some of the other apostles, princes, Venetian noblemen, and servants. In total there are more than 130 people.
The bride and groom are in the left bottom corner sitting at the table. A servant is offering a glass of wine to the groom to taste the new wine. The bearded ceremonial master, dressed in a green mantle, is standing behind the servant. On the right, you can see a man pouring the wine from one of the white stone water jars into a smaller jar. To the left of him is the head wine taster, who approves the wine.
The wedding at Cana is illustrated as a lavish Venetian feast, evidenced by the abundance of 16th-century Venetian elements, such as the presence of Dorian (in the foreground) and Corinthian (in the background) columns, the clothing of many of the guests, the silver tableware, etc. Do you also see the dogs, birds, parrot, and a cat?
Backstory: This painting is based on the story of the wedding at Cana in the Gospel of John 2:1-12. Mary, Jesus, and some of the apostles are invited to a wedding in Cana. During this multi-day wedding, they ran out of wine, and Jesus gave the servants the instruction to fill six stone water jars, each holding 20-30 gallons, with water. The water turned into wine and was better than the earlier wine that was served at the wedding. This was one of the first signs of the wonders that Jesus could do.
It took Paolo Veronese 15 months to complete the painting (with some assistance of his brother). He created a very colorful painting, and some of these colors were very expensive and imported through the Silk Route from the Middle and the Far East.
Symbolism: On top of Jesus, on the balustrade, meat is being cut. This is most likely the meat of a lamb and refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God (we can interpret the meat cutting as symbolism as the wedding guests are already eating their dessert, which means that the meat was already consumed earlier). The dog that is chewing a bone at the bottom of the painting refers to the sacrifice of Jesus at the end of his life.
There are also several references to the wedding. The guests are getting quinces (a pear-like fruit) for dessert, which serves a reminder that bitterness and sweetness are mixed in a marriage. On the table in between the musicians stands an hourglass, which represents vanity. The dogs on the foreground of the painting are a symbol of loyalty.
Why the wedding at Cana? On the one hand, the wedding at Cana is a great subject to express the opulence and beauty of the Venetian life. On the other hand, it still presents a biblical story, which can remind the viewers of the importance of Jesus. In this painting, Jesus is not interacting with the other guests like you would expect based on the biblical story, but he looks straight at the viewer.
Jesus is sitting in the middle of the table instead of the bride and groom, who you would expect there. This shows that the religious motives (reminding viewers of the wonders that Jesus did) are more important than an accurate depiction of the biblical story. Other artists have also used the wedding at Cana as the theme of their paintings. Giotto created a fresco of the Marriage at Cana and Vasari created a painting of the Marriage at Cana.
Who is Veronese? Paolo Veronese (1528 – 1588) was born in Verona (which explains his surname). He is one of the three most important members of the 16th-century Venetian school of painters; the other members are Titian and Tintoretto. He is known for his large, dramatic, and very colorful paintings.
In his early years, Veronese used the Mannerist style, but later on, he returned, under the influence of Titian, to a more naturalistic style. Many of his magnificent works are nowadays on display in and around Venice. One painting that is outside Venice is The Family of Darius before Alexander, which is in the National Gallery in London.
Restoration: The painting has had a turbulent life.
Fun fact: This work is the biggest canvas painting in the Louvre and contains many funny details. Paolo Veronese included various contemporaries into the painting, not all of which we can identify nowadays. For example, the musician in white is a self-portrait of Paolo Veronese, and the musician in red is Titian.
In addition, you can find various animals in the painting. On the top left, you can see a dog looking down at the feast. There are also two dogs at the bottom left, two dogs in the bottom middle, and a small dog walks on the table on the right. At the bottom right is a cat curled around the white water jar. On the bottom left, you can also see a midget holding a parrot.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Where? First floor, room 712 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
When? Between 1595 and 1598
Commissioned by? Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte
What do you see? On the left is a gypsy woman. She is wearing a white shirt, a blanket fastened around her shoulder, and a wrap around her head. On the right is a young man from the upper class. The nobleman is dressed in an expensive brown and black jacket, a feathered hat, and a glove on his left hand (and in that same hand he is holding the glove of his other hand). He is also wearing a sword with a rounded knob (called a pommel) on the top, which seems to almost stick out of the painting.
Caravaggio is depicting a scene that could have been observed at that time in the streets of Rome. The gypsy woman is reading the right-hand palm of the young man to tell him his about this future. The woman is looking directly at the young man, who is looking back and is distracted by her beauty. In the meantime, the woman is stealing an expensive ring from his finger. You cannot see the ring, but we know that this is what the girl is doing based on another version of this painting which is shown below.
Backstory: Caravaggio probably used his roommate, Mario Minniti, a painter himself, as the model for the young man, and he probably asked a gypsy from the streets as the model for the woman. In 1665, the Italian Prince Camillo Doria Pamphili gave this painting to Louis XIV, and this is how it eventually got to the Louvre.
This painting is the second version of this subject by Caravaggio. Around 1594, Caravaggio had painted the original version of this subject which is in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. Caravaggio painted more often multiple versions of a painting, such as, for example, with his Medusa paintings of which one is in the Uffizi Museum in Florence.
In The Fortune Teller, Caravaggio differentiates himself from his contemporary and earlier Italian painters by not focusing on biblical or classical themes, but by creating a, so-called, genre painting. This is a painting based on scenes observed in everyday life. Genre paintings would become quite popular during the 17th century among painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt.
Differences between the two versions: The second version of this painting in the Louvre seems to be an improvement over the first version as Caravaggio made several changes that are not obvious at first sight.
What lessons can we learn? In this painting, Caravaggio expresses the bad reputation of the gypsies at that time as they were known to be untrustworthy and for stealing things from the richer people. He also expresses the lesson that female beauty easily deceives young men. Caravaggio was one of the first artists to depict the theme of the fortune teller, and this topic has been the subject of quite some future artworks. For example, Georges de La Tour painted around 1630 his version of The Fortune Teller in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was born in Milan, but when he was five years old, his family moved to Caravaggio (which explains his surname). After some trouble with the police, he left for Rome in 1592. There, he developed a unique style which combined a realistic depiction of the physical and emotional state of his subjects with an innovative way to include light in his paintings. His work was the basis for the Baroque movement, and he has influenced many future, well-known painters, including Rubens and Rembrandt. Two other well-known works by Caravaggio that he created around the same time as the above painting are Bacchus (in the Uffizi Museum) and The Musicians (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Fun fact: During the time that Caravaggio painted this work, he lived together with another painter, Mario Minniti. His roommate served as a model for quite some of Caravaggio’s paintings around that time, including the current painting, Bacchus, The Musicians, and The Lute Player.
In paintings after 1600, Minnite does not serve as a model anymore for Caravaggio as Minniti moved out to get married. This marriage got Caravaggio very angry. However, later on, their paths crossed again, and they allegedly were both involved in the killing of a man during a street fight in 1606. After this incident, both fled to Sicily to escape the police.
Where? First floor, room 710 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
When? 1507 or 1508
Commissioned by? Fabrizio Sergardi, a nobleman from Siena, Italy.
What do you see? The young Virgin Mary sits on a rock. She wears a red dress with golden sleeves, a dark blue mantle on top of that, and a veil around her head. She holds Baby Jesus with her hands and looks down affectionately at him. Saint John the Baptist is the boy to the right of Jesus. Baby Jesus reaches out with his left hand to grab the book that Mary holds. He looks up to his mother with a loving expression, asking her to read the book to him. The left foot of Jesus stands on top of Mary’s right foot.
The position of Jesus is similar to the one in the Madonna statue by Michelangelo – created between 1501 and 1504 – in the Onze Lieve Vrouwenkerk in Bruges. Saint John the Baptist holds a reed cross in his right hand and wears a camel skin. He looks at Jesus with an adoring gaze. All three figures have a faint halo above their head.
In the foreground is a beautiful garden with several plants and flowers, including violets, columbines, anemones, and dandelion leaves. In the background is a lake with mountains, some bushes and trees, and on the top right is a village.
Backstory: La Belle Jardinière means ‘the beautiful gardener’ and refers to the plants that surround the trio in this work. This painting is also known as Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist. This scene is based on a story in the book, Meditationes vitae Christi, in which the family of Jesus visits Saint John the Baptist on their way back from Egypt.
There is some speculation, based on the art history book by Vasari, that Raphael did not finish the painting. Vasari suggests that Ridolfo Ghirlandaio finished the last parts of this painting (to be precise, the blue mantle of Mary). Evidence against this claim is that Raphael signed and dated this painting in the mantle of Mary, suggesting that he finished it himself.
This painting was commissioned by Fabrizio Sergardi who sold it later to Francis I, King of France. The pyramidal composition of this painting is very similar to two earlier Madonna paintings by Raphael: Madonna of the Goldfinch in the Uffizi Museum (1505-1506) and Madonna of the Meadow (1506) in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Symbolism: The red dress of Mary symbolized the Passion of Christ and her blue mantle refers to the Church, which is the link between Mary and the crucifixion of Jesus. The book that Mary holds contains the story of the life of Jesus including the crucifixion.
While Saint John the Baptist is older than Jesus, he sits on one knee such that he is positioned lower than Jesus. This positioning indicates that Jesus is above Saint John the Baptist in the Christian hierarchy. Saint John the Baptist is holding a reed cross which refers to the sacrifice that Jesus will make at the end of his life by dying for the sins of humanity.
The reed cross and the camel skin are typical symbols associated with Saint John the Baptist. The violets in the right foreground are a symbol of the humility of the Virgin Mary. The columbines to the left of Jesus refer to the future sacrifice of Jesus.
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio was born in 1483 in Urbino, less than 100 miles east of Florence. Between 1504 and 1508, Raphael worked primarily in Florence where he created multiple Madonna paintings, including the Madonna of the Goldfinch in the Uffizi Museum, Madonna of the Grand Duke in the Palazzo Pitti, Madonna of the Pinks in the National Gallery, and the Alba Madonna in the National Gallery of Art.
In 1508, Raphael moved to Rome to work for the Pope. He stayed there until his death in 1520. His last painting was the Transfiguration which is now in the Vatican Museums. His works are often characterized as soft and sweet. He achieved the softness by using the sfumato technique, which he learned from Leonardo da Vinci. This technique mixes different colors in the painting to create soft transitions between different objects. The sweetness is achieved by the harmony in Raphael’s compositions. For example, in this painting he used a triangular composition, where the figures are neatly balanced in space.
Fun fact: There is some debate about whether this painting is the original one painted by Raphael. As Raphael’s painting was well-received, over time, many great painters, including Eugène Delacroix, have copied the painting. Therefore, many replicas of the painting exist. These copies have also spurred the debate on which version is the real Raphael. Another reason for the debate is that the whereabouts of this painting are somewhat uncertain between the 16th and 18th century.
A recent claim for the original was made in 2014 by the Swiss lawyer Hanspeter Sigg. He is in possession of a painting entitled, Madonna Leo X. This is a painting by Raphael that is very similar to La Belle Jardinière. Raphael painted this work in 1513 for Pope Leo X. Sigg, however, claims that La Belle Jardinière is a replica of his painting and that he owns the original. Until now, there is a lack of support for this claim and Le Belle Jardinière in the Louvre remains the original.
Where? First floor, room 712 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
Commissioned by? Laerzio Cherubini for the Carmelite Church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome
What do you see? This enormous painting (369 x 245 cm) shows the Virgin Mary lying reclined wearing a simple red dress. Her head and arm are hanging, and her legs are swollen which are clear signs that Mary has passed away. The apostles and Mary Magdalene are surrounding Mary, and several of them hide their faces to show their grief. The grieving occurs in silence. Mary Magdalene is sitting in the foreground in front of Mary. The old man on the left is probably Saint Peter and kneeling next to him is probably St. John. It looks like Caravaggio has left open a spot in the circle of grievers (at the place of the copper basin) and invites the viewer to join them in grieving.
Backstory: Caravaggio was an innovator and breaks with past depictions of the death of Mary. There is almost no symbolism used in this painting (except probably the faint halo above Mary’s head). The scene is very down-to-earth. Until this painting, works on the death of the Virgin Mary typically included some reference to Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, like some angels receiving her in Heaven.
Composition: Caravaggio was a master of painting the effects of light and shadow, and he was at the basis of the development of the Baroque art movement. In this painting, the light enters the room from a window on the top left. The light shines unflatteringly on the bald heads of the apostles and Mary’s upper body.
The painting is composed such that the viewer immediately pays attention to Mary. The diagonal shape of Mary’s body and the color of her dress with the light on it are ways in which Mary becomes the center of attention. The large red cloth on the top of the painting makes the scene more dramatic. It also forms a kind of arch and is used to let the viewer focus on Mary.
Why the Death of a Virgin? According to the Catholic religion, the Virgin Mary falls asleep and is taken up into Heaven. This is also referred to as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven, or simply the Assumption. The Assumption is a Catholic dogma declared by Pope Pius XII in 1950, but the dogma does not declare whether Mary died first. The day of the Assumption is typically celebrated in churches on August 15 and is a public holiday in many countries (including Italy). It has also been a popular topic for artists since the 18th century.
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 was a master of shock in his work, but also had a tumultuous life and was accused of murder, assault, many fights, and has served in prison.
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). Caravaggio painted both religious works, such as this painting and The Entombment of Christ in the Vatican Museums, and mythological paintings such as Medusa in the Uffizi Museum.
Fun fact: When Caravaggio finished this painting for the Church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome, it was very controversial. The Carmelites, a religious order within the Catholic Church, commissioned this painting and did not like it at all. It was thought that Caravaggio used a prostitute as the model for the Virgin Mary (which may have been the case indeed). Moreover, he did not include the religious symbols that were associated with the death of the Virgin Mary. Not only was there no reference to the assumption of Mary into heaven, but Mary was also depicted with bare feet, which was a very uncommon and disrespectful thing to do according to the beliefs at that time. So, the painting was rejected and instead a painting of Carlo Saraceni was used. Peter Paul Rubens, a contemporary of Caravaggio, however, later recognized the brilliance of this painting and contributed to the initial popularity of this work.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Written by Eelco Kappe
Where? First floor, room 708 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
When? Between 1435 and 1460. The dating of this painting has been the subject of much debate, but most critics believe it was painted between 1435 and 1440.
Commissioned by? Lionardo Bartolini Salimbeni, a rich Florentine man who had a strong commercial interest in the battle of San Romano.
What do you see? This painting shows a scene from the battle of San Romano on June 1, 1432. This battle was fought between the Republic of Florence and the Republic of Lucca with its allies. The central figure is the Florentine general Micheletto Attendolo (also known as Michele Attendolo or Micheletto da Cotignola). There are several more figures and horses depicted in the foreground, each with their own role, creating a sense of movement in the painting.
The soldiers on the right are waiting to participate in the battle. Micheletto on the black horse is giving the command to start the attack with his right hand, in which he is holding a sword. Unlike the other soldiers, Micheletto is wearing a big hat to signal that he is the general. Behind Micheletto, on the left, you can see two men holding a trumpet to communicate Micheletto’s commands to the Florentine army. The soldiers on the left are starting the attack with their lances in attacking position.
In the background, you can see a forest of soldiers, horse legs, and lances conveying the chaos of a battle. Uccello used foreshortening to include perspective in this painting to make it look like a three-dimensional scene.
Backstory: The battle of San Romano (a small place in Italy, near Lucca) was part of the war between the Republic of Florence and the Republic of Lucca with its allies from Genoa, Milan, and Siena. An important element of the war was about who would get access to the port of Pisa for trade.
The battle of San Romano took place on June 1, 1432, and lasted less than a day. This battle was only a relatively minor battle, but the Florentines remembered it as a turning point in the war. This painting commemorates the Florentine victory in this battle, though Sienese sources disagree with this conclusion.
The battle was started by Florentine general Niccoló Tolentino (who is at the center of the National Gallery version of this battle) who got attacked after he was separated from most of his army while exploring the area. Tolentino and his small group of soldiers fought a brave fight and did not give up until another Florentine general, Micheletto Attendolo, arrived at the battle scene with reinforcements. Attendolo and his army helped Florence to win this battle. The war dragged on for another year without a clear winner, and in the end the war was settled through negotiations.
Other versions of this painting? This painting is a part of a triptych (a work of art divided into three parts) made by Uccello. The three paintings represent different moments in the battle of San Romano. There are two alternative explanations about the order of the paintings. The simple explanation is that the three paintings represent the morning of the fight (the version in the National Gallery in London), the afternoon (the Uffizi version), and the evening (the current version). However, the question is whether the current version represents the evening or whether as the paint in the background has deteriorated over time.
A more popular alternative is that the National Gallery version represents the beginning of the battle with Niccoló da Tolentino. The current version represents the arrival of Micheletto Attendolo and his army, and the Uffizi version shows the last episode where Bernardino della Ciarda from the opposing army has been unhorsed.
Who is Uccello? Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) was born as Paolo di Dono in Pratovecchio in Tuscany. In his teenage years, he was an apprentice of Lorenzo Ghiberti and later he got influenced by contemporaries such as Donatello, Brunelleschi, and Masaccio. He was named Uccello, which is Italian for ‘bird’, because he liked to paint birds. He developed strong scientific interests and was very interested in representing perspective in paintings, something that he and contemporary artists just introduced to painting.
The appropriate use of linear perspective was often more important for Uccello than what the painting should represent. In his paintings, he combines elements of the older Gothic tradition (the decorative parts) and the newer Renaissance movement (which introduced depth and perspective).
Linear Perspective? Linear perspective was developed around 1420 by Brunelleschi. It was a completely new approach to represent space in paintings. A simple explanation of linear perspective is that the size of objects becomes smaller the further away they are from the observer. Paintings with perspective have one or multiple vanishing points which help the painter to create perspective.
Foreshortening is a specific form of perspective in which an illusionary trick is used to provide the idea of depth. A great example is when someone wants to paint a picture of a person laying with his feet towards you. To create the idea of depth, the painter will paint the feet of the person bigger than his head.
The Lamentation of Christ by Mantegna is a great example of a painting with foreshortening. Note that the linear perspective in Uccello’s paintings is not perfect, but it did help to create depth in two-dimensional paintings. His work served as an inspiration for many artists in the next generations who perfected his ideas about linear perspective in paintings.
Fun fact: This painting has deteriorated over time. For example, the background is much darker than initially painted by Uccello. Another area of strong deterioration are the armors in this painting. Uccello used gold and silver leaf for various parts of the painting. The gold leaf, which you can see on the decorations of the horses’ bridles, has remained in good condition over time. However, the silver leaf, mainly found on the armors of the soldiers, has oxydized over time and now looks more like dull grey or almost black.
Uccello was an apprentice of the goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti in his teenage years and was thus very familiar with the application of silver and gold leaf. Imagine this painting if the silver was still blinking in its old glory...