Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Gallery 28 of the National Gallery of Art
When? Between 1610 and 1614
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Laocoön is the bearded man lying down on the dark rocks in the center foreground. He is attacked by a sea serpent (a type of dragon in mythology). He grabs the serpent with both hands, but, nevertheless, the serpent bites him in the head. This serpent has already killed Laocoön’s son who lies to the right of him. On the left side stands the other son of Laocoön. He also struggles to fend off a serpent while the serpent is about to bite him in his abdomen. The three people on the right are unidentified witnesses to the killing of Laocoön and his two sons, though one of them looks away from the scene. They may represent Greek gods who were behind the punishment of Laocoön and his sons, but this is uncertain. The horse behind Laocoön represents the Trojan horse. The horse is on the way to Toledo, the fortified city in the background depicted under a gloomy sky. The entrance gate to the city is directly behind the horse. It is called the Puerta de Bisagra Nueva and still exists. This gate is decorated with a double-headed eagle.
Backstory: El Greco finished this painting in the year of his death. An inventory of the paintings in his house when he died contained more than 250 paintings, mostly with religious themes, portraits, and city views of Toledo. There were only three works with a mythological theme and all three of those dealt with the killing of Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus. Laocoön is the only known mythological theme that El Greco has ever painted. The three people on the right side of the painting in the National Gallery of Art seem unfinished. It seems likely that El Greco did not have the time to finish their faces before his death.
Mannerism: El Greco was a Mannerist painter, which means that he did not paint the figures in his paintings in a realistic way. He often exaggerated or elongated certain body parts and did not care about the symmetry of his figures. This is nicely illustrated in the current painting. The first signs of mannerism appeared around 1520 and the style was applied until the beginning of the 17th century. Artists like Bronzino, Michelangelo, and Tintoretto used the Mannerist style. One of the most famous Mannerist painting is Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino in the Uffizi Museum.
Symbolism: This painting probably contains a deeper meaning. El Greco painted the scene of Laocoön and his sons in front of Toledo, the city where he lived and the former capital of Spain. He painted Toledo instead of Troy, which is the city where the horse is sent according to Greek mythology. The killing of Laocoön and his sons takes place on a hill just outside Toledo. This would be the same place where prisoners and people who did not agree with the Catholic Church were executed during that time. The painting of El Greco may have been a protest against these actions. However, there is no substantive evidence to back up this interpretation, so the real meaning of this painting remains speculative.
Laocoön and His Sons? According to Greek mythology, Laocoön was a Trojan priest. There are various accounts of his story. Virgil describes the most popular version in the second book of the Aeneid. According to him, when the Greeks left Troy, they left as a gift a very large wooden horse in front of the gates of Troy. Laocoön suspected that this horse was a trick of the Greeks and tried to convince the people of Troy not to accept the gift. To prove that the horse was a trick, he struck the horse with his spear to show that it was hollow. Poseidon and Athena then punished him for his interference and Laocoön and his two sons were attacked and killed by two sea serpents named Porces and Chariboea. The Trojans interpreted this event as a sign that the horse was not a trick and they took the horse into their city walls after which the Greek came out of the horse during the night and defeated the Trojans. A famous statue from antiquity of Laocoön and His Sons is in the Vatican Museums, and a 16th-century copy by Bandinelli is in the Uffizi Museum.
Who is El Greco? Doménikos Theotokópoulos was born in 1541 in Heraklion, Greece, and died in 1614 in Toledo, Spain. He is better known as El Greco, which means ‘the Greek.’ During his twenties and thirties, he spent several years in Italian cities like Venice and Rome. He got inspiration from Italian artists like Michelangelo and Tintoretto. He eventually moved to Toledo, which is near Madrid. El Greco developed a unique style that is difficult to classify as it was so different from all other painters. He was a Mannerist, he was very expressive, and he created some fantasy-like works. His work has inspired many artists over time, including Delacroix, Manet, and Picasso.
Fun fact: El Greco often included nude figures in his paintings. While in the current painting, nudity is somewhat functional as it is based on a mythological story in which people were often depicted nude, he also often included nude figures in his religious paintings. A good example is The Vision of Saint John in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Interestingly, El Greco grew up in Greece where he was exposed to Byzantine art which contained very little nudity. However, he got inspired by the nude figures painted by Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists during his travels through Italy in the 1560s and 1570s.
Where? Gallery 85 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned by? Possibly for the art collection of Baron Achille Sellière
What do you see? A young and pretty girl holds a green watering can in her right hand and two daisies in her left hand. She is probably around four years old and wears a knee-length, deep blue dress with extensive white lace on it. She also wears matching blue boots with white lace on the top. She has red lips, blue eyes, and rosy cheeks. She has a red bow in her long curly blonde hair. She seems to be content while watering the flowers. The girl stands on a light-colored footpath in the garden. The colors that Renoir used for the stones and dirt on the footpath contrast nicely with the green grass surrounding it. On the bottom left are a rose bush and some grass. In the background is more grass and a collection of flowers. In this painting, you can clearly see that Renoir applied the colors with individual touches and that he did not mix them on the canvas. This technique is typical of the Impressionist art style.
No Shadow: Interestingly there is no shadow visible anywhere in this painting. The reason is that Renoir wanted to create an illuminating painting where the light radiates from the painting as soon as you see it. This painting is a good example of a painting that stands out from the rest of the paintings in the room in the National Gallery of Art. Another example of such an illuminating painting is Sunflowers by Van Gogh. You can see one of the versions of this painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and this painting also clearly stands out from the other paintings in the room. Another version is in the National Gallery in London. It is, however, also surprising that Renoir did not include a shadow in this painting, as he famously said: "No shadow is black. It always has a color. Nature knows only colors … white and black are not colors."
Backstory: According to some, this painting has been created in the garden of Claude Monet in Argenteuil, France, but this is not certain. The girl in this painting is probably a girl that lived near Renoir, possibly called Mademoiselle Leclere. He picked her because of her prettiness and especially her distinctive eyes. This painting is a classical Impressionist painting as it focuses on the different colors and how they can be used to represent the effects of sunlight. Like many other Impressionist paintings, this work was painted while Renoir was outside (something that was uncommon in the period before Impressionism). However, at the same time, the simplicity of this painting is a first step in the direction of Post-Impressionism which is famous because of artists like Van Gogh.
Who is Renoir? Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was a French impressionist painter. When he was three years old, his family moved to Paris and lived close to the Louvre. As a child, he often visited the Louvre to admire works of art. He developed himself into one of the best Impressionist painters and nowadays you can find some of his work in the Louvre. Together with people like Manet, Monet, and Pissarro, he is one of the founders of the Impressionist art style. Renoir said that he painted for fun and painted scenes “which made me want to walk in it.” He continued to enjoy painting until the end of his life, even after he had developed arthritis and it became difficult to hold a brush. Some of his other great works include Dance at Bougival at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and La Promenade in the Getty Museum.
Fun fact: At the time of this painting, Renoir was still in a struggle for money. To generate money, Renoir decided to paint widely attractive scenes of women and children in the hope that these would sell more easily and possibly attract some commissions for portraits. These kind of scenes were in high demand in France at that time. His strategy paid off as by 1879 he had become a successful painter with some money which he used to travel around Europe and North Africa.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
What do you see? A young dancer of fourteen years old is shown at 70 percent of her real size (the sculpture is a bit taller than 3 foot or about 1 meter). She seems relaxed and is standing in ballet’s fourth position (there are seven positions for the feet in ballet, and the ballerina here has her feet in open fourth position – about 12 inches apart and facing different directions). She is sculpted realistically and Degas intends to show the hard life of a ballet dancer and what it does to her body. Her back leg supports most of her weight. She has thin legs and arms. She holds her arms behind her back and has her hands clasped together. She confidently holds up her chin, pushes her shoulders back, and her eyes are half closed. She wears ballet shoes, a real tutu made of tarlatan, and a gold-colored bodice (a vest) made of linen. She also wears a real ribbon in her plaited hair. Degas used real hair for this sculpture, which he covered in wax.
Backstory: The original wax sculpture in the National Gallery of Art is mixed with some real materials (like the tutu and the ribbon in her hair). The sculpture has been modeled after a fourteen-year-old girl named Marie van Goethem. She lived in Paris and joined the Paris Opera Ballet to escape the poverty of her family. Degas was a frequent visitor at the ballet school and watched their classes and performances. He used Marie not only as a model for this sculpture but also for quite some other works, including many drawing of dancers that he made. One example of such a drawing is Dancer Bending Forward in the Chicago Art Institute. Modeling for Degas was a nice way for Marie to make some extra money. She not only modeled dressed as a ballerina but also nude, which allowed Degas to study her anatomy in detail. In the National Gallery of Art, you can also see two studies in the nude of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Marie graduated from the ballet school in 1880 and would start to perform in ballet performances. However, a couple of years later, in 1882, she missed several rehearsals and was dismissed. After that, we do not know what happened to Marie’s further life.
Copies: The National Gallery of Art holds two statues (the original wax statue and a bronze casting) of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen as well as two nude studies for this statue. When Degas died, about 150 statues were found in his studio of which only one of the versions in the National Gallery of Art had been shown to the public at an exhibition. Many of these statues were in bad shape, but about half of these statues were repaired after his death. The National Gallery of Art has many of these original statues. The surviving family of Degas decided to create about 22 bronze casts of these statues. Because of this, nowadays, bronze copies of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen can be found in many other locations besides the ones mentioned on the top. For example, the statue is also in the Chicago Institute of Art, Harvard Art Museums, Metropolitan Museum of Art (currently not on view), and the Norton Simon Museum. One of the bronze copies of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was sold in 2009 for $19 million.
Who is Degas? Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas (1834-1917) was born in Paris. Whereas he spent most of his life in Paris, he also lived for three years in Italy and spent time in Florence, Naples, and Rome. He started as a more traditional painter by creating historical stories and portraits, but during the 1860s he changed his style and became one of the founders of impressionism, together with artists like Cézanne, Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir. He changed his focus and started to paint scenes from everyday life with a particular interest in dancers, theater, and horseracing. He moved on to focus on more realistic paintings, and one such example is Interior in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He made statues mainly as training to understand the anatomy and movements of people.
Fun fact: When Degas showed this sculpture at an Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1881, many people did not like it at all. For example, some people called the sculpture a monkey. It also did not help that the sculpture was on display in a glass vitrine. Sculptures typically were idealized versions of well-known people created in marble. Instead, Degas created an unknown young girl from Paris, and the girl did not look at all like a goddess. On top of that, he created this sculpture from beeswax and he added objects like a tutu to the statue. Because of the negative reactions Degas got, he removed the statue from the exhibition and stored it in his studio until his death.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Canvas or statue (Amazon links).
Where? Room 1730 of the Main Floor of Tate Britain. Several other museums like the British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and National Gallery of Art also own this work but do not have it on permanent display.
What do you see? Several groups of well-fed people engage in a variety of activities while drinking mugs of beer. It is the birthday of King George II, and that asks for a celebration. On the left, two corpulent men hold big mugs of beer and one of them holds a huge leg of beef in his left hand. In front of them sits a man holding a beer while sharing a romantic moment with a woman. To the right of them, a couple of women with overflowing baskets of fish pause while enjoying a beer. To their right, a young boy with mugs hanging on a rope slung over his back goes around selling mugs of beer. He stops at the pawnbroker to hand him a beer through the peek hole. The pawn shop is in some state of disrepair as people do not need to pawn off their belonging in this prosperous world where people drink beer. The other buildings are well-maintained, and the church steeple on the top is a sign that people behave morally in this world full of beer. On the bottom right, a portly man enjoys his beer next to a pile of books in a basket. On the left, a painter in ragged clothes blissfully paints a cheery picture of men and women dancing around a mountain of barley. On top of the roofs, construction workers take a break drinking to celebrate while another barrel of beer is being lifted up. Finally, in the center, a wealthy woman in a sedan chair waits as her chairmen have temporarily put her chair down to drink a beer. Laborers around them drink their beer while continuing their work in a timely manner.
Backstory: Beer Street takes place during a major movement in 18th-century England: The Age of Enlightenment. This was a philosophical and intellectual movement where people began to ponder major scientific and philosophical thoughts that were captured in paintings such as The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt. These ideas were published, and many people learned from them and developed them further. Another idea behind the Age of Enlightenment is that people were trying to apply these new ideas to help other people. Before the Gin Craze, French brandy was popular and fashionable, however, during the Second Hundred Years’ War between France and England, French products were considered unpatriotic and soon lost their following. This led to the Gin Craze where gin and other cheap spirits quickly became popular, and overconsumption of these drinks caused many problems among the lower-class people. William Hogarth’s print was, in essence, a piece of propaganda in favor of the British beer market. Similar to the popularity of Coca-Cola in the United States during modern times, Hogarth makes the argument that beer was not only a remedy to the unregulated gin trade but also a drink that is truly British and helps the country.
Gin Lane: At the time Hogarth created Beer Street, he also created a companion piece called Gin Lane. Most museums that own Beer Street, also have a print from Gin Lane as they were created together. Museums owning Gin Lane include Tate Britain, the British Museum and the National Gallery of Art. However, most museums do not have the prints on permanent display as they are light sensitive. The original copperplates for both works are owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gin Lane shows the perilous effects that excessive gin consumption can have on your life. It shows the opposite side of Beer Street where drinking gin leads to chaos, negligence, street brawls, and poverty. The only ones benefiting from the gin craze are the distillery, the pawn shop, and the undertaker.
Who is Hogarth? William Hogarth was born in 1697 in London where he would die 66 years later. Hogarth carefully examined life in 18th-century London and detailed it in etchings and painted satires. He included many symbolic features in his works such that his pieces are not only entertaining but also contain several moral messages. He created art both for the upper and lower class. He painted works for his richer clients but also created etchings and engravings of his works that could be mass-produced and sold at a lower price to a larger audience. Among his works is a series of satirical works about the British upper class. The first painting of that series is Marriage A-la-Mode: 1, The Marriage Settlement in the National Gallery in London.
Fun fact: William Hogarth had a theory of aesthetics called the Analysis of Beauty. He depicts one of the ideas from that theory in the position of the artist standing on a ladder on the left side of the print. His body gracefully curves in a serpentine line representing one of Hogarth’s theories called the Line of Beauty. That line, he claims, is seen throughout nature and ancient Greeks and Romans used it already in their statues creating a natural standing position called contrapposto. It was a position that was rediscovered during the Renaissance and can be seen, among others, in the statue of David by Michelangelo.
What do you see? A sculpture of a muscular, naked man sitting on a rock. The man is in deep thought and uses his whole body to think. His head is bent forward and leans on his right hand. His wrinkled face, knitted eyebrows, swollen nostrils, compressed lips, and absent-minded gaze reinforce the idea that the man is deep in his thoughts and is completely unaware of the world around him. The man is struggling with his thoughts with every part of his body. Almost no part of his body is relaxed. Most muscles are tense, which is clear by looking at the clenched fist, the arched back, the legs below his body, and the squeezed toes. The statue is over six feet tall making the figure larger than life. It was the intention of Rodin to put the independent sculpture on top of a pedestal such that it would make a colossal impression on the viewers.
Backstory: In 1880, Rodin received a large commission from the Directorate of Fine Arts in France to create the entrance doors for a new museum that was to be built (but never opened in the end). He was given the freedom to choose his own theme and decided on creating a scene from Dante’s book Inferno. Rodin was supposed to finish the project in five years but continued to work on the project for 37 years until his death in 1917. The doors – named The Gates of Hell – would eventually include a total of 180 different figures, and they would form the basis for many of Rodin’s most famous statues. He originally created all figures in plaster, and the doors were then to be cast in bronze. The central and the most important part Rodin created for these doors was the statue of The Thinker (Le Penseur in French) who sits right above the two doors with all the characters from the Inferno behind him. The statue was about 27 inches (70 cm) high. In 1888, Rodin created the first standalone version of this statue. As this version was successfully received, Rodin decided to create more and bigger versions of the statue.
Multiple versions: The statue of The Thinker can be found all around the world. Rodin created the first version of this statue in plaster in 1881. In 1903, he completed the first monumental-size version of this statue. He considered it to be a remarkable piece and wrote to the client of his first bronze casting that he would ensure that only a few copies of the statue would ever be made. However, he did not keep his word. During Rodin’s life, already more than 20 versions were produced. And after his death, the right for reproduction was turned over to the Republic of France. Nowadays, more than 70 bronze and plaster versions exist and are on display in Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America.
Interpretation: There are various interpretations of what and who The Thinker represents. When initially creating this statue as part of The Gates of Hell, Rodin meant the figure to represent Dante pondering about the fate of the damned people entering through the Gates of Hell. This interpretation is based on Dante’s book Inferno, the first part of his trilogy known as The Divine Comedy. However, when Rodin started to create independent versions, he started to consider different interpretations. Overall, he considered the statue to represent the struggle of the human mind. But he also started to see hope in it. The thoughts slowly become clear, and the man turns from a thinker, into a dreamer, and finally into a creator. Over time, other interpretations have also been given. Some consider the statue to represent Rodin himself. Others interpret the figure as Adam contemplating the sin he committed in Paradise.
Who is Rodin? François Auguste René Rodin was born in 1840 in Paris, where he died 77 years later in 1917. He was rejected three times by the leading art school in Paris, the École des Beaux-Arts. It forced him to educate himself differently and this has contributed to his unique style. He was inspired by some of the great Renaissance sculptors like Donatello and Michelangelo. Most of his famous sculptures were originally intended for his commission of The Gates of Hell. Over time, he realized that he could turn many elements of The Gates of Hell into separate statues and some of these statues have achieved world fame. Among them are The Three Shades and The Kiss. Many of Rodin’s statues have been cast multiple times in bronze which means that his statues have spread across the world.
Why a bronze statue? Bronze is a combination of different metals. It consists primarily of copper (typically 85-90%) and tin (typically 10-15%), but can also contain minor quantities of other metals or nonmetals. It is an attractive material for sculptors for the following reasons. First, it is very durable. Second, it is difficult to break and allows the artist to sculpt different pieces of the sculpture separately and combine them afterward (for example, Rodin always separately sculpted the arms if they were not positioned along the body). Third, the sculptor can choose between different textures, ranging from very smooth to rough. Finally, the inclusion of minor quantities of lead, silver, or zinc can affect the color of the bronze providing artistic freedom to the sculptor.
Fun fact: While The Thinker is one of the most famous statues in the world, Rodin initially named this statue “the poet.” Later it was renamed based on suggestions by foundry workers that the sculpture was quite similar to a sculpture by Michelangelo on Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino. This sculpture was more popularly known as “Il Penseroso” (The Thinker), and this name was also given to Rodin’s statue. The Thinker also shows some resemblance to Ugolino and His Sons which was created by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux in the 1860s.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Gallery 50A of the National Gallery of Art
When? Between 1662 and 1665
Commissioned by? Possibly, Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, the patron of Vermeer.
What do you see? A pregnant woman stands in front of a table while holding a balance. She wears a blue winter jacket with white fur, a white head covering, and a long yellow/orange skirt. Her head is slightly tilted to the left, and she looks down at the balance in her right hand. On top of the table are two jewelry boxes, a pearl necklace, a gold chain, and some coins. The balance in the painting is empty but will be used to weigh the coins on the table. In the left foreground is a large blue cloth. The woman stands in front of a mirror. To the right of the mirror, we can see a yellow curtain that lets in a bit of light. On the wall in the back hangs a painting from The Last Judgment. The floor is covered with black and white tiles.
Use of Light: The light that enters on the top left helps us to better identify the colors of the different items in the room. For example, look at the color of the woman’s skirt. If we just look at the color below her waist, it seems yellow-brown, but looking at her belly, it seems that the skirt has a much more cheerful color, more like orange-yellow. Also, look at the color of the tiles. Below the table, the colors and contrasts are vague, but on the right side, in the light, the black and white contrast in the tiles is very clear. Finally, the blue cloth in the bottom left makes it very clear how much effort Vermeer put in accurately incorporating the effects of light into his work.
Backstory: This painting has also been referred to as “Woman Weighing Gold” or “Woman Weighing Pearls.” The Last Judgment painting in the background has not been identified yet, but it is probably a mannerist painting from the late 16th or early 17th century. An interesting detail here is that the bottom of that painting on the right side of the woman is lower than on the left side of the woman. Vermeer more often included works of art, like paintings or maps, from other artists in the background of his paintings. For example, The Astronomer in the Louvre has a painting of The Finding of Moses in the background, and in the background of Young Woman with a Water Pitcher in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a known map of Hapsburg Netherlands.
Symbolism: Vermeer paints a pregnant woman with in the background a painting of The Last Judgment. This painting shows the apocalypse, the time when Jesus comes back to weigh all people on a ‘balance’ of good and bad to decide who goes to Heaven. One the left side of that painting (from our point of view) are the blessed people and on the right side are the damned people. At the same time, the woman is about to weigh some coins to judge their value. The message of this painting is that one needs to be careful with the earthly pleasures, like jewelry and money, because after you die everyone will be judged by God. The mirror in front of the woman should remind her that she should look in the mirror to evaluate her actions based on the Christian religion.
Who is Vermeer? Johannes Vermeer was born in Delft, The Netherlands, in 1632, and died there in 1675. He was the son of an art dealer and a silk weaver. Vermeer took a long time to complete each painting and was very precise. Because of this, he only produced a limited number of paintings. As a result, and in combination with raising his many children, he never got rich. Vermeer is classified as a genre painter (painting simple scenes from everyday life). While less than 40 known paintings are attributed to him, most of his works are of very high quality and very popular nowadays. Some great examples of his work are The Milkmaid in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
Fun fact: The woman in this painting seems pregnant. This is best visible by looking at her belly, which is accentuated by the colorful part of the skirt. Other signs of her pregnancy are the pale color on her face and some hints of edema (which is a swelling in the legs, feet, and arms). The swelling in her hands is hard to see for the average person, but not for medically trained professionals. While it is not known who the woman in the painting is, it is not unlikely that she is the wife of Johannes Vermeer, Catharina Bolnes, as they got 15 children together.
Where? Gallery 20 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned by? Probably Paolo Giovio, though it could also have been Pope Julius II.
What do you see? The beautiful Mary sits on a tree trunk with her son Jesus on her right leg, and Saint John sits next to them on the ground. Mary is dressed in a pink and blue dress, Saint John in a fur robe, and Jesus is naked. Mary is holding a prayer book in her left hand. She looks at the cross that Saint John seems to hand to Jesus. Saint John looks at Jesus and Mary, while Jesus looks at Saint John. Their gazes seem somewhat sad as if they are thinking about what is going to happen to Jesus at the end of his earthly life. Notice the index finger of Jesus that is pointing upwards to God while he receives the cross. Saint John holds some flowers, including anemones and white dandelions. The painting is very peaceful with a calm sky, and the trio is surrounded by flowers, including cyclamen (to the left of Saint John), blue violets (in the left foreground), and lady’s bedstraw (the tall plants on the right). The landscape is probably inspired by the Tiber valley near Rome.
Backstory: Raphael painted this work while he was in Rome, at the same time that he worked on the famous Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museums. It is most likely that this painting was commissioned by Paolo Giovio and gifted to the church of the Olivetani in Nocera dei Pagani when he was appointed a bishop there. However, some people also argue that it could have been commissioned by Pope Julius II who Raphael was working for in 1510. The name of the painting, Alba Madonna, is given because the painting was owned by the aristocratic Spanish House of Alba during the 18th century. As Raphael painted many Madonna-themed paintings, this name differentiates it from the others.
Symbolism: The white dandelion below Saint John’s elbow is a symbol of the Passion, which is the period at the end of the life of Jesus when he enters Jerusalem until his crucifixion. The cross that Saint John is handing to Jesus is a symbol of what is waiting for Jesus later in his life when he will be crucified. This cross is similar to the one that Raphael included in the Madonna del Prato. The anemones that Saint John is holding are a symbol of resurrection to indicate that Jesus will resurrect from the dead. Flowers in the foreground also surround the trio. The cyclamen refers to the love and sorrow of Mary, the blue violets to her faithfulness, and the lady’s bedstraw refers to the manger in which Jesus was put after his birth. The tree trunk on which Mary is sitting may be oak and could refer to the symbol of the Della Rovere house of Pope Julius II. However, it is not certain that this is indeed an oak trunk and whether Pope Julius II commissioned this painting.
Tondos? This painting of Raphael is a so-called tondo. A tondo is used to refer to a circular painting over two feet (60 cm) in diameter. The word ‘tondo’ is derived from the Italian word ‘rotondo’, which means round. A tondo helps the viewer to focus on the center of the painting. The circular shape is also perceived to be an ideal and infinite shape. These are the reasons that the tondo was often used for Madonnas as the focus of those paintings had to be on Mary and Jesus. You can also see in this painting that the composition of Mary, Jesus, and Saint John is quite circular. The tondo format was mainly popular in the 15th and 16th century and has been used by painters such as Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Raphael. One of the most well-known tondos is the Doni Tondo by Michelangelo in the Uffizi Museum in Florence. Another example is the Madonna of the Magnificat by Botticelli which is also in the Uffizi.
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) was a painter and architect.
In 1508 Raphael moved to Rome to paint for Pope Julius II. Before that, he had spent several years in Florence. In 1514 he became the lead architect for Pope Leo X. He was tasked with the design of the new St. Peter's Basilica. However, after his death, most of his work was abandoned and Michelangelo took over. He is well-known for his frescos and Madonnas, such as the Madonna of the Goldfinch in the Uffizi Museum. Together with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, he is considered to be the most talented artist of the High Renaissance. His work has especially had a great influence on artists in the 17th till 19th century, including Jacques-Louis David.
Fun fact: Raphael has created many religious paintings during his career, and especially many Madonnas. However, Raphael did not always live like a religious person. In fact, rumors are that he had many affairs with women while he was in Rome. In 1514 he got engaged to Maria Bibbiena, but he never married her. Vasari also writes in his book that Raphael died (which may have been on his birthday) after a night of excessive sex. After the wild night he got sick but did not want to tell the doctors the cause of it. As a result, they did not provide him with the right treatment and he died.
Where? Gallery 23 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Venus looking in the mirror with two Cupids. Venus wears some makeup, visible in her rosy cheeks and red lips. We see the upper part of Venus’ body. She covers one of her breasts with her left arm. The lower part of her body is covered by a thick velvet drapery, decorated with beautiful gold and silver embroidery. The drapery contrast nicely with her pale skin. She wears earrings, two bracelets, and two rings. Venus studies herself in the mirror. One Cupid holds to mirror in front of her while the other wants to put a garland on her head as a symbol of love.
Background: Titian painted two quite similar versions of Venus with a Mirror, but one of them is considered lost. The current version remained in the studio of Titian until his death and was sold in 1581 by his son Pompino to the Barbagio family. Possibly, Titian did not finish the painting completely which would explain why the work was still in his studio. In this case, someone else, maybe the son of Titian, has completed the last parts of the painting before selling it. In 1851, the Barbagio family sold the painting to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. In 1931, Andrew Mellon acquired the painting for the National Gallery of Art. X-ray analysis has revealed that Titian had some different ideas at first about this painting. Under the current layer of paint, traces have been identified of three other compositions before he settled on the current one.
Other versions of this painting: Titian got inspired by the Venus de’ Medici for this painting. The pose of Venus in this painting is the same as in the Venus de’ Medici. While that sculpture is now in the Uffizi Museum in Florence, he must have seen the work when it was in Rome in the middle of the 16th century. This painting by Titian may be the most-copied work of art from the High Renaissance. Many lesser and better-known artists copied it and created variations on its theme. Some have kept a very similar composition, others have deviated from Titian’s composition but kept the theme of Venus looking in the mirror. One great example is Venus and Cupid by Peter Paul Rubens in the Thyssen Museum in Madrid. Another wonderful painting inspired by Titian’s work is the Rokeby Venus by Velázquez in the National Gallery. According to many, none of the copies or paintings inspired by Titian’s work have surpassed the Titian’s original.
Who is Venus? The Roman goddess of love, beauty, and desire. The myths about her are based on the Greek goddess Aphrodite. She was very appealing to the Roman people as she could provide beauty, military victories, prosperity, and a good sex life. For these reasons, she is the most popular goddess in art. She has inspired many artists, including Botticelli, Canova, David, Ingres, Raphael, Rubens, Velázquez, and Veronese. The most famous painting on Venus is probably The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli which shows how Venus was born from the sea as a mature and sexual woman.
Why a mirror? The presence of a mirror is a great trick that painters can apply in their work. There was often debate between sculptors and painters, whereby the sculptors claimed that only they could show a person from all different angles. A mirror was a way for painters to mitigate this problem as they could show other sides of a person in a natural way. A well-known painting in which the mirror plays an important role is The Arnolfini Portrait by Van Eyck in the National Gallery. Mirrors have also frequently been used by painters to paint self-portraits. Caravaggio was a frequent user of the mirror. Young Sick Bacchus in the Galleria Borghese is one of several paintings for which Caravaggio used a mirror.
Who is Titian? Tiziano Vecelli(o) was born around 1489 near Venice, Italy, and died there in 1576. He was the most influential member of the Venetian School of Painting. Other well-known members are Jacopo Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese. The Venetian painters are known for their use of a wide variety of colors which were available to them because Venice was an important port with lots of import from the Middle and Far East. Titian was an expert in all sorts of paintings, including mythological and religious works, landscapes, and portraits. However, he is probably best known for his female nudes. His works include Diana and Actaeon in the National Gallery in London and the Venus of Urbino in the Uffizi Museum.
Fun fact: While Titian is considered to be one of the best and most versatile painters from the 16th century, he also had his limitations. Michelangelo, perhaps the most famous painter ever, criticized the limited drawing skills of Titian. In this painting, we can see some examples of that. First, the left arm of the Cupid holding the mirror does not seem to support the bottom of the mirror. Second, the left wing of this Cupid is placed in an unnatural position. Third, the reflection of the hand of the Cupid in the back does not reflect accurately in the mirror. Fourth, the eye of Venus does not seem to be properly painted in the mirror. If you study her eye in the mirror carefully, it seems that she is actually not looking into the mirror. However, these ‘errors’ are easily overlooked because the rest of the canvas is painted so well.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Gallery 30 of the National Gallery of Art
When? About 1734
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Around 50 people are inside the Pantheon. They are engaged in different activities like admiring the architecture, talking, and praying. They look small compared to the size of the building. Most people stand or kneel in the open space in the middle. Enormous Corinthian columns and statues surround this space. In the middle background is the entrance to the Pantheon and we can identify the Egyptian obelisk in the Piazza della Rotonda in front of the Pantheon. The dome is decorated with sunken square panels (called a coffered ceiling). The light enters through the opening in the dome. You can see the sunlight just to the right of the entrance to the Pantheon. The floor is decorated with squares and circles which are also used to decorate the walls.
Backstory: The view in this painting is not entirely realistic. While Panini accurately painted the Pantheon, the painting shows more than is possible from a single place in the Pantheon. Since 609 AD, the Pantheon is a Christian church and quite some modifications to the Pantheon have been made over time. As a result, the view that Panini painted is not the same as what you see today when visiting the Pantheon. For example, the bottom of the dome contains some inscriptions. On the left, we read ‘[LAUDATE] DOMINUM IN SANCTIS EIUS,’ which means ‘praise the Lord in his sanctuary.’ On the right, we read ‘LAVS EIVS IN ECC[LESIA SANCTORVM],’ which means ‘let his praise be in the church of saints.’ These lines were added to the Pantheon by Pope Alexander VII during the 17th century, but have been removed after Panini completed the painting and are thus not visible anymore today.
Different versions of this painting: Panini created several other versions of this painting. At least eight versions are known of which four are on public display and the others are in private collections. All versions are somewhat different from each other. The versions on public display can be divided into two types. First, the paintings with large columns in the foreground. One of these paintings is in the National Gallery of Denmark and the other one in the Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna. Second, the paintings without large columns in the foreground. One of these paintings is in the National Gallery of Art, and the other is in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
History of the Pantheon? The Pantheon was built between 113 and 126 AD, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It was built on the spot of a burnt-down Roman temple built by Agrippa between 29 and 19 BC. Pantheon literally means ‘all gods’ and was dedicated to every Roman God. However, in 609 AD the Pantheon became a Catholic church. The Pantheon is also called Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs and every week at least two masses are held inside. The height of the dome and the diameter of the dome are the same, 142 feet (43 meters). The diameter of the opening on the top is 27 feet (8 meters). Quite some famous people, including kings and artists, are buried in the Pantheon, including Raphael.
Who is Panini? Giovanni Paolo Panini was born in 1691 in Piacenza, Italy, and died in Rome in 1765. He was both a painter and an architect, which explains why he liked to paint buildings. He was popular among tourists for his paintings with views of Rome and some of the most impressive buildings in Rome. As photography did not exist yet in the 17th century, tourists asked Panini to draw some of the major sights as a memory to their trip. Two of his most famous paintings are Ancient Rome (with versions in the Louvre, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart) and Modern Rome (with versions in the Louvre, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts).
Fun fact: The Pantheon has served as the inspiration for the Rotunda of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art. The rotunda is in the center of the main floor of the West Building and is the major entrance to the museum. The dome is similar, including the sunken square panels, and there is also an opening on the top to let the light in. The main difference, though, is that this opening is covered by glass such that the rain or snow cannot enter the museum.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Gallery 41 of the National Gallery of Art
When? Between 1485 and 1516
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? The final moments of the life of a miser, who is a stingy person collecting a lot of wealth. The painting consists of three scenes.
Symbolism: The moral message of this painting is a warning against greed. Humans often face the tradeoff between earthly wealth, also referred to as avarice, and faith. The items in the trunk (the dagger, metal cups, and the golden weight) represent various items that people pawned when they were in need of money. These items were typically pawned against a high interest rate, which was against the laws of the Church.
Who is Bosch? Hieronymus Bosch, also known as Jhernoymus or Jeroen Bosch, was born around 1450 under the name Jheronymus van Aken in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, in the south of The Netherlands. He also died there in 1516. He was an innovative painter who found novel ways to depict existing themes. He is especially known for his satiric paintings. Not too much is known about his life and therefore there is also a lot of debate whether Bosch really created certain paintings and when he created them. However, his innovative works have had a big influence on future painters, such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Salvador Dalí. His most famous work is the Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Fun fact: Based on infrared pictures, various adjustments to this painting by Bosch have been discovered. For example, in the underdrawing, the miser initially held a covered goblet that he seemed to offer to the figure of Death near the door. This would be an obvious clue that the miser wanted to offer Death some earthly wealth to change his decision. In the final version of the painting, the miser is looking at Death while pointing with his right hand to the money bag that is held by the devil. This clue is a bit more ambiguous but still suggests that the miser wants to offer money to Death. Another example is that the underdrawing shows the inclusion of a flask with drinking glasses and a rosary in the scene in the foreground.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Gallery 85 of the National Gallery of Art
What do you see? Claude Monet painted his wife Camille and their eldest son Jean who are out for a stroll on a windy and sunny day. Monet captures a brief moment during some quality time with his family. Madame Monet and her son stand on a small hill given the position of Jean, and they are looking towards the painter Claude Monet. In the foreground is a field with yellow wildflowers and grass. Madame Monet holds a green and blue parasol in both hands to protect herself from the sun, while her son is wearing a hat. Madame Monet wears a light-colored dress and jacket on top of it. Jean is standing with his hands in his pocket and seems to be wearing a light shirt and a blue tie. Based on the shadow of Madame Monet in the foreground, we know that the sunlight is coming from the top right. You can clearly see the effects of the strong wind by the veil of Madame Monet which is blown around her face, the shape of her dress, and the movement of the wildflowers in the foreground. Monet integrates his wife and son with the environment. The colors of the blue sky and the white clouds come back in the top of the parasol and the clothing of Madame Monet and her son. However, notice also the subtle hints of pink and yellow in the dress of Madame Monet and the usage of red and green in the hat of her son.
Backstory: This painting is also referred to ‘The Stroll’ and Monet created this painting in several hours. The Monet family lived at this time in Argenteuil, which is now a suburb of Paris, but at that time it was a rural village northwest of Paris. The son of Claude Monet is seven years old at the time of the painting and Madame Monet 28. In 1965, the painting was bought by the American philanthropist Paul Mellon and his wife, Bunny Mellon. They donated the painting in 1983 to the National Gallery of Art.
Symbolism: The parasol, the veil, and the dress of Madame Monet are symbols of status, even though the Monet family was not rich at all during that moment. The parasol also symbolizes protection. The countryside in this painting contrasts with the cities and industry among which Monet grew up and which he did not like. Finally, the light color of the dress refers to the purity of Madame Monet.
Who is Monet? Claude Monet (1840-1926) was born in Paris. He married to Camille Doncieoux in 1870. Their first son, Jean, was born in 1867. Claude Monet adored Camille and used her as a model in many of his paintings. Unfortunately, she died in 1879 at the age of 32. In the Musée d’Orsay, you can find a painting by Monet of his wife on her deathbed. In 1892, he married Alice Hoschedé. The daughter of Alice from her earlier marriage, Blanche, married to the Monet’s son Jean who is depicted in this painting. Monet is an Impressionist painter and primarily applied this style during his career to paint landscapes. In 1883, he moved to Giverny, about 45 miles northwest of Paris, where he developed a large landscaping project including several lily ponds, which are the source for many of his famous painting of the lily ponds.
What is Impressionism? The Impressionist art style started in the 1860s in France. The style is characterized by small, but visible brush strokes. For example, if you study this painting of Monet closely, you can clearly see the brush strokes. This is best illustrated by the white brush strokes in the sky on the left side of the painting. Impressionism was initially developed by painters such as Monet and Renoir and later also adopted by painters like Pissarro and Cézanne. Besides the type of brush strokes, these painters also focused on simple subjects for their art (scenes from daily life), the focus on the accurate depiction of light in the paintings, and by including a sense of movement in the painting. The Impressionist style has been named after a painting of Monet in 1872, entitled Impression, Sunrise, which is now in the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris. Impressionism was the basis for future styles such as neo-impressionism and post-impressionism. Two well-known post-impressionists are Gauguin and Van Gogh.
Fun fact: In 1876, Monet ‘sold’ this painting to the Romanian art collector and homeopath George de Bellio. This homeopath was the doctor of Madame Monet during her illnesses, and as the Monet family did not have much money, they usually paid him with some of Monet’s artworks. George de Bellio was a big fan of Impressionism and used similar arrangements with artists such as Manet, Pissarro, and Renoir. The children of George de Bellio donated the collection of their father between 1957 and 1966 to the Musée Marmottan Monet, and this museum has, nowadays, the largest collection of Monet paintings.
Where? Gallery 56 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned by? Alexander Douglas, the Duke of Hamilton, Scotland
What do you see? Napoleon poses in his study in the Tuileries Palace. He has worked all night on the Code Napoléon, which is the civil code full of laws for his empire. His work is illustrated by the quill pen on the left of the desk, the papers laying on the right side of the desk, and the scroll with the letters ‘COD,’ which is the Code Napoléon. He gets up from his work to carry his sword and inspect his troops. He wears the uniform of the foot grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, a group of elite soldiers in the French army. His uniform consists of the colors of the French flag: blue, white, and red. His uniform is decorated with several military awards (including the legion of honour on the left, the highest French military award), gold buttons, and gold epaulets. He has his right hand in his vest, which is a typical pose for Napoleon, and in his left hand, he holds a so-called snuffbox filled with tobacco. Jacques-Louis David included quite some details in this painting that help to tell a story about Napoleon. On the right is a large clock with the hands of the clock indicating that it is 4.13am. Under the lion-decorated desk lays a big book with the word ‘Plutarque’ inscribed on it. This is French for Plutarch (46-125 AD), an influential moralist and biographer who wrote about powerful generals. Napoleon liked the work of Plutarch a lot. On the left burns a candle that is almost finished. The scroll on the floor on the left reads in Latin ‘LVD ci DAVID OPVS 1812,’ which indicates that this is a work of Louis David created in 1812.
Backstory: In 1811, Alexander Hamilton (1767-1852), the Marquis of Hamilton, contacted Jacques-Louis David to paint a portrait of Napoleon. The Duke admired Napoleon for his power and asked David to “transfer onto the canvas the features of the Great Man, and represent him in one of the historic moments that have made him immortal.” For the rest, David was free to decide on the content of the painting, and he could even decide himself on the price that the Duke would have to pay for it. David happily accepted the commission as it was a recognition of his fame outside France, he did not have any major commissions from the French government, and he could earn a lot of money with it. The painting is since 1961 in the National Gallery of Art.
Symbolism: Jacques-Louis David wanted to portray Napoleon as a very correct and truthful man. He also wanted to indicate that Napoleon worked very hard for his empire. He purposely included a clock with the time of 4.13am and a candle that was almost finished to indicate that Napoleon was still working deep into the night. To further emphasize this point, Napoleon's hair is unkempt, his stockings wrinkled, and the cuffs of his uniform are not all buttoned to indicate that he has been working hard. Also, the snuffbox in his right hand shows that he used the tobacco to stay awake. The military decorations and the sword on the chair indicate his success as a military leader. The golden bees on the chair on the left symbolize the diligence of Napoleon.
Who is Napoleon? Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1825) was a military political leader in France. He was the leader of the French Revolution in 1789 and became the Emperor of France in 1804. For the next decade, he was the most important statesman in Europe as the French Empire spanned across a large part of Europe, including countries like Italy, Belgium, and The Netherlands.
Who is David? Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was born in Paris and died in Brussels, Belgium. He is considered the most important neoclassical painter. David was an admirer of Napoleon and Napoleon was also a big fan of the work of David. In 1804, David became the official court painter of the French empire. He painted multiple works of Napoleon, including the famous The Coronation of Napoleon in the Louvre. Due to his focus on neoclassicism, he also painted a large number of paintings with classical themes, such as The Death of Socrates (1787) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis (1818) in the Getty Museum.
What is the Tuileries Palace? A palace in Paris that was used by many French monarchs until it burned down in 1871. It was built in 1564 and was an enormous palace in the middle of Paris, next to the Louvre.
Fun fact: Napoleon liked art. For example, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci hung in his bedroom. He ordered his troops to bring a lot of famous artworks from throughout Europe to France, including the Apollo Belvedere and The Entombment of Christ by Caravaggio in the Vatican Museums, and The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese in the Louvre. He was also a commissioner and collector of contemporary art, though often to promote himself or his empire. Some of the paintings by David, such as the Coronation of Napoleon, are a good example of this self-promotion.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Gallery 6 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned for? Most likely, either the engagement or marriage of Ginevra de’ Benci.
What do you see? The 16- or 17-year old Ginevra de Benci is painted. She is wearing a brown dress with blue laces and gold edges, and a black scarf. Below the dress she wears a subtle white blouse with a golden pin. She has a porcelain-like skin and her hair is styled in ringlets. Her expression is, one the one hand, a bit grumpy, and on the other hand, she seems proud. Her eyes emphasize this. Her left eye (for the viewer) is looking at the viewer, but her right eye seems to be looking down on something. Experts have interpreted the facial expression of Ginevra as an indication that she is not happy with the (upcoming) marriage. Note that Ginevra has only light eyebrows. Shaving the eyebrows was common at that time for women and can also be seen in the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. Behind her is a juniper bush. The halo of spikes from the juniper leaves contrast nicely with the depiction of Ginevra. In the right background are the mountains, trees, water, a small town, and the hazy sky, which are typical for Leonardo da Vinci’s style.
On the back of this painting is another painting from Leonardo da Vinci, called Wreath of Laurel, Palm, and Juniper. It shows a juniper sprig, with a circular arrangement of palm and laurel around it. It also includes the inscription “Virtutem Forma Decorat”, which means “beauty adorns virtue.”
Backstory: This painting was created to commemorate Ginevra de’ Benci’s engagement or marriage to Luigi di Bernardo Niccolini. Sources have shown that the wedding between both of them took place on January 15, 1474. Bernardo Niccolini was twice the age of Ginevra. During the Renaissance, women were typically only depicted when they got engaged or married. This is the first known portrait that Leonardo da Vinci painted and the only painting of him in the Americas that is available for public viewing. It was bought in 1967 for $5 million.
Symbolism: The juniper bush represents chastity, which was considered to be one of the most important moral standard for women in the Renaissance. At the same time, juniper is a reference to Ginevra’s name as juniper translates into Italian as “ginepro”. The laurel and palm on the back of the painting symbolize, respectively, the intelligence and moral values of Ginepra. However, the laurel and palm were also the personal emblem of Bernardo Bembo, who was thought to have a platonic affair with Ginevra. Bernardo Bembo was the Venetian ambassador to Florence, and he probably commissioned the back of this painting (and according to some also the front of the painting, but this is not proven).
Who is Ginevra de’ Benci? Ginevra de’ Benci (born in 1457 or 1458) was the daughter of a wealthy Florentine banker. She was considered to be one of the most intellectual people of her time and was a poet. Later in her life, Ginevra was exiled at her own request because of an unknown illness and tragic love affair.
Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was born in the Italian village of Anchiano, which was very close to Vinci, which is where he got his name from. He was an architect, astronomer, engineer, inventor, mathematician, musician, painter, writer, and much more. Leonardo da Vinci is known to be one of the biggest multi-talented people that the world has ever seen. He created this painting while he was still a student of Andrea del Verrocchio. Other well-known paintings by Leonardo da Vinci include his Madonna Litta in the Hermitage Museum and Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre.
Fun fact: About one-third of this painting is missing. At some point in history, someone cut off the lower third of the painting, probably because it was damaged. Based on a drawing of Leonardo da Vinci, it is believed that the part that is cut off probably shows Ginevra folding or crossing her hands in her lap. It is a pity that this part is missing as Leonardo was a specialist in drawing hands. With his diverse interests, he was obsessed by the anatomical correctness when he painted parts of the human body. Ginevra was possibly holding a flower in her hand to symbolize devotion.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas of Ginevra de' Benci; poster of Wreath of Laurel, Palm, and Juniper.
Where? Gallery 4 of the National Gallery of Art
When? Between 1440 and 1460
Commissioned by? Most likely the Medici family
What do you see? This tondo in a gold frame shows hundreds of people lining up to worship Baby Jesus. The line starts at the top right of the painting, goes around the back of the stable and the white building, and continues on the left side of the painting where people are entering under the arch. On the bottom right, the Holy Family is depicted. The Virgin Mary is wearing a blue dress and has Baby Jesus on her lap. You can see some pomegranate seeds next to the left hand of Jesus. To Mary’s right is Saint Joseph. To their left, you can see the typical donkey, ox, and manger. Behind and to the right of Mary and Joseph, you can see the three shepherds present at the birthplace of Jesus. In front of the line of people are the three Magi (also known as the three wise men or three kings) and behind them is their following. The first Magus is kneeling down in front of Jesus and touches his right foot. Jesus raises his right hand to bless him. The other two Magi are waiting behind him. The horses of the Magi are taken care of in the stable. Next to the stable is a group of blind and disabled people. Above them is a white architectural structure in decay and on top of this structure stands a group of five almost naked people. The painting contains various animals, such as cows, horses, camels, a donkey, an ox, a falcon, a peacock, a pheasant, and a dog. The two birds on the right of the stable probably represent a falcon (or a goshawk) attacking a pheasant. On the top right, next to the mountaintop, you can see even more faces cluttered together. Also, below the arch on the left, you can see sketches of more people and animals.
Backstory: This painting is also known as the Washington Tondo or the Cook Tondo (named after a former owner of the painting). Fra Angelico started this painting. However, before completing it, he was called to Rome by the Pope to complete several commissions in the Saint Peter and the Vatican Palace. Fra Filippo Lippi was then commissioned to finish the painting. In addition, it may be the case that several people in the workshops of both friars may have contributed to the painting. It is not entirely clear who painted which parts of the painting. The general idea is that Fra Angelico painted the figures with the thinner faces (like Mary) and Lippi painted the figures with the broader faces (like Saint Joseph and the Magus holding the foot of Jesus. It is thought that Filippo Lippi completed the majority of the painting.
Symbolism: The peacock on top of the stable is associated with Giovanni de’ Medici and the falcon on top of the stable is associated with his brother Piero de’ Medici. The two feathers on the shoulders of the youngest Magus are probably also a reference to the Medici brothers. The peacock is also a symbol of immortality. The white structure in decay represents the decay of the world before the birth of Jesus. It is unclear what the naked people represent, but possibly they refer to Christianity being open to all sorts of people. The pomegranate seeds refer to the Church protecting the souls of the believers. On the left, a man in a red robe spreads his arms wide and looks up to the star (which is not depicted here) that guided the Magi to the birthplace of Jesus.
Why the Adoration of the Magi? This theme was popular among Renaissance painters and has been painted by, among others, Botticelli, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Leonardo da Vinci. For example, Adoration of the Kings by Bruegel can be found in the National Gallery in London and Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli can be found in the Uffizi Museum in Florence. An important reason for the popularity of the adoration of the Magi theme is that artists could paint the luxury and colorfulness of the costumes of the Magi and their followers. This theme reflects the biblical story in Matthew 2 about the three kings who traveled a large distance following a big star to worship Baby Jesus. They brought three gifts for Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Who is Fra Angelico? Born as Guido di Petro around 1395, he was better known as Fra Angelico or Il Beato Angelico. He lived a very pious life and died in 1455. He started his career as a manuscript illustrator and moved on to become a great painter of frescos and paintings. He was beatified in 1982 by Pope John Paul II, because of his pious life and the amazing quality of his paintings. He was especially good in painting the most beautiful depictions of the Virgin Mary. One of his great works is the Coronation of the Virgin in the Uffizi Museum.
Who is Filippo Lippi? Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) was born in Florence. After his parents died and his aunt could not take care of him anymore, he was sent to a Carmelite convent. Unlike Fra Angelico, he lived far from a pious life, though he officially remained a friar throughout his life. He left the convent at age 26 and later in his life he even married and got a child, the well-known painter, Filippino Lippi. The Medici family recognized the talents of Filippo Lippi, and during his career, he completed at least nine paintings for them. One of his most famous works is the Madonna and Child with Two Angels in the Uffizi Museum.
Fun fact: An analysis by the National Gallery of Art has revealed that this painting was created over an extended period of time. It also seems that some of the animals in the painting were not initially included in the design, but only added later on, possibly by another painter than Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi. Analysis revealed, specifically, that the peacock, falcon, pheasant, and hunting dog were added on top of areas that were already painted. This was probably under the influence of the Medici brothers Piero and Giovanni. Note that the birds are painted bigger than they should realistically be, compared to the rest of the painting, to emphasize their symbolism. They distract the viewer from the real theme of the painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Gallery 56 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned by? Paul Sigisbert Moitessier, the husband of Madame Moitessier.
What do you see? Madame Moitessier is standing firmly and wears a black velvet dress with black lacing and a black lace band on top. She also has a black lace shawl wrapped around her middle. She seems to be ready to go to a party or the opera. Her face is symmetric and she was considered to be a very beautiful woman during her time. She stands against a pinkish background decorated with a flower pattern. Her neck and shoulders contrast nicely with the dress and the background. Notice how the neck transitions into the shoulders and how the shape of the shoulders looks a bit unrealistic. Her gaze is unfocused and resembles a bit the ancient Greek sculptures. In her right hand she holds her pearl necklace, and she has a folding fan in her left hand. She is richly decorated with jewelry to show her wealth. Her hair is beautifully decorated with roses. On the right, you can see a reading desk or mantel. On the left is a chair with a glove, a handkerchief, and a fur rug on top of it.
Backstory: Madame Moitessier and her husband initially wanted a painting of her seated together with her daughter, but Ingres did not complete that painting until five years later. In 1851, they agreed on another portrait of her standing (which is this painting), which Ingres completed within several months. Madame Moitessier was not completely happy with the painting. She found her arms to big and her eyes too far apart.
Who is Madame Moitessier? Marie-Clotilde-Ines Moitessier (1821–1897) was the wife of Paul Sigisbert Moitessier, a wealthy banker and merchant who was about twenty years older than her. She was also known by her maiden name De Foucauld, which is the name inscribed at the top right of this painting. Madame Moitessier was the aunt of Charles de Foucauld, a famous French priest who was beatified by the Pope in 2005.
Another portrait of Madame Moitessier: In 1856, Ingres finished another portrait of Madame Moitessier currently on display in the National Gallery in London. He started with that painting in 1844, but it took him 12 years to finish that work.
What is neoclassicism? An art movement that started in Rome in the middle of the 18th century drawing inspiration from the classical period in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Some of the main neoclassical artists include Antonio Canova, Giovanni Paolo Panini, Jacques-Louis David, and his student Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Neoclassic art is inspired by the old Roman and Greek art and focuses on simplicity and symmetry. The paintings, sculptures, and architecture in this style did not show much emotion, were more ordered and down-to-earth compared to the baroque style, and less playful compared to the rococo style.
Who is Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres? Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) was born in Montauban, in the southwest of France. The work of Raphael has strongly inspired Ingres. During his career, he spent considerable time in Paris, Rome, and Florence which all influenced his style. His neoclassical style was in stark contrast to the romantic style that his archrival Eugene Delacroix used during the same period. Another fascinating portrait by Ingres is the Portrait of the Countess of Tournon in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Fun fact: One of the reasons that Ingres is considered to be a great portrait painter is that he started from scratch. He hired a nude model similar in shape to the person he wanted to paint (as those rich persons did not want to model nude) and started by drawing the body contours of that model. In that way, he could better paint how the dress would fit around that body. He put a lot of time into this initial stage. For example, if the model would wear a corset under the dress (which is probably the case for Madame Moitessier) he would first add the corset to the naked body before painting the dress.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Gallery 45 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned by? Unknown, but possibly Rubens created this as a showpiece for his studio.
What do you see? Daniel is in the lions’ den surrounded by life-size lions. He sits on a colorful red cloth and has a white cloth wrapped around him. His body is tense with his legs crossed and his arms together. Given the light in the background, it seems that this painting captures the moment in the morning after Daniel has spent a full night in the den. Daniel is praying with his hands folded and he is looking up into the air. Some lions are sleeping, others are looking straight at us, and others are roaring or growling. There are nine lions and lionesses. In the foreground are the bones and a skull as evidence that the lions have already eaten some people. However, a young Daniel is sitting alive in the middle of the den. Notice that according to the Biblical story, Daniel was much older when he was thrown into the lions’ den, probably around 80 years old.
Backstory: Rubens extensively studied lions in a menagerie before starting this painting. The lions are modeled after the Barbary lion, a species that lived in North Africa, but which is now extinct in the wild. He practiced the lions extensively in drawings before painting them. Whereas Rubens used many assistants to help him paint, this painting is, according to Rubens, entirely painted by himself. It is based on the Biblical story in the Book of Daniel, chapter 6. In short, Daniel is a high-level administrator for the Persian king Darius. He is doing so well that Darius wants to promote Daniel to be in charge of the full kingdom. The other administrators hatch a plan to trap Daniel. They convince Darius to issue a decree that in the next 30 days no one could pray to any god or human other than king Darius. As Daniel continues to pray to his God, he is sentenced to be thrown into the lions' den which nobody could survive. Darius says to Daniel before he is thrown in the den: “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” A big stone then covers the den. The next morning Darius checks on Daniel and finds him still alive without any scratch. After that, Darius decided to throw all the administrators and their families in the lions’ den next, and they were all killed before they even reached the floor.
Symbolism: The message of this painting reflects the message from the Biblical story of Daniel in the lions’ den: If you trust in God, he will protect you from no matter what, even from a pride of hungry lions. This story also symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The lions symbolize the powerful rulers on earth. Daniel is praying and looking upwards to Heaven, which symbolizes his faith in God. The skull in the foreground refers to Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified. The red cloth refers to the blood of Jesus.
What is chiaroscuro? A painting technique in which a strong contrast between dark and light tones of paint is used (chiaroscuro is Italian for ‘light and dark’). It helps to create depth in a painting. It also helps to create drama in the painting as the artist can use the contrast in colors to emphasize certain parts of the painting. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt were specialists in the chiaroscuro technique (see, for example, Caravaggio’s Death of a Virgin in the Louvre). In this painting by Rubens, you can see the strong contrast between dark and light. For example, look at the legs of Daniel, and you can see how the contrast between different tones is used to create three-dimensionality. The light tones used to depict Daniel also help to make him the focal point of this painting, whereas darker colors are used for the lions who make up most of the rest of the painting.
Who is Rubens? Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) is a Flemish painter. He was born in Siegen, which is now in Germany, and died in Antwerp, Belgium. Together with Caravaggio, Rubens has been one of the most well-known painters of his time. He used a Baroque style of painting. In 1600, he traveled to Italy, where he stayed for eight years. He spent time in Venice, Florence, and Rome and got inspired by the works of artists like Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian. After this period he moved back to Belgium, where he set up his studio. Together with his many students and apprentices, he produced a very large number of paintings during his life.
Fun fact: Rubens liked to include wild animals in his paintings and was often asked to paint hunting scenes. As he was one of the most dramatic painters of his time, he was perfectly suited to create some crazy hunting scenes. He could study most of these wild animals in the menageries that some of the richest people liked to have around that time. One thing he had to change, however, was to paint the animals like they would behave in the wild as opposed to the often tamed animals he observed in the menageries. In his different paintings, he included wild animals, such as bears, crocodiles, foxes, hippos, lions, tigers, and wolfs. These hunting scenes were always on commission, and they were a great way for Rubens to earn money. See, for example, the painting of The Tiger Hunt by Rubens.
Where? Gallery 217C of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art
What do you see? A group of six saltimbanques (who are traveling circus artists) against a pale background with a cloudy blue sky. The people look somber and have little expression on their faces. Picasso intended to picture the isolation and melancholy of these people. The tall harlequin on the left probably represents Picasso. He wears a suit with diamond shapes on it. He holds one hand on his back, and with the other hand he holds a young girl with a basket of flowers. The obese man to the right of Picasso is a jester with the name Tio Pepe. He wears a bright red suit and a pointed jester hat and holds a bag over his shoulder. The young man to his left only wears his underwear and holds a drum on his shoulder. The boy to his left, wearing a colorful blue jacket, is a juggler. The woman on the right, with the bright orange-red skirt, probably represents the girlfriend of Picasso, Fernande Olivier. She wears a Mallorcan costume, and she has the same flowers on her head as the small girl has in her basket. To the left of the woman is a Spanish pitcher.
Backstory: Saltimbanques were traveling circus artists who could do a variety of tricks. The word saltimbanques literally means “somersault over a bench.” Picasso created this painting during five different stages over a period of nine months. He sought for perfection and was not happy with the work at the end of the first four stages. The people in this painting seem to resemble Picasso and some his friends in Paris. The men from left to right resemble Picasso, Apollinaire, Andre Salmon, and Max Weber, and the woman on the right Fernande Olivier. Picasso did not name the painting himself as he usually did not give titles to his work. In 1931, Chester Dale bought this painting and it went to the National Gallery of Art after his death in 1962.
What is the Rose Period? The Rose Period refers to the period between 1904 and 1906 in the career of Picasso. It follows the Blue Period, which was between 1901 and 1904. In the Blue Period, Picasso suffered from depression after the suicide of a good friend. He primarily used somber blue and blue-green colors and focused on painting themes like hopelessness, loneliness, and poverty. In 1904, Picasso got into a good relationship with Fernande Olivier and his style changed to more happy themes and colors. In the Rose Period, he primarily used colors like red, pink, and orange, and focused on themes like acrobats, clowns, and harlequins. His paintings during this period were mainly based on his intuition rather than the direct observation of the people he depicted. The harlequin dressed in clothes with a checkered pattern was a frequently returning figure in his works, just like you can see in this painting. Another example is At the Lapin Agile in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Who is Picasso? His full name is Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. He was born in 1881 in Malaga, Spain, and died in 1972 in Mougins, France. When Picasso was 19 years old, he traveled to Paris, the art capital of Europe during that time. Over the next few years, he lived partly in Paris and partly in Barcelona. In Paris, he frequently visited the circus (sometimes multiple times per week) and the theater with friends and found his inspiration to paint circus artists. In 1905, he met Henri Matisse in Paris and they became friends for life. Picasso created many masterpieces and one of the most famous works he created, right after the Rose Period, is Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Fun fact: The saltimbanques were considered to be the lowest in rank among all artists. They traveled around to earn some money here and there and typically stayed in poverty on the outskirts of a city. Picasso could identify with these saltimbanques as he also had no fixed place to stay in Paris in his first years there and he had also been struggling for recognition. Other painters, like Degas, Renoir, and Van Gogh, have also used the circus as inspiration for some of their works as they could also identify with that struggle for recognition at some points during their careers. For example, Degas painted in 1879 Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando which is now in the National Gallery in London.