Where? Room 621 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Commissioned by? The Trudaine de Montigny brothers
What do you see? Socrates is sitting on his deathbed in his cell and is reaching for the glass of hemlock to take his own life. He is convicted to death by a jury in Athens for not believing in the Greek gods and for sharing this view with the young people in Athens. You can see the opened shackles laying on the floor. His disciples are gathered around him and cannot believe what is going to happen. The executioner from the state is holding the glass for Socrates while looking away and covering his eyes. Even in the moment just before his death, the illuminated Socrates is teaching to the people around him with his hand up in the air. Plato is sitting at the end of the bed with his back towards Socrates and his eyes closed. He seems in his thoughts, but his ear is prominently depicted to indicate that he is listening to Socrates. Plato has documented several dialogues of Socrates as Socrates himself did not leave any written documents. You can see the scroll and the pot with ink at Plato’s feet to indicate that he will document the final speech of Socrates. Sitting to the right of Socrates is Crito, a good friend of Socrates, who has his arm on his leg. Crito is sitting on a bench with an inscription of the symbol of the Athenian state. The wife of Socrates, Xanthippe, is in the left background in a red robe. She waves at us while walking away.
Backstory: This painting is largely based on a dialogue of Plato entitled Phaedo in which he describes the death of Socrates. In this dialogue, Socrates discusses the life after death on the day before his execution. Socrates discusses various arguments on why the soul is immortal and that there is an afterlife for the soul. For his crimes, Socrates could choose between drinking the glass of the poisonous hemlock or being exiled. Given his ideas that his soul would go to an afterlife and staying true to his beliefs, he chose to drink the glass of hemlock. This painting can be interpreted in a political context. The Trudaine de Montigny brothers were leaders of a movement that called for more open public discussion of political matters and a free market system. The motive behind this painting was to depict Socrates as an example of someone who was willing to die for his ideals. In 1787 reforms to the French political system were abandoned and there were many political prisoners.
What is discussed in Phaedo? Phaedo is the fourth and final dialogue of Plato about the death of Socrates. In Phaedo, the story of Socrates is told about why he thinks that the soul is immortal and that there is life for the soul after a person dies. Phaedo also describes the death of Socrates. In short, the four arguments of Socrates are (i) that the soul already has some knowledge at birth; (ii) the soul is invisible; (iii) non-physical forms, such as the soul, are eternal; and (iv) forms are the cause of all things in this world and cannot die. You can check out the full text of Phaedo here.
Who is Socrates? Socrates is one of the founders of Western philosophy. He was married to Xanthippe and got three sons. Socrates did not write any of his ideas on paper, but some contemporaries, such as Plato, have documented the ideas of Socrates such that his ideas have been saved for future generations. One of his most important contributions to the world is the so-called Socratic method. To solve a problem, Socrates would ask you a question. Based on your answer he would ask you another question, followed by another question, etc. He forced people to critically think about their answers by engaging them in the topic. If some of those answers led to contradicting answers, a certain hypothesis about the problem could be eliminated, and a better one could be formulated. It is basically a test of logic and will help a group of people to determine their views on a certain problem. The Socratic method has led to the currently-used scientific method that academicians use in which one starts with a hypothesis which can be rejected or accepted after research.
Who is Jacques-Louis David? Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was born in Paris. He was a neoclassical painter and together with Antonio Canova he is one of the main representatives of this art style. In his twenties and thirties, he spent quite some years in Rome where he got inspired by the Renaissance paintings and especially by the work of Raphael. David supported the French Revolution and Napoleon, and one of his famous paintings is The Coronation of Napoleon which is in the Louvre. After the fall of Napoleon, he moved to Brussels where he stayed until his death. He loved to make historical paintings while staying true to his neoclassical style. In this painting, you can, for example, see how the body of Socrates resembles an ancient Greek sculpture. One of his most famous students is Eugene Delacroix.
Fun fact: There are several aspects of this painting that Jacques-Louis David changed compared to the historical accounts of the death of Socrates. First, Socrates is about 71 years old when he died, but in this painting Socrates has the body of a middle-aged Greek god. Second, Plato is depicted as an old man in this picture, but at the time of the death of Socrates he is between 24 and 29 years old. Third, there are also some differences between the story about the death of Socrates as described in Phaedo and this painting. In Phaedo, there are 15 people present at his death, while in this painting only 12 other people than Socrates are present. This discrepancy is possibly a reference to the death of Jesus (who had 12 disciples). Also, in Phaedo, the people present are reported to be both laughing and crying at the death of Socrates, but that is not the case in this painting.
Where? Room 45 of the National Gallery
Commissioned by? Paul Sigisbert Moitessier, the husband of Madame Moitessier.
What do you see? Madame Moitessier is seated on a decorated sofa, also referred to as a canapé. She is wearing a large colorful silk dress with flower patterns. She probably wears a farthingale under her dress, which allows the bottom part of the dress to keep its circular shape. She is looking a bit sensual. For example, look at the blush on her cheeks. Her right hand is casually placed against the side of her head as was often done with Greek statues and she is holding a folding fan in her left hand. You can see the opulence in this painting. Madame Moitessier is wearing expensive bracelets, a ring, a necklace, decorated with various rubies. On the left, you can see a richly decorated screen fan and an expensive vase. Ingres believed that to paint a portrait you have to study the person from all angles and understand all her sides. This is reflected in the mirror that he included in the painting, which shows another side of Madame Moitessier (although it seems unlikely that this mirror is in the correct angle). This side shows her more naturally, with less jewelry. You can also see a candle tree in the mirror.
Backstory: Ingres started with this painting around 1847, but only completed it in 1856 when he was 76 years old. He first got the invitation to paint a portrait of Madame Moitessier in 1844, but he refused that assignment as he was focused on mythological paintings. However, when he later met her, he changed his mind as he was very impressed by her looks which made him remember of Juno (the so-called Junoesque look which means that she looked beautiful and dignified at the same time, just like the goddess Juno).
Who is Madame Moitessier? Marie-Clotilde-Ines Moitessier (1821–1897) was the wife of Paul Sigisbert Moitessier, a wealthy banker and merchant. She was also known by her maiden name De Foucauld, which you can see by the inscription at the top right of this painting. Madame Moitessier was also the aunt of Charles de Foucauld, a famous French priest who was beatified by the Pope in 2005.
Another portrait of Madame Moitessier: In 1851, Ingres painted another portrait of Madame Moitessier that is currently on display in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He painted this second portrait while he had not finished the first one yet.
Who is Ingres? Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) was born in Montauban, in the southwest of France. He was one of the primary neoclassical painters. He considered himself to be a history painter but also painted quite some portraits during his career. Especially early in his career, he painted portraits to sustain himself. Interestingly, nowadays he is famous for the portraits that he painted. His perfectionism may cause part of this fame. He found it very difficult to complete portraits, and he often got very frustrated and overwhelmed by these portrait assignments. A large part of his frustration came from the fact that the richer women that wanted a portrait could not hold their pose for an extended period of time. They tended to stand up and look at the painting and change the position of their dress and jewelry while he was painting them. In the end, however, he delivered stunning portraits.
Fun fact: Ingres started some initial drawings for this painting in 1844. The idea was the Madame Moitessier was sitting with her daughter Catherine at her knee. Ingres, however, became severely frustrated during this process, partly because he found the daughter of Madame Moitessier very difficult to handle. After a few years, he decided that he should eliminate the daughter from this project, though that did not speed up the process. In 1849, the wife of Ingres died and he decided to stop his work on this painting. Only in 1852, after he remarried, he continued his work on this painting to ultimately finish it in 1856.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Ground floor, room 403 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
Commissioned by? Colonel John Campbell
What do you see? The moment at which the lifeless body of Psyche is just brought back to life by Cupid. The figures of Cupid and Psyche (except the wings) are positioned in a pyramid shape, which creates a stable form for the sculpture. Cupid sits on one knee on top of a rock and holds Psyche by her head and breast. He has large wings pointing straight up into the air and wears his arrows in a quiver on his back. Psyche reaches up to Cupid and has her hands on his head. She lets her head hang back and they are about to kiss. Her long hair reaches all the way to the ground. She has a cloth wrapped around her lower body. Behind them lays the flask with the ointment that Psyche had collected from the underworld. Directly to the right of the flask is Cupid's arrow, which he used to wake up Psyche.
This story symbolizes the big efforts and challenges a human must undergo to achieve happiness and immortality. Look also at the precision with which Canova created the smooth bodies of Cupid and Psyche. This smoothness contrasts nicely with the wrinkly texture of the sheet wrapped around Psyche and the rougher texture of the rock on which they sit. Near the right foot of Psyche is a handle, which was originally included to turn the sculpture around as it was worth seeing this sculpture from all possible angles.
Backstory: This sculpture is based on a story the Roman writer Apuleius wrote in his book Metamorphoses, chapters four, five, and six (you can download the book here for free). In short, Psyche was considered the most beautiful woman alive, and Cupid fell in love with her. The painting Cupid and Psyche in the Cleveland Museum of Art by Jacques-Louis David shows the couple after they made love. The goddess Venus was jealous of Psyche's beauty and sent her on a very dangerous journey to the underworld to collect a flask with Proserpina’s beauty ointment. Psyche succeeds with the help of Cupid. Venus instructed Psyche not to open the flask, but after she completes the journey, she could not resist and opened it to take some of the content. But instead of becoming more beautiful, the ointment makes her fall in a very deep sleep as Proserpina had filled the flask with sleep of the innermost darkness. Cupid forgives Psyche and revives her. He asks for the help of Zeus who makes Psyche immortal and Cupid and Psyche marry and stay together forever.
Multiple Versions: Antonio Canova created another version of this statue for the Russian art collector Prince Yusupov. This version was made in 1796 and is now in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. It differs somewhat from the current version as Yusupov asked for some changes. For example, he wanted the cloth on Psyche to cover her legs completely. The favorite student of Canova, Adamo Tadolino, inherited the plaster model for this sculpture, which is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He used this model to create at least five known marble replicas of this sculpture with small modifications. He added, for example, small butterfly wings to the back of Psyche and created smaller wings for Cupid.
Who is Psyche? One of the three daughters of an unknown king and queen. She was very beautiful, and people treated her like a goddess. Venus was jealous of her beauty and the way she was treated. She asked her son Cupid to use his arrows to make her marry the ugliest of all human beings. However, when Cupid saw Psyche, he fell in love with her. Psyche's father went to an oracle to ask why her daughter had not married yet. The oracle said that Psyche should be left behind there immediately as otherwise terrible disasters would happen. Next, the god Zephyr blew her away and put her in a palace by herself. There, every night she made love to a person that she was not allowed to see. This person was Cupid. When she discovered this, Cupid fled. To get him back, Psyche followed the instructions of Venus to gather a beauty ointment from the underworld as described above.
Who is Canova? Antonio Canova (1757-1822) was born in Possagno, a small town in the Northeast of Italy. He studied arts in Venice and then moved to Rome at age 23 to start his own workshop. He completed several commissions for the Pope while in Rome. In 1802, he moved to Paris where he created several sculptures for Napoleon. He was inspired by the ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. He revived this classical style and Canova is considered to be the prime neoclassical sculptor. His sculptures are praised because of their perfect form and finish. The careful finish of the human bodies makes his statues look like real flesh and makes them come alive. An example of another great sculpture of Canova is Perseus with the Head of Medusa in the Vatican Museums, and a replica can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fun fact: Canova conducted extensive research to create this sculpture. The position of Cupid is copied exactly from a painting he saw in Herculaneum near Naples. After many sketches, he then created numerous clay figures of the sculpture. Unlike many other sculptors who created small-sized clay models for a sculpture, Canova created the clay models at their real size. This helped him to accurately sculpt his work in marble. Note that the flask and the wings of Cupid are sculpted separately and are inserted into the rest of the sculpture. For example, you can still see some marks on where the wings are attached to Cupid’s back. Finally, Canova had special curved chisel tools designed for him, which he used to carve out the sculpture’s most inaccessible places. This attention to detail makes him one of the most admired sculptors in history.
Written by Eelco Kappe
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? The original is on the first floor, Room 75 of the Denon wing in the Louvre. A copy by David is in The Coronation Room of the Palace of Versailles.
Commissioned by? Napoleon Bonaparte
Also known as? This painting is officially entitled The Coronation of the Emperor Napoleon I and the Crowning of the Empress Joséphine in Notre-Dame Cathedral on December 2, 1804.
What do you see? A large number of almost life-size figures are present in the Notre-Dame Cathedral for the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte. This painting (979cm x 621cm) is one of the largest works in the Louvre. Napoleon is the person in the middle holding the crown, and the painting shows the moment that Napoleon is about to place the crown on the head of his wife Joséphine who is kneeling on a pillow. Napoleon wears his coronation robe, which is similar to the robes worn by Roman emperors. The person sitting to the right of Napoleon is Pope Pius VII. He blesses the coronation but is participating involuntarily under the pressure of Napoleon. The woman in the white dress sitting on a chair in the center of the painting is the mother of Napoleon. In the left foreground, you can see the two identically dressed (wearing black hats) brothers of Napoleon, Joseph (on the left) and Louis (on the right). To the right of Napoleon’s brothers are his three sisters (also identically dressed). From left to right, they are Caroline, Pauline, and Elisa. To the right of Napoleon's sisters, and again similarly dressed, are Hortense (the daughter of Joséphine) and Julie Clary (the wife of Joseph Bonaparte). In the background, Jacques-Louis David also painted himself as he was present at this event. Finally, look at the expressions of all the 204 faces in the painting. They all look quite serious, signifying the importance of this event.
Backstory: This painting captures an important event in history, and Jacques-Louis David was in the audience that day. On December 2, 1804, the 35-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself during a five-hour ceremony as the first Emperor of France, and he crowned his 41-year-old wife Joséphine as the first Empress. Before the French Revolution of 1789, France was a monarchy, but the revolution turned France into a republic. This painting shows the moment that Napoleon turned France back into a monarchy. He brought in Pope Pius VII from Rome to bless him at the event. The painting is a fairly accurate representation of history, but not everything in the painting is true. Several details are changed to favor Napoleon. For example, the mother of Napoleon, Letizia Bonaparte, was in Rome during the coronation, but she still received a prominent place in this painting. Napoleon's brother Joseph on the left was also not present at the event. When David finished the painting and Napoleon saw it for the first time, he said: “It is not a painting. There are people walking in this picture. Life is everywhere. David, I salute you. You have made me a French knight.”
Two versions: Jacques Louis David finished the original version of this painting in 1807. It was originally on display in the Palace of Versailles but was moved to the Louvre in 1889. Between 1808 and 1822, David painted a second version of this painting for some American businessmen. The Palace of Versailles acquired it in 1947. David painted this copy based on the preparatory drawing he had for the original, and the two versions differ slightly from each other, though the differences are minor.
Who is Napoleon? Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was one of the leaders of the French Revolution in 1789. He was a successful military leader, and he became a general in the French army at age 24. He was the leader of a coup in 1799 and eventually crowned himself as the emperor of France in 1804. Napoleon was married to Joséphine who is crowned in this painting. He divorced her in 1809 because she could not get children (even though she got two children from her previous husband). He later married Marie Louise, the daughter of the Emperor of Habsburg. He died in 1821 while in exile on the remote island Saint Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Who is Jacques-Louis David? Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was considered the best painter of his era. From a young age, he received a great education in arts. In 1774 he won the Prix de Rome, a prestigious art scholarship that allowed him to work for five years at the French Academy in Rome. He abandoned the dominant Rococo style and developed a Neoclassical approach. He was specifically inspired by the works of Raphael and painted many historical scenes inspired by ancient Greece and Rome. For example, in 1787 he painted The Death of Socrates, which is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. During the time of the French revolution, he was involved in politics and devoted himself to Napoleon who knighted him in 1803. In 1812, he painted The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries in the National Gallery of Art. David has taught many other well-known artists, such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Antoine-Jean Gros.
Fun fact: Napoleon thought it to be a good idea to have the Pope bless him in order to turn France into a Christian monarchy. However, it was common that someone who wanted to be blessed by the Pope traveled to Rome. Napoleon wanted instead for the Pope to come to France to establish his dominance in power over the Pope. The Pope, though, initially did not want to travel to Paris without a good religious reason. In the end, the Pope reluctantly agreed, having the idea that by coming to Paris he could get some favorable concessions from Napoleon to the Catholic Church. This, however, turned out to be a false idea and the Pope had to bless Napoleon against his will. Finally, at the moment the Pope wanted to crown Napoleon, he took the crown from the Pope and put it on his own head. This act was seen as a public humiliation of the Pope.
Where? Gallery 299 of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Commissioned by? Count Camille de Tournon, the son of the Countess de Tournon
What do you see? A portrait of the about 60-year old Countess of Tournon sitting in an armchair against a brownish background. This painting often leads to some discomfort among the viewers. Unlike most other portraits by Ingres, the countess is not a young and beautiful woman. Most people agree that she is not very attractive, to say the least. Ingres has depicted her quite realistically. For example, her eyes are a bit swollen, she has a very large nose, she has a faint mustache, and she has a bit of a double chin. She also has a wart in between her eyes. However, Ingres has probably also idealized some other parts as the Countess does not look like 60 years old. For example, look at her unwrinkled face and her smooth arms. Instead of her beauty, the painter has focused on depicting her alertness, wisdom, and confidence. She has a small, but confident, smile and looks directly at the viewer. She is dressed in expensive and fashionable clothes. She wears a white transparent veil with flower decorations in her hair, a lace ruff around her neck with a transparent undergarment of lace below it, and a green velvet dress. Over the armchair and on her lap lays a cashmere shawl with flower patterns.
Backstory: This painting is also referred to in French as Comtesse de Tournon. Ingres created this painting while he was staying in Rome, which was at that time part of the French empire of Napoleon. The Countess of Tournon was born as Geneviève de Seytres Caumont and is the mother of Philippe-Marcellin Camille de Tournon-Simiane. Between 1809 and 1814, Camille de Tournon was the French Prefect of Rome during Napoleon’s reign. During a cleaning of the painting in 1995 by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the wart was discovered in between the eyes of the Countess. As the painting stayed for a long time in possession of the Tournon family, it is likely that a family member has applied some extra paint to this work after it was finished to conceal the wart
Who is Ingres? Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was born in 1780 in Montauban in the South of France and died in 1864 in Paris. His father was an artist himself, and from an early age, he provided Ingres with very good art education. In 1797, he became a pupil of Jacques-Louis David, who trained him as a neoclassical painter. During his life, he lived in Paris, Rome, and Florence. He wanted to become a history painter as that was considered to be the highest level of painting. However, in the early part of his career, he received relatively few commissions for history paintings. Instead, to support his family he created portrait paintings on commission.
Portraits by Ingres: Ingres considered himself to be a history painter, but we remember him nowadays mainly because of his beautiful portraits. He has painted a large number of portraits during his career. For example, the two paintings of Madame Moitessier are well-known. The first version hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the second version in the National Gallery in London. Two other examples of excellent portraits are Princesse de Broglie in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Portrait of Monsieur Bertin in the Louvre.
Fun fact: When a portrait of someone was commissioned, painters usually did their best to depict the person in a beautiful and flattering way. This is also what Ingres usually did as is evidenced by the portraits shown above. However, in the Countess of Tournon, she is not depicted as a beautiful woman. The realism that he included in this painting is comparable with some of the portraits of the 18th and 19th century Spanish artist Francisco Goya. A good example is the face of King Ferdinand VII of Spain in a portrait that Goya painted of him. Another example is the faces of Charles IV and his family in a painting by Goya in the Prado Museum.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room S204 of the J. Paul Getty Museum
Commissioned by? Unknown. However, just before David finished the painting, it was bought by Franz Erwein, Count of Schonborn-Wiesentheid, a politician and art collector from Germany.
What do you see? The beautiful nymph Eucharis is on the left. On the right is the muscular Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope. Telemachus and Eucharis are in love with each other and say their final farewell in a dark cave before Telemachus will leave to continue the search for his father. Eucharis has her head on his shoulder and her eyes closed while embracing Telemachus. She wears a red dress (called a chiton), which is held together on the side and the top by jeweled clasps. She also wears a green sash which accentuates the shape of her breasts. On her back is a golden quiver, inscribed with the last name of Jacques-Louis David. Telemachus has golden, curly hair with a decorated hairband is bear-chested, and wears a blue garment with golden edges. He has his right hand on her thigh, and he holds his spear with his left hand. Telemachus already seems to be thinking about the future and looks at the viewers of this painting. On his back, he wears his golden horn, which is inscribed with the year and the place at which the painting is created (1818, Brux.). On the right is the white hunting dog of Telemachus. He looks at Telemachus to support him at this moment.
Backstory: According to Jacques-Louis David, he created this work to complement his painting Cupid and Psyche from 1817 in the Cleveland Museum of Art. He created Cupid and Psyche for an Italian art collector, count Sommariva, but there is no evidence that the painting on Eucharis and Telemachus was also intended for him. In 1818, Franz Erwein visited the studio of David just before he finished the painting of Eucharis and Telemachus and bought it. The Getty Museum acquired this painting on an auction in 1987 for a little bit over $4 million. The last time the painting was sold before that, in 1950, was for only $3,950 to a private dealer.
The story of Eucharis and Telemachus? Telemachus is the son of the Greek hero Odysseus and his wife, Penelope. He is well-known because, in the first four books of the Odyssey (Amazon link to this book) by Homer, he searches for his father. Odysseus had left for Troy when Telemachus was still a baby and was already gone from home for 20 years. The story in this painting by Jacques-Louis David is inspired by the popular French book Les Aventures de Télémaque, fils d’Ulysse, translated as The Adventures of Telemachus, Son of Odysseus (Amazon link to this book). François Fénelon wrote this book in 1699, and it fills in some of the gaps in Homer’s Odyssey, specifically the extensive travels of Telemachus to find his father. While they are on the isle of the goddess Calypso, Cupid makes Eucharis and Telemachus fall madly in love. However, at some point, Telemachus needs to leave to continue the search for his father, Odysseus, and they arrange a final moment to say goodbye to each other. Interestingly, though, this specific moment of goodbye is not described in the book by Fénelon.
Who is David? Jacques-Louis David was born in Paris in 1748 and died in Brussels in 1826. He is a neoclassical painter and had a large number of students, including Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. He mainly painted portraits, historical scenes, and mythological scenes. An example of the latter is The Death of Socrates in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. David was a supporter of the French Revolution, and in 1804 he was appointed the court painter of Napoleon. There, he painted the famous The Coronation of Napoleon which is in the Louvre. When Napoleon was defeated in 1815, David moved to Brussels even though the new King, Louis XVIII, offered him a position as court painter. In Brussels, he continued to paint until his death.
Fun fact: David was politically engaged in his life and his paintings often contained moral and social messages. However, after he moved to Brussels, he lost his political influence in France and his painting style changed. He wanted to focus more on the composition of his paintings and enjoy the last years of his life peacefully, without painting deeper political messages. This painting seems to have two relatively straightforward symbolic messages. At first, it seems to be simply a painting of two lovers saying goodbye, based on prose written by a French writer a century earlier. But a second look shows the difference between men and women in dealing with a farewell. The woman shows her emotions, while the man tries to hide his emotions. Another symbolic message is the choice between duty and love. Duty is represented by the goddess Minerva who accompanies Telemachus in the journey to find his father and love is caused by the arrow of Cupid that made the couple fall in love.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? The Octagonal Court of the Museo Pio Clementino in the Vatican Museums and Room 548 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
When? When? The version in the Vatican Museums was made between 1800 and 1801 and the version in the Metropolitan Museum of Art between 1804 and 1806
Commissioned by? The original version in the Vatican Museums was commissioned by tribune Onorato Duveyriez and the replica in the Metropolitan Museum of Art by the Polish countess Valeria Tarnowska
What do you see? This marble statue shows the Greek demigod Perseus holding the head of Medusa. Perseus is standing in a triumphant pose as he has just beheaded Medusa. He holds the head of Medusa in his left hand by grabbing the venomous snakes on her head. The face of Medusa expresses horror as it has just been cut off. However, you can also still see the beauty of her face. Interestingly, Perseus is looking at her face, even though that should turn him into stone according to the myth (but the irony may be that this actually happened in this statue). Perseus is wearing the sandals of the Roman messenger god Mercury (Hermes in Greek) which allowed Perseus to fly. These sandals were made of gold by the god Vulcan (Hephaestus in Greek). Perseus also wears the cap of Hades, which could make him invisible. In his right hand, he is holding a harpe sword, which is a sword with a sickle-like extension on one side of the blade. The sword was owned by Zeus, the father of Perseus. A robe hangs loosely over his arm. Notice that his left foot is standing in the front, while the heel of his right foot is lifted. In this way, Canova creates the sense that Perseus is moving forward.
Backstory: Antonio Canova made this statue twice. The first version is on display in the Vatican Museums and is also known as Perseus Triumphant. A replica by Canova is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The head of Medusa in this statue has been inspired by the Medusa Rondanini, a marble sculpture that is in the Glyptothek in Munich. The rest of the statue has been heavily inspired by the Apollo Belvedere, a famous statue from antiquity, which is also in the Octagonal Court of the Vatican Museums. In fact, the first version of the statue of Perseus and Medusa was acquired by Pope Pius VII to replace the Apollo Belvedere which Napoleon Bonaparte had confiscated and shipped to the Louvre in Paris. When the Apollo Belvedere returned to Rome, they kept the statue of Canova as it was such a great piece of work. When the second version of this statue first arrived at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the sword was missing. They took a cast from the version in the Vatican Museums and added a newly carved marble sword to the statue.
The story of Perseus and Medusa: In Greek mythology, Perseus is the son of Jupiter (Zeus in Greek), who was the king of the gods, and Danaë. Polydectes, the King of Seriphos, ordered Perseus to provide him with the head of Medusa as a wedding gift for him. Medusa was one of three sisters (Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa) who were often referred to as Gorgons. Both Stheno and Euryale were immortal, but Medusa was not. According to the Roman poet Ovid, Medusa was a beautiful young woman. However, after Poseidon (the god of the sea) made love to her in Athena’s temple, Athena (the goddess of wisdom and war) changed her beautiful locks into living, venomous snakes (in other mythological stories the three sisters were already born with snakes on their heads). Medusa had a horrific facial expression that could turn people (or according to some, only men) who looked at her into stone. Perseus used a shiny shield that he got from Athena to avoid looking at Medusa directly and succeeded to cut off her head. When Perseus returned to King Polydectes, he showed him the head of Medusa, which still retained its power, which turned Polydectes into stone. This was the purpose of Perseus as he discovered that Polydectes had abused his mother.
Perseus and Medusa in art? Perseus and Medusa have been a popular subject in art. Famous artists have used their story as the inspiration for their artwork. Leonardo da Vinci created two version of the head of Medusa, but neither of them has survived. Caravaggio has painted the head of Medusa on a shield which is in the Uffizi Museum. Rubens also created two versions of the Head of Medusa, of which one is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Various sculptures of Perseus and Medusa have also been made, such as by Benvenuto Cellini.
Who is Canova? Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822) was born in Possagno, a village about an hour’s drive from Venice. His father and grandfather were also respected sculptors. He learned the art of sculpting from his grandfather Pasino Canova, as his father died when Antonio was three years old. His work was inspired by both the classical sculptures and the Baroque art, which resulted in a style that we call today neoclassic art. In his work, Canova was always searching the perfect balance between representing reality and the taste for the ideal beauty of the ancient Greeks and Romans. He was a perfectionist in his work and was renowned for the refinement of the surfaces of his sculptures, which looked like real flesh. Another beautiful statue by Canova is Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss in the Louvre. Together with Jacques-Louis David, he has become one of the main representatives of the neo-classical era.
What is neoclassicism? Around 1760, neoclassicism started in Rome in opposition to the then-popular Baroque and Rococo styles. The neoclassic style quickly spread through Europe and become especially popular in France, with artists such as Jacques-Louis David and 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 were less playful compared to the Rococo style.
Fun fact: When making a statue of marble, the artist needs to be aware of the center of gravity. In this sculpture, the stretched arm of Perseus and the head of Medusa naturally shift the center of gravity. Canova included two tricks to keep the sculpture stable and decrease the chances that it gets severely damaged by movement or that the head would simply break off. First, the robe has been included in the sculpture to provide additional support for the arm of Perseus and the head of Medusa. The somewhat unnatural shape of the robe helps to keep the statue balanced. Second, the head has been made hollow to reduce the weight of the head. You can see that from below. Canova created two versions of the head of Medusa for the sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The hollow marble head that you see here and a head in plaster (which is much lighter in weight). The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns both heads. Canova suggested the commissioner that she could put a candle in the hollow head for some amusement.
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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.
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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.
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Where? Gallery 201 of the Cleveland Museum of Art
Commissioned by? Giovanni Battista Sommariva, an Italian politician and art collector
What do you see? The beautiful nude Psyche sleeps on the bed after making love to Cupid. She has one arm over her head and the other arm lays over Cupid’s thigh. The couple lays on two large bedcovers that hang from the top of the painting. Cupid is awake and looks at the viewer with a smirky smile. He wears large white wings and has curly hair. However, something seems off about him. He looks like a teenager who is proud that he just made love to the most beautiful woman on Earth. He shows that pride with a somewhat annoying smile to the viewers. It seems that Cupid wants to sneak away as Psyche is not supposed to see who makes love to her every night. He tries to lift up the arm of Psyche such that he can leave (though he will still have to remove his wings from under Psyche’s body). The bow of Cupid stands against the bed below his right leg, and on the left side of the bed stands his quiver with arrows. Above the head of Psyche is a white butterfly, which is her symbol. Another butterfly is decorated on the middle of the bed frame in the middle of other gold decorations. In the background, we can look through a window at a landscape with mountains and a small temple. Jacques-Louis David has signed the painting on the footpiece on the right side of the bed.
Backstory: This painting is also known under the name, Love and Psyche. Jacques-Louis David started this painting in 1813 when he still lived in Paris and finished it in 1817 when he lived in exile in Brussels. Before his exile, David was known for his paintings with political and social messages, but after his exile, he seemed to focus on less complicated subjects like the current painting. His sketchbooks from before his exile already contained many drawing of mythological subjects, so his exile was a good reason to convert some of those ideas into paintings.
The story of Cupid and Psyche? This painting of Cupid and Psyche is based on a story that the Roman writer, Apuleius, wrote in his book Metamorphoses, chapters four, five, and six (you can download the book here for free). In short, Psyche was considered the most beautiful woman alive, and Cupid fell in love with her. The goddess Venus was jealous of her beauty. So, she sent Psyche on a very dangerous journey to the underworld to collect a flask with Proserpina’s beauty ointment. She succeeds with the help of Cupid. Venus instructed Psyche not to open the flask, but after she completes the journey, she could not resist and opened it to take some of the beauty. Instead of becoming more beautiful, the ointment makes her fall into a very deep sleep as Proserpina had filled the flask with sleep of the innermost darkness. Cupid forgives Psyche and revives her. Antonio Canova created a sculpture on the moment just after this revival. The sculpture, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss is in the Louvre. After this, Cupid asks for the help of Zeus who makes Psyche immortal and Cupid and Psyche marry and stay together forever. The story of Psyche has inspired many artists over time, including Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, and Vélazquez.
Symbolism: Most artworks on Cupid and Psyche focus on the love between both. They would show both of them with idealized bodies. However, that is not the case in this painting. At first glance, this painting seems to be about physical desire. Cupid is not depicted as a very handsome man, but as a teenager with a far from ideal face. He shares his pride about making love to such a beautiful woman by smirking at the viewer. Looking a bit longer at the painting, it also presents a scene of the morning-after. They made love during the night, and in the morning, Cupid tries to sneak away from Psyche without saying goodbye. There has been quite some speculation about any deeper meanings behind this painting, especially because of the awkward depiction of Cupid, but no dominant one has emerged.
Who is Jacques-Louis David? Jacques-Louis David was born in 1748 in Paris. He was one of the most popular painters during his life and one of the most famous neoclassical painters. He was a supporter of the French Republic and Napoleon and even became the court painter of Napoleon. The Coronation of Napoleon in the Louvre is one of the magnificent paintings he created for Napoleon in 1807. After the fall of Napoleon in 1815, David was exiled from France. He wanted to spend the rest of his life in Rome, but the Pope did not approve this. Instead, he went to Brussels where he spent the rest of his life until his death in 1825. While in Brussels, he continued painting. One of the works he created in Brussels was The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis in the Getty Museum.
Fun fact: Psyche in Greek means both ‘soul’ and ‘butterfly.’ In this painting, there are two butterflies. One is decorated on the bottom of the bed, and the other one flies above Psyche. Nowadays, psyche is also the name of a specific butterfly, the leptosia nina. This is a small, white butterfly comparable to the one depicted above the head of Psyche in this painting.
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