Where: 141 Wooster Street, New York City
What do you experience? The Earth Room contains 280 thousand pounds of soil (dirt) filling up the 3600 square feet second floor apartment in the heart of New York City. It measures up to about 22 inches in height and is contained partly by the white walls and partly by a glass barrier only inches taller than the level of dirt.
Unlike most other types of sculptures, which can be experienced at distance (a photograph can give us an idea of the work and artist’s creativity), the Earth Room should be experienced in person. Besides the visual or even tactile levels of perception, the Room evokes an olfactory experience. The visitor can smell the art. The scent of fresh soil can be felt long before you get to see the actual work, while walking up the stairs leading to the second floor of the building where it is located.
The overall impression is similar to that of experiencing the ocean for the first time; one can smell the water long before it becomes available in any other way. In the Earth Room, the scent of the fresh soil intensifies dramatically as we stand in front of the exposition.
How does it remain fresh? Bill Dilworth, the curator of the Earth Room, explains the life that has been happening inside the dirt. Originally from Detroit, Dilworth has lived in New York for about 40 years and has been taking care of the New York Earth Room for nearly 30 of those years. While life in the Earth Room dirt is limited by the enclosed space, and it does not have the same kind of substances present in a natural environment, scientists have claimed that some microorganisms can survive in such conditions for up to 200 years. Tests of dirt samples revealed all sorts of life present. One of Dilworth’s routine tasks is to water the dirt, partly to limit the dusting inside the apartment. One of the side effects of that task is the continued sustainability of life present in the sculpture.
Land Art: The Earth Room represents Land Art, a creative phenomenon of the 60s and 70s. Land Art focuses on experiments with free-form, conceptual post-minimalism and concern with environment. The work is intentionally simple. Yet, its simplicity is what is so puzzling about it and what provokes the desired outcome: a reflection, a thought, and a pause. There is no specific indication as to where the soil in the Room comes from; it is unimportant as it has carried humanity with equal effort throughout the ages, wherever there was soil.
How significant is it for us to realize and how do we perceive the land? Are we making the best use of the earth? Is that even the proper way to think about it? Artists have been making landscapes the subjects of their works for a long time. Why not consider the material—dirt—to have an independent aesthetic quality or even to be one? Those are some of the notions Land Art evokes. Others include the concern about the human impact on that quality. In that sense, art seems to be ahead of theory, as evidenced by the recent outpour of research on the climate change.Working with non-traditional materials, the value of the process itself, and challenging the commercialization of art were at the core of Post-Minimalist movement out of which Land Art grew. The movement challenged the status of commercial merchandise to which art was reduced.
Contrast with city life: A unique feature of the Earth Room is its contrast with city life. The visitor experiences silence and serenity. In the heart of “the city that never sleeps,” the Earth Room’s atmosphere is an oasis of peace and quiet. The earth absorbs while offering a nearly spiritual experience. The feature of solitude is consistent with De Maria’s claim that “Isolation is the essence of land art.” His other work, The Lightning Field (1977), is in New Mexico’s desolate area near Quemado. Another land artist, Robert Smithson, located his earth sculpture, the Spiral Jetty (1970), in Rozel Point, Utah, on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake, making it inaccessible altogether for an in-person experience.
Other Earth Rooms: Originally, there were three Earth Rooms, two in Germany and one in New York, which was the last one installed. They were all initially shown through gallery exhibitions. The New York Earth Room was intended to last three months, but it is now the only Earth Room left. It was taken up by Dia Art Foundation. The foundation has commissioned and/or maintained number of projects, with the goal of helping artists realize their visions, especially those visions which often reach beyond the scope of traditional gallery exhibitions.
Who is De Maria? Walter Joseph De Maria was born in 1935 in Albany, CA and died in 2013 in Los Angeles, CA. In 1960, he moved to New York where he stayed the remainder of his career. His artistic interests included Conceptual, Land, and Minimal Art. Among his famous works are the New York Earth Room, The Lighting Field, The Broken Kilometer, and The Vertical Earth Kilometer.
Fun fact: Initially, about 3500 people annually visited the Earth Room. Nowadays that number is about 16,000. With the growing awareness of human impact on the environment, it seems likely that the number of visitors will continue to rise. The New York Earth Room remains one of the most unique forms of Land Art.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 621 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Commissioned by? Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, the patron of Caravaggio.
What do you see? Four boys dressed in semi-classical costumes. Three of the boys are playing music. The central figure is holding a lute and is thought to be Mario Minniti, a friend of Caravaggio. His eyes are moist and full of tears. The second boy from the right is a self-portrait of Caravaggio, who is playing a cornetto (a horn-like wind instrument of about two feet long; you can see the end of the instrument on the top right of the painting). The boy on the right is studying the musical score. The boy on the left is representing Cupid and is reaching for some grapes. In the foreground are two open books with musical scores as well as an unused violin. These elements seem to invite the viewer to participate with the musicians.
Backstory: This painting is also known as the Concert of Youths. The boys are practicing madrigals, which are a secular (as opposed to religious) vocal music composition from the Renaissance. The song they are practicing deals with the sorrows of love.
Symbolism: The boy on the left represents Cupid. The gathering of grapes by Cupid represents love. The grapes are also representing the fact that music should make the spirits light. Cupid has wings and arrows. The arrows are the main symbol of Cupid (together with the bow). Cupid typically has two kinds of arrows. Arrows with a sharp golden tip, which can fill someone with uncontrollable desire, and arrows with a blunt tip of lead, which can fill someone with aversion and the desire to flee. Cupid seems to have the latter type of arrows here.
Why musicians? Musical scenes became popular during Caravaggio’s time, mainly due to the Church that started supporting various forms of music. Hence, the inspiration for this theme came from Cardinal Del Monte, who was heavily involved with the Church. Del Monte also organized various concerts at his palace. However, interestingly, the music that is played in this painting is nonreligious.
Who is Francesco Maria del Monte? At age 24, Caravaggio entered the household of the Italian cardinal, diplomat, and art connoisseur, Francesco Maria del Monte (1549-1627). Del Monte paid Caravaggio for his work. Del Monte was an important art collector during his time in Rome and left a collection of about 600 paintings at his death. He commissioned more paintings from Caravaggio, including Bacchus (in the Uffizi Museum) and The Fortune Teller (in the Louvre). In addition to his love for paintings, Del Monte was also a big fan of music which explains the musical theme in The Musicians. In his large house, the Palazzo Madama, the cardinal hosted both artists like Caravaggio and various musicians. He paid for their musical education and gave them a place to stay.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was trained by Simone Peterzano, who was in turn trained by Titian. He used a realistic painting style, paying both attention to the physical and emotional state of the subjects he painted. He combined this with a brilliant contrast between light and shadow in his paintings. Caravaggio had a tumultuous life and was accused of murder, assault, many fights, and has served in prison. However, his sheer brilliance as an artist has given him a place in the history books. His painting style has had a big influence on the development of Baroque painting (which includes drama and an intense contrast between light and dark). Some well-known paintings by Caravaggio are his Medusa in the Uffizi Museum and Sleeping Cupid in the Palazzo Pitti.
Fun fact: This painting has been missing for centuries. While many artists in the 17th century mentioned this masterpiece, it only turned up in 1952, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that the painting had been found and they included it in their museum. Less than two decades before, the painting had been sold for 100 pounds in England, where both the buyer and seller did not recognize that this was the missing painting of Caravaggio (mainly due to the bad state in which the painting was).
Written by Eelco Kappe
Where? Room 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 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.
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? People in various states of physical and mental decline amid a chaotic urban setting. In the center sits a woman with ragged clothes. Her shirt is open exposing her breasts, and she has sores on her legs. She neglects her baby who falls out of her arms and does not even notice what is happening. Just down the steps from her lies a malnourished soldier who looks like a skeleton. He has his head tilted back and holds on to an empty glass of gin. A dog with a saddened expression looks over him. The soldier has a basket tucked under the crook of his arm with a bottle and note that reads “The Downfall of Gin.” To the left of the central woman, two men fight with a dog over a bone signifying how far they have fallen because of their gin addiction. Standing above them, a couple of men try to pawn off possessions to buy more gin.
On the right side, more people lose themselves to the cheap spirits. People are feeding gin to each other, including children, and even a baby. In front of the distillery on the right middle, a fight breaks out and people hit each other with chairs and hammers. There is a strong contrast between the different buildings in this town. Most buildings in the background are in poor condition, except the distillery, the pawn shop, and the undertaker’s building.
Backstory: Gin Lane is an etching and engraving printed on paper. Hogarth chose this technique to be able to produce multiple prints of his work that he could sell for low prices to lower-class people. Gin Lane showcases the vicious cycle of excessive drinking, pawning off your possessions to drink more, prostitution, and finally death. Gin drinking was considered a large problem in England during the time that Hogarth created this work. It was cheap and accessible to the working class, and many people got addicted to gin with all the bad consequences that result from that.
Gin Craze: At the beginning of the 18th century, gin was not regulated in England, and distillers did not care much about the drink’s quality. They mixed in harmful chemicals and did anything to increase their margins. The drink became very popular among the lower class in England, and especially in London. Many people consumed large quantities of gin, which made them even poorer and led to health problems. The problems with gin led the government to take several measures between 1729 and 1751 to make gin more expensive and reduce its popularity. These measures only had a partial effect, and it was not until the 1750s that the gin consumption decreased mainly due to a series of poor grain harvests.
Beer Street: At the time Hogarth created Gin Lane, he also created a companion piece called Beer Street. Prints of this work are part of multiple collections, including the British Museum and the National Gallery of Art. The original copperplates for both works are owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Beer Street presents an alternative to the ails of gin drinking. It shows the opposite of the street where we see that beer drinking leads to prosperity. It shows a town that is flourishing with healthy individuals engaging in fun activities. For example, the pawnbroker that thrived in the chaos in Gin Lane is in disrepair as no one wants to pawn items to support their habit.
Who is Hogarth? William Hogarth was born in 1697 in London where he would die 66 years later. He enjoyed creating art which explains the social ills of 18th-century England through a combination of wit and symbols that would be easy to understand for his 18th-century audience. 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. An example of a work for the upper class is A Scene from 'The Beggar's Opera' in the National Gallery of Art. Another version of this painting is in the same room as Gin Lane in Tate Britain.
Fun Fact: In addition to being a political satirist, William Hogarth is known for his caricatures of people. Look, for example, at the man hanging from the rafters in the top right of Gin Lane or the man in the center walking down the street with a baby on a stake. Other artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Eugene Delacroix also liked to create caricatures of people. One of Da Vinci’s many caricatures is a drawing of a Grotesque Profile. An example of a caricature by Delacroix is A Lioness and a Caricature of Ingres in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Where? Room 629 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Commissioned by? Count de Stainville
What do you see? On top is a green curtain that is pulled aside to show many paintings and sculptures of ancient Roman monuments. Panini and his patron Count de Stainville appear in the painting. Panini is standing directly behind the chair in the middle, while Count de Stainville is standing in front of him with a book in his hand. In the figure below the paintings are numbered to make it easy to understand what they represent.
Backstory: The painting was created together with a painting of Modern Rome, which is in the same room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The idea was that the monuments in this painting represent all the works that a young gentleman of a good family should see on his tour of Rome. This kind of tours was popular among the rich to educate young men about the cultural world. There are three versions of this painting and they all look slightly different. Besides the version in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart has on version, and the Louvre has another version.
Why Rome? Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire. It is considered to be the birthplace of the Western civilization. It contains a large number of ruins, monuments, buildings, museums, etc., of significant historical importance. Since the beginning of the Renaissance, it has attracted many well-known artists and contributed to their development.
Who is Panini? Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765) was an architect, painter, and professor. He is known as a vedutisti, which is a painter of a veduta (Italian for ‘view’). A veduta is a highly detailed painting of a certain view, such as a city or landscape. While born in Piacenza, he spent most of his life in Rome, which has been the dominant theme in his paintings.
Fun fact: Panini painted multiple versions of this painting within three years. The painting is part of a set of three other paintings, a painting of Modern Rome, a painting of Saint Peter’s Square, and a painting of the interior of Saint Peter’s. Because of the popularity of these paintings, he created this set of four paintings twice (remember that there were no photographs possible in his time, so this was probably the best you could get as a picture of Rome). He also created a third and fourth version of Ancient Rome and Modern Rome.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 629 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Gallery 246 of the Museum of Fine Arts
Commissioned by? Count de Stainville
What do you see? A large number of paintings of buildings, fountains, and monuments in Rome around 1757. The commissioner of this painting, Count de Stainville, who was the French ambassador to the Vatican in Rome between 1753 and 1757, is sitting in an armchair in the foreground. In the painting below the paintings and sculptures are numbered to make it easy to understand what they represent.
Backstory: Panini created a total of three versions of this painting. He created two similar versions for Count the Stainville. The original version is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and a copy of that version is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Two years later, he created a somewhat different version of this painting for Claude-François de Montboissier de Canillac de Beaufort. This version is now in the Louvre in Paris. Modern Rome hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art next to another work of Panini, Ancient Rome, which shows monuments and art from ancient Rome.
What is a veduta? Panini is known for painting views of Rome. These views are called veduta (plural vedute), which is a type of painting that accurately provides a view of a city or another vista. This style initiated in Belgium and The Netherlands in the 17th century and became more popular in 18th-century Italy. There are two main types of vedute. First, the vedute prese da i luoghi, which are exact representations of a city view or other vista. Second, vedute ideate, which are scenes that also contain some imaginary elements such as buildings or monuments from the past. The current painting by Panini is a good example of the first type of veduta, while his Ancient Rome is a good example of the latter type. As photography did not exist yet, vedute were a great way for rich travelers to bring home their memories. The magnificent vedute by Panini were in high demand in the 18th century, and it is not surprising that painters sometimes created multiple versions of the same veduta painting.
Who is Panini? Giovanni Paolo Panini was born in 1691 in Piacenza, Italy, and died in Rome in 1765. He was both an architect and painter and was considered to be the most influential painter in Rome during the 18th century. Early in his career, he mainly painted frescos for the rich people in Rome. From around 1729, he started to focus on painting various views of Rome for which he is best known today. Another example of a veduta painting by Panini is the Interior of the Pantheon in the National Gallery of Art. Panini also painted some religious works, but these works have never reached the same amount of fame as his vedute.
Fun fact: At the end of the 16th century, rich people in Europe send their kids on tour through Europe as part of their education. These trips are referred to as Grand Tours. On these trips, kids of about 21 years old typically visited cities such as Paris, Florence, Rome, and Venice. A knowledgeable family member or a professional tutor accompanied them on their tour. For example, the great economist and one of the founders of capitalism, Adam Smith, worked for quite some years as a tutor. Before the existence of photography, these tours became popular among the rich people in England, Germany, Scandinavia, and the United States. Veduta paintings, such as the ones by Panini, became popular among these people to preserve their memories.
Where? Room 642 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Commissioned by? Niclaes Jongelinck, a Belgian art collector and banker.
What do you see? This painting depicts the late summer harvest in Belgium. Imagine yourself standing on top of the hill in the foreground observing and listening to this 16th-century agricultural scene. Against a background of low hills and a valley, you can see more than 40 people in this painting engaged in various activities (the longer you look at this painting, the more people you discover). In the right foreground, next to the large pear tree (you can see the pears hanging in the tree), a group of hungry people is eating and drinking. They are consuming bowls with milk and cereals, pears from the tree, bread, and cheese. The person on the left of this group already fell asleep with his pants half open. You can see a church tower hidden behind the trees, just to the right of the large tree in the foreground. To the left of this group, a young man with a jar of water walks up the hill through the path that cuts through the beautiful golden wheat field. Several people are mowing the grain strains with scythes, others are binding the strains together into sheaves, and others carry the sheaves down the hill. You can also see a cart full of wheat driving down the hill. There are many more details that you can discover. For example, on top of the wheat field on the left are two birds searching for food. On the complete right, you can see a person in a tree shaking out the apples that the kids on the ground are picking up. In the middle background, you can see the sea with several boats on it.
Backstory: This painting on the harvest by the peasants in Belgium is part of a series of paintings by Bruegel that shows the agricultural activities that are usual for the different months of the year. The series probably consists of six paintings and The Harvesters represents the months July and August. Four other paintings of this series have survived: The Gloomy Day, The Hunters in the Snow, The Return of the Herd, and The Hay Harvest. Three of these paintings are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the other one is in Prague. The sixth painting in this series has probably not survived (though some people think that the full series even consisted of 12 paintings). Typical for Bruegel, he did not romanticize this agricultural scene but painted a realistic picture of the peasants in late summer.
Modifications to this painting: The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired this painting in 1919. When they cleaned the painting and analyzed it, they noticed that Bruegel modified this painting on the canvas itself. Under the painting, an initial drawing of Bruegel was discovered, before he started painting it. Bruegel made several changes to this painting while painting it. For example, the right hand of the sleeping man next to the tree was in an awkward position, and Bruegel decided later to add a cap to this man that was slipping from his head to cover up this hand. If you look carefully, you can still see the bottom of his right arm through the cap. Another example is that he first painted the church and later decided to add a branch to the pear tree to cover part of the church tower. You can see the rest of the church tower under the branch. The reason that you can see these modifications is that Bruegel used only a thin layer of paint that became somewhat transparent over time.
What is humanism? Pieter Bruegel the Elder was one of the early painters that abandoned the religious or classical themes in his paintings and focused instead on the people. This focus on people was in line with the humanist movement in society. Bruegel seemed to have been well-educated and had many humanist friends. Humanism puts the human being central and focuses on the values and behaviors of people. The impact of humanism on art was a focus on realistic depictions of people and their environments. This realism can clearly be observed in the works of Bruegel.
Who is Bruegel the Elder? Pieter Bruegel the Elder was born between 1525 and 1530 in Breda in The Netherlands and died in 1569 in Brussels (his name is sometimes spelled as Brueghel). Opposite to the popular High Renaissance style developed in Italy during that time, Bruegel used a more realistic painting style which we now classify as the Northern Renaissance style. Bruegel was a specialist in genre art (scenes from everyday life) and specifically in painting landscapes and depicting peasants. The artistic talent ran in the Bruegel family, and several people in his family tree were accomplished painters as well, including the two sons of Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger.
Fun fact: A group of about ten people in the middle of the paintings is playing a game. This game is identified as cock throwing, which was especially popular in England. On the left, you can see a rooster tied to a branch hanging in the air. The goal of the game was that people would throw sticks at the rooster until it died. The person who killed the rooster could keep it. Cock throwing is a so-called blood sport, a category of games that involved the killing or injuring of animals. These blood sports were quite popular in the 16th century. An even more popular blood sport around that time was cockfighting, a sport that is still practiced in some countries nowadays.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Floor 5, Gallery 2 of the Museum of Modern Art
What do you see? Five nude women in a brothel. The women are not interacting with each other. The woman on the left holds back a curtain to show the other women. The woman to her right and the woman in the middle are looking boldly at the viewer while exposing their bodies. It is unclear whether they are standing or laying down. Look, for example, at the second woman from the left. Her legs are partly crossed, she has a sheet between her legs and her arm behind her head. The woman in the middle and the two women to her left have relatively normal faces. The two women on the right wear African masks. During the time that Picasso created this painting, he was interested in African artifacts, such as African tribal masks. The woman on the bottom right has her head turned around 180 degrees to look at the viewer, while the standing woman on the right appears from behind a curtain. Picasso uses a lot of angular shapes, like triangles and diamonds, in this painting, to simplify the painting and make it quite abstract. In the foreground is a table in an impossible position to hold the bowl of fruit. In the bowl, we can recognize an apple, a pear, grapes, and a pink slice of melon.
Backstory: The French title of this painting is translated as ‘The Young Women of Avignon.’ Avignon refers to a notorious street in the red light district of Barcelona, Spain. Picasso was familiar with this area as he frequented it while skipping school as a teenager and he had also lived nearby it. Picasso, however, disliked the title of this painting which was given by his friend André Salmon for an exposition in 1916 of which the painting was a part of. Picasso preferred the title ‘Mon Bordel’ which means ‘My Brothel’ or ‘Le Bordel d’Avignon’ which means ‘The Brothel of Avignon.’ Fellow artists and friends were initially shocked by this painting as the women in this painting were so ugly. Nowadays, this painting is considered to be one of the most revolutionary paintings of the 20th century, and it is one of the works that marks the beginning of Modern Art. One of the closest, earlier works to this painting is probably The Large Bathers by Paul Cézanne in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, created between 1898 and 1905. This is a painting that Picasso had seen shortly before finishing Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In 1939, the Museum of Modern Art completed a $24,000 transaction to acquire this painting.
What is Cubism? The idea behind cubism is that all forms in nature can be reduced to three solids: cube, sphere, and cone. This reduction was an idea of Paul Cézanne. Basically, the objects in a painting are analyzed, divided into pieces, and then painted in a more abstract form. Thus, realistic details like perspective and color are omitted and replaced by the three solids proposed by Cézanne. There are different stages of cubism. The first paintings with elements of cubism emerged around 1907, and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso is by many considered to be the first painting with cubist elements. In the following years, the idea of cubism was further developed leading to even more abstract works. The period starting in 1909 is called High Cubism, and this transitioned around 1914 into Late Cubism.
Who is Picasso? Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was born in Malaga, Spain. In his teenage years, he moved to Barcelona, but most of his adult life he lived in France. He was an artistic talent and has created many paintings, sculptures, and poems. Picasso was an innovative artist who developed a large number of art styles. Every few years he drastically changed his art style. For example, between 1901 and 1904, he was in his Blue Period. Two great examples from that period are La Vie which is at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Old Guitarist which is at the Art Institute of Chicago. Between 1904 and 1906 was his Rose Period. In the decade after his Rose Period, he developed various forms of cubism. Together with Georges Braque, Picasso pioneered the cubist art movement, inspired by artists such as Cézanne, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Fun fact: Based on sketches by Picasso, we know that he initially planned to include two additional figures in this painting (see one of those sketches here). On the left was a medical student arriving at the scene with a textbook in one hand and a skull in his other hand. A sailor, representing a client, was sitting in the middle of the five woman. Picasso wanted to make the point that, at that time, the women often carried sexually transmitted diseases, like syphilis, which could be deadly for them and their clients. Sometimes you could see the symptoms of these diseases in the faces of the prostitutes, and this may be the reason that Picasso added two masks to the painting. Picasso, however, decided to not include the two men in the final painting to make the message a bit more abstract.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster of canvas.
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.