What do you see? A sculpture of a muscular, naked man sitting on a rock. The man is in deep thought and uses his whole body to think. His head is bent forward and leans on his right hand. His wrinkled face, knitted eyebrows, swollen nostrils, compressed lips, and absent-minded gaze reinforce the idea that the man is deep in his thoughts and is completely unaware of the world around him. The man is struggling with his thoughts with every part of his body. Almost no part of his body is relaxed. Most muscles are tense, which is clear by looking at the clenched fist, the arched back, the legs below his body, and the squeezed toes. The statue is over six feet tall making the figure larger than life. It was the intention of Rodin to put the independent sculpture on top of a pedestal such that it would make a colossal impression on the viewers.
Backstory: In 1880, Rodin received a large commission from the Directorate of Fine Arts in France to create the entrance doors for a new museum that was to be built (but never opened in the end). He was given the freedom to choose his own theme and decided on creating a scene from Dante’s book Inferno. Rodin was supposed to finish the project in five years but continued to work on the project for 37 years until his death in 1917. The doors – named The Gates of Hell – would eventually include a total of 180 different figures, and they would form the basis for many of Rodin’s most famous statues. He originally created all figures in plaster, and the doors were then to be cast in bronze. The central and the most important part Rodin created for these doors was the statue of The Thinker (Le Penseur in French) who sits right above the two doors with all the characters from the Inferno behind him. The statue was about 27 inches (70 cm) high. In 1888, Rodin created the first standalone version of this statue. As this version was successfully received, Rodin decided to create more and bigger versions of the statue.
Multiple versions: The statue of The Thinker can be found all around the world. Rodin created the first version of this statue in plaster in 1881. In 1903, he completed the first monumental-size version of this statue. He considered it to be a remarkable piece and wrote to the client of his first bronze casting that he would ensure that only a few copies of the statue would ever be made. However, he did not keep his word. During Rodin’s life, already more than 20 versions were produced. And after his death, the right for reproduction was turned over to the Republic of France. Nowadays, more than 70 bronze and plaster versions exist and are on display in Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America.
Interpretation: There are various interpretations of what and who The Thinker represents. When initially creating this statue as part of The Gates of Hell, Rodin meant the figure to represent Dante pondering about the fate of the damned people entering through the Gates of Hell. This interpretation is based on Dante’s book Inferno, the first part of his trilogy known as The Divine Comedy. However, when Rodin started to create independent versions, he started to consider different interpretations. Overall, he considered the statue to represent the struggle of the human mind. But he also started to see hope in it. The thoughts slowly become clear, and the man turns from a thinker, into a dreamer, and finally into a creator. Over time, other interpretations have also been given. Some consider the statue to represent Rodin himself. Others interpret the figure as Adam contemplating the sin he committed in Paradise.
Who is Rodin? François Auguste René Rodin was born in 1840 in Paris, where he died 77 years later in 1917. He was rejected three times by the leading art school in Paris, the École des Beaux-Arts. It forced him to educate himself differently and this has contributed to his unique style. He was inspired by some of the great Renaissance sculptors like Donatello and Michelangelo. Most of his famous sculptures were originally intended for his commission of The Gates of Hell. Over time, he realized that he could turn many elements of The Gates of Hell into separate statues and some of these statues have achieved world fame. Among them are The Three Shades and The Kiss. Many of Rodin’s statues have been cast multiple times in bronze which means that his statues have spread across the world.
Why a bronze statue? Bronze is a combination of different metals. It consists primarily of copper (typically 85-90%) and tin (typically 10-15%), but can also contain minor quantities of other metals or nonmetals. It is an attractive material for sculptors for the following reasons. First, it is very durable. Second, it is difficult to break and allows the artist to sculpt different pieces of the sculpture separately and combine them afterward (for example, Rodin always separately sculpted the arms if they were not positioned along the body). Third, the sculptor can choose between different textures, ranging from very smooth to rough. Finally, the inclusion of minor quantities of lead, silver, or zinc can affect the color of the bronze providing artistic freedom to the sculptor.
Fun fact: While The Thinker is one of the most famous statues in the world, Rodin initially named this statue “the poet.” Later it was renamed based on suggestions by foundry workers that the sculpture was quite similar to a sculpture by Michelangelo on Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino. This sculpture was more popularly known as “Il Penseroso” (The Thinker), and this name was also given to Rodin’s statue. The Thinker also shows some resemblance to Ugolino and His Sons which was created by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux in the 1860s.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Gallery 630 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Commissioned by? Unknown. Possibly a chamber of rhetoric or it was uncommissioned.
What do you see? In the center, a woman dressed in a colorful carnivalesque, embroidered costume raises her right hand. She wears a wreath of laurel on her head and red beads around her neck and arms. Next to her are two comical characters. Six other characters surround the three central figures. Frans Hals painted these surrounding people very loosely. The people celebrate Shrovetide, a kind of Mardi Gras or carnival, in the days before Lent starts. To the left of the woman (from our point of view) is an older man grabbing her shoulder. He tries to say something to her. This man is called Peeckelhaering (which means pickled herring), and he can be recognized by two herrings hanging on a cord around his neck (see the two herrings next to the lower arm of the woman). Other items hanging on this cord are sausages, beans, a mussel, broken eggs, and a pig foot. In his right hand, he holds a foxtail. On the right is a man with a red cap looking at her. He makes a sexual gesture with his hands. The table in the foreground contains various items, including a bowl with fish, an open can, half a loaf of bread, and deflated bagpipes.
Backstory: This painting is also known as “Shrovetide Revellers.” Frans Hals probably depicts a play performed for Carnival. All actors in this play were men, and so the woman in the center is probably a man dressed up as a woman. She wears a wig and makeup. However, her hands are smaller than the hands of the men next to her. This feature either indicates that the man was built in a way that made it easy for him to dress up like a woman, or that she is a woman after all. Hals got inspiration for this painting from the works of Flemish artists like Rubens, Jordaens, and Jan Brueghel the Elder. He had seen their works earlier in 1616 during his 3-month visit to Antwerp. He took the modern Flemish ideas of a very busy composition and colorful figures and applied these to this painting. Hals painted the figures in the background using broad and loose brush strokes. Hals illustrates his trademark brushstrokes perfectly in the painting The Gypsy Girl in the Louvre, which he painted between 1626 and 1628. In 1907, Merrymakers at Shrovetide was bought for 89 thousand dollars by the American art collector Benjamin Altman. He left it for the Metropolitan Museum of Art after his death in 1913.
Symbolism: The two characters next to the woman in the center are two comical characters that played roles in the Baroque theater during that day. The man on the left (from our point of view) is Peeckelhaering. In his right hand, he has a foxtail, the symbol of a fool. A string with items hangs around his neck. On top of the string are sausages and beans, which are a symbol of the male genitals. Next to the sausages is a mussel, a symbol of the female genitals. Below the sausages are two broken eggs. An egg symbolizes manliness. In contrast, a broken egg is a way to make fun of a lack of sex drive of the man. Below the eggs are two herrings as a symbol of ridiculing someone with sharp criticism. At the bottom of the string is the foot of a pig symbolizing gluttony. The man on the right is Hans Wurst. He makes an obscene gesture with his hands to the woman. Some of the items on the table are also sexual references. For example, the deflated bagpipes are another reference to the limited sexual potential of Peeckelhaering.
What is Shrovetide? The Christian period of preparation for the six-week Lent. This period is strongly associated with Carnival. Shrovetide begins on the Septuagesima Sunday, the ninth Sunday before Easter. It lasts for 2.5 weeks and ends on Shrove Tuesday. The day after Shrove Tuesday is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Shrove Tuesday is a day with two different faces. Some people use this day to self-reflect and figure out what sins they regret and how they can grow spiritually. Other people celebrate this day wildly, as it is the last day on which they can indulge in food and drinks. In the 17th century, people would celebrate Carnival by dressing up in funny clothes, play crazy instruments, and perform for each other in the streets and bars. Nowadays, Shrove Tuesday is still celebrated and more popularly known as Mardi Gras.
Copies: The painting was well received, and, over time, several artists copied or made a variation on this painting. The most interesting among these copies is a version painted in 1637 by Dirck Hals, the youner brother of Frans. The painting is known under the title Carnival.
Who is Hals? Frans Hals the Elder was a Baroque painter. He was born in Antwerp, Belgium, by the end of 1582 (or early 1583). At a young age, his family moved to Haarlem, The Netherlands, where Frans would spend the rest of his life. During the year that Hals painted Merrymakers at Shrovetide, he also became a member of a local chamber of rhetoric called ‘De Wyngaertrancken’ (the vine tendrils). He did not participate in the performances of this chamber of rhetoric as he was a “second member,” which means that he merely admired the performances of other members. It shows his interests in depicting these plays even though his real specialty were the portraits that he painted. Among his most famous portraits are the Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman in the Cleveland Museum of Art and The Laughing Cavalier in the Wallace Collection in London.
Fun fact: Hans Wurst, the man on the right of the woman (from our point of view), was a comical character in 17th-century performances. Hans Wurst means John Sausage, and he can be recognized by the sausage dangling from his cap. He waved this sausage in front of his fellow players to make fun of them. Hans Wurst makes an obscene gesture. He puts the thumb of his left hand in between the middle and ring finger of his right hand, which form a circle. This is a gesture suggesting to penetrate the woman. Interestingly, this gesture was not visible in the painting when the Metropolitan Museum of Art received it in 1913. Only after they cleaned the painting, the gesture became visible. During this cleaning in 1951, the six figures in the background were also discovered.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Floor 5, Gallery 1 of the Museum of Modern Art
What do you see? The arrival of the evening in Grandcamp on the Northwest coast of France. The sky is a beautiful combination of white, silver, and gray. On the right is the Atlantic Ocean with a single sailboat. Seurat painted the sea and the sky using small horizontal brush strokes to indicate the direction in which the sea and sky are moving. In contrast, he painted the using dots of paint, which you can see very clearly when standing close to the painting. Some of the objects are very unclear from up-close. For example, look at the sailboat on the sea. However, from a distance, all the dots and small brush strokes come together, and the different elements of the painting become very clear. From a distance, we have no problem identifying a sailboat in this painting.
Backstory: In 1885, Seurat spent his Summer in Grandcamp, Normandy, on the French coast. That Summer he painted several seascapes. Two examples of other works he created in Grandcamp that Summer are Ruins at Grandcamp in the Musée d’Orsay and Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp in Tate Modern.
Beyond Impressionism: Impressionism developed under the lead of Édouard Manet in the 1860s and by the 1880s, Impressionism gained some popularity. However, among the next generation of artists, there were several innovative painters that went beyond Impressionism, usually labeled under the umbrella term Post-Impressionism. Seurat developed Neo-Impressionism, which is discussed below. Van Gogh used brighter colors and expressed his emotions in his paintings. Toulouse-Lautrec was a brilliant observer and drawer and started to develop advertisement posters. Gauguin developed Synthetism by focusing on the purity of colors and forms. Cézanne changed the way in which color was applied to the painting to create shapes and depth. Together, these artists have laid the groundwork for Modern Art as developed during the 20th century.
What is Neo-Impressionism? An art movement created by Georges Seurat in 1884. Neo-Impressionism involved a scientific interpretation of colors and lines. The paint was applied in pure, unmixed dots and blocks of colors, creating a strong sense of organization. Scientific principles guided the choice of contrasting colors such that the colors interacted optically (instead of mixing the colors in the painting). This creates a special effect for the viewer. Looking at the paintings from nearby, one sees a lot of dots of pure colors. However, from a distance, these colors interact beautifully, and the painting becomes a unified whole of almost unmatched clarity. One great example of this style from 1892 is Femmes au Puits by Paul Signac in the Musée d’Orsay. A later example from 1902 is Old Woman by Pablo Picasso in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Who is Seurat? Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891) was born and raised in Paris. He only became 31 years old and died in the midst of his career from an unknown disease. He was a Post-Impressionist painter. He can be classified even more accurately as a Neo-Impressionist painter. He received a classical art training at the traditional École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. While his painting style was far from traditional, his ideas benefited greatly from his education. He used a scientific approach to painting, whereby different colors can create different emotions and combining specific colors can create harmony in a painting. He decided not to combine colors in a painting, but instead to apply the colors separately, using small dots, and let the viewer combine the colors in his/her mind. The best-known painting by Seurat is probably A Sunday at La Grande Jatte – 1884 by Seurat in the Art Institute of Chicago.
Fun fact: Seurat completed this painting in 1885. Only three years later, he added the border of the painting. He did this to increase the brightness of the colors. This addition perfectly fits with the ideas and style of painting that Seurat used. The colors are carefully chosen to complement each other, and the contrasting colors in the border make the painting itself, and especially the sea and the sky stand out more.
Where? Room 822 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
What do you see? Van Gogh described this painting to his brother as follows: “I have a canvas of cypresses with a few ears of wheat, poppies, a blue sky, which is like a multicolored Scotch plaid; the former painted with a thick impasto like the Monticellis [works of a painter who Van Gogh adored], and the wheat field in the sun, which represents the extreme heat, very thick too; I think that these would make it more or less clear to him [the art dealer Alexander Reid, who was a friend of Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo; Van Gogh has also painted a portrait of Alexander Reid] that he could not lose much by remaining friends with us.” The painting shows a large ripe gold-colored wheat field which is ready for harvest. On the right are two darker cypresses that draw the attention. To the left are lighter and smaller cypresses. The whirling clouds and blue mountains in the background complete this landscape. You can almost feel the wind that is affecting the clouds and the wheat field. This movement is emphasized by the impasto technique used for this painting, in which the paint is applied in thick layers.
Backstory: Van Gogh painted this wheat field (by some referred to as a cornfield) with cypresses when he was in a mental asylum in Saint Remy in the south of France. He painted this when he was allowed to make short walks and paint outside of the asylum. He was particularly impressed by the cypresses he saw there as he felt that this tree reflected some of his emotions. Van Gogh liked this painting so much that he repeated this painting three more times. One version is in the National Gallery in London (and was acquired in 1923 for ₤300, which was similar to the price of a house at that time). Another (smaller) version is part of a private collection. The last version (a pen drawing) is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Symbolism: Van Gogh used his paintings to express his ideas of the meaning of life. The wheat fields represent the cycle of life, where people celebrate their growth, but at the same time are susceptible to the powerful forces of nature. The cypresses are a symbol of stability in a wild landscape (though at the same time the cypress was associated with cemeteries and death in the south of France, though many believe that this was not the intended meaning of the cypresses for Van Gogh).
Who is Vincent van Gogh? Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) was born in The Netherlands. His work is classified as post-impressionism. His work includes landscapes, portraits, self-portraits, and still lifes. Well-known are his depictions of cypresses, sunflowers, and wheat fields. In 1886, Van Gogh moved to Paris, where he connected with the French Impressionists, such as Paul Gauguin and Claude Monet. In 1888, Van Gogh moved further south in France to Arles where he painted his famous series of sunflower paintings, including the version that is in the National Gallery in London . A year later he moved to a nearby mental asylum in Saint Remy, due to his poor mental state, but continued to produce his paintings. During this time, he produced not only this painting but also The Starry Night which is in the Modern Museum of Art in New York. Van Gogh was a heavy drinker and smoker, and his mental state is often reflected in his paintings. In 1890, Van Gogh died at 37 years old from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
What is post-impressionism? Post-impressionism is a French art movement which developed in response to Impressionism. It is an extension of Impressionism, which is characterized by paintings with bright colors, real-life subject matters, and a thick application of paint. Post-impressionism extended on impressionism by adding emotions and symbolism to the paintings to reflect the artist’s state of mind. Besides Van Gogh, well-known painters in this movement include Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Paul Cézanne.
Fun fact: On the list of the 100 most expensive paintings ever sold, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Vincent van Gogh are best represented. Van Gogh has most paintings on this list (at least seven). For example, Wheat Field with Cypresses was bought in 1993 for $57 million and donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, unlike Picasso and Warhol, Van Gogh did not get rich during his life. In fact, the only known painting that Van Gogh sold during his life, The Red Vineyard, was sold for 400 Belgian Francs, which is worth about $1,500 nowadays.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links)
Where? Floor 5, Gallery 1 of the Museum of Modern Art
When? June 1889
What do you see? This painting is an imaginative version of a starry night in Saint-Rémy in France where Van Gogh was staying at that time. The various elements in this painting are certainly inspired by what Van Gogh observed in reality, but he created his own ideal version of the starry night. In the painting, we can observe some trees, a village, and mountains under a night sky full of stars (or more precisely a collection of 12 celestial bodies). In the foreground, you can observe a big wavy cypress tree. The cypress is an element that comes back in multiple Van Gogh paintings, such as the Wheat Field with Cypresses in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On the top right is a crescent moon. The brightest celestial body in the painting, just to the right of the cypress tree, is the planet Venus. The celestial bodies light up the sky (indicated by the use of white paint in the night sky). The church tower in the middle foreground is probably the Saint-Martin church in Saint-Rémy. Van Gogh, however, did not include the dome of the church in this painting. In the village surrounding the church, several houses still have their lights on. On the right side of the painting, between the village and the mountains, you can see a forest. The curvy lines used for the cypress tree and the clouds in the sky create a sense of movement in this painting. Notice also the clear contrast between the turbulent sky and the quiet life on earth. The cypress in the form of a big fire is the only element that connects the earth and sky with each other.
Backstory: The painting is created between June 16 and 18, 1889 when Van Gogh was staying in the hospital of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole at Saint-Rémy. In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote: “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.” He mixed this view both with some other elements that he observed in the area of Saint-Rémy and his imagination to create this painting. Van Gogh used thick broad strokes of oil paint to create this painting and it was probably created in a single day (even though the idea for this painting was already occupying his mind for over a year). If you look carefully, you can still see some pieces of the canvas in between the broad strokes of paint.
Symbolism: There is some debate on whether this painting should be interpreted symbolically. One symbolic explanation for this painting centers around the cypress which connects the earth to the sky in this painting. The cypress tree is associated with cemeteries and death. In this painting, it could be the connection between life (which happens on earth) and death (which is when you go to the stars according to Van Gogh). Van Gogh wrote in one of his letters “We take death to go to a star.” Van Gogh, who would eventually commit suicide, was interested in death and he expressed some ideas that one would go to the stars after death.
Other versions of the Starry Night? Van Gogh was already interested in the idea of painting a starry night in 1888 as expressed in several letters to his friends and brother. Indeed, in 1888 he painted two versions of a starry night. The first version is Café Terrace at Night which is in the Kröller-Müller Museum in The Netherlands. The second version is Starry Night over the Rhône which is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. However, these two paintings did not fulfill his idea of a perfect starry night. Instead of a starry night above a town, he was more interested in a starry night above a landscape and a more imaginative version of the night sky.
Who is Van Gogh? Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was born in Zundert in The Netherlands. At the end of his life, he created many paintings that fall under the post-impressionist style. Van Gogh has produced a large number of paintings during his life and most of them have been painted in the last two years of his life. In addition, many letters that he wrote, many of which to his brother Theo, have been saved. In these letters, he explained his ideas about painting and they form a valuable source to interpret some of his works. The work of Van Gogh was not really appreciated during his life, but his work has become famous after his suicide in 1890.
Fun fact: While this is nowadays considered to be one of the best paintings by Vincent van Gogh, he did not seem very proud of this painting. When he wrote a letter to his brother Theo after he left Saint-Rémy, he did not mention this painting as a good one. In fact, he listed several paintings, including the Wheatfield with Cypresses, as “a little good.” About the other paintings from that period, including this painting, he writes “the rest says nothing to me.” His brother Theo seems to agree that The Starry Night is not his best work. He was worried about the more imaginary nature of this work compared to the somewhat more realistic paintings he created before. He advised Vincent to stick to still lifes and flowers as that would have more therapeutic value for the mentally troubled Vincent.
Where? Room 620 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 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? Room 614 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? 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.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Gallery 632 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
When? Around 1662
What do you see? A young woman opens a leaded window with her right hand, and she holds a water pitcher in her left hand. She wears a blue dress with a blue and gold-like vest (called a bodice) on top of it. She also wears a white collar and an equally white linen head covering. The silver water pitcher is standing on a silver basin. The table is covered with an expensive and colorful tablecloth with flower patterns. On the right of the table is a box with a blue ribbon and a pearl necklace. Behind the table is a chair with a carved lion on top of it. A blue cloth hangs over the chair. On the top right hangs a map of the seventeen provinces of Hapsburg Netherlands in the 17th century (interestingly, the west of Hapsburg Netherlands is shown on the top, and the north is shown on the right). The walls in this room are somewhat off-white (which is clear when seen in contrast to the head cover of the woman) and we can see the effects of the sunlight. We can recognize different shadows on the wall left of the woman, but we can, for example, also observe the shadows on the nails in the chair. The light in this painting is gently changing the colors of the various objects. It is not entirely clear what the woman is doing. It is possible that she wants to water some of the flowers that are outside the window or she may want to clean the window. Note that the window is the same as the left window in The Music Lesson by Vermeer.
Backstory: This painting is also known as Woman with a Water Jug. It is a genre painting depicting an everyday scene from the life of the 17th-century middle class in The Netherlands. In 1887, Henry Marquand acquired this painting for $800 and later donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was the first Vermeer painting to come to the United States.
Balance and peacefulness: As in many other paintings of Vermeer, this painting shows a balanced composition which results in a very peaceful domestic scene. First, Vermeer achieves this by using a limited number of colors in this painting. He mainly uses the three primary colors: blue, red, and yellow. Second, Vermeer took many months to complete a single painting, and he added and removed various elements over that period to create the harmony that we see in this final version. For example, based on infrared technology, we know that Vermeer originally included another chair in the left foreground and the map on the wall was bigger and placed much more to the left. However, this created a more chaotic scene, and Vermeer proceeded to update the painting (check here for a virtual reconstruction of the earlier version of this painting). While removing the chair may not have been that much work, completely redoing the map on the wall on a different location was a lot of work and explains why Vermeer took such a long time to complete a painting (and the map turns out to be very accurate).
Who is Vermeer? Johannes Vermeer was born in Delft, The Netherlands, in 1631, and died in Delft in 1675. His father owned a tavern and was an art dealer. Early in his career, Vermeer got inspired by some work of Caravaggio and especially his use of light. Vermeer developed his own style and primarily focused on genre paintings. The domestic scenes that he portrayed have become famous through their realism and excellent use of light and shadow. Besides the current painting, other examples that illustrate his brilliance are The Milkmaid in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. The work of Vermeer was certainly appreciated during his career, but after his death, there was a period of almost two hundred years during which his work was largely forgotten or attributed to other better-known painters. In the second half of the 19th century, his work was rediscovered and quite some well-known paintings were attributed to Vermeer.
Fun fact: As you can see in the paintings above, Vermeer used a lot of blue in his paintings. For this he used the pigment ultramarine (which is a natural pigment made from lapis lazuli). The use of this pigment differentiated him from his contemporaries as lapis lazuli was very expensive. Most other painters used the much cheaper azurite to create blue. Lapis Lazuli is a rock with a deep blue color, and this rock was not available in Europe but had to come from countries like Afghanistan. Ultramarine is created by grinding lapis lazuli into powder and combining it with a drying oil. Titian is another well-known artist who often used ultramarine. During the Renaissance, ultramarine was primarily used to paint the robe of the Virgin Mary. The ultramarine pigment remained very expensive until 1826 when synthetic varieties of ultramarine became available.
Where? Room 620 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? 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.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster (Amazon link).
Where? Part of the Thannhauser collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
What do you see? This painting is situated in a small forest in Tahiti used to grow vanilla. The vanilla vines climb up the trees. The majority of the painting is made up by the landscape. In the bottom half of the painting, Gauguin used abstract color areas to depict the grassland. The forest in the background looks more like a tapestry. In the right foreground, a man holding his horse can be seen. The man is only wearing black shorts. He is looking down while waiting and does not have much expression on his face. In between the trees, just left to the middle, a woman dressed in white hides in the forest. It seems that the two people have arranged a romantic meeting (a rendezvous) between them that needs to remain a secret.
Backstory: This painting was bought in 1942 by Justin Thannhauser, who left the painting in 1978 to the Guggenheim Museum. It is also known as The Rendez-vous, or under the French name Dans la Vanillère, Homme et Cheval. During the Fall of 1891, Gauguin was living in a small village on Tahiti, Mataiea. This painting is most likely depicting a vanilla grove in that area. The poses of the man and his horse in this painting are derived from a well-known frieze on the Parthenon in Athens. This painting, as much of Gauguin’s other work while in French Polynesia, is considered to fall under primitivism, an art style that borrows elements from non-Western societies.
Synthetism: This is an artistic style used by artists such as Gauguin and Émile Bernard. It is a combination of different approaches to painting. For example, on the one hand, the real world can be depicted in a painting, while on the other hand, the artist’s dream world can also be depicted. As Gauguin was an artist who mainly painted from his imagination, he combined the real world which he saw in front of him with the ideas that he had in his mind. In this painting, he combined the landscape in French Polynesia with a scene in his mind from a man with a horse that was inspired by one of the friezes of the Parthenon. An even better example of this style is the painting Vision after a Sermon by Gauguin. In this painting, several women are leaving the church at the bottom, and they see a vision of Jacob wrestling with the Angel, which was the subject of the sermon.
Who is Gauguin? Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was born in Paris. He was a post-impressionist painter. He is known for his experimental use of different colors, which has had a big impact on future artists such as Picasso and Matisse. On April 1, 1891, Gauguin left to Tahiti, which is the largest island of French Polynesia and lies in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. His idea was to escape from the artificial life in France and to immerse in nature, live like a child would do, and focus on his art. The first painting he created on Tahiti is Hail Mary which is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the same time as the painting In the Vanilla Grove, Man and Horse, he also painted Haere Mai, which is also on display at the Guggenheim Museum. Gauguin stayed in Tahiti for two years, before returning to France in August 1893. In 1895, he returned to French Polynesia where he stayed until his death. During his life, Gauguin was often struggling for enough money to be a full-time painter. Unfortunately for him, his work only became very popular after his death.
Tahiti: Tahiti is an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is formed by volcanic activity and is a part of France. 70% of the total population of fewer than 200,000 consists of indigenous Tahitians. While many people speak the Tahitian language, French is the official language. The island contains a small airport but has direct flights to Los Angeles, Paris, Sydney, and Tokyo. Vanilla is one of the important export products of Tahiti. The island contains a small museum dedicated to Paul Gauguin, appropriately called the Paul Gauguin Museum.
Fun fact: In 1893, Gauguin returned to Paris to sell some of his paintings. During his time there he dressed in traditional Polynesian cloths and started an affair with an exotic teenager. His stay in France was not a success, and his ideas and his reputation were verbally attacked in the Mercure de France magazine by several contemporaries. Disappointed, he returned to French Polynesia in 1895, where he could focus again on his art without much distraction from the artificial and conventional aspects of life.
Where? Gallery 825 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
What do you see? This painting contains five people. On the right is Mary with her naked child Jesus sitting in an odd pose on her shoulder. Both have a halo around their head and are looking at the viewer. Mary is wearing a red pareo (which is a dress that is wrapped around the middle or higher and is typical for people in Tahiti and the Cook Islands) wrapped around her with a hibiscus flower motif on it. On the left, you can see a female angel (probably representing the Archangel Gabriel) dressed in pink and with blue and yellow wings. The angel is partly hidden behind a flowering tree. The angel points out the presence of Mary and Jesus to the two Tahitian women on the purple path. who. These two women are dressed in a pareo from the waist down, and they fold their hands in devotion. In the foreground is a collection of fruit laying on a fata, which is a wooden altar that Polynesians use to make offers to their gods. These fruits may be an analogy to the gifts that the three Magi brought to Jesus after his birth. The fruit includes red and yellow Tahitian bananas (some of which are in a wooden bowl) and the green breadfruit in the center. In the background, you can see the dark mountains, a lake, palm trees, and flowering bushes. There is a boathouse on the right side of the lake.
Backstory: This painting is also known as Ia Orana Maria (which is Tahitian for ‘Hail Mary’ or ‘Mary, I salute you’) and this is the title displayed at the bottom left of the painting. Paul Gauguin painted this after he moved to Tahiti, the largest island of French Polynesia, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This was the first painting he completed after his arrival in Tahiti in 1891. The words Ia Orana Maria are the first words of the Tahitian version of the prayer Ave Maria. Gauguin occasionaly painted religious paintings. For example, see his self-portrait with the yellow body of Christ which is now in the Musée d’Orsay.
What is Hail Mary? Also known as the Angelic Salutation or Ave Maria, Hail Mary is a prayer in the Catholic Church. The full text of this prayer is: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and in the hour of our death. Amen.” This prayer is the most popular prayer aimed at Mary and asks for her help in intervening between the person praying and God.
Who is Gauguin? Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) is a post-impressionist artist who is known for his experimental use of colors. Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas were important for Gauguin in developing his unique style. In 1891 he moved to Tahiti to start a new life. His idea was to set up a community of painters, called l’atelier des tropiques in an area that was far away from home and did not suffer from the materialism that was present in France. The main idea behind this initiative was to stimulate the role of spirituality in their artworks and to expose themselves to different cultures and religions. In the end, no other painters joined him, and he left alone to Tahiti. However, this did not have a negative effect on the quality of Gauguin’s work, and he produced some of his best works during this period. For example, By the Sea (Fatata te Miti), which is in the National Gallery of Art and Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao Tupapau) in the Albright–Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. Most of Gauguin’s paintings are based on his imagination, and he expressed in a letter to his wife that he believed that his artistic center was in his mind and did not need to be inspired by other painters.
Fun fact: Gauguin did not have any models from Tahiti in front of him to paint this picture, but rather painted this based on his imagination and some other stimuli that he brought to Tahiti. For example, the two women in the middle are not from Tahiti (as Tahitians were not walking around half-naked), but modeled after the figures of dancers on a bas-relief of the Javanese Borobudur temple of which he had brought a picture. Also, the pose of Jesus on top of Mary’s shoulder was based on a postcard that Gauguin bought during his trip to Tahiti. Moreover, Gauguin was one of the first artists to depict Mary and Jesus with a colored skin, something that was not allowed yet by the Catholic Church.
Where? The marble version is in Room 548 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A bronze version is in the Allée centrale de sculptures (central sculpture hall) on the ground floor of the Musée d’Orsay. A plaster version is in Room 14 of the Petit Palais.
When? The plaster version between 1858 and 1861, the bronze version in 1862, and the marble version between 1865 and 1867.
Commissioned by? The owner of the Saint-Béat quarry
What do you see? Ugolino is sentenced to starve to death together with his children. This sculpture shows the moment that Ugolino considers cannibalism. He is depicted together with his four children, all naked, but is ignoring his children in this sculpture. He looks desperately in the distance and is biting his fingers and pulls his lip down with them. He holds his head in the palm of his hand. He is contemplating the consequences of his sins. He is sculpted as a muscular man even though he is starving to death. He is bending forward and has his feet on top of each other. The four children are in different states of suffering, and they beg their father to eat them such that he can stay alive. The oldest boy seems most energetic. He has his fingers in the flesh of Ugolino’s leg to emphasize his begging. The second oldest son on the right is also holding his father with both hands. The second youngest son on the left sits on top of his oldest brother and has already lost most of his remaining energy. He has his left arm on his father’s leg. The youngest son is on the bottom right and while he is the only one with a peaceful expression he appears already dead. Carpeaux is telling a story with this sculpture, something that is very difficult to do with a sculpture. He was able to sculpt the skin, muscles, and veins very realistically and to express the strong emotions of the different subjects. The more you look at the details of this marble statue, the more alive the subjects become. For example, you can see Ugolino’s agony by the curve in his spine, and even the toes of Ugolino are curled to show his agony.
Different versions of this statue: Several sculptures of Ugolino and His Sons have been made. Carpeaux got the idea of creating a sculpture of Ugolino and his sons in 1858. He started by making a plaster version of it, which he completed in 1861. This version is in the Petit Palais in Paris. After that, in 1862, he created a bronze version which is now in the Musée d’Orsay. The final version he created was the marble version in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rodin was inspired by the sculptures of Carpeaux and, in 1881, he made a plaster version of Ugolino and His Children which is in the Musée Rodin in Paris.
Backstory: This work is created under the supervision of Carpeaux and is based on canto 33 of Dante’s Inferno (which is the first part of the Divine Comedy). In this book, Dante travels through the nine circles of hell. Each circle contains people who are convicted in hell for a different sin. In the ninth circle, he meets Count Ugolino della Gherardesca (c. 1220-1289), who was convicted for treachery. In 1288, Ugolino worked together with the archbishop Ruggiero to take control of the factions in Pisa. However, in this process, Ruggieri betrayed him and locked Ugolino up in prison. More precisely, Ugolino was imprisoned together with his children and grandchildren in a tower and condemned to starve to death. His children begged Ugolino to eat them to survive, and his hunger was stronger than his sadness about his dying children. It is unclear whether Ugolino ate his children in the end. In Dante’s story, Ugolino’s eternal punishment in hell is that he is stuck up to his head in the icy waste of Antenora which is the punishment for political traitors. Meanwhile, he is chewing the head of Ruggieri (the person who betrayed him in real life) who is also stuck in the ice.
Who is Carpeaux? Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875) was born in Valenciennes in France and died in Paris. In 1854 he moved to Rome, where he got inspired by the Renaissance artists such as Donatello, Michelangelo, and Verrocchio. He suffered a lot during his life, both mentally and physically, and you can see that back in some of his extreme works. His sculptures are known for the emotions they evoked among the viewers, and he distinguished himself with his style from his contemporary colleagues. He is considered one of the greatest sculptors of his time, though most people consider Antonio Canova (who was born before him) and Auguste Rodin (who was born after him) to be even better.
Fun fact: The sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is placed very close to the entrance of the Petrie Court Café. It is ironic that this sculpture with the theme of starvation is so close to the Café. While this may be a coincidence in itself, another statue that deals with starvation is also close to the Café. Rodin’s bronze The Burghers of Calais sculpture shows six leaders of the city of Calais who are starving and have a rope around their neck as they will be executed soon. The marble statue of Carpeaux is also next to the statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Antonio Canova.
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, a violin is shown, which seems to invite the viewer to participate.
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).
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).
Where? In the Museum of Modern Art, but currently not on display.
What do you see? A nude woman from Tahiti sits on a blue and white blanket. She is sitting in a dignified position with her back very straight, like the old Egyptians depicted people in art. She has some white flowers in her hair and in her left hand she holds a flowering mango (seed) that she seems to offer to the viewer. This flowering mango symbolizes fertility and was the sacred fruit of the Areoi society. On the bottom right is a three-legged table (called an umete in Polynesian) with more mangos in different colors. The woman is sitting against a background of pink flowers. In the background is the beautiful landscape of Tahiti which shows some mountains, water, trees, and a piece of the sky. Gauguin kept this painting relatively simple and did, for example, not include any shadows. He created a very colorful painting where the colors are not all very realistic.
Backstory: This painting is also known under the Polynesian title Te Aa No Areois as can be seen in the bottom left corner. The painting was bought in 1936 by William S. Paley, a trustee, and the later president of the Museum of Modern Art. It was the first Gauguin painting acquired by the MoMA. Gauguin signed and dated the painting on the left side of the table with fruit in the foreground. The composition of the painting is similar to another Gauguin painting entitled Her Name is Vaïraümati (or Vairaumati Tei Oa) which is in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. This painting deals with a similar theme, which is the origin of the Areoi society.
Who are the Areoi? Also referred to as the Arioi, it is a secret religious society in French Polynesia which does not exist anymore. At its origin is a myth about the god Oro who has intercourse with the most beautiful woman on earth, Vaïraümati, which results in the creation of a new race. The society had a hierarchical structure with several classes or ranks. While everyone, both men and women, could theoretically enter into each class within the Areoi, the highest classes were in practice mainly accessible for people from the higher classes of society. The highest class was reserved for priests. Access to the society depended on your beauty, religious knowledge, recitation skills, and dancing skills. Moving up through the ranks was confirmed by increasingly large tattoos. Members of the society had sexual freedom until they married and were not allowed to get children. Most of the French Polynesian islands had their Areoi order, and they all had a place of worship and several houses in which the members met and where members of the other islands could stay.
Who is Gauguin? Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was a post-impressionist painter from Paris. He was a self-taught painter without any formal education. He spent a large time of his youth in Peru where he developed his taste for traveling and exotic countries. In 1891, he moved to Tahiti in French Polynesia where he stayed until 1893 when he temporarily moved back to France. In 1895, he returned to Tahiti where he spent most of his time until his death in 1903. He is widely known for the idyllic and colorful paintings he made in French Polynesia. His work has had a big influence on artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Other well-known works of Gauguin from his first period in French Polynesia are Hail Mary in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and In the Vanilla Grove, Man and Horse in the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Fun fact: The girl in this painting is the Tahitian mistress/wife of Gauguin. Her name is Tehura, and she is 13 years old at the time of this painting. Soon after this painting, she was pregnant. She is depicted as Vaïraümati, the wife of the god Oro, who gave birth to a son who formed the beginning of the Areoi. Gauguin wanted to paint the origins of this secret society which he claimed to have learned from Tehura. However, it is now assumed that Gauguin learned about this society through a travel book by Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout. In fact, Tehura was not aware at first that she was depicted as the mother of the Areoi.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster of canvas.