Where? Room 14 of the Musée d’Orsay
What do you see? The 27-year old writer Émile Zola sits straight in a cushioned chair. He is fashionably dressed as a Parisian dandy, wearing a black jacket with grey pants. One hand rests on his knee, half-clenched. In his other hand, he holds Charles Blanc’s L’Histoire des Peintres, a book about art history. Zola seems to be in thought about something he has just read. The blankness of his expression makes the objects around him the subject of the viewer’s attention. In the background are artifacts from Japan, including an ink well on the desk, a painted screen on the far left, and a print of Utagawa Kuniaki’s Wrestler of Onaruto Nadaemon on the wall. The organized clutter atop his desk accentuates his wit and intellect. Among the books is a light blue pamphlet in which Zola defended Manet controversial painting Olympia. Directly above it is a print of Olympia herself. Behind it is a print of another famous painting, The Triumph of Bacchus by Diego Velázquez.
Backstory: In 1867, Manet had a solo exhibition. His best-known work, Olympia, was put on display for the second time. The work had received much criticism in 1865 for its avant-garde subject matter and “unrefined” style. Upon its second public display, the painting was once again the subject of many harsh comments. Writer Émile Zola came to Manet’s defense and wrote an article in La Revue du XXe siècle. The article praised Manet’s bold style and technique, asking viewers to overlook the “risque” subject matter. Zola later published the article in its own brochure that sits on his desk in this portrait. As thanks, Manet painted Zola’s portrait. Over the course of several months, Zola posed extensively for the portrait in Manet’s studio. According to Zola, these sessions were long and exhausting as Manet did not engage in much conversation when he was painting. Manet’s main emphases in this portrait were Zola’s intellect and the aesthetics of the Far East. With the influx of Japanese goods into France in the mid-nineteenth century, many artists began imitating the flatness and simplicity of Japanese woodblock prints. This movement, known as Japonisme, was a precursor to Impressionism.
Who is Émile Zola? A French writer who was born in 1840 in Paris. He is often credited as a founder of the naturalism movement in literature. He was childhood friends with Paul Cézanne who later introduced him to Manet. Zola was unemployed and lived in poverty for two years of his adult life. It was only when he published his first novel, Claude’s Confession that he was able to land a job as a journalist. Zola went on to write many more novels and published his best-known series, The Rougon Family Fortune. In the 1860s, Zola defended Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists like Cézanne, Manet, Renoir, and Monet.
Who is Manet? Édouard Manet was born in 1832 in Paris where he died 51 years later. He was a Parisian Realist painter who studied in the studio of Thomas Couture for six years. Afterward, however, Manet decided against attending the official art school of the French Academy, the École des Beaux-Arts. Early on in his career, he befriended the poet Charles Baudelaire whose work featured urban outsiders such as prostitutes and street entertainers. Baudelaire’s writing inspired Manet to continue painting unusual characters alongside his other works that featured better-known figures such as musicians and writers. Manet was friends with Monet who he first considered to be a rival. He believed Monet to be copying his work. However, the pair made amends and eventually traveled to Argenteuil together. Many works came out of this trip, including Monet Painting in his Studio Boat.
Fun fact: Manet altered the print of Olympia in his portrait for Zola. Instead of facing the viewer, Olympia is looking at Émile Zola who had publicly defended her after this painting had received so much criticism at the Paris Salon (a very popular yearly art exhibition) of 1865. Three years later, Manet submitted the painting to the Paris Salon of 1868 where it got accepted. The painting received mixed critical reviews. Some thought that the portrait was one of the best at the Salon of that year, while others thought the painting lacked animation and that it looked more like a still life than a portrait.
Where? Temporary Exhibition Hall on the Ground floor of the Musée d’Orsay
What do you see? A Parisian prostitute, Olympia, lies down on her bed in her apartment. She rests atop a floral cloth, staring directly at the viewer as her servant presents her with a bouquet (perhaps a gift from an admirer or patron). Olympia’s left hand is firmly placed over her private area. She is pale, and her features are not idealized as was typically done by other artists at this time. Instead, Manet painted her realistically. Olympia’s body has dark outlines and broad color that lacks shading. She appears flat and stands in stark contrast to the dark brown and green background behind her. At her feet is a startled black cat with its tail raised.
Backstory: Victorine Meurent served as the model for Olympia. She was a painter herself and served as a model for various artists. Manet liked her as a model because of her petite stature and red hair. Laure served as the model for the maid, and she posed for several other paintings of Manet. Édouard Manet got his inspiration for Olympia from the Venus of Urbino, the iconic Renaissance painting by Titian in the Uffizi Museum. Titian’s painting is a classic example of the female nude as a manifestation of ideal beauty. His reclining nude, like most, was shrouded in perfection and mythology. It was not inherently sexual. In his painting, Manet reduced the female nude to a much more realistic form. There is no beauty or goddess to admire; the viewer is confronted with Olympia’s sexuality as well as the reality of prostitution in Paris. And unlike the demure and reserved reclining nudes of the past, Manet’s modernized version features a woman who addresses the viewer and holds a firm posture.
Controversy: The painting caused quite an uproar when it was displayed in the Paris Salon in 1865. The French public was not ready to receive such a bold painting that deviated so strongly from what they were used to. Over seventy critics condemned the work for a variety of reasons and political cartoons mocking Olympia as ugly surfaced in newspapers and magazines. The realistic style of this painting was not appreciated. Moreover, to show a sex worker as so bold and independent was very unconventional during the time. The idea that Olympia could live so comfortably (with flowers and jewelry) shook critics to the core. In addition, the painting breaks tradition by showing an imperfect female nude who stands in contrast to the flawless depictions of Venus from the past.
Who is Olympia? In 1860s France, “Olympia” was an alias commonly used by prostitutes or courtesans. She is not of lower status as we would expect. Instead, she is shown to be of a higher class, adorned with jewelry and resting on a floral blanket with a servant at her side.
Who is Manet? Édouard Manet was born in 1832 in Paris where he died 51 years later. He was a Parisian realist painter who studied in the studio of Thomas Couture for six years. Afterward, however, Manet decided against attending the official art school of the French Academy, the École des Beaux-Arts. Early on in his career, he befriended the poet Charles Baudelaire whose work featured urban outsiders such as prostitutes and street entertainers. Baudelaire’s writing inspired Manet to continue painting unusual characters alongside his other works that featured better-known figures such as musicians and writers. Manet also had a love for the sea and occasionally liked to capture this in this works, such as the Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While most of Manet’s works can be classified under Realism, he is also one of the masterminds behind the development of Impressionism. The Rue Mosnier with Flags in the Getty Museum is a good example of his Impressionist ideas.
Fun fact: In 1867, Manet held a solo exhibition during the World’s Fair in Paris. Once again, Olympia was on display. When the painting received criticisms once again, writer Emile Zola defended it with a pamphlet that praised Manet’s bold style and technique. He asked viewers to overlook the subject matter and appreciate Manet’s avant-garde approach to art. As thanks, Manet produced a portrait of Zola, Portrait of Emile Zola. It features Zola in his study, reading some of his own works. In the upper right, Manet added a miniature print of Olympia to Zola’s wall.
What do you see? A young dancer of fourteen years old is shown at 70 percent of her real size (the sculpture is a bit taller than 3 foot or about 1 meter). She seems relaxed and is standing in ballet’s fourth position (there are seven positions for the feet in ballet, and the ballerina here has her feet in open fourth position – about 12 inches apart and facing different directions). She is sculpted realistically and Degas intends to show the hard life of a ballet dancer and what it does to her body. Her back leg supports most of her weight. She has thin legs and arms. She holds her arms behind her back and has her hands clasped together. She confidently holds up her chin, pushes her shoulders back, and her eyes are half closed. She wears ballet shoes, a real tutu made of tarlatan, and a gold-colored bodice (a vest) made of linen. She also wears a real ribbon in her plaited hair. Degas used real hair for this sculpture, which he covered in wax.
Backstory: The original wax sculpture in the National Gallery of Art is mixed with some real materials (like the tutu and the ribbon in her hair). The sculpture has been modeled after a fourteen-year-old girl named Marie van Goethem. She lived in Paris and joined the Paris Opera Ballet to escape the poverty of her family. Degas was a frequent visitor at the ballet school and watched their classes and performances. He used Marie not only as a model for this sculpture but also for quite some other works, including many drawing of dancers that he made. One example of such a drawing is Dancer Bending Forward in the Chicago Art Institute. Modeling for Degas was a nice way for Marie to make some extra money. She not only modeled dressed as a ballerina but also nude, which allowed Degas to study her anatomy in detail. In the National Gallery of Art, you can also see two studies in the nude of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Marie graduated from the ballet school in 1880 and would start to perform in ballet performances. However, a couple of years later, in 1882, she missed several rehearsals and was dismissed. After that, we do not know what happened to Marie’s further life.
Copies: The National Gallery of Art holds two statues (the original wax statue and a bronze casting) of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen as well as two nude studies for this statue. When Degas died, about 150 statues were found in his studio of which only one of the versions in the National Gallery of Art had been shown to the public at an exhibition. Many of these statues were in bad shape, but about half of these statues were repaired after his death. The National Gallery of Art has many of these original statues. The surviving family of Degas decided to create about 22 bronze casts of these statues. Because of this, nowadays, bronze copies of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen can be found in many other locations besides the ones mentioned on the top. For example, the statue is also in the Chicago Institute of Art, Harvard Art Museums, Metropolitan Museum of Art (currently not on view), and the Norton Simon Museum. One of the bronze copies of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was sold in 2009 for $19 million.
Who is Degas? Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas (1834-1917) was born in Paris. Whereas he spent most of his life in Paris, he also lived for three years in Italy and spent time in Florence, Naples, and Rome. He started as a more traditional painter by creating historical stories and portraits, but during the 1860s he changed his style and became one of the founders of impressionism, together with artists like Cézanne, Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir. He changed his focus and started to paint scenes from everyday life with a particular interest in dancers, theater, and horseracing. He moved on to focus on more realistic paintings, and one such example is Interior in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He made statues mainly as training to understand the anatomy and movements of people.
Fun fact: When Degas showed this sculpture at an Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1881, many people did not like it at all. For example, some people called the sculpture a monkey. It also did not help that the sculpture was on display in a glass vitrine. Sculptures typically were idealized versions of well-known people created in marble. Instead, Degas created an unknown young girl from Paris, and the girl did not look at all like a goddess. On top of that, he created this sculpture from beeswax and he added objects like a tutu to the statue. Because of the negative reactions Degas got, he removed the statue from the exhibition and stored it in his studio until his death.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Canvas or statue (Amazon links).
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? First floor, room 700 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
What do you see? A moment about two hours before the survivors of a shipwreck are rescued. After spending 13 days on a raft on the open sea – surrounded by big waves – the surviving members of The Medusa noticed a ship on the horizon (see the tiny ship on the horizon above the guy on the right with a red garment around his upper legs). Some of the survivors frantically try to get the attention of the ship. However, they are unsuccessful at first and only two hours later the ship locates the raft and the survivors are rescued. The improvised raft carries 20 people. It seems that there are four or five dead bodies, mostly in the foreground. The survivor that reaches highest is an African man. Géricault gave this man a very prominent place as a political statement against slavery. The man stands with his right leg on a barrel of wine, which is the only liquid they had to drink on the raft. In the left foreground, a father with a red cloth holds the dead body of his son in front of him.
What it the Raft of the Medusa? The Medusa was a French warship. In 1816, it left from Rochefort, France, in the direction of Senegal, where the British would hand over the port of Saint-Louis to the French. The ship carried 400 passengers. Navigational mistakes caused the ship to run aground in shallow water about 30 miles (50 km) from the coast of Mauritania. The ship was damaged, and the passengers needed to be evacuated. However, there were not enough lifeboats to carry everybody. The majority of passengers used the lifeboats to get to the African coast. About 150 people got on an improvised raft of 66 ft (20m) long and 23 ft (7m) wide (see the picture below based on a drawing of one of the survivors). There was very little food on the raft, it was half underwater, and could not be steered. So, these people were lost at sea. Many of them died because of a lack of food, fights, suicide, or cannibalism. When the raft was discovered by a rescue ship 13 days later, only 15 people were alive (of which five died within days after their rescue). Two survivors wrote a book about their experiences and the full text of that book is available for free.
Backstory: Within two months of the rescue, the first accounts of the brutal journey of the raft of the Medusa appeared in French newspapers. These stories caused a big scandal in France and the government tried to cover it up unsuccessfully. Géricault got inspired by these stories and wanted to start a painting about it. He spoke to two survivors to get an even better idea of what they experienced. He picked a specific moment from their survival story as the subject for this large painting. He also tracked down the carpenter that helped to build the raft from the wooden deck of the Medusa and asked him to create a smaller-scale replica in his studio. Many of the preparatory sketches by Géricault for this painting are still available. A more elaborate sketch that is also on display in the Louvre is shown below. All this preparation resulted in a brilliantly-executed painting. According to many, this is the most famous painting from the Romantic art period.
Moral: The moral is one of despair, hope, and persistence. After 13 days, the people on the raft finally see a ship that could rescue them. However, the ship does not seem to see them. Some people in this painting are still trying to get the attention of the ship, while others have already given up, turned around, and sit down in disappointment.
Who is Géricault? Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) was a painter and lithographer from France. He is one of the founders of Romanticism, an art movement that was further developed by Eugene Delacroix. While Géricault received some formal training, he was largely self-educated. He got his inspiration from Michelangelo, Gros, and especially Rubens. He was a specialist in painting horses. His first masterpiece, The Charging Chasseur, which is also in the Louvre, was accepted for the Paris Salon of 1812. Two years later another painting of him got accepted by the Salon, entitled The Wounded Cuirassier, which is on display both in the Louvre and in the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York.
Fun fact: This painting by Géricault was a controversial one and Géricault was aware of that. The painting was a political statement against the government who had failed in appointing a proper captain to the Medusa and, subsequently, tried to cover up their mistakes in handling the aftermath. Géricault used a canvas of 23.6 ft (716 cm) wide and 16.1 ft (491) cm high, making the figures in this painting larger than life-size. He knew that he would not sell this painting as it was too big for a private home and the government would not buy it. The painting got accepted for the 1819 Paris Salon and immediately went viral, becoming the talk of the town. As expected he did not sell it, but he earned some money when the painting toured various exhibitions in Europe – where the painting was well received.
Where? Ground floor, room 403 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
Commissioned by? Colonel John Campbell
What do you see? The moment at which the lifeless body of Psyche is just brought back to life by Cupid. The figures of Cupid and Psyche (except the wings) are positioned in a pyramid shape, which creates a stable form for the sculpture. Cupid sits on one knee on top of a rock and holds Psyche by her head and breast. He has large wings pointing straight up into the air and wears his arrows in a quiver on his back. Psyche reaches up to Cupid and has her hands on his head. She lets her head hang back and they are about to kiss. Her long hair reaches all the way to the ground. She has a cloth wrapped around her lower body. Behind them lays the flask with the ointment that Psyche had collected from the underworld. Directly to the right of the flask is Cupid's arrow, which he used to wake up Psyche.
This story symbolizes the big efforts and challenges a human must undergo to achieve happiness and immortality. Look also at the precision with which Canova created the smooth bodies of Cupid and Psyche. This smoothness contrasts nicely with the wrinkly texture of the sheet wrapped around Psyche and the rougher texture of the rock on which they sit. Near the right foot of Psyche is a handle, which was originally included to turn the sculpture around as it was worth seeing this sculpture from all possible angles.
Backstory: This sculpture is based on a story the Roman writer Apuleius wrote in his book Metamorphoses, chapters four, five, and six (you can download the book here for free). In short, Psyche was considered the most beautiful woman alive, and Cupid fell in love with her. The painting Cupid and Psyche in the Cleveland Museum of Art by Jacques-Louis David shows the couple after they made love. The goddess Venus was jealous of Psyche's beauty and sent her on a very dangerous journey to the underworld to collect a flask with Proserpina’s beauty ointment. Psyche succeeds with the help of Cupid. Venus instructed Psyche not to open the flask, but after she completes the journey, she could not resist and opened it to take some of the content. But instead of becoming more beautiful, the ointment makes her fall in a very deep sleep as Proserpina had filled the flask with sleep of the innermost darkness. Cupid forgives Psyche and revives her. He asks for the help of Zeus who makes Psyche immortal and Cupid and Psyche marry and stay together forever.
Multiple Versions: Antonio Canova created another version of this statue for the Russian art collector Prince Yusupov. This version was made in 1796 and is now in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. It differs somewhat from the current version as Yusupov asked for some changes. For example, he wanted the cloth on Psyche to cover her legs completely. The favorite student of Canova, Adamo Tadolino, inherited the plaster model for this sculpture, which is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He used this model to create at least five known marble replicas of this sculpture with small modifications. He added, for example, small butterfly wings to the back of Psyche and created smaller wings for Cupid.
Who is Psyche? One of the three daughters of an unknown king and queen. She was very beautiful, and people treated her like a goddess. Venus was jealous of her beauty and the way she was treated. She asked her son Cupid to use his arrows to make her marry the ugliest of all human beings. However, when Cupid saw Psyche, he fell in love with her. Psyche's father went to an oracle to ask why her daughter had not married yet. The oracle said that Psyche should be left behind there immediately as otherwise terrible disasters would happen. Next, the god Zephyr blew her away and put her in a palace by herself. There, every night she made love to a person that she was not allowed to see. This person was Cupid. When she discovered this, Cupid fled. To get him back, Psyche followed the instructions of Venus to gather a beauty ointment from the underworld as described above.
Who is Canova? Antonio Canova (1757-1822) was born in Possagno, a small town in the Northeast of Italy. He studied arts in Venice and then moved to Rome at age 23 to start his own workshop. He completed several commissions for the Pope while in Rome. In 1802, he moved to Paris where he created several sculptures for Napoleon. He was inspired by the ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. He revived this classical style and Canova is considered to be the prime neoclassical sculptor. His sculptures are praised because of their perfect form and finish. The careful finish of the human bodies makes his statues look like real flesh and makes them come alive. An example of another great sculpture of Canova is Perseus with the Head of Medusa in the Vatican Museums, and a replica can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fun fact: Canova conducted extensive research to create this sculpture. The position of Cupid is copied exactly from a painting he saw in Herculaneum near Naples. After many sketches, he then created numerous clay figures of the sculpture. Unlike many other sculptors who created small-sized clay models for a sculpture, Canova created the clay models at their real size. This helped him to accurately sculpt his work in marble. Note that the flask and the wings of Cupid are sculpted separately and are inserted into the rest of the sculpture. For example, you can still see some marks on where the wings are attached to Cupid’s back. Finally, Canova had special curved chisel tools designed for him, which he used to carve out the sculpture’s most inaccessible places. This attention to detail makes him one of the most admired sculptors in history.
Written by Eelco Kappe
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Second floor, room 846 of the Richelieu wing in the Louvre
When? Between 1626 and 1628
What do you see? A prostitute smiling provocatively. She has half of her breasts exposed. The use of light emphasizes her expression and cleavage. She wears a white linen garment with a salmon-colored bodice on top of it. She has rosy cheeks and looks to her left (our right). It seems that she is seducing a potential client. By 17th- and 21st-century standards, the woman is not very pretty. She has a somewhat big nose, not a very smooth skin, and her hair is somewhat unkempt. However, her facial expression is so intriguing that this work leaves a lasting impression on those who view the painting. Frans Hals used loose and rough brush strokes for this painting. While Hals is known for his loose brush strokes, in this painting he used them more than in most of his other works. The style used for this work helps to make The Gypsy Girl very memorable.
Backstory: Louis La Caze owned this painting in the 19th century. He was a doctor from Paris and an avid art collector. He gave the name The Gypsy Girl to this painting. This title is not very accurate as he did not recognize that Frans Hals actually painted a prostitute. La Caze left this painting for the Louvre after his death in 1869, together with 568 other paintings. When the Louvre received the painting, the influential newspaper Gazette des Beaux-Arts praised Hals as the best painter ever.
Malle Babbe: This painting is also sometimes referred to as Malle Babbe. However, this name is incorrect as Hals has another painting entitled Malle Babbe. This painting is in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. The confusion can be explained as a popular Dutch song, entitled Malle Babbe, was written in 1970. This song was inspired by the Gypsy Girl. However, the writer of the song, Lennaert Nijgh, mistakenly thought that The Gypsy Girl painting was called Malle Babbe.
Who is Hals? Frans Hals the Elder was born in 1582 or 1583 in Antwerp, Belgium, and died in 1666 in Haarlem, The Netherlands. When Hals painted The Gypsy Girl, he was inspired somewhat by the works of Caravaggio. However, Hals differed substantially from Caravaggio as he left out many (distracting) details in his paintings and focused on the composition and the expression of his subjects. This allowed Hals to give his subjects a personality. While Hals was a popular local painter during his life, his works were largely forgotten after his death. The Impressionist painters rediscovered his work in the 1860s. Artists like Manet and Monet were inspired by the lack of detail, beautiful composition, and the loose brush strokes of Hals. The work of Hals has only gained in popularity since. Some beautiful works of Hals include his series on the four evangelists, of which Saint John the Evangelist is in the Getty Museum, and the Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Fun fact: Radiographic analysis of this painting revealed that Frans Hals initially wanted to paint a less provocative version of this woman. Her breasts were smaller and less exposed. However, Hals decided to make the painting more provocative. This painting shows more cleavage than any other painting by Hals. The open mouth of the woman is also a telltale sign. Decent women from the 17th century would never be depicted with a smile or open mouth in a portrait as that was considered indecent.
Interested in a Copy for Yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? First floor, room 710 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
Commissioned by? Prior Bartolomeo Scorlione and the Confraternity for the Chapel of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in the church of San Francesco Maggiore in Milan.
What do you see? The Virgin Mary, the children Jesus and John the Baptist, and an angel are pictured in a triangular composition in a rocky environment. The Virgin Mary sits on the ground, which is referred to as the Madonna of Humility. She is the center of attention in this painting. The right hand of Mary is on the shoulder of John the Baptist (who is the child on the left). The left hand of Mary is right above the head of Jesus, which can be interpreted as a protective gesture. John the Baptist is folding his hands and is praying towards Jesus. At the same time, Jesus, who is directly to the left of the angel, is raising his right hand to bless John the Baptist. The angel most likely represents the Archangel Gabriel, even though the angel looks quite feminine (the painting of androgynous figures was a trademark of Leonardo da Vinci). The angel is pointing towards John the Baptist. In the background you can see the rocky grotto and a river, most likely inspired by the Dolomite Mountains, which are to the northeast of Milan. In the foreground and in the grotto various flowers and plants are depicted (including irises, lilies, and ivy). The painting has been finished using the sfumato technique, the smoky/hazy effects, which creates a somewhat magical atmosphere.
Backstory: The commissioner of this painting wanted Leonardo da Vinci to paint the Immaculate Conception (a Catholic dogma that Mary was born without sin) to serve as the center of an altarpiece for the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. This chapel is part of the Saint Francesco Grande church in Milan, and the chapel was founded before 1335 by Beatrice d’Este, who was the wife of Galleazzo I, the Duke of Milan. On the left and right of this painting would be two paintings of angels playing a musical instrument to complete the altarpiece. On the left is An Angel in Green with a Vielle painted by an associate of Leonardo, possibly Francesco Napoletano. On the right is An Angel in Red with a Lute by Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis. This work is thought to be painted entirely by Leonardo da Vinci, which is not always the case for paintings of Leonardo.
Symbolism: The rocks and caves represent sanctuary. The rocks also refer to Jesus, who is often called the rock of the Christian religion. The flowers and plants are carefully chosen. For example, the palm leaves, which can be seen behind the head of John the Baptist, are a symbol of Mary and a symbol of the victory of Jesus over earthly temptations. The angel is identified based on his wings. Mary is directly visible by her blue. This painting is one of the first known paintings in which the halos are left out. The halos were used in the Middle Ages to indicate that somebody was holy or sacred but were in contrast to the realistic painting style of the Renaissance.
What is sfumato? Sfumato comes from the Italian sfumare, which means ‘to evaporate like smoke’ and Leonardo da Vinci famously used the sfumato technique to create the atmosphere in his paintings. Leonardo applied the sfumato technique when the painting was almost finished by applying a coat of a mix of varnish and black pigment to create a hazy/smoky effect.
Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was born in the Italian village of Anchiano, which was very close to Vinci, which is where he got his name from. He was an architect, astronomer, engineer, inventor, mathematician, musician, painter, writer, and much more. Leonardo da Vinci is known to be one of the biggest multi-talented people that the world has ever seen. Leonardo was notorious for being substantially late in delivering his paintings and was not afraid to abandon projects halfway. Leonardo has created various famous portraits, including Ginevra de' Benci (in the National Gallery of Art) and the Mona Lisa (in the Louvre).
Fun fact: Interestingly, there are two versions of this famous painting. The other version of The Virgin of the Rocks is in the National Gallery in London. The version in the Louvre was the first to be completed and is much less conventional. For example, the version in the National Gallery contains halos on top of the heads of John the Baptist, Jesus, and Mary, and John the Baptist is carrying a cross with him (these elements are not present in the version in the Louvre). You can also see a clear difference in the face of Jesus. Also, in the National Gallery version of the painting, the angel is not pointing at John the Baptist and seems to gaze into the distance (as if the angel is dreaming/imagining this scene, instead of participating in it). The reason that there are two versions of this painting is that the Confraternity rejected the first version of Leonardo. It was not traditional enough (for example, no halos and a lack of symbolism) and thus did not suit the purpose of representing the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (which was the sole purpose of the Confraternity). Leonardo da Vinci considered the Louvre version of the painting a real masterpiece in which he could perfectly express his artistic ideas. After the Louvre-version of the painting was rejected, Leonardo created another version of this painting (the version in the National Gallery in London), which included all elements that the Confraternity asked for.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? The original is on the first floor, Room 75 of the Denon wing in the Louvre. A copy by David is in The Coronation Room of the Palace of Versailles.
Commissioned by? Napoleon Bonaparte
Also known as? This painting is officially entitled The Coronation of the Emperor Napoleon I and the Crowning of the Empress Joséphine in Notre-Dame Cathedral on December 2, 1804.
What do you see? A large number of almost life-size figures are present in the Notre-Dame Cathedral for the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte. This painting (979cm x 621cm) is one of the largest works in the Louvre. Napoleon is the person in the middle holding the crown, and the painting shows the moment that Napoleon is about to place the crown on the head of his wife Joséphine who is kneeling on a pillow. Napoleon wears his coronation robe, which is similar to the robes worn by Roman emperors. The person sitting to the right of Napoleon is Pope Pius VII. He blesses the coronation but is participating involuntarily under the pressure of Napoleon. The woman in the white dress sitting on a chair in the center of the painting is the mother of Napoleon. In the left foreground, you can see the two identically dressed (wearing black hats) brothers of Napoleon, Joseph (on the left) and Louis (on the right). To the right of Napoleon’s brothers are his three sisters (also identically dressed). From left to right, they are Caroline, Pauline, and Elisa. To the right of Napoleon's sisters, and again similarly dressed, are Hortense (the daughter of Joséphine) and Julie Clary (the wife of Joseph Bonaparte). In the background, Jacques-Louis David also painted himself as he was present at this event. Finally, look at the expressions of all the 204 faces in the painting. They all look quite serious, signifying the importance of this event.
Backstory: This painting captures an important event in history, and Jacques-Louis David was in the audience that day. On December 2, 1804, the 35-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself during a five-hour ceremony as the first Emperor of France, and he crowned his 41-year-old wife Joséphine as the first Empress. Before the French Revolution of 1789, France was a monarchy, but the revolution turned France into a republic. This painting shows the moment that Napoleon turned France back into a monarchy. He brought in Pope Pius VII from Rome to bless him at the event. The painting is a fairly accurate representation of history, but not everything in the painting is true. Several details are changed to favor Napoleon. For example, the mother of Napoleon, Letizia Bonaparte, was in Rome during the coronation, but she still received a prominent place in this painting. Napoleon's brother Joseph on the left was also not present at the event. When David finished the painting and Napoleon saw it for the first time, he said: “It is not a painting. There are people walking in this picture. Life is everywhere. David, I salute you. You have made me a French knight.”
Two versions: Jacques Louis David finished the original version of this painting in 1807. It was originally on display in the Palace of Versailles but was moved to the Louvre in 1889. Between 1808 and 1822, David painted a second version of this painting for some American businessmen. The Palace of Versailles acquired it in 1947. David painted this copy based on the preparatory drawing he had for the original, and the two versions differ slightly from each other, though the differences are minor.
Who is Napoleon? Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was one of the leaders of the French Revolution in 1789. He was a successful military leader, and he became a general in the French army at age 24. He was the leader of a coup in 1799 and eventually crowned himself as the emperor of France in 1804. Napoleon was married to Joséphine who is crowned in this painting. He divorced her in 1809 because she could not get children (even though she got two children from her previous husband). He later married Marie Louise, the daughter of the Emperor of Habsburg. He died in 1821 while in exile on the remote island Saint Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Who is Jacques-Louis David? Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was considered the best painter of his era. From a young age, he received a great education in arts. In 1774 he won the Prix de Rome, a prestigious art scholarship that allowed him to work for five years at the French Academy in Rome. He abandoned the dominant Rococo style and developed a Neoclassical approach. He was specifically inspired by the works of Raphael and painted many historical scenes inspired by ancient Greece and Rome. For example, in 1787 he painted The Death of Socrates, which is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. During the time of the French revolution, he was involved in politics and devoted himself to Napoleon who knighted him in 1803. In 1812, he painted The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries in the National Gallery of Art. David has taught many other well-known artists, such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Antoine-Jean Gros.
Fun fact: Napoleon thought it to be a good idea to have the Pope bless him in order to turn France into a Christian monarchy. However, it was common that someone who wanted to be blessed by the Pope traveled to Rome. Napoleon wanted instead for the Pope to come to France to establish his dominance in power over the Pope. The Pope, though, initially did not want to travel to Paris without a good religious reason. In the end, the Pope reluctantly agreed, having the idea that by coming to Paris he could get some favorable concessions from Napoleon to the Catholic Church. This, however, turned out to be a false idea and the Pope had to bless Napoleon against his will. Finally, at the moment the Pope wanted to crown Napoleon, he took the crown from the Pope and put it on his own head. This act was seen as a public humiliation of the Pope.
Where? Second floor, room 818 of the Richelieu wing in the Louvre
When? Between 1435 and 1440
Commissioned by? Nicolas Rolin, the Chancellor of Burgundy under Duke Philip the Good.
What do you see? Nicolas Rolin kneels down in front of the Virgin Mary who is holding Baby Jesus. Rolin has his hands folded in prayer and has an open book on his lap. He does not seem to look at Mary and Jesus. Mary wears a red gown with jewelry in it and looks down with humility. Baby Jesus has his right hand raised to bless Rolin and holds an orb with a cross (called a globus cruciger) in his left hand. Above Mary, an Angel with rainbow-colored wings holds a crown. It seems that the Angel is going to crown Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Van Eyck included many interesting details in this painting. Several flowers are growing outside the building, including irises, lilies, and roses. Two peacocks walk around, as well as two magpies to the left of the flowers. Two small figures are in the background. One of them looks at the city while the other looks at the peacock. The meeting between Rolin and the Virgin Mary is situated in a beautiful, Roman-style, palace-like building on top of a hill with a view of the world in the background. You can see the stained glass windows on the top and sculpted figures on top of the columns. In the background, you can see a city on the left, a river and bridge in the middle, and several church towers no the right, above the head of Jesus.
Backstory: This painting is also known as The Virgin with Chancellor Rolin or The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin. Nicolas Rolin commissioned this painting for the Saint Sebastian chapel (the Rolin family chapel) in the Notre-Dame-du-Châtel church in Autun, near Dijon in France. This was the church that Rolin visited when he grew up and where his ancestors were buried. Rolin was the main patron of this church, and there was even an elevated walkway from his house to the church such that he could enter it at any time. The painting entered the collection of the Louvre in 1805.
Symbolism: The cross that Jesus holds in his left hand reminds the viewers that Jesus died for our sins. The three arches in the middle background represent the Holy Trinity, God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The peacocks are a symbol of immortality. The flowers in the middle symbolize different virtues of Mary. Behind the praying hands of Rolin is a church tower to symbolize his faith. The church towers behind Jesus signify him as the center of the Church. The bridge in the background unites the common people and the Church. Some people have identified the city in the background as the New Jerusalem, but others are not so sure about this interpretation.
Who is Rolin? Nicolas Rolin (1376-1462) was the Chancellor of Burgundy under Duke Philip the Good. He was Chancellor for more than 40 years and was instrumental in the successes of Burgundy and France during the 15th century. Together with his second wife, he founded the Hospice the Beaune, a charitable house for poor people to live in. In 1434, he commissioned a large altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden for the hospice. Van der Weyden painted Rolin and his wife on two of the back panels of the altarpiece. He also founded a new religious order called ‘’les sœurs hospitalières de Beaune’, which was a sisterhood of nuns who would care for the poor people in the Hospice.
Who is Van Eyck? Jan van Eyck was born around 1390 in Maaseik, Belgium, and died in 1441. He is one of the most important representatives of the Northern Renaissance. Until 1429, he was a court painter of Duke Philip the Good, which explains why he was asked for this painting. During this time, he undertook several diplomatic missions across Europe for the Duke. Among other countries, he visited Italy, where he could learn from the innovative Italian painters. He was ahead of his time by using a realistic and naturalistic style in his work. This was, in part, possible because he was one of the first painters who used oil paint. He has had a big influence on future artists, including Sandro Botticelli. One of his most famous works hangs in the National Gallery in London and is The Arnolfini Portrait, which was probably painted a year before this painting.
Fun fact: The capital above the head of Rolin contains some very interesting details. It contains the following scenes: Adam and Eve expulsed from Paradise, Abel killing Cain, and Noah’s drunkenness with the Ark on the top left. On the capital on the right side of the room is a scene about Abraham and Melchizedek. However, Van Eyck seems to have freely interpreted these Biblical stories as he has altered some details. For example, to the left of Noah, four men are depicted. These men should represent the sons of Noah. However, Noah only had three sons. It seems likely that Van Eyck has altered these scenes to draw some parallels with Rolin’s life. Rolin, for example, had four sons and each of the ‘sons of Noah’ seem to represent the different roles of the sons of Rolin.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? First floor, room 711 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
When? Between 1503 and 1517
Commissioned by? Francesco del Giocondo, the husband of Mona Lisa.
What do you see? A half-body portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. She is sitting outside in a chair with a straight posture. Her curly hair hangs along her head, and she has a transparent veil on her head (which may be a sign that she is pregnant). She is wearing a dress with a bit of lace and a scarf over the shoulders. The light skin of her contrasts nicely with the darker tones in the rest of the painting. Note that she has no eyebrows, something that was not uncommon in portraits from that time, though research has shown that the Mona Lisa may originally have had some faint eyebrows. Her hands are crossed and laying on an armrest. She looks at us with an ambiguous expression. Her eyes and her small mysterious smile have been intriguing to viewers all across the world. What is she thinking about and what is she looking at? The background shows a rocky landscape, and Leonardo da Vinci was the first to include such a background in a portrait painting. You can see almost snowy mountains, a winding road on the left and a bridge on the right. It seems that the landscape on the left and the right of Mona Lisa do not match up as the left side is lower than the right side.
Backstory: Mona Lisa means ‘my lady Lisa. The word ‘mona’ is a short version of Madonna, which means ‘my lady’. This painting is also known in Italian as La Gioconda named after her last name. This painting was a very innovative one in the time that it was painted due to its composition and the painting technique used by Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci accepted the commission for this painting during a time in which he had little money. However, soon after he received some big commissions and it took him, therefore, many years to complete this painting. While Leonardo da Vinci was traveling in France, this painting was acquired by King Francis I of France. So, he never delivered this painting to its commissioner. The painting remained in France ever since and Napoleon Bonaparte put the painting in his bedroom. In 1804, the painting was moved to Louvre and people could now see the painting that Napoleon was sleeping with. The painting is now displayed in a climate-controlled room and behind bullet-proof glass.
Sfumato? One of the things that makes this painting so popular is the use of sfumato by Leonardo da Vinci. This is a technique that Da Vinci developed in which he blended colors on the canvas. Sfumato is derived from the Italian word ‘fumo’, which means smoky. When we translate sfumato to English, it means something like soft or blurry. The transitions from light to dark are barely visible on the canvas, and you cannot see the brushstrokes on the painting. This transition is in stark contrast to the impressionist paintings, where the brush strokes are very visible. For example, look at Wheat Field with Cypresses by Van Gogh. The use of the sfumato technique leads to more realistic paintings. Other good examples of the sfumato technique are Da Vinci’s paintings of the Virgin of the Rocks of which one version is in the Louvre and another one in the National Gallery of Art. The sfumato technique had a big influence on other artists, including Raphael, who adopted this technique for some of his portraits.
Who is Mona Lisa? Born as Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini in the Republic of Florence in 1479, Lisa married with Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo in 1495. She was the third wife of Francesco, who was a merchant. He later became a government official in Florence. It seems that their marriage was based on real love, which was not that common during that time, and together they got five children. Francesco came from a family of art lovers and commissioned a painting of Lisa to celebrate the purchase of a new home. Mona Lisa lived a normal life and apart from this painting not much is known about her.
Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452-1519) was born in Vinci in the Republic of Florence. He is considered to be the ultimate Renaissance man as he was not only an artist, but also, amongst others, an astronomer, a geologist, an inventor, a mathematician, a musician, and a writer. Together with Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael, he is considered to be one of the four leading artists from the Renaissance. He created a large variety of art, but he often did not finish his works. Among his surviving works are various magnificent portraits including his Ginevra de’ Benci, which is in the National Gallery of Art.
Fun fact: In August of 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. This theft was a big shock as the Louvre was heavily guarded and it was a big mystery how the painting got stolen. However, it was not a complete disaster as, in 1911, the Mona Lisa was not yet considered to be one of the best paintings in the world yet. The robbery spurred a lot of attention for the painting in the media. One of the popular theories from those days was that Picasso stole the painting. The police even questioned Picasso but found no evidence against him. In 1913, the painting was retrieved when an employee of the Louvre wanted to sell the painting for $100,000 to an Italian museum. After this robbery, the Mona Lisa was suddenly one of the most special paintings in the world, and it has only grown in popularity since. Nowadays, about six million people visit the Louvre, and most of them want to see this painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster of canvas (Amazon links).
Where? First floor, room 77 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
What do you see? This painting represents what a revolution feels like for the people involved. The woman in the center, referred to as Liberty, is holding the French flag. She is standing on top of a barricade, which you can recognize by the pieces of wood and the cobblestones in the foreground. Liberty represents the struggle of the common people for freedom, but at the same time, she shows the energy and excitement that was part of a revolution. In her left hand, she holds an infantry musket. This is a rifle with a bayonet fixed to it, in case she would want to spear the enemies from close range. Liberty is depicted in a victorious pose, and she is showing her breasts to the people. She is surrounded by a mix of people from the French society. On her right is a child brandishing a pair of guns. At her feet is a day laborer from the countryside wearing a blue jacket (notice the red, white, and blue pattern in his clothes). The man to Liberty’s left with the black jacket and the top hat is someone representing the middle-class people (some say it is Delacroix himself, but there is serious doubt about this claim). The man in white on the left is a factory worker holding a saber. There is a sharp contrast between the victorious people fighting for the freedom of France and the dead people in the foreground. In the bottom right, you can see a dead soldier and a guardsman. In the background, you can see the smoke of the cannons. In the top right, you can see the city of Paris in the background with the two iconic towers of the Notre Dame. Finally, in the two spars of wood on the right, you can see the signature of the painter, reading “Eug. Delacroix 1830.”
Backstory: This painting commemorates the July Revolution of 1830 in France. During this revolution, King Charles X of France was brought down. Delacroix wrote in a letter to his brother that if he could not fight for his country, he could at least paint for his country. This painting served as a political poster for the revolution, and the idea was that people would sympathize with the freedom fighters on this painting. It took Delacroix about two months to complete the painting. The next he year he sold the painting to the government for three thousand French francs and, in addition, they awarded him a Legion of Honour, the highest French order for merits by military and civilians which was introduced by Napoleon Bonaparte.
July Revolution: After Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated in 1815, the monarchy was restored in France. On July 25, 1830, King Charles X signed four public announcements that were unfavorable to the common people. These announcements included the end of press freedom and a new voting system that favored the higher classes in society. On July 27, 1830, the citizens of Paris started the July revolution (also called the Second French Revolution) against King Charles X. The civil war lasted three days, and on August 2, 1830, Charles X officially abdicated. His successor was Louis-Philippe, the cousin of Charles X, who became the new king (until he was brought down in the Third French Revolution in 1848).
Symbolism: The woman holding the tricolor represents the goddess of Liberty. The tricolor was the flag of liberty and is now the French national flag (do you also see the tricolor on top of the Notre Dame?). For this painting, Delacroix was inspired by the Venus of Milo (which is also in the Louvre), and by showing Liberty’s breasts, he signals to us that she is partly a goddess. However, at the same time, Liberty represents a person fighting in the revolution. The different caps you see in this painting are representative of the different social classes that participated in the revolution. Do you see the simple hat of the factory worker on the left, the infantry hat of the young man below him who is holding on to the cobblestones, the top hat of the middle class, the cloth of the day laborer at Liberty’s feet, and the student hat of the boy on the right? The red cap that Liberty wears on her head is also a symbol of liberty. This cap is called a Phrygian cap, which is a soft cap in the form of a cone and with the top pulled forward. The Phrygian cap is also called the liberty cap as, especially in artistic works, it represents freedom. This cap was popular during the first French Revolution between 1789 and 1799.
Romanticism? Eugène Delacroix is considered to be the father of French Romantic painting. At the beginning of the 19th century, there was an ongoing debate between Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres on what was a better way of painting. Ingres, who is considered to be a neoclassical painter, believed in the classical ideas such as simplicity, symmetry, and idealized beauty in art. However, Delacroix thought that the expressive potential of colors was much more important. He liked to depict moments of extreme emotions as you can see in this painting.
Who is Eugène Delacroix? Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was born in a small village close to Paris. He has made many large-scale paintings about contemporary subjects, which was a successful strategy to earn money around that time. His work was usually dramatic and romantic, and he knew how to express emotions in a painting. He was inspired by artists such as Titian and Rubens and is considered to be the father of French romanticism. He was a very productive artist, and after his death, 9,140 works were attributed to him, mostly drawings, but also 853 paintings. Many other French artists have been inspired by the works of Delacroix, including Degas, Manet, and Renoir.
Fun fact: The design of the Statue of Liberty in New York has been inspired by Liberty as created by Delacroix in this painting. The Statue of Liberty has been designed by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and has been given by France to the United States, where it was unveiled in 1886. However, several changes have been made to the statue compared to Delacroix’s depiction of Liberty: no nudity, no impression of violence, and a crown instead of a Phrygian cap. Liberty, as depicted in this painting, has also appeared on the French one hundred Franc banknote from 1979 till 1994 and since 1982 Liberty has also been featured on French postage stamps.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links).
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Second floor, room 837 of the Richelieu wing in the Louvre
What do you see? A seated man with long hair inspects an astronomical globe in front of him. Next to the globe lays an astrolabe, an instrument to make astronomical measurements. In front of the astronomer is an open book on astronomy on the table. The book is opened on a section on the stars. There are also some other books on the table, as well as a divider tool. The table is covered with a blue-green, thick tapestry with yellow flower decorations. The astronomer wears a voluminous blue cloak and gently touches the globe with his right hand. He is in the middle of his activities and Vermeer captures a frozen moment in time. It seems that he is making a discovery. The astronomer is the same person as the man in Vermeer’s The Geographer, which he painted one year later. In the background is a large closet with books on top of it. In front of the closet hangs a drawing of a chart with radial lines on it (a celestial planisphere). Below this chart is the inscription of Vermeer’s name and the date of the painting. On the right side of the wall hangs a painting on The Finding of Moses, which may be another painting by Vermeer that has gone missing. The Finding of Moses is also used in the background of Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid in the National Gallery of Ireland. The light is coming through the window on the left and Vermeer masterfully incorporates this light into the painting. The light illuminates the globe, the face and hands of the astronomer, and part of the tapestry of the table.
Backstory: This painting was sold several times together with The Geographer by Vermeer. The two paintings were probably companion pieces given the many similarities between the two (the same man, tapestry, and closet, as well as the similarity in the size and fabric of the paintings). The two professions often went together. A geographer was often also an astronomer at that time, as geography was related to the positioning of the stars. Globe makers at that time usually made both a celestial and a terrestrial globe. The terrestrial globe can be seen in Vermeer’s The Geographer. The Astronomer was considered the better of the two paintings. For example, in 1797, The Geographer was sold for an equivalent of $53 and The Astronomer for $108, both at the same auction. The painting has been in the Louvre since 1983.
Who is Vermeer? Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was a perfectionist in his paintings and did not quickly produce his works to earn money. However, because of this, and the eleven surviving children that he had, he died as a poor man suffering from depression. He often took multiple months to finish a painting and regularly completely repainted big parts of a painting. He is known for his brilliant use of light in his works and may have been inspired by Caravaggio for that. Vermeer had a preference for females in his paintings, and this is only one of two paintings in which a solitary man was depicted (the other one being The Geographer in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt). No known image of Vermeer has ever been painted. He is mainly remembered for his genre pieces, which include The Lacemaker in the Louvre and The Milkmaid in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Fun fact: Jacob Hondius created the celestial globe in this painting in 1600. It is the oldest known celestial globe in the world and is currently on display in the Scheepvaart Museum in Amsterdam (a great picture of the globe can be found on their website). The Dutch book in front of the astronomer is the second edition of Basic Volume on Geography and Astronomy (Google Books link) by Adriaan Metius (which means Adriaan the Measurer) from 1621. It is opened to the first two pages of the Third Book (pages 108 and 109), entitled On the Investigation or Observation of Stars. On the left page of the book is a cartwheel astrolabe invented by Metius, while the right page is full of text. The text describes that measurement tools, geometry, and inspiration from God are necessary for astronomical research.
Where? First floor, room 700 of the Denon wing in the Louvre. A smaller version is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art but is currently not on display.
When? The original is from 1827, and the smaller replica is from 1844.
What do you see? In the center, King Sardanapalus of Assyria, dressed in white, lays in his bed which is covered with bright red sheets. On the front corners of his bed are two large elephant heads. His bed stands on top of a large pyre. You can see some woodblocks making up the pyre behind the black slave in the left foreground and on the bottom right. While rebellion forces surround his palace, Sardanapalus orders his eunuchs and palace officers to cut the throats of his mistresses. He did not want anyone or anything that gave him pleasure during his life to survive him. He has a calm and disinterested expression which contrast strongly with the cruel scene around him. Notice also that all mistresses and Sardanapalus wear expensive jewelry as the king also wanted his royal possessions to be burned with him on the pyre. On the bottom right is also a collection of crowns and jewelry that are about to go down.
Who is Sardanapalus? According to the Greek writer Ctesias, Sardanapalus lived in the 7th century BC. He was the last king of Assyria, which was a very large empire in the Middle East between the 25th and 7th century BC. He lived an extremely luxurious life and was very lazy. According to Sardanapalus, the main purpose of life was physical desire. He followed his own advice, dressed in woman’s clothes, wore makeup, and was surrounded by many male and female mistresses. As many people got annoyed by his lifestyle, a group of rebellions formed to defeat Sardanapalus and his troops. Sardanapalus went down in a typical fashion. As some point during the war with the rebellions, he thought that he had defeated the rebellions and started a big party. However, the rebellions came with reinforcements and defeated Sardanapalus, leading to the end of the Assyrian empire. Before he got caught, Sardanapalus burned himself together with many of his eunuchs and mistresses, and most of his royal possessions.
Who is Delacroix? Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was the leader of the Romantic painters in France. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was the main artistic rival during his life. Whereas Ingres was the leader of the school of Neoclassical painting, Delacroix believed in the Romantic style and was inspired by artists like Rubens, Tintoretto, and Veronese. The style of Delacroix can be characterized by an emphasis on using colors and depicting emotions, and not on providing a clear composition and shapes of the people in his paintings. In 1830, he painted his most famous work, Liberty Leading the People, which is on display in the Louvre as well. The work of Delacroix has been important for the development of Impressionism later in the 18th century. Artists like Degas, Manet, and Renoir greatly admired the work of Delacroix.
Fun fact: This painting is the largest uncommissioned by Delacroix. He had high hopes of this work and created many sketches that are still available for this painting. Below are two pictures of sketches he made that are in possession of the Louvre. The painting was first exhibited in the Salon of 1828 in Paris. The painting got many negative reviews. One viewer went so far as threatening to cut off Delacroix's hands such that he could never paint again. There were several reasons for these negative reactions, such as the messy composition and incoherent use of colors. Whereas the French State bought earlier paintings of Delacroix, they did not buy this one. Instead, Delacroix took it back to his studio where it stayed until 1845. He only sold the painting after he made a much smaller replica of the painting owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The painting was not on public display until 1921 when the Louvre bought it. Nowadays, this painting is highly appreciated. Looking back, it is one of the early Romantic paintings. Whereas people in the early 19th century were still used to the clarity of the Neoclassical paintings by Ingres and colleagues, the Romantic paintings focused on showing emotions and were much less clear.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Second floor, room 837 of the Richelieu wing in the Louvre
What do you see? A young woman is leaning forward and is making lace on a blue pillow. She concentrates on her work and holds two pins and two small cylinders with threads around them. She uses a lacemaking technique in which the threads on the cylinders are unrolled onto the pillow. The threads are tied into knots, each stitch is pinned temporarily, and the pins move forward as new knots are made. She wears a yellow dress with a white lace collar. Her hair has a couple of splits, with a braid on top, and, so-called, lovelock on her left (our right). A blue tablecloth with a large flower pattern is on top of the table. You can identify large green leaves and the yellow and red paint is part of the flowers. On top of the table is a blue pillow, which serves as a workbox for making lace. White and red threads, probably from silk, come out of the cushion on the bottom left. To the right of the pillow is a yellowish book, which is probably a Bible.
Backstory: The Louvre bought this painting in 1870 for 1,254 French francs (which is equivalent to $254 at that time). It is the smallest among all paintings by Vermeer. The painting seems out of focus (even a bit abstract at places), something that Vermeer did on purpose to draw us closer to the painting to observe its details. Combined with its small size, this is indeed what many people do when looking at the painting. Salvador Dalí has made a copy of The Lacemaker which is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Lacemaker by Vermeer is painted on a canvas with coarse fiber of 12 x 12 threads per square centimeter. Vermeer used the weave of the canvas as the wall in the background of this painting. The canvas for The Lacemaker is identical to the one Vermeer used for his Lady Seated at a Virginal in the National Gallery in London. In fact, the similarity in the canvas has helped to identify that painting as being made by Vermeer.
Who is Vermeer? Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was born in Leiden, The Netherlands. He was a very precise and slow-working artist, which led to paintings with great attention to detail, especially with regards to light effects, and great compositions. The light effects can also be found in this painting. Look, for example, at the sleeve on her right arm where he used simple shadows to paint the folds. He used expensive pigments for his paintings, but only used a limited number of colors (only a total of 20 pigments have been identified across his paintings). He is well-known for using the very expensive ultramarine color in his paintings, including in this painting. Some of his most famous works include his Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis in The Hague and The Milkmaid in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Fun fact: Until the 19th century, lace was very expensive and was a great way to signify wealth and fashion. Its status was comparable to owning tapestries and jewelry. Lace was often depicted in white and painters used the whitest paint to include lace in their paintings. Making lace was not easy and was often a profession which required long working hours. Alternatively, it was a way for housewives to make some extra money. There were even quite some schools for lacemakers where two different techniques were taught. One technique was to make lace using the cylinders (called bobbins) as seen in this painting. Another technique was called needle lace where lace was created using a needle to sew the lace. The courts in many countries included lace elements in the attire of the judges, and this practice has been ongoing for centuries, though many countries have now modernized the attire of the judges.
Where? First floor, room 711 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
Commissioned by? The Benedictines of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore to decorate their refectory (silent dining-room).
What do you see? This enormous painting of 7.40yd x 10.87yd (6.77m x 9.94m) shows the biblical story of the wedding at Cana in which Jesus converted water into wine. Jesus is sitting in the middle of the table, and Maria is sitting to the left of him (you can recognize them by their halos). They are surrounded by a mix of biblical figures and Venetian contemporaries of Paolo Veronese, including some of the other apostles, princes, Venetian noblemen, and servants. In total there are more than 130 people. The bride and groom are in the left bottom corner sitting at the table. A servant is offering a glass of wine to the groom to taste the new wine. The bearded ceremonial master, dressed in a green mantle, is standing behind the servant. On the right, you can see a man pouring the wine from one of the white stone water jars into a smaller jar. To the left of him is the head wine taster, who approves the wine. The wedding at Cana is illustrated as a lavish Venetian feast, evidenced by the abundance of 16th-century Venetian elements, such as the presence of Dorian (in the foreground) and Corinthian (in the background) columns, the clothing of many of the guests, the silver tableware, etc. Do you also see the dogs, birds, parrot, and a cat?
Backstory: This painting is based on the story of the wedding at Cana in the Gospel of John 2:1-12. Mary, Jesus, and some of the apostles are invited to a wedding in Cana. During this multi-day wedding, they ran out of wine, and Jesus gave the servants the instruction to fill six stone water jars, each holding 20-30 gallons, with water. The water turned into wine and was better than the earlier wine that was served at the wedding. This was one of the first signs of the wonders that Jesus could do. It took Paolo Veronese 15 months to complete the painting (with some assistance of his brother). He created a very colorful painting, and some of these colors were very expensive and imported through the Silk Route from the Middle and the Far East
Symbolism: On top of Jesus, on the balustrade, meat is being cut. This is most likely the meat of a lamb and refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God (we can interpret the meat cutting as symbolism as the wedding guests are already eating their dessert, which means that the meat was already consumed earlier). The dog that is chewing a bone at the bottom of the painting refers to the sacrifice of Jesus at the end of his life. There are also several references to the wedding. The guests are getting quinces (a pear-like fruit) for dessert, which serves a reminder that bitterness and sweetness are mixed in a marriage. On the table in between the musicians stands an hourglass, which represents vanity. The dogs on the foreground of the painting are a symbol of loyalty.
Why the wedding at Cana? On the one hand, the wedding at Cana is a great subject to express the opulence and beauty of the Venetian life. On the other hand, it still presents a biblical story, which can remind the viewers of the importance of Jesus. In this painting, Jesus is not interacting with the other guests like you would expect based on the biblical story, but he looks straight at the viewer. Jesus is sitting in the middle of the table instead of the bride and groom, who you would expect there. This shows that the religious motives (reminding viewers of the wonders that Jesus did) are more important than an accurate depiction of the biblical story. Other artists have also used the wedding at Cana as the theme of their paintings. Giotto created a fresco of the Marriage at Cana and Vasari created a painting of the Marriage at Cana.
Who is Veronese? Paolo Veronese (1528 – 1588) was born in Verona (which explains his surname). He is one of the three most important members of the 16th-century Venetian school of painters; the other members are Titian and Tintoretto. He is known for his large, dramatic, and very colorful paintings. In his early years he used the mannerist style, but later on, he returned, under the influence of Titian, to a more naturalistic style. Many of his magnificent works are nowadays on display in and around Venice. One painting that is outside Venice is The Family of Darius before Alexander, which is in the National Gallery in London.
Restoration: The painting has had a turbulent life. Napoleon confiscated the painting in 1797. Due to its enormous size, the painting was cut in half, rolled up, and transported to Paris, where it was stitched together. It was stored in a box during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-1871. During World War II, the painting was taken out of its frame and transported throughout France by truck. In the 1990s, during renovations to the Louvre, water was spread all over the painting. When they wanted to put the painting back on the wall after restoration, it fell, leading to several cuts in the painting. In addition, Veronese used many bright colors in this painting some of which have deteriorated over time and needed very significant renovations to get the painting in its current state.
Fun fact: This work is the biggest canvas painting in the Louvre and contains many funny details. Paolo Veronese included various contemporaries into the painting, not all of which we can identify nowadays. For example, the musician in white is a self-portrait of Paolo Veronese, and the musician in red is Titian. In addition, you can find various animals in the painting. On the top left, you can see a dog looking down at the feast. There is also a dog at the bottom left, two dogs in the bottom middle, and a small dog walks on the table on the right. At the bottom right is a cat curled around the white water jar. On the bottom left, you can also see a midget holding a parrot.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Where? First floor, room 712 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
When? Between 1595 and 1598
Commissioned by? Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte
What do you see? On the left is a gypsy woman. She is wearing a white shirt, a blanket fastened around her shoulder, and a wrap around her head. On the right is a young man from the upper class. The nobleman is dressed in an expensive brown and black jacket, a feathered hat, and a glove on his left hand (and in that same hand he is holding the glove of his other hand). He is also wearing a sword with a rounded knob (called a pommel) on the top, which seems to almost stick out of the painting. Caravaggio is depicting a scene that could have been observed at that time in the streets of Rome. The gypsy woman is reading the right-hand palm of the young man to tell him his about this future. The woman is looking directly at the young man, who is looking back and is distracted by her beauty. In the meantime, the woman is stealing an expensive ring from his finger. You cannot see the ring, but we know that this is what the girl is doing based on another version of this painting which is shown below.
Backstory: Caravaggio probably used his roommate, Mario Minniti, a painter himself, as the model for the young man and he probably asked a gypsy from the streets as the model for the woman. In 1665, the Italian Prince Camillo Doria Pamphili gave this painting to Louis XIV, and this is how it eventually got to the Louvre. This painting is the second version of this subject by Caravaggio. Around 1594, Caravaggio had painted the original version of this subject which is in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. Caravaggio painted more often multiple versions of a painting, such as, for example, with his Medusa paintings of which one is in the Uffizi Museum in Florence. In this painting, Caravaggio differentiates himself from his contemporary and earlier Italian painters by not focusing on biblical or classical themes, but by creating a, so-called, genre painting. This is a painting based on scenes observed in everyday life. Genre paintings would become quite popular during the 17th century among painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt.
Differences between the two versions: The second version of this painting in the Louvre seems to be an improvement over the first version as Caravaggio made several changes that are not obvious at first sight. First of all, he changed the background, which is a wall in the Louvre version. Second, he added the impact of light to the Louvre version. Third, in the Louvre version, the young man is bending forward a little bit less towards the woman, and the woman is standing straighter and seems to be more in control of the situation. It seems a more natural setting where both people are at ease in this situation. Fourth, in the Louvre version, the young man is wearing a glove on his left hand. Fifth, in the Louvre version, the feather on the young man’s head, his hair, and his garments, are more detailed and beautiful. Look, for example, at the folds in his jacket and the collar of his shirt.
What lessons can we learn? In this painting, Caravaggio expresses the bad reputation of the gypsies at that time as they were known to be untrustworthy and known for stealing things from the richer people. Also, he expresses the lesson that female beauty easily deceives young men. Caravaggio was one of the first artists to depict the theme of the fortune teller, and this topic has been the subject of quite some future artworks. For example, George de La Tour painted around 1630 his version of The Fortune Teller which is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was born in Milan, but when he was five years old, his family moved to Caravaggio (which explains his surname). After some trouble with the police, he left for Rome in 1592. There, he developed a unique style which combined a realistic depiction of the physical and emotional state of his subjects with an innovative way to include light in his paintings. His work was the basis for the Baroque movement, and he has influenced many future, well-known painters, including Rubens and Rembrandt. Two other well-known works by Caravaggio that he created around the same time as the above painting are Bacchus (in the Uffizi Museum) and The Musicians (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Fun fact: During the time that Caravaggio painted this work, he lived together with another painter, Mario Minniti. His roommate served as a model for quite some of Caravaggio’s paintings around that time, including the current painting, Bacchus, The Musicians, and The Lute Player. In paintings after 1600, he does not serve as a model anymore for Caravaggio as Minniti moved out to get married. This marriage got Caravaggio very angry. However, later on, their paths crossed again, and they allegedly were both involved in the killing of a man during a street fight in 1606. After this incident, both fled to Sicily to escape the police.
Where? First floor, room 710 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
When? 1507 or 1508
Commissioned by? Fabrizio Sergardi, a nobleman from Siena, Italy.
What do you see? The young Virgin Mary sits on a rock. She wears a red dress with golden sleeves, a dark blue mantle on top of that, and a veil around her head. She holds Baby Jesus with her hands and looks down affectionately at him. Saint John the Baptist is the boy to the right of Jesus. Baby Jesus reaches out with his left hand to grab the book that Mary holds. He looks up to his mother with a loving expression, asking her to read the book to him. The left foot of Jesus stands on top of Mary’s right foot. The position of Jesus is similar to the one in the Madonna statue by Michelangelo – created between 1501 and 1504 – in the Onze Lieve Vrouwenkerk in Bruges. Saint John the Baptist holds a reed cross in his right hand and wears a camel skin. He looks at Jesus with an adoring gaze. All three figures have a faint halo above their head. In the foreground is a beautiful garden with several plants and flowers, including violets, columbines, anemones, and dandelion leaves. In the background is a lake with mountains, some bushes and trees, and on the top right is a village.
Backstory: La Belle Jardiniere means ‘the beautiful gardener’ and refers to the plants that surround the trio in this work. This painting is also known as Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist. This scene is based on a story in the book, Meditationes vitae Christi, in which the family of Jesus visits Saint John the Baptist on their way back from Egypt. There is some speculation, based on the art history book by Vasari, that Raphael did not finish the painting. Vasari suggests that Ridolfo Ghirlandaio finished the last parts of this painting (to be precise, the blue mantle of Mary). Evidence against this claim is that Raphael signed and dated this painting in the mantle of Mary, suggesting that he finished it himself. This painting was commissioned by Fabrizio Sergardi who sold it later to Francis I, King of France. The pyramidal composition of this painting is very similar to two earlier Madonna paintings by Raphael: Madonna of the Goldfinch in the Uffizi Museum (1505-1506) and Madonna of the Meadow (1506) in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Symbolism: The red dress of Mary symbolized the Passion of Christ and her blue mantle refers to the Church, which is the link between Mary and the crucifixion of Jesus. The book that Mary holds contains the story of the life of Jesus including the crucifixion. While Saint John the Baptist is older than Jesus, he sits on one knee such that he is positioned lower than Jesus. This positioning indicates that Jesus is above Saint John the Baptist in the Christian hierarchy. Saint John the Baptist is holding a reed cross which refers to the sacrifice that Jesus will make at the end of his life by dying for the sins of humanity. The reed cross and the camel skin are typical symbols associated with Saint John the Baptist. The violets in the right foreground are a symbol of the humility of the Virgin Mary. The columbines to the left of Jesus refer to the future sacrifice of Jesus.
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio was born in 1483 in Urbino, less than 100 miles east of Florence. Between 1504 and 1508, Raphael worked primarily in Florence where he created multiple Madonna paintings, including the Madonna of the Goldfinch in the Uffizi Museum, Madonna of the Grand Duke in the Palazzo Pitti, Madonna of the Pinks in the National Gallery, and the Alba Madonna in the National Gallery of Art. In 1508, he moved to Rome to work for the Pope. He stayed there until his death in 1520. His last painting was the Transfiguration which is now in the Vatican Museums. His works are often characterized as soft and sweet. He achieved the softness by using the sfumato technique, which he learned from Leonardo da Vinci. This technique mixes different colors in the painting to create soft transitions between different objects. The sweetness is achieved by the harmony in Raphael’s compositions. For example, in this painting he used a triangular composition, where the figures are neatly balanced in space.
Fun fact: There is some debate about whether this painting is the original one painted by Raphael. As Raphael’s painting was well-received, over time, many great painters, including Eugène Delacroix, have copied the painting. Therefore, many replicas of the painting exist. These copies have also spurred the debate on which version is the real Raphael. Another reason for the debate is that the whereabouts of this painting are somewhat uncertain between the 16th and 18th century. A recent claim for the original was made in 2014 by the Swiss lawyer Hanspeter Sigg. He is in possession of a painting entitled, Madonna Leo X. This is a painting by Raphael that is very similar to La Belle Jardinière. Raphael painted this work in 1513 for Pope Leo X. Sigg, however, claims that La Belle Jardinière is a replica of his painting and that he owns the original. Until now, there is a lack of support for this claim and Le Belle Jardinière remains the original.
Where? First floor, room 712 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
Commissioned by? Laerzio Cherubini for the Carmelite Church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome
What do you see? This enormous painting (369 x 245 cm) shows the Virgin Mary, who lies reclined wearing a simple red dress. Her head and arm are hanging, and her legs are swollen, which are clear signs that Mary has passed away. The apostles and Mary Magdalene are surrounding Mary, and several of them hide their faces to show their grief. The grieving occurs in silence. Mary Magdalene is sitting in the foreground in front of Mary. The old man on the left is probably Saint Peter and kneeling next to him is probably St. John. It looks like Caravaggio has left open a spot in the circle of grievers (at the place of the copper basin) and invites the viewer to join them in grieving.
Backstory: Caravaggio was an innovator and breaks with past depictions of the death of Mary. There is almost no symbolism used in this painting (except probably the faint halo above Mary’s head). The scene is very down-to-earth. Until this painting, works on the death of the Virgin Mary typically included some reference to Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, like some angels receiving her in Heaven.
Composition: Caravaggio was a master of light and shadows, and he was at the basis of the development of the Baroque. In this painting, the light enters the room from a window on the top left. The light shines unflatteringly on the bald heads of the apostles and Mary’s upper body. The painting is composed such that the viewer immediately pays attention to Mary. The diagonal shape of Mary’s body and the color of her dress with the light on it are ways in which Mary becomes the center of the attention. The large red cloth on the top of the painting makes the scene more dramatic. It also forms a kind of arch and is used to let the viewer focus on Mary.
Why the Death of a Virgin? According to the Catholic religion, the Virgin Mary falls asleep and is taken up into Heaven. This is also referred to as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven, or simply the Assumption. The Assumption is a Catholic dogma declared by Pope Pius XII in 1950, but the dogma does not declare whether Mary died first. The day of the Assumption is typically celebrated in churches on August 15 and is a public holiday in many countries (including Italy). It has also been a popular topic for artists since the 18th century.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was trained by Simone Peterzano, who was in turn trained by Titian. He used a realistic painting style, paying both attention to the physical and emotional state of the subjects he painted. He combined this with a brilliant contrast between light and shadow in his paintings. Caravaggio was a master of shock in his work, but also had a tumultuous life and was accused of murder, assault, many fights, and has served in prison. His painting style has had a big influence on the development of Baroque painting (which includes drama and an intense contrast between light and dark). Caravaggio painted both religious works, such as this painting and The Entombment of Christ in the Vatican Museums, and mythological paintings such as Medusa in the Uffizi Museum.
Fun fact: When Caravaggio finished this painting for the Church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome it was very controversial. The Carmelites, a religious order within the Catholic Church, commissioned this painting and did not like it at all. It was thought that Caravaggio used a prostitute as the model for the Virgin Mary (which may have been the case indeed). Moreover, he did not include the religious symbols that were associated with the death of the Virgin Mary. Not only was there no reference to the assumption of Mary into heaven, but Mary was also depicted with bare feet, which was a very uncommon and disrespectful thing to do according to the beliefs at that time. So, the painting was rejected and instead a painting of Carlo Saraceni was used. Peter Paul Rubens, a contemporary of Caravaggio, however, later recognized the brilliance of this painting and contributed to the initial popularity of this work.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Written by Eelco Kappe
Where? First floor, room 708 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
When? Between 1435 and 1460. The dating of this painting has been the subject of much debate, but most critics believe it was painted between 1435 and 1440.
Commissioned by? Lionardo Bartolini Salimbeni, a rich Florentine man who had a strong commercial interest in the battle of San Romano.
What do you see? This painting shows a scene from the battle of San Romano on June 1, 1432. This battle was fought between the Republic of Florence and the Republic of Lucca with its allies. The central figure is the Florentine general Micheletto Attendolo (also known as Michele Attendolo or Micheletto da Cotignola). There are several more figures and horses depicted in the foreground, each with their own role, creating a sense of movement in the painting. The soldiers on the right are waiting to participate in the battle. Micheletto on the black horse is giving the command to start the attack with his right hand, in which he is holding a sword. Unlike the other soldiers, Micheletto is wearing a big hat to signal that he is the general. Behind Micheletto, on the left, you can see two men holding a trumpet to communicate Micheletto’s commands to the Florentine army. The soldiers on the left are starting the attack with their lances in attacking position. In the background, you can see a forest of soldiers, horse legs, and lances conveying the chaos of a battle. Uccello used foreshortening to include perspective in this painting to make it look like a three-dimensional scene.
Backstory: The battle of San Romano (a small place in Italy, near Lucca) was part of the war between the Republic of Florence and the Republic of Lucca with its allies from Genoa, Milan, and Siena. An important element of the war was about who would get access to the port of Pisa for trade. The battle of San Romano took place on June 1, 1432, and lasted less than a day. This battle was only a relatively minor battle, but the Florentines remembered it as a turning point in the war. This painting commemorates the Florentine victory in this battle, though Sienese sources disagree with this conclusion. The battle started by Florentine general Niccoló Tolentino (who is at the center of the National Gallery version of this battle) who was attacked after he was separated from most of his army while exploring the area. Tolentino and his small group of soldiers fought a brave fight and did not give up until another Florentine general, Micheletto Attendolo, arrived at the battle scene with reinforcements. Attendolo and his army helped Florence to win this battle. The war dragged on for another year without a clear winner, and in the end the war was settled through negotiations.
Other versions of this painting? This painting is a part of a triptych (a work of art divided into three parts) made by Uccello. The three paintings represent different moments in the battle of San Romano. There are two alternative explanations about the order of the paintings. The simple explanation is that the three paintings represent the morning of the fight (the version in the National Gallery in London), the afternoon (the Uffizi version), and the evening (the current version). However, the question is whether the current version represents the evening or whether as the paint in the background has deteriorated over time. A more popular alternative is that the National Gallery version represents the beginning of the battle with Niccoló da Tolentino. The current version represents the arrival of Micheletto Attendolo and his army, and the Uffizi version shows the last episode where Bernardino della Ciarda from the opposing army has been unhorsed.
Who is Uccello? Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) was born as Paolo di Dono in Pratovecchio in Tuscany. In his teenage years, he was an apprentice of Lorenzo Ghiberti and later he got influenced by contemporaries such as Donatello, Brunelleschi, and Masaccio. He was named Uccello, which is Italian for ‘bird’, because he liked to paint birds. He developed strong scientific interests and was very interested in representing perspective in paintings, something that he and contemporary artists just introduced to painting. The appropriate use of linear perspective was often more important in his paintings than what the painting should represent. In his paintings, he combines elements of the older Gothic tradition (the decorative parts) and the newer Renaissance movement (which introduced depth and perspective).
Linear Perspective? Linear perspective was developed around 1420 by Brunelleschi. It was a completely new approach to represent space in paintings. A simple explanation of linear perspective is that the size of objects becomes smaller the further away they are from the observer. Paintings with perspective have one or multiple vanishing points which help the painter to create perspective. Foreshortening is a specific form of perspective in which an illusionary trick is used to provide the idea of depth. A great example is when someone wants to paint a picture of a person laying with his feet towards you. To create the idea of depth, the painter will paint the feet of the person bigger than his head. The lamentation of Christ by Mantegna is a great example of such a painting. Note that the linear perspective in Uccello’s paintings is not perfect, but it did help to create depth in two-dimensional paintings. His work served as an inspiration for many artists in the next generations who perfected his ideas about linear perspective in paintings.
Fun fact: This painting has deteriorated over time. For example, the background is much darker than initially painted by Uccello. Another area of strong deterioration are the armors in this painting. Uccello used gold and silver leaf for various parts of the painting. The gold leaf, which you can see on the decorations of the horses’ bridles, has remained in good condition over time. However, the silver leaf, mainly found on the armors of the soldiers, has oxydized over time and now looks more like dull grey or almost black. Uccello was an apprentice of the goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti in his teenage years and was thus very familiar with the application of silver and gold leaf. Imagine this painting if the silver was still blinking in its old glory...
Where? Room 31 of the Musée d'Orsay
What do you see? An open-air dance in Montmartre (a hill and district in Paris). On the table in the foreground sits a 16-year old model in a striped dress. Her name is Estelle. Probably, her older sister, Jeanne Samary, stands behind her and is in conversation with the painter Franc Lamy. Renoir used Jeanne Samary more often as a model for his paintings, such as in The Swing which is also in the Musée d’Orsay. The man on the right side of the other side of the table is George Rivière, the biographer of Renoir, and the man smoking a pipe on the left is the printmaker Norbert Goeneutte. People are dancing behind them under the acacia trees. The dancing women are mainly local people, and the men are mostly friends of Renoir. On the bottom left, a child is playing with her mother. This painting may be painted on a Sunday afternoon when the dance hall was open to families with children. On the top, we can identify some chandeliers that are hanging in the trees, as well as some lights on a pole on the right.
The effects of light: Renoir paid careful attention to the effect of the sunlight on the dancing people. It seems to be a sunny day, but the trees block part of the sunlight. We can see the brighter and darker areas in the painting by looking at the ground and the colors of the dresses of the woman. Look also at the man sitting with his back toward us in the right foreground. He has some light patches on his jacket and head. This is the result of the sunlight shining through the trees.
Backstory: This painting is also known as ‘Bal du Moulin de la Galette’ and ‘Au Moulin de la Galette.’ Moulin de la Galette was the name of a neighborhood dance hall located next to a windmill (moulin is French for windmill). Renoir also painted a smaller version of this painting which is in a private collection. In that version, he leaves out more details. This painting was sold in 1990 for $78.1 million, which is still a record for a Renoir painting. It is uncertain which of the two versions has been painted first. The current version is in the Musée d’Orsay since 1986 when it was transferred from the Louvre. Renoir used loose brush strokes to paint this work, and the painting lacks quite some detail. On the Impressionist exhibition where this painting was first shown to the public, some people were confused and thought that Renoir did not finish his painting yet. However, Renoir left out many details on purpose as he understood that the human eye could fill in the details when looking at the painting. This allowed him to focus on the effects of light and movement, and create a bright and happy painting of the public dance.
Open-air dance halls? The Moulin de la Galette was an open-air dance hall in Paris in the 1870s. Open-air dance halls were very popular in 19th-century France and were a great source of entertainment for the people. Most people went there not to dance, but just to watch the dancers and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. Renoir is the only Impressionist artist to depict this theme in his paintings. Renoir attended most of the events at the Moulin de la Galette, sometimes accompanied by other artists like Degas, and liked to dance there as well. To watch the dancers at the Moulin de la Galette, you had to pay a quarter French franc. The Moulin de la Galette first opened around 1833
Who is Renoir? Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) is a French painter from Limoges in the middle of France. When Pierre-Auguste was three years old, his family moved to Paris where they lived close to the Louvre. It was a dream of him to have his work on display in the Louvre and in the last year of his life, he visited the Louvre where he could see his own work hanging among the masterpieces that he admired as a child. He is one of the founders of Impressionism, together with artists like Cézanne, Degas, Manet, and Monet. The Impressionists focused on the effects of light and often painted outside. Renoir’s opinion about art was that it should be pretty and he mostly painted very happy scenes. Two good examples are The Apple Seller in the Cleveland Museum of Art and A Girl with a Watering Can in the National Gallery of Art.
Fun fact: Renoir paints an open-air dance in Montmartre, a neighborhood in Paris that was popular among artists in the second half of the 19th century. It was the home to artists like Degas, Manet, Monet, Picasso, and Van Gogh. Renoir lived there as well and rented a studio close to the dance hall depicted in this painting. He brought the canvas from his studio to the dance hall to paint the dance. Many people that he knew participated in the dance. The story goes that, on some days, when it was windy, some of his friends there had to help him to keep the canvas straight while he was painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.