Where? Room 2 of the Musée d’Orsay
What do you see? A beautiful Venus is born from the foam of the sea. It looks as if she has just awakened from a deep slumber. She languidly rests her head upon a small wave that is beginning to form on the far right. The waters seem to conform to her twisted contrapposto, perfectly following the shape of her waist. Upon first glance, her eyes are shut. But a closer look reveals that they are half-open, pointed upwards as she looks into the crook of her right elbow. Her golden hair flows from beneath her left arm, floating beside her in the blue-green waters.
Above her is a pastel sky decorated with thin clouds and five cherubs that are celebrating and announcing her arrival with horns made of seashells. The three cherubs closest to her face peer over her body with playful curiosity, arms stretched out, perhaps preparing to wake her.
Backstory: Alexandre Cabanel exhibited The Birth of Venus in the Paris Salon in 1863 in a “Salon of Venuses”. During this time, many artists were painting female nudes shrouded in the mythology of the birth of Venus. The European idealized female nude, a tradition that traces back to the Venus of Urbino by Titian, was experiencing a revival in the 19th century in works like Cabanel’s, as well as the Grande Odalisque by Ingres, and the Maja Desnuda by Goya. The mysticism of the story gave artists room to produce semi-erotic works without offending the public. Cabanel’s Venus is posed in a much more provocative way than Olympia by Manet, but because of Manet’s more realistic and confrontational take on his nude, he received a great deal of criticism in the same year.
What is contrapposto? Contrapposto is a pose that was developed by the Greeks. In contrapposto, the figure rests its weight on one leg and bends the other. The axis of the shoulders and the hips are positioned in opposite directions to create a sense of dynamism and depth. This creates a natural resting pose that makes the figure come alive.
Who is Alexandre Cabanel? Alexandre Cabanel was a French painter born in 1823 in Montpellier, in the south of France. When he was seventeen years old, he enrolled in the Ecolé des Beaux-Artes in Paris. Following his first exhibition in 1844, Cabanel was awarded the Prix de Rome. His work was quickly popularized at the Paris Salon. Cabanel primarily painted in the Academic style and drew inspiration from the Rococo art movement. His works centered around classical, religious, and historical themes. The Birth of Venus, his most famous painting, was exhibited at the Paris Salon and later purchased by Napoleon III. In his later life, Cabanel served as a juror for the Salon and returned to the Ecolé des Beaux-Artes as a teacher. He died in Paris in 1889 at the age of 65.
Fun fact: Following the creation of the original, Alexandre Cabanel sold reproduction rights to Adolphe Goupil, an art dealer and publisher. Working with copyist Adolphe Jourdan, Cabanel was able to produce numerous replicas of his take on The Birth of Venus. One of these replicas is on display in the Dahesh Museum in New York. Another one belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art but is not on permanent display.
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 notice a ship on the horizon (see the tiny ship on the horizon above the man 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.
Géricault 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 owned 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.
Géricault 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: The Raft of the Medusa painting 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 received positively.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Ground floor, room 403 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
Commissioned by? Colonel John Campbell
What do you see? The moment at which the lifeless body of Psyche is just brought back to life by Cupid. The figures of Cupid and Psyche (except the wings) are positioned in a pyramid shape, which creates a stable form for the sculpture. Cupid sits on one knee on top of a rock and holds Psyche by her head and breast. He has large wings pointing straight up into the air and wears his arrows in a quiver on his back. Psyche reaches up to Cupid and has her hands on his head. She lets her head hang back and they are about to kiss. Her long hair reaches all the way to the ground. She has a cloth wrapped around her lower body. Behind them lays the flask with the ointment that Psyche had collected from the underworld. Directly to the right of the flask is Cupid's arrow, which he used to wake up Psyche.
This story symbolizes the big efforts and challenges a human must undergo to achieve happiness and immortality. Look also at the precision with which Canova created the smooth bodies of Cupid and Psyche. This smoothness contrasts nicely with the wrinkly texture of the sheet wrapped around Psyche and the rougher texture of the rock on which they sit. Near the right foot of Psyche is a handle, which was originally included to turn the sculpture around as it was worth seeing this sculpture from all possible angles.
Backstory: This sculpture is based on a story the Roman writer Apuleius wrote in his book Metamorphoses, chapters four, five, and six (you can download the book here for free). In short, Psyche was considered the most beautiful woman alive, and Cupid fell in love with her. The painting Cupid and Psyche in the Cleveland Museum of Art by Jacques-Louis David shows the couple after they made love.
The goddess Venus was jealous of Psyche's beauty and sent her on a very dangerous journey to the underworld to collect a flask with Proserpina’s beauty ointment. Psyche succeeds with the help of Cupid. Venus instructed Psyche not to open the flask, but after she completes the journey, she could not resist and opened it to take some of the content. But instead of becoming more beautiful, the ointment makes her fall in a very deep sleep as Proserpina had filled the flask with sleep of the innermost darkness. Cupid forgives Psyche and revives her. He asks for the help of Zeus who makes Psyche immortal. 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 various 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. A replica of this statue 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.
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. The Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre is thought to be painted entirely by Leonardo da Vinci, which is not always the case for paintings of Leonardo.
Symbolism: This work contains several symbolic references:
This painting is also 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 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 a few 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 702 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.
David 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, David 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.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? First floor, room 700 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.
Liberty 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).
The different caps 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. Another famous work by Delacroix, also in the Louvre, is The Death of Sardanapalus.
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.
Light: 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.
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.
Backstory: Delacroix got his inspiration for the theme of this painting from a play written by the English poet Lord Byron, who in turn was inspired by older texts on the story of Sardanapalus. In 1821, Lord Byron wrote a play called Sardanapalus: A Tragedy (Amazon link to this book) which describes the crazy story of the death of Sardanapalus. In preparation for this painting, Delacroix also consulted some older writings on the death of Sardanapalus. He combined all these sources to create a unique story on the death of Sardanapalus.
We can still identify some figures in this painting based on Lord Byron’s play. For example, the man on the left removing a spear from his chest is Salemenes, the brother-in-law of Sardanapalus. He just came back from the battlefield and will die after he removes the spear. And the woman lying on the bed is Myrrha, the lover of Sardanapalus. According to Lord Byron’s story, she was the only one with Sardanapalus on top of the pyre.
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 larger 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 in a more chaotic setting.
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 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.
The woman 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.
Vermeer 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.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster
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, Veronese 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.
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 are also two dogs 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