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).
Where? Gallery 85 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned by? Possibly for the art collection of Baron Achille Sellière
What do you see? A young and pretty girl holds a green watering can in her right hand and two daisies in her left hand. She is probably around four years old and wears a knee-length, deep blue dress with extensive white lace on it. She also wears matching blue boots with white lace on the top. She has red lips, blue eyes, and rosy cheeks. She has a red bow in her long curly blonde hair. She seems to be content while watering the flowers. The girl stands on a light-colored footpath in the garden. The colors that Renoir used for the stones and dirt on the footpath contrast nicely with the green grass surrounding it. On the bottom left are a rose bush and some grass. In the background is more grass and a collection of flowers. In this painting, you can clearly see that Renoir applied the colors with individual touches and that he did not mix them on the canvas. This technique is typical of the Impressionist art style.
No Shadow: Interestingly there is no shadow visible anywhere in this painting. The reason is that Renoir wanted to create an illuminating painting where the light radiates from the painting as soon as you see it. This painting is a good example of a painting that stands out from the rest of the paintings in the room in the National Gallery of Art. Another example of such an illuminating painting is Sunflowers by Van Gogh. You can see one of the versions of this painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and this painting also clearly stands out from the other paintings in the room. Another version is in the National Gallery in London. It is, however, also surprising that Renoir did not include a shadow in this painting, as he famously said: "No shadow is black. It always has a color. Nature knows only colors … white and black are not colors."
Backstory: According to some, this painting has been created in the garden of Claude Monet in Argenteuil, France, but this is not certain. The girl in this painting is probably a girl that lived near Renoir, possibly called Mademoiselle Leclere. He picked her because of her prettiness and especially her distinctive eyes. This painting is a classical Impressionist painting as it focuses on the different colors and how they can be used to represent the effects of sunlight. Like many other Impressionist paintings, this work was painted while Renoir was outside (something that was uncommon in the period before Impressionism). However, at the same time, the simplicity of this painting is a first step in the direction of Post-Impressionism which is famous because of artists like Van Gogh.
Who is Renoir? Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was a French impressionist painter. When he was three years old, his family moved to Paris and lived close to the Louvre. As a child, he often visited the Louvre to admire works of art. He developed himself into one of the best Impressionist painters and nowadays you can find some of his work in the Musée d'Orsay. Together with people like Manet, Monet, and Pissarro, he is one of the founders of the Impressionist art style. Renoir said that he painted for fun and painted scenes “which made me want to walk in it.” He continued to enjoy painting until the end of his life, even after he had developed arthritis and it became difficult to hold a brush. Some of his other great works include Dance at Bougival at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and La Promenade in the Getty Museum.
Fun fact: At the time of this painting, Renoir was still in a struggle for money. To generate money, Renoir decided to paint widely attractive scenes of women and children in the hope that these would sell more easily and possibly attract some commissions for portraits. These kind of scenes were in high demand in France at that time. His strategy paid off as by 1879 he had become a successful painter with some money which he used to travel around Europe and North Africa.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Gallery 28 of the National Gallery of Art
When? Between 1610 and 1614
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Laocoön is the bearded man lying down on the dark rocks in the center foreground. He is attacked by a sea serpent (a type of dragon in mythology). He grabs the serpent with both hands, but, nevertheless, the serpent bites him in the head. This serpent has already killed Laocoön’s son who lies to the right of him. On the left side stands the other son of Laocoön. He also struggles to fend off a serpent while the serpent is about to bite him in his abdomen. The three people on the right are unidentified witnesses to the killing of Laocoön and his two sons, though one of them looks away from the scene. They may represent Greek gods who were behind the punishment of Laocoön and his sons, but this is uncertain. The horse behind Laocoön represents the Trojan horse. The horse is on the way to Toledo, the fortified city in the background depicted under a gloomy sky. The entrance gate to the city is directly behind the horse. It is called the Puerta de Bisagra Nueva and still exists. This gate is decorated with a double-headed eagle.
Backstory: El Greco finished this painting in the year of his death. An inventory of the paintings in his house when he died contained more than 250 paintings, mostly with religious themes, portraits, and city views of Toledo. There were only three works with a mythological theme and all three of those dealt with the killing of Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus. Laocoön is the only known mythological theme that El Greco has ever painted. The three people on the right side of the painting in the National Gallery of Art seem unfinished. It seems likely that El Greco did not have the time to finish their faces before his death.
Mannerism: El Greco was a Mannerist painter, which means that he did not paint the figures in his paintings in a realistic way. He often exaggerated or elongated certain body parts and did not care about the symmetry of his figures. This is nicely illustrated in the current painting. The first signs of mannerism appeared around 1520 and the style was applied until the beginning of the 17th century. Artists like Bronzino, Michelangelo, and Tintoretto used the Mannerist style. One of the most famous Mannerist painting is Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino in the Uffizi Museum.
Symbolism: This painting probably contains a deeper meaning. El Greco painted the scene of Laocoön and his sons in front of Toledo, the city where he lived and the former capital of Spain. He painted Toledo instead of Troy, which is the city where the horse is sent according to Greek mythology. The killing of Laocoön and his sons takes place on a hill just outside Toledo. This would be the same place where prisoners and people who did not agree with the Catholic Church were executed during that time. The painting of El Greco may have been a protest against these actions. However, there is no substantive evidence to back up this interpretation, so the real meaning of this painting remains speculative.
Laocoön and His Sons? According to Greek mythology, Laocoön was a Trojan priest. There are various accounts of his story. Virgil describes the most popular version in the second book of the Aeneid. According to him, when the Greeks left Troy, they left as a gift a very large wooden horse in front of the gates of Troy. Laocoön suspected that this horse was a trick of the Greeks and tried to convince the people of Troy not to accept the gift. To prove that the horse was a trick, he struck the horse with his spear to show that it was hollow. Poseidon and Athena then punished him for his interference and Laocoön and his two sons were attacked and killed by two sea serpents named Porces and Chariboea. The Trojans interpreted this event as a sign that the horse was not a trick and they took the horse into their city walls after which the Greek came out of the horse during the night and defeated the Trojans. A famous statue from antiquity of Laocoön and His Sons is in the Vatican Museums, and a 16th-century copy by Bandinelli is in the Uffizi Museum.
Who is El Greco? Doménikos Theotokópoulos was born in 1541 in Heraklion, Greece, and died in 1614 in Toledo, Spain. He is better known as El Greco, which means ‘the Greek.’ During his twenties and thirties, he spent several years in Italian cities like Venice and Rome. He got inspiration from Italian artists like Michelangelo and Tintoretto. He eventually moved to Toledo, which is near Madrid. El Greco developed a unique style that is difficult to classify as it was so different from all other painters. He was a Mannerist, he was very expressive, and he created some fantasy-like works. His work has inspired many artists over time, including Delacroix, Manet, and Picasso.
Fun fact: El Greco often included nude figures in his paintings. While in the current painting, nudity is somewhat functional as it is based on a mythological story in which people were often depicted nude, he also often included nude figures in his religious paintings. A good example is The Vision of Saint John in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Interestingly, El Greco grew up in Greece where he was exposed to Byzantine art which contained very little nudity. However, he got inspired by the nude figures painted by Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists during his travels through Italy in the 1560s and 1570s.
Where? Room 1730 of the Main Floor of Tate Britain. Several other museums like the British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and National Gallery of Art also own this work but do not have it on permanent display.
What do you see? Several groups of well-fed people engage in a variety of activities while drinking mugs of beer. It is the birthday of King George II, and that asks for a celebration. On the left, two corpulent men hold big mugs of beer and one of them holds a huge leg of beef in his left hand. In front of them sits a man holding a beer while sharing a romantic moment with a woman. To the right of them, a couple of women with overflowing baskets of fish pause while enjoying a beer. To their right, a young boy with mugs hanging on a rope slung over his back goes around selling mugs of beer. He stops at the pawnbroker to hand him a beer through the peek hole. The pawn shop is in some state of disrepair as people do not need to pawn off their belonging in this prosperous world where people drink beer. The other buildings are well-maintained, and the church steeple on the top is a sign that people behave morally in this world full of beer. On the bottom right, a portly man enjoys his beer next to a pile of books in a basket. On the left, a painter in ragged clothes blissfully paints a cheery picture of men and women dancing around a mountain of barley. On top of the roofs, construction workers take a break drinking to celebrate while another barrel of beer is being lifted up. Finally, in the center, a wealthy woman in a sedan chair waits as her chairmen have temporarily put her chair down to drink a beer. Laborers around them drink their beer while continuing their work in a timely manner.
Backstory: Beer Street takes place during a major movement in 18th-century England: The Age of Enlightenment. This was a philosophical and intellectual movement where people began to ponder major scientific and philosophical thoughts that were captured in paintings such as The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt. These ideas were published, and many people learned from them and developed them further. Another idea behind the Age of Enlightenment is that people were trying to apply these new ideas to help other people. Before the Gin Craze, French brandy was popular and fashionable, however, during the Second Hundred Years’ War between France and England, French products were considered unpatriotic and soon lost their following. This led to the Gin Craze where gin and other cheap spirits quickly became popular, and overconsumption of these drinks caused many problems among the lower-class people. William Hogarth’s print was, in essence, a piece of propaganda in favor of the British beer market. Similar to the popularity of Coca-Cola in the United States during modern times, Hogarth makes the argument that beer was not only a remedy to the unregulated gin trade but also a drink that is truly British and helps the country.
Gin Lane: At the time Hogarth created Beer Street, he also created a companion piece called Gin Lane. Most museums that own Beer Street, also have a print from Gin Lane as they were created together. Museums owning Gin Lane include Tate Britain, the British Museum and the National Gallery of Art. However, most museums do not have the prints on permanent display as they are light sensitive. The original copperplates for both works are owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gin Lane shows the perilous effects that excessive gin consumption can have on your life. It shows the opposite side of Beer Street where drinking gin leads to chaos, negligence, street brawls, and poverty. The only ones benefiting from the gin craze are the distillery, the pawn shop, and the undertaker.
Who is Hogarth? William Hogarth was born in 1697 in London where he would die 66 years later. Hogarth carefully examined life in 18th-century London and detailed it in etchings and painted satires. He included many symbolic features in his works such that his pieces are not only entertaining but also contain several moral messages. He created art both for the upper and lower class. He painted works for his richer clients but also created etchings and engravings of his works that could be mass-produced and sold at a lower price to a larger audience. Among his works is a series of satirical works about the British upper class. The first painting of that series is Marriage A-la-Mode: 1, The Marriage Settlement in the National Gallery in London.
Fun fact: William Hogarth had a theory of aesthetics called the Analysis of Beauty. He depicts one of the ideas from that theory in the position of the artist standing on a ladder on the left side of the print. His body gracefully curves in a serpentine line representing one of Hogarth’s theories called the Line of Beauty. That line, he claims, is seen throughout nature and ancient Greeks and Romans used it already in their statues creating a natural standing position called contrapposto. It was a position that was rediscovered during the Renaissance and can be seen, among others, in the statue of David by Michelangelo.
What do you see? A sculpture of a muscular, naked man sitting on a rock. The man is in deep thought and uses his whole body to think. His head is bent forward and leans on his right hand. His wrinkled face, knitted eyebrows, swollen nostrils, compressed lips, and absent-minded gaze reinforce the idea that the man is deep in his thoughts and is completely unaware of the world around him. The man is struggling with his thoughts with every part of his body. Almost no part of his body is relaxed. Most muscles are tense, which is clear by looking at the clenched fist, the arched back, the legs below his body, and the squeezed toes. The statue is over six feet tall making the figure larger than life. It was the intention of Rodin to put the independent sculpture on top of a pedestal such that it would make a colossal impression on the viewers.
Backstory: In 1880, Rodin received a large commission from the Directorate of Fine Arts in France to create the entrance doors for a new museum that was to be built (but never opened in the end). He was given the freedom to choose his own theme and decided on creating a scene from Dante’s book Inferno. Rodin was supposed to finish the project in five years but continued to work on the project for 37 years until his death in 1917. The doors – named The Gates of Hell – would eventually include a total of 180 different figures, and they would form the basis for many of Rodin’s most famous statues. He originally created all figures in plaster, and the doors were then to be cast in bronze. The central and the most important part Rodin created for these doors was the statue of The Thinker (Le Penseur in French) who sits right above the two doors with all the characters from the Inferno behind him. The statue was about 27 inches (70 cm) high. In 1888, Rodin created the first standalone version of this statue. As this version was successfully received, Rodin decided to create more and bigger versions of the statue.
Multiple versions: The statue of The Thinker can be found all around the world. Rodin created the first version of this statue in plaster in 1881. In 1903, he completed the first monumental-size version of this statue. He considered it to be a remarkable piece and wrote to the client of his first bronze casting that he would ensure that only a few copies of the statue would ever be made. However, he did not keep his word. During Rodin’s life, already more than 20 versions were produced. And after his death, the right for reproduction was turned over to the Republic of France. Nowadays, more than 70 bronze and plaster versions exist and are on display in Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America.
Interpretation: There are various interpretations of what and who The Thinker represents. When initially creating this statue as part of The Gates of Hell, Rodin meant the figure to represent Dante pondering about the fate of the damned people entering through the Gates of Hell. This interpretation is based on Dante’s book Inferno, the first part of his trilogy known as The Divine Comedy. However, when Rodin started to create independent versions, he started to consider different interpretations. Overall, he considered the statue to represent the struggle of the human mind. But he also started to see hope in it. The thoughts slowly become clear, and the man turns from a thinker, into a dreamer, and finally into a creator. Over time, other interpretations have also been given. Some consider the statue to represent Rodin himself. Others interpret the figure as Adam contemplating the sin he committed in Paradise.
Who is Rodin? François Auguste René Rodin was born in 1840 in Paris, where he died 77 years later in 1917. He was rejected three times by the leading art school in Paris, the École des Beaux-Arts. It forced him to educate himself differently and this has contributed to his unique style. He was inspired by some of the great Renaissance sculptors like Donatello and Michelangelo. Most of his famous sculptures were originally intended for his commission of The Gates of Hell. Over time, he realized that he could turn many elements of The Gates of Hell into separate statues and some of these statues have achieved world fame. Among them are The Three Shades and The Kiss. Many of Rodin’s statues have been cast multiple times in bronze which means that his statues have spread across the world.
Why a bronze statue? Bronze is a combination of different metals. It consists primarily of copper (typically 85-90%) and tin (typically 10-15%), but can also contain minor quantities of other metals or nonmetals. It is an attractive material for sculptors for the following reasons. First, it is very durable. Second, it is difficult to break and allows the artist to sculpt different pieces of the sculpture separately and combine them afterward (for example, Rodin always separately sculpted the arms if they were not positioned along the body). Third, the sculptor can choose between different textures, ranging from very smooth to rough. Finally, the inclusion of minor quantities of lead, silver, or zinc can affect the color of the bronze providing artistic freedom to the sculptor.
Fun fact: While The Thinker is one of the most famous statues in the world, Rodin initially named this statue “the poet.” Later it was renamed based on suggestions by foundry workers that the sculpture was quite similar to a sculpture by Michelangelo on Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino. This sculpture was more popularly known as “Il Penseroso” (The Thinker), and this name was also given to Rodin’s statue. The Thinker also shows some resemblance to Ugolino and His Sons which was created by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux in the 1860s.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Gallery 50A of the National Gallery of Art
When? Between 1662 and 1665
Commissioned by? Possibly, Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, the patron of Vermeer.
What do you see? A pregnant woman stands in front of a table while holding a balance. She wears a blue winter jacket with white fur, a white head covering, and a long yellow/orange skirt. Her head is slightly tilted to the left, and she looks down at the balance in her right hand. On top of the table are two jewelry boxes, a pearl necklace, a gold chain, and some coins. The balance in the painting is empty but will be used to weigh the coins on the table. In the left foreground is a large blue cloth. The woman stands in front of a mirror. To the right of the mirror, we can see a yellow curtain that lets in a bit of light. On the wall in the back hangs a painting from The Last Judgment. The floor is covered with black and white tiles.
Use of Light: The light that enters on the top left helps us to better identify the colors of the different items in the room. For example, look at the color of the woman’s skirt. If we just look at the color below her waist, it seems yellow-brown, but looking at her belly, it seems that the skirt has a much more cheerful color, more like orange-yellow. Also, look at the color of the tiles. Below the table, the colors and contrasts are vague, but on the right side, in the light, the black and white contrast in the tiles is very clear. Finally, the blue cloth in the bottom left makes it very clear how much effort Vermeer put in accurately incorporating the effects of light into his work.
Backstory: This painting has also been referred to as “Woman Weighing Gold” or “Woman Weighing Pearls.” The Last Judgment painting in the background has not been identified yet, but it is probably a mannerist painting from the late 16th or early 17th century. An interesting detail here is that the bottom of that painting on the right side of the woman is lower than on the left side of the woman. Vermeer more often included works of art, like paintings or maps, from other artists in the background of his paintings. For example, The Astronomer in the Louvre has a painting of The Finding of Moses in the background, and in the background of Young Woman with a Water Pitcher in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a known map of Hapsburg Netherlands.
Symbolism: Vermeer paints a pregnant woman with in the background a painting of The Last Judgment. This painting shows the apocalypse, the time when Jesus comes back to weigh all people on a ‘balance’ of good and bad to decide who goes to Heaven. One the left side of that painting (from our point of view) are the blessed people and on the right side are the damned people. At the same time, the woman is about to weigh some coins to judge their value. The message of this painting is that one needs to be careful with the earthly pleasures, like jewelry and money, because after you die everyone will be judged by God. The mirror in front of the woman should remind her that she should look in the mirror to evaluate her actions based on the Christian religion.
Who is Vermeer? Johannes Vermeer was born in Delft, The Netherlands, in 1632, and died there in 1675. He was the son of an art dealer and a silk weaver. Vermeer took a long time to complete each painting and was very precise. Because of this, he only produced a limited number of paintings. As a result, and in combination with raising his many children, he never got rich. Vermeer is classified as a genre painter (painting simple scenes from everyday life). While less than 40 known paintings are attributed to him, most of his works are of very high quality and very popular nowadays. Some great examples of his work are The Milkmaid in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
Fun fact: The woman in this painting seems pregnant. This is best visible by looking at her belly, which is accentuated by the colorful part of the skirt. Other signs of her pregnancy are the pale color on her face and some hints of edema (which is a swelling in the legs, feet, and arms). The swelling in her hands is hard to see for the average person, but not for medically trained professionals. While it is not known who the woman in the painting is, it is not unlikely that she is the wife of Johannes Vermeer, Catharina Bolnes, as they got 15 children together.
Where? Gallery 20 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned by? Probably Paolo Giovio, though it could also have been Pope Julius II.
What do you see? The beautiful Mary sits on a tree trunk with her son Jesus on her right leg, and Saint John sits next to them on the ground. Mary is dressed in a pink and blue dress, Saint John in a fur robe, and Jesus is naked. Mary is holding a prayer book in her left hand. She looks at the cross that Saint John seems to hand to Jesus. Saint John looks at Jesus and Mary, while Jesus looks at Saint John. Their gazes seem somewhat sad as if they are thinking about what is going to happen to Jesus at the end of his earthly life. Notice the index finger of Jesus that is pointing upwards to God while he receives the cross. Saint John holds some flowers, including anemones and white dandelions. The painting is very peaceful with a calm sky, and the trio is surrounded by flowers, including cyclamen (to the left of Saint John), blue violets (in the left foreground), and lady’s bedstraw (the tall plants on the right). The landscape is probably inspired by the Tiber valley near Rome.
Backstory: Raphael painted this work while he was in Rome, at the same time that he worked on the famous Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museums. It is most likely that this painting was commissioned by Paolo Giovio and gifted to the church of the Olivetani in Nocera dei Pagani when he was appointed a bishop there. However, some people also argue that it could have been commissioned by Pope Julius II who Raphael was working for in 1510. The name of the painting, Alba Madonna, is given because the painting was owned by the aristocratic Spanish House of Alba during the 18th century. As Raphael painted many Madonna-themed paintings, this name differentiates it from the others.
Symbolism: The white dandelion below Saint John’s elbow is a symbol of the Passion, which is the period at the end of the life of Jesus when he enters Jerusalem until his crucifixion. The cross that Saint John is handing to Jesus is a symbol of what is waiting for Jesus later in his life when he will be crucified. This cross is similar to the one that Raphael included in the Madonna del Prato. The anemones that Saint John is holding are a symbol of resurrection to indicate that Jesus will resurrect from the dead. Flowers in the foreground also surround the trio. The cyclamen refers to the love and sorrow of Mary, the blue violets to her faithfulness, and the lady’s bedstraw refers to the manger in which Jesus was put after his birth. The tree trunk on which Mary is sitting may be oak and could refer to the symbol of the Della Rovere house of Pope Julius II. However, it is not certain that this is indeed an oak trunk and whether Pope Julius II commissioned this painting.
Tondos? This painting of Raphael is a so-called tondo. A tondo is used to refer to a circular painting over two feet (60 cm) in diameter. The word ‘tondo’ is derived from the Italian word ‘rotondo’, which means round. A tondo helps the viewer to focus on the center of the painting. The circular shape is also perceived to be an ideal and infinite shape. These are the reasons that the tondo was often used for Madonnas as the focus of those paintings had to be on Mary and Jesus. You can also see in this painting that the composition of Mary, Jesus, and Saint John is quite circular. The tondo format was mainly popular in the 15th and 16th century and has been used by painters such as Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Raphael. One of the most well-known tondos is the Doni Tondo by Michelangelo in the Uffizi Museum in Florence. Another example is the Madonna of the Magnificat by Botticelli which is also in the Uffizi.
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) was a painter and architect.
In 1508 Raphael moved to Rome to paint for Pope Julius II. Before that, he had spent several years in Florence. In 1514 he became the lead architect for Pope Leo X. He was tasked with the design of the new St. Peter's Basilica. However, after his death, most of his work was abandoned and Michelangelo took over. He is well-known for his frescos and Madonnas, such as the Madonna of the Goldfinch in the Uffizi Museum. Together with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, he is considered to be the most talented artist of the High Renaissance. His work has especially had a great influence on artists in the 17th till 19th century, including Jacques-Louis David.
Fun fact: Raphael has created many religious paintings during his career, and especially many Madonnas. However, Raphael did not always live like a religious person. In fact, rumors are that he had many affairs with women while he was in Rome. In 1514 he got engaged to Maria Bibbiena, but he never married her. Vasari also writes in his book that Raphael died (which may have been on his birthday) after a night of excessive sex. After the wild night he got sick but did not want to tell the doctors the cause of it. As a result, they did not provide him with the right treatment and he died.
Where? Gallery 23 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Venus looking in the mirror with two Cupids. Venus wears some makeup, visible in her rosy cheeks and red lips. We see the upper part of Venus’ body. She covers one of her breasts with her left arm. The lower part of her body is covered by a thick velvet drapery, decorated with beautiful gold and silver embroidery. The drapery contrast nicely with her pale skin. She wears earrings, two bracelets, and two rings. Venus studies herself in the mirror. One Cupid holds to mirror in front of her while the other wants to put a garland on her head as a symbol of love.
Background: Titian painted two quite similar versions of Venus with a Mirror, but one of them is considered lost. The current version remained in the studio of Titian until his death and was sold in 1581 by his son Pompino to the Barbagio family. Possibly, Titian did not finish the painting completely which would explain why the work was still in his studio. In this case, someone else, maybe the son of Titian, has completed the last parts of the painting before selling it. In 1851, the Barbagio family sold the painting to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. In 1931, Andrew Mellon acquired the painting for the National Gallery of Art. X-ray analysis has revealed that Titian had some different ideas at first about this painting. Under the current layer of paint, traces have been identified of three other compositions before he settled on the current one.
Other versions of this painting: Titian got inspired by the Venus de’ Medici for this painting. The pose of Venus in this painting is the same as in the Venus de’ Medici. While that sculpture is now in the Uffizi Museum in Florence, he must have seen the work when it was in Rome in the middle of the 16th century. This painting by Titian may be the most-copied work of art from the High Renaissance. Many lesser and better-known artists copied it and created variations on its theme. Some have kept a very similar composition, others have deviated from Titian’s composition but kept the theme of Venus looking in the mirror. One great example is Venus and Cupid by Peter Paul Rubens in the Thyssen Museum in Madrid. Another wonderful painting inspired by Titian’s work is the Rokeby Venus by Velázquez in the National Gallery. According to many, none of the copies or paintings inspired by Titian’s work have surpassed the Titian’s original.
Who is Venus? The Roman goddess of love, beauty, and desire. The myths about her are based on the Greek goddess Aphrodite. She was very appealing to the Roman people as she could provide beauty, military victories, prosperity, and a good sex life. For these reasons, she is the most popular goddess in art. She has inspired many artists, including Botticelli, Canova, David, Ingres, Raphael, Rubens, Velázquez, and Veronese. The most famous painting on Venus is probably The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli which shows how Venus was born from the sea as a mature and sexual woman.
Why a mirror? The presence of a mirror is a great trick that painters can apply in their work. There was often debate between sculptors and painters, whereby the sculptors claimed that only they could show a person from all different angles. A mirror was a way for painters to mitigate this problem as they could show other sides of a person in a natural way. A well-known painting in which the mirror plays an important role is The Arnolfini Portrait by Van Eyck in the National Gallery. Mirrors have also frequently been used by painters to paint self-portraits. Caravaggio was a frequent user of the mirror. Young Sick Bacchus in the Galleria Borghese is one of several paintings for which Caravaggio used a mirror.
Who is Titian? Tiziano Vecelli(o) was born around 1489 near Venice, Italy, and died there in 1576. He was the most influential member of the Venetian School of Painting. Other well-known members are Jacopo Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese. The Venetian painters are known for their use of a wide variety of colors which were available to them because Venice was an important port with lots of import from the Middle and Far East. Titian was an expert in all sorts of paintings, including mythological and religious works, landscapes, and portraits. However, he is probably best known for his female nudes. His works include Diana and Actaeon in the National Gallery in London and the Venus of Urbino in the Uffizi Museum.
Fun fact: While Titian is considered to be one of the best and most versatile painters from the 16th century, he also had his limitations. Michelangelo, perhaps the most famous painter ever, criticized the limited drawing skills of Titian. In this painting, we can see some examples of that. First, the left arm of the Cupid holding the mirror does not seem to support the bottom of the mirror. Second, the left wing of this Cupid is placed in an unnatural position. Third, the reflection of the hand of the Cupid in the back does not reflect accurately in the mirror. Fourth, the eye of Venus does not seem to be properly painted in the mirror. If you study her eye in the mirror carefully, it seems that she is actually not looking into the mirror. However, these ‘errors’ are easily overlooked because the rest of the canvas is painted so well.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Gallery 30 of the National Gallery of Art
When? About 1734
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Around 50 people are inside the Pantheon. They are engaged in different activities like admiring the architecture, talking, and praying. They look small compared to the size of the building. Most people stand or kneel in the open space in the middle. Enormous Corinthian columns and statues surround this space. In the middle background is the entrance to the Pantheon and we can identify the Egyptian obelisk in the Piazza della Rotonda in front of the Pantheon. The dome is decorated with sunken square panels (called a coffered ceiling). The light enters through the opening in the dome. You can see the sunlight just to the right of the entrance to the Pantheon. The floor is decorated with squares and circles which are also used to decorate the walls.
Backstory: The view in this painting is not entirely realistic. While Panini accurately painted the Pantheon, the painting shows more than is possible from a single place in the Pantheon. Since 609 AD, the Pantheon is a Christian church and quite some modifications to the Pantheon have been made over time. As a result, the view that Panini painted is not the same as what you see today when visiting the Pantheon. For example, the bottom of the dome contains some inscriptions. On the left, we read ‘[LAUDATE] DOMINUM IN SANCTIS EIUS,’ which means ‘praise the Lord in his sanctuary.’ On the right, we read ‘LAVS EIVS IN ECC[LESIA SANCTORVM],’ which means ‘let his praise be in the church of saints.’ These lines were added to the Pantheon by Pope Alexander VII during the 17th century, but have been removed after Panini completed the painting and are thus not visible anymore today.
Different versions of this painting: Panini created several other versions of this painting. At least eight versions are known of which four are on public display and the others are in private collections. All versions are somewhat different from each other. The versions on public display can be divided into two types. First, the paintings with large columns in the foreground. One of these paintings is in the National Gallery of Denmark and the other one in the Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna. Second, the paintings without large columns in the foreground. One of these paintings is in the National Gallery of Art, and the other is in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
History of the Pantheon? The Pantheon was built between 113 and 126 AD, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It was built on the spot of a burnt-down Roman temple built by Agrippa between 29 and 19 BC. Pantheon literally means ‘all gods’ and was dedicated to every Roman God. However, in 609 AD the Pantheon became a Catholic church. The Pantheon is also called Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs and every week at least two masses are held inside. The height of the dome and the diameter of the dome are the same, 142 feet (43 meters). The diameter of the opening on the top is 27 feet (8 meters). Quite some famous people, including kings and artists, are buried in the Pantheon, including Raphael.
Who is Panini? Giovanni Paolo Panini was born in 1691 in Piacenza, Italy, and died in Rome in 1765. He was both a painter and an architect, which explains why he liked to paint buildings. He was popular among tourists for his paintings with views of Rome and some of the most impressive buildings in Rome. As photography did not exist yet in the 17th century, tourists asked Panini to draw some of the major sights as a memory to their trip. Two of his most famous paintings are Ancient Rome (with versions in the Louvre, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart) and Modern Rome (with versions in the Louvre, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts).
Fun fact: The Pantheon has served as the inspiration for the Rotunda of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art. The rotunda is in the center of the main floor of the West Building and is the major entrance to the museum. The dome is similar, including the sunken square panels, and there is also an opening on the top to let the light in. The main difference, though, is that this opening is covered by glass such that the rain or snow cannot enter the museum.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Gallery 41 of the National Gallery of Art
When? Between 1485 and 1516
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? The final moments of the life of a miser, who is a stingy person collecting a lot of wealth. The painting consists of three scenes.
Symbolism: The moral message of this painting is a warning against greed. Humans often face the tradeoff between earthly wealth, also referred to as avarice, and faith. The items in the trunk (the dagger, metal cups, and the golden weight) represent various items that people pawned when they were in need of money. These items were typically pawned against a high interest rate, which was against the laws of the Church.
Who is Bosch? Hieronymus Bosch, also known as Jhernoymus or Jeroen Bosch, was born around 1450 under the name Jheronymus van Aken in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, in the south of The Netherlands. He also died there in 1516. He was an innovative painter who found novel ways to depict existing themes. He is especially known for his satiric paintings. Not too much is known about his life and therefore there is also a lot of debate whether Bosch really created certain paintings and when he created them. However, his innovative works have had a big influence on future painters, such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Salvador Dalí. His most famous work is the Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Fun fact: Based on infrared pictures, various adjustments to this painting by Bosch have been discovered. For example, in the underdrawing, the miser initially held a covered goblet that he seemed to offer to the figure of Death near the door. This would be an obvious clue that the miser wanted to offer Death some earthly wealth to change his decision. In the final version of the painting, the miser is looking at Death while pointing with his right hand to the money bag that is held by the devil. This clue is a bit more ambiguous but still suggests that the miser wants to offer money to Death. Another example is that the underdrawing shows the inclusion of a flask with drinking glasses and a rosary in the scene in the foreground.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.