Friday, October 31, 2014

Francisco Goya, Witches' Flight

Francisco Goya, Witches' Flight, 1797-8

Halloween Part II.  I mentioned this painting in yesterday's post as part of Musée d'Orsay's exhibit, Dark Romanticism: From Goya to Max Ernst, but I decided it was worth another look.  Depictions of witches have along tradition in western art, such as Dürer's depictions and Hans Baldung's more gruesome Witches' SabbathThree Witches, and Standing Witch with Monster.  These prints all date from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, and they were in response to the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer, generally held responsible for the anti-witch fury that came to grip Europe.  Goya's piece was done three centuries later and presents a very different view.  It is more fantastical and it does not vilify the witches in the same way.  Nevertheless, the painting is extremely eerie, with its floating witches and lack of setting or context.  The figure lying prone among the three witches is of completely unclear status, but seems to be the subject of some ritual.  The figure on the ground attempt to escape the scene above, but the one still standing (with the sheet over his face) also seems to occupy the role of a promoter, drawing viewers to the spectacle taking place above him.  Goya's skill with chiaroscuro (and with extremely creepy subject matter) is on full display here.  He creates a painting that is very unsettling, yet also very compelling that viewer cannot quite look away from.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

William Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil

William Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil, 1850

Happy Halloween!  I've already written about Botticelli's depiction of Dante's Hell, but the story isn't why I wanted to discuss this painting.  I just thought it was creepy, with its vampiric and demonic elements.  William Bouguereau (1825-1905) is mostly known for his traditional paintings of classical themes––nude women, cherubs, mythic scenes, nymphs––that are quite well done and generally pleasant and agreeable.  This painting demonstrates that he also had a talent for high drama.  The scene is based on a minor episode from Inferno where Dante and Virgil witness a fight between two damned souls, and one gets bitten on the neck.  Bouguereau interpreted the incident with this extremely sexual, homoerotic cast.  Bouguereau's skill is evident, showing great realism in the contortion of the men's muscles, and he uses vivid color and excellent shading throughout the canvas.  The image of the attacker as a vampire is difficult to ignore; even his ravenous eyes and burning red hair contribute to that impression.  The overall creepiness is enhanced by the pile of bodies engaged in orgiastic suffering on the right and the demon leering above the whole scene.

I saw this painting in a fascinating exhibition at Musée d'Orsay entitle Angel of the Bizarre: Dark Romanticism from Goya to Max Ernst.  The exhibition explored the romantic fascination with the dark and gothic over the course of about a century in a half.  Among the other pieces included there were Henri Fuseli's The Nightmare (1781) and Sin Pursued by Death (1797), Edvard Munch's Vampire (1895), Francisco Goya's Witches' Flight (1798), Louis Boulanger's Les Fantômes (1829), Franz Stuck's La Péché (1893), Serafino Macchiati's The Visionary  (1904), Gustave Moreau's Victim (which was quite unsettling in situ), and Carlos Schwabe's Death of the Gravedigger (1895).  It was a fantastic exhibition and had so many perfect Halloween paintings that I couldn't resist sharing them.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Hokusai, One Hundred Poets--First Print

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a Japanese painter and printmaker, one of the greatest of the Edo period printmakers, along with Ando Hiroshige.  Hokusai is best known for his woodblock series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, of which The Great Wave off Kanagawa has become most famous.  This piece is from Hokusai's last major series, "One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each As Explained by the Old Nurse."  The series is an exploration of the canonical Japanese poetry anthology, Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, compiled in the thirteenth century.  Hokusai did not create literal representations of the poems, but rather images related to them that express his own personal sense of the poem and its relation to his experiences.  This is the first print in the series, accompanying the first poem in the book:
      Because of the coarseness of the rush-mat
      Of the hut of temporary-hut
      Of the rice of autumn
      As far as concerns my sleeves
      They are becoming wet with dew.
                               –Emperor Tenji

Although Emperor Tenji is not present in the piece, Hokusai depicted the type of rice field alluded to in the poem.  He shows the farmers at work, the water that flows through the field, and the hut that the poem describes.  Although the figures' faces are mostly obscured, their presence is not diminished.  Their agricultural labor and the reality of their rural peasant lives comes through quite strongly.  Among Hokusai's greatest talents was his ability to portray depth.  The water stretches off into the distance, and its spatial presence is made clear with a type of atmospheric perspective.  The mountains in the background are surrounded by mist that helps situate them in the distance.  The sky is also stunningly rendered, with the blue that reflects the water and the red-orange of the sunset that signals the end of the workday.  The reflection element is also mirrored in the water at the very fore of the image; the bridge disappears into nothingness and the white of the misty sky appears again.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers

Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers, 1875

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) was a French painter who was a member of the Impressionist group, but painted in a very different style.  Caillebotte worked in a more realistic style, with crisper lines and more precise brushwork.  He was very interested in photography and continually depicted the modernization of Paris and everyday Parisian life.  The Floor Scrapers is one of Caillebotte's best known paintings, along with 1877's Paris Street, Rainy Day.  I was fortunate enough to see this painting in person at Musée d'Orsay last year and the impact is quite remarkable.  What I remember most is the richness of the color.  The wood floor was such a vivid color brown that it seemed to radiate off the canvas, and the sunlight streaming in illuminated everything with such bright intensity.  Caillebotte's draughtsmanship is also impressive; the wood shavings that have been removed curl and pile with focused detail and the men's working musculature is faithfully sculpted.  The image I have included does not entirely do justice to these elements, but the coloration was the closest reproduction I could find.  The painting is a beautiful rendering of this earthy scene, and Caillebotte portrayed it with an intensity and focus that reveals the artist's great interest in such working class scenes.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Silvestro Lega, Country Girl Leaning Against a Ladder

Silvestro Lega, Country Girl Leaning Against a Ladder, c1895
15x11.4 in.

Silvestro Lega (1826-1895) was a prominent Italian painter.  He was a Realist, and also a leading member of the Macchiaioli, often considered the Italian counterpart to Impressionism.  Lega's work exhibits qualities associated with both Impressionism and Realism, as do the Macchiaioli in general.  The Macchiaioli movement mirrored Impressionism in its emphasis on painting outdoors, on accurate portrayals of light, and the free brushwork and paint handling that conveys the subjective reality of the artist.  However much of the subject matter and themes of Macchiaioli painting followed the values ascribed to Realism in France.  Many of these paintings depict Italian peasant scenes and discuss the realities of these people's lives.  In this way, they often contained political ideas and Lega was involved in Giuseppe Mazzini's movement to unify Italy.  Country Girl Leaning Against a Ladder is a perfect example of all these ideas.  The painting beautifully communicates the reality of the scene, but the loose brushwork gives a very personal and inviting feeling.  Lega also successfully communicates the heat of this hazy afternoon and the laboriousness of this girl's daily life.  Lega utilizes a narrow palette, but skillfully blends the browns and greens to make the whole canvas engaging.  The girl's skin stands out brighter than her surroundings, and her white garments are also noticeable, but the red of the girl's knitting is the most striking.  Even without sufficient detail to make out what she is working on (A sock? A scarf?), this small splash of color completes the piece to create a thoroughly arresting painting.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Tim O'Connor, Untitled

My apologies for the poor quality of today's image, but I took it myself at an art show I went to tonight.  The show was by my friend Tim O'Connor, a 25-year-old working artist on Long Island, a native of Port Jefferson.  In addition to painting, Tim does drawing and conceptual/installation art.  I love Tim's painting and this piece is very intriguing.  Tim told me that the painting is about the inner child.  The dragon is a protective force, coiled around the vulnerable parts of ourselves.  Tim uses variegated color to create contrasts, rather than utilizing shading, and I think this technique creates very striking effects.  In this painting, the warm blue of the dragon's scales contrasts with the red and yellow that surround it and create a surprising sense of unity in the piece.  Some common themes in Tim's work are explorations of the mystical parts of ourselves, and the enduring role nature plays in our psyches and the importance of that connection.  Both of these themes are present in this painting, which has representations of plants and feathers, as well as the manifestation of a mystical protective force.  Along the bottom left of the canvas, another dragon appears in outline with the word freedom on its back, a drive that our inner child yearns for and our inner dragon can help us achieve.

Here are two more of Tim's pieces:

Saturday, October 25, 2014

John William Waterhouse, Cleopatra

John William Waterhouse, Cleopatra, 1888
22.4x25.7 in.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was an English painter who worked in the Pre-Raphaelite style, although he worked decades after the movement was formed.  The style was still popular when Waterhouse worked, but he was considered somewhat old-fashioned, despite his success.  Waterhouse was best known for his scenes of Greek mythology and Arthurian legend, but he also did a number of paintings of Roman history.  This piece is a fascinating portrayal of Cleopatra.  Always a woman of mystery in the Western imagination, it has never been completely agreed upon whether Cleopatra was more alluring due to her beauty or her brilliance.  Waterhouse has managed to completely intertwine the two traits.  He depicts a woman of great intensity and power, and her intelligence and sexuality are both on display here.  Cleopatra reclines among her fineries, revealing little skin, but displaying her body seductively nonetheless.  However the center of the painting is undoubtedly her eyes.  The energy that exudes from Cleopatra's expression is palpable; she almost looks aggressive, yet entirely captivating.  It is difficult to look away from her face.  Waterhouse's handling of paint is quite diverse and effective.  He carefully shaded Cleopatra's skin and delicately rendered her hair, but uses rough, broad strokes on the wall and belt, successfully conveying the texture of the gold.  There is also duality in Cleopatra's pose–one hand rests on the lion statue while the other bends at her waist, looking impatient and agitated, lending another dimension to her expression.  Although Cleopatra's thoughts and the meaning of her countenance are hard to discern, she is clearly (and rightly) shown as a woman of great force and authority.  What has ultimately endured over more than two thousand years is the immense power and allure of the last Pharaoh. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Paul Gauguin, At the Black Rocks

Paul Gauguin, At the Black Rocks, 1889
9.5x16 in.

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) is most famous for his interest Primitivism, developed when he traveled to French Polynesia.  He wrote a book about his experiences in Tahiti and spent the last years of his life there.  These paintings, as well as many of his earlier Symbolist works, are marked by bright colors, strong contours, and flat, heavy forms, in a style that came to be known as cloisonnism.  However the bulk of Gauguin's work is in a more traditional Post-Impressionist style, with realistic pastoral scenes and traditional portraits.  At the Black Rocks (also known as Rocks by the Sea) is a synthesis of these diverse styles.  One of the strongest influences on this piece is Japanese art, which features similar depictions of nature, and the overall unity of the scene, the way the different natural elements come together in the picture plane, has a distinctly Japanese cast.  Japonisme was extremely popular during the Impressionist movement and its impact carried on into Post-Impressionism, including the work of Gauguin's close friend, Van Gogh.  (I also seriously considered writing about a different Gauguin painting that has similar use of Janponisme.)  In this painting I am particularly taken with the the swirling waves and their mirroring/merging with the clouds.  Gauguin manages to convey the movement of the wind and water as weel as the serene stillness of the scene.  The particular color choices are also quite beautiful, and Gauguin achieves a very rich texture, almost creamy in the white and blue, yet rough and weatherworn in the brown rocks.  A final point of interest is that there seems to be a face on the leftmost rock, but I don't really know what to make of this.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Piet Mondrian, The Gray Tree

Piet Mondrian, The Gray Tree, 1911

Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) explored many styles of painting, including Post-ImpressionismPointillismFauvism, and Cubism, before he truly found his artistic voice with his famous Neo-Plasticism.  Mondrian excelled in all these styles and created many varied and beautiful paintings throughout his career.  The Gray Tree is an example of Cubism, painted in Paris after Mondrian moved there from the Netherlands.  When he moved to Paris, Mondrian was immediately taken with the Cubist art of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.  This painting is a representation of a tree as deconstructed geometric shapes that fit together to shape the tree.  With the limited palette and flattened spatial plane, the painting takes on an unusual quality that suggests like stained glass, where subject and background merge, almost indistinguishably.  The painting is an excellent example of Mondrian's skill with both shading and brushwork.  Despite the limited palette, the gradient of grays on the canvas communicate the image as well as an emotional valence.  The brushwork is simultaneously precise and expressive, communicating the differentiation of those geometric blocks but also able to construct the whole.  This painting masters the principles of Cubism, while maintaining the depth and connectivity demonstrated in his earlier Impressionist/Post-Impressionist works.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Antonio Canova, Self-Portrait

Antonio Canova, Self-Portrait, 1792

Antonio Canova (1757-1822) was a very successful Italian sculptor and occasional painter.  He is known for a revival of the understated Classical style after the elaborate decadence of Baroque sculpture.  Among his best known pieces are Perseus with the Head of Medusa and Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss.  In many ways this painting is a simple portrait; it is beautifully rendered with precise, expressive brushstrokes, and the subject is bathed in warm, pleasant light.  To me what makes the piece so arresting is the engagement of Canova.  He depicts himself at work, with his hand raised to his art.  Even more essential is the artist's gaze.  His eyes are alive and alight, conveying an intense energy as he  looks out to meet the viewer's gaze and invite them into his art.  Canova's skill and dedication make this an exquisite portrait, and his passion and engagement make it a captivating and expressive artwork.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Man Ray, Hills

Man Ray, Hills, 1914
10x12 in.

Another day, another Dadaist.  Man Ray (1890-1976) was born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia.  He was involved in both Surrealism and Dadaism after becoming friends with Duchamp in New York in 1913, having seen his work at the groundbreaking Armory Show that year.  Both the show and Duchamp were very influential on the young artist, and his work begins to show movement and development at this time.   Man Ray's early work also explores Cubism.  Although Man Ray is best known for his photographic works, and he worked in a variety of media, he preferred to regard himself as a painter.  Later in life he said, "I paint what cannot be photographed, that which comes from the imagination or from dreams, or from an unconscious drive."  This impulse is certainly present in this painting; Hills shows a landscape that seems infused with storms of the unconscious.  The angular and solid hills clash with the round evanescence of the clouds, while the trees in the foreground cut and interrupt all these shapes.  The red buds on the trees are jarring, yet suggest renewal in the face of the storm clouds and imposing black and purple mountains.  Although Man Ray is not associated with the movement, this painting seems quite Expressionist to my eye.  It presents the scene in a rather subjective way, privileging emotional or poetic reality over literal reality.  With this small canvas, Man Ray creates a scene of great power and thoughtfulness, at a time of great transition in his life.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Marcel Duchamp, Sonata

Marcel Duchamp, Sonata, 1911

Before Duchamp (1887-1968) was an architect of Dadaism, he explored several styles of painting, including Cubism.  This watercolor shows Duchamp's three sisters performing a piece of music, while their mother stands behind them.  The harmony of the music is recreated in the harmony created by the union of the deconstructed picture space.  The angular shapes that are so common in Cubist paintings fit together to form the whole, not unlike musical voices.  Duchamp's gentle tonality and the lightness of the watercolor fit this genre scene and bring to mind a performance on a bright, airy afternoon.  At least, that is what appears to be happening here.  However, with closer examination and some added knowledge, the peaceful family scene begins to break down.  Certainly there is some union between Yvonne playing the piano and Magdalene playing violin, but Suzanne is actually not involved in the music, and sits in the foreground reading.  Meanwhile, Duchamp's mother had in fact gone deaf by the time this painted [source], so the impression of a mother presiding over the performance is inaccurate, or at least incomplete.  She is unable to hear the music her daughters are making, and therefore unable to engage in the action of the painting.  In this light, the piece actually becomes one of separation and our attempts to form connections.  While the four picture planes may unite to form this space, the figures remain continually detached from one another.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pablo Picasso, The Death of Casagemas

Pablo Picasso, The Death of Casagemas, 1901
10.63x13.78 in.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) is best known for his revolutionary use of cubism, but he explored many different styles before he found that technique.  This painting was done during Picasso's famous Blue Period, and depicts his friend, Casagemas.  Carlos Casagemas was a friend and fellow art student in Barcelona who moved to Paris with Picasso.  In 1901 Casagemas shot himself over an unrequited love.  This painting is fascinating in its depiction of the event.  Casagemas is shown as only a head, separated from his body, an implication of his role as a man of creativity and ideas, but the gunshot wound to the head is quite visible.  Picasso was unable to memorialize his friend without alluding to his violent death, also suggested by the sickly green color of his skin.  To me the most interesting element is the candle.  This bright flame, often a symbol of knowledge, gives off light of such bright and unnatural colors.  I believe this represents the unusual and creative ideas that Casagemas had and that he inspired in Picasso.  Ultimately this is a memorial painting, meant to pay tribute to Casagemas, to celebrate his importance in Picasso's life and artistic development, and to immortalize his brilliance, beauty, and creativity.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Correggio, Leda and the Swan

Correggio, Leda and the Swan, 1531

Antonio Allegri da Correggio (1489-1534) was a prominent painter of the Italian Renaissance.  He was a member of the Parma school and is especially known for his sensuous and dynamic mythological paintings.  In the original myth of Leda, Zeus transforms into a swan and rapes (or seduces) Leda.  Leda then lays one egg that contains the children of Zeus, Helen and Pollux, and one that contains the children of her husband, Tyndareus, Clytemnestra and Castor.  Correggio chose to elaborate on the story.  He shows a prior encounter from Leda's childhood where she plays with Zeus as a swan.  He depicts the encounter as seduction not rape, and Leda's expression shows her willingness to have sex with the swan, brazenly depicted in the center of the canvas.  Finally, Leda gazes fondly at the swan as it departs afterward.  This was one of four paintings Correggio did portraying the loves of Jupiter, all painted around 1531-32.  The others are Jupiter and IoGanymede, and Danaë.  All of these are quite sexual and Correggio's work continued to be controversial for centuries.  Leda and the Swan is a magnificent example of Correggio's skill.  This extremely large painting is masterfully executed, with fine brushwork and shading and beautifully rendered textures, such as the leaves and Leda's hair.  The painting is also a very progressive depiction of sexuality, particularly Leda's sexuality, as she first enjoys and then appears satisfied by the brief encounter.  Although Correggio did not have significant impact immediately after his death, he is now considered extremely influential on many subsequent artists and revolutionary in the development of painting.

Friday, October 17, 2014

George Inness, Sunset at Etretat

George Inness, Sunset at Etretat, 1875
30.32x20.08 in.

George Inness (1825-1894) was an American artist of the Hudson River School.  Generally considered the American counterpart to Impressionism, members of the Hudson River School were also concerned with accurate depiction of light and often painted nature scenes from the Hudson Valley.  I set out to do in American artist today, but the painting I ended up choosing was done in France.  The cliffs of Etretat were a very popular subject for French artists and those visiting France, but most depict the cliffs from the other side, showing their distinctive shape.  Instead, Inness sits on the cliffs and shows the view looking out from there (although he did also do another painting from the usual angle).  This piece shows a different palette from a lot of Inness's work and more tonal variety.  Many of his pieces are beautiful forest scenes rendered in deep greens and browns, or perhaps sunsets of bright orange.  This painting is a powerful expanse of land and sea that portrays the vast scope of nature's beauty.  The deep blue of the sky, delicate white/grey of the clouds, rich green of the grass, and the striking orange line of the blazing sunset all blend perfectly and crest a scene of great beauty and power.  Additionally, much of Inness's work has a somewhat fantastical or mystical view of nature whereas this is more realistic.  The addition of a figure sitting on the grass, a standin for each of us, only adds to the impact of the scene and the effectiveness of the painting. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Edgar Degas, Dead Fox Lying in the Undergrowth

Edgar Degas, Dead Fox Lying in the Undergrowth, 1865,
 173x92cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, France

Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was a French painter, sculptor, printmaker, and draughtsman, best known now for his many paintings of ballet dancers and his most famous sculpture, The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years.  Although he is considered a founder of Impressionism, Degas disliked the term and his ties to the group are a bit more tenuous than amongst the other core members.  This piece is an outlier in Degas's career; he did not paint many nature scenes, preferring to depict Paris society.  The outdoor paintings he did produce were usually either of sport or history paintings.  Instead here we have a beautiful early work in the dappled light of a forest.  For a scene of complete stillness this painting has quite a bit of energy.  The forest seems entirely alive, making the fox's demise completely incongruous to its surroundings.  I think Degas communicates quite a bit of sympathy for this dead animal, who lies unmoving, but with its russet fur still gleaming in the sunlight.  These effects are mostly achieved through the brushwork.  Degas is known for his loose paint handling and he used the technique to great effect to depict the movement of dancers.  But in this case he manages to communicate that lack of movement instead and bring us into this forest and the presence of this fox.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Minoan Frescoes from the Island of Thera

The island of Thera (now known as Santorini) was once home the Minoan Bronze Age civilization known as Akrotiri.  Around 1627 BCE the island was destroyed by one of the largest known volcanic eruptions ever.  On the nearby island of Crete the Minoan society was at its height.  It was one of the most advanced and powerful civilizations in the Mediterranean world, and the destruction of Thera is considered the most likely source for the legend of Atlantis.  Akrotiri was excavated in 1967, and like Pompeii, the volcanic ash left the artifacts extremely well-preserved.  The series of frescoes I have shown here are perhaps the most beautiful (surviving) painting of the Ancient Aegean civilizations.  The artists demonstrate highly developed use of color and space and their delicate designs are remarkable.  Furthermore, they are also an invaluable window into the history and culture of the Minoan settlement on Thera.  In this series of frescoes we see (from top to bottom) a river landscape with plants and animals, a Minoan town, a woman who is most likely a priestess, a pair of boys boxing, the famous blue monkeys, and spring lilies with sparrows.  Involvement with plant and animal life is prevalent in these paintings.  By studying these frescoes we can gain insight into Minoan civilization on ancient Thera, for each of the many beautiful pieces is rich with the aesthetics and values of its people.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Smugglers

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Smugglers, 1872

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) was a prominent French landscape and portrait painter.  He was part of the Realism movement, as well as an important transitional figure, simultaneously employing elements of Neoclassicism while also expressing some of the ideals that would come to define Impressionism, namely use of plein-air (outdoor) painting.  This late piece of Corot's is rather different from most of his oeuvre, which utilized very exacting brushwork and crisp lines.  This painting employs looser brushwork and a somewhat hazier view of the landscape.  This results in a sense of the wind blowing through the scene, successfully communicating the movement of the air, foliage, and water.  I am also fascinated by the use of light; with a slightly yellowish cast, Corot communicates a late afternoon setting.  Furthermore, his use of the figures is interesting.  While the painting is entitled Smugglers, their procession plays a very small role in the overall impression of the painting, and they seem to blend into the landscape.  Finally I return to the brushwork, for Corot used very similar strokes to paint most of the elements, whether clouds, leaves, rock, or water, uniting the scene in that afternoon breeze.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Lilla Cabot Perry, Young Caretaker

Lilla Cabot Perry, Young Caretaker, c1899

Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933) is an interesting figure in the history of art.  She was an American Impressionist painter, as well as an important advocate of French Impressionist painters in America.  Perry was born in Boston and began her career very influenced by that environment and the style of American Impressionism.  In 1887 she moved to Paris with her family and began studying painting there, also becoming friends with Mary Cassatt and Camille Pissarro.  In 1889 Perry met Claude Monet in Giverny and he became a close friend and mentor.  Between 1889 and 1909, Perry spent nine summers in Giverny working with Monet and learning from his experience, and her work showed a profound development after she arrived at Giverny.  Young Caretaker is an unusual piece in both Perry's oeuvre and Impressionism in general.  While Impressionist painters showed great interest in Japonisme, their use of it rarely extended beyond an orientalized portrait of a European woman or landscape.  Perry, meanwhile, actually traveled to Japan in 1897 when her husband an appointment as an English professor there.  Perry was greatly inspired by the three years she spent there and produced several paintings in that time, deviating from her usual subject–her daughters.  In this painting, Perry shows a young Japanese girl carrying a child on her back.  Whether this girl is a young mother, older sister, or otherwise is unclear but Perry's depiction is quite moving.  With her loose, Impressionist paint handling, and off-center composition, Perry's canvas is already quite arresting, but the power of the piece resides in the faces of her two subjects.  The baby is sleeping with eyes closed, serene and gentle, and somewhat in shadow.  The girl's face, meanwhile, is bright, alert, and intense.  The extreme emotion in her eyes is thoroughly engaging, and her role as caretaker completely occupies her psyche.  As she looks directly out of the painting at the viewer we can feel her warmth and love.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Fallen Angel)

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Fallen Angel), 1981

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) began his artistic career as a graffiti artist in the late 1970s before rising to international fame in the early 80s.  Basquiat drew on many sources in his art, including world mythology, anatomy textbooks, philosophy, Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, African and Native American imagery, and poetry.  His work is often considered to be exploring dichotomies, such as wealth an poverty, integration and separation, internal and external experience.  Although Basquiat resisted being labeled a "black artist", social commentary runs through much of his work.  This untitled painting, widely known as fallen angel, contains many elements typical of Basquiat's paintings.  It has bright colors, combined use of sharp lines and curved forms, intense symbolic imagery, self exploration, and a very deliberate impression of rough production.  This painting also has strong a resemblance to Native American imagery.  The figure of the angel is clearly human, with a developed face and even a penis, but it also suggests a bird, with talon-like hands and feet against a blue sky background.  The halo is quite jagged, suggesting a rope or barbed wire, or perhaps a crown of thorns.  The colors seem to be at war with each other, the white, black, red, and yellow all overlapping and causing a sense of chaos or danger.  It seems likely that Basquiat identified with this figure.  In 1981, his success was just beginning, but his rapid rise was coupled with an equally rapid descent.  This angel still appears to be in flight, but perhaps it's on its way down.  Basquiat struggled with addiction and died of a heroin overdose at the age of twenty-seven.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition V

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition V, 1911

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was an influential Russian painter and art theorist.  He is generally credited with creating the first purely abstract paintings.  Kandinsky painted a series of ten "compositions" that explore the nature of color and abstraction.  Composition V was exhibited in the first exhibition of the art group Kandinsky founded, called Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), named for Kandinsky's and Franz Marc's shared love of horses, riders, and the color blue, which Kandinsky felt was the color of spirituality.  This painting was produced in the same year that Kandinsky published his important treatise, On the Spiritual in Art.  He discussed the importance of abstract art, writing that creativity exists outside of the conscious mind and beyond our ability to describe it in language.  Kandinsky argues for a type of picture that would not be expressible in words and that is no longer a picture of something.  Composition V is part of that objective.  There are some recognizable forms in the piece (people can be discerned near the top), but overall, there is no identifiable subject of this painting.  Some scholars have seen a scene of death and rebirth, seeing those people as angels blowing trumpets.  Ideas about death and resurrection may be present, but in my view they are not the primary force of the work.  Instead, I see a declaration of the power of spirituality in the face of death and the unyielding flow of time.  The complex composition of the canvas contains many themes, and one of the virtues of abstraction is it invites the viewer's subjectivity.  When I look at this painting, I see beauty in chaos.  As the application of paint thins toward the bottom of the canvas, I see our vantage point, where we can witness the universe spinning around us, luminous.

Friday, October 10, 2014

John Martin, The Deluge

John Martin, The Deluge, 1834

John Martin (1789-1854) was an English Romantic painter and illustrator who frequently painted Biblical scenes, particularly those depicting divine punishment.  This representation of the great flood is entirely concerned with the extreme drama that pervades the scene.  Such darkness and intensity was common in English Romanticism (as I alluded to in a recent post) and this painting takes the concept to extremes.  The waves rise hundreds of feet in the air to engulf the land, water churns in every corner of the canvas, lightning blasts through the water on the right, and people cling on for dear life.  The people are somewhat hard to make out, but they are clearly in agony as they fall into the sea and are swept away by the surf.  A larger but darker version of the image is available here to view these details.  Martin's brushwork is quite successful at portraying this dire scene: with sharp lines and jagged edges the drama is heightened with every stroke.  One interesting element of the composition is the ovular vortex composition, created here by the arc of the waves over the top of the canvas, which Martin used repeatedly in his Biblical scenes, including another similar depiction of the flood done in mezzotint engraving.  Perhaps to Martin it represented the all-encompassing power of God.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Botticelli, The Abyss of Hell

Botticelli, The Abyss of Hell, 1480

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) is one of the most well-known painters of the Italian Renaissance, famous for Birth of Venus and Primavera.  This piece is an illustration of the Hell described in Dante's Divine Comedy.  Both Dante and Botticelli were from Florence, and there was a particular revival of interest in Dante in late fourteenth-century Florence.This was one of many illustrations Botticelli created to accompany a publication of Dante (ninety-two parchments have been found) and is exceptionally faithful to the text of Inferno.  This map is incredibly intricate and detailed, with each of the nine layers differentiated.  The piece also includes several specific episodes of Dante's journey, such as his meeting with Francesca da Remini and her lover Paolo in the second circle, and his encounter with the Minotaur.  An interesting aspect of the map is that it does not depict Hell at a particular moment, but instead is a continuous representation of Dante's descent with Virgil.  From their time in the Green Meadow to their final descent into lowest Cocytus, Dante and Virgil appear several times throughout the map.  This piece is an amazing representation of Dante's poem as well as a fascinating and masterfully complex image in and of itself.

There is an interactive map here that points out some of the specific episodes depicted.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, c2200 BCE

Naram-Sin was king of the Akkadian Empire ca. 2254-2218 BCE.  He was the fourth Akkadian king and grandson of Sargon, founder of the empire.  The Akkadian empire united the Sumerian and Semitic peoples, covering Mesopotamia, the Levant, and parts of Iran.  During Naram-Sin's reign the empire grew to its greatest extent and Naram-Sin was the first Mesopotamian king to claim divinity for himself.  This stele, created sometime during Naram-Sin's reign, shows the king in his divine status as he leads his army to victory over the Lullubians.  Naram-Sin appears far larger than anyone else and wearing a horned helmet that symbolized divinity.  The king ascends this mountain, literally crushing his enemies underfoot, while his army follows behind.  Every figure in this scene looks toward Naram-Sin, even a Lullubian on the far right who flees in terror and awe.  The order and discipline of Naram-Sin's army is contrasted with the chaos of the Lullubians who are shown in gruesome defeat (one man is thrown from the mountain while another has a spear in his neck).  Naram-Sin himself, in addition to his size, is depicted with nobility and strength; his pose is resolute and deliberate as he ascends toward the heavens to join the gods, represented here by the Star of Shamash, the sun god.  This monumental piece (about 6.5 feet tall) is the first known Mesopotamian monument to depict a continuous scene, rather than splitting the action into several horizontal registers.  The artist unified the action to commemorate the glory of Naram-Sin, just as Naram-Sin is shown as the universal monarch, known as "King of the Four Regions".

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Henry Fuseli, Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent

Henry Fuseli, Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent, 1790

Another mythological painting today, but shifting to Norse myth this time.  In this story Thor battles Jörmungand, the World Serpent, having hooked with an oxhead as bait.  Thor prepares to kill the serpent with his hammer Mjolnir, raised above his head but obscured by his cloak.  The giant Hymir (who cowers in the back of the boat) will soon cut Jörmungand free (for Jörmungand and Thor are destined to kill each other during Ragnarok). In the upper left corner, Odin watches the encounter from the clouds. 

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) was a Swiss painter who spent most of his life in England.  He taught at the Royal Academy in London and would come to have a significant influence on both German and English Romanticism, particularly William Blake.  This painting is a superb example of Fuseli's early Romanticism.  Thor is depicted as a Classical nude, in keeping with the convention of Neoclassicism, while the darkness churns around him and pervades every other element of the painting. The serpent twists and writhes in agony and fury while the sea churns around him.  Jörmungand was large enough to encircle the world, so one can imagine the waves it would create.  This famous painting is a beautifully intense depiction of this cosmic clash.  Particularly impressive are the rendering of waves and clouds, which are distinct from each other but united to frame the central incident.  The lighting also guides the eye toward Thor in his heroic pose, whereas the serpent's dark and muscular body begins to blend in with the sea, a representation of its vast size.  The piece epitomizes the extreme drama that will come to define much of the Romantic aesthetic.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Johannes Vermeer, A Maid Asleep

Johannes Vermeer, A Maid Asleep, 1657

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was one of the great Dutch Masters, especially known for his domestic interiors.  Vermeer had a relatively small output, and many of his paintings are quite famous, but this painting (also known as A Girl Asleep or A Woman Asleep) is a less well known work.  Vermeer is best known for his miraculous use of light and his realistic depictions of natural light.  Therefore I find the extent of shadow in this piece fascinating.  Certainly the maid is lighted compared to the wall above her, but she remains fairly darkened, especially when compared with some of Vermeer's other works.  To me this technique adds to the sedate nature of the scene.  The objects on the table allude to a social (or romantic) interaction that has recently concluded, leaving the subject in a thoroughly solitary state.  The level of detail given to every element of this painting is astounding; the woman's garment is incredibly textured, the tablecloth is meticulously patterned, and the modeling of the chair looks remarkably real.  That open door lends an air of slight mystery and suggests the world outside this room while keeping us firmly grounded in the scene before us.  Finally, the subject's face is beautifully shaped and shaded.  This paining is a masterpiece.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Robert Reid, Fleur de Lis

Robert Reid, Fleur de Lis, 1895-1900

Robert Reid (1862-1929) was an American painter and muralist.  Born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Reid studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and at the Art Students League in New York.  Reid was considered a decorative painter and found success in stained glass and mural commissions, such as at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 and in several government buildings.  Reid was also an accomplished portraitist and produced several paintings of women among flowers, such as this one.  Fleur de Lis is a beautiful piece with vibrant color and a compelling composition.  The subject seems to become one of the flowers, as her shawl has the same palette of purple and white. However this painting is not a simple bucolic scene in a flower patch; there is also a tension to this woman.  She has a rather intense expression as she gazes toward, or possibly past, these irises.  She looks rather sad, perhaps wistful, or maybe merely contemplative, but there is great energy in her face.  Her hands also suggest that she is not relaxed in the scene.  Her right hand, which rises like the flowers, holds her face in spread fingers but the pose does not seem natural to her; meanwhile her left hand is raised in the air, its purpose unfulfilled.  Is she eager to finish the sitting and leave these flowers?  Perhaps she is itching to reach out and pick one.  We cannot know what is happening behind those vivid blue eyes, but thanks to the subject's intensity, and the beauty of the scene, the painting is continually engaging.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

David Hockney, Winter Timber

David Hockney, Winter Timber, 2009

David Hockney (b.1937) is considered one of the most influential British artists of the twentieth century.  Hockney is a painter, printmaker, photographer, and stage designer, and he is best known for his significant contributions to Pop Art and for his open exploration of homosexuality.  In this more recent piece Hockney applies expressionist elements (which also feature in his early works) to the tradition of landscape painting with fascinating results.  This is an extremely large painting, roughly nine feet by twenty feet (consisting of fifteen separate 3x4 foot canvases) and the effect must be remarkable in person.  The number of trees, both felled and still standing, fills the canvas and gives a sense of tremendous scale and depth.  The extreme subjectivity of the colors gives the scene a dream-like quality.  The purple stump toward the right is almost anthropomorphized and gives the scene an extremely vibrant and quirky character.  Without a person in sight to collect these yellow logs stacked like so many french fries, they become simply another feature of the landscape and add to the odd complexity of this forest.  The leading lines are one of the most noteworthy features of the work; the yellow logs, blue trees, purple leaves, and pink path all stretch back into the distance giving that sense of depth and creating the sense of a forest we could wander through, always flanked by these astounding blue trees.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1639

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1658) was one of the most accomplished Italian Baroque painters.  One of the few (or only) women to achieve such success at the time, Gentileschi followed Caravaggio in depicting scenes of great drama and passion.  She was the first woman admitted to Florence's Accademia di Arte del Disegno.  This was a controversial painting in its day, containing progressive feminist themes.  It was quite common for abstract concepts such as the arts or virtues to be represented with female allegorical figures, but by making the painting both an allegory and a self-portrait Gentileschi positions herself as the paragon of artistic achievement.  However, this painting is not only about Gentileschi as an artist, but about women in general.  She uses the allegory as an empowering concept and demonstrates what women are capable of.  The painting itself is a stunning example of Baroque portraiture.  The first element that strikes me is the use of light: Gentileschi's face is perfectly lit, bright but realistic and the contour of her face is beautiful.  The dress is exquisitely rendered so that the folds of the fabric seems so real and the texture is almost tangible.  The dark background (a common technique in Baroque painting) also seems quite textured and real.  Gentileschi's expression shows her dedication to her work, for she has depicted herself in the midst of painting.  This piece is a beautiful demonstration of the artist's skill and conviction.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

John Constable, Seascape Study with Rain Cloud

John Constable, Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, 1828

John Constable (1776-1837) is famous for his scientific studies of clouds.  He was devoted to accuracy and catalogued the types of clouds.  This painting presents a different approach that I find quite fascinating.  At the edges of this mass of clouds we can see carefully rendered cumulus clouds, but the rainstorm that dominates the canvas is a mass of color and intensity.  Instead what Constable offers is a thoroughly Romantic scene where the dramatic impact of the storm takes precedence.  Constable's brushwork is very interesting, depicting the clouds while simultaneously implying the rain.  The ferocity of this Brighton storm is made more overpowering by comparison with the glimpses of sunlight that border it and attempt to peek through.  In this work Constable explores the Romantic preoccupation with the sublime, a certain existential awe in the face of the overwhelming power and grandeur of nature.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Joseph Zaritsky, Life on the Kibbutz

Joseph Zaritsky, Life on the Kibbutz, 1951

I have wanted to write about this painting for some time, but I haven't really known what to say about it.  It is a gorgeous work, and I am quite mesmerized by it, but beyond that I was at a loss.  I see lots of things in this painting.  Joseph Zaritsky (1891-1985) spent a few years living on the Yehiam Kibbutz.  A kibbutz is an agricultural commune attempting to create a small, utopian society and incorporating ideas of socialism and Zionism.  During his years there Zaritsky painted a series of watercolors which this abstract piece is derived from.  The canvas is dominated by these swaths of green, which could be depictions of grass or be a less literal representation of the importance of agriculture and the land in the society.  If I look at this painting long enough figures do start to emerge: what might be a mother and child hover near the center of the painting, and a horse is rearing on its hind legs just below and left of them.  On the right there may be a figure of a man, possibly the artist, as his hand seems to be raised and holding something that may be a paintbrush.

 I see these things, but they are afterthoughts.  These figures are not what effect me when I first see the painting; they are not what weighs on me as I consider it, and they are not what stays with me when I turn away.  Instead I see a meditation on Zartisky's place in the world, and on Israel's.  This was 1951 and Israel, only three years old, had not come into focus yet.  Zaritsky moved to Jerusalem from the Ukraine alone in 1923.  He was a powerful force in the art world there and an important promoter of modern art, both before and after the establishment of the Israeli state.  He was very connected to Israel and its significance for Jews.  When I look at this painting, what I really see is a yearning for the life that the Kibbutz strove for––peaceful and secure, worthwhile and deep, equal and perpetual.  These are the things many Jews hoped for in Israel, but the turbulence of the region and of Jewish life has not improved.  This painting is about the desperate efforts to bring peace and order to our world, to our kibbutz and the impact and beauty we feel in this painting is the expression of that dream.