Tag Archive: paintings

I  did not remember how much of an influence the painter Manet had on the Impressionists, most of whom he knew. I was reminded of this fact after listening to Christopher Moore’s excellent new book Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d’Art. The  author discussed these two paintings, Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia.  My favorite Manet painting is the The Bar at the Folies-Bergere, which I described in this post from last summer. In order to better explain Manet, I will give some background information on how paintings were exhibited in France in the nineteenth century.

The Academie des Beaux-Arts, or the School of Fine Arts, was the official school of French painting. It was established in 1671, and later merged with the Royal Schools of Painting and Sculpture, Music and Architecture in 1816. According to this website:

“The French Academy (as it is known in art history circles) decided on the ‘official’ art for France. It set the standards under the supervision of a select group of member artists, who were deemed worthy by their peers and the State. The Academy determined what was good art, bad art and even dangerous art! The French Academy protected French culture from ‘corruption’ by rejecting avant-garde tendencies among their students and those who submitted to the annual Salon.”

Famous French painters such as David and Ingres were both members of the Academy. The traditional artwork of the Academy took a  classical approach to paintings, especially in regard to subject matter and technique. The Realists, and later the Impressionists, did not want to be part of the official Salon. In fact, this was one of the reasons why the  Impressionists were such a crazy departure from the norm of French art. The French Realism movement (1840 – 1870s), “was based on direct observation of the modern world. Realists recorded in often gritty detail the present-day existence of humble people, paralleling related trends in the naturalist literature of Émile Zola, Honoré de Balzac, and Gustave Flaubert.” Famous painters from this movement included Gustave Courbet and Jean-Francois Millet.

Edouard Manet was the bridge between the Realist painters and the Impressionists. Though during his lifetime, he considered himself to be a Realist painter, he has been called the father of Impressionism (though he never joined the movement). Manet did not coin the term “Impressionism“; that was taken from a 1872 Monet painting where he used “quick, visible brushstrokes of unblended color, which was adopted as a stylistic hallmark of the movement.” But let’s back up a few years to talk about the Salon des Refuses. In 1863, the French Academy rejected  over half of the 2,000+ painting submissions it received for the Salon (the annual exhibition given by the Academy) which ended up in a separate exhibit called “The Salon des Refuses,” or the Salon of the Refused, being created to display all the work that the Academy deemed unfit. Manet submitted Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) to the Academy that year and it was rejected, but made it into the Salon des Refuses, where it caused a humongous scandal.

The Luncheon on the Grass by Edouard Manet,  1863


The painting was supposedly denied to the original Salon of 1863 due to it being too immoral, the then-emperor Napolean III saying “It offends against modesty.” It is interesting to note that the artist considered the nude to be worthy of painting because it was the way to gain fame within the Salon. He originally titled the painting The Bath. Manet wanted to do the nude a different way and, according to this article,

“was clear that he meant to include the people who bathed in the Seine.  These would have been the urban poor who had no other recourse for cleanliness or recreation than the city’s river. Manet was also familiar with Giorgione’s Fête champêtre  (1508), a country or rustic scene with a theme of humans living in harmony with nature.  Apparently, Manet combined the ideal rustic scene with the actual and current way in which ordinary people used nature.”

He was also influenced by Raphael’s drawing The Judgment of Paris, which he most likely had seen from the engraving done by Marcantonio Raimondi. The right bottom grouping of people are the ones he modeled his figures after. In his painting, Manet showed two fully clothed men, most likely students or artists, and one completely nude woman in front with another female bathing in her undergarments in the background. He used Victorine Meurent as the model for both this painting and Olympia, however, as it is explained in this article, “it is clear that it is her head in the painting but it is definitely not her lithe body; it is more likely that the [nude] body belongs to the more curvaceous and ‘love-handled’ Suzanne Leenhof, his wife.”

Not only was it taboo for the woman to be naked with two clothed men, she’s also staring straight out at the viewer. It’s also interesting that the two men seem to be paying no attention to her whatsoever and are in the middle of a vigorous discussion. According to the Musee D’Orsay (where the painting now resides),

“The presence of a nude woman among clothed men is justified neither by mythological nor allegorical precedents. This, and the contemporary dress, rendered the strange and almost unreal scene obscene in the eyes of the public of the day. The painting became the principal attraction [of the Salon des Refuses], generating both laughter and scandal.”

I’m never quite sure if the nude woman is a prostitute or just very confident. Scholars disagree on this point as well. I think, as others have suggested that the women are instead highlighting the prostitution problem in Paris’s parks, a topic that was not discussed in public. If you go off of Christopher Moore’s interpretation, the nude woman just had her way with the two men who are now just going about their day.


Olympia, which was shown two years later in the actual Salon, caused even more scandal. According to PBS, which produced a documentary on the painting, “Many scholars believe that Olympia was admitted to the Salon because jurors didn’t want to be accused of censorship following the strong negative reaction to Déjeuner. Instead, they decided to expose the artist and his work to the wrath of the real critics — the public. As expected, Manet was vilified by Salon-goers. Guards have to be stationed next to it to protect it, until it is moved to a spot high above a doorway, out of reach.”

Manet used one of Titian’s most famous pieces, Venus of Urbino, as well as Goya’s Maja Desnuda as his guide in creating Olympia. The woman in Manet’s painting is a courtesan, and she is portrayed as a real woman of the time period and not as an idealized female, as women were usually portrayed in French Academic art. To better understand the difference between a common prostitute and a courtesan, check this link. In both The Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, the nude woman stares directly at the viewer. However, in this  painting, it is in a faintly disinterested way as if to say “This is what I am, what of it?” Her black servant has brought her a bouquet of flowers from a client but she isn’t even paying attention to it. She lies on top of a embroidered Oriental shawl and a little black cat at the end of the bed. It wasn’t only the subject matter that disturbed the public and art critics, but also the way Manet handled the paint. “Rejecting his traditional art training, Manet chose instead to paint with bold brush strokes, implied shapes, and vigorous, simplified forms.” He contrasts the bright body of the nude courtesan and the white sheets of her bed, with the complete darkness of the rest of the room. All in all both paintings were ones that challenged the Academy and the way the French people looked at art, and paved the way for the Impressionists.

I first posted about Rembrandt back in July, but I had so much material, I decided to do two separate posts. In the first one, I covered a basic life story and featured paintings that described the man himself, namely a self-portrait (he completed more than 90), and paintings of his wife Saskia, son Titus and common-law wife Hendrickje. These three are probably my favorite paintings by the artist. I will describe them chronologically by date produced.

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630


I first discovered this painting in the gift shop of the Rijksmuseum, when I had gone back at age twenty-one to further explore the museum. My first trip was very rushed as we were part of a tour group, but for the second trip I was on my own and could take my time. I am a little embarrassed to say I don’t think I actually knew it was by Rembrandt, but just liked the look of it, especially the chiaroscuro aspects of it (the way the artist paints the light and darkness to explain the subject matter). According to the Bible, Jeremiah prophesied about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, which resulted in the beginning of the Babylonian Exile of the Jewish people. It is crazy to think that this painting was done when the painter was only 24 years old, as it shows a level of maturity not only in the subject matter but the way he handles it.

In the painting, as the title suggests, Jeremiah is upset over the destruction of Jerusalem, something he foretold but no one listened to him (rather like Cassandra during the Trojan War). The city of Jerusalem burns in the background of the painting. He leans on a Bible or what might be the Book of Jeremiah or the Book of Lamentations, and it is supporting him. He has managed to secure a few of the holy relics that were kept in the Temple of Solomon, seen burning in the background. To get a glimpse into the mind of the prophet, I found this website which seems to best describes it: “Jeremiah had failed as a prophet of the Lord to convince his people of the city’s destruction and was punished for it by the king. Though the fault was not his, the guilt must have weighted heavily on his mind. The guilt and the pain of a failed prophet was revealed in this painting.”

The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenhurch , 1642

 The Night Watch - Rembrandt

As I have said in the previous post, I first saw this painting when I was sixteen on my first remembered trip to Europe. I was in awe of its size at first glance (nearly 12 x 14 ft), though it was many years and Baroque art history class before I could actually tell you anything of consequence about the painting. The title it is known most often by isThe Night Watch, which is ironic, as the original painting was not set during night-time but the day.  A dark varnish had been applied for most of its life, due to the brown that Rembrandt was found of using, and that combined with several hundred years of dirt had made it appear dark.

The painting shows a group portrait of a city militia led by Captain Frans Banning Cocq, who was also the mayor of Amsterdam. According to this Guardian post,

“Companies of urban militia were part of the everyday life of the Dutch Republic, as it asserted its independence from the Spanish empire. Instead of a distinguished company of worthy officers and well-trained men Rembrandt shows a baroque profusion of gestures and expressions, a raggle taggle crowd of comic types from an old soldier hunched over his gun to the preening figures of the militia captain and his lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch. Rembrandt’s masterpiece in modern times has come to epitomize Dutch national pride.”

The piece was commissioned by the Captain and 17 members of his guard. There were more members of the company of men, but only 18 paid, so they were featured in the painting. Rembrandt added an additional 16 figures to make the scene more animated. According to this page, ironically by the time the painting was completed, watches were no longer needed. “Their meetings had been diverted chiefly to social or sporting purposes; if they may be said to have any particular destination in the painting, it is perhaps to march into the fields for a shooting contest or to take part in a parade.” The painting was originally placed in the Kloveniersdoelen, or the headquarters of the Arquebusiers (Musket-bearing civic guard) in Amsterdam. It was later moved in 1715 to Amsterdam’s Town Hall and it was then that the painting was damaged and two figures on the left side were cut off to make sure the painting would fit. It eventually ended up in the newly finished Rijksmuseum in 1885 and has remained there ever since.

The painting is unique as it was “by far the most revolutionary painting Rembrandt had yet made, transforming the traditional Dutch group portrait into a dazzling blaze of light, color and motion, and subordinating the requirements of orthodox portraiture to a far larger, more complex but still unified whole.” The men in the painting are shown in action, in the middle of getting ready for a patrol. You can almost hear the men shouting, the drums being played, the dog barking and muskets being loaded as everyone prepares. The Captain is featured in the center of the painting in dark clothing and a red sash, with hand outstretched. His lieutenant is dressed in yellow with a white sash.  Yellow was seen as the color of victory, which is completely different than its connotations nowadyas. Rembrandt reportedly placed himself in the painting in the center, to the left behind the Captain. The man immediately to Rembrandt’s left is holding up the company’s colors with the flags. There is a dog  to the right of the lieutenant, though he may be hard to see, as part of the dog is on the spot where the painting was attacked in 1975 and there was a zigzag rip in the piece. The little girl bathed in golden light to the left of the captain is a bit of a mystery. Some believe that she is the mascot of the company, as she is shown with, according to this Wikipedia article “the claws of a dead chicken on her belt represent the clauweniers (arquebusiers); the pistol behind the chicken stands for ‘clover’; and, she is holding the militia’s goblet.” Some believe that Rembrandt’s wife Saskia was used as a model for the girl, and I must say that there is a resemblance. I can’t say for sure if this is true as she died the same year the painting was completed.

To learn more about this piece, check out this CNN article. To check one way that The Night Watch has influenced popular culture is to check out this flashmob created by the Rijksmuseum called “Our Heroes Are Back” done at a Dutch shopping mall in April 2013. I thought this was a great idea, especially as it was highlighting the reopening of the museum (after its’ 10 year remodeling closure from 2003-2013). I wish people would do things like this in American shopping centers to celebrate art.

The Jewish Bride, c. 1665-1669


This painting is known as one of the greatest portraits ever created, and is one of the best the Rembrandt painted in the final years of his life. It is not actually known who the painting is supposed to depict, but most art historians believe the painting to be a couple portrait with the figures representing Isaac and Rebecca from the Old Testament. According to this website  (which quotes the Rijksmuseum – where the painting resides):

“The painting became known as the ‘Jewish Bride’ in the early 19th century after the Amsterdam art collector, Van der Hoop, identified the subject of the painting as a Jewish father hanging a necklace around his daughter’s neck on her wedding day. In light of this interpretation, several scholars claim the couple could be figures from the bible, perhaps Isaac and Rebecca (having masked the true nature of their relationship to the Philistine king Abimelech), Jacob and Rachel, Judah and Tamar or Boaz and Ruth, or a variety of figures from the New Testament and the Apocrypha.” For more information on whether or not The Jewish Bride is actually Jewish or not, check out the above link.

On to the content of the painting itself. I will admit that the first time I saw this painting, I thought it was a little pervy. Is he coping a feel, putting a necklace on or pledging his love to her by placing his hand over her heart? Having studied art history in past and more to the point, Baroque art, especially Rembrandt’s work, I would go for the final answer. My interpretation is backed up by this website which says, “The man places his hand on the woman’s bosom, while she moves instinctively to protect her modesty, in keeping with the new aesthetics of Protestant Reformation Art (c.1520-1700). Yet both show every sign of tenderness towards each other, so this is hardly a typical seduction scene.”

Whoever the subjects of the painting were in real life, they are obviously very well off, as exemplified by the rich reds and golds used. According to this website: “Rembrandt used a palette knife instead of a brush to apply the gold on the man’s sleeve with thick strokes which reflect the light, and in the woman’s red dress some parts are laid on so thickly that the paint itself creates light and shadow. The man’s coat consists of several layers of paint not only applied but also scratched and scraped to give the effect of cloth of gold.”

I’m naming this one part two, as I have previously posted on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s work in this post. Now the reason I have decided to do another art post on them is because frankly I’ve been kind of obsessed lately. I recently read a biography on Lizzie Siddal, who modeled for the Brotherhood and eventually married Rossetti. I enjoyed the book so much that I’m currently reading another book entitled Pre-Raphaelites in Love, which is a crappy title for a well-researched book on the relationships of the Brotherhood. Today I was trying to find a substitute cover image for my Facebook page as Banned Books Week ended Saturday, and thought I would like a Pre-Raphaelite painting. As I was browsing, I discovered that Tate Britain, the art gallery where I originally saw the Brotherhood’s paintings all those years ago, was doing an exhibition on the paintings that is running from now until mid January 2013 (am definitely jealous that I can’t go and check it out).

I ended up settling on an Edward Burne-Jones painting called Laus Veneris. I had never heard of it, but I thought the colors were gorgeous. Apparently the painting is based off a poem by Algeron Charles Swinburne (a friend of the PRB). The title translates as “the praise of Venus or love,” and is the story of a young knight who falls in love with the goddess Venus and stays with her until he feels guilty and wants to repent, so he asks the Pope for forgiveness. According to this website, “The Pope declares it impossible, just as impossible as his papal staff blossoming. Three days after the knight returns to Vienna, the Pope’s staff supposedly bloomed with flowers, but he never learns of this divine miracle and spends his life in damnation.” The weird thing about this painting is that we see it from the point of view of a woman, Venus in this case, and not from the  man, as in Swinburne’s poem. Burne-Jones was no stranger to having strong women his paintings, especially in depicting Venus, which he did in several of his paintings. According to the above website, Burne-Jones’s painting is described with “the same mood of sadness, particularly in the eyes and the languid gesture of the love-sick queen. The painter depicts her beautifully attired in flame colored robes with a golden crown on her lap, yet her sad and pale expression contrasts her splendor. She reclines wearily in her bower, the “palace in the mountain,” hung with an elaborate tapestry embroidered with love tales of olden times, featuring Venus on a chariot. Four maidens sit by her side with open scrolls of music, singing praises of love to cheer her up. Behind the figures and through the open window, there are five knights who seem to pause and listen, intruigued by the scene.” So it is the tapestry within the painting that tells us of the Laus Veneris story and not the actual figures themselves.

Edward Burne-Jones Laus Veneris, 1873-78

One of the things I always found fascinating about the Pre-Raphaelites was that despite the fact that their subject matter was primarily medieval or classical in nature and usually had some sort of religious or moralistic theme, the members themselves were far from chaste. The Brotherhood called the women who sat for them as models, “Stunners,” and they were always on the look out for the next one. Several of the artists married their models, such as Rossetti to Lizzie Siddal (though he begrudgingly did it after waiting 8 years and having many affairs with other women and models in the meantime, like Jane Burden who was married to William Morris and they carried out an affair in the same house while living together). Ford Madox Brown, who was not officially a member of the PRB, but was a close friend of many of the members including Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal, married his model Emma after fathering a child with her.  Rossetti also had an affair with his model Fanny Cornforth. John Everett Millais married Effie Gray, who had previously been married to art critic and supporter of the PRB, John Ruskin, but had a big public messy annulment after it was acknowledged that he never consummated the marriage. William Holman Hunt “rescued” the barmaid Annie Miller with a view to eventually turning him into his wife after using her as his model. Several other members in the Brotherhood used her as a model as well. Hunt’s master plan didn’t work out as he kept leaving on trips to the Middle East to get better lighting for his paintings. He left her at home where she slept around with Rossetti and possibly more artists. I found this article awhile back on Annie Miller, which explains a bit more about what happened and features paintings that she was featured in.

Another model of Rosetti was Alexa Wilding, who may be, according to the Kissed Mouth blog: “the most important models in Rossetti’s artist career.  According to the research of Jennifer Lee (I urge you to seek out her thesis on line), Alexa sat for more completed works than any other model, he painted over the features of Fanny Cornforth with Alexa’s more commercial face, and she managed to embody all things for the artist, from goddess to demon and all points in between.” According to the blog post, there is no evidence to suggest that they may have been lovers. One of my favorite paintings featuring Ms. Wilding is La Ghirlandata, or The Lady of the Wreath. The centralized figure playing a harp is Alexa Wilding, but the top two figures, which are angels listening in, were modeled off Jane & William Morris’s 10 year old daughter, May.  According to the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood blog:

La Ghirlandata was painted at Kelmscott Manor after a period of great difficulty for Rossetti — he had attempted suicide earlier that year (1872). Morris stayed away, but his wife Jane – with whom Rossetti was in love – was there. The honeysuckle and roses around the top of the harp in this picture indicate sexual attraction, while the harp itself represents music – a common metaphor for love and lovemaking. His intense use of colour creates a brooding, melancholy mood, while the picture’s symbolism – though unclear – may reflect his emotional condition at this time. Rossetti’s brother later claimed that he had intended ‘a fateful or deathly purport’ by painting the dark blue poisonous monkshood in the foreground, but by mistake he had painted its harmless relative the larkspur instead.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – La Ghirlandata, 1873

Artful Saturday: Absinthe

I’ve not been feeling very creative lately, but I finally got some inspiration from a short documentary I found entitled Absinthe, from 2010, directed by Chris Buddy. I’m about halfway through with it, but it was a very interesting story. Absinthe was started in the late 1790s by a peasant woman in SW Switzerland who created an herbal elixir, which became a popular regional drink and still is to this day. Authentic Absinthe has grande wormwood in it, the ingredient which eventually got it banned in many countries for containing thujone, which people thought caused madness (it didn’t). It was used by the French military during their campaigns in Algeria in the early 1840s and given out with water to prevent dysentery and malaria. After these soldiers came back from the war, they wanted the drink at home and that’s how the drink became popular in French cafes.

In order to drink absinthe, you would pour a glass like you see in the pic above, put a slotted spoon on top of it with a sugar cube and pour water over it, melting the sugar. When you do this, you get an opalescent greenish-yellow color, that everyone associates with Absinthe. Pernod is one of the oldest and still operating brands of the alcohol. The way you add water to it remind me of ouzo, the ultra-strong Greek liquor. The first place I ever saw Absinthe was in Prague in 2002, when it was still illegal to own it in the States (the US ban was from 1912 – 2007). I’ve never drank it before but was always curious about it.

According to this website, “The late 19th-century absinthe boom coincided with the widespread adoption of the large lithographic poster as a potent advertising and artistic medium. Absinthe posters are some of the most widely reproduced Art Nouveau images, and are especially sought after by modern-day absinthe drinkers.” Posters like two below are still popular today.

Maurin Quina’s Green Devil poster, 1906

Privet-Livemount’s Absinthe Robette poster, 1896

In addition to advertising art, some pretty major art came from absinthe drinkers. The height of Absinthe popularity was from 1870s – 1910s, right about the time that the Impressionists were creating some pretty amazing art. Some of the artists and poets that were swigging the “Green Fairy,” as the drink has also been called,  included Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, Degas, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec. For info on these and other famous absinthe drinkers, check out this website. I have previously talked about van Gogh on this blog, as he is one of my favorite artists ever. Edouard Manet paved the way for the Impressionists, at least as far as painting urban landscapes and the contemporary café scene. This sort of thing was unheard of during that time period. One of Manet’s most famous and last painting The Bar at the Folies-Bergere, shows exactly what life in a cafe-bar was like. This was where I saw my first bottle of Bass Pale Ale, as pictured in the left and right corners of the bar top. According to this newspaper writer’s archive page on the painting, “But attention is inevitably distracted from this enticing array of consumer drinkables by the devastating expression on the barmaid’s face. She looks up with weary detachment, ready to take another order; but behind her mask of forced, professional impassivity there is an expression of infinite sadness.” That is one of the reasons I have always found this painting to be so interesting. I had no idea, but I’m not surprised at the following idea (given the time period) also taken from the previous source: “Bar staff were hired for their attractiveness and encouraged to maximise turnover by flirting with the clientele. They acquired a reputation for doing rather more than flirting, which may explain why so many of the critics who wrote about Manet’s painting when it was first shown assumed that the barmaid was also a covert prostitute.”

Edouard Manet, The Bar at Folies-Bergere, 1882

I’ve always found Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to be an intriguing character and the fact that he drank absinthe and that it contributed to his interesting paintings, is no surprise. Because of aristocratic inbreeding, he had health problems and only grew to about 5 ft tall. This Post-Impressionist was another urban painter who liked to paint scenes like the Moulin Rouge, the Ballet, brothels, racetracks and scenes in and around Montmartre where he lived. Apparently van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec were good friends, after they met in Parisin 1886, where Vincent had moved to be with his brother Theo. According to this website: “For two years they painted and exhibited together, influencing each other’s work, but in February 1888, on Lautrec’s advice, Van Gogh moved to the south of France.” When he created this pastel portrait of van Gogh in 1887, you can see the influence of Absinthe in the work, by the yellows and greens that he uses, plus the fact that Vincent is actually drinking the alcohol in the picture.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, 1887

Vincent Van Gogh did drink Absinthe, but it did not make him go mad like some people assume, though a family history of mental illness helped with that tremendously.  Malnutrition and an excess of smoking didn’t help his bad health any either. His drinking of Absinthe contributed in a way to his painting style, which can be seen in works like The Starry Night and The Night Cafe, in the way there are yellow halos around the lights and stars. It is true that some scholars say the reasoning behind this is epilepsy, not absinthe, but van Gogh scholars are not 100% agreed upon the exact conditions that he had. I think he was definitely bi-polar and probably had lead poisoning too, which may or may not have been the reason for the excessive use of yellow in his paintings.

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, The Night Cafe on the Place Lamartine, 1888

I’m sorry for not writing this week. Things have been rather crazy at home and work this week, and I’ve not had the time to post. I’m hoping to make things up a bit with this post, as it is on two of my favorite subjects, art and history. This week, I started watching the 2011 TV series Borgia, about the Italian Renaissance Spanish family, the Borgias. I knew something of the family before watching the series, but I must say that this show has seriously peaked my interest again in the Italian Renaissance. I will admit that normally I lean toward the Northern Renaissance in art (this will be a future post), but I also understand the importance of the Italian one, which is the one most people remember because of great artists like Michelangelo, Botticelli, da Vinci and others. I have had the good fortune to live in Italy for a few months when I was an undergraduate, and it was amazing. Not only because of the food (which cannot compare at all to American Italian, trust me), but because of the art, architecture and history of this great country. I stayed in Siena for 3 weeks and Florence for 3 months, and traveled around the country as I was able. Although I love Firenze, Rome I think is my favorite city in Italy (although I will admit, I like the food better in Florence).  The history and artwork in the Eternal City is just so amazing. You have Roman ruins right next to Baroque palaces, and those are right next to modern buildings. It sounds crazy, but it works. I have been to Vatican City, so seeing it in the show made me think of Michelangelo and all the work he did in St. Peter’s. Granted the show is about 40 or so years before he worked on the basilica himself, but he did do a lot of church commissions, so I figured it would be a good link for this week. Well that and I’m reading a book about his most famous sculpture David, as seen through the eyes of the model he used.

Because I was based in Florence, I was able to see a lot of the work Michelangelo completed for the city, as well as Casa Buonarrotti, where the artist lived and worked during his lifetime. The first time I saw a Michelangelo was in Paris, not Italy. I had gone to the Louvre as part of a summer abroad program in high school called People to People Student Ambassadors. In the Louvre, I saw his Bound Slave and Dying Slave sculptures. I was fascinated by these works of art. I discovered later, as it is explained on this website, that these pieces “were conceived of the figure as being imprisoned in the stone, as in his Third Captive piece. By removing the excess stone, the form was released.” The next Michelangelo piece that I saw was in Bruges, Belgium in the Church of Our Lady. This piece was the only one to reside in the northwest of Europe during the lifetime of the artist. According to this website, “The man who would later become pope Pius III (who only ruled 26 days in late 1503) commissioned Michelangelo in 1501 to create a set of 15 sculptures for the Siena cathedral. Michelangelo accepted but never finished the assignment. This finished sculpture was acquired in 1504 by a Bruges merchant, whose family gave it to the city in 1516.” It is a gorgeous sculpture, and as the webpage mentions, the model for this work and the Virgin in the Pieta, must be the same.

Madonna with Child, 1501

When Michelangelo was 13, he caught the attention of Lorenzo de’ Medici, aka Lorenzo the Magnificent. He was invited to join the household of the family and studied in their sculpture gardens. It must’ve been an amazing place to work and grow up, as Lorenzo’s household was a center for learning and famous humanists and poets of the day congregated at his house. When he was 16, he created the marble relief sculpture of The Battle of the Centaurs. The piece is so full of energy and movement, with the Lapiths and the Centaurs fighting each other, and it seems to come alive when you look at it. This story was taken from a Greek myth, which was told by one of the poets living in the de’Medici palace. For a more detailed description of the piece, please check out this page.

Battaglia dei Centauri (The Battle of the Centaurs), 1490-92

One of my favorite pieces of Michelangelo’s is Moses, from Julius II’s tomb in San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains). I have seen it and it is quite impressive, much in the same way that his most famous statue David is impressive (though David is taller, at over 14 ft, the statue itself being 9 ft). It was one of a series of six sculptures completed for Pope Julius II’s tomb, though the original plan was to do over 40 sculptures. Julius II was the pope after the Borgia pope, Alexander VI. Moses is depicted as the great Lawgiver with the Ten Commandments in hand. He has horns coming out of the top of his head, which comes from a misinterpretation from the Bible during the Renaissance. The translation came across as Moses had “horns of light” instead of “rays of light”, in reference to the way Moses glowed after he came down from Mount Sinai, after being given the Ten Commandments by God.

Moses from the Tomb of Julius II, c. 1515

The final work I would like to discuss is another of Michelangelo’s most famous pieces, The Last Judgement. Although the entire Sistine Chapel is gorgeous, this painting was what I had come to see when I visited the Vatican. I had written a paper on the the work for the Italian Renaissance art class I was taking, so I was excited to see it in person. It is enormous, covering an entire wall, and according to this webpage “was the largest ever painted in that century.” The painting, which depicts Judgement Day, also known as the Second Coming of Christ, was proposed by Pope Clement VII and after his death the commission was extended by his predeccesor, Paul III Farnese. It is interesting to note that the artwork was proposed after the French sacked Rome, which was seen as a sort of Judgement Day in and of itself. The painting caused a great scandal when it was revealed due to Michelangelo’s propensity for painting nude figures. I am especially amused by the following quote from Biago de Cesena, the Vatican Master of Ceremonies, who had this to say about the work (as quoted from the previous webpage) “it was mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns.” Michelangelo had his revenge by depicting Biago as a demon in the painting itself, in the extreme bottom right corner. The nudity, however did not bother the pope until the Council of Trent, who had condemned nudity in religious art,  met 24 years after the fresco was completed that and the nudity was covered up by artist Daniele da Volterra (who was later nicknamed Braghettone, or “The Breeches Maker”).

The painting shows Christ the Judge in the center of the painting, deciding which souls will go to heaven and which to hell. Below him, according to this webpage are “angels blowing trumpets and the Archangel Michael reads from the book of souls to be saved. The larger book on the right contains a list of the damned destined for hell.” Michelangelo snuck himself into the painting as the flayed skin held by Saint Bartholomew (how he was martyred) directly belowed Christ. To the immediate right of Jesus is St Peter holding the keys to heaven, and is a portrait of Michelangelo’s patron Pope Paul III. Further down on the right (in the green dress) is Saint Catherine of Alexandria holding the instrument of her intended martyrdom, what is called the breaking wheel or later the Catherine wheel. The bottom right of the painting shows the boatman Charon, who ferried the dead over the River Styx in Greek mythology, is now taking them to hell. The bottom left shows the dead rising again so they can ascend into heaven.

The Last Judgement, 1534-41

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