History as Seen through the Dutch Still-Life


Still-life painting rose to new popularity in the 17th century, as the Protestant Netherlands broke away from the Catholic Church the use of religious subject matter was coming to an end in Dutch art.  At that time minor categories of painting such as still-life were explored more fully. 

Still-lives tell us a lot about history without the standard elements of a narrative painting.  They provide a context for seeing the influence that specific historical events had on culture.  For the contemporary Dutch artist “Still-Life” was too broad a term, instead each sub-genre had its own name, let’s look at four of these.

Floral Still-Life, Rachel Ruysch, 1704
Floral Still-Lives
The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602 and Amsterdam  had a 21 year monopoly on trade with Asia.  New flowers were brought to Holland and these were a symbol of Dutch pride as they were obtained through the power of trade.  Every flower had its own symbolic meaning, flowers in painting were chosen for their symbols and not their appearance.  Look carefully, no two flowers are the same as they would be in a bouquet, in fact such arrangements would be impossible as the flowers were in bloom at different times of the year.

Floral still-lives were still popular a century after the Dutch East India Company was founded as can be seen in this work by Rachel Ruysch.  Ruysch worked in a dramatic and dynamic way and painted with startling realism.  Bees and butterflies had a significance which tied into a theme symbolizing Christianity.  The bee represented the Passion, its stinger referencing Christ’s crown of thorns.  The butterfly represented the resurrection and also the soul.  Flowers themselves embodied the fleeting nature of life, from buds and blooms to those that drooped and withered.

Breakfast Painting
Another sub-genre of still-life consisted of simple fare typical of a Dutch meal, known as breakfast paintings.  Food was shown on a table with a dark background and a monochromatic color scheme, such as this work by Clara Peeters. This particular type of painting became very popular in Haarlem.  Foods shown in breakfast paintings were Dutch staples and reminded viewers to follow moderation in all things. 
Breakfast Still-life with Bread, Cheese and Cherries, Clara Peeters

In the early 17th century many foreign foods weren’t available, unlike the beer, bread, butter and cheeses that the Netherlands was famous for.  Herring and seafood were readily accessible and it was herring that the Dutch founded their trading companies on.  These local foods also signified patriotism and Dutch Pride.

Contemporary audiences would have seen countless symbolic messages . For example in this Still Life by Pieter Claesz there is a religious meaning, the fish was a symbol for Christ and the bread and wine for the Eucharist.  
Breakfast Still-Life, Pieter Claesz 

The Vanitas Painting
In Latin Vanitas means vanity and the Vanitas painting uses symbols to reflect on mortality.  The message for the viewer was a reminder that while earthly life is fleeting, your soul is eternal. 

While variations of the Vanitas had been used for centuries, its rise in Dutch art coincided after troubling times.  The Twelve Years Truce with Spain ended in 1621 and much of the next decade was spent under siege.  In 1624 a plague swept through Holland claiming nearly 10,000 lives, it returned in 1635 and struck most heavily in Leiden where 14,000 people died.  Possibly due to this Leiden become the center of this sub-genre.  
Vanitas, Pieter Claesz

The Vanitas became increasing popular in the 1620’s and went from metaphorical to an allegory of death.  Symbols of mortality included: skulls, bones, extinguished candles, timepieces, doused oil lamps and empty hourglasses. Pieter Claesz specialized in the Vanitas genre.

Independence of the Netherlands and the Banquet Still-Life
In the 2nd half of the 17th century there was a clear transformation in style as still-lives moved to elaborate banquet paintings.  1648 marked the year when the Peace of Westphalia treaty was enacted and peace was restored.  The Netherlands were finally recognized after eighty years of war with Spain as an independent country.  This time of prosperity was reflected through the still-life, and objects went from simple to exotic and luxurious.  The banquet painting replaced the Vanitas in popularity and demand, especially in Amsterdam. 
Still-Life with Lobster and Nautilus Shell, De Heem

The Dutch West India Company was founded and given a trade monopoly with the Americas in 1621.  In the 17th century Amsterdam became the largest trading port in the world.  In general the Dutch enjoyed a higher standard of living and owning a still-life which represented the source of this wealth was desirable.  

In the 21st century we have such a wide array of goods at our fingertips that the scarcity of these objects in the 17th century Netherlands isn’t instantly recognizable.  The following is a list of where these goods came from-
From the Mediterranean: salt, wine, lemons, grapes and almonds.  From Asia: oranges, pepper, spices and tea.  From the Americas: tobacco, sugar, coffee and tropical fruit and birds.  In addition there was an incredible array of commodities: silver from France, glassware from Venice and from Asia porcelain, carpets and silk.

During each year more of these goods became available and thanks to the Dutch they were brought all over Europe.  This successful story of trade has been told in countless still-life paintings painted in the Dutch Golden Age.
Still life with fruit, roast, silver and glassware, porcelain and columbine cup, van Beyeren

Note: This blog is an excerpt from the paper I presented in October 2010 at the 7th Annual 
Northwest World History Association Conference, Objects and Their Meanings: 400 Years of 
History As Seen Through the Still-Life.

Another excerpt from this paper can be found in another blog post-
The Still-Lives of Meléndez and Goya

Suggested further reading on this subject:
Berger Hochstrasser, Julie. Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age. New Haven, CT and London, UK: Yale  University Press, 2007.

Ebert-Schifferer, Sybille. Still Life: A History. Translated by Russell Stockman. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

Herzog, Hans-Michael. ed. The Art of the Flower: The Floral Still Life from the 17th to the 20thCentury. Bielefeld, Germany: Kunsthalle Bielefeld press, 1996.

Sander, Jochen. ed. The Magic of Things: Still Life Painting 1500-1800. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Stadel Museum, 2008.

Female Painters of the Italian Renaissance

Due to a variety of factors there were far fewer female artists than male in Italy during the Renaissance, but there were definitely several important women painters.  As most artists in the Renaissance were trained as part of an apprenticeship living with the master, it wouldn't have been a suitable atmosphere for a very young woman to live and train in.  Most young artist began an apprenticeship between the ages of 12-14 and typically female artists were trained by their fathers, husbands or other family members.

Unfortunately today their names aren’t often well known and I would like to briefly introduce the work and lives of three such important Italian female painters to my blog readers, we will look at them in chronological order.


The Chess Game, Sofonisba Anguissola, 1555, Museum Navrodwe, Poznan, Poland
Sofonisba Anguissola (15321625) was born and raised in the Lombardy region and was predominantly a portrait painter, during her life she lived at the court in Spain.  Anguissola was unusual in that she wasn't trained by a family member.  Instead her wealthy and well educated father wanted each of his seven children to be fully educated.  They were trained in painting, music, foreign language and literature and Anguissola was recognized right away to have a natural talent for painting.  Her father even had some correspondence with Michelangelo regarding her art.

She traveled to Sicily (both Lombardy and Sicily were under Spanish rule at the time) before being appointed to the Spanish Royal Court.  Anguissola appears to be the first artist who created a group portrait (such as the one above) where the sitters were shown immersed in daily activity.  Observe her clever take on the self-portrait (below) called Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola from the late 1550's.  This both showed her own self-portrait and showed the fact that a well known artist had painted her.

Sofonisba Anguissola lived to the age of 97.


Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, Anguissola, late 1550's, 


Portrait of a Noblewoman, Lavinia Fontana, 1580, National Museum of Women in the Arts,
Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) was a Bolognese painter, and the city of Bologna provided unique opportunities for women.  The University of Bologna was one of the first in Europe and women were able to study a variety of subjects there.  Lavinia Fontana trained with her father, Prospero Fontana, among his other students was the famous Ludovico Caracci.  Later the Caracci family opened the Accademia degli Incamminati in 1580, which was one of the first art schools and helped secure a new fame for Bolognese artists.  Fontana married and had many children, however in a reversal of typical roles her husband became her studio assistant and was the main caretaker for their children.  

Fontana was a successful and highly sought after painter in Bologna and her art supported the family with numerous commissions.  After a prominent Cardinal from Bologna was made Pope, she and her family moved to Rome and she continued a successful painting practice there.

As a painter Fontana was known for her use of  Venetian coloring, and dramatic and naturalistic subjects, she painted both portraits and large-scale religious scenes. 



Still-Life with Apples and Peaches, Fede Galizia, 1607, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fede Galizia (1578–1630) was a Milanese still-life painter.  After the Reformation of the church, many painters in Northern, Protestant countries turned away from religious painting and some of the less important subcategories of painting such as still-live and landscape became more popular.  This then had an effect on all painting as Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain also developed a tradition of still-life painting.  Moving away from narrative and figurative work gave women more of a chance to practice art.  As it was, women would not be permitted to practice drawing from a male nude model in a life drawing class, thus making it much harder to paint accurate looking figures.


 Galizia's father was a well known miniaturist painter, and from him Galizia learned to paint a variety of subjects and genres, including also painting miniatures and portraits.  However Galizia was best known for her extremely realistic still-lives which are composed using a very strong light source and vibrant coloring such as the two examples seen here.


White Ceramic Bowl with Peaches and Red and Blue Plums, Fede Galizia, 1610
Silvano Lodi Collection, Campione, Italy

John Everett Millais and the Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia

Ophelia was the tragic heroine in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet and a popular subject 19th in century painting.  Typically Ophelia is shown sitting by the brook where she drowned wearing a long white dress.  Ophelia had gone mad after her potential husband, King Hamlet of Denmark, killed her beloved father Polonius.  In the play it is unknown whether she accidentally fell in the brook or purposely drowned herself.
Ophelia, John Everett Millais, 1852, Tate Britain

In the 1852 version by John Everett Millais she has already died. Millais was one of the founding members of the short lived but influential group of 19th century painters known as the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” which also included Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt.  The group was revolutionary in its time (it was founded in 1848) as they always painted each exact detail from life and nature, unlike many painters they did not seek to idealize their subjects.  The group sought inspiration from Medieval and early Renaissance sources and emulated those artists up until the time of Raphael (around 1520). 

One reason that Ophelia was a popular theme is that it fit in with the aims of the group and-

"embodied the Brotherhood's initial aims in their keen observation of the natural world and depiction of subjects that lead the viewer to contemplate moral issues of justice, piety, familial relationships, and the struggle of purity against corruption."**

The Pre-Raphaelites have always intrigued me, I admire their work but their personal lives were even more interesting; the lives of the artists, their families, models and patrons are woven together and then unfold like an epic soap opera.  Part of this story can be told in one of the most impressive paintings, Ophelia.

Millais painstakingly made studies of all the components of the painting before pulling them together into one work.  He spent hours sketching and painting outdoors to capture each detail of the plants, trees and water.  Millais worked on this painting for nearly a year and for Ophelia he used a professional model named Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal who was a frequent muse of the Pre-Raphaelites. 
Ophelia, (detail) John Everett Millais, 1852, Tate Britain

Millais had Siddal pose in a tub of water to correctly capture how her hair and dress would have floated.  Each time she posed he kept the tub of water warm with many oil lamps, and on one instance failed to notice when they went out as he was so immersed in his painting.  She didn’t tell him when the water cooled so as not to break her pose but ended up getting pneumonia.  Her father was enraged to hear of this but Millais paid for a doctor.  Siddal continued to model for the group, eventually marrying Rossetti in 1860.

This painting was critically acclaimed but earlier Pre-Raphaelite paintings were ridiculed.  The prominent British art critic, art historian and author, John Ruskin was among those that praised the naturalism of the group from the start.  The same naturalism was used in a portrait of Ruskin also painted by Millais (below).  Millais was invited along on the family's vacation in Scotland so that he could paint Ruskin's full length portrait in the Pre-Raphaelite manner.  Millais spent hours outside sketching and painting the rocks and the water, and when they returned to London he had Ruskin continue his pose by placing him at the top of a staircase.

However one strange twist in the Pre-Raphaelite story took place on the very trip to Scotland where this portrait was painted.  The artist Millais noticed that the relationship between Ruskin and his wife seemed tense and strained.  At that time Ruskin’s young wife Euphemia “Effie” Ruskin, who had been married to him for over 5 years confided in Millais that her marriage had never been consummated.  She and Millais had become good friends over the years and she even modeled for him on occasion.  Her disclosure led to their eventual annulment in 1854 and in 1855 she married Millais.
John Ruskin, John Everett Millais, 1853-54, Private collection
Especially in Victorian England this caused a huge scandal and also a great deal of embarrassment to all parties.  Ruskin was looked on with pity, Effie was looked at as an unfaithful spouse and Millais was seen as breaking up a marriage.  However it does seem that they were both relieved to get an annulment, Effie and John Everett Millais went on to have a long happy marriage with eight children.  Ruskin did not remarry but after this incident he continued to have a successful and influential career as a writer and art critic.  

Ruskin's friendship with another of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, led to his great interest in the work of Rossetti’s fiancé, who was Lizzie Siddal (the model for Ophelia).  Siddal had been working in a millinery shop when a friend of the Pre-Raphaelites met her and asked her to model.  After working as an artist's model for a few years Siddal had started to become interested in pursuing art.  After she became engaged to Rossetti, he taught and encouraged her and she made dozens of paintings.  Ruskin was so impressed with her work that he bought all of it and paid for her expenses for the next few years.  Ruskin’s patronage allowed her to stop modeling and support herself so that she would be free to continue to paint full time.
Beata Beatrix, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864-1870, Tate Britain

Ruskin also paid for her to travel to Paris and then to the south of France to benefit her health as she was often ill.  Her doctor had prescribed the very addictive and potentially fatal tonic of laudanum, which was a narcotic drug.  After Siddal and Rossetti married in 1860 she quickly became pregnant.  However she didn’t realize how dangerous it was to take laudanum throughout the pregnancy.  

This had extremely tragic results, she gave birth to a still born child and several months later she was found dead in their home due to a laudanum overdose in 1862.  In a heartbreaking case of life imitating art, (as the heroine Ophelia that she is so often associated with) it is unknown whether she accidentally overdosed on the drug or purposely killed herself due to her grief. Rossetti was beside himself with anguish and painted this memorial to his wife Lizzie, Beata Beatrix, a title which referenced Beatrice Portinari, the beloved of the Renaissance poet after whom he was named, Dante Alighieri. 
Further reading:
Hawksley, Lucinda. Lizzie Siddal: Face of the Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Walker & Co., 2004.
Marsh, Jan. Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood. London: The Cromwell Press, 1985.

Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Renaissance Cartoon

In Italian the word for paper is carta and the suffix "–one" means large, the “cartone” was a very large sheet of paper.  These cartone or cartoons as we have come to call them were specifically: large and very detailed drawings used to create paintings and frescoes.  These differed from sketches or studies in that they were the same size as the intended painting and were created to transfer the image.

The drawings were made to transfer the images to the painting surface in one of two ways.  In the first the cartoon acted as a type of stencil, thousands of small holes pricked the edges of each line and a bag of charcoal dust was “pounced” upon the cartoon.  In the second the cartoon acted as carbon paper, the back of the image was coated with charcoal dust and the image was carefully traced.  Since either process was messy and damaged the original paper, very few of these survive.  Those that remain were typically created for paintings that weren’t executed.


charcoal and white chalk on paper, perhaps with a brown wash, 4’6” x 3’4” (141.5 x 104.6 cm)


Leonardo did paint a version of his Virgin and Child with St Anne and John the Baptist, which today is in the Louvre, but it does differ from this drawing.  This particular cartoon has survived remarkably intact and is an astonishingly beautiful work of art.  Today this is at The National Gallery in London and it may be one of the most incredible works of art I have seen in person.  I have always felt that the few paintings that Leonardo made simply glow and outshine every other work which is in their presence in a museum setting, even if those works are masterpieces as well.  His cartoon may even outshine his paintings, using only charcoal and white chalk on paper (perhaps with a brown ink wash) he manages to create an illusion of depth and convey emotion.  Look at the image closely and you can see that he used very few lines and used the combination of charcoal and chalk to bring his method of chiaroscuro (modeling form with lights and darks) to the drawing.  When it was seen by other artists, they were amazed that he was able to fit several life-size figures in a cartoon which was only 4'5" x 3'4'.  This was due to the fact that the figures were all sitting, it provided inspiration for generations of artists.

The 16th century artist and writer, Giorgio Vasari wrote a book, The Lives of the Artists (called originally The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects) which was published in 1550 and updated several years later.  This book included a biography and historical account for dozens of Renaissance artists.  His book is still used as an important source for art historical research today and in his chapter on Leonardo he writes of this cartoon when it was on public display in Florence in 1501:

“Once completed and set up in a room, brought men, women, young and old to see it for two days as if they were going to a solemn festival in order to gaze upon the marvels of Leonardo which stupefied the entire populace.”*

The British Museum, black chalk on twenty-six sheets of paper, 7’6” x 5’4”

Michelangelo sadly burned many of his preparatory drawings and sketches so that he wouldn’t share his techniques and process with others and also so that people would think he was divinely inspired and not see any work that didn’t measure up to his standards.  However Michelangelo had extremely high and probably unrealistic expectations for his work, even his small sketches show his artistic genius. There are only two surviving cartoons from him and the Epifania is one of them.  This work, done on a large scale is over seven feet high and was created on twenty six sheets of paper.  Cartoons were often done on separate sheets of paper or the originals were cut up to make the transfer process easier. The Epifania was drawn for a project that was never created and the actual subject of the cartoon is unknown.

Let’s compare and contrast the two cartoons: Michelangelo’s cartoon has a greater level of detail in the drawing but he doesn’t use the same level of chiaroscuro that Leonardo’s cartoon had.  Unlike Leonardo's cartoon he has focused less on the emotion between the figures and more on anatomy.

After the fresco lost its popularity in the 16th century and painters frequently drew directly on their canvases this style of Renaissance cartoon fell out of use.  Over the next century the word cartoon took on its modern meaning of another type of drawing, frequently used in political satire and later as illustrations.

*Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists. Translated from Italian by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Origins of the Art Museum

It is hard for me to imagine a world without art museums, but they are in fact a fairly modern concept.  Most art collections were either owned by royalty or the extremely wealthy and were not available to the general public.  July 14 is Bastille Day, the day that the French Revolution began in 1789.  The enormous Louvre palace, which was only one of King Louis XVI's palaces, contained a vast royal art collection: thousands of paintings, drawings, sculptures and decorative arts from across the globe and dating back centuries.  This was turned into a public art museum less than one month after the French Revolution began, making it one of the earliest art museums.  However the Art Academy had been located in the Louvre for approximately a century prior and displayed art publicly at the annual Salons.  Today the Louvre is one of the largest art museums in the world. 


However the Louvre wasn’t the first art museum that was open to the public. There were at least two in the 17th century, the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland, originally a private collection, opened to the public in 1671 and the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University opened in 1683 as the first university art museum, though both were considerably smaller in size than the Louvre. 

Before the 20th century art museums looked quite different then today's museums.  Notice the cluttered layouts of art in the two paintings, museums walls were absolutely packed with art hung in what is today known as the "salon style" layout, hung in several horizontal rows.  Some items would have been identified for the viewer but not all, and it was much harder for the viewer to appreciate an individual painting.



The Tribuna of the Uffizi, Johann Zoffany, 1772-78, Royal Collection,Windsor Castle

In Florence, Italy the administrative offices of the ruling Medici family in would later become the Uffizi (the word for offices in Italian) which contained their large private art collection.

In the 16th century the artist and architect Buontalenti designed the first gallery in the building, the Tribuna of the Uffizi.  The gallery had been open to visitors by request  and was considered a highlight of the Grand Tour, the trip taken by aristocrats through continental Europe.  This contained many famous Renaissance paintings and ancient sculptures.  The well known painting by Zoffany, The Tribuna of the Uffizi (above) shows how the gallery looked at the time and included portraits of the actual visitors.  He painted this work for the King and Queen of England since they were unable to visit and see it for themselves.  It is an interesting work which contains paintings within a painting.  In 1765 after the Medici family was no longer in power, the entire building was opened to the public as a state art museum, the Uffizi Gallery.

Laocoön, Roman copy from 1st c. AD after 2nd c. BC Hellenistic original, Vatican Museums

Another prototype of an art museum which was visited on the Grand Tour was the Pio-Clementino Vatican museum which opened in 1771.  This was the joint project of two Popes: Clement XIV and Pius VI (which is why it was named Pio-Clementino).  The work housed in this museum had been collected since Pope Julius II first purchased the Laocoön sculpture after it was uncovered in 1506 (I discussed that sculpture in a post last week).  The Pio-Clementino also housed several other famous Greco-Roman sculptures including Apollo Belvedere and Sleeping Ariadne as well as many Renaissance paintings.  Later the Pio-Clementino expanded to the current Vatican Museums (follow the link to learn more of the history on their website).

Another important early museum was the British Museum in London, which opened to the public in 1759. This was the personal collection of archaeological artifacts of Sir Hans Sloane.  When it opened it was both an art museum and a library and also contained many important items pertaining to science, history and anthropology. All of these museums still exist today, and along with thousands of others they continue to enrich our lives with art.

Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and the Beginnings of the Renaissance

The story of the rivalry between Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti and the creation of the Gates of Paradise is also the story of the beginning of the Renaissance in Florence and it unfolded in an interesting way.  Each of the works here are among my favorites and will be discussed in more detail in future posts.

In the 1300’s or “Trecento” the artist Giotto had introduced ideas of humanism and realism to painting.  He was also appointed head architect for the Santa Maria del Fiori, the main cathedral of the city.  Giotto designed and began work on the campanile (bell tower), which is a separate building.



"Il Duomo" Santa Maria del Fiore, dome by Brunelleschi, 1420-1436

However Giotto died in 1337 and was replaced by his assistant, Andrea Pisano.  Due to war in Europe, an uprising in Florence and plagues there were far fewer artistic works being created in the city.  The main cathedral “Il Duomo” was left without the dome that was envisioned for it.

Florence was a republic and ruled by its guilds, the most prestigious guild was the Calimala (wool merchants).  In a building separate from the duomo is the Baptistery, which had great significance for Florence as St. John is the city’s patron saint.  The Calimala were in charge of all artistic decoration for the Baptistery.  Andrea Pisano had constructed a set of doors with 28 small bronze panels which was considered a masterpiece.  The doors were hung on the east side of the building which faced the duomo.




In 1401 the Calimala decided to commission a 2nd set of doors for the north side of the building and held a competition.  Artists had to create one bronze panel with the theme of the Sacrifice of Isaac.  Lorenzo Ghiberti won the contest and began work on the doors which lasted for the over twenty years.


Last Supper, panel from north baptistery doors, Ghiberti, 1425-52

Filippo Brunelleschi was another participant in the contest, it is unclear whether he was not chosen or was chosen to work as a partner with his rival Ghiberti.  Their two entries alone were saved and remain on display to this day, over 600 years later at the Bargello Museum in Florence.  Either way Brunelleschi was upset that he wasn’t chosen as the clear winner and decided to go to Rome and take his friend the sculptor Donatello with him.  They studied classical Roman architecture and sculpture for several years in Rome.

Brunelleschi returned to Florence and entered another competition, to build the dome of the duomo and this time he won, however Ghiberti was also given roles to assist with this task.  Brunelleschi had studied the dome of the Pantheon and was influenced by it.  He designed a structure that used a dome within a dome to support its massive weight.  Constructing the dome was an arduous task but his plans worked and the dome was constructed fairly quickly.



The Tribute Money, Masaccio, 1425 (Santa Maria del Carmine)

Brunelleschi also did several studies in drawing to determine the method of perspective in painting that the ancients used.  He made a painting of the Baptistery using perspective and put a small hole in the center.  If a person stood behind the painting with their back to the Baptistery and looked through the hole, Brunelleschi would hold up a mirror and the viewer would see reflected how the actual building matched the painted one.  This was written about but sadly the painting has been lost.

The effect this had on artwork was immediate as can be seen in Masaccio’s fresco cycle of the life of St. Peter.  Artists now used a single vanishing point that all lines in the painting could be followed to for an extremely realistic depiction of three dimensional space.



Joseph, panel from east baptistery doors, Ghiberti, 1425-52 (Museo Opera di S. Maria del Fiore)

Even Brunelleschi’s rival Ghiberti began to use perspective in his work.  He was commissioned by the Calimala to create one final set of doors and he proposed his own design with 10 large bronze panels instead of 28 small ones.  The Calimala accepted his proposal and in creating sculptural reliefs in a new larger format began to use a new artistic style.

Compare the panel of Jospeh to the earlier Last Supper, the new larger panels are very shallow bronze reliefs but due to the artist’s use of perspective they give the illusion of great depth. These doors took over 25 years to construct but the effect is astounding, the artist Michelangelo later dubbed them “The Gates of Paradise.”  They were widely praised and were moved to the east side of the building so they would now face the cathedral (note- the originals are now in a museum and have been replaced by copies).

Gates of Paradise, East baptistery doors, Ghiberti, 1425-52

The artistic rivalry that had sprung forth from Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi had produced two sets of bronze doors, a completed dome for the cathedral and a new method of architecture in the dome.  It also brought a strong influence of Classical art to Florentine art in the 15th century (or Quatrecento), a rediscovery of perspective in painting and last but not least a return to the style of ancient sculpture now being created by Donatello who had gone to Rome with Brunelleschi.  The former spark of the Renaissance in Florence had been reignited.



Il Zuccone (prophet Habakkuk),Donatello, 1427-36 (Museo Opera di S. Maria del Fiore)

Suggested reading:
-Hartt, Frederick. History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture.
-King, Ross. Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture. 
-Radke, Gary M.The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece.
-Walker, Paul Robert. The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance: How Brunelleschi and Ghiberti Changed the Art World.


The Judgment of Paris

The Judgment of Paris is a theme taken from Greek mythology, it is the story of how the Trojan war began and has been a common subject in art.  This was written about, painted, sculpted and quite popular in antiquity before becoming newly fashionable again during the Renaissance and throughout art history.  Themes on the Trojan war continued to show up in the arts for centuries and this was a commonly represented part of this story.


Judgment of Paris, Lucas Cranach the Elder, c-1528, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here is a synopsis of the Judgment of Paris story:

Paris was born the son of the Trojan king but it was foretold at his birth that he would bring about the downfall of the city of Troy so he was sent away and raised in the country, unaware of his royal heritage.  When he grew up he became a shepherd, watching his flocks in the fields all day.

On Mount Olympus there was a wedding of King Peleus of Thessaly and the sea goddess Thetis (future parents of Achilles).  All the gods were invited except Eris, the goddess of discord, as she brought arguments with her everywhere.  After the vows Eris showed up angry and decided to play a trick, she rolled a golden apple down the aisle with the words “To the Fairest” and left.  Eris knew how vain the goddesses were and wanted to cause an argument.

Who was the apple for?  Who was the fairest?  No one could decide between Hera (Juno- goddess of marriage and Zeus’s wife), Athena (Minerva- goddess of wisdom) and Aphrodite (Venus- goddess of Love).  Not even Zeus, king of the gods, wanted to get in the middle of this argument.  He decided to let the Trojan shepherd Paris judge as he was proven to be a very honest man.


Judgment of Paris, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630’s, The National Gallery (London)

The goddesses paraded in front of him and each offered a bribe: Hera offered an empire, Athena offered great wisdom and military power, but Aphrodite offered to make the most beautiful woman in the world fall completely in love with him.

Paris chose Aphrodite as the fairest and then he chose Helen of Sparta (currently the wife of Menelaus).  Helen was so beautiful because she was a daughter of Zeus and her mother was Leda.  Aphrodite brought him to Sparta, Helen fell in love with him instantly and they went back to Troy.  All of Sparta was extremely angry and vowed vengeance.  The other two goddesses were extremely angry and vowed vengeance, and so the Trojan War begins.   
 

Judgment of Paris, Claude Lorrain, 1645-46, National Gallery of Art (Washington D.C.)

Let's compare and contrast three well known paintings of this story (above).  German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder made several versions, he depicts the goddess as young and lithe (if proportionally inaccurate) and shows Paris dressed as a Renaissance man.  Rubens paints an exuberant and dramatic scene showing the goddesses in his famous plump “Rubenesque” manner and fills the work with multiple references to mythology (peacock, cupid, Medusa, etc.).  As typical of the French painter Claude Lorrain who  lived in Rome, he focuses on the landscape rather than the figures.  Lorrain loved all things classical and shows the goddesses dressed or partially draped in a way that was influenced from classical sculpture.

This was a popular theme for a few reasons: it showed the patron was educated and had knowledge of the classics, it was a theme from a famous war but showed no bloodshed and it depicted beautiful women.  Yet there was another and quite important reason for Trojan war themes.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art states on their website:

“Just as the emperor Augustus had claimed descent from Aeneas, a son of Venus, so many Italian princes traced their ancestry to the participants in the Trojan War or sought to equate their own accomplishments with the deeds of these heroes.”*

Frequently this is the case with subjects in art, the patron wants to tie himself/herself to the events portrayed in either a painting or sculpture and so commissioned a well known historic or mythological theme from an artist.


*Source of quote: Heroes in Italian Mythological Prints | Thematic Essay |Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Caravaggio and the Beginnings of Baroque

One of my favorite artists is Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), a dynamic Italian painter who lived a brief and tumultuous life.  Around 1600 Caravaggio developed his famous style of extreme chiaroscuro (painting form with lights and darks) known as "tenebrism" which was a turning point in art.  I have always felt the Renaissance ended and the Baroque began with this style of painting.

The Calling of Saint Matthew, Caravaggio  (1599-1600)

His style was criticized as being too realistic in Italy because he frequented taverns and brothels and used the people he met there as his models for subjects in religious painting.  However he had a near immediate stylistic influence on Dutch, French and Spanish art as well as influencing the next generation of Italian painters.  Let’s look at two of my favorite Caravaggio paintings, starting with The Calling of St. Matthew, in Rome.

This breathtaking painting is still located in the church it was painted for; it shows the moment in time when Christ calls Matthew to be one of his apostles.  Matthew is in a tavern, his companions are immersed in drinking and gambling.  Caravaggio paints everyone in modern dress though the subject is biblical, this way the contemporary viewer will be able to relate to the saint.  With this painting Caravaggio draws the viewer into the painting, it was not common for figures in a painting to have their backs turned to you, but he includes this type of realism as another way to relate to the subject.

Though his friends are still partaking in gambling, Matthew feels the Holy Spirit descend upon him and there is no doubt that he will follow Christ.  The influence of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is clear, the extended arm and hand of Christ is that of Adam (seen below).  


Creation of Man, Michelangelo Buonarotti, 1510
This can be interpreted as a direct link between the sins of Adam and the redemption of man due to the sacrifice of Christ.  There is also a symbol foreshadowing the death of Christ, the cross.  If at first you don’t see it then look again at the window panes, there is the cross in the center.  This would have been more apparent to the contemporary viewer; such large window panes are everywhere today but would have been rare at the time. 

The Conversion of Saint Paul, Caravaggio  (1600-01)

One of my very favorite paintings is Caravaggio's The Conversion of Saint Paul.  This painting actually made me stagger backwards in awe and almost fall when I saw it in person for the first time in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.  The image is powerful in its simplicity of design which was not typical of painting at the time.  Usually paintings were crowded with many figures, here the message has a greater impact.  Caravaggio shows the moment in time when the Roman soldier Saul, hears the voice of God.  He is stunned and is knocked from his horse by this powerful moment as he is converted to the Christian, St. Paul.  This was criticized for focusing on “the ass of a horse" in a holy painting, but with St. Paul falling towards the viewer and breaking the perceived space of the painting, it is a groundbreaking work of art and another way the artist connects the viewer to the image.

Compare this with the work of a popular artist at the time, Annibale Caracci.  Caracci's Assumption of the Virgin Mary, is located in the same chapel next to The Conversion of St. Paul.  It was done in the typical style of the time and while it is an exuberant painting, it doesn't match the solemn realism of Caravaggio.  The subject matter takes place in another realm, unlike Caravaggio's paintings which nearly include the viewer.


The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Annibale Caracci (1600-01)


Penitent Magdalene, Georges de la Tour, 1640, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

While other painters after Caravaggio use tenebrism, he alone used as his light source a holy light coming from God or religious figures. Compare this to the French artist, Georges de la Tour’s Penitent Magdalene.  He was a Caravaggisti (follower of the style of Caravaggio) and while it is a remarkable painting, the light source is a candle rather than the use of holy light.


Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1625,

Another powerful example of a work by a Caravaggisti, is Judith and her Maidservant, by Artemisia Gentileschi from roughly the same period.  This is a stunningly well executed painting but Gentileschi also uses a candle as her light source.
                                                                
Caravaggio shows us that by following the holy light of God, people are coming out of the darkness that they have been living in.  His paintings contain few figures, but the others in the painting are surrounded by darkness.  He could relate to the sinners in his paintings as he was frequently in trouble with the law.  In a drunken brawl he killed a man in Rome and spent several years in exile going to Naples, Malta and Sicily before heading back to Rome where he died a tragic death at age 38.  During his lifetime painted few works, however the works he left behind had an enormous influence on painting.


The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas is going to have a Caravaggio exhibit this fall, the following is from their website:

Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, October 16, 2011 through January 8, 2012

One of the most intriguing and influential figures in the history of art, Caravaggio (1571–1610) overturned the artistic conventions of the day and created stunningly dramatic paintings, both sacred and secular. This ambitious exhibition explores the profound impact of his work on the wide range of painters of Italian, French, Dutch, Flemish, and Spanish origin who resided in Rome. Arranged by theme, it includes about 60 paintings, with Caravaggio's compelling images juxtaposed with those he inspired.