Multiple versions of the same painting

It is interesting that throughout art history we can find one artist who will paint multiple versions of the same painting- why is this?  There are many reasons but usually the first version of the painting was so successful that the artist had received another commission.  Let's look at several well known versions of the same theme by the same artist.

1483, Louvre (left) and 1506, The National Gallery (London) (right) 
The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci 

Leonardo da Vinci created this new type of Madonna and Child painting when he first moved to Milan.  The figures aren't seated on a throne or a chair, but enclosed in a unique landscape which seems otherworldly.  The Virgin Mary puts her arm around the infant St. John the Baptist as he is given the sign of benediction by the infant Christ while being watched over by an angel.  A foreshadowing to Christ's baptism by St. John can be seen in the body of water in the foreground.  Leonardo is here using several techniques he is famous for: chiaroscuro (modeling form with lights and darks), sfumato (using this glazes of paint like smoke) and the use of atmospheric perspective in the blue-gray landscape in the distant background.  The gestures, colors and forms all act as symbols as Leonardo took great care to copy this painting nearly exactly in the second version.

Why two versions of this painting?  The web site of the Louvre museum has a good hypothesis regarding the two versions of Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks.  The following text is taken from the website and was written by Séverine Laborie:

"The Louvre version of the picture was to have been the central part of a polyptych which the Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception commissioned Leonardo and the de Predis brothers to paint for a chapel in the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan in 1483. The other version, now in the National Gallery in London and known to have formerly been in this chapel, and several archive documents indicate that the Louvre painting was never installed there. Its presence in the French royal collection is attested from1627, but several clues suggest it may have been acquired much earlier.

The most convincing hypothesis is that the picture, painted between 1483 and 1486, did not meet with Leonardo’s clients’ full satisfaction, which enabled Louis XII to acquire it around 1500−1503. The second, replacement picture, now in London, may have been painted by Ambrogio de Predis under Leonardo’s supervision between 1495 and 1508."

                1528, Metropolitan Museum of Art (left) and 1530, St. Louis Art Museum (right)
 The Judgment of Paris, Lucas Cranach the Elder 

German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder was a court painter in Saxony and above we see two versions of The Judgment of Paris.  This told a story from the start of the Trojan War where the shepherd Paris had to judge which of three Greek goddesses was the most beautiful.  Cranach made several versions of this theme, he depicts the goddess as young and lithe (if proportionally inaccurate) and shows Paris dressed as a Renaissance man.  This was a popular theme for a few reasons: it showed the patron was educated and had knowledge of the classics and it depicted beautiful women.  Yet there was another reason this story was popular among Cranach’s patrons.  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.”*

Patrons wanted to tie themselves to the events portrayed in either a painting or sculpture and so commissioned a well known historic or mythological theme from an artist.

 Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio, 1601, The National Gallery (London)

The Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio has a few examples of multiple versions of the same painting.  His two versions of Christ's Supper at Emmaus are unique in this blog entry as being quite different from one another.

A Roman nobleman Ciriaco Mattei, commissioned the earlier version (above) in 1601.  In this first version Caravaggio pays as much attention to the detailed still-life objects on the table as to his figures.  The gestures that each figure makes are quite theatrical, Christ is shown as clean shaven and this version is not as dark.  In fact a figure casts a shadow that seems to represent a halo over the head of Christ.  While this is a well done painting, it isn't as realistic as his later version.

The second version of this painting was done after Caravaggio committed murder and fled to Naples.  Today it hangs in the Brera Gallery in Milan where I was fortunate enough to have recently seen it, in fact I spent quite a long time sitting in front of this painting.  This later version is more somber and powerful for the viewer, the figures appear in a naturalistic way rather than as having been posed dramatically for the scene.  The sobering changes in the artist's own life are clearly reflected in this work, done in 1606.

Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio, 1606, Brera Gallery, Milan

Vanitas Still-Life, Pieter Claesz                                                              Vanitas Still-Life, Pieter Claesz     
1630, Mauritshuis, Holland                                                               1656, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

Seventeenth century Dutch painter Pieter Claesz was a prolific artist who specialized in 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 with a difficult time in the countries history.  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, the plague returned in 1635 and struck most heavily in Leiden where over 14,000 died.  

The Vanitas painting became increasing popular through the 1620’s and went from being metaphorical to an allegory of death.  Symbols of mortality included: skulls, candles (both lit and extinguished), timepieces, extinguished oil lamps and empty hourglasses. Claesz painted many versions of Vanitas paintings as they were a popular style of painting and middle and upper class patrons were buying these from galleries to display in their homes.

 1638-43, Metropolitan Museum of Art (left) and 1640-45, Louvre, (right)
                                        The Penitent Magdalene, Georges de la Tour

 French artist Georges de la Tour paints another version of the Vanitas, the penitent Mary Magdalene reflecting on her sins.  He owed much of his style to that of Caravaggio and is considered a "Caravaggisti" or one of Caravaggio's stylistic followers.  de la Tour painted at least four versions of this work, The Repentant Magdalene, is now housed in the National Gallery of Art (DC) and The Magdalene with the Smoking Flame, at the LACMA.
This was typical for the artist, he also painted multiple versions of other themes during his career.

Like the Claesz paintings we have symbols of mortality, such as the skull and the candle.  There are also other symbols of earthly vanity such as jewelry.  Like Caravaggio he creates a somber mood with a strong light source, all four versions of this painting are illuminated by a single candle.  Though the earliest version is unique in that the flame of the candle is reflected in a mirror that Mary Magdalene looks into with a meditative gaze.  Like Pieter Claesz, Georges de la Tour was also selling his work for a broad market and therefore would paint additional versions of his paintings that were the most popular.

 Painting Gallery of Ancient Rome, Pannini, 1758, Louvre

Giovanni Paolo Pannini painted his famous pair of works: Painting Gallery of Ancient Rome and Painting Gallery of Modern Rome while he was the professor of perspective at the French Academy of Rome.  French painter Hubert Robert began working in his studio and Pannini was to become the biggest influence on his artistic style.  Pannini took on the role of a mentor for Robert and the younger artist proclaimed him to be the greatest painter of ruins in the world.  While under his supervision Robert assisted with the master’s well known first version of his paintings of imaginary gallery views of ancient and modern Rome, of which he would make several other versions.  The first version was commissioned in 1756 by the Comte de Stainville (the future Duc de Choiseul) who had himself and his friends painted into the scenes as visitors to the galleries.  This pair of paintings proved to be so popular with de Stainville that the year after he finished them Pannini created a second set of these paintings again for the Comte, now in the Louvre.  Robert himself owned a later third version of Pannini’s gallery view paintings as well as several other works by him.

 Painting Gallery of Ancient Rome, Pannini, 1756-57, Stuttgart, Germany

These are just a handful of examples of multiple versions of the same painting by the same artist, but many more can be found throughout history.

Holbein's The Ambassadors

I have long been fascinated by Hans Holbein the Younger's 1533 painting The Ambassadors.  This double Renaissance portrait is filled with symbolism both known and unknown.  The artist Holbein was originally from Germany and moved to England after the Protestant Reformation to work as a portrait artist.  Holbein eventually became a royal court portraitist for King Henry VIII and painted many members of the Tudor court.  

This work is a portrait of two French ambassadors who visited Henry VIII and have been indentified as Jean de Dinteville (left) and Bishop Georges de Selve (right).

 The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533, The National Gallery, London

It is important to keep in mind that 1533 was a seminal year in English history: Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine were divorced, he then married Anne Boleyn and was excommunicated from the Catholic church.  The Protestant Reformation was well underway in Europe and after Henry VIII was excommunicated, England too breaks away from Catholicism.

These events were in part why de Dinteville and de Selve were sent from France to England to visit the Tudor court.  It isn't entirely clear who commissioned Holbein to paint their portrait and requested so many symbols and details be added.  This work has been the subject of scholarly research and debates for centuries.

The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533, detail of dagger and book

One element that may go unnoticed by most viewers is that Holbein has listed the age of each of his subjects, de Dinteville (29) on the sheath of his dagger and de Selve (25) on the pages of the book his elbow rests upon. These symbols tie into the idea of de Dinteville as a man of action and de Selve as one who is leading a contemplative life.  The shelves in the middle are filled with additional symbols that show both men were well educated in a variety of ways.

 The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533
detail of upper shelf

The upper shelf is filled with scientific instruments and has been referred to as the heavenly realm.  Let's look more closely at these objects.  Sitting on top of a luxurious oriental carpet we have a globe of the heavens, a quadrant and several instruments used to tell time including two types of sundials.

Are these objects alluding to the knowledge and worldliness of the two ambassadors?  Is there a particular day and time that the instruments point to that add to the message in the painting?

The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533
detail of lower shelf

The lower shelf while the lower shelf is filled with the objects of man and thought of as the earthly realm.  Here we have a globe of the earth, a book open to reveal mathematics, a lute, several flutes and a song book open to reveal specific hymns.

The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533
detail of lute and songbook

If you look closely at the lute, you will see that one of the strings has been broken.  Therefore an instrument which would be considered harmonious, is now a symbol of discord.  Was this a symbol of discord between England and the Catholic church?  Perhaps instead it was a symbol of the discord between Henry VIII and Catherine as the queen failed to produce a suitable heir to the throne.  Later in the 17th century the lute was frequently used in Northern European painting as a symbol of a woman's sexual organs, though I don't know if there is any connection to that in this painting.

The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533
detail of floor and anamorphic skull

Still lower in the painting are the unique type of flooring and the anamorphic skull, which is unrecognizable when viewing the painting head on.  The viewer must stand to the side and crouch down in order to see it, though it is thought that it originally hung over a flight of stairs and that the viewer would have an easier time seeing this skull, perhaps so as to be taken by surprise by it.

While there are other examples of anamorphic art (where an image can only be seen from a certain viewpoint) it wasn't common at the time.  In fact Holbein was very skilled to have been able to properly execute this artistic trick.

The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533
detail of anamorphic skull as seen three dimensionally

The unique flooring is said to be the same as the style in the main altar of Westminster Abbey.  At Westminster the design on the floor has a significance as representing the universe.  Is the fact that there is a skull placed at the bottom, within a possible symbol of the universe a representation of the inevitability of death?  Look again at the full painting at the top and in the top left is a crucifix, placed in a spot over the heavens and earth and reminding the viewer that salvation could be found after death.

Articles and books have been written about this mysterious and compelling work of art and while several interesting theories have been proposed, we may never have all the answers.

If you have not visited the incredible Google Art Project site, I suggest you do so if only to view an incredibly close and detailed version of this painting.

Powerup Your Songwriting With A Chord Wheel

Quick what's the 1st thing that pops into your mind when you think of Music theory? Hey... This is a PG post. ha But you get my point. Very few people get excited at the thought of studying music theory. What I propose... Go at it a different way.

The Chord Wheel, provides an excellent way to propel your music and songwriting forward. Essentially, what it does is give you a plethora of options for chords to use that sound good tonally together. You start with the key you want to play in and spin the wheel to open up the options of what chords or notes to play next. The Chord wheel is an excellent resource for composition, soloing, music education, and transposing.

When writing our own songs, we typically have a handful of chords that we are comfortable with. Our staples, per say. But to continue on our journey as songwriters, we need to move past, what is comfortable, and learn new things. This can often be frustrating, slubbing through websites, books, and reference apps to get points of references.

This handy little tool has it all in one. Is it going to be the only thing we use? Absolutely not, but it can help open up even the worst of writer's block. There is even a handy app for all of our phones.

Another cool way to use this songwriting resource is to look up your favorite songs tabs, and see what chords they used and compare them to your own songs. See if your favorite musician or band is moving to the same positions you tend to gravitate towards.

Here is another cool trick!

Look up your favorite songs tab.
Pull out the chord wheel, and use the first chord as a reference point,
Now change the rest to different chords than the ones in your favorite song!
Maybe you start with moving all the chords just one spot to the right on the wheel.

Now play the chords together, and WALLAH you have a new song. Now, it may take some experimentation, but you get the point. Your options and growth, as a songwriter, have just opened up.

Have fun with it! Use the new inspiration to write that hit, or a new jam song for you and your buddies. We're all looking for new tricks, and this may very welll be a new way at looking at something you already knew.