It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 4 years since I was in the Sistine Chapel! In 2014, I went on a 30 day tour of Europe with EF College Break (and I had the time of my life!) where we visited 13 countries, including Rome where we were able to see the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately for me, my visit to the Sistine Chapel was cut short due to a sudden onset of illness. Thankfully, I was able to enjoy the incredible Vatican Museum, and Michaelangelo’s famous frescos as well.
The story of these frescos begins with Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michaelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to replace the blue starry paintings that were on the ceiling. The Pope originally requested Michaelangelo to paint a geometric pattern surrounded by the 12 apostles. However, Michaelangelo created a different scene. His work was that of what we see today in the ceiling – depictions of the Old Testament. His frescos were likely influenced by a theologian connected with the Vatican. Michaelangelo, at the time, was known for his sculpting abilities, not necessarily his painterly skills. This is ironic because Michaelangelo absolutely detested working on these frescoes and commonly stated that he wasn’t a painter, that he was a sculptor.
The subject matter depicted is varied, and far too intricate to explain in a single blog post, but is divided into three main sections. These sections are The Creation of Heaven and Earth, The Creation of Adam and Eve and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and The Story of Noah and the Great Flood. The sections of the Biblical story is further divided by painted on architectural elements. Here’s a great image that lays out the storylines behind each of the frescos.
The ceiling of the chapel is a huge piece of work, and Michaelangelo unified the three main storylines into well thought out, unified, paintings. How’d he do this?
First, through color. The sky of the frescos is dominated by a white-ish, gray color mimicking that of marble. The figures are painted in a sharp contrast to this gray color. The figures stand out by wearing vividly colored garments, as well as having warmly toned flesh. Second, through scale. Michaelangelo used an increasing scale from his seated figures to the ones standing.
Chuck Close achieved notoriety in the art world due to his massive photorealistic portraits, like this week’s Famous Friday artwork – Keith. Close was a pioneer of the Photorealism movement in the 1960’s, but his work quickly moved beyond the bounds of the movement. He developed a system driven portrait painting process which resembles that of photography techniques. The artist worked from a photograph of his subject. Most of his work stems from photorealistic portraitures of himself, as well as his friends and family. He first gridded the photograph, and then Close duplicated the work on his oversize canvas using acrylic paint, and an airbrush.
The size of Close’s work is an important factor. From a distance, Keith appears to simply be a large photograph. However, as you get closer to the work, you’re able to see that the work is not a photograph and is instead a painting. Up close, the image is harder to read because of its size. If you’re standing up close to it, it is impossible for the viewer to see all of the details. Up close, the painting can resemble an abstract painting.
Oh, how I love Spain, and Madrid especially. Between the food and the museums alone, I would gladly live in Madrid for the rest of my life. One of the greatest museums of European art, Museo del Prado, is found in Madrid. The Prado is home to a wide variety of art dating from the 12th century to the early 20th century, including the work that’s featured in today’s Famous Friday – The Garden of Earthly Delights.
The triptych is meant to be read like a book, from right to left. The meaning of each panel is directly tied to the panel proceeding and following it, creating a cohesive narrative within the triptych. The leftmost panel depicts God, who is introducing Adam to Eve. They are standing in a lush green landscape and are surrounded by animals of all types.In the central panel, Adam and Eve are portrayed in the garden of which the work was named after. A myriad of different things is happening in the central panel. We see various nude figures participating in romantic activities, while some figures are displayed inside of eggs or shells. The scene depicts a greedy consumption of all of the delights of the garden. The rightmost panel is enshrouded in black. Humans are huddled together anticipating the torture that is yet to come.
The exact meaning of The Garden of Earthly Delights is not known. The work was perhaps a personal altarpiece that was used as a devotion to then-contemporary conservative Christian views on lust and sin. The work could potentially warn against the perils of what would happen to men if they were to go against the word of God and lead a life full of sin.
Nighthawks is not only one of Edward Hopper’s most recognized works of art, but also one of the most renowned American paintings as well. The restaurant depicted by Hopper in this painting is supposedly based off of a restaurant in his neighboorhood of Greenwich Village, in New York City. The restaurant has since been demolished but is reminiscent of any burger joint, coffee shop, or diner that you’ve probably ever been too.
Hopper placed the viewer at just the right angle in order to see the scene transpiring inside, but he didn’t give the viewer a way to enter the building so that we could fully observe what is happening inside. Instead, we see four figures. First, we see a couple, a man and a woman. Are they in a relationship? Are they siblings? Next, we see another man who isn’t facing us. Who is he, and why is his back to us? And finally, we see a waiter. Why does he seem so distressed? None of the people pictured are communicating in any way, and something seems amiss. Hopper isn’t telling a narrative in this work, he’s commenting on modern society and the feelings of isolation that we may feel – especially in relation to city dwelling.
The flatness of Hopper’s work allows the viewer to easily project their current mental state onto the canvas. The image can also be viewed within the schism of days gone by. Viewers are invited into a simpler time in America’s past, which brings up feelings of nostalgia.
According to Homer, the goddess Venus was born from the foam of the sea. Shortly after her birth, according to legend, she rode on to the island of Cythera on a giant seashell. This is what Botticelli seems to have depicted in one of the most famous works of art that came from the Italian Renaissance, and was commissioned by a member of the Medici family.
Visually, we see Venus at the center of the painting, being guided by nymphs blowing wind to guide her. She is quickly approaching land where a figure is waiting for her. This figure is known as Pomona, who is the goddess of Spring. Pomona is holding a piece of cloth in order to cover Venus once she arrives on land.
One of the most important things to note about this painting is the obvious nudity of Venus. It was quite rare to depict a nude woman in a painting during the Middle Ages due to prominent Christian ideology. In order to appear more modest, Venus attempts to cover herself using her hair and her hands. This pose is referenced from the Venus de Medici, which Botticelli had the opportunity to study. However, Botticelli attempts to employ humanism techniques into The Birth of Venus. Humanism was a technique that typically referenced Greek and Roman myths. The resurrection of these myths led to the gradual acceptance of nude portraiture that was popular during antiquity.
It’s also important to note that this work was painted on canvas using tempura, which was quite rare for the time. Tempura is a type of paint made with egg whites, which allow for incredible transparency, and visually resembles an Italian fresco.
Now, what list of famous works of art would be complete without the Mona Lisa? None! That’s why I’m including one of da Vinci’s most famous works in our Famous Friday roundup. I’ve seen the Mona Lisa several times at the Musée du Louvre, but none of the times were more underwhelming than the first. Why? Because it’s so small! I was expecting the painting to be grandiose in scale, but it wasn’t! Nevertheless, the Mona Lisa is one of the most recognized images in the world and is one of the major icons of the Renaissance.
It’s hard for us (especially us Millenials) to imagine a world without portraits due to the sheer amount of cameras that we have at our disposal in 2018. But, this wasn’t the case for most of human history. In fact, at one point only the wealthy could afford to have portraits commissioned of them. People who desired to have their portrait painted usually had to sit for several days so that the painter could capture their likenesses in the painting. This is likely what happened in the Mona Lisa. Mona Lisa was probably the wife of a Florentine merchant, who never had her painting delivered. Instead, da Vinci kept it with him when he journeyed to France to work for the king.
One of the reasons that the Mona Lisa is one of the most renowned works of the Renaissance was because of Leonardo da Vinci’s use of sfumato. Sfumato is the technique in which oil paints are blended in such a way that they seemingly melt together without noticeable transitions. His use of sfumato is particularly noticeable around the mouth area as her smile seems to flicker before your eyes.
The Mona Lisa was always highly regarded in the artistic community, but it wasn’t until it was stolen that it rose to acclaim in the non-art community. In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the walls of the Louvre by an Italian handyman who assumed that the painting wouldn’t be missed. However, the museum noticed the missing painting, and soon images of the Mona Lisa were broadcast across the international news sphere. Two years later, the thief was caught and the painting was returned to the Louvre. This art heist helped make the Mona Lisa one of the most famous images on the planet, but also helps attract millions of visitors to the Musée du Louvre each year.
Oh, how I love gigantic paintings! At more than 12 by 16 feet, The Death of Sardanapalus does not disappoint. The work itself is based on the historical tale of the last Assyrian king, Sardanapalus. According to legend, upon hearing the news of invaders in his capital city, the King decided that he would destroy his Earthly possessions instead of facing a humiliating defeat. Not only were his possessions burned, but so were his slaves and concubines as well. Sardanapalus knew that he would place himself upon the funerary pyre upon its completion.
Delacroix depicted this tale in its final moments. He captured as much destruction and chaos as possible, which is characteristic of the Romanticism style that this work was painted in. Beyond the pandemonium pictured, we see the main action of the painting taking place atop a large red bed. Figures are depicted in various disarray. One man wrangles one of the horses, while another lies at the foot of who we assume to be Sardanapalus. Trinkets surround the figures, indicating the wealth of Sardanapalus.
When Delacroix first exhibited The Death of Sardanapalus in 1828, the reviews were not stellar. This was primarily due to the fact that it wasn’t a traditional neoclassical painting with a clear hero. In fact, this work was quite literally the opposite with Sardanapalus playing the role of the anti-hero.
During the spring semester of my sophomore year, I took my very first art history class. As the semester was coming to a close, we began discussing modern and contemporary art. One day of class was entirely devoted to what appeared to be the professor’s favorite artists – Mark Rothko. Viewing for the first time on a smart board, Rothko’s work appeared to be a haphazard painting of rectangles in a similar color palette. The professor, however, felt much different about this work. He gave us a short anecdote about how the first time he saw a Rothko in person. He was apparently so moved that he couldn’t help but tear up in the museum. Unbeknownst to me at the time, moving viewers to tears was sometimes the goal of Rothko’s artistic vision.
Rothko moved through a variety of different styles that were influenced by abstract expressionism and specifically color field painting. Color field painting, coined by Clement Greenberg, was a trend within abstract expressionism which disregarded the need for figures. Instead, the movement, pioneered by Rothko, took advantages of large swatches of color which was used to envelop the viewer in a world of color.
I go to college in a tiny town in northern Missouri. Kirksville is home to three colleges, but there still aren’t many non-school sanctioned activities to do in town. One of the most common pastimes for Truman students is going to a bridge outside of town known as train bridge, where, you guessed it, trains cross. Sure, there are great views of the nighttime sky at train bridge, but train watching is a strange hobby for college students. However, a little more than an hour north of lovely Kirksville is another small town called Eldon, Iowa. Eldon is home to the Dibble House, which is most famous for being the backdrop to one of the most famous American paintings of the 20th century – American Gothic. This painting also launched Grant Wood as one of the pioneers of the American Regionalist movement. The Regionalist movement aimed to represent America as it truly was, without the cosmopolitan cities. Because of this, art like Wood’s resounded with the Midwestern population because for the first time the Regionalist movement was for them rather than for those living on either coast.
The artist, Grant Wood, is a native Iowan himself, and he found himself in Eldon where he found the farmhouse which he painted in his his most famous work. The farmhouse was built in the style of carpenter gothic. In North America, home carpenters used the abundance of wood around them to construct arches and towers reminiscent of the European Gothic style. By painting this home, Wood recognized the family home as being the physical symbol of the family which resonated with many at the time of its publication.
He used his sister, and his dentist as models and painted them in clothes resembling what he saw in his old family photo albums. Although the two figures appear together in Wood’s painting, the two never sat together for their portraits to be painted. Instead, Wood worked with them individually and created sketches which he used to craft American Gothic. Their posing resembles that of the Northern Renaissance Style probably because Wood had previously studied art in Europe. And was particularly interested in the works of Jan van Eyck like the Arnolfini Portrait pictured below. The Arnolfini Portrait pictured below also deals with domesticity in portrait form, which Wood may have drawn inspiration from.
At first glance, Wood’s painting seems to truly represent what life in the Midwest may have been like during the 19th century. However, scholars have debated alternate meanings, and suggested satirical explanations for the seemingly odd composition.
I think that it’s so cool that SLAM has the centerpiece of one of Monet’s triptychs from his famous water lilies series (the other two pieces can be found at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). Known as the Agapanthus Triptych, these three paintings were united briefly in 2011 at the Nelson-Atkins, in 2012 at SLAM, and then in 2015 at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see the triptych together, but I have spent some time admiring the central piece located at SLAM.
Visually, we see clumps of water lilies floating atop a blue and violet toned waterscape. Towards the bottom of the canvas the blues and purples begin to transform into greens and yellows. The painting itself is massive, and meant to be displayed with the other portions of the triptych so that the viewer could be fully enveloped into the watery landscape.
This is a familiar scene to us as Monet has painted over 250 different works of his backyard in Giverny, France. Each painting is different, and focuses on a distinct portion of his massive garden in each work. He also experimented with painting during different time of day, which is why much of his works from the series look vastly different. Monet focused on painting his outdoor garden for nearly the last 30 years of his life as cataracts were interfering with his vision. The garden itself was grown by Monet, himself, as well as several hired gardeners. Together they worked for years to control the garden in order to mimic a Japanese scene.
Today, these works in Monet’s Water Lilies series can be sold for more than $50 million and greatly contributed to not only the impressionism movement at the time, but also modern art.