Famous Friday // Mona Lisa

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Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, known as the Mona Lisa, 30 x 21 in, 1503-19, oil on panel. Location: Musée du Louvre.

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.

Famous Friday // The Death of Sardanapalus

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Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, oil on canvas, 1827, 12′ 10″ x 16′ 3″. Location: Musée du Louvre.

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.

Famous Friday // American Gothic

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Grant Wood, American Gothic, oil on board, 1930. Location: Art Institute of Chicago. 

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.

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Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, oil on oak, 1434. Location: National Gallery London. 

 

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.

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