Category: Fine Art Paintings

The Mystery of Van Gogh’s Madness

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The Mystery of Van Gogh's Madness

On a summer’s day in 1890, Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in a field outside Paris. What does the painting he worked on that morning tell us about his mental state?

On 27 July 1890, Vincent Van Gogh walked into a wheat field behind the chateau in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise, a few miles north of Paris, and shot himself in the chest. For 18 months he had been suffering from mental illness, ever since he had sliced off his left ear with a razor one December night in 1888, while living in Arles in Provence.

In the aftermath of that notorious incident of self-harm, he continued to experience sporadic and debilitating attacks that left him confused or incoherent for days or weeks at a time. In between these breakdowns, though, he enjoyed spells of calmness and lucidity in which he was able to paint. Indeed, his time in Auvers, where he arrived in May 1890, after leaving a psychiatric institution just outside Saint-Remy-de-Provence, north-east of Arles, was the most productive period of his career: in 70 days, he finished 75 paintings and more than 100 drawings and sketches.

Despite this, though, he felt increasingly lonely and anxious, and became convinced that his life was a failure. Eventually, he got hold of a small revolver that belonged to the owner of his lodging house in Auvers. This was the weapon he took into the fields on that climactic Sunday afternoon in late July. However, the gun was only a pocket revolver, with limited firepower, and so when he pulled the trigger, the bullet ricocheted off a rib, and failed to pierce his heart. Van Gogh lost consciousness and collapsed. When evening fell, he came back round and looked for the pistol, in order to finish the job.

Unable to find it, he staggered back to the inn, where a doctor was summoned. So was Vincent’s loyal brother Theo, who arrived the next day. For a brief while, Theo believed that Vincent would rally. But in the end, though, nothing could be done – and, that night, the artist died, aged 37. “I didn’t leave his side until it was all over,” Theo wrote to his wife, Jo. “One of his last words was: ‘this is how I wanted to go’ and it took a few moments and then it was over and he found the peace he hadn’t been able to find on earth.”
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The Strange Side of Edgar Degas

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Dancer Onstage with a Bouquet, c 1876

A new exhibition of rare Edgar Degas monotypes reveals a more daring and experimental side to the artist.

Ballet Scene, 1879

Edgar Degas is celebrated for his impressionistic studies of ballet dancers, but a new exhibition will reveal lesser-known work. The Museum of Modern Art’s Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty will be the first time his monotypes have gone on display in the US in more than 50 years. And while it will feature some familiar subjects, viewers may be surprised to find depictions of brothels and industrialised landscapes hanging on MoMA’s walls. “The exhibition really focuses on Degas’ experimentation, trying to understand the leaps he made in terms of his approach and his technical innovations,” curator Jodi Hauptman tells BBC Culture. “It argues that it’s in his monotypes where he takes the most risk, and where he is the most modern.”

Dancer Onstage with a Bouquet, c 1876

“A monotype is where the artist draws on a metal plate and then sandwiches that metal piece with a damp piece of paper before running through a printing press,” Hauptman explains. While other forms of printmaking involve carving into wood or incising into a metal plate, in monotype the artist simply draws on the plate, allowing changes to be made until the very last moment. Hauptman thinks this encouraged a kind of “spontaneity” in Degas. “It encouraged him to be more free and liberated with his drawing,” she says. “It’s very different from the precise drawing he was trained in as a young artist.”

Ballet Scene, 1879

Autumn Landscape, 1890

Hauptman believes Degas used monotype as a way of “capturing modern life”, and it is in his series of landscapes where he is arguably at his most modern. “For their time, they are really radical as they verge on abstraction,” she explains. In Autumn Landscape, Degas tried to capture the view from a moving train. “You have to think what it would have felt like in the 19th Century for someone who’d only ever moved at the speed of a horse to then move at the speed of a train,” she continues.

Heads of a Man and a Woman, c 1877–80

Movement is a consistent theme in Degas’ work, but particularly in his monotypes. It appears again here, where he has smeared the faces of his subjects. “It’s as if the artist is only catching a glimpse of them as he races by,” Hauptman suggests. This monotype offers a glimpse into what it must have felt like for Degas, living in the rapidly expanding Paris of the 1870s. In many ways, monotype was the perfect medium to, as Hauptman says, “describe the changing nature of contemporary urban life,” due to its fluidity.

Factory Smoke, 1877-79

A Strange New Beauty is MoMA’s first exhibition of these works. It features 120 monotypes along with another 60 related pieces, including paintings, drawings, pastels and sketchbooks. “It’s not that Degas invented monotype, but he just embraced it with such enthusiasm and took it as far as it can go,” Hauptman notes. In Factory Smoke, Degas manipulated the ink to illustrate the movement of smoke across the skies of Paris. “There is a relationship between the way the smoke moves across the plate and how the ink also would have done, so there’s a beautiful meeting there.”

Waiting for the Client, 1879

Degas doesn’t depict prostitutes in any other medium but monotype. Hauptman finds his representation of the brothel and its inhabitants particularly interesting, as they are often cropped or appear on the edge of the work. “There is an emptiness at the centre, and you get sense of the brothel being a place of constant exchange,” she explains. The client is even more peripheral in this work – you can just about see him on the far left edge of the portrait. “The client is often depicted as a little hesitant, while the women are together as a group. I think that says something about that relationship,” she says.

Frieze of Dancers, c 1895

Degas made monotypes in two bursts of activity – in the mid-1870s until the mid-1880s, before returning to it the following decade, using oil paint instead of black printer’s ink. “That’s an important innovation as oil paint responds in a different kind of way to the press,” Hauptman says. According to the curator, Frieze of Dancers is one of the most important works to feature in the exhibition, as it encapsulates the idea of “the multiple and variation in a single work”. Does the painting feature four dancers, three dancers, or just one? That is for the viewer to decide, but Hauptman suggests that you can see it as a single dancer in four different moments. “With that in mind, we might relate the work to contemporary time motion studies of the photographers Muybridge and Marey, who we know Degas was interested in,” she says. As a result, the painting takes on a filmstrip-like quality that alludes to cinema.

The Fireside, c 1880-85

There are two kinds of monotype in Degas’s work: light-field and dark-field. When working with the former, he would draw on a plate just as he would on paper, but the latter was a subtractive process. The result is figures that appear to be emerging out of the darkness, as seen here, in The Fireside.

Three Women in a Brothel, Seen from Behind, c 1877–79

While a monotype only produces one image, Degas would often run the plate a second time using whatever ink was left. This created a ghost image, which he used as a ‘tonal map’ for a new work. Using pastels, Degas would often create something completely new with the second image. “In those pairs you see something that is the same and different. You see the ways he saw possibilities of making more than one form,” Hauptman says. “For Degas, he always saw possibility.”

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Things You Didn’t Know About the Mona Lisa

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Things You Didn’t Know About the Mona Lisa

Her tricky smile and timeless allure have inspired academic study and artistic emulation for more than five centuries. But the story of this perplexing portrait is even richer than it looks.

“Mona Lisa” Is Not Her Name

The painting’s subject is Lisa Gherardini, whose wealthy—and presumably adoring—husband Francesco Del Giocondo commissioned the work. This explains the less prevalent title for this painting, La Gioconda. The name Mona Lisa (or Monna Lisa, as the Italians prefer) roughly translates to “My Lady Lisa.”

She’s Smaller Than You Might Think

Mona Lisa’s influence in culture is massive, but the oil-on-wood panel painting measures just 30 by 21 inches and weighs 18 pounds.

Her Eyebrows Are A Matter of Debate

Some claim the subject’s lack of eyebrows is representative of high-class fashion of the time. Others insist her AWOL eyebrows are proof that Mona Lisa is an unfinished masterpiece. But in 2007 ultra detailed digital scans of the painting revealed da Vinci had painted on eyebrows and bolder eyelashes. Both had simply faded over time or had fallen victim to years of restoration work.

She’s Broken A Lot of Hearts

The portrait was first put on public display in the Louvre in 1815, inspiring admiration, as a string of “suitors bearing flowers, poems and impassioned notes climbed the grand staircase of the Louvre to gaze into her ‘limpid and burning eyes.’”

“Mona Lisa often made men do strange things,” R. A. Scotti wrote in Vanished Smile, “There were more than one million artworks in the Louvre collection; she alone received her own mail.” The painting actually has its own mailbox at the Louvre because of all the love letters its subject receives.

Men Have Died from Loving Her

In 1852, an artist named Luc Maspero threw himself from the fourth floor of a Parisian hotel, leaving a suicide note that read: “For years I have grappled desperately with her smile. I prefer to die.” Then in 1910, one enamored fan came before her solely to shoot himself as he looked upon her.

It’s Literally Priceless

In the 1960s, the painting went on a tour where it was given an insurance valuation of $100 million. But the policy was never taken out because the premiums were more than the cost of the best security.

The Paiinting Sits in the World’s Prettish Prison

Mona Lisa gets her own room at the Louvre, one that is climate controlled to keep her in the ideal environment. Additionally, the work is encased in bulletproof glass to prevent threat and injury.

She’s Been Attacked

If you look closely at the subject’s left elbow, you might notice the damage done by Ugo Ungaza Villegas, a Bolivian who chucked a rock at the portrait in 1956. A few months before, another art attacker pitched acid at the painting, which hit the lower section. These attacks inspired the bulletproof glass, which in 2009 successfully rebuffed a souvenir mug hurled by an enraged Russian tourist who’d been denied French citizenship.

France Mourned en Masse when She Went Missing

In 1911, Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. The New York Times retroactively compared the public display of grief to that seen in the wake of Princess Diana’s death in 1997. Thousands poured into the Louvre to stare in shock at the blank wall where she once hung and leave flowers, notes, and other remembrances.

Pablo Picasso Was a Suspect in the Caper

Because he’d been caught buying stolen Louvre pieces before, Picasso was brought in for questioning. But the true thief would not be caught until 1913.

Louvre employee Vincenzo Perugia was a proud Italian nationalist who smuggled the painting out under his smock because he felt it belonged to his and da Vinci’s homeland, not France. After hiding it for two years, Perugia was busted trying to sell Mona Lisa to a Florence art dealer. However, he did briefly get his wish. Upon her recovery, Mona Lisa toured Italy before returning to Paris.

Her Terun Inspired a Fashion Trend

In her book Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, journalist Dianne Hales writes, “Society women adopted the ‘La Joconde look’ [named for the painting’s French title], dusting yellow powder on their faces and necks to suggest her golden complexion and immobilizing their facial muscles to mimic her smile. In Parisian cabarets, dancers dressed as La Joconde performed a saucy can-can…. Something beyond the painting’s wild popularity had changed. The Mona Lisa had left the Louvre a work of art; she returned as a public property, the first mass art icon.”

Her Smile Doesn’t Change, but Your Mindset Does

That is-she-or-isn’t-she smile has long fascinated artists and historians. But in 2000, Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Margaret Livingstone applied a scientific method to why Mona Lisa’s smile seems to shift. It’s all about where your focus is, and how your brain responds.

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Liberty Leading People by Eugene Delacroux

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Liberty Leading People by Eugene Delacroux

In the Salon of 1822, Eugene Delacroix ( 1798-1863), exhibited a scene from the Divine Comedy. But there was nothing in this livid vision of Virgil and Dante in Hell very surprising to a public familiar with Caravaggio, and the Raft of the Medusa. It was not until two years later, before the Massacre of Scio, that the critics inveighed against the “massacre of painting”

Delacroix had, in fact, transformed his pictorial language in the interval; inspired by the English landscape painters he had loaded his palette with brilliant colours and illumined Gros’ robust impasto with the glint of Oriental tissues and the marble tints of putrefaction. This time, the work was frankly revolutionary; the young Romanticists rallied round Delacroix, and the struggle against the classical tradition began; no durable school resulted from it, but the consequences were such as to transform the very conception of art.

To these young Romanticists art was not the realisation of an abstract ideal, but the expression of an individual soul, and the more original the artist, the greater the value of his works. He should not fear to manifest his vigorous personality; on the contrary, he should defend it jealously against external influences, against all the forces that, by limiting his personality, tend to obscure his genius.

Romanticism was the revolt of sensitive faculties, hitherto disciplined by the play of definite ideas. Latent and irresponsible forces rose from unconscious depths to reject classical logic. For logic, with its fixed principles, is identical among all men; it has a sort of eternal existence, superior to the minds which successively exercise it; and the Romanticist affects to despise this faculty which makes individuals similar.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, scholars gradually supplanted poets in the general governance of minds. The Romanticist, Victor Hugo or Delacroix, like Narcissus bending over his fountain, only looked at Nature to see the reflection of himself. To him, the universe was but a storehouse of images on which he drew to give colour to his poetry. When these exuberant personalities had sobered down, reality appeared to them, and interested them.

The landscape painters had set the example; following in their wake, painters and sculptors, as well as writers, began to think that absolute exactitude was the true ambition of art; this submission to the object is a scientist’s virtue, and, indeed, Naturalism is the artistic form of the positive spirit.

During this period, the continuity of French life was interrupted by sudden revolutions. Artists were not, of course, unmoved by the agitations which keep us poised, as it were, between revolution and compression; but the convulsions of social fury did not disturb the radiant summits of art.

Architecture, which always expresses the general character of communities clearly, was at once very prolific, and somewhat lacking in originality; this seems to show that the general existence was not so unstable as it seemed to be, and that society had not yet evolved a new form of collective life. These abrupt changes were after all only a question of political régime, a battle of pure theory or of personal interest. Governments, whatever they are, must always have one and the same object, which is to aid in the increase of riches.

The conflicting movements which agitated superficial France must not be allowed to hide that deep current, the slow pressure of which nothing can resist. Every day, a rather larger number of men achieve a little ease, or in other words, a relative prosperity and an average intellectual culture. This was the great social event of the nineteenth century, and modern art was to manifest this indefinite enfranchisement of the middle classes after its fashion.

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The Sensational Character of Art

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The Sensational Character of Art

The first force of a work of art is its appeal to the senses. This is direct and immediate. It is the physical effect, almost utterly unescapable whenever there is presented to anyone a vigorous composition in color or in tone or a strong rhythm of song or of motion.

Religion which has disdained the arts as sensuous has not, therefore, escaped sensationalism. It has developed the sensational preacher. He is the man who preaches for a sensuous effect. He has greater success usually in getting people to come to hear what he has to say than in having something worth while to say when they get there. This is not always true but it is so very commonly. Our most thoughtful ministers, those under whose preaching the more serious-minded people desire to sit, are little given to sensational preaching.

Their form is good form but it is not nowadays florid, overly dramatic, or eccentric form. They touch upon timely themes of the day, not as advertising captions but for real discussion. Your true and proper sensationalist develops rhetoric, gesture, perhaps even hair cuts, newspaper themes, and peculiar exercises calculated to rouse interest and produce a momentary enjoyment or excitement.

Sensationalism is necessary for religion, but not this kind. I would rather that my boys should be appealed to by the noble sensationalism of excellent paintings, brilliant music, and noble ritual than by the sensationalism of an evangelist crawling about on all fours like a bear show.

The Sensational Character of Art

However much we may desire to spiritualize our religion, we are not disembodied spirits, we are compact together of flesh and spirit– “Nor soul helps flesh more now, than flesh helps soul.”

Our view of human nature and of the bodily life is very different from that of the Reformation theology. Our new utilization of the fine arts is to be based upon the new psychology and upon the new theology rather than upon Calvinism.

The impulses of the flesh may develop downward. But also every human instinct may become the root of a possible spiritual virtue. If our task is still partly to mortify the flesh, it is also to understand it and use it for good. If spirtual experience is an incorporeal thing, its beginning is usually something born in the mystery of the bodily being. We do not have the same reasons for fearing the arts that the Puritan had, as he did not have our reasons for using them.

Sensationalism has always been deep and constant in human life and in religion and always will be during the life of earth. The Hebrew prophets not only used abundant imagery in speech but actual physical objects and eccentricities of conduct to capture attention and press home their message. It seems questionable whether Jesus performed his works of healing for this purpose, but hardly questionable that his approach to the city on the Day of Palms was a form of sensational appeal. It may be said of it, as it may be said of other sensational conduct, that it was done for effect. Precisely so, for that is the way to be effective.

Our modern church has rather too little than too much of appeal to the senses. It is not sufficiently interesting or sufficiently thrilling. I do not at all object to the sensational methods of the orator or of the evangelist in their proper place. But the sensational preacher should not be the pastor and teacher of a normal church, large or small. That form of appeal to the senses is in the long run neither so effective nor so beneficial as quieter forms–music, decoration, architecture, and liturgy. The oratorical type may be more thrilling at the moment but less lasting than the rhythms set going by the finer arts.

The older religions all make more effective use of the noble and more commendable forms of appeal to the senses. One would not expect to get the following testimony from a modern free churchman, but here it is: “The Japanese know how to produce effects, they have a sure instinct as to the moods in which a person should stand before a temple or shrine. Hence they study the approaches to their sacred spots almost as much as they do the elaboration of the spots themselves. The Shintoists have their torii or more likely lines of torii before each shrine; the Buddhists love to place their houses of worship and meditation in the midst of great trees or on the tops of hills which they approach by moss-covered staircases of stone…

When one has removed his shoes and penetrated to’ the inner shrine and stands on the soft matted floor before the image of the Great Buddha, the subtle power of idolatry when wedded to high art becomes apparent in an unmistakable way. The sense of solemnity, of quietness, of peace is in the very air, and there comes to one a new sympathy toward those who know only this way of consolation.” These beautiful and skillful arrangements are planned for their direct and immediate effect upon the senses and they are effective.

Nor would one naturally expect the testimony written by one of the most distinguished New England clergymen of the nineteenth century, a leader and representative of the best thought of his day. Dr. Theodore Munger describes the cathedrals and cathedral services of the English Church. And then he adds: “Here lies the secret of public worship; we do not worship because we feel like it, but that we may feel.

The feeling may have died out under the pressure of the world, but coming together from mere habit, and starting on the level of mere custom, we soon feel the stirring of the wings of devotion, and begin to rise heavenward on the pinnacles of song and prayer. This is well understood in England, and underlies the much criticised ‘Cathedral system.’ Here is a mighty fact tremendously asserted; it forces a sort of inevitable reverence, not the highest and purest indeed, but something worth having. It becomes the conservator of the faith, and in the only way in which it can be conserved, through the reverent sentiment and poetry of our nature… The main value of the established church is its lofty and unshaken assertion of the worth of worship–keeping alive reverence, which is the mother of morality, and furnishing a public environment for the common faith.

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Renoir Art: Two Sisters on the Terrace, 1881

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Renoir Art: Two Sisters an the Terrace, 1881

Two Sisters or On the Terrace is an 1881 oil-on-canvas painting by French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The dimensions of the painting are 100.5 cm × 81 cm. The title Two Sisters (French: Les Deux Sœurs) was given to the painting by Renoir, and the title On the Terrace (French: Sur la terrasse) by its first owner Paul Durand-Ruel.

Renoir worked on the painting on the terrace of the Maison Fournaise, a restaurant located on an island in the Seine in Chatou, the western suburb of Paris. The painting depicts a young woman and her younger sister seated outdoors with a small basket containing balls of wool. Over the railings of the terrace one can see shrubbery and foliage with the River Seine behind it.

In 1880 to 1881, shortly before working on Two Sisters, Renoir worked in this particular location on another well-known painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party.

Jeanne Darlot (1863—1914), a future actress who was 18 years old at the time, was posing as “the elder sister.” It is unknown who posed as the “younger sister,” but it is stated that the models were not actually related.

Renoir began work on the painting in April 1881 and on July 7, 1881, it was bought by the art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, for 1,500 francs. The painting was presented for the first time to the public at the 7th Impressionist exhibition in the spring of 1882. In 1883 it was known to be in the collection of Charles Ephrussi, an art collector and a publisher, but in 1892 the painting was returned again to the collection of the Durand-Ruel family.

In 1925, the painting was sold to Annie S. Coburn from Chicago for $100,000. After her death in 1932 the painting was bequeathed to the Art Institute of Chicago, where it has remained since 1933.

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Francisco Goya: The Father of Modern Art

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Execution of the Defenders of Madrid, 3rd May, 1808, 1814

Francisco Goya, considered to be “the Father of Modern Art,” began his painting career just after the late Baroque period. In expressing his thoughts and feelings frankly, as he did, he became the pioneer of new artistic tendencies which were to come to fruition in the 19th century. Two trends dominated the art of his contradictory; they actually were not. Together they represented the reaction against previous conceptions of art and the desire for a new form of expression.

In order to understand the scope of Goya’s art, and to appreciate the principles which governed his development and tremendous versatility, it is essential to realise that his work extended over a period of more than 60 years, for he continued to draw and paint until his 82nd year.

The importance of this factor is evident between his attitude towards life in his youth, when he accepted the world as it was quite happily, in his manhood when he began to criticise it, and in his old age when he became embittered and disillusioned with people and society. Furthermore, the world changed completely during his lifetime. The society, in which he had achieved a great success disappeared during the Napoleonic war. Long before the end of the 18th century Goya had already turned towards his new ideals and expressed them in his graphic art and in his paintings.

As an artist, Goya was by temperament far removed from the classicals. In a few works he approached Classical style, but in the greater part of his work the Romantic triumphed.

Born in Zaragoza, Spain, he found employment as a young teenager under the mediocre artist José Luzán, from whom he learned to draw and as was customary, copied prints of several masters.

At the age of 17 he went to Madrid. His style was influenced by two painters who were working there. The last of the great Venetian painters—Tiepolo and the rather cold and efficient neo-classical painter—Antonio Raphael Mengs. In 1763 he entered a competition at the Royal Academy of San Fernando, and failed, as he did in the year 1766. In 1770, he want to Rome and survived by living off his works of art.

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The Legend of Lady Godiva, 1897

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The Legend of Lady Godiva, 1897

Some 900 years ago an extraordinary occurrence took place on Market Day in the English midlands town of Coventry. Two monks at St. Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire first recorded this amazing story in Latin. Roger of Wendover wrote of it in the twelfth century and Mathew Paris in the early thirteenth century. As the Abbey stood at an important road junction, it would seem that the monks may have heard the story from travellers who were on their way from the Midlands to London.

The astonishing tale that has come down to us through the centuries, is that sometime in the eleventh-century a proud, pious lady rode through Coventry on Market Day completely naked, covered by nothing but her long hair!

Was this true? Apparently so! Who was this pious medieval streaker?

Lady Godiva was the lady, wife of Leofric, the Earl of Mercia. Earl Leofric was one of the all-powerful lords who ruled England under the Danish King Canute.
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Religion Art: Adam, Eve and That Famous Apple

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Religion Art: Adam, Eve and That Famous Apple

Apart from narrative images, portraits of Adam and Eve are not common. Those one does find are likely to be nude sculptures of the first parents in their prelapsarian state – attractive young adults, as in the statues at right or this one from Notre-Dame de Paris or this willowy Eve at Autun.

Narrative images are seen in six different categories as follows.

The Creation of Adam and Eve

In the first account of creation God makes “man” in his image and likeness, “male and female” (1:26-31). In the second Adam is created from mud and Eve from Adam’s rib (2:7, 21-22).

The creation of Adam is seen in some Genesis sequences, for example the reliefs on the façade of Orvieto Cathedral and the mosaic sequence at the cathedral in Monreale, Sicily. We see the creation of Eve as early as a 4th-century Roman sarcophagus, where she is created by one of the earliest images of the Trinity. In the sarcophagus relief Eve is already standing by the side of the sleeping Adam, but later works such as the 12th-century mosaics at Monreale Cathedral and Palermo’s Palatine Chapel and the reliefs on the 14th-century façade of Orvieto Cathedral all show her emerging from Adam’s ribcage or torso.

Eve’s creation seems to be a more popular subject than Adam’s. In a 13th-century Swiss manuscript page with a medallion for each day of creation, the sixth day has God creating a human who is almost certainly Eve.

In modern illustrations the Creator will often be an old man with a beard, but in all the images mentioned here he is visualized as the Son, not the Father. The Son, who was to become incarnate as the man Jesus, is the “Word” of John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God and the Word was God.… And the Word was made flesh.” At least as early as the 2nd century Christian writers extended this to imply that it was the Son who interacted with Adam and Eve in the garden, and the artists followed this cue.1

Religion Art: Adam, Eve and That Famous Apple

The Fall of Man

In Genesis 3:1-8 the serpent persuades Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which God had forbidden. Eve then gives some of the fruit to Adam and they immediately realize they are in big trouble. From the earliest times Christian writers identified the serpent with what Revelation 12:9 calls “that old serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, who seduceth the whole world.”

The iconography of this narrative is exemplified in the second picture at right. This iconographic type has been in use since at least the 4th-century and has experienced little change. The couple stand on either side of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, with Adam usually on the left. The serpent coils around the trunk of the tree, which carries fruit. Eve will be variously reaching for the fruit, taking it, and/or passing some to Adam. The couple is sometimes shown completely naked when they take the fruit, as stated in Genesis 2:24 and illustrated in the second picture at right. But most artists either pose them so as to preserve modesty (example) or simply neglect to include the genitalia (example).

Before the Gothic era the serpent was just a generic snake, but in the mid-12th century Peter Comestor wrote that there is a certain species of serpent that has the face of a young girl, and that Satan had chosen to use that kind of serpent to beguile Eve because “like heeds like.”3 This claim was repeated by subsequent commentators, the putative species acquired a name (“Draconcopedes”), and by the early 13th century female faces started to appear on the serpent.4 The earliest may be this relief at Amiens. By the 14th and 15th centuries they become quite common (example). The most illustrious example is Michelangelo’s panel on the Temptation in the Sistine Chapel.

God Confronts the Couple and Expels from Paradise

After they eat the fruit the couple realize they are naked and make themselves garments of fig leaves. These are almost always represented as single leaves covering the genitals, as in the third picture at right, where we see God confront them. The confrontation is less common in the art than the actual expulsion from Eden, in which God “cast out Adam; and placed before the paradise of pleasure Cherubims and a flaming sword turning every way, to keep the way of the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24). The images usually have an angel do the casting out, as in the fourth picture at right. That picture also portrays the “garments of skins” (3:21) that God made for the couple. These vary in the art, sometimes taking the form of shaggy tunics as at right and sometimes more leather-like as in this sarcophagus relief.

The fourth picture at right portrays a Cherub in addition to the angel, but that is much less common in the art.

The Assignment of Labors

As part of their punishment God tells Adam he will have to work to eat: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (3:19). The point is repeated a few verses later: “The Lord God sent him out of the paradise of pleasure, to till the earth from which he was taken” (3:23). In the 8th century Bede commented on 3:19 that the curse of work applied to Eve as well (In Pentateuchum Commentarii, col. 213), and she has always been included in images of God’s assigning labor to mankind.

There have been two ways of looking at the curse. One was to see it as a plain hardship, as in this 12th-century relief where Adam and Eve bend sadly over a little hillock with their hoes, or this mosaic where Eve looks up disconsolately from her spinning. (The stereotypically female task of spinning thread is the one most commonly given to Eve in images of this kind.)

The other way of looking at the curse is to accentuate the positive. Sarcophagi of the 4th century, for example, symbolize the assignment of labor to the couple by showing Adam with a sheaf of wheat and Eve with a lamb (example). The sheaf represents the fruit of Adam’s labor. The lamb refers to the task of spinning, but with an emphasis on the lamb’s closeness to Eve and possibly a reference to the “lamb of God” that will be borne by Eve’s counterpart, Mary. A catacomb painting from the same century seems to show the couple’s progression from wearing animal skins to the more comfortable life that results from the labors God has assigned.

We see this optimism again in the Middle Ages in this example of domestic contentment in Adam’s family and in Bede’s remark that Adam “…was sent out from the paradise of bliss ‘to till the earth,’ that is, to labor in the body and gain for himself the merit to return to life, which is what the name of Paradise signifies, and be able to touch the tree of life and live forever” (ibid., col. 215, my translation). In the early sarcophagi this optimistic emphasis is so strong that the sculptors almost invariably place the sheaf of wheat in the scene of eating the fruit, as in this sarcophagus. There is another sarcophagus that puts both the sheaf and the lamb in the picture.

Adam Pictured at the Crucifixion

Medieval and earlier images of the Crucifixion sometimes include Adam in a coffin below the base of the cross (example). This is to remind the viewer that “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22), a point especially stressed in this manuscript illumination, where Adam holds a chalice to collect the blood falling from Jesus’ body on the cross.

The Anastasis or Harrowing of Hell

In “Anastasis” or “Harrowing of Hell” images the risen Christ rescues the souls of those who were faithful in the years before the Redemption. Adam and Eve are always the first of these. In western images they may be naked (example); in eastern ones they will be clothed (example).

adam and eve, adam and eve posters, christianity posters, biblical figures, renaissance art, old testament figures, religion and spirituality, decorative art prints

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Art Nouevau: A decorative-art movement centered in Western Europe

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Art Nouevau: A decorative-art movement centered in Western Europe

Art Nouevau is decorative-art movement centered in Western Europe. It began in the 1880s as a reaction against the historical emphasis of mid-19th-century art, but did not survive World WarI. Art nouveau originated in London and was variously called Jugendstil in Germany, Sezessionstil in Austria, and Modernismo in Spain.

In general it was most successfully practiced in the decorative arts: furniture, jewelry, and book design and illustration. The style was richly ornamental and asymmetrical, characterized by a whiplash linearity reminiscent of twining plant tendrils. Its exponents chose themes fraught with symbolism, frequently of an erotic nature. They imbued their designs with dreamlike and exotic forms.

The outstanding designers of art nouveau in England include the graphic artist Aubrey Beardsley, A. H. Mackmurdo, Charles Ricketts, Walter Crane, and the Scottish architect Charles R. Mackintosh; in Belgium the architects Henry Van de Velde and Victor Horta; in France the architect and designer of the Paris métro entrances, Hector Guimard, and the jewelry designer René Lalique; in Austria the painter Gustav Klimt; in Spain the architect Antonio Gaudí; in Germany the illustrator Otto Eckmann and the architect Peter Behrens; in Italy the originator of the ornamental Floreale style, Giuseppe Sommaruga; and in the United States Louis Sullivan, whose architecture was dressed with art nouveau detail, and the designer of elegant glassware Louis C. Tiffany.

The aesthetics of the movement were disseminated through various illustrated periodicals including The Century Guild Hobby Horse (1894), The Dial (1889), The Studio (begun, 1893), The Yellow Book (1894–95), and The Savoy (1896–98). The works of Beardsley and Tiffany were especially popular.

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