Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1

This is Part 1 of a meta-list of the most highly-regarded paintings, sculptures and various other works of visual art. For Part 2, go HERE. For Part 3, go HERE.  To create the list, I collected more than 34 lists of “Best Works of Art” from websites and books and combined them into one list. This list contains the paintings and sculptures (and several pieces of decorative art) on three or more of the original source lists, organized by rank, that is, with the artworks that were on the most lists at the top. Part 1 begins with the artworks that were on the most lists (28) and ends with the artworks that were on 6 lists.  Part 2 includes the works of art on 4 or 5 of the original source lists. Part 3 includes works on 3 of the original source lists.


  • This is a meta-list that combines multiple lists made by critics, academics and other experts.  These are not my personal opinions.
  • Many of the images are public domain but some are not. I believe that these images are covered by the fair use and educational purpose exceptions.
  • Although I tried to find lists of the best art from all places and all times, most of the lists I found focused on the art of Western Civilization, and some of those lists focused almost exclusively on Western European and North American art.  I apologize for the ethnocentric biases of my sources.
  • The heavy emphasis on Western European artists working between 1300 and 1700 also means that many of the most highly regarded works contain Christian religious imagery. At that time, most people viewing the art would have been familiar with these stories and symbols, but today many folks trying to appreciate these works are not Christian, or may not otherwise be as familiar with Christian imagery as the average art-viewing European of that time. The same goes for the mythology of Greece, Rome and other cultures, which often provide the subject matter for works of art. Reading up on Christian religious imagery and Greco-Roman mythology may help to put the art in context.
  • Some of the images portray the unclothed human form. I don’t think there is anything obscene about any of these images, but if you are offended by nudity, please be warned.
  • For a chronologically-organized history of visual art, check out the Art History 101 lists, starting HERE.

On 28 Lists

1. Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Date: Most agree that the painting was begun in Milan about 1503, with major work completed by 1506, but that Leonardo continued to work on the portrait and may not have completed it until 1516-1517. Some scholars believe the painting begun in 1503 has been lost and the surviving portrait was not begun until 1513.
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Italy; secular portrait
Medium: Oil paints on Lombardy poplar panels
Dimensions: 2.5 ft. tall by 1.7 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
The Mona Lisa is probably the most famous painting in the world; it has been studied, copied, parodied and used in thousands of advertisements, memes and cartoons. The small painting is a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo (born Lisa Gherardini), the third wife of Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, a Florentine cloth and silk merchant. But although del Giocondo commissioned the work, there is no evidence that he ever paid for it or received it. In fact, Leonardo da Vinci kept the painting with him for years, probably continuing to work on it after he moved from Italy to France. It was eventually purchased by French king Francis I, the patron of Leonardo’s last years. The painting, which follows Leonardo’s favorite compositional model, the pyramid, shows the subject in a three-quarter pose. The subject’s face and clothing (in the fashionable Spanish style) are painted using a technique called sfumato, in which features are blurred into one another using light and shadow instead of being clearly delineated, creating a sense that the painted objects are slightly out of focus. Some aspects of the painting hearken back to traditional Madonna paintings, but the artist distances us from the subject by inserting the arm of a chair between her and the viewer. Also distancing us from the subject is her famous enigmatic expression with the half-smile that, some have said, looks on the viewer with bemusement while she keeps her secrets to herself. Richard Alleyne of The Telegraph writes, “One of the charms of the [Mona Lisa] is that she appears radiant one moment and then serious and sardonic the next”, The landscape behind the Mona Lisa has also attracted attention; Leonardo uses a technique called aerial perspective to show us an idealized landscape. A contemporary drawing of the painting by Raphael shows a different background, with prominent columns. This has led some art historians to speculate that an earlier version of the portrait has been lost and the existing version (without the columns) came later. Random Trivia: Two parodies are shown below: at left, a print by Eugène Bataille (a.k.a. Sapeck) of Mona Lisa smoking a pipe, which was published in Le Rire in 1887; at right, Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (loosely translated by Duchamp as “there is a fire down below”) which was published in 1920 along with a Dada manifesto in the journal 391.

2. Frescoes, Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Artist: Michelangelo (full name: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni)
Date: The work began in 1508 and was completed in 1512.
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Rome, Italy; religious
Medium: Frescoes painted on chapel ceiling
Dimensions: 131 ft. long by 43 ft. wide
Current location: Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace, Vatican City 
sistine chapel ceiling
michelangelo sistine chapel sun and moon
 “I am no painter,” Michelangelo wrote to a friend while painting the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Although he was known for his sculptures, Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint religious scenes over the blue ceiling (dotted with stars) of the chapel where the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church met to elect new popes. Michelangelo’s formidable reputation earned him an unusual amount of control over the content of the frescoes. The complex scheme includes a realistic but fictitious painted architecture, complete with putti (or cherubs) in grisaille, portraits of both Biblical patriarchs and prophets and pagan sibyls believed to have predicted the coming of Christ), portraits of Jesus’s ancestors, and scenes from the Old Testament. There are nine large panels in the center of the ceiling, with three panels each for the Creation, the story of Adam and Eve, and the story of Noah and the Flood. The specific scenes, all referenced in the Book of Genesis are (in chronological order): (1) God separates the light from the darkness; (2) creation of the sun, the moon and vegetation (see third image above); (3)  God separates the land from the sea; (4) creation of Adam; (5) creation of Eve; (6) original sin and banishment from the garden of Eden; (7) the sacrifice of Noah; (8) the flood; (9) the drunkenness of Noah. Michelangelo set up his scaffolding at the far end of the chapel and began painting the Noah story. When he came back down to see his progress from below, he realized the figures were too small to be seen clearly (the ceiling is 68 feet high) so he simplified his compositions and made the figures larger. The final six panels he painted are the most magnificent. The Creation of Adam (see second image above) is justly the most famous image of the ceiling: God, swathed in an angel-festooned cloud, reaches out his hand, while the waking human being reaches out and their fingers almost touch. Throughout the work, Michelangelo pays tribute to an idealized notion of the human form – perfectly muscled beings (the women’s bodies look male for a reason: nude female models were not morally acceptable in the Renaissance) who seem sculpted rather than painted. The work took five years, with a break in the middle. Contrary to myth, Michelangelo stood upright on scaffolding, not on his back, while executing the work, which required him to tilt his head backward for long periods. Over the years, candle smoke darkened and subdued the frescoes, so much so that when a 20-year restoration was completed in 1999, a few were shocked by the brilliance and vividness of the original colors, although most were astonished by the revelation of the artist’s “jewel like palette.”  The images below show: at left, the Prophet Joel; and, at right, the Libyan Sibyl. Random Trivia: In 1509, soon after beginning the project, Michelangelo wrote a poem to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia lamenting his experience of painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which includes the line, “My brush, above me all the time, dribbles paint so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!”
Joel_(Michelangelo)  sibyl sistine chapel

3. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Artist: Pablo Picasso
Date: 1907
Period/Style: Modernism; Cubism; Spain/France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 8 ft. tall by 7.7 ft. wide
Current location: Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Spanish painter Pablo Picasso’s deliberately shocking image of five prostitutes from a Barcelona brothel caused nothing less than an artistic revolution; it heralded a new modernism in art. Picasso’s biographer John Richardson calls it “the most innovative painting since Giotto.” Painted in Paris during the summer of 1907, following months of preparatory work and hundreds of preliminary sketches and studies, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon breaks all the rules: Picasso makes no attempt to create the illusion of three-dimensionality; he ignores the rules of perspective and abandons the idea of proportionality. Space in the painting’s world is fragmented and compressed; sharp angles abound – even a slice of cantaloupe becomes a lethal weapon. His women are not beautiful; their sharp-edged bodies seem capable of violence. They stare back at the viewer with “eyes that look out as if at death”, according to John Berger. In perhaps the most shocking of the painting’s shocks, the two figures on the right possess grotesque features influenced by Ancient Iberian sculpture and (although Picasso denied it) African masks. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (not Picasso’s title, he preferred to call it The Brothel of Avignon) was a conscious attempt by the 25-year-old Picasso to shake up the modernist art world. Drawing on influences as diverse as El Greco’s Opening of the Fifth Seal (see image below left); Cézanne’s The Large Bathers, and Paul Gauguin’s primitivist sculptures, Picasso’s large painting was in some ways a reaction to two recent works by his older rival, Henri Matisse: Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life) (1906) and The Blue Nude (1907). As Picasso saw it, Matisse’s art – which had been hailed as revolutionary – maintained a connection with the forms, narratives and mythologies of the past; Picasso sought instead a violent break with those traditions. To emphasize this rupture, he removed any narrative elements from Les Demoiselles (early sketches show that his original conception included two male patrons in the brothel, a sailor and a medical student holding a skull) (see image below right showing early sketch now . While on one level the painting may be about raw female sexuality, Picasso’s complicated and unhealthy relationships with women, and (in a theory propounded by Suzanne Blier) the roles of women in different cultures, it is even more about the act of seeing and the act of making art. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso shows us that attempts to realistically represent the world (particularly its three-dimensionality) on a two-dimensional canvas are illusions and lies, and that perhaps the only way an artist can create truthfully is to expose the nature of that deception. This one painting would force every artist from that point on to either accept the challenge posed by Picasso (Georges Braque took Picasso’s experiments and formalized them into Cubism), or reject it – either way, this new modernist clarion call could not be ignored.

On 27 Lists

4. Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor)

Artist: Diego Velázquez (full name: Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez)
Date: The traditional date for the painting is 1656, but some recent scholarship supports a later date of 1659-60.
Period/Style: Baroque; Spain; royal portrait
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 10.4 ft. tall by 9 ft. wide
Current location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

By the time Diego Velázquez painted Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), he had been court painter for Spanish king Philip IV for over 30 years; he lived in the palace with the royal family, had painted dozens of portraits of Philip, his family and entourage, and had numerous other duties, including managing the king’s art collection, and arranging various pageants, festivals and other court events. After two visits to Italy, his unique interpretation of the Baroque style was well established; his loose, economic brushstrokes and consummate skill at portraying human faces would influence painters as diverse as Goya and Manet, while Picasso and Dali both paid tribute to him in their work. Of all Velázquez’s works, Las Meninas has generated the most scholarly debate. What does it mean? On one level, it is a portrait of the Infante Margaret Theresa, daughter of King Philip and his second wife, Mariana of Austria, and her entourage (chaperon, ladies in waiting, and others). But there is so much more going on here. The painting appears to be less a posed portrait than a snapshot of a moment in time. The artist paints himself into the picture (the tallest figure in the composition) working on a large canvas in what we know is his studio at the palace (see image below left). Is this a self-portrait? He is proudly displaying the insignia of the Order of Santiago (which he received in 1659, one of the reasons some scholars believe the traditional date of 1656 is incorrect). Is this painting a thank you to the king for the honor? And what about the mirror in the back of the room? The faces shown there are of the king and queen, who standing exactly where the viewer would be (see image below right), watching the scene; what does it mean that we, the viewers, are given the perspective of the royals? What does it mean to be outside the painting but also inside it, by means of a reflection? Note that Velázquez would have been familiar with the mirror in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, which hung in King Philip’s palace at the time.) Or is Velázquez painting the portrait of the king and queen, and the mirror is reflecting what is on his canvas? Who is the courtier in the background? Is he pulling the curtain open or is he closing it? And what about the dwarves, one of whom (the jester) has his foot on the dog’s back? While at first glance the composition seems balanced, Velazquez has not established a central point toward which all the perspective lines converge. Why not? One theory says that the painter was painting a portrait of the Infante when the king and queen stopped by for a visit. They explain the behavior of the ladies in waiting as their attempts to persuade the young girl to stand still so the painter can do his work. Another theory says the Infante and her attendants are visiting the artist’s studio while he is painting the king and queen. In raising all these questions, Las Meninas goes far beyond a mere royal portrait to address some of the most important truths about art iself, the nature of perception and its relationship to an objective reality. According to Hugh Honour and John Fleming in their art history textbook, Las Meninas is “Velázquez’s supreme achievement, a highly self-conscious, calculated demonstration of what painting could achieve, and perhaps the most searching comment ever made on the possibilities of the easel painting.”
velazquez in las meninas   

5. Guernica

Artist: Pablo Picasso
Date: 1937
Period/Style: Cubism; Surrealism; Spain/France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 11.5 ft. tall by 25.5 ft. wide
Current location: Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain
An anti-war icon, Guernica was Picasso’s impassioned response to the bombing of a Basque Country village by German warplanes supporting Franco’s Nationalists on April 27, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso painted Guernica for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, where he was living at the time. (Ironically, the theme of the Exposition was a celebration of modern technology.) According to Hugh Honor and John Fleming, Picasso’s aim in painting Guernica was “to press into ideological service all the sophisticated techniques of modern art.” Guernica was painted using a palette of mostly black, white and gray to set a somber tone. Among the elements of the work are: (1) on the left, a bull stands over a grieving woman holding a dead child; (2) in the center, a horse with a gaping wound in its side falls in agony; (3) the bull’s tail becomes a flame with smoke; (4) beneath the horse lies a dead soldier; his severed arm holds a broken sword from which a flower grows; (5) a lightbulb/evil eye/sun (lightbulb is ‘bombilla’ in Spanish, while ‘bomba’ is Spanish for bomb) hangs over the horse’s head (see detail in image below); (6) a woman floats into the room through a window to witness the horror, while her long arm holds a lamp near the lightbulb; (7) a woman stares up blankly at the lightbulb; (8) instead of tongues, daggers emerge from the mouths of the bull, the horse and the grieving woman; (9) there is a drawing of a dove with an olive branch on the wall, and a crack in the wall lets light in from outside; and (10) a man on the far right raises his arms in terror as fire engulfs him from above and below. Interpretations of the mural are many and varied and often contradict one another, although all agree that this is Picasso’s protest against the bombing of Guernica in particular and war in general. Picasso’s response to questions about the meaning of his work was, “This bull is a bull and this horse is a horse.” After the Fascists won the Civil War, Picasso refused to allow the painting to go to Spain as long as the Fascists remained in power. As a result, Guernica was sent to New York and was exhibited at Museum of Modern Art until 1981, after the restoration of democracy in Spain. Upon its arrival in Spain, Guernica was displayed in the Casón del Buen Retiro, part of the Museo del Prado in Madrid. In 1992, the painting was moved to a specially-constructed gallery in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.

On 26 Lists

6. The Scream 

Artist: Edvard Munch
Date: The first and second versions were created in 1893. A third version was made in 1895 and a fourth in 1910.
Period/Style: Symbolism; Expressionism; Norway
Medium: Version 1: tempera and crayon on cardboard. Version 2: crayons on cardboard. Version 3: pastels on cardboard. Version 4: tempera on cardboard.
Dimensions: Version 1: 3.1 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide. Version 2: 2.1 ft. tall by 1.8 ft. wide. Version 3: 2.6 ft. tall by 1.9 ft. wide. Version 4: 2.7 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. tall.
Current locations: Version 1: National Gallery, Oslo, Norway. Versions 2 and 4: Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway. Version 3: Private collection.
In 2012, a private art collector paid $120 million for one of four versions of Edvard Munch’s iconic image, The Scream, setting a record at the time. This version, made in 1895 (two years after the first two versions) was unique in having a poem by Munch etched into its frame. The poem describes the moment that gave birth to The Scream:

I was walking along the road with two friends. The Sun was setting –
The Sky turned a bloody red
And I felt a whiff of Melancholy – I stood
Still, deathly tired – over the blue-black
Fjord and City hung Blood and Tongues of Fire
My Friends walked on – I remained behind
– shivering with Anxiety – I felt the great Scream in Nature.

Munch painted four versions of The Scream between 1893 and 1910, two with tempera, one with pastels, and one with crayons. Each version contains the same basic elements, but some of the details differ. The version considered definitive is the second one from 1893, which is now in the National Gallery in Oslo (see image above). The three versions in public collections are in Norway. Munch also made approximately 45 black and white prints of the image from a lithographic stone he made in 1895, some of which Munch painted. The Scream influenced art history, notably Expressionism, as well as popular culture. It resonates with so many because it expresses the deep dread that seemed to seep into society about the time it was painted. As art curator Jill Lloyd explained in a 2016 interview, “It presents man cut loose from all the certainties that had comforted him up until that point in the 19th Century: there is no God now, no tradition, no habits or customs – just poor man in a moment of existential crisis, facing a universe he doesn’t understand and can only relate to in a feeling of panic.” The image has now become a pop culture icon, which apparently makes it more attractive to thieves: First, the 1893 version was stolen from the National Gallery in 1994, but was recovered a few months later. Then, in 2004, the 1910 version in the Munch Museum was stolen, but was recovered in 2007.  Shown below are:
(1)  at left  version 1, from 1893, now in the Munch Museum in Oslo;
(2) at center, version 3, from 1895, now in a private collection; and
(3) at right, version 4, from 1910, also at the Munch Museum.
Random Trivia: The 1895 version of The Scream is not the only one with writing on it. Penciled into the sky of the 1893 version of The Scream in the National Gallery are the words (in Norwegian), “Could only have been painted by a madman.” No one knows who scribbled the message there, but Munch never removed it.  

munch the scream 3  The Scream by Edvard Munch  Munch_-_The_Scream_-1910 tempera

On 23 Lists

7. David

Artist: Michelangelo
Date: Begun in 1501; completed in 1504
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Florence, Italy; religious
Medium: Sculpture carved from Carrara marble
Dimensions: 17 ft. tall by 6.5 ft. wide; the statue weighs more than six tons.
Current location: The original sculpture is in the Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy. A replica has stood outside the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence since 1882.
 michelangelo david front
In 1501, officials from the Florence Cathedral sought out Michelangelo and asked him to carve a statue of the Biblical hero David from a huge (and expensive) block of Carrara marble that had been sitting in their courtyard since at least 1463. Two other sculptors had begun work on the statue, but abandoned the project. Instead of showing David with the dead Goliath, as was standard, Michelangelo decided to show the Bible hero in the moment after he has decided to fight the giant but before the actual battle – muscles tensed and attention peaked. David stands in a contrapposto pose that is evocative of the sculpture of Ancient Greece, the ideal that inspired so much Renaissance art. The David was originally commissioned to be one of several statues on the roof of Florence’s cathedral, and this upward looking perspective may explain why the figure’s head and hands are oversized compared to the rest of the body. After Michelangelo completed the work, cathedral officials decided it would be impossible to raise the six-ton statue to the roof, and decided to place it in the public square outside the Palazzo della Signoria, where it was unveiled in 1504. Erected during a period when the Medici family was banished from the Republic and democracy was flourishing, the David became a symbol of the power of the common people over tyrants. In 1873, because of weather damage, the statue was moved inside the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, where it remains. A replica was installed in the original location in 1910 (see image below left).  Random Trivia: (1) In 1991, a man smuggled a hammer into the museum and used it to destroy part of the David’s left foot, which was later restored using marble from the same quarry that provided the original stone. (2) The plan to place other statues on the roof of the Duomo never came to fruition, but in 2010, as part of the Florens 2010 forum, a fiberglass replica of the David was installed temporarily on the cathedral’s roof (see image below right).
david replica  david-duomo-firenze

8. The Starry Night

Artist: Vincent Van Gogh
Date: June 1889
Period/Style: Post-Impressionism; The Netherlands/France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.4 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide
Current location: Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
A few months after cutting off almost all of his left ear, Vincent Van Gogh checked himself into a sanitarium in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in southern France in an attempt to cure his ever-worsening mental illness. He was allowed two rooms – one to sleep in and one to paint in – and was permitted to go outside to paint en plein air with supervision. He painted The Starry Night in June 1889 – it is a night scene with a crescent moon and swirling stars over a quiet town that is all straight lines and sharp edges. The scene is imaginary: it contains some of the elements of the view from Van Gogh’s window, but the town is invented (it could be based on a sketch Van Gogh made of Arles or a memory of a Dutch village) and while there were cypress trees in the field outside his window, none of them was so close to the sanitarium. Van Gogh was disappointed with the painting; he felt it was too abstract, too much of the imagination and not enough of nature. (He and Gauguin had often argued about this very dichotomy, with Van Gogh taking the side of nature against Gauguin’s imagined worlds.) Many have found signs of Van Gogh’s mental state in the turbulent swirls in the night sky. Others see religious imagery: the man-made church steeple attempts to breach the gap between the earth and the heavens, but it is only the cypress that truly connects the two realms. Thus nature, not church, is the true pathway to the eternal. Note also that in many parts of Europe, cypress trees were commonly planted in cemeteries and were associated with mourning, death and eternal life. The stars were also symbols of eternal life to Van Gogh, who once wrote that, just as we take a train to travel on Earth, “we take death to reach a star.” Others have analyzed the starry night in astronomical terms. There was no crescent moon that night in June, they note (it was gibbous), but Van Gogh preferred to have one. The brightest star in the sky is not a star at all but the planet Venus. And some point to recently-published drawings of telescopic images from far away galaxies (then called nebulae) to account for the swirling image at the center of the sky.

On 21 Lists

9. The Third of May, 1808

Artist: Francisco Goya
Date: 1814
Period/Style: Romanticism; Spain; history painting
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 8.8 ft. tall by 11.4 ft. wide
Current location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Third of May_Francisco_de_GoyaIn 1808, during the Napoleonic Wars, French troops occupied Spain and placed Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s older brother, on the throne. The French takeover sparked the Spanish War of Independence, which began on May 2, 1808 with an uprising in Madrid, which was savagely put down with massacres on May 3. In 1814, the Spanish finally expelled Napoleon and his French troops after seven years of occupation and war. It was then that artist Francisco Goya approached the provisional government seeking permission to create artworks that, in his words, would “perpetuate …the most notable and heroic actions of our glorious insurrection against the Tyrant of Europe.” Permission granted, Goya chose to create two works: The Second of May, showing the Madrid uprising (see image below), and The Third of May, showing the aftermath. At dawn the day after the uprising, French troops rounded up hundreds of Spaniards to be shot by firing squads. In The Third of May, 1808, Goya imagines one such firing squad. An unarmed man in a glowing white shirt bravely confronts the rifles of the faceless French soldiers. He holds his arms up in a manner that suggests at the same time a gesture of outrage, a willingness to die for a righteous cause, and the posture of Christ on the cross. Goya presents this man to us as a tragic victim of injustice and cruelty, but also as a martyr and a hero. At the time, the painting was misunderstood; war paintings usually dramatized battle heroics, not the pointless and mechanistic slaughter of the defenseless. We see those who have died before, and those waiting their turn – the focus is on just one, nameless man in inexplicable suffering – he is no one and everyone. The style was also ahead of its time: rushed and chaotic brushstrokes bring a sense of the frenzy of the moment. All the technique is secondary to the emotional message – this is a truly Romantic painting, but it also feels very modern.

On 22 lists

10. Frescoes, Scrovegni Chapel (Arena Chapel)

Artist: Giotto (full name: Giotto di Bondone)
Date: c. 1305
Period/Style: Medieval period; Proto-Renaissance style; Padua, Italy
Medium: Frescoes painted on chapel walls
Dimensions: The side walls contain 37 frescoes, most of them 6.5 ft. square, with scenes from the Life of Christ and the Life of Mary. The Last Judgment fresco on the west wall measures 32.8 ft. tall by 27.6 ft. wide.
Current location: Scrovegni Chapel (Arena Chapel), Padua, Italy

Like most 14th Century Christians who loaned money in return for interest, Italian banker Enrico Scrovegni was concerned about his salvation. The Bible contained a proscription against usury, and for many centuries the only people willing to lend money were non-Christians. By the early 14th Century, Christians had begun to enter the banking business, but with anxiety. Years earlier, Dante had assigned Enrico Scrovegni’s banker father Reginaldo Scrovegni to the Seventh Circle of Hell in his Inferno. When Enrico Scrovegni built a new family palace in Padua, he made sure that a private family chapel was attached and he commissioned Italian artist Giotto di Bondone to paint frescoes on the chapel walls. Giotto is presumed to have finished the work by the dedication of the chapel on March 25, 1305. Most of the frescoes depict scenes from the life of Christ and the life of Mary, while Giotto painted a larger fresco of the Last Judgment for the wall above the entrance, and various other images throughout the room. The Scrovegni Chapel frescoes mark a significant break with medieval styles and herald the beginning of the new, humanistic style that would blossom in the Renaissance. Giotto is breaking away from the flat, stylized representations of Medieval and Gothic art by infusing the scenes with more emotional intensity, drawing figures with greater solidity (using modeling instead of line), and constructing more naturalistic environments for the characters to inhabit. In the Kiss of Judas (see image above at left), part of the Life of Christ cycle, Giotto presents not the kiss but the tense face-to-face confrontation between Jesus and Judas, while soldiers rush in and the apostles fight back in a frenzy of action. Giotto marshals every detail – lighting, expressions, gestures, even the folds of their clothes – to heighten the drama. In the Lamentation of Christ, another panel from the Life of Christ cycle (see image at right), note the way the line of the rock wall leads the viewer’s eye to Christ’s face; the emotional expressions on the faces of the mourners, including the angels; and the inclusion of figures with their backs turned to us – a realistic detail that anchors the composition. Unlike the seemingly weightless medieval/Gothic figures – who seem to inhabit an ethereal realm – Giotto painted more realistic human beings who occupied space in this world. His influence on the history of Western art cannot be overestimated.  Random Trivia: It is clear that Scrovegni hoped that the chapel and its religious art would help him overcome the sin of usury and achieve salvation. To emphasize the point, Giotto painted a likeness of Enrico Scrovegni in The Last Judgment fresco, showing him offering a model of the chapel to the Virgin Mary (see image below).
 giotto scrovegni detail

11. The Birth of Venus

Artist: Sandro Botticelli (born Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi)
Date: 1484-1486
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; mythological
Medium: Tempera paints on canvas
Dimensions: 5.7 ft. tall by 9.1 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Birth of Venus 2Renaissance Humanists found enormous inspiration in all things Classical, including Greek and Roman mythology. Painted for the Medici family of Florence, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, like his Primavera before it, portrays a mythological story with the grand scale previously reserved for Christian religious art. In Roman mythology, Venus was the goddess of love, beauty and sex. In one of her representations, Venus Anadyomene, she was said to have been born from the sea after the god Cronus castrated his father Uranus and threw his genitalia into the ocean; Venus emerged from the resulting foam fully grown. Botticelli shows the wind gods Zephyr and Aura bringing a nude Venus to the shore, while she stands in a contrapposto pose on a scallop shell (symbol of female sexuality). This life-size Venus is probably the first large female nude in a non-Christian setting since Classical antiquity. She poses shyly in the famous Venus Pudica stance, waiting for one of the Graces to cover up her nudity with a cape. Scholars have noted that Venus’s pose defies the laws of physics: she is putting too much weight on one leg to stay balanced, and her position on the seashell would cause it to tip forward. This is consistent with Botticelli’s work generally, which hearkens back in some ways to Medieval styles: his figures often lack a sense of weight, of being fully grounded, and he rarely spends much energy on the use of linear perspective that so fascinated artists like Piero della Francesca and Andrea Mantegna. The dream world of The Birth of Venus is unrecognizable to us, but it beckons nonetheless.

On 21 Lists

12. The Garden of Earthly Delights

Artist: Hieronymous Bosch (born Jheronimus van Aken)
Date: There is no consensus about the date of the work. Published estimates range from 1480 to 1515, with a significant number narrowing the time span to 1490-1510 or (even narrower) 1495-1505.
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Northern Renaissance; The Netherlands; religious
Medium: Triptych make with oil paints on oak panels
Dimensions: 6.75 ft. tall by 12.7 ft. wide
Current location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
boschThe work of Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch is filled with enigmas: fantastic creatures, bizarre encounters, unearthly landscapes, and symbols, the meaning of which art historians have debated for centuries. The inspirations for Bosch’s images are not clear; his unique vision appears to have no precursors in Western art. Of all the enigmatic works of art Bosch created, the triptych known as The Garden of Earthly Delights has generated the most commentary and the widest range of interpretations. When the side panels are closed, we see a transparent sphere set in a void (see image below, top row, at left). A tiny God sits at upper left. Inside the sphere, we see a watery earth with plants and rocks but no other living things. Is this the world on Day 3 of Creation, as some believe, or is it a vision of the Deluge, the Flood that washed over the world to cleanse it of sin? The interior panels show:
(1) on the left, the Garden of Eden, with God presenting Eve to Adam amidst some fantastical scenes and creatures; note how both Adam and Eve are in physical contact with God, who is represented not as an old man but as a young, Jesus-like figure (see detail in image below, top row, at right);
(2) on the right, we see the torments and fires of Hell, with demons torturing, eating and defecating humans (see detail in image below, bottom row, at left); note the many musical instruments – unlike many artists, Bosch apparently sees music as a pathway to sin.
(3) in the center, the panel that has generated the most controversy (see detail in image below, bottom row, at right). Does it show an earthly paradise from an innocent time before humans knew shame (note that the center panel shares the landscape and horizon line with the Garden of Eden panel) or does it represent the lustful sinful existence of depraved humanity that must be wiped out by the Flood? Any why all the giant fruit? Art historians are deeply divided on these questions. Bosch had few imitators at the time (although Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Giuseppe Arcimboldo were influenced by him) but in the 20th Century, his vivid illusions and fantastic creations inspired the Surrealists, some of whom populated their dreamscapes with Bosch-like creatures.

Bosch_- _The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_exterior_(shutters)  bosch earthly delights detail 1
 bosch hell detail  

13. The Isenheim Altarpiece

Artist: Matthias Grünewald (also known as Mathis Gothart or Neithardt) (paintings); Niclaus of Hagenau (sculptures)
Date: 1515 or 1516.
Period/Style: Northern Gothic; Northern Renaissance; Germany/France; religious
Medium: Wooden altarpiece with painted and sculpted panels
Dimensions: 9 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide (center panel); 7.5 ft. tall by 2.5 ft. wide (wings); 2.5 ft. high by 11 ft. wide (predella).
Current location: Musée Unterlinden, Colmar, France
isenheim 1
Isenheim 2The monks of the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim ran a hospital. When visitors to the chapel of the hospital looked up at the altar, they saw a Crucifixion scene like no other: Christ’s twisted, emaciated torso is afflicted with plague-like sores. The message to the sick and their caregivers is that Jesus shares the suffering of the hospital’s patients. The altarpiece contains a sculpted scene by Niclaus of Hagenau when fully open but is best known for the paintings of Matthias Grünewald, who retained an expressionistic Gothic sensibility even as he adopted the most recent Renaissance techniques. Due to hinged panels, the altarpiece presents several views, which would have been opened on Sundays and holy days. The first view, with the wings closed, shows the Crucifixion in the center, and two protectors of the sick, St. Sebastian (being martyred) on the left wing and St. Anthony on the right wing. The predella below shows the Lamentation over Christ’s Dead Body. The second view shows the Annunciation, the Nativity (with a concert of angels) and the Resurrection. The third view contains two paintings of events in the life of St. Anthony, with sculpted figures of St. Anthony, St. Augustine and St. Jerome in the center. Random Trivia: Matthias Grünewald’s Gothic realism inspired 20th Century expressionists like Otto Dix and George Grosz. The altarpiece also inspired an opera and symphony (Mathis der Maler) by 20th Century composer Paul Hindemith.

14. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa 

Artist: Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Date: The work was commissioned in 1647 and completed in 1652.
Period/Style: Baroque; Rome, Italy; religious
Medium: The sculptural group of Teresa and the angel is made of white marble as are the figures of the Cornaro family in the balconies. The niche and other elements of the chapel are made of wood, bronze (much of it gilded), and polychrome marble.
Dimensions: The sculptural group of St. Teresa and the Angel is 11.5 ft. tall.
Current location: Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria dell Vittoria, Rome, Italy
bernini ecstasy of st theresa

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is a masterwork of the High Roman Baroque style in its emphasis on theatricality and its appeal to the senses of the viewer. The life-sized white marble sculpture of St. Teresa and an angel is set in an elevated space in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. The statue was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Cornaro, who had chosen the church of the Discalced Carmelite order of nuns and priests for his burial chapel. Teresa of Ávila, who described her experience of religious ecstasy in almost sexual terms, had become the first Discalced Carmelite saint in 1622. St. Teresa appears to lean back on a cloud as she experiences a vision of an angel who has plunged his arrow into her heart, causing her physical pain but spiritual joy. Bernini, who was also an architect, sets the sculptural group in a niche where natural light can filter through a hidden window in the church dome. A moan escapes from St. Teresa’s throat as her face and body express her love of God through the metaphor of physical ecstasy. Meanwhile, at the sides of the chapel, marble statues of Cardinal Cornaro’s family member watch the drama from theater balconies, thus turning a personal religious experience into a public spectacle.

15. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

Artist: Georges Seurat
Date: 1886
Period/Style: Post-Impressionism; Pointillism/Divisionism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 7 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide
Current location: Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
A_Sunday_on_La_Grande_Jatte,_Georges_SeuratUnlike Impressionism, Post-Impressionism is not a consistent artistic style but is instead a catch-all term for a number of artists – including Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Georges Seurat – who rejected the Impressionist style that dominated France in the 1870s and 1880s. Seurat’s work was in many ways the antithesis of Impressionism. He based his painting on complex scientific theories about color and he did considerable preparation, including many sketches and preparatory oil paintings, before commencing a major work. Such a work is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte, a large canvas depicting an assortment of Parisians in a park on the Seine. At the time the work was painted, the island of Grand Jatte in the Seine was far from the center of Paris and was known as a recreational retreat for the bourgeoisie. The painting forms a companion piece to the large Bathers at Asnières from two years earlier, which shows working class Parisians on the banks of the Seine across from Grand Jatte (see image below). One of the boys in Bathers at Asnières is calling over to Grand Jatte, creating a link between the two paintings. But what exactly are all these people doing with their leisure time? A man is playing a musical instrument; a woman is fishing; people are wearing the latest fashions; there are plenty of children and dogs (and one pet monkey). But the mood is not festive. There is little sense of movement, no expressions of emotion; in some ways, these figures feel like statues. It is not surprising to learn that one of Seurat’s inspirations for the painting was the Parthenon frieze, with its parade of static, immobile figures frozen in stone. Our only way to pierce the impenetrable veil is the little girl in white (one of the few figures who is not in shadow). She stares directly out at the viewer, as if silently asking us: Who are all these people? Where do they come from and where are they going? A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte is the most famous example of pointillism (also called divisionism), a technique in which Seurat used small dots of complementary colors (usually unmixed) instead of brushstrokes, which the eye would then perceive at a distance as figures and other shapes. Seurat’s style actually changed during the two-year period he was working on the project, going from small dabs of paint to tiny dots. Even after exhibiting the work in 1886, he continued to work on it, adding a painted border consisting of tiny dots in inverse colors in 1888-1889, which gives the viewer the impression that the picture is unraveling from the outside in. Random Trivia: In the John Hughes film Ferris Bueller Day’s Off (1986), one of the characters engages in a cinematic dialogue with the painting that ends with a staring contest with the young girl in white.

On 20 Lists

16. The Raft of the Medusa

Artist: Théodore Géricault
Date: 1819
Period/Style: Romanticism; France; history painting
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 16 ft. tall by 23.5 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
GÉRICAULT_raft of the medusaThéodore Géricault’s immense canvas, The Raft of the Medusa, served multiple purposes: it established the painter as an artist; it took the side of the Romanticists in the ongoing debate with the Neoclassicists; and it made an antigovernment political statement. The painting depicts the denouement of a recent French sea tragedy. The French Naval frigate Méduse ran aground in 1816 due to the incompetence of its captain, who obtained his position through favoritism and patronage. Lack of adequate lifeboats forced at least 147 passengers and crew to crowd onto a makeshift raft, where lack of food and water led to starvation, murder and cannibalism. After 13 days at sea, the 15 who remained alive spotted a rescuing ship (see detail in image at below left); it was this moment that Théodore Géricault, then a relatively unknown 27-year-old French artist, chose to paint in all of its grisly detail. On the ramshackle raft, which looks ready to collapse, a father mourns his dead son; dead bodies lie outstretched. At the pinnacle, a black man (a hint of Géricault’s anti-slavery sentiments) waves a cloth to the tiny ship on the horizon. In researching the painting, Géricault interviewed survivors and constructed a scale model of the raft. He even visited morgues to accurately depict the skin tones of dead human bodies. When Géricault exhibited The Raft of the Medusa at the 1819 Paris Salon, its vivid representation of suffering and death repelled the then-dominant Neoclassicists (who derided it as a “pile of corpses”), but the rising Romanticists found its emotional message powerful and praised its politics. While its painting style, muscular nudes and semi-nudes (who don’t seem to show the effects of deprivation) and careful composition (using diagonals and pyramids to organize the elements and direct the eye) owe much to the Neoclassical tradition, The Raft of the Medusa is now considered a seminal work in the history of French Romantic art. By refusing to bow to the dogma that history paintings must provide an uplifting moral lesson and identify heroic gestures and personalities, the painting focuses instead on the cruelty of nature and the emotions of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Random Trivia: The model for the foreground figure with downturned face and outstretched arm was French painter Eugène Delacroix, a friend of Géricault’s (see detail in image below right).
Medusa_horizon_detail  raft of the medusa delacroix

17. American Gothic

Artist: Grant Wood
Date: 1930
Period/Style: Regionalism; US
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.4 ft. tall by 2 ft. wide
Current location: Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

One of the most recognized pieces of American art, American Gothic depicts two figures standing in front of the Dibble house in Eldon, Iowa. It was the architecture of the house that first caught Grant Wood’s attention and gave the work its title. The house was built in the Carpenter Gothic style; Wood thought that adding a Gothic window to an ordinary frame house was pretentious. Wood made a pencil sketch of the house while visiting Eldon in August 1930; he returned the next day (with the permission of the owners) to make another sketch using oils on paperboard. When Wood returned to his studio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he recruited his sister Nan to pose for the woman and his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby, to pose for the man (see image  below left showing the models with the painting). Although there is some evidence that Wood’s initial intent was to portray a husband and wife, Nan insisted that, at her age, she was supposed to be the farmer’s daughter, not his wife; Wood tactfully never disputed her interpretation. Wood entered the painting in a contest at the Art Institute of Chicago; it won third place and a cash prize of $300. According to Wood, he intended to make a statement in support of the traditional values of the American heartland – hard work, stoicism and resilience – as the Great Depression was just beginning. Some saw it that way. Others interpreted the painting as a biting satire of narrow, backward, small town people and attitudes. At some point during the Great Depression, American Gothic acquired a reputation as a tribute to the steadfast pioneer spirit. Wood’s iconic image was even selected for a patriotic poster by the U.S. Government during World War II. In modern times, the painting has been the source of many parodies, mostly affectionate, and is considered a cultural icon. Random Trivia: Perhaps the most powerful critique of American Gothic is Gordon Parks’ 1942 photographic portrait of Ella Watson, an African-American government worker, which he also entitled American Gothic (see image below right).
American-Gothic subjects  gordon-parks-american-gothic-30

On 19 Lists

18. The Terracotta Army

Artists: Thousands of anonymous government laborers and local craftsmen sculpted and constructed in separate pieces in their workshops.
Date: 246-208 BCE
Period/Style: Qin Dynasty; Xi’an, China
Medium: Most of the figures are made of terracotta, although some items (such as a half life-size team of horses and chariot) are made of bronze, silver and gold.
Dimensions: Approximately 8,000 unique, life-size sculpted soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, 150 cavalry horses, and various pieces of armor, weapons, and non-military figures and implements.
Current location: Xi’an, China, at the site of the Tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. The site is both a museum and an ongoing archaeological dig.
terracotta army  
In 1974, a group of farmers digging a well in Xi’an, China came upon fragments of terracotta and some arrowheads, which they brought to the local cultural center. Archaeologists soon determined that the farmers had stumbled upon the vast underground burial complex of Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin Dynasty in the 3rd Century BCE and first emperor of a united China. Buried with the emperor to protect him in the afterlife was an entire army, including 8,000 life-sized soldiers, each one with a unique face and uniform and equipment specific to his position and rank. Producing the army was an enormous undertaking: the figures were constructed in separate pieces in workshops by an army of 700,000 government laborers and local craftsmen, assembled and painted (very little of the paint remains), then arranged in the tomb according to rank and duty (see detail in images above). Although most of the figures are made of terracotta, items such as a half life-size team of horses and chariot are made of bronze, silver and gold (see image below). The tomb is located beneath a pyramidal earth mound at the base of Mt. Li. Much of the 38-square mile necropolis remains unexcavated, but a museum at the site features the partially-excavated Pit 1 (see top image).

19. The School of Athens

Artist: Raphael (born Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino)
Date: 1510-1511
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Rome, Italy; allegory/portraits
Medium: Fresco painted on the walls of a reception room
Dimensions: 16.5 ft. tall by 25 ft. wide
Current location: Stanza della Signatura, Vatican Palace, Vatican City 
school of athensThe School of Athens is one of several frescoes that Florentine artist Raphael painted on the walls of a suite of reception rooms in the Vatican Palace. The School of Athens, an allegorical painting on the topic of philosophy, adorns one wall of the Stanza della Segnatura (Room of the Signatura) and bears the inscription “Causarum Cognito” (“Seek Knowledge of Causes”). The frescoes on the other three walls represent Poetry and Music, Theology, and Law. Painted with impeccable attention to the laws of linear one-point perspective, Raphael’s fresco shows an open forum that recedes into the background. At the center, at the perspectival vanishing point, Plato (holding the Timaeus) and Aristotle (with the Nicomachean Ethics) walk and talk together (see detail below left). The remaining figures represent other philosophers, but there is some dispute about their identities. Most scholars agree that Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid, Ptolemy and Zoroaster are among those pictured. As models for some of the figures, Raphael drew upon his fellow artists: art historians have found portraits of Raphael’s mentor Leonardo da Vinci (as Plato), Michelangelo (as Heraclitus), Donatello (as Plotinus), Donato Bramante (as Euclid or Archimedes), and Raphael’s own self-portrait (as Apelles, looking at the viewer – see detail below right). The inclusion of Bramante the architect is particularly apt, as the architecture that surrounds the philosophers imitates his style. The School of Athens is a tribute to Renaissance humanism, the proponents of which saw themselves as continuing the Classical tradition of scholarly investigation embodied in these ancient philosophers. Random Trivia: Rock band Guns n’ Roses used two of the figures on the right side of The School of Athens in the cover art for their Use Your Illusion albums.
plato and aristotle  

20. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (The Burial of Count Orgaz)

Artist: El Greco (born Doménikos Theotokópoulos)
Date: Work begun in 1586 and completed in 1587 or 1588
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Spain; religious/portraits
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 15.7 ft. tall by 11.8 ft. wide
Current location: Iglesia de Santo Tomé, Toledo, Spain

Born on the island of Crete, Doménikos Theotokópoulos (known as El Greco) spent most of his life in Spain, where he painted his most-praised work, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. The painting depicts a 14th Century Spanish legend in which St. Stephen and St. Augustine descend from heaven to bury Don Gonzalo Ruíz, a Toledo noble and knight who had been generous to the Catholic Church. El Greco was commissioned to paint the scene in the side-chapel of the Virgin in his parish church of Santo Tomé in Toledo, Spain. The painting was famous in El Greco’s lifetime for its accurate portrayals of many Toledo notables (including a self-portrait – see image below left – and a portrait of El Greco’s illegitimate son, Jorge Manuel – see image below right). Painting in the Mannerist style (with elements that hearken back to the Byzantine), El Greco divides the canvas between the heavens and the earth, but does not ground the scene by providing a horizon line or a perspectival vanishing point, omissions that serve to emphasize the supernatural quality of the events depicted. Scholars have particularly praised El Greco’s adept use of color in the work, from the black and gold of the nobles’ clothing to the grays and ochres in the heavenly scene, and the touch of bright red contrasting with Mary’s deep blue cloak.
El_Greco_-_The_Burial_of_the_Count_of_Orgaz_detail  el greco detail

On 18 Lists

21. Frescoes, Brancacci Chapel

Artist: Masaccio (born Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone)
Date: 1424-1428
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; religious
Medium: Frescoes painted on church walls
Dimensions: The measurements of five frescoes attributed to Masaccio are: (1) The Tribute Money: 8.1 ft. tall by 19.6 ft. wide; (2) The Expulsion of Adam and Eve: 7 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide; (3) The Baptism of the Neophytes; 8.4 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide; (4) St. Peter Heals the Sick with His Shadow and The Distribution of Alms/Death of Ananias both measure 7.5 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide.
Current location: Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy
The Tribute Money is one of Masaccio's frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel.
  masaccio st peter healing the sick  masaccio distribution of alms
Of the 15 frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence’s Santa Maria del Carmine church, at least six are generally attributed to Florentine artist Masaccio. Masaccio had begun as the assistant to the commissioned artist, Masolino da Panicale, but he eventually took over the project (although he, too, left it unfinished, to be completed by Filippino Lippi). The majority of the frescoes illustrate stories from the life of St. Peter. Two of Masaccio’s frescoes, The Tribute Money (top image) and The Expulsion of Adam and Eve (above left), are considered his masterpieces. These frescoes mark a revolution in the style of painting that truly announces the arrival of the Renaissance in that art form. The figures are substantial and defined by modeling, not line; lighting (including shadows), scenery and background are more realistic; and the emotional content is highly expressive (particularly in Eve’s despairing moan). Most importantly, Masaccio uses the newly rediscovered rules of linear perspective to create the illusion on three-dimensional depth on the two-dimensional wall. Masaccio’s frescoes, which underwent a substantial restoration in the 1980s, were highly influential among 15th Century Florentine artists. Other Masaccio frescoes from the Brancacci Chapel shown above are: St. Peter Heals the Sick with His Shadow (above center); and (4) The Distribution of Alms and Death of Ananias (above right).

22. The Last Supper

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Date: The work was begun in 1495 and completed in 1498.
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Milan Italy; religious
Medium: Egg tempera paints on a dry wall prepared with a mixture of gesso, pitch and mastic, covered with a layer of plaster and white lead (a brightening agent)
Dimensions: 15.1 ft. tall by 28.8 ft. wide
Current location: Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy

Just because a technique is new doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be better. So when Leonardo da Vinci decided to forego the fresco technique, which limited his color palette, and try something new when painting The Last Supper on the wall of the mausoleum of his patron Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, it turned out to be a big mistake. Instead of mixing pigment with wet plaster, as wall paintings had been done for centuries, Leonardo decided to prepare the wall with a mixture of gesso, pitch and mastic, add a layer of plaster and a brightening agent (white lead), wait for it to dry and then paint on the dry plaster using egg tempera paints. Unfortunately for Leonardo, the Duke and art history, the mixture never set properly and bits of the mural began flaking off almost immediately after Leonardo finished the work in 1498. Add humidity, Allied bombs in World War I, angry anti-clerical French troops, a doorway cut out of the painting in 1583, and numerous botched restorations, and it is amazing there is anything left of Leonardo’s masterpiece. A comprehensive but highly controversial restoration project that ended in 1999 removed much of the paint added by earlier restorations and revealed a somewhat more subdued Last Supper, although it is not clear how much of it is the original (see detail in second image above). The painting adorns the end wall of what is now the dining hall of the convent of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church. It depicts the moment in the Gospel of John when Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him. The reactions of the various disciples, painted in groups of threes, are shown with vivid facial expressions and gestures. Without looking at each other, both Jesus and Judas are reaching for the same piece of bread; when their hands meet a moment later, it will be a sign that Judas is the betrayer. The painting is a premier example of single-point linear perspective; all the perspective lines meet at a vanishing point on or just above Jesus’ head (see perspective analysis diagram below left). Random Trivia: The painting has been much imitated and parodied, including tableaux vivant in the films Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961), MASH (Robert Altman, 1970) (see image below right), and Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014).
 mash last supper

23. The Kiss

Artist: Gustav Klimt
Date: Begun in 1907; completed in 1908.
Period/Style: Vienna Secession; Symbolism; Art Nouveau; Arts and Crafts; Austria
Medium: Oil paints and gold and silver leaf on canvas
Dimensions: 6 ft. by 6 ft.
Current location: Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria
For Gustav Klimt, a loving physical connection between a man and a woman was not just erotic and sensual, but also provided a pathway to an eternal realm of peace and happiness. It is no coincidence, then, that embracing couples feature prominently in several of his works, including The Beethoven Frieze (1902) (see detail below left), The Stoclet Frieze (The Tree of Life) (1905-1911) (see detail below right) and, most famously, The Kiss (1908). The Kiss is the crowning achievement of Klimt’s Golden Period. The son of a goldsmith and engraver, Klimt was attracted to working with gold, especially after his visit to Ravenna in 1903 to see the mosaics of San Vitale. He provided the lovers of The Kiss with a flat gold background reminiscent of medieval religious paintings, where it symbolized the heavenly sphere. Surrounding the couple is a lighter gold cloak with swirling designs that serves as a kind of halo. The designs of the clothing owe much to both Art Nouveau (with its linear shapes) and Arts and Crafts (with its figures drawn from nature); these movements sought to erase the distinction between what is artistic and what is “merely” decorative. According to art historian Alesssandra Comini, in Klimt’s work, “the anatomy of the models becomes ornamentation and the ornamentation becomes anatomy.” The man in The Kiss is draped in bold vertical rectangles, while the woman’s dress abounds with circular motifs. More than one scholar has pointed out the sexual connotations of these contrasting designs. Most of the painting feels deliberately two-dimensional, like a tapestry or wallpaper, except for the faces and hands, which Klimt has painted with more modeling and three-dimensionality. The man’s face is hidden from us, but his stretching neck and caressing hands express a sense of power and intention, while the woman’s closed eyes and kneeling posture convey a sense of calm (even passivity) as she submits to the man, her own desire, or both. (Note that the kneeling posture creates the illusion that the woman is dominated by the man, but if she stood up, she would tower over him.) The two lovers are situated on a bed of wildflowers and vines, some of which are draped over the woman’s feet. As bucolic as the scene appears, the meadow appears to end abruptly, so that the couple is actually perched on a precipice. What lies below? Oblivion? The death of self, subsumed in an eternal union of two lovers? Or a merging happily into the universal unconscious?

On 17 lists

24. The Arnolfini Portrait (Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife)

Artist: Jan van Eyck
Date: 1434
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Flanders (now Belgium)
Medium: Oil paints on oak panels
Dimensions: 2.8 ft. tall by 2 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
The Arnolfini Portrait is a masterpiece of Early Netherlandish painting, but it is also a bit of a mystery. Wealthy Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini spent most of his life in Bruges, Flanders. He married in 1426 but his wife died in 1433. So who is the couple in the painting? Is it a memorial to Arnolfini’s recently-deceased wife or is it the record of a second wedding? Or is it not Arnolfini but another wealthy Flemish bourgeois couple? We may never know. What we do know is that this work is a tour de force of the skills of the painter, Jan van Eyck (who inscribed his name on the far wall). His adept use of oil painting techniques allows him to mimic many different textures (the fabrics of the clothing and bed linens; the carvings on the wooden bedframe; the metal of the chandelier) and show the way light reflects off different objects (such as the chandelier and the rosary hanging at the rear). As the piece de resistance, van Eyck places a mirror (like a gazing eye) in the center of the composition that reflects all that is going on (but in reverse) and reveals that there are two people in the doorway (one of them the painter himself?)  (see detail in image below). The objects in the room have symbolic value; they refer to love and marriage (the dog, for example, is symbol of marital fidelity) or highlight the wealth of the subjects (the oranges near the window would have been very expensive luxury items). And no, the woman is not pregnant: it’s just the way she’s holding up her fashionable dress.

25. Pietà

Artist: Michelangelo
Date: Commissioned in 1497; completed in 1499.
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Rome, Italy; religious
Medium: Sculpture carved from Carrara marble
Dimensions: 5.7 ft. tall by 6.4 ft. wide
Current location: St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City 
Sculptures of the Pietà (“the pity”), a standard religious subject depicting a seated Mary holding the dead body of her son Jesus, were common in Northern Europe from the 14th Century, but Michelangelo’s late 15th Century masterpiece was the first (or one of the first) Italian sculptures on the subject. (The image below left shows an early German example from c. 1375-1400, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.) Michelangelo depicts Mary as younger, calmer and less sorrowful than in other versions of the scene. According to the artist himself, the youthful appearance of Mary, the mother of a 33-year-old son, was a result of her extreme purity. As he told his friend and biographer Ascanio Condivi:”Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste? How much more in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body?” On the other hand, Vatican tour guides tell visitors that the face of Mary is that of Michelangelo’s own young mother, who died when the artist was six years old. The Pietà was originally commissioned by French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères for his funeral monument but was later moved to its current position inside the first chapel on the right as one enters St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pietà is the only artwork Michelangelo ever signed; the story goes that he overheard someone attributed the work to one of his rivals, Christoforo Solari, after which Michelangelo carved his name onto the sash across Mary’s chest. Late in his life, Michelangelo carved a second Pietà, known as The Florentine Pietà (or The Deposition), which includes his self-portrait as Joseph of Arimathea. It is now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence (see image below right). Random Trivia: The statue is now protected behind a plate of thick glass after an incident on Pentecost Sunday in 1972 when Hungarian geologist Lazlo Toth, yelling “I am Jesus Christ! I have returned from the dead!”, did serious damage to the statue with a hammer, breaking off one of Mary’s arms and disfiguring her face. As pieces of marble went flying, some onlookers made off with them, including a piece of Mary’s original nose that has never been returned. The statue was restored using marble from the same quarry, including some taken from the back of the statue.
Pietà_(Vesperbild)_MET_DT345345  Florentine Pieta

26. The Persistence of Memory

Artist: Salvador Dali
Date: 1931
Period/Style: Surrealism; Spain/France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 9.5 inches tall by 13 inches wide
Current location: Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
dali persistence of memorySmall in size but large in its influence, The Persistence of Memory is Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali’s most famous creation (other than perhaps himself). Dali and other Surrealists drew much of their inspiration from the theories of Sigmund Freud, who believed that much of human behavior was motivated by urges in our unconscious minds, and that the unconscious was revealed through dreams. Surrealists rejected the surface reality of day-to-day life and sought instead to depict other, hidden realities, such as those we see in dreams. To do this, they created images that appeared hyperrealistic in some ways but completely unnatural in others. According to Dali, he painted The Persistence of Memory using a “paranoiac-critical” technique that involved placing himself in a self-induced hallucinatory state. The result was an otherworldly combination of objects – some strange and some familiar. The most famous are the three melting watches. The incongruity of seeing something hard and metallic depicted as flaccid and flexible is intended to shock us out of our preconceptions about the nature of reality. Some have sought to connect the melting watches to Einstein’s theory of relativity, which proves the elastic nature of time, but Dali claims he was inspired by watching some Camembert cheese melt in the sun. A dead tree grows out of a man-made platform. Ants swarm over a fourth watch as if they are feasting on its decaying flesh. In the distance, we see cliffs (possibly of Dali’s native Catalonia) and an unnaturally placid sea. In the foreground there is a strange gray creature with a closed eye, a nose and a tongue (?) that may be a self-portrait of the artist. Perhaps he is the dreamer of this quiet nightmare. Random Trivia: More than 20 years after painting The Persistence of Memory, Dali revisited and updated his earlier work on a considerably larger canvas (see image below). Known as The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, the 1954 painting is at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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27. Venus de Milo (Aphrodite of Milos)

Artist: Alexandros of Antioch
Date: c. 130-100 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece, Hellenistic Period
Medium: Carved marble sculpture
Dimensions: 6.7 ft. tall
Current Location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
venus de milo 1
venus de milo 2 
First of all, they gave her the wrong name. The Venus de Milo is a marble sculpture of a nude woman dating from the Hellenistic period that was found on the island of Milos in the Aegean Sea. Art historians believe the statue is a Greek deity, most likely Aphrodite, the goddess of love, but someone began referring to the statue by the name Venus, Aphrodite’s Roman coun-terpart, and the name stuck. The museum label at the Louvre tactfully explains, “Aphrodite, known as Venus de Milo.” The statue was found by a Greek peasant, Yorgos Kentrotas, and a French naval officer, Olivier Voutier, in the ruins of the ancient city of Milos on the Aegean island known variously as Milos, Melos or Milo, then part of the Ottoman Empire. At the time it was discovered, the statue was in several pieces, which included part of the left arm and the left hand holding an apple, as well as a plinth with an inscription by Alexandros. By the time the French bought the statue from the Turks and brought it to the Louvre in Paris, the arms had disappeared. Soon afterwards, the plinth with Alexandros’ inscription also vanished. Some suspect the loss was not an accident because the plinth was evidence that the statue was Hellenistic and not from the earlier (and more prestigious) Classical period. The statue was carved from separate pieces, which were designed to fit together using pegs, a typical technique of that time and place. The exact positioning of the missing arms is a subject of some speculation. Also missing are her metal headband, earrings and bracelet.

28. Girl with a Pearl Earring

Artist: Johannes Vermeer (born Jan Vermeer van Delft)
Date: c. 1665
Period/Style: Baroque; Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands; tronie
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 17.5 in. tall by 15 in. wide
Current location: Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands
Girl with a Pearl Earring
is Vermeer’s most famous painting, but that wasn’t always the case. In 1881, when it went on sale, the purchase price was about $25. The small painting is a tronie – a painting of someone in costume intended to represent a character or type. In the 17th Century, Turkish turbans had become fashionable, due perhaps to the recent wars between Europeans and the Ottoman Empire. In fact, when it was first donated to Mauritshuis in The Hague, the painting went by the name “Girl with a Turban. “(Other names given to the work over the years are: “Portrait in Antique Costume”, from a 17th Century catalogue, “The Pearl”, and the generic “Head of a Young Girl.”) The painting now called Girl with a Pearl Earring exhibits many of Vermeer’s trademarks: the lapis lazuli blues set off by yellows, the close attention to the way light reflects off different surfaces, and the variety of brushstrokes. The painting of the turban is atypically lacking in detail, with barely any effort made to highlight folds in the fabric. What has made the painting so popular is not the painting technique as much as the expression of the girl, which is so enigmatic that it has led some to call the painting the Mona Lisa of the north. Some, such as novelist Tracy Chevalier, have read a romantic longing into the girl’s expression, leading to a 1999 novel and subsequent movie starring Scarlet Johansson. Others read her differently: she is mocking, or seductive, or resentful. The inability to pin down the girl’s feelings may be exactly what keeps viewers intrigued with this work of art. Recent high-tech analysis of the canvas have revealed that the girl originally had eyelashes, which have faded, and the background was originally a greenish curtain, which has darkened. The pearl itself has generated a fair amount of scholarship among art historians. Pearls feature in 21 of Vermeer’s 34 surviving works. The curator at the Mauritshuis describes the pearl in this painting as “improbably large” and another scholar has noted the Vermeer never painted anything connecting the pearl to the ear. Finally, one curmudgeonly art historian swears that the earring is not a pearl at all but is a teardrop shaped piece of tin.

29. Les Nymphéas (Water Lilies)

Artist: Claude Monet (born Oscar-Claude Monet)
Date: Monet worked on the last, largest of his Water Lilies paintings between 1914 and his death in 1926. Some sources say that some of the works were started in 1920. Some sources say some of the works begun in 1914 were completed by 1920.
Period/Style: Impressionism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: Most of the murals are 6.5 ft. tall. They vary in width from single-panel works 14 ft. wide to triptychs nearly 56 ft. wide.
Current location: Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris (8 paintings); others are in various collections.

During the last 30 years of his life, French Impressionist painter Claude Monet created approximately 250 paintings of the water lilies in the ponds of his home in Giverny, France. As a group, the paintings are called Les Nymphéas or The Water Lilies, although many pieces have individual titles. He began with standard Impressionist landscapes, then reduced the elements – first the sky disappeared, then the horizon line, and then finally, around 1905, he began to focus solely on the surface of the pond, with the water lilies and pads sitting on top, and the sky and foliage reflected in the water. Beginning in 1914, Monet began work on a number of very large Water Lily canvases. His goal was to create paintings that would surround the viewers, engulf them in this watery world of surfaces and reflections. Each painting is over six feet tall and depicts a specific place in the gardens at a specific time; the flat surface of the water fills the canvas so we see no ground, no horizon line and no sky (although the sun, clouds and sky are reflected in the water, as are the trees and vines along the banks of the ponds). Monet sought to create the illusion of “an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank.” By showing us only the water’s surface, with no horizon or land, Monet eliminates conventional clues to vantage point, immersing the viewer in the space between the water’s surface and the light. The figures are simplified and the painting is sometimes rough, with multiple layers of paint and obvious brushstrokes. He worked on at least 15 of these large paintings over a number of years, and most of them were still in his studio when he died in 1926. A number of the paintings were so large that they required two or three panels and so became diptychs or triptychs. (The triptych titled Water Lilies: Morning with Willows may be the largest at 6.5 ft. tall and nearly 56 ft. long.) At the end of World War I, Monet offered a number of these paintings to the French government; he worked with them to design a special museum with oval rooms to display the works. The resulting Musée de l’Orangerie opened in 1927 and now shows eight of the paintings, for a total of nearly 2,000 square feet of canvas. Many of the other large water lily paintings sat untouched for many years until the 1950s, when museums began to be interested in them again. The rise of Abstract Expressionism and the action painting of artists like Jackson Pollock had rekindled interest in these late Monet works; Monet’s hands-on encounters with the canvas, building up a geography of thick brushstrokes in what comes very close to abstraction, were seen as a precursor to the style of Pollock and others.  The top image, from the Orangerie, shows (from left) The Clouds, Green Reflections, and Morning. The middle image is Setting Sun, also at the Orangerie.  The bottom image is Water Lilies, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Random Trivia: Late in life, Monet suffered from cataracts, which blurred his vision and limited his ability to see certain colors (particularly blue and violet). Some critics believe these vision problems had a significant effect on his later work, although others point out that his style did not change markedly after two eye surgeries in 1923.

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30. Bust of Queen Nefertiti

Artist: Attributed to Thutmose
Date: c. 1345 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Egyptian: 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom (mix of Classical and Amarna styles)
Medium: Painted stucco over a core of limestone
Dimensions: 19 inches tall; weighs 44 pounds
Current location: Egyptian Museum, Berlin, Germany
 bust of nefertitiIn 1912, while excavating the workshop of Egyptian sculptor Thutmose in Amarna, Egypt, German archaeologists led by Ludwig Borchardt found a painted bust of a royal figure believed to be Nefertiti. She is identified by her distinctive head covering: the Nefertiti cap crown. Nefertiti was the queen (and possible co-ruler) of Amenhotep IV, who reigned from 1352-1336 BCE and who took the name Akhenaten after he became a monotheist.  The bust is composed of a limestone core with painted layers of stucco. The lack of an inlay in the queen’s left eye supports that theory that this bust was a sculptor’s modello kept in the studio to be used as the basis for other portraits. CT scans reveal that earlier versions of the bust show a much older queen, with wrinkles on her face and neck and a swelling on her nose, but that the final layers of stucco eliminated these imperfections to create an idealized portrait. The cobra symbol, or uraeus, on her forehead has been damaged. According to experts, the bust with its slender neck and very large head, does not possess many of the attributes of the new Amarna style that developed under Akhenaten, but hearkens back to more Classical forms. After discovering the bust, Borchardt brought it back to Germany, where it has been ever since, despite requests from Egypt to repatriate it since the 1930s. There is considerable controversy over the removal of the bust from Egypt. There are allegations that when Germany and Egypt divided up the finds of Borchardt’s dig, the Germans downplayed or actively disguised the nature and value of the bust, showing Egyptian officials only a poorly-taken photograph and ensuring that it was thoroughly wrapped up when Egyptian authorities conducted an inspection. To complicate matters, at the time, Egypt was under the control of European powers. The Bust of Nefertiti is now in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, where the queen has her own room (see image below).
nerfertiti room

31. Maestà Altarpiece

Artist: Duccio (full name: Duccio di Buoninsegna)
Date: 1308-1311
Period/Style: Medieval period; Gothic/Byzantine style with Proto-Renaissance elements; Siena, Italy
Medium: Tempera paints and gold leaf on wood panels
Dimensions: The original altarpiece was 15.4 ft. tall by 16.4 ft. wide and contained painted panels on both the front and back.
Current location: Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy (main front panel and many of the smaller panels). Other small panels are in various collections.

maesta duccio 2
On June 9, 1311, a solemn procession led by bishops, monks, and priests escorted an immense painted altarpiece through the streets of Siena, Italy and into the Duomo (Siena Cathedral). The painting was the Maestà Altarpiece. The creator of this masterpiece was Duccio di Buoninsegna, Siena’s foremost painter, The painting indicated a step away from Gothic and Byzantine styles and toward a more realistic representation of people and things, although not quite as far as Giotto’s contemporaneous work. The original altarpiece contained paintings on the front and rear. The front consisted of the large Madonna and Child with saints and angels at center, with a predella (the section below the main image) containing scenes from Christ’s childhood and additional portraits and scenes above. The rear contained 43 small scenes showing the Life of Christ and Life of the Virgin. Unfortunately, in 1711, the altarpiece was dismantled and sawed into pieces, which were distributed to various locations. In 1956, an attempt was made to bring all the extant pieces back together in Siena, but it was only partially successful. Although much of the altarpiece (including the center panel) is in Siena, portions of it may be found in museums around the world. The pictures show an imaginative recreation of the original altarpiece; this is not what it looks like today. Below are two panels from the rear of the altarpiece: at left, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem; at right, The The Crucifixion.
duccio entry into jerusalem  

32. The Hunters in the Snow (The Return of the Hunters)

Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Date: 1565
Period/Style: Northern Renaissance; Flanders (now Belgium); landscape/genre
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 3.8 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide
Current location: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
Bruegel_Hunters_in_the_SnowPieter Bruegel the Elder was a Flemish artist known for his genre paintings of peasant life made for wealthy and bourgeois patrons. His most highly regarded work, known as The Hunters in the Snow, is one of six paintings commissioned by Niclaes Jonghelinck, a wealthy Antwerp merchant, depicting the seasons/months of the year. Bruegel’s rendering of winter works on both large and small scales. His color palette and rendering of the snow, ice, the gray-green sky (echoing the color of the frozen ponds below), the black crows, and leafless trees convey the cold and oppressive winter months. His imaginary landscape, which matches Flemish buildings and people with craggy Alpine peaks (based on sketches from Bruegel’s trip to Italy) creates a winter scene that seems both comfortably familiar and somehow not quite right (see detail in image below). In the left foreground, the largest figures are the hunters and their dogs, returning with little to show for their efforts (a dead fox is all we can see). The dangling sign on the inn – the Golden Hart, with a picture of a deer and St. Eustace – seems to mock their failure to bring home a larger prize. We can’t see their faces, but their body language communicates defeat (even the dogs – one of whom looks directly at us – hang their heads in shame). In the rest of the composition Bruegel contrasts the negativity of the failed hunting expedition with scenes of Flemish peasants at work and play: cooks singe the hair off a pig in a fire in preparation for a feast; people skate and play games on the ice; someone hunts birds. In what is known as a balcony composition, the space occupied by the hunters in the foreground is high above most of the activities far below. Bruegel creates a sense of movement and guides the eyes with a series of diagonals (the edge of “balcony”, the poles held by the hunters, lines of house and trees). Some art historians have wondered whether there is a deeper religious or political meaning to the painting, a message about how the bucolic life of the villages hides unjust deprivation, or perhaps a warning about complacency in the face of the possibility of eternal damnation – not in fire, but in ice.

33. Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

Artist: Katsuskika Hokusai
Date: 1831 (first edition of 36 prints); 1833 (second edition of 46 prints)
Period/Style: Edo Period; Japan; ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”)
Medium: Polychrome paper prints from carved woodblocks
Dimensions: Each print is 10.1 in. tall by 14.9 in. wide
Current locations: Various collections
The_Great_Wave_off_Kanagawa 2hokusai Red_Fuji_southern_wind_clear_morning

Edo Period Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai revolutionized the artistic genre of ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”). Prior to Hokusai, ukiyo-e prints primarily depicted two subjects: courtesans and Kabuki theater actors. Hokusai expanded the genre immensely to include landscapes, wildlife and views of daily life in the cities and the countryside. Hokusai fused traditional Japanese painting technique, with its unique perspective system, with lessons learned from Dutch art (mostly prints from engravings) that had been smuggled into Japan during the 18th and early 19th Centuries, such as the adoption of a low horizon line. At 69 years old, Hokusai began his most famous series of woodblock prints: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Mt. Fuji, which was visible from many parts of Japan, had important religious and mythological significance in Japanese culture. Hokusai shows the mountain is a variety of settings and seasons; sometimes it is the main feature of the composition, but more often it is a small element in the far distance. The series serves not only as a travelogue of Japanese sights, but also a careful observation of the details of daily life in 19th Century Japan. The first 36 prints were published in 1831; they were so popular that Hokusai printed 10 additional views in the second edition in 1833. The most famous of the original 36 prints is The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which shows three boats being threatened by a large wave (top image). The boats pictured are oshiokuri-bune, fast boats used to transport live fish to market. Each boat has eight rowers and two other passengers. Based on the typical size of such boats and Hokusai’s reduction of the vertical scale by 30%, scholars have estimated the height of the wave to be 32-39 feet. Mount Fuji is seen in the trough of the wave, and appears to be about to be engulfed. Other popular prints include South Wind, Clear Sky (also known as Red Fuji), which shows the mountain turned red from the early dawn light (see image above, middle left), and Thunderstorm Beneath the Summit, with its red streak of lightning (see image above, middle right). Among the more intriguing prints in the series is Mount Fuji Reflected in Lake Kawaguchi, seen from the Misaka Pass: the mountain’s reflection has a snow cap, while the actual mountain does not (see image above, bottom). Is this the mountain as we imagine it? Or as it imagines itself? The popularity of the subject was so great that Hokusai himself published 100 Views of Mount Fuji in 1835. In 1852, another ukiyo-e artist, Hiroshige, revisited the idea with his own Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Random Trivia: Canadian art photographer Jeff Wall recreated No. 10 in the series, Ejiri in Suruga Province (see below left) as A Sudden Gust of Wind (1993) (see below right).

34. Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass)

Artist: Édouard Manet
Date: 1863
Period/Style: Realism; Impressionism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 6.8 ft. tall by 8.7 ft. wide
Current location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
dejeuner l'herbeÉdouard Manet is a pivotal figure in the history of French painting as his unique style and subject matter moved beyond Realism and into Impressionism. Yet Manet was neither a Realist nor an Impressionist; he was sui generis, and he was not afraid of stirring up controversy. In 1863, two of Manet’s paintings drew fire from traditionalists. The first was Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon in the Grass), which was considered obscene by many contemporaries. This large enigmatic canvas shows four figures in a wooded landscape: two women and two men. One of the women is set far back, as if in another painting, and is bathing while wearing a silky gown. The two men are fully clothed and engaged in conversation. The second woman – who sits with the two men and stares directly at the viewer – is completely nude. (Her clothes may be in the pile next to the still life of a picnic lunch.) There is no indication that the subject is historical, Biblical, or mythological; the scene appears to be fully contemporary, but no explanation is given for the nudity. The 1863 Paris Salon rejected the painting, so Manet exhibited the canvas at the protest exhibition known as the Salon des Refusés. Manet’s utterly new and modern composition consciously relies on more traditional antecedents. He borrowed the grouping of the figures from the lower right side of Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving of Raphael’s drawing The Judgment of Paris (see image below left). While there is precedent for a group of two men in modern clothing with nude women in Titian’s The Pastoral Concert (see image below right), in that case the nudes are clearly depicted as mythic or heavenly beings, not mere mortals. The idea of a nude woman sitting together with two clothed men in a contemporary setting was scandalous to mid-Nineteenth Century viewers, who would assume that she was a prostitute. Some art historians see The Luncheon on the Grass as Manet’s attempt to upset the establishment and expand the narrow limits of acceptable subjects for painting. But this interpretation fails to account for other puzzling aspects of the work, particularly with regard to the bathing woman. She appears to be lit differently than the rest of the figures, and she is out of proportion, violating the laws of perspective. These oddities have spawned multiple theories. The one I find most convincing is set out in the website The website author suggests that this scene originally took place in the artist’s studio. A woman modeled for the bather (note that the original title of the painting was The Bath) and when the painting session was finished, she took a break to have lunch with the painter and his friend, removing the silky gown (a prop from the studio) in the process. What we are looking at is the painting of the woman in the background and the luncheoners in the foreground. But Manet decided to place the entire scene outdoors and disguise the true nature of the bather (it is a painting, not a real person). If true, this interpretation raises many fascinating issues about the nature of painted reality vs. actual reality, the relationship between the artist and the model, and the relationship between the participants in the creative process (artist and model) and the viewer.
  pastoral concert

35. Nighthawks

Artist: Edward Hopper
Date: 1942
Period/Style: American Scene Painting; US
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.75 ft. tall by 5 ft. wide
Current location: Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper 2
The most famous work by American artist Edward Hopper, and one of the most recognizable American works of art, Nighthawks depicts a much simplified and enlarged version of a restaurant in Hopper’s Greenwich Village, New York neighborhood, rendered in such a way that this could be nearly any city in 1940s America. We see a man and a woman, another man with his back to us, and a diner server. No entrance or exit is visible, so the large windows create the sense of a giant terrarium or zoo enclosure, its occupants trapped inside and put on display. According to notes made by Hopper’s wife Josephine, she was the model for the woman at the counter, and the two men in suits are both Hopper self-portraits. Her notes refer to the man in the suit next to the woman as “night hawk” due to his beak-like nose; she refers to the man with his back turned as “sinister.” Hopper’s treatment of artificial fluorescent light at night here – note the greenish tinge of the light as it hits the sidewalk – is considered masterful. As with so many Hopper paintings, Nighthawks conveys a mood of alienation and loneliness, which the artist has acknowledged. “Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.” The image has been copied and parodied in popular culture, most famously by Gottfried Helnwein, whose best-selling 1984 poster Boulevard of Broken Dreams inserts Humphrey Bogart, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe for the patrons, and Elvis Presley for the waiter, substituting celebrity kitsch for the original’s dangerous and lonely anonymity (see image below).

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36. The Parthenon Frieze

Artist: According to Plutarch, Ancient Greek sculptor Phidias oversaw the work, but it is not clear how much of the sculpting work he actually did.
Date: c. 443-438 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece – High Classical Period
Medium: Low relief sculptures carved in marble
Dimensions: 114 marble blocks, each 3.3 feet high and totaling almost 44 feet in length
Current location: Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece; British Museum, London; Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

Parthenon-frieze-bbparthenon frieze
The Parthenon Frieze is a low-relief marble sculpture that originally decorated the upper portion of the interior of the Parthenon, a temple on the Acropolis in Athens dedicated to Athena. The frieze consisted of two parallel lines of reliefs depicting 378 gods and humans, including representatives of all the Attic communities, and 245 animal figures. Scholars disagree about whether the scene depicted in the frieze is contemporary, historical or allegorical. According to one theory, the frieze represents an annual Athenian religious ritual known as the Panathenaic Procession. in which the citizens of Athens paraded to the temple to drape the colossal statue of Athena inside the Parthenon in a peplos (a type of garment) woven by the women of Athens (see image below, with section of the frieze possibly showing the peplos). Large portions of the frieze were destroyed by Venetian bombing in 1687, when, during a war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine. In a controversial series of events, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, removed much of the frieze between 1801 and 1812 and brought it to England, where it is on display in the British Museum. Although many have argued for the return of the frieze to Athens, where portions of it remain, most scholars have concluded that the UK acquired it legally. The images above show three portions of the frieze; the section in the first image shows the deities Poseidon, Apollo and Artemis; the second shows men leading horses; and the third shows men riding horses. (Note that by convention, Greek relief sculptors depicted horses as smaller than in reality to balance the compositions.)  

37. Laocoön and His Sons 

Artists: Attributed to Agesander, Athenodoros & Polydorus
Date: Some experts believe it is an original sculpture from c. 42-19 BCE. Others believe it is a Roman copy of a lost Greek original dating to c. 200 BCE.
Period/Style: Ancient Greek: Late Hellenistic Period; Pergamene Baroque style
Medium: Carved marble group sculpture
Dimensions: 6.8 ft. tall, 5.3 ft. wide, 3.7 ft. deep
Current location: Vatican Museums, Vatican City
laocoon and his sonsIn his Natural History, Ancient Roman writer Pliny the Elder describes a marble sculpture of Laocoön and His Sons he saw in the home of the future emperor Titus between 70 and 79 CE that was made by Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydoros, three sculptors from the Greek island of Rhodes. In 1506, a marble statue that seemed to match the one described by Pliny was discovered in a Roman vineyard beneath the remains of the Baths of Titus. Art historians disagree about whether the statue is a 1st Century BCE original or a later copy of a 2nd Century BCE original. The group shows Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents in punishment by pro-Greek gods for uncovering the secret of the Trojan Horse during the Trojan War. The style is considered Hellenistic “Pergamene baroque” and a figure in the Pergamon Altar Frieze bears a striking similarity to the figure of Laocoön here. Due to the damaged condition of the sculptural group, various restorations have been proposed and carried out over the centuries. The right arms of the figures, which were missing, were replaced by replicas for certain periods. In 1540, for example, the Vatican gave Laocoön a new right arm that extended upward. In 1906, Ludwig Pollak discovered part of a marble arm in a Roman builder’s yard near the spot where the original statue was found and gave it to the Vatican. In 1957, the Vatican’s experts finally decided that the arm, which was bent, belonged to Laocoön, so it replaced the extended arm that had been added in 1540 (see image at below right showing pre-1957 pose with extended arm). The sculpture had an enormous influence on the Renaissance artists who saw it, particularly in the way it depicted the suffering of the characters. At the time of the sculpture’s discovery, Michelangelo called it the “greatest piece of art in the world.”
  laocoon - earlier pose

38. Les Très Riches Heurs du Duc de Berry

Artists: Paul, Jean and Herman Limbourg (primary work); completed by Jean Colombe and others
Date: 1411-1416 (primary work), completed in the 1480s
Period/Style: International Gothic; Netherlands/France
Medium: Illustrated manuscript (Book of Hours), painted with tempera paints and gold leaf on vellum
Dimensions: 11.8 in. tall by 8.5 in. wide; 206 sheets; 66 large paintings; 65 small paintings
Current location: Musée Condé, Chantilly, France
 Les_Très_Riches_Heures_du_duc_de_Berry February
les_tres_riches_heures_du_duc_de_berry_octobre  les_tres_riches_heures_du_duc_de_berry-zodiac
Les Très Riches Heurs du Duc de Berry is a book of hours (a type of prayer book) that is a paragon of the International Gothic style. International Gothic was a late 14th-early 15th Century style favored by artists in the courts of Europe. According to one art historian, the style’s delicate realism and focus on vibrant color, lively details, and elegant settings “reflects the sophisticated, cosmopolitan nature and pageantry of courtly life.” Les Très Riches Heures was created for John, Duke of Berry. The book begins with a series of calendar pages and a zodiac, followed by numerous prayers. Most of the work was done by the three Dutch Limbourg Brothers (Paul, Jean and Herman) between 1411-1416, but they left the project unfinished, so it was completed by others, including Jean Colombe, in the 1480s. The illustrations depict the daily lives of the aristocracy as well as the peasants, and contains a number of remarkable depictions of medieval architecture.  Shown above are four pages attributed to the Limbourgs: (top left) The page for January, showing the exchange of New Year’s gifts among the Duke, his family and friends (note depiction of painted battle mural on the back wall); (top right) the page for February, showing workers warming their feet by a fire; (bottom left) the page for October, with workers in the fields in the foreground and the Louvre Castle in the rear; and (bottom right) the zodiac with the signs displayed on the body of a young man, then again in the frame surrounding the two figures.

39. Descent from the Cross (Deposition of Christ)

Artist: Rogier van der Weyden
Date: c. 1435
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Flanders (now Belgium)
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 7 ft. tall by 8.5 ft. wide
Current location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain 
Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition brought a new level of emotional intensity to religious painting, with its depiction of weeping figures around the dead body of Christ. A student of Early Netherlandish pioneer Robert Campin, van der Weyden was commissioned by the Leuven guild of archers to make this large panel painting to hang in the guild’s chapel. We see a jumbled tableaux of figures and objects placed in an unusually shaped space with very little depth: Christ is lowered from the cross into the arms of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus; at left, Mary falls in a swoon, with St. John (shown in left image below) helping her up; at right, Mary Magdelene’s body is contorted with grief (see detail in right image below). In the center, Christ’s body approximates the shape of a crossbow (in honor of the guild); his mother’s pose is an echo of his. The perspectives are odd: try to follow the logic of the ladder, for example – how can it be both behind and in front of the cross? But the impact of the painting is in the vibrant colors (including a sumptuously rendered coat on the figure holding Christ’s legs), the dramatic poses (one art historian compared the “undulating lines, swaying poses and counterposes of figures” to counterpoint in polyphonic music), and most of all the teardrops marking the grieving face of nearly everyone in the frame. The painting was highly influential and was copied many times: weeping figures and swooning Virgin Marys soon became de rigueur elements in Northern European religious art.
deposition st john  Weyden,_Rogier_van_der_-_Descent_from_the_Cross_-_Detail_Mary_Magdalene

40. David

Artist: Donatello (born Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi)
Date: There is much debate about the date, with theories ranging from the 1430s to the 1460s, but most art historians believe the sculpture was created in the 1440s, probably early in the decade.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy
Medium: Freestanding bronze sculpture
Dimensions: 6.2 ft. tall
Current location: Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy
 david from behindDonatello’s David was highly influential: it is the first freestanding bronze statue of the Renaissance and the first nude male sculpture since Ancient Rome, and it opened the door for other artists. The sculpture shows the young hero, having slain Goliath, standing with his foot on the giant’s head (see detail in image below) and carrying Goliath’s immense sword. David’s face shows youth, purity and innocence; his stance is relaxed and natural. The bronze is highly polished and portions of the statue – including David’s hair – were once gilded. The sculpture was probably commissioned by Florence’s powerful Medici family. David was considered a symbol of Florence, and by placing the statue in the courtyard of their villa, the Medicis would have been making a political statement about their place in the Florentine power structure. While the statue’s beauty is undisputed, some have commented on its departures from traditional forms. Some find the boy’s nudity odd, given his hat and boots. Some find the figure too effeminate or androgynous. Others claim that the very aspects some find ‘odd’ are intended to demonstrate that David’s victory over Goliath was not a result of strength, but of God’s will that a boy not yet a man could conquer a giant. Still others find homoerotic elements in the composition, such as the way the feather from Goliath’s cap runs up the inside of David’s leg (see image at right above). Adding credence to the homosexuality theme is the theory of some art historians believe that David’s face was based on 1st Century CE sculptures of Antinous, a young man who was beloved by (and perhaps lover of) Roman Emperor Hadrian (see image below right showing detail of a sculpture of Antinous (117-138 CE) from the Archaeological Museum in Delphi, Greece.).

41. The Embarkation for Cythera (Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera)

Artist: Jean-Antoine Watteau
Date: 1717
Period/Style: Late Baroque; Rococo; France; fête galantes
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.2 ft. tall by 6.4 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
watteau cythera
When French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau submitted The Embarkation for Cythera to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture as his required piece upon being granted admission, the academy had to invent a new category to describe the painting. It wasn’t a history painting, a mythological work or a group portrait; Watteau had invented a new genre: the “fête galantes”, an outdoor entertainment featuring numerous individuals. In this case, the individuals are a series of amorous couples who are waiting to board a ship. We see an armless statue of Venus and Cupids in the air and on the ground. Cythera was a Greek island that, according to legend, was the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of romantic love, and Watteau may have been familiar with plays and poems promising that visitors to the island would find their true love there. (Note that not all the couples are romantically involved, at least not yet: the woman on the far right appears unresponsive to the man’s entreaties, although the seducer is getting some assistance from a Cupid tugging on the woman’s dress.) While the title is Watteau’s and there is a tower in the background that appears to be the destination, some art historians claim that it makes more sense to interpret the scene as lovers leaving Cythera after pairing up. Watteau is a transitional figure between the Baroque and the newer, lighter Rococo style that he helped invent. Watteau and other Rococo artists were rebelling against the seriousness of French academic painting, as represented by such painters as Nicolas Poussin. Unfortunately, the Rococo style went out of favor quickly at the time of the French Revolution, when its celebration of the frivolous lives of the aristocracy became anathema. A somewhat different version, usually referred to as Pilgrimage to Cythera, painted in 1718-1719, hangs in the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin (see image below).

42. The Thinker

Artist: Auguste Rodin (full name: François-Auguste-René Rodin)
Date: The Thinker first appeared in 1880 as part of Rodin’s large piece, The Gates of Hell. In 1881, Rodin made the first plaster cast of the individual figure, separate from the larger piece. He made a larger plaster cast in 1888. The first full-size bronze cast was made in 1902 or 1904.
Period/Style: Realism; Impressionism; France
Medium: Plaster and bronze cast sculptures
Dimensions: Each full-sized cast is 6.2 ft. tall, 3.2 ft. wide and 4.6 ft. deep.
Current locations: There are 28 full-size casts in various locations including: University of Louisville, Kentucky (1904 cast); National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Japan (1904 cast); Legion of Honor, San Francisco (1904 cast); Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan (1904 cast); Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen, Denmark (1904 cast); Musée Rodin, Paris, France (1906 cast); Prince Eugen Museum, Waldemarsudde, Sweden (1908 cast).
What is The Thinker thinking about? To attempt an answer to the question, we must look at the origins of the statue. The sculpture now known as The Thinker originated as a small part of a large commission for a set of doors for a new art museum, a project that eventually became The Gates of Hell. To adorn the huge bronze doors, French sculptor Auguste Rodin created a series of figures based on The inferno, part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, including Dante himself, who was depicted thinking about and looking down on his masterpiece from the tympanum over the doors. The figure evolved from a thin Dante in Florentine garb (as he was normally represented) to a more allegorical figure of a nude, muscular Poet, sitting on a rock with his head resting on the fist of a bended arm (see detail of The Gates of Hell, below left). According to one source, workers in Rodin’s studio began to refer to the Poet as “The Thinker” due to his resemblance to Michelangelo’s statue of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino in the Medici Chapel in Florence. (Michelangelo’s sculpture, shown below right, had acquired the nickname Il Pensieroso, or “The Thoughtful One.”) Soon after placing the Poet on The Gates of Hell (in about 1881), Rodin (perhaps at the request of a patron) made a separate cast of the figure, now called The Thinker. In 1888, he made a 27-inch-tall plaster version (the same size as the Gates of Hell figure) that he exhibited in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was not until 1902-1904 that Rodin made the first larger-than-life-size bronze casts of the statue. He supervised the creation of 10 such statues in his lifetime; another 18 or so have been made (both full size and miniature) since his death. The Thinker displays Rodin’s characteristic rough treatment of the human form – this is no idealized classical body. Like so many of Rodin’s sculptures, there is a blend of styles, so much so that it confused the French art academy, which rejected Rodin’s application three times. The sculptor is looking back to the Baroque and Rococo, and at the same time looking forward to the Modernist style that was just around the corner. Although some perceive The Thinker to be a man of quiet contemplation, an introspective philosopher, others (including Rodin himself) thought of him as a man who is thinking with every muscle of his body (even the clenched toes) and ready to spring into heroic action at the decisive moment. We will never know with certainty what he is thinking, but given his origins, my guess is that he is thinking about the act of creating great and powerful works of art.
gates of hell detail  lorenzo de medici

43. Spiral Jetty

Artist: Robert Smithson
Date: 1970
Period/Style: Land Art; Environmental Earthworks; US
Medium: Earthwork sculpture in the Great Salt Lake composed of basalt, salt, mud/earth, salt, and sand.
Dimensions: The jetty is 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide. Construction involved moving 6,650 tons of rock and earth from the shore into the lake.
Current location: Great Salt Lake, Utah
spiral jetty spiral jettyAmerican artist Robert Smithson was tired of the antiseptic and elitist halls of art galleries and museums, which he described as “mausoleums.” He wanted art to be out in the open, part of the landscape, like Stonehenge or the pyramids of Giza. Art, he thought, should be experienced in relationship to an actual place in the world, not in anonymous rooms with white walls that could be anywhere. Smithson was also fascinated with the concept of entropy – the notion that everything tends to go from order to disorder. Spiral Jetty is a site-specific earthwork sculpture that Smithson constructed on the northeastern short of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, a site selected because of the presence of salt-tolerant bacteria and algae that turn the water a blood-red color. The environmental sculpture, which Smithson expected to slowly change over time, consists of a counterclockwise coil jutting into the lake like a giant corkscrew. (The spiral is a shape found both in nature and in ancient stone markings in the American West.) In its immensity, which dwarfs the viewer, the piece hearkens back to the ancient monuments of prehistoric times. Construction required moving 6,650 tons of rock and earth, and took six days. Spiral Jetty may be visible or submerged depending on the lake’s water level. The water level rose in the early 1970s to submerge it for most of the next 30 years. The sculpture has been above water – and sometimes far from the water’s edge – since 2002. Spiral Jetty, like nearly every piece of land or environmental art, cannot be hung in a gallery and cannot be bought or sold. To bring his work to a larger audience, Smithson took many photographs of the project – including aerial photography – and made a short film documenting the planning and construction of Spiral Jetty. Sadly, Smithson died only three years after completing Spiral Jetty when a plane he was using to survey sites for his next project crashed in Texas. His wife donated the work to the DIA Foundation in Utah, which maintains access to the site and documents the work as it changes over time. In keeping with Smithson’s beliefs about entropy, the Foundation has no plans to preserve the artwork but will allow the elements to do their work.

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44. Discobolus (The Discus Thrower)

Artist: Myron (Greek bronze original); the sculptor of the Roman marble copy is unknown.
Date: 460-450 BCE (Greek bronze original, now lost); 1st Century CE (marble Roman copy)
Period/Style: Ancient Greece: Classical Period
Medium: The original was a bronze sculpture. The best existing copy (the Palombara Discobolus) is carved from marble.
Dimensions: The Palombara Discobolus is 5.1 ft. tall.
Current location: The Palombara Discobolus is in the Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome, Italy, at the Palazzo Massimo. The Townley Discobolus is in the British Museum, London. 

The original Discobolus (also known as The Discus Thrower) was a bronze mid-5th Century BCE statue made by Classical-era Greek sculptor Myron. As with most Ancient Greek bronzes, Myron’s original sculpture was melted down to reuse the bronze, but the Ancient Romans made many copies. The copy considered to be the most accurate is the Palombara Discobolus, which dates from the 1st Century CE and was discovered in 1781. The statue is known for its depiction of athletic energy and a well-proportioned body as well as rhythmos, a quality of harmony and balance. Myron creates a sense of balance and order by having the discus thrower’s arms and back create two completely congruous intersecting arcs. Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler was obsessed with the statue; he bought it in 1938 and brought it to Munich (see photo below left). The statue featured prominently in Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s film about the 1936 Olympic Games. It was returned to Italy in 1948. Random Trivia: Another well-known copy of Myron’s original, the Townley Discobolus, which is now in the British Museum in London, was improperly restored with the facing down instead of looking back toward the discus (see image below right).
hitler and discobolus  discus thrower

45. The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus (St. Ansanus Altarpiece)

Artists: Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi
Date: c. 1333-1335
Period/Style: Medieval period; Trecento; Byzantine; International Gothic style; Siena, Italy
Medium: Tempera paints, gold leaf and lapis lazuli on wood panels
Dimensions: 8.6 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Sienese artists Simone Martini and his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi painted the Annunciation (also known as the St. Ansanus Altarpiece) in the International Gothic style for the side altar of St. Ansanus in Siena Cathedral. The Annunciation scene in the central panel is praised for its realism and symbolic detail, from the dove amidst a mandorla of angels, to Angel Gabriel’s cloak, still whirling from his flight, and the olive branch he carries, and Mary’s arabesque gown, startled expression and reading book (see detail in image below). The Uffizi’s curator notes that “the few elements which are depicted – the marble floor, the elaborately engraved throne, the precious fabrics, the book that Mary was reading before the celestial apparition – can be traced back to the lifestyle of the wealthiest classes in the fourteenth century.” Although many aspects of the painting – the gold background, the use of line to define the figures, and the absence of a truly realistic space for those figures to inhabit – reflect Gothic stylistic traditions, the movement, expressions and interplay of Mary and the Angel anticipate the Renaissance style to come.

46. The Ghent Altarpiece

Artists: Hubert and Jan van Eyck
Date: 1432
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Flanders (now Belgium)
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels; large altarpiece with hinged shutters
Dimensions: 11 ft. tall by 15 ft. wide when open
Current location: St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium
The Ghent Altarpiece, which was made for the Church of St. John the Baptist (now St. Bavo Cathedral) in Ghent, Belgium, is an early masterpiece of the Early Netherlandish style and highlights the new artistic effects possible with oil paints. The large altarpiece consists of 12 panels, eight of them with hinged shutters. The commission from merchant and mayor Joost Vijdt was given to Hubert van Eyck, but many scholars believe Hubert’s brother Jan painted most or all of the piece. When closed, the altarpiece shows the Annunciation, imitation statues of two saints in grisaille, and portraits of the donor and his wife, Joost Vijdt and Lysbette Borluut (see first image below). The brightly-colored interior panels show: (top row) God the Father, dressed as the Pope, Mary, St. John the Baptist, two sets of musical angels and Adam and Eve and (bottom row) a grand celebration of Jesus as the Lamb of God, known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (see detail in second image below). The Early Netherlandish style was influenced by the earlier International Gothic, Byzantine and Romanesque styles, but the lack of idealization and the attention to detail in the Ghent Altarpiece indicate a new artistic conception. The altarpiece was also a showcase for the detailed effects of light and texture possible with the use of oil paints.

47. La Primavera (Spring; Allegory of Spring)

Artist: Sandro Botticelli 
Date: c. 1477-1482
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; mythological
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 6.7 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Botticelli-primaveraLa Primavera is a celebration of Spring and the blossoming of love that was commissioned by a member of Florence’s powerful Medici clan. At the center, Venus presides over a sort of mythological garden party: Her son Cupid flies above her, blindfolded and arrow ready to strike. On the far right, Zephyr, the March wind, is kidnapping the nymph Chloris (see detail in image below left). Zephyr’s love transforms Chloris into Flora, the goddess of Spring, who is seen in a floral gown scattering flowers. On the left, the Three Graces dance while Mercury protects the gathering from bad weather. As in so many of Botticelli’s mythological works, the figures seem almost weightless, as if they live in a dream world. All the references to Spring and love are consistent with the theory that the painting was a wedding gift, possibly for the 1482 marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici to Semiramide Appiano. The theme of blossoming also extends to the plant life in the painting: Botticelli has accurately depicted hundreds of individual plants from at least 40 different species, including a grove of orange trees (see detail in right image below).
primavera detail  primavera detail 2

48. The Last Judgment (Fresco, Sistine Chapel Altar Wall)

Artist: Michelangelo
Date: Begun in 1534; completed in 1541.
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Rome, Italy; religious
Medium: Fresco on wall of Sistine Chapel
Dimensions: 45 ft. tall by 39 ft. wide
Current location: Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace, Vatican City 

Twenty-five years after painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo returned to paint a giant fresco of The Last Judgment on the altar wall in the Mannerist style. As with all depictions of the the Last Judgment, Michelangelo shows Christ’s second coming and the division of the saved (on the left) from the damned (on the right). At the top of the composition, angels bring the symbols of Christ’s passion, including the cross and crown of thorns. Due to Michelangelo’s reputation, he was able to negotiate a significant amount of artistic freedom in exercising the commission from Pope Paul III. Nevertheless, the nudity of many of the figures in the fresco alarmed some clerics. Even before the painting was complete, the Pope’s master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, called the work “disgraceful” and said that it was more appropriate for the “public baths and taverns.” In response, Michelangelo painted Cesena’s face on Minos, judge of the underworld, giving him donkey ears and wrapping a serpent around him to cover (and bite!) his genitals (see detail in image below left). When Cesena protested, the Pope reportedly quipped that he could do nothing because his jurisdiction did not extend to Hell. After Michelangelo’s death in 1564, the Vatican ordered Daniele da Volterra to paint over many of the figures’ genitalia. Many of these fig leaves were removed over 400 years later during the extensive cleaning between 1980 and 1994. The restorers relied heavily on a copy of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment commissioned by Cardinal Allesandro Farnese and painted by Marcello Venusti in 1549, before the fig leaves were added. (Venusti’s copy is now in the Museo da Capodimonte in Naples – see image below right.) Unfortunately, the restorers found that in some cases Volterra had scraped off the offending material and painted on fresh plaster instead of merely painting over the original, thus permanently marring the masterpiece.

49. The Night Watch (The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch)

Artist: Rembrandt (full name: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn)
Date: 1642
Period/Style: Baroque; Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands; group portrait
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 11.9 ft. tall by 14.3 ft. wide
Current location: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Rembrandt_-_The_Nightwatch 2Despite its name, Rembrandt’s painting commonly known as The Night Watch does not depict a watch (which only occurs in times of danger) and does not take place at night. The members of a local militia commissioned Rembrandt to paint their portrait as they marched from their headquarters, during the day, in formation. The painting’s unwieldy original title is The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch Preparing to March Out. The work demonstrates Rembrandt’s signature expertise in employing the technique of tenebrism, using dramatic lighting to draws the viewer’s attention to certain elements of the composition, while keeping the rest in shadow or complete darkness. The viewer focuses on the two leaders of the militia and a young girl, who carries the traditional symbols of the militia company (see detail in left image below). This large work has suffered numerous indignities through the years. First, the glazes Rembrandt used have darkened over the centuries, causing the loss of some details, especially in areas outside the brightly-lit focal points, and causing viewers to think that the scene takes place at night. Second, when The Night Watch was moved to Amsterdam Town Hall in 1715, the canvas was trimmed on all four sides so it could fit on the wall between two columns. The trimming cut off portions of figures on the right and eliminated two figures on the left, changing the balance of Rembrandt’s composition. (A 17th Century copy of the untrimmed work by Gerrit Lundens is shown below right.) Finally, on three separate occasions (in 1911, 1975 and 1990), vandals have damaged the painting, although restoration work has repaired most of the damage.
night watch detail lundens night watch copy

50. Bal du moulin de la Galette (Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette)

Artist: Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Date: 1876
Period/Style: Impressionism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.3 ft. tall by 5.7 ft. wide
Current location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
Le_Moulin_de_la_GaletteFrench Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette paints a portrait of a Sunday afternoon at a popular outdoor café and dance hall in Montmartre, then a rural hilltop village an hour’s walk from Paris. The Moulin de la Galette, named after the brown bread made from the flour ground by its historic windmill, was a weekend destination for working men and women, as well as writers and artists. They came dressed in their best clothes to eat galette, drink, dance and gaze down on Paris from a scenic overlook. Like all the Impressionists, Renoir liked to paint scenes of everyday life, but no Impressionist had previously shown average people amusing themselves on such a large canvas, thereby giving an apparently trivial subject heightened significance. Like all Impressionists, Renoir liked to study the effects of light: here, he paints the sunlight filtering through the acacia trees and mixing with lamplight to create a dappled patchwork of bright patches and shadows. Critics then and now marvel at the way Renoir makes the light seem to flicker and dance. Scholars also comment on Renoir’s effective use of bright colors – there is not a touch of black in the canvas – and the resulting tone of carefree celebration. Note that, although Renoir appears to depict a typical crowd at the Moulin, he loaded the canvas with portraits of his friends, as well as a few professional models. One of those friends, writer Georges Rivière (pictured at the table in the foreground), in his review of the 1877 Impressionist Exhibition, described Bal du Moulin de la Galette as a “page of history, a precious and strictly accurate portrayal of Parisian life.” Renoir painted a second, smaller version of the painting (measuring 2.5 ft. tall by 3.7 ft. wide) that is in a private collection; it was purchased at auction for $78 million in 1990.

51. Impression, Sunrise

Artist: Claude Monet
Date: 1872
Period/Style: Impressionism; France; seascape
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 1.6 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. wide
Current location: Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, France
claude_monet_impression-sunriseIn 1872, shortly after the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian war, French painter Claude Monet visited the Normandy seaport of Le Havre, the place where he grew up. During the visit, Monet made several paintings of the busy harbor, some from the waterside, others from his hotel window. The most well-known of these works is Impression: Sunrise. Monet worked quickly and the work has an unfinished feeling. He explained later that he was not trying to paint the harbor, but to paint the feeling evoked by the view at that particular moment. For this reason, he called it an impression. After Monet included the small canvas in an 1874 exhibition that included work by Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot and Alfred Sisley, critics picked up on the word and used it disparagingly against Monet and other ‘impressionists.’ Not cowed, Monet and his cohort adopted the term and began calling themselves Impressionists. The painting shows an orange sun reflected in the water of the harbor (the reflection forms a vertical line). In the foreground, a dark fishing boat – we see the fishermen, then another, further away and less distinct, and a third, still further, still hazier; the three form a diagonal line. In the far distance, we see the smokestacks of steamers and the rigging of tall-masted ships. The rough brushstrokes evoke the haze and mist of early morning, such that the sky and water are barely distinguishable from one another; the dark horizontal marks in the water in the foreground give a sense of depth. Neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone has analyzed the painting in terms of visual perception. Normally, the sun is the brightest source of light in an outdoor scene, but Monet’s orange sun has the same brightness (the technical term is luminescence – brightness separate from color) as the water and sky. It is only the color that sets the sun apart from the rest of the composition. This means the primitive part of our brain that sees brightness does not distinguish the sun from the clouds, while the more advanced part of our brain that perceives color easily picks out the sun: thus setting up a conflict of vision.

52. The Kiss

Artist: Auguste Rodin 
Date: The sculpture first appeared as a relief sculpture in about 1882 as part of Rodin’s large piece, The Gates of Hell. Rodin first made a separate sculpture of the group in the round in 1887. The French government commissioned the first life-size marble version in 1888, which was not completed until 1898.
Period/Style: Realism; Impressionism; France
Medium: Sculptures made from plaster, marble or bronze
Dimensions: The full-size version is 6 ft. tall, 3.7 ft. wide, and 3.8 ft. deep. There are also smaller versions.
Current location: Full-size marble versions are located in various museums, including the Musée Rodin in Paris (original version), the Tate in London, and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Rodin’s massive sculpture The Gates of Hell – intended to become the doors of a new art museum – generated several spin-offs. The first was The Thinker, which arose from the figure of The Poet who sat at the top of the doors. The second spin-off was The Kiss, which originated as a depiction of the story of Francesca da Rimini. According to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Francesca was a 13th Century Italian noblewoman who fell in love with her husband’s younger brother Pablo while they were reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere together. Before they could consummate their love, Francesca and Pablo were discovered and killed by Francesca’s husband. At some point, Rodin decided to rework The Gates of Hell and remove the relief sculpture of Francesca and Pablo. But he salvaged the piece by recreating it as a stand-alone sculpture in the round, still called Francesca da Rimini. Rodin shows the two nude lovers embracing, about to kiss, in the moments before their murder. The lovers’ lips never touch and Pablo still holds the book in his hand. After seeing the small version of the sculpture, the French government in 1888 commissioned Rodin to create a larger-than-life-size marble statue, which Rodin finally completed in 1898. When the piece was exhibited for the first time, critics suggested the more generic title The Kiss, which emphasizes the universal nature of the emotions depicted without tying the piece to a particular place and time. Rodin himself was not impressed with the work, calling it “a large sculpted knick-knack following the usual formula”, but the public felt differently. Although some initially were offended by the open eroticism of the sculpture, many more were impressed by its tenderness (without sentimentality), its feminism (the woman and the man are equal partners in their loving embrace), and its ability to convey human sensuality realistically without any hint of baseness or obscenity.

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53. Venus of Willendorf

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 28,000-25,000 BCE
Period/Style: Gravettian culture; Paleolithic, Austria
Medium: Carved limestone figurine
Dimensions: 4.25 inches tall
Current location: Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
During the Upper Paleolithic era (c. 28,000-18,000 BCE), the Gravettian culture flourished in parts of Europe. The culture is known for its many bone, stone, or clay statuettes of women, usually with large breasts, bellies, thighs, hips and buttocks, that are referred to as Venus figurines, even though they predate the Greco-Roman Venus mythology by many thousands of years. Many of the figurines are either headless or faceless. The carved limestone figurine known as the Venus of Willendorf was found in 1908 at a Paleolithic site in the Danube valley of Austria, near the town of Willendorf.  The figure has the exaggerated features of the typical Venus figurine. It has no face, only streaks which may be hair, and no feet, so it could not stand by itself. There are traces of red ochre on the figurine, indicating it was once painted. The type of limestone used was not found locally, indicating the existence of a trade network. The purpose of the Venus of Willendorf and other Venus figurines is debated, but the sculptor’s emphasis on the female body’s sexual and childbearing characteristics has led many to conclude that this and other such figurines were fertility goddesses or otherwise played a role in fertility rituals.

54. Winged Victory of Samothrace (Nike of Samothrace)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 200-190 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece: Hellenistic Period
Medium: The statue is made of white Parian marble. The base and pedestal are made from gray Rhodesian marble.
Dimensions: The statue stands 9 ft. tall; the pedestal is 1.2 ft. tall and the ship-shaped base is 6.6 ft. tall.
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Nike of Samothrace
Most art historians believe that the sculpture of Winged Victory (the Greek goddess also known as Nike), which was created in Ancient Greece during the Hellenistic Period (331-323 BCE), was intended to commemorate a naval victory. Made from Parian marble, the statue of the goddess measures eight feet from neck to feet. We see the goddess at the moment she descends from the sky and lands on the deck of a ship, her drapery still in motion. The artist balances the sense of dynamic forward movement with a calm stillness and balance. Because the head, arms and other portions of the statue were missing when it was discovered on the island of Samothrace in 1863, experts have speculated about what the original looked like, with differing interpretations (see drawing with artist’s imagined reconstruction below left). Although some reconstructions show the goddess holding something in her right hand, the discovery of fragments of the hand indicate that the hand was not grasping anything (see below right).

55. Pergamon Altar Frieze

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 180 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece/Asia Minor: Hellenistic Period (now Turkey)
Medium: Bas reliefs sculpted in Proconnesian marble
Dimensions: The Gigantomachy frieze is 7.5 ft. tall and 370.7 ft. long
Current location: Pergmon Museum, Berlin, Germany
pergamon altar
pergamon altarpergamon altarThe Pergamon Museum in Berlin is home to one of the finest works of Hellenistic art: the immense Pergamon Altar and its program of relief sculptures. Pergamon (then Asia Minor, now Turkey), had adopted Greek culture and customs when it was part of Alexander the Great’s empire. In 282 BCE, it achieved independence as the center of the Kingdom of Pergamon, which lasted until 133 BCE, when it became part of the Roman Republic. The altar was built during the mid 2nd Century BCE by King Eumenes II. It likely stood outside a temple, possibly dedicated to Zeus and Athena. Carved in high relief around the base of the altar is a frieze depicting the Gigantomachy, a mythical battle between the Greek gods and a race of Giants. Another, smaller frieze on the inner walls of the Altar shows scenes from the life of Telephus, legendary founder of Pergamon. As with almost all ancient sculptures, the frieze was originally painted in bright colors. The altar and friezes were excavated by German archaeologist Carl Humann between 1878 and 1886, who brought them back to Germany with the permission of the Ottoman government. He and his team then reconstructed all the fragments and displayed them in a museum built specifically for the purpose, which opened in 1901. Like so much Hellenistic art, the sculptures display dramatic movements and emotional expression, and seemed to be designed to generate excitement in the viewer, in stark contrast to the Classical Period’s balance and stoic calm. The images show:
(1) (top) the Pergamon Altar; (middle) Athena lifts up the giant Alkyoneus; Nike stands and fights while Earth goddess Gaia (mother of the Giants) rises up from the ground, and
(2) (bottom) Hecate fights the giant Clytius, while Artemis battles Otos.

56. Lindisfarne Gospels

Artist: Attributed to Eadfrith of Lindisfarne
Date: c. 700-715 CE
Period/Style: Hiberno-Saxon/Insular style; England
Medium: Illustrated manuscript
Dimensions: Each page of the book measures 14.4 in. tall by 10.8 in. wide
Current location: British Museum, London, England, UK

lindisfarne carpet page  Lindesfarne  The illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels was produced in a monastery on Lindisfarne (also known as Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland in the UK. Eadfrith, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 until his death in 721, is presumed to be the artist. The book was originally encased in a leather binding covered with jewels and precious metals made by Billfrith the Anchorite, but this treasure was looted by the Vikings sometime after their first raid in 793. The original Latin text is written using insular majuscule script and the art is considered an early and prime example of the insular or Hiberno-Saxon art of the British Isles in the post-Roman period. In the 10th Century, Aldred, Provost of Chesterlestreet, inserted a word-for-word Old English translation between the lines of the Latin text and a short history of the book, noting that it was made in honor of 7th Century St. Cuthbert, an earlier Bishop of Lindisfarne. The style of the illuminations incorporates Christian and pre-Christian imagery, including Celtic, Germanic and Irish artistic traditions. Each Gospel is introduced by a portrait of the evangelist. One of the most highly-regarded pages is the cross-carpet page preceding the gospel book of St. Matthew (see image at left above). A carpet page is characterized by mainly geometrical ornamentation, including many animal forms, that reminds viewers of an elaborate carpet. Some carpet pages illustrate a single initial letter of a manuscript; a cross-carpet page illustrates a Christian cross.  The image at right above shows the portrait page of St. Matthew the Evangelist.

57. Relief Sculptures, Chartres Cathedral

Artists: Unknown
Dates: 1145-1155 (Royal Portals); 1194-1220 (other reliefs)
Style/Period: Medieval period; Romanesque and French Gothic styles
Medium: Bas reliefs carved in limestone
Dimensions: The reliefs cover much of the exterior of the cathedral, which measures 427 feet long and 121 feet tall at the nave.
Current location: Chartres, France
chartres cathedral royal portalchartres north transept
The cathedral that UNESCO calls “the high point of French Gothic art” only exists today due to the quick thinking of an anonymous late 18th Century architect. During the French Revolution, anti-clerical sentiment ran high: the revolutionaries saw the Roman Catholic church as a supporter of the ancien régime and destroyed many religious buildings and works of art. When the revolution reached Chartres, an angry mob took hammers to the relief sculptures on the exterior of the town’s magnificent cathedral, although locals eventually stopped them. A more potent threat was the local revolutionary government’s plan to demolish the huge structure entirely. They only dropped the plan after a local architect, looking to derail the plan, pointed out the resulting rubble from the demolition would block the streets for months or years afterwards.  Officially known as Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Chartres, Chartres Cathedral was begun in 1145 in the Romanesque style, but after an 1194 fire was reconstructed in the French Gothic style. Relief sculptures and carvings decorate the west, north and south entrances (also called portals or porches), with each portal’s reliefs addressing a separate theological subject. The carvings of the west entrance, known as the Royal Portals (which survived from the pre-1194 structure), focus on the nature of Jesus (see top image for detail) and set out what Neil Collins calls “a virtual encyclopedia of Biblical art.” The north entrance (see second image above for detail) celebrates the Old Testament and Christ’s immediate ancestors, while the south entrance (see details in images below) relates the history of the Catholic Church since Christ’s death.

58. Frescoes, Würzburg Residence 

Artist: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Date: Begun in 1750; completed in 1753.
Period/Style: Baroque, with Rococo elements, Italy/Germany
Medium: Frescoes painted on residential walls
Dimensions: The Apollo and the Four Continents fresco measures 62 ft. by 100 ft. and covers an area of 7,287 square feet. The Marriage of Emperor Frederick to Beatrice and the Investiture of Herold as Duke of Franconia are each 13 ft. tall and 16.4 ft. wide.
Current location: Würzburg, Germany
tiepolo wurzburg
tiepolo allegorical ceiling  tiepolo wedding
One of the greatest works of 18th Century Italian art is located in Germany. In 1750, in response to a commission from Karl Philipp von Greiffenklau, the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg, Germany, Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and his sons traveled from Italy to paint frescoes on the walls and ceilings of the Würzburg Residence, the palace of the Prince-Bishops the episcopal principality of Würzburg. (Würzburg is now a city in the German state of Bavaria.) Considered the last great Venetian painter, Tiepolo was a master of the Rococo style but without the frothy frivolity often associated with the style as practiced elsewhere (particularly France). Contemporaries praised Tiepolo’s sprezzatura, an untranslatable term that refers to his ability to combine precise rendering of images, dramatic poses and tension-creating (but bright) color schemes to keep the pictures engaging but with a soft, romantic quality that eases tension without sacrificing liveliness. Based on his early works, such as the frescoes in the Ca’ Dolfin on the Grand Canal of Venice, Tiepolo’s reputation spread beyond the borders of Italy. Tiepolo’s first job at Würzburg was the decorate the Imperial Hall of the residence. He and his sons painted the allegorical Apollo Presenting Beatrice of Burgundy to Frederick Barbarossa on the ceiling as well as two historical events on the walls (see image above left): the Marriage of Emperor Frederick to Beatrice (see image above right) and the Investiture of Herold as Duke of Franconia. Based on his success on this first project, Tiepolo was asked to decorate the ceiling over the grand staircase (designed by star-architect Balthasar Neumann); at 7,287 square feet, this may be the largest fresco of all time. Tiepolo first presented the Prince-Bishop with a large painted sketch of his plan, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The theme was The Allegory of the Planets and the Continents (also known as Apollo and the Four Continents) (see top image). Around the tops of the four walls, Tiepolo created scenes of the animals, plants and products of Africa, Asia, Europe and America, with allegorical figures to represent each continent (see detail with Africa below left). In the center of the ceiling, he showed the vast heavens, with Apollo (lover of the arts) at the center, and various mythological figures representing the known planets (see detail below right). The fresco is integrated seamlessly into the architecture, such that visitors report that photographs cannot capture the brilliance of the effect on the viewer. For example, the perspective changes based on where the viewer is standing; based on his patron’s instructions, Tiepolo focused on several viewing spots as one ascends the massive staircase. Included in the fresco are portraits of Balthasar Neumann, the Prince-Bishop, and Tiepolo’s own son, Domenico. The Würzburg frescoes are the pinnacle of Tiepolo’s career and a high point of 18th Century artistic achievement.
tiepolo africa  tiepolo apollo

59. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Artist: Édouard Manet
Date: 1882
Period/Style: Realism; Impressionism
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 3.2 ft. tall by 4.3 ft. wide
Current location: Courtauld Gallery, London, England, UK
Bar_at_the_Folies-BergèreÉdouard Manet loved to upset expectations of the viewers of his paintings – their expectations about their relationship to what is going on in the painting and about the relationships among the figures in the world of the painting. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Manet’s last major painting, plays with all those preconceptions. At first glance, the painting seems relatively straightforward: we see a woman behind a bar with a crowd of partiers behind her. But then we notice that she is standing in front of a large mirror and the people we see are actually behind us (that is, behind the viewer) and in front of the barmaid. So, we see what she sees (Manet of course was familiar with the use of mirrors in such works as Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and Velazquez’s Las Meninas). We even see the feet of an acrobat high up in the air, which gives a taste of the entertainment at the Folies-Bergère. But when we look more closely at the reflection we see that the barmaid’s reflection is not where we would expect it if the painting were being made from the perspective of the viewer. The viewer is standing directly in front of the woman, and so we would expect to see the reflection of both the woman and the viewer (that is, us) directly in front of us. But instead, we see the reflections off to the right side. And there is the reflection of a man in a top hat leaning in to speak to the woman. But where is the man? Is this a massive mistake on Manet’s part? According to one theory (based on a preliminary sketch), the barmaid was originally placed farther to the right, closer to her reflection. According to this theory, when Manet decided to move the woman to the center of the composition, he left her reflection where it was, perhaps to confuse viewers. Another theory is that the reflections make perfect sense if the painter is situated several feet back and to the right of the bar, and then paints what he sees at an oblique angle, with the man just out of the frame on the left. (For a diagram of this theory, see the image below.) The last expectation is about the nature of the woman and the business she is transacting with the top-hatted man. On the surface, it appears that she is selling drinks at a bar. But it was well known that the Folies-Bergère was a place where prostitutes worked, and that at least some of the women working as barmaids were also sex workers. (The bowl of oranges was a symbol of prostitution.) So the conversation between the barmaid and the top-hatted man may have been about a different kind of business transaction. And what of us, the viewers? Are we complicit in the sordid business of sex for money? Or, based on the absence of a reflection in the mirror in front of us, perhaps we don’t exist at all.

60. Unique Forms of Continuity in Space

Artist: Umberto Boccioni
Date: 1913
Period/Style: Futurism; Italy
Medium: Bronze sculptures
Dimensions: 3.6 ft. tall by 3 ft. long by 15.5 inches wide
Current locations: Bronze casts are found in various collections, including: Museum of Modern Art, New York (1931 cast); Museo del Novecento, Milan (1931 cast); Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1949 cast); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1949 cast); Museu de Arte Contemporânea, São Paulo, Brazil (original plaster sculpture and 1960 bronze cast); Tate Modern, London (1972 cast).
The Italian Futurists believed that artists should reject the outdated artistic values of the past (they described art museums as cemeteries) and embrace the speed and energy of the machine age. Futurist Umberto Boccioni was a painter until he was exposed to some of the three-dimensional art objects being created by the Cubists in France, when he suddenly decided to become a sculptor. His most successful sculpture is Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. The sculpture depicts a faceless, armless figure – human, super-human or man-machine – striding dynamically through the air. The figure stands on two small pedestals – one for each foot. It appears to be wearing a helmet or headpiece that projects forward with a cross-shaped appendage. To show the true experience of movement, Boccioni shows us not only the legs of the striding figure but the movement of the atmosphere itself as it curls about the striding limbs like flickering tongues of flame. For Boccioni, the energy of movement included not only the moving subject but the space around the subject – both elements make up the Man in Motion. In contrast to Duchamp’s analytical approach to showing motion in Nude Descending a Staircase in disconnected images, Boccioni’s sculpture shows the “synthetic continuity” of motion (as he put it). Boccioni made a plaster cast of the statue in 1913, but a bronze cast was never made in his lifetime. When World War I broke out, he volunteered for the army and died in a training exercise in 1916, trampled by a horse. The first bronze casts were made in the 1930s. Although Futurism as an artistic movement did not last very long, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space has had a lasting legacy; casts are possessed by many museums, and a drawing of the statue was chosen to be the image on the back of the 20-cent Italian Euro coin.

On 11 Lists

61. Funerary Mask of Tutankhamun

Artist: Unknown
Date: 1333-1323 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Egyptian: 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom
Medium: Solid gold mask inlaid with colored glass and semiprecious stones (including obsidian, quartz, and lapis lazuli)
Dimensions: 21 in. tall by 15.5 in. wide
Current location: Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo, Egypt
tutankhamen funerary mask
king tut mask side view King_Tut_Mask_back
In the book of Ancient Egyptian history, Tutankhamun, an 18th Dynasty New Kingdom pharaoh who ruled from 1332-1323 BCE, hardly merits a footnote. For much of his 10-year reign, which began when he was nine years old, King Tut was too young to rule and was under the control of regents. The only notable event of his reign was a coordinated effort to erase the memory of his father and predecessor Akhenaten and return Egypt to its polytheistic religion after an unpopular experiment in monotheism. But Tutankhamen’s importance suddenly skyrocketed in 1922, when British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered that his tomb was almost completely intact. Two millennia of grave robbers had taken nearly every artifact from most of the royal tombs of Ancient Egypt, but the location of Tutankhamun’s tomb – hidden behind other, more prominent architecture served to preserve his tomb and its treasures. The biggest prize in the tomb was the pharaoh’s mummy, which was encased in three wooden coffins fitted inside one another like Russian dolls. Inside the innermost case, Carter found the king’s funerary, or death mask. Made of solid gold inlaid with colored glass and semi-precious stones, the mask includes the nemes (the striped head cloth of the pharaohs), the traditional false beard, and representations of the goddesses Nekhbet (the vulture) and Wadjet (the cobra). The purpose of the mask was to ensure that the pharaoh’s ka (soul) would recognize his body in the coffin and re-turn to allow his resurrection. The other objects found in the tomb were placed there for the pleasure and comfort of the resurrected phar-aoh in the afterlife. Random Trivia: Inscribed on the back of the mask is a protective spell from the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

62. Frescoes, Villa of the Mysteries

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 60-40 BCE
Period Style: Ancient Rome; Second Pompeian (“architectural”) Style
Medium: Frescoes painted on residential walls
Dimensions: The frescoes are nearly 10 feet tall and run around the four walls of the room for a total of 56 feet.
Current location: Pompeii Archaeological Park, Pompeii, Italy
Villa of the mysteries
villa of the mysteries frescoThe Villa of the Mysteries is the name art historians have given to an Ancient Roman villa located near the ruins of Pompeii in southern Italy. The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE covered the residence with many feet of volcanic ash and tufa, preserving it for future generations. When the villa was excavated in 1909, a remarkable series of frescoes was discovered in one of the rooms, the triclinium. The style of the painting is illusionistic, consistent with what art historians have called the Second Pompeian Style. The figures are life size, and when entering the room, one has the illusion of being surrounded by and part of the events taking place on the walls. The meaning of the frescoes is subject to debate: some scholars believe they depict the initiation of a young woman into a Dionysian cult; others say it shows marriage rituals. One scene shows Dionysus lounging; one shows Silenus playing a lyre; another shows a woman (the initiate?) being consoled after being whipped.

63. Trajan’s Column

Artist: The design of the column is attributed to architect Apollodorus of Damascus, but the names of the artists who sculpted the reliefs are unknown.
Date: 113 CE
Period/Style: Ancient Roman; Italy
Medium: Relief sculptures carved into marble
Dimensions: The column, which consists of 20 stacked marble drums, each 11 feet in diameter, is 98 feet tall; with the pedestal included, it rises 125 feet from the ground.
Location: Roman Forum, Rome, Italy
  Detail of Trajan's Column.
ancient rome trajans column 3
Trajan’s Column was built to commemorate Roman Emperor Trajan’s victories in two successive wars against the Dacians (in what is now Romania) in 101-102 and 105-106 CE. A bas relief showing the events of the Dacian Wars spirals around the column for a total of 625 feet, with over 500 individual scenes containing more than 2,500 figures, including 59 representations of Trajan himself (always the tallest one in the scene). In addition to battle scenes, the frieze shows the efficiency and productivity of the Roman army, particularly in building camps and fortifications, and Roman efforts to bring civilization to the conquered ‘barbarian’ tribes. The sculptor has placed the human figures in context by providing a plethora of details: he includes landscapes with plants, animals, architecture and geography and pays special attention to the contrast between the refined clothing of the Romans and the ragged outfits of the Dacian soldiers and civilians. A 185-step spiral staircase inside the column leading to an observation deck is now closed, but was climbed by many earlier generations of tourists, including German author Johann Wilhelm von Goethe, who described the view as “incomparable.” In antiquity, a bronze statue of Trajan topped the column, but it disappeared during the Middle Ages. Pope Sixtus V replaced it with a statue of St. Peter in 1587, an apt symbol of Christianity’s appropriation of Classical culture.

64. Book of Kells

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 800 CE
Period/Style: Celtic Christian; Insular Art; England/Ireland
Medium: Illustrated manuscript
Dimensions: The book measures 13 in. tall by 10 in. wide
Current location: Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland

The Book of Kells is an illustrated manuscript containing the four Christian Gospels and other writings. The book was created in one or more of the English and Irish monasteries founded by St. Colomba, probably Iona, in England, and then Kells, in Ireland, where it remained until the mid-17th Century, when it was moved to Dublin and eventually to the library of Trinity College. The Book of Kells is considered the most extravagant and complex example of Insular Art. The artist’s finest achievements are the initial pages, in which the first letter of the Gospel is elaborated into a world of figures and designs (see Gospel of John in top image and Gospel of Matthew above left), and the 10 surviving full-page illuminations, such as Christ Enthroned (above right).  All 680 pages are viewable online HERE.

65. The Holy Trinity

Artist: Masaccio
Date: 1428
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy
Medium: Fresco painted on a church wall
Dimensions: 21.9 ft. tall by 10.4 ft wide
Current location: Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy
 trinityWhen Giorgio Vasari was commissioned to renovate Florence’s Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in the mid-16th Century, he faced a dilemma. On the one hand, Vasari was an artist who wanted to please his patron by updating the church’s decorations into the contemporary Mannerist style. On the other hand, Vasari, who in addition to being an artist was one of the first art historians, knew that Masaccio’s Holy Trinity fresco, painted on the left side wall of the nave in 1428, was an important work that should be preserved for future generations. So Vasari compromised. He didn’t paint over the fresco and so preserved it for the future; but he constructed a new screen and altar directly in front of Masaccio’s work, hiding it from view. It was not until 300 years later, in 1860, that another round of renovations uncovered the hidden gem. The lower portion of Masaccio’s fresco shows a memento mori: skeleton lying on a sarcophagus and an inscription in Italian reading, “I was once what you now are and what I am, you shall yet be” (see detail in image below). Above, in what appears to be a recessed vestibule, we see God the Father, standing behind his son Jesus, who is hanging on the cross; Mary and St. John stand below them. Below them, and outside the inner sanctuary, kneel the donor and his wife. Masaccio’s use of one-point linear perspective (possibly achieved with the assistance of Brunelleschi himself) is here used to create a tromp l’oeil (“tricks the eye”) effect that astonished contemporary and later artists. Vasari himself wrote: “the most beautiful thing, apart from the figures, is a barrel-shaped vaulting, drawn in perspective and divided into squares filled with rosettes, which are foreshortened and made to diminish so well that the wall appears to be pierced.”
masaccio memento mori

66. The Gates of Paradise (East Doors, Florence Baptistery)

Artist: Lorenzo Ghiberti
Date: Work began in 1425; the completed doors were installed in 1452.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Italy; religious
Medium: Set of bronze doors with gilded relief sculptures
Dimensions: The doors are 17 ft. tall by 10.2 ft. wide and weigh between three and four tons. Each of the 10 panels is 2.6 ft. square.
Current location: The original (recently restored) doors are located in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, in Florence, Italy. The doors on the Baptistery itself are reproductions.  

The Gates of Paradise is the name coined by Michelangelo when he first saw the gilded bronze relief sculptures carved by Italian artist Lorenzo Ghiberti for the east doors of the Florence Baptistery. This was the second set of door panels carved by Ghiberti for the building. In 1401, at the age of 23, he won a contest (beating such illustrious competitors as Filippo Brunelleschi and Jacopo della Quercia) to create 28 panels with scenes from the New Testament for the north doors, a project he finished in 1423. In 1425, Ghiberti received a second commission for 10 panels with Old Testament scenes for the east doors. This project, which involved a dangerous gilding process, took him 27 years to finish. The second set of doors incorporates the newly-discovered rules of perspective; as a result, the scenes have a naturalism that is absent from the Gothic-style north door reliefs (see full set of doors below left). Each panel tells a Bible story in several scenes, using high and low relief. (Shown above are: The Story of Isaac, at top; and The Story of Joseph, bottom.) Between the 10 panels, narrow borders contain 20 full-length portraits and 24 heads in roundels of prophets and evangelists, including a Ghiberti self-portrait (shown below right). In 1990, the Baptistery doors panels were replaced by replicas to protect the originals from weather damage. The originals were brought to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where they recently underwent a 27-year-long restoration and cleaning.

67. The Portinari Altarpiece

Artist: Hugo van der Goes
Date: c. 1475
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Northern Renaissance; Flanders (now Belgium); religious
Medium: Triptych made with oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 8.3 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
portinari altarpiece
The Portinari Altarpiece brought Early Netherlandish painting into the heart of the Italian Renaissance. Italian banker Tommaso Portinari commissioned Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes to create an altarpiece for the chapel in the Santa Maria Nuova hospital in Florence. Portinari served as a banker for the Medici family in Bruges, Flanders (now Belgium), where he became familiar with Flemish painting and painters. Van der Goes depicted the Adoration of the Shepherds in the center panel of the altarpiece, with the Portinari family and their patron saints on the side panels. In a break from traditional iconography, the infant Jesus is placed on the ground, on a ‘blanket’ made of golden rays, instead of lying on a crib or on his mother’s lap (see detail below left). The background of each panel contains additional narratives: (1) the left wing shows Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem; (2) the center panel shows the angel appearing to the shepherds; and (3) the right panel shows the Three Magi on their way to see Jesus (see detail below right). When the painting arrived in Florence in 1483, its technique and style, particularly its naturalistic depiction of the figures, caused quite a stir, particularly among Florence’s painters, some of whom – such as Domenico Ghirlandaio – were strongly influenced by it.
portinari_child  portinari right wing

68. The Battle of Alexander at Issus (Alexander’s Victory)

Artist: Albrecht Altdorfer
Date: 1529
Period/Style: Northern Renaissance; Danube School; Germany; world landscape painting; history painting
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 5.2 ft. tall by 4 ft. wide
Current location: Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

The Battle of Alexander at Issus is one of eight historical paintings by German artist Albrecht Altdorfer commissioned by Duke William IV of Bavaria to hang in the Duke’s Munich residence. The painting depicts the 333 BCE battle in which Alexander the Great defeated Darius III of Persia. The work is the most famous example of the 16th Century Northern European genre of world landscape painting: by ignoring the normal rules of perspective (and realism), Altdorfer shows us the details of a battle in the foreground (see detail below left), but as we move back, we see a grand overview of a large portion of the world, including the Mediterranean Sea and the lands bordering it. The dramatic sky is significant on metaphorical and symbolic levels. Alexander was said to have drawn his power from the sun, while the crescent moon (at upper left) is a symbol of the East and, later Islam. Although Altdorfer’s grand scale, level of detail and official banner inscription all suggest an intent to depict the historical event accurately, the painting contains numerous inaccuracies and anachronisms, some of which are surely deliberate. For example, Alexander’s men wear 16th Century armor and Darius’s troops are dressed as 16th Century Turks (see detail below right). These elements lead scholars to believe Altdorfer intended to compare Alexander’s victory over the Persians with the contemporary struggle between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, as exemplified by the Siege of Vienna in 1529 (the year of the painting), where an outnumbered collection of Europeans repulsed an attack by Suleiman the Magnificent and his Ottoman warriors.
the-battle-of-issus-  Albrecht_altdorfer battle of alexander

69. The Ambassadors

Artist: Hans Holbein the Younger
Date: 1533
Period/Style: Northern Renaissance; Germany/England; portraits
Medium: Oil paints on oak panels
Dimensions: 6.75 ft. tall by 6.87 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
the ambassadors holbein
Northern Renaissance painter Hans Holbein the Younger was born in Germany but spent much of his career in England, eventually rising to become court painter for King Henry VIII. He is best known for his portraits, the most highly-regarded of which is the double portrait known as The Ambassadors. On its face The Ambassadors is a portrait of two French diplomats, most likely Jean de Dinteville, a landowner (left), and Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur (right). But this painting contains many mysteries. The table between the two men, in the center of the composition, contains numerous symbols of religion and science or commerce, including two globes, a quadrant, a torquetum, a polyhedral sundial, an Oriental carpet, a Lutheran hymn book, and a lute with a broken string (a symbol of discord) (see detail in image below left). A half-hidden crucifix hangs in the upper left and the floor tiles bear a pattern that English viewers would have recognized from Westminster Abbey. Most bizarre is an anamorphically-rendered skull in the bottom center, which can only be seen properly if the painting is approached from the side (see image below right). The skull represents death and mortality, which lurk unrecognized in our midst, but it may also be an example of Holbein showing off his grasp of technique. The entire ensemble raises more questions than it answers, but appears to ask the viewer to enter into a debate about the interaction between science and religion, between the concerns of the rising scientific and merchant class and those of the clergy – are they in conflict or can they coexist?
ambassadors detail 

70. Madonna of the Long Neck (Madonna and Child with Angels and St. Jerome)

Artist: Parmigianino (born Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola)
Date: 1535
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Parma, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 7 ft. tall by 4.3 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Parmigianino_-_Madonna_with the long neck
Parmigianino’s unfinished Mannerist masterpiece was commissioned by Italian noblewoman Elena Bacardi for her family chapel in a Parma church; it soon acquired the nickname Madonna of the Long Neck for the extra vertebrae the artist added to give Mary’s neck a swanlike undulation. Elongated figures such as Mary’s are a hallmark of Mannerist art, which rejected the naturalism of the High Renaissance in favor of works that took High Renaissance trends to their logical conclusion, even if that meant a tribute became a critique. Other proportions are distorted as well: the baby Jesus, awkwardly posed as in a Pietà, is much larger than any human baby; and the slim upper and extra-wide lower portions of the Madonna’s body don’t match. Most bizarre is the tiny St. Jerome (apparently required for the commission): Parmigiano parodies the rules of perspective, which require distant figures to be painted smaller than close ones, to confuse the viewer into thinking that St. Jerome is not far away but shrunken to the size of a statuette. Because Jerome and the unfinished architecture need the right side of the painting, Parmigianino crammed all the angels into the left, ignoring symmetry, and at the same time eroticizing them in ways that must have scandalized (or perhaps titillated) contemporaries.

71. The Rape of the Sabine Women (Abduction of a Sabine Woman)

Artist: Giambologna (born Jean de Boulogne)
Date: 1581-1583
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Florence, Italy; history/mythology
Medium: Marble sculpture
Dimensions: 13.4 ft. tall (without pedestal)
Current location: Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy
One of the features of the Mannerist style is the celebration of the artist and his (because they were almost always men) special talent. Instead of using their abilities in the service of creating realistic and rational artworks that fit into a sense of universal harmony, Mannerist artists tried to outdo one another and be noticed for their daring feats of artistic derring-do, especially those that would impress sophisticated art lovers. The Flemish artist Jean de Boulogne, who acquired the nickname Giambologna after coming to Italy, was always looking for ways to enhance his reputation as one of Florence’s best sculptors. So when his patrons the Medicis gave him a large block of marble with no specific commission, he decided to sculpt first, and decide on the subject later. He was interested in the aesthetic problems of sculpting three figures in a vertical composition. The sculptural group shows three nudes: an older man crouching in fear below as, above him, a young man grasps onto a struggling woman, whose arms reach out over her head. It was only after the sculpture was complete and placed on display in Florence’s main square that it was decided that the subject was the Rape of the Sabine Women. According to legend, during the early days of Rome, there was friction with the neighboring Sabines. In order to build ties between the two settlements, the Romans invited the Sabines to a feast and then forcibly abducted and married their women, creating blood ties between the groups and eventually ending the feud. The piece is an exemplar of the Mannerist style with its twisting figures and dynamic diagonals. Another Mannerist trademark: there is no obvious front view; the viewer must walk all the way around the sculpture to take it all in.

72. The Swing (The Happy Accidents of the Swing)

Artist: Jean-Honoré Fragonard
Date: 1767
Period/Style: Rococo, France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.6 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. wide
Current location: The Wallace Collection, London, England, UK

In the mid-18th Century, French artists rebelled against the heavy seriousness of Baroque art in favor of a lighter style, fond of playful curves and pastel colors that became known as Rococo (after “rocaille”, the shells used to decorate artificial grottoes). The style soon spread north into Germany and Austria. One of the finest Rococo painters was Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and The Swing is considered his best work and a paragon of the style. Originally titled The Happy Accidents of the Swing, the painting reveals a creamy pastel pink and green paradise (one writer describes it as a “confection”), where an elderly man pushes a young lady (possibly his wife) on a swing. She impetuously kicks off her shoe in Cupid’s direction, while giving her young lover, hiding below in the foliage, a scandalous peek beneath her dress at her legs. Cupid (based on a statue by Étienne-Maurice Falconet) holds his finger to his lips, asking us to keep a secret. The young man holds his arm out stiffly with his hat in his hand, a metaphor that most viewers would have understood as sexual (a bare foot and missing shoe also had sexual connotations). Another sculpture with two more putti (riding a dolphin) hides in the shadows and a dog (symbol of marital fidelity) barks at the impropriety. The painting made a name for Fragonard and inspired many imitations. The frivolous nature of this and similar works of the time led to a backlash from some Enlightenment philosophers, who argued for more serious art showing man’s nobility. (The Neoclassicists would heed their call.) Despite these criticisms, Fragonard was a highly regarded artist among the French aristocracy and earned fame and fortune in the decades before the Revolution. After 1789, Fragonard and the Rococo style fell out of fashion, perhaps because it was too closely identified with the decadence of the Ancien Regime and its aristocrats. Random Trivia: The cover art of Little Feat’s album Sailin’ Shoes by Neon Park (a.k.a. Martin Muller) pays homage to both Fragonard’s The Swing and Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy (see image below).

73. Oath of the Horatii

Artist: Jacques-Louis David
Date: 1784-1785
Period/Style: Neoclassical; France; history painting
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.3 ft. tall by 5.5 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris. The Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio has a reduced-size replica by David from 1786 made for Comte de Vaudreuil.
Jacques-Louis David’s history painting The Oath of the Horati, which was commissioned by French king Louis XVI after David returned from five years of study in Rome, is considered a paragon of the Neoclassical style. According to a legend, a dispute between the Roman Republic and the city of Alba Longa was resolved by a ritual duel by three brothers of the Roman family the Horatii and three brothers of the Curiatii family of Alba Longa. To complicate matters, one of the Horatii sisters is engaged to marry one of the Curiatti brothers, and one of the wives of the Horatii is a sister to one of the Curiatii. At the end of the duel, five of the six men would be dead, leaving only one Horatii brother alive. David chose to paint an imagined moment when the Horatii brothers (their expressions stoic and emotionless) give the Roman salute to their father (based on a figure from a Poussin painting), who holds their swords, while their mother and sisters (and two children) weep in sorrow. In keeping with the Neoclassical style, the background is deemphasized in favor of the foreground figures (who are posed as if in a sculpted classical frieze); there is a central perspectival vanishing point at the point where the father holds the swords; the painter’s technique is not emphasized; no brushstrokes are visible; and straight lines, stasis and symmetry (here, groups of three) abound. The subject matter is uplifting, with a moral lesson. Gone are the frivolity and casual movement of the Rococo; Neoclassicism is serious business. Presented at the Paris Salon in 1785, just four years before the revolution, the painting was praised by monarchists and republicans alike. The monarchists saw the message as support for king and country, while others noted that the brothers are pledging allegiance to a republic without a king.

74. The Death of Marat

Artist: Jacques-Louis David
Date: 1793
Period/Style: Neoclassicism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 5.4 ft. tall by 4.2. ft. wide
Current location: Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium
Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David and journalist Jean-Paul Marat were both ardent supporters of the French Revolution; both were members of the Jacobins and the Montagnards, radical groups opposed to the more conservative Girondists. Marat published the radical newspaper L’Ami du peuple (The Friend of the People); David held prominent posts in the revolutionary government. On July 13, 1793, Girondist Charlotte Corday lied to gain access to Marat’s room. While Marat was working from his bath (where he spent much of his time due to a chronic skin disease), Corday stabbed him to death. The French government asked David to paint Marat’s portrait. The result is an idealized work depicting the dying Marat (shown with unblemished skin) as a secular martyr to the revolution, holding Corday’s false petition in his hand. As such, it echoes many paintings of Christian martyrs, particularly the various depictions of Christ’s descent from the cross. (The arm draped along the ground recalls both Michelangelo’s Pietà and Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ.) The presentation is stark and elemental: Marat leans towards us, his wound dripping, pen still in hand; we see the green blanket over the tub, the upturned box he used as a desk, the assassin’s knife on the floor. David had visited Marat the day before his death and painted the room from memory. The foreground scene is lit as if on a stage, leaving the background and upper half of the canvas in hazy darkness. The elements of the work combine to make Death of Marat a powerful blend of outrage and compassion – this is art, but it is also propaganda, and David’s students made many copies to distribute among the people. The painting received high praise until the fall of Robespierre and the end of the Reign of Terror, after which David himself became a target of the Thermidorian Reaction and he had to hide his more politically-charged paintings. The Death of Marat was kept safely hidden by one of David’s students, only to be rediscovered in the mid-19th Century by critics such as poet Charles Baudelaire, who wrote: “[T]he drama is there, alive in all its pitiful horror, and by an uncanny stroke of brilliance, which makes this David’s masterpiece and one of the great treasures of modern art, there is nothing trivial or ignoble about it. … It is the bread of the strong and the triumph of the spiritual; as cruel as nature, this picture has all the perfume of the ideal.” Random Trivia: The image below shows Marat (Sebastião) (2008) from Brazilian artist Vic Muniz’s Pictures of Garbage series. The work, made almost entirely from recycled garbage, is a portrait of a man who earns his living by finding resellable material in a huge garbage dump.

75. Liberty Leading the People

Artist: Eugène Delacroix
Date: 1830
Period/Style: Romanticism; France; history painting
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 8.3 ft. tall by 10.7 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
liberty leading
In July 1830, furious with tyrannical acts by French king Charles X, the people of France rose up against their government. After three days of fighting, the king abdicated, to be replaced by Louis-Philippe, who promised to be a constitutional monarch. The events stirred Eugène Delacroix, who was there in Paris during the tumultuous events, to put aside his historical works and address contemporary history. “Although I may not have fought for my country,” he told a friend, “at least I shall have painted for her.” In Liberty Leading the People, we see an allegorical figure of Liberty leading a band of revolutionaries over a government barricade. She carries the tricolor flag of the revolutionaries (which remains the French flag today) and a musket with bayonet, and wears a Phrygian cap. (In ancient times, such caps were given to freed slaves; at the time of the 1789 French revolution, they came to symbolize freedom generally.) Among the band of fighters are representatives of various walks of life: a working class man with a sabre and a beret; a member of the bourgeoisie, with his top hat and coat, carrying his hunting rifle; and two students, one a student of Ecole Polytechnique (wearing a Bonapartist cocked hat), the other carrying his school bag and brandishing two pistols. (This latter figure, who stands next to Liberty, may have been Victor Hugo’s inspiration for the character Gavroche in Les Misérables.) Beneath the living lie the dead – members of both sides, including government soldiers. In the background, one can just make out a tricolor flag being raised on one of the towers of Notre Dame. Delacroix uses the free brush strokes that characterize the Romantic style to create a sense of energy and forward movement; on the other hand, the work’s pyramidal composition is almost classical in its sense of balance and proportion. The large painting was immensely popular and Louis-Philippe’s government purchased it to display in the palace as a sign of his solidarity with those who put him in power. But when further civil unrest occurred two years later, the king had the painting returned to Delacroix on strict orders that it not be displayed publicly, for fear that it would encourage another revolution. The painting remained in hiding until the revolution of 1848, when it was brought out again, only to be banned again. It finally found its way to the Louvre in the 1870s, where it enjoys a place of honor in the same room as The Death of Sardanapalus and other Delacroix history paintings.

On 10 lists

76. Cave Paintings, Lascaux Caves

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 15,000-13,000 BCE
Period/Style: Magdalenian culture; Upper Paleolithic, France
Medium: Paintings and drawings on cave walls
Current Location: Montignac, France
lascaux hall of bullslascauxDuring the Upper Paleolithic period between 17,000 and 15,000 years ago, humans painted almost 2000 figures in the Lascaux Caves in southwestern France. Most of the paintings depict large grazing animals such as deer and horses using various mineral pigments, particularly black and red. There is one human figure shown next to a dead bull and a bird on a stick (see image below), as well as a number of abstract or geometric designs. The Great Hall of the Bulls (see top image) includes a 17-ft wide black bull or auroch, the largest painted figure in cave art. Many theories have been proposed for the purpose of the paintings, including aiding in religious ceremonies, improving hunting success or documenting past hunts. Some scholars believe there are astronomical charts incorporated in the designs. The caves were discovered in 1940 by 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat and opened to the public in 1948.  Due to the damage caused by carbon dioxide from 1,200 visitors per day, the caves were closed to the public in 1963. Since 1998, the art has also been threatened by various types of fungus, including black mold.
lascaux 2

77. Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions (Lion Hunt Frieze)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 645-635 BCE
Period/Style: Neo-Assyrian Empire; Iraq; Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh
Medium: Bas relief sculptures on slabs of gypsum alabaster
Dimensions: I couldn’t find specific measurements but the slabs appear from photos and videos to be 4-5 feet tall and extend over three sides of a large museum gallery.
Current location: British Museum, London, England, UK
lion hunt
What better way to symbolize a king’s strength than to show him fighting and defeating a lion, the king of beasts? Ashurbanipal was the last powerful king of the Assyrian Empire, which controlled most of the Middle East for over 300 years (c. 950-612 BCE). He reigned from 668 to 627 BCE, during which time he established royal palaces at several locations, including Nineveh, along the Tigris River in what is now northern Iraq. When British archaeologists excavated the ruins of the royal palace in Nineveh in 1853, they discovered an elaborate series of low-relief carvings on gypsum alabaster slabs that once lined the walls of the palace. The carvings – which are considered masterpieces of Assyrian art – show King Ashurbanipal killing lions during a ritualized hunt that took place in a large stadium, into which captive lions were released for the king to slaughter before an audience of his subjects. The frieze not only demonstrates the bravery and strength of the king, but also symbolizes his ability to protect his people from any foe, animal or human. The relief carvings are full of dramatic action, exquisite detail and expressive emotion. The sculptor shows true sympathy for the noble beasts as they struggle to fight back and in their death agonies (see image below).

78. Mosaics, Basilica of San Vitale

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 527-548 CE
Period/Style: Byzantine, with elements of Ancient Roman and Ancient Greek (Hellenistic Period)
Medium: Mosaic tiles. Mosaics are made of small, flat, roughly square pieces of various materials in different colors, known as tesserae. The tesserae in San Vitale are made from glass, stone, marble, ceramics, and mother-of-pearl.
Dimensions: Approximately 40,000 square feet of mosaics cover the walls and ceilings of the church.
Current location: Ravenna, Italy

The Basilica of San Vitale is one of the few Byzantine churches that has survived to the present day essentially unchanged. Built while Ravenna was under the rule of the Ostrogoths, San Vitale contains some of the finest mosaics outside Istanbul. The artistic style is in the Hellenistic-Roman tradition, which includes bright colors, some use of perspective and vivid depictions of plants, birds and landscapes. The program of mosaics includes numerous Bible stories and figures, angels, plants, birds and other animals. The presbytery vault in the apse contains a mosaic of Jesus, robed in purple, sitting on a blue globe and handing the crown of martyrdom to St. Vitale (see top image above). On a side wall of the apse is a mosaic of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and a retinue carrying the traditional gifts for a religious procession (see second image above). To the right of Justinian are clergy, including Bishop Maximian, to whom the Basilica was dedicated. To the left are administration officials and soldiers. The message seems to be that the Emperor is head of church and state. The halo around Justinian’s head and the number of his retinue indicate an even closer connection between the Emperor and the deity. A nearby mosaic shows Empress Theodora, looking like a goddess, and her retinue (see image below), an image that later inspired Austrian artist Gustav Klimt.

79. The Bayeux Tapestry

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 1075
Period/Style: Norman Romanesque; England
Medium: Linen cloth with woolen embroidery
Dimensions: 224 ft. long and 1.6 ft. tall
Current location: Centre Guillaume le Conquerant, Bayeux, France
bayeux tapestry
bayeaux tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry (which is not a true tapestry, but an embroidered cloth) tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England and events leading up to it by means of an illustrated narrative. The tapestry consists of nine panels with fifty scenes, each with a caption in Latin, embroidered with colored woolen yarns on a linen cloth. The narrative takes up the central portion of the cloth, with top and bottom borders containing various decorative designs, figures and unrelated scenes. The final portion has been lost. Although legend attributes the tapestry to French artists, scholars now believe that skilled Anglo-Saxon seamstresses made the work in England in the 1070s. It was probably commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother Bishop Odo, Earl of Kent and founder of the Bayeux Cathedral in Normandy, where the tapestry was first mentioned in a 1476 inventory. In addition to historical scenes involving William, Duke of Normandy, Harold, Earl of Wessex (later King) and King Edward the Confessor, the tapestry is notable for the first depiction of a harrow, a newly-invented farm implement, and the first image of Halley’s Comet, which appeared in March/April 1066 (see image below). The images above show: (1) William the Conqueror lays siege to Conan at Dinan and (2) Harold crossing the Channel to Normandy. Random Trivia: A Victorian-era replica of the tapestry, with explanatory narrative, may be viewed online HERE.

80. Relief Sculptures, Reims Cathedral

Artists: Unknown
Date: 1211-1275 (primary work); 1275-1305 (additional work)
Period/Style: Medieval period; French Gothic styles (including Remois Workshop style)
Medium: Relief sculptures carved in Lutetian limestone adorning the exterior of the church building
Dimensions: The sculptures cover much of the exterior of the cathedral, which measures 489 feet long and 377 ft. tall (at the nave).
Current location: Reims, France
reims sculpture 2
Rheims Cathedral Kings of France

The place where France crowned its kings, Reims Cathedral (officially titled Notre-Dame de Reims) was built in the French Gothic style primarily between 1211-1275, although some work continued into the early 14th Century. The exterior and interior of the cathedral are covered with hundreds of relief sculptures of religious figures and subjects, with some of the statues almost completely detached from the substrate (see top image above showing Coronation of the Virgin). The sculpture of Reims Cathedral is not mere ornamentation but is integral to the architectural composition. Because the construction extended over such a long period, and because sculptors from different schools and cities were employed, the sculptures present a wide variety of styles. The later reliefs are carved in a graceful, fluid style sometimes referred to as the “beautiful” style. Among the most famous sculptures are two smiling angels (see images below). German artillery shelled the cathedral in September 1914, causing significant damage (some of the gargoyles’ mouths are clogged with molten lead), but after years of restoration work, the cathedral’s doors reopened in 1938.  Other images above show the Hall of Kings (middle) and the Communion of the Knight (bottom).
reims sculpture  

81. Moai

Artists: Unknown
Dates: c. 1250-1500
Period/Style: Polynesian
Medium: Statues carved from tuff, red scoria, basalt and trachyte; eyes made with white coral and black obsidian or red scoria; pukao (headdresses) made from red scoria
Dimensions: The statues average 13 ft. tall by 5 ft. 3 in. wide at the base; the tallest is 33 ft. tall; the heaviest weights 86 tons.
Current location: Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile

 moai pukao
Between 1250 and 1500 CE, artists on the Polynesian island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) carved 887 moai, huge human-like statues with oversized heads and no legs. Almost half the moai are located at the main quarry at Rano Raraku, but hundreds were transported to various parts of the island’s perimeter, where they were usually set on stone platforms called ahu. How Rapa Nui’s inhabitants moved these immense rock statues is a mystery. Almost all of the moai faced inland to protect the people, but seven faced the sea to help sailors find the island. During clashes between rival clans, most of the moai were pulled down, but archaeologists have begun restoring them, complete with eyes and sometimes a large hat called a pukao (see image above right). Scholars believe that the moai represented both living faces (aringa ora) or deified ancestors (aringa ora ata tepuna) and they would have possessed both political meaning and sacred religious power.

82. The Well of Moses

Artist: Claus Sluter (aided by Claus de Werve) sculpted the figures and Jean Malouel painted them
Date: 1395-1405
Period/Style: Medieval period; International Gothic style; Netherlands/France
Medium: Relief sculptures in limestone; originally painted and gilded
Dimensions: The remaining monument is 9.2 ft. across at the top and over 6 ft. tall. Each of the six prophets stands about 5 ft., 8 in. tall.
Current location: Chartreuse de Champmol (Hospital de la Chartreuse), Dijon, France
In the late 14th Century, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, ordered the building and decoration of a Carthusian monastery just outside Dijon, which would serve as his burial site. A number of artists provided artwork for the monastery, including Dutch sculptor Claus Suter and his nephew Claus de Werve, who created a large well for the center of the main cloister. Standing in the center of the well stood a massive limestone sculpture consisting of a crucifixion scene, with Mary Magdalene (and possibly one or two other figures) at the foot of the cross where Jesus was hanging, and below it, a hexagonal base with statues of six prophets and six weeping angels (see drawing of one possible reconstruction of the original in image below). The sculptures were decorated with paint in vibrant colors and gilding. During the anti-religious fervor of the French Revolution, the upper portion of the sculpture was destroyed (fragments are on display in a nearby museum), leaving the base, which has acquired the name the Well of Moses. In each of six niches, Suter has created life-sized statues of six Old Testament figures who were said to have predicted the birth of Jesus: Moses, David, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Daniel and Isaiah. Each prophet carries his prophecy on a scroll and each one is individually detailed with a unique expression and personality. Although they are sculpted in high relief, the figures appear to be independent of the stone behind them, and there is a sense of movement expressed by the bodies beneath the drapery. The angels, who top the slender colonnettes that separate the planes of the hexagon, also have individualized gestures and expressions.

83. Holy Trinity Icon

Artist: Andrei Rublev
Date: c. 1408-1427
Period/Style: Medieval period; Russian Orthodox icon painting; Russia
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimension: 4.6 ft. tall by 3.75 ft. wide
Current location: State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

The Holy Trinity Icon is one of the few existing paintings that can be reliably attributed to painter and Russian Orthodox saint Andrei Rublev. Religious icons differ from other kinds of religious paintings in being less concerned with a specific time and place than with representing a heavenly realm outside time. An icon is intended not as a display of artistic technique or a representation of the earthly world but as an object of religious contemplation. The icon depicts the story from the Book of Genesis in which three angels appear to the elderly Abraham at Mamre to announce that Abraham’s wife Sarah would bear a son. Although traditional depictions of the scene include Abraham and Sarah, Rublev has pared down the composition, giving us the perspective of Abraham and his wife. Believers who viewed the icon would have understood the links between the three angels and the three persons of the Christian trinity (God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). At a 1551 conference on the question of religious art, Russian Orthodox leaders declared that Rublev’s Holy Trinity was an ideal example of an icon and should be a model for other artists. Like many older icons, there has been considerable damage, repainting and other alteration over the years with attempts at restoration beginning in the 20th Century.

84. The Legend of the True Cross (The History of the True Cross)

Artist: Piero della Francesca
Date: The work probably began in 1447-1448 with much of the painting done in the mid-1450s, then a break from 1458-1459. The frescoes were finally completed in 1466.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Arezzo, Italy; religious
Medium: Frescoes painted on church walls
Dimensions: The frescoes cover more than 9,000 square feet. Measurements of specific scenes include: Constantine’s Dream, 10.8 ft. tall by 6.2 ft. wide; Exaltation of the Cross, 12.8 ft. tall by 24.5 ft. wide; Finding and Recognition of the True Cross, 11.7 ft. tall by 24.5 ft. wide; and the Battle between Heraclius and Khosrau, 10.8 ft. tall by 24.5 ft wide
Current location: Cappella Maggiore, San Francesco Church, Arezzo, Italy

Piero della Francesca painted a cycle of frescoes in the main choir chapel of San Francesco Church in Arrezo, Italy on the theme of the Legend of the True Cross. The cycle is considered Piero’s greatest achievement and one of the masterpieces of Early Renaissance painting, with the artist excelling in composition, perspective and use of color. Taken from the popular 13th Century book The Golden Legend, these non-Biblical tales follow the cross that Jesus was crucified on from the time the tree was a seed (at the time of Adam) until the 7th Century CE. In arranging the scenes, Piero eschewed traditional chronological storytelling, opting instead for placing similar scenes across from one another on facing walls – two open air scenes for the lunettes at the top, for example, and two battle scenes in the lowest register (see top image for overall view). These visual echoes increase the dramatic intensity of the artwork.  The other images show:
(1) Middle image above: The Battle between Heraclius and Khosrau. After Persian king Khosrau steals the true cross, Eastern Emperor Heraclius goes to war against him to retrieve it. The fresco shows Heraclius’s victory.
(2) Bottom image above: The Exaltation of the Cross shows Heraclius carrying the cross back to Jerusalem, when a group of passersby kneel down to worship it.
(3) Image at left below: Constantine’s Dream, in which the Roman Emperor, on the eve of battle, dreams of a cross and hears the instructions, “By this sign you shall conquer.” Constantine uses the Christian symbol to lead his troops to victory. 
(4) Finding and Recognition of the True Cross. This fresco shows Constantine’s mother and others who had been searching for the cross finally find it and recognize it as the true cross when a dead youth is miraculously resurrected.
constantine-s-dream  piero della francesca Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Arezzo

85. The Resurrection of Christ

Artist: Piero della Francesca
Date: c. 1463-1465
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Sansepolcro, Italy; religious
Medium: Fresco painted on the wall of a public building
Dimensions: 7.5 ft. tall by 6.5 ft. wide
Current location: Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy

Visitors to the Tuscan town of Sansepulcro may be surprised to find a street named after English art lover Anthony Clarke. During World War II, Clarke, then a British artillery officer, received orders to bomb the German-occupied town hall. Knowing that the building contained Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection, Clarke refused to carry out the order, and the masterpiece was saved. As it turned out, the bombing would have been pointless, as the Germans had already retreated. The fresco depicts a triumphant Christ after emerging from the tomb, carrying the red cross flag that had become a symbol of his resurrection from the dead. Above him, two trees – one bare and the other in bloom – symbolize the miracle of Jesus’s death and rebirth. Below him sleep four soldiers, one of whom is a self-portrait of the painter. In order to create a harmonious and balanced composition, Piero exercised artistic license to remove the legs of one of the soldiers.

86. Frescoes, Camera degli Sposi

Artist: Andrea Mantegna
Date: Begun in 1465; completed in 1474
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Mantua, Italy; portraits, decorative, sotto in sù
Medium: Frescoes painted on the walls and ceiling of a palace room
Dimensions: The room is 26.6 feet square. The court scene (north wall) measures 26.4 ft. tall by 26.4 ft. wide.
Current location: Castle of San Giorgio, Mantua, Italy
mantegna camera degli sposi

camera degli sposi meeting
Andrea Mantegna’s frescoes for Ludovico III Gonzaga, Marquis of the Italian city of Mantua served both a political and artistic purpose. Ludovico instructed Mantegna to paint the Camera degli Sposi, or bridal chamber, a room of his house that he used for gatherings and to welcome visitors. Ludovico, the leader of a small city in the midst of such political powerhouses as the Republics of Venice and Florence, wanted decorations that would impress his guests and confirm his power. Mantegna painted the entire room from floor to ceiling (see top image). Two walls show only what appear to be realistic leather curtains, but on other two walls, the curtains are drawn back to reveal Ludovico, his family members and various world leaders engaged in various activities. One scene shows a casually-impressive Ludovico seated at his court, listening to the pleas of his subjects (see second image above). Another wall shows a standing Ludovico meeting with his son (who had just been made a cardinal), the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Denmark (see third image above). Mantegna creates the illusion that there is a space behind the curtains, that the walls have been pierced and we could walk outside. But Mantegna’s most original achievement is the ceiling (see image below). In the center, he has painted an oculus that appears to open directly onto a bright blue sky above, with extremely foreshortened cherubs, animals, and young men and women gazing directly down at the viewer below. A potted plant leans out precariously on the edge. This is one of the first paintings known as “di sotto in sù” (seen from below), a style that would become much more popular years later with Mannerist and Baroque ceiling painters.
Andrea_Mantegna camera degli sposi 2

87. Lady with an Ermine

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Date: c. 1489-1490
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Milan, Italy; secular portrait
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 21 inches tall by 15 inches wide
Current location: Czartoryski Museum, Kraków, Poland
lady with an ermine
The first of Leonardo da Vinci’s works using oil paints, Lady with an Ermine is a portrait of Cecilia Galleriani, the 16-year-old mistress of Leonardo’s employer, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Miss Galleriani was not an aristocrat, and her clothing, hair style and veil would have identified her as a commoner to contemporary viewers. The ermine symbolizes purity, for legend had it that it would rather die than dirty its white coat, but it may also be a reference to Sforza, who was a member of the Neapolitan Order of the Ermine. Leonardo’s composition is a spiraling pyramid; the subject is painted in three quarter profile (one of Leonardo’s favorite poses) and appears to be turning to her left. The portrait is also notable for the detailed attention the painter paid to the subject’s hand, down to the flexed tendon in her bent finger, reflecting Leonardo’s interest in human anatomy.

88. Scenes from the Life of St. Matthew

Artist: Caravaggio (born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio)
Date: The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew were completed in 1600. The Inspiration of St. Matthew was finished in 1602.
Period/Style: Baroque; Rome, Italy; religious
Medium: Three paintings made using oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: The Calling of St. Matthew measures 10.6 ft. tall by 10.8 ft. wide; The Martyrdom of St. Matthew is 10.6 ft. tall by 11.25 ft. wide, and The Inspiration of St. Matthew is 9.6 ft. tall by 6.1 ft. wide.
Current location: Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi Church, Rome, Italy

When French cardinal Matthieu Cointerel (Contarelli in Italian) died in 1585, he left money to decorate a chapel in Rome’s San Luigi dei Francesi Church with scenes from the life of St. Matthew, his name saint. Contarelli’s heirs commissioned Mannerist painter Giuseppe Cesari to paint frescoes but by 1593, Cesari had only completed one of the three walls. In 1599, Caravaggio was commissioned to finish the project by making two paintings for the walls using oils on canvas. By July 1600, Caravaggio had painted two early Baroque masterpieces: The Calling of St. Matthew (top image above) and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (second image above) on facing walls (see first and second images above). The original plan had been that Flemish sculptor Jacques Cobaert would create marble statues of Matthew and an angel for the altar, but when Cobaert delivered the statues, the church elders rejected them and instead commissioned Caravaggio (whose first two paintings had already caused a sensation) to paint The Inspiration of St. Matthew. The church rejected Caravaggio’s first version, but delivered an acceptable representation in about 1602. The Martyrdom of St. Matthew was the first of the St. Matthew paintings. Scholars identify this work as a turning point in the move from Mannerist to Baroque style. Caravaggio expertly uses chiaroscuro to highlight the drama of the precise moment just before the assassin plunges his sword into Matthew, at the same time that the saint reaches out for a palm frond (symbol of his martyrdom) offered by an angel only he can see. The Calling of St. Matthew depicts the moment when Jesus and St. Peter approach Matthew and Jesus beckons the tax collector to “Follow me.” Scholars praise the painting for Caravaggio’s dramatic use of light and shadow; they also note that Jesus’ finger recalls the finger of Michelangelo’s God in the Creation of Man on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. While the men at the table wear contemporary clothing, Jesus and St. Peter are clad in the timeless robes of classical antiquity, thus distinguishing the earthly sphere from the heavenly. The Inspiration of St. Matthew (see image below left) shows an angel in swirling drapery floating above St. Matthew making a point with his fingers, while the saint, kneeling below, watches and learns. The glowing yellows and oranges of Matthews robes pop out of the sea of darkness behind him, while his leg, stool and arm threaten to break the picture plane and enter the viewer’s space, in quintessential Baroque fashion. Random Trivia: The church rejected Caravaggio’s first version of The Inspiration of St. Matthew. which became known as St. Matthew and the Angel (see black and white photo below right). They didn’t like St. Matthew’s crossed legs and bare feet, and disapproved of the angel-muse’s overly familiar attitude toward the saint. The painting was destroyed by bombing in 1945 during World War II. 

89. View of Delft

Artist: Johannes Vermeer
Date: Dates range from 1658 to 1664, but most art historians place the work in 1660-1661.
Period/Style: Baroque; Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands; landscape
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 3.2 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide
Current location: Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands

Of the 34 surviving paintings by Vermeer, the vast majority depict interior scenes. The artist’s landscape view of his hometown, View of Delft, is a rare outdoor subject. Perhaps given the Dutch penchant for landscapes (although usually of country, not city scenes), View of Delft was the most highly-regarded of his works during his lifetime. We view the city from the opposite side of the Lange Geer canal, probably from a second story window, looking down. A small group of people mills about at the lower left. A shaft of morning sunlight illuminates some of the buildings, including the tower of the New Church on the right, which houses the grave of Willem of Orange (see detail in image below left). As usual, Vermeer is masterful at showing how light reflects off various surfaces and how shadow changes not only color but texture. To capture the reflections of the water on the boats on the right, Vermeer uses tiny dots of paint (pointilles) (see detail below right). While the painting appears to be a faithful representation of the cityscape, comparison with contemporary sketches reveals that Vermeer made some changes to enhance the artistic effect he sought, including spreading the buildings more widely along the waterfront. Art historians have long debated how Vermeer was able to capture such a high level of detail in his paintings, with some theorizing that he had help from technology. Art critic Martin Bailey is one of those who believes Vermeer used a camera obscura to paint View of Delft: “The pointillist technique that Vermeer used to suggest reflections flickering off the water, most easily visible on the two herring boats on the right, is evidence that he probably used a camera obscura to help compose the picture; diffused highlights such as these would appear when a partially focused image was obtained from this device.” Random Trivia: French author Marcel Proust was enamored of the painting, calling it “the most beautiful painting in the world.” Proust later incorporated View of Delft into a scene in his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time.
view of delft detail tower  Vermeer-view-of-delft-detail-boats

90. The Gleaners

Artist: Jean-Francois Millet
Date: 1857
Period/Style: Realism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.75 ft. tall by 3.7 ft. wide
Current location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
gleanersJean-François Millet was one of a group of like-minded French painters who became known as Realists. Reacting against the idealism of the Romantics, the Realists eschewed fantasy and believed in creating art that represented reality as they saw it. In the hands of Millet, Realism meant painting the poor rural and urban workers who sustained the economies of Europe. The Gleaners shows three anonymous peasant women near sunset in a just-harvested field who are exercising their right to glean, that is, to collect grain left behind after the harvesters have worked the field. Millet contrasts their lonely, back-straining work with the wealth and abundance of the landlord farmer, shown in the background. The contrast is emphasized with the lighting: bright sunshine lights the harvesters and their huge piles of grain, while the gleaners (whose outlines do not cross the horizon line) are in shadow. The effect of the late afternoon light on their shabbily-clad bodies is to turn them into three-dimensional sculptures, emphasizing the dignity of their difficulty labor. Millet made many sketches of the gleaners he saw near his home in Barbizon for seven years before creating this oil painting. The critics savaged The Gleaners: to the upper classes, drawing attention to the poverty of the lower classes (who far outnumbered them) was inviting a Socialist uprising; for the bourgeoisie, unkempt peasant women were not a proper subject for art. As time passed, however, the painting proved inspirational, inspiring many similar tributes to the working poor, including French filmmaker Agnes Varda’s documentation of modern salvagers in The Gleaners and I (2000).

91. Olympia

Artist: Édouard Manet
Date: 1863
Period/Style: Realism; Impressionism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.3 ft. tall by 6.2 ft. wide
Current location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
manet olympia
French artist Édouard Manet sought to challenge the prevailing artistic convention that the only subjects worth painting on a large scale were mythological, Biblical or historical. Like the Realists, he thought ordinary life was worthy of artistic representation. To make his point, he took the idea of the classical nude – typified by Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) and converted it into a scene of contemporary life. The result was Olympia – a painting he exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon and which provoked outrage. He posed his frequent model Victorine Meurent as a well-to-do courtesan named Olympia (a common name for Parisian prostitutes), who confronts the viewer with a bold stare, ignoring a maid bringing her flowers (a gift from a patron, no doubt). Meurent, who also appeared in Luncheon on the Grass, was well known in Parisian art circles and was herself an accomplished painter. Because Manet refused to idealize the nude figure and instead personalized her as a woman of the world boldly confronting us with her gaze, he forces the viewer to confront her raw sexuality, and not some high-minded allegory of Beauty. French author and critic Émile Zola appeared to grasp Manet’s purpose when he wrote at the time: “When our artists give us Venuses, they correct nature, they lie. Édouard Manet asked himself why lie, why not tell the truth; he introduced us to Olympia, this fille of our time, whom you meet on the sidewalks.” Unlike Titian’s Venus, whose hand coyly invites us, Manet’s Olympia uses her hand to block access (you must pay to play). Instead of Titian’s dog (symbol of marital fidelity), Manet gives us a black cat, symbol of mystical sexuality and nocturnal promiscuity. The figure of the black maid was portrayed by Laure, an art model who appears in several of Manet’s paintings. Her blackness contrasts with the pale whiteness of the nude woman; she would also have invoked a sense of the exotic, recalling paintings of odalisques in foreign settings. (Modern scholars have explored the racist underpinnings of this and other representations of black women as servants and other peripheral figures.) Manet is not only challenging the prevailing conventions in his choice of subject matter, however. His style is also revolutionary. By reducing perspective and presenting the figures in a flat plane against a dark background, by painting with broad, loose brushstrokes, reducing modeling and painting with large flat patches of color, Manet is anticipating modernism, which eventually rejected the idea that the purpose of “good” painting was to create the illusion of three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional surface. Random Trivia: Yasumasa Morimura’s Portrait (1988) engages in a dialogue with Manet’s Olympia by replacing the central figure with a nude man (the artist himself), among other changes (see image below). Morimura has recreated numerous works of art as ironic self-portraits that challenge underlying assumptions about those works.

92. Luncheon of the Boating Party

Artist: Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Date: 1880-1881
Period/Style: Impressionism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.25 ft. tall by 5.67 ft. wide
Current location: Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Luncheon_of_the_Boating_Party 2
Fashionable Parisians liked to take boating trips on the Seine and when they did so, they would often stop at Maison Fournaise in the town of Chatou for lunch and drinks on the second floor outdoor terrace. French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted one such excursion in The Luncheon of the Boating Party. We see a group of people enjoying a bright summer day, talking, flirting, and generally having a good time. In Renoir’s world, the sun is always shining and no one is ever down in the dumps. As usual, Renoir’s treatment of light is superb: the awning cuts off direct sun, but reflected light bounces off the white shirts and table cloth and onto the rest of the scene. The painting is divided along a diagonal formed by the railing at the left and there is a triangle formed in the foreground – these lines guide our eyes around the canvas, as do the gazes of the standing and sitting figures. Renoir uses his characteristic light touches; just a few brushstrokes define the glasses on the table, for example, or the sailboats on the Seine in the background. But, uncharacteristically, his treatment of the faces and men’s bare arms is more careful, with more attention to detail and modeling. He is using two styles at once. Although the painting has the appearance of a snapshot, Renoir probably sketched out the general composition and then had models pose for the various figures at different times. As usual, he used his friends as models, including: (1) the woman playing with the dog (an affenpinscher) is Aline Charigot, who would later become Renoir’s wife; (2) the woman at the center drinking from a glass is actress Ellen Andrée (the model for Degas’ L’Absinthe); (3) the man in the straw hat on the right is painter and Impressionist benefactor Gustave Caillebotte; and (4) the man and woman leaning against the railing are the son and daughter of Monsieur Fournaise, the owner of the restaurant.

93. The Burghers of Calais

Artist: Auguste Rodin
Date: Rodin received the commission in 1884; he completed the original sculpture in 1889 and it was unveiled in Calais in 1895.
Medium: Sculptures cast in bronze
Dimensions: The sculptural group measures 6.6 ft. tall, 6.7 ft. wide and 6.4 ft. deep.
Current locations: There are 12 full-sized bronze casts in various locations, including: Calais, France (original 1889 cast); Glyptoteket, Copenhagen, Denmark (1903 cast); Royal Museum, Mariemont, Belgium (1905 cast); Victoria Tower Gardens, London (1908 cast); Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA (1919-1921 cast); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (1959 cast); Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (1985 cast). A full-size plaster cast from 1889 is located in the Musée Rodin in Paris.

During the Hundred Years’ War, English troops under King Edward III laid siege to the port town of Calais, France for over a year, while King Philip VI of France ordered the city not to surrender. By 1347, the people of Calais were starving and ready to give in. According to legend, Edward offered a compromise: he would spare the city if six citizens would surrender to him by walking out of the gates bareheaded, wearing nooses around their necks and carrying the keys to the city. Eustache de St. Pierre, a wealthy town leader, was first to volunteer (see detail showing St. Pierre below); five other burghers soon joined him. The six walked out the city gates together, believing they faced certain death. Instead, Queen Philippa convinced Edward to spare their lives. In 1884, when the leaders of Calais voted to erect a monument to Eustache de St. Pierre, sculptor Auguste Rodin surprised the selection committee by making a model honoring all six burghers, which won the competition. Rodin delivered the first full-sized bronze cast of The Burghers of Calais to the town of Calais in 1889. Seeing the six burghers not as heroes but as ordinary citizens who acted out of a sense of duty, Rodin specified that the sculpture be placed at ground level, so that ordinary citizens could meet the burghers eye-to-eye. Instead, Calais’ town leaders initially placed the statue on a high pedestal, consistent with standard practice. It was not until 1926 that the sculpture was brought down to earth with a low pedestal, as Rodin had specified. Three additional bronze casts were made during Rodin’s lifetime, and eight more since Rodin’s death in 1917, reaching the maximum of 12 casts allowed under French law. Casts of individual members of the group have also been made. Some of Rodin’s contemporaries criticized the sculpture because it did not glorify the heroes and did not include allegorical figures and other classical indicia of heroism, but modern scholars and critics have praised the work for its humanism, its individualized treatment of each figure and its rendering of the burghers’ weary anguish and resignation as a form of heroic self-sacrifice. Over time, Rodin’s unsentimental rendering of ordinary people rising to meet extraordinary circumstances has become an icon.

94. The Japanese Footbridge

Artist: Claude Monet
Date: 1899
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: There are 12 paintings in the series of varying sizes (1.3-3 ft. tall and 1.5-3.3 ft. wide), with either horizontal or vertical orientation.
Current locations: Paintings in the series may be found in museums around the world under a variety of titles, including: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies); National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (The Japanese Footbridge); Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA (Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, Giverny); National Gallery, London, England, UK (The Water-Lily Pond); Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France (Water Lily Pond (Green Harmony)); National Gallery of Australia, Melbourne (The Japanese Footbridge); and Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ (Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge).
In addition to being a painter, Claude Monet was an amateur horticulturalist and landscape architect. In 1883, he moved with his family to Giverny (about 50 miles northwest of Paris) and after several years was able to buy a parcel of land that included a swampy area, where he worked for years, using his own detailed designs, to create a man-made paradise. He obtained permission from local officials to divert a stream into the swamp, creating a pond. He then designed a garden, bringing in bamboo, water lilies and other flora; as a finishing touch, he had a Japanese-style wooden bridge built across the pond. Monet thus created an artificial natural environment to his own specifications that served as the subject of at least 250 paintings in the last decades of his life. The series of paintings of the water lily pond was the culmination of a particular technique that Monet began experimenting with in the early 1890s. Instead of painting a scene once, he would choose a subject and paint it multiple times: at different times of day, in different kinds of weather, or in different seasons. He began with the haystack series in 1891, then Rouen Cathedral in 1892-1894 and continued this method until the end of his life. Monet often worked on multiple canvases at a time – he would work on the morning light painting until the light began to change, then he would switch to the afternoon light canvas. When a series was complete, Monet liked to exhibit the paintings all together, so viewers could compare the changing effects of light and the seasons on the underlying subject matter, whether stacks of hay, a cathedral, the Houses of Parliament in London, or a pond of water lilies. His series of water lily paintings is so large that there are mini-series within the series. One of those subsets is a group of 12 paintings Monet made of the Japanese bridge in 1899. Each painting differs in lighting, time of day and sometimes time of year; some are horizontal, others vertical. The Japanese bridge divides the canvas into two sections: the foliage above and the pond below, with its lily pads, flowers and reflections. We see the line where the pond meets the land, but we don’t see the sky. The bridge is pictured in the top half of each painting; in at least one case (the version in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.) the arches reach almost to the top of the canvas (see image at left above). Each painting shows Monet’s mature style: unmixed colors applied with short thick brushstrokes in layers, creating a three-dimensional effect when seen up close. Monet made paintings of the water lily pond showing the bridge both before and after this series, but the 12 paintings from 1899 were meant to be considered as a whole – Monet exhibited them together at the Durand–Ruel gallery in Paris in 1900. They are now scattered around the world in various collections.  The images above show:
(1) at the top, Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge, at the Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ;
(2) above left, The Japanese Footbridge, from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and
(3) above right, Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.
Random Trivia: The image below is a 1917 photograph (using the autochrome color process) of Claude Monet at Giverny with the Japanese footbridge.

95. The Large Bathers

Artist: Paul Cézanne
Date: Work on the painting began around 1898; it was left unfinished at the artist’s death in 1906.
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 6.9 ft. tall by 8.2 ft. wide
Current location: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania

Paul Cézanne admired the Impressionists’ bright palette, treatment of light and emphasis on painting en plein air, but he rejected the notion that painting should represent only the impressions caught by the painters’ eyes. To Cézanne, who sought to infuse the spirit of Impressionism with the classical values of Giorgione, Titian and Rubens (the nude), Poussin (the landscape), and Chardin (the still life), a work of art was a product of both the artist’s eye and mind. The mind exercised control by imposing structure and form, thus revealing a deeper reality. Cézanne’s The Large Bathers is the last and the largest in a series of ‘bathers’ paintings he created around the turn of the century. The size of the canvas invites comparison to works with grand themes: history, religion, and mythology. But while Cézanne may have been inspired by the story of Diana bathing with her maidens (a frequent subject of past art), he makes no attempt to connect the bathers here with any specific identity or preexisting narrative. Instead, he concentrates on the forms: we see a triangle formed by trees (though the apex is cut off), and at the base of each side of the triangle, another triangle of nude women. In the center of the composition, there is a void – we can barely make out a swimmer in the river, and two enigmatic forms on the opposite shore. One art historian described the center of the painting as an empty stage, where the women might perform some ritual. (And we have no sense of motion in this frieze-like assembly; as curator Joseph Rishel noted, “There is a profound sense of eternal calm and resolution.”) The figures themselves are ciphers: flat, angular forms with blank or mask-like faces, in some cases half drawn, lacking sensuality; several of them are turned away from us; others seem to merge with each other or the trees. Cézanne disliked working with live models, so the nudes are based on Cezanne’s life drawings from his student days or his sketches of artworks at the Louvre, where he spent many hours. In emphasizing form over content, Cézanne confuses our normal sense of priorities; for him, the patch of blue water or sky is as important as a human figure. As Jack Flam noted in a 2012 ARTnews article, “[T]he solid forms in his paintings seem to be on the verge of dissolution, and the empty spaces on the verge of becoming solidified….” The work of Cézanne inspired modernist art movements such as Fauvism and Cubism (many critics see the figures of The Large Bathers as precursors to those of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon), but the general consensus at the time was that Cézanne’s works were ugly. Early 20th Century art critic Charles Morice wrote, “Cézanne’s pictures alarm the public and delight artists; all of the public, but not all of the artists.” Even in 1937, when the Philadelphia Museum of Art paid $110,000 for The Large Bathers, there was an outcry from the public and a newspaper suggested the money would have been better spent helping the needy. My guess is that Cézanne would not have been disturbed by these reactions; his goal was to make art that escaped from the bonds of any one particular time period, trend or movement; he did not seek appreciation in the present moment. The Large Bathers is now considered one of the great modernist masterpieces.

96. Nude Descending a Staircase #2

Artist: Marcel Duchamp
Date: 1912
Period/Style: Cubism; Futurism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.8 ft. tall by 2.9 ft. wide
Current location: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania

By 1912, Picasso and Braque had abandoned Analytic Cubism for Synthetic Cubism. Other artists like Fernand Léger and Juan Gris adopted, then adapted Cubism, each applying his own individual twist. Robert and Sonia Delaunay and others created Orphic Cubism (also known as Orphism). In Italy, Futurism was a reaction against Cubism; Umberto Boccioni and the other Futurists rejected the still lives, portraits and landscapes of the Cubists and sought instead to infuse art with a sense of movement (especially speed), paying tribute to mechanical energy and technological progress. French artist Marcel Duchamp sought to bring to Cubism some of the Futurists’ interest in motion and machinery. In a series of paintings, he explored how a Cubist would deconstruct movement. Duchamp was inspired in part by the art of photography, which provided new opportunities to observe movement in humans and animals; high speed photography could dissect an action into fragments of a second to reveal what could not be seen by the naked eye. We don’t know if Duchamp saw the 1877 series of photographs by Eadweard Muybridge of a nude woman walking down a staircase (see image below from Muybridge’s book Animal Locomotion), but he had surely seen motion study photographs by Muybridge or Étienne-Jules Marey.  Duchamp’s painting – done in Cubist monochrome tones with overlapping fragments – shows a figure descending stairs from upper left to lower right. The sense is of frozen movement, of multiple exposures and of something partly human and partly mechanical. The Cubists rejected the painting for their 1912 Paris Salon des Indépendants exhibition on the grounds that it was too Futurist. According to Duchamp, he was also told by the committee (which included his brothers) that the idea of painting a nude descending stairs was ridiculous; nudes should be reclining, not moving. The criticism reached a fever pitch when Nude Descending a Staircase #2 was included in an exhibition of European art in New York in 1913 (the famous Armory show). Americans, not having much prior exposure to either Cubism or Futurism, were incensed. One art critic called the painting “an explosion in a shingle factory.” An art magazine held a contest to ‘find the nude’, and even Teddy Roosevelt registered his disgust. Ironically, the negative attention made Duchamp famous; some speculated that people were buying tickets to the show just to mock his work. He soon moved on from this Cubo-Futurist experiment to an even more daring concept: the readymades.

On 9 Lists

97. Head of an Akkadian Ruler (Sargon, King of Akkad)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 2400-2200 BCE
Period/Style: Akkadian empire; Iraq
Medium: bronze sculpted head (possibly once attached to full-body statue)
Dimensions: 12 inches tall
Current location: Iraqi Museum, Baghdad, Iraq
Sargon of Akkad conquered the Sumerian city-states in the 23rd and 22nd Centuries BCE and formed a united empire, based in the city of Akkad, where he reigned from c. 2334-2279 BCE. The dynasty he founded ruled even longer. The Akkadian empire included Mesopotamia, parts of Iran, Asia Minor and Syria. In excavations of the ruins of the Assyrian city of Nineveh in present-day Iraq, archaeologists found a bronze head of an Akkadian king dating to c. 2400-2200 BCE. Some scholars believe the head, which is wearing the traditional wig-helmet of Sumerian rulers, is meant to represent Sargon, and was originally attached to a full-body statue. Others believe it is Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin. There are significant signs of intentional damage to the head, indicating a possible political motivation by subsequent conquerors to deface symbols of Akkadian power.

98. The Dying Gaul (The Dying Galatian)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 230-220 BCE (Ancient Greek bronze original); 1st-2nd Century CE (Ancient Roman marble copy)
Period/Style: Ancient Greece: Hellenistic Period
Medium: The lost original was a bronze sculpture; the existing copy is carved marble.
Dimensions: 3 ft. tall by 6.1 ft. long by 2.9 ft. deep
Current location: Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy

The statue known as The Dying Gaul commemorates the victory of Attalos I, in defense of Greeks living in Pergamon (on what is now the Turkish coast) against Celtic migrants from Gaul who settled in nearby Galatia. It shows a mortally wounded Gaul (a puncture wound is visible in his lower right chest) lying on his shield, with a sword, belt and trumpet beside him. He is nude except for a metal neck ring, or torc. While the sculpture reminds the viewer that the Greeks were victorious, it also shows respect and compassion for the fallen adversary, who hovers between life and death. The Dying Gaul has undergone a number of revisions since its discovery at the Villa Ludovisi outside Rome in the early 1600s: for example, the left leg has been reassembled from several pieces, and the figure’s original long hair had broken off, leading 17th Century artists to rework it (see detail in image below – for more on the restorations, go here.) The emotional depth of the piece made it a favorite of artists and art lovers. Artists engraved and copied it, thus giving many more a chance to see it. Lord Byron commented on it in Child Harold’s Pilgrimage and Thomas Jefferson included it on a list of potential acquisitions for a planned Monticello art museum. Despite Jefferson’s dream, the Dying Gaul remains in Rome.

99. Murals, Ajanta Caves

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 200 BCE to 650 CE (first phase: c. 200 BCE-100 CE; second phase: c. 300-650 CE)
Period/Style: Classical Period, India: Satavahana Dynasty (1st phase), Vakataka Dynasty (2nd phase)
Medium: Frescoes (a secco) painted on cave walls prepared by plastering and covering with a smooth paste.
Dimensions: Ajanta consists of nearly 30 caves carved into a basalt cliff; the caves stretch for nearly 1000 yards along the cliffside. Many of the caves have paintings on their walls, amounting to many thousands of square feet of artwork.
Current location: Aurangbad district, Maharashtra, India

The Ajanta Caves, which contain some of the earliest examples of Indian Classical painting, served as a residence and resting place for Buddhist monks for more than 800 years. Most of the nearly 30 caves served as viharas, residence halls for Buddhist monks (each of which includes a small shrine), while five of the caves are chaitya-grihas, which contain larger shrines and stupas. Each cave contains numerous works of religious art, including fresco wall paintings. Most scholars believe the caves were built and decorated in two phases: the first phase probably lasted from 100 BCE to 100 CE and the art reflects the Hinayana (Theravada) form of Buddhism; the second phase probably took place from 300-650 CE and follows the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Some of the frescoes show Hellenistic Greek influences in the painting style. The caves were used on and off in later centuries, possibly as shelter for travelers, with scattered references to them in medieval literature and as late as a 17th Century survey during the reign of Akbar the Great. The Western world rediscovered the caves in 1819 when British soldier John Smith stumbled upon them during a tiger-hunting expedition. The Ajanta Caves became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.  The images above show: (top) Bodhisattva Padmapani, from Cave 1 (second phase); (middle) A scene from the Life of the Buddha, showing two kings, from Cave 10 (first phase) (photo by Prasad Pawar); (bottom) Scene from the Mahanipata Jataka: In his palace, King Mahajanaka announces his decision to renounce the worldly life From Cave 1 (second phase).  The image below shows an overall view of the Ajanta Caves site.

100. Arch of Constantine

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 315 CE
Period/Style: Ancient Roman triumphal architecture and late Roman Era sculpture
Medium: Triumphal arch made from marble and brick, with relief sculptures
Dimensions: The arch is 68.9 ft. tall, 84.9 ft. wide and 24.3 ft. deep. There are three archways: the center archway is 37.7 ft. high and 21.3 ft. wide; each of the two lateral archways is 24.3 ft. tall and 11.1 ft. wide.
Current location: Roman Forum, Rome, Italy

The Arch of Constantine is a triumphal arch built in 315 CE to commemorate the victory of Emperor Constantine over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 CE. The original carving on the arch, particularly the historical frieze along the tops of the lateral archways, shows a decline in artistic skill and technique since the 1st Century CE. Either to associate Constantine with good emperors of the past, or in recognition of their own inadequacy, the artists incorporated medallions with relief sculptures from the reign of Emperor Hadran, dating to 131-138 CE, reworking the faces of the emperor to resemble Constantine. (see two images with details below). The skill of the carving in the medallions provides a telling contrast with the less-skillfully executed friezes below them. A bronze inscription has been lost, but the remaining spaces for the letters allow one to read the Latin statement. The inscription’s statement that Constantine was “inspired by the divine” has been interpreted by some as a politic way of referencing the emperor’s use of Christian symbols at Milvian Bridge.

101. Relief Sculptures, Temple of Borobudur

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 800-825 CE
Period/Style: Mahayana Buddhism; Sailendra Dynasty; island of Java, Indonesia
Medium: Relief sculptures carved in andesite stone slabs
Dimensions: There are 2,672 bas relief panels (1,460 narrative panels and 1,212 decorative panels) covering nearly 27,000 square feet
Current location: Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia

Borobudur is a Mahayana Buddhist temple built in the 9th Century CE during the Sailendra Dynasty on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia (see image below for aerial view of the temple). It was abandoned some time after the 11th Century and rediscovered in 1814 during the British occupation of Java. The temple walls contain nearly 27,000 square feet of narrative and decorative bas relief panels. The narrative panels tell the story of Sudhana and Manohara, from the Avatamsaka Sutra, as well as the life of the Buddha, including his past lives. The panels also depict various aspects of daily life in Java and have been useful to historians in learning about the architecture, weaponry, economy, fashion, and modes of transportation of Southeast Asia in the 8th-century CE.  The Temple of Borobudur was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.  The top image above shows Siddhartha Buddha seeking enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.  The last image above shows a merchant ship.  I was not able to obtain identification of the other three images.  For photos and explanations of the relief panels, go HERE.

102. Travelers among Mountains and Streams (Travelers By Streams and Mountains)

Artist: Fan Kuan
Date: c. 1000-1020
Period/Style: Song Dynasty, China; monumental landscape painting
Medium: Ink and color on silk scroll
Dimensions: 6.75 ft. tall by 2.5 ft. wide
Current location: National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
fan kuan
Chinese landscape painter Fan Kuan is best known for the large hanging scroll entitled Travelers Among Mountains and Streams. Little is known about Fan, who spent much of his life as a recluse in the mountains of Shanxi. His love for the mountains and his Neo-Confucian belief that nature is the source of absolute truth are evident in this work. The large scale of the painting gives the viewer a sense of the immensity of nature, which dwarfs the human elements, including men leading a pack of mules out of a wood, and a temple in the forest on the cliff (see detail in image below). Yet Fan also manages to capture the way that all these parts fit together to form a harmonious whole. Scholars have noted a paradox in the style of the Travelers Among Mountains and Streams: on the one hand, it is a seminal work that established an ideal in monumental landscape painting to which others aspired; on the other hand, Fan Kuan’s composition, which relies on a central massive element, and his mechanical brush strokes used for the foliage are archaic techniques that look backward instead of breaking new ground.

103. Santa Trinita Maestà (Madonna and Child Enthroned with Eight Angels)

Artist: Cimabue (born Cenni di Pepi)
Date: c. 1280-1290
Period/Style: Medieval period; Gothic/Byzantine style with Proto-Renaissance elements; Florence, Italy
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 12.7 ft. tall by 7.3 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Cimabue was a key figure in the transition from Byzantine artistic styles to those of the Renaissance. The altarpiece Cimabue painted for the main altar of the Santa Trinita Church, which shows the Virgin Mary on a throne with the infant Jesus on her lap, surrounded by eight angels. Although the work is considered part of the Byzantine/Gothic tradition, Cimabue takes steps toward a more naturalistic approach that would blossom in the work of his pupil Giotto di Bondone. In the Santa Trinita Maestà, Cimabue retained many characteristics of Byzantine art, including figures that lack volume and solidity, a composition that lacks depth and consistent perspective, an abundance of gold, stylized faces; elongated noses and fingers; and a reliance on line to define shapes. Cimabue is moving beyond the Byzantine tradition, though, in providing the faces with softer expressions and creating a sense of depth through the architecture. The space beneath the throne from which the four prophets peer at us seems to have real dimensions. The Madonna’s right foot, resting on (and extending beyond) the throne’s step possesses a hint of three dimensionality.

104. Coatlicue

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 1400-1500
Period/Style: Aztec culture; Mexico
Medium: Statue carved from andesite
Dimensions: 8.9 ft. tall
Current location: Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City, Mexico
coatlicue  coatlicue rear
During a construction project in colonial Mexico in 1790, workers uncovered a large statue of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, a savage primordial earth goddess and the patron goddess of women in childbirth. Coatlicue plays a crucial role in Aztec mythology: her children include the moon and stars, and the gods Quetzalcoatl (god of wind, air, and learning), Xoloti (god of fire and lightning) and Huitzilopochtli (god of the sun and war). The statue, which was carved in the 15th Century before the arrival of Europeans, depicts a myth in which Coatlicue picked up a ball of feathers that had descended from the sky and tucked it into her skirt, after which the ball miraculously impregnated her. Her children, enraged by this illicit sexual behavior, hatched a plot to kill her; they struck off her head but were surprised when her son Huitzilopichtli emerged from her neck, fully grown and fully armed, to kill his sister and brothers. The statue depicts Coatlicue post-decapitation, with blood gushing from her neck in the form of two serpents. She wears a necklace of severed hands and human hearts, with a large skull pendant, and a skirt made from entangling snakes. After discovering the statue, Spanish colonizers – worried that local people would revive Aztec religious practices that the Spanish had suppressed in favor of Christianity – buried the statue. In 1823, the statue was unearthed and brought to England for an exhibition. Eventually it was returned to Mexico and placed on display.

105. Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece

Artist: Gentile da Fabriano
Date: 1423
Period/Style: Medieval/Early Renaissance period; International Gothic style; Italy
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 10 ft. tall by 9.25 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy 
GentileDaFabriano_AdorationOfTheMagiThe often eye-dazzling International Gothic style favored brilliant color and abundant detail over realistic depictions of figures and space. In his Adoration of the Magi altarpiece, Italian painter Gentile da Fabriano brought the International Gothic style to its culmination, just a few years before the Early Renaissance style emerged in the works of Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio. The altarpiece was commissioned by Palla Strozzi, a wealthy Florentine patron of the arts, for a chapel in the Santa Trinita church. (He and his son are depicted among the retinue of the Three Kings.) The ornate frame is crammed full of figures in elaborate 14th Century costumes, rich in scenery and populated by many animals, including exotic specimens like leopards and lions. The backstory of the Magi is told in the three arches: first, they see the star (left), then they go to Jerusalem (center), then to Bethlehem (right), and finally (in the foreground), they present gifts to the baby Jesus. The predella (the supporting panels at the bottom of the main frame) contain three additional scenes: two of them (the nativity scene and the flight into Egypt) include some novel experiments with night lighting and multiple lighting sources (see image below showing Nativity scene).
fabriano predella

106. Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin)

Artist: Jan van Eyck
Date: 1434-1435
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Flanders (now Belgium)
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 2.2 ft. tall by 2 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Flemish artist Jan van Eyck was known for his exquisitely detailed compositions, achieved through his careful eye and mastery of oil painting technique. The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin is a prime example of van Eyck’s skills. The painting was commissioned by Nicolas Rolin, the chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy, for his parish church in Autun, France. In contrast to the Gothic tradition, in which the donor is painted on a smaller scale than the religious figures, Rolin is shown here on the same scale as the Virgin Mary – an indication, perhaps, of the influence of Renaissance Humanism in Northern Europe. The baby Jesus sits on his mother’s leg holding a cross, while an angel holds an elaborate crown over Mary’s head. Outside, there is a wide landscape, with an enclosed garden (symbol of Mary’s virginity), a town (perhaps Autun) and a wider view of mountains (see first image below). The figures at the edge of the garden may be a portrait of van Eyck himself (note the chaperon on his head) and his assistant. As an example of van Eyck’s attention to detail, scholars have identified three scenes from the Book of Genesis “carved” on the columns above Rolin’s head: the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise; the Killing of Abel by Cain; and the Drunkenness of Noah (see second image below).

107. The Tempest

Artist: Giorgione (born Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco)
Date: c. 1506-1508
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Venetian School; Venice, Italy; landscape with figures
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.7 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide
Current location: Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy
giorgione tempest
Giorgione was one of a school of Venetian painters who pioneered a High Renaissance style that differed from that of Florence and Rome in its focus on creating form through color instead of drawing. Giorgione, who is only known from about six existing works, created the enigmatic painting known as The Tempest for the Venetian noble Gabriele Vendramin. Considered the most representative of Giorgione’s surviving works, The Tempest has been called the first true landscape painting. There is no scholarly consensus on how to interpret the painting, which was listed in a 1530 catalog as “the little landscape on canvas with a tempest, gypsy woman and a soldier.” The most common theories include: (1) a shepherd or a soldier ignores a Gypsy woman nursing a baby, while a storm brews behind them; (2) after being expelled from Eden by God (represented by the lightning), Adam and Eve stop so that Eve can nurse her son Cain; (3) Joseph, Mary and Jesus rest during their flight into Egypt to escape Herod; (4) Giorgione paints a family portrait of himself, his wife and their child; (5) the goddess Demeter nurses one of the twins she had with Iasion, who stands and looks, unaware that Zeus is preparing to kill him with a thunderbolt; and (6) Paris the shepherd watches as his wife Onenone, the mountain nymph, nurses their son Corythus. Each interpretation has its own meaning for the lightning, the stork/crane on the roof and the broken columns. As one critic pointed out, however, “none of [the interpretations] is totally convincing.” To add to the mystery, X-ray analysis shows that Giorgione had originally painted a nude female in place of the man on the left.

108. The Deposition from the Cross (The Entombment of Christ)

Artist: Jacopo Pontormo (born Jacopo Carucci)
Date: Begun in 1525 and completed in 1528
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Florence, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 10.25 ft. tall by 6.3 ft. wide
Current lcation: Capponi Chapel, Santa Felicità Church, Florence, Italy

How do you follow Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci? At the end of the High Renaissance, it seemed as if these masters had done everything that could be done in painting and sculpture and done it better than it could be done again. Like so many younger generations, the artists of the Late Renaissance, known to art historians as Mannerists, decided to do something completely different. Instead of creating idealized Classical forms, they elongated the figures, or posed them in impossible positions. They expanded the somewhat subdued High Renaissance color palette and dared to combine hues that seemed to clash. Instead of subjugating their artistic egos to rational humanism and universal mathematics, they tried to outdo one another in outlandish experimentation and technical achievements that would draw attention to the skills of the artist. Jacopo Portormo was a genius of early Mannerism who was drawn to the most experimental aspects of Michelangelo’s work (for example, his twisting Libyan Sibyl from the Sistine Chapel). His masterpiece, set back in a tiny chapel in a dark Florentine church not far from the Ponte Vecchio, depicts either the Deposition of Christ or the Entombment of Christ. The confusion about the title results from the almost complete absence of the traditional iconography. There is no cross, no tomb, no ladder and almost no landscape – only a swirling, dancing mass of figures. At left of center, two young men (or are they angels?) in awkward poses prop up the dead body of Jesus. The green and pink palette is bizarre, as are the figures, which seem flat and weightless, almost Medieval. The overall arrangement is anything but rational and mathematic and there is no real attempt at a sense of perspective or of setting the people in a realistic space. What we do see are the strong emotions of the characters (especially Mary, who has been separated from the body of her son), and a disorienting mass of odd colors and shapes that is charged with emotional energy.

109. Jupiter and Io

Artist: Correggio (born Antonio Allegri da Correggio)
Date: c. 1530-1533
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Parma School; Mantua, Italy; mythological
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 5.4 ft. tall by 2.3 ft. wide
Current location: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
Correggio was a High Renaissance artist who worked in Parma, a backwater compared to Rome and Florence, so his influence at the time was negligible. But later generations of Baroque and Rococo artists found inspiration in his Rubenesque women and his openly sensual treatment of mythological subjects. Jupiter and Io is Correggio’s voluptuous late Renaissance oil painting illustrating a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which Jupiter, the king of the gods, envelops himself in a smoky gray cloud to seduce Io, a mortal river nymph. Jupiter and Io was one of a series of paintings on the subject of The Loves of Jupiter commissioned by Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. The series of paintings was most likely intended for a private room in the Duke’s palace, but they were given instead to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V during a visit to Mantua. Jupiter and Io, the most highly regarded painting in the series, has a dreamlike sensuality. Jupiter’s face emerges from the cloud to give Io a kiss on the cheek, while Io, her substantial body twisted in the throes of passion, pulls Jupiter’s cloud-engulfed hand closer around her waist. Other paintings in the Loves of Jupiter series include: Leda with the Swan (1531-1532) (see image below left); Danaë (c. 1531) (see image below right); and Ganymede Abducted by the Eagle (1531-1532) (see image below bottom). 
leda-and-the-swan  danae

110. The Wedding Feast at Cana (The Wedding at Cana)

Artist: Paolo Veronese (born Paolo Caliari)
Date: 1562-1563
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Venetian School; Venice, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 22 ft. tall by 32.5 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
wedding at cana
Venetian painter Paolo Veronese created The Wedding Feast at Cana in response to a commission from the Benedictine Monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice to paint the Gospel story in which Jesus changed water into wine. Veronese painted the work in the Venetian style but with elements of the Mannerism of the late Renaissance, Veronese combines ancient and contemporary details; some of the 130 guests are intended to represent current religious and political figures such as King Francis of France, Queen Mary of England, Emperor Charles V and Ottoman leader Suleiman the Magnificent (see detail below left). Presumably because the Benedictine monks took a vow of silence, no one in the painting is speaking. The only guest looking directly at the viewer is Jesus, who sits at the center (see detail below right). The painting hung in Venice from 1563 to 1797, when Napoleon looted it and brought it to Paris; it is now at the Louvre, where it holds the distinction of being the largest painting in the collection. The Louvre began restoring the painting in 1989, but two mishaps occurred in 1992 – a leaking air vent spattered the canvas with water, and then a support collapsed and the metal framework tore five holes in the canvas. The damage has since been repaired. Many visitors to the Louvre overlook the painting because it shares a room with a more famous neighbor, the Mona Lisa.
 veronese wedding at cana detail  WeddingFeastDetail_Jesus

111. The Milkmaid

Artist: Johannes Vermeer 
Date: Painted between 1657 and 1661, with most sources narrowing the date to 1657-1658.
Period/Style: Baroque; Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands; genre painting
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 18 inches tall by 16 inches wide
Current location: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes (Jan) Vermeer rejected the dramatic light/dark compositions of Baroque masters like Rembrandt and Caravaggio, choosing instead to celebrate the effects of light in a different way. His detailed paintings, with their myriad textures and lovingly-rendered objects and surfaces, harken back in some ways to the Early Netherlandish style of Jan van Eyck and others. But Vermeer has added new elements: his tiny white dots (pointilles) emphasize the way light punctuates uneven surfaces; his palette of yellows and blues (the latter using expensive lapis lazuli pigment) are unique in this period; also, he varies his brush strokes to highlight differences in textures – the rough leather of the maid’s upper garment is painted very differently than the silky blue wrap beneath. Despite the title, Johannes Vermeer’s small painting known as The Milkmaid portrays not a milkmaid but a kitchen maid, who is pouring milk while making bread pudding from leftover bread (the saying “waste not, want not” comes to mind). Vermeer establishes a pyramidal composition, with two diagonals that meet at the maid’s right wrist. The light streaming from the window (note the broken pane) leads the eye from the objects hanging on the wall (see detail below left) down to the maid’s face – half hidden in shadow, we wonder what she is thinking about – and then down to the pouring milk. The overall tone is one of respect for the dignity of hard work and other domestic values. In this respect, Vermeer’s Milkmaid differs from the typical Dutch genre stereotype of female domestic workers as objects of male sexual fantasies. There are some elements that may pay tribute to this notion, although they are subjugated to the main theme: there is a Cupid barely visible on one of the baseboard tiles (see detail below right), the rolling up of the maid’s sleeve to reveal whiter skin could have been titillating to some; the shape of the milk jug could echo female anatomy, and the footwarmer on the floor (which held coals to warm the worker in a cold room) was sometimes given sexual meaning. On the other hand, these same symbols, and the tile showing a man with a stick on a journey, could imply that the maid is thinking about a romance with someone far away. The high level of detail has led some scholars to speculate that Vermeer used a camera obscura to trace the scene before painting it, but the recent discovery of a pinhole in the canvas, which could have been used to anchor a string to determine perspective lines, argues against this theory.

112. The Jewish Bride

Artist: Rembrandt
Date: 1667
Period/Style: Baroque; Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands; portraits/religious
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4 ft. tall by 5.5 ft. wide
Current location: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Rembrandt_-_The_Jewish_Bride 2
Late in his career, Rembrandt’s style changed significantly. His palette became warmer, with more use of reds; he often laid his paint on the canvas in thick, impasto layers, using a knife instead of a brush; his backgrounds became more perfunctory; and, most importantly perhaps, his paintings acquired a deeper emotional intensity than was evident in his early work. The painting known as The Jewish Bride exhibits all these late-Rembrandt qualities. Like The Night Watch, the title is a misnomer. Apparently a 19th Century cataloguer decided this was a portrait of a man and his daughter on her wedding day, but that interpretation has almost no support among scholars. Instead, most believe that this is a portrait historié, a genre in which individuals had their portraits painted while dressed up as characters from history, mythology, or – in this case – the Bible. The Rijksmuseum curators have solved the name problem by labeling the work “Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca, known as ‘The Jewish Bride’.” The story of Isaac and Rebekah is one of the most romantic in the Old Testament. A husband and wife pretend to be brother and sister to escape danger, but are discovered having an intimate moment by the king. Fortunately for them, the king recognizes their true love and rewards them instead of punishing them. Earlier in his career, Rembrandt had drawn a sketch of the Biblical scene in which the couple is discovered in an embrace – the poses in that sketch are nearly identical to those in The Jewish Bride. As art historians have pointed out, it is the couple’s hands, not their faces, that show their romantic attachment. The faces show detachment, even worry, but the gentle placement of the couple’s hands on each other tells us volumes about the loving kindness they feel towards one another. Rembrandt focuses all our attention on the man and his wife – the background is negligible, and he has omitted the element of the observing king entirely. What remains is a tender portrait of mature romantic love.

113. The Art of Painting (The Allegory of Painting; The Artist in His Studio)

Artist: Johannes Vermeer
Date: 1670
Period/Style: Baroque; Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands; allegory/self-portrait (?)
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 3.3 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide
Current location: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
In The Art of Painting, the artist Johannes Vermeer allows the viewer a privileged look at the process of making art and in so doing, seeks to elevate the status of art and the artists who make it. A colorful tapestry curtain (a framing device known as a repoussoir) is drawn back to reveal the creative act in progress. An unusually well-dressed artist (probably a Vermeer self-portrait), appears to be painting his model as Clio, the Muse of History. A highly detailed depiction of Claes Janszoon Visscher’s 1636 map of The Netherlands hangs on the back wall (see detail in image below). The light enters the room from the back left and illuminates portions of the room, highlighting certain details and creating shadows elsewhere. The square tiled floor allows Vermeer to demonstrate his control of linear perspective. The painting held a special place in Vermeer’s heart – he never sold it, even when he was in debt – but his family lost control of it after Vermeer’s death in 1675. In 1813, it was purchased for 50 florins by Bohemian-Austrian Count Czernin, whose descendant Count Jaromir Czernin sold it (possibly unwillingly) to Adolf Hitler in 1940 for 1.65 million Reichsmarks. During World War II, the Nazis protected the painting from Allied bombs in a salt mine. The Americans retrieved it in 1945 and gave it to the Austrian government. The Czernin family has sought the return of the painting since the 1960s, without success.

114. Portrait of Louis XIV

Artist: Hyacinthe Rigaud
Date: 1701
Period/Style: Baroque; France; royal portrait
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 9.2 ft. tall by 6.25 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

When French noble Philip, Duke of Anjou, became king of Spain during a successional crisis, he asked his grandfather, French king Louis XIV for a portrait to bring with him to Madrid. Philip recommended French artist Hyacinthe Riguad to paint the portrait. Rigaud, who painted four generations of Bourbon monarchs, their family, friends and officials (as well as a few less prestigious subjects) knew how to present royalty in the best light. The 63-year-old Louis XIV was short of stature and suffering from gout, but you could never tell from Rigaud’s larger-than-life portrait, painted in 1701. Although the Sun King was somewhat past his prime in 1701, Rigaud’s portrait shows a confident king at the height of his powers. To emphasize his royal power, Louis wears his coronation robes (adorned with the fleur-de-lys, symbol of the House of Bourbon) and carries the scepter (upside down) from his grandfather Henry IV, with his crown nearby. He pulls back his robes to reveal the Sword of Charlemagne, which was used in coronation ceremonies. Louis XIV, who had strong opinions on fashion, wears an immense wig, red high-heeled shoes (with diamond buckles) and silk stockings with garters. The painter’s loving emphasis on the monarch’s legs is intentional: Louis XIV danced in many court ballets as a young man and prided himself on both his dancing ability and his dancer’s legs. Note how Rigaud was careful to drape the large column in the rear in such a way that it does not appear taller than the king, who dominates the composition. The Portrait of Louis XIV was so popular that, after delivering the original, the king asked Rigaud for a copy to keep at his palace in Versailles. Legend has it that when the king was away, the portrait was hung above his throne as a substitute, and those who entered the throne room were prohibited from turning their back on it.

115. Marriage à-la-mode 

Artist: William Hogarth
Date: 1743-1745
Period/Style: Rococo; England
Medium: The six original paintings were made with oil paints on canvas. The prints are made from copper engravings.
Dimensions: Each painting measures 2.3 ft. tall by 2.9 ft. wide. The paper prints measure approximately 15.5 inches tall by 19 inches wide.
Current location: The original paintings are in the National Gallery, London, England, UK.  The prints may be found in various collections.
hogart marriage 1Hogarth marriage 2Marriage à-la-mode is a series of six satirical paintings by 18th Century English artist William Hogarth that the artist used as the basis for making engraved copper plates and ultimately paper prints. The series satirizes the upper classes, particularly marriages arranged between the bankrupt old guard seeking funds (symbolized by the Earl of Squanderfield) and the nouveau riche, seeking status (symbolized by the miserly merchant). The chapters of the story are: 1. The Marriage Settlement: The Earl, whose building project is bankrupt, arranges for his dissolute (and syphilitic) son to marry the daughter of the wealthy merchant (see painting in top image above). 2. The Tête à Tête: A morning scene after some months of marriage makes it clear that both members of the couple have been unfaithful (see painting in second image above). 3. The Inspection: The husband and his ‘girlfriend’ receive bad news at the physician’s office regarding their venereal diseases. 4. The Toilette: The Earl having died, the son ascends, but is also clearly a cuckold thanks to Silvertongue, the lawyer who arranged the marriage. 5. The Bagnio: The son walks in on the Countess and her lover and is killed (see print in image below). 6. The Lady’s Death: The lover is hanged for murder, and the Countess commits suicide. Each frame contains many symbolic and allegorical details that support the theme of the painting and add to the satirical impact.

116. The Nightmare

Artist: Henry Fuseli
Date: 1781
Period/Style: Romanticism; Switzerland/Great Britain
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 3.3 ft. tall by 4.2 ft. wide
Current location: The original is at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan. A 1791 version is at Goethe House in Frankfurt, Germany
Henry_Fuseli_-_The_NightmareVisitors to Sigmund Freud’s office in Vienna would have noticed a print on his wall of a sleeping woman with a gruesome incubus sitting on her chest and a horse peering through a set of curtains. The engraving was based on Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting The Nightmare. Born in Switzerland and trained as a minister, Fuseli decided on art instead, and he moved to London in 1779 to pursue painting. Ever since Fuseli exhibited the The Nightmare at the Royal Academy in 1782, viewers have been fascinated and disturbed, while critics and scholars have offered multiple interpretations. At the most simple level, we see a woman sleeping, throat exposed and vulnerable, in a position commonly believed at the time to produce nightmares. Two of the elements of her nightmare are visible: the creature sitting on top of her and the horse with devilish white eyes. The whites and golds of the woman’s body and clothing shimmer brightly against the much darker, shadowy room and figures surrounding her, thanks to Fuseli’s expert use of the chiaroscuro technique and a Gothic-Romantic style. Viewers then and now sense a smoldering sexuality pervading The Nightmare. Some have suggested that the incubus is Fuseli and the woman his unrequited love, Anna Landholdt. Others say it speaks generally to sublimated sexual instincts. Some even interpret the horse piercing through the curtains as a phallic symbol. The incubus gazes directly at us, perhaps seeking our conscious complicity in some heinous act. The painting was Fuseli’s most renowned. Prints from a 1783 engraving of the work by Thomas Burke were very popular with the public, including Dr. Freud (see image of print, below left). Fuseli himself painted a number of versions, with variations. The 1791 version, now at Goethe House in Frankfurt, includes a sexually suggestive statue of a man and a woman on the night table (see image below right).
Burke_The_Nightmare_engraving  fuseli 1791 nightmare

117. The Hay Wain

Artist: John Constable
Date: 1821
Style/Period: Romanticism; UK; landscape
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.3 ft. tall by 6.1 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
Constable_The_Hay_Wain 2
When British painter John Constable presented his large Landscape: Noon at the 1821 Royal Academy summer exhibition, it failed to find a buyer and the English public were only mildly impressed. Constable, who grew up in the Suffolk countryside and had detailed personal knowledge of the English landscape and the implements of agriculture, painted with a realism and emotion that apparently offended those who preferred the idealized landscapes of Claude Lorrain and his school. He had the nerve to make a six-foot wide painting with no mythological, historical or religious figures – just ordinary farmers! “The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth,” Constable once said. But French artist Théodore Géricault attended the 1821 exhibition and came away with the understanding that Constable was revolutionizing landscape painting with his dedication to realism and his fresh handling of color, texture, and light. (Constable’s study of the new science of meteorology is reflected in his skyscapes.) Three years later, Constable exhibited the same painting, renamed The Hay Wain, at the 1824 Paris Salon, where Delacroix saw it. Here in France, the work’s true beauty was recognized, and Charles X awarded The Hay Wain the exhibition’s Gold Medal. (Seeing Constable’s work in Paris also inspired the landscape painters who would become known as the Barbizon School.) In the painting, Constable depicts a large farm cart, or hay wain, crossing the River Stour, which forms the border between Suffolk and Essex counties (what is now called “Constable country”). The farmer may be stopping in the river to allow the water to cool the wheel rims, which would shrink under the hot sun. The painting style is rough – brush strokes are visible – but the elements of the composition, although they appear to show an actual scene, have been manipulated for the best effect. Although on the one hand, Constable is presenting a picturesque scene of his beloved English countryside, there are other themes: the effect of the Industrial Revolution on the agrarian lifestyle; finding one’s purpose through working with the land; the idea of England as an earthly paradise. Constable was keenly aware that those who viewed the painting in bustling London had less and less contact with this agrarian lifestyle. As was his practice, Constable made a full-sized oil sketch of the scene on site (the sketch, shown in the image below – is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London), and then returned to his London studio to paint the final work. Random Trivia: The farmer’s cottage at left still stands, although most of the trees are gone, and the spot is now a tourist attraction.

118. The Death of Sardanapalus

Artist: Eugène Delacroix (full name: Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix)
Date: 1827
Period/Style: Romanticism; France; history painting
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 12.1 ft. tall by 16.2 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
In Lord Byron’s 1821 play Sardanapalus, the last king of the ancient Assyrian Empire was at war with the Medes when he realized that he was facing imminent military defeat. To avoid the humiliation of capture or death at the hands of his foe, Sardanapalus decided to commit suicide by immolation. First, however, he ordered the destruction of all his worldly possessions, including the murder of his many slaves and concubines. French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus depicts the chaotic scene in Sardanapalus’s lush private chambers as his orders are carried out. While the canvas is full of activity, two of the concubines stand out: one, in the lower right, is being stabbed in the chest by a bearded man in a turban; another, almost in the center, splays her nude upper body on the king’s bed in a last desperate plea for mercy. One man has a self-inflicted sword wound; another is attempting to kill a bejeweled horse. Sardanapalus, reclining near the top of the canvas in shadow, is nonplussed, his mind made up – he only watches and waits for his turn. Delacroix’s large canvas is a Romantic feast for the eyes. Full of bold, vivid colors (particularly red), exotic clothing and decoration (including the elephant heads at the foot of the bed), the painting is essentially tragic. To ensure the emotional reaction he seeks, Delacroix deliberately disorients the viewer: the only visible architecture is the wall on the right – there are no floors or ceilings to anchor us in a solid space. The composition, while carefully organized, has no clear symmetry and seems to pull in many directions at once; the lines of perspective too, are difficult to discern. Visible brushstrokes emphasize a sense of movement. The unsettling feeling induced in the viewer by the subject matter and the technique contrasts strongly with the numb, silent, motionless and emotionless figure who set all this chaos in motion, Sardanapalus. At first glance, The Death of Sardanapalus appears to depict the death of everyone but the titular king. But maybe Delacroix’s title is telling us that, in a way, Sardanapalus is already dead.

119. Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: Painted between 1872 and 1877. Most sources date it to 1875.
Period/Style: Tonalism; US/UK
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 23.7 in. tall by 18.3 in. wide
Current location: Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan
An American artist living in London, James McNeill Whistler believed in “art for art’s sake” – the notion that true art should stand on its own, apart from any moral, didactic, political or utilitarian purpose. Whistler went even further, rejecting the idea that narrative was integral to works of art; instead, he believed the purpose of art was not to represent physical reality but to use visual phenomena as the inspiration for artistic arrangements that plumbed deeper truths and evoked personal emotional reactions. He ridiculed the notion of representational painting in the era of photography, saying, “If the man who paints only the tree, or flower, or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer. It is for the artist to do something beyond this.” His series of night paintings, or Nocturnes, sought to capture the sense of space and the void that arises in the darkness. Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket was inspired by a fireworks display at Cremorne Gardens in London. Yellow dots and flashes, billowing smoke, water and land, and vague figures all coalesce into an almost abstract impression of a moment that anticipates many of the innovations of modernism, although the first truly abstract paintings would not arrive for nearly 40 years. The palette is restricted, dominated by greens and blues, with spots of yellow for the fireworks. Not all appreciated Whistler’s sense of the void, however. Respected London art critic John Ruskin wrote that, with his Nocturne, Whistler was “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Ruskin’s opinions tarnished both Whistler’s reputation and the value of his works, so Whistler sued for libel. He eventually won, but received only a token farthing as damages, and the damage had already been done. The loss of reputation and court costs eventually forced him to declare bankruptcy. Whistler recovered from the episode and his reputation rose again in later years. He got his revenge against Ruskin (and anyone else who had crossed him) in his scathing 1890 memoir The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.

120. Water Lilies

Artist: Claude Monet
Date: 1905
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.9 ft. tall by 3.3 ft wide
Current location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
Monet 1905 Water Lilies Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA
Beginning in the late 1890s, Monet’s water lily pond and surrounding garden at his home in Giverny became the subject of an increasingly large proportion of his paintings. He began with somewhat standard Impressionist renderings of sky, foliage, and water, but as time went on, he began to restrict his subject matter, one by one abandoning the rules of conventional landscape painting. First, he eliminated the sky (see the Japanese bridge paintings from 1899, for example). Then, some time after the turn of the century, he eliminated the land and began to focus exclusively on the reflective surface of the water. There is no horizon line to anchor the viewer to a universe outside this patch of water. Instead, the artist asks us to explore the interplay of the real and the reflected. Although we are accustomed to seeing these paintings, it is important to recognize how radical was Monet’s decision to eliminate sky, land, and horizon line. In some ways, what Monet is doing is similar to what Picasso and the Cubists would do a few years later: challenging the illusion of three-dimensionality, choosing instead to paint a two-dimensional subject (the surface of a pond) on the two-dimensional canvas. In 1909, Monet exhibited 48 of these paintings of the water lily pond’s surface, with its lily pads, lilies, and reflections of the unseen sky, clouds and trees, in Paris, including the 1905 painting now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which is one of the earliest examples of Monet’s new perspective. As time went on (and he developed cataracts), Monet’s visions of the water lily pond would become more and more abstract.

121. Bird in Space

Artist: Constantin Brâncuși
Date: 1923
Period/Style: Modernism; Abstract Art; Romania/France
Medium: Sculptures made from white marble, black marble, or bronze
Dimensions: The sculptures range in size from 4.5 ft. tall to 6 ft. tall
Current locations: Various collections, including: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (1923, white marble); Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA (1923, white marble; 1924, bronze), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA (1925-1926, bronze; 1927, bronze); Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington (1926, bronze); Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (1928, bronze; 1941, bronze); Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena, CA (1931, bronze); National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (c, 1931-1936, white marble and black marble).
 brancusi bird in space bronze
In 1926, Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși shipped a sculpture entitled Bird in Space to the United States. When it arrived at customs, officials refused to categorize it as a sculpture because to them it did not resemble anything, certainly not a bird. This meant it was subject to a 40% import levy (from which artworks were exempt). Brâncuși sued and won, after a federal judge conceded the existence of a “so-called new school of art, whose exponents attempt to portray abstract ideas rather than imitate natural objects.” Brâncuși’s Bird in Space series of sculptures was his third and most abstract attempt to capture the essence of a bird in flight. First came the Maiastra sculptures of 1910 through 1918), then the Golden Bird of 1919. By 1923, he had eliminated almost all the attributes of a bird – wings, beak, claws, feathers – leaving only a representation of the bird’s movement, of the concept of flight itself. Brâncuși said that Bird in Space reduced reality to the essential, but critics have noted that achieving the grace and balance to transform a piece of marble or bronze into a soaring abstracted concept of a bird requires both skill and inspiration. Ironically, Brâncuși was among the most hands-on of sculptors – he rarely allowed assistants or machines to do what he could do by hand, yet his painstaking approach resulted in surfaces (whether marble or bronze) that look machine-made. His human hands worked to erase the evidence of the human work his hands had done. The original Bird in Space was made from white marble in 1923. After that, Brâncuși made six more marble sculptures and cast nine bronze versions, which can be found in museums and collections around the world.  The images above show a white marble version from 1923 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a 1928 bronze version at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

122. Campbell’s Soup Cans 

Artist: Andy Warhol
Date: 1962
Period/Style: Pop Art; US
Medium: Synthetic polymer paint on 32 separate canvases
Dimensions: Each of the 32 prints is 20 in. tall by 16 in. wide
Current location: Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
warhol campbell's soup
It was 1961 and American pop artist Andy Warhol was looking for a subject for his next series of artworks. He wanted to get away from his comic book series (featuring Popeye, among others) as it was too similar to the work being done by Roy Lichtenstein. A friend suggested that Warhol paint “something you see every day, like a Campbell’s Soup can.” Warhol, a big fan of Campbell’s soup, thought it was a great idea. He went to a supermarket, bought one can of every one of the 32 varieties of Campbell’s Soup then on the market, and began painting them. He projected the images onto a canvas and painted what he saw, stenciling the lettering, with some alterations (he simplified the design for the gold medallion, for example). For the row of fleur-de-lis at the bottom, he created a rubber stamp, and stamped the image on the canvas. The results shocked the art world, while at the same time establishing Warhol as a leader in the Pop Art movement. Warhol’s celebration of the lowly can of soup challenged the notion that only certain things – of the sort approved by elitist traditions – were the proper subjects for art. For Warhol, a mass marketed consumer good was as worthy a subject as a still life, a landscape or a portrait. Presented together, the 32 canvases were also a challenge to abstract expressionism. Warhol’s careful renderings of the soup cans and their labels obliterated the notion of personal expression and negated the notion of authorship. For all that one could tell, these might be products made by an unthinking machine. The mechanized process and the sameness of the results blurred the distinction between art and commerce. If someone could reproduce a commercial product’s label and sell it as their own, then what was the role of originality, creativity and technical skill in making art? Warhol’s work brought all those assumptions into question, and the questions he and other Pop artists raised in the early 1960s still generate controversy today. When they were first exhibited in a Los Angeles art gallery in July 1962, the 32 canvases were displayed along a narrow shelf, one by one. (A snarky rival art gallery nearby put actual soup cans on display and advertised them as cheaper than Warhol’s.) Five of the paintings were sold, one to a young actor named Dennis Hopper. But fortunately for art history, the gallery owner recognized that this was a set that should be kept together, and he bought back the five canvases that had sold, then purchased the entire set for $3000. When the Museum of Modern Art obtained the artwork, it first displayed them in a box shape, arranged in the order that the varieties had been first issued. (Tomato soup was the first, issued in 1897.) Warhol returned to the soup can theme many times over the years, usually making silkscreen prints (his preferred method from late 1962 onward). The subsequent soup can prints include a number of variations; some use unrealistic color schemes, others show torn labels or crushed cans. Although Warhol staunchly refused any commercial tie-in for his soup cans while alive, in 2012, Campbell’s Soup, in collaboration with the Andy Warhol Foundation, created a limited edition set of Andy Warhol commemorative soup cans. And a quick search online reveals a number of actual soup cans signed by Andy Warhol up for sale.

On 8 lists

123. Khafre Enthroned (Statue of King Chephren)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 2570-2550 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Egyptian: Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom
Medium: Life-sized statue carved in the round from diorite gneiss
Dimensions: 5.5 ft tall, 3.1 ft deep and 1.9 ft wide
Current location: Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo, Egypt
The fourth Egyptian Pharaoh of the Old Kingdom’s Fourth Dynasty, who built the second pyramid at Giza, is known by many names, including Khafra, Khafre, Khefren and Chephren. Little is known about him except that Egypt was peaceful, prosperous and united during his reign. Some believe the face on the Great Sphinx belongs to Khafre. The life-size diorite gneiss Khafre Enthroned was designed as a vessel for the pharaoh’s ka (soul) after death. The statue, which is carved in the round, is not a portrait but a timeless ideal of an ageless, perfect, man-turned-god. Protecting Khafre’s head from behind is Horus the hawk-god (see detail in image below). Khafre wears the nemes headdress and the uraeus (symbol of the cobra-god) on his forehead. His throne is made of two stylized lions and engraved on it are the symbols of a united Egypt: lotus plants (for Upper Egypt) and papyrus plants (for Lower Egypt). The dark stone used to carve the statue came from quarries 400 miles away – proof of Khafre’s power, influence and ability to coordinate the work of hundreds.
Khafre side

124. Victory Stele of Naram-Sin

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 2350-2200 BCE
Period/Style: Akkadian empire; Iraq
Medium: Relief sculpture carved into pink sandstone
Dimensions: 6.6 ft. tall
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
The grandson of Sargon of Akkad, Naram-Sin led the mighty Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia at its height, c. 2254-2218 BCE. The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin commemorates Naram-Sin’s defeat of the Lullibi, a tribe in the Zagros Mountains. Naram-Sin towers over his enemies (including one who is attempting to remove a spear from his neck) and his own troops and wears the horned helmet of a deity. The story is told in successive diagonal narrative lines, an innovation over the boxed stories that were then standard. During a raid in the 12th Century BCE, the Elamites stole the stele from Mesopotamia, breaking off a portion in the process, and brought it to their capital city of Susa, in what is now Iran, where it was discovered in 1898.  

125. Relief Sculptures, Persepolis

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 518-465 BCE
Period/Style: Achaemenid Empire, Persia (now Iran)
Medium: Bas reliefs carved in gray limestone
Dimensions: Hundreds of feet of carvings
Current location: Many of the reliefs are located at the original site of the city of Persepolis near Shiraz in Fars Province, Iran. Fragments are located in various collections. 

Persepolis was the capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire from about 515-330 BCE. Cyrus the Great selected the site of the city, but Darius I began construction of many of the city’s buildings, some of which were completed during the reign of Darius’s son, Xerxes the Great. In the center of the city is a large stone terrace with staircases leading to the top, on which several buildings were located. At the center of the terrace, on an elevated platform, stood the Apadana Palace, an immense audience hall, with 72 columns with sculpted capitals and two monumental staircases. Throughout the city, relief sculptures are carved into the limestone, particularly along the various staircases. The stairs to Apadana Palace depict a ceremonial procession of vassal states bringing culturally-appropriate gifts to the king. Despite the efforts of Darius, Xerxes and his son Artaxerxes, the glory of Persepolis was short-lived. In 330 BCE, Alexander the Great invaded the city and looted it, after which he burned it down.  The images above show: (1) Darius I receiving tribute, a relief from the Treasury Building, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Tehran; (2) relief on the Apadana stairs showing the earth (shown as a bull) fighting with the sun (shown as a lion) on Nowruz, the vernal equinox when, according to the Zoroastrian religion, the powers of the lion and bull are equal. The image below, from the Apadana staircase, shows three registers of processing guards, staff-bearers, and dignitaries.

126. Artemision Bronze (Zeus/Poseidon of Artemision)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 460 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece: Early Classical Period; Severe style
Medium: Bronze sculpture (the figure’s eyes, eyebrows, lips and nipples would likely have been filled with various materials (bone, silver, copper, etc.)
Dimensions: 6.9 ft. tall
Current location: National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece
artemision bronze
Archaeologists have discovered very few Classical Greek sculptures because most of the statues from that period were made of bronze, which was a valuable commodity that nearly every bronze statue was later melted down for reuse. The bronze statue known as the Artemision Bronze survived because it was lying at the bottom of the Aegean Sea, where it was found in 1926 at the site of an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Cape Artemision in Greece. The figure represents either Zeus about to fling a lightning bolt or Poseidon about to pitch his trident. Most scholars favor the Zeus interpretation based on the angle of the arms and the concern that a trident would obscure the god’s face. The lightning bolt/trident was never found. Scholars praise the work for the sense of strength, balance and movement and the close attention to the anatomy of the nude male body. To emphasize the sense of imminent movement, the unknown sculptor has made the arms longer than they would be if anatomically correct. The figure’s head has become a Greek cultural symbol, featuring on a postage stamp and bank note.

artemision bronze 2

127. Relief Sculptures, Ara Pacis Augustae

Artist: Unknown
Date: 13-9 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Roman
Medium: Relief sculptures and friezes carved in Luna marble decorating an altar
Dimensions: The reliefs cover most of the four exterior walls of the altar, which is 15.1 ft. tall, 34.8 ft. wide, and 38 ft. long.
Current location: The Ara Pacis Augustae is located in Rome, Italy near the banks of the Tiber. It is housed in a new museum designed by architect Richard Meier that opened in 2006. 

The Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Augustan Peace, was commissioned by the Roman Senate in 13 CE to commemorate the return of Emperor Augustus from military victories in Hispania and Gaul. The altar is dedicated to the goddess Peace, and sends a message that Augustus has brought a Golden Age of peace, prosperity and abundance, with a subsidiary message that the Emperor is pious and supports the state religion. Two tiers of relief sculpture friezes adorn each side of the outer precinct walls. The lower portion of the friezes on all four sides consists of spiraling vegetation in coherent patterns, along with frogs, lizards, birds and other wildlife, to show harmony in nature. The upper panels on the front and back (east and west) walls consist of allegorical or mythological scenes of peace and abundance, including a panel on the east wall interpreted as a goddess (possibly Peace, Italia, Tellus, or Venus) with twins amid a scene of fertility and prosperity (see second image above). The upper friezes on the north and south walls consist of a procession of figures, possibly representing the event dedicating the altar itself. The figures in the procession are not idealized but are individual portraits of Augustus and his family (see image below showing members of the imperial family), members of the Senate and members of the priestly colleges. There are non-Romans depicted, and also children, which was unusual in Roman art.

128. Moche Portrait Vessels

Artists: Unknown
Date: 100-800 CE
Period/Style: Moche Culture, Peru
Medium: Painted ceramic vessels
Dimensions: The vessels range in size from 2 inches to 18 inches tall, with most ranging from 6-12 inches tall.
Current locations: Various collections.
moche portrait vessel 5  
The Moche culture that flourished in present-day Peru between 100-800 CE produced ceramic vessels carved into individualized and naturalistic three-dimensional representations of human faces. Close to 1000 vessels have been discovered, representing nine basic mold types. The vast majority of the portraits are of adult men; the artists have achieved a considerable level of realism, and the portraits occasionally reveal physical defects such as harelips, missing eyes, or in one case, an apparent paralysis. Many of the portrait vessels contain stirrup spouts, a feature of ceramic vessels in a number of Pre-Columbian cultures. The typical portrait vessel is painted with red on a pale cream background, but some are painted with white over a red and black background. The purpose of these elaborately decorated vessels is a subject of debate. While some experts believe they were designed to be placed in tombs, there is evidence that they were used in everyday life to hold liquids. The portrait vessels shown in the images are:
(1) (top left) Portrait of a Ruler wearing headgear with two birds, Museo Nacional Antropologia in Lima, Peru;;
(2) (top right) Portrait Vessel measuring 8.3 in. tall, 6.5 in. wide and 5.5 in. deep, c. 50-800 CE, at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland;
(3) (bottom left) Portrait Vessel, showing earflares, c. 100-500 CE, Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts; and
(4) (bottom right) Portrait Vessel of a Ruler, c. 100 BCE-500 CE, Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois.
moche portrait vessel 2  

129. Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus (Great Ludovisi Sarcophagus)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 250-260 CE
Period/Style: Late Roman Empire; “Anti-Classical” style
Medium: Relief sculptures carved in Proconnesian marble on the front of a sarcophagus
Dimensions: The sarcophagus is 5.1 ft. tall, 8.9 ft. wide, and 4.5 ft. deep.
Current location: Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps, Rome, Italy

The Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus is a Roman burial container made of Proconnesian marble with a remarkable set of relief sculptures carved into the front panel. A scene of Romans battling Goths is sculpted in very high relief, with overlapping figures and many elements completely free of the background surface. The sarcophagus was discovered in 1621 and takes its name from its first modern owner, Ludovico Ludovisi. Carved at a time when the Roman Empire was in crisis, the design and details are considered anti-classical, with highly expressive facial expressions and postures (especially among the defeated barbarians), and a sense of chaos and disorder in contrast to the rational stoic clarity of the Classical style. Note the lack of any background – all the figures are crammed into a frontal plane with no regard for position in three-dimensional space. Details include: a central Roman soldier whose forehead is marked by an X (possibly indicating initiation into a Mithraic cult) (top center); a cornicen, a soldier who communicated military signals by blowing a horn (top right); and a barbarian being pierced by a lance (bottom left).

130. Animal Head Post, Oseberg Viking Ship Burial

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 815-825 CE
Period/Style: Viking Age Art/Norse Art; Oseberg Style; Norway
Medium: Carved maple wood
Dimensions: approximately 20 in. tall; the head is 5 in. tall
Current location: Viking Ship Museum, University of Oslo, Bygdoy, Norway
In 1904, archaeologists discovered an intact Viking burial ship under a mound of earth in Oseberg, Norway. The ship, which dates to the early 9th Century, contained two women’s bodies and a significant number of grave objects. Among the objects were five wooden posts carved into the heads of animals, which appear to have been carved by different artists. They have slots for handles indicating they were carried and may have had some magical or religious significance, although there is no consensus about the purpose of the objects. The most highly-regarded of the posts, known as the “Academiciian’s head-post” bears the head of a roaring animal (perhaps a lion) with protruding eyes, while the intricate carving shows tightly interwoven animals in an interlacing serpentine pattern (see images above). According to art historian Andrea Snow: “The Oseberg style shows a strong interplay between zoomorphic and geometric patterns that continues artistic traditions predating the Viking Age. These schematic figures are situated within fields that divide surfaces into clear segments and emphasize the balance and organization of images.”

131. Ebbo Gospels

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 816-835 CE
Period/Style: Carolingian (“shivering style”); France
Medium: Illustrated manuscript
Dimensions: The book is 10 in. tall by 8 in. wide
Current location: Bibliothèque Municipale, Épernay, France
ebbo 1  ebbo gospels 3The Ebbo Gospels is an illuminated manuscript produced at the Benedictine abbey at Hautvillers, France in the 9th Century; it takes its name from a poem to Ebbo, the Archbishop of Rheims, that is printed in the manuscript. The book contains a number of illuminated pages, including portraits of the Evangelists. The unknown artist has drawn the figures in an energetic style (sometimes called the shivering style) in agitated poses, which generates a level of emotion new to Carolingian art. As a result of these innovations, the Ebbo Gospels became very influential. The figure of St. Matthew, in particular, is considered a masterpiece (see image above left). He writes with one hand while the other holds an ink horn; a tiny angel hovers in the upper right corner. (See also the portrait of St. Mark, above right.) The pinks and greens of the portrait are new colors for Carolingian art. The figures and landscapes are influenced by the Late Classical style, which may have come to France from Greek artists fleeing Byzantine iconoclasm, but the frenzied energy and emotion are new.

132. Shiva as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 950-1200 CE
Period/Style: Tamil culture; Chola Dynasty; India
Medium: Bronze sculptures
Dimensions: The sculptures range in size from c. 24 in. tall to 5 ft. tall.
Current locations: Various collections.

Images of the Hindu god Shiva dancing are found in India as early as 5th Century CE, but it was during the Chola Dynasty (c. 860-1279 CE) in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, home to the Tamil people, that the classical iconography developed. Ancient Sanskrit writings tell the story of Shiva dancing as Nataraja in Chidambaram, the golden hall in the center of the universe, for the other gods. In his dance, Shiva shows with movements his power to create and destroy: (1) in his lower right hand he holds the damaru, a drum whose vibrations created the world; (2) in his upper right hand, he makes the abhaya gesture, which protects, preserves and removes fear; (3) his upper left hand holds the fire of destruction, or agni; (4) his right foot tramples apasmara purusha, the personification of illusion; and (5) he lifts his left leg and points to it with the gaja hasta gesture, to show it is a refuge for troubled souls. Surrounding the dancing Shiva is a flaming halo. The Shiva Nataraja iconography was propagated through many bronze statues produced during the Chola Dynasty; all share certain basic features, but may differ in small ways. They make up part of the large production of Hindu religious statuary known as Chola Bronzes. Many such icons are located in temples and museums throughout the world. Most were made small enough for individual worshippers to carry. The largest Chola bronze, dating from 1100-1200, is located at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and measures 5 ft. tall by 3.75 ft. wide (see image above). More typical in size is Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a Chola bronze statue from the 11th Century, measuring 26.9 in. tall by 22.2 in. wide (see image below left). One variation to the basic design is a non-circular halo that tapers at the base, as in the Shiva Nataraja in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a Chola Dynasty bronze dating from 950-1000 CE and measuring 30 in. tall by 22.5 in. wide (see image below right).
shiva nataraja ny  Shiva_as_the_Lord_of_Dance_LACMA

133. Capitoline Wolf (Capitoline She-Wolf)

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 1100-1300 (wolf); c. 1450-1470 (Romulus and Remus)
Period/Style: Medieval (wolf); Renaissance (Romulus and Remus); Italy
Medium: Bronze sculptures
Dimensions: 2.5 ft. tall by 3.75 ft. long
Current location: Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy
capitoline museums she wolf 1
The bronze sculpture of a she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, has been a symbol of Roman and Italian heritage for centuries, based in part on the traditional belief that the work was created in the 5th Century BCE by an unknown Etruscan artist to commemorate the founding of Rome. Although the wolf came to the Capitoline Museums in 1471 as a gift of Pope Sixtus IV, the work’s Etruscan origin was supported by references to a bronze wolf sculpture in Classical literature, including Cicero’s De Divinatione, and by the analysis of Johann Winckelmann, an 18th Century German art historian. But cracks in this theory soon appeared. Even Winckelmann recognized that the figures of Romulus and Remus were from the Renaissance and were created in the late 15th Century (possibly by sculptor Antoino Pollaiuolo) (see detail in image below). Beginning in the late 19th Century, some art historians began questioning the early date, proposing a Carolingian or Medieval time frame, but their concerns were ignored. In 2006, however, Italian art experts made a strong case that the wolf was Medieval in origin, based in part on evidence that the bronze wolf was cast in one piece, a technique that wasn’t invented until later. Preliminary results of radiocarbon testing announced in 2008 indicated an 11th or 12th Century date for the sculpture.
capitoline museums 2

134. Ife Heads

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 1100-1500
Period/Style: Yoruba Culture, Ife, Nigeria
Medium: Heads sculpted from brass (copper alloy)
Dimensions: The sculptures range in size from 11-14 in. tall
Current location: Most of the sculptures are in the National Museum of Antiquities in Ife, Nigeria or the National Museum in Lagos, Nigeria. One of the heads is in the collection of the British Museum in London.
ife head 1 ife head 2
ife head 6  ife head 3
In 1938, workers digging a foundation for a house in the Wunmonije compound in Ife, Nigeria discovered a cache of 18 brass sculpted heads. They were made by artists of the Yoruba culture between 1100 and 1500, when Ife was the capital of a thriving and powerful city-state in West Africa. The heads – which are life-size or near life-size – are remarkable for their depiction of individual facial features. The technical sophistication and beauty of the sculptures surprised some at the time who believed African artists were not capable of such high achievements. Scholars believe that some or all of the heads represent royalty or members of the upper classes; some have even been identified with specific named rulers. 

135. The Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government

Artist: Ambrogio Lorenzetti
Date: c. 1337-1340
Period/Style: Medieval period; Trecento; Gothic/Byzantine styles, with some Proto-Renaissance elements; Siena, Italy
Medium: Frescoes painted on the walls of the Palazzo Pubblico
Dimensions: Each of the three frescoes is 25.3 ft. tall; they have a combined width of 47.2 ft.
Current location: Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy
lorenzetti allegory of good gov
In the early 14th Century, the Republic of Siena commissioned Ambrogio Lorenzetti to decorate the walls of the Council Room (also known as the Sala dei Nove, or Salon of Nine), where the city’s elected leaders met. The specified topics were “good government” and “bad government” – to remind the magistrates of their duties. Lorenzetti painted three frescoes: (1) the Allegory of Good Government (see top image above) (2) the Effects of Good Government on the City and the Country (sometimes called Peace) (see second image above – City – and first image below – Country); and (3) the Allegory of Bad Government and its Effects on the City and the Country (sometimes called War) (see Allegory of Bad Government in second image below). At a time when most Italian art commissions came from the Catholic Church, the paintings are unusual for their secular subject matter. Lorenzetti, who was strongly influenced by fellow Sienese artist Simone Martini, combines Byzantine/Gothic style with some references to Ancient Classical art, with more naturalism than his mentor. The frescoes include experiments with perspective (Lorenzetti makes an effort to reduce the size of figures that are intended to be farther away from the viewer) and efforts to portray physiognomy realistically. Lorenzetti’s depictions of places and figures combine idealization and realism; for example, the depiction of Siena in the Effects of Good Government on the City is accurate in parts, and fanciful in others. Some experts believe the frescoes contain a second narrative involving the children of the gods for whom the planets are named; this theme may explain the dancers in the center of the City, who may be interpreted as the children of Venus. With regard to perspective, experts have pointed out that the perspective of the Allegory of Good Government appears to be a mistake, unless one assumes that the scene is being perceived from the point of view of the figure of Justice. For the Bad Government fresco, Lorenzetti unsettles viewers by requiring them to read the narrative from right to left. This fresco, which was originally on an exterior wall, has suffered considerable moisture damage.

136. The Battle of San Romano

Artist: Paolo Uccello
Date: c. 1438-1440 (Part I); c. 1435-1455 (Part II); c. 1455 (Part III)
Period/Style: Early Renaissance, Florence, Italy
Medium: Egg tempera paints with walnut and linseed oils on poplar wood panels; gold and silver leaf added
Dimensions: Each painting measures 6 ft. tall by 10.5 ft. wide
Current locations: National Gallery, London, England, UK (Part I); Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy (Part II); Musée du Louvre, Paris, France (Part III)
battle of san romano I
Uccello_Battle_of_San_Romano_II Uffizi
Florentine painter Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano consists of three paintings depicting events from Florence’s 1432 military victory over Siena. The first panel shows Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino, the Florentine military leader (see top image above). The second panel (and presumably the centerpiece of the triptych) shows Niccolò da Tolentino unseating Siena’s Bernardino della Ciarda (see second image above). The final painting depicts the counterattack of Florence’s Michelotto da Cotignola against the Sienese (see image below). The paintings show advances in the use of linear perspective (including the use of foreshortening), but those advances are not always obvious when looking at the paintings in museums; they were designed to be hung high on three walls of a room, and Uccello’s use of perspective presumes that viewers are looking up, not straight ahead. All three paintings were commissioned by the Bartolini Salimbeni family, although once Florentine leader Lorenzo de’ Medici saw them, he decided he had to have them, so he bought one and forcibly confiscated the other two. Time has changed the appearance of the paintings: much of the soldiers’ armor was covered in silver leaf which must have created a dazzling effect back in the 15th Century; unfortunately, the silver has oxidized over time to a dull gray or black.
Uccello battle of san romano iii

137. The Melun Diptych

Artist: Jean Fouquet
Date: Art historians date the work between 1450 and 1455, with a number of sources dating it to 1452.
Period/Style: Northern Renaissance; France
Medium: Egg tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: Each of the two wings measures 3 ft. tall by 2.8 ft. wide. The medallion is 2.4 inches wide.
Current locations: The left wing is in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany. The right wing is at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium. The artist’s self-portrait medallion is at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.
Jean_Fouquet melun diptych
The Melun Diptych was created by French artist Jean Fouquet for Étienne Chevalier, treasurer to King Charles VII, to hang over the tomb of Chevalier’s wife. The name of the piece comes from the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame in Melun, where it originally resided. The left wing contains a portrait of Chevalier beside his patron saint, St. Stephen, shown with a rock to remind us that he was stoned to death (to drive the point home, blood drips from a wound on the saint’s head – see detail in image below left). Fouquet uses perspective to create the illusion of space receding into the background. The truly bizarre right wing, which is entitled Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, depicts the Virgin Mary ‘sitting’ on an ornate throne with the baby Jesus on her lap. Mary, who may be a posthumous portrait of the king’s mistress Agnès Sorel (called by some ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’) has ghostly marble skin, a fashionable shaved hairline and is wearing the equivalent of 15th Century haute couture. And there is the problem of the exposed breast; one commentator described it as “pneumatic”, another termed it “gravity-defying.” Dutch historian Johan Huizinga described the panel as creating an “air of decadent impiety.” In an attempt to explain the unnatural color scheme, one scholar theorized that Fouquet meant to honor the red, white and blue of the French flag. To further disorient the viewer, in depicting the heavenly space in the right panel, Fouquet completely abandoned the rules of perspective he employed so well on the left. Ironically, the unnatural and otherworldly aspects of the painting make it seem much more modern than a typical 15th Century religious painting. One commentated noted that it would not look out of place on the cover of a 1950s sci-fi magazine.  A small medallion with Fouquet’s portrait was originally attached to the frame (see image at right below).

138. The Flagellation of Christ

Artist: Piero della Francesca
Date: The majority of art historians date the painting between 1455 and 1460 but some say it could be as early as 1450 and others say as late as 1470.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Urbino, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil and tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 1.9 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide
Current location: Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Palazzo Ducale di Urbino, Urbino, Italy
Referred to by art critic Kenneth Clark as “the greatest small painting in the world”, Piero della Francesca’s The Flagellation of Christ is notable for the artist’s deft use of perspective in contrasting the three men in the right foreground with the scene in the open air building, left rear, which almost certainly depicts the whipping of Christ as described in the Gospels. As for the identities of the three men on the right, and some of the figures on the left, there are a plethora of theories. Many scholars believe that the figures on the right are contemporaries of Piero, or represent other men from the recent past. The theory that the right and left sides of the painting occur in different eras finds support in the unusual lighting: the flagellation scene is lit from one direction, while the three men are lit from another. The time warp theory might also explain why the men on the right are ignoring the violence going on behind them. One common explanation is that the young man in the middle is Oddantonio da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, with his two advisors, all three of whom had been murdered in 1444. Other scholars point to evidence contradicting that theory and suggest other identities for the figures. As for the less controversial left side, most scholars agree that the sitting man is Pontius Pilate, and the man with his back turned is Herod, but this is not accepted by all. One art historian believes that the person being flogged is not Jesus but St. Jerome.

139. The Fall of the Giants

Artist: Giulio Romano (born Giulio Pippi)
Date: 1530-1532 or 1532-1534
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Mantua, Italy; mythological
Medium: Frescoes on walls and ceiling of a residential palazzo
Dimensions: The frescoes cover all four walls and the ceiling of the Sala dei Giganti in the Palazzo del Te.
Current location: Sala dei Giganti, Palazzo del Te, Mantua, Italy
The immense Fall of the Giants fresco in Mantua, Italy is a high point of early Mannerism. The Mannerists were not interested in the serene, restrained and balanced compositions of High Renaissance masters such as Raphael. They believed in grand gestures, in creating works of art that showcased the skill of the artist and if that led to excess or lack of realism, then so be it. Mannerism has a “rebelling against our teachers” flavor generally so it should come as no surprise that the artist who painted the Fall of the Giants, Giulio Romano, was a student of Raphael himself. The fresco takes up two walls (see top image) and the ceiling (see second image above) of a room in the Palazzo del Te, the home of Ludovico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. It relates the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which giants attempt to overthrow the gods on Mt. Olympus by piling up mountains to reach them. In response, Jupiter sends down a hail of thunderbolts, throwing the rebellion into chaos. Romano’s captures the action at the moment when the rebellion begins to collapse. Romano’s use of fictive architecture and illusory effects make it seem that the entire fresco is collapsing in on the viewer. This effect is enhanced by a gradual downslope in the floor as one approaches the walls, which depict the jumbled scene of desperate giants scrambling to stay alive amid the tumbling boulders dislodged by the gods’ thunderbolts (see detail in image below).

140. Venus, Cupid, Folly & Time (An Allegory with Venus and Cupid)

Artist: Bronzino (born Agnolo di Cosimo)
Date: c. 1545
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Italy; mythological
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 4.8 ft. tall by 3.8 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
Bronzino venus cupid
Florentine Mannerist Bronzino’s most highly-regarded work, Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici (for whom Bronzino worked as court painter) as a gift for Francis I of France. The allegorical painting possesses many Mannerist features: the twisting figura serpintinata poses of the central characters, which seem almost impossible; the busy, jumbled composition; and the ambiguous narrative. Some scholars have even suggested that – consistent with the Mannerists’ interest in intellectual games – the painting creates a puzzle that requires inside knowledge to solve. There are multiple theories about the identities of the characters and the story Bronzino is telling. All agree that the central figure is Venus, whose son Cupid is engaging her in an incestuous embrace. This transgressive act appears to be eliciting a strong reaction from the others, who may include Folly (right center, about to shower the couple with rose petals), Time (right top, holding a drapery or pulling back a curtain), Jealousy or Syphilis (left center, screaming in agony), Oblivion (left top, with a mask-like head); and Pleasure or Fraud (between Venus and Folly, with honeycomb and body of a dragon). Random Trivia: Animator Terry Gilliam took Cupid’s right foot, reversed it, and used it in the opening animation sequence for the Monty Python’s Flying Circus television show (see image below).

141. Charles I at the Hunt

Artist: Anthony van Dyck
Date: 1635
Period/Style: Baroque; Flanders (now Belgium); royal portrait
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 8.7 ft. tall by 6.8 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre,Paris, France
Charles I-Van Dyck
At less than five feet tall, diminutive English monarch Charles I was looking for an artist who could make him look like a king and court portraitist Daniel Mytens was not getting the job done. Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck (a student of Rubens) had gained a reputation in Italy and Flanders as a superb portraitist, and he had gained Charles I’s attention by assisting his agents in building the king’s art collection and by sending Charles a few of his own works, including a portrait of Charles’s sister, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia. In 1632, Charles I made van Dyck his new principal court painter, granting him a knighthood and an annual salary of 200 pounds. Given van Dyck’s specialty, it is not surprising that his finest works during this period are his portraits of the king, which are accurate depictions but never reveal his below average stature. Charles I at the Hunt is a 1635 portrait of Charles I in an informal setting. The king appears to be taking a break from a hunting trip to survey his domain – the lands and sea spread out below – when he turns to the viewer with a look of both supreme confidence and utter indifference. Van Dyck deliberately chose a low angle to depict the king to avoid drawing attention to his height, and placed him in the left, brighter side of the canvas, away from the shadows that engulf the bowing horse and courtiers. To ensure that the king’s face stands out against the bright sky, van Dyck used a black hat as a frame. While there are few definitive royal accoutrements (except for the cloak the groom holds and the statement, “Charles I, King of Great Britain” inscribed on a rock), there is no doubt that this is not just a nattily dressed aristocrat, complete with fashionable teardrop earring, but a king who knows how to play at the aristocrats’ sports without compromising his power and majesty. It is, perhaps, a sign of his confidence in himself and his power that he allowed himself to be portrayed in this informal manner. Van Dyck died in 1641, while Charles I was still on the throne; eight years later, the Puritans overthrew the king and eventually beheaded him.

142. Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power (The Triumph of Divine Providence) 

Artist: Pietro da Cortona
Date: Begun in 1633; completed in 1639
Period/Style: Baroque; Rome, Italy; mythology/allegory;  “di sotto in sù”
Medium: Fresco painted on palazzo ceiling
Dimensions: 4,300 square feet
Current location: Palazzo Barberini (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica), Rome, Italy
cortona barberini ceiling
Italian artist Pietro da Cortona painted the massive fresco titled The Triumph of Divine Providence (also known as Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power) on the ceiling of the grand salon in the Palazzo Barberini, home of Rome’s powerful Barberini family, between 1633 and 1639. The fresco was intended to celebrate the family’s power and good fortune, particularly the election of Maffeo Barberini to pope (as Urban VIII) in 1623. In true Baroque fashion, the work as a whole is filled with a swirling, ecstatic energy. Allegorical figures abound in the crowded composition: scholars have identified Truth, Beauty, Peace, Chronos (Time, eating his children), the Three Fates, Immortality (carrying a crown of stars), Hercules, Vulcan, Minerva and St. Peter, to name a few. (See detail in image below left Divine Providence, Immortality, Time and the Three Fates.) The mythological content is so complex that visitors to the Palazzo receive a detailed guidebook to help them decipher the many symbols, including those specifically referring to the Barberinis: the family’s coat of arms and squadrons of giant bees, the family mascot (see detail in image below right). Cortona also added plenty of trompe-l’oeil effects, including the apparent crumbling of the marble frame due to the weight of Providence, in one case, and Vulcan at his forge, in another. Some art historians have suggested that the fresco was intended to dispel any notion that Maffeo Barberini’s election to the papacy was rigged, a powerful rumor at the time. Instead, the fresco shows that Pope Urban VIII is in his place because of Divine Providence. The fresco may also have been intended to demonstrate the supremacy of Catholicism over its rival religions, although the reliance on figures from classical mythology may have undermined that message somewhat.
 cortona barberini bees

143. Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers)

Artists: Gian Lorenzo Bernini (overall design, flora and fauna); Jacopo Antonio Fancelli (Nile/Africa); Antonio Raggi (Danube/Europe); Claude Poussin (Ganges/Asia); Francesco Baratta (Rio de la Plata/America).
Date: Work began in 1648; the completed fountain was unveiled in 1651. The obelisk was made in Rome in 81 CE.
Period/Style: Baroque; Rome, Italy; allegory
Medium: The fountain’s sculptures (including the large figures symbolizing the four rivers) are carved from travertine marble. Atop the fountain stands an Ancient Roman obelisk made of porphyry.
Dimensions: The obelisk is 115 ft. tall.
Current location: Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

According to a 17th Century account, when Pope Innocent X sought proposals for a new fountain in the Piazza Navona in Rome, across from the Palazzo Pamphili, Innocent’s family palace, he contacted every major architect and sculptor in Rome except Gian Lorenzo Bernini, arguably the most famous sculptor in Italy at the time. Bernini’s support of Innocent’s predecessor (and rival) Pope Gregory XV may have soured the new pope, or it may have been a rumor campaign by Bernini’s enemies. A powerful friend of Bernini’s convinced the artist to ignore the snub, create a design and make a model of it, and then arranged for the model to be displayed anonymously in a room in the Palazzo Pamphili. When the Pope saw the design, he publicly judged it the best and had no choice but to commission Bernini to make the fountain, reportedly saying at the time, “He who desires not to use Bernini’s designs, must take care not to see them.” The centerpiece of the fountain is an Ancient Roman copy of an Egyptian obelisk, topped with the Pamphili family emblem of a dove with an olive branch. The structure below consists of what one critic called “a mountainous disorder of travertine marble” adorned with numerous sculptures, including a palm tree, a lion and a horse, and anchored at the corners by semi-prostrate river gods, one each for the four continents where Christianity had spread. Bernini selected different sculptors for each river god, each of which is identified by an attribute: (1) The god of the Nile River (Africa) wears a cloth over his face in recognition that the source of the Nile had not yet been discovered (see left side of image below). (2) Because, of the four rivers, the Danube is closest to Rome, its god of the Danube River (Europe) displays Pope Innocent X’s coat of arms. (3) The god of the Ganges River (Asia) carries an oar to show that the Ganges is navigable (see image above). (4) The god of the Rio de la Plata (America) sits on a pile of coins to show the potential for riches in the New World, but the god shows fear of a serpent, reminding us that those who are rich fear thieves (see right side of image below). Scholars have praised the revolutionary design of the fountain, and its dynamic fusion of architecture and sculpture. It embodies the Baroque style: realistic yet theatrical, full of ornamentation and a dynamic sense of movement.

144. An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

Artist: Joseph Wright of Derby
Date: 1767-68
Period/Style: Elements of Baroque and Neo-Classical; precursor of Romanticism; Great Britain
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 6 ft. tall by 7.9 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby 2
Like many of his time, English artist Joseph Wright of Derby was fascinated with science and progress and he wanted to use his art to celebrate the intellectual advancement of mankind in the 18th Century. In particular, he wanted to invest painted scenes of scientific discovery with the same reverence accorded to historical and religious scenes. An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump depicts a man – possibly an itinerant lecturer in natural philosophy – recreating Joseph Boyle’s 1659 vacuum (or air) pump experiment, in which air is removed from a container for a group of spectators. To demonstrate the vacuum, a bird is placed in the container – when all the air is removed, the bird dies. (The idea that a rare and expensive cockatoo would be used in the experiment, as shown here, is probably a bit of poetic license on Wright’s part.) Consistent with Wright’s beliefs about the importance of science, while he shows some of the spectators expressing concern about the bird (and two love-birds making eyes at each other), most of them seem in awe of the scientific discovery. An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump was one of a number of candlelit scenes that Wright painted in the 1760s. He excelled at painting the dramatic chiaroscuro effects resulting from the unusual and challenging lighting choice and used this technique to great effect in other artificially-lit indoor scenes.

145. The Death of General Wolfe

Artist: Benjamin West
Date: 1770
Period/Style: Neoclassicism, British America/Great Britain
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.9 ft. tall by 7 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada
Neoclassical painter Benjamin West was born in Colonial Pennsylvania but moved to London in 1763; there he co-founded the Royal Academy of Art, taught numerous American painters, and painted the king’s portrait. Before Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe, most history paintings depicted events from the distant past and draped the characters in the togas of classical antiquity, thus imparting a timeless quality to the events. But West, disregarding the advice of artist friends and mentors, rejected those traditions. For his large history painting, he chose a recent historical event – the death of British general James Wolfe at the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec during the Seven Years’ War – and he dressed his figures in historically accurate clothing. The break with tradition is particularly stark here, where Wolfe is shown (accurately) wearing the somewhat plain red uniform of a field officer, not a major-general’s dress finery. Ironically, however, for all West’s attention to historical accuracy, the painting contains numerous fictions. The majority of the individuals pictured at the death scene are identifiable, and they were not present at the battle. The messenger fortuitously arriving to tell the dying Wolfe that the French are defeated (symbolized by the fleur-de-lys) is also a fiction. So is the Native American warrior, although West’s intention in adding a representative of the indigenous people was probably to place the scene definitively in the New World. Perhaps most outrageous was West’s decision to pose Wolfe in a manner that reminds us of Jesus in various Lamentations and Depositions, and implies that Wolfe was a martyr to a good cause. West’s new conception of history painting was popular: prints made from an engraving of the painting were soon best sellers in England and elsewhere. As for the future of history painting, the popularity of The Death of General Wolfe meant that recent events were fair game and togas were no longer de rigueur.

146. La Grande Odalisque

Artist: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Date: 1814
Period/Style: Neoclassicism (with aspects of Romanticism); France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.9 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Ingres_-_The_Grand_OdalisqueBy 1814, the battle lines were sharply drawn between the Neoclassicists, with their invisible brush strokes and noble subjects, and the Romanticists, who sought to communicate emotional immediacy and human individuality with a style that did not insist on realism. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, who studied with Neoclassicist icon Jacques-Louis David, identified with the Neoclassicists, but his paintings include elements of Romanticism. La Grande Odalisque is Neoclassical in its almost photorealistic painting style, but the subject matter and presentation are pure Romanticism. (See image below for David’s Portrait of Madame Récamier (c. 1800), also at the Louvre, from which Ingres may have gotten the idea for the pose: the differences are striking.) The viewer sees a nude woman who is presented to us as an odalisque, a concubine and member of a Middle Eastern (then called Oriental) harem. She is gazing at us as if we just walked into the room with a mixture of allurement and disdain. The Eastern furnishings, decorations and jewelry – with a hookah, no less – tell viewers that this is a strange, exotic world completely unlike our own, thus giving them permission to gaze upon the nude female form. The bizarre (and racist) compromise reached by Western Civilization in the early 19th Century was that it was immoral to present nudity in art unless it involved religious or mythological figures (e.g., Titian’s Venus of Urbino) or “exotics”, such as the odalisque. Ingres’ Neoclassicism gave way to his Romantic impulses in painting the nude figure; his desire to create flowing lines and sensual curves overrode his commitment to anatomical realism and so he added five vertebrae to the odalisque’s spinal column, reduced the size of her head, made one arm longer than the other, and placed her legs in positions that no contortionist could recreate. These distortions – criticized at the time as lack of skill – were deliberate attempts by Ingres to transcend the merely real and capture an ideal beauty he saw in his imagination.

147. Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World)

Artists: Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (statue); Gustave Eiffel and Maurice Koechlin (internal structure); and Richard Morris Hunt (pedestal).
Date: Work on the statue began in the mid-1870s and was completed by 1884. The pedestal was completed by 1886 and the statue was dedicated on October 28, 1886.
Period/Style: Neoclassicism; France
Medium: The exterior of the statue is made from sheets of copper.
Dimensions: The distance from the ground to the tip of Liberty‘s torch is just over 305 feet, including the 65-ft. tall foundation, the 89-ft. tall pedestal by Richard Morris Hunt and the statue itself, which measures slightly more than 151 ft. tall.
Current location: Liberty Island, NY (formerly Bedloes Island)
Officially titled Liberty Enlightening the World by its French designer, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the Statue of Liberty was a gift from the French government to the American people. The idea of such a monument was first proposed by French abolitionist and politician Édouard René de Laboulaye, who thought it was appropriate to celebrate the America founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” now that slavery was abolished. Bartholdi envisioned an immense statue standing at the gates of the New World, raising a torch for freedom. Liberty had frequently been depicted as a woman in both France and America, so it made sense to make the figure female. Lady Liberty is a Neoclassical-style allegorical figure, dressed in the stola and pella (gown and cloak) worn by Roman goddesses, and crowned with a seven-rayed diadem. (Bartholdi rejected the pilaeus head covering of the French revolution as too controversial.) In her right hand she raises a torch (symbol of progress) and her left hand holds a tabula ansata inscribed with the date of American independence in Roman numerals. She stands on a broken chain, a detail not visible from ground level. The dimensions of the work are on a colossal scale. As a result, Bartholdi limited the amount of detail, reducing the design to its simplest elements. As Bartholdi wrote at the time: “The model, like the design, should have a summarized character, such as one would give to a rapid sketch.” The exterior of the massive statue consists of copper sheets (which have developed a greenish patina over time), with an internal support structure and spiral staircases designed by Gustave Eiffel and Maurice Koechlin (see image below). Although Laboulaye and Bartholdi conceived of the idea in the early 1870s, it took many years to fund and realize the project. During a visit to New York, Bartholdi himself selected the site, a piece of federal property then called Bedloes Island (now Liberty Island). (President Grant quickly approved the project.) He oriented the statue to face ships arriving from the Atlantic Ocean. After Bartholdi designed and built the statue’s right arm with its torch in 1876, he brought it to Philadelphia to exhibit in the Centennial Exhibition, after which it stood for several years in New York City’s Madison Square Park before returning to France. Work on the statue was completed in 1884; it was then disassembled and shipped to New York, but it could not be reassembled until the Americans raised funds for and built the granite and concrete pedestal, designed by Richard Morris Hunt. The pedestal was completed in April 1886; reassembly of the statue took several more months. With Bartholdi standing by his side, President Grover Cleveland dedicated the monument on October 28, 1886. In honor of the occasion, Emma Lazarus, a poet who had been working with European refugees, wrote the famous sonnet, The New Colossus, which is engraved on a plaque in the museum at the base of the statue. 

148. The Two Fridas

Artist: Frida Kahlo
Date: 1939
Period/Style: Surrealism; Folk Art; Naïve Art; Mexico
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 5.7 ft. square
Current location: Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, Mexico
Of the many self-portraits painted by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas is the largest and most highly regarded. The double self-portrait was painted shortly after the artist’s divorce from Mexican muralist Diego Rivera after 10 tempestuous years of marriage. (The couple later remarried.) The double images represent the two sides of Kahlo’s heritage. Born in Mexico to a German father and a Mexican (Spanish/Indigenous) mother, Frida Kahlo was torn between two identities. When she married Rivera, he encouraged her to explore her traditional heritage. Against a backdrop of stormy clouds, two Frida Kahlos sit together on a bench. The Frida on the right is the one Rivera loved; she wears the traditional Tehuana huipil and skirt, with her heart exposed but intact. In one hand she holds a small medallion with a picture of Rivera as a child (see detail in image below). An artery leads from the medallion to Frida’s heart and then to the heart of the Frida on the left, the one that Rivera did not love. She wears the white dress of European colonials and her heart is broken. She tries to cut off the flow of blood from the artery, but it continues to drip, creating a pool on her dress. (The blood may also represent the miscarriages Kahlo suffered, and her lifelong struggle with physical pain from childhood polio and a serious accident). The two Friedas, already connected by the blood of Rivera’s memory, hold hands, echoing a portrait of Kahlo and Rivera at the time of their wedding. The message seems to be that, damaged heart or not, Frida can put her trust in herself, no matter how turbulent her life becomes and how much pain she must endure. Kahlo’s representational style is difficult to categorize. Her work has been characterized as Folk Art or Naïve Art due to its heavy reliance on symbols and images from native Mexican cultures, but she was also embraced by the Surrealists, who admired her dreamlike imagery and irrational juxtapositions. Kahlo rejected the label, saying, “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

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149. Palette of Narmer (Great Hierakonpolis Palette)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 3100-3000 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Egyptian: Pre-Dynastic Period
Medium: Carved siltstone
Dimensions: 2.1 ft. tall
Current location: Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo, Egypt
palette of narmer front  
he Palette of Narmer (also known as the Great Hierakonpolis Palette) is a carved piece of siltstone takes the shape of a palette for grinding cosmetics but is considerably larger than a typical palette, indicating that it may have been a votive offering. The palette, which shows the victorious Pharaoh Narmer wearing the crown of upper Egypt on one side and the crown of lower Egypt on the other, appears to celebrate the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, although it is unclear if the images depict an actual historical battle or serve as mythical or symbolic representation of unification. The palette also contains one of earliest examples of hieroglyphics. Art historians point out that even at this early date, the conventions of Egyptian art (legs and head in profile; body facing forward; mathematical precision) are already well established. With few exceptions, the Egyptian artistic style would remain static for nearly 3,000 years.

150. Olmec Colossal Heads 

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 1500-1000 BCE
Period/Style: Olmec culture; Mexico
Medium: Carved basalt boulders
Dimensions: 5-11 feet tall; weight: 6 to 50 tons
Current locations: Museo de Antropología de Xalapa in Xalapa (7 heads); Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City (2 heads); Museo Comunitario de San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán in Texistepec (1 head); Villahermosa (4 heads); Santiago Tuxtla (2 heads), and Tres Zapotes (1 head).olmec head 2
olmec head 1  
The Olmecs of Gulf Coast Mexico were the first civilization of Mesoamerica. Flourishing from 1500-400 BCE, the Olmecs were the precursors of the Maya and the Aztecs. The artistic legacy of the Olmecs includes 17 basalt boulders carved into colossal heads, most of which were made between 1500 and 1000 BCE. Each head has individualized facial features and a unique headdress. Most scholars believe they represent Olmec leaders. The heads, all of which are still in Mexico, range from 5 to 11 feet tall and from 6 to 50 tons. They were found at four locations, including San Lorenzo, where 10 heads were found lined up in two rows. The facial characteristics of some of the heads have led some to speculate that the Olmecs had roots in Africa, although there is little evidence to support this theory. Scholars have traced the source of the basalt boulders to the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas, nearly 100 miles away. How the Olmecs transported the massive stones through forests and swamps without wheeled vehicles is a mystery.

151. Ishtar Gate and Processional Way

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 575 BCE
Period/Style: Babylonian Empire (Iraq); reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II
Medium: Double gate and walls constructed of glazed bricks (mostly blue), with animals and deities in low relief; the original gate had huge cedar doors.
Dimensions: The reconstructed front gate is 46 ft. tall and 100 ft. wide. The back gate (which has not been reconstructed) was even larger. The processional way may have been as much as half a mile long.
Current location: The reconstructed Ishtar Gate (front gate only, using the original bricks) is located at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. Sections of the processional way are located in various collections.

In about 575 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II, king of the Babylonian Empire and destroyer of the First Temple in Jerusalem, ordered the construction of a new gate in the north section of the city of Babylon, to be dedicated to the goddess Ishtar. The gate had two sections – the front gate smaller than the one behind it – and was constructed of glazed blue bricks, with bas reliefs of aurochs (young bulls) and dragons with giant cedar doors. The road leading into and out of the gate, known as the Processional Way, was lined by 50-ft.-tall walls made of glazed brick and decorated with lions and geometric designs. In an inscription plaque on the gate, Nebuchadnezzar II explained the purpose of the project: “Both gate entrances of Imgur-Ellil and Nemetti-Ellil following the filling of the street from Babylon had become increasingly lower. Therefore, I pulled down these gates and laid their foundations at the water table with asphalt and bricks and had them made of bricks with blue stone on which wonderful bulls and dragons were depicted. I covered their roofs by laying majestic cedars length-wise over them. I hung doors of cedar adorned with bronze at all the gate openings. I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that people might gaze on them in wonder.” The animals depicted on the Ishtar Gate represent various Babylonian gods. The dragons for Marduk (see image below left); the aurochs (bulls) for Adad; and the lions (see image below right) for Ishtar. Once a year, religious officials and others celebrated the beginning of the agricultural season by parading along the Processional Way and entering Babylon through the Ishtar Gate. Beginning in 1902, a German expedition led by Robert Koldewey began excavating the ruins of Babylon in Iraq and found the remains of the fabled Ishtar Gate and the processional way leading into the city. Over the next 12 years, the material was brought to Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, where the smaller, frontal portion of the gate was reconstructed using the original bricks, with the project completed in 1930. The reconstructed Ishtar Gate does not include the cedar doors. The components of the larger, second gate remain in storage.
 ishtar dragon  lion-processional-way-pergammon

152. Riace Bronzes (Riace Warriors)

Artist: Unknown
Date: Warrior No. 1: c. 460-450 BCE; Warrior No. 2: 430-420 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece: Early Classical Period
Medium: Bronze sculptures with calcite, silver and copper accessories
Dimensions: Warrior No. 1: 6.7 ft. tall. Warrior No. 2: 6.4 ft. tall
Current location: Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia, Reggio Calabria, Italy

Vacationing Roman chemist Stefano Mariottini was snorkeling off the coast of Calabria, near Riace, in 1972 when he saw an arm sticking out of the sand at the bottom of the sea.  When he touched it, he realized it was made of metal, and he called the police. Mariottini had stumbled upon two 5th Century BCE bronze statues made in Ancient Greece, in near perfect condition. How the sculptures arrived at Riace is unclear: they may have been booty from the Roman occupation of Greece, or perhaps they were being brought to a Greek temple in Italy. The two statues are named simply Statue A (dated to 460-450 BCE) and Statue B (dated to 430-430 BCE). They are prime examples of the transition period between the Archaic and early Classical styles of Greek sculpture. The statues may come from a group of statues representing the legend of the Seven Against Thebes at Argos or they may depict Athenian warriors in the Battle of Marathon monument at Delphi. Both figures are nude, bearded males portrayed in contrapposto poses with their weight on their back legs. Their eyes are made of calcite, the teeth of silver and lips and nipples of copper. They are missing their spears and shields, as well as helmets or other headgear. The sculptor has included so many realistic features that the idealized geometry and anatomical anomalies are not obvious. The images show: Statue A (above and below left); Statue B (above and below right).

153. Doryphorus (The Spear Bearer)

Artist: Polykleitos created the original Ancient Greek bronze (now lost); the identities of the artists who made the Ancient Roman marble copies are unknown.
Date: The lost Greek original is dated to c. 450-440 BCE.  The Roman marble copy in Naples dates to 120-50 BCE.
Period/Style: Ancient Greece; High Classical style
Medium: The original statue was sculpted from bronze; the copies are marble.
Dimensions: The Naples statue is 6.9 ft. tall.
Current locations: The most highly-regarded marble copy is in the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale in Naples, Italy.

In the mid-5th Century BCE, Greek sculptor Polykleitos created a bronze statue of an athletic young man carrying a spear (The Spear Bearer, or Doryphoros) which exemplifies his theory of the canon, in which each part of the human body is proportional to every other part. The figure stands in an anatomically realistic contrapposto stance, with the body in motion and all the weight on the front (right) foot. (The spear would have been in the figure’s left hand and resting on his left shoulder.) Art historian Frederick Hartt analyzes Polykleitos’s achievement as follows: “Regardless of the fact that the figure is at rest – as never before – the dynamism of the pose transforms it into an easy walk and is expressed in the musculature by means of the differentiation of flexed and relaxed shapes, producing a rich interplay of changing curves through the powerful masses of torso and limbs.” The original bronze has long been lost but it is known by the many marble copies, including a number from Ancient Rome. The copy in the Archaeological Museum in Naples is considered the best-preserved marble copy from the Roman era. It may have been found in Pompeii or Herculaneum, although there is some dispute about this. Other Ancient Roman copies include a full-size marble in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minnesota (see image below left) and a fragmentary torso in black basalt at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence (see image below right).  Random Trivia: The weight of the marble requires a carved tree trunk support at the base and a connecting rod at the wrist, neither of which would have been necessary in the much lighter bronze original.  

154. Aphrodite of Knidos

Artist: Praxiteles created the original marble statue, which has been lost. It was possibly moved to Constantinople and destroyed in a fire about 475 CE. Many copies were made, but the names of those sculptors are not known.
Date: c. 350-330 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece: Late Classical Period
Medium: Both the lost original and the Ancient Roman copies are sculpted from marble.
Dimensions: The best Roman copy, the Colonna Venus, is 6.9 ft. tall.
Current location: The Colonna Venus is in the Vatican Museums in Vatican City. The Kaufmann Head is at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.
venus-cnidus-colonna  Female head of Cnidian Aphrodite type
The lost marble statue known as Aphrodite of Knidos was considered the crowning achievement of Late Classical Greek sculptor Praxiteles. Made for a temple in the Greek city of Knidos, the marble statue is believed to have been the first life-size nude female sculpture. The goddess Aphrodite has just laid her drapery aside as she prepares for a ritual bath that will restore her purity. The figure stands in a contrapposto pose, and the statue is designed to be viewed from all sides. Famous even in the 4th Century BCE, the statue’s home of Knidos became a tourist destination. Based on descriptions of the original, scholars believe that the copy most faithful to the original is the statue known as the Colonna Venus, located in the Vatican Museums. The Kaufmann Head, now in the Louvre, is considered a very faithful marble copy of the head of Praxiteles’ original.  Random Trivia: Visitors to the Vatican Museums may now observe the Colonna Venus in her full glory, although during the 19th and early 20th centuries, in an excess of modesty, the Vatican covered Aphrodite’s legs with tin draperies (see image below). The statue was not uncovered until 1932.

155. Lion Capital of Ashoka

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 250 BCE
Period/Style: Mauryan Empire; India
Medium: Statues and reliefs carved from a single block of sandstone
Dimensions: 7 ft. tall
Current location: Archaeological Museum, Sarnath, India
lion capital
Ashoka the Great ruled (and expanded) the Mauryan Empire, which, at its peak, encompassed almost all of what is now India and Pakistan, as well as parts of current-day Iran and Afghanistan. During Ashoka’s 36-yr. reign (268-232 BCE), he erected a series of stone pillars at important Buddhist sites. The pillars average 40-50 ft. tall and weigh up to 50 tons each. Many of the pillars contain inscribed edicts and were topped with capitals in the form of carved animals, including the Lion Capital of Ashoka, which consists of four lions standing back to back on a base with an elephant, a bull, a horse, a lion and 24-spoked chariot wheels in bas relief, atop a bell-shaped lotus. Read from bottom to top, the capital contains several Buddhist symbols: the lotus and animals remind us of the cycle of samsara, which keeps souls in the material world; spoked wheels (cakras) represent the Eightfold Path to enlightenment, and the lions represent the Buddha himself, who possesses the knowledge to release souls from samsara. The four lions may also represent the spread of Dharma or the Maurya Empire in all four directions; or the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The Lion Capital is the national emblem of India, and the base on which the lions are standing is depicted on the Indian flag. 

156. Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 173-176 CE
Period/Style: Ancient Rome; Imperial Era; royal portraiture; equestrian statue
Medium: Gilded bronze equestrian statue
Dimensions: 13.9 feet tall
Current location: Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy

Once Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, pagan symbols were subject to dismantling (in the case of architecture) or melting down (in the case of bronze statues) to be reused in the service of new, Christian monuments and statues. Fortunately some ancient masterpieces survived.  The Pantheon was converted to a Christian Church, saving that paragon from destruction. The bronze statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius on horseback probably avoided being melted down because early Christians mistakenly believed it depicted Constantine, the first Christian Emperor. Scholars disagree about the date of the , which was originally fully gilded (see detail in image below, showing some remaining gilding) and placed in a public space. The emperor and the horse are not sculpted to the same scale, leading to the impression that either Marcus Aurelius is a giant or his horse is a miniature. Some believe the Emperor’s gesture is one of clemency and that the original monument included a kneeling defeated enemy, a reference to a Marcus Aurelius’s defeat of the Germans and Sarmatians for which he received a triumphant parade in 176 CE. Supporting this interpretation is the horse, which is depicted with Sarmatian blankets instead of a Roman saddle. But the lack of armor or weapons sends a message of peace, not war, which is consistent with this philosopher-emperor’s view of himself. The statue has been placed at various locations in Rome and was installed in the center of Michelangelo’s Piazza di Campidiglio in the mid-16th Century (against Michelangelo’s wishes). It remained there until 1981, when it was moved into the Capitoline Museums to protect it from the elements and replaced by a replica. 

157. Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels (Virgin and Child Enthroned)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 550-600 CE
Period/Style: Byzantine; Egypt; religious icon
Medium: Encaustic paints on prepared wood panel. (Encaustic painting involves mixing pigments with hot beeswax.)
Dimensions: 2.2 ft. tall by 1.7 ft. wide
Current location: St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt

Christian religious art from the 6th and 7th Centuries CE is very rare due to two waves of iconoclasm that swept through the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th Centuries CE. Iconoclasts believed that images of Christian religious figures were heretical, and they destroyed untold numbers of artworks. Fortunately for us, the iconoclasts did not reach St. Catherine’s Monastery, which is isolated in the Egyptian desert, nestled at the base of Mt. Sinai. Many rare religious icons and illustrated manuscripts, including the 6th Century icon Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels, have been preserved at St. Catherine’s. The icon depicts two soldier saints (George and Theodore), feet planted firmly on the ground and staring blankly forward, flanking the Virgin Mary, who holds the baby Jesus on her lap. Behind them, two other angels, with near transparent haloes, stare in awe at the hand of God reaching down from heaven, sending a shaft of holy light onto Mary and her son, who look off to the right, failing to meet our gaze. The viewer’s eye is drawn first to the soldiers (the most ordinary and most like us), then to the central Virgin and Jesus, and up to the second set of angels, who direct our gaze to the hand of God, thus showing the believer the path to salvation.

158. Descent of the Ganges (Arjuna’s Penance)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 650 CE
Period/Style: Pallava Dynasty; reign of Narasimhavarman I
Medium: Relief sculptures in two pink granite boulders separated by a fissure
Dimensions: At 43 ft. tall by 96 ft. wide, this is one of the largest relief sculptures in the world.
Current location: Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India

The enormous bas relief at Mahabalipuram in India includes over 100 figures, many of them life size, representing humans, animals, Hindu gods and other mythological figures. Many scholars believe the sculptures depict the story of the descent of the holy river Ganges at the order of Shiva, with Bhagiratha leading the way. Under this interpretation, the emaciated figure shown doing penance outside his hermitage is Bhagiratha (see detail in image below). A half-snake/half-man figure in the fissure may represent the spirit of the Ganges. The remains of a cistern have been found atop the fissure that was used to create a waterfall effect supports the Descent of the Ganges interpretation, Others believe the carvings tell the story of Arjuna, one of the major protagonists of the Mahabharata, performing a penance in order to obtain a weapon called the Pashupatastra from Lord Shiva. Some have theorized that the sculptors intended to depict both legends. As Edward Fosmire points out, the reliefs contain many amusing and fantastic elements that provide an entry point into the complex mythology for uninitiated viewers. In 1984, UNESCO designated the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, including the reliefs known as Descent of the Ganges reliefs, as a World Heritage Site.

159. Early Spring

Artist: Guo Xi
Date: c. 1072
Period/Style: Northern Song Dynasty, China; monumental landscape painting
Medium: Ink and color on silk scroll
Dimensions: 5.2 ft. tall by 3.5 ft. wide
Current location: National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
Guo Xi was a master 11th Century Chinese painter and highly-educated court professional. He wrote an influential treatise on painting entitled The Lofty Message of Forest and Streams and developed a new system of brushstrokes that was adopted by many succeeding painters. His 1072 masterpiece, Early Spring, is a monumental landscape, the most common type of painting in the Northern Song dynasty. Guo signed and dated the work, which was very unusual. Although at first, the painting appears to contain only trees, water, clouds, rocks and various land formations, on closer inspection, the landscape reveals not only a temple and several other buildings, but also various human figures (see detail in image below). Early Spring is an example of Guo’s innovative technique known as floating perspective (or as Guo called it, “the angle of totality”), which allows the artist to present multiple visual viewpoints simultaneously. In 1759, Emperor Qianlong added a poem to the upper right portion of the painting, with verses describing the scene below.

160. Stained Glass, Chartres Cathedral

Artists: Unknown
Dates: 1145-1180; 1200-1235
Period/Style: Medieval period; Romanesque and French Gothic styles 
Medium: Stained glass
Dimensions: 167 windows of varying sizes
Current location: Chartres, France
chartres stained glass 2  
Nearly every window in Chartres Cathedral is filled with stained glass. This decision by the designers of the church has resulted in a darker than usual interior (in other churches, some windows are filled with clear glass, which improves lighting inside but detracts from the effect of the stained glass), but has produced the most spectacular collection of stained glass ever seen. For much of the cathedral’s history, the multicolored light filtering through these stained glass windows was the primary light source for the interior. Despite weather, wars and revolutions, 152 of the original windows are intact. Construction of Chartres Cathedral took place in 1145, but a fire in 1194 destroyed much of the older building and required an almost complete reconstruction during the early 13th Century. The majority of the stained glass windows visible today were made and installed between 1200 and 1235, but four lancet windows contain stained glass from c. 1145-1160, including three windows underneath the rose window in the west facade: the Passion window to the south, the Infancy of Christ window in the center and the Tree of Jesse window to the north. The fourth pre-1194 window is known as The Blue Virgin, in the south ambulatory. The subjects depicted in these windows include stories from the Old and New Testament, the lives of the saints as well as typological cycles, signs of the zodiac, labors of the months and other symbols. In addition to the many tall, thin lancet windows, the cathedral boasts three large circular rose windows. The images show:
(1) (top) The north transept rose window (34.4 ft. in diameter), which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the center (the oculus) sit the Virgin and Child, who are surrounded by 12 small oval windows, four of them depicting doves symbolizing the four gifts of the spirit, and the rest showing angels with candles. The lancet windows below the rose show Saint Anne (in the center) and Old Testament kings Saul, David, and Solomon. 
(2) (above left) Detail from the Good Samaritan window, a typological lancet window, in which God warns Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
(3) (above right) Detail from a clerestory window depicting the burial of St. Mary by Zosimus, with help from a lion.
(4) (below) Detail from The Blue Virgin window, from 1194.