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