Thank You…

Dear readers,

I have thoroughly enjoyed blogging about art history every week for this year and I hope that you, as readers, have enjoyed reading my posts. Art history is one of my favorite subjects to learn about. I think that it is so interesting and intriguing to have remnants from the past. Sometimes these remnants come in tiny little pieces, fragile and incomplete, while other times, they come in a complete, well-preserved form. Either way, I think that it is amazing how much these anachronisms can reveal about the past (i.e. how people in the past lived, the accomplishments they celebrated, the sorrows they commemorated, the people and gods they respected and revered, etc.).

At first, I was new to blogging. I rarely read or followed blogs and I had certainly never blogged myself. The blogging world was a foreign place. I quickly learned about how to work WordPress and developed and acquired blogging skills. At the beginning, it took me a while to come up with ideas and write each blog post. Then, as I gained more experience in blogging, the process became quicker and more natural. I would easily pick my favorite works of art, artworks that interested me, or works that I knew little about and wanted to learn more about. I deliberately covered several styles of art and I tried to write several posts about famous works such as the Mona Lisa. I also tried very hard to make each post as interesting as I could, by adding pictures, each accompanied with captions, by including hyperlinks, and sometimes videos relating to that artwork or artist.

I would also like to thank all my readers for putting in the time to read each blog post, sometimes commenting on the artwork, and often linking my blog posts to theirs. I regularly read your blogs and I really enjoyed your posts. So… thank you!

I have a true passion for art history and I hope to have shared it with you. I have thoroughly enjoyed writing about each week and I hope that you have enjoyed reading about it as well.

Mary Cassatt: The Bath

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was a very well-known and well respected female Impressionist artist. Cassatt was heavily influenced by Edgar Degas, and she often exhibited her works alongside his. She was an American artist who later moved to Paris to study French and Italian masterworks. Because she was a woman, Cassatt could not frequent cafés like men could. Thus, she painted very different subject matters, often women and children. Cassatt’s The Bath is a good example of her works.

Mary Cassatt, The Bath, 1892

In The Bath, shows a mother taking care of her child, washing the child’s feet. The consolidation and solidity of the figures of the mother and of the child greatly contrasts the flowery designs in the foreground and in the background. In this painting, it is evident that Cassatt drew from Degas’ influence in its composition as well as from the influence of Japanese prints in its blocks of pastel colors. However, the painting’s design and the painting as a whole is very original.

One part of the painting that stands out to me is the mother’s dress. I love the design and color of it, but I also think that it is too long. It is so long that it makes the mother look like she has very long legs… at least very long thighs. You can see where her legs bend and where her knees start (the child’s hand is also placed at her knee) and to me her thighs seem too long…

I really love this painting (yes, I am aware that I say that a lot!). I think that the pastel colors that she chose, the act that she chose to depict, as well as the domestic setting of the painting really emphasize the tenderness and the breadth of a mother’s love and care for her child. By looking at this painting, I can almost feel the mother’s love for her child.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Le Moulin de la Galette

One of the things that came with the modernization and industrialization of Paris was an increase in leisure activities, such as dancing, dining, café-concerts, ballet, opera, etc. Although they seem unrelated, industrialization led to set work hours and schedules, giving workers in Paris more time to participate in urban recreational activities. Thus, one of the subjects of Impressionist paintings is a French social gathering.

This is exactly what Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) chose to depict in his painting, Le Moulin de la Galette.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le Moulin de la Galette, 1876

In this scene, Renoir depicted crowds of Parisians gathered at a popular dance hall, Le Moulin de la Galette. It is a very lively atmosphere, with people dancing and music playing. People are dressed in elegant, high-class attire.

Renoir also paints what the Impressionists are renowned for— light. He dabbles this energetic scene with sunlight here and there, as if the light was leaking through the leaves of the trees. This effect of floating light enhances the Impressionists’ message of capturing a precise and fleeting moment.

I really love this Renoir painting. I think that the details he chose to include are so clever and that this painting effectively conveys the ambiance of the scene. Because the figures are not posed and are in casual placement, and the space in the painting is fluid and continuous, Renoir makes me, the viewer, feel like I am a part of the scene. Just by looking at this painting, I can hear the music in the background, the chatter and the laughter in the crowd, the tinkling glasses, and I can feel the spots of sun and the spots of shade outside.

This painting also has an indescribable quality, it has that je ne sais quoi factor. It is a classic Impressionist painting.

* For the post on Renoir’s perspective on painting, click here.

Claude Monet: Impressionism

One of my most favorite art styles, that is a relatively modern one, is Impressionism. Impressionism was an art of industrialized and urbanized Paris and it was a reaction to transformation of French life caused by modernity and technology. Impressionist artists seek to capture a fleeting moment in their works, representing the elusiveness and impermanence of that moment and of the conditions.

Undoubtedly, the best known Impressionist painter is Claude Monet (1840-1926). Monet’s work, Impression: Sunrise, is what launched off the Impressionism style and what coined the name for this style.

Claude Monet, Impression: Sunrise, 1872

A hostile critic, upon seeing the work, denounced it. He claimed that that painting only gave him an impression of a sunrise because of its sketchy and blurry qualities. Although the term was supposed to be a derogatory one, it caught on. By the third Impressionist art show, the artists embraced and welcomed this term and began to call themselves Impressionists! (Obviously, what the art critic had intended backfired!) I personally really like Monet’s Impression: Sunrise. I think that it is a very artistic representation of a sunrise and that the sketchy quality and the evident brushstrokes are what make this painting so distinctive and so beautiful.

Another aspect that makes Monet’s work so unique is his study and depiction of light. Monet’s way of painting light is very different from that of Rembrandt or Tanner in several different ways. First, Monet usually painted outdoors, where sunlight abounds. Monet not only depicts light, he studies it. Monet is known to have painted countless paintings of the same subject at various times during the day to study the effect of light on that object at particular moments. One such example is his study using the Rouen Cathedral in France.

Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral: The Portal (in the Sun), 1894

In the series of the Rouen Cathedral, Monet painted over forty paintings. They all depict the cathedral from the exact same viewpoint, but just a different times of the day and at during different weather conditions. In Rouen Cathedral: The Portal (in Sun), it is obvious (even just by the title) that Monet depicted the cathedral drenched in sunlight. The title also suggests that the main subject of the painting is not necessarily the Rouen cathedral, which Monet only depicts a part of, but light itself. I think that the visual effects of this painting are so impressive. The image of the cathedral is so blurred and sketchy yet so precise— all of its identifying characteristics are there. And Monet depicted sunlight so accurately.

Monet is also known to study light using something a little more low-key: haystacks. Although the subject matter is different, the purpose of the paintings is still the same: to study the effect of light. Below are a couple of Monet’s paintings of haystacks…

Claude Monet, Grainstacks at Giverny, Sunset, 1888-1889

Claude Monet, Grainstacks, White Frost Effect, 1889

As I mentioned earlier, Impressionism was a reaction to the transformation of France due to modernization and industrialization. Monet’s painting, Saint-Lazare Train Station, is a prime example of this.

Claude Monet, Saint-Lazare Train Station, 1877

It depicts the contemporary Parisian urban scene. Train stations were a significant aspect of Paris because they brought so many people in and out of the city. In the painting, the train is emitting smoke and steaming towards the viewer, embodying the speed and energy of technology. There are also buildings in the background that add to the urban scene in Paris. The agitated people at the train station give a sense of the busy, fast-paced city life.

Although Monet’s paintings are not necessarily geometrically precise or naturalistically accurate, such as many of the Neoclassical paintings (which were another personal favorite of mine), I really do love that particular quality that his works exude. Monet’s works to me seem to be spontaneous, abbreviated, and, in the sense of a fleeting moment, speedy. I think that these qualities are a result of the sketchy characteristic of his paintings and the evident brushstrokes. Regardless of what critics then and critics today think, Monet has truly left a long-lasting legacy as an artist.

Henry Ossawa Tanner: The Thankful Poor

The Realist artistic movement also made its way to America. A well-known African American Realist painter is Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). Tanner first studied under another American Realist painter, Thomas Eakins, before moving to Paris. There, he mixed Eakins careful observation of nature with his desire to paint the dignity of ordinary people, especially since he was the son of a Pennsylvanian minister.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Thankful Poor, 1894

In The Thankful Poor, Tanner depicts a grandfather and a grandchild giving thanks before a meal. He focused on the people and the main objects in the room, painting them with great detail, while everything else blends in with the light and brushstrokes in the painting. The warm and expressive light that Tanner paints with helps to enhance the spiritual quality of the painting. The bright light shining on the young boy’s face illustrates the boy’s concentration, devotion, and thankfulness. Within a few years of painting The Thankful Poor, Tanner began painting even more religious scenes, often depicting biblical figures.

I really love this painting by Tanner. I can really feel the mood of quiet devotion that he sought to portray. To me, scenes of the poor giving thanks are always very touching and genuine. (To see another painting about the poor giving thanks, check out Saying Grace by Chardin.) And the light Tanner paints with reminds me of that of Rembrandt’s.

Gustave Courbet: The Stone Breakers

During the nineteenth century in France, a new style, Realism, emerged, against a backdrop of scientific development. Realists focused on the sights of everyday contemporary life, and often tended to paint subjects that historically no one took interest in. Realists often depicted the mundane and the trivial, such as the working-class, laborers, and poor peasants.

One of the leading French Realists was Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and one of his best known works is The Stone Breakers.

Gustave Courbet, The Stone Breakers, 1849

In The Stone Breakers, Courbet depicts stone breakers as his subjects. This job was traditionally done by the lowest class in society. In his painting, he depicts two men, one relatively old (right) and the other quite young (left). By juxtaposing these two men, Courbet suggests that those who are born into poverty remain poor their entire lives. Courbet also accurately depicted their workplace. He did not sugarcoat anything. He truthfully painted the merciless soil and the harsh working conditions of the stone breakers. Courbet’s color palette of grays, whites, and browns, effectively conveys the dreary, monotonous, and mechanical nature of their work.

The sudden interest in depicting the lives of the poor and of the lower classes in society is not random. In 1848, French laborers rebelled against the bourgeois, demanding better pay and improved working conditions. Although this rebellion was put down by the army within three days, it led to large losses of life and had a significant impact on French society. Labor became a big national concern and workers were placed on center stage. In this regard, Courbet’s The Stone Breakers, painted just a year afterwards, is very à propos.

Below are a couple other favorite Realist paintings of mine…

Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners, 1857

Winslow Homer, Veteran in a New Field, 1865

American Landscape Painting: Hudson River School

I think that landscape paintings are really underrated. People don’t as much enough credit to landscape paintings and landscape painters as they deserve. I personally love landscape paintings. I think that good ones do a great job portraying the grandeur of nature and really show the love and respect that the artist has for that particular landscape. I have already written a blog post on Dutch landscape painting in the seventeenth century. So this post is about American landscape painting, namely the Hudson River School in the nineteenth century.

The Hudson River School was so named because most of the artists drew inspiration from and painted the uncultivated Hudson River Valley of the state of the New York. However, these artists also painted landscapes from all around the United States. Like previous landscape artists from different countries, the Hudson River School painters depicted the vastness and romanticism in the American landscapes. They also explored the personal relationship between an individual and nature and the qualities that set the American landscape apart from the rest.

Another subject that was frequently addressed was the moral question of America’s direction as a civilization. This subject surfaced in Thomas Cole’s (1801-1848) The Oxbow (View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm).

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow (View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm), 1836

In this painting, Cole depicts America’s vast wilderness. The scene is split into two. On the left, there is a gloomy thunderstorm passing while the right side is more civil and tranquil. The artist depicted himself in the bottom center, wearing a top hat. He faces the viewer as if to personally ask the viewer about America’s future direction.

Here’s a zoomed-in view of the artist in the painting…

Other Hudson River School painters used their works to address other topics, such as Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) in his painting, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California.

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 1868

In 1858, Bierstadt traveled west in the United States and painted scenes of very dramatic landscapes, such as Among the Sierra Nevada, California. This painting itself is huge (it is over ten feet wide!) and is a breathtaking panoramic view of the mountains. There are deer and waterfowl by the calm and peaceful lake. To add to that magical and spiritual feeling, the sun rises among the clouds and mountains and glows warmly. I think that the scenery that Bierstadt painted embodies the vastness and beauty of nature.

It’s not a coincidence that Bierstadt chose to paint a scene of the American West. By doing so, he is supporting the idea of the Manifest Destiny, which justifies American expansion to the West. These paintings of the West’s splendor were meant to calm worries about the realities of the West, such as the displacement of Native Americans and the exploitation and destruction of the environment. Unsurprisingly, those who were most eager to purchase Bierstadt’s works were people like railroad builders, who were very involved in encouraging westward expansion.

Another very famous artist who is usually associated with the Hudson River School is Frederic Church (1826-1900). Although he also painted landscape paintings, what sets him apart from the other Hudson River School artists is that he would often travel abroad to paint landscapes outside of the United States as well. For instance, he traveled to and painted places such as Europe, Mexico, the Middle East, and Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. One of his paintings of the American landscape is Twilight in the Wilderness.

Frederic Church, Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860s

Like the other landscape painters, Church paints a panoramic view depicting nature’s beauty and majesty. I particularly love his blend of colors, so beautiful and so dramatic. In this sense, in Church’s depiction of the sublime, his painting and style is done very much in the Romantic style.

I think that it’s also important to note what these Hudson River School painters did not depict in their works. These artists produced many works during the 1860s (such as Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California and Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness), when the United States was right in the midst of the Civil War. Yet, none of them displayed turbulence or disaccord in their paintings. They all chose to focus on the beauty, serenity, and awesomeness of nature. And by painting such idealistic and comforting landscapes of nature, these artists played a huge role in constructing such a picture in the minds of many Americans.

In spite of the ulterior motives and messages of these painters, I still really love the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School. I think that it’s easy for anyone to understand or relate to painting that depict human figures but someone who is able to appreciate and embrace landscape paintings really has a true understanding of art and art history.

John Constable: The Haywain

One of the most defining moments in Western history was the Industrial Revolution. Although it is usually discussed in the context of its development of technological advances, the revolution had a huge impact on the agrarian economy, caused prices of goods to decrease and led to much unrest in the countryside. John Constable (1776-1837) addressed this in his painting, The Haywain.

John Constable, The Haywain, 1821

In The Haywain, Constable depicted a serene scene of the English countryside. A cottage sits to the left of the painting. In the foreground, there is a man leading his horse and wagon across the stream. He is not merely an observer of nature, he actively participates in it. The clouds float lazily across the pale blue sky and among the green trees. Constable’s choice of color palette and his brush work in the painting adds to its feeling of tranquility.

Another aspect of the painting that adds to its feeling of tranquility is what Constable deliberately chose not to depict— the unrest in the countryside due to the falling prices of farm products, caused by the technological developments of the Industrial Revolution.

I absolutely love this painting. Beyond the technical skills of the artist, the work of art depicts such a peaceful and tranquil scene. I really love the ambience of the simple and old-fashioned country life that Constable was able to create. This paintings gives me such a nostalgic and wistful feeling, yearning for pre-Industrial Revolution times.

Francisco Goya: The Third of May

One of my favorite paintings is The Third of May by Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), better known as Francisco Goya, which documents a tragic event in history.

Before the discussion of the painting, I want to provide some historical context, as it is crucial to understanding works of art for the purpose of art history. During the early nineteenth century, Spaniards became increasingly dissatisfied with the rule of Charles IV and Maria Luisa and threw their support behind Ferdinand VII, the son of the king and queen. To overthrow his parents, Ferdinand VII called for the help of Napoleon Bonaparte, without knowing that Napoleon had plans to rule Spain himself by installing his brother as king. After a victorious overthrow of the king and queen, Napoleon revealed his plans of domination.

When the Spanish realized Napoleon ulterior motives, they responded by attacking the French soldiers in France on May 2, 1808. To assert their authority and military superiority, French soldiers mercilessly killed countless Spaniards the following day, on May 3, 1808. This is the day that Goya documented in arguably his most famous work.

Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808

In this painting, Goya skillfully contrasted the French and the Spaniards in many ways. He depicted the French firing squad faceless, anonymous, merciless, and inhumane. On the other hand, he painted the face of the Spaniard in white with great detail, particularly his expression of anguish. The two are also contrasted with light and dark. The Spaniard in white raises his arms in a manner that is reminiscent of Jesus’ crucifixion. In addition to depicting a Spaniard who is about to be executed, Goya also included a pile of dead Spanish bodies and a group of Spaniards who are next in line.

I think this painting is a true masterpiece, and that it is often underrated. It is obvious that the painting was carefully planned. For instance, the bright light cast on the Spaniard and the direction of the rifles of the French firing squad clearly indicate that the Spaniard is the focal point (even though this realization may be completely subconscious to an oblivious viewer). I really like this painting because not only is it skillfully executed, but Goya also effectively used the formal qualities of painting and composition to heighten the dramatic effect of this painting and enhance the message he wanted to communicate.

To learn more about this painting, I highly recommend watching this video. It does a good job of providing more historical context, dissecting the formal aspects of the painting, and allowing the viewer to better understand and appreciate Goya’s work.

Jean-Antoine Houdon vs. Horatio Greenough: George Washington

Throughout history, artists often sculpt the statue of significant historical figures, such as leaders, generals, heroes, etc. One such example is George Washington, the first president of the United States and the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental army during America’s Revolutionary War. There are two particular George Washington statues that I want to talk about. They are very different aesthetically, although both statues were rendered in the Neoclassical style. One statue is by French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), and the other is American artist by Horatio Greenough (1805-1852).

After the Revolutionary War in the eighteenth century, Neoclassicism became the preferred style of art for the new American republic because this style embodied all the Classical and Enlightenment ideals that America stood by. So, the eighteenth-century Neoclassic sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon was when the Virginia legislature wanted to commission a life-size statue of one of their most famous and most significant natives, George Washington.

Jean-Antoine Houdon, George Washington, 1791-1792

Although Washington is dressed in contemporary attire, Houdon deliberately included several references to the Roman Republic. The “column” that Washington leans on is actually what is known as a fasces, made up of a bundle of thirteen rods with an attached axe. The fasces was an ancient Roman symbol of authority. The fasces is made up of thirteen rods, representing each of the original thirteen states in America. There is also a plow behind Washington, an allusion to a Roman patrician, Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus was elected a dictator during a period of war in the Roman Republic and when the war was over, he chose to resign and return to his farm life. Washington also wears a badge of the Society of Cincinnati, a group founded for officers in America’s revolutionary army who resumed and returned to their peacetime roles, right below the bottom of his waistcoat.

The other sculpture of Washington is that by Horatio Greenough.

Horatio Greenough, George Washington, 1840

Although the two renditions of Washington look drastically different, both are done in the Neoclassical style. After Washington’s death, his contributions and significance to his country led him to acquire an almost god-like stature. In 1840, the United States Congress commission American sculptor Horatio Greenough to create a statue of “the father of the country.” Greenough used Houdon’s Washington as a model for his statue’s face, but that is where the similarities end. Greenough depicts Washington, with a bare chest in ancient Greek attire. His version of Washington is reminiscent of the lost statue of Zeus made by Phidias for the temple at Olympia in ancient Greece.*

The public did not respond positively to Greenough’s enthroned Washington. Not even Congress liked it. In fact, one congressman even suggested that the statue be thrown in the Potomac River! Although the statue was never thrown in the river (thankfully! …or unfortunately, depending on how you see it…!), it was also never place in its intended spot under the Capitol dome.

Between these two versions, I prefer Houdon’s more traditional sculpture. Although I commend Greenough for his creativity and originality, I personally could never picture a president in this kind of attire! I wouldn’t be able to take it seriously and I can understand Congress’ disapproval of it. Although both sculptures are skillfully rendered, I much prefer the more traditional, more serious, and more valiant version of America’s leader.

* Notice the resemblance between Greenough’s sculpture of Washington and the lost sculpture of Zeus…(this sculpture is taken from the Disney movie Hercules)