Category Archives: Art

Sometimes You Get Lucky

Mapamundi (1526), Hispanic Society of America, New York

Mapamundi (1526), Hispanic Society of America

“Did you come to see the map?”

Actually, until the moment he asked us that question, we hadn’t been aware of the existence of this particular map.  Truth be told, it hadn’t been all that long that we’d even been aware of the existence of the Hispanic Society of America in New York City, which is where we were.

But when the librarian there asked us that question, Sally and I exchanged a quick glance and then responded, “Yes, please.”

The real reason we had taken the subway up to the Washington Heights neighborhood on the northern end of Manhattan was to see some large-format paintings by the Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla.  Somehow I had stumbled onto the information that the Hispanic Society had commissioned Sorolla to produce these works early in the twentieth century.  We like Sorolla’s paintings, so we thought we’d go check them out.

By the way, the Hispanic Society of America was the brainchild, if that’s the word, of a man named Archer Huntington, the heir to a railroad fortune.  He had envisioned this project as a museum and reference library devoted to the arts and culture of Spain, Portugal and Latin America.

“All right, if you’ll follow me,” the librarian said, and took us into a reading room.  It was occupied by two or three researchers sitting at wooden tables; they were studying historical documents and stealing an occasional glance at us, trying to figure out, I suppose, what the heck these two tourists were doing there.

The librarian indicated where we should stand.  He then raised a cloth curtain that was protecting the map.  One thing we could tell right away was that the map was very, very old.

In fact, it had been made in 1526 by Juan Vespucci, the nephew of Amerigo Vespucci, and depicted the known world at a time when a lot of the world still wasn’t known.  For instance, North America (Amerigo’s namesake), ended at about the Mississippi River, and Vespucci had depicted a giant Spanish galleon in the middle of an imaginary ocean which we now know is the left side of the South American continent.

Still, it was pretty cool to be standing in front of a map that is almost five hundred years old.  There’s a vivid splash of red in the map; I leaned in to see what it was.  Evidently Vespucci was a cartographer with a sense of humor: the red streak was the Red Sea.

We took our time looking at the map, thanked the librarian, and wandered into other rooms.  We found the Sorolla murals that had drawn us here, and all by themselves they would have been worth the trip from midtown up to Broadway and 155th.

But the Hispanic Society of America also has a gallery with paintings by Goya, El Greco, Diego Velázquez, Ribera, Francisco de Zurbarán and other notables.  There were literally millions of dollars’ worth of paintings being displayed rather casually, I thought.  But they probably aren’t at much risk, since it seems that hardly anyone knows they’re there.

That’s the fun of taking these little off-the-beaten-path adventures.  They don’t always reward you, but sometimes — as in this case — you get lucky.


Picture Perfect

Las Meninas, by Diego Velazquez (1656) -- Museo del Prado, Madrid

Las Meninas, by Diego Velazquez (1656) — Museo del Prado, Madrid

There is a lot of suffering in the Prado, and I’m not referring to how your feet feel after walking for hours through Madrid’s world-class art museum.  The collection includes Goya’s famous Third of May 1808, which depicts Napoleon’s soldiers firing point-blank into a group of captured rebels.  The Triumph of Death, by Pieter Bruegel, isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy.  The Prado has many images of the crucified Christ, too — a popular theme for artists during the Counter-Reformation.

But pain and suffering are by no means all that the Prado has to offer; there are also portraits and landscapes and genre scenes that are likely to evoke appreciative smiles.  Foremost among these is a towering artistic achievement located in room 12 of the Museo Nacional del Prado:  Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez.

The late Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, included it on his short list of the greatest works of Western Civilization.  Australian art historian Lisa Beaven wrote, “This painting has been described as the most over-interpreted painting in the history of art.”  It is certainly among the most widely admired by art experts.  (Las Meninas is reproduced above; click on it to look more closely, then hit the “back” button to return to the text.)

So what’s the big deal about it?  At first glance, you see an elaborately dressed little girl who appears to be about five years old.  She’s being fussed over by a couple of ladies-in-waiting, or “meninas”.  But why is the painting named for them?  They don’t seem to be the subject matter; in fact they’re almost the only people in the painting who aren’t looking straight at… whoa.

Most of the people, and maybe even the dog, are looking straight at the viewer of the painting.  You.

It’s as if you just stepped into this room in the royal palace, interrupting whatever it was they were doing.  There’s a painter on the left — it’s Diego Velázquez himself, who probably didn’t look this young when he painted Las Meninas in 1656; he was in his late 50s by then.

Anyway, Velázquez has an enormous canvas he’s working on, but he can’t be painting the Infanta Margarita (that’s the little girl’s name) or her entourage, because they would be facing him, not us.

As you study the painting for clues, you notice a couple reflected in the mirror on the back wall.  They are the king, Philip IV, and Queen Mariana.  OK, so is that a reflection of the canvas — a portrait of the royal couple that Velázquez has basically finished?  Or… are the king and queen currently posing for him, in effect standing in the space we occupy?  If that’s the case, that suggests that we are seeing the room through the eyes of the monarch.

That might also explain all the activity around the Infanta Margarita.  As art historian Lois Fichner-Rathus speculates, “Is the princess being given a few finishing touches before joining her parents in a family portrait?”  In other words, is she about to be placed in the space we occupy?

That’s what is so fascinating about Las Meninas:  in a sense, the viewer completes the picture.  Not to brag, but one day in the Prado, I was the star of that painting just by standing in front of it.  Then I reluctantly stepped out of the way and let a German tourist have his moment of glory in one of history’s greatest paintings.

Expensive Souvenirs

Canaletto, Piazza San Marco (1720s) -- Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Canaletto, Piazza San Marco (1720s) — Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

“My uncle did the Grand Tour and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”

No one actually wore that, since the custom of printing slogans on clothing didn’t exist in the 18th century.  Besides, for the individuals who went on the Grand Tour, coming home with reasonably priced mementos would be considered disgraceful.

After completing their formal education, young aristocrats went off to see the sights of the European continent, a journey that could last from several months to several years.  The general goals of the Grand Tour were to get a closeup look at the cultural treasures of western civilization, improve language skills, make contact with fashionable society in other countries, and spend a big chunk of one’s inheritance.

Grand Tourists eventually went home with trunks full of books, ancient coins, furniture and artwork.  Among the most prized souvenirs of the Grand Tour were paintings of Venice by an artist known as Canaletto.

His real name was Giovanni Antonio Canal, which is fitting for a man born and raised in Venice, a city famous for its canals.  You might say Canaletto painted portraits of places: the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s, the Rialto and other landmarks of Venice.

There was a lot of architectural detail in his scenes, but his paintings were more than just giant postcards.  Canaletto had an eye for cloud textures, too, and the effects of shadows and daylight.  As an art dealer in 1725 said of his work, “you can see the sun shining in it.”

Demand for Canaletto’s work grew quickly, and he did his best to accommodate it.  At that point he didn’t have any real competitors, which may have been a factor in his reputation for being difficult.  A patron named Owen MacSwinney wrote in 1727 that anyone who wanted to commission a painting by Canaletto “must not seem to be too fond of it, for he’l (sic) be ye worse treated for it, both in the price and the painting too.”

Canaletto may have had to adjust his prices downward in 1740, because the Grand Tourists abruptly stopped coming.  Something called the War of the Austrian Succession had most European countries fighting on one side or the other.  The rich guys thought it prudent to confine their touring to the manicured grounds of their own estates.

By 1746, Canaletto succumbed to a suggestion by a British consular official that, since the buyers weren’t coming to Venice, he should go to them.  Canaletto stayed in England for ten years, cranking out paintings of bridges and buildings and grand houses.  In general, these works aren’t as admired as his Venetian views, partly because an artist whose strength is painting the effects of sunlight might be hampered by the comparative absence of sunlight in England.

Upon his return to Venice Canaletto continued painting his favorite subject until his death in 1768.  By then he had inspired other artists to adopt his style, notably Francesco Guardi, who presumably made a nice living when the Grand Tourists returned.

Canaletto sold well over 500 paintings in his lifetime.  King George III of England bought a bunch of them in 1762; the Royal Collection has over 50 paintings and 140 drawings, making it the greatest collection of Canalettos in the world.

My travel souvenirs do not include any Canalettos, but I do have a pretty nice collection of coffee mugs from airport gift shops.  What treasures have you brought home from your “Grand Tour”?

Fooling the Eye

The cushions were a lot less comfortable than they look.

The cushions were a lot less comfortable than they look.

It’s probably not giving away a show-business secret to point out that the view from Frasier’s living room was not the actual skyline of Seattle.  The television show was filmed in Hollywood, so what was “outside” the window was a massive backdrop, called a translight, that had a photographic reproduction of the skyline of Seattle.  There was a daytime version of it and a nighttime version, but it was all inside Stage 25 at Paramount Studios.

Backdrops like that have been used in movies and television since the earliest days; set designers, Directors of Photography and technicians have been creating illusions of Canterbury and Casablanca for a long time.

Artists have been at it even longer in painting, sculpture and architecture, reproducing objects so faithfully that we’re tricked into thinking we’re seeing the real thing, at least for a moment.  According to Encyclopædia Britannica, an ancient Greek artist named Zeuxis “reportedly painted such realistic grapes that birds tried to eat them.”

This technique is known to the art world as trompe l’oeil, a French expression that literally means “fool the eye”.  To use its correct French pronunciation, it should sound like someone is trying to stuff a towel in your mouth while you say “trawmp-loy”.

Fairly common trompe l’oeil images include portraits of people whose elbows or heads seem to be protruding out of the frame.  Actual windows in old buildings are sometimes bordered by faux drapes.  The trick, of course, is to create a three-dimensional effect on a two-dimensional surface.

Seventeenth and 18th-century artists like Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Andrea Pozzo did spectacular ceiling frescoes in churches and palaces; often the illusion they created was that the top of the building was open to the sky.  (That effect didn’t work very well on rainy days.)

Pozzo was responsible for one of the most impressive examples of large-scale trompe l’oeil I’ve seen.  The Sant’Ignazio Church in Rome not only has three-dimensional saints seemingly circling overhead, Pozzo painted an incredibly realistic “dome” on the flat ceiling.  There’s a spot on the floor where you put your feet to get the maximum deceptive effect, and it’s so perfectly rendered, you’d swear that you’re looking at the inside of a dome.

Working on a much smaller scale, the 19th-century American still-life painter William Harnett was a master at creating illusions of everyday objects like musical instruments, envelopes — even bank notes.  Harnett was so good at making convincing reproductions of money, in 1886 he was arrested for counterfeiting.

In recent years there has been a lot of trompe l’oeil work in public spaces.  There are office buildings painted with ultra-realistic (but fake) balconies and other architectural embellishments.  There are trompe l’oeil pools in the middle of sidewalks, and statues that sure look like they are carved out of marble — nope, they’re painted on a flat surface.

Several months ago, the technique was even used in the interior of certain New York City subway cars (see photo, and click to enlarge).  Oh — and in case your eye is so fooled that you can’t tell, the man is real but the books are not.

The Two Careers of Samuel Morse

Samuel F.B. Morse, Self-Portrait (1812 -- he was 21) National Portrait Gallery, Washington

Samuel F.B. Morse, Self-Portrait (1812 — he was 21)  National Portrait Gallery, Washington

We can only imagine what Jedidiah Morse thought when his son Samuel announced, “Dad, I’ve decided to become an artist.”  There is no historical record of how that conversation went, so we don’t know if the father snarled, “What!?  You have any idea what it cost to put you through Yale?  You were Phi Beta Kappa — and now you want to throw all that away?”

As an occupation, artist was not a common road to riches in early 19th-century America (still isn’t, for that matter).  Young Samuel Finley Breese Morse went off to study painting in England, though, and when he returned in 1815, he managed to support himself despite the widespread lack of interest in the kind of historical subjects he personally favored.

The only real market was portraits, and let’s give him credit — Morse cranked out good ones.  He painted former president John Adams and was commissioned to do a portrait of president James Monroe, as well as Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis de Lafayette.  By 1826, Morse had become the presiding officer of the National Academy of Design.

Jedidiah Morse died that same year, and he probably went out saying to anyone who would listen, “Didn’t I tell you my son had talent?  I always knew he’d make me proud.”  What dad never knew was that his son would gain far greater fame, but not as an artist.

Samuel went back to Europe in 1830 to sharpen his painting skills, but on the return voyage in 1832, Morse met a fellow passenger who was talking about electromagnetism.  Those conversations inspired Morse; he saw the possibility of using pulses of electric current to send messages over wires.

It isn’t quite accurate to say that Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph, since crude versions of it had been around for almost a hundred hears.  In 1746, for example, a French scientist named Nollet got a couple hundred monks into a giant circle and wired them together.  When he discharged electricity from Leyden jars, those monks got the shocking message.

Anyway, Morse did come up with his single-wire telegraph in the mid-1830s, but the challenge was getting a signal to travel more than a few hundred yards.  He got help on that from New York University chemistry professor Leonard Gale; Morse was teaching art at NYU at the time.  Gale and Morse figured out how to put relays into the system, allowing telegraphic impulses to be sent over long distances.

Those signals were developed into a code so that their meaning could be interpreted.  Morse worked on this with a machinist named Alfred Vail.  Historians agree that Morse never, ever said, “I couldn’t have done it without you, Alfred.  Let’s call it ‘The Vail Code’ .”

The first public demonstration of Morse’s telegraph was on May 24, 1844, when a message was sent from the Supreme Court chamber in Washington, D.C., to a train station in Baltimore.  Morse tapped out “What hath God wrought?”, perhaps the only time he shared credit for the invention of the telegraph.

Ten years later there were 23,000 miles of telegraph wire in operation.  Samuel Morse’s second career secured his place in history.  His first career had ended in 1837; he never completed another painting in the remaining 35 years of his life.

Pain in Paint

Pablo Picasso, "Guernica" (1937)  Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid

Pablo Picasso, “Guernica” (1937) Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid

Picasso is overrated.

Most of the art establishment would consider that statement heresy; their esteem for him matches his attitude about himself. Some authorities regard Pablo Picasso as the greatest artist since Michelangelo, to which I say, “Oh, please.”

As I have admitted before, I’m no expert, but I have stood in front of a lot of works by Picasso in a lot of museums. There are a lot of Picassos to see, by the way: His total output exceeds 30,000 works.

That astonishing number is due in part to the fame he enjoyed over his long life; Picasso could sneeze into a napkin and collectors would proclaim it a masterpiece. He’d dash off a painting or collage just about daily, some of which were quite good… but there were plenty that weren’t so hot. At least, they weren’t vastly superior to the work of his colleagues like Georges Braque.

Picasso enhanced his reputation by figuring out how to “work the room” in the art community. He systematically befriended critics, dealers, other artists, and writers who helped advance his career. That’s not to say that he was without artistic talent; clearly he had it. But some of the Picasso phenomenon sprang from his shrewd calculations about how to use associates for personal gain.

Down through the centuries there have been many artists who weren’t exactly lovable — Caravaggio, just to name one — so what we know about their personal lives probably shouldn’t influence our appreciation of their work.

However, having seen a generous sampling of Picasso’s work (much of which hadn’t enthralled me) and knowing a bit about his character (or lack thereof) I was surprised by my reaction to his celebrated painting “Guernica”. I hadn’t expected to be moved by it, but I was.

Like you, I’d seen reproductions of the painting, but finally came face-to-face with it, so to speak, in Madrid. It’s housed in a modern-art museum popularly known as the Reina Sofia, named for Spain’s current queen.

Guernica (pronounced GARE-nee-kuh) is a town in northern Spain that, in 1937, became the subject of an experiment in wartime brutality. Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator at the time, gave his fellow fascist Adolf Hitler the go-ahead to attack the town with a saturation-bombing raid. Hundreds — perhaps thousands — of civilians died.

Picasso was in Paris at the time, doing preliminary work on a mural he had been commissioned to paint for an international exposition. Outraged at the news of what had happened in Guernica, he scrapped a tableau of flamenco dancers (or whatever he originally intended to do) and launched into the epic anti-war painting instead.

It’s quite large, something like 11’x25′. “Guernica” is not a representation of the historical event, but the Cubist style — fragments randomly reassembled — conveys the destructive effect of the bombing. (Click on the picture to enlarge it.)

The individual images within the painting are emotionally powerful: On the left, a mother sobs with her dead baby in her arms. Another woman, on the right edge, seems to be trapped in rubble, screaming for help. In the foreground is a dead fighter; he is still clutching a broken sword.

The unbearable pain of the tragedy is evident.

I’m still not a huge fan of Pablo Picasso in general, but I greatly admire this particular painting. Somehow the bombs that hit Guernica also ignited the conscience of an artist not known for having one.

Venus on the Half Shell

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1482)  Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1482) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

One of the most popular subjects for medieval artists was the Virgin Mary with a little old man sitting on her lap.

Many of these paintings are entitled Madonna and child, but next time you’re in an art museum, see if you think it looks like a child.  Nope — that baby appears to be your department-store tailor, but he’s naked.

By the time of the Renaissance, artists were generally more skillful at painting babies that looked like babies, and the scope of their subject matter had broadened.  But some of it is still pretty strange.

Consider the work of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), who could paint a reasonably lifelike baby, but is far more renowned for a very different nativity scene:  It’s called The Birth of Venus.

The image is so familiar, it may not seem peculiar anymore.  It is based on the ancient myth of Venus emerging, full-grown, from the sea.  On the left, Zephyr and Aura are blowing a gentle breeze; on the right of the picture, another goddess offers Venus a beach cover-up.

Even though the central figure is discreet about her nudity, there was still plenty of shock value to that pose in the 1480s.  Females depicted without clothing hadn’t been in favor with church authorities for several centuries.

The Medici family ruled Florence, though, and they were interested in the philosophy and art of ancient Greece and Rome.  They gave Botticelli many commissions, including The Birth of Venus, and the painting is clearly based on a pose from classical sculpture.

It’s odd, though, that this sculptural pose has a sort of weightless quality, a lack of mass, you might say — almost as if Venus is floating on air, not on a seashell.  Incidentally, I wouldn’t recommend standing in this Venus pose.  The center of gravity is so far left, you’d fall down.

We don’t know if that happened to the young woman who modeled for Botticelli, but art historians do believe that she was Simonetta Vespucci, a cousin of Amerigo Vespucci.  If that name sounds familiar, he was the explorer and cartographer for whom America is named.

Anyway, the aristocrats of Florence admired Boticelli’s painting and read all sorts of philosophical, religious and political meanings into it.  Then a stern Dominican friar named Savonarola stirred up popular opinion against… well, all sorts of things, including the Medici and their “pagan” finery.

In 1495 and 1498, Savonarola oversaw bonfires to consume these “vanities”, including a lot of paintings.  Some of them were probably by Botticelli, but The Birth of Venus survived because the Medici had stashed it in an undisclosed location.

Following that turmoil, Botticelli’s subject matter changed back to standard religious (rather than mythological) themes.  He doesn’t seem to have produced much of anything after 1500, and was pretty much forgotten until he was rediscovered in the 19th century.

One of Botticelli’s later paintings sold at auction recently (Jan. 30) for $10.4 million.  It is a work referred to in art circles as the Rockefeller Madonna.  I know what you’re thinking, but no — it’s called that because it was once owned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  It’s not because the baby on her lap looks like a naked little tycoon.