Friday, October 7, 2016


Adolph von Menzel (German, 1815-1906)
Signed with initials and dated lower right: A.M. --45
Oil on canvas, 58 x 48 cm
Berlin, Alte Nationalgalerie
Do you ever feel this way?  When you go to your room, do you play, paint, read, make music, or call your friends (remember that you are not allowed screen time during the week!)?  Does this room resemble yours? Do you step onto the balcony to see what lies beneath: a bustling city or the quiet countryside?  Is it spring, summer, fall or winter?  Is no one allowed to look in or are the curtains drawn to keep out the sun?   Can you feel the curtains blowing in the wind?  
Who lives in this room, a boy, or girl, man or woman or a couple?
You are looking at the Menzel’s own room in Berlin. The artist is 30 years old and lives with his mother and his sister.  Is his room fancy and colorful, cluttered or tidy? Are the walls covered with shimmering silks?  Can you see some paint patches?  What is reflected in the mirror?  Would you move the furniture about or leave it just so?  Did someone ask Menzel to paint this picture?  He makes this little picture for himself and keeps The Balcony Room for the rest of his life.
Berlin, 1845: meet Adolph Menzel, one of the most talented artists of his era.  He never stops working and he uses both of his hands to draw, he is ambidextrous.  When one hand gets tired the other takes over. Is this picture done with his left or his right hand?  Zoom in on the brushwork; perhaps he used both hands. When Menzel walks about the busy metropolis of 400,000 Berliners, he quickly sketches what strikes his fancy.  He has special pockets made in his coat where he keeps his sketchbooks and pencils.   He later uses these drawings to paint royalty at concerts, workers sweating in an iron rolling mill, beer gardens, his sister asleep and empty rooms. If you like slightly spooky pictures look at:,_Adolph_von_-_The_Studio_Wall_-_1872.jpg  (Kunsthalle Hamburg)
Do you often check to see how much you have grown?  Menzel stopped growing and measured about 140 cm, the average height of a ten-year-old boy.  Now imagine an unusually large head on top of that slight body.  Do you think it was easy to be physically different in those days?  Menzel had extraordinary powers of observation and the ability to transform what he saw into marvelous pictures.  He did not mingle much with people; he preferred to sketch them quickly.  This way he needn't speak to them.  
Menzel was mostly a Realist.   He painted history pictures, but in The Balcony Room his style is Pre-impressionist. Why? The brush strokes are free and easy and he depicts a fleeting moment or impression.  Twenty-seven years after The Balcony Room, Impressionism kicked off in France with Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise, 1872, (Musée Marmottan, Paris).  Was Menzel ahead of his time when he made this fresh little picture?  He became very popular during his lifetime.  At Menzel’s state funeral the emperor himself walked behind his little coffin!

Monday, April 25, 2016


Early Renaissance in Italy
The Dark Ages came to an end and there was a rebirth or Renaissance of the ideas of Antiquity, i.e. of ancient Greece and Rome that took hold of Italian artists such as Giotto and Duccio.
Religious stories were being told in tempera on gold ground panels. The general population could not read.
Artists broke from the flat Byzantine Icons of Christ and the Virgin to scenes that incorporated perspective.
Northern Renaissance
Look for fine detail and pure color. Faces express intense human emotions.
Early Netherlandish artists such as Jan van Eyck developed independently from the Italian Renaissance movement.  Medieval manuscript illuminations and tempera painting influenced them.   Oil painting was invented in Flanders at that time. The artists painted highly detailed religious scenes and small portraits.  These faces are often set against detailed landscapes or towns in the background.  People look real and express serious human emotions.  Symbolism was important to artists such as Fouquet.  Jan van Eyck’s Saint Barbara appears huge to emphasize her saintly existence.
Altdorfer produced the first landscape paintings.
With the Reformation that Martin Luther started in 1517, Protestant movements broke from the Catholic Church. Holbein’s portraits capture the essence of the Renaissance princes and their station in life. 
In Brueghel’s post-Reformation paintings religious elements moved to the background.  He used humor to show the human condition of peasants and regular folk. 
High Renaissance
Look for classical beauty, proportion and harmony in the Italian High Renaissance of mid 15th to mid 16th century Italy.  Compositions tend to be balanced and centralized.
Leonardo was a Renaissance superstar.  The Vatican frescos by Raphael and Michelangelo are powerful re-interpretations of the Antique.  Titian painted all sorts of subjects focusing on color and vivid brushwork.
16th century Mannerism
These artists moved away from classical aesthetics.  In their work you need to decipher strange compositions.  Exaggerated forms, long necks and limbs can be seen in the works by Pontormo and Parmigianino.  Arcimboldo’s work (p.) is about an idea and has nothing and everything to do with reality.
Find high drama, emotion and action!  These pictures are about the triumph of good over evil.  Chiaroscuco looks as though a strong flashlight highlights part of the painting.
The Counter-Reformation was the Catholic Church’s answer to the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church and its wealthy princes employed the great artists of the day such as Rubens and Velazquez to convey powerful visual messages. 
You will see regular people, landscapes, still lifes, domestic scenes of everyday life and Rembrandt’s extraordinary power of psychology bathed in theatrical light.  It was a prosperous period and many people in the Netherlands could read.
The Dutch style differs from Flemish, Italian and Spanish art of the 17th century.  Religious themes take a back seat.  Protestant churches were not decorated like Catholic ones. It is known as the Golden Age of Dutch painting and produced giants like Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Vermeer. 
Elegant ladies and gentlemen enjoy frivolous activities like garden parties, reading poetry, playing music or going shopping (see Watteau p…).  It was also the Age of Enlightenment and new ideas changed the ways people thought.  Chardin composed sensitive still lifes and quiet domestic scenes of the every day life of regular people in the vein of the Dutch 17th century artists. The century ended with the start of the French Revolution of 1789, which changed the power structure of Europe.
British and American art
In Britain Sir Joshua Reynolds founded the Royal Academy of Arts and a school of painters evolved that portrayed the rich British aristocracy and the intellectuals of the Enlightenment in “The Grand Style”. It actually was a good thing if someone had imperfect features or was near sighted.  In the American Colonies a group of artists such as Copley were in close contact with those British artists. 
Late 18th and early 19th century
Frill and powdered wigs are out the window.
Look for simpler dress, plain hairdos and heroic battles in the Greek and Roman style. 
The French Revolution and later Napoleon influenced the artists as much as the political landscape. Artists’ schools called Academies, towered over by Jacques- Louis David, taught their pupils with a strict set of aesthetic rules inspired by the Antique.  Here we witness the rise of the common man and the bourgeoisie.  Ingres painted the French and English elite. 
In France Delacroix and Géricault created their own individual styles and painted some shocking news of the day.  They did not stick to the strict academic rules. Caspar David Friedrich’s melancholy views of nature and man lead the movement in Germany. Britain’s Turner was in awe of nature’s overwhelming powers and Constable held a gentler view of the English countryside.  In Spain Goya’s Romanticism shows us the human drama of revolution, the terrors of war and religious persecution. 
The quintessential Realist artist Courbet painted the world the way it was.  Women look real and are not idealized beauties, animals devour other animals and the aesthetics of the Antique are no longer relevant.
The independent Manet, who admired Velaszquez, was the link between Realism and Impressionism. 
It started in the late 19th century in France where a group of artists wanted to capture a moment or an impression.  They loved painting en plein air, outside, and depict the natural light. They needed to paint fast and chose as their subject every day people.  The invention of photography in 1839 with its ability to snap a fleeting moment had a huge impact on these artists. 
This is a relatively vague term applied to a group of artists like Gauguin, van Gogh and Seurat who immediately followed the Impressionists.  Simplified and not necessarily natural colors were being applied in thick brushstrokes by Vincent van Gogh.  Seurat painted with tiny dots and Gauguin traveled to Tahiti to paint exotic scenes.  They all had different visions but had in common the quest to break with the ideas of their predecessors.
TURN OF THE 19th to 20th CENTURY
At this time Vienna was the epicenter of intellectuals, artists, designers, philosophers, economists, writers, and scientists, including the famed founder of modern psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud.  In the fine arts Klimt’s Symbolism reveals a new interpretation of Byzantine and Japanese art.  A group of artists founded the Vienna Secession housed in a beautiful building in Vienna.  They wanted to get away from the prevailing images of historic events. 
Edvard Munch’s painting called “The Scream” is permanently etched in our memories.  His intense pictures express psychological trauma. His work had a great impact on the German Expressionists.    

Monday, March 7, 2016

Théodore Géricault (French, 1791-1824)
The Raft of the Medusa
Oil on canvas
491x716 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre

This picture is rated PG-13!

Imagine being shipwrecked off the west coast of Africa. The year is 1816.  The captain has left the sinking ship and you and about 150 people have to build your own raft.  You float on the open sea for 13 horrible days. Only 10 people survive.  Describe your feelings.

Géricault painted the fate of some of the people on the French Royal Navy Frigate ship (warship) "Medusa" (named after the hideous monster from the Greek myths who had snakes for hair).  France was being ruled once again by the monarchy.  The government of the king was corrupt and dispatched several ships to sail to Senegal.  Their mission was to reinstate Senegal as a French colony. A clueless, royalist captain was put in charge of the ship.  He wanted to get there first and sailed too close to the coast running the Medusa aground into a sand bank. There were 400 people on board.  There were not enough lifeboats and about 150 people were left behind and had to fend for themselves.  They built a makeshift raft made of scrap wood from the destroyed ship.  Look at the raft, is this a sturdy structure? It measured 20 x 7 meters.  Was that big enough for 150 people?  Think of about 6 classrooms stuffed onto a raft this size. At first they were towed by the lifeboats.  When the towing became cumbersome the vile captain, who was in a comfortable lifeboat, ordered the ropes cut and the raft was left to drift on the open seas.  Thirteen days of hell ensued.  There was no food, no water, only some wine. 

Only older kids will guess how they survived. What do the men on the raft see in the far distance?  They are waving and shouting to the "Argus", one of the ships that had been on the same mission.  Can you spot her in the distance? At first she did not see the raft and sailed away but two hours later returned and brought the remaining men back to France.  

Géricault painted this massive canvas in 1818-19; , three years after the horrible event took place.  It measures 491 x 716 cm, so the figures are about twice life size.  
What moment of the ordeal did Géricault choose to paint? Would you describe it as the moment of horror, hope, despair?  
The 25-year-old Géricault had become obsessed with the story: He had a copy of the raft built in his studio; he interviewed two survivors; he went to the trial of the captain (who only served three years in jail); he went to morgues to study corpses; and he made many sketches and studies on paper and canvas.  Friends such as Eugène Delacroix, the great Romantic artist (Delacroix's Liberty Leading the 
People, previous newsletter), posed as models.  He is the man at the bottom tip of the triangle with his arms outstretched.  Who, amongst the survivors is mustering his last strength to be hopeful and who has given up?  Have some gone insane? Is the overriding mood of the painting one of hope or of despair?
Do you think Géricault looked at Caravaggio and his chiaroscuro technique (newsletter...) He had previously also studied Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel.
Are there many colors in this canvas?  What is the shape of the people that are huddled together?  Does the orange sky indicate sunrise or sunset?  Can you spot a French uniform and an axe?

What is Géricault telling us?  Do you find the picture nightmarish, hauntingly beautiful or too gory? Do you see it as merely critical of the monarchy or does it also contain a message of hope?  
Perhaps you feel all of the above.  It is a monument of Romantic art in which the artist shows raw feelings and real life events.  He does not sugar coat the reality of humans in an extreme situation.  

Thursday, November 19, 2015


Signed and dated lower right: Eug. Delacroix 1830
Oil on canvas
260 x 325 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Can you hear the explosions and the war cries of the people?
Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People is a powerful symbol of Freedom and of the Triumph of the French Republic!
In July 1830 Parisians had taken to the streets when the King suspended the freedom of the press and decreed other restrictive measures. 
Delacroix saw the events, felt the emotions and put it all on a huge canvas. 
How long do you think it too the artist to complete the work, days, months or years? The answer is below!
Since the Roman Goddess Libertas, a woman personifies Liberty. 
Does she look weak or strong in this picture?
Is she a lady who dines with kings and queens or a muscly workingwoman with hairy armpits?  Is she wearing a fashionable French dress or a simple tunic?
Is she worried that her tunic slipped?
In one hand she is holding the tricolored French flag.  Do you remember the symbols of the flag?
 Liberté(freedom: blue), égalité (equality: white), fraternité (brotherhood: red). 
On her head is a “liberty cap” that was worn by freed slaves in Roman times.
Describe what Liberty means!
How would you draw a picture of Liberty?
Can you name a famous symbol of Liberty in the United States?  Do you think the French sculptor of the Statue of Liberty had seen this painting at the Louvre before he made the famous sculpture fifty years after the painting? 
How is the Statue of Liberty different to this painting?
France saw three Revolutions in less than sixty years.  In 1848 France finally became a Republic.  
In Delacroix’s huge canvas, Liberty steps triumphant over the bodies of the fallen soldiers of the monarchy.
Everyone is on the street; factory workers, a bourgeois in top hat, students and street urchins.  They are all fighting the monarchist soldiers.  Can you spot Notre Dame in the background? 
Is the boy on the right who is waving two pistols about your age? Victor Hugo probably based Gavroche in Les Misérables on this boy.
The elegant man with a top hat on the left may be the artist himself. 
The picture is not only a symbol of Liberty, but a revolution in art.  The great Romantic artist painted a real life event that he saw with his own eyes and transformed it into a powerful image, honoring France.
What are the colors in the picture?
He made many sketches and it took him three months to complete the work!
Delacroix and Liberty were on the 100 Franc banknote until the Euro was introduced in 1999.  

Delacroix was the quintessential Parisian. Two years after painting Liberty he traveled to North Africa.  The trip left a profound mark on him and he painted many beautiful Orientalist images thereafter.
Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  No revolution, war or cowardly attack will ever break the spirit of the French people.  Parisians are steadfast and will not be trampled on. Vive la France!

Friday, October 16, 2015


Oil on canvas
181 x 125 cm
Painted 1802-12
Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille


How are you?
Is that question for us? What do you feel when you look at this painting?
Are you scared or do you laugh?
Which old crone do you pick for Halloween?
The one dressed in black on the left is holding “Que tal?”(“how are you?” in Spanish) for her mistress.  Is the answer good or bad?  Is she showing her a book or a mirror?
Here is a list of what you need for her costume:
A black wig
A mantilla (a lace shawl worn over a high comb by Spanish women)
Lots of make-up
A pig’s snout
A set of fake teeth 
Do you pick the rich one with the blond hair? 
She is dressed like a queen, dripping in jewels.  
Her dress is made of the finest white and gold muslin, tied with playful blue ribbons. Is that dress befitting a young girl or a toothless old bat? What is she holding in her gnarled hands?
Does she even have teeth?
Father Time, hovering behind, is about to sweep them up with his broom.  He has a deep frown line on his forehead.  What is he worried about?
Are they sitting in a palace or in a bare room?  Might it even be a church?
Do the chairs look comfortable?
Are these women vain?
Try and figure out the moral of the story! 
Do these women have a problem growing old gracefully and is time on their side?
Is this a fantasy or reality?
Is this a traditional, life size portrait of a mistress with her maid?  
How did Goya paint it?  In other pictures I have mentioned impasto, thick paint, and glazes, pigment thinned with oil. Is this picture painted with impasto or glazes?
Both are true, Goya built up his paint with glazes.  Thinly applied glazes create the appearance of the dress being transparent for example.  He then daubed on the highlights with thicker impasto.  
Goya painted this picture when he was completely deaf, he had lost his hearing at the age of 47. He lived under the rule of the Spanish kings and of Napoleon.  Throughout his life the church had an iron grip on its people.  Goya recorded the horrors of war and the whims of people.  Nothing escaped his eagle eye and he hated superstitions. 
Goya makes us laugh, cry and be terrified of witches.  He can be brutal and real; dream-like and nightmarish. 

Goya was a radical artist and some would say a crazy, romantic genius.