Monday, December 8, 2014


Albrecht Altdorfer (German, 1480-1538)
The Battle of Issus
Signed lower left with monogram: AA and signed lower edge: ALBRECHT ALTDORFER ZU REGENSPURG FECIT
Oil tempera on lime wood panel
158 x 120 cm
Painted in1529
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

or PAINTING?                              
Does this picture remind you of a fantasy movie?
It seems hard to believe that it was painted almost 500 years ago.
Find the Persian King Darius in his chariot of three white horses and Alexander the Great, in hot pursuit. 
The year is 333 BCE; the place is present day Turkey. 
Listen to the ear splitting noises of battle cries and thousands of horses charging.
Alexander’s cavalry and infantrymen are in full body armor and plumed helmets.
The Persian king Darius’ troops wear red uniforms and exotic turbans.  They don’t use saddles and are riding their horses bareback.
The weapons are bow and arrow, spears and lances.
There are women in this picture. They look like fancy German ladies going to a party wearing feathers on their hats.  They are riding their horses sidesaddle.  Can you find them?
Altdorfer invented this; there were no female soldiers at Issus.
Identify the different expressions on the faces of the knights!  Some seem terrified, anxious, confident or calm.
Whose armies are larger, Alexander or Darius?
Alexander’s troops are lined up in perfect formation.
Darius’ men are being pushed into darkness.   The sun is shining upon Alexander’s soldiers.
You will now be able to tell who won.
Ride up to the tents of the bivouac at the outskirts of the city! You may find refreshments there.
Then move up the ramparts, past the fortress and climb the tower of the castle.  From there you’ll get a good view of Alexander’s future empire:
The island of Cyprus lies in the center of the Mediterranean Sea.  Look beyond for Egypt’s River Nile pouring into the sea.   
Hint: The Delta of the Nile has seven arms.
The Sinai Peninsula connects Africa with Southwest Asia.
The Tower of Babel in the shadow on the left is looking rather small!
Altdorfer’s earth ends with the Red Sea.  At the horizon you will even see the curvature of the globe.
Does Altdorfer get the events and the geography right?
No, he takes many “artistic liberties”. 
Accuracy is not his point.  He wants to convey to us the magnitude of the event. 
With the victory at Issus Alexander’s empire became the largest of the ancient world. It encompassed Persia, Egypt, Greece and Babylon.
The sun symbolizes the West (Alexander) and the sickle moon stands for the Near East (Darius).
The dramatic sky takes up almost a third of the picture.
The clouds burst open to make space for a tablet that describes the scene:
Alexander the Great defeating the last Darius, after 100,000 infantry and more than 10,000 cavalrymen had been killed amongst the ranks of the Persians. Whilst King Darius was able to flee with no more than 1,000 horsemen, his mother, wife, and children were taken prisoner.
This tablet is so much prettier than your average museum label!  It looks as though you can move it around by pulling on the cord.
The battle took place 800 years before Altdorfer painted it.
Alexander was only 23 years old when he won at Issus. 
He always rode alongside his men in the front ranks.
He never lost a battle.
Napoleon I was a great admirer of Alexander the Great. 
Napoleon’s armies invaded Bavaria and they took the painting to the Louvre in Paris. After Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, he removed it from the museum and supposedly hung it in his bathroom.
The painting was then returned to Munich where you can see it today.
Both Tolkien (the author) and Jackson (the movie director) MUST have seen this painting!
If you let your imagination wander, you will see areas in the painting that will remind you of:
The Tower of Orthanc
The Eye of Sauron
Anduin Sea
The City of Dale with Laketown
The Lonely Mountain and Misty Mountain
Helm’s Deep Fortress
White City
Dol Guldur
He was a Northern Renaissance painter and one the founders of Western Landscape Art.

Sunday, October 5, 2014


Jan van Eyck (Netherlandish, ca.1390-1441)
Saint Barbara
Signed and dated on the original marble frame:
Oil on chalk ground on panel, 31 x 18 cm
Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp

Click on this link to see the signature and to zoom: 
In this tiny panel van Eyck tells us the story of Barbara.  She is reading her book and holding a palm leaf.   Does she look peaceful or anxious?   Why is her dress so long?  If she were to stand on top of the tower would the dress reach the ground?
The building site behind her is bustling.  Spot a shed with stonecutters.  Can you see three dark windows?  They symbolize the Trinity (in the Christian faith this means: one God in Three Persons).  There is a river behind the tower (perhaps the Rhine).
Barbara was born in present day Syria and she was very beautiful.   Her cruel father locked her up in a tower.  He did not want any man to lay eyes on her.
He thought he could completely control her, but couldn’t.  When he was away she became a Christian.  Her father was furious and tried to force her to give up her faith.  When she refused, he killed her.  At that moment lightning struck him.
Do you sometimes wonder what it takes to build a high rise?  How many men are needed, how much time does it take and what kind of materials are involved? 
Rewind to the year 1437, the year Jan van Eyck painted Saint Barbara. You can see how many men are working on the building.  A man, perhaps the bishop, is showing three women around the construction site. 
The tower behind Barbara may be based on Cologne cathedral (a cathedral houses the bishop’s throne, the cathedra).  Cologne cathedral took 600 years to be completed (they halted the construction for 400 years).  It is still the tallest Roman Catholic cathedral in the world. 
Compare some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world:
Burj Khalifa, Dubai: 828 m
Freedom Tower, New York: 415 m
Empire State Building, New York: 381 m
Eiffel Tower, Paris: 301 m
Cologne Cathedral: 157 m
The picture is very small, about the size of the paper in a printer.
What seems unusual in the picture? 
Do you see much color?
Find the only area with color?
Some artists prepare their pictures by drawing the outlines of the design.  This is how the picture looks before they apply the layers of colored oil paint.
Jan van Eyck signed his name on the original marble frame.  He makes the signature look as though it was chiseled into the marble.
The big question that has troubled the experts:
Is this a study or the finished picture? 
Should he have worked more on it or does it look perfectly beautiful to you the way it is? 
Your opinion counts, please let me know on my website:

Thursday, September 4, 2014


Sir Joshua Reynolds P.R.A. (British, 1723-92)
Colonel John Dyke Acland and Thomas Townshend, Viscount Sydney: 
The Archers
Painted in August 1769
Oil on canvas, 236 x 180 cm
Tate, London, T2033

Do you think Reynolds walked in the woods one beautiful August day and painted the Archers on the spot?

No! He set the stage: shoot!
The Irish Lord Sydney (right) is jumping and his hair is flying in the air.  Col. Acland is leaning back with his smaller bow and arrow, making space for his friend.  He is keeping a keen eye on the target.  
Can you identify the game by their feet?
Reynolds chose the costumes, the props, the poses and the setting.  He wanted his sitters to look grand and imposing.
He picked the clearing in the forest to resemble the shape of a bow and arrow.  
Was the picture painted in the studio or outdoors? 
The figures are painted with the brush whilst the forest is done with the palette knife.
Acland fought in the American War of Independence and invaded northern New York in 1777. 
Acland and Sydney were friends, but later quarreled about who was to keep this marvelous picture.
Sir Joshua Reynolds was a superstar.  He painted the "celebrities" of his day: philosophers, aristocrats, actors, authors, scientists and the king.  He always made them look grand.
Once a week he met with his intellectual friends at "The Club" in London.  
He was the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where he taught young artists. 
Britain was a superpower and London was the place to be.  As Reynolds' great friend, Dr. Samuel Johnson said: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford".  (James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D.)
Seven years later, in 1776, the Thirteen Colonies in North America declared Independence from Britain.  


Thursday, June 26, 2014


Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1799)
L'enfant au Toton-1738
Oil on canvas 67 x 76 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris RF 1705
Jean-Étienne Liotard (Swiss, 1702-89)
La Belle Chocolatière, 1743-44
Pastel on parchment  82.5 x 52.5 cm
Gemäldegalerie Alter Meister, Dresden
A boy is spinning a top.  
A young woman is carrying a tray with hot chocolate and a glass of water.
Both are completely absorbed in their activities.
Do you think they notice us?
Has the boy already done his homework?
Is this his real hair or a wig?
Chardin took months to make a painting.  He carefully "composed" his pictures and left nothing to chance.  He had to decide where to place the things on the desk and how far to open the drawer.  He looked for the best spot where the boy would sit in front of the stripy wall covering.
The boy has a sensitive face.  He is fascinated, do you feel his full attention?  For how long will the top spin?
The Chocolate Girl is steadily looking ahead.   She concentrates, so the hot chocolate won't spill.
Find the reflections of a window.
How many different shades of grey and white do you see?
Can you spot the grain of the wood planks?
Take a close look at the hand behind the water glass.
Zoom in and you will see every tiny hair and the intricate lace of her cap.
These pictures were done around the same time as Tiepolo's lavish Banquet of Cleopatra (Old Masters Rock, 5/12/2014).
Chardin and Liotard chose simple settings and few colors.  Their pictures feel more "modern".  They were inspired by Dutch painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt (Old Masters Rock, 5/6/2014).
Both pictures are Genre paintings.  They depict scenes from every day life.
Pastel chalks are made of pure pigment bound by gum or resin.
You can paint fast with pastels colors.  They don't have to dry like oil paints. 
What would happen if you applied many layers of pastel on top of each other?
Parchment is made of animal skins.

Thursday, June 12, 2014


Joseph Wright 'of Derby' (British, 1734-97)
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump-1768
Oil on canvas 183 x 244 cm
National Gallery London, Presented by Edward Tyrrell, 1863

A traveling scientist is visiting a family to demonstrate a scientific experiment.  
He is pumping the air out of the flask that contains a bird.
Do you think the bird can survive?
What kind of bird is it? (see the correct answer at the bottom)
Who is worried about the bird?  
Who is paying attention?
Who is in love?
Does the scientist remind you of a wizard who is trying to lure you into the scene?
It was the Age of Enlightenment.  Joseph Wright 'of Derby' was interested in science. He met with a group called the Lunar Society (lunar:relating to the moon).  Sometimes even one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin joined them.  
Do you find it exciting?
Why did the artist paint it at night?
Art detectives:  what do you think is in the glass jar on the table?  
What is the boy by the window doing?
Do you like the candlelight and the moon?  
Who owns the bird?
I don't think we have to worry about the bird. The scientist just wants to demonstrate how the bird needs oxygen.
The bird in the picture has always been called a cockatoo.   However, a nine year old bird lover informed me in no uncertain terms that it's a cockatiel.  
Reason: the cockatoo's crest is at the back of the head and the cockatiels at the front.  A cockatoo would also be too large for the flask.
See more Joseph Wright of Derby's pictures:

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


What is the first thing you notice in each face?
How do the people feel about themselves: confident, proud, vain, mean, kind, gentle, funny, powerful?

Piero della Francesca (Italian, 1420-92)
Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino-1464-75
Tempera on wood panel
47 x 33 cm
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Federico (1422-82) was a "Renaissance Man". He was intelligent, learned, supportive of the arts and he knew his place in the world.  
He was a military commander as well and lost his right eye in a jousting accident at a tournament.  His vision was so severely impaired that he had the bridge of his nose removed by a surgeon.  This allowed him to see his enemies approach from either side.  
Why did Piero paint his left side in profile?
He painted the Duke's wife in mirror image. Click and zoom:
Enter the Duke's magical study, "studiolo", in the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
Piero della Francesca, was an early Renaissance master.  
When we look at the people he painted we understand how they feel.
He painted the walls of a church in Arezzo, they are wonderful:


Domenico Ghirlandaio (Italian, 1449-94)
An old man and a young boy, circa 1490
Tempera on wood panel
62.7 x 43.2 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
This double portrait was painted in Florence 20 years after Piero's picture.
Does the young boy mind the old man's deformed nose?
How do they feel about each other?
Is their house fancy or simple?  Are they rich or poor?  
He painted many frescoes and was Michelangelo's teacher for a short time.

Jean-Baptiste Dominique Ingres (French, 1780-1867)
Portrait of the Countess of Tournon
Signed and dated center right: Ingres. Rome 1812
Oil on canvas 92.5 x 83.2 cm
Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986

She was witty and amusing.
Her bouncy curls seem to laugh.  Are her eyes sparkly?
Did she like fashion?
Spot a big wart:
When the museum was given the picture the varnish was a bit dirty and there was no wart.
The conservators removed the old varnish and out popped the wart.  At some point someone must have painted a bit of flesh color over that spot!
His style is called neoclassical. He admired Greek and Roman art. His pictures are smooth; he did not like to show brushstrokes.
He painted the countess in Rome where her son worked for Napoleon.  

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925)
Madame X
Signed lower right: John S. Sargent 1884
Oil on canvas
208.6 x 109.9 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916 (16.53)

Virginie Amélie Gautreau was an American living in Paris. She had great style.  Originally Sargent, who was also American, had painted the strap off her shoulder.  People did not like the picture at first, so he called her Madame X.  He changed the strap and kept the picture.  When the Met acquired the picture Sargent said "I suppose it is the best thing I have done".  He painted around 900 pictures.
If you could meet one person for one hour, who would it be?

Thursday, May 29, 2014


Édouard Manet (French, 1832-83)
The Railway
Signed and dated lower right: Manet 1873
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Gift of Horace Havemeyer in memory of his mother, Louisine W. Havemeyer, 1951.10.1 
Can you hear the thundering train approaching?  Is the train blowing off steam?  Where is the train?
Are we disrupting the woman in her reading?  The puppy does not seem to mind the noise.

Manet did this picture in the backyard of a friend's house.
You can see the windows of his studio in the upper left corner.
He painted this picture with quick, single brushstrokes.  The contrasts are sharp.  If he did not like something, he wiped the wet paint off with a cloth.  Zoom and you will see the raw canvas in some areas.

Manet was not an Impressionist!  He was friends with the Impressionists and they influenced each other. Manet and Monet were not related.
Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926)
The Saint-Lazare Station
Signed and dated lower right: 1877 Claude Monet
Oil on canvas, 75 x 105 cm
Pairs, Musée d'Orsay, Gustave Caillebotte Bequest, 1894
Monet was an Impressionist.
He sat inside the Saint-Lazare train station with his canvas and painted what he saw on the spot (en plein air).  How fast did he have to paint?  He was not interested in small details.  His picture is all about atmosphere, colors, light and the steam.  There are no hard edges and the colors blend.  
He painted this train station twelve times in different light and from various angles:

The First Class Carriage-1864
Watercolor, ink wash and charcoal on wove paper
20.5 x 30 cm
The Second Class Carriage-1864
20.5 x 30.1 cm
Watercolor, ink wash and charcoal on wove paper
The Third Class Carriage-1864
Watercolor, ink wash and charcoal laid paper
20.3 x 29.5 cm
All three Daumier watercolors:
Commissioned from the artist by William T. Walters;
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore MD, Henry Walters Bequest
Daumier liked to make fun of people.
What kind of mood are these passengers in?  Are they rich or poor?
In which carriage would you travel?