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.