Take a look on 100 greatest painting masterpieces of all time by famous artists and painters of history.
1. Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights (1504) – Prado, Madrid
Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” stands as one of the greatest masterpieces of the Northern Renaissance —or, indeed, any age. I first saw the painting at the age of nine in the Prado Museum in Madrid, where — to the consternation of my parents — I spent several hours inspecting it. Even at that age, it made a deep impression on me, because I understood that it was trying to convey something extraordinary.
The painting has baffled viewers and experts alike for many centuries. It turns out, however, that the painting is a clearly legible document if one understands the iconography and symbology that the artist has employed, along with the gist of his underlying message. It furthermore displays unusual relationships to Buddhist and Tantric art, which are more fully explained in the commentary.
Despite the many confusing and openly conjectural interpretations “experts” have offered over the centuries, Bosch actually left little to chance in ensuring his viewers could understand his message. The painting incorporates a wide variety of well thought out, remarkably deliberate devices to indicate the meaning of images, most of which are not anywhere near as obscure as assumed. It represents a unified and continuous narrative—and, as one might expect, every single image in it is entirely integrated into that story. Because of a historical and chronic failure to understand many of the simple and—in the end, rather obvious— symbolic devcies Bosch used, the narrative has not been accurately identified until now. It is both ordinary enough for the average man to understand it, and extraordinary enough to challenge the understanding of sages.
Once one arrives at an initial understanding, the painting yields extraordinary depths, with layer after layer of meaning.
The links will take you to an explanation of the artist’s intentions, with detailed commentary on every figure and action in the painting, which will not be complete mysteries once you are done. And you’ll see that this painting represents what is without doubt the single greatest symbolic use of imagery ever achieved in western art.
2. Michelangelo: The Last Judgment (1536–1541) – Cappella Sistina, Roma
The angels in the middle blow their horns to raise the dead. One of them holds the Book in which all has been written down and upon which Jesus will base his judgment.
To the left, the chosen are escorted to Heaven by angels. To the right, the damned are going to Hell. Michelangelo was inspired by Dante’s Inferno. Charon (with oar) and his devils are leading the damned to judge Minos (with snake).
Jesus is seated in the middle with his mother Mary at his side. The two large figures are Paul (left) and Peter (right, with keys in hand). The figure underneath and to the right of Jesus is St. Bartholomew – a self-portrait by Michelangelo. In his hand, his mortal skin.
Above in the lunettes are symbols of the Passion – the cross, the crown of thorns, the pillar of flagellation, the spear, and the sponge dipped in vinegar.
In scale, technique and drama The Last Judgment is an absolute highlight of Renaissance painting. The work, a fresco, was painted against the wall of theSistine Chapel, the Pope’s private chapel.
3. Max Ernst: Europe After the Rain II (1942) – Sumner Collection, Hartford
Medium of war, Max Ernst. Europe After the Rain remains his pullulating masterpiece, in which emotional desolation, physical exhaustion, and fears of the destructive power of total warfare combine – after the rain of fire, the biblical deluge, and the reign of terror. The title dates back to an earlier painting sculpted from plaster and oil (and painted on plywood) to create an imaginary relief map of a remodeled Europe completed in 1933, the year Hitler took power.
Europe after the Rain, II makes extensive use of the techniques Ernst invented, portraying a ravaged landscape reminiscent of both twisted wreckage and rotting organic proliferation. Are we witnesses to an apocalypse, or uncontrolled, cancerous growth?
True to Ernst’s methods, there is no definitive interpretation, but given his personal history, his flight from the Gestapo into self-imposed exile, and his disgust at the effects of war, it’s not hard to see a restrained melancholy on display.
In a landscape reminiscent of classical paintings of ruins, the figures could be overgrown statuary, or semi-mythical survivors of a forgotten war. A helmeted, bird-headed soldier threatens a female figure with a spear – or perhaps a ruined battle standard. Perhaps it is an allegory for the destruction of European civilization. Perhaps it is a denouncement, showing that once the dignified veneer of civilization is stripped away, only chaotic masses of half-formed nightmares remain. However you take it, Europe After the Rain II is a powerful image that provokes more questions than it answers, and a true masterpiece of Ernst’s ouevre.
4. Gustav Klimt: Beethoven Frieze – The Kiss to the Whole World (1902) – Secession, Wien
In 1902, Klimt painted the Beethoven Frieze for the 14th Vienna Secessionist exhibition, which was intended to be a celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven|the composer and featured a monumental polychrome sculpture by Max Klinger. Meant for the exhibition only, the frieze was painted directly on the walls with light materials. After the exhibition the painting was preserved, although it did not go on display again until 1986. The Beethoven Frieze is now on permanent display in the Vienna Secession hall (Austria)|Secession Building.
5. Salvador Dalí: Persistence of Memory (1931) – Museum of Modern Art, New York
Salvador Dalí frequently described his paintings as “hand painted dream photographs.” He based this seaside landscape on the cliffs in his home region of Catalonia, Spain. The ants and melting clocks are recognizable images that Dalí placed in an unfamiliar context or rendered in an unfamiliar way. The large central creature comprised of a deformed nose and eye was drawn from Dalí’s imagination, although it has frequently been interpreted as a self-portrait. Its long eyelashes seem insect-like; what may or may not be a tongue oozes from its nose like a fat snail from its shell.
Time is the theme here, from the melting watches to the decay implied by the swarming ants. Mastering what he called “the usual paralyzing tricks of eye-fooling,” Dalí painted this work with “the most imperialist fury of precision,” but only, he said, “to systematize confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality.” There is, however, a nod to the real: the distant golden cliffs are those on the coast of Catalonia, Dalí’s home.
6. Gustav Klimt: The Virgin (1913) – National Gallery, Prague
The Virgins contains multiple flowers, which add to the theme: evolution into womanhood. While sketching for the painting, Klimt wanted his models to make larger than life physical poses. There are six women in the painting (or one woman with four sides to her persona) and all of them seem to be intertwined. The lines are clear and the human themes of love, sexuality and regeneration are obvious in the circular cyclical shape of the work. In painting The Virgins the different life stages are represented by the same woman. Dislocated body parts in outrageous poses move as if under water. The empty shell of a woman’s dress at the bottom gives birth to a child (the next generation) via a cascading waterfall of colour.
7. Hieronymus Bosch: The Last Judgement (1505) – Gemaldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Wien
Triptych by Hieronymus Bosch. The left wing tells the story of Adam and Eve: the creation of man, the eating of the apple and the expulsion from Paradise.
The center panel shows the Last Judgment, a popular medieval subject. Seated in heaven, Jesus decides who will go to Hell and who will enter Heaven. The earth is on fire and strange creatures capture the remaining sinners.
The right wing shows Hell, destination of the doomed.
8. Gustav Klimt: The Kiss (1908) – Belvedere, Wien
The Kiss is probably Gustav Klimt’s most famous work. It is also the high point of the artist’s Gold Period, which was characterized by his use of gold leaf in his work. This painting is one in which Klimt deviated from his portrayal of dominant in women in the form of a femme fatale. Instead is the portrayal of love and art, a couple locked in a golden-flecked, flower-filled embrace. Klimt was a man with an unbridled sexual appetite, as he fathered at least 14 illegitimate children. It is rumored that Klimt and his longtime companion, Emile Floge, who was also said to be his lover, were the models of the painting, which was selected to be printed on the Austrian 100 euro coin, minted in 2003.
9. Sandro Botticelli: Allegoria della Primavera (1478) – Uffizi, Firenze
This wonderful and famous work of art by great Botticelli was painted for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, a cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The Medici was a very important Florentine banking family and later royal house of Tuscany.
Critics are divided over the date of the work. Anyway it was certainly painted between 1477 and 1482.
The Primavera (or the Allegory of Spring) is full of allegorical meanings, whose interpretation is difficult and still uncertain.
Among the many theories proposed over the last decades, the one that seems to be the most corroborated is the interpretation of the painting as the realm of Venus, sung by the ancient poets and by Poliziano (famous scholar at the court of the Medici).
On the right Zephyrus (the blue faced young man) chases Flora and fecundates her with a breath. Flora turns into Spring, the elegant woman scattering her flowers over the world. Venus, in the middle, represents the “Humanitas” (the benevolence), which protects men. On the left the three Graces dance and Mercury dissipates the clouds.
The Allegory of Spring is a very refined work of art. The naturalistic details of the meadow (there are hundreds of types of flowers), the skillful use of the color, the elegance of the figures and the poetry of the whole, have made this important and fascinating work celebrated all over the world.
Leaving out the many possible interpretations proposed by various experts, what is certain is the humanistic meaning of the work: Venus is the goodwill (the Humanitas), as she distinguishes the material (right) from the spiritual values (left). The Humanitas promotes the ideal of a positive man, confident in his abilities, and sensitive to the needs of others.
This ancient conception was on the way to Renaissance Humanism and Neoplatonic ideals moving around the Medici court. Neoplatonism was a philosophical and aesthetic movement trying to blend the thought of Greek philosopher Plato with the noblest concepts of Christianity. The Neoplatonic conception of the ideal beauty and the absolute love influenced the Renaissance culture and Botticelli.
We can therefore imagine that behind the philosophical interpretation of the painting, Botticelli and his client thought of an apology for the Medici and their sophisticated, far-sighted and deep love for culture and art.
10. Claude Monet: Nimphee (1926) – Orangerie, Paris
Nimphee by Claude Monet was painted in 1926 and is viewed as being one of the greatest paintings of all time. Monet was a founder of French impressionist painting. Nimphee represents two of Monet’s greatest achievements: his gardens at Giverny and the paintings they inspired. Monet’s ambition of documenting the French countryside led him to adopt a method of painting the same scene many times in order to capture the changing of light and the passing of the seasons. He was committed to painting directly from nature as much as possible and whenever weather permitted, sometimes working simultaneously on eight or more canvases a day. Monet’s project to capture ever-shifting atmospheric conditions came to be a hallmark of the Impressionist style.
11. Salvador Dalí: Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937) – Tate Gallery, London
Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dali (1904 – 1989) portrays the Greek myth in “Metamorphosis of Narcissus,” telling his story through symbolism and imagery in his well-known Paranoiac-Critical style. In the story, Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection, forgets to eat or sleep, and is immortalized where he died as a flower by the gods. Dali, a renowned 20th century artist, utilized emotion such as paranoia in his artworks to prompt the brain to connect images that would not otherwise be rationally linked.
12. Leonardo da Vinci: Il Cenacolo/ The Last Supper (1497) – S. Maria delle Grazie, Milano
Created during the period 1495-98, Leonardo da Vinci’s mural painting known as The Last Supper – a masterpiece of the Italian High Renaissance and one of the best-known works of Christian art – illustrates the scene from the last days of Jesus Christ, as described in the Gospel of John 13:21. Flanked by his twelve apostles, Jesus has just declared that one of them will betray him. (“Verily I say unto you: one of you will betray me.”) The picture depicts the reaction of each disciple to the news. Although on the surface it looks like a straightforward piece of Biblical art, it is in fact an exceptionally complex work, whose mathematical symbolism, psychological complexity, use of perspective and dramatic focus, make it the first real example of High Renaissance aesthetics. The picture measures 15 feet × 29 ft, and occupies an end wall in the dining hall at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Sadly, in order to give himself the opportunity of making changes to the painting as he went along – something that is not possible with regular wet fresco painting – Leonardo first sealed the stone wall surface and then painted over it with tempera and oils, as if it were a wooden panel. As a result, the work began deteriorating almost from the moment it was finished – writing a mere 70 years later, the biographer Giorgio Vasari described it as “so badly done that all that can now be seen of it is a glaring spot” – and has been the subject of a recent 20-year restoration campaign. Even so, the work remains one of the greatest Renaissance paintings.
13. Peter Paul Rubens: Fall of the Damned/ Der Höllensturz der Verdammten (1620)
The Fall of the Damned is a painting by Peter Paul Rubens, Rubens painted this piece of Baroque art in 1620 in Flanders. The painting is a depiction of the fall of the guilty and the falling angels during Gods final judgment by the archangel Michael. It is said that Rubens was the founder of the Baroque style of human movement, flesh, and sensuality. The guilty in the image are painted naked, as is Rubens style, and the mass is being hurled into hell by a twister grabbing up all those that have fallen. None that have been guilty of sin are sparred as seen in the side of the twister where humans are being picked up without having fallen into the twister. You can see that the fallen angels are still in their evil ways as they torment the guilty humans even as they are being thrown into the pits of hell. The contrast in light from the top to the bottom shows the fall from he light of heaven to the dark despair of hell.
The painting was primarily drawn in black and red chalk with grey wash(?), and then Rubens painted over it using oil paint. Due to the controversy and scandal this painting caused, there was an incident where an art vandal threw acid onto the painting but it didn’t cause the painting irreparable damage.
Peter Paul Rubens was a very influential artist to the baroque style, and he painted a lot of landscapes, altar pieces, and portraits based on religious, history and mythological subjects. Due to a lot of his paintings containing nudes he even has the term ‘Rubenesque’ termed after him. Rubens was a classically educated scholar and through his success as a painter he was knighted by Phillip IV, King of Spain and Charles I, king of England, and a large quantity of his work was painted to be popular with the nobility and collectors of Europe.
14. Paolo Uccello: Battle of San Romano/Part I (1438-55) – Uffizi, Firenze
The Battle of San Romano is a painting located in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, by Paolo Uccello. It is one of three distinct altarpieces celebrating the battle of 1432 fought by the Florentines, who were victorious, and the Sienese.
At the time of the painting’s commission, the three panels were supposed to be positioned in the Palazzo Medici on via Larga in Florence. Today, they are on display in three separate European museums: the National Gallery in London, the Louvre in Paris and here at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
In this tryptych, just like in the artist’s other works, Uccello mixes Renaissance and medieval stylistic elements. In addition to these, there are also gothic elements, like the brilliant colours, and the refined decoration of the landscape and figures.
Visual perspective is achieved by the colours of the swords and lances of those fighting. Finally, the figures of the men and animals are precise and geometric, however, they seem unrealistic because of the colours used: the horses are pink, white and blue, and in poses that are often bizarre or improbable.
In these same years, Uccello painted a Madonna with Child, now at the National Gallery of Ireland and Dublin, and a fragmented wood that is part of the Contini Bonacossi collection.
15. Vincent van Gogh: Starry Night (1889) – Museum of Modern Art, New York
Van Gogh’s night sky is a field of roiling energy. Below the exploding stars, the village is a place of quiet order. Connecting earth and sky is the flamelike cypress, a tree traditionally associated with graveyards and mourning. But death was not ominous for van Gogh. “Looking at the stars always makes me dream,” he said, “Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star.” The artist wrote of his experience to his brother Theo: “This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.” This morning star, or Venus, may be the large white star just left of center in The Starry Night. The hamlet, on the other hand, is invented, and the church spire evokes van Gogh’s native land, the Netherlands. The painting, like its daytime companion, The Olive Trees, is rooted in imagination and memory. Leaving behind the Impressionist doctrine of truth to nature in favor of restless feeling and intense color, as in this highly charged picture, van Gogh made his work a touchstone for all subsequent Expressionist painting.
16. Raffaello: Sposalizio della Vergine (1504) – Piancoteca di Brera, Milano
The panel (signed and dated: “RAPHAEL URBINAS MDIIII.”) was commissioned by the Albizzini family for the chapel of St Joseph in the church of S. Francesco of the Minorities at Città di Castello. In 1798 the town was forced to donate the painting to General Lechi, a Napoleonic army officer, who sold it to the Milanese art dealer, Sannazzari. Sannazzari bequeathed it to the main hospital of Milan in 1804. Two years later it was acquired by the Academy of Fine Arts and was then exhibited at the Brera.
Critics believe the painting to be inspired by two compositions by Perugino: the celebrated Christ Delivering the Keys to St Peter from the fresco cycle in the Sistine Chapel and a panel containing the Marriage of the Virgin now in the Museum of Caën.
By painting his name and the date, 1504, in the frieze of the temple in the distance, Raphael abandoned anonymity and confidently announced himself as the creator of the work. The main figures stand in the foreground: Joseph is solemnly placing the ring on the Virgin’s finger, and holding the flowering staff, the symbol that he is the chosen one, in his left hand. His wooden staff has blossomed, while those of the other suitors have remained dry. Two of the suitors, disappointed, are breaking their staffs.
The polygonal temple in the style of Bramante establishes and dominates the structure of this composition, determining the arrangement of the foreground group and of the other figures. In keeping with the perspective recession shown in the pavement and in the angles of the portico, the figures diminish proportionately in size. The temple in fact is the centre of a radial system composed of the steps, portico, buttresses and drum, and extended by the pavement. In the doorway looking through the building and the arcade framing the sky on either side, there is the suggestion that the radiating system continues on the other side, away from the spectator.
Caught at the culminating moment of the ceremony, the group attending the wedding also repeats the circular rhythm of the composition. The three principal figures and two members of the party are set in the foreground, while the others are arranged in depth, moving progressively farther away from the central axis. This axis, marked by the ring Joseph is about to put on the Virgin’s finger, divides the paved surface and the temple into two symmetrical parts.
A tawny gold tonality prevails in the colour scheme, with passages of pale ivory, yellow, blue-green, dark brown and bright red. The shining forms appear to be immersed in a crystalline atmosphere, whose essence is the light blue sky.
The structure of Raphael’s painting, which includes figures in the foreground and a centralized building in the background, can certainly be compared to the two Perugino paintings. But Raphael’s painting features a well developed circular composition, while that of Perugino is developed horizontally, in a way still characteristic of the Quattrocento. The structure of the figure group and of the large polygonal building clearly distinguish Raphael’s painting from that of his master. The space is more open in Raphael’s composition, indicating a command of perspective which is superior to Perugino’s.
17. Salvador Dalí: Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (1936) – Museum of Art, Philadelphia
Gruesome, bizarre, and excruciatingly meticulous in technique, Salvador Dalí’s paintings rank among the most compelling portrayals of the unconscious mind. In this work, the artist turned his attention to the impending Spanish Civil War, which began in July 1936 and would turn his native country into a bloody battleground. Dalí described this convulsively arresting picture as “a vast human body breaking out into monstrous excrescences of arms and legs tearing at one another in a delirium of autostrangulation.” The desecration of the human body was a great preoccupation of the Surrealists in general, and of Dalí in particular. Here, the figure’s ecstatic grimace, taut neck muscles, and petrifying fingers and toes create a vision of disgusting fascination.
18. Pieter Bruegel: Triumph of Death (1562) – Prado, Madrid
This painting is a brutal illustration of many types of people being indiscriminately taken by death. Skeletons are murdering hundreds of people, everyone from peasants to nobles, and from children to the King. None are spared their fate at the hands of death. This painting illustrates the influence of the Dutch master painter Hieronymous Bosch, who also painted demonic illustrations of death and the supernatural, on Brueghel’s work. Brueghel created a few of these demonological paintings, including Mad Meg, but soon returned to his genre paintings of peasants and landscapes. This painting has also been referred to in popular culture, in books, on the cover of CD albums, and even in video games.
19. Sandro Botticelli: Birth of Venus (1485) – Uffizi, Firenze
The title of the Birth of Venus can be traced back to the 16th century. What is depicted is not, however, the moment of the goddess’ birth – the classical poet Hesiod describes her as rising from the foaming sea after Chronos cut off his father Uranus’ penis and threw it into the ocean. Instead, we see the moment when she comes ashore. Inspired by classical tradition, Botticelli’s contemporary Angelo Poliziano described this scene in his epic poem “Stanze per la Giostra”, thereby providing what was probably the most important source of inspiration for the painting. He described Venus as being driven towards the shore on a shell by Zephyr; and how an onlooker would have seen the flash in the goddess’ eye and the Horae of the seasons standing on the shore in white garments, their flowing hair caressed by the wind.
The god of the winds, Zephyr, and the breeze Aura are in a tight embrace, and are gently driving Venus towards the shore with their breath. She is standing naked on a golden shining shell, which reaches the shore floating on rippling waves. There, a Hora of Spring is approaching on the tips of her toes, in a graceful dancing motion, spreading out a magnificent cloak for her. Venus rises with her marble-coloured carnations above the ocean next to her, like a statue. Her hair, which is playfully fluttering around her face in the wind, is given a particularly fine sheen by the use of fine golden strokes. The unapproachable gaze under the heavy lids gives the goddess an air of cool distance. The rose is supposed to have flowered for the first time when Venus was born. For that reason, gentle rose-coloured flowers are blowing around Zephyr and Aura in the wind.
The goddess of love, one of the first non-biblical female nudes in Italian art, is depicted in accordance with the classical Venus pudica. She is, however, as little a precise copy of her prototype as the painting is an exact illustration of Poliziano’s poetry. The group comprising Venus and the Hora of spring demonstrates Botticelli’s flexible use of Christian means of depiction.
It is uncertain who commissioned the painting. In the first half of the 16th century, it was kept in the Castello villa, owned by the descendants of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. However, it was never mentioned in inventories of his property. It is, though, extremely likely that the Birth of Venus was commissioned for a country seat. In contrast to the Primavera, the painting is painted on canvas. This was a medium normally chosen for paintings that were destined to decorate country houses, for canvas was less expensive and easier to transport than wooden panels.
20. Peter Paul Rubens: The Adoration of the Magi (1609) – Prado, Madrid
In 1609 Rubens signalled his return to Antwerp with a prestigious commission to paint a large Adoration of the Magi for the Town Hall, a picture designed to inaugurate and celebrate the Twelve Years’ Truce between Spain and the rebellious Netherlands. In the subsequent tormented politics of the time, the picture was used as a bribe by Antwerp in an attempt to gain favour with the King of Spain, who then acquired the picture on the disgrace of the intermediary. Rubens, arriving at the Spanish court in 1628, repainted, extended and refashioned the picture to his own satisfaction (incorporating a self-portrait). The picture in due course passed from royal possession to the Prado in Madrid.
The Prado Adoration of the Magi is thus not only a most important work in the painter’s career, but incorporates a dialogue by the painter with himself. The picture has been newly conserved, and following the dialogue has been made easier by the existence of a copy in a private collection of the 1609 version of the much altered work. It has been the fascinating task of Prado curator Alejandro Vergara and the Prado conservation department to investigate the changes Rubens made and their motivation, while Joost vander Auwara provides a new analysis, employing new documents and rereading known ones, of the intentions and iconography of the original Antwerp commission.
The book is very beautifully printed and illustrated with a multitude of splendid details of the Adoration and a wealth of comparative material. This English edition has been produced in association with the Museo del Prado, Madrid.
21. Claude Monet: Cathedrale de Rouen (1894) – Musee National d’Orsay, Paris
“Everything changes, even stone.” Claude Monet wrote these words in a letter and vividly demonstrated them in paint, conveying a wondrous combination of permanence and mutability as the sun daily transformed the facade of Rouen Cathedral. Extending the building’s encrusted stone surface to the richly varied impasto surface of his painting, he portrayed the cathedral perpetually re-emerging in the suffused light of early morning.
Monet created several groups of paintings exploring the color, light, and form of a single subject at various times of day, but his Rouen Cathedral series was his most intense effort on a single site. He painted there in late winter in both 1892 and 1893, then reworked his thirty canvases from memory in the studio through 1894. He began this example in 1893, working in an improvised studio in the front room of a dressmaker’s shop across from the cathedral.
After creating a coherent ensemble, Monet selected twenty paintings that he considered “complete” and “perfect,” including this one, for an exhibition at his Paris dealer’s gallery in May 1895. Pissarro and Cézanne visited and praised the series, and patrons quickly purchased eight paintings from the group.
22. El Greco: Toledo (1599) – Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In this, his greatest surviving landscape, El Greco portrays the city he lived and worked in for most of his life. The painting belongs to the tradition of emblematic city views, rather than a faithful documentary description. The view of the eastern section of Toledo from the north would have excluded the cathedral, which the artist therefore imaginatively moved to the left of the Alcázar (the royal palace). Other buildings represented in the painting include the ancient Alcántara Bridge, and on the other side of the river Tagus, the Castle of San Servando.
23. Giotto di Bondone: Cappella degli Scrovegni (1305) – Padova
Enrico Scrovegni of Padua, ambitious son of the rich Reginaldo, whom Dante Alighieri had consigned to hell as a usurer in his “Divine Comedy”, was planning to build a palace and a private chapel. To this end, in the year 1300, he purchased a large piece of land in the area around the Roman amphitheatre – known as the Arena. Of these impressive buildings, only the single-nave church remains. Constructed using clear, simple forms, it is referred to mostly as the “Arena Chapel” after its location, or as the “Scrovegni Chapel” after its donor. The redemption of his father and the saving of his own soul were his foremost considerations when making this donation. The church was therefore dedicated on 16 March 1305 to Saint Mary of Charity.
Today, it is Giotto’s frescoes in the interior of the chapel which reflect the honour of the donor most of all, and it is the fact that he is portrayed on the side of the Blessed at the Last Judgment that has recorded his face for posterity.
Vaulted by a starry sky with the two centres of Christ and Mary, the Last Judgment in the west and the Annunciation in the east, witnessed by God, frame the nave of the church. In between the two, the story of Mary is narrated on the upper register of the walls – beginning with scenes from the lives of her parents, Joachim and Anne – and the youth of Christ and the story of his Passion are narrated on the two lower registers. To a great extent the representations follow the “Legenda aurea”, a collection of legends of the saints, written by Jacobus da Voragine in 1264. The narrative cycles rest on a painted dado. This complements the pictorial program, and proves to be one of the inventions with which Giotto renewed art, even in what is supposed to be only a secondary setting.
Giotto and his assistants painted from top to bottom. Since the painting was executed alfresco, moist plaster had to be applied only to a surface of sufficient size to be decorated in one day. We can assume that preliminary drawings were made for individual picture fields, so that Giotto could leave the execution of the secondary figures, the backgrounds and the decorative bands to members of his workshop. Without assistants and specialists, it would not have been possible to realize such an extensive decorative program in the short space of two to three years. Even if expert art historians believe they can identify individual assistants on the basis of stylistic characteristics, both in Padua and in the later frescoes for the Lower Church at Assisi and the Florentine church of Santa Croce, each of these paintings nevertheless appears as a unified whole, showing the hand of the master and bearing the stamp of his talent for invention.
The frescoes in the Arena Chapel have always been considered as Giotto’s first mature masterpiece, and at the same time as an important milestone in the development of western painting.
24. Lucas Cranach: The Fountain of Youth (1546) – Staatliche Museen, Berlin
Cranach’s painting is about the human yearning for immortality and eternal youth. Human beings dream of being young again, of leaving the worn outer shell and exchanging it for a new one. The notion of the cleansing power of the elements, especially of water, is as old as humankind itself. The centre of the scene is a pool filled with water. Some steps lead down to the pool, which is surrounded by a fantastic landscape far from civilisation. People have undertaken arduous journeys to reach this solitary spot and bathe in the miraculous waters.
In the left half of the picture wrinkled and frail old women are brought up on carts and stretchers. They are undressed and examined by a doctor before stepping into the water where the gradual process of rejuvenation takes place. Their wrinkles and old sallow skin disappear, their flesh becomes rosy and smooth, and they turn into young girls. As they emerge from the water they are welcomed by a cavalier who shows them to a tent where they receive new clothes. Old peasant women are transformed into young ladies of the court who indulge in the carefree pleasures of life. The jollifications at the festive table, the dancing, music and lovemaking, all take place in a lush flowering landscape. These are the realms of eternal youth, to which the hardships of old age, set in a barren rocky landscape on the left side of the picture, form a stark contrast.
The fountain spouting water from the spring into the pool bears the statues of Venus and Cupid – evidence that this is actually a fountain of love rather than youth, and that the power of love is the true source of immortality.
25. Georges Seurat: La Parade du Cirque (1888) – Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
At the Salon des Indépendants in 1888 Seurat demonstrated the versatility of his technique by exhibiting Circus Sideshow, a nighttime outdoor scene in artificial light, and Models, an indoor, daylight scene (Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia). This is Seurat’s first nocturnal painting and his first depiction of popular entertainment. It represents the parade, or sideshow, of the Circus Corvi, which had set up near the place de la Nation in Paris in the spring of 1887. Sideshows were held on the street, for free, to entice passersby to purchase tickets. The onlookers at the far right are queued on stairs leading to the box office.
26. Ernst Max: The Entire City (1935-1936) – Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland
A crumbling city looms oppressively below the ring-shaped moon. Ernst made a whole series of such works. The imagery may reflect his pessimism as Nazism took hold in his native Germany. The ruined cityscape was created using a technique that Ernst called ‘grattage’ (scraping).
It involved placing the canvas over planks of wood or other textured surfaces, then scraping paint across it. The shapes that emerged formed the basis of the image. Grattage was one of a number of techniques that Surrealist artists explored as a way of letting a chance element into their work.
27. Rembrandt: The Night Watch (1642) – Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
“The night watch” is one of the most important paintings of the whole history of Art, and with no doubt one of the most complex. The in-depth analysis of this sensational scene is a task that has occupied hundreds of students for centuries, a study that have identified almost the totality of the 28 (30 before an unfortunate cut) personages – including three children and a dog, among them Captain Purmerlandt and his Lieutenant Von Vlaerdingen. Researches rescued copies of the original composition before its mutilation, and tried to explain the remarkable effects of movement of the figures in this painting, the zenith of Rembrandt’s powers.
How this effect of dynamism can be explained? Rembrandt has represented the exact moment in which the captain of the company has ordered the advance of his men, but this order seems to have not arrived yet to his subordinates. This tension between motion and immobility gives the picture an irresistible magnetism. One almost hopes that, if we look at the painting for a couple of minutes, the captain and his lieutenant will begin the march, their subordinates will follow them after a few hesitations, and the man of the right will begin a fast drum roll accompanied by the barks of the small dog.
And there is more, much more. The brilliant effects of thechiaroscuro, with an almost mystical light that emphasizes the figure of the girl carrying a chicken and the almost hidden architecture in the background. The way in which the spears and banners close the scene in the upper side. The fast and spontaneous way in which the faces are painted. All in all, an essential work for the history of Western Painting.
28. Jan van Eyck: Madonna in the Church (1425) – Gemaldegalerie, Berlin
The figure of the Madonna, represented in supernatural size standing in the nave of a Gothic church, alludes to the fact that the mother of Christ has often been described as a ‘templum’ or ‘domus dei’ since Christ, during his incarnation, lived in her as in a temple.
The asymmetric composition, unusual at Van Eyck, is explained by the fact that this panel was the left wing of a diptych. The other wing is lost but contemporary copies prove the correctness of this assumption.
29. Pieter Brueghel: The Battle Between Carnival and Lent (1559) – Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien
The Fight between Carnival and Lent depicts a common festival held in the Southern Netherlands. On the left side of the painting there is an inn, and in the right side of the painting there is a church. The juxtaposition is meant to illustrate the two sides of human nature: pleasure and religious chastity, and the contrast between the two. Near the church sit well-behaved children. Near the inn are rambunctious drunkards. The fat man in the middle of the painting, with the pie on his head, is a representation of “carnival.” The painting represents a common theme in 16th century Europe, the battle between Carnival and Lent, and with its humor and witticism, is a satirical critique on the conflicts of the Reformation.
30. Leonardo: Mona Lisa (c. 1503–06, perhaps continuing until c. 1517) – Louvre, Paris
The Mona Lisa was one of Leonardo’s favourite paintings, and he carried it with him until he died. Today, it is regarded as the most famous painting in the world, and is visited by many thousands of people every year.
Who is this familiar figure? Many suggestions have been made, but the most likely candidate is Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant.
Another more unlikely – but popular – theory is that the painting was a self portrait. There are certainly similarities between the facial features of the Mona Lisa and of the artist’s self portrait painted many years later. Could this be why Leonardo gave the subject such an enigmatic smile?
Today, the Mona Lisa looks rather sombre, in dull shades of brown and yellow. This is due to a layer of varnish covering the paint, which has yellowed over the years. It is possible that the painting was once brighter and more colourful than it is now.
The Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, by a former employee who believed the painting belonged in Italy. The thief walked out of the gallery with the picture underneath his painter’s smock. He was apprehended by police two years later, and the painting was safely returned.
31. Raffaello: Transfiguration (1519) – Pinacoteca Vaticana, Roma
Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici commissioned the Transfiguration in 1517 to Raphael for the French Cathedral of Narbonne. Bad health prevented Raphael from finishing it. The painting, however, remained in Rome in San Pietro in Montorio after 1523. Taken to Paris 1797, it was brought back in its present location in 1815.
The composition of the Transfiguration is divided into two distinct parts: the Miracle of the Possessed Boy on a lower level; and the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor, in the background. The transfigured Christ floats in an aura of light and clouds above the hill, accompanied by Moses and Elijah. Below, on the ground, are his disciples. Some are dazzled by the light of glory, others are in prayer. The gestures of the crowd beholding at the miracle link the two parts together: the raised hands of the crowd converge toward the figure of Christ. In this very grand composition Raphael has summed up all the elements present in the best of contemporary painting, including references to classical antiquity, Leonardo da Vinci (without doubt based on his recall of impressions garnered during his stay in Florence) and – not without a certain narcissism – himself. The works set the stage (just as surely as Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo) for Mannerism.
The numerous drawings (both by Raphael and pupils) for the characters in the painting, together with the number of variants of the first draft which were revealed by restoration work in 1977, show just exactly how carefully meditated a composition it is. The restoration also dispelled any doubts as to the authenticity of the attribution to Raphael; the retouching and corrections are proof that the painting (although unfinished) is actually entirely in his hand.
The Transfiguration is the last bequest of an artist whose brief life was rich in inspiration, where doubt or tension had no place. Raphael’s life was spent in thoughts of great harmony and balance. This is one of the reasons why Raphael appears as the best interpreter of the art of his time and has been admired and studied in every century.
On 6 April 1520, precisely 37 years after he was born, Raphael died in Rome, the city that he had helped make the most important centre of art and culture that had ever existed.
32. Henri Rousseau: Sleeping Gypsy (1897) – Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Sleeping Gypsy is created by Henri Rousseau at 1897. With a mysterious poetry, the lion visits the gypsy woman and her mandolin in this masterful composition that somehow employs hard lines and flattish perspectives to great advantage.
In The Sleeping Gypsy, Rousseau portrays an African gypsy in a desert wearing an Oriental costume. She lies beside an Italian stringed instrument and jar of water. These items each have significant importance to the cultures in which they belong. The Oriental frock and mandolin are all customary to their respective Asian and Italian cultures. However, Rousseau decides to mix them all together in his own painting.
Rousseau was largely a self-taught painter.Although he had ambitions of entering the academy, this was never realized. But the sharp colors, fantastic imagery, and precise outlines in his work derived from the style and subject matter of popular print culturestruck a chord with a younger generation of avant-garde painters.
Rousseau described the subject of The Sleeping Gypsy thus:
“A wandering Negress, a mandolin player, lies with her jar beside her (a vase with drinking water), overcome by fatigue in a deep sleep. A lion chances to pass by, picks up her scent yet does not devour her. There is a moonlight effect, very poetic.”
The fantastical depiction of a lion musing over a sleeping woman on a moonlit night is one of the most recognizable artworks of modern times.
33. Piero della Francesca: Leggenda della Vera Croce (1460) – S.Francesco, Arezzo
In the main choir chapel (Cappella Maggiore) of San Francesco, the Franciscan church in Arezzo, Piero della Francesca painted a fresco cycle narrating the stories of the True Cross (the cross on which Christ was crucified). The subject-matter of the stories illustrated by Piero is drawn from Jacobus de Voragine’s “Golden Legend”, a 13th century text that recounts the miraculous story of the wood of Christ’s Cross. The story tells how Adam, on his deathbed, sends his son Seth to Archangel Michael, who gives him some seedlings from the tree original sin to be placed in his father’s mouth at the moment of his death. The tree that grows on the patriarch’s grave is chopped down by King Solomon and its wood, which could not be used for anything else, is thrown across a stream to serve as a bridge. The Queen of Sheba, on her journey to see Solomon and hear his words of wisdom, is about to cross the stream, when by a miracle she learns that the Saviour will be crucified on that wood. She kneels in devout adoration. When Solomon discovers the nature of the divine message received by the Queen of Sheba, he orders that the bridge be removed and the wood, which will cause the end of the kingdom of the Jews, be buried. But the wood is found and, after a second premonitory message, becomes the instrument of the Passion.
Three centuries later, just before the battle of Ponte Milvio against Maxentius, Emperor Constantine is told in a dream, that he must fight in the name of the Cross to overcome his enemy. After Constantine’s victory, his mother Helena travels to Jerusalem to recover the miraculous wood. No one knows where the relic of the Cross is, except a Jew called Judas. Judas is tortured in a well and confesses that he knows the temple where the three crosses of Calvary are hidden. Helena orders that the temple be destroyed; the three crosses are found and the True Cross is recognized because it causes the miraculous resurrection of a dead youth. In the year 615, the Persian King Chosroes steals the wood, setting it up as an object of worship. The Eastern Emperor Heraclius wages war on the Persian King and, having defeated him, returns to Jerusalem with the Holy Wood. But a divine power prevents the emperor from making his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. So Heraclius, setting aside all pomp and magnificence, enters the city carrying the Cross in a gesture of humility, following Jesus Christ’s example.
34. Vincent van Gogh: Potato Eaters (1885) – Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
For The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh’s first major work, he wanted to depict peasants as they really were. He thus chose coarse and ugly models, so they would look as natural as possible in the final work. He made sketches of the work and sent them to his brother, who helped Van Gogh make adjustment in the composition. As far as two years after Van Gogh completed this painting, he considered it his finest work. This painting has also been a main target for art thieves, who have stolen it not once, but twice times. An early version of the painting was stolen in 1988, but later returned with no ransom, and again in 1991, when it was abandoned by the thieves and recovered.
35. Pieter Bruegel: Dutch Proverbs (1559) – Gemaldegalerie, Berlin
In 1559 the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted the panelNederlandse Spreekwoorden including on it literal illustrations of more than a hundred Dutch language proverbs.
Many of these proverbs focus on the absurdity of much of our human behaviour and Bruegel’s renditions reinforce this interpretation portraying a world literally turned upside down. At the same time some of the more serious proverbs illustrate the dangers of folly, which leads to sin.
36. El Greco: La Crucifixion (1594) – Prado, Madrid
Christ on the Cross, at the moment of expiration, with the Virgin and Saint John, and at the foot of the Cross, the Magdalene. Probably originally above the Annunciation, in the retable of the Colegio of Doña María. This painting and the Annunciation are the two widest of the series.
Already, in Santo Domingo el Antiguo, the artist had sensibly related together in composition the two central paintings of the high altar, the Assumption and Trinity. Again, there is this compositional relationship of the two paintings, but there is also something more in this bringing together of the two so diverse yet intimately related themes of the Virgin’s reception of the Holy Ghost, and Christ’s giving up of the Holy Ghost. One subject represents one of the Joys of the Virgin, and the other incorporates one of Her Griefs. Each painting is divided horizontally in three. The figure of Christ of the Expiration is a continuation upwards of the central zone of the Annunciation with the Flames and the Dove; the figure of the Archangel Gabriel has its counterpart in the figure of Saint John; and the Virgin of Joy appears above as the Virgin of Grief.
This painting of the Crucifixion is one of the great interpretations of the subject in painting and almost inevitably brings to mind two other great Crucifixions, Grünewald’s of the Isenheim Altar and Giotto’s of the Arena Chapel. El Greco has introduced more of those symbols embodying spiritual emotions: the clamouring angels with outstretched arms encircling the Body of Christ – strangely recalling Giotto’s painting – and the remarkable figure of the angel at the foot of the Cross.
37. Georges Seurat: A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884, 1884/86) – Art Institute, Chicago
This is Seurat’s final study for his monumental painting of Parisians at leisure on an island in the Seine (Art Institute of Chicago). Contrasting pigments are woven together with small, patchy brushstrokes, whereas in the mural-sized park scene—which debuted two years later at the 1886 Impressionist exhibition—Seurat used tighter, dot-like dabs of paint, a technique which came to be known as Pointillism (from the French word point, or dot). He preferred the term Divisionism—the principle of separating color into small touches placed side-by-side and meant to blend in the eye of the viewer.
38. Albrecht Altdorfer: The Battle of Alexander the Great (1529) – Alte Pinakothek, Munchen
This is the most famous painting of Altdorfer. Its subject is the victory of the young Alexander the Great in 333 B.C. over the Persian army of King Darius in the battle of Issos. The battle in fact took place in Turkey, however, on this painting it is shown in the rocky environment of the Alps with German cities in the background.
The viewer, endowed with telescopic vision, witnesses the battle and the cosmic landscape. The ebb and flow of battle makes it difficult initially to distinguish the two sides. Altdorfer dressed the Macedonians like German knights and landsknechts (mercenary foot-soldiers), while the Persian warriors sport turbans and exotic attires. Hundreds of riders and foot-soldiers skirmish within sight of their battle standards. Darius’ chariot, with mounted steel blades, cuts a path through the throng. Alexander, riding on Bucephalus, and some of his knights are in close pursuit. Darius escaped but at great cost: according to the tablet above, 100.000 Persian soldiers and 10.000 riders died. Although the actual toll was lower, Darius’ army was decimated and his family was captured.
39. Claude Monet: The Grainstack (1890-1891) – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
In 1890 and 1891, Monet painted a group of pictures of the stacks of wheat (referred to as grainstacks or haystacks) in the fields near his home, exhibiting them as a series to great critical acclaim in 1891. Traditionally, the motifs in Monet’s series paintings have been seen merely as vehicles through which he could explore the interaction of light, color, and form over the course of the day and in different weather conditions. But scholars have recently proposed that Monet was equally interested in the meaning and significance of the motifs themselves. Grainstacks, for example, are traditional symbols of the land’s fertility, the local farmers’ material wealth, and the region’s prosperity.
40. Klee: Ad Marginem (1930) – Kunstmuseum, Basel
Like fishing nets, Klee’s formal themes dive into the sea of the unconscious in order to bring past experiences to the surface of the work. His work, which is extremely thoughtful, is wholly concerned with the development of formal themes, so much so that all figurative form remains at the primary expressive level of a sign bordering on a pictograph. Whether it is a question of forms or themes, Klee’s work is filled with a richness that no other painter of this century has attained. No one else but Klee has scrutinized artistic means more closely: line, surface, body, space, value and tone, chromatic value and structure – or better adapted them to suit his purpose. No one else but he has welcomed and brought forth from the unconscious into the visible world such variety: plants, creatures, humans, houses, tools, vehicles, gardens, mountains, stars . . .
Ad Marginem (On the Edge) has its point of departure in a purely formal idea of pushing plants and crystals from the four edges of the frame toward a meeting with the dark sun, which from the inner part of the picture draws forth their afflicted growth. A fabulous world from far away, engulfed, covered with rust and lichen, and flecked with stains, seems to be rising up. “The sun warmed by mist, which then does battle with it,” wrote Klee in an 1899 poem. This painting was done in 1930, during the Bauhaus period. Klee went back to Bern in December of 1933, and during 1935-1936 he worked again on this watercolor. The veil of melancholy that stretches over it accords with the change in his feelings as wel as his environment.
“I have met the animals of the soul, the birds of intelligence, fish from the heart, and the plants of dreams,” wrote Rene Crevel in 1929, “tiny creature with boundless eyes, sea-weed free of any rock hello-to-you and thank-you beings, vegetation, ant things who cannot live in the world we know, bu who nevertheless seem more stable and real in you surreal intangibility than our houses, gasburners cafes and banal loves.”
This painting takes us to the edge of things, wher we are haunted by these marginal figures on th borders of reality itself.
41. Rembrandt: Belshazzar’s Feast (1635) – National Gallery, London
Late in the 1640s Rembrandt began to watch Jews more carefully, and to characterize them more deeply than before. Rembrandt had the opportunity to study the Jewish population of Amsterdam. From the time he purchased his large house in the Sint-Anthonisbreestraat (later the Jodenbreestraat) in 1639 until he was forced to sell it in 1658 he lived on the edge of the largest Jewish community in Holland. Among his Jewish acquaintances were the distinguished rabbi, author, and printer Menasseh ben Israel and the physician Ephraim Bonus; he made portraits of Bonus and perhaps one of Menasseh too. Menasseh, who lived near Rembrandt, commissioned the artist to illustrate one of his own books and he most probably provided him with the form of the cryptic Aramaic Menetekel inscription from the Book of Daniel that appears on the wall in his spectacularly dramatic Belshazzar’s Feast.
The scene illustrates chapter 5 of the Old Testament Book of Daniel. Belshazzar, King of Babylon, gave a great feast at which wine was drunk in the golden and silver vessels looted by his father Nebuchadnezzar, from the temple in Jerusalem, and ‘gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone…which see not, nor hear, nor know’ were praised while God himself was not glorified. And there ‘came forth fingers of a man’s hand and wrote…upon the plaster of the wall’. Only the Jewish seer Daniel was able to read the supernatural inscription MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN which foretold the defeat – in fact, the death – of Belshazzar that same night and the partition of his kingdom among the Medes and the Persians.
Rembrandt’s intense familiary with the physiognomies of the Spanish Jews (the Sephardim) and the Eastern Jews (the Ashkenazim), who were allowed to live in Amsterdam in relative freedom during the seventeenth century, helped him to enrich his biblical representations. His interest in them was not merely a romantic and pictorial one. To Rembrandt the Jews were the people of the Bible, and with his deepening realism he wanted to become more authentic in his biblical representations. He found among them inspiration for mildly passive and emotional characters, and he also studied the harder and more intellectual types, who show the perseverance of the Jews and furnished models for his figures of the Pharisees. Even more remarkable is the series of portraits of Jesus made around the same time which are based on a Jewish model. Rembrandt, it seems, was the first artist to derive his Christ-type from a personal study of Jews.
42. Vincent van Gogh: Cypresses (1889) – Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Cypresses was painted in late June 1889, shortly after Van Gogh began his yearlong stay at the asylum in Saint-Rémy. The subject, which he found “beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk,” both captivated and challenged the artist: “It’s the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape, but it’s one of the most interesting dark notes, the most difficult to hit off exactly that I can imagine.” One of two close-up views of the “very tall and massive” trees in a vertical format (the other is in the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), Cypresseswas shown in the 1890 Salon des Indépendants.
43. Peter Paul Rubens: St Augustine (1639) – National Gallery, Prague
The painting was commissioned for the high altar of the St Thomas Church of the Augustinian Order where it remained until 1896.
44. Jan van Eyck: Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) – National Gallery, London
This work is a portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, but is not intended as a record of their wedding. His wife is not pregnant, as is often thought, but holding up her full-skirted dress in the contemporary fashion. Arnolfini was a member of a merchant family from Lucca living in Bruges. The couple are shown in a well-appointed interior.
The ornate Latin signature translates as ‘Jan van Eyck was here 1434’. The similarity to modern graffiti is not accidental. Van Eyck often inscribed his pictures in a witty way. The mirror reflects two figures in the doorway. One may be the painter himself. Arnolfini raises his right hand as he faces them, perhaps as a greeting.
Van Eyck was intensely interested in the effects of light: oil paint allowed him to depict it with great subtlety in this picture, notably on the gleaming brass chandelier.
45. Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Bal du Moulin de la Galette (1876) – Musee National d’Orsay, Paris
Dance at Moulin de la Galette is one of Impressionism’s most highly revered masterpieces. The scene is of a Sunday afternoon at Moulin de la Galette, where Parisians would typically dress up and spend all day dancing, drinking, and eating galettes, or flat cakes. The painting was in the collection of Gustave Caillebotte, but it was claimed by the French government upon his death due to the non payment of death duties. It was later transferred from the Luxembourg Museum, to the Louvre, and then later to the Musee d’Orsay. Its sale price at auction in 2009 was the fifth highest price ever paid for a painting at auction.
46. Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Le Dejeuner des Canotiers (1881) – Phillips Collection, Washington
Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir remains the best known and most popular work of art at The Phillips Collection, just as Duncan Phillips imagined it would be when he bought it in 1923. The painting captures an idyllic atmosphere as Renoir’s friends share food, wine, and conversation on a balcony overlooking the Seine at the Maison Fournaise restaurant in Chatou. Parisians flocked to the Maison Fournaise to rent rowing skiffs, eat a good meal, or stay the night.
The painting also reflects the changing character of French society in the mid- to late 19th century. The restaurant welcomed customers of many classes, including businessmen, society women, artists, actresses, writers, critics, seamstresses, and shop girls. This diverse group embodied a new, modern Parisian society.
Renoir seems to have composed this complicated scene without advance studies or underdrawing. He spent months making numerous changes to the canvas, painting the individual figures when his models were available, and adding the striped awning along the top edge. Nonetheless, Renoir retained the freshness of his vision, even as he revised, rearranged, and crafted an exquisite work of art.
47. Francisco Goya: El Aquelarre (1819–1823) – Prado, Madrid
The painting depicts Satan surrounded by a group of frightened and disturbingly disfigured witches. Satan appears as a near-shadow goat man whose characteristics are not easily seen or determined. The “goat man” appears with a wide-open mouth as if it is screaming curses (or instructions) to his nearby followers. It appeals to the contemporary belief that power is asserted through fear – and not from respect for authority or title. The women vary in age but share a similar distortion throughout the work. They seem frightened but overwhelmingly docile as if they acquiesce to Satan’s orders and intent to obey. It is considered to be a part of the fourteen or more paintings depicting Goya’s “Black Paintings.”
48. Diego Velázquez: Las Meninas (1656) – Prado, Madrid
Las Meninas was painted in 1656 by Diego Velázquez and is considered to be one of the best and most intriguing paintings of this era. The painting’s composition is highly elaborate and challenges the perceptions of illusion and reality as well as the status and involvement of the subjects and the audience.
49. Marc Chagall: I and the Village (1911) – Museum of Modern Art, New York
This early work clearly shows both the Cubist and Fauvist influences at play in Chagall’s canvas, yet unlike the works of Picasso or Matisse, Chagall is far more playful and liberal with decorative elements, creating a pastoral paradise out of the Russian countryside. It is an early sign of the approach that would make the artist famous and influential: a blend of the modern and the figurative, with a light, whimsical tone. Chagall depicts a fairy tale in which a cow dreams of a milk maid and a man and wife (one upright,one upside down) frolic in the work fields. Abstraction is at the heart of this work, but it exists to decorate the picture rather than invite analysis of the images.
50. Van der Weyden: Deposition (1435) – Prado, Madrid
This is the oldest work that with some degree of certainty may be attributed to Rogier van der Weyden; the master never signed his work. If this is the case, it is probably also his most impressive work. As an altarpiece it was intended for a chapel in Leuven, but fell into Spanish hands in the 16th century. Today, it is on display in the Prado in Madrid.
In the center, Jesus is taken down from the cross by a bearded Joseph of Arimathea and a well-dressed Nicodemus. Christ’s pale body forms an arch with the upper arm of the woman on the left: Mary Magdalene, known by her low-cut dress.
Christ’s body is almost immaculate apart from his wounds; the holes in his hand and feet, the blood on his forehead from his crown of thorns, and the cut inflicted by a Roman spear.
The woman in blue is Mary, Jesus’ mother. Her immense grief causes her to faint. In her fall, her body takes on the same shape as her son’s, implying that her suffering is close to his.
The skull on the foreground reminds us that we are looking at Golgotha, the Mount of Skulls. (There is a straight line across the painting between the skull’s eyes and the eyes of Nicodemus.)
Despite all the action and people participating in it – ten in all – Van der Weyden manages to create an atmosphere which is both convincing and intimate without a sense of crowdedness.
51. Rembrandt: Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (1632) – Mauritshuis, Den Haag
Rembrandt was only twenty-five when he was asked to paint the portraits of the Amsterdam surgeons. The portrait was commissioned for the anatomy lesson given by Dr Nicolaes Tulp in January 1632. Rembrandt portrayed the surgeons in action, and they are all looking at different things. Dynamism is added to the scene by the great contrasts between light and dark. In this group portrait, the young painter displayed his legendary technique and his great talent for painting lifelike portraits.
52. Jan van Eyck: Rinaldo and Armida (1734) – Louvre, Paris
The artist’s 1734 admission piece for the Academy, this painting is inspired by Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, a romantic poem of the First Crusade. Armida holds Rinaldo captive in her enchanted palace. Arriving to rescue their companion are Carlo and Ubaldo: hidden at right, they surprise him love-stricken at the feet of the enchantress.
The moment of love
Boucher chose the moment when Rinaldo’s two friends – visible at the right between two columns of the ruined temple – find him still in his armor but captivated by Armida’s beauty. At right, Cupid aims an arrow at Rinaldo, evoking the ties of love that now bind the young crusader to the enchantress Armida.
Under a spell
The story recounted in this painting is taken from an episode in Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, first published in 1581. On his way to Jerusalem the crusader Rinaldo is seduced by the young Saracen Armida, who is vexed at having conquered the hearts of all the crusaders except one: Rinaldo. By means of a spell she finally succeeds in ensnaring him, and thereafter keeps him prisoner of her charms. But Armida is then torn between the genuine love she feels for the young man and her fury at having to resort to spells. Two of Rinaldo’s friends, Carlo and Ubaldo, make a rescue attempt. The ruined architecture, which serves as the setting, represents the enchanted palace where Armida keeps Rinaldo captive.
An admission piece
This painting is Boucher’s 1734 admission piece for the Royal Academy. The work remained in the Academy collections throughout the 18th century and eventually entered the Muséum Central des Arts de la République, which would later become the Louvre.
53. Henri Rousseau: Carnival Evening (1886) – Museum of Art, Philadelphia
Carnival Evening shows two dark figures dressed in carnival outfits, the man looking almost like a clown; the woman in a dress with a cone shaped hat, standing in a dark forest. Their faces are difficult to make out completely, however they seem quiet and sad, unlike the joy one would expect to feel if having just been at a carnival. The sky is a dark indigo color with a bright moon and gray clouds at the bottom.
An air of mystery pervades this wintry forest landscape. Dressed in festive carnival costumes, a lone couple stands in front of barren trees. The figures seem to shine from within rather than from the light of the moon, which has strangely left the forest in darkness. An unexplained face leers out from the empty hut beside the figures, and an unexpected street lamp incongruously glows nearby.
54. Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Les Parapluies/ The Umbrellas (1885-6) – National Gallery, London
Renoir’s ‘Umbrellas’ shows a bustling Paris street in the rain. The composition of the painting does not focus on the centre of the picture which is a tangle of hands. It even cuts off figures at either edge like a photographic snapshot. This kind of unconventional arrangement was something that several of the Impressionists, including Renoir and Degas, enjoyed experimenting with.
The work is particularly intriguing in that it shows the artist at two separate points in his career, the second of which was a moment of crisis as he fundamentally reconsidered his painting style.
When he began ‘The Umbrellas’ in 1880-1, Renoir was still using the typically loose brushwork and bright, pure colours of the Impressionist movement – the sort of technique he employed in ‘The Skiff (La Yole)’. During the early 1880s, he became increasingly disillusioned with the Impressionist technique.
He began to look back to more traditional art: the drawings of Ingres and the ‘purity and grandeur’ of classical art. Returning to ‘The Umbrellas’, he repainted the figure on the left in a crisper style, using a more muted palette. The rapid changes in women’s fashions allow us to date the second stage of the painting to 1885-6.
55. Jan van Eyck: Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (1435) – Louvre, Paris
Nicolas Rolin (1376-1462) was chancellor to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy. He had Van Eyck portray him sitting opposite to the virgin Mary with child.
Both Rolin and Mary are dressed in splendid gowns. Rolin’s jacket is trimmed with fur. An angel holds a crown over Mary’s head.
Van Eyck situated them in the loggia of a palace built in Italian style. In the background two figures are seen leaning over a ballustrade, thus creating a relaxed atmosphere. Van der Weydenand later Ghirlandaio also used that technique.
56. Francisco Goya: Asmodea (1820-3) – Prado, Madrid
The mural paintings that decorated the house known as “la Quinta del Sordo,” where Goya lived have come to be known as the Black Paintings, because he used so many dark pigments and blacks in them, and also because of their somber subject matter. The private and intimate character of that house allowed the artist to express himself with great liberty. He painted directly on the walls in what must have been mixed technique, as chemical analysis reveals the use of oils in these works. The Baron Émile d´Erlanger acquired “la Quinta” in 1873 and had the paintings transferred to canvas. The works suffered enormously in the process, losing a large amount of paint. Finally, the Baron donated these paintings to the State, and they were sent to the Prado Museum, where they have been on view since 1889. Brugada´s title is a reference, in female genre, to the demon in the Old Testament´s Book of Tobias, who is mentioned in El Diablo cojuelo — a seventeenth-century literary work by Vélez de Guevara— as a devil who shows the insides of houses. Here, Goya uses the flying figures that began to appear repeatedly in his work in the seventeen-nineties, when he used them in his Caprichos to represent the most common deeds of witches. Here, the flying pair direct the viewer´s gaze towards the fortress on the mountain. Two soldiers wearing French army uniforms aim their weapons at the background, where a procession advances on horseback. Despite the multiple explanations offered by art historians, these works continue to be mysterious and enigmatic, yet they present many of the esthetic problems and moral considerations appearing in Goya´s works. The mural paintings from “la Quinta del Sordo” (the Black Paintings), have been determinant in the modern-day consideration of this painter from Aragon. The German Expressionists and the Surrealist movement, as well as representative of other contemporary artistic movements, including literature and even cinema, have seen the origins of modern art in this series of compositions by an aged Goya, isolated in his own world and creating with absolute liberty.
57. El Greco: Laocoön (1610–4) – National Gallery, Washington
Widespread interest in the story of Laocoön, a mythical priest of Troy, developed after an ancient, monumental sculpture representing him and his two sons was unearthed in 1506 in Rome. Suspecting trickery, Laocoön had warned his countrymen not to accept the wooden horse left outside Troy by the Greeks and had hurled his spear at it to prove that it was hollow. Thus the priest incurred the wrath of the gods, for desecrating an object dedicated to the goddess Athena. El Greco depicted serpents, sent by the angry gods, engaging Laocoön and one son in a mortal struggle, while a second son lies already dead at his father’s side. The identity of the unfinished figures on the right continues to be debated; perhaps they represent the gods themselves supervising their vengeance.
Utilizing every available means — writhing line, lurid color, and illogically conceived space — the artist projected an unrelieved sense of doom. The figures seem incorporeal; sinuous outlines and anti–natural flesh tones contribute to their specterlike appearance. The striking setting carries this visionary late work of El Greco to an apocalyptic extreme.
Did El Greco intend to relate this mythical theme of conflict and divine retribution to the Inquisition then raging in Toledo? Whatever the case, the story of Laocoön is the only classical theme he is known to have painted.
58. René Magritte: Specchio Falso (1928) – Museum of Modern Art, New York
Le Faux Miroir presents an enormous lashless eye with a luminous cloud-swept blue sky filling the iris and an opaque, dead-black disc for a pupil. The allusive title, provided by the Belgian Surrealist writer Paul Nougé, seems to insinuate limits to the authority of optical vision: a mirror provides a mechanical reflection, but the eye is selective and subjective. Magritte’s single eye functions on multiple enigmatic levels: the viewer both looks through it, as through a window, and is looked at by it, thus seeing and being seen simultaneously. The Surrealist photographer Man Ray, who owned the work from 1933 to 1936, recognized this compelling duality when he memorably described Le Faux Miroir as a painting that “sees as much as it itself is seen.”
59. René Magritte: Condition Humain (1933) – National Gallery, Washington
Two of Magritte’s favored themes were the “window painting” and the “painting within a painting.” The Human Condition is one of Magritte’s earliest treatments of either subject, and in it he combines the two, making what may be his most subtle and profound statement of their shared meaning.
The Human Condition displays an easel placed inside a room and in front of a window. The easel holds an unframed painting of a landscape that seems in every detail contiguous with the landscape seen outside the window. At first, one automatically assumes that the painting on the easel depicts the portion of the landscape outside the window that it hides from view. After a moment’s consideration, however, one realizes that this assumption is based upon a false premise: that is, that the imagery of Magritte’s painting is real, while the painting on the easel is a representation of that reality. In fact, there is no difference between them. Both are part of the same painting, the same artistic fabrication. It is perhaps to this repeating cycle, in which the viewer, even against his will, sees the one as real and the other as representation, that Magritte’s title makes reference.
60. Augusto Giacometti: Das Kreisen der Planeten (1910) – Kunsthaus, Zurich
Augusto Giacometti (16 August 1877 – 9 June 1947) was a Swiss painter from Stampa, Graubünden, cousin of Giovanni Giacometti who was the father of Alberto, Diego and Bruno Giacometti.
He finished -among others- stained glass windows in both of the most important churches of Zürich, Grossmünster and Fraumünster, as well as the inner decoration of the so-called Waisenhaus Zürich.
From 1909 to 1913 Augusto Giacometti was a great inspiration for Czech born sculptor Helen Zelezny-Scholz.
A two-day hiking trail connects most of the locations of the family in Val Bregaglia.
61. Mark Tansey: Triumph Over Mastery II, (1987)
The painter is the quintessential Cartesian artist finally accomplishing what any Cartesian aspires to do: erase his own shadow. The white—smooth, even brush strokes that disappear into one another—effaces the red—rough, visible, confused strokes that reveal themselves to be artifacts of creation. The red of the sensual, tangible world—the red of the insides Smithson’s eyelids, pierced by sunlight; the primordial red of the algae that spins around and into Spiral Jetty; the red of the erupting sun that begins Smithson’s film—is covered by white. But the red shows through underneath, and the painter himself is the same red he is trying to hide. Tansey makes no attempt to hide his own process, leaving edges of red around the ladder that is otherwise surrounded by white at the top right of the canvas, and painting the painter with self-conscious strokes.
Triumph Over Mastery reminds us how absurd the aspiration to erase one’s own shadow is. For Tansey, one’s scopic regime is something that cannot be escaped or effaced.
62. Mark Tansey: Forward Retreat (1986) – Broad Art Foundation
Q: Forward Retreat?
A.1: “Forward Retreat” is the code name for the military maneuver wherein a country selectively withdraws its own troops from a theater of war in order to attack the enemy territory thus left undefended. More simply put, to engage in a Forward Retreat is to lie and wait, to observe tactically—to think before acting.
A.2: Forward Retreat is the title of a painting by Mark Tansey, a keenly observant British painter whose intellectual sensibilities embody the term itself. Tansey cautions wryly against grand historical narratives in this carefully constructed mise en scène, sending Western art history up the flagpole via the Pony Express.
63. Mark Tansey: Mount Sainte-Victoire (1987)
“In Tansey’s 1987 Mount Sainte-Victoire (CAT.NO.16) the soldiers of poststructuralism and deconstruction-Jean Baudrillard (seated second from left), Barthes (recumbent, lighting a cigarette), and Derrida (standing, removing his overcoat)-disrobe in the shadow of Cézanne’s mountain. Shedding their uniforms, they are transformed in their reflections into women. The men on the shore (at left) are flanked by the arching trees of Cézanne’s 1906 Bathers. All appear engulfed in the mucky depths of Plato’s cave.
Aided by Derrida’s 1978 book Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles, Tansey explores the nature of representation through the study of transformation.” These are…”optimistically suggestive of the possibilities other than those suggested by Greenberg and his cohorts.”
64. Jean-François Millet: Harvesters Resting (1853)
Millet considered this painting to be his masterpiece. This painting marked many milestones for the artist. He worked on this painting longer than any other painting. He also conceived the painting to rival the great works of Michelangelo and Poussin. This painting marked his departure of simple portrayals of peasant life to paintings that were more socially oriented. It was also the only painting that the artist dated. And last but not least, this was the only painting for which Millet ever won an award, in this case being the second place medal at the 1853 Paris Salon.
65. Paolo Veronese: The Wedding Feast at Cana (1563) – Louvre, Paris
A wedding is celebrated in a courtyard surrounded by Dorian and Corinthian columns. The setting looks more like Veronese’s 16th century Venice than like a city in Palestine. According to the gospel of John this is where Jesus performed the first of his seven miracles: he changed water into wine when the host ran out of supply.
Jesus is in the middle, next to his mother Mary. The two figures at the end of the table to the left are probably the bride and the groom. On the balustrade in the background meat is being cut. If is lamb’s meat, it could be a reference to the “Lamb of God”, the name John the Baptist used for Jesus.
In the foreground sits a group of musicians. Some think that the man in the white gown is Veronese and that the man in red is Titian. Standing between them is an hourglass, symbol of vanity. A dog – symbol of loyalty – lies chewing on a bone.
To the right a man pours wine from a water jug. The two men behind him wonder at the water that has become wine.
Veronese painted this huge canvas commissioned by the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. It would hang there in the refectory for more than two centuries, until Napoleon robbed it and took it to Paris.
The work is one of the main attractions in the Louvre: it is in the same room asMona Lisa. During a restoration in 1992 it was damaged twice. First by dripping water, and later when one of the supports gave way. Fortunately the holes could be repaired by stitching the canvas back together.
66. Hans Vredeman de Vries: Palace Architecture with Bathers (1596) – Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Wien
Hans Vredeman de Vries (1527 – c. 1607) was a Dutch Renaissance architect, painter, and engineer. Vredeman de Vries is known for his publication in 1583 on garden design and his books with many examples on ornaments(1565) and perspective (1604).
Born in Leeuwarden and raised in Friesland, in 1546 Vredeman de Vries went to Amsterdam and Kampen. In 1549 he moved to Mechelen where the Superior Court was seating. Sebastian, his brother, was the organist in the local church. Vredeman de Vries designed ornaments for merry parades of Charles V and Philip II. Studying Vitruvius and Sebastiano Serlio, (translated by his teacher Pieter Coecke van Aelst), he became an internationally known specialist in perspective. He continued his career in Antwerp, where he was appointed city architect and fortification engineer. After 1585 he fled the city because of the Spanish occupation by Alessandro Farnese. Then the Protestants had to leave the city within two years. Vredeman de Vries moved to Frankfurt and worked in Wolfenbüttel, designing a fortification and a new lay-out of the city for Julius, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg. After his death the project was cancelled and Hans worked in Hamburg, Danzig (1592), Prague (1596) and Amsterdam (1600). On his trips Vredeman was accompanied by Hendrick Aerts and his son Paul, both painters. His son Salomon was also a painter.
Vredeman de Vries tried to get an appointment at the University of Leiden in 1604. It is not known when and where Hans Vredeman de Vries died, however, it is recorded that his son Paul was living in Hamburg when he inherited.
67. Diego Velázquez: The Fable of Arachne (Las Hilanderas) (1657) – Prado, Madrid
One of the most famous of the paintings by Velázquez, and an example of his great mythological works, is The Fable of Arachne (Las Hilanderas), also known as The Tapestry Weavers or The Spinners. It was painted not for the king but for a private patron.
The mythological story of the contest between the goddess Athena (Minerva to the Romans) and the mortal woman Arachne was perhaps told best by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses (Book VI). According to Ovid, Arachne lived in the country of Lydia (which had a legendary reputation for producing some of the most splendid textiles in the ancient world), where she matured into one of the finest weavers ever known. Arachne was in fact so adept at weaving that she became arrogant, and claimed that her ability rivaled that of the goddess Athena. Athena, as the patron deity of weavers and quite an accomplished weaver herself, immediately took notice of Arachne, and travelled to Lydia in order to confront the boastful woman. There the goddess assumed the guise of an old peasant, and gently warned Arachne not to compare her talents to those of an immortal; Arachne merely dismissed this reproach, and so Athena was compelled to accept the mortal woman’s challenge.
They would each compete by creating a tapestry. Athena wove her tapestry with images that foretold the fate of humans who compared themselves with deities, while Arachne’s weaving told of the loves of the gods. Such was Arachne’s skill that her work equalled that of the goddess, and Athena, overwhelmed by anger, struck the hapless woman repeatedly. Terrified, Arachne hung herself, but Athena transformed the woman into a spider who quickly scurried off. Thus, this tale explains the spider’s ability to weave its web.
In its composition, the artist looks back to his bodegones, where two different areas and two planes of reality balance each other. The everyday scene in the foreground shows a plainly furnished room where women are at work spinning. Sunlight falling in from above conjures up a complex range of colours. On the left, an elderly woman is at the spinning wheel, while the young woman seated to the right is winding yarn. One of the figures of naked youths by Michelangelo on the roof of the Sistine Chapel has been identified as the model for her attitude. Velázquez conveys their industry with brilliant immediacy, seeming to mingle the hum of their mills with the shifts of colour in the light. Three other women are bringing more wool and sorting through the remnants. The scene may reflect the disposition of the Royal Tapestry Factory of St Elizabeth in Madrid.
There is a second room in the background, in an alcove reached by steps. It is flooded with light and contains several elegantly dressed women. The woman on the left wearing an antique helmet and with her arm raised is a figure of Athena. Opposite her – either really in the room, or part of the picture in the tapestry on the back wall? – stands the young Arachne, who has committed the sacrilegious act of comparing her skill in weaving with the goddess’s. She has begun their competition with a tapestry showing one of the love affairs of Jupiter, the rape of Europa. Velázquez borrowed the theme of this tapestry from afamous picture by Titian, also extant in a copy by Rubens, to show his artistic veneration for the Venetian master.
Around 1636 Rubens had painted a version of the same story for the Torre de la Parada, showing the punishment of Arachne, when she was turned into a spider. Velázquez omits this detail, instead treating the rivals almost as equals. By comparison with the weight of symbolism in the background scene, he shows the simple work of the women in the foreground with monumental dignity; it is the basis of the technique without which no goddess could practise her arts. This interpretation is still relevant if Velázquez has in fact represented the figures of Athena (now disguised, but with her shapely bare leg indicating her timeless beauty) and Arachne a second time in the figures of the old woman and the young woman in the foreground. Here, at least, Velázquez has transferred mythology to everyday reality. However, there is a whole series of possible meanings beneath the surface of this painting, and scholars are still puzzling over some of them to this day.
The canvas was probably damaged by a fire in the Alcázar (1734) and an upper section was added.
68. Hans Memling: Donne Triptych (1478) – National Gallery, London
A native of Germany, Memling became the leading painter in Bruges. Many pictures from his large workshop were exported to Italy, where his mode of painting landscape backgrounds, with hazy distant hills and individual leaves highlighted on the trees, influenced, among others, Perugino. Just such a background can be seen in this small altarpiece painted for the Welsh nobleman and courtier Sir John Donne, who is shown kneeling to the Virgin’s right in the centre panel. The Christ Child on her lap is blessing him, and his two name saints, John the Baptist, holding a very realistic Lamb of God, and John the Evangelist, are pictured on the shutters. In the somewhat less honorific position at the Virgin’s left kneel his wife Elizabeth and their oldest child, Anne. The two female saints are Catherine, presenting Sir John to the Virgin, andBarbara behind Lady Donne. Catherine’s identifying wheel and Barbara’s tower wittily appear as realistic incidents in the distant landscape behind them – the former as a millwheel in the water, with the miller loading a sack of flour on his donkey nearby. Angels play music and amuse the Child, who is crumpling the pages of his mother’s book, by offering him fruit – motifs often used in paintings from the Memling shop. The mood is at once homely and grand, in keeping with the architecture, part-Netherlandish domestic and part-Italianate palatial, and simultaneously pious and sunny.
Sir John and Lady Donne are shown wearing Yorkist collars of gilt roses and suns from which hangs the Lion of March pendant of King Edward IV. The altarpiece may have been commissioned when Sir John was in Bruges in 1468 for the marriage of Margaret of York, Edward’s sister, to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, or possibly on a later trip to nearby Ghent.
The reverses of the shutters depict Saint Christopher and Saint Anthony Abbot painted in tones of grey to resemble stone statues.
69. Pieter Bruegel: Babel Tower (1563) – Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien
Bruegel painted the subject of the Tower of Babel three times. The first version (now lost), very small and painted on ivory, is mentioned in the inventory of Giulio Clovio, the famous miniaturist, whom Bruegel met and collaborated with in Rome in 1553. The second version was a painting on panel, which is dated 1563 and now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the third was a smaller painting, now in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. The Rotterdam painting is generally thought to date from a year or so after the picture in Vienna. The latter is more traditional in its treatment of the subject in that it includes the visit of King Nimrod to the incomplete Tower, in the lower right-hand corner.
The story of the Tower of Babel (like that of the Suicide of Saul) was interpreted as an example of pride punished, and that is no doubt what Bruegel intended his painting to illustrate.
70. Pieter Bruegel: Procession to Calvary (1564) – Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien
The procession to Calvary comes to a dead halt when Jesus collapses under the weight of the Cross. Calvary is a different name for the Golgotha hill. To the right in the foreground a small mournful crowd has gathered around Mary and John the Evangelist.
The composition consisting of several small groups vaguely calls to mind the work of Jan van Eyck. The landscape is more Flemish than Palestinian – if it wasn’t for the strange mountain the windmill stands on.
Some think Bruegel may have tried to compare Flanders and Palestine: Flanders was governed by Spain, and Palestine was occupied by the Romans. Both were aspiring for freedom.
In 2011 a motion picture premiered about this painting: The Mill and the Cross.
71. Pieter Bruegel: Massacre of the Innocents (1567) – Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien
There are two versions of this composition by Bruegel. The original is probably the painting in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court Palace, but that panel is considerably damaged and repainted. The version in Vienna appears to be a workshop replica, perhaps completed by Bruegel himself. Both were painted around 1565-7.
As in the Procession to Calvary, Bruegel depicts a biblical event in contemporary terms. In this case he shows the sacking and plundering of a Flemish village. Such scenes were of course only too tragically familiar in Flanders during Bruegel’s lifetime, but it is unlikely that the painter intended to condemn a particular act of Spanish aggression. Bruegel was delivering a more general condemnation of war and the individual acts of atrocity which war condones.
72. Pieter Bruegel: The Census at Bethlehem (1566) – Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien
Seen from above, the snow-covered village stretches on the one side to a ruined castle and on the other, beyond the pond, as far as the church. People are going about their daily tasks: sweeping the snow, building a cabin, crossing the pond on foot next to a ferry-boat caught in the ice, gathering around a fire. The children are playing, throwing snowballs, skating, spinning their tops, sledging. In the right hand foreground, a man with a large carpenter’s saw is leading an ox and an ass, the latter bearing a women wrapped tightly in an ample blue mantle. Without attracting attention, they pick their way between the carts of beer barrels and bales. These are Joseph and Mary, who have come to Bethlehem to be enrolled in the universal census ordered by Emperor Augustus. The Gospel episode is associated with the payment of tax. And indeed to the left, the crowd is pressing in front of the tax-gatherer’s office, installed at the window of the inn, whilst in front of the door, a pig is being killed.
The picture suggests a muffled atmosphere, made more limpid by the reddening disk of the setting sun. With tiny highlights and reworkings and subtle nuances of colour, Bruegel works on the whites to evoke the snow in all its diversity: powdery and virgin, footprinted, grey and frozen from where the children have been sliding on it, slushy where trampled. The scene is punctuated with thin trees whose empty branches stand out like signposts against a clear sky, thinly painted to allow the background layer to show through.
In a masterful synthesis of religious painting, genre scene and landscape, Bruegel recomposes everyday life, revisiting the biblical story to create a picture of a rarely equalled richness, which can be read in several ways. With a few deft brushstrokes he brilliantly captures human silhouettes in the full spontaneity of their activities. Drawing his inspiration probably from the snow-covered landscapes found in Books of Hours, Bruegel is one of the first artists to paint snow scenes, a theme he returned to another four times. In his wake, the subject proved an immense success, with winter landscapes becoming a genre of their own. 14 copies of this panel are known, one of which, from the hand of Brueghel the Younger, is also in the Brussels museum.
73. Cranach, Lucas the Younger (1515-1586) – Staghunt of Prince Johann Friedrich (1544) – Kunsthistorishes Museum, Vienna
Lucas Cranach the Younger was a German Renaissance artist, known for his woodcuts and paintings. He was a son of Lucas Cranach the Elder. He began his career as an apprentice in his father’s workshop. Henceforth, his own reputation and fame grew. After his father’s death, he assumed control over the workshop. The style of their paintings can be so similar that there have been some difficulties in attribution of their works. He is known for portraits and simple versions of allegorical and mythical scenes.
74. Caravaggio: David with the Head of Goliath (1610) – Kunsthistorishes Museum, Vienna
On May 1606 Caravaggio was accused of murder and fled from Rome to distant lands (Naples, Sicily, Malta) to escape the price that had been placed on his head. His self-portrait as Goliath’s severed head, held by David his executioner, was sent to the papal court in 1610 as a kind of painted petition for pardon. In fact pardon was granted, but did not reach Caravaggio before he died in Porto Ercole.
In his David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio pays tribute to the rapid brushstrokes Titian adopts in his later works and surrounds the youth’s face with a kind of luminous halo that shines out from the dark, earthy tints surrounding the figure. David assumes the pose traditional for allegories of Justice, with a sword in the right hand but with scales instead of the head in the left. The relation to Christ, who is the ultimate judge as well as savior, is evident. David may sorrow, but even in his compassion he bears the burden of the dispensation of justice firmly. Caravaggio’s sardonic representation of himself as Goliath is despairing. It is a harrowing portrait, streaming blood, the forehead bruised and the eyes uncoordinated, the lingering spark of life in the left eye extinguished in the dull, unfocused, sightless, and lifeless right. The contrast of this image with the vigor of David’s youth is between death and life, not only of the body but also of the soul. Caravaggio has portrayed himself as damned. But his criminal escapades and the sexual irregularity intimated in his early pictures were too banal to have in themselves inspired such a sobering image. So severe a self-judgment must have been generated by a more profound spiritual malaise, whether Oedipal or Christian in origin we can only guess.
75. Peter Paul Rubens: Stormy Landscape with Philemon and Baucis (1625) – Kunsthistorishes Museum, Vienna
Stormy Landscape with Philemon and Baucis shows a stream that has raged and ruined the landscape after a storm. It has flooded fields, broken trees, and is rushing towards the foreground of the painting. Although the skies are beginning to clear and a rainbow appears in the lower left corner beside the waterfall, the storm has decimated the landscape.
The four figures on the right are Jupiter, Mercury, Philemon, and Baucis. Jupiter and Mercury come to Earth and are treated poorly by all but Philemon and Baucis. They are so outraged; they send a terrible storm to flood the land sparing only Philemon, Baucis, and their humble dwelling.
The painting is a statement about how everything is in the hands of divine powers and subject to change. Rubens is stating that there is no tree or river that cannot be turned into a living creature and no living creature that cannot be transformed into a river or a tree.
This painting demonstrates the Baroque style because it is not centered but rather is darker on the right and brighter on the left. It also has a circular feel to it because the ground slopes to the left where the where trees bring your eye to the top and the clouds sweep to the right only to be brought back down by more trees and the people.
76. Peter Paul Rubens: Feast of Venus/Vennsfest (1637) – Kunsthistorische Museum, Wien
This painting, strongly influenced by humanism, celebrates the power of love and is inspired by two literary sources: on the one hand, the description of a lost Greek painting that depicted nymphs decorating a statue of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, surrounded by adoring winged cupids. In 1518, this literary description inspired Titian – Rubens’ idol and inspiration – to execute a famous painting which was later copied by Rubens. On the other hand, Rubens’ antiquarian and archaeological interests led him to study Ovid’s “Fasti” in which the classical poet describes the Roman feast of Venus Verticordia during which the women of Latium make sacrifices (e.g. dolls, mirrors and combs) to Venus so that the goddess may preserve them from uncontrollable desire. The celebration also featured ritual ablutions both of the statue of the goddess and of the participants. Both in his free handling and the rich profusion of colours Rubens pays homage to the late Titian; however, the feeling of actual physical presence and the ecstatic intensity of resurrected Classical Antiquity are Rubens’ very own contributions.
77. Peter Paul Rubens: Miracle of St Ignatius (1618) – Kunsthistorische Museum, Wien
This altarpiece alternated with The Miracles of St. Francis Xavier as the main altarpiece in the Jesuit church at Antwerp, which was built between 1615 and 1621. Rubens was in charge of the whole decorative scheme of the church. Here Rubens has combined different scenes from the life of the founder of the Society of Jesus set in a large church interior. Some of the scenes refer to actual happenings in the saint’s life, some are part of the repertoire of everyone “who strives for sanctity”.
Unlike the spontaneous composition discernible in the preparatory modello, the carefully thought-out composition of the finished painting – mainly executed by Rubens´ workshop – increases both the individuality of the figures and the expressiveness of the whole work. Huddled groups of figures and overlappings have been eliminated in order to heighten the work´s didactic-propagandistic character, its message to believers and worshippers.
78. Johannes Vermeer: The Art of Painting (1666) – Kunsthistorische Museum, Wien
Throughout much of his career Vermeer drew inspiration from his observations of daily life, but he remained at his core a history painter, one who sought to evoke abstract meanings in his works. He used color, light, perspective, and objects including pearls, paintings, and maps – to help express the fundamental spiritual and human emotions he wished to instill in his paintings. While most of his scenes look real, in two instances, The Art of Painting and Allegory of Faith, allegory takes precedence.
In The Art of Painting Vermeer sought to indicate how the artist, through his awareness of history and his ability to paint elevated subjects, brings fame to his native city and country. Vermeer announces his allegorical intent with a large curtain, drawn back as though revealing a tableau vivant of an artist painting a young model. Her attributes a laurel wreath symbolizing honor and glory, a large book signifying history, and the trumpet of fame – identify her as Clio, the muse of history. Other objects in the elaborate interior reinforce Vermeer’s underlying concept. The large map of the Netherlands with its flanking city views was outdated when Vermeer depicted it, its age apparent from the vertical creases crossing its middle. Similarly, the chandelier, which is surmounted by a double-headed eagle, the imperial symbol of the Hapsburgs, refers to an earlier era when that dynasty ruled the country.
79. Johannes Vermeer: The Astronomer (1668) – Louvre, Paris
Signature: Signed and dated 668 on the cupboard (spurious, later additions).
Provenance: This painting and the Geographer (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt) are probably companion pieces, in spite of the fact that the sitter is looking to the left in both of them. They share the same provenance until 1778. Thus: sale Rotterdam, 1713; sale Amsterdam, 1720; sale Amsterdam, 1729; sale Amsterdam, 1778. Collection Jean-Etienne Fiseau; art dealer Lebrun, Paris; brought to Paris in 1785; sale Amsterdam, 1797; sale Amsterdam, 1800; sale Paris, 1881; collection Alphonse de Rothschild, Paris, 1888; collection Edouard de Rothschild. Abducted by Hitler during World War II. Restored to owner in 1945. Acquired by Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1983.
In view of the fact that the Astronomer and the Geographer are probably pendants, and are the only works in Vermeer’s oeuvre that represent male figures involved in scholarly pursuits, we are treating them conjointly.
Until 1778, they remained together. The signatures and dates on both paintings are questionable, but they must have been executed toward the end of the 1660s.
None of these paintings appears in the sale of 1696, and were therefore commissioned by a patron who was especially interested in astronomy or the celestial sciences. In both paintings, the references to books, scientific instruments, and, in the portrait of the Astronomer, the celestial globe by Jodocus Hondius, are accurately depicted.
The latter painting features on the rear wall a picture representing the scene of the finding of Moses, which has been interpreted as being associated with the advice of divine providence in reaching, in the case of the astronomer, for spiritual guidance.
Although farfetched, it is likely that the content of the painting is associated in some way with the meaning of the work. The sea chart on the wall of the Geographer does not have any religious association. It must be remembered that the rise of interest in scientific research at the time, fostered by the newly established University of Leyden, and philosophers like Descartes, did not have any specific religious associations. Quite to the contrary, the aim was to explore the universe, and simultaneously to further Dutch navigation in its conquest of faraway lands.
Both paintings, with their interiors of scholarly studios and scientific paraphernalia, award Vermeer the opportunity for lightening effects that envelop the scientists in the mystery of an atmosphere that lifts their occupations into the realm of spirituality.
80. Gustav Klimt: Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901) – Belvedere, Wien
Klimt depicts Judith as a femme fatale. She looks down on the viewer, her mouth voluptuously open and with her right hand she strokes the hair of Holofernes. The mountains, the fig trees and the vine stock refer to an Assyrian relief on the Palace of Sennacherib as a biblical place. Judith, also often mentioned as Salome, is a chase widow who defeats the haughty military leader of the Assyrians by plain ruse without seducing Holofernes and in a weak moment decapitates him. Klimt’s brother Ernst made the frame. The painting was first shown at the 8th International Art exhibition in Munich 1901.
81. Gustav Klimt: Apple Tree I (1912) – Belvedere, Wien
At first glance Klimt’s landscapes would seem to show a smoother line of development than his figural works. While they evidence a parallel transition from silky pseudo-Impressionism to the more crystalline painted mosaic style, the latter phase is not distinguished by the rigid geometricity and harsh metallic colors found in the portraits and allegories. Klimt’s passage into his last, most painterly period thus also transpired more organically in the landscapes, for the landscapes had never altogether succumbed to the linearity of the middle stage. In fact, it may be said that landscape was the wellspring from which much of his revitalized later art sprang, and even his portraits benefited from spatial devices perfected in this genre.
Klimt was a master of tricks that simultaneously created and destroyed the illusion of depth, and in a painting such as Apple Tree I, one can logically distinguish at least four distinct planes: the larger flowers in the foreground, the field between them and the tree, the tree itself, and the lush foliage beyond. Yet the overall pattern of brushstroke insistently informs us that this is a sham, the painting is as flat as the canvas that supports it. Such deliberate manipulation of the picture plane catered to the abstractionist tendencies that had always been inherent in Klimt’s approach to landscape. Indeed, whereas in his portraits convention (not to mention the sitter’s vanity) demanded a persistent loyalty to volumetric verisimilitude, Klimt in his landscapes was freer both in his manner of seeing and in his ultimate goals. The landscapes (with no one to please but Klimt himself) are the most purely artistic works in his oeuvre, evidencing a painter’s delight in form, color, and texture for their own sakes. Particularly in his more abstract late landscapes, Klimt achieved a unity of conception that brings these works, like the last landscapes of Claude Monet, to the very forefront of Modernism.
82. Paolo Uccello: The Battle of San Romano/Part II (1438-55) – National Gallery, London
This brilliantly structured and colourful painting depicts part of the battle of San Romano that was fought between Florence and Siena in 1432. The central figure is Niccolò da Mauruzi da Tolentino on his white charger, the leader of the victorious Florentine forces, who is identifiable by the motif of ‘Knot of Solomon’ on his banner.
This panel is one of a set of three showing incidents from the same battle. The other two are in the Louvre, Paris, and the Uffizi, Florence. This painting and its two companion panels were commissioned by the Bartolini Salimbeni family in Florence sometime between 1435 and 1460: only the Uffizi panel is signed. Lorenzo de’ Medici so coveted them that he had them forcibly removed to the Medici palace.
The pictures may originally have had arched tops designed to fit below Gothicvaults. They were made into rectangular panels in the 15th century, possibly by Uccello himself. Uccello was much preoccupied with one point linear perspective, seen here in the foreshortening of shapes and arrangement of broken lances.
83. Paolo Uccello: The Battle of San Romano/Part III (1438-55) – Louvre, Paris
Like two other pictures held by the National Gallery in London and the Uffizi in Florence, this one recounts an episode in the victory of the Florentines over the Sienese on June 1, 1432 at San Romano, near Lucca in Italy. Recent research indicates that the cycle was not, as was long thought, commissioned by Cosmo de’ Medici, but by Lionardo Bartolini Salimbeni, who played a major part in the opening of hostilities against Siena.
The counterattack by Micheletto da Cotignola
This painting was part of a group commemorating the battle between Florentines and Sienese in June 1432 at San Romano. Showing the counterattack by Florence’s ally Micheletto da Cotignola, it presents the second episode in this historical cycle. The first panel, in the National Gallery in London, portrays the beginning of hostilities, with Niccolò da Tolentino leading the Florentine troops. The third, now in the Uffizi in Florence, shows the end of the battle and the defeat of the Sienese: Bernardino della Ciarda, leading the Sienese army, has been unhorsed.
The quest for movement and the representation of form
In the presentation of the counterattack, the description of the sequence of events is a pretext for a detailed breakdown of movement. On the right the stationary warriors await the assault, with one of them preparing his weapon. In the center Micheletto da Cotignola, his black horse rearing, gives the signal for the attack. The army begins to move and on the left the cavalry charges the enemy, lances held low in the attacking position. In this way Uccello successfully creates the illusion of an overall impetus orchestrated by the lances and the horses’ hooves. Thus he brings unity to the seething mass of horsemen, infantry, crests, and standards.
For the painter this tangle seems to be an exercise in satisfying his obsession with representation of pure form according to the laws of optics. The main features are a host of foreshortenings and the presence of “mazzochi”, Florentine hats whose different aspects the artist describes in minute detail. Unlike other painters of his time, Uccello does not use his extensive knowledge of perspective to place this scene in a clearly defined space: the battle is set against a relatively dark background further obscured by the passing of the years. Unfortunately we can no longer enjoy the full impact of the horsemen’s gleaming armor, originally rendered with silver leaf that has since become tarnished.
Uccello’s quasi-scientific fixations fascinated 20th-century artists, beginning with the Cubists. His endless play with form for its own sake, together with his quest for movement in painting, gave rise to much commentary, in which he was often seen as the choreographer of a strange ballet for automata and carousel horses.
The date of this major work by Paolo Uccello is uncertain and continues to be the subject of considerable debate. Critics now tend to agree that it was commissioned and executed not long after the death of Micheletto da Cotignola in 1435, a hypothesis that would seem to be confirmed by the style, close to that of the Monument to John Hawkwood painted by Uccello c. 1436, in the Duomo in Florence.
Apparently arch-shaped when first painted, the Louvre panel was doubtless filled in at its upper corners and lower left area when, between 1479 and 1486, the three battle scenes were requisitioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici for his palace in Florence. They are described in an inventory of his bedroom taken in 1492.
84. Paolo Uccello: Saint George and the Dragon (1470) – National Gallery, London
This picture shows two episodes from the story of Saint George: his defeat of a plague-bearing dragon that had been terrorising a city; and the rescued princess bringing the dragon to heel (with her belt as a leash).
In the sky, a storm is gathering. The eye of the storm lines up with Saint George’s lance, suggesting that divine intervention has helped him to victory. Uccello uses the lance to emphasise the angle from which Saint George attacks the dragon, helping to establish a three-dimensional space. The strange patches of grass illustrate Uccello’s obsessive concern with linear perspective and his tendency to create decorative pattern.
The story is from a popular collection of saints’ lives written in the 13th century, called ‘The Golden Legend’. An earlier less dramatic version of the same subject by Uccello is in the Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris.
85. Gustav Klimt: Avenue Schloss Kammer (1912) – Belvedere, Wien
While Klimt’s first landscapes date from the early 1880s, it was not until the late 1890s that he turned consistently to landscape subjects, during summer vacations spent in the picturesque Salzkammergut, outside the city of Salzburg. Landscape painting enabled him to experiment, free from the pressure of commissioned work and the distractions of the metropolis. After the early 1900s, when Klimt eschewed large public commissions and became more dependent upon selling his work, a ready supply of new landscapes proved useful.
Klimt’s landscapes are now a highly admired aspect of his oeuvre. A particular feature of the works is their standard size and square format, a device Klimt used with their exhibition in mind. The uniformity of his landscapes in this one respect highlights their diversity in many others. Throughout, it is possible to point to corresponding shifts in Klimt’s approach to the portraits and allegories on which he worked in Vienna. Many unfinished landscapes were taken back to his Vienna studio for completion.
Klimt’s landscapes express his wider concerns with biological growth and the cycle of life. Their dazzling decorative surfaces and abstracted motifs align him with emergent modernist tendencies.
Avenue of Schloss Kammer Park recalls the symbiosis of naturalism and ornament in the contemporary work of Egon Schiele.
86. Gustav Klimt: Beech Forest I (1902) – Belvedere, Wien
Klimt seems to have felt tranquil in the middle of forests. Although the trunks are cut off by the top of the canvas, the composition is not claustrophobic. Rather, the trees reach up to the sky like columns in a cathedral created by nature. The central European countries had a long tradition of allegorical paintings of the forest. Albrecht Altdorfer (1480 – 1538) painted the first pure landscape, with towering pine trees reaching up out of the picture frame, dwarfing any sense of human scale. The rich heritage of folklore based around the forest, including Grimm’s fairy tales, may also have struck a chord with Klimt.
Rather than dwell on the mysterious, dark nature of the forest, Klimt has chosen an apparently autumnal scene, where the colours of the leaves naturally tend towards the golden tones he favoured. The tiny dabs of paint achieve a shimmering effect of light, far from the reality of dank and gloom, while the patterning of the trunks across the width of the canvas hints at a musical rhythm.
87. Gustav Klimt: Fritza Riedler (1906) – Belvedere, Wien
Fritza Riedler is one of the early portraits of Gustav Klimt. Society underwent dramatic changes at the turn of the century. Klimt’s portraits of females give an indication of the emergence of an increasingly confident middle class. His 1898 portrait of Sonja Knips elevated him to the role of portraitist of a well-heeled Viennese bourgeoisie. His likenesses of Fritza Riedler and Adele Bloch-Bauer (one of the most expensive paintings in the world) have lost nothing of their appeal to this day. Likewise that of his companion until the end of his life, Emilie Flöge, who was an emancipated and modern woman.
88. Gustav Klimt: Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) – Belvedere, Wien
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I is a 1907 painting by Gustav Klimt. According to press reports it was sold for US$135 million to Ronald Lauder for his Neue Galerie in New York City in June 2006, which made it at that time the List of most expensive paintings|most expensive painting for about 4 months. It has been on display at the gallery since July 2006.
Klimt took three years to complete the painting. It measures 138 x 138 cm and is made of oil and gold on canvas, showing elaborate and complex ornamentation as seen in the Jugendstil style. Klimt was a member of the Vienna Secession, a group of artists that broke away from the traditional way of painting. The picture was painted in Vienna and commissioned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer was born Ferdinand Bloch, the son of David Bloch (also known as Abraham Bloch), a banker and sugar factory owner, and his wife Marie, née Straschnow. Ferdinand married Adele Bauer, the daughter of Moritz Bauer (director of the Vienna bank Wiener Bankverein) and his wife Jeanette, née Honig. When Ferdinand married Adele, both adopted the surname Bloch-Bauer.As a wealthy industrialist who had made his fortune in the sugar industry, he sponsored the arts and favored and supported Gustav Klimt. Adele Bloch-BauerHer name is pronounced as in German language|German.became the only model who was painted twice by Klimt when he completed a second picture of her, Adele Bloch-Bauer II, in 1912.
Ownership of the painting
Adele Bloch-Bauer, in her will, asked her husband to donate the Klimt paintings to the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere|Austrian State Gallery upon his death. She died in 1925 from meningitis. When the Nazis took over Austria, her widowed husband had to flee to Switzerland. His property, including the Klimt paintings, was confiscated. In his 1945 testament, Bloch-Bauer designated his nephew and nieces, including Maria Altmann, as the inheritors of his estate. As Bloch-Bauer’s pictures had remained in Austria, the government took the position that the testament of Adele Bloch-Bauer had determined that these pictures were to stay there. After a protracted court battle in the United States and in Austria (see Republic of Austria v. Altmann), binding arbitration by the Austrian court established in 2006 that Maria Altmann was the rightful owner of this and four other paintings by Klimt. After the pictures were sent to America, they were on display in Los Angeles in 2006 before the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was sold to Lauder in June 2006. New York’s Neue Galerie is reported to have paid $135 million for the fifth looted Klimt portrait, Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Originally, the four additional works by Klimt were included in the exhibition. The painting is the centerpiece of Ronald Lauder’s collection, Neue Galerie in New York. Lauder’s comment on the acquisition for his Neue Gallerie collection: “This is our Mona Lisa”.However, in November 2006, Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) was sold at auction at Christie’s in New York fetching almost $88m. In total the four remaining paintings sold for $192.7 million and the proceeds were divided up among several heirs. The buyers of those paintings remain anonymous. The wish of Maria Altmann that the paintings should be accessible to the general public in a museum has not been fulfilled. Some factions of the art world called Ms. Altmann’s decision to sell all of the restituted paintings greedy. New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman accused her of “cashing in,” and thus transforming a “story about justice and redemption after the Holocaust” into “yet another tale of the crazy, intoxicating art market.” Kimmelman argued that the family should give the works away, perhaps giving them to public institutions.
Maria Altmann’s story has been recounted in three documentary films.Adele’s Wish by filmmaker Terrence Turner, who is the husband of Altmann’s great-niece, was released in 2008. Adele’s Wish featured interviews with Altmann, her lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg and leading experts from around the world. Altmann’s story was also the subject of the documentary Stealing Klimt, which was released in 2007. That movie also featured interviews with Altmann, Schoenberg, and others who were closely involved with the story. The piece was also featured in the 2006 documentary The Rape of Europa, which dealt with the massive theft of art in Europe by the Nazi Government during World War II.
89. Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden (1915) – Belvedere, Wien
We seem to be watching from above, at a high vantage point, as if from a helicopter in a war zone. The painting turns beneath our gaze, clockwise or counter-clockwise, as if our eye might be the pin at the centre of the Catherine wheel.
At first, the overall effect seems to be one of brilliant patterning. The shapes of the two central figures, desperately clinging and cleaving, so utterly dominating, appear to mimic the shapes of the hill-like forms that both surround them and seem to press forward and into them from behind. The shape of the woman’s buttocks is akin to the buttocky roundedness of those hill shapes.
The long, rising curve of the man’s back seems to mimic the idea of the upward rising of some great geological formation. That back is the world in its primal making. The two of them, utterly bonded and at one in their aloneness with each other, float above those hills, on that rucked fling of white fabric, as if this is some kind of a dream of what is happening to them. Is this a tragic clinging to life’s only certitude: death?
The painting also puts us in mind of the circumstances of Schiele’s own life at this moment. He is on the eve of conscription. Perhaps then the mood of this painting is being tainted and informed by the thought that he is being spirited away into the arms of death. He has also just chosen between two women in his life, with great callousness. One he has married, the other, a model of long standing, he has abandoned.
There is therefore a tremendous tension about all this clinging and cleaving. The figures themselves are pure, distilled essence of Schiele: that slightly awkward boniness; the tapering fingers. Schiele’s human bones often tend to look twiggy, over-extended and often even badly assembled, as if they might all of a sudden fall apart at the mighty clap of god’s hands. There is often a strange wrenching and writhing about the way in which one human relates to another, as if nothing will ever be settled. He was often inclined to paint or draw human beings in pairs, writhing around and through each other like reptiles.
After his marriage, his portraiture began to look more calm, more serene, less tortured, the human body itself a more wholesome subject altogether, less clinging to life as if to the spar of a boat in mid-ocean. Not so here. The embrace here is a strangely unsatisfactory one: repulsion and embrace all in one. Perhaps it is as much a matter of necessity rather than desire. No one can outlive the claims of death.
The man’s stare is blank and wild, disinterested, otherwhere engaged – look at that distended pupil. With the long and bony fingers of his left hand he appears to be caressing, as if dispassionately evaluating, the dome of the woman’s skull. The impulse of the other hand appears to suggest that he may be repulsed by the way in which she is exaggeratedly enwrapping him with the long curve of her left arm.
That curiously long arm of hers is rendered all the thinner, longer and stranger-looking by the fact that the sleeve of his coat part-conceals it. Her fingers – are they loosening their grip even as they embrace him? – are turning and twisting about. We have noticed that he appears to be disengaged from this embrace – even though it is everything that is happening here. She too looks askance, into the middle distance. There is no pleasure in that look of hers.
Meanwhile, everything behind and beneath them, all that agitated landscape, seems to be engaged in a kind of heaving, in-and-out breathing, erotic dance of sorts, coaxing the two of them into a dance of death. In this case, the last dance with death perhaps. Or the last dance with the jilted or jilting lover.
90. Egon Schiele: Mother with two children (1917) – Belvedere, Wien
Schiele’s feelings about motherhood were exceedingly complex. He had a poor relationship with his own mother, who tended to whine about his failure to fulfill his filial obligations rather than support him in his artistic pursuits. From Schiele’s point of view, his mother-for that matter, any mother-was little more than a useful expedient, a means to an end. It was the child who represented life and the creative spirit, as the artist confirmed in his 1911 painting The Birth of Genius. Typically, Schiele in this painting took a traditional subject from German art.
Begun and substantially completed in 1915, Mother with Two Children represents a minor meta-morphosis in Schiele’s attitude toward motherhood. At least this woman, unlike many of his earlier depictions of mothers, is not dead. The artist’s relationship to his family was improving, and he was inclined to view his mother (who posed for the present painting) more charitably. Furthermore, an infant nephew had now entered his life: The son of his sister Gerti and his best friend Anton Peschka was born toward the end of 1914. Little Anton Jr. served as the model for both babies in Mother with Two Children III. Nonetheless, the painting can hardly be considered a family portrait. Though Schiele’s orientation was conditioned by personal circumstances, his allegories were never explicitly autobiographical.
At first glance, the threesome depicted in Mother with Two Children seems to constitute a break from the duos who inhabit most of Schiele’s allegories. However, it is still the two infants who carry the weight of the picture’s message. They are, after all, a prototypical Schiele pairing, representing two antithetical and yet complementary responses to life: the one on the left passive, asleep, sightless; the other active, awake, a “seer.” The mother, by comparison, fades into the background. She may not be dead, but she is exhausted. Having already performed her most important function, she survives only to nurture passively the life she has created.
91. Egon Schiele: Herbert Rainer (1910) – Belvedere, Wien
Egon Schiele (German pronunciation: [ˈʃiːlə], approximately SHEE-luh; June 12, 1890 – October 31, 1918) was an Austrian painter. A protégé of Gustav Klimt, Schiele was a major figurative painter of the early 20th century. His work is noted for its intensity, and the many self-portraits the artist produced. The twisted body shapes and the expressive line that characterize Schiele’s paintings and drawings mark the artist as an early exponent of Expressionism.
92. Egon Schiele: Family (1918) – Belvedere, Wien
The Family, although unfinished at the time of Schiele’s death, initially entitled Squatting Couple, and shown under that title in the March Secession of 1918, is a remarkably balanced and unified composition and as such is typical of Schiele’s later style.
The addition of the child, a sentimentally painted portrait of Schiele’s nephew Toni, unifies the family group, of mother surrounded by father and son staring off into space with only Schiele confronting the viewer with a doleful smile. Mother and child create a coherent oval format with the squatting father-figure stacked behind, effectively framing the other two figures but in turn helping to stress the fact that all three are given equal visual prominence. There is little or no foreshortening; each figure has its own pictorial space.
The father-figure, with its melancholic ‘separateness,’ is closer to the darkness behind, but is still essentially integrated in painterly and thematic terms with the other figures. It forms a final self-image of resignation but lacks the angst and agony of former years.
93. Pieter Bruegel: The Sermon of St John the Baptist (1566) – Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest
Karel van Mander, in his lives of the Netherlandish painters, has described how Pieter Bruegel would regularly visit a village wedding or a fair, mixing with the crowd and making sketches of the people and their manners and clothes. He made use of these studies in his pictures of Biblical episodes, which, for the most part, served only as a pretext for depicting the everyday life of Flanders.
In this picture of St John the Baptist we recognize a village preacher at one of the religious congregations which were a feature of the Reformation. The figure of St John, however, is almost lost in the heart of the picture, the principal subject being the motley and colourful crowd – a haphazard congregation of believers, or people merely curious to see what was going on, some attentive, some bored. An abundance of detail combined with dramatic intensity, integration of figures with landscape and an expressive power unequalled in its vividness are the principal characteristics of this masterpiece.
A number of copies of this picture, both contemporary and dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, have come down to us, and many of them are in museums in Flanders (Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels), as well as in Bonn, Schwerin, Leningrad, Munich and Cracow, mostly produced with the co-operation of his sons, Pieter and Jan, and his workshop employees.
94. Pieter Bruegel: Triumph of Death (1562) – Kunstmuseum, Basel
This painting is a brutal illustration of many types of people being indiscriminately taken by death. Skeletons are murdering hundreds of people, everyone from peasants to nobles, and from children to the King. None are spared their fate at the hands of death. This painting illustrates the influence of the Dutch master painter Hieronymous Bosch, who also painted demonic illustrations of death and the supernatural, on Brueghel’s work. Brueghel created a few of these demonological paintings, including Mad Meg, but soon returned to his genre paintings of peasants and landscapes. This painting has also been referred to in popular culture, in books, on the cover of CD albums, and even in video games.
95. Hans Holbein: Nikolaus Kratzer (1528) – Louvre, Paris
Kratzer (1487 – c.1550) was born in Munich and studied in Cologne and Wittenberg. From a letter sent by Petrus Aegidius to Erasmus on January 19, 1517, we know that “Nicolaus Bavarus” was due to travel from Antwerp to Brussels to sell astronomical equipment. In the same year, Kratzer was appointed professor in Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and henceforth remained in England. A humanist, he was a close friend of Thomas More and from 1519 the royal court astronomer in the service of Henry VIII. He was employed by both More and Cardinal Wolsey (whose downfall occurred a year after the portrait was painted).
The painting is pivotal in many respects. Despite being a product of his first stay in England, Holbein developed the allusive style of illustrating his sitter’s career (as a maker of mathematical and geometrical instruments) to new levels of coherence. Although a display of similar items was to recur in The Ambassadors, there they are passive witnesses of mental concerns, while the refreshing directness of Kratzer’s practical involvement means that his character is not buried by the artist’s determination to include convincing still-lives.
Compared with the Guildford portraits, a new mastery is evident, in the subtlety of lighting, the elegant range of cream, brown and black tones in the pattern of instruments against the wall, and in the presentation of Kratzer’s idiosyncratic heavy-lidded gaze. It is revealing to contrast this humane mood with the archly aristocratic tone of Bronzino’s Ugo Martelli.
96. Hans Holbein: Georg Gisze (1532) – Louvre, Paris
From the objects shown in this portrait it is evident that the sitter was anxious that not only his likeness but also something of his way of life should be presented. A Latin couplet above the merchant’s head intimates how faithfully the artist has rendered every aspect of the man : `What you see here, this picture, shows Georg’s features and figure such is his eye in real life, such is the shape of his cheeks.’ Yet it is clear from the very form this couplet takes that the picture is meant to convey more than outward appearances and to underline the humanist milieu in which the merchant wished to be seen. The same mood is implicit in a Latin motto inscribed on the rear wall immediately beside a pair of scales: `Nulla sine merore voluptas’ (`No joy without sorrow’).
The merchant is depicted standing in his workroom, behind a table covered with a richly embroidered cloth. Among the many objects on the table and the wall which illustrate his trade, the Venetian-glass vase, containing carnations and other flowers, clearly has a special significance; in the medieval language of symbols the carnation was a sign of betrothal.
From the shelf in the top right-hand corner several keys, signet-rings and a spherical container are hanging, the latter presumably containing string. On the table is a pewter writing-stand with goose-feathers, ink, sand, wax disks and sealing-wax. Beside it are a pair of scissors, a signet-ring and a seal. Near the table’s edge, precisely placed in the centre foreground, stands a small table-clock which, together with the fragile glass vase and the perishable flowers, is a reminder of the passage of time, as was the hour-glass in earlier pictures.
The name Georg Gisze occurs frequently and appears several times in various styles of handwriting on the documents attached to the wall. From the letter in the merchant’s hand one gathers that he has been corresponding with a brother in Germany. The subject of the portrait, the son of an alderman, was born in Danzig in 1497. Holbein painted him in London in 1532. Three years later Gisze married in Danzig, and we may assume that the portrait was commissioned in anticipation of the marriage.
The painting was in the Duke of Orleans’ collection in 1727 and appeared in the inventories until 1788. The collection was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1793 and put up for auction. The Swiss publisher and copper-engraver Christian von Mechel acquired the picture and tried in vain to persuade the Basel Library to buy it. For about twenty years it remained in Switzerland without finding a purchaser, until Edward Solly acquired it at a very low price. In 1821 it found its way into the Berlin Museum with the rest of the Solly Collection.
97. Hans Holbein: Ambassadors (1533) – National Gallery, London
This picture memorialises two wealthy, educated and powerful young men. On the left is Jean de Dinteville, aged 29, French ambassador to England in 1533. To the right stands his friend, Georges de Selve, aged 25, bishop of Lavaur, who acted on several occasions as ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See.
The picture is in a tradition showing learned men with books and instruments. The objects on the upper shelf include a celestial globe, a portable sundial and various other instruments used for understanding the heavens and measuring time. Among the objects on the lower shelf is a lute, a case of flutes, a hymn book, a book of arithmetic and a terrestrial globe.
Certain details could be interpreted as references to contemporary religious divisions. The broken lute string, for example, may signify religious discord, while the Lutheran hymn book may be a plea for Christian harmony.
In the foreground is the distorted image of a skull, a symbol of mortality. When seen from a point to the right of the picture the distortion is corrected.
98. Peter Paul Rubens: The Landing of Marie de Médicis at Marseilles (1623-25) – Louvre, Paris
Thanks to his organisational capacities, Rubens could meet demand and revolutionise the problem of large-scale pictorial decoration. His renown extended well beyond the frontiers of his country, and in 1621 Marie de Médicis, widow of Henri IV of France and mother of the reigning king Louis XIII, invited him to Paris. She wished him to decorate one of the galleries of the newly built Palais de Luxembourg with 24 monumental paintings commemorating episodes in the lives of herself and her renowned husband. The creation of a cycle of tapestries had, in a sense, been Rubens’ technical apprenticeship for this demanding task, the composition of a cycle of vast narrative paintings dedicated to a living queen who had already entered history.
Giving epic treatment to this biographical subject, Rubens was also able to give free rein to his fertile invention. He prepared two series of oil sketches, with detailed figures drawn in, which it then fell to his assistants to scale up to the dimensions of the canvases commissioned. These were then meticulously retouched by the master so that they might be ultimately be described, at least in the final layers of paint, as his own works. The entire commission was completed in only three years.
All of his prodigious culture was drawn on for these works: his encyclopaedic knowledge of classical mythology was exploited to the full in transforming the queen’s entire career – Henri slipped rather into the background – into a kind of operatic sequence largely of Rubens’ own invention. Metamorphosing life into myth, he freely mingled historical personages with the gods of Olympus, who came to represent them. The scheme of this apparatus was invented as he went along, the – often gratuitous – interpolations of the divine gracefully leavening the uneventful royal life. It had required all of Rubens’ imaginative resources and natural verve to ennoble and illustrate the relatively colourless circumstances of the Queen Mother’s life. These qualities were essential; Rubens’ international renown depended on his success in this formidable commission. His solution was to populate his compositions with nude goddesses, pagan gods, curvaceous undines, mischievous tritons, and genii unspecified. His customary contrasts are at work in the playful opposition of gleaming cuirasses and lusty bodies, fragile silks and the rugged hulls of dreadnoughts. The poverty of his subject was utterly transcended; this is pure painting, nothing but painting.
Certainly, it was not the rather heavy features of the Medici family, particularly evident in the queen, that had attracted Henri IV, but the scale of her dowry. Rubens nevertheless contrived to render her portrait agreeable. He disguised her now as an attractive Bellona, now as a proud horsewoman in The Capture of Juliers. The royal couple become Olympian deities in The Meeting of Marie de Médicis and Henri IV at Lyon, while The Fate Spinning Marie’s Destiny and The Triumph of Truth became pretexts for a proliferation of female convexity.
99. Salvador Dalí: The Apotheosis of Homer (1944) – Pinakothek der Moderne, Munchen
Salvador Dali was influenced at a young age by Greek History and art. Many scholars attribute this contact with Greek mythology to serve as an influence in Dali’s surrealistic work. Dali’s painting The Apotheosis of Homer reduces Homer to a broken bit of statuary, a relic, while the solid temple of the muse itself melts. The ethereal horse, which may be Pegasus, casting off riders attempting to reach the stars again signals myth’s cessation as a legitimate method of contemplating humanity’s existence and signals the changing state of not only art, but also thought and reasoning as well.
At the right hand side of the canvas, Gala reposing, deep in slumber, while the doors of her dream world are flung wide open onto a richly imaginative space, replete with a melange of symbols, elements and activity. A blind Homer, hewn from rock, is seen at left, from whose mouth the angel of speech is being born, as Dali himself once explained it.
100. Salvador Dalí: The Enigma of My Desire (1929) – Pinakothek der Moderne, Munchen
Dali consider The Enigma of Desire to be one of his ten most important paintings. The little group on the left depicts Dali himself embracing his father, with a fish, a grasshopper, a dagger, and a lion’s head.
The Enigma of Desire was the first work sold by the Goemans Gallery during Dali’s first one-man exhibition there in 1929. Just as he was painting this canvas, Dali found a religious chromolighograph on which he wrote: “Sometimes I spit with pleasure on my mother’s portrait, had a quite psychoanalytical explanation, since one can perfectly well love one’s mother and still dream that one spits upon her, and even more, in many religious, expectoration is a sign of veneration; now go and try to make people understand that!” In the baroque appendage that elongates the visage, we recognize the geological structures of the rocks of the region near Cape Creus eroded by the wind, mixed with the fantastic architecture of Antonio Gaudi, “That gothic Mediterranean,” whose work Dali had seen as a child in Barcelona.