As with assignment 1 & 2, I have made the assignment as a pdf document which can be downloaded here: Assignment 3 PDF submission. The course notes lists the requirements in A4 page sizes and in a pdf is easier to keep track of that.
The assignment includes.
- Four pages of notes (for three chapters in WHA, 15th-17th century)
- Two annotations of paintings (Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and Rubens Samson and Delilah)
- One 500 word analysis of the stylistic differences between two a seventeenth-century painters.
- References for assignment 3 (in Harvard referencing style)
On the run up to creating assignment 3 I re-read the feedback from assignments 1 & 2 to heed any advice and check I’m heading down the right pathway. As suggested in the helpful We Are OCA blog article on how to use tutor report I printed out and highlighted all the relevant bits, for now ignoring the reworking suggestions (because I plan to go back and revisit this when I’m not running behind on my assignment date). My take away info was as follows:
In general avoid over-reliance on websites and I need to “Engage with more broadly ‘theoretical’ texts so as to deepen your research and expand your comments” using a wide variety of source materials. “Compare and contrast information and evaluate others’ arguments.” When I started this section I reserved a whole heap of books at the library, getting these up front helped a lot with this as I was able to make use of my train journeys to read and digest. I still have a tendency to over note-take but I’m working on it with reading goals as suggested. I think I did much better with the WHA chapter notes (although I fell off the wagon a bit with the Arnolfini books). As I’ve already reflected (on each post) I tried to condense my material into one set of comments per section. The problem I found with this was I wasn’t sure how long the other chapters would be until I got there so I still overshot a little and had to trim slightly for the assignment.
One of the comments was to synthesise different art historians’ interpretations and explain which you find most convincing and why. I used this advice with the annotation of the Arnolfini portrait as there are many different interpretations of that. There were lots of comments on annotations in both sets of feedback so I obviously needed to work on that. The main point that came across was more depth, words like cursory and brief were used to describe them so hopefully I’ve done a better job this time. I spent a long time researching the Arnolfini portrait across several books (as well as websites). I tried to develop a sustained comparison between the two works I have annotated but I had more space on the second annotation so this is where I’ve mostly compared them. I found space in which to put all the annotations I wanted to say an issue in all three assignments. I expect it boils down to making my comments more concise and far-reaching rather than stating the obvious or anything too long and wordy. To head this off at the pass I created a full blog post for each of works to discuss them individually so I could comfortably get my head around them both (and all my words out) before comparing them and selecting only the salient points for my annotations. This might be the duel note taking approach which was not recommended for the reading notes but I’m not sure how else to approach it. I need to find a place to store all my research and the blog is supposed help me with my learning. I also took a look at the Open University study diamond model as recommended. My two full blogposts on the annotations are here: The Arnolfini portrait and here: Samson & Delilah. For the choice of annotation subjects, I chose the Arnolfini portrait at the beginning of the section (just seemed like it’d be more interesting than Giotto or Duccio frescos) and I choose Rubens but I didn’t know that much about him but the ones I’d seen in the National Gallery were very impressive.
I took a similar post, per topic approach to comparing two artists for the 500-word analysis. One here for Caravaggio and one here for Vermeer, this approach seems to work well for me because for the analysis I was able to stick within the word limit (well 518 words, but that’s probably close enough). The assignment specifies to compare between a seventeenth-century Baroque painter associated with the Catholic Counter Reformation and a seventeenth century painter from the Netherlands, I chose Caravaggio because I really enjoyed his work when I was reading about the Baroque era in the WHA (plus I did the analysis before the annotations and hadn’t decided between Rembrandt or Rubens for that yet and didn’t want crossover). I chose Vermeer because, again I didn’t want to choose Rembrandt, also Frans Hals and Jan van Goyen seemed less interesting in the WHA.
I really enjoyed this section, probably my favourite so far. I find having to cover so many different bits a bit of a rushed whistle-stop tour though, it’s nice to focus on a few in depth, but it takes time (which I’m quite short of, with baby and full time job). I enjoyed the visit too but the write up is quite cursory, I think it fits in much better with the next section of the course anyway so I’m going to come back and review it again.
Overall reflection against the Assessment Criteria:
- Demonstration of subject-based knowledge and understanding – again there was a lot of reading in this section, and also I tried to use a few more books for the assignment research (as per feedback from assignment 1 & 2). I think I have demonstrated my understanding of the area in this assignment according to the research I have done (see above).
- Demonstration of research skills – Where possible I tried to go and see the work I was researching in person, but also evaluated the sources I was looking at in books and on the internet for their scholarly worth. I think I was quite through for the Arnolfini Portrait but possibly a bit light on the Rubens, which might be picked up on in the feedback?
- Demonstration of critical and evaluation skills – I tried to engage with the concepts throughout part three within each of the exercises that I actually completed, I knew I was running short on time so I skipped ahead to the assignment and have yet to do some of the exercises. I did better on sticking to the word count in the assignment analysis this time, putting all my long-winded thoughts and research into ancillary blogposts on my learning log. Also, I found the OU format that my tutor recommended for comparing works allowed me to review the works in my own words before diving into the research parts.
- Communication – I think my ideas and points are written clearly. I try to reflect on bits as I go along since the assessor cannot be inside my head. I suspect the they won’t have the time to wade through every blogpost though.
For the second annotation I choose a narrative painting from Rubens, Samson and Delilah. I thought I’d jot down some initial thoughts & research on it since I can never fit it all into the one annotation page and my memory can’t hold it all.
So in line with the review of the Arnolfini Portrait, I’ve tried to apply the techniques I learned in reading about the OU study diamond to this painting review too. Again, the grid format wasn’t that great for the blog so I’ve split into more of a questions and answers format.
Effects & techniques:
- What initially catches your eye? Where do you go next? And after that? To the group of four figures of Delilah, Samson, and the old woman and man
- Where do you end up? Do your eyes stray away from the work altogether? The men at the door
- Is there anything that you didn’t notice at first but saw later in your reading? The items on the shelves behind
- Did your eyes keep coming back to a particular part of the art work? The massive form of Samson
- Is there anything that you didn’t look at or thought wasn’t important? Not really
- Has a wide or narrow palette of colours been used? A narrow colour palate with lots of warm colours in it makes it feel sensuous. The only cool colours are on the interlopers
- Have contrasting colours been placed next to each other? Not really, this brings a warm harmony to the painting.
- Are there more warm colours than cool colours or vice versa? Many more warm colours makes the place seem inviting sensuous.
- Would you describe the colours as being bright or dull? Are there more bright colours than dull colours (or vice versa)? There are both, the background is a dullish wooden brown but the colours of the satin materials are bright. This brings the foreground as the main focus of the painting.
- In what way is dark and light colour used?
I. How wide is the range of colour values featuring in the art work? There is a wide range of colour values.
II. Are contrasting colour values present in the art work? Use of contrasting colour values pick out areas of interest and are heavily used to dramatic effect to pick out the details and two focus areas al la Caravaggio.
III. Are contrasting colour values used to model three-dimensional forms? Contrasting colour values are also used to model three-dimensional forms of the folds of the dress, lush fabrics and the man’s massive muscled body.
IV. In what way are the colour values distributed throughout the art work? The distribution of the colour values helps pull your eye around the composition, from the four figures in the foreground where the largest patch of light is, to the smaller patch on the right hand side where the men are hovering in the doorway. Your eye flows from the ‘front’ to the ‘back’ even through it’s a flat painted surface the illusion is made using lighting and definition
- Does the medium impose any limitations on the way the artist works, or allow any particular effects? The oil paint has been carefully blended to make the soft, seamless shadows to model the various textures, you really feel the soft skin stretched over the muscle on the man’s back , against the more directly applied highlights for the satin.
- Is the medium used unconventionally or is the medium itself unconventional and, if so, does this contribute to the expressive effect of the art work? This seems a pretty conventional use.
- Does the medium used suggest a particular mood? the medium adds to the sensuality of the mood and the impressive scale also.
- Does the medium used prompt the spectator to read the work in a particular way? not really
|Representation of depth||Technique: Samson & Delilah||Effect: Samson and Delilah|
|(a) overlapping||Y||there is a clear front and back to the room, the front two figures overlap with the old woman and man cutting the hair. Also the edgy of Samsons body is overlapping the opening door|
|(b) diminishing scale||Y||the men at the door are much smaller than the main four figures, clearly in the background|
|(c) atmospheric perspective||Y||the brightest part of the room is also the front of the scene, Samson, Delilah and the bed area|
|(d) vertical placement||Y||Samson’s arm is foreshortened such that his hand is the same size as his foot which is further back. His arm leads up and back to his face and the face of the man behind him. Above that there is a statue in a niche on the wall in the background behind them|
|(e) linear perspective||Y||the opening door displays the linear perspective|
|(f) modelling||Y||the modelling of the various textures in the room, especially all the folds in her dress, the patterned blanket and the muscles on Samson’s back make the illusion realistic|
Use of lines:
Directional lines (horizontal, vertical, and diagonal): There is a strong diagonal line of Samson’s back across the middle of the picture. There is a grounding horizontal line of the bed at the bottom of the picture and repeating little horizontals in the background, the shelves, the man’s cutting arm, the door frame. there are verticals too, the arm &, Samson’s face, the man’s face and then the statue already mentioned, also the shelves, niche, the doorway and figures of the waiting men all provide vertical interest
Contour lines – can also be used to outline forms; such contour lines can be described in terms of their thickness and sharpness. there are contour lines around the moulding in the furniture and the modelling of the cloth which are quite thick but seen as shadows and add to the illusion.
Meaning – initial thoughts from the observed ‘evidence’
Clearly something amiss is going on, if you didn’t know the story you can sense that the man is asleep after being seduced and people are sneakily cutting his hair. Armed men in the background seem to be glaring at each other to keep quiet and not wake the man. He is big and muscly but still, should they be worried? Clearly he’s been tricked by the woman (she still has her breasts out) but she looks a bit sorry. The old woman looks on in tension, biting her lip, that the man will wake up. You feel sorry for the deeply asleep man.
Context & Meaning:
This is based on a bible story (Old Testament, Judges 16: 17-20) where a Jewish hero, Samson, fell in love with Delilah. He was very strong and couldn’t be defeated by the Philistines so they bribed her to find out the secret to his great strength and help to capture him. She asked him many times and each time he gave her a false answer but eventually he gave up and told her that his strength was there because his hair had never been cut. So while he was sleeping they cut his hair, his strength left him and they captured, blinded, imprisoned and humiliated him. Then when his hair grew back his strength returned and he pulled a temple down on everyone, including himself and all the Philistines rulers.
This picture depicts the moment when they are about to cut his hair, they don’t actually know that’ll work this time and if it doesn’t and he wakes up they are all in trouble. Delilah places a soothing hand on his back to calm him so he doesn’t wake and kill them all. The Philistines wait just outside the door, trying to be quite. It’s quite a tense painting. It’s also sensuous, with all the fabric in the setting. Clearly they’ve just been intimate so it can be seen as a moral tale of sin only leads to trouble. He is very vulnerable in this moment, and trusting of Delilah, so can also been taken as ‘love hurts’ because she’s so thoroughly betrayed his trust.
“In a niche behind is a statue of the goddess of love, Venus, with Cupid – a reference to the cause of Samson’s fate.” (National Gallery, 2016a)
Delilah is not a prostitute (apart from the bribe) in the story but according to the Art historian Jacqui Ansell (in the little audio clip on the gallery page) the phrase ‘in Delilah’s lap’ meant to visit a prostitute in the 17th century when this was painted.
According to the blurb on the National Gallery page, this painting was commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox, alderman of Antwerp (and personal friend of Rubens), for his town house in 1609-10. Apparently it was designed to hang above a giant fireplace, so all the warm colours would look all the more sumptuous in that setting. The painting is hung at the same height in the gallery because it is a best height from which to appreciate the perspective.
“It shows the influence of the antique, as well as Michelangelo and Caravaggio. There is a preparatory drawing (private collection, Amsterdam) and a modello (Cincinnati Museum of Art).” (National Gallery, 2016a)
A modello is a small preparatory oil sketch on a wood panel, they could be used as a draft to get the clients approval and as a guide to composition for the finished work. Rubens often then handed over much of the preparation and painting of the main version to his assistants and pupils, carrying out only the final finishing touches.
This painting, like the Arnolfini Portrait, is on Oak as was the early Netherlandish tradition. This is made up of 6 horizontal planks glued together, probably by a professional panel maker. However, since then it’s been planed down to 3mm and stuck onto blockboard as an old method of preservation so there are no original markings on the back or edges. The panel was prepared with a white chalk ground with a binding of animal glue, another Netherlandish tradition. He also uses a limited number of pigments. Interestingly, although there is no green in the picture, some of the brownish paint on the old woman’s dress are no longer recognisable but have a high concentration of copper, which may have been green and browned with age so we may not be seeing it as it was originally painted.
Visit in person:
The painting was so large, I almost couldn’t fit it all into the photograph but I wanted to remember how vivid the colours were and the online reproduction (see above) doesn’t really convey that.
The painting is hung quite high but it seems to look much better according to the perspective than when you see it online, which is line with what I read about it being desinged to be seen at this height.
Biblegateway. (2016) Judges 16 – Samson and Delilah At: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Judges%2016
(Accessed on 5 Oct 16)
National Gallery. (2016a) Peter Paul Rubens – Samson and Delilah At: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/peter-paul-rubens-samson-and-delilah
(Accessed on 5 Oct 16)
Plesters, J. ‘”Samson and Delilah”: Rubens and the Art and Craft of Painting on Panel’. National Gallery Technical Bulletin Vol 7, pp 30–49.
(Accessed on 5 Oct 16)
Open University. (2016) Making sense of art history At: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/making-sense-art-history/content-section-0
(Accessed on 15 Aug 16)
This saturday I took the opportunity to go on an OCA study visit to see the work of Georgia O’Keeffe at the Tate Modern. The tutor in charge, Bryan Eccleshall was very interesting, he wrote this blog post on WeAreOca before the visit (there’s another OCA review here too). I watched the this episode from the arts series ‘imagine…’ on the BBC iPlayer that coincides with the Tate’s O’Keeffe retrospective before the show and I was really glad I did. It allowed me to have a bit of context to her work and life as I went round.
There is so much information on the Tate website I won’t rehash it all here. I took a few photos of the ones I really liked or of those that I made notes on. I remember thinking as I went round that if ever there was an exhibition to make me give up photography and take up painting this might be it. Luckily there some gorgeous Ansel Adams prints near the end to restore my faith🙂 Stieglitz wasn’t very good photographer (in my humble opinion of course), unfortunately for him his work is shown with hers and looks extremely dull and very dated while hers remains fresh and amazing. It seems to me as though it was his interpretation on her images as sexual which stuck with the critics even to this day. It was interesting to see both their works thought because they clearly had such a profound effect on each others work.
Room 1 was curated much like her first show at Stieglitz’s gallery ‘291’ gallery, alongside his photos of the show.
The tutor had an interesting take, he said that artists only ever paint one thing, over and over, hers is the v shapes and curves . But mostly it’s her connection to, and absorption into, her surroundings, most often nature (but not in the case of NYC). The important thing for artists is discover their one thing. I think my one thing might be macro/closeness, according to some of the comments from my tutor in a previous module (which of course I denied at the time). I shall have to reflect upon this in a separate blogpost. The thing that struck me about the Stieglitz photo of her in the first room (above) was how close she was to the flowerbeds.
I really liked her use of contours. Her work really appeals to me. I like the simplicity of shape and I love the gradations of colour. Her art school education (which I imagine would have been quite strict) didn’t teach her style or subject matter but it did teach her complete mastery over her medium so she could concentrate on style and subject on her own.
I notice that quite a few of the paintings in room two had a split down the middle sort of composition:
In room 5, Natural forms gaspe – 1932, was the first I saw visible paintly application, I mean the others were so smooth and perfect, one twist of cloud was not as smoothly as the others, it was interesting to see.
Room 6: flowers
When looking at her close-ups of flowers I couldn’t help recalling my day in Kew Gardens, taking colourful close up photographs of the flowers for a past assignment.
The tutor said she abstracted them because no flowers are that perfect but I disagree in this case, I think she just zoomed into the perfect bits. Also, critics say they’re meaning is sexual, which she’s always denied, personally I think she’s just painting the shapes that naturally exist and I agree that the critics see something that perhaps she did not intend.
In Another church, Hernandez, new Mexico, 1931, you can really sense the desert light, not in this reproduction (or any I’ve seen) but the painting itself seemed to shine with it.
Room 10: the black place and the white place.
This has been a very exciting visit. I’ve enjoyed writing about it here as a way of reflective recollection of the exhibition and I’m sure I could write tons more (perhaps I’ll revisit it again with some photos of the pamphlet they supplied). I’m looking forward to seeing is anyone else from the visit writes a post because I missed the chat afterwards (I hung around for a while but no one appeared so I went to the National Gallery to do some more research for my assignment). I did take a picture from the balcony of the shop while I waited though. If you are an oca student on the visit and have a blog post please leave me a comment below with the link.
“Making an annotation is about ‘purposeful looking’, which involves recording and expanding on key details” (tutor report)
I clearly need to work on my annotations and get more depth to them (re tutor feedback for A1 & A2). So here I wanted to note down what I found out about the Open University study diamond model (as recommended in the last feedback) and combine for my own reference the feedback on annotations in general.
“Try to illustrate your interpretative skills more using a range of sources (extrapolate further on your research – systematically appraise key creative ideas, theories and debates). Continue to show further evidence of a developing critically evaluative and self-reflexive learning narrative.” (tutor report)
So what is the OU study diamond model?
The Study Diamond
The Study Diamond represents an approach to analysing and interpreting texts such as poems, works of art, pieces of music and works of literature. When used methodically, the Study Diamond provides a reliable and reusable formula for arriving at well-argued conclusions when interpreting a particular work. (Open University, 2016)
It’s predicated on the theory that art is supposed to have an effect on you. The top point of the diamond is Effects. Artistic techniques, such as the use of colour, composition and medium are employed in the marking of a piece of art, these techniques have a relationship with way art the effects us. Art work often has a Meaning behind it and that can change depending on its Context.
so more details on those points:
Effects & Techniques:
- the way you feel when you look at an art work for the first time or the mood that it seems to convey
- the way you read the art work in a particular way, focusing on one aspect of it before others.
Perhaps the most important evidence is that which records your own reaction to these art works. When analysing any art work you should try to trust your own feelings and thoughts about what you see, and record these, rather than referring to other people’s reactions to find out what you should be feeling and thinking. (Open University, 2016)
The model encourages us to record our thoughts and feelings the very first time we see an artwork because the more we study and find out about it these initial thoughts will be changed. Unfortunately I’ve been looking at the Arnolfini portrait for a while now and cannot recall what my initial reactions were.
Next we ‘read’ the art work but recording the way our eyes travel across, into and around it.
- What initially catches your eye? Where do you go next? And after that?
- Where do you end up? Do your eyes stray away from the work altogether?
- Is there anything that you didn’t notice at first but saw later in your reading?
- Did your eyes keep coming back to a particular part of the art work?
- Is there anything that you didn’t look at or thought wasn’t important?
(Open University, 2016)
Form is the overall shape of the art work and various techniques such as use of colour, medium and arrangement of composition are used to create this.
A useful grid of questions for comparing colour in two paintings:
|Technique: painting one||Effect: painting one||Technique: painting two||Effect: painting two|
|1. Has a wide or narrow palette of colours been used?|
|2. Have contrasting colours been placed next to each other?|
|3. Are there more warm colours than cool colours or vice versa?|
|4. Would you describe the colours as being bright or dull? Are there more bright colours than dull colours (or vice versa)?|
|5. In what way is dark and light colour used?|
|I. How wide is the range of colour values featuring in the art work?|
|II. Are contrasting colour values present in the art work?|
|III. Are contrasting colour values used to model three-dimensional forms?|
|IV. In what way are the colour values distributed throughout the art work?|
For each of these questions we can identify what technique and effect they have. Basic colour theory comes into play when assessing the mood a combination of colours have in an artwork. Contrasting colours may suggest drama or tension in a particular part of the work because they draw your eye. Tonal values (eg light and dark areas of colours, tints and shades) can be used in paintings to create visual contrast and to model three-dimensional forms.
The breadth of the value range in a painting can be effective in helping to convey mood. For example, a painting comprising mostly dark colour values can make a work appear gloomy and sombre; whereas one with middle range colours can convey softness and harmony; and a painting comprising mostly light colour values can suggest optimism and cheerfulness. Concentrating most of the light values in one area of the composition and most of the dark values in another can be effective in emphasising one area of an art work over the rest. When light and dark values are placed adjacent and are distributed evenly throughout the art work it can give the composition a sense of ‘movement’, causing the eye to move from place to place rather than focusing on one particular area. (Open University, 2016)
1. Does the medium impose any limitations on the way the artist works, or allow any particular effects?
2. Is the medium used unconventionally or is the medium itself unconventional and, if so, does this contribute to the expressive effect of the art work?
3. Does the medium used suggest a particular mood?
4. Does the medium used prompt the spectator to read the work in a particular way?
(Open University, 2016)
comprises of two important factors, the representation of depth and the use of line.
|Representation of depth||Technique: painting one||Effect: painting one||Technique: painting two||Effect: painting two|
|(b) diminishing scale|
|(c) atmospheric perspective|
|(d) vertical placement|
|(e) linear perspective|
Diagonal lines produce the most energy or movement in terms of the way that they draw the spectator into the pictorial space and control their reading of a composition. Vertical lines can also add movement and energy to an image and can be particularly effective in stopping the spectator’s eye from leaving the pictorial space. (Open University, 2016)
Lines can be directional or contour: consider the impact of vanishing points and directional lines (horizontal, vertical, and diagonal). Contour lines can be used to outline forms; such contour lines can be described in terms of their thickness and sharpness.
Don’t forget to consider the relationships between techniques and effects in the art work in terms of the significance of line in conveying an emotional effect and the use of line to control the way that you read the work. (Open University, 2016)
The other two points on the diamond are pretty self-explanatory, Meaning & Context. For meaning we can take all our ‘evidence’ from our observations above and make an initial interpretation which can be revised in context once we’ve done some research investigation. Its important to keep an open mind about revising our meaning and not hang on to our first instincts when reviewing because in the context of the people of the time the art works were made might be very different from our own views.
Here is some more of the feedback from my tutor reports:
“As your annotation template shows, a good plan to follow when constructing your annotations is to record the materials used, the dimensions and date, and then describe elements in the order in which they draw your eye around the image (including background, light source, tonal values, rhythm etc). Always bear in mind questions of patronage and any interesting or unusual facts.”
“To help you develop your observations take a look at:
- The rhythm and balance of masses
- The proportions
- The weight shift (enhancing the realism of the pieces and implying the concept of movement)
Your chosen images should be surrounded by detailed descriptions, explanatory notes, interpretations and comments about the features of the work, which refer to and evaluate the artist’s manipulation of shape, line etc.
What are the most significant lines in these works? What are the major geometric and human shapes, and how are they used? Look at the modelling of the flesh – is it vigorous? How is it deepened and varied? Are any other devices used to convey a sense of the shifts within the human body?
Try to add to your notes and observations to produce more substantive sections of visual analysis.
Eg: Make sure that your contextual material incorporates a few comments exploring what the pediment would have meant to the Athenian audience. (I.e. aim to enter into a conversation with the ‘moral aesthetic’ and ‘values’ of the city at the time.)” (tutor report)
This model seems quite an effective way to compare works consistently and fairly. It might be a bit late in the day for some initial thoughts on some of the works for Assignment 3 because I’ve already started doing the research and my thoughts and first reactions will have been tainted by ‘expert’ readings of the works.
Tutor reports from Assignment 1 & 2, see my private pdf logs parts 2 & 3.
Open University. (2016) Making sense of art history At: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/making-sense-art-history/content-section-0
(Accessed on 15 Aug 16)
I started my journey looking deeper into the painter Vermeer by reading Enchanting the Eye, Dutch paintings of the Golden Age, Christopher Lloyd’s, 2004 book on the paintings in the Royal Collection. I picked this one first mainly for practical reasons because from all my library books this was by far the smallest for reading on the train! The initial part of the book sets the scene of the Dutch Golden age history and politics but much of this information I’d already gleaned from the WHA. It explained that Vermeer had just 34 surviving paintings and almost two thirds of them had remained in Delft in the collection of his wealthy patron, Pieter Claesz van Ruijven (1624-74). And even though he was later in his career by the time the French invaded in 1672 he was not immune to the fall out as he was an art dealer as well as a painter. The art market virtually collapsed, all artists ran into financial difficulties, less artists were being trained and those who were already working produced less.
Vermeer’s widow testified that ‘her husband during the war with the king of France, and the next years, had been able to earn very little, or almost nothing, so that the works of art which he had previously bought, and in which he dealt, had had to be sold off, at very great loss, to feed their children’. (Lloyd, 2004)
Like Caravaggio, Vermeer was also ‘forgotten’ after his death and many of his paintings were attributed to other artists (eg the one above was thought to be by Frans van Mieris the Elder owing to a misreading of the signature) until Charles Blanc published his illustrated compendium Historie des Peintres de toutes les Ecoles between 1853 and 1875 which had the first article devoted to Vermeer in it. The first serious study of the artist wasn’t until art critic Théophile Thoré published his study in 1866 and began to compile a catalogue of Vermeer’s works.
What I liked most about the book was that it provided information on Vermeer in the context of his contemporaries so although it didn’t give a broad overview of his life and work, I could see the work of other Dutch artists of the period alongside it.
Genre painting was so successful in 17th century Holland because mastery of technique matched treatment of subject matter. The courtyards and interiors seen in works by de Hooch and Vermeer are drawn according to surprisingly rigorous perspectival systems offset by opalescent light and carefully selected colours. What begins as geometry ends as poetry. In such paintings the viewer is witness to a whole range of intimacies that remain in the world of ambiguity: it is the uncertainty of the outcome that is arresting. (Lloyd, 2004)
The painting in the book is the one from the Royal Collection, Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman (also known as the Music Lesson), and the reproduction was much better online (here) because you can see it full screen and zoom right into it. Interestingly this is the one featured in Tim’s Vermeer but more on that later.
Most of the blurb in the book about the painting is the same as on the link above, i.e. Lloyd seemingly lifted it straight from the earlier Catalogue entry from Royal Treasures, A Golden Jubilee Celebration, London 2002, but perhaps he wrote that too, I did not investigate. I did like the follow extra quote though:
The greatness of Vermeer is derived from an economy of means verging on the enigmatic – an enigma that pertains to Vermeer’s life as much as to his art. The viewer feels at once invited yet excluded, just as the artists technique appears to be seductively simple but is in fact awesomely intricate in its application of paint and choice of colour. (Lloyd, 2004)
Lloyd’s book explained that as with all Vermeer’s paintings they are undated so the date is conjected based on an interpretation of style and complexity of composition, at present there is a consensus of c.1662-4 for the painting above.
The composition uses the perspective of the room and the objects within to lead your eyes deeper into the picture plane to the girl with her back to us whilst she stands playing music at a virginal to a man beside it. I’d never heard of a Virginal before, I thought it was a strange looking piano (because when I’d seen this image before it had been referred to as the music lesson and there’s another instrument on the floor). This virginal has an inscription on the lid, MUSICA LETITIAE CO[ME]S / MEDICINA DOLOR[IS], which means ‘Music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow.’ and is comparable with those made by Andreas Ruckers the Elder which still exists in museums today. In fact all the items in the painting, and in many of Vermeer’s paintings, can be traced to surviving items from the period down to the smallest details. Some of the items, for example the chair in this painting, are also used as props for many of Vermeer’s paintings as is the room itself. Prof. Steadman posited in his book Vermeer’s Camera than as many as 6 of the 34 paintings can be identified as different scenes arranged in that same room. So it seems, like Caravaggio, that Vermeer also painted from observed life. Steadman actually goes one further, the premise of the book is that this is evidence that Vermeer use a camera obscura as part of his workflow (he used the viewpoints, features and perspective in the paintings to backwards engineer the room that Vermeer used a camera obscura as a booth camera in). The problem with his hypothesis is that the paintings, although the correct size to be camera obscura images are not mirror images as they would have to be, also, how would the painter paint in such low light? He left these as open ended questions at the end of the book which Tim Jenison picked up and obsessed over, turning into a feature-length documentary (by Penn & Teller) about Tim’s process of making a fully functional optical device (basically a mirror on a stick), recreating the room from the music lesson and painting his own version to check the hypothesis that in fact Vermeer did use a camera obscura and optical device in his work. Prof Philip Steadman was convinced as he explains in his really interesting UCL lunchtime lecture below:
I found it really fascinating that both of these artists, Caravaggio and Vermeer, whose work is so different, may have had similar unorthodox working practices. Of course, it also plumbs right into my interest in photography and makes me feel a certain kinship with them.
A more traditional look at Vermeer and his various work is presented in this documentary from 2001 (the same year as Steadman’s book), Vermeer: Master of Light:
I found the narration by Meryl Streep and the various padding a bit off putting but they interview many respected scholarly experts and art historians so it’s worth a viewing.
“In the 17th C, the mirror was a sign of vanity, a worldly attribute. We know that mirrors possessed meaning in the period because whole books were published containing precise instructions about this sort of sign language and testing writers and artist the meaning of certain images in conjunction with others so the presence of a mirror in the room may be an important clue to how the subject of the painting should be interpreted on a moral level” (Pointon, M, 1997)
However, for the lady and gent above, is there another interpretation? Does the presence of the mirror represent a judgement on this couple, or perhaps this lady?
I went back to the National Gallery to see some his work in person, because as I’m discovering this is very important because the reproductions of paintings really don’t do them any favours. You don’t get any sense of scale and they are often gloomy and dull.
I saw A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (about 1670-2) and A Young Woman seated at a Virginal (about 1670-2).They are both quite small which is interesting and on the theme of music and love, which seems to be a recurring one for him. I noticed especially the hair around the faces of the young women are painted as little dots, which looks a little odd. The two are not hung together so I could see that they were similar but not quite how similar until I got home and reviewed the pictures side by side. In fact the National Gallery website seems to suggest that these two could have actually conceived as a pair (a pendant) because of the similar size, date and related subject matter.
Jan Vermeer created extraordinary luminosity in his paintings by techniques based on optical experiments and meticulous observation of reflected colours, eg unique capture of sparkle light in minute pearl-like dots. (Honour, H & Fleming, J, 2009, WHA)
Lots of research has been done on them (and other loaned Vermeers). I know that I should be interested in the nitty gritty details of the how the canvas was prepared because this information can shed valuable light for art historians but really reading all about left me very cold. What I did find fascinating was the infrared view which showed all the paintings alterations. Also, very interesting was the analysis of the pigments used and the way he combined such a limited palate.
“Dutch 17th C paintings have long been enjoyed and admired for the apparent clear and precise way they allow us to enter the domestic world of Holland in the 17th century. Such pictures can be taken as stories in paint” (Pointon, M, 1997)
Blankert, A; Montias, J M & Aillaud, G. (2007) Vermeer. Overlook Press/ Duckworth
Krakora. (2001) Vermeer: Master of Light At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEior-0inxU
(Accessed on 28 Aug 16)
Lloyd, C. (2004) Enchanting the Eye, Dutch paintings of the Golden Age. Royal Collection Publications
National Gallery. (2016a) Johannes Vermeer – A Young Woman seated at a Virginal At: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/johannes-vermeer-a-young-woman-seated-at-a-virginal
(Accessed on 13 Sep 16)
National Gallery. (2016b) Johannes Vermeer – A Young Woman standing at a Virginal At: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/johannes-vermeer-a-young-woman-standing-at-a-virginal
(Accessed on 13 Sep 16)
National Gallery. (2016c) Vermeer’s palette At: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/research/meaning-of-making/vermeer-and-technique/vermeers-palette
(Accessed on 13 Sep 16)
National Gallery – Glossary. (2016) Pendant At: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/pendant
(Accessed on 13 Sep 16)
Pointon, M. (1997) History of Art: A Students’ Handbook. (4th Ed), London, Routledge
Royal Collection Trust. (2016) Johannes Vermeer – Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman At: https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/405346/lady-at-the-virginals-with-a-gentleman
(Accessed on 28 Aug 16)
UCL Lunch Hour Lectures, YouTube. (2015) Vermeer’s Camera and Tim’s Vermeer At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFfmc4e7KgM
(Accessed on 28 Aug 16)
This post started out being a painting review of The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio but ended out being a wider ranging research piece on Caravaggio which could be used as preparation for assignment 3.
I saw this painting in my Gallery Visit (Room 32) and made very brief notes in that post (here). I didn’t really understand what I was looking at and although I’ve learnt a lot about 17th century art since then and seen references to Caravaggio (and this painting) in my reading, it could do with a closer look. Being so influential an artist I wanted to learn more about him specifically (and use him as one of the artists in the 500 word analysis in Assignment 3).
The first place to start in understanding this painting is the story behind is. Who is Emmaus and why do these guys with Jesus look so surprised?
On the day of the resurrection two of Christ’s disciples were going to a town called Emmaus.
While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” (Luke 24:15-24)
So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. (Luke 24: 28-31)
So Caravaggio’s picture starts to make sense. This is the two disciples just discovering that they are sitting with a recently risen Christ as he blesses the bread. The man serving the table has not removed his hat, having no idea who this is (because he wasn’t at the last supper) but presumably would freak out when Chris just disappears (since he isn’t in the bible account he’s probably just been added as artifice to balance out the composition and the various expressions on the faces of the figures, “His impassiveness is a foil to the disciples’ bewilderment” (De Rynck, 2009)).
Caravaggio has broken with tradition here (as he did in many of his paintings) and represented the scene in a contemporary setting. The background is dark and vague on any details of the setting, the lighting is dramatic so the attention is focused on the scene. The disciple with his arms out (as though talking of the crucifixion) extends into the viewers space to draw us into the scene, hence the drastic foreshortening (I noted it as strange perspective on my gallery visit). Also, the shell on his coat is a scallop, a pilgrims emblem of Santiago de Compostela (named after St James). The fruit basket harkens back to Caravaggio’s still life painting days, critics have pointed out that pomegranates, grapes and figs are summery fruits so are out of place at Easter but apparently over ripened fruit (apples and decaying figs) stand for original sin, grapes (which make wine) and pomegranates are conventional symbols of the resurrection. This fruit hangs over the edge of the table also into our space begging to be pushed back on.
“The disciples look like country bumpkins on a pilgrimage.” (De Rynck, 2009)
Caravaggio painted another Christ resurrection story, one of Doubting Thomas, in 1603 called the Incredulity of Thomas. This one is smaller at only 107x146cm. Thomas is often depicted as a young man (Christ’s twin according to one of the legends but not one I heard in primary school), not so in this painting though. He has expressed doubt about Christ’s resurrection because he hasn’t seen it with his own eyes so Christ is building his finger into the spear wound he received on the Cross. The painting also includes Peter and John, also looking on with intense concentration and undisguised curiosity. Again, there is nothing extraneous to distract attention from the main scene. The figures heads are all clustered together in the centre of the composition but its the finger that gets your eyes attention making you want to lean into the space with them to see it.
He says “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” John 20:25 which reflects the humanist mood of the times where empirical knowledge is the key to truth.
“Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29
As I noted in my gallery visit, all the reproductions of this painting seem a lot more gloomy than the original.
You see it hangs next to another of Caravaggio’s works, Boy bitten by a Lizard (about 1594-5) which is an eariler work from when he’d just arrived in Rome as a nobody.
His short life story is extremely interesting and you can see how his art develops over the course of his career. The few primary sources about his life are mainly police/court reports and contemporary biographers writings. He is known to get into lots of trouble (hence the documented police reports) and sounds like a very volatile individual. His early training was a four year apprenticeship with Simone Peterzano (in Milan). He was originally from a town called Caravaggio (hence his name, his given name was Michelangelo Merisi). When he arrived in Rome he had nothing and he painted still lives and heads of people to sell in the street which was good training for his later years where he painted from live models which was not the custom in those days. You can see that the figures in The Supper at Emmaus are much more naturally proportioned than the Boy (with the lizard). Some art critics have suggested there is homoerotic undertones in this work, some think it is just a study of drama, the reaction of the boy, some others think it is an allegory on the pain of love (because the still life includes symbols of love).
His work The Cardsharps, 1595, caught the eye of the influential Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte who offed him lodgings in his palazzo became his patron, and for whom he painted boy with lizard amongst others. This raised his profile in elite circles and he ended up having the opportunity to do his first public works for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Rome in those days was the artistic center of Italy, artists came from all over Europeto see Classical buildings and famous works of art. He caused a bit of a sensation with his new style and became very famous (his fame spread across Europe) but it seemed that it went to his head and he continued to get into trouble with the police.
According to one of his biographers: ”after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with his sword at his side and with a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or argument, with the result that it is most awkward to get along with him”. (The sword was illegal – as with guns today, one had to have licence to carry arms.) Caravaggio was arrested repeatedly for, among other things, slashing the cloak of an adversary, throwing a plate of artichokes at a waiter, scarring a guard, and abusing the police. (National Gallery, 2016a)
In 1606 it all came to a head and he killed a man in an argument, Ranuccio Tomassoni, and had to flee Rome. He spent a short time in Naples then moved to Malta to join the order of the Knights of Malta in return for painting Beheading of St John the Baptist. He was holding out for a Pulpal pardon so he could return to Rome and induction into the order secured him high social standing. Unfortunately he got into trouble again, fighting with another knight, and got arrested. He escaped prison and went to Sicily. Eventually he did get his pardon so could return to Rome.
He loaded his belongings onto a ship but, for some unknown reason, was then arrested and had to buy his way out of jail. By the time he was released, the ship and all his possessions had sailed without him. As he made his way along the coast he fell ill, perhaps with malaria, and a few days later, alone and feverish, he died. (National Gallery, 2016a)
Biographers and news reports seem to disagree about exactly what killed him at aged 39. This report from the BBC suggests that researchers think he died of sunstroke while weakened by syphilis. On the same day in 2010, this article from the Guardian reports that they think he died of lead posioning from the paints! However they do also mention sunstroke.
Style & Technique
He is famous for the naturalism in his paintings (which wasn’t usual at the time) and for his use of light and dark – chiaroscuro. His religious works are lit dramatically by divine light and his saints look like ordinary people in ordinary contemporary settings (complete with dirty fingernails), the naturalism completely replacing the usual religious symbolism to such an extent prompting one observer to suggest that his Conversion of St. Paul looked like an accident in a blacksmiths shop. He used live models of local people which was also a new way of doing things, to draw from nature.
In between fights he found time to astound his contemporaries with his shocking realism and use of light and shade – chiaroscuro – although he won no favours with religious authorities in Rome when he reportedly used a famous prostitute as a model for the madonna. (The Guardian, 2010)
As a technique he painted directly on the canvas and no preparation drawings or sketches were found. Some researchers even suggest that evidence points to him using camera obscura techniques and chemicals to burn an initial image onto his canvas and sketch directly onto it with white lead paint and luminous barium sulphate in the dark! Its actually quite amazing.
I found this video from the National Gallery really interesting:
A recording of the National Gallery Curator of Italian and Spanish Paintings 1600-1800, Letizia Treves, speaking about Caravaggio at a lunchtime talk.
BBC news. (2010) Church bones ‘belong to Caravaggio’, researchers say At: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10333158
(Accessed on 18 Aug 16)
BibleHub. (2016) Luke 24 At: http://biblehub.com/esv/luke/24.htm
(Accessed on 14 Auguest 16)
De Rynck, P. (2009) Understanding Paintings: Bible Stories and Classical Myths in Art. Thames & Hudson
Honour, H & Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art. (7th Ed), London, Laurence King Publishing
Jones, J. (2002) ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard, Caravaggio (1595-1600)’ In: The Guardian [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/jan/05/art
(Accessed on 14 Auguest 16)
Kimbell Art Museum. (2016) The Cardsharps At: https://www.kimbellart.org/collection/search/view/496?text=Michelangelo%20Merisi
(Accessed on 17 Aug 16)
National Gallery. (2016a) Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio At: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggio
(Accessed on 14 Aug 16)
National Gallery. (2016b) Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio – The Supper at Emmaus At: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggio-the-supper-at-emmaus
(Accessed on 14 Auguest 16)
National Gallery, YouTube. (2016) Caravaggio | You choose | The National Gallery, London At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KcdgFxmnb4
(Accessed on 18 Aug 16)
The Guardian. (2009) Was Caravaggio the first photographer? At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/mar/11/caravaggio-art-studio-photography-first
(Accessed on 18 Aug 16)
The Guardian. (2010) The mystery of Caravaggio’s death solved at last – painting killed him At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/jun/16/caravaggio-italy-remains-ravenna-art
(Accessed on 18 Aug 16)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. (2001) Luke 24. Good News Publishers.