News & Views


Upcoming Presentation: CAA Annual Conference

Print This Post Print This Post

January 3rd, 2017

CAA 2017 Conference

On Thursday, February 16, 2017, Deborah Feller will be presenting her paper, “Bearing Witness: The Spectacle of Pain in the Drawings of Jusepe de Ribera” as part of a panel, Renaissance and Baroque Art Beyond the Frame, which will convene at 1:30pm.

The CAA (College Art Association) Annual Conference will meet this year in New York City from February 15-18 and will have events for both artists and art historians.  Anyone can attend and register online.


Art Review: William Kentridge, “9 Drawings for Projection”

Print This Post Print This Post

December 11th, 2016

[Note: To respect copyright concerns, the slide show that accompanies the following review is available only for private viewing. Interested readers should contact the writer:]

Moving Pictures:
The Moral Aesthetic of
William Kentridge

[slide 2]
“…a drawing is a membrane between the world coming toward us and our projected understanding of the world, a negotiation between ourselves and that which is outside…”
William Kentridge, 2014

Wandering into his father’s study when he was six years old, William Kentridge became curious about the contents of a large, flat, yellow box sitting on the desk.  Thinking it might contain chocolates, he lifted the lid to find not the expected treats, but photographs of victims of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the families of whom his father was representing in court (Fig. 2).

[slide 3]
In recounting the story in 2001, the artist described two of the images, “…a woman with her back blown off” and “someone with only half her head visible.”

Over a dozen years later, he told the story again, with added details and a description of several other pictures, including this sequence of two: “A man lies face downward, a dot and a dark stain in the center of his checkered jacket…the man rolled over…the whole chest disintegrated by the exit wound of the bullet,” and a third, “[a]nother chest…blown apart.”  The resulting jolt of “nonrecognition,” as the artist called it, eventually wore off, leaving in its wake a lifelong yearning to recapture the intense clarity of that childhood moment, before repeated exposures to pictures of “extraordinary adult violence” rendered them too familiar to elicit the same powerful reaction.

The theme of memory and its temporal degradation weaves through Kentridge’s oeuvre, a collection of stand-alone works on paper, drawings turned into animated films, multimedia installations, stage designs, theater productions, puppet shows–even a couple of operas, and a performance piece in which he took the role of narrator.  A prolific and versatile artist, Kentridge–who is white–grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, during the era of apartheid–a system of laws promulgated by the reigning Nationalist Party–aimed at consolidating white minority rule by exiling people of color to the outskirts of economic and social life.  The “brutal enforcement” of these laws increasingly separated Kentridge’s country from the rest of the world as foreign nations imposed sanctions and limited travel in mounting protest.

An exceptionally accessible and articulate artist, Kentridge has often ruminated publicly about the relationship between his life and his art. Yet in descriptions of his early brushes with the stark realities of apartheid (Fig. 3), his words fall short of the expressive power of his drawings, which render graphically far more dramatically the ravages wrought by the South African government and, indirectly, the profound impact on the artist of living among them for his first forty years.

[slide 4]

Acknowledging a preference for images over “language and logic,” Kentridge explained that among other reasons for his becoming an artist was his need to find a field “in which the construction of fictional authorities and imagined quotes would be a cause for celebration, rather than rustication and disgrace.”  More specifically, noting that his father’s being a lawyer “was not incidental to this narrative,” he wanted to construct a self “impervious to cross-examination.”  Art made it permissible for him to live with uncertainty, and his studio provided “a safe space for stupidity.”

As a young man, even as he reluctantly surrendered to the internal imperative to pursue art as a career, Kentridge wondered whether he had “the right to be an artist.”  With characteristic gravitas and a conceptualization of “art as a moral and philosophical calling,” he believed that to be an artist required “considerable self-examination and maturation.”  That he came from a long line of illustrious lawyers added to the difficulty of choosing such a divergent path, especially one for which he felt undeserving and unqualified.

By the time Kentridge committed to a life of art, he had already earned an undergraduate degree in politics and African studies, had taken courses in art, including printmaking–which he eventually taught–and had spent time working in theater.  Not quite ready to abandon acting for art, he spent a year in Paris studying mime and other theater arts, but quickly returned home to his first love, drawing.

[slide 5]
Over the years, Kentridge has sought to understand both his desire to draw and the images that emerge from his charcoal-smudged hands (Fig. 4), but for the most part he simply surrenders to a process that starts with an impulse rather than a well-formed concept.  He tracks his engagement with art to drawing lessons he took as a nine-year-old, where in answer to his teacher’s questions about what he wanted to draw and with what, his young self replied, “Landscape” and “Charcoal”–answers that a much older self still can’t explain.

Intuitive knowing has always characterized Kentridge’s studio practice, which begins with a desire to draw–usually joined by some vague notion of where he wants to go–and delivers meaning along the way.  He’s learned that “…things occur during the process that may modify, consolidate or shed doubts on what [he] know[s],” and likens the act of drawing to a mode of thought with the potential to provide new insights on life.

[slide 6]
When the impetus to draw fails to generate action,  Kentridge often paces around his studio for many minutes or hours (Fig. 5), waiting for “…the disconnected ideas and images to pull together,” despite experience having taught him that “…images or ideas will only clarify themselves in action–the charcoal on paper, the ink in the book.”  But still he’ll pace.

By allowing himself this “space for uncertainty,” Kentridge invites unconscious material onto the page–a byproduct of his process not entirely unknown to him.  What else could he be describing when he observes that “…parts of the world, and parts of us, are revealed, that we neither expressed nor knew, until we saw them–when we realized we always did know them.”  That’s exactly what happened with one of the drawings he developed for his film Felix in Exile.  To portray a body on the veld,

[slide 7]
Kentridge used a police photograph for reference.  Only much later did he recognize in his new picture the bloody bodies of the Sharpeville massacre victims that had shocked him as a child (Figs. 2 and 6).  A memory he was sure had lost its power lay dormant until an event reminiscent of the original trauma called it back.

Most artists can’t avoid intrusion of the autobiographical into their work, though the extent of its presence varies depending on their artistic practices. While not deliberately drawing attention to himself, Kentridge usually discovers after the fact–and willingly shares it with his listeners–the ways in which his personal history has melded–in his art–with stories of Johannesburg and its inhabitants.

[slide 8]
Although in the mid-1980s (when he resumed drawing with a passion) Kentridge was inspired by early French artists, later Impressionists, and more recent German Expressionists, he could not keep South Africa from insinuating itself into even these early graphic musings.  In the right panel of his triptych The Boating Party (1985, Fig. 7)–a riff on Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881), the flaming tire falling from above directly references the “burning necklaces” used by authorities (and others) to sadistically torture and kill Blacks (Fig. 8).  In the center panel, the tabletop gallows from which hangs a noose requires no additional explanation.

[slide 9]
Future favorites also made their debuts in these early explorations on paper.  The nude man in the background who turns his back on the party-goers as he exits the scene (a la Velazquez’s Las Meninas) in the left panel of the three-paneled The Conservationists’ Ball (1985, Fig. 9) later became Kentridge’s never-clothed alter-ego Felix Teitlebaum.  The binoculars displayed prominently on the table, in the middle panel, foregrounds Kentridge’s future preoccupation with instruments of sight, and leads the eye to the rhinoceros on a serving stand behind it.  The hyena in the right panel further announces the African setting, as does the cheetah on the left.

Of art in the 1960s and 1970s, Kentridge recalled:

“Much of what was contemporary in Europe and America…seemed distant and incomprehensible to me..the impulses behind the work did not make the transcontinental jump to South Africa.  The art that seemed most immediate and local dated from the early twentieth century, when there still seemed to be hope for political struggle rather than a world exhausted by war and failure…one had to look backwards…”

The unique case that was South Africa demanded its own brand of art.  The boy in his grandfather’s car as it drove past a side street in Johannesburg, noticing a man lying in the gutter surrounded by four men kicking him in his body and head, had to “rearrange” his worldview to accommodate this new reality of adult violence.  The same boy, a little older, flipping through that grandfather’s gift book of great-artists’ landscape paintings, had to reconcile the idyllic beauty reproduced in it with the “barbed-wire fences [and] hill with stones and thorns” he encountered on country-picnic outings with his family.

With his heart belonging to both dramatic and graphic arts, and perhaps feeling moved to merge them in the service of potentiating each, in 1988 Kentridge began creating Drawings for Projection, a fifteen-year project that concluded as 9 Drawings for Projection.  Devoting time and energy to the graphic arts had never pulled this artist away from filmmaking and theater.  Nor would work on his new long-term project mean there were not to be other animated films emerging from his studio during those years.  Kentridge has always stayed busy.

Coming at the time that it did–during the last few years of apartheid and several more leading up to the first free elections and later establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 9 Drawings for Projection encapsulates the artist’s personal reflections on his country of birth, its immoral treatment of native Africans and its rapacious exploitation of its mineral resources.  Throughout, Kentridge mulls over witnessing, memory, personal responsibility, love and forgiveness.

[slide 10]
In the first film, Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris (1989), the artist introduced the dramatis personae for the series, one of which is the city itself (Figs. 10 and 11), about which Kentridge confessed,

“I have been unable to escape Johannesburg.  The four houses I have lived in, my school, studio, have all been within three kilometers of each other.  And in the end all my work is rooted in this rather desperate provincial city.”

Indeed, he is held as captive as Felix in Johannesburg (Fig. 12), simultaneously confounded and enthralled by a city the serendipity of birth made his.  The oddness of this hometown rests partially on a vein of gold–the mining of which has left hills of pulverized stone dotting the land–and the need over a century ago to put to work a surfeit of dangerously unemployed soldiers.  Kept occupied planting a million suburban trees, they created “the largest man-made forest in the world.”

From the first of these films until the last in 2003, Kentridge scattered much charcoal attempting to come to grips with an internal agitation that has never quite left him.  He wrestled with the dilemma of time’s inevitable absorption of the years of apartheid horrors and in the end could find no respite from misery in the middle of an unrelenting AIDS epidemic.

[slide 11]
Drawing on many years of visual material, including his own memories, Kentridge created Soho Eckstein (Fig. 13), only afterwards realizing–as is his way–that the unstoppable capitalist in a pin-striped suit had his origins in an old photograph of his paternal grandfather, sitting on a beach in full business attire.  Kentridge’s name for this hard-hearted entrepreneur–Eckstein means “cornerstone” in German–alludes to the intractability of South Africa, just as does the rock he inserts intermittently throughout the series.

The businessman’s foil, Felix Teitlebaum (Fig. 12)–whose surname derives from a Yiddish/Germanic word for “date palm” and given name resembles that of the artist’s mother’s,  Felicia (both associations inadvertent)–never acquires a wardrobe lest he get fixed in time by the specificity of fashion that a pin-striped suit somehow manages to avoid.  While Soho’s driving passion is acquisition, that of Felix is love, though mostly experienced as reverie and longing.

At the outset, needing Felix to have the same consistency of appearance and personality that the far easier-to-stereotype Soho does, Kentridge turned to the mirror.  With his dreamer taken from his own self-reflection, the draftsman–finding himself inextricably identified with his new character–“had to take responsibility for his actions,” a turn of events that enhanced the autobiographical potential of the film.

[slide 12]
The action opens with lover boy already ensconced in an affair with Mrs. Eckstein, a woman who never develops a name of her own as she moves in and then out of the illicit affair–and unfolds before the desolate Johannesburg landscape traversed by desperate Africans.  Kentridge graphically contrasted the needy tenderness of Felix (Fig. 16) with the greedy hardness of Soho (Fig. 17), although the vulnerable cloak of nakedness worn by the former doesn’t stop him from besting his fully-suited rival in an old-fashioned fist fight.

[slide 13]
The dark cloud of the violent reality of their milieu coalesces into a bookcase stacked with disembodied heads, overflowing onto the surrounding plain (Fig. 18).  A composition originally explored in the etching Casspirs Full of Love (1989, Fig. 19), the subject alludes to the theme of callous impenetrability.  Casspirs are mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that for decades were used to control the South African populace.  “Casspirs full of love” was a radio greeting sent by parents to their servicemen sons during 1974 military operations protecting the country’s borders against the newly liberated Portuguese colonies next door.  In the end, the bookcase and heads will disappear into the earth, leaving behind a ground unmarked by slaughter.

[slide 14]
In Monument (1990), the next film in the series, Soho aggrandizes himself by unveiling a commemorative statue dedicated to the black African worker.  Bent under the weight of an outsized burden, a flesh-and-blood man petrifies into the statue (Fig. 20), but the stone of his artificially constructed being soon yields to an irresistible urge to raise his head against the weight, lift his swollen eyelids and confront the not-so-innocent bystander.

Sensitive to the history accruing around him, Kentridge embodied within his work–not always intentionally–the story of South Africa’s slowly evolving deliverance from the black hole of apartheid.  Pivotal among the nine films, Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old (1991) and Felix in Exile (1994) reflect the dramatic shifts effected by a 1989 change in the country’s administration, within a year of which freedom-fighter Nelson Mandela was released from prison.  In 1994 free elections were held for the first time.

The release dates of these two films roughly coincided with those developments, capturing Kentridge’s hope for, and adjustment to, a newly imaginable world.  In Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old (1991), Felix and Mrs. Eckstein continue their affair against a backdrop of emboldened workers–chanting, carrying signs and parading through the bleak urban landscape.  Soho–torturing himself with erotic fantasies of his errant wife with her lover, humanized in his longing for her, presides over a collapsing empire and cries aloud for his eloped wife to “come home.”

[slide 15]
Early on in the film, Kentridge set a mining mountain and its barren location against the very modern cityscape of Johannesburg (Fig. 22), with its erect buildings in the background.  Later, when Soho’s monument to capitalism dissolves into dust in a scene all too evocative of the still-to-happen demise of the World Trade Towers (Fig. 23), it leaves behind a ghost of imperfectly erased charcoal (Fig. 24), expressive of Kentridge’s consternation over the mind’s ability to normalize absence even in the presence of cataclysmic events.

[slide 16]
Daring to conjure a new reality but still haunted by violent memories not so easily expunged, in Felix in Exile (1994) Kentridge conjures up Nandi, a land surveyor who uses a theodolite to bravely take the measure of her people’s losses.  Alone in a room sparsely furnished with chair, desk, bed, sink and fly-surrounded light bulb hanging from the ceiling, artist Felix rifles through his stash of drawings (Fig. 25), a window into the activities of his new beloved, Nandi.  Seeing through her eyes, quite literally in a mirror scene where each views the other from opposite ends of a double-sided scope, Felix must reckon now with the same carnage that she does (Fig. 26).

Through the power of animation, Kentridge transformed the remembered stills of the Sharpeville massacre into moving pictures of bodies bleeding on the veld.  A seismograph attempts to record the earth’s convulsed reaction but the line remains flat even after a bullet finds Nandi (Fig. 27) and the ground absorbs all traces of her life and violent death.  Throughout the film, a poignant native song cues the desired emotional response.

More redolent still of childhood memories of violence, History of the Main Complaint (1996) finds Soho in a hospital bed under intense internal scrutiny by doctors with their surveying instruments, and by his psyche through an eidetic nightmare that begins with a view through the windshield of a moving vehicle.

[slide 17]
A pair of eyes visible in the rear-view mirror registers the sudden appearance of a Black man lying on the road ahead (Fig. 28), being kicked in the face by two assailants, then subjected to body blows with a stick (Fig. 29), then kicked again and again in the head and body, each strike recording red crosses on related x-rays of torso and skull.  The latter of the two anatomical images soon morphs into Soho’s profile, glimpsed through the car window.  When night falls, taking visibility with it, Soho’s car hits one of a number of figures that dart out in front of him.  The sound of breaking glass wakes him with a start.  Despite the return of these repressed memories, the hospital patient magically mends and returns to his desk to conduct business as usual, albeit with noticeably less frenzy.

[slide 18]
No hint of Felix appears in the rest of the series as Soho becomes increasingly subdued, even self-reflective.  In Stereoscope (1999), amid bright-blue-on-black representations of communication devices and networks, besieged by lists of numbers and reminiscences of brutality (Figs. 30, 31 and 32), Soho is sometimes seen in a split screen that Kentridge left to the viewer to combine into “a true representation of the world,” effectively avoiding the daunting task of integrating disparate aspects of himself.

In its own way chronicling the challenges faced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the film ends with a block-lettered, blue-on-black “give,” soon joined by its partner “for,” to finally form “forgive,” repeated several times in that order of word appearance (Fig. 33).  In the end, Soho stands with eyes downcast and head bowed, watching water–a recurring motif in these films–cascade from first his breast pocket and then the others, till his sorrow floods the room and threatens to drown him (Fig. 34).

Tide Table (2003), the final film of the series, begins with pin-stripe-suited Soho, like Kentridge’s original reference photo for him, sitting on a beach (Fig. 35).  Children watched by their women caregivers, play in the sand and cavort in the water to the strains of upbeat music.  Within minutes, the tone darkens as these carefree activities come under the scrutiny of military men perched on the balconies of a nearby art deco resort, peering through binoculars.  The scene switches to an overcrowded hospital ward–a medical setting in complete contrast to the spacious private room Soho occupied in the History of the Main Complaint.

[slide 19]
For Kentridge, the AIDS epidemic in South Africa raised the question of “inappropriate mortality, of people dying very young…unnecessarily” because of “the inability of the society to deal with it.”  In vignettes of sick and dying men, the artist conveyed the sorrow of survivors (Figs. 37 and 38) yet still found his way back to up-tempo, wistful shots of a boy playing on the rocks and in the sand, and Soho at the water’s edge, skimming stones across the swells.  The film series ends as the tide takes with it memories of loved ones lost to AIDS, just as the land had consumed all traces of the country’s violent history.

Despite Kentridge’s expressed concern about the unreliability of memory and time’s inevitable dulling of initial shock and/or outrage (a clouding of clarity) in response to traumatic events, when realizing “some months or years later” the connection between the bodies he drew in Felix in Exile and the photographs of the Sharpeville massacre victims, he was “sure that, in a sense, it was trying to tame that horror of seeing those images.”  In using the third person “it” rather than first person “I,” Kentridge unintentionally demonstrated the power of the unconscious to keep unbearable memories at a safe remove.

In this series of nine films, the adult artist deliberately and repeatedly affirmed memory’s inevitable erosion, using the natural behavior of land and water as visual metaphors for the process.  But his child-artist self refused to abide by that precept, consistently ejecting onto the page violent memories that defiantly remained very much alive in the deep recesses of his brain, ready to be summoned by the slightest evocation of those original experiences.


Notes and references available upon request.

A special note of appreciation
for making the films available to the writer goes to:

Marian Goodman Gallery
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019
Tel : 212-977-7160

William Kentridge’s art can be visited there.


Art Historical Musings: The Contemporary in Encyclopedic Museums

Print This Post Print This Post

August 25th, 2016

Courting the Contemporary
Art-Historical Museums Follow the Money

[To view the slide show in a separate tab, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

Enjoying the centuries-old paintings in the gently-lit exhibit on Japanese collections at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the visitor entering the rooms at the hairpin curve of the u-shaped circuit of galleries was confronted with a narrow, lightly curved, soaring piece of gleaming white metal on a thin, highly-polished, black stone plinth (Slide 2, Fig. 1).  In a space at the very end of her tour, contemporary paintings surrounded a glass sculpture of a deer (Slide 2, Fig. 2) affectionately called “Bubbles” because of its skin of varied-sized glass spheres.

Such incidents have become quite common in encyclopedic/universal art museums, where the primary focus on objects–from all over the world–with aesthetic and historic value has been slowly eroded by a pressing need to attract more people to guarantee enough income to keep this type of art venue alive.  Even a frozen-in-time institution like The Morgan Library and Museum splashed a detail of an Andy Warhol book jacket–decorated with a couple of flirtatious nude angels–on the cover of its Calendar of Events: Winter & Spring 2016 (Slide 3, Fig. 3) to trumpet its upcoming exhibit, Warhol by the Book–a departure from its usual, more staid fare.  In yet another incident of new art keeping company with old, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC situated Roy Lichtenstein’s classically toned painting Entablature on the wall above a quintessentially Canova reclining nude (Slide 3, Fig. 4).

Other manifestations of these contemporary times can be found on the websites of all museums–like that of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Slide 4, Fig. 5), where links to social media like Twitter and Facebook have become de rigueur, and redesigns of logos as part of rebranding campaigns–like the one undertaken by The Met in 2016 (Slide 4, Fig. 6)–attempt to alter perceptions by presenting a more with-it, though aesthetically flawed, veneer.

Museum education programs have morphed, too, into vehicles engineered to engage a more diverse audience.  In the face of this increasing proliferation of contemporary art, new approaches have been developed to help museum goers deal with incomprehensible objects that baffle and irritate them.  Traditional, information-based explanations have in some places yielded to Socratic questioning to elicit viewers’ responses to, and thoughts on, the art object.

When museums turn their spotlights on the contemporary in this way, they are responding to outside forces, primarily those of the marketplace.  Since at least the late eighties, when artists began departing from ordinary means of expression, (painting, drawing, sculpture, even video) and embarking on experiments with largely conceptual and otherwise unusual materials, new art has been edging out its competition.  Increased demand has turned contemporary art into big business, creating a veritable “asset class” of great interest not just to collectors but also to hedge fund managers, who buy low in quantity–driving up prices of little-known artists’ work–and then, after holding onto the objects for an average of two years, sell high–sometimes, in the process, flooding the market.

Growing numbers of collectors with major holdings of contemporary art, looking to place their work strategically–either through loans or outright donations, offer financial support to those institutions receptive to their artists.  Art-historical museums like The Met can’t afford to ignore such a large pool of prospective patrons, but when they invite them and their cohorts–galleries, dealers and auction houses–into their hallowed halls, they risk practicing “checkbook art history.”

When an encyclopedic museum that has historically limited its holdings to that of the past, acquires an art object of a certain age, the effect on the artwork’s market value will be little affected by the positive regard thus bestowed.  But when a piece created by a living artist enters a museum’s permanent collection, all of that artist’s production will increase in value, much to the advantage of the dealer/gallery who represents the artist and has sold it.

These and other dangers have not served as a deterrent to universal museums like The Met in New York–which plans to reconfigure and expand its current modern and contemporary wing, and in 2015 leased from the Whitney its vacated Breuer building (Slide 5, Fig. 7) to mount related exhibitions during that process–and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Slide 5, Fig. 8) in Arkansas–which announced in 2016 its intention to transform an old cheese factory into a display box for new art, explaining how it would become “one of the hottest destinations in the country” and be “huge for the younger generation, the millennials.”  The Met, however, was later forced to put its well-underway program on indefinite hold due to financial troubles, some of which have been ascribed to the outpouring of funds needed to cover the refurbishing and staffing of its new annex.

For boosting numbers, such architectural add-ons are good bets.  The results of a 2015 study found that “[m]useums that expanded between 2007 and 2014 saw their attendance rise significantly faster than museums that did not…,” although in time those gains became less dramatic.

This pressing need to bring in more visitors and hence more money originated in the early nineties when a stagnant economy forced the United States government to question its commitment to funding the arts.  The Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 provided fertile ground for the culture wars that ensued, when politicians like the mayor of New York railed against the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s cutting-edge exhibit Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection (Slide 6, Fig. 9), and the Corcoran cancelled its upcoming retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose homoerotic photographs, bordering on the pornographic (Slide 6, Fig. 10), had the potential to trigger a defunding backlash from the federal government.

Other economic pressures have accrued to art museums in the ensuing years.  Afficionados of contemporary art with large enough collections and deep enough pockets began at the beginning of the twenty-first century to build their own museums rather than target a favored museum as the final resting place for their beloved objects.  The alternative to donations–purchasing art outright–has become less of an option for museums, whose acquisition budgets can’t keep up with prices like that of Amadeo Modigliani’s Recumbent Nude, which sold at auction for $170.4 million (Slide 7, Fig. 11).

In their desperate competition for limited funds, art museums today are trapped in a maelstrom of inexorable growth.  Reduced government spending has led to greater reliance on corporate and individual funding, which requires museums to substantiate their worth with healthy attendance figures.  Nothing does that quite so well as blockbuster exhibitions, whose increased costs call for even more individual donor support.  To attract new patrons, museums have to appeal to their artistic tastes, now overwhelmingly contemporary, with reimagined and expanded old buildings and newly constructed minimalist ones that reflect their art.

Enlargement brings its own challenges.  Growing to resemble major corporations, museums have to meet the demands of their metamorphosis by expanding existing departments like administration, visitor services, development and membership, creating new ones like media relations and establishing novel positions like that of chief digital officer–the holder of which at The Met commands a staff of seventy–all of which costs money.  Increased overhead requires additional income, which calls for more fundraising efforts aimed at corporate sponsors and individual collectors, and forces museums to lure even more people through the door with ever more dramatic exhibitions for which new donors must be found, repeating the cycle ad nauseam.

These financial stresses have bred questionable practices.  Nonprofit museums now extract payments, which they call donations, from galleries whose artists they show, requesting anywhere from $5,000 to $200,000 to help cover expenses.  They might also squeeze them for referrals of potential donors.  The larger the gallery, the more it can afford to cooperate, which apparently garners maximum benefits.  Almost a third of major one-person exhibits in the US between 2007 and 2013 went to artists represented by just five galleries, with the figure staggeringly greater for contemporary art museums like the Guggenheim (ninety percent) and the Museum of Modern Art (forty-five percent), a cautionary statistic for art-historical museums that insist on playing in this league.

Artists already represented by big-name galleries become widely known and hence more popular, enticing museums to use as a criterion for inclusion the fame factor.  In its press release about its Collectors Committee’s recent purchases, the National Gallery of Art proudly declared that it had acquired Janine Antoni’s chocolate-and-soap sculpted self-portraits, “Lick and Lather …, arguably her most famous work (Slide 8, Fig. 12).”  [Italics added for emphasis.]

The statement highlights the elusive nature of defining the artistic value of mainly conceptual, contemporary art.  Not only do curators find themselves in competition with sales-related departments like marketing and digital media services, but when they and other apologists for the new are asked to delineate criteria for it, they avoid answering the question.

Art seasoned by time can accrue value over the course of its existence simply by virtue of survival.  Too, historical criteria for its quality and importance will have already been established.  Not so with brand new works that have not been subjected to that test of time.  An art that indiscriminately encompasses every self-defined work as art invites a leveling of expectations and hence quality.

Scholars and other arts writers romantically obsessed with the latest artists and their productions often enjoy cozy relationships with their subjects, depending on them for information and explanations, a situation that impedes the objectivity that time and distance can bestow.  The risk is real that these so-called art historians will become “glorified publicist[s] or ventriloquist[s] for the artist.”  Because the living never remain as constant as the dead, specialists in this field might also find themselves sorting out conflicting responses.

This love affair with the contemporary finds expression in other museum activities.  One example is The Met, which for their rebranding intentions commissioned a design and marketing firm–whose website’s tag line proclaims “We are creative partners to ambitious leaders who want to design radically better businesses”–to construct for it a new logo (Slide 9, Fig. 13) and graphical identity.  The choice of consultant should not surprise anyone who has heard the director of The Met, Thomas Campbell, refer to the museum as a business.

The split between curatorial mission and corporate practices was nowhere more obvious than at a Met staff meeting regularly presided over by Director Campbell during which a representative of the design company presented its ideas to a roomful of curators and other staff in the fall of 2015.  A young student intern confided her shock at the way the woman spoke to the assemblage as if to grade-schoolers who needed simplified instructions to grasp her meaning.

Reactions to the new logo have been almost unanimously negative, including among guards who now display it on their jackets.  In focusing excessively on marketing and other business-like strategies, a museum like The Met risks losing status and public trust.  Several years before he became the former director of The Met, Philippe de Montebello cautioned: “How we market our museums tells much about how we view ourselves, and we should not expect our public to be unaffected by such attitudes.”

In devising strategies to gain new audiences, museums have again looked to business models, shifting from a “selling mode” that uses its wares–art objects–to attract visitors, to a “marketing mode” that researches (e.g., through focus groups) the needs, interests and character of prospective guests to more effectively lure then in.  Museum organizations’ statements reflect this change.  No longer placing emphasis on collection-related activities, they demonstrate a new concern with public service and education, even envisioning museums as instruments of “communal empowerment” and “social change.”

This evolution has not stopped there as museums have sought to become everything to everybody.  One need only look at the proliferation of concerts, dance performances (Slide 10, Fig. 14) and completely novel events like exercise routines (Slide 10, Fig. 15) that have become staples for many of them.  The need of visitors to have a good time, and not that of curators and their collections to inform, has turned the museum experience into one that seeks to provide “…social interaction…spiritual sustenance, emotional connection, intellectual challenge,…[and] consumerist indulgence,” even happiness.

That’s in stark contrast to the original purpose of museums, which was to provide a place for experiencing art.  Today the museum not the art has become the destination–as in “let’s go to The Met” as opposed to “let’s go look at some Italian Baroque paintings and sculpture.”

Some of the events offered by these repositories of art have little to do with their contents, although they do have the potential to generate income, like the cash bar on the Great Hall balcony at The Met (Slide, 11, Fig. 16), which on MetFridays becomes a place to meet and hang out with friends (Slide 11, Fig. 17).  Much further south, when Tom Walton announced that Crystal Bridges would be converting an old factory into a space for contemporary art, he envisioned “a ‘kind of living room for the community,’ where art, music, performance and food would be on offer in unexpected ways.”

A contemporary museum like the Guggenheim can unapologetically develop events designed to gather “the ‘in-crowd’ of society” under its roof.  In the late nineties, the museum’s director of communications and sponsorship could unabashedly admit:
“We are in the entertainment business, and competing against other forms of entertainment out there.  We have a Guggenheim brand that has certain equities and properties…[I]f they are here for a party and happen to look at the art and come back again, that’s valuable to us.”
His was the time when many cultural institutions in New York City were beginning to entice new audiences with offerings of up-to-date music and high-styled fashion.

No one summed up this change in targeted audience better than the entrepreneurial former director of the Guggenheim in the 2001 press release on his museum’s partnership with the Venetian Resort Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas and the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia:
“…today the profile of a typical Las Vegas visitor increasingly approximates the profile of the visitors upon which every major museum in the world…depends, and to which they communicate.”
Contending with that kind of attitude, curators find themselves called upon to partner with, rather than guide, audiences through their collections.  One trend has museums mounting shows–virtually or on their walls–consisting solely of selections made by “citizen curators,” as if there were no special qualifications for assembling artwork into coherent and informative exhibitions (Slide 12, Fig. 18).

The success of all these schemes has brought crowding and noise to formerly quiet settings conducive to contemplation and extended viewing.  At The Met, the Costume Institute has become notorious for taking over galleries already filled with art, effectively shutting down entire viewing areas for months at a time.  The 2015 show China:Through the Looking Glass obliterated the Chinese galleries, turning them into rooms reminiscent of discotheques–loud music permeating darkened spaces illuminated with bright spotlighting (Slide 13, Fig. 19).

Curators now must consider crowd flow when they lay out galleries, especially for blockbusters–those temporary exhibitions devised to generate massive numbers.  In designing new museum spaces, architects have to choose between cavernous rooms to accommodate the hoards and intimate galleries to provide optimum viewing opportunities for visitors naturally inclined to look at the art.

Museums cannot, however, survive on their gate alone and in addition to relying on the support of individual donors, must also pursue government and corporate funding, contending with a new emphasis on educating children.  The study of art for its own sake no longer qualifies a museum’s existence but now must guarantee the acquisition of important academic and/or other life skills.

Providing enlightenment for both adults and young students about the works of art on display (e.g., their origins, materials, subject matter and former contexts) has been giving way to focusing on the viewers’ perceptions, paralleling the shift to indulging entertainment needs rather than offering up works of art as means of engagement.

The matter remains unsettled, however.  On one side are those who believe in the value of the old way (providing information), and worry about dumbing down museum education, meeting visitors at their current level of knowledge instead of challenging them with more sophisticated fare.  On the opposing side are those who would use art education to teach other skills, including how to look at the art itself–as though a masterpiece could not speak on its own to an untutored audience.

Singlehandedly, modern and contemporary art, now ubiquitous, could easily account for this sea change in approach.  One educator with many years experience observing audience response to new art, noted:
“…both modern and contemporary art can produce a great deal of angst, if not negativity…[Visitors] are confused and often hostile when confronted with, for example, an all black canvas.”
Naturally, he had to distract audience attention from the irritant, redirecting their gaze to their own feelings and thoughts.  After all, what can be said about an all black, or all white, or all red, canvas that isn’t purely conceptual, having nothing at all to do with the thing before one’s eyes?

In the end, visitors voted with their feet for the art that most appealed to them.  In a 2015 compilation of statistics from museums worldwide, art-historical museums monopolized the top five spots (Slide 14, Fig. 20), attesting to the type of museum experience the viewer still prefers.  Encyclopedic museums would do well to take stock of the treasures they already possess rather than looking elsewhere for solutions to their financial woes.

Like Glinda told Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “…you’ve always had the power (Slide 15, Fig. 21).”  It’s time for art-historical museums to click those ruby slippers together and return home to what they alone know how to do so well.

[To get a copy of this paper with the endnotes, send your request to]


Altshuler, Bruce. “The Met gets a second chance to get contemporary art right.” The Art Newspaper, April 1, 2016, accessed April 3, 2016,

Bunzl, Matti. In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde: An Anthropologist Investigates the Contemporary Art Museum. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Crow, Kelly, Sara Germano and David Benoit. “New Masters of the Art Universe.” The Wall Street Journal Arts & Entertainment Section, January 23, 2014, accessed April 17, 2016,

Cuno, James, editor. Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Davidson, Justin. “The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s New Logo Is a Typographic Bus Crash.” Vulture, February 17, 2016, accessed May 5, 2016,

Fabrikant, Geraldine. “European Museums Are Shifting to American Way of Giving.” The New York Times Art & Design Section, March 15, 2016, accessed on March 16, 2016, european-museums-are-shifting-to-american-way-of-giving.html

Gamarekian, Barbara. “Corcoran, to Foil Dispute, Drops Mapplethorpe Show.” The New York Times Arts Section, June 14, 1989, accessed on May 1, 2016,

Goodnough, Abby. “Giuliani Threatens to Evict Museum Over Art Exhibit.” The New York Times Arts Section, September 24, 1999, accessed on May 1, 2016,

Halperin, Julia. “Almost one third of solo shows in US museums go to artists
represented by five galleries.” The Art Newspaper, April 2, 2015, accessed May 5, 2016, almost-one-third-of-solo-shows-in-us-museums-go-to-artists-represented-by-five-galleries/

____________. “Museums that expand get more visitors, our data analysis shows.” The Art Newspaper, March 31, 2016, accessed April 3, 2016,

Kallir, Jane. “Recent Acquisitions (And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market).” Galerie St. Etienne Newsletter, July 21-October 16, 2015.

Kennedy, Randy. “Crystal Bridges Museum to Open New Space for Contemporary Art.” The New York Times Art & Design Section, March 29, 2016, accessed on March 30, 2016, crystal-bridges-museum-to-open-new-space-for-contemporary-art.html?_r=0.

Kirschbaum, Susan M. “Noticed; Dinner, Dancing and, Oh Yes, Art.” The New York Times Style Section, March 14, 1999, accessed on April 21, 2016,

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “David Copperfield Names as Architect to Redesign Metropolitan Museum’s Modern and Contemporary Art Wing and Adjacent Areas.” Press Release, March 11, 2015, accessed April 10, 2016,

__________________________. “Sree Sreenivasan Named the Metropolitan
Museum’s First Chief Digital Officer.” Press Release, June 20, 2013, accessed April 17, 2016,

Meyer, Richard. What was Contemporary Art? Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2013.

de Montebello, Philippe. The Museum: An Imperfect Construct. Course at the Institute of Fine Arts, 2016.

The Morgan Library & Museum. Calendar of Events Winter & Spring, 2016

_________________________. Calendar of Events Spring & Summer, 2016.

Munro, Cait. “What Noteworthy New Artist Records Were Set at New York’s Fall Auctions?” artnet news, November 13, 2015, accessed April 17, 2016,

National Gallery of Art. “Janine Antoni, Sally Mann, Christina Ramberg, and Roger Brown Acquisitions Made Possible by the Collectors Committee Enter the National Gallery of Art’s Collection.” April 22, 2016, accessed May 5, 2016,

Pes, Javier, José da Silva and Emily Sharpe. “Visitor Figures 2015: Jeff Koons is the toast of Paris and Bilbao.” The Art Newspaper, March 31, 2016, accessed April 3, 2016, jeff-koons-is-the-toast-of-paris-and-bilbao/.

Pogrebin, Robin. “Art Galleries Face Pressure to Fund Museum Shows.” The New York Times Art & Design Section, March 7, 2016, accessed April 3, 2016,

_____________. Robin Pogrebin, “Met Plans a Gut Renovation of Its Modern Wing.” The New York Times Art & Design Section, May 19, 2014, accessed April 10, 2016, in-mets-future-a-redesigned-modern-art-wing.html?_r=0.

_____________. “Metropolitan Museum of Art Plans Job cuts and Restructuring.” The New York Times Art & Design Section, March 7, 2016, accessed April 21, 2016,

_____________. “NOTICED; Dinner, Dancing and, Oh Yes, Art.” The New York Times Style Section, March 14, 1999, accessed April 21, 2016,

_____________.“2 Art Worlds: Flush MoMA, Struggling Met.” The New York Times Arts Section, April 22, 2016, accessed April 22, 2016,

Rice, Danielle, and Philip Yenawine. “A Conversation on Object-Centered Learning in Art Museums.” Curator 45, no 4 (October 2002).

Rodney, Seph. “The Evolution of the Museum Visit, from Privilege to Personalized Experience.” Hyperallergic: Sensitive to Art & its Discontents, January 22, 2016, accessed January 25, 2016, the-evolution-of-the-museum-visit-from-privilege-to-personalized-experience/.

Schulte, Erin. “Most Creative People: A Q&A With The Met’s Chief Digital Officer, Sree Sreenivasan.” Fast Company, April 7, 2014, accessed April 17, 2016,

Sutton, Benjamin. “Crunching the Numbers Behind the Boom in Private Art Museums.” Hyperallergic: Sensitive to Art & it Discontents, January 21, 2016, accessed January 22, 2016, behind-the-boom-in-private-art-museums/.

Tomkins, Calvin. “The Met and the Now: The museum finally goes modern.” The New Yorker, January 25, 2016, 32-36.

Vogel, Carol. “Relentless Bidding, and Record Prices, for Contemporary Art at Christie’s Auction.” The New York Times Art & Design Section, November 14, 2012, accessed April 17, 2016,

Voon, Claire. “Report Advises Museums on How to Be More Inclusive and Maximize Happiness.” Hyperallergic: Sensitive to Art & its Discontents, March 10, 2016, accessed March 3, 2016, 281215/report-advises-museums-on-how-to-be-more-inclusive-and-maximize-happiness/.

Weil, Stephen E. “From Being about Something to Being for Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum” in Making Museums Matter. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2002.


Work in Progress: What You See…painting

Print This Post Print This Post

August 9th, 2016

Self-Portrait Advances

Work has begun on the imprimitúra for the self-portrait What You See…, a profile view obtained using two mirrors. Much remains to be done before colors can be added.


Art Review: Art Objects?

Print This Post Print This Post

June 30th, 2015

All That Glitters…
Art Museums Making It Art

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so.  But I know it when I see it…1

When Justice Potter Stewart penned those word in a 1964 concurring opinion on a case involving a motion picture, he had in mind pornography.  Today the statement could easily apply to a certain attitude held by many people toward art, unaware as they are of the vulnerability to manipulation of their belief.

Attempting to define the “kinds of material embraced within that shorthand description” art has been a favorite pastime of deep thinkers from at least as far back as Plato, with neuroscientists recently adding their voices to the cacophony.2  When creative types stepped outside accepted norms (as they are wont to do), they further complicated this age-old struggle to determine the nature of art.

The terminology problem achieved critical mass when in April 1917 Marcel Duchamp–pushing the limits of the Society of Independent Artists’ policy of accepting all proffered objects–presented to its hanging committee a urinal he purchased from the J. L. Mott Iron Works company, having affixed to it the signature “R. Mutt” and anointed it Fountain.3  In another sphere of activity but also during the early part of the twentieth century, a boom in archaeological digs coupled with a proliferation of publications for a general audience introduced yet another set of objects for consideration as art.4  Contemporaneously, indigenous works from Africa began to migrate from ethnic collections to art galleries,5 setting in motion a reevaluation of comparable items brought from analogous cultures elsewhere.

The legacy of these developments can be found today gracing the interiors of art museums, where (among other factors) a simple change in accompanying label can alter the meaning of an object on display.6

Theaster Gates, In Case of Race Riot II (2011, wood, metal and hoses, 32 x 25 x 6 in [81.3 x 63.5 x 15.2 cm]). Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Theaster Gates, In Case of Race Riot II (2011, wood, metal and hoses, 32 x 25 x 6 in [81.3 x 63.5 x 15.2 cm]). Brooklyn Museum, New York.

 Tucked away in a corner in the American Identities galleries of the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York on the wall of a section headed “Everyday Life/A Nation Divided,” behind a framed sheet of glass, a length of coiled hose invites associations with its primary purpose of extinguishing fires.  One could be forgiven for expecting the accompanying wall text to announce, “In case of fire, break glass.”

Instead, the explanatory label begins with a name–Theaster Gates, adds a title–In Case of Race Riot II, and includes a list of materials used in its assemblage.  The story of the piece follows.  The viewer is cued to consider the object a work of art by the box that frames it, the label that describes it, the spotlighting that illuminates it, and the art museum that placed it in the company of other similarly designated pieces.  The power of this image to evoke an emotional response in beholders is enhanced by any personal recollections of the civil rights events of the 1960s to which it refers.  Such reminiscences are encouraged by the declared theme of the gallery, “A Nation Divided.”

Clearly art museums do far more than simply collect and display artwork.  These structures have been variously described as: ritual spaces ”designed to induce in viewers an intense absorption with artistic spirits of the past;”7  “philosophical instruments” that “propose taxonomies of the world” and “encourage aesthetic engagement with their contents,”8 “optical instrument[s] for the refracting of society;”9 places for the “staging of objects relative to other objects in a plotting system that transforms juxtaposition and simple succession into an evolutionary narrative of influence and descent…a configured story culminating in our present;”10 guarantors of the “artificial longevity” of ultimately perishable commodities,11 which attempt to “contradict the irreversibility of time and its end result in death;”12 and–most relevant to this exploration–an institution with the purpose of teaching “the difference between pencils and works of art”13 or more generally, “works of art and mere real things.”14

Marcel Duchamp, In Advance of the Broken Arm (1964 [prototype, 1915], wood and galvanized-iron snow shovel, 52 in [132 cm] high). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Marcel Duchamp, In Advance of the Broken Arm (1964 [prototype, 1915], wood and galvanized-iron snow shovel, 52 in [132 cm] high).  Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Enter Marcel Duchamp with his readymades and insistence that “‘[a]n ordinary object’ can be ‘elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist,’”15 which is to say that intention trumps all.  Of course, minus the hallowed halls of art museums and related gallery spaces such pieces would lose the foils so essential to their argument.16

The heights of absurdity possible when artists (or art museums or the art market) become sole arbiters of an object’s artistic status found dramatic expression in 1998 when Alan Alda played Marc, an outraged skeptic in the Broadway production of Art.  When Marc’s longtime friend proudly displayed the latest (and very expensive) addition to his modern art collection–a totally white canvas, the ensuing conflict over the nature of art (which included a third pal as intermediary) threatened to derail a fifteen-year friendship.17  Such is the passion invoked by the question, “What is art?”

An alternative way of posing the question–“When is art?”18–underscores the importance of context.  One can designate as art a found, constructed, fabricated or handcrafted work, but its definitive determination as such seems to rely on its ultimate resting place.  Art museums display art.  Natural history museums house ethnographic collections and archaeological finds.  Design museums celebrate human’s ingenuity.  Large enough encyclopedic museums show it all.  Or so it would seem.

The visitor to a Surrealism exhibit, encountering Duchamp’s snow shovel suspended in the museum gallery, can’t see how it differs from the one that leans against the wall in a suburban garage.  Titled In Advance of the Broken Arm, the readymade proves that “a thing may function as a work of art at some times and not at others.”19

Radio Compass Loop Antenna Housing (c. 1940, rag-filled Bakelite and metal, 13¾ x 91/16 x 26⅜ in [35 x 23 x 67 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Radio Compass Loop Antenna Housing (c. 1940, rag-filled Bakelite and metal, 13¾ x 91/16 x 26⅜ in [35 x 23 x 67 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Constantin Brancusi, Sleeping Muse II (c. 1926, polished bronze, 6½ x 7½ x 11½ in [16.5 x 19.1 x 29.2 cm]). Harvard Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Constantin Brancusi, Sleeping Muse II (c. 1926, polished bronze, 6½ x 7½ x 11½ in [16.5 x 19.1 x 29.2 cm]).  Harvard Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s Design Museum in New York, ensconced in a vitrine (those ubiquitous glass cases that prepare visitors for an art experience), an oblate spheroid tapering to a point at one end, with the appearance of wood but actually composed of “the first entirely synthetic plastic,”20 rests on a base of metal that functions as a stand.  Relocated to the sculpture wing of a modern/contemporary art museum, this Radio Compass Loop Antenna Housing from about 1940 would nestle comfortably up against the Jean Arps and Henry Moores.  But even more striking is its formal resemblance to the Constantin Brancusi Sleeping Muse II (c. 1926) that resides in the Harvard Art Museums.

Henry Dreyfuss, Design for Acratherm Gauge (1943, brush and gouache, graphite, pen and black ink on illustration board, 11 × 8½ in [27.9 × 21.6 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Henry Dreyfuss, Design for Acratherm Gauge (1943, brush and gouache, graphite, pen and black ink on illustration board, 11 × 8½ in [27.9 × 21.6 cm]).  Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

This ambiguity is also evident on the first floor of the Cooper Hewitt amid an assemblage of aids to mobility and handling, where a framed gouache drawing by Henry Dreyfuss called Design for Acratherm Gauge presents the observer with a tour de force of trompe l’oeil effect.  This picture’s placement in a room with other useful instruments and its clear designation as a product of design attempt unsuccessfully to differentiate it from an artist’s finished work on paper.

Walter Launt Palmer, Painting, Interior of Henry de Forest House (1878, oil on canvas mounted on canvas, 24⅛ x 18 in [61.3 x 45.7 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Walter Launt Palmer, Painting, Interior of Henry de Forest House (1878, oil on canvas mounted on canvas, 24⅛ x 18 in [61.3 x 45.7 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Label for Walter Launt Palmer, Painting, Interior of Henry de Forest House.

Label for Walter Launt Palmer, Painting, Interior of Henry de Forest House.

Upstairs at the same design museum, great pains have been taken to ensure that visitors don’t mistake a bona fide artwork for an architect’s rendering of a domestic interior.  The first word on the label for Walter Launt Palmer’s painting of the Interior of Henry de Forest House (1878) is “painting.”

Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe (2007, found tools and wire, dimensions vary). Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, New York.

Displayed on “Tools” floor of Cooper Hewitt. Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe (2007, found tools and wire, 9⅓ x 13⅓ x 15 ft [2.85 x 4.06 x 4.55 m]).  Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, New York.

Displayed in art gallery. Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe (2007, found tools and wire, dimensions vary). Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, New York.

Displayed in art gallery. Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe (2007, found tools and wire, dimensions vary). Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, New York.

The Cooper Hewitt is filled with objects harboring this potential for dual identities.  A relative of Duchamp’s snow shovel (functional identity)/In Advance of the Broken Arm (art identity) appears in Damián Ortega’s Controller of the Universe (2007) as one element in a starburst of tools through the axis of which visitors can wander.  This central attraction of the design museum’s “Tools” floor makes a solo appearance in a room with white walls in a photo posted on the museum’s website.21  Reassembled to fit into an art gallery, this spatially condensed version transforms the viewers’ experience from active participation to passive contemplation of an esteemed work of art.

Unidentified (French) artist, Salt Cellar with the Episodes from the Life of Hercules and Salt Cellar with Allegorical Scenes (c. 1550, enamel on copper, 2⅞ x 3 in [7.3 x 7.6 cm]). Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Unidentified (French) artist, Salt Cellar with the Episodes from the Life of Hercules and Salt Cellar with Allegorical Scenes (c. 1550, enamel on copper, 2⅞ x 3 in [7.3 x 7.6 cm]). Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Likewise, stepping into the Harvard Art Museums–whose august exterior signals visitors to expect an elevated cultural experience, then ambling through acres of paintings, sculptures and less definable objects, and coming upon a vitrine with an array of utilitarian things of venerable pedigree, one is already well primed to see two attractive French salt cellars from about 1550 as works of art.  That impression gets considerable assistance from a painting on the wall immediately behind them–of Martin Luther (1546, from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder), and an additional boost from an identifying label that calls their maker an “Unidentified artist.”

Egmont Arons, designer, Meat Slicer (c. 1935, steel, 12½ x 17 x 20½ in [31.8 x 43.2 x 52.1 cm]) and Edo Period, Japan, Pothook Hanger (Jizai-Gake) (18th to 19th century, iron and wood, 18 x 16 x 4½ in [45.7 x 40.6 x 11.4 cm]). Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

Egmont Arons, designer, Meat Slicer (c. 1935, steel, 12½ x 17 x 20½ in [31.8 x 43.2 x 52.1 cm]) and Edo Period, Japan, Pothook Hanger (Jizai-Gake) (18th to 19th century, iron and wood, 18 x 16 x 4½ in [45.7 x 40.6 x 11.4 cm]). Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

Less clear is the message communicated by the Brooklyn Museum of Art in its “Connecting Cultures” exhibit, a room hosting a hodgepodge of paintings, sculpture, ethnic objects and useful things from across millennia. Putting aside the impossibility of getting close enough to see some of them (placed on shelves that soar above eye level), one confronts a dilemma in a vitrine containing a twentieth-century American-made, shiny steel Meat Slicer and a two-hundred-year-old, dark-hued Edo period iron-and-wood Pothook Hanger (Jizai-Gake).

Visitors might be less inclined to regard the all-too-familiar deli appliance as art and feel similarly about the slicer’s neighbor, the large hook.  Situate the much older, exotic Japanese piece in the Asian wing of any art museum, hang it on a wall under spotlighting and affix to the display a typical artwork label, and responses will likely change.

“University Collections Gallery: African Art,” Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“University Collections Gallery: African Art,” Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ample evidence of this “museum effect–the tendency to isolate something from its world, to offer it up for attentive looking and thus to transform it into art like our own”22 exists in the University Collections Gallery of African Art at the Harvard Art Museums.  There a select group of products from several countries in Africa, sparsely arranged in various shaped glass enclosures, hangs on the walls–a collection small enough in number for a single wall label to comfortably contain descriptions of all the pieces.

Axe, Songya, Democratic Republic of Congo (1914 or earlier, iron, copper and wood). Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Axe, Songya, Democratic Republic of Congo (1914 or earlier, iron, copper and wood).  Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts

A stunningly beautiful axe, with a wooden handle and complex wrought iron head, shares its glass box frame with a less ornate companion, emitting conflicting messages about its identity.  Everything about the setup, especially the segregation of the axes in their own display cases, emphasizes the uniqueness of each piece, connecting it with the art just seen in nearby galleries.

Shown in an exhibit hall at a natural history museum among many other examples of its type, these implements might be classified as artifacts, things that have “primarily the status of tools, of instruments or objects of use.”23  In a more inclusive definition, the dictionary describes them as “object[s] made by a human being, typically…of cultural or historical interest,”24 a category that can range from “sophisticated and culturally valuable the smallest everyday thing.”25

The pool of opinion on what qualifies something as art teems with dangerous life forms, but the variables of “complex abstract thinking,”26 embodiment of a thought and expression of meaning,27 and evocation of emotions28 that include aesthetic delight,29 serve to classify most of them.  While that last trait is both an unnecessary and insufficient determinant of artistic status, it can easily seduce observers into believing they are in the presence of real art (whatever that might be).  Art museums, intentionally or not, often cash in on that response.

With barrier. Ai Weiwei, Untitled (2014, edition of 60, mixed media, primarily stainless steel). Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

With barrier. Ai Weiwei, Untitled (2014, edition of 60, mixed media, primarily stainless steel).  Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

On a wall near the ticket counter at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, a glittery silver city bike hangs behind a barrier, its artist Ai Weiwei having given it the noncommittal tag of Untitled.  In the list of materials provided by either him or the museum–“mixed media, primarily stainless steel”30–the word bicycle is conspicuously absence, perhaps in hopes of enticing some unsuspecting bike-riding enthusiast, smitten by the beauty of the artifact glowing before her, to perceive the object as a work of art by world-famous Chinese artist Ai (as the label, lighting, ribbon barrier and placement on an art museum wall encourage) and part with the asking price of $27,500, an amount designed to offset the cost of the artist’s now past exhibition, Ai Weiwei: According to What?

Tooling around the city mounted on this splendid bike might turn it back into a “mere real thing,” diminishing its monetary though not aesthetic value.  Hanging it back on a wall would restore its identity as art, the preference of any art collector (or curator).  But for the rider, whose delight derives from speeding along on wheels, immobilizing such an exquisitely crafted bicycle would rob it of its raison d’être and, incidentally, extinguish the pleasure of exhibiting a prized possession in an arena markedly different from the interior of any art museum.


1 Justice Potter Stewart, Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), p. 197.

2 Anjan Chatterjee, The  Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

3 Thierry de Duve, “‘This is Art’: Anatomy of a Sentence,” ArtForum, April 2014, 2.

4 Ably demonstrated in From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics, an exhibition at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, February 12- June 7, 2015.

5 In 1914, Alfred Stieglitz mounted at his Gallery 291 “what he claimed to be the first exhibition anywhere to present African sculpture as fine art rather than ethnography.”  See Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and his New York Galleries, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.  Accessed March 15, 2015, exhibitions/modart_2.shtm.

6 Chatterjee, The  Aesthetic Brain, 140.

7 Carol Duncan, “The  Art Museum as Ritual,” Art Bulletin LXXVII, no. 1 (March 1995): 12.

8 Ivan Gaskell, “The Riddle of a Riddle,” Contemporary Aesthetics 6 (2008): 7.

9 Donald Preziosi, “Brain of the Earth’s Body: Museums and the Framing of Modernity,” in Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts, edited by Bettina Messias Carbonell (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004), 77.

10 Ibid., 78.

11 Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2008), 38.

12 Duncan, 12.

13 E. H. Gombrich, “The Museum: Past, Present and Future,” Critical Inquiry 3, no. 3 (Spring 1977), 465.

14 Arthur C. Danto, “Artifact and Art,” in ART/artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections (New York: The Center for African Art, 1988), 23.

15 Museum of Modern Art, catalog entry for In Advance of the Broken Arm.  Accessed March 17, 2015. advance-of-the-broken-arm-august-1964-fourth-version-after-lost-original-of-november-1915.

16 Groys, “On the New.”

17 “Art (play),” Wikipedia.  Accessed March 19, 2015: Art_(play).

18 Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1978), 66.

19 Ibid.

20 Object label, Radio Compass Loop Antenna Housing, Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

21 “Controller of the Universe, 2007,” Cooper Hewitt website.  Accessed March 19, 2015:

22 Svetlana Alpers, “The Museum as a Way of Seeing” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute, 1991), 27.

23 Google definition.  Accessed March 19, 2015: search?q=define:+arbiters+&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=define:+artifact.

24 Danto, “Artifact and Art,” 28.

25 Gaskell, “The Riddle of the Riddle,” 4.

26 Ibid.

27 Danto, “Artifact and Art,” 32.

28 Chatterjee, The  Aesthetic Brain, 131.

29 E. H. Gombrich, “The Museum: Past, Present and Future,” 450.

30 Object label, Ai Weiwei, Untitled, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.


Art Historical Musing: The Drawings of Annibale Carracci

Print This Post Print This Post

May 12th, 2015

Drawn to Perfection:
Annibale Carracci
Works on Paper

[To view the slide show in a separate tab while reading the text, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

[slide 1:  Title]
[slide 2:  Self-Portrait [Autoritratto col cappello “a quatre’acque”] (April 17, 1593, oil on canvas, 9½ x 7? in [24 x 20 cm]).  Galleria Nazionale, Parma, Italy.]

Legend has it that when Annibale Carracci was a young boy returning to Bologna with his father from a trip to Cremona and they were set upon by robbers, the lad’s precocious ability to render in line what presented itself to his eye aided in the apprehension of the criminals.  The youthful Annibale sketched the culprits from memory so accurately that they were easily recognized and brought to justice quickly enough to ensure return of his father’s stolen money.1

While that and other stories that grew up around the famed artistic family of Carracci might well be apocryphal, the existence of these tales of artistic prowess do bear witness to the high regard in which the two brothers and their cousin were held, and in particular to Annibale’s prodigious drawing skills.  Born in 1560 in Bologna, the youngest of the triumvirate that included Agostino (his older brother by three years) and their older cousin Ludovico (born in 1555), Annibale was characterized by one of his early biographers as a scruffy, introverted, envious and financially naive prankster.2

Never one to be ashamed of his social standing, Annibale often chided the scholarly, upwardly-striving Agostino–who was far more educated than his younger brother–on the way he hobnobbed with courtiers and the like.  To put Agostino in his place, one day in Rome where they were working in the Palazzo Farnese, Annibale handed his pompous brother a letter while they were in the midst of a well-bred group that then eagerly awaited the unveiling of its contents.  Much to Agostino’s embarrassment, the opened missive contained a drawing of their parents: father in his spectacles threading a needle and mother holding a pair of scissors,3 a not-so-gentle reminder of the brothers’ humble origins.

For Annibale, drawing trumped speech when it came to personal expression, a stance he made quite clear in another face-off with his loquacious brother who was going on at length about the antique marvels he was discovering after his recent move to Rome to help out at the Farnese.  When Agostino made the mistake of taking to task the silent Annibale for not joining in the erudite conversation, accusing him of lacking appreciation for the ancient works, Annibale once again got the better of his older brother with charcoal.

Unbeknownst to Agostino until too late, on a nearby wall Annibale had begun a drawing designed to communicate his reverence for the Roman art he was discovering.  When done, he stepped aside to display a perfect rendering from memory of the Laocoön.  The onlookers praised the younger artist.  Agostino fell silent, and Annibale walked away triumphant–but not before laughingly admonishing his brother, “Poets paint with words; painters speak with works.”4

From very early on, reaching for a drawing implement had been Annibale Carracci’s first impulse and it continued to be throughout his life even into his last few years, when the heavy toll that illness took on his expressive abilities left him unable to do much else.  From the pleasurable exercise of sketching his surroundings to the serious study of posed studio models, this master draftsman always looked first to his teacher nature for whatever answers he needed, supplementing it with metaphorical (and sometimes actual) forays into the studios of other artists to draw from their work.  Not only did Annibale “speak with [his] works,” he also thought with them–evident in the many surviving pages of preliminary ideas for compositions that he hatched and developed, and often later discarded.  Ultimately, these various aspects of his drawing practice would coalesce into a full-size cartoon used for transferring his final design onto wall, canvas or copper plate.

[slide 3:  A Man Weighing Meat (c. 1582-83, red chalk on beige paper, 1015/16 x 61/16 in [278 x 170 cm]).  Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
The Butcher Shop (1583, oil on canvas, 73 x 105 in [185 × 266 cm]).  Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford, UK.]

By the time he drew A Man Weighing Meat (c. 1582-83), the twenty-something-year-old Annibale had already been drawing for many years, but now his interest in depicting everyday life found expression in genre paintings of a type unlike the pastoral idylls of his contemporaries.5  Here he has posed his model, probably a workshop apprentice,6 in the garb of a butcher and given him props–a balance (stadera) for weighing meat along with a stand-in for a slab of flesh–that find their way into The Butcher Shop (1583), one of his earliest known paintings.

The bare-elbow study to the right of the figure in the red-chalk drawing reflects a rethinking of the pose that will appear in the final composition; Annibale angled upward the forearm and rolled back the sleeve.  Highlighting the artist’s selection of an expedient rather than exact model, the character of the butcher shop worker in the painting differs from the assistant in the studio; he is older with a neatly trimmed beard, taller stature and somewhat slimmer build.  His hat, of a different style, sits back on his head rather than forward as in the drawing.

Early on in the absence of significant commissions for the Carracci shop, genre paintings, like small devotional pictures, provided a quick and relatively easy way for the three young men to churn out work that they could sell on the open market and that would also advertise their skills.7  For Annibale, who had been sketching from life for years, it provided a natural extension of his artistic interests, “demand[ing] little more than a direct and forthright approach to the visual material.”8

[slide 4:  A Domestic Scene (1582-1584, pen with brown and gray-black ink, brush with gray and brown wash, over black chalk, 12⅞ x 9¼ in [32.8 x 23.6 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.]

In a very different kind of scene as well as medium, Annibale assembled three figures and a cat around a fire.  A young woman, holding a cloth or garment, leans over the flame and looks back toward a young girl, vaguely indicated in line and wash, while a much younger child merges visually with his caretaker’s skirt.  A close look at the actual drawing revealed a lack of spontaneity in the manner in which the ink wash was applied, especially in the woman’s skirt, where Annibale–instead of drawing the brush down the form and guiding the pool of diluted ink–seems to have attempted to blend it as he would have done with oil paint, resulting in a somewhat overworked appearance and mild abrasion of the paper.  It would not be long before he began to produce far more accomplished ink drawings.

[slide 5:  The Virgin and Child Resting Outside a City Gate (n.d., pen and brown ink, brush with traces of brown wash, on light brown beige paper; traces of framing outlines in pen and brown ink,  7⅜ x 8½ in [18.8 x 21.6 cm]).  The  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.]

A small, undated compositional sketch of The Virgin and Child Resting Outside a City Gate contrasts in ink handling with the earlier genre scene.  Here evenly spaced, parallel hatching designates shadow while sure lines pick out the landscape and architectural features.  Schematic rays of the sun–which reappear in a very late pen drawing9–disappear behind horizontal bands of clouds, and figures diminishing in size create a feeling of recession into space.  A discreetly contoured area of thinned ink on the shaded side of the Virgin’s head has been applied without any fuss, first a middle-value wash and then a much darker band in the deeper shadow on the periphery of the head–no attempt being made to blend the two.  The Virgin’s face, redolent with Correggio sweetness,10 also suggests a date later than the domestic scene.

Not only did Annibale borrow from the output of other artists, he thought deeply about the differences in their styles, forming definite opinions about their work, a fact that runs contrary to the impression of him given by his early biographers as someone uninterested in the theoretical aspects of art.  The postilles (marginal notes) in his copy of Vasari’s Lives demonstrate this awareness.  Lauding Andrea del Sarto and Michelangelo, Annibale disparaged the “mannered tradition of Florentine painting,”11 noting too the uselessness of comparing Michelangelo with Titian.  “Titian’s things are not like Michelangelo’s; they may not be totally successful but they are more lifelike than Michelangelo’s; Titian was more of a ‘painter’…and if Raphael was superior in some parts to Titian, Titian nonetheless surpassed Raphael in many things.”12

Apparently no less contemplative than his scholarly brother or intellectual cousin, Annibale joined them both in their first major commission–two rooms in the Palazzo Fava in Bologna, secured through family connections and their willingness to work at a discounted rate, beginning the project about 1583.  The smaller room, which was to contain a frieze about the myth of Europa, was assigned to Annibale and Agostino, while Ludovico, the older and at that time accepted head of their workshop, tackled the larger one, which would tell the story of Jason and the golden fleece.  Before all the frescoes were completed, the brothers would join their cousin in the more important space.13

[slide 6:  The Meeting of Jason and King Aeëtes (c. 1584, fresco).  Palazzo Fava, Bologna, Italy.
The Meeting of Jason and King Aeëtes (c. 1584, pen and black ink with gray-brown wash over black chalk, squared twice in black and red chalk, 10 x 12⅜ in [25.4 x 31.5 cm]).  Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich, Germany.]

Annibale’s small ink drawing squared twice for transfer that illustrates The Meeting of Jason and King Aeëtes (c. 1584) shows the composition in a well advanced state as probably presented to the patron, Count Filippo Fava.  On the verso containing one of the earliest studies, Annibale had inked figures in their respective perspectival planes, including the accompanying termine,14 those illusionistically painted statues that framed the fresco panels.

[slide 7:  The Meeting of Jason and King Aeëtes (c. 1584, pen and black ink with gray-brown wash over black chalk, squared twice in black and red chalk, 10 x 12⅜ in [25.4 x 31.5 cm]).  Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich, Germany.
Orpheus Holding a Lyre (before 1584, oiled black chalk over black chalk, heightened with white chalk, on gray-blue laid paper, mounted on wove paper, 16⅓ x 9⅓ in [41.5 x 23.8 cm]).  National Gallery of Art, Ontario, Canada.]

Following such compositional imaginings and before the construction of the modello for his client, the artist would research individual poses,15 using not just models from the studio but also from his recollections of previously observed persons and/or sculpture.  Annibale’s Orpheus Holding a Lyre (before 1584) shows how well stocked his pictorial memory bank already was.  Too general to have been a life study, it might also have been based on one already executed, or refer to some other two-dimensional image.

Lauded for his visual memory, Annibale was reported to have told a friend that “he never–except once, with certain bas-reliefs–had to record for purposes of future recall anything he had looked at carefully.”16  As a group, the Carracci made a regular practice of honing their ability to mentally retain what they had observed.  Upon returning home from life drawing sessions and before doing anything else, they would each pick up a scrap of paper and endeavor to commit to it what they had just recently seen, enlivening it with more animation than the original pose.17

[slide 8:  Polyphemus (early 1590s, black chalk with traces of white heightening on blue-gray paper, laid down, 1611/16 x13⅞ in [42.4 x 35.2 cm]).  Galleria degli Uffizi, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Florence, Italy.]

Another good example of Annibale’s drawing from his internal image bank, the black-chalk drawing of Polyphemus for a later cycle of frescoes at the Palazzo Fava sets an almost caricatured head on a rippling mass of torqued muscle and bone, about to catapult the small boulder gripped by the one-eyed giant.  Pentimenti in the hand suggest final figural considerations in an image already close to the painted one, including reflections on the play of light and shadow to be used in the fresco.

[slide 9:  Sheet of Caricatures (c. 1595, ink on paper, 7⅞ x 5⅛ [20.1 x 13.9 cm]).  British Museum, London.]

Drawn to facial features, Annibale joined his cohorts in exaggerating them in a form of art that derives its name from theirs: caricature.  Playful by nature, known for their love of practical jokes,18 always looking to exploit drawing’s potential to distill essence from reality, the artists had fun deliberately distorting the appearance of certain individuals.  In a sheet of these faces, Annibale has sketched in the upper left an ordinary looking profile of a man and in the lower right has riffed on this, opening the eyes wider and hooking the nose more.  The receding mouth of the man is exaggerated in several of the profiles on the sheet.  Such exercises are to be distinguished from the creation of grotesques–products of the imagination.19

Quite opposite in emotional tone, Annibale’s portrait drawings have a quiet intensity, especially those of children, the models for which he drew from youngsters around the studio–“assistants and friends or relatives who frequented the Carracci shop and academy.”20  As with his other subjects, these young people furnished handy objects to study, though Annibale seems to have had a special affinity for the “serious and meditative”21 interiority that children often manifest in their quiet moments.

[slide 10:  Profile Portrait of a Boy (1584-1585), red chalk on ivory paper, 813/16 x 6⅜ in [22.4 x 16.2]).  Galleria degli Uffizi, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Florence, Italy.]

In the early red-chalk drawing Profile Portrait of a Boy (1584-1585), the artist has posed the lad in strict profile and taken considerable care to sculpt his form with light and shadow, gently blending strokes on the smooth-skinned cheek and distinctly denoting the direction of hair strands.  Annibale deftly reserved the ivory of the page for the glittering highlights of the hair and the prominent helix of the ear.

[slide 11:  Head of a Boy (c. 1585-1590, black chalk on reddish brown paper, laid down, 227/16 x 915/16 in [316 x 252 cm] including a 2 cm horizontal strip added at the top).  Musée du Louvre, Départment des Arts Graphiques, Paris, France.]

A similarly finished portrayal, the black-chalk Head of a Boy (c. 1585-1590) captures the tension of the neck muscle as the child strains to look with wide-eyed concern at something on his right.  The down-turned corners of the mouth impart a melancholy mood, suggesting that whatever is outside the viewer’s field of vision might not be welcome.  As with the earlier portrait, here too Annibale is far less interested in the clothing than in the boy’s head.

[slide 12:  Head of a Smiling Young Man (c. 1590-92, black chalk on gray-blue paper with added strips at top and bottom, laid down, 153/16 x 97/16 in [358 x 240 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Départment des Arts Graphiques, Paris, France.
Madonna and Child in Glory with Six Saints (c. 1591-92, San Ludovico Altarpiece).  Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna, Italy.]

Identified as a preparatory sketch for a subsequent altarpiece,22 Head of a Smiling Young Man (c. 1590-92) has been so named because of its perceived happy expression.  Yet the face of Saint John the Baptist in the San Ludovico altarpiece, for which it is a study, tells a more complex story of the triumphant validation of miracle that the apparition of the Madonna and child provides, a look for which Annibale was searching in this particular drawing, one unlikely to have been taken from life.

[slide 13:  The Lutenist Mascheroni (c. 1593-1594, red chalk heightened with white chalk on reddish brown paper, the lower left corner slightly cut, 163/16 x 113/16 in [411 x 284 cm]).  Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, Austria.
The Lutenist Mascheroni (c. 1593-1594, pen and brown ink on cream paper, laid down, the lower left corner cut and made up, 77/16 x 415/16 [188 x 126]).  Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Portrait of the Lutenist Mascheroni (c. 1593-1594, oil on canvas, [305/16 x 253/16 in 77 x 64 cm]).  Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany.]

For The Lutenist Mascheroni (c. 1593-1594), another preparatory drawing, Annibale picked up his red chalk again and using much the same approach as he did for the earlier Profile Portrait of a Boy, brought the picture to a high level of finish, perhaps to serve as an immediate model for the painting.23  That the eyes are similarly out of convergence in all three versions implies that Annibale deliberately arranged Mascheroni’s facial features to block eye contact with the viewer.  Posed stiffly, the disengaged lutenist reveals little about himself–a common feature of this artist’s portraits24–but a lot about Annibale’s own interpersonal style and his tendency to treat people as objects rather than subjects.

The studies of male nudes for the herms and ignudi that adorn the haunches of the Palazzo Farnese’s barrel vault, however, seem far more animated, exuding sensual energy.  When the newly appointed nineteen-year-old Cardinal Odoardo Farnese decided to decorate various rooms in his palazzo in Rome, he would have none other than the Carracci.25  Annibale as the first to become available, arrived in the antique city to begin work in November 1595,26 the beneficiary of what seemed like an unparalleled opportunity but one that ultimately led to disappointment, despair and death.

[slide 14:  Project for the Decoration of the Farnese Gallery (1597-98, red chalk with pen and brown ink on cream paper, 15 ¼ x 10⅜ in [38.8 x 26.4 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Départment des Arts Graphiques, Paris, France.]

After first completing the Camerino (the Cardinal’s study), Annibale was joined in 1597 by his brother Agostino to assist him with the much larger project of the ceiling of the Farnese gallery.27  After playing with various concepts in a series of ink drawings, Annibale settled on an illusionistic array of framed paintings covering two-dimensional architectural elements supported by herms, and a frieze of scenes framed by ignudi, eschewing a single point of view for the entire project.

[slide 15:  Palazzo Farnese Ceiling (fresco, 1597/98-1601).  Rome, Italy.]

When Agostino “pressed for a unified illusion based on one-point perspective,” Annibale mocked his brother’s idea by suggesting they install a sumptuous chair at the only spot in the huge room from which the paintings would be viewable in a way that made spatial sense to the onlooker.28  The result of the lead artist’s decision was a design that could be read from any place in the room, but one that would always include some upside-down images.

[slide 16:  Atlas Herm with Arms Raised (1598-99, black chalk heightened with white on gray-blue paper, 189/16 x 14¼ in [47.2 x 36.3 cm]).  Biblioteca Reale, Turin, Italy.]
Atlas Herm (1598-99, red chalk on cream paper, laid down, 13⅝ x 713/16 in [34.5 x 19.8 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Départment des Arts Graphiques, Paris, France.]

To create the three-dimensional architectural illusion of his intentions, Annibale had to turn flesh into stone.29  Atlas Herm with Arms Raised (1598-99), the end drawing result of one such attempt, shows how he enhanced an original male nude study by pumping up the muscles and juxtaposing bright highlights with lower-value black chalk to impart a marmoreal quality to the form.  Highly unusual for Annibale is the come-hither direct eye contact the herm makes with the beholder–originally the artist.  The turned-away head in the lower left might represent some second thoughts but in the fresco Annibale kept to his original idea.

In returning to red-chalk in a different Atlas Herm (1598-99), at a time when he favored black and white chalk on blue paper,30  Annibale might have wanted to take advantage of the medium’s potential for rendering the warmth of flesh.  In comparison with the Atlas Herm with Arms Raised, this herm would then represent an earlier stage in the transformation of the living model into a marble sculpture.

[slide 17:  A Seated Ignudi with a Garland (1598-99, black chalk heightened with white chalk on gray paper, 16¼ x 16⅛ in [41.2 x 41 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Départment des Arts Graphiques, Paris, France.
Detail of Ignudi and Herms, Palazzo Farnese Ceiling (fresco, 1597/98-1601).  Rome, Italy.]

Inspired by Michelangelo’s male ignudi on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican,31 Annibale populated his Farnese vault with analogous figures.  Lightly sketched construction lines and first-thought contours in A Seated Ignudi with a Garland (1598-99) provide a window into the artist’s drawing process.  Among other changes, he reduced the size of the proper right lower leg, further accentuating the tapering of the massive torso toward the pelvis and legs.  In making that choice, Annibale further demonstrated his preference for design over accurate perspective.

[slide 18:  Study of a Recumbent Nude, Lying on his Side (n.d, black chalk with white and pink heightening, on gray-blue paper, 14½  x 19⅔ in [36.8 x 49.9 cm].  Royal Library, Windsor, England.
Study of a Recumbent Nude, Viewed from the Head (n.d., black chalk with white heightening on gray-blue paper, 8½ x 15½ [21.5 x 39.5 cm]).  Musée du Louvre,  Cabinet des Dessins, Paris, France.]

Very different in overall appearance are two black-chalk life studies executed during Annibale’s Roman sojourn,32 each a Study of a Recumbent Nude, one Lying on his Side and the other Viewed from the Head.  In the former, the artist has faithfully observed the unadorned truth of the effect of gravity on muscle and skin, particularly noticeable where the bones jut out along the uppermost contour of the rib cage, pelvis and greater trochanter.  Unlike in Annibale’s imaginative male nudes, here only the left biceps is rounded, accurate for a flexed position, the right one being flat as appropriate for extension.

Annibale was less satisfied with reality in Study of a Recumbent Nude, Viewed from the Head, thickening the left thigh considerably and, less so, the right arm.  This drawing might have started out as a life study and accrued revisions along the way, including a slight change in pose for better effect.  Both drawings bear witness to the artist’s intense absorption in the task at hand.

Content in the practice of his art, Annibale never adjusted to the rarified atmosphere and courtly trappings of the Palazzo Farnese, preferring instead the solitude of his room and the company of his students.  Minimally attentive to his physical presentation and melancholic in disposition, he actively avoided any unnecessary association with nobility.  On an evening stroll when caught carrying a knife, Annibale’s chosen silence about his service to the Cardinal led to time in jail.  Likewise, at another time on learning of an impending personal visit from the Pope’s nephew, he escaped through a side door.33

[slide 19:  An Execution (1600-03, pen and brown ink on dark cream paper, laid down, 7½ x 119/16 in [19 x 29.3 cm]).  Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.]

In Rome, Annibale’s idiosyncrasies stood out far more than they did in Bologna,34 causing no small distress to an already sensitive soul.  No wonder, then, that he would be drawn to the ritual of a public hanging, capturing the salient details with brown ink in An Execution (1600-03).  In the pictured narrative, as an audience peers over the back wall, exercising its communal responsibility in a purification rite designed to ensure the conversion and repentance of the condemned, a friar holds up a devotional image for the criminal to ponder as he is dragged up the ladder to the gallows,35 his fate foretold by the hanging corpse nearby.  Another instrument of death awaits employment on a table to the right.

For Annibale, life soon imitated the morbidity of a hanging when the payment he received for eight years of loyalty to the Farnese projects failed to meet his expectations and in fact, proved to be more of an insult than a reward.  The five hundred gold scudi brought on a saucer to the artist’s quarters, perhaps the result of the machinations of a sycophant at court, plunged Annibale into a depression from which he never recovered.36

In the summer of 1605, before tackling the Cardinal’s next project–the decoration of the great hall of the Palazzo Farnese–Annibale fled permanently from the court bustle, seeking seclusion in lodging behind the vineyards of the Farnesina across the Tiber.  Later he took up residence on the Quirinal Hill, where the open air and pleasant view could have been more conducive to recovery.37  By 1606 he was in yet another area of Rome some distance from the Palazzo.38

The nature of his illness was such that Annibale experienced intermittent periods of productivity during which he produced a few paintings, supervised and assisted with projects by his students–especially his favorite, Domenichino39 –and continued to draw.  He even began to experiment with a new technique, using a thick-nibbed pen (perhaps made of reed) and skipping any ink wash.40

[slide 20:  Danaë (1604-05, pen and brown ink on cream aper, laid down, upper right corner cut, 7⅝ x 10⅛ in [19.4 x 25.7 cm]).  Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Titian, Danaë (1545, oil on canvas, 47.2 × 67.7 in [120 × 172 cm]).  Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.]

After a hiatus of four years during which he had resigned from painting, Annibale resumed activity for a few years beginning in 1604,41 accepting a commission from Camillo Pamphilj to paint a Danaë.  Perhaps challenged by the presence of Titian’s painting of the same subject in the Palazzo Farnese,42 the artist borrowed the general idea from the Venetian painter of a reclining female nude, on a bed, in a landscape setting, along with the voluptuous form of her body, changing the pose of the princess and the position of Cupid to make the composition his own.  Manipulating the thick-nibbed pen to produce both fat and thin lines, Annibale has his Danaë (1604-5) eagerly reaching for the gold coins as they descend from above and come to rest on her left inner thigh.

[slide 21:  Self-Portrait on an Easel and Other Studies (c. 1604, pen and ocher-brown ink on cream paper, 9¾ x 7⅛ in [24.8 x 18.1 cm]).  Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Daniele da Volterra (Daniele Ricciarelli), Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) (c. 1544, oil on wood, 34¾ x 25¼ in [88.3 x 64.1 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.]
Self-Portrait on an Easel (c. 1604, oil on canvas).  The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.]

The period of relative inactivity was bracketed by two self-portrait drawings, the later one a meditation on portraiture in general and perhaps more specifically, on the artist’s own legacy.  In a picture related to the painting Self-Portrait on an Easel (1604),  Annibale has positioned a bearded, older man resembling Michelangelo to the right of his arrangement of images that strike poses similar to that of a portrait of this revered forebear (Ricciarelli’s oil on wood) that resided at the Palazzo Farnese from 1600 onward.43  In addition, a similar profile portrait of a seventy-one-year-old Michelangelo introduced a biography of him that had been circulating in Rome since 1553.44

Multiplying his own image, Annibale suggested mirrors, windows, picture frames and the interior of a studio inhabited by a painted canvas on an easel, accompanied by a small menagerie of household pets.  Again, inked lines vary in thickness, and darks are indicated by overlapping and hatched lines.  The self-portrait in the finished painting is all eyes, wide open, looking out at the viewer, while the mouth disappears into a blur of shadow, an apt representation of an artist not known for eloquence.

[slide 23:  Self-Portrait (c. 1600, pen and brown ink on buff paper, laid down on another sheet on which is drawn a decorative border in pen and black ink with gray wash over graphite, 5¼ x 4 [13.3 x 10.2 cm]).  The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.]

Although done about 1600, the earlier of the two self-portrait drawings from this period resonates well with Annibale’s last days.  Depicting himself leaning on the picture frame, the artist rendered his visage in fading brown ink, cast a shadow over eyes with lowered lids of sadness, turned down the corners of his mouth in a frown, and darkly superimposed over the top of the cartouche a suggestion of a skull.45

Both self-portraits portend death, undoubtedly reflecting Annibale’s deteriorating physical and mental condition.  On July 16, 1609, he “died miserably.”46  Since then writers have made much of Annibale’s melancholic disposition47 and its link to his ultimate demise.48  Most likely he died from tertiary syphilis.  In his biography of the artist, Bellori asserted that his “death…was hastened by amorous maladies of which he had not told his doctors”49 and in fact, the artist’s symptoms as described by Mancini50 and Agucchi51 conform to those of end-stage syphilis.52

Though the world lost a master draftsman when Annibale Carracci died prematurely at the age of forty-nine, it gained a treasure trove of drawings, cherished enough to survive the centuries.  Among those who looked to the Bolognese artist for inspiration was a certain Dutch painter living in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century.  The owner of a drawing of people swimming in a landscape penned by Annibale was none other than Rembrandt himself.  Unfortunately, the exact identity of the scene has yet to be determined.53


1 Giovanni Pietro Bellori, The Lives of Annibale & Agostino Carracci, trans. Catherine Enggass (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968), 7.
2 Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Malvasia’s  Life of the Carracci, Commentary and Translation, translated and annotated by Anne Summerscale (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press), 250–51, 254.
3 Ibid., 251.
4 Bellori, 16.
5 Donald Posner, Annibale Carracci: A Study in the Reform of Italian Painting Around 1590, Vol I (New York: Phaidon Publishers, 1971), 9.
6 Daniele Benati, et al, The Drawings of Annibale Carracci (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1999), 49.
7 Posner, 23.
8 Ibid., 24.
9 See Landscape with the Setting Sun (1605-09) in Benati, et al, 289.
10 The Metropolitan Museum of Art online object label.  Accessed April 9, 2015: search/338420?rpp=30&pg=1&ao=on&ft=annibale+carracci+drawings&pos=7&imgno=0&tabname=label.
11 John Gash, “Hannibal Carrats: The Fair Fraud Revealed,” Art History 13:2 (June 1990), 245.
12 Ibid.
13 Posner, 53-54.
14 Benati, et al, 58.
15 Benati, et al, 44-45.
16 Malvasia devoted many pages to describing Carracci pranks.  See 274-289.
17 Malvasia, 290.
18 Ibid., 267.
19 Posner, 66.
20 Ibid., 20.
21 Ibid., 21.
22 Benati, et al, 96.
23 Ibid., 25.
24 Posner, 21.
25 Gail Feigenbaum in Benati, et al, 109.
26 Posner, 78.
27 Feigenbaum in Benati, et al, 110.
28 Ibid, note 22.
29 Benati, et al, 190.
30 Ibid., 193.
31 Ibid., 194.
32 Carl Goldstein, Visual Fact over Verbal Fiction (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 98-100.
33 Bellori, 58-59.
34 Posner, 146.
35 Mitchell B. Merback, The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), 145.
36 Bellori, 52.
37 Malvasia, 222-223.
38 Kate Ganz in Benati, et al, 204.
39 Posner, 148.
40 Ganz in Benati, et al, 205.
41 Posner, 147.
42 Benati, et al, 278.
43 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, catalog entry for Daniele da Volterra (Daniele Ricciarelli), Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Accessed April 21, 2015.
44 Engraving by Giulio Bonasone, Bust Portrait of Michelangelo at Seventy-One, Facing Right (1546), used by Ascanio Condiri in his biography of Michelangelo, published in Rome 1553. On view April 23, 2015 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
45 Benati, et al, 143.
46 Malvasia, 226.
47 Bellori, 55.
48 Ganz in Benati, et al, 204.
49 Bellori, 63.
50 Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists: A Documented History from Antiquity to the French Revolution (New York, Random House, 1963), 114.
51 Malvasia, 227.
51 Wikipedia, Tertiary Syphilis.  Accessed April 21, 2015. wiki/Syphilis#Tertiary.
52 Catherine Loisel Legrand in Benati, et al, 25.



Art Review: Mummy Portrait Panels

Print This Post Print This Post

January 3rd, 2015

Identity Dilemma:
Greco-Roman Egyptian
Mummy Portraits at
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

View of “Young Woman with Gilded Wreath” in Vitrine, Egypt, Roman Period (120–140 CE, encaustic with gold leaf on wood , 14⅜ x 7 in [36.5 x 17.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

View of “Young Woman with Gilded Wreath” in Vitrine, Egypt, Roman Period (120–140 CE, encaustic with gold leaf on wood , 14⅜ x 7 in [36.5 x 17.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Crowned by light, the lovely young lady with forehead-framing corkscrew curls and golden hair ornament inhabits a tall, slim vitrine intended to suggest a coffin to the viewer, providing a reminder of her original function as a portrait panel nesting in the linen wrappings of an Egyptian mummy.1 The encaustic painting, set off dramatically against a warm red display mat, might feel far more at home exhibited with other representatives of early Western European artistic traditions.

When asked how this work, Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath, came to reside in the gallery of Egypt Under Roman Rule 40 B.C. – 400 A.D. at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marsha Hill (co-curator of the 2000 show Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt) replied that when the work became available for purchase in 1909 from Cairo antiquities collector and dealer Maurice Nahman, the Egyptian Art Department pursued its acquisition using Rogers Fund money; at the time, the Greco-Roman Art Department expressed no interest in any of the Egyptian panel paintings then appearing on the market. Thus, the circumstances of the artwork’s acquisition largely determined its ultimate context2 and how future museum goers would come to perceive this example of Greek-influenced Roman-era painting.

In the early twentieth century, the Met’s Egyptian Art Department demonstrated impressive foresight with its enthusiasm for artwork from the land of the Nile deemed a “classical development” by most Egyptologists and of little importance to classicists who associated the mummy portraits with Egypt (not Greece or Rome).3 Even in the twenty-first century, a recent book about ancient Egyptian art failed to include any reference to these mummy portraits,4 and an exhibition catalog on Egyptian portraiture concluded with a beautiful example of a Roman mummy plaster mask but failed to mention the contemporaneous and identically used panel paintings.5

Across the Great Hall from the Egyptian wing at The Metropolitan Museum, in the relatively new Greco-Roman galleries, there are only four examples of Greek painting displayed–all small murals and predating by several centuries Young Woman and her kind. One is Lucanian from southern Italy; the other three are from the Alexandria region of Egypt. Whether or not an argument was ever advanced for placing the latter in the Egyptian wing, a case could certainly have been made for exhibiting the Greco-Roman Egyptian mummy portraits somewhere among the museum’s extensive holdings of Roman wall paintings.

When the Ptolemies took control of Egypt after the death of Alexander in 323 BCE, they drained part of the Fayum lake and built an advanced irrigation system to create additional arable land that they then gave to their Greek soldiers, following an already existing practice. Egyptians were later recruited to work on this newly inhabited farmland and after 30 BCE, both these groups were joined by Romans carrying out the business of empire.6 Art like Young Woman, emerging from this conglomeration, was bound to defy easy categorization.

Conceding that they represent a “confluence of Greek painting, Roman portraiture and Egyptian burial practices,” curator Hill explained that an effort has been made to provide a context for the mummy portraits in the room with Young Woman and in the area where the display continues past the nearby gallery-titled doorway. As an example, she pointed to a vitrine there that encases an intact mummy7 intricately wrapped in linen bands with its portrait panel still in place. Rather than serving to emphasize the Egyptian pedigree of these Roman-period portraits, the mummy highlights the startling contrast between the ancient and contemporary burial and artistic practices of its time.

View of “Egypt Under Roman Rule” Gallery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

View of “Egypt Under Roman Rule” Gallery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

The museum succeeded in situating Young Woman in an Egyptian context primarily through its physical location. Entering the gallery that contains the painting, visitors are introduced to the entire Egyptian wing by a sign containing text and photos highlighting the collection, and an ancient tomb structure from Saqqara. Crossing the large room on the way to the far wall of mummy plaster masks, painted shrouds and panel portraits, they encounter two coffins from the Roman period decorated with images of deities associated with Egyptian burial practices.

Object Label for “Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo © Deborah Feller.

Object Label for “Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Casual viewers attracted to Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath who read the picture’s accompanying label learn nothing of how an object so uncharacteristic of Egyptian art came to be displayed in that wing. The text describes the painting as a work of art–with notes on technique, appearance and dating–and gives nothing of its history.8

Visitors never learn that before being displayed as an art object, Young Woman functioned to ensure safe passage to the netherworld and, consequently, eternal life for its subject. Meant to act as backup in case harm came to the physical self (preservation of the body being essential to the continuation of the ka [spirit]),9 long ago severed from its body and home, now exhibited out of context, the mummy portrait as shown tells an incomplete story.

Map of Fayum Lake District from Paul Roberts, Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (London: the British Museum Press, 2008.

Map of Fayum Lake District from Paul Roberts, Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (London: the British Museum Press, 2008).

For The Metropolitan Museum, that story probably began in the late 1880s with the rediscovery of mummies with painted faces in the Fayum lake district in northern Egypt. Tempera examples were already saturating the market when British archaeologist, Flinders Petrie, excavating at Hawara in that area, came across a trove of encaustic portraits10–soon to prove more appealing to contemporary Western eyes than the previously discovered tempera ones.11

Most of Petrie’s finds ended up in London at the National Gallery and British Museum;12 some found their way to dealers like Nahman. Over the course of time, mummy portraits were unearthed throughout Egypt, though they still continued to carry the epithet “Fayum.”13 Unprovenanced, if Young Woman did originate from that lake district, the discoverer might have provided a service by rescuing it from likely destruction had its burial place been in the path of mid-nineteenth-century farmland expansion, a response to economic incentives and technical assistance from England for Egypt to produce more cotton.14

The civil war tearing apart the United States in the 1860s had halted that country’s exportation of cotton and created new European markets for Egyptian farmers in the fertile Fayum region. “[F]armers…in search of sebbakh,…Nile mud enriched with human- and animal-produced organic materials”–a cheap source of excellent fertilizer, and raw material for mudbricks and saltpeter (used in gunpowder)15–widened their search for this much prized commodity. As farmland reached ancient settlements, and ruins became more valuable as agricultural resources, farmers lost motivation to preserve and sell unearthed antiquities as was their previous custom.16

While sebbakh was more plentiful around town mounds–not necessarily in the area of necropolises,17 related population expansion and its attendant pressures constituted other threats. Had Petrie and his ilk not excavated and removed these paintings–and in the case of the former, given many to public institutions–the portraits might have been destroyed, or hidden away in private collections, Egyptian antiquities law at the time being as lax as it was.18

In the current century, objects of questionable provenance are increasingly repatriated to the countries from which they were removed,19 and national and international antiquities laws make legal exportation of cultural patrimony almost impossible.20 But up until 1912, Egyptian laws on the books since 1835 allowed for easy acquisition of excavation permits with the proviso that finds be split equally with the state.21

Digging up mummies, separating them from their masks, shrouds and/or panel paintings, and then removing them and their accessories for sale by dealers headquartered in Cairo would have been considered sacrilegious by the elite, mostly Greek and Egyptian early-first-century residents of the Fayum region22 who entombed their dead in accordance with ancient beliefs, but at the time it was happening it wasn’t even illegal. With no constituency left to speak for them, the two-thousand-year-old mummies were fair game.

This contrasts with far more recent twentieth-century disinterments, a potent example of which was the 1991 discovery of human remains in downtown New York City during a “cultural resource survey” that included “archeological field-testing” in advance of the construction of a federal building. Identified as a burial ground for African slaves, the site quickly attracted attention from the African-American community and its supporters. After years of productive research agreed upon by all parties, the long-ago-forgotten Africans were reburied at the original site, now a national monument–the African Burial Ground Memorial.23

Similarly, in 1990 the United States passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, providing a process for the return of Native American remains and their related artifacts already in museum and federal agency collections. The law also set down procedures respecting new burial ground discoveries, acknowledging their spiritual importance to surviving tribes.24

The mummies that Petrie, other archaeologists, treasure hunters and farmers were unearthing in the late 1800s, early 1900s, and even before, don’t seem to have been considered by anyone as ancestral remains. Egyptian statutes governing these practices regulated antiquities dealers, not the treatment of the buried dead.25 When The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Young Woman in 1909, the action engendered no controversy, their being no Greco-Roman-Egyptian descendants to make a fuss.

In fact, probably with the motivation to present the mummy portrait Young Woman as a work of art rather than a funerary object, someone had flattened what was originally a convex panel and mounted it on a board. Whether the curve was part of the original form or had developed over time with use,26 the retaining of that bowed shape by the excavator/dealer/collector would have made storage and/or shipping inconvenient, rendering the piece less desirable.

Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath, Egypt, Roman Period (120–140 CE, encaustic with gold leaf on wood , 14⅜ x 7 in [36.5 x 17.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath, Egypt, Roman Period (120–140 CE, encaustic with gold leaf on wood , 14⅜ x 7 in [36.5 x 17.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

According to curator Hill, other than the alteration in the panel’s shape the surface of Young Woman appears pretty much as it was when found.27 Although the four vertical fissures that probably resulted from the flattening were filled in, along with some minor cuts,28 the painting underwent no comprehensive restoration by a conservator intent on imposing upon it some contemporary aesthetic ideal. Fortunately, the portrait retains enough of its original wax pigment and gold leaf to satisfy as both a thing of beauty and a historical document.

If any record chronicled something of Young Woman’s original condition, it would be found in the Maurice Nahman Archives.29 In the absence of such a reference, it seems safe to assume that this portrait panel belonged with others described by Petrie “as [being] fresh as the day they were painted.”30

Displayed to emphasize its aesthetic value, Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath showcases its creator’s skill in the rendering of three-dimensionality, rarely of interest to Pharaonic Egyptian painters. Illumination from the upper left throws warm shadows to the right of prominent forms, while a cool grey tone signals where these forms turn from the light, an effect most obvious along the bridge of the nose and the front plane of the face where it meets the only side visible to the viewer.

Those tricks of the trade surely originated with the great masters of Greek painting chronicled by Pliny the Elder (around 77-79 CE) in Book XXXV of his Natural History31 and took on a new life during the Renaissance, Baroque and later Neoclassical periods of European painting. Nature is not the only teacher here, however. Young Woman’s larger-than-life eyes–like those found on many other mummy portraits–bring to mind ancient Egyptian wall paintings of profile faces with over-sized, kohl-lined eyes.

Viewer in the “Gallery of Egypt Under Roman Rule 30 B.C. to 400 A.D.” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Viewer in the “Gallery of Egypt Under Roman Rule 30 B.C. to 400 A.D.” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Ordinary museum goers, stopping to admire the dramatically-lit, unusual painting in the corner of a room containing a reconstructed Egyptian tomb, probably wouldn’t notice its finer points of technique nor, because of the way Young Woman is currently presented, would they be aware of the critical function the painting once served. For that matter, no person can know the thoughts of the aggrieved who commissioned the portrait for someone so young32 when seeing it for the first time, probably already held in place by the linen enwrapping the mummified body. In these many ways, the identity of Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath has yet to be fully understood and adequately presented.
1 Marsha Hill, Curator of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, interview by author, New York, October 28, 2014.
2 Ibid.
3 Morris Bierbrier, “The Discovery of the Mummy Portraits” in Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt, edited by Susan Walker (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), 33.
4 Gay Robins, The Art of Ancient Egypt, revised edition (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008).
5 Donald Spanel, Through Ancient Eyes: Egyptian Portraiture (Birmingham, Alabama: Birmingham Museum of Art, 1988).
6 R. S. Bagnall, “The Fayum and its People” in Ancient Faces, 26-28.
7 Hill, interview.
8 The Metropolitan Museum, object label, Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath, read on October 28, 2014.
9 John Taylor, “Before the Portraits: Burial Practices in Pharaonic Egypt” in Ancient Faces, 9.
10 Nicholas Reeves, Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries, A Year-by-Year Chronicle (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2000), 76-78.
11 Ibid.
12 Bierbrier in Ancient Faces, 32.
13 Ibid., 33.
14 Paola Davoli, “Papyri, Archaeology, and Modern History,” The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri Lecture Series, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, n.d., accessed October 24, 2014,
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid.
17 Hill, interview.
18 Davoli, “Papyri, Archaeology, and Modern History.”
19 For example see: Jason Felch, “Getty ships Aphrodite statue to Sicily,” Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2011, accessed November 4, 2014,; and Elisabetta Povoledo, “Ancient Vase Comes Home to a Hero’s Welcome,” New York Times, January 19, 2008, accessed November 4, 2014, arts/design/19bowl.html.
20 “International Antiquities Law Since 1900,” Archaeology, April 22, 2002, accessed November 4, 2014,
21 Davoli, “Papyri, Archaeology, and Modern History.”
22 R. S. Bagnall in Ancient Faces, 28-29.
23 “African Burial Ground Memorial, New York, NY,” Historic Buildings, US General Services Administration, accessed November 8, 2014,
24 “National NAGPRA, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” National Park Service, U. S. Department of the Interior, accessed November 8, 2014,
25 Davoli, “Papyri, Archaeology, and Modern History.”
26 Hill, interview.
27 Ibid.
28 Catalog entry, Ancient Faces, 109.
29 “Maurice Nahman, Antiquaire. Visitor book and miscellaneous papers. 1909-2006 (inclusive),” Wilbour Library of Egyptology.  Special Collections Brooklyn Museum Libraries, Brooklyn Museum, accessed November 8, 2014,
30 Reeves, Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries, 78.
31 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, translated by D. E. Eichholz (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann, 1949-54), Vol. 10, Book XXXV, 38-53.
32 The existence of portraits of young children as well as the very old make it unlikely the paintings were done during the lifetime of the subject, and CAT scans of mummies show age and sex consonant with still-attached portraits. See Susan Walker, “Mummy Portraits and Roman Portraiture” in Ancient Faces, 24.


Art Historical Musing: The Madrasa in Aleppo

Print This Post Print This Post

January 1st, 2015

City House, Country House:
A Tale of Two Madrasas

After 9/11, many Americans came to associate the religion of Islam with terrorism, and madrasas with the recruitment and training of future terrorists.  The early history of these “collegiate mosques”1 or “theological colleges”2 (as they have been called) demonstrates their importance as purveyors of propaganda, a common function of all educational institutions.  As developed and deployed by the Seljuks of Anatolia, they served as front-line institutions in the battle to restore Sunni orthodoxy, which had all but disappeared by the time Nizam al-Mulk became vizier and de facto ruler of the Seljuk empire3 in the mid-eleventh century, and embarked on his madrasa-building campaign.

Begun with more modest objectives, the earliest madrasas probably operated out of a teacher’s house.  Eventually these places of learning grew in size to provide rudimentary lodging for students (all male, of course) as well as space for daily prayers.4  Under the generous patronage of Nizam al-Mulk and his regime, madrasas sprang up in many of the major urban areas in the Near East to counter the significant advances that had been made by the rival Shi’i who practiced a different brand of Islam.5

In addition to consolidating power through the imposition of Sunni state-sponsored institutions of religion, the newly built madrasas provided training for bureaucrats who would then go on to faithfully serve their government.  In this way, Nizam al-Mulk transformed what began as a building for study and prayer into one that was used to train “individuals to maintain order and enforce control and power.”6

By 1146 another ruler, Nur al-Din, was in control, having established his base of operations in Aleppo in northern Syria after political and military maneuvers that arrested and repelled the advance of the Crusaders, contained the Seljuks in the north, and consolidated his authority over an ethnically diverse Near-Eastern population.  Himself a Turk from Anatolia with a largely Kurdish following, Nur al-Din turned to the already-established notion of jihad (the political and spiritual struggle against non-believers–in this case the Crusaders) to rally this variegated Islamic populace around shared goals.7

Perhaps inspired by the work of his predecessors the Seljuks, Nur al-Din positioned himself as the commander of the jihadist cause and began a building campaign to restore and erect orthodox Sunni structures throughout his territory, deploying religious education as a glue to hold his lands together.8  In Aleppo, a predominantly Shi’i city, he waited three years before building his first madrasa, al-Halawiyya in 1149, initially avoiding a heavy-handed approach that would jeopardize his popularity and control.9  When he was ready to challenge the Shi’is hegemony, he did it openly, situating this new Sunni madrasa opposite the Great Mosque in the madina, the center of the city.10

At the same time, by choosing to erect his madrasa on the skeleton of the Byzantine cathedral St. Helena–already retrofitted for use as a mosque in 1124–Nur al-Din could further triumph over Christianity.11  While nothing is known about the original plan of the church or the changes made to convert it into an Islamic house of worship, at the time of its conversion into a madrasa (or later) changes must have been made to its physical structure.12

The current appearance or even the continued existence of the al-Halawiyya madrasa remains a mystery.  A Syrian civil war attracting foreign combatants has already claimed the lives of many important monuments in Aleppo and elsewhere.13  Tourist reports accompanied by photographs from as recently as 2012 documented a building in use as a mosque, no longer functioning as a madrasa, and in need of serious conservation and restoration work.14

View of Interior Courtyard, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria. Photo taken no later than 2012.

View of Interior Courtyard, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

Reports, ground plans and photographs from the 1970s and earlier15 describe a building entered through a portal leading to a long corridor that opened into a courtyard with a pool at its center.  Across this modest-size open space, a floor-to-ceiling window topped by an arch faced with alternating black-and-white stones demonstrated the inventiveness and skill of Northern Syrian masons.16

View of Church Apse, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria. Photo taken no later than 2012.

View of Church Apse, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

Acanthus-leaf Column Capitals, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria. Photo taken no later than 2012.

Acanthus-leaf Column Capitals, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

Through the door to the left of the large window lay the remains of the Byzantine church–the main section of the madrasa–beneath a pendentive dome (one of the first of its type in Aleppo), the fine construction of which suggested the architects might have modeled it on what was left of the one for the cathedral.17  Two iwans (rectangular spaces walled on three sides and open on the fourth) branched off the space under the dome to its left and right.  Opposite the entrance in a semi-circular apse stood six vintage columns crowned with acanthus-leaf capitals–vestiges of the previous structure.

Carved Wooden Mihrab, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria. Photo taken no later than 2012.

Carved Wooden Mihrab, Madrasa al-Halawiyya, Aleppo, Syria.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

On the southern wall of the madrasa interior, an intricately carved wooden mihrab–the locus of all prayers–became the object of intense activity in October 2013 when the Syrian Association for the Preservation of Archaeology and Heritage walled it off behind a protective barrier.  Dating to the time of Nur al-Din and renovated one hundred years later by an Ayyubid king, it includes verses of the Qu’ran.18

Much later (in 1660), the Ottoman rulers left their mark on madrasa al-Halawiyya with their renovation of the courtyard façades, commemorating that activity with an  inscription over the door to the prayer hall.19  Nur al-Din’s own carved calligraphy, lining three sides of the vaulted corridor leading to the courtyard, was left in place.

View of Interior Courtyard with Trees and Pool, Madrasa al-Firdaws. Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5850. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

View of Interior Courtyard with Trees and Pool, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5850.  Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

Across town and time, another madrasa took shape, one whose fortunes were as affected by its extramural location as al-Halawiyya’s was by its center-city one.  Unlike the madrasa in the madina, which was wedged into an already crowded commercial district, al-Firdaws was designed to be a reminder of the paradise promised to the devout,20 with enough space afforded by its southern suburban siting to include several gardens, flowing water and pools.21

View of Madrasa al-Firdaws from Nearby Cemetery. Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5837. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

View of Madrasa al-Firdaws from Nearby Cemetery. Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5837.  Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

Commissioned early in her regency by Dayfa Khatun, an Ayyubid queen who ruled for her young grandson from 1236 until her death in 1244,22 madrasa al-Firdaws reflected its sponsor’s deep and abiding devotion to Sufism,23 a mystical practice that combined physical deprivation, ingestion of psychotropic agents and dancing.  The Qur’anic verses inscribed along the building’s exterior and in a band of text that snaked around three of the courtyard interior walls reminded these worshipers of the vision of God awaiting them as the reward for their asceticism and religious zeal.24  By sponsoring a madrasa that as a center of Sufism functioned as a khanqah25 (“monastic mosque”26), Dayfa Khatun continued the work of a predecessor, Nur al-Din, who during his reign built nine of these Sufi monasteries in Aleppo.27

View of Portal on Eastern Wall, Madrasa al-Firdaws. Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5840. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

View of Portal on Eastern Wall, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5840.   Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

The eleven domes of madrasa al-Firdaws and its lengthy inscription along the eastern façade distinguished it from other contemporary Ayyubid religious buildings28 in a way that its otherwise unadorned exterior walls did not.  From a distance, the relatively small portal tucked away in the eastern wall seemed insignificant in comparison to the massive rectangle of stone blocks into which it was inserted, but its triple-tiered muqarnas vault capped by a scalloped half-dome29 atop a tall, narrow space, imbued it with a monumentality designed to inspire a sense of awe.

Squinch Arch, Mihrab Dome, Madrasa al-Firdaws. Photo © Çigdem Kafesçioglu, 1990. Image courtesy of MIT Libraries, Aga Khan Visual Archive.

Squinch Arch, Mihrab Dome, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  Photo © Çigdem Kafesçioglu, 1990.  Image courtesy of MIT Libraries, Aga Khan Visual Archive.

Architects in the Near East developed the “stalactite pendentive”–or muqarnas vault– to solve the problem of mounting a round dome on a square room.  Initially using a single squinch arch across each corner to transition from rectangle below to polygon above–and then to dome–architects later used four in a pyramidal configuration.  It wasn’t long before these arches proliferated and the muqarnas vault was born.30  In Syria, adept masons carved each separate stone block into shapes destined to fit snugly into place when assembled and to support the weight above them.31  What began as functional evolved into highly decorative multi-tiered constructions, as could be seen in the portal of al-Firdaws.

Once through the doors of this madrasa, visitors encountered a long vaulted corridor leading to an exterior wall of the back-to-back iwans.  A turn to the left brought a worshiper to the entrance corridor of the now enclosed iwan that once opened up into “a walled garden with a pool, whose waters were piped into the madrasa.”32  A turn in the other direction quickly revealed the interior courtyard, in its design a symphony of mathematical ratios.33

Mihrab, Madrasa al-Firdaws. Photo taken no later than 2012.

Mihrab, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

Islamic architects and artists relied almost exclusively on the science and art of geometry in both construction and ornamentation, using grids in the layout of buildings and in the containment of decorative elements.34  Deploying repetitive, symmetrical and continuously-generated patterns35 (as in fractals), they created designs like that on madrasa al-Firdaws’s mihrab (or prayer niche) with its overlapping and interlacing, multi-colored stonework.

Divided horizontally into three approximately equal sections, the front of that mihrab contained red porphyry, green diorite, and white marble with veins of various colors.  Within the semicircular top third, a band of Qur’anic inscription36 wrapped around a circle segment, the innermost part of which was an organized riot of interwoven white lines framing red and green shapes.

In the lower third of the mihrab’s facing, supporting the niche were two granite columns with muqarnas capitals37 echoed by vertical stripes of alternating dark and light marble to their left and right, and continuing into the prayer alcove.  Sandwiched between the facing’s top and bottom sections, in a rectangle encompassing the arch of the mihrab’s vault, thick bands of yellow and white marble curved and angled above and below each other; the left side mirroring the right but for the reversal of the overlapping colors, resulting in a not-quite-symmetrical design.

View of Interior Courtyard with Pool, Madrasa al-Firdaws. Photo taken no later than 2012.

View of Interior Courtyard with Pool, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  Photo taken no later than 2012.

Before entering the mosque (that section of the madrasa that housed the mihrab), devotees first availed themselves of the waters of an octagonal courtyard pool, a complex construction of three layers–an eight-pointed star sandwiched between two octagons–unique to the architecture of Aleppo.38  The stone of the inner perimeter of the basin was carved into scallops alternating with right angles; curves resonated with the hemispheres of the many domes and corners with the surrounding pavement–an arrangement of light and dark masonry in square-based patterns.

Located on opposite sides of the courtyard, column-supported pointed arches opened into vaulted corridors beyond which domed rooms might have hosted gatherings of students and teachers.  Perpendicular to these were the prayer hall on one end and on the other, the yawning entrance to the interior iwan, with its evenly spaced niches that at one time could have held books.39

Residence Courtyard with Iwan, Madrasa al-Firdaws. © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5859. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

Residence Courtyard with Iwan, Madrasa al-Firdaws.  © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5859.   Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

Flanking the back-to-back iwans were two-story residential annexes, each with its own courtyard and pool, though of somewhat different configurations.  Not visible from the madrasa’s interior space, these areas–since fallen into disrepair–were accessed from the vaulted corridors running alongside the exterior iwan.40  Uncommon in Syrian madrasas, student dormitories41 at al-Firdaws probably reflect that institution’s monastic functions.  The minaret rising from this section ensured that calls to prayer could be heard by sleeping devotees, waking them in time for their long nighttime vigils.

View of Madrasa al-Firdaws with Pistachio Trees. Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5844. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

View of Madrasa al-Firdaws with Pistachio Trees.  Photo © Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, neg. EA.CA.5844.  Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library.

Unlike in downtown Aleppo, where madrasa al-Halawiyya kept company with the Great Umayyad mosque and busy commercial structures, al-Firdaws had for its nearest neighbors pistachio trees and tombstones.  Within walking distance, however, residents and their visitors could, if needed, purchase provisions in a nearby populated area and further away, at the souk (market) of Bab al-Maqam, one of the gates to the city.42

Isolated as the madrasa was, it remained for some time in an active area thanks to the Mamluks–the next rulers of the Near East.  As part of the process of restoring Aleppo after the 1260 Mongol invasions destroyed much of the city,43 this new dynasty capitalized on the connection between the center of the city and its extramural neighborhoods.  One such focus was a corridor linking the shrine of Abraham on the Citadel with the one South of Bab al-Maqam in the district just north of al-Firdaws, along which they added their own monuments.44

When the Ottomans arrived in 1516, the central and northwestern parts of the city benefited45 from their penchant for erecting expansive complexes encompassing mosque, madrasa, public kitchen, souk and accommodations for travelers46 in those parts of town.  This concentration of construction and trade around the al-Halawiyya madrasa helped it maintain its significance, evident in the Ottomans’ seventeenth-century renovations of its courtyard façades.

The emphasis on parts north proved far less advantageous to the madrasa in the southern suburb, which saw the depopulation of its surroundings; even the area cemeteries migrated elsewhere, leaving just al-Firdaws’s own, one of the largest in Aleppo and in the twentieth century, the predominant feature of the immediate environment.  What was once a verdant reminder of a paradise to come found itself in a poor, industrial area that profited little from later urban renewal projects.47

In the early twenty-first century, combatants waging war in Syria and its neighboring states have taken the cultural heritage of those countries hostage, already executing too many of the monuments they captured.  Air strikes by the United States to drive back an especially malignant faction in the conflicts added to the wreckage.48

Differences in location, function, appearance and history of al-Halawiyya, al-Firdaws and other Aleppian madrasas have ultimately no bearing on their fates.  In a corner of the world that has through the ages been in the cross hairs of many conflicts, it remains to be seen what will survive this one and whether restoration and renewal will again be possible.

[For latest updates, click here.]
1 Ernest J. Grube, “What is Islamic Architecture?” in Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning, edited by George Michell (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1978), 37.
2 Yasser Tabbaa, Constructions of Power and Piety in Medieval Aleppo (The Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania, 1997), 7.
3 Grube, 38.
4 Ibid., 39.
5 Tabbaa in Constructions of Power and Piety, 125.
6 Ibid., 126.
7 Nikita Elisséeff, “The Reaction of the Syrian Muslims after the Foundation of the First Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem” in The Medieval Mediterranean: Peoples, Economies and Cultures, 400-1453, Volume I: Crusaders and Muslims in Twelfth-Century Syria, edited by Maya Shatzmiller (New York: E. J. Brill, 1993), 165-67.
8  Ibid., 168.
9 Yasser al-Tabba, “The Architectural Patronage of Nur al-Din” (PhD diss., New York University, 1982),182.
10 Ibid., 263.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid., 50-52.
13 “Provinces: Aleppo,” APSA (Association for the Preservation of Syrian Archaeology), accessed November 16, 2014, aleppo/monuments.html.
14 “Madrassa Halawiyya, Aleppo,” Virtual Tourist, accessed November 16, 2014,
15 al-Tabba, “The Architectural Patronage of Nur al-Din.”
16 Ronald Lewcock, “Architects, Craftsmen and Builders: Materials and Techniques” in Architecture of the Islamic World, 135-136.
17 al-Tabba, “The Architectural Patronage of Nur al-Din,” 53.
18 “Aleppo: Protecting the Halawiyeh wooden niche 10.06.2013,” APSA, accessed November 18, 2014,
19 Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh, “The Image of an Ottoman City: Imperial Architecture and Urban Experience in Aleppo in the 16th and 17th Centuries” in The Ottoman Empire and its Heritage: Politics, Society and Economy, Volume 33, edited by Suraiya Faroqhi and Halil Inalcik (Boston, Massachusetts: Brill Academic Publishers, 2004), 183.
20 Yassar Tabbaa, “Geometry and Memory in the Design of the Madrasa al-Firdows in Aleppo,” Chapter 3 in Theories and Principles of Design in the Architecture of Islamic Societies (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, 1988), 32.
21 Ibid., 28.
22 Tabbaa, Constructions of Power and Piety, 165.
23 Ibid., 176.
24 Ibid., 171-180.
25 Ibid., 8.
26 Graube, 40.
27 Tabbaa, Constructions of Power and Piety, 164.
28 Ibid., 168, 170-71.
29 Ibid., 168.
30 Graube, 124 and 141-142.
31 Tabbaa, Constructions of Power and Piety, 147.
32 Ibid., 169-70.
33 Tabbaa in Theories and Principles of Design, 24-27.
34 Graube, 164.
35 Ibid., 169.
36 Ibid.
37 Ibid.
38 Tabbaa, Constructions of Power and Piety, 152.
39 Ibid., 169.
40 Ibid., 159.
41 Robert Hillenbrand, Islamic Architecture: Form, function and meaning (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 188.
42 Rana Chalabi, “Madrassa Al Firdaus al-‘Alā” (masters thesis, n.d.), accessed October 17, 2014,
43 Ibid., 27.
44 Watenpaugh, 32-33.
45 Ibid., 52.
46 Ciğdem Kafescioğlu, “In The Image of Rūm: Ottoman Architectural Patronage in Sixteenth-Century Aleppo and Damascus,” Muqarnas 16 (1999): 71.
47 Chalabi, 28-29.
48 “Aleppo – Aïn al-Arab-Kobane: US airstrike against ISIS militants on hill of Tell Shair 24.10.2014,” APSA (Association for the Preservation of Syrian Archaeology), accessed November 27, 2014,


Art Historical Musing: Music as Therapy in Art

Print This Post Print This Post

December 28th, 2014

The Power of Music &
The Madness of Art

[To view the slide show in a separate tab while reading the text, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

[slide 1:  Title.]
[slide 2:  Detail, Émile Wauters, Le Peintre du Rouge-Cloître (1872, oil on canvas, 6 x 9 ft [1.86 x 2.75 m]).  Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels.]

Pity poor Hugo van der Goes.

[slide 3:  Émile Wauters, Le Peintre du Rouge-Cloître (1872, oil on canvas, 6 x 9 ft [1.86 x 2.75 m]).  Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels.]

He fell into a funk, and his prior and fellow monks tried to cheer him up with “a melody…and other recreative spectacles.”1  While it can’t be known what music they chose, perhaps success would have been theirs had they performed something decidedly more upbeat.

[for slide 4, click here on Flashdance-What a Feeling.]
[slide 5:  Émile Wauters, Le Peintre du Rouge-Cloître (1872, oil on canvas, 6 x 9 ft [1.86 x 2.75 m]).  Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels.]

In his 1872 painting, Le Peintre du Rouge-Cloître (known in English as The Madness of Hugo van der Goes), Belgian artist Émile Wauters illustrated the legendary story of an artist who, around 1475 at the age of about 39, checked himself into a monastery–the Red Cloister outside Brussels–and became “a brother conversi, a rank between a lay brother and a monk.”2  Within the space of about five years, he had what would now be called a nervous breakdown or psychotic break.3

[slide 6: Melancholy Healed by Music in Aldobrandino of Siena, Livres pour la santé garder (Régime du corps) (late 13th century).  The British Library, London.  Sloane MS 2435, fol. 10v.]

As perhaps the only extant case study (of sorts) from the early modern period (or any other time) of an artist’s descent into madness, Gaspar Ofhuys’s description of van der Goes’s malady has often been cited in discussions of melancholia and creativity, and music’s healing powers,4 two areas of interest that have extensive histories.  Each has also been a favorite subject of artists over the course of time.

[slide 7:  Detail, Émile Wauters, Le Peintre du Rouge-Cloître (1872, oil on canvas, 6 x 9 ft [1.86 x 2.75 m]).  Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels.]

As Ofhuys relates the story, when van der Goes–a renowned late 15th century Northern European painter–was returning from an excursion to Cologne accompanied by a couple of fellow monks, “he incurred a strange mental disease…[H]e kept saying that he was a lost soul and was adjudicated eternal damnation; furthermore he was intent on injuring himself physically and committing suicide” and had to be “forcibly restrained by those who were standing by to help.”5

Based on that meager description of symptoms and the sparse biographical data available for van der Goes, attempts to reach a reliable diagnosis or even to discern precipitating factors are by necessity entirely conjectural.  In plunging into his suicidal state, however, the Flemish artist provided future writers (including Ofhuys, who made his own–mostly moralistic–guesses about causes and consequences) ample fodder for ruminating about the link between genius and insanity, and creativity and melancholia.

[slide 8:  Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath (1609-10, oil on canvas, 49¼ x 39¾ in [125 x 101 cm]).  Rome, Museo e Galleria Borghese.]

As far back as Classical Antiquity, descriptions of artists emphasized their peculiarities.6  In writing about a particular Greek sculptor, Pliny the Elder made sure to mention not only the artist’s nickname of “the Madman,” but also an “unrivaled devotion to the art” that led him to be a “severe critic of his own work” and to break his statues into pieces upon completion, “his intense passion for his art making him unable to be satisfied.”7

[slide 9: Michelangelo Buonarroti, restored and completed by Tiberio Calcagni, Bandini Pietá (1550-55, marble, height 7⅜ ft [2.26 m]).  Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy.  Photo © Marie-Lan Nguyen.]

Michelangelo followed suit almost two millennia later when, unhappy with the sculpture, he took a mallet to a late-in-life Pietá.8  Shortly before he died, this great Renaissance man torched “a large number of his own drawings, sketches and cartoons to prevent anyone from seeing the labours [sic] he endured or the ways he tested his genius, for fear that he might seem less than perfect.”9

[slide 10:  Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1989, oil on canvas, 23⅓ x 19⅓ in [60 x 49 cm]).  The Courtauld Gallery, London.]

In more modern times at the end of the nineteenth century in the hills around Aix-en-Provence, a fortunate hiker might have chanced upon an unfinished painting by Paul Cézanne, hanging from a tree.  A brilliant colorist, Cézanne lamented near the end of his life that “even though I am already old, I am only a beginner.”  About his paintings he said, “they are imperfect things…I don’t capture the local colors.”10

That kind of driving passion was noted by Plato but ascribed only to those who practiced what he considered the higher art forms of poetry and music.11  As painters achieved more status during Hellenistic times, they were granted the same “inspired madness of which seers and poets are possessed.”12

[slide 11:  Adam Elsheimer, Minerva as Patroness of Arts and Sciences (c. 1600-1605, oil on copper, 3⅜ x 5¾ in [8.6 x 14.6 cm]).  The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.]

According to the humoral theory of personality, artists could reach feverish states of creativity (Plato’s divine/creative mania13), energized by internal fires that when spent, left behind “remains [that] resembled black coals and polluted smoke,” plunging them into their more characteristic melancholic state.14

Adam Elsheimer, in his small copper painting, Minerva as Patroness of Arts and Sciences (c. 1600-1605), depicts Minerva in the emblematic pose of the melancholic, complete with shadowed eyes, and head resting wearily on her left arm and hand.  She bears a downturned, burned-out torch–of little use to the artist and scholars toiling away in the darkened interior, each with his own meager source of illumination.  The fire in the horizontally-centered brazier, now reduced to smoldering embers, adds a final touch to this representation of the cold, dark, blackness of the melancholic artistic temperament.15

Henry James’s short-story character knew well of this place when he exclaimed, “We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have.  Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.  The rest is the madness of art.”16

A committed and acclaimed artist, Hugo van der Goes suffered similar “passions of the soul” and “was seriously weighted down by them…exceedingly worried about how he was to carry out the paintings he had undertaken.”17  In wondering about the origins of the artist’s breakdown, Ofhuys mentioned his ingesting “melancholy-inducing foods” and imbibing strong wine, “which burns the humors and turns them into ashes.”18

[slide 12:  Hugo van der Goes, The Portinari Altarpiece (1475, oil on wood, 8¼  × 4⅔ ft [2.53 × 1.41 m]).  Uffizi Gallery, Florence.]

Ofhuys also made much of Hugo’s exceptional status at the Red Cloister and the high esteem in which the artist was held.19  When the painter joined the monastery soon after completing The Portinari Altarpiece in 1475, he was allowed to bring his studio practice with him.  Granted special dispensation to receive devotees of his art–many of high rank like the Archduke Maximilian, the artist would join his aristocratic guests in luxurious suites built specifically for their convenience.20

Hugo’s special situation contrasted sharply with that of his fellows, who lived a far more austere life in an environment devoid of instrumental music, particularly that of the organ–all forbidden by monastery statutes.  Not surprising then, when Prior Thomas heard about the artist’s distress and ordered a musical remedy, he had it applied offsite, in advance of the brother’s returning home.21

[slide 13: Queen Mary Psalter, early 14th century.  British Royal Library.
Bible of Duke Borso d’Este, mid-15th century.  Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, Modena.]

The prior upon hearing of Hugo’s illness, left the cloister and caught up with the traveling party in Brussels.  “[A]fter confirming everything with his own eyes and ears, [he] suspected that [the artist] was vexed by the same disease by which King Saul was tormented.  Thereupon, recalling how Saul had found relief when David plucked his harp, he gave permission that a melody be played without restraint in the presence of brother Hugo, but also that other recreative spectacles be performed.”22

Prior Thomas had in mind the short passage in the Bible that describes the magic of David’s harp:

“And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.”  (Italics in the original.)23

[slide 14:  Whistles Made of Reindeer Bones, Petersfels, Germany (c. 15,000 BP).  Badisches Landesmuseum, Karlsruhe, Germany.  Photo © Don Hitchcock.
Flute Made of Mammoth Ivory, Ulm, Germany (c. 30,000-37,000 BP, 7⅔ in [18.7 cm] in length).  Photo: © H. Jensen, University of Tübingen.]

While that might be the earliest documented use of music as an agent of healing, archeologists have unearthed an assortment of musical instruments from as far back as between 43,000 and 67,000 years ago that certainly had the potential to be used in a similar way.  The original context might have been their use in magical rituals to conjure up and control spirits.24

[slide 15:  Oinochoe with the Myth of Orpheus (ceramics, red figure).  Tuscania, Italy: Museo Archeologica.  © 2006, Scala, Florence / Art Resource, NY.]

Fast forward to classical antiquity and mythological texts to find references to incantations (perhaps closer to spells than songs) used for healing.  Although the music of Orpheus is reputed to have had great power, “there are no stories of his acting as a healer of the sick.”25

Seventh century BCE saw the deliverance of Sparta from plague through the music of a noted composer of paeans.  Several hundred years later, on the advice of an oracle, the possessed women of a couple of localities in southern Italy began to intone daily a great number of paeans in their quest for relief.  Communal holy songs, these verses acted by appeasing the angry gods behind the afflictions rather than affecting the person directly.26

[Slide 16:  Raphael, School of Athens (c. 1510-12, fresco, 19 x 27 ft [5.8 x 8.23 m]).  Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Palace, Vatican State.  Erich Lessing / Art Resource, N.Y. & Detail of Pythagoras, School of Athens.]

It wasn’t until his disciples started handing down stories about the mathematician and mystic Pythagoras (who left nothing in writing) that using music to influence a distressed person’s mood came into its own.  As the tale went, the great teacher–accompanying himself on a lyre–sang paeans to his pupils in order to soothe them.  At times they all sang as one.27  By the fifth century BCE, much had already been written about the power of music to not only affect emotions but also to impact a developing young boy’s character.  Aggressive, frenzied music was suspect and proscribed.

[slide 17: Pier Francesco Mola, Mercury Putting Argus to Sleep (c. 1645-55, oil on canvas, 23⅛ x 39⅛ in [58.7 x 99.4 cm]).  Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH.]

Not long after that, Plato (that great ascetic) picked up on the theme of music as character building or destroying, and issued some guidelines:

“Attunement, having motions akin to the circuits in our soul, has been given by the Muses to the intelligent user of the arts not for mindless pleasure, as it is fashionable to assume, but as an aid to bringing our soul-circuit, when it has got out of tune, into order and harmony with itself.  And rhythm likewise, in view of the unmeasured and graceless condition that comes about in most of us, was bestowed by them for the same purpose.”28

[slide 18:  Boethius, De Institutione Musica (early 6th century CE).]

Plato’s ideas about music’s potential for altering mood and behavior inspired other Greek and Roman writers to pick up on the theme,29 but it was the treatise De Institutione Musica by sixth century CE Roman philosopher Boethius that systematized all the previous material, making it readily accessible for later scholars.  By the Middle Ages, his manuscript on the subject had become compulsory reading for anyone studying at a higher educational level, where it constituted one quarter of the quadrivium along with the other mathematical disciplines of arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.30

In his medico-astrological treatise De Triplici Vita (The Three Books on Life) published in 1489, theologian, astrologer, physician, musician and magician, Marsilio Ficino, picked up where Plato left off.  With Saturn in a dominant position in his horoscope, this Renaissance man was highly motivated to find a system for overcoming his “seal of melancholy.”31

Believing in the magic of music, Ficino developed an astrologically based therapy founded on his idea that “sound and song easily arouse the fantasy, affect the heart and reach the inmost recesses of the mind…Nearly all living beings are made captive by harmony.”  Playing his lyre and singing helped him “banish vexations of both soul and body”32 and he endeavored to share his discovery with others.  For Ficino, earthly music intently played could connect the performer and the listener to the music of the heavenly spheres, completing a circuit that had power to heal body and soul, two entities not yet separated conceptually at that time.

While it’s possible that De Institutione Musica–with all its classical allusions–provided an additional frame of reference for Prior Thomas (besides the Bible) when he came up with a musical solution to the problem of his conversi’s critical imbalance, his adding to the prescription “other recreative spectacles”33 also indicates an awareness of the benefits to the melancholic of not just music, but also attractive diversions.34

[slide 19:  Gonzales Coques, The Artist in His Studio (1650, oil on canvas, 25½ x 32¼ in [65 x 82 cm]).  Staatliches Museum, Schwerin, Germany.]

When Gonzales Coques conceived the idea for his painting The Artist in His Studio (1650), Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy had already been published (in 1621, first in English) and widely referenced as the compendium of two millennia worth of knowledge and experience on the malady of melancholy.  Integrating the physical with the spiritual,35 it offered recommendations for treatment, among which music had a leading role.  “He advised students and scholars ‘to refresh their wearied minds with some sort of melody.  For so shall they drive away the dumpes [sic] of melancholie [sic] and make their spirits more lively to learn.’”36

Burton’s prescriptions for curing melancholy singled out pleasant surroundings like gardens and the viewing of Dutch maps, globes and landscape art as ways to lighten the burden on the intellect’s soul.37  Painters like Coques adopted those recommendations as subjects for their pictures.  In The Artist in His Studio, he placed in the artist’s hands a string instrument and situated him in front of a large landscape painting, scattering around the composition other music-making objects: a lute face down on the cabinet against the back wall, and a violin-cello leaning against a  keyboard.  Fruits of the vine and other produce rest on the floor nearby, symbolizing the pleasures of wine and nature as other popular remedies for the relief of melancholia.

[slide 20:  Frans van Mieris the Elder, The Artist in His Studio (1659, oil on panel, 23⅔ x 18½ in [60 x 47 cm]).  Staatliche Kunstammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany.]

Similarly, Frans van Mieris the Elder in The Artist in His Studio (1659) included in the easel painting a lounging figure with a lute by his side in a romantic classical setting of arches and columns.  In the studio foreground, a globe and a cello refer to additional anti-melancholy devices, and a statue further back of a writhing figure shows Hercules–one of the patron saints of melancholics–battling a snake.38

[slide 21:  Unknown (formerly attributed to Paul Bril), Self-Portrait of an Artist (c. 1595-1600, oil on canvas, 28 x 30¾ in [71 x 78 cm]).  Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island.]

In an anonymous Self-Portrait of an Artist (c. 1595-1600), the protagonist has put aside the tools of his trade, the fires of his creativity having been depleted by the effort to produce the large bucolic landscape that rests on his easel, and avails himself of some musical diversion in an attempt to combat the cold, bilious darkness of his melancholia.

[slide 22:  Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, The Old Song (1959, oil on canvas, 3⅓ x 5 ft [1.02 x 1.53 m)].  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.  © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.]

Music’s power to soothe has never gone out of fashion in artists’ studios, appearing on the canvases of such diverse Northern Europeans as the German expressionist Marie-Louise von Motesiczky and the great Dutch realist Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn.  Motesiczky in the touching portrayal of her mother in old age, The Old Song (1959), invites into her mother’s room a close friend and neighbor to play a harp for the bedridden woman.

[slide 23:  Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Saul and David (1655-60, oil on canvas, 4¼ x 5⅜ ft [1.3 x 1.64 m]).  Mauritshaus, The Hague, Netherlands.]

In one of Rembrandt’s paintings of the biblical story of Saul and David (1655-60), David concentrates intensively on his musical production, bending and turning his head to better catch the sounds emanating from his harp, while Saul dabs at his eye as if to wipe away a tear, his upset temporarily assuaged by the magic of the melody.  The ancients knew intuitively what contemporary neuroscience has begun to bear out, that music can have a salutary effect on mood.

[slide 24:  From Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music, © 2006.]

Advanced techniques of brain imaging have provided modern-day scientists with an increasingly more intimate understanding of the structures and functions of that mysterious organ between the ears.  Researchers, fascinated by the age-old importance of music to the human species, have determined that “musical activity involves nearly every [known] region of the brain…and nearly every neural subsystem.”39

Briefly stated, the processing of the sound of music begins with the auditory cortex, which sorts through its components.  Regions of the frontal cortex attend to the cognitive aspects of the experience, dealing with musical structure and expectations.  In the mesolimbic system, a part of the emotional center of the brain, the production of opioids and the reward neurotransmitter dopamine activates the nucleus accumbens, critical to the experience of pleasure, resulting in an uplifting state of arousal.  Meanwhile, in the cerebellum–the body’s keeper of the beat–and the basal ganglia (also involved in the brain’s reward system), rhythm and meter get registered.40

(slide 25:  Jan Steen, The Doctor’s Visit (c. 1660-65, oil on panel, 18⅛ x 14½ in [46 x 36.8 cm]).  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.]

Seventeenth-century doctors did not wait for the advent of neuroscience and its attendant revelations to include music in their medicine bag for not just melancholic men, but also for hysterical women who suffered from that long-ago-identified affliction known as the wandering womb, or hysteria.41  Dixon’s feminist approach to the study of melancholia invites viewers to consider gender-specific distinctions that artists made in their portrayals of women suffering the blues–reflections of the intellectual milieu of their times.

While the status of the enervated man was elevated to that of suffering genius, the symptomatic woman was understood as little more than a passive vessel for her uterus, “an independent animal capable of appetites and movements beyond the control of body or mind.”42  In his The Doctor’s Visit (c. 1660-65), Netherlandish artist Jan Steen captured perfectly the medical lore of the time as expressed in theme of the “lovesick maiden.”43

In the picture, a young woman in the iconic head-resting-listlessly-on-hand pose, turns her glazed eyes expectantly in the direction of the doctor who–still holding his gloves (an indication that he has just arrived to deal with the emergency) takes her pulse.  A far more alert young woman plays a harpsichord nearby while staring intently at the painting’s subject, watching to see if the music was having any effect.  No glow emanates from the foot warmer in the foreground, a symbol of the spent fires of melancholia.

To potentiate the musical medicine, Steen added a young male caller (the love antidote) who is welcomed in by a servant, and a jokester (the mirth remedy) dangling a fish behind the sick woman.44  A contemporary audience would have recognized allusions to other medical practices, and physicians would have enjoyed even more.45

[slide 26:  Copy after Jan Steen, Lady at a Clavichord (after 1661 or 1664, oil on canvas, 25¼ x 21¾ in [64.1 x 55.2 cm]).  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.]

The same artist, in Lady at a Clavichord (after 1661 or 1664–a copy of a lost original), explored again the role of music as a balm for melancholia associated with lovesickness, though this time the victim is a man.  Holding a less-than-half-full glass of wine, and supporting the weight of his head in that now familiar position, he looks longingly at the woman meeting his eyes as she turns the page of a score with one hand and rests the fingers of her other on the keys of a clavichord.  In the near background, another young man (or boy) reaches up to retrieve a lute from the wall, perhaps to hand the sufferer so he can respond to the songs of his love.

[slide 27:  Hugo van der Goes, Portrait of a Man (c. 1475, oil on wood, 12½ x 10¼ in [31.8 x 26 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.]
Hugo van der Goes, A Benedictine Monk (c. 1478, oil on wood, 9⅞ x 7⅜ in [25.1 x 18.7 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.]

Love’s painful longings pale in comparison with suicidal ideation, and it’s unknown just how effective was the “melody…played without restraint…[and] other recreative spectacles”46 in the face of Hugo van der Goes’s severe distress.  Ofhuys, amid his sermonizing about God’s compassionate nudge of the painter in the direction of more humility, describes how “[t]he brother, realizing this himself abased himself very much as soon as he regained his health, leaving the table at our refectory…and abjectly obtaining his meals with the laiety [sic].”47  In the end, the renowned converso relinquished his privileged position and probably ceased his entertainment of aristocratic admirers in refined quarters.

[slide 28:  Hugo van der Goes, Death of a Virgin (c. 1470–80, oil on panel, 4 × 4¾ ft [1.23 × 1.48 m]).  Groeningemuseum.  Bruges, Belgium.
Hugo van der Goes, Trinity Altarpiece (c. 1478-79, oil on panel, each panel: 6⅔ x 3¼ ft [2.02 x 1.01 m]).  National Galleries Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland.]

It’s uncertain whether Hugo painted again after the breakdown he suffered a couple of years before he died in 1482.  Writers have been unable to resist the temptation to retrospectively identify in his masterpieces indicators of a troubled personality.48  But that type of analysis belongs to the field of art not music therapy, a project for another time.
1 Gaspar Ofhuys, “Extract from Originale Cenobii Rubeevallis in Zonia Prope Bruxellam in Brabancia,” translated by William A. McCloy in “The Ofhuys Chronicle and Hugo van der Goes” (PhD diss., State University of Ohio, 1958), 20.
2 Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists: A Documented History from Antiquity to the French Revolution (New York, NY: Random House, 1963), 108.
3 Ibid., p. 109.
4 See for example: Peter Murray Jones, “Music Therapy in the Later Middle Ages: The Case of Hugo van der Goes” in Peregrine Horden, ed., Music as Medicine: The History of Music Therapy since Antiquity (Hants, England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2000), 120-144; Laurinda S. Dixon, The Dark Side of Genius: The Melancholic Persona in Art, ca. 1500-1700 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 2013), 121; and Wittkower,108-13.
5 Ofhuys in McCloy, 19-20.
6 Wittkower, 7.
7 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, translated by D. E. Eichholz (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann, 1949-54), Vol. 10, Book XXXIV, 14.
8 Anna Mazzanti, The Art of Florence in Its Great Museums (Florence, Italy: Scala, 1997), 97.
9 Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, translated by Julia Conaway and Peter Bondanella (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), 472.
10 Michael Doran, ed., Conversations with Cézanne, translated by Julie Lawrence Cochran (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2001), 20.
11 Wittkower, 4-5.
Wittkower, 98.
Ibid., 103.
14 Dixon, 14-15.
15 Ibid., 119.
16 Henry James, “The Middle Years,” Scribner’s Magazine 13:4 (April 1983), 620.
17 Ofhuys in McCloy, 22.
18 Ibid., 21.
19 Ibid., 16-17.
20 Ibid., 18.
21 Peter Murray Jones, “Music Therapy in the Later Middle Ages: The Case of Hugo van der Goes” in Peregrine Horden, ed., Music as Medicine (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publish Ltd., 2000), 123.
22 Ofhuys in McCloy, 20.
23  “I Samuel 17:23,” The Holy Bible, King James Version (New York: The World Publishing Co., n.d.), 216.
24 Martin West, “Music Therapy in Antiquity” in Music as Medicine, 51.
25 Ibid., 54.
26 Ibid., 54-55.
27 Ibid., 55.
28 Plato, Timaeus, 47d, quoted in West, “Music Therapy in Antiquity,” 58.
29 West, “Music Therapy in Antiquity” in Music as Medicine, 59-66.
30 Peregrine Horden, “Commentary on Part II, with a Note on the Early Middle Ages,” in Music as Medicine, 104.
31 Angela Voss, “Marsilio Ficino, the Second Orpheus,” in Music as Medicine, 156.
32 Ibid., 161.
33 Ofhuys in McCloy, 20.
34 Dixon, The Dark Side of Genius, 143-178.
35  Ibid., 3.
36 Robert Burton quoted in Dixon, The Dark Side of Genius, 148.
37 Dixon, The Dark Side of Genius, 152.
38 Ibid., 154 and 156.
39 Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York, NY: Penguin Group Inc., 2006), 4.
40 Ibid., 187.
41 Laurinda S. Dixon, “Together in Misery: Medical Meaning and Sexual Politics in Two Paintings by Jan Steen” in Jane L. Carroll and Alison G. Stewart, eds., Saints, Sinners, and Sisters: Gender and Northern Art in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2003), 250-51.
42 Ibid., 250.
43 Ibid., 246.
44 Ibid., 256.
45 Ibid., 249.
46 Ofhuys in McCloy, 20.
47 Ibid., 23.
48 Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character, Volume I (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), 330-343.  He identifies “somber pathos” as “the very signature of Hugo’s genius.” (342); McCloy sees the 1902 attribution of The Death of the Virgin to van der Goes as inevitable. (115).


Art Review: “Young Husband, First Marketing” by Lilly Martin Spencer

Print This Post Print This Post

December 28th, 2014

Lilly Martin Spencer
Playfully Paints
Her Husband’s Travails

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½  x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½ x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

In the newly appointed American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, entering gallery 758 one encounters a rectangular painting of modest size (a couple of feet wide by a little more than that tall) in a gilded frame with ornate corners and a similarly colored plaque that announces in black lettering the subject (Young Husband, First Marketing) and artist (Lilly Martin Spencer), and includes dates that seem to indicate the maker’s life span (1822 and 1902).

In the vertical center of this oil-on-canvas composition, a man clutches in his right hand a folded black umbrella, while with his other hand he grabs the far side (from him) of a wicker basket and one of the legs of a chicken carcass attempting to escape from it. Roped to the feet of that fowl another one has already broken free and dangles head first in front, and to the proper left, of the burden bearer at an angle reflecting that of the right leg the man has raised so that his knee might function as a platform–albeit an unsteady one–to support this cornucopia of foodstuff in danger of toppling over.

On the glistening ground to his right, a bunch of carrots straddles some stalks of rhubarb, the collective leaves of which abut a splayed head of lettuce on which two cracked eggs spill out their contents. Close by, a lone tomato has come to rest on the center of the lower border of the painting, below the shoe heel of the man wrestling for control of his charges.

Light directs the eye to the man’s neatly bearded face with its furrowed, knitted brow capping lowered lids and eyes that gaze down at the vegetables on the ground. Lest anyone miss the ongoing drama of the basket contents, the artist has reserved the brightest painted value for the white eggs participating in it. Keeping them company are a bunch of asparagus, three tomatoes, an orange gourd, a pineapple, some greens, a cut of meat and the aforementioned dead chicken. Only a small portion (perhaps a third) of the basket’s lid rests on those contents, effectively revealing them as it slips back and to the proper right of the protagonist.

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½  x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½ x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This struggling man is dressed in black top coat, dark brown pants and stack-heeled black shoes with buttoned grey spats. Under his coat, he has piled on several layers of clothing, including something black (perhaps a sweater) fastened just under his white collar, and a maroon vest. On his head he sports a squat, brimmed hat.

To his proper right and a few steps behind him, another even more carefully bearded man strides toward the left edge of the painting, elegantly attired in black top hat, leather gloves, brown coat, black pants, similarly styled shoes, black vest with a row of light paint spots crossing his vest (perhaps a gold chain for a pocket watch), and a light-colored shirt with two small areas of dark paint near the collar that might be a bow tie. He holds over his head a large open umbrella and leans forward while turning his head toward the painting’s center of interest. His eyes on the basket, this striding man’s upturned mouth corners, bared upper teeth, puffed out left cheek that catches the only high-value light falling on him, all indicate the action of the zygomatic muscle pulling his expression into a smile.

In the far background, two other figures walk toward each other in front of a wall covered with posters. The one to the left of the two foregrounded men, a woman, lifts up her heavy-cloth brown skirt and lacy petticoat to reveal legs clad in white hose and black shoes. A dark-turquoise-and-rust-colored scarf covers her head, and a waist-length reddish-brown jacket of thick material protects her upper body. The umbrella she holds open over her head runs parallel to the one held by the striding man, pairing her with him in the same way as does the turn of her head toward the man with the basket. Her sufficiently lighted face with its open eyes, upturned lip corners and puffed cheek echoes, too, that other onlooker’s amusement.

The other background figure, a man (more sketchily rendered), walks onto the scene from the right, leaning forward at an angle parallel to that of the uselessly folded umbrella gripped by the man with the tilting basket. Carrying a pail on his left arm, this ruggedly dressed character steadies it with his right, far more successful in this task than his counterpart up front. Although similarly not protected by an umbrella, he wears a tall, wrinkled hat with a brim ample enough to shade his eyes, and wide-cuffed boots that reach almost to his knees.

The curb of the sidewalk on which they walk forms the horizontal midline of the composition. Green-crowned trees of differing heights rise up behind the wall that runs along the length of this sidewalk, turning a corner on the far left and ending at that edge of the canvas.

Behind the foliage, several structures comprise an urban skyline, all vaguely indicated except for the one seen in the space between the open umbrella of the dapper strider and the hat of the man with the basket. On the roof of that more well-defined, light-grey house sit several reddish-brown chimneys. Across its face, two rows of windows are visible, each window framed by sills and flanking shutters.

The painting has an overall warm, brown tone, punctuated by the red of the tomatoes, white and orange of the cracked eggs, and white, red and green of the basket contents. Highlights on the face and hands of the foremost figure, on the butt of the hanging chicken carcass and on the cheek of the striding man provide additional areas of contrast.

Splashes of low-value highlights on the cobblestone street and stone-slab sidewalk create the impression of moisture. Resembling water stains on the four-stepped stoop that occupies half of the lower right quadrant, a brown wash trickles over thicker light-brown paint. The grey-green trees, turquoise of the woman’s scarf, green of a row of grass growing along the base of the wall and of some of the produce, all combine to complement the reddish-brown elements in the rest of the painting.

Time and the environment have affected the painting’s surface. The hanging chicken’s head, neck and upper body have become transparent, revealing the sidewalk and cobblestones behind it, and the basket’s handle has practically disappeared. Craquelure has developed in the lightest areas of the sidewalk, helpfully in the broken eggs on the ground but also in the basketed ones, and throughout the rest of the painting, including in the darks. There are two prominent areas of concentric cracks, one between the lifted right foot of the man balancing the basket and the forward foot of the man walking behind him, and the other at the right shoulder of the latter.

The bright light that falls on the protagonist conflicts with the many cues that this beleaguered man is caught in a windy downpour, unable to open his umbrella because of an uncooperative basket of provisions. Yet that doesn’t detract from the whimsical way in which Spencer has successfully poked fun at a young husband grappling with the challenges of his new role.