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July 17, 2019

Dostoevsky and the challenge of Hans Holbein’s Dead Christ

Vasily Perov. Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1872.

Vasily Perov. Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky. 1872. Image and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y., artres.com, scalarchives.com

In August 1867, shortly after Fyodor Dostoevsky married his stenographer Anna Snitkina, the couple headed to Geneva. As much as a honeymoon, they were also fleeing family tensions and hounding by Fyodor’s many creditors. On the way, the newlyweds stopped in Basel for a day and visited its museum. It was there that the famed writer of Crime and Punishment had an unsettling encounter with an artwork that would soon appear in one of his most esteemed novels.

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October 18, 2018

A guide to Medieval creepy crawlers

…and how to protect yourself from them

While there were a lot of delightful beliefs about animals in the Middle Ages (our favorite: hedgehogs roll on grapes to spear them on their spines so they can take them home to their young), this Halloween season we’re focusing on the creepiest creatures of all: reptiles! Not to worry, we’ll also tell you what to do to stay safe from them.

Our source for this guide is Richard Barber’s translation of the Bodleian Library’s MS Bodley 764, a mid-thirteenth century bestiary, so don’t be too surprised if the descriptions deviate just a tad from contemporary herpetology.

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Bestiary. Folio #: fol. 160r, 12th century. Image and original data provided by the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Let’s start with plain old snakes. We bet you didn’t know that snakes are frightened by naked men, but attack clothed ones. Unfortunately our source doesn’t specify how snakes respond to women (the thirteenth century not being the most progressive of centuries), so your best bet is to keep a stag nearby, as they can handily deal with bothersome serpents.

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July 6, 2016

Benvenuto Cellini and the world’s most spectacular salt cellar

Benvenuto Cellini; Saliera (salt cellar), 1540-1543

Benvenuto Cellini; Saliera (salt cellar), 1540-1543; Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. Image and original data provided by Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.; artres.com

Sculptor Benvenuto Cellini is best remembered for two things: his bombastic autobiography, the Vita, in which he confesses to multiple murders and a spectacular jailbreak, and for his salt cellar. Yes, that’s right—a dish for salt.

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March 21, 2016

Three classical myths to keep you awake

If you’re still trying to adjust to the start of Daylight Saving Time, we’d like to give you a little bit of advice: don’t let the mythological gods of Greece and Rome catch you napping. Seeing mortals sleeping seems to bring out the worst in them.

Here are three of the most notorious examples:

Endymion and Selene

Depending on whom you ask, Zeus either offered the beautiful shepherd Endymion a wish and Endymion chose to sleep and remain youthful forever, or the eternal sleep wasn’t a gift at all, but rather a punishment because Endymion had attempted to seduce Zeus’ wife, Hera.

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January 20, 2016

Diego Rivera: the artist through his own eyes

Frida Kahlo is world-famous for her self-portraits, which were a big part of her relatively small oeuvre (55 out of 144 paintings), while her husband Diego Rivera, despite producing much more work than Kahlo, only painted himself approximately 20 times. Why is that?

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June 3, 2015

The other Turner

William Turner of Oxford, Shepherd Boy on a Hillside, ca. 1840. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

William Turner of Oxford, Shepherd Boy on a Hillside, ca. 1840. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

He was only eighteen years old, yet William Turner’s watercolors were already praised in print as follows: “By dint of his superior art he has rolled such clouds over these landscapes as has given to a flat country an equal grandeur with mountain scenery, while they fully account for the striking and natural effects of light and shade which he has introduced.” The critic John Ruskin would also become a big supporter in the artist’s later years.

How could they not admire those rolling landscapes, the colorful skies! No wonder Turner’s considered a precursor to the Impressionists! Oh wait—wrong William Turner.

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May 4, 2015

No longer scandalous: Manet in America

Éduard Manet, The Execution of Maximilian, ca. 1867-8. Photograph: ©The National Gallery, London

Éduard Manet, The Execution of Maximilian, ca. 1867-8. Photograph: © The National Gallery, London

Édouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass was the scandal of the year in France when it was exhibited in the 1863 Salon des Refusés, and Olympia was greeted with the same shock and indignation in the Paris Salon of 1865 (a journalist wrote, “If the canvas of the Olympia was not destroyed, it is only because of the precautions that were taken by the administration”). So selling tickets to show a new painting in America that was too controversial for France seemed a surefire way to get attention—and perhaps make a little money.

From 1867 to 1869, Édouard Manet had made some works depicting the execution of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico in 1867. But considering that Maximilian’s empire had collapsed after Napoleon III withdrew his support, it was not prudent to exhibit them in France while Napoleon remained in power.

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December 8, 2014

The travels and travails of the Mona Lisa

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Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, 1503-1506, Musée du Louvre. Image and original data provided by Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.; artres.com

In 2012, 150,000 people signed a petition asking the Louvre to return Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to its “home city” of Florence, Italy. Not surprisingly, the Louvre declined. The Mona Lisa has done its share of traveling in the past 500 years, and more often than not it has proven nerve racking.

Before we get to the travel stories, let’s look at Florence’s claim. Leonardo da Vinci did start painting the Mona Lisa in 1503 or 1504 in the Italian city, but in 1516 he was invited by King François I to work in France, and scholars believe he finished the painting there, and there it has remained. After Leonardo’s death, the king bought the Mona Lisa and exhibited it at the Palace of Fontainebleau, its home for more than 100 years, until Louis XIV took it to the Palace of Versailles.

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September 29, 2014

Goya’s Los Caprichos: A magnificent failure

It wasn’t a particularly auspicious start. On February 6, 1799, an announcement appeared on the front page of the Diario de Madrid advertising Los Caprichos:

A series of prints of whimsical subjects, invented and etched by Don Francisco Goya. The artist, persuaded that the censure of human errors and vices—though it seems to belong properly to oratory and poetry—may also be the object of painting, has chosen as appropriate subjects for his work, among the multitude of extravagances and follies which are common throughout civilized society, and among vulgar prejudices and frauds rooted in custom, ignorance, or interest, those which he has believed to be most apt to provide an occasion for ridicule and at the same time to exercise his imagination.[1]

The advertisement goes on to assure potential collectors that the subjects of the prints are imaginary and that “in none of the compositions constituting this series has the artist proposed to ridicule the particular defects of this or that individual…”

It closes with the address where the prints can be bought—the ironically named No. 1 Calle del Desengaño, or Street of Disillusion #1—and the price: 320 reales for the set, the equivalent of one ounce of gold. The unusual venue, a perfume and liquor store near Goya’s apartment, was the result of the artist not being able to find a regular bookshop to handle the sale, according to Goya biographer Robert Hughes.

The venture was a resounding failure. Only 27 sets of the edition of 300 sold, and Goya withdrew Los Caprichos from public sale shortly after their release, afraid of falling foul of the Inquisition. It was a substantial monetary loss for the artist.

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June 26, 2014

The Museum of Natural History in The Catcher in the Rye

Visitors viewing display cases and Bird Dome, Hall of the Birds of the World, 1927, American Museum of Natural History, Photographer: H. S. Rice. Image and original data provided by Library, American Museum of Natural History

Visitors viewing display cases and Bird Dome, Hall of the Birds of the World, 1927, American Museum of Natural History, Photographer: H. S. Rice. Image and original data provided by Library, American Museum of Natural History

Visiting the Museum of Natural History was high on my list of priorities on my first trip to New York City. This was in big part due to its mention in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye—even if, to be honest, I didn’t quite remember the role it played in the book.

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