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Blog Category: Features

March 4, 2019

What’s in the box? The art of reliquaries

A gilt-silver reliquary with translucent enamel decoration.

Attributed to Jean de Touyl. Reliquary Shrine from the convent of the Poor Clares at Buda. ca. 1325-50. Image and data courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Cloisters Collection.

Relics—bits of bone, clothing, shoes or dust—from Christian martyrs became popular in Western Christianity in the Middle Ages. The cult of relics dates back to the second and third centuries, when martyrs were persecuted and often killed in ways that fragmented the body, which was taboo in Roman society. The intention was to desecrate the body through execution and burning. But, Caroline Walker Bynum and Paula Gerson state that by the “late third to early fourth centuries the fragments of the martyrs had come to be revered as loci of power and special access to the divine” and, by the Second Council of Nicea in 787, relics were required for the consecration of altars.

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February 25, 2019

Walking the red carpet through history: fashion in Artstor

A dress made of beads is displayed on a mannequin.
Beadnet dress. Egyptian. c 2551-2528 BC. Image © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
A painted wooden figure of a woman.
Estate Figure. Egyptian. c. 1981-1975 BC. Image and data courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A peach colored evening dress decorated with rhinestones and a black waist tie.
Norman Norell. Evening dress. c. 1963. Image and original data from the Brooklyn Museum. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A Roman caryatid.
Caryatid of the Canopus. Roman. c. 420 - 413 BCE. Image and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.
A white gathered evening dress displayed on a mannequin.
Madame Alix Grès. Evening dress. 1937. Image and original data from the Brooklyn Museum. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It may come as a surprise that the Artstor Digital Library is flush with fashion. For a dose of glamour, how about a stroll down the red carpet, exploring designs through the ages?

Let’s begin with the ancients: In early dynastic Egypt, the beadnet sheath dress is often depicted in paintings and statuary. A faience (sintered-quartz ceramic) dress from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, reconstructed from thousands of beads found in a burial site, is our oldest surviving example from approximately 2551–2528 BC (this particular garment was used to dress a mummy). In life, these decorative nets were probably worn over plain linen sheaths, giving an effect that approximates the elegant lines of a deftly carved offering figure from the tomb of Meketre (c. 1981-1975 BCE). A similar silhouette is achieved five millenia later in an evening gown by the pioneering American designer Norman Norell through the layering of a peach satin under slip and black rhinestone beaded netting (c. 1963).

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January 31, 2019

Picturing the Little Ice Age

Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Return of the Hunters. 1565. Oil on oak panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna. Image and data provided by Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives/ART RESOURCE, N.Y. Photo Erich Lessing.

In the summer of 1675, Madame de Sévigné, a doyenne of letters, protested from Paris: “It is horribly cold… we think the behaviour of the sun and of the seasons has changed,” prescient witness to the phenomenon now referred to as the Little Ice Age. Over the last century, scientists and historians have gathered evidence of a prolonged period of global climatic volatility from the thirteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, culminating in a cooling trend in Northern Europe during the 1600s — frigid winters and wet, cold summers. As we bear our share of winter hardships, it might be comforting to gain some historical and pictorial perspective on the polar vortex.

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November 19, 2018

The art of plenty: in praise of still life painting

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Bartolomeo Bimbi. Pears. 1699. Oil on canvas. Villa Medicea. Image and data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.

Every year the subject of food rises in our thoughts and comes into greater and more glorious focus as we are swept up in a wave of planning, preparation, and consumption for the holidays. In anticipation and celebration of our sumptuous banquets and stolen treats, Artstor offers a feast of foodie still lifes. Think of this selection as an appetizer: with heaping mounds of fruit, Bartolomeo Bimbi’s monumental Pears (1699) heralds the abundant extreme of the genre.

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October 17, 2018

The strange fates of pillaged mummies

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Mummy of Ukhhotep, Egypt. Detail. c.1981-1802 B.C.E. Wood, cartonnage, paint, linen, human remains, obsidian, gold, alabaster. Image and data provided by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In an 1898 article for Scientific American, a chemist describes his process for working with a powdered material that smelled of myrrh and meat extract:

On heating the powder turns dark brown black, with a pleasant, resin-like odor of incense and myrrh, then throws out vapors with an odor of asphaltum; it leaves a black glossy coal which leaves behind when burnt 17 percent of ash with a strongly alkaline reaction, evolving plenty of carbonic acid when sprinkled with acids. In the closed tube vapors of acid reaction are obtained. With hot water a yellow brown solution of neutral reaction is obtained which smells like glue and extract of meat when inspissated…”

The powder in question was in fact the ground desiccated corpse of an ancient Egyptian, heated for the purpose of creating commercially-produced oil paint. Shocked? Let us treat you to a short history of the many strange fates of pillaged mummies between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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November 29, 2017

A brief history of Majolica

George Jones. “Punch” Bowl. 1870-1880. Image and original data provided by Majolica International Society.

“Majolica” is the word used to denote the brightly colored, low-fired earthenware commercially introduced by the Minton Company at the 1851 London Exhibition of All Nations. This was in accordance with Herbert Minton’s long-held desire to capture the market of the newly emergent Middle Class. Majolica, a Victorian phenomenon, was a huge success at the Crystal Palace and soon became a worldwide fad, with factories on three continents and Australia to satisfy the buying craze it had inspired. Deborah English, Librarian, The Marilyn Karmason Majolica Reference Library of the Majolica International Society (MIS), has provided a history of the wares to celebrate the addition of the MIS collection to the Artstor Digital Library.

Staffordshire potters first developed lead glazes of green and brown in the 18th Century, but it was not until Herbert Minton of Stoke-on-Trent brought the French chemist Leon Arnoux to England, that more vibrant colors began to appear. This was possible, thanks to Mr. Arnoux’s previous work with the sumptuous porcelain glazes of Sèvres. Mr. Arnoux also persuaded several prominent French sculptors to join him at Minton, including A.E. Carrier-Belleuse, Paul Comolera, and Pierre Emile Jeannest. They joined the already formidable staff that Mr. Minton had built, including Alfred Lord Stevens, Baron Carlo Marochetti, John Bell, A.W.N. Pugin, and others. Mr. Minton formally introduced his new ware at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, even though English potters and English-born potters in the USA had been working on the formulas for some time. Arnoux’s saturated colors were the radical boost the new material needed. It soon happened that an astonishing number of forms evolved, sometimes in bizarre combinations.

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August 22, 2017

The bourgeois pup: artists and dogs in the 19th-century home

Mary Cassatt. Little Girl in a Blue Armchair. 1878. The National Gallery of Art

Mary Cassatt. Little Girl in a Blue Armchair. 1878. The National Gallery of Art

From the wild wolves of our ancestors to today’s lap dogs, canines have played an important role in the lives of humans. They helped hunters find food, they served as entertainment, and they provided emotional support. And they were artist’s models. Art history is filled with works featuring the image of a dog. The Native Americans had vessels shaped into dog form, medieval manuscripts featured dogs, and numerous Renaissance paintings feature a rogue dog or two.

Echoing many other aspects of France in the 19th century, including fashion and interior design, dogs became customizable as well, and at times were imported from other countries. And at the same time as dogs entered the home, so did artists: bourgeois and modern life became the subject of art as the number of domesticated dogs and breeds grew.

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July 26, 2017

Watson and the Shark: “a most usefull Lesson to Youth”

John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778. Image: Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington

John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778. Image: Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington

On a warm day in 1749, 14-year-old Brook Watson dove into Havana Harbor for a swim. As he floated surrounded by merchant ships, a shark sank its teeth into his leg, pulling him beneath the waves in a vicious, sustained attack that severed his right foot. Bleeding and helpless, he struggled to stay above water as a group of sailors maneuvered a small skiff into position and pulled him from the toothy Behemoth’s mouth. His leg would have to be amputated at the knee, but he survived his ordeal. Nearly thirty years after the incident, John Singleton Copley historicized Watson’s attack in the monumental painting Watson and the Shark.

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July 20, 2017

Persuasive Cartography: collector’s choice

South America: the Land of Opportunity. A Continent of Scenic Wonders. A Paradise for the Tourist. General Information for Travelers, Detail. Lamport & Holt Line. 1912. Persuasive Maps: PJ Mode Collection

South America: the Land of Opportunity. A Continent of Scenic Wonders. A Paradise for the Tourist. General Information for Travelers, Detail. Lamport & Holt Line. 1912. Persuasive Maps: PJ Mode Collection

Persuasive Cartography: The PJ Mode Collection is a physical and digital open access collection of maps donated to Cornell University Library’s Rare and Manuscript Collections. This collection brings together maps from many eras from all over the world to explore their power as visual messengers. 

Following up on our interview in which he shares the origin of the collection, collector and donor PJ Mode shares a selection of his favorite pieces.

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July 7, 2017

The enduring significance of Harriet Powers’ quilts

Harriet Powers. Pictorial quilt. 1895-98. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Harriet Powers. Pictorial quilt. 1895-98. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

When the second wave feminist movement in the 1970s brought domestic art into the discussion of art history, textiles became a central topic. This led to the rediscovery of Harriet Powers, whose two surviving quilts currently hang in the Smithsonian and in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Powers, born a slave in Georgia in 1837, created the quilts after she was emancipated. She made use of appliqué techniques and storytelling often found in the textiles of Western Africa. While these textiles had typically been created by men, once the tradition was picked up in the United States women became the primary creators.

Powers became significant in academic circles more than half a century after her death as an exemplar of the influence and power of women’s domestic art and art inspired by traditions outside the Western canon, showing not only this type of art’s historical purpose and importance but its aesthetic influence and significance.

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