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Blog Category: Features

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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December 5, 2014

Surface beauty: neoclassicism and Napoleon’s scandalous sister

Antonio Canova, Pauline Bonaparte Borghese as Venus Victrix; detail of figure, Galleria Borghese. Image and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.artres.com, scalarchives.com, (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence / ART RESOURCE

Antonio Canova, Pauline Bonaparte Borghese as Venus Victrix; detail of figure, Galleria Borghese. Image and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.artres.com, scalarchives.com, (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence / ART RESOURCE

Antonio Canova began working on Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix in 1805, the same year that Pope Pius VII appointed him Inspector General of Fine Arts and Antiquities for the Papal State. By this point, Canova’s reliance upon classical sources, idealized perfection of the forms, fluidity of line, graceful modeling, and exquisitely refined detail had solidly established his reputation as the preeminent sculptor in Europe.

Venus Victrix is an outstanding example of the neoclassical style, which was influenced by the archeological discoveries in Pompeii and Herculaneum and considered the works of the Greeks and Romans to be the pinnacle of artistic achievements. The life-sized reclining nude exemplifies Canova’s superlative technique; the modelling of the form is both idealized and extraordinarily realistic, while Canova’s treatment of the surface of the marble captures the soft texture of skin. This luster was enhanced through a patina of wax and acqua di rota, and it was once set upon a rotating mechanism, which allowed the static viewer to observe it from all angles.

Yet the sculpture’s owner, Prince Camillo Borghese, refused to allow the sculpture to be displayed and would only show it to close acquaintances by torchlight. How did this come to happen?

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October 30, 2014

Unwinding mummies

Mummy of Ukhhotep, Middle Kingdom

Egypt, Mummy of Ukhhotep, Middle Kingdom, ca. 1981-1802 B.C. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Come tomorrow evening, droves of miniature monsters will haunt our neighborhoods, jack-o-lantern-shaped candy bowls in tow. Amongst the groups of trick-or-treaters, though, one spooky creature will likely be absent: the mummy, which, despite being the star of many a horror film, never seems to be a Halloween costume favorite.

My guess as to why the mummy costume has never attained the cult status of, for example, the ghost is a purely pragmatic one. Dressing up as a mummy is a difficult task; cutting eyeholes into a white sheet is pretty straightforward. This is a fact that my own failed childhood attempt at dressing up as a mummy—which ended in my mother watching the rolls of gauze bandages she had dutifully wrapped around me immediately unravel—confirms.

An Egyptologist, however, might answer this question differently. For though the mummy of horror cinema is unrestful and vengeful, rising from the tomb to wreak havoc upon the living, in reality mummification was nothing more than a sophisticated burial ritual, meant to help lead the deceased to a peaceful afterlife.

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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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September 11, 2014

The many faces of Helen of Troy

Gavin Hamilton, Venus Presenting Helen to Paris, Museo di Roma. Image and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.;www.artres.com; scalarchives.com, Rights (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence / ART RESOURCE, N.Y.

Gavin Hamilton, Venus Presenting Helen to Paris, Museo di Roma. Image and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.; www.artres.com; scalarchives.com, Rights (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence / ART RESOURCE, N.Y.

“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?”

So asks the title character in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus upon seeing the radiant ghost of Helen of Troy. Marlowe was not the only artist to be captivated by Helen and her fabled beauty. Indeed, for millennia, painters, sculptors, poets and playwrights have been inspired by her story.

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August 19, 2014

Capital Gate: The Leaning Tower of Abu Dhabi

Often, it is the unconventional details that lend a building its sense of character. This is certainly true of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a monument striking for its tilt of approximately 4 degrees.

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Bonanno Pisano, Campanile (Leaning Tower), exterior, 1174-1350, Pisa, Italy. (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence / ART RESOURCE, N.Y., artres.com, scalarchives.com

The tilt was even more pronounced before modern efforts at stabilization began, and by some accounts has reached 8-10 degrees in past centuries. But while stabilizing the tower has been important to its physical preservation, it may have negatively affected the church’s historical legacy. Since the Leaning Tower of Pisa was straightened out, several other buildings–mainly in Germany and Switzerland–have been vying for the slanted spotlight, as was humorously reported by the New York Times in 2012.

However, no attempt at dethroning Pisa as home to the farthest leaning building has been as bold as that of Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. Starting in 2007, the city began work on the Capital Gate, which rises at an 18-degree westward lean–more than four times that of the Leaning Tower of Pisa–along the city’s waterfront.

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July 17, 2014

Après la Bastille: the changing fortunes of Marie Antoinette

On July 14, we celebrated the storming of the Bastille, the momentous day in 1789 that marked the beginning of the French Revolution, and the beginning of the end of the monarchy.

While it is a day revered by the citoyens of France, it has come to symbolize the declining fortunes of the king and his once celebrated and later reviled wife, Marie Antoinette.

Anonymous French printmaker | Coiffure of Independence or The Triumph of Liberty | c. 1778 | Musée national de la coopération franco-américaine

Anonymous French printmaker | Coiffure of Independence or The Triumph of Liberty | c. 1778 | Musée national de la coopération franco-américaine | Photographer: Gérard Blot. Image and original data provided by Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, N.Y. artres.com

History has revised the narrative of the Queen whose apocryphal utterance “let them eat cake” allegedly flaunted her disregard for her starving subjects.

Beginning with the nineteenth-century biography by the Goncourt brothers, and the insightful study of Zweig (1932), and culminating in recent portrayals, notably Coppola’s film of 2006, and Thomas’ chronicle of Marie Antoinette’s final days, Farewell, My Queen (published in 2003 and released as a film in 2012), characterizations of the monarch have softened and become more nuanced.

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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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May 29, 2014

Reginald Marsh’s Coney Island

Reginald Marsh, Wonderland Circus, Sideshow Coney Island, 1930, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida, a division of Florida State University. © 2008 Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Reginald Marsh, Wonderland Circus, Sideshow Coney Island, 1930, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida, a division of Florida State University. © 2008 Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

When the weather starts getting unbearable New Yorkers—Artstor staff included—flock to the boardwalks of Brooklyn’s Coney Island or Rockaway Beach in Queens.

This ritual is nothing new and was, in fact, one of the pet subjects of Reginald Marsh (1898 –1954), an American artist famous for his paintings of New York City in the ’20s and ’30s. His city scenes are remarkable for their palpable sense of movement—bodies walk or loiter on street corners, crowds swell as New York’s lights pulsate and glow in the background.

That Marsh’s canvases seem to vibrate is due not only to his staccato brush strokes and bright, reflective colors, but also to his choice of subject matter. Rather than portray New York City’s elite, Marsh turned to everyday people and entertainments. Favorite subjects included burlesque and Vaudeville performers, pedestrians and, yes, public beaches.

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May 28, 2014

Finding the phenomenal women in fine art

“It’s in the reach of my arms, / The span of my hips, / The stride of my step, / The curl of my lips. / I’m a woman/ Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman, / That’s me.”

– Maya Angelou

Mickalene Thomas, Don't Forget About Me (Keri), 2009, exhibited at Lehmann Maupin, Spring 2009. Image and original data provided by Larry Qualls, © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / BILDKUNST, Bonn

Mickalene Thomas, Don’t Forget About Me (Keri), 2009, exhibited at Lehmann Maupin, Spring 2009. Image and original data provided by Larry Qualls, © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / BILDKUNST, Bonn

Women have long been used as inspiration for art. They have served as muses to both eastern and western culture, and our bodies have been used to represent the power and beauty of nature.

Yet the images of the female body that we see on a daily basis are often passive and hyper-sexualized. Women’s bodies are the go-to sales tactic in popular media and advertising. Yes, you might say, sex sells, but nothings sells as much as our sex sells. Women’s bodies sell beer, cars, perfume, burgers, chewing gum, and even animals rights (yes, you read that correctly – look up PETA’s campaigns) — and of course, the object that all of the women in these advertisements are ultimately selling is themselves.

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