Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, or simply Rembrandt – needs no introduction. He reigns supreme in the world of art with masterpieces like The Night Watch (1642), The Return of the Prodigal Son (1667), and the infamous, and sadly still missing, Christ in theStorm on the Sea of Galilee (1633).
Born on this day – July 15, 1606 – in Leiden, Netherlands, Rembrandt was a prolific artist who, in addition to the masterpieces, painted over 80 self-portraits throughout his life. He plays with light and darkness on his face, he plays dress-up as in The Apostle Paul, he captures raw emotion and drama on his face, he documents his fames and fortunes over time – from a cocky young man with the unblemished smooth face of a young man, to a famous and confident middle-aged artist, and then again as a bankrupt and tragic artist with a face that captures the passage of time – it’s all there in his self-portraits – a lifetime captured on canvas with technical brilliance and ruthless honesty. Not repeated perhaps in that prolificity until the selfie generation of the 21st century came along.
Rembrandt elevated selfies to an art form in the 17th Century and continues to dignify the relentless and dedicated selfie generation of the 21st. So here’s wishing the king of selfies a Happy 415th!!
On this day in 1497, almost 525 years ago, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama (1460 – 1524) set sail from Lisbon, and after what must have been a grueling journey of 316 days, landed in Calicut, India in May 1498. With this, he changed the course of history.
Many western explorers and conquerors had been to India, among them, and perhaps the most famous, was Alexander the Great in 326 BCE who came via the treacherous Khyber Pass. Vasco da Gama, however, was the first to discover a new sea route from Europe to India, the first European to land in the South Indian port city of Calicut, and the first to open India permanently to colonization by the west. With all the wealth his first voyage created for the King of Portugal, he was sent back two more times – though he did not return the third time. He died in Calicut in 1524. The Portuguese, however, did not leave India until December 1961 – over 4 centuries after Vasco da Gama first set foot in India.
Portuguese Goa still has over 15000 Portuguese speakers, last names like Souza and Mascharenas, large Catholic community, and its landscape is dotted with centuries old Portuguese mansions, churches, and forts.
One of Goa’s most famous artists, and founder of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, Francis Newton Souza (1924 – 2002) captured the beauty and simplicity of Portuguese Goa in these soulful and beautiful works from the 1940s and 50s.
Vasco da Gama’s long trip has left an even longer shadow and a deep footprint in this coastal part of India.
Apparently today is National Pink Day – I had no idea that there was such a thing but when I started thinking about it the first artist that came to mind – interestingly enough – was Picasso and his Rose Period. Picasso’s Rose Period where he used cheerful pinks and oranges in his paintings lasted from 1904 to 1906 was a happy – or rather contemplative – period that followed his somber Blue Period (1901 – 1904).
During the Pink Period, Picasso painted a lot of harlequins and clowns in his works which was more a function of where he was painting at the Montmartre with the circus close by which would have provided him with enough material to capture in his pictures. Most of these have muted but cheerful pink and orangey colors – almost as if he was done mourning and now was the time to move on from the blue period of his life. The images of the people he captured during the Rose Period invite contemplation – he has captured them off duty – when the clowning around and entertaining has stopped and they take a pause – we see lonely human beings in isolated settings.
The works still hover somewhere between classical and abstract. It’s almost as if these works provided the segue into the abstract expressionism and cubism that he moved on to for the remainder of his life. One can almost see the path from the geometric patterns on the harlequin’s clothes and on the clown hats to the geometric shapes in which he rendered human figures in the not too distant future.
And let’s not forget the monumental – and of course pink – Les Demoiselles d’Avignion (1907) which came soon after the end of the Rose Period – women at a brothel in Barcelona. This painting –where the women’s faces are influenced by structured African masks – signifies a watershed moment in Picasso’s life. He is on the cusp of abstract expressionism and cubism. The geometric shaped human forms start to emerge – the first evidence of the completely cubist pictures that were soon to follow.
The right to light – what a fascinating concept. This right was passed into law in England in 1663 and stated that if a property owner has enjoyed light coming in through a window in the building for a period of twenty years, then their neighbor cannot build a taller house or wall, plant a tree, or do anything to diminish the amount of light that enters their property through that window. This law seems unique to England and was sadly not accepted in the US as it would hinder commercial and residential development. I can imagine the peace of mind that people living in these old buildings get from knowing that no new construction can block the light that comes in through those ancient windows.
In some of the older neighborhoods in London, windows bear an “Ancient Lights” sign next to them – which indicates, and lets the neighbors know, that they are protected by the Ancient Lights law.
And no one captured this glorious light that enters a room through ancient windows and illuminates everything in its path better than Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675). In many of his paintings, he captures everyday domestic tasks that happen at different hours of the day in this natural light.
The soft morning light is diffused over silken curtains as a woman reads a letter, it guides the milkmaid as she pours milk from her pitcher, the strong mid-day sun adds to the beauty of the woman as she flirts with the man in the dark hat, it lights up the globe for the cartographer as he examines the finer details in his maps, and illuminates the balance beam as the lady ponders her material and spiritual wealth.
Light is the main event in each of these works, and the reason why hundreds of years later we can’t get enough of Vermeer.
Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha, responsible for a number of the brutalism inspired buildings in Brazil, died at the age of 92 earlier this week. He was part of the iconic generation of modern Brazilian architects from the Paulista School whose open and airy buildings made of poured concrete dot the urban landscape of Brazil. Because of his contribution to the architecture of Brazil, he was awarded the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2006.
When I think of flowers at home in vases, the first ones that come to mind are long peach gladioli. These beautiful flowers -which come in many more colors and share a name origin with Roman gladiators – are named after the Latin word “gladius” or little sword due to their shape. The flowers were named by Roman naturalist and author of Naturalis Historia, Gaius Plinius Secundus aka Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD).
The Dutch have a saying – there’s always a Dutch saying I’m coming to realize – “de dood of de gladiolen,’” meaning “death or the gladiolus,” which basically means “all or nothing” – where the “all” is the gladiolus. The saying alludes to the Roman custom of throwing gladioli at victorious gladiators in the amphitheaters. It’s interesting that they were throwing gladiolus at the gladiators because I have also read that these flowers (from Asia and Africa) were not grown in Europe until the 18th Century – I can’t imagine how the Roman public had that many imported – and expensive- gladiolus to throw into the amphitheater.
They are my mom’s favorite flowers and since Mother’s Day was last weekend, I decided to write about them. The flowers symbolize honor, remembrance, strength of character, never giving up, and infatuation. The Victorians used these flowers to express their feelings when they themselves could not speak of them – again that’s a lot of imported flowers especially considering how shy the Victorians were about expressing any kind of feeling. Interestingly, “gladiolus” was the 1925 Spelling Bee word that the champion spelled correctly to win the tournament.
In 1835, Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848) started working on his five series work titled, “The Course of Empire,” in which he outlined the history of man – from nomadic times to a civilized state which ultimately led to the complete desolation of both man and nature. He was commissioned to make a series of paintings by New York businessman Luman Reed – and he used the opportunity to elevate landscape art to the level of history paintings by telling the allegorical tale of the dawn of civilization to its downfall through the deeds of man.
On this Earth Day – as we struggle with climate change and a weakened environment – this series by Cole reminds us of the havoc that man has inflicted upon this planet – and the devastating consequence that awaits us if enough is not done to change paths and take care of the planet that sustains us.
It is clear from most of Thomas Cole’s work that the pristine beauty and grandeur of the American landscape was close to his heart – he saw in it the sublime hand of God. He and his family had felt firsthand the impact on nature of the industrial revolution in England before they immigrated for America – and perhaps that’s why the untouched mountains and valleys of the great American outdoors were so dear to him. He recorded much of this beauty on his works and left us a record of the way these serene hills, valleys, and flowing rivers looked before man left his imprint upon them.
Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico’s (1888 – 1978) works from his highly influential metaphysical period lasted for a few brief years before the start of World War I.
The works show empty, yet architecturally rich, city landscapes with mesmerizing late afternoon wintertime shadows. That hour of the day when the last remnants of the wintertime sun elongates shadows and invites contemplation about the passage of time. It happens during the last few minutes of daylight during the last few months of the year – perhaps it is that proximity to the end of a recurring cycle which invites contemplation – in this we see the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy in Chirico’s works.
His works are what paintings of dreams would look like- there are symmetrical arches and architectural details with a cubist bent, bright surfaces and dark spaces, empty landscapes with shadows of solitary people or statues of dead people, there is no sense of perspective, wind seems to appear only in certain sections of the painting – smoke from a steam engine billows upwards, while flags fly sideways – looking at his paintings seems to slow down time as one contemplates its passing. They are an enigma – perhaps why he himself named so many of them that way.
The metaphysical period of Chirico’s artistic career was brief – from 1911 to 1915 – after the war he drifted towards classical work. Yet, this brief period was highly influential in paving the way for surrealism and the works of Magritte and Dali – and Hopper’s empty landscapes – among others.
Born on this day – April 5, 1732 -Jean-Honore Fragonard made joyful and exuberant paintings and was one of the most prolific artists in Rococo France. He recorded the excesses of the hedonistic pre-revolutionary French court of Louis XV with bright colors, lavish scenes, lush foliage, playful putti, and over the top pastoral scenery.
Apart from the paintings in which he records stolen kisses and liaisons between lovers, he also made stunning red ink and crayon drawings of pastoral scenes.
Fragonard also did 14 portraits, known as the fantasy figure series which show people engaged in various activities such as singing, reading, writing etc. According to the write-up for an exhibition of the fantasy figures held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, “these figures are dressed in what was known in 18th-century France as a l’espagnole (Spanish style) – plumed hats, slashed sleeves, ribbons, rosettes, ruffs, capes, and accents of red and black. Shaped by artistic imagination, these paintings pushed the boundaries of accepted figure painting at the time.”
Happy Birthday to this fun-loving and uber talented artist who makes the roaring twenties seem tame in front of Rococo France!!
I am endlessly fascinated by art, paintings, and the stories that make these works come alive. As I was learning about Russian realist artist Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817 – 1900) and his paintings for my previous blog, I was reminded of British artist Joseph Mallard William Turner (1775 – 1851). Both artists captured the power of nature – particularly the sea – with the same passion. Interestingly, the two met in Rome, and Turner, the senior of the two was so impressed with Aivazovsky that he wrote a poem for one of his paintings.
One of Aivazovsky’s most famous works is The Ninth Wave (1850), which captured the majesty and power of nature and the helplessness of man in the face of this power. The ninth wave, according to legend, is the most powerful wave – and that’s what Aivazovsky has captured in this painting. The group of people have survived the ninth wave and the fiery sunrise in the background brings hope for a new day.
Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840) too shows the power of the sea and the helplessness of the ship in the face of this power. The sunrise in the back offers hope to the ship, but the tragedy here lies in the fact that the slaves being transported in the ship have been thrown overboard so the Captain can collect insurance for them. The similarities in the two pictures is striking – both capture the wrath of nature and the offer of hope for the survivors as a fiery new day dawns.
Both artists have also captured the beauty of a moonlit night. Turner’s A Study at Millbank (1797) captures the glory of the river Thames as a full moon lights up the night.
Aivazovsky’s stunning The Bay of Naples at Moonlight Night (1842) captures the glory of a moonlit night. Among others who were in awe of Aivazovsky’s talent was Turner himself. Turner was so impressed with the young artist’s talents that he wrote a poem after seeing the Bay of Naples at Moonlight Night.
Like a curtain slowly drawn It stops suddenly half open, Or, like grief itself, filled with gentle hope, It becomes lighter in the shore-less dark, Thus the moon barely wanes Winding her way above the storm-tossed sea. Stand upon this hill and behold endlessly This scene of a formidable sea, And it will seem to thee a waking dream. That secret mind flowing in thee Which even the day cannot scatter, The serenity of thinking and the beating of the heart Will enchain thee in this vision; This golden-silver moon Standing lonely over the sea, All curtain the grief of even the hopeless. And it appears that through the tempest Moves a light caressing wind, While the sea swells up with a roar, Sometimes, like a battlefield it looks to me The tempestuous sea, Where the moon itself is a brilliant golden crown Of a great king. But even that moon is always beneath thee Oh Master most high, Oh forgive thou me If even this master was frightened for a moment Oh, noble moment, by art betrayed… And how may one not delight in thee, Oh thou young boy, but forgive thou me, If I shall bend my white head Before thy art divine Thy bliss-wrought genius...