Mr. & Mrs…..

It seems when art patronage transitioned from the church it landed squarely on the laps the of the landed European gentry – who used it to make their marriages immortal – far beyond the intended “till death do us part.” While the church commissioned pictures of religious subject matter –wealthy 18th and 19th century patrons chose to memorialize themselves with portraits and paintings – through the boundless talent of Gainsborough, Copley, and Sargent.

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr. & Mrs. Andrews (1750)

Gainsborough (1727-1788), a founding member of the Royal Academy, was one of the top artists working in Britain in the latter half of the 18th century. He was born in Sussex, U.K., the rich rural landscape of the region stayed within him throughout his life – he returned to it often in his paintings. He was a master at informal portrait art known as Conversation Pieces – in which the sitters appear engaged in conversation unaware of the presence of the artist. Gainsborough normally painted them in the outdoor settings of their large estates.

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr. & Mrs. William Hallett (1785)

This love of husband and wife portraiture was carried to the Americas where artists like John Singleton Copley painted wealthy colonials – though the setting has moved from the informal outdoors into the opulent homes of the rich in colonial United States. While Mrs. Mifflin weaves on a tabletop loom to show her loyalties to the patriots, Mr. and Mrs. Izard chose to show themselves surrounded by fine Roman antiquities to display their fine breeding and taste.

Over a hundred years later, America’s favorite artist, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), is commissioned to paint a portrait of the fashionable Gilded Era New York couple Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes as a wedding present.  Mr. Stokes was an architect and a pioneer in social housing, while shipping heiress Edith Stokes was a philanthropist and a socialite.  She stands confidently in front with a frank gaze while he almost lingers in the background – their status and wealth emanating as much from their clothes as her confident gaze and demeanor.

John Singer Sargent, Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes (1897)

Painted only a quarter of a century later – but in what could be a parallel universe – are Mr. and Mrs. Phillip Wase, a cleaning woman and a gardener. George Bellows (1882 – 1925) known for capturing the working class of New York, shows them in gray attire that befits their status – Mrs. Wase, holding perhaps a bible, has a face that shows the hard life she has endured. Her husband gazes disinterestedly into the distance. This is a couple of substance that has not had an easy life – we can see that they have not commissioned this portrait – it is the artist who wants to capture them on canvas.

George Bellows, Mr. And Mrs. Phillip Wase (1924)

Yet another 50 years later, David Hockney, painted the memorable and somewhat enigmatic painting of Mr. and Mrs. Clark in their meagerly furnished apartment in London. While she stands and faces us, he slouches nonchalantly on the chair – these two are not on the same wavelength – the sunlit doorway behind them does as much to separate them as their attitude.  Despite the bare furnishings we know this is a well to do couple – maybe from the fabric of her dress, or maybe it’s his swagger. The more you look, the more this picture reveals about the 20th century husband and wife.

David Hockney, Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy (1970)

Which brings me to the iconic painting that is the fountainhead from which all paintings of husbands and wives emerge – Jan van Eyck’s 1434 painting of Mr. and Mrs. Arnolfini. This mysterious and enigmatic painting is one of the most skillfully curated works of art – from the color of the room, to the oranges on the window ledge, to the one lit candle on the chandelier– each item is purposefully placed. There are as many analyses of this painting as there are art historians – the painting continues to dazzle, to puzzle, and to intrigue. I can’t imagine that an artist has ever painted a double portraiture of a couple without being influenced, even if subliminally, and inspired by the magnificent Arnolfini portrait.  

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait (1434)

Everything but The Scream!!

Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863 -1944) was active for more than 60 years – from the 1880s until his death. He was a prolific artist whose range, and volume, of work is staggering. On his death, he bequeathed to the city of Oslo, 1008 painting, 4,443 drawings, and 15,391 prints in addition to etchings, lithographs, woodcuts etc. All of which makes it even more ironic that today he is known the world over for one single image – the iconic Scream.

Munch experimented in different movements – from Pointillism to Expressionism. Yet, it is in his sorrowful paintings that he reveals his soul and shares the enduring sadness he felt after the death of his mother and then his sister.

Munch being Caillebotte

Edvard Munch, Music on the Karl Johan Street (1889)

Munch being Seurat

Edvard Munch, The Seine at Saint-Cloud (1890)

Munch being Manet

Edvard Munch, Rue Lafayette (1891)

Munch being Sisley

Edvard Munch, The Seine at Saint-Cloud (1890)

Munch being Cezanne

Edvard Munch, The Scientists (1911)

Munch being Gauguin

Edvard Munch, Girl Under Apple Tree (1904)

Munch being Matisse

Edvard Munch, On the Sofa (1913)

Munch being Van Gogh

And finally, Munch being Munch

The King of Kerks

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam (1597 – 1665) was a Dutch Golden Age artist who specialized in painting interiors of churches. He removed all but the architectural details from the interiors of churches and filled these golden hued soaring cathedrals with light and space. His meticulous attention to perspective as well as to the proportions of columns and arches in the interiors of churches evokes symmetry and harmony. With the low vantage point, and with his restrained – almost monochromatic – whitewashed color palette he created an atmosphere that invites contemplation, while capturing the magnificence and timelessness of these Dutch kerks on canvas.  

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, Interior of the Sint-Odulphuskerk (Assendelft) (1649): Saenredam had a personal relationship with this church: he was born nextdoor and his father was buried in the church. He never sold this painting in his lifetime.
Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, Interior of the Sint-Odulphuskerk (Assendelft) (1649): A closeup of his father’s tombstone.

Saenredam was born on June 9, 1597 to an accomplished engraver and draftsman Jan Pietersz Saenredam. When his father died, Pieter and his mother left his hometown of Assendelft and lived in Haarlem where he first showed interest in architectural paintings – painting his two favorite churches Saint Bavo and Nieuwe Kerk multiple times.

A brief stay in Utrecht – from June 1636 to January 1637 – left a strong impression and was a period of great creativity where he made numerous paintings of Utrecht cathedral and Mariakerk.

He became the most important artist of the genre during the Dutch Golden Age and changed the way churches were painted. Many other Dutch artists tried to evoke the same luminous atmosphere with their paintings of church interiors – but none was ever able to equal his vision.

Happy 415th – you selfie king!!

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 the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633).

Rembrandt, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633). Stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (1990). Missing.

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!!

“Life etches itself onto our faces as we grow older, showing our violence, excesses, or kindnesses.” Rembrandt.

Journeys and footprints

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.  

Portuguese explorer Vasco do Gama (1460- 1524)

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.

Statue of Vasco da Gama in Vasco da Gama city (aka Vasco city ) in Goa, 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.

Portuguese influence is seen in the 1590 mansion, “The Figueiredo House” designed by Jesuit priests. The mansion – believe it or not – is older than the Taj Mahal by a few decades.

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.

Pretty in Pink

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).

Pablo Picasso, Family of Saltimbanques (1905)

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.

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907

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.

Ancient Lights

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.

Liquid Stone

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.

Little Peach Swords

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).

Claude Monet, Rounded Flower Bed (1876)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Gladioli in a Vase (1875)

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.

Nature & Empire

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.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Savage State (1833-36)
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State (1833-36)
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1833-36)
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction (1833-36)
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Desolation (1833-36)

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.

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow (1836)

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.