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.

Chirico’s Shadows

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 Enigma of a Day

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 Enigma of a Day

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.

Joyeux Anniversaire Fragonard

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.

Jean-Honore Fragonard, The Swing 1767


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!!

Thy bliss-wrought genius

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.

Ivan Aivazovsky, The Ninth Wave (1850)

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.

JMW Turner, The Slave Ship (1840)

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.

JMW Turner, Moonlight, a Study at Millbank (1797)

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.

Ivan Aivazovsky, The Bay of Naples at Moonlight Night (1842)

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...

Aivazovsky’s Constantinople

Ivan Aivazovsky, View of Constantinople with the Nusretiye Mosque (1856)

Ninety-one years ago, on March 28, 1930, Constantinople was officially renamed Istanbul by the Turkish Post Office. The city was built in 657 BCE when it was called Byzantium until it was renamed by Constantine the Great in 330. When Constantinople fell in 1453 it became a part of the Ottoman empire. Connecting two continents, this queen of cities has had many names.

The Persians called it Dersaadet, meaning door to ultimate happiness. The Greeks called it Teofilaktos or city guarded by God while the Romans called it Nuova Roma. To the Arabs it was Farrouk, the city that separated two continents, while to Ottoman Turks it was Ummti-diinya or mother of the world. Today it is called Istanbul, which has its roots in the Greek words for simply The City or tin polin – an apt name for a city at the center of the world.

Like many others throughout history, Russian artist Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817 – 1900) was enchanted by this city that he first visited in 1845 as the official artist of the Russian Naval fleet of Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich. Between then and 1890 Aivazovsky visited the city more than ten times and captured it in all its glory in numerous paintings.

Aivazovsky was born into an Armenian family in Crimea, and studied art at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. He was considered one of the best marine artists of his time and was appointed the main painter for the Russian Navy. He was so highly regarded in Russia that the saying “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush,” from Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya became the Russian buzzword for describing something that was lovely beyond description.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Constantinople (1856)

Say Shibboleth !!

Shibboleth: Ear of Grain in ancient Hebrew

This was such a popular post when I did it last year that I thought I should share it again.

I saw the word “Shibboleth”for the first time earlier this week. When I logged out of an account, it said something along the lines of a Shibboleth logout. Which of course, got me wondering – what was that? It seemed so incongruous.

The word – which clearly sounds like a Hebrew word – has a very interesting story. In Hebrew the word Shibboleth actually means ear of grain. Some ancient Semitic tribes pronounced the word with a “sh” sound, while others pronounced it with an “s” sound, and that – believe it or not  – is the beginning of the story of how it eventually came to be part of current network security.  

When two Semitic tribes went to war during biblical times, the victors, who pronounced the “sh” sound, identified the enemy by making everyone say the word shibboleth – and those that said it with an “s” sound were found to be the enemy and – well – slaughtered.

And from there the word came to mean linguistic password – a way of speaking that is used to identify a group of people. It can also be customs, mannerisms, and ways of doing something. One example would be identifying an American from a Britisher by the way they use a fork and knife; a Britisher does not switch the fork from the left to the right hand – whereas an American switches the fork to the right hand after cutting their food. Shibboleth became a way of including and excluding people and identifying them – and I can imagine it must have also been quite useful during modern warfare too, including World War I & II.

Shibboleth has been used a lot when two neighboring countries are at war – or during a civil war – when it is difficult to distinguish between people because there are more similarities than dissimilarities. In the Lebanese Civil war of 1975, Lebanese soldiers checked to see is someone was Lebanese or Palestinian by making them say the word for tomato in Arabic. Lebanese say “banadoura,” while Palestinians say “bandoura.” With this tomayto-tomato they were able to identify the Palestinians. There are many similar wartime stories linked with this word.

It is this very ability to identify who belongs and who does not that enabled the word to lend itself to be used in reference to secure identification when a user logs into or out of a network system run by institutions such as public service organizations or universities. And that is what I recently saw when I logged out of a network.

Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth exhibition at the Tate Modern in London shows cracks in the floor – symbolizing the damage cultural exclusion can cause.

The Artist Collector

I’m fascinated by famous artists that are also collectors -Edgar Degas is one such artist who was also a collector and owned paintings by Edouard Manet and Paul Gauguin. Another such artist who was an avid collector – and left his amazing collection for Musee d’Orsay (Paris) – is the French Impressionist artist Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). Though he was part of the French Impressionist Movement, his own paintings were more realistic – they had less of the light airiness of Monet and the gaiety of Renoir’s boating parties and more of the stark, modern cityscapes and city workers of Haussmann’s Paris.

Caillebotte was different from the other Impressionist artists in another way – he was born into a wealthy family and did not need to sell his paintings. Not only did he not need to sell his own work, he supported the other Impressionists by regularly buying paintings from these avant-garde artists at a time when they did not enjoy the same patronage that classical Salon artists did. In 1876, Caillebotte purchased his first Monet, after which he bought numerous paintings from Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, and Sisley.

On his death he bequeathed his collection of 68 impressionist paintings to Musee d’Orsay, who interestingly were not interested in this bequest. Caillebotte’s younger brother and Renoir spent months convincing the museum to accept the paintings, and in 1895 they accepted 40 of them.

These paintings now form the heart of Musee d’Orsay’s impressionist collection. The museum did try to acquire the rest from Caillebotte’s niece Genevieve Caillebotte in the early 1900s but she denied the request and the paintings were sold to collectors. Many can be found at the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia – I found this Edouard Manet that was purchased by an American and later donated to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas.  

Edouard Manet, The Croquet Party, 1871

Caillebotte and his brother also had the largest stamp collection in France, which is now at the British Library. This amazing artist collector was also responsible for convincing the Muse de Louvre to purchase Edouard Manet’s Olympia.