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.

The Red Clay Jug

In 1656, Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), a giant in Western art, painted his greatest work, Las Meninas. This exceptionally large – and enigmatic – painting has captivated viewers and critics alike for over 350 years, and remains one of the most highly analyzed, debated, and discussed works of art. This monumental picture was painted when Velazquez had been working at the Spanish royal court of Philip IV for 30 years – when he was at the height of his artistic skills and creativity. 

Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas (1656), Oil on Canvas

There is so much to look at and absorb when one looks at this picture – the Infanta Margarita Teresa, her dog, the dwarves, the mirror reflecting the king and queen, the man in the backlit hallway who’s either coming – or is he going – the artist himself in the act of painting. Despite looking at this picture, analyzing it for hours, I barely noticed the red jug on the silver plate which the lady-in-waiting is offering to the Infanta. And once I noticed it, it was all I could focus on. It is the same deep red as on Velazquez’s palette – the same red as the cross of the Order of Santiago on his chest. Why did he choose the same deep red for all three – whatever his reasons they add to the enigma that is Las Meninas.

The easy to miss tiny red clay jug is almost as fascinating as the rest of the painting. The jug is there because of the trade between Spain and the Americas. Very often, paintings from this era include objects brought back by traders from oceans away. This water jug – called bucaro in Spain– was most likely from Guadalajara, Mexico and was made of a mixture of clay and spices which perfumed and flavored the drinking water it held.

But that’s not all – the clay itself has mysterious properties – and when women bit off and chewed pieces of the jug and consumed it slowly over time, it made their skin pale – white almost to the point of ghostliness. Eating the clay also induced hallucinations – and of course numerous side health issues. Queen Elizabeth of England had made ghostlike white skin fashionable and a symbol of wealth – which made bucaros a highly coveted item in Spain at this time.

In light of this, Las Meninas become even more enigmatic – look at the Infanta’s fingers just about to wrap around the bucaro, her exceptionally pale skin, and her almost levitating feet – is Velazquez hinting at a trance-like state? What is Velazquez telling us – and why is the red of the bucaros similar to the red of his paint and the red of the Order of Knighthood? More mysteries – or does the bucaro hold the key to the mysteries of this masterpiece?

(Sources: Museo Prado, Velázquez’s Las Meninas: A detail that decodes a masterpiece by Kelly Grovier, bbc.com, Oct 16, 2020)

National Gallery of Art – the beginning

In the second of a series of blogs on the beginnings of museum collections, I decided to write about our nation’s museum – the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The museum and its founding collection was a gift of Pittsburgh industrialist and later Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.  It was in 1928, that Andrew Mellon first expressed interest in starting a national art museum, and in December 1936 he offered his personal art collection, now known as the Mellon Collection, as well as funds to build the museum. Sadly, he died in March 1937 just as the construction of the museum was starting. It was built however according to his vision.

Sandro Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi (1478), NGA ID 1937.1.22

The Mellon Collection comprised of 125 paintings, 25 of which Mellon purchased from the Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia) in 1931. The young, and poor, socialist government of the Soviet Union needed money which it raised by selling off priceless treasures to millionaires like Andrew Mellon, Calouste Gulbenkian (who founded the Gulbenkian museum in Lisbon), and Marjorie Post (owner of General Foods, Inc.).

The works acquired by Mellon and gifted to the National Gallery included Rembrandts, Van Dyck, Reubens, Botticelli, Velazquez, Hals, and a Chardin. Quite unbelievable that Stalin’s government would have permitted this kind of a cultural drain – but it certainly has enriched our National Gallery beyond imagination!!

(Sources: National Gallery of Art, The Washington Post).

Mughal miniatures.. by Rembrandt?

I am fascinated by the cross-cultural exchanges that were starting to take place in the world in the 17th Century, and the manner in which they manifested themselves in contemporary art. The Dutch and East India companies were trading with Mughal India and other countries in the East and apart from the spices they also brought back Mughal miniatures.

In a previous blog post, East meets West – in 17th Century India, I talked about the influence of European art on Mughal miniatures during Jahangir’s reign as a result of trade and the presence of Jesuit missionaries in the region. On the flip side, the Mughal miniatures that were brought back by the traders from Agra to the Netherlands were of keen interest to many including the most famous artist of the era, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-69). He made several ink etchings of Mughal miniatures on Japanese paper – of which 23 are known to survive.

While some were more or less exact renditions, albeit monochromatic, of the colorful miniatures, in others Rembrandt showed movement – something that is almost always missing from the static miniatures. He mainly focused on the people, their mannerisms, and costumes, and ignored the intense colors and vibrant floral background of the miniatures. Interestingly, the miniatures seemed to have an influence on his later works, which can be seen in Abraham Entertaining the Angels (1656). The circular seating of the figures, the appearance of the bearded Abraham, the round plate and jug all seem inspired by the Mughal miniature Four Mullahs (1627-28) and his copy Four Orientals under a Tree (1656-61).

Rembrandt, Abraham Entertaining the Angels (1656)

(Sources: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rijksmuseum, The Frick Collection, British Museum, San Diego Museum of Art, The Getty Museum)

In the beginning – The Met

For some time now I’ve been wondering about the pieces with which art museums start their collections – especially the public museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the National Gallery in London or DC – by public I mean not old royal collections like the Prado Museum. What was the first piece that seeded these incredibly large collections? So here we go – the first in the series – I’ll start with the Met in New York.

Met ID 70.1 – Roman, Marble Sarcophagus with garlands, Ad 200-225

The Met started as a brainchild of a group of New York businessmen gathered in Paris in 1866 to celebrate the 90th signing of the Declaration of Independence – they wanted to start an art museum in New York similar to the ones found in European capitals. Four years later John Jay, a NY based lawyer who had rallied support from civic leaders, incorporated the museum and acquired the first of 1.5 million pieces on November 20, 1870 – a Roman sarcophagus given by Abdo Debbas, the American vice consul in Turkey. It’s Met ID is 70.1 – interesting that they didn’t say 1870.1 – all 1970 and later acquisitions probably start with the full four digits.

Met ID 71.1 Gaspar de Crayer, The Meeting of Alexander the Great and Diogenes

Just before the start of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870, one of the founders and trustee of the museum, businessman and philanthropist William T. Blodgett left for Paris on a buying trip and a month later he acquired a collection of 57 pictures called “the Paris Collection,” sold to him by a collector in financial and political hardship. In September, he acquired a Belgian aristocrat, Count Cornet de Ways Ruart’s collection of 100 paintings, and his 3rd and final purchase was 17 more pictures from a collection. These 174 paintings, collectively known as the “Purchase of 1871,” started the collection at the Met. Here are some of them with their Met IDs!!

Perhaps fitting for a museum in New York that so many of its earliest acquisitions were by Dutch artists.

(Source: The Metropolitan Museum of New York)

A Symphony of Stillness (II)

Arhip Ivanovich Kuindji (1842-1910 ) was born in Ukraine and is considered one of the greatest Russian landscape painters of his era. For me, what Hammershoi does with interiors, Kuindji does with landscapes. A magical light and hypnotic stillness radiate from his work – especially from his landscapes of the Dnieper River.

Kuindji, along with 14 other artists broke away from the convention European Neoclassical style of work favored by the St. Petersburg’s Academy of Art and formed the “Society of Itinerant Artists” in 1870. The group, known informally as the Wanderers, painted scenes of Russia’s beautiful landscape in different lights of the day. In 1880, Kuindji broke away from the Wanderers but continued painting beautiful landscapes of rivers, forests, and the sea.

Arhip Kuindji, Moonlight night on the Dnieper (1882)

One of his most notable works is Moonlight Night on the Dnieper (1882). The fluorescent green light emanating from the Dnieper contrasts with the darkness and stillness of the night and creates a magical effect in this mesmerizing picture. It was a big hit even before it was finished  and even managed to captivate Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich (grandson of Tsar Nicholas I) who bought it before it was finished.

Arhip Kunidji, The Sea, The Crimea (1908)

A Symphony of Stillness

The first time I saw a painting by Vilhelm Hammershoi, I was mesmerized by the stillness of the work. Born in Copenhagen on May 15, 1864, Hammershoi is the master of stillness and light. To many he is the master of loneliness – I find his almost monotone minimalist rooms soothing and hypnotic – I don’t get the same sense of loneliness from Hammershoi’s works that I get from Hopper’s painting – perhaps because there are no lonely people in many of his rooms.

Vilhelm Hammershoi, Interior with the Artist’s Easel (1910)

Hammershoi takes ordinary looking rooms with minimal furnishings – one chair or a single sofa – and transforms them into magical places that don’t seem to belong to our world. To stop looking at his paintings and tear one’s gaze away almost requires an effort – because it means moving from the calmness of Hammershoi’s world to the chaos of the real world.

Many of his paintings were made in and depict the interiors of his apartment at Strandgade 30 in Copenhagen. In one, light enters the room during the day, in another, moonlight streams into the room while in yet another the room is lit by two candles. The entire composition is made of light, framed doorways, and muted architectural details which leaves the viewer mesmerized.

(Source: Tate Gallery, The Met Museum, Statens Museum for Kunst, Toledo Museum of Art)

What are they looking at?

our backs
tell stories'
no books have 
the spine to 
carry 
Rupi Kaur

There is something so peaceful about looking out windows – watching the world go by, yearning for the outdoors, day dreaming, pausing momentarily in the middle of a chore, appreciating the beauty of trees or the vibrancy of life on the busy streets – I wonder what these women were thinking of when they looked outside.

Vilhelm Hammershoi, Tall Windows (1913)

There’s something so magical about the windows framing the women and the light streaming indoors from these windows. Most of the women face their backs to us, and instead of seeing what they are seeing, we are only allowed to look at them in the act of looking.

(Source: Met Museum, Sorolla Museum, Museo Prado)