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)

The Golden Age of Letter Writing

I am quite fascinated by the number of women in Dutch paintings of the mid-1600s that are either reading or writing a letter. It is of course one of the many consequences of the Dutch Golden maritime age that the men and women were separated for long periods of time, and this was how they kept in touch. What is interesting however is how many of the artists picked up the same subject.

I think the Dutch artists of the same era liked to present the same content – it seems to be the same pattern with still life paintings, oranges and lemons in paintings, followed by swirly peels of oranges and lemons in paintings – perhaps the patrons all wanted the same content in their paintings.

Apparently, it’s not just us curious to know what gossip was being shared in those handwritten letters – there were others who tried to peek into the letters.

I started looking for paintings of people sitting at their desks and reading or studying because it’s finals week and that’s what I should be doing – then I decided to find women (instead of men) at desks when I discovered how many Dutch 17th Century Dutch paintings showed women reading and writing letters!! Quite a circuitous route – but still interesting to think of all those women sitting at home writing letters, sending all sorts of family and local gossip to their husbands and boyfriends while they were away exploring the world for months on end.

I should be focused like her and study for my exams!!

Pieter Janssens Elinga, A Woman Reading a Letter and a Woman Sweeping (pre-1682)

(Images Courtesy: Google Arts and Culture, Rijksmuseum, The Frick Collection, The Wallace Collection, Dresden Art Museum, essentialvermeer.org, MET Museum)

Looking Out

Once again, we find ourselves in the midst of stay-in orders due to the rising cases of coronavirus across the country. It reminded me of the time earlier this year, when Italians with stay-in orders spent their evenings on the balconies – socially distant yet connected with their neighbors – singing songs together and trying to make the best of a very difficult situation.

This gave me the idea for today’s blog – people in their balconies watching life go by – sometimes wistfully, sometimes happy to be onlookers, sometimes to connect with the outside world, sometimes to disconnect from the world, sometimes spying on others – and occasionally being spied on by others  – like in Caillebotte’s woman looking at and at the same time being looked at by another woman on a balcony across the street!!

Balconies are a special world – a meeting point of the interior world of homes and shelter spaces and the outside world – they can bring a tiny bit of the outside in or take a bit of the inside out – it all depends on the person inhabiting the balcony at any moment in time.

David Hockney, Sur la Terrasse (1971)

Looking out – whether to watch people on city streets, or to become one with nature, or to be mesmerized by the sea…..

Nothing quite like the childlike joy – filled with anticipation – of looking out..

Nicolas Tarkhoff, Children ad Cat by the Window (1907)

(Sources: Google Arts and Culture, Tate Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago, Christie’s, Van Gogh Museum)

So much to be thankful for

Hank Willis Thomas & Emily Shur, Reimagined Norman Rockwell Freedom From Want (2018)

A lot of different flowers make a bouquet (Muslim proverb)

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Thankful Poor (1894)

Enough is a feast.

Buddhist proverb
Jean-Francois Millet, The Angelus (1857 – 1859)
Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good (Maya Angelou).
Paul Gauguin, The Meal (1891)

Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold rather a large amount of gratitude (A.A. Milne).

John Singer Sargent, A Dinner Table at Night (1884)

Wear gratitude like a cloak, and it will feed every corner of your life.

Rumi
Norman Rockwell, Family Grace 1938
For me every hour is grace.. Elie Wiesel

(Images courtesy Google Arts & Culture, Musee d’Orsay, Met Museum).