The Barbizon School and Impressionism

Camille Corot, Fontainebleau- Oak Trees at Bas-Bréau, 1832 or 1833. Oil on paper laid down on wood; 15 5/8 x 19 1/2 in. (39.7 x 49.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, “Fontainebleau – Oak Trees at Bas-Bréau,” 1832 or 1833. Oil on paper laid down on wood; 15 5/8 x 19 1/2 in. (39.7 x 49.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art

When I was a senior in high school, my best friend and I studied art history at the same time. We also loved to hike together, and whenever we came across a beautiful vista or lookout we would exclaim, “Barbizon!” Although I would say “Barbizon!” in a breathy voice that mimicked a 1980s television commercial for the Barbizon School of Modeling (and perhaps it was also a breathless one, given altitude for some of the mountains we climbed?), the true reference of our exclamation was the Barbizon School of artists from 19th-century France. In essence, my friend and I were saying that the Barbizon painters would have enjoyed painting what we were seeing at that moment on our hike.

The Barbizon School was a group of painters who gathered near the French village of Barbizon (about thirty miles southeast of Paris) in the forest of Fontainebleau. These artists, despite coming from various artistic techniques and backgrounds, collectively were dedicated to studying nature and painting landscapes of the Forest of Fontainebleau region. In some ways, this interest in nature was prompted by the display of the John Constable’s landscapes at the Salon of 1824. (You can read more about the history of the Barbizon School on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.) However, it was several decades later in the 19th century, after the rise of Impressionism, that this group began to be known as the Barbizon School.1

Camille Corot, "The Ferryman," ca. 1865. Oil on canvas; 26 1/8 x 19 3/8 in. (66.4 x 49.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, “The Ferryman,” ca. 1865. Oil on canvas; 26 1/8 x 19 3/8 in. (66.4 x 49.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art

I wonder, in fact, if the term “Barbizon School” was coined in order to better distinguish the differences between this early group of arists and those associated with Impressionism. (If anyone knows more about the origins of the “Barbizon School” name, please share!) In many ways, we can see how the Impressionists were influenced by the Barbizon School painters. Not only do both groups have an interest in depicting nature, but two members of the Barbizon School, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (shown above) and Jean-François Millet, have parallels with Impressionism because of their interest in depicting an accurate rendering of light and color. Additionally, the Barbizon School painters were the pioneers of painting en plein air, a method which the Impressionists also embraced.And, although Millet was interested in painting peasants and drawing attention to the plight of the poor, which is in contrast to the Impressionists’ focus on the bourgeoisie, we can still find parallel with the fact that both Millet and the Impressionists sought to the depict contemporary people who surrounded them.

Paul Durand-Ruel

Paul Durand-Ruel

There is another interesting connection between the Barbizon School and Impressionism as well. The art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel was a supporter of the Impressionists. His father, Durand-Ruel Senior, was also an art dealer, but he was instrumental in promoting the purchase of Barbizon School landscapes. Paul Durand-Ruel sold Barbizon School art in the 1860s and 1870s, like his father, but then became particularly interested in the art produced by the Impressionists after meeting Monet and Pissarro in London in 1870. (All three men had gone to London to avoid the Franco-Prussian War.) Durand-Ruel could see how the Impressionists were building upon the principles and ideas put forward by the Barbizon School, and he already had built an existing clientele who were interested in landscape painting.

As a result, Durand-Ruel became a promoter and representative of the Impressionists, even committing to outright buying some of their art. In essence, Durand-Ruel wanted to create a commercial demand for Impressionist art, building off of his customers who appreciated the aesthetic and subject matter produced by the Barbizon School. This bold entrepreneurial move to create a commercial demand for Impressionism would help transform the way that the art market operated in the future; art dealers would not merely rely on the annual Salon to dictate which artists or paintings would be commercially popular.3 Durand-Ruel also succeeded in generating an interest for Impressionism in America by setting up a gallery in New York. He applauded the open-minded American public for embracing Impressionism by once saying, “The American public does not laugh. It buys!”

I know there are a lot of sources and ideas that fed into the Impressionist movement, including Chevreul’s scientific studies on color relationships and the possibility that Monet, during his time in London, saw paintings made by Turner. But I also like exploring this connection between the Impressionists and their French predecessors. Do you know of any other similarities or parallels between the Impressionists and members of the Barbizon School?

1 “The Barbizon School: French Painters of Nature,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed October 22, 2014,

2 Will Gompertz, What Are You Looking At? The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 38.

3 Ibid, 41.


Lavinia Fontana and the Female Self-Portrait

This month marks one year since my friend Hasan Niyazi, blogger from Three Pipe Problem, unexpectedly passed away. I have thought about Hasan a lot lately, particularly because I think he would enjoy some of the topics I am exploring with my students. I also miss the enthusiastic emails, comments, and tweets that he would write. I thought that this month I would post one or two of the guests posts that I wrote for Hasan’s blog. The following post first appeared on Three Pipe Problem in March 2011. Currently, the content of Hasan’s blog is no longer online, although I hope that will change in the near future. In the meantime, I would like to make this post I wrote available again, in Hasan’s memory.

Lavinia Fontana, "Self-Portrait at the Spinet," 1577

Lavinia Fontana, “Self-Portrait at the Spinet,” 1577

As an art historian who is interested in female artists, I am particularly intrigued by the way that Lavinia Fontana chose to depict herself in self-portraits. Since Renaissance women weren’t always in control of how they were portrayed in art (women were often depicted by male artists), I like to see how a female artist represented herself when she did have control over her image.

There are five self-portraits by Lavinia Fontana that are known: four paintings and one drawing. I would like to examine two of these self-portraits, including my own ideas with those that have been previously presented by Catherine King and Babette Bohn.1 I think these two portraits are quite revealing in terms of what Fontana felt was important to communicate about herself.

Fontana’s earliest self-portrait is quite unique, since it was created as a marriage portrait. This painting, Self-Portrait at the Spinet (also called Self-Portrait at the Keyboard) was made in 1577 for Fontana’s future father-in-law, Severo Zappi.2 I think Fontana felt some pressure at this time, since she was marrying into a family which held a higher social status than her own.3 One senses that Fontana felt a need to emphasize her wealth and status by observing various elements in her painting: her lavish clothing, jewels, and a servant in the background. Fontana also chooses to emphasize her accomplishments and abilities: she is playing an instrument and her easel is distinctly placed in the background. In addition, her knowledge and learning are emphasized by the fact that she includes a Latin inscription in the upper corner of the canvas.

I think this Latin inscription is rather interesting, since it is indicative of the social situation for female Renaissance artists. In translation, the inscription reads, “Lavinia virgin/maiden of Prospero Fontana has represented the likeness of her face from the mirror in the year 1577.” Isn’t it interesting that Fontana is emphasizing her virginity? Unsurprisingly, virginity was highly desired by prospective husbands at the time, but I think that Fontana mentions her virginity to fit further societal expectations. As Catherine King points out that in terms of self-portraiture, “the act of showing oneself to another was very different for a young woman than it was for a young man.”4 Hence, female artists needed to be careful in how they presented themselves in portraits. Fontana visually manifests this care by not only stressing her virginity, but by appearing in modest red dress that suggests marriage (red was the traditional color for wedding dresses in Bologna).5

Lavinia Fontana, "Self Portrait In a Tondo," 1579

Lavinia Fontana, “Self Portrait In a Tondo,” 1579

The self-portrait by Fontana that interests me the most was painted just two years after Fontana’s wedding portrait. This portrait is a tondo painted on copper (1579) and was created expressly for placement in a collection. On 17 October 1578, Dominican scholar Alfonso Ciacón wrote to Fontana and requested her portrait; Ciacón intended to publish an engraved gallery of 500 portraits of respected scholars, artists, and statesmen.6 No doubt Fontana felt honored to have her portrait be included in this engraved “gallery.” Fontana sent this portrait to Ciacón in 1579, but the book of engravings was never published.

Nonetheless, we can see that Fontana wanted to portray herself in a certain way, especially since she knew that her image was intended for display alongside portraits of other prominent individuals. As with the marriage portrait, Fontana opts to emphasize her learning and wealth. She manifests her scholarly pursuits (she’s not just a mere “craftswoman”) by showing herself among anatomical casts and classical statuettes. (A nineteenth century engraving of Fontana’s painting is helpful in seeing these details.) In addition, Fontana is interested in suggesting her wealth; she depicts herself in lavish clothing and she is sitting in an armchair (poor people owned only stools at this time).7

Once again, Fontana is careful in how she has presented herself (in order to meet societal expectations). Not only is she wearing modest clothing, but she further emphasizes her respectability by stating that she is married. The inscription in the right-hand corner of her portrait states: “Lavinia Fontana married into the Zappi family made this 1579.” In fact, this reference to her marriage was advantageous not only for purposes of societal decorum, but also a way to emphasize her social status, since the Zappi family held a comparatively high status in society.

As I have been writing this post and thinking about Fontana, I’ve come to a realization as to why I am drawn to female self-portraits. For one thing, I’m an art historian who is a woman. Although I am hopeful that the job market for women in academia is ever-improving (and equalizing), I think many women still feel cautious in how they present themselves in the academic world (in order to keep a competitive edge against men). I certainly feel that way. Along these lines, as a female blogger, I sometimes find myself concerned with how I portray myself in writing. Although I don’t feel that I experience the same difficulties as women in the Renaissance period, I experience an element of self-awareness when I need to portray myself (either visually or in writing). I think blog posts are my equivalent for self-portraits, especially since I’m not an artist!

UPDATE: Since writing this initial post in 2011, I have written more about Lavinia Fontana’s “Self-Portrait” for the Ciacón collection elsewhere on my blog: “Lavinia Fontana’s ‘Self-Portrait’ and Gender.”

1 Catherine King, “Italian Artists in Search of Virtue, Fame, and Honour c. 1450-c.1650,” in The Changing Status of the Artist, eds. Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 72-74. See also Babette Bohn, “Female Self-Portraiture in Early Modern Bologna,” in Renaissance Studies 18, no. 2 (2004): 251-256. If you are interested in seeing information about the remaining three self-portraits which are not discussed in this post, see article by Bohn.

2 Bohn, 253.

3 Ibid., 254.

4 King, p. 67. For an example of extreme modesty in portraiture, see Sophonisba Anguissola’s Self-Portrait from c. 1555, in which she modestly covers herself with a mirror (which she protectively places in front of her body like a shield).

5 Bohn, 254. The red knot that is placed on the instrument was a symbol of love and betrothal at the time, which can also tie into Fontana’s interest in maintaining social decorum. For more information, see Caroline P. Murphy, Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and her Patrons in Sixteenth-century Bologna (New Haven and London, 2003), 41–3.

6 Name also appears in art history texts as Alonso Chaçon and Alfonso Chacon.

7 King, 73.


Book Review: “The Horses of St Mark’s: A Story of Triumph in Byzantium, Paris and Venice”

Replica quadriga (four horses) of Saint Mark's, Venice, late 20th century (after originals probably from the 2nd to 4th centuries CE)

Replica quadriga (four horses) of Saint Mark’s, Venice, late 20th century (after originals probably from the 2nd to 4th centuries CE)

I visited St. Mark’s in Venice on a study abroad over ten years ago, but I don’t remember much about my experience. The basilica itself was undergoing some major renovation, and my impression of the interior revolved more around scaffolding than mosaics. I remember seeing the porphyry portraits of the tetrarchs on the exterior, but I don’t remember seeing the replica sculptures of horses (see above) at Saint Mark’s (located above the main portal). I also don’t remember seeing the original horses (shown below in the basilica museum). In fact, the horses of Saint Mark’s never caught my attention in any type of book or article until I received a copy of The Horses of Saint Mark’s: A Story of Triumph in Byzantium, Paris and Venice by Charles Freeman.

I really liked learning about the horses and their “biography” over the centuries as I read this book, but I have to admit that the chapters dealing with the political history of Venice were rather dull to me. It almost felt like Freeman was trying to bulk up material for his book by adding in extra information about Venice, which wasn’t quite pertinent to the story of the horses.

Despite the sections of this book that I found dull, I really enjoyed reading several sections of it. These horses have a very complex history and are unique in several ways. Here are a few other things enjoyed learning in this book:

Quadriga (Four Horses) of Saint Mark's, probably 2nd to 4th centuries CE. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Original quadriga (Four Horses) of Saint Mark’s, probably 2nd to 4th centuries CE. Image courtesy Wikipedia

  • These horses were probably made in the late Roman period. Freeman thinks that they may have been created as a crowning sculpture to a triumphal arch, since quadrigae were often depicted pulling a god or hero (such as an emperor) in a chariot. Freeman thinks that these horses may have appeared on a triumphal arch commemorating Septimius Severus’s victory over Byzantium in 195 CE.1
  • Chariot races and horses (and therefore sculptures of quadrigae, by extension) are associated with triumph and power in Greco-Roman culture. Originally, chariots were seen as synonymous with the power of the gods, but Roman emperors became associated with this symbol of power since the hippodrome/circus was a public venue where the emperor could be physically seen by his people and also display imperial power through ceremonies.2
  • These horses are very unusual, given that they are made almost entirely in copper. The mixture is about 98% copper, 1% tin and 1% lead. Typically, bronze contains about 10% of a tin-and-lead mixtures, although sometimes as high as 20%.3 Copper has a higher melting point than bronze, so when it comes to casting, these large-scale horses are the product of great technical feats.
  • Originally, these sculptures were also gilt, and Freeman thinks that these horses were intentionally cast in copper so that the gold layers would adhere properly to the surface. These horses appear to have been gilt with a method which involves mercury, a substance which reacts with tin and lead; the mercury method can’t be used successfully if one is gilding with regular bronze.4 I’m sure these horses would have been very striking back in the day, especially if they were gilt and displayed outdoors!
  • These horses have traveled a lot over the centuries. We know they were located in Constantinople, and probably were located at the hippodrome or the Milion, an imperial building that was located outside the hippodrome but near its starting gates. The horses were likely brought to the hippodrome or Milion from some other monument too, such as the Septimus Severus arch that Freeman proposes.5 From Constantinople, the horses then were brought to Venice in the Fourth Crusade of 1204, after Constantinople was sacked. The horses were removed from the façade of St. Mark’s in December 1797 by orders of Napoleon, and from there were taken to Paris. While in Paris, the horses decorated the gates of the Tuileries Palace and then later on a triumphal arch dedicated to Napoleon (Arc du Carrousel) in the front of the Tuileries.6
  • The intervention of the Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova led to the return of these horses to Venice after Napoleon’s downfall in 1815. The horses were taken down in September of 1815 and arrived in Venice in December of that same year.7 After an exhibition in the early 1980s, in which one of the horses starred as the main attraction, all four original horses were placed inside Saint Mark’s in 1983 in an effort to preserve the sculptures against the adverse effects of pollution.8
  • The horses of Saint Mark’s have been often assessed in terms of their aesthetic quality. When the Parthenon Marbles caused a sensation in the 19th century after their arrival and display in England, British artist Benjamin Haydon drew a sketch to compare the Parthenon horse (from Selene’s chariot) with one of the horses of Saint Mark’s (see below). In this drawing, Haydon aimed to show the superiority of the Parthenon sculpture over that of horse from Saint Mark’s. Haydon found that the eyes of the Saint Mark’s horses were not true to life; he argued that they were too sunken in appearance to be realistic or plausible. He also wrote that the nostrils “of the Venetian horses seem wrongly placed, the upper lip does not project enough and there is an evident grin as [if it] had the snarling muscles of a carnivorous animal. . . it looks swollen and puffed as if it had the dropsy.”9
Landseer. etching after Benjamin Haydon's 1819 drawing "Study Of The Horse’s Head From The East Pediment Of The Parthenon And Of The Head Of One Of The Horses Of St Mark’s Basilica, Venice."

Landseer. etching after Benjamin Haydon’s 1819 drawing “Study Of The Horse’s Head From The East Pediment Of The Parthenon And Of The Head Of One Of The Horses Of St Mark’s Basilica, Venice.”

I think that these horses probably have one of the most complex known biographies within Western art history. Like many objects that are displaced and transported throughout their symbolic lives, these horses often were moved as a result of war and conquest. I’m glad that these horses have been able to remain intact over the centuries, despite their propensity to travel!

1 Charles Freeman, The Horses of St. Mark’s: A Story of Triumph in Byzantium, Paris and Venice (New York: The Overlook Press, 2004), 296.

2 Ibid., 63-65.

3 Ibid., 263.

4 Ibid., 265.

5 For a discussion of other possible locations of the horses, specifically the original location (besides the Septimus Severus arch theory) and the later location after the transformation of Constantinople by Constantine, see Ibid., 29-31, 89-91.

6 Ibid., 201-205.

7 Ibid., 219-220, 223-224.

8 Ibid., 254-255.

9 Ibid., 231-232.

— 1 Comment

Women Painted into “Exotic” Studio Scenes

William Merritt Chase, "A Corner of My Studio," c. 1895

William Merritt Chase, “A Corner of My Studio,” c. 1895

Recently I have been researching about the American artist, William Merritt Chase. Chase lived an extravagant lifestyle in New York in the late 19th century. He famously moved into Albert Bierstadt’s old studio on Tenth Avenue and used this space not only to paint, but to showcase his collection of various foreign and exotic objects including Japanese fans, Egyptian pottery, Italian swords, and even a stuffed flamingo!1 Chase was undoubtedly proud of his collection; he would open up his studio to the public once per week. Additionally, he painted several scenes of his studio interior. Even after financial difficulties forced Chase to sell his studio and auction off its contents in 1895, Chase continued to paint the interior of the studio of his summer home in Shinnecock Island, New York.

As I’ve been looking at these paintings of Chase’s studio and collection, I’m struck with how often he included a female figure within the space. These women are usually involved in some type of action, which gives them an element of subjecthood that I appreciate. Such is the case with A Corner of My Studio (c. 1895, shown above), which depicts a woman painting in the background. I also like Chase’s Studio Interior (c. 1882, shown below) which shows a woman reading book.

William Merritt Chase, "Studio Interior"

William Merritt Chase, “Studio Interior,” (c. 1882). Brooklyn Museum of Art

Despite the action of these female figures, though, I think that these women also are supposed to function in a symbolic light, given the exotic nature of Chase’s collection. Exotic cultures and their respective products had feminine associations in the 19th century, in part because these cultures were linked to nature and fertility. I think that the female figures in Chase’s painting are meant to heighten the exoticism of the objects in Chase’s collection. Along these lines, then, these active female subjects are also reduced to decorative elements within the studio space, inviting a “to-be-looked-at-ness” that is not dissimilar to the exotic plants, vessels, rugs, sculptures, and pictures that Chase has placed on display. As a result, I think these females vacillate between subjecthood and objecthood.

Other paintings by Chase that have deal with female figures within exotic interiors (some more exotic than others) include In the Studio (c. 1884), The Inner Studio, Tenth Street (1882), Alice in Studio in Shinnecock Long Island Sun (c. 1900), Weary aka Who Rang? (c. 1889), Did You Speak to Me? (1897), and also the pastel drawing May I Come In? (1893). Most, if not all, of these works of art are depictions of Chase’s studios (I am only uncertain about where Weary aka Who Rang? was painted – does anyone know?). When looking at all of these paintings by Chase, I am reminded of another 19th century artist, the Brazilian painter José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior. Almeida Júnior also was interested in depicting female figures within the studio space, although he added an element of sensuality to his works of art by depicting nude or partially-undressed figures.

José Ferreira Almeida Junior, O Descanso do Modelo (The Model's Rest), 1882

José Ferreira Almeida Junior, O Descanso do Modelo (The Model’s Rest), 1882

Also like Chase, Almeida Júnior includes a female figure in an artist’s studio that is surrounded by exotic objects. The decorative and exotic nature of the fertile female body is emphasized through the partially-undressed female figure; her exposed, curvy form is placed in the center of the composition for the viewer to immediately appreciate. Although I do feel like Chase’s female figures have much more subjecthood and individual personality than Almeida Júnior’s sensuous model in this painting (we can’t even see her face!), in both instances the female figure helps to heighten the exoticism of the artist’s luxurious objects found within the studio space.

I think that Almeida Júnior especially focuses on the sexual and sensual associations of the female model within the studio space with another painting, O Importuno (shown below).2 Although Almeida Júnior does not depict the female model with exposed flesh in this work of art, the subject of the cowering model in underclothes (presumably hiding because someone has knocked on the door) suggests an element of sexuality and even scandal. And, once again, the decorative female form seems to be associated with exoticism and luxury: the model hides behind a richly embroidered tapestry, while she stands next to an Oriental rug and fur rug pelt.

José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, "O Importuno ("Inopportune"), 1898

José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, “O Importuno (“Inopportune”), 1898

While both of Chase and Almeida Júnior depict the female figure within luxuriously-decorated interiors, I feel like there are some differences. Chase tends to focus more on the collection objects within the studio space, and he seems to add the female figure as another decorative element. It almost seems to me like Chase places more focus on his collection; the female figure is ancillary, yet symbolically important. On the other hand, I think that Almeida Júnior wants to focus more on the suggestive interactions between the model and artist, and he uses the luxurious interior to heighten those connections between the female form and exoticism. Do you agree?

Do you know of any other 19th century artists who were interested in depicting the female form within an studio filled with exotic luxury items? Probably Gustave Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio; A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Artistic and Moral Life (1854-55) would best be seen in opposition to the approach taken by Chase and Almeida Júnior. Even though Courbet depicts an undressed nude female model in the center of this Realist painting, the crowded space and drab, brown background don’t hint at luxury or exoticism to me!

1 Keith L. Bryant, Jr., William Merritt Chase: A Genteel Bohemian (Columbia/London: University of Missouri Press, 1991), 43-62.

2 For further discussion of the eroticism found in this painting and “O Descanso do Modelo” see Daryle Williams, “Peculiar Circumstances of the Land: Artists and Models in 19th Century Brazilian Slave Society,” in Art History 35, no. 4, September 2012: 23-24.


Book Review: “From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo’s David”

Michelangelo, "David," 1501-1504. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of Rico Heil.

Michelangelo, “David,” 1501-1504. Marble, 17′ tall. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of Rico Heil

This summer I’ve found it more convenient to read eBooks for a variety of reasons, including convenience while I travel. I just finished reading a brand-new book From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo’s David by A. Victor Coonin. I really enjoyed reading this book; it is written in a very engaging and approachable way. The book discusses the history of Michelangelo’s “David,” including the various locations where the sculpture either was intended to be placed or actually placed.

Additionally, the book discusses the famous sculpture’s impact on society and culture over the centuries. I especially liked the chapter which discussed the cultural impact which the David has had on artists, activist groups, and other types of people and communities. It was neat to read about ways in which the David has been recreated and also “cloned” in visual culture, including Banksy’s sculpture from the Banksy vs. the Bristol Museum exhibition in 2009.

I learned a lot of new things about Michelangelo’s “David” when reading this book. There are a lot of interesting tidbits and facts that have sparked my curiosity, and I intend to do a lot of follow-up research on the ideas that Coonin presented. For now, though, I want to highlight several things from this book that I found particularly interesting:

  • Before reading this book I knew that Michelangelo’s “David” originally was intended to adorn a spur above the tribune outside the Florence Cathedral, but I didn’t know that the original plan for the spurs included a whole sculptural program with twelve freestanding, life-sized figures of Old Testament prophets.1 (This is particularly interesting to me, given my own research on Aleijadinho’s twelve sculptures of Old Testament prophets outside Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos in Brazil.)
  • Four sculptures were created for the Florence Cathedral series of prophets before Michelangelo was born: Isaiah (1408) by Antonio and Nanni di Banco; David (1408-09) by Donatello; the gigantic multi-media sculpture Joshua (c. 1410) by Donatello; and a gigantic statue by Antonio di Duccio which probably depicted the prophet Daniel (1464-65). Donatello’s David sculpture may be lost, but some scholars think that it might be Donatello’s David in the Bargello Museum or perhaps another bearded prophet in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo collection.2  We We know Isaiah was placed a cathedral spur, but when Donatello’s David was completed, Isaiah was taken down and neither sculpture remained on the exterior. It could be that the life-size sculptures were too small to be seen when placed up high.
  • After Isaiah and Donatello’s David were made, an oversize sculpture (called the “giant” or “White Colossus”) of Joshua was made out of brick, clay and gesso (which was whitewashed to give the appearance of marble).3  This sculpture remained in place for several centuries, and we can get an idea of its original placement from a 17th century print by Israel Silvestre (see print detail). Several decades later, Agostino di Duccio created a similar giant (probably a figure of Daniel) out of terracotta in 1464-65 (which is now lost, but does appear on a view of the Cathedral printed in 1584).4
  • I knew that Michelangelo’s “David” was created from a discarded piece of marble (which was thought to be unable to be turned into a sculpture). However, before reading this book I didn’t know that the discarded marble actually was intended to be for the series of twelve Old Testament prophets, too. This marble was quarried in 1464 by Agostino di Duccio, and seems to have been roughly outlined into some anthropomorphic form before it ultimately was abandoned.5
  • In addition to the famous marble sculpture, Michelangelo also created a bronze David, but this sculpture was composed a bit differently. Although this sculpture no longer exists, we can get a semblance of Michelangelo’s working process for the sculpture from a study drawing. We also know more about the final appearance from a drawing of the sculpture by Rubens.
  • The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin really didn’t like Michelangelo’s David at all. He wrote, “What does Michelangelo put forth as his ideal of youthful beauty? A gigantic hobbledehoy, no longer a boy and not yet a man, at the age when the body stretches, which the size of the limbs does not appear to match the enormous hands and feet…Then we have the unpleasant attitude, hard and angular, and the hideous triangle between the legs. Not a single concession has been made to the line of beauty.”6
  • Michelangelo’s David was attacked in 1991 by Pietro Cannata, a mentally-instable visitor who came into the Galleria dell’Accademia. Cannata’s hammer (which had been hidden in his jacket) severed the second toe of the statue’s left foot.7
  • After New York City was attacked on September 11, 2001, the city of Florence offered to send a copy of the David to be placed at Ground Zero. This offer never materialized for some reason, but the gesture suggests how much the David has come to represent hope.8

My only main critique of this book is in the small size and low quality of the resolution for several of the images, which I realize may be an inevitable result of reading an eBook instead of a printed publication. Sometimes it was difficult to see what Coonin was trying to point out in the images because of their small size, and enlarging the images on my iPad made the pictures look very grainy and pixelated. But I did like that there were a lot of images and that they were in color. I assume (and would hope) that the images are more clear in the printed version of the text.

Overall, however, I highly recommend this book. From Marble to Flesh can appeal to all kinds of people, not just art historians. Coonin writes in an easy-to-read manner, but also takes time to define any art history term that is necessary for the reader to understand. I’m excited about all of the things that I learned in this book, and I think anyone interested in Renaissance art or cultural studies will be excited about this book, too.

Thank you to Alexandra Korey and The Florentine Press for providing a review copy of this book.

1 A. Victor Coonin, From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo’s David (Florence: Florentine Press, 2014), 26, ePub for iBooks (vertical orientation).

2 Ibid., 34-37.

3 Ibid., 38.

4 Ibid., 48-49.

5 Ibid., p. 63.

6 Heinrich Wölfflin, The Art of the Italian Renaissance: A Handbook for Students and Travelers (New York and London: 1903), 54-56.

7 Coonin, 16.

8 Ibid., 320.



This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.