Unkempt Artists

Photograph of Antoni Guardi, March 15, 1878. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Lately I’ve been listening to episodes of the podcast Stuff You Missed in History ClassEarlier this week I listened to an episode on the architect Antoni Gaudi (shown in his younger years above), who is best known for buildings like Casa Milà, and the yet-unfinished church La Sagrada Familia. In the latter part of the podcast, I was surprised to hear about the circumstances surrounding Gaudi’s death. As Gaudi became older in age, he began to care less about his personal appearance and looked rather disheveled, albeit that he devoted care and attention to his work project at La Sagrada Familia. (Gaudi also appears to have been camera-shy during his later years, because I couldn’t find any photographs of him in such a disheveled state!).

After leaving the La Sagrada Familia work site on June 7, 1926, Gaudi was struck by a tram. Due to his disheveled appearance, people at the scene did not recognize the famous architect and the taxi drivers refused to drive a vagabond to the hospital. (The taxi drivers were subsequently fined.) Since Gaudi was not immediately helped (and also was ultimately taken to a pauper’s hospital), by the time he was found by his friends he was in very poor condition. He died three days after the accident, on June 10, 1926. His funeral was a very large affair in the city of Barcelona, and he was buried in the crypt of La Sagrada Familia.

If Gaudi had not been mistaken for a vagabond, perhaps he could have received better medical attention and his life would have been spared! What a tragedy!

This story made me think about other instances in which artists have been described as unkempt or disheveled in their appearance, including those Renaissance artists written about by Vasari. I realize that by writing this post I am fostering the “artist-genius” construct in a way (in the sense that these artists are creative nonconformists who care more about the appearance of their art than their own appearance), but it still is interesting to consider. Here are a few particular examples that I wanted to highlight:

  • Parmigianino: Vasari writes that Parmigianino’s obsession with alchemy affected the artist’s personal appearance, “changing [him] from a dainty and gentle person into an almost savage man with long and unkempt beard and locks, a creature quite different from his other self.”
  • Vasari writes that Gherardi was very unconcerned about his personal appearance, who would wear his cloak inside out or two different types of shoes. When Duke Cosimo de Medici questioned Gherardi on his inside-out cloak, Gherardi, responded, “…but let your Excellency look at what I paint and not my manner of dressing.”2 The Duke responded by sending Gherardi a reversible cloak, so the cloak could never be inside-out!
  • Perhaps given Van Gogh’s emotional health issues, it is unsurprising that this artist is described as unkempt. However, I was interested to learn that Van Gogh seemed to deliberately dress in an unkempt fashion. I was about to write that is seems contradictory for one to consciously try to appear unkempt, but upon second thought, it seems like a lot of fashion trends strive for just that effect!
Moritz Nahr, Gustav Klimt in front of the entrance to his studio at Josefstädter Strasse 21, 1912.

Moritz Nahr, Gustav Klimt in front of the entrance to his studio at Josefstädter Strasse 21, 1912.

  • Gustave Klimt is described as having a long, disheveled beard. It seems fairly groomed in the photograph above, but I wanted to draw attention to the floor-length smock that Klimt would typically wear when he was painting in his studio (see above). Perhaps Klimt was not as disheveled and unkempt as some of other artists mentioned here, but his mode of dress was a little bizarre, to say the least (especially since he typically did not wear anything else underneath the smock!). Oddly, he posed for many photographs dressed in this smock, including one of him in a boat!.

What other artists do you know of that are described as unkempt or disheveled in their appearance?

1 See Paul Barolsky, Why Mona Lisa Smiles and Other Tales by Vasari (Penn State Press, 2010), p. 28. Available online HERE.

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Guest Post: Artistic Depictions of Card Games between 1880 and 1980

Editor’s note: I was recently contacted by Sophie Jackson, a gaming journalist and writer. Sophie wrote an article which featured a several paintings with depictions of card games. I had never seen some of these paintings before, which so it was fun to discover them through Sophie’s article. Although I rarely feature guest posts from outsiders, I feel like this article fits well with my blog (I’m reminded of when I set out on a quest to find depictions of laundresses), and I’m happy to feature Sophie’s post here.

Artistic Depictions of Card Games between 1880 and 1980

by Sophie Jackson

From Caravaggio to Picasso, Boulogne to Cézanne, the depiction of card games in major works of art has become an increasingly popular subject of study amongst critics. Many have focused on how the controversial but enduring topic of gambling and its place in society has, as with all major social issues, been examined by artists in various ways throughout the centuries. These artworks offer us unique insight into the spread of specific games, the changing manner in which they’re played and – in the case of games such as poker – the legal history. Inspired by Francesco Esposito’s original article, this piece seeks to comment on individual artistic depictions of card games over a time period of one hundred years, starting with Gustave Caillebotte’s ‘Game of Bezique’ from 1880.

Gustave Caillebotte, "The Bezique Game," 1880

Gustave Caillebotte, “Game of Bezique,” 1880

Born into a wealthy family, Caillebotte was brought up in Paris and pursued a career in painting after returning home from the Franco-Prussian war. His art typically depicted the intimate, every-day ongoings you might find in a 19th century upper-class household.1 Caillebotte’s subjects were usually engaged in some leisurely activity, whether it be piano playing, sewing or high tea. Bezique was a popular card game in Paris during the latter half of the 1800s, deriving from its earlier variant, ‘Piquet.’ In Caillebotte’s Game of Bezique, a group of men are crowded around a card table in observation of the trick-taking game being played between the younger and older gentlemen.

Caillebotte is particularly famed for his ability to portray a perspective of depth in his paintings, a quality especially prominent in his paintings of balcony and window views. Though not as notable in Game of Bezique, the man seated on the sofa in the distance certainly contributes a depth perspective to the painting, as he seems far removed from the action and somewhat generally out of place. Perhaps he does not know how to play, or maybe there is a more metaphorical purpose to his inclusion. Perhaps his presence symbolises a depressive state which renders him incapable of enjoying social and trivial activities such as a card game amongst friends.

John George Brown, "Bluffing," 1885

John George Brown, “Bluffing,” 1885

Though Brown had himself endured the hardships of an impoverished childhood, the street urchins depicted in his paintings were always cheery and healthy-looking. Paintings of anything too grim or sordid would have been unpopular with the upperclass, to which the majority of Brown’s commissioners belonged. In this particular painting we see two poor children, with ripped clothes and dirty feet, deeply immersed in a card game. The title Bluffing might suggest the game is some variation of poker; however the boys could also be playing ‘cheat.’ The mischievous and smug look on the boy to the left indicates he is the one ‘bluffing,’ whilst the other boy frowns with frustration as he looks down upon his cards. The pale and plain background focuses our eyes on the boys and their cards – indeed, the boys themselves seem totally absorbed by the game. Brown was known to have said he painted underprivileged boys because he, too, “was once a poor lad like them.”2 A pack of cards would have offered plenty of pastime for poor children without many toys. Perhaps Brown had fond childhood memories of playing cards on the streets.

Albert Beck Wenzell, "A Showdown," 1895

Albert Beck Wenzell, “A Showdown,” 1895

Wenzell’s paintings typically depicted scenes of wealth and optimism, reflecting the Belle Epoque age in which he lived. His subjects and setting were fantastically exaggerated with opulent detail and radiant colours, accurately capturing the wave of content that moved across the West at that time. Wenzell had himself grown up in a wealthy environment and been educated in Paris and Munich. Painting what he knew, Wenzell portrayed the luxurious and somewhat hedonistic lifestyle of the era’s upperclass. The artist was usually commissioned by rich American families who wanted artwork that depicted casual yet glamorous scenes. Wenzell therefore focused on beautiful, fashionably clad women interacting with older gentlemen in a familiar home setting.3 In A Showdown, however, Wenzell portrays only men, chewing cigars and dressed in business suits, engaged in what appears to he be the later stages of a poker game. Special attention should be given to the body language of all players. It seems almost as if the men are attempting to adopt a relaxed pose to ease the tension, but end up looking especially rigid as a result. The gentlemen to the far right looks particularly distressed, whilst the gentlemen to the left is slouching so far back in his chair that he looks uncomfortable. The painting’s title A Showdown confirms the confrontational and competitive nature of the scene. In poker, ‘showdown’ is the term used to describe the requirement for final players to show their hands at the end of the game. Clearly, a dramatic moment is about to unfold.

William Holbrook Beard, ‘The Poker Game’, 1887

William Holbrook Beard, ‘The Poker Game’, 1887

Dogs aren’t the only animals to have been painted at the card table. American painter Beard had a fascination with nature and famously portrayed wild animals in a disturbingly humanistic manner.4 The Poker Game is particularly unsettling in its depiction of chimps in Renaissance or Baroque clothing, gathered around a table. Most of the chimps are deeply concentrated on the card game at stake, though the servant and monk merely observe. Another chimp seems to be advising one of the players, whose four cards in hand, along with a fifth being passed to him, would indicate they are playing a five-card draw. The dark, stone setting and candlelight seems to imply the scene takes place in a castle room. Perhaps the non-participating chimp to the far left is the king, watching his subjects play cards and drink wine.

Norman Rockwell, "The Bid," 1948

Norman Rockwell, “The Bid,” 1948

Rockwell’s influential art has undoubtedly become symbolic of American culture. Characterised by sunny colours and cheerful scenes, his illustrations depict sportsmen, industrial workers and the atomic family – all of whom in some way represented the American Dream. During the war, his paintings instilled a sense of righteousness and triumph, a sentiment with which the American government was keen to inspire people when they published Rockwell’s art as motivational posters. In The Bid, Rockwell depicts a casual and pleasant card game between friends in post-war America. The sandy floor, bright shades and sleeveless shirts of the women suggests the subjects are playing during the summer. Contrasting businessmen with a beach-like setting, Rockwell blends business with pleasure – reflective of the upper class lifestyle in late ’40s America. The mismatch of chairs is a charming detail, as it implies the seating was arranged hurriedly and without care, as if the card game was a spur-of-the-moment idea. Along with good company and good weather, the subjects in this postcard-esque painting are said to be enjoying a game of ‘Bridge.’

LeRoy Neiman, "Stud Poker," 1980

LeRoy Neiman, “Stud Poker,” 1980

The very distinctive style of LeRoy Neiman can be characterized by his brisk brush strokes and hazy colouring, a method which seemed to capture the motion of his subjects and atmosphere of his setting. There are few places as bright and bustling as a casino, which perhaps explains with Neiman chose Vegas as the setting for so many of his artworks. Titled simply Stud Poker, this lively depiction of players around a card table is curiously reminiscent of Monet’s gardens. Indeed, the colourful chips on the green card table might as well be lillies in a pond. When looking at the poker players in closer detail, one can start to differentiate the features of each character, most of whom appear to be formally-dressed men – with the exception of a red-headed woman. Vibrant, busy and modern; the impressionistic and expressionist Stud Poker is a perfect example of Neiman’s eccentric style.

Most fascinating, when comparing the depiction of card games in art, is a consideration of how these games can be said to transcend social class. Not only have card games been infallibly popular over the past centuries, but they have always appealed equally to peasants as they have to kings. Another aspect worth studying is how the type of card game depicted in art changes depending upon era and, at times, the nationality of the painter. One should also note how, in the last two 20th century paintings sampled above, there are women participating in the games. This marks a shift in social attitudes, reflecting the move from ‘gentlemen’s poker nights’ toward a tendency of more gender-inclusive games. The final facet worth considering is how the depiction of gambling in art has often hinted toward its legal status during the artist’s era. Whilst many popular works of art have portrayed betting activities taking place in dark back rooms, between shifty and drunken characters, paintings such as Neiman’s Stud Poker shows the incorporation of gambling into mainstream culture. In short, the depiction of card games, as seen in works of art, can offer us insight into the unique and fascinating role these social yet competitive games play in our society.

[1] Gustave Caillebotte, The Complete Works, Early Life, 2009

[2] Birmingham Museum of Art, ‘Three for Five’ by John George Brown, 2012

[3] Society of Illustrators, Hall of Fame, Albert Beck Wenzell, 2005

[4] Art.com, Wiki, William Holbrook Beard, 2013

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Wayne Thiebaud and Jim Gaffigan

Wayne Thiebaud, "Three Donuts," 1994. Oil on canvas, 11 x 24 in. (27.9 x 35.6 cm.)

Wayne Thiebaud, “Three Donuts,” 1994. Oil on canvas, 11 x 24 in. (27.9 x 35.6 cm.)

I’ve been thinking about Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings today, mostly because I have eaten way too many chocolate doughnuts over the past few days. Thiebaud doesn’t have as many paintings of doughnuts as he does of cakes and other sweets, but he does have a few (such as the one shown above, or this one of doughnuts and cupcakes).

The thing that I love most about Thiebaud’s paintings of desserts is his handling of the paint itself. Thiebaud applies the paint thickly; it almost feels like he’s painting with frosting itself (see detail below). The desserts have a true sense of tactility, which I think makes them seem even more desirable as tasty treats! (I guess it’s a good thing that Cookie Monster didn’t see a Thiebaud painting in when he visited art museums in New York earlier this year, or he would have tried to eat it!)

Wayne Theibaud, detail "Folsom Street Fair Cake," Crocker Art Museum, 2013. Image courtesy torbakhopper via Flickr and Creative Commons License

Wayne Theibaud, detail “Folsom Street Fair Cake,” Crocker Art Museum, 2013. Image courtesy torbakhopper via Flickr and Creative Commons License

Thinking about Wayne Thiebaud has also reminded me of Jim Gaffigan’s standup comedy, which often is about his love of delicious-yet-unhealthy food. Gaffigan must not have been aware of Thiebaud’s art before he made his joke about artists and still life paintings. This is what Gaffigan says in his show Obsessed about fruit (a healthy type of food that he dislikes!):

“…we haven’t wanted [to eat] fruit for hundreds of years. That’s why there’s so many paintings in museums of just bowls of fruit. Because you could start painting a bowl of fruit, you could leave for a couple of days, come back, and no one would have touched the bowl of fruit. But if you’re painting a doughnut? You better finish it up in the first sitting! You can’t even take a bathroom break – ‘Hey, what happened to my doughnut?’ Your friends are [like], ‘Oh, some fat guy came in here! Anyway, I’m going to get some milk and take a nap.’ That’s why there’s no doughnut art. It’s sad, really. When’s the last time you saw a painting of a doughnut?” (Audio clip of Obsessed found HERE, starting at 2:34).

To be fair though, it’s good to acknowledge that Wayne Thiebaud paints his doughnuts and cakes “from his imagination and from long-ago memories of bakeries and diners.”1  So, maybe Thiebaud just likes to eat doughnuts and cakes too, and he doesn’t have the patience to study them! Thiebaud does, however, also paint from life: he paints human figures (such as his wife Betty Jean, who is shown on the left in Two Kneeling Figures), and also sketches California landscapes outdoors and then returns to his studio to paint.

Anyhow, do you know of other images of doughnuts, cakes or other treats in art, besides those by Thiebaud? I thought of a few:

1 Cathleen McGuigan, “Wayne Thiebaud Is Not a Pop Artist!” Smithsonian (Feburary 2011). Available online: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/wayne-thiebaud-is-not-a-pop-artist-57060/?no-ist

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“A History of the World” Snippets

For the past few months, I have been listening to podcasts of A History of the World in 100 Objects while I exercise. The clips are engaging and interesting, and they provide some distraction for me while I run. I’ve learned and pondered a lot of things in the process, and I wanted to write down a few snippets of things that have stood out of me in the various episodes I have heard.

Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 BCE. Wooden box with inlaid mosaic

Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 BCE. Wooden box with inlaid mosaic. British Museum.

The Standard of Ur: I first learned about the Standard of Ur when I was in high school, I think. But I’ve never thought much about the size of this object. Neil MacGregor describes this as “the size of a small briefcase” which looks “almost like a giant bar of Toblerone.”1

I’ve never realized that this famous object was so small! Since it has the nickname of a “standard,” I just assumed that it was a larger size. I also was interested to learn that the inlaid stone and shell come from various locations: Afghanistan (lapis lazuli), India (red marble), and shell (the Gulf).2 These various mediums indicate that the Sumerians had an extensive trade network.

If you are interested in learning more about the Standard of Ur and theories surrounding its original function, see HERE.

Head of Augustus, 27-25 BC. British Museum. Image courtesy Aiwok via Wikipedia.

Bronze Head of Augustus, 27-25 BC. British Museum. Image courtesy Aiwok via Wikipedia.

Head of Augustus: I enjoyed learning about this head because it reminded me of discussions that I hold with my students about how ancient art was/is mutilated and stolen in times of war. This statue is no different. It once was part of a complete statue that was on the border of modern Egypt and Sudan. However, an army from the Sudanese kingdom of Meroë invaded this area in 25 BC (led by “the fierce one-eyed queen Candace”), and this army took the statue back to Meroë.3 The head was buried beneath a temple that was dedicated to this particular Sudanese victory, which meant that every person walking up the stairs to the temple would insult the emperor by stepping on his head.4 Even today, sand of the African desert is visible on the sculpture.

The David Vases, 1351 CE. Porcelain. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

The David Vases, 1351 CE. Porcelain. British Museum. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

The David VasesI begin listening to this episode without any prior knowledge of these vases, so I was surprised to learn that these were from China (I assumed when reading the episode title that the vases had some nude figure which depicted the biblical David, à la Michelangelo or Donatello.) Nope! These Chinese vases are named after their most famous owner, Sir Percival David.

The thing that is most interesting to me is that, since these vases are dated 13 May 1351, we know that this level of fine quality blue-and-white porcelain predates the Ming dynasty (the dynasty from 1358-1644, which is typically associated with fine blue and white porcelain). In fact, we also know that the blue and white tradition is not Chinese in origin, but Middle Eastern! Neil MacGregor explains how Chinese potters used Iranian blue pigment cobalt (which was known in China as huihui qing – “Muslim blue”).5 Interestingly, Chinese artists even used Iranian blue pigment for exports sent to the Middle East, to meet the Iranian demand for blue and white ware after the Mongol invasion destroyed pottery industries in the area.It’s interesting to me that Iranian blue traveled to China, only to travel back to its area of origin as export pottery decoration.

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, completed 1248. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, completed 1248. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Sainte-Chapelle and the Crown of Thorns: This chapel was not featured in the podcast specifically, but it was discussed at length in the episode for the Holy Thorn Reliquary. Sainte-Chapelle is a church that was built basically to be a reliquary, to house the Crown of Thorns. Surprisingly, the Crown of Thorns cost more than three times the amount paid to build Sainte-Chapelle!7  Today the Crown of Thorns is housed in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris; it was moved there by Napoleon in the 19th century.

I was particularly intrigued by the discussion of the Crown of Thorns coming to Paris, and I wanted to learn more on my own. Louis IX dressed in a simple tunic (without royal robes) and walked through the streets barefoot while he carried the relic. The barefoot king is depicted in the Relics of the Passion window in Sainte-Chapelle. I also learned through my own research that the Crown of Thorns, while on its way to Paris, was housed in a cathedral in Sens overnight. This moment was honored in a window from Tours, which depicts Louis IX holding the thorns on a chalice.

The other thing I found interesting about the arrival of the Crown of Thorns is that this elevated the status of France among the Christian countries of Europe. “When the crown arrived, it was described as being on deposit with the king of France until the Day of Judgment, when Christ would return to collect it and the kingdom of France would become the kingdom of heaven.”8

Are there any episodes/chapters from A Short History of the World in 100 Objects that you particularly enjoy? Please share!

1 Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects (New York: Penguin Group, 2011), p. 72.

2 Ibid., 72-73.

3 Ibid., 225 

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid, 413. 

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 425. Sainte-Chapelle cost 40,000 livres to build. The Crown of Thorns was bought from the Venetians for 135,000 livres (400 kilograms of gold). MacGregor writes that The Crown of Thorns was “probably the most valuable thing in Europe at the time.”

8 Ibid., 427.

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Carpet Pages and Islamic Prayer Rugs

Carpet Page from the Book of Kells, folio 33r, c. 800. Painted illumination on vellum

Carpet Page from the Book of Kells, folio 33r, c. 800. Painted illumination on vellum. Image courtesy Wikipedia

This morning, in preparation for class, I was looking at a digital copy of the Book of Kells. I previously have written about how I think it is important to consider the exuberant decoration of the Chi-Rho-Iota page (known as the “Incarnation” page, folio 34r) in relation to the accompanying joyful text, which announces the birth of Christ. As I was looking at the digital copy of the book further, it struck me how this design is significant in relation to the context of the Book of Kells itself, since the Chi-Rho-Iota page is directly preceded by a carpet page (see above).

Carpet pages (sometimes called “cross-carpet pages”) are illuminated manuscripts which have a design that is generally in the shape of a rectangle (filling the outline of the page itself), with interlace and decorative geometric forms woven within the general rectangular form. Such pages appear in Christian, Islamic, and Jewish illuminated manuscripts. Usually, there is hardly any text on these pages, or no text at all. The designs of these manuscripts usually are quite symmetrical and typically have a strong vertical axis (and sometimes horizontal axes as well, which often forms the shape of a cross). There are several possible origins for this type of carpet design, but I am drawn to the idea that these “carpets” are reminiscent of Islamic prayer rugs, for I think they may have also had a similar function: these carpets can serve as an aid to meditation in the sense that they alert the reader that the subsequent Gospel text is important, and the reader should mentally prepare before looking at the following pages within the book or codex.1

To see the relationship between carpet pages and other pages in the text, consider how the carpet page from the Book of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels precedes the incipit page (see image of these two pages HERE). This is a really complex and gorgeous carpet page (see below), which includes snake-like creatures whose mouths clamp down on their own writhing bodies (see this image detail).

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Matthew, Cross-Carpet page, folio 26v, early 8th century CE.

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Matthew, Cross-Carpet page, folio 26v, early 8th century CE.

Here are some of my other favorite carpet pages:

Lindisfarne Gospels, Carpet Page for Book of John, folio 210v, early 8th century

Lindisfarne Gospels, Carpet Page for Book of John, folio 210v, early 8th century

Lindisfarne, Carpet Page, Book of Mark, folio 94v, early 8th century

Lindisfarne, Carpet Page, Book of Mark, folio 94v, early 8th century

Do you have any favorite carpet pages? If you know of any other connections between carpet pages and Islamic prayer rugs, please share! I did find an abstract for a lecture that explored the possibility of how illuminated Islamic manuscripts may have factored into the production of physical carpets themselves, although these historical connections are still unclear.

1 Other origins for carpet pages include contemporary metalwork, Coptic manuscripts, and Roman floor mosaics in post-Roman Britain. See Robert G. Calkins, Illuminated Manuscripts of the Middle Ages (Cornell University Press, 1983), p. 53.

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About

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.