Tapestries and Social Metaphors

About two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear the contemporary artist Ann Hamilton give a public lecture. This lecture was absolutely fantastic, and I have been thinking about it ever since. Hamilton’s work is very compelling to me, since her installations and pieces often incorporate textiles or fabrics. These textiles and fabrics, which are comprised of single threads woven or knit together, serve as a beautiful social metaphor for Hamilton (as a combination of the singular “I” and plural “we”). Since listening to this lecture, I’ve been thinking of several ways that tapestries (and even the interconnectedness of the Internet as a “web”) can relate to this social metaphor.

Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, Park Armory, New York, 2012-2013. Photo by James Ewing.

Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, Park Armory, New York, 2012-2013. Photo by James Ewing.

The interconnectedness of individuals is especially apparent to me in Ann Hamilton’s installation “the event of a thread” (Park Armory, New York, 5 December 2012 – 6 January 2013). While there are several components to this installation, I’m particularly drawn to the immense white fabric and swings which were set up in part of the space. The fabric inherently serves as a reference to Hamilton’s social metaphor, because it is a textile, but this idea of the interconnectedness of people especially was emphasized through the swings that are attached to the fabric. Each swing was connected to another swing through a system of pulleys. As people swung back and forth, the white tapestry rose and fell to match the rhythm of their movements. As a result, the tapestry served more of a visual image of the connectedness of people rather than of any sort of barrier between them. You can see some videos of this installation HERE and HERE.

I love the idea of a tapestry as something which expresses the connection between people. Since this lecture by Ann Hamilton, I’ve been thinking about ways that other tapestries give visual evidence of social collaboration and interconnectedness. One example which has stuck out to me is the series of tapestries that Raphael designed for the Sistine Chapel. These ten tapestries serve as a unique example of social and geographic connectedness: they were designed as cartoons by Raphael in Italy between 1515-1516, but were woven in Brussels in the workshop of Peter van Aelst between 1516 and 1521. Given that some areas of Europe were disrupted by the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation at this time, I think that these tapestries also serve as a unique metaphor of Catholic solidarity between Belgium (which was part of the Seventeen Provinces of the Low Countries at this time) and the Vatican.

Raphael and PIeter van Alest, "The Miraculous Draught of Fishes," from the Raphael Tapestry series, c. 1519. Tapestry in silk and wool, with silver-gilt threads, height 490 cm, width 441 cm. Musei Vaticani, Vatican

Raphael and Pieter van Alest, “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes,” from the Raphael Tapestry series, c. 1519. Tapestry in silk and wool, with silver-gilt threads, height 490 cm, width 441 cm. Musei Vaticani, Vatican. Image courtesy the Web Gallery of Art

Beyond the woven medium itself, these tapestries also suggest a longing for people to interconnect themselves with the biblical and classical past. I’m particularly intrigued by The Miraculous Draught of Fishes tapestry (shown above), which is decorated with a border that recalls the appearance of relief carvings on classical sarcophagi, but depicts two episodes from the life of Pope Leo X. Additionally, the main scene depicts a biblical event, but includes references contemporary to the Renaissance period. In the back left corner of the tapestry, for example, there is a depiction of Vatican hill with the towers along the wall of Leo XI. Saint Peter’s also is depicted as under construction (a very anachronistic inclusion when one considers how Simon Peter is only just being called as a “fisher of men” in the foreground!).

Raphael and Pieter van Alest, detail of Vatican hill within “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes,” from the Raphael Tapestry series, c. 1519.

So, the creation and appearance of the Raphael tapestries can relate to the interconnectedness of people, either across geographic boundaries or historical divides. From a reverse perspective, we can also see that the displacement of these tapestries serve as evidence of social rifts. During the Sack of Rome in 1527, troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V looted and pillaged the city, and thousands upon thousands of people were murdered. These tapestries tie into this event, since they were stolen and not returned until the 1550s (although only seven tapestries made their way back). The remaining tapestries were stolen again when French troops entered Rome at the end of the 18th century. It is interesting to me how one of these tapestries was reportedly burned in order for people to try and gain access to the precious material of the silver-gilt threads.1 Therefore, the material which once helped to bind this tapestry together was intentionally destroyed when people metaphorically pulled apart from each other.

All of these thoughts about tapestries and social metaphors have caused me to think also about the Internet as a tapestry which binds people together. My friend, the late Hasan Niyazi, was the best “weaver” of people via the Internet that I have met thus far. As an art history blogger with a particular passion for Raphael, Hasan sought to not only share his research and ideas regarding art, but also to connect the online art historical community together. His untimely death has caused an absence which is still keenly felt among art history bloggers. I think that we are still seeking for ways to make sure that we keep Hasan’s tapestry together. This post about social metaphors and Raphael’s tapestries is dedicated to Hasan’s memory, especially in light of Raphael’s birthday earlier this week (April 6th).

1 There are several different accounts that report when some of these missing tapestries could have been burned. Passavant suggests that one specific tapestry was burned in near the end of the 18th century (incorrectly written in the text as 1789 instead of the 1798 French invasion of Rome). See Johann David Passavant, “Raphael of Urbino and His Father Giovanni Santi,” p. 298, available online HERE).

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Presence and Absence at the Gardner Museum

My son and I looking into the Garden Court at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, March 2015

My son and I looking into the Garden Court at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, March 2015

My family and I recently returned from a trip to Boston. One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Boston was to better understand and analyze the gallery space in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Long-time readers of this blog may recall my fascination with this American art collector; several years ago I wrote a post on how Mrs. Gardner (called “Mrs. Jack” by her friends) is a “female subject” that visitors encounter when they visit the space.

As I analyzed the museum space last week, I do feel like my observations about a “female subject” were justified. In fact, in a broader sense, I think that Isabella’s subjecthood and presence were very much part of the museum, despite her obvious absence (Isabella died in 1924). On one hand, the whole curation of the museum is an indication of Isabella’s presence, since she stipulated in her will that the objects in the museum should be kept just as she had arranged them. But objects throughout the museum, specifically the “palace” (the original museum), also hinted at the collector’s presence and absence.

Roman marble throne, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, n.d.

Roman marble throne, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, n.d.

Upon entering the Garden Court of the museum, I first became aware of Isabella’s simultaneous presence and absence through a printed guidebook that is placed in the garden to orient visitors. The guidebook specifically explains that Mrs. Gardner liked to sit in the Roman marble throne (shown above), among other representations of classical figures and goddesses. The guidebook then presents the question, “Could it be that [Mrs. Gardner] was setting a place for herself in the company of these powerful women?”1

For me, this brief inclusion in the guide helped to build up the idea of Isabella’s presence within the space, by drawing attention to the fact that she physically sat among her works of art. However, the guide simultaneously draws attention to the fact that the marble throne is now vacant, without a sitter, which is also made apparent by the guide’s discussion of Mrs. Gardner in the past tense. So, this marble throne gave off a presence and a void.

Detail of Titian Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Detail of Titian Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Mrs. Gardner’s presence and absence was also included in the museum in other ways as well. One of the most interesting inclusions for me was not through a painting or sculpture, but a piece of fabric. In the Titian Room, on the wall just underneath Titian’s Rape of Europa, Mrs. Gardner placed a piece of silk that was taken from a gown which was designed for her by Worth of Paris. A catalog for the museum explains that the color and tassel pattern complement the nearby end tables, but I think that this silk fabric suggests much more.2 In an indirect way, this silk fabric hints at an embodiment of Mrs. Gardner and her physical presence, since she herself wore this fabric as a ball gown. However, the idea of absence is implied in two ways: 1) the fabric is not part of a dress, and therefore not part of Mrs. Gardner’s body or presence and 2) the current fabric displayed is a reproduction, not the original that was once physically associated with Mrs. Gardner.

Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1887-1888. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1887-1888. Oil on canvas, 190 x 80 cm. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Probably the most obvious indication of Mrs. Gardner’s presence and absence throughout the museum are the portraits of her which are scattered throughout various rooms. Some examples are Mrs. Gardner in White in the Macknight Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice in the Short Gallery, as well as Study for Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice in the Blue Room. These portraits suggest the presence of the sitter through their visual reproduction of Mrs. Gardner’s likeness, but the portraits’ mere presence in the gallery space also suggests that they are substitutes for an actual person who is absent. Probably the most striking and poignant example of Mrs. Gardner’s presence is in the Gothic Room on the third floor of the museum, just as as the visitor is completing their survey of the museum as a whole. In this space is placed Sargent’s imposing Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1887-1888, shown above), which was painted when she was forty-seven years old.3 The painting is placed in the corner of the gallery (so it is the focal point of the room, regardless of which entrance is taken). After having subtle hints at both the presence and absence of the museum collector throughout the whole space, I felt like with this imposing, life-size portrait I was getting as close to the physical presence of Isabella as possible. I think a visitor could make no mistake as to who is the powerful benefactor who created and controlled their gallery experience, after being faced with this frontal, full-length portrait!

South Wall of the Dutch Room in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Room. The frame on the left held Rembrandt's "A Lady and Gentleman in Black" (1633) and the frame on the right held Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" (1633)

South Wall of the Dutch Room in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Room. The frame on the left held Rembrandt’s “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” (1633) and the frame on the right held Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” (1633)

On a side note, I’ll also just add that today the Gardner Museum embodies the idea of presence and absence in another way too: the empty frames for the stolen paintings in the Dutch Room are still on display, suggesting both a presence and unsettling void for these works.

Have you ever been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum? Can you think of other instances in which her presence and absence are simultaneously emphasized to the visitor?

1 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Garden Court guidebook, unpublished. March 2015.

2 The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: A Companion Guide and History, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 118. Frederick Worth designed this fabric around 1890.

3 Sargent also painted Isabella’s portrait in 1922 (titled “Mrs. Gardner in White”) it was painted three years after a stroke which paralyzed Isabella’s right side.

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French Art at the Exposition Universelle of 1889

Café Volpini poster, cover and front page for Volpini exhibition, 1889. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Café Volpini poster, cover and front page for Volpini exhibition, 1889. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

This week my students and I are discussing a show that Gauguin and his friends mounted in June 1889 at the Café des Artes (later known as the Café Volpini, after its owner). Gauguin and his friends, who failed to exhibit at the official art show that was mounted by the committee of the Exposition Universelle, decided to mount their own show at a venue on the grounds of the fair.  This café was located in an ideal location: it was right outside the Italian galleries from the Décennale exhibition (a show which was devoted to art from the past decade), and also near the Pavilion de la Presse.1 As a result, journalists were sure to pass by the café and see the art on display. Although the Café Volpini show was a flop from an economic standpoint, the artists must have gotten some exposure by being on the fair grounds, given that an overwhelmingly impressive number of people – 28 million! – visited the Exposition Universelle that year; the fair ran from May 6th until November 6th.2

After class yesterday, a student asked me whether any avant-garde artists (like the Impressionists) exhibited their work at the Palais des Beaux-Arts show at the Exposition Universelle. I thought I would address that question here, in order to showcase why Gauguin and his friends were not invited to exhibit at the Exposition Universelle. For the most part, conservative, juste milieu, academic (including “pompier”), and/or Naturalist (i.e. late Realist) painters were highlighted in the official show. There were only few Impressionists who exhibited work (see below), but overall the show largely ignored this artistic movement. It seems logical to me that Post-Impressionists like Gauguin would not have been invited to exhibit in this show, given that a small dose of Impressionism was barely palatable enough for the exhibition committee.3

To prepare for this post, I have been combing through two catalogs from the 1889 exposition: Catalogue général officiel and Catalogue général officiel; Exposition centennale de l’art français (1789-1889). French art was divided into two exhibitions, the “Exposition centennale de l’art français (1789-1889)” and the “Exposition Décennale de l’art français (1878 to 1889).” There are over six hundred paintings that appeared on display in the Palais des Beaux-Arts (not to mention sculpture, drawings, and prints), and I am only highlighting a few artists and paintings which I find to be of interest. Since there were so many conservative artists that monopolized the show, I will discuss a few of these first, and then highlight some of the more avant-garde and recent artists which were accepted to the official show.

Meissonier is one artist who is particularly praised by the international jury. Perhaps this praise reveals a bit of a bias, since Meissonier was serving as president of the jury for the fine arts division of the Exposition Universelle that year! Meissonier, who was seventy-four at the time, had nineteen works of art on display at the show. These works of art included L’Auberge au Pont de Poissy (shown below), which was painted the same year as the exhibition itself.

Meissonier, "L'Auberge au Pont de Poissy," 1889

Meissonier, “L’Auberge au Pont de Poissy,” 1889

Other paintings included in the show were Bouguereau’s La Jeunesse de Bacchus (The Youth of Bacchus, 1884) and Jules Bastien-Lepange’s Joan of Arc (1879). One of the prize winners of the Palais des Beaux-Arts show was  Léon-Augustin Lhermitte, who exhibited The Harvest (1874).

Alfred Stevens, "A Portrait of Parisian Celebrities" from "Panorama of the Century," 1889

Alfred Stevens, “A Portrait of Parisian Celebrities” from “Panorama of the Century,” 1889

Alfred Stevens, who was born in Belgium but moved to Paris in the 1840s, was another artist who was highlighted at the Exposition Universelle. However, Stevens was not featured in the retrospective fine arts exhibition, but received the commission to create a panoramic painting specifically for the Exposition Universelle of 1889. This painting, Panorama du Siecle (Panorama of the Century), was painted with the help of Henri Gervex. It was an astonishing 120 meters long and 6 meters high (in other words, the size of a football field)! The immense panorama was installed at the Tuileries during the Exposition Universelle. Unsurprisingly, Stevens was unable to secure a permanent place to display the panorama after the fair ended, so he cut the painting into sections and distributed them to shareholders. One of these sections is now titled A Portrait of Parisian Celebrities (shown above, more information HERE). A few other segments of the panorama can be seen HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Édouard Manet, "Boating," 1874. 38 1/4 x 51 1/4 in. (97.2 x 130.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Édouard Manet, “Boating,” 1874. 38 1/4 x 51 1/4 in. (97.2 x 130.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy Wikipedia. Exhibited as part of the “Exposition centennale de l’art français (1789-1889)” from May-November 1889.

Artists with more of a notorious reputation were invited to show their work, too, thanks to the influence of the critic Roger Marx.4 For example, Courbet had twelve paintings on display at the Centennial Exhibition, and Manet had fourteen paintings in that show. In addition to Boating (shown above), Manet also exhibited The Spanish Singer (an earlier work of art that I highlighted in a recent post). Manet first received critical success for The Spanish Singer, so it makes sense to me that this painting by Manet would be included in the centennial show. Unsurprisingly, his infamous Olympia painting was also shown. I think the inclusion of this painting really shows how accepting the French public had become of Realism by 1889, considering that this painting caused a scandal when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1865.

A few Impressionist paintings were on display as well. Monet had three paintings on display in the Centennial Exposition, listed as Les Tuileries, Vetheuil, and L’église de Vernon (read about the series for this latter painting HERE). Pissaro also had a work of art on display, Soleil d’hiver. Degas was invited to exhibit, but he declined the invitation.(Given the ambiguity of these titles in the catalog and the fact that Impressionists would often paint the same subject more than once, I haven’t been able to concretely pinpoint which specific paintings were exhibited. If anyone knows, please share!)

Gustave Moreau, "Jacob and the Angel," 1878. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Gustave Moreau, “Jacob and the Angel,” 1878. Image courtesy Wikipedia

I think that Gauguin and his colleagues would have been most interested having their show compete with the art that was displayed in the “Exposition Décennale de l’art français (1878 to 1889),” since this art would have been the most recent. And, as I mentioned earlier, the Italian galleries for the overall décennale exhibition were located near the Café des Artes (Café Volpini).

I haven’t found a catalog for the décannale show specifically – please share if you know where I can find one in print or digital format! I do know, though, that Moreau’s Jacob and the Angel (1874-1878) was part of this official show. I find this subject matter striking, given the context of Gauguin and the ongoing Cafe Volpini show, because of Gauguin’s interest in this biblical subject. Although Gauguin’s famous painting Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) was not included in the 1889 Café Volpini show, Gauguin had painted this work of art just a year previously. Perhaps he noticed Moreau’s painting on display and considered how the painting was different from his own interpretation of the subject matter. I wouldn’t be surprised if this painting prompted Gauguin to brood over the fact that his own painting was not on display!

Are there particular works of art from the 1889 Beaux-arts exhibition or Café Volpini show that stand out in your mind?

 1 Heather Lemonedes, “Paul Gauguin’s High Yellow Note: The ‘Volpini Suite,'”, p. 29. Available online HERE.

2 Gill Perry, “Exhibiting ‘les Indépendents': Gauguin and the Café Volpini Show,” in The Challenge of the Avant-Garde by Paul Wood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 180.

3 The unequal representation of the French artistic scene caught the attention of at least one writer who covered the 1889 exhibition: “Offrons-nous aujord’hui à un artiste quelque chose que ressemble à cette collaboration silencieuse et efficace? Analysez les éléments dont se compose un public d’exposition, écoutez les jugements contradictoires et les théories discordantes des critiques; voyez le désarroi de l’esthétique contemporaine et toutes les nuances d’opinions, de gouts et d’idéals, depuis M. Bougereau jusqu’à M. Degas, depuis M. Bonnat jusqu’à M. Manet, depuis M. Paul Flandrin jusqu’à M. Claude Monet, depuis M. Meissonier jusqu’à M. Raffaëlli. Chacun a son public, ses défenseurs ou ses contradicteurs, souvent également acharnés.” See Librairie Illustrée, L’Exposition de Paris 1889 p. 242. Available online HERE.

4 Lemonedes., p. 28. Available online HERE.

5 Degas refused to participate in group exhibitions after 1886, and the World Fair of 1889 was no exception. See Lemonedes, p. 28. See also Metropolitan Museum of Art, Edgar Degas (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988) p. 363. Available online HERE.

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Cleopatra and the Carpet Myth

Jean-Leon Gérôme, "Cleopatra and Caesar," 1866

Jean-Leon Gérôme, “Cleopatra and Caesar,” 1866

Today in class I showed my students the beginning of a short video clip by Sotheby’s about Gérôme’s Cleopatra and Caesar (shown above). The clip highlights how Cleopatra is depicted as having hidden in a rug (either a Persian or Turkish rug), which isn’t an accurate representation of what is described in Plutarch’s text. However, given the taste for exoticism in Orientalist art at the time, I can see why Gérôme’s opted to depict a carpet rug instead, despite the cultural inaccuracy and anachronism.

The video clip mentions how Gérôme’s painting has influence on Cecil B. DeMille, who directed Cleopatra (1937, starring Claudette Colbert). I can see how the inaccurate inclusion of a carpet could perhaps connect to this point, since a carpet rug was used to smuggle Cleopatra into Caesar’s presence in DeMille’s film (see image below). Similarly, a later version of Cleopatra which was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1963, starring Elizabeth Taylor) has a great scene which shows the queen dramatically and unceremoniously unrolled from a rug before Caesar (who is played by Rex Harrison). I can see why these filmmakers opted to depict a lavish carpet – it is more visually striking and dramatic than a sack used to hold bedclothes (as described by Plutarch).

Claudette Colbert in film "Cleopatra" (1937)

Claudette Colbert in film “Cleopatra” (1937)

To be fair, though, I want to highlight something about this “carpet myth.” While I think that Gérôme’s painting may have inspired 20th century filmmakers to portray Cleopatra with a carpet, other sources should be acknowledged too. I don’t think that this painting, which was completed in 1866, should be highlighted as the ultimate source for the myth. In fact, a 1770 translation of Plutarch by Langhorne introduced the word “carpet” instead of “sack of bedclothes.”1 A few decades after Gérôme’s painting was completed, George Bernard Shaw highlighted the carpet in his 1898 novel, Cleopatra and Caesar, by writing, “It is a Persian carpet – a beauty!”2

Do you know of other examples in art or popular culture that display Cleopatra with a carpet?

1 Christopher Pelling, Plutarch Caesar: Translated with an Introduction and Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 385.

2 Ibid.

 

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Manet’s Early Salon Submissions

I’m on a roll this week with my posts on 19th century art, aren’t I? I have been discussing Manet’s Le Déjuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) with my students over the past few days, particularly in how this painting caused a scandal when it was displayed at the Salon des Refusés in 1863. In that discussion, I had a student ask what was the first painting that Manet ever submitted to the Salon for consideration. I didn’t know that answer off the top of my head, so I looked up that information after class.

After a little research, I learned that The Absinthe Drinker (c. 1859, shown below) was submitted to the 1859 Salon, when Manet was twenty-seven years old. It was rejected almost unanimously by the committee, with only Eugene Delacroix voting in its favor. I can see why this painting was rejected. The painting looks rather unfinished, and the legs of the figure are quite awkward. The feet turn outward in an awkward way, so that it looks like the shoes are worn on the wrong feet! That being said, I can’t deny that I’m also drawn to the contrast of the black shoes and bottle with the light-yellow floor.

Édouard Manet, "The Absinthe Drinker," c. 1859

Édouard Manet, “The Absinthe Drinker,” c. 1859

Two years later, in 1861, Manet had two paintings accepted into the Salon for the first time. At this point, Manet was twenty-nine years old. One of these debut paintings was The Spanish Singer (1860, shown below). This also was the first work that brought Manet critical success and recognition; he actually won an honorable mention at the Salon for this painting.

Manet, "The Spanish Singer," 1860. Image courtesy WikiArt.

Manet, “The Spanish Singer,” 1860. Image courtesy WikiArt.

The other painting which was accepted into the Salon of 1861 was a portrait of Manet’s parents, Portrait of M. and Mme Auguste Manet (1860, shown below). This painting did not receive critical attention or favor, which makes sense to me. Madame Manet’s facial features are a bit awkward and asymmetrical (more so, than say, Manet’s Olympia), and the shading of her face seems a bit inconsistent.

Manet, "Portrait Of M. And Mme. Auguste Manet" (1860)

Manet, “Portrait Of M. And Mme. Auguste Manet” (1860)

It was fun for me to look into these paintings and see some works of art that preceded Manet’s more famous paintings like Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia. I think these earlier paintings are great examples of how Manet was influenced by Velasquez. I particularly thought of Velasquez’s The Water Carrier of Seville (1618-1622) when I looked at these early works, particularly in terms of the color palette, dramatic use of light, and the Caravaggesque background.

It was surprising for me to realize that Manet was in his late twenties when he started submitting paintings to the Salon. He achieved a lot of attention for his art (for better or for worse) fairly early in his life, especially considering that he was just thirty-one when Luncheon on the Grass was hung in the Salon des Refusés in 1863! (This same year, Manet married his old piano teacher, Suzanne Leenhoff, a woman who was two years his senior. It could be that Manet fathered a son with Suzanne a little over a decade before the wedding.) I suppose it was good that Manet captured the attention of the Parisian artistic scene at a relatively young age, since he died of syphillis at the age of fifty-one.

What early works by Manet to you like (or not like)?

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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.