October 2010

A Halloween Medusa

Since Halloween is here, I wanted to highlight a creepy painting to delight (and horrify!) my readers. If you think that Peter Paul Rubens only painted rosy-faced saints and voluptuous women, think again. A few weeks ago I came across Ruben’s painting Head of Medusa (c. 1617, shown above). This is the creepiest painting by Rubens that I have ever seen. Medusa’s dead eyes stare into the distance, while her snakelike hair continues to writhe and squirm. Eek!

Actually, I am reminded of one other Rubens painting which includes some similarly dark subject matter. Miracle of St. Ignatius Loyola (c. 1617, about the same time as the Medusa painting) also has wide-eyed demons writhing in the background. In fact, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (which owns both paintings) suggested that there are some stylistic comparisons between the demons and Medusa.

It is thought that when making the Head of Medusa, Rubens was influenced by Italian masters like Caravaggio (who had painted the same subject matter in 1598-99). I tend to agree with the argument that Rubens made this painting for a connoisseur (and perhaps collector) of both paintings and natural objects. Rubens certainly pays keen attention to the various types of snakes, bugs, and creepy-crawly things.

Do you know of any other “dark” works by Rubens? These are the only two of which I am aware, but there may be more out there.

Have a Happy Halloween! (If you haven’t submitted a post for the upcoming art history carnival, please send me one today!)


Why Don’t I Like New "Masterpiece" Discoveries?

My friend heidenkind recently brought my attention to this article, which asserts that The Education of the Virgin (17th century, shown right), a painting discovered in the basement of Yale Art Gallery, is not by Velasquez (as was thought earlier this year). I have to admit, I was pretty pleased that the painting was unattributed to Velasquez. Is that strange? I would assume that most people are thrilled when they learn that a possible new work by Velasquez, da Vinci, Michelangelo, etc., has been discovered. And I rarely (if ever) feel thrilled about such news – particularly if the work has immediately been attributed to a great master. Instead, I get pleased when the painting is demoted from any “great master” status.

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel this way. Some of you may remember me earlier post along these lines, in which I discussed my skepticism on the plethora of new discoveries. I haven’t quite pinpointed all of the reasons for my skepticism/hesitation regarding new discoveries, but I thought that writing this post might help me to organize my thoughts. I think that I mostly resist hasty attributions to great masters because I know a little bit about the politics behind art attribution – it’s tempting for a connoisseur to attribute a painting to a great master, since such an attribution would help further the publicity and career of that connoisseur. I’m particularly reminded of Abraham Bredius, the connoisseur who “discovered” the “Vermeer” paintings by the forger Han Van Meegeren. Bredius is lucky that he passed away soon after Van Meegeren’s confession in 1945.

Anyhow, there are lots of other motivations for a work of art to be attributed to a great master, and most of them are financial. The owning museum, institution, or gallery will push for such an attribution, since it will be monetarily beneficial. And hey, the connoisseur could also get a nice fat check for such an attribution.

But is this political/financial reason why I don’t get excited about discoveries? I also wonder if my might have something to do with the historian side of me. If there are unknown works by great masters, then this forces me (as a historian) to reshape the artist in my mind as a historical figure. And I think I resist such reshaping a little bit. Does that make sense? In some ways, I feel like I know great artists quite well, and having a new work of art means that there is some aspect to their lives and work that was hidden from me. (I guess it’s kind of like the artist was doing something “behind my back.”) I know, it’s a little silly. Yet, at the same time, I love learning new things about artists. So maybe I experience some kind of inward struggle (i.e. the desire to learn vs. feeling deceived) when a new work of art is discovered, and that’s why I shy away from such discoveries. I don’t know.

Ironically, though, I rarely feel skeptical when archaeologists announce that a new work of prehistoric/ancient art was discovered or excavated. I always think, “Hey, awesome!” and move on with my life. So my skepticism (and emotional attachment?) must be somehow related to the idea that these works of art are attached to early modern “masters” (i.e. individuals). There isn’t enough information about specific prehistoric/ancient artists (or even some cultures!) for me to get as defensive and protective as a historian. Instead, I almost always get excited about ancient discoveries.

So, that’s what I came up with this evening: political/financial reasons and my silly protectiveness as a historian prevent me from embracing new “masterpieces.” What about you? Am I the only person who is continuously skeptical? Do most people get excited about attributions and “masterpiece” discoveries? Do any other historians get protective about an artist’s biography/oeuvre?


The Un-Peplos Kore

Tonight I’ve been researching why the so-called “Peplos Kore” (c. 530 BCE, shown left) might not be wearing a peplos garment. (A “peplos” is a rectangle of cloth that is pinned at the shoulders and worn with a belt – it gives the effect that the woman is wearing a blouse. And “kore” means young woman; it is a name given to certain female statues made by the Greeks.)

This current “un-peplos” argument is based on recent reconstructions and studies of the figurine. Instead of a peplos, it is thought that the statue is wearing a long robe, cape, and an ependytes (an outer garment which is a metal-like sheath divided into regular, rectangular compartments).1 The ependytes was an Eastern garment associated with divine power, and therefore suggests that this figurine would have represented some type of goddess, perhaps Artemis or Athena.

This argument has been solidified by the recent reconstructions of the Peplos Kore by German archaeologist Vincenz Brinkmann.2 I suppose that now the problem is to try and ascertain which goddess could be depicted. The statue’s missing right hand probably held some object to help ascertain her identity (like a bow for Artemis). Brinkmann favors the idea that the goddess is Artemis (although alternate theories have been presented by others).3 Anyhow, here are some possible ideas presented in reconstructions of the Peplos Kore:

Reconstruction of Peplos Kore (as Athena) by Vincenz Brinkmann, 2004
I really like the animals shown on this ependytes, but I can’t tell what if a mythological narrative is depicted in the reconstruction. I kind of doubt it. But if anyone wants to have a guess at what might be depicted, you can click here to see better details of this reconstruction.
Reconstruction of Peplos Kore (as Artemis) by Vincenz Brinkmann, 2004

Reconstruction of Peplos Kore by Cambridge University; first painted in 1975, repainted in 1996

Although this last image is of an older reconstruction, I thought I would still include it. As mentioned here, this Cambridge reconstruction supports the idea that the statue represents someone who is offering a gift (which looks like an apple or pomegranate) to the gods (instead of actually representing a goddess, as argued by Brinkmann). She is shown as wearing a meniskos, an umbrella designed to protect the statue against the weather and bird droppings.
I don’t know if we’ll ever have a concrete idea of what this statue looked like in terms of color and the ependytes design. There just aren’t enough paint samples for us to have a completely accurate reconstruction. Plus, it will be hard to know specific details unless we ever come across the kore’s missing arm/hand. But it’s fun to think of the how this sculpture might have appeared (and who actually was represented!).

1 Richard T. Neer, The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 119. Source available online here.

2 Ibid. You also can read an English review of Brinkmann’s publication here (review by by Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway). Be sure to check out the penultimate paragraph and footnote #12 to find out more information about the Peplos Kore argument.

3 See Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway review (Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.08.07), footnote #12.


Call for Entries: The November Issue of the Art History Carnival

Hello everyone! I am happy to announce that I will be hosting the November issue of the Art History Carnival (a carnival which originated on The Earthly Paradise blog).  The November issue of the Art History Carnival will be posted on November 1, 2010. You can submit articles to be included in the carnival until 48 hours before the issue comes out. Therefore, please submit your entries to me by Saturday, October 30, 2010.

What is an art history carnival?
A carnival is a type of blog event that is dedicated to a particular topic – in this case, art history. Carnivals appear in the form of a blog post, and they include links to the posts dedicated to that particular topic. Carnivals are like magazines: they are published on a regular schedule. This art history carnival is published on a monthly basis.

This blog carnival is a great way for art historians (and those interested in art) to interact. This carnival also helps us to become familiar with the latest research/thoughts of others. Plus, it’s a great way for bloggers to share their information (and blog!) with other people!

What kind of blog articles are included in the carnival?
Posts covering all artistic periods and mediums are welcome, including posts regarding art criticism, architecture, design, theory and aesthetics. These posts should have been written since the last art history carnival (which was published October 1, 2010), to help ensure that our carnival contains current research/information/thoughts. I promise to carefully review each submission.

Who can submit?
Anyone can submit, providing that they have a blog and an art-related post to share! If you don’t have a blog, you are welcome to submit the post of a friend.

Can I host a carnival?
Yes! Please contact Margaret at The Earthly Paradise for more information.

How to submit articles for this edition:
Please email your submissions to me directly ( Your submissions should include the link(s) to the post(s) you are submitting – it is not necessary to include the text of the post(s) in the body of your email.

UPDATE: You may also use the Blog Carnival Submission Form. Margaret updated the form so that the links will be sent to me this month.

I’m excited to read the submissions! Thanks for letting me host the carnival this month, Margaret. Please share the information about this carnival to anyone who might be interested in reading or contributing to it! And if you haven’t written anything interesting for the carnival, don’t despair: you still have about a week before submissions are due. Sit down (like our friend Erasmus, who was depicted by Hans Holbein in 1523 (see above)) and start writing!


Museum for Forgeries

If there was a museum for art forgeries, would you go to it? What would be the appeal of seeing such forgeries? The underhanded element of crime and mystery? The sheer historical interest?

Or, on the other hand, would you consider such art to be “second rate” and unimportant? Would you find forgeries to be uninteresting from a historical perspective, since the works of art are not deemed authentic and perhaps not as old as once supposed?

I’ve been thinking about all of the artistic forgeries that exist in the world. Many of them have been relegated to the storage of museums, since the authenticity for most of these works were questioned after the museum acquired the forged piece. Today I’ve been reading about the Minoan “Statuette of a Boy-God” at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), a supposedly forged work of art which Kenneth D. S. Lapatin discussed in his 2001 article, “Snake Goddesses, Fake Goddesses.”Although the SAM no longer displays the “Boy-God,” they still claim its historical provenance, as indicated on the museum website. (The museum is justified, for the most part. At this point, “Carbon-14 tests [on the SAM statue] were inconclusive because of contamination from earlier restorations. Even is contamination could be ruled out, however, science would not necessarily resolve the issue, for forgers are reported to have employed ancient materials.”1)

Wouldn’t it be nice to relieve the SAM of such a problematic and questionable statue? I think it would be fun to take these works of art out of storage and put them on display. Although I know that some temporary museum exhibitions have been dedicated to forgeries (earlier this year the National Gallery in London held the exhibition “Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries” (see a related Telegraph article here)), I don’t know of a museum that boasts a permanent collection of forgeries.

Of course, if there was one museum dedicated to forgeries, what would that imply for the rest of the museum world? Would a museum of forgeries make other art museums seem more approachable? In other words, would a forgery museum undermine the cultural snobbery (and authoritative voice) associated with the art world? Or do you think that a museum of forgeries would perpetuate the incorrect voice of authority with the remaining “legit” museums, especially if the latter was no longer associated with forgeries (and by extension, mistakes)? Does anyone think that existing museums should embrace (and exhibit) the forgeries that are currently in storage – perhaps a museum for forgeries is unnecessary?

What forgeries would you be interested in seeing in a museum? I know that I’d like to see works by Han Van Meegeren, the infamous Vermeer forger.

1 Kenneth D. S. Lapatin, “Snake Goddess, Fake Goddess,” in Archaeology 54, no. 1 (January/February 2001): 36. Abstract of the article is available here.


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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.