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May 2011

The Red Vineyard: SOLD!

I have plenty of things to do this afternoon, but I keep stopping to think about Van Gogh. Today I was discussing with my students about how Van Gogh is the quintessential example of the “artist-genius” construct (an artist who essentially is tortured by his art and creative mind). After all, Van Gogh cut off his own ear (unless Gauguin cut it off!), checked himself into a mental asylum (no doubt because of his uncontrollable passion for art, right???), and committed suicide.

Such aspects of Van Gogh’s life are popular to discuss in the world of art history (after all, we still are drawn to the “artist-genius” idea), but there has always been one other biographical detail which has puzzled me for a long time. In order for one to fully emphasize Van Gogh’s oppressed, tortured life, one of the following “facts” is oft repeated in the art world: “Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime” or “Van Gogh never sold a painting during his lifetime.”

So, which is it? Did Van Gogh sell a painting or not? Or did he sell more than one painting? I’ve seen different answers in all types of locations (such as here and here), and I find it curious that there is so much ambiguity on this topic. Perhaps this confusion is partially a result of the internet, although I think that these these “facts” about Van Gogh have been independently propagated for much longer than the past two decades.

Luckily, the internet also has resources to allow for fact-checking. This afternoon I’ve been reading through an unabridged collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters online. These letters indicate that Van Gogh did sell (at least) one painting during this lifetime. The Red Vineyard (shown above, 1888) was sold to Anna Boch for 400 francs in 1890 (just a few months before Van Gogh’s death). The Red Vineyard had been on display at the 1890 “Les XX” exhibition in Brussels. Van Gogh was well aware of his sale, since he wrote his mother about the sale in a letter from 20 February 1890. In a later letter the following month (dated 29 March 1980), Vincent’s brother Theo asked if he could send Vincent the money “from your picture from Brussels.”

A website dedicated to Anna Boch has put forward some suggestions as to why Boch bought The Red Vineyard. One suggestion is that Boch wanted to show some support for Van Gogh, since his art received a mixed review from artists and critics at “Les XX.” Or, as an Impressionist painter, it is possible that Boch simply was interested in Van Gogh’s style. Whatever the reason, the sale was made.

Do you know any more information regarding Van Gogh’s sold painting(s)? Any thoughts as to why this ambiguity has not been completely resolved?

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Mondrian’s Evolution

A few months ago, my husband and I were looking at an exhibition of photographs by Arnold Newman. This series depicted portraits of different 20th century artists, and it was so interesting to see a compilation of faces that are figuratively “behind” the great works of art from that era. I particularly remember a photograph of Mondrian. Upon seeing that photograph, my husband laughed and said (all in good humor), “Ha! This looks like an uptight guy who would paint grids and squares!”

I’ve been thinking about that comment this afternoon, as I’ve been looking at Mondrian’s oeuvre. Mondrian is definitely best known for the De Stijl movement and paintings from his mature style (such as his Composition in Yellow, Blue and Red, 1937-42, shown left).

Although I like Mondrian’s mature style well enough, I agree with Rosalind Krauss that Mondrian limited himself (or caged himself!) within with the grid composition of his mature style.1 Mondrian painted in this style from about 1920 until the he died from pneumonia in 1944.

Personally, I am much more drawn to Mondrian’s pre-1920 paintings. I sense more freedom and exploration in these earlier works, which appeals to me more than the formulaic (but undoubtedly iconic) later style. I also find it interesting that Mondrian took an early interest in depicting the natural world, but he gradually moved toward abstraction after the introduction of Cubism. Honestly, I think Greenberg could have created a little “Modernist Painting” trajectory on Mondrian’s career: Mondrian continually flattens his paintings and removes “non-art” references until finally reaching his mature style.2

Here is just a glimpse at how Mondrian’s style changed over the beginning of his career:

Piet Mondrian, View of Winterswijk, 1898-99
Piet Mondrian, Summer Night, 1906-07

Piet Mondrian, Windmill in Sunlight, 1908

Piet Mondrian, Passionflower, 1908
(Doesn’t this painting remind you of Klimt?)

Piet Mondrian, Amaryllis, 1910

Piet Mondrian, Church Near Domburg, 1910

Piet Mondrian, Still Life with Ginger Jar I, 1911-12
Piet Mondrian, Trees in Blossom, 1912

Piet Mondrian, Composition 6, 1914

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Color Planes no. 3, 1917
Piet Mondrian, Composition with Black, Red, Gray, Yellow, and Blue, 1920

Mondrian experimented with so many styles! I can spot Expressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism in his earlier works. For an even clearer understanding of Mondrian’s early style and evolution, see images here and here and here.

So, I guess that Mondrian wasn’t always the “uptight guy” who favored squares and primary colors! What do you prefer? Mondrian’s earlier style or his mature style? Why?

1 Rosalind Krauss, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde: A Postmodern Repetition,” October 18 (1981): 56.

2 See Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 773-779. Essay first published in 1960.

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Art History Buffness

Some of you may have noticed the new list of “40 Books that Art History Buffs Love,” which was recently compiled by Accredited Online Colleges. I looked through the list, and noticed that I have read (or at least read a good portion from) twelve out of the forty books listed. By my calculations, that means that I’m 30% of an art history buff, right?

I tweeted about my 30% buff-ness online, and my friend heidenkind jokingly made me this button. (I think she threw in an extra 10% for good measure, which is great – then I get a little bit of a reading buffer while building up my buff-ness!)

What percentage of art historical buff-ness are you? Any books that you want to read from the list, or have no desire to read? I think there are a lot more books that I would add to the list (why isn’t there anything by Winckelmann or Burckhardt?!?). And I’d probably take out a few books that are on there – I’ve never even heard of the Cezanne book by Rainer Maria Rilke…

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Snakes in Ancient Art Hiss-tory

Each of my classes this quarter has its own distinct personality. My ancient art students are especially curious, and I love the questions that they raise in class. And for some reason, a lot of our recent topics have meandered (or perhaps slithered?) toward a discussion of snakes. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising, since snakes held symbolic significance in a lot of ancient cultures. Here are some of the works that we have been discussing at length (and some topics that we’ll be discussing in the next few weeks):

I can’t even express how much I love the Minoan Snake Goddess (shown left, c. 1700-1550 BCE, image courtesy Flickr via Xosé Castro). This was one of the first statues that I loved as an AP art history student in high school. A few weeks ago, my students and I discussed how the snake could have held multiple symbolic associations for the Minoans. Snakes are associated with rejuvenation in many ancient Mediterranean cultures, since snakes can rejuvenate themselves by shedding their skin. Snakes are also associated with resurrection, since they can move both above and beneath the ground.

Last week, when discussing Hellenistic art, a student asked why Alkyoneos (depicted in part of the Gigantomachy frieze at the Altar of Zeus, Pergamon, c. 175-150 BCE) was entwined with a snake. (We were also looking at another Hellenistic sculpture, the Laocoön (1st century BC), and the student noticed a visual similarity between the writhing snakes.) I had never paid attention to the Alkyoneos snake before, but discovered that the snake helps the viewer to identify that Alkyoneos is battling with the Olympian goddess Athena. The snake aids Athena in her victory, similar to how serpents aid the Olympian gods (specifically Athena, according to some accounts) in the killing of Laocoön, the Trojan priest.

Athena was often identified with snakes (I joked with my students that she might have been a Parselmouth). Not only was the snake associated with wisdom (which was one of Athena’s attributes), but snake also served as the symbol for Erectheus, the mythical king of Athens. As the patron goddess of Athens, it makes sense that Athena would also be associated Erectheus (and Athens) through the snake symbol. Athena was depicted with a snake in the monumental “Athena Parthenos” statue by Phidias (original dated 438 BC, see reconstruction from Royal Ontario Museum here).

In about a week, I’ll be talking about snakes with my ancient art students again, this time in connection with the Etruscans. Scholar Kristen Lee Hostetler recently explored how snake imagery is found in depictions of Etruscan demons (such as the wall painting of the demon Tuchulcha, Tomba dell’Orco II, Tarquinia, last quarter of the 4th century BC; shown left). It appears that snakes (specifically the extremely poisonous adder) were feared by the Etruscans. Hostetler points out that the distinct adder markings are noticeable in the demon imagery1. In addition, some of these Etruscan demons have blue flesh (as seen in the “Tomb of the Blue Demons” in Tarquinia, late 5th – early 4th century BC), which is reminiscent to the skin discoloration caused by an adder snakebite.2

Earlier in the quarter, my students and I have discussed the significance of the enraged uraeus snake in Egyptian pharaonic imagery (as can be seen in the funerary mask of King Tutankhamun, c. 1327 BCE). The snake is a reference to the Wadjet, the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt. According to mythology, the pharaoh sat at coronation to receive his crown from this goddess.3 The cobra was one of the earliest of Egyptian royal insignia.

Do you have a favorite work of art which includes snake imagery? It’s interesting that snakes have obviously fascinated (and intimidated) the human race for so many centuries. I can think of many other examples, even extending outside the realm of ancient art. Biblical images of Eve with snakes have been popular in Christian art for centuries. Snakes can also appear in conjunction with the Virgin; my favorite Baroque example is Caravaggio’s Madonna with the Serpent (1606 CE).

1 Kristin Lee Hostetler, “Serpent Iconography,” in Etruscan Studies 10, no. 16 (2007): 203.

2 Ibid., 206.

3 Nancy Luomala, “Matrilineal Reinterpretation of some Egyptian Sacred Cows,” in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982), 27.

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Jumping Through History Each Week

This is the first quarter that I’ve taught four classes at the same time. And believe me – this is a busy time! It’s been interesting to teach so many different artistic periods during the same quarter; I’m constantly jumping between BC and CE dates. Next week’s lecture schedule seems particularly diverse:

Monday’s lecture:

Courbet, The Stone Breakers, 1849 (destroyed 1945)
(This lecture discusses the role of “avant-garde” art in connection with politics)
Tuesday’s lecture:
The architectural orders of ancient Greece
(This is an introductory lecture to ancient Greek art and architecture)
Wednesday’s lecture:
Daumier, Les Femmes Socialistes, c. 1848
(This lecture discusses how not all “avant-garde” artists align themselves with socially oppressed groups)
Thursday morning’s lecture:
Dipylon funerary krater, c. 700-750 BC
(This lecture is devoted to the connection between ancient Greek women and funerary vases)
Thursday evening’s lecture:
Jan Borman, detail from carved altarpiece of Saint George, 1493
(This lecture discusses the phenomenon of commercial altarpieces in the Northern Renaissance)
Friday’s lecture:
Ingres, The Grand Odalisque, 1814
(This lecture is devoted to postcolonial theory and popularity of Orientalist art in the 19th century)
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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.