August 2012

Art Books for Adults and Kids!

My husband and I have a great weakness for large, heavy art books. I keep saying that I won’t buy any more art books until I’ve thoroughly read every copy in my possession, but that never happens. I can’t help myself! In fact, this past weekend we were thrilled that our local art museum hosted a used book sale. Gombrich for $3! Hibbard for $2! I was in heaven. We came home with a heavy box of books and very light wallets.

I thought it might be fun to show some of the art books that are in our home. The art books that I use most regularly are in my home office, next to the computer:

This bookshelf is in my home office. I mostly keep theoretical books and textbooks here.

My husband and I have very different personal tastes in art, but we can appreciate lots of different styles. Nonetheless, we still usually collect books within the narrow spectrum of our distinct personal preferences. Our living room bookcases have even evolved into a “His” and “Hers” section. Can you guess which of the following bookcases holds my books, and which holds my husband’s books?

Living room bookcase #1

Living room bookcase #2

While we were at this recent book sale, I made it a point to buy some children’s art books for my little boy. I found a couple that were cute, and my son has already enjoyed reading them with me. I thought that I’d include a list of my favorite art books for children, in case some parents are looking for a few recommendations:

“Babar’s Museum of Art” by Laurent de Brunhoff (2003)

  • Babar’s Museum of Art: This is probably my all-time favorite children’s book about art. Babar the Elephant builds an art museum, and all of the works of art are inspired by actual masterpieces – but the human figures have all been replaced by elephants. I think that the pictures are quite charming: Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Seurat, Delacroix, Raphael, and Rubens are just a few of the artists highlighted in the book. (And a list of the artists and titles of the original paintings is included in the back.)
  • Miss Piggy’s Treasury of Art Masterpieces from the Kermitage Collection: This book is a hoot. We love the Muppets in our family, and this book is a great add to our family library. This book is a little dated (as you can tell from Miss Piggy’s attire), but it still holds its charm. The Muppet characters (mainly Miss Piggy) are placed within famous artistic compositions. You can see some of the images from the book HERE.
  • The Art of the Body (published by the MOCA). This board book is a great way to introduce babies and kids (and even adults!) to different 20th century and contemporary artists.
  • The Yellow House: Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin Side by Side by Susan Goldman Rubin. I just bought this book at the art sale this past weekend. I think it’s a great way to introduce children to different artistic styles and ideas about art. I had a teensy issue with how Rubin cast Gauguin’s “The Painter of Sunflowers” in such a positive light (Van Gogh didn’t think that Gauguin portrayed him in a favorable way!), but I’d still recommend the book.
  • The Art Book for Children (published by Phaidon). This book is geared for children who are probably at least seven years old. The book features different themes, with a different artist dedicated to each theme. For example, the theme “Obsession” features Hokusai’s different representations of Mt. Fuji. And Cindy Sherman is highlighted for the theme “Dressing Up.” I like the page “A Puzzle”; it which encourages children to think about what might have been depicted in the now-missing remainder of Carpaccio’s painting, “Two Venetian Ladies on a Balcony.”
  • Micawber by John Lithgow. This book, which is written as a clever poem, is darling. The story revolves around a squirrel who goes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and looks at masterpieces through the rooftop skylights. This is my favorite segment from the book: “Through the windows he’d gaze at Van Dyck and van Gogh, / Appraise every Rembrandt and Titian. / He would scrutinize Rubens, peruse each Rousseau, / Inspect each Lautrec and Cassat and Miró. / He would find a new favorite each time he would go, / And nobody charged him admission.”
  • The “You Can’t Take a Balloon” series: You Can’t Take a Balloon to the Museum of Fine Arts, You Can’t Take a Balloon to The Metropolitan Museum and You Can’t Take a Balloon into the National Gallery. I love these wordless books because they not only include works of art from the permanent collections of the highlighted museums, but each book also focuses on landmarks and historical figures (hidden throughout the pages) that are specific to the city in which the museum is located.

Do you have any favorite art books or children’s art books that you’d recommend? We haven’t run out of bookshelf space…yet!


The Good Shepherd’s Disappearance

Christ the Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, 3-4th century CE

Anyone with a basic knowledge of Early Christian art is probably familiar with depictions of Christ as the Good Shepherd. In this imagery, Christ appears as a beardless youth, often carrying a lamb on his shoulders. It’s common for art historians to draw connections between these depictions of Christ and Apollo, or even to point out how earlier classical statues (like the Moschophoros from the acropolis in Athens) may have served as prototypes for the Good Shepherd imagery.

However, it’s interesting to consider how the Good Shepherd iconography practically vanishes in the 5th century CE. Today I’ve been reading about this phenomenon in a short article, “A Note on the Disappearance of the Good Shepherd in Art” by Boniface Ramsey.1 Ramsey explains that the Good Shepherd iconography was replaced (or perhaps “subsumed” is appropriate?) by imagery which often depicts Christ as a teacher. The shepherd/teacher transition isn’t too surprising, since Christ’s role as a Good Shepherd was viewed as didactic one: the shepherd held the responsibility to feed (or symbolically “teach”) his flock.2

The Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Callixtus, Rome, mid 3rd century

Ramsey put forth four reasons as to why the Good Shepherd disappeared from Early Christian art, which I thought that I would briefly outline here:

1) The Church no longer wanted to promote Christ as a humble shepherd. In response to Arianism, which questioned the relationship between Christ and the all-powerful God, it appears that the Catholic Church wanted to emphasize the majesty of Christ. The depiction of Christ in Galla Placidia (c. 425 CE, Ravenna) seems to be a transitional image in relation to this argument: Christ is tending his flock while dressed in a royal or imperial robe.3

2) As the speculation about Christ became more complex, Christians might have felt like the Good Shepherd image lacked sufficient dogmatic content. Images of Christ as a teacher or a king might have been more favorable, since those images could convey more about Christ’s human nature or divinity.4

3) As post-Constantinian Christians became less defensive about their place in society, they might have felt less attachment to or need for the Good Shepherd (who protectively guards or defense his flock).5

4) The post-Constantinian Church may have been aware of its authority and power. Depictions of a humble shepherd might have been a reproach to post-Constantinian Church leaders. Instead, they may have felt more comfortable with images that depicted Christ as a teacher or king.6

Ramsey wrote this short article almost thirty years ago, but I think that he has presented some valid ideas. Do you know of some other theories regarding the disappearance of the Good Shepherd iconography? What depictions of the Good Shepherd do you like best?

1 Boniface Ramsey, “A Note on the Disappearance of the Good Shepherd in Art,” The Harvard Theological Review 76, no. 3 (July 1983): 375-378.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 376.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 377.


The Peacock Clock, Northern Birds, and Automatons

James Cox, The Peacock Clock, late 1770s. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

I’ve been thinking about fantastic clocks during this summer, partly because I recently read some imaginative descriptions of a circus clock in The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (which is a really fun novel, by the way). Just the other day, my mother-in-law showed me pictures of her recent trip to the Hermitage, where she got to see the Peacock Clock. This clock was built by the Englishman James Cox, who was commissioned to build the clock by Prince Grigory Potiomkin. Since its commission, this work of art has been intended to be placed within Catherine the Great’s Hermitage.1

James Cox, detail of the Peacock Clock, late 1770s

James Cox, detail of the Peacock Clock, 1770s

This timepiece-automaton is extremely impressive. A peacock, rooster, and owl are depicted on an oak tree. Each of these birds have a lot of symbolism in art history: the owl is associated with night and darkness; the peacock is a symbol of the cosmos, the sun, and resurrection; the rooster is a symbol of light, life, and resurrection. (See more on the symbolism of the clock HERE.)

Each hour, music begins to play on bells that are attached to the owl’s cage. The peacock then spreads its tail, spins around (with tail feathers still spread), and freezes for a moment. Then the peacock returns to its starting position, closes its tail, and lowers its head. After this segment, the rooster begins to crow. (Read more about the clock mechanics HERE.) Although the Hermitage museum only occasionally sets the clock in motion (for the sake of preservation), you can enjoy watching the hourly theatrics in this YouTube clip:

James Cox, detail of the Peacock Clock, late 1770s

In addition to the birds, the tree is decorated with oak leaves, acorns, and a few squirrels. On the white base, a mushroom acts as a clock dial. A small dragonfly on the mushroom acts as a second hand (see animation HERE). When looking at all of the details on this piece, one would never know that financially-strapped James Cox actually made the Peacock Clock from an existing clock that depicted snakes. (If you look at the bottom of the clock, you can see a snake-like skin serving as the foundation for the composition.)

When I saw an image of this clock among my mother-in-law’s trip photos, I immediately was reminded of Michiel van der Voort the Elder’s pulpit (1713) in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp (see more information HERE). Like the Peacock Clock, this pulpit is also decorated with different birds (although the Antwerp birds are just sculptures, not automatons). I don’t think that there is a direct connection between these two works of art, but I wonder if there was a fascination with sculpting and depicting large birds during the 18th century. (I’m also reminded of German sculptor Johann Joachim Kändler’s sculpture of a turkey, c. 1733, Getty Museum.) Does anyone know any connections between Northern art and birds in the 18th century?

A final thought: I have a colleague who teaches an art history seminar that revolves around robots and automatons. Although I haven’t had the chance to participate in her course, I know that she explores the idea of why some people perceive robots and automatons and as “creepy.” Do you think that an automaton depicting animals might be perceived as “less creepy” than one which represents a human? I think so – we humans might feel less threatened by a machine that doesn’t assume the appearance of a human (or the suggestion of being truly lifelike). For a basis of comparison, you can watch an 18th century automaton of a female musician on YouTube and form your own opinion.

Do people find this clock to be creepy or intriguing (or both?). Why? I personally don’t think that this clock is creepy at all, perhaps partially because of the animals and music, but also because the bronze, silver and gold colors of the clock aren’t threateningly naturalistic to me.

Do you know of any other great automaton clocks?

 1 Catherine the Great (also known as Catherine II) founded the Hermitage in 1764, about a decade before James Cox was commissioned to build the Peacock Clock


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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.