October 2014

“Almost Repellant” Monsters

Odilon Redon, Smiling Spider, 1887, Courtesy British Museum

Odilon Redon, Smiling Spider, 1887, Courtesy British Museum

Happy Halloween! Tonight I’ve been perusing through an interactive website hosted by the MoMA about the artist Odilon Redon. Given this Halloween season, I’ve particularly enjoyed looking at the “Monsters” section. These lithographs are based off of the  charcoal drawings that Redon called his “noirs” (“black things”). Redon made lots of these charcoal drawings. In fact, he worked almost exclusively in black and white until he was about fifty years old! (You can read more about Redon’s “noirs” HERE.)

One of the publications that is highlighted in the MoMA interactive site is Marina van Zuylen’s chapter “The Secret of Monsters” (read online HERE) in Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon. I really like that van Zuylen writes, “Redon’s genius is to make his figures almost repellant. He rescues them from radical ugliness by endowing each of them with traits that produces empathy.”1

I think this is such a great point, because Redon makes his monsters slightly relatable or understandable in terms of human emotion, as is the case with his lithograph Smiling Spider (1887, see above; also see another printed version from 1891). Another example would be The Crying Spider (1881, see below). This example seems especially poignant to me in terms of evoking empathy, since the spider stares directly at the viewer with large, round eyes. For me, it is these types of empathy-evoking features which make these drawings and other similar ones by Redon simultaneously compelling and disconcerting.

Odilon Redon, The Crying Spider, 1881.

Odilon Redon, The Crying Spider, 1881.

As I’ve been looking at Redon’s drawings tonight, I’ve thought about another work of art that is both compelling and disconcerting. In this instance, though, the “monsters” are the countless skeletons that appear in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death (c. 1562, click on hyperlink to see high-resolution details). This painting is dominated by an army of skeletons who wreak all sorts of havoc across a barren landscape. Peasants and rulers alike are downtrodden, captured, or killed by these skeletons, thereby emphasizing the transience of life and inevitability of death to all mortals.

Despite the unsettling subject matter, this painting contains an overwhelming amount of fine detail, which is very compelling and captivating from a visual standpoint. Additionally, Bruegel includes a lot of small, humorous details which make these skeletons seem especially disconcerting, because they evoke an element of empathy or relatability that resonates with the viewer. Many of the activities are recognizable and suggest human emotion: one skeleton sits with his skull leaning into his hand, as if resting or thinking. Another skeleton nearby plays the hurdy-gurdy (see detail below).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "The Triumph of Death," c. 1562. Oil on panel, 117 cm × 162 cm (46 in × 63.8 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail from “The Triumph of Death,” c. 1562. Oil on panel, 117 cm × 162 cm (46 in × 63.8 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Additionally, other skeletons are chasing women or donning pieces of contemporary 16th century clothing, both of which suggest an element of relatability in terms of human desire and culture. Another detail shows a skeleton who assumes the same slumped body position as the mortal whom he is killing or accosting, suggesting to me a reminder that these skeletons were once living mortals themselves.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail from “The Triumph of Death,” c. 1562. Oil on panel, 117 cm × 162 cm (46 in × 63.8 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail from “The Triumph of Death,” c. 1562. Oil on panel, 117 cm × 162 cm (46 in × 63.8 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Although Redon and Bruegel are very different in their aesthetics, I think that they both are attempting to depict something that is “almost repellant,” in terms of appearance and/or concept. But there is something that is relatable and can resonate with the viewer in both of these instances, which is perhaps why these paintings have been labeled as “disturbing” and creepy.

Can you think of any other disturbing works of art that are “almost repellant” because they evoke empathy or are relatable to you?

1 Marina van Zuylen, “The Secret Life of Monsters,” in Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon by Jodi Hauptman, ed. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art: 2005), 60. Also available online:


“Why Art History?” Then and Now

Almost two years ago, my friend Hasan from Three Pipe Problem asked me if I could contribute a post to his blog, as part of a series titled “Why Art History?” Hasan was interested in collecting the stories that led people to art and art history, as well as art history blogging. He encouraged contributors to write about their personal experiences with works of art, and how people initially became encouraged to “find out more” about artistic objects through research. I would like to repost below what I originally contributed to Hasan’s site in February 2013. This repost is in honor of Hasan and the enthusiasm he had for art history, since died last year on October 28th. I’ve also included an addendum at the very end of the post, which are some thoughts that have been accumulating in my mind over the past year, since Hasan’s passing.


As I sit and think about the question of “Why art history?” for myself, I’ve realized that there are two different paths that encouraged me to “find out more” about the works of art which appealed to me. I first was drawn to the intellectual aspects of art, particularly Northern Renaissance art, while only later finding myself drawn to actual aesthetics and the experiential nature of viewing art.

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434

Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434

When I first began to study art history as a teenager in high school, I was immediately drawn to the cerebral aspects of art. I relished the concept of “disguised symbolism” in Northern Renaissance painting, especially found in Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (1434, shown above) and the Mérode Altarpiece (c. 1427-32) by the workshop of Robert Campin. With what precision answers could be produced about the symbolism of these everyday objects! Lilies symbolize purity! A dog means fidelity! Pieces of fruit mean fecundity! I devoured the succinct answers that were provided in my heavy survey textbooks. I considered these answers to be universal truths, not realizing at the time that Panofsky was the iconographic chef de partie who systematically shuttled out answers for me to consume.

Perhaps, since I was a somewhat naïve and inexperienced teenager, the precision and readiness for such answers appealed to my limited knowledge of the world. I felt like everything had an answer in art history, just like I assumed that life would also produce answers with precision and exactitude. It was not until a few years later, as I began to realize the complexities of life as a young adult, that I realized how iconographic meanings could be very complex and difficult.

My cerebral interest in art continued for several years after high school. I started college as a music major and took a few art history classes on the side. Even though I found works of art to be beautiful, I think that the aesthetics of art were always ancillary to my interest in facts and information. I primarily sought knowledge back then, instead of experience. If I looked for beautiful and attractive things, I probably didn’t look much farther than the apartments of boys that were located near my college apartment.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, David, 1623-24. Marble, Galleria Borghese, Rome

Gianlorenzo Bernini, David, 1623-24. Marble, Galleria Borghese, Rome

However, my opinion about art changed a year or two after I switched my major to art history. The most definitive moment, when I began to truly realize the aesthetic and experiential power of art, happened when I was a junior in college. I traveled to Europe on a study abroad that was designed for art history majors. It was on this study abroad, specifically when I visited the Borghese Gallery in Rome with a few friends, that I realized how viewing art could be an emotional experience. There, when viewing Bernini’s David (1623-24, shown above) I was brought almost to the point of tears. I recorded this note in my course journal afterward:

May 10, 2003

Bernini’s “David”: WOW. I’m speechless. The direct, concentrated stare is very poignant and dramatic. His body is twisted up and tense. It is so realistic. I can’t believe it is marble. It’s absolutely beautiful. I thought I was going to cry at first and then I was filled with a lot of joy and passion…almost to the point of being giddy. It was definitely an odd sensation to experience so many emotions at the same time.

Although I deeply loved Baroque art before this point, I think that this experience in the Borghese Gallery really changed the way that I approached and understood art. I wanted to learn more about Baroque art, but learn more about it from the aspect of the viewer’s experience. How do Baroque works of art interact with their audience? How can three-dimensional sculpture interact with the viewer in ways that aren’t possible for two-dimensional paintings? These questions began to germinate over the next several years; they eventually led me to travel to Brazil in 2007 to analyze the element of viewer participation and experience in Aleijadinho’s sculptural composition of Old Testament prophets (c. 1800-1805, shown below) at the church Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos. I twisted and turned around the paths and staircase that lead up to this church several times, similar to how I revolved around the twisted body of the David a few years before.

Antônio Francisco Lisboa ("O Aleijadinho"), "Prophets," 1800-1805. Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos, Congonhas do Campo, Brazil

Antônio Francisco Lisboa (“O Aleijadinho”), “Prophets,” c. 1800-1805. Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos, Congonhas do Campo, Brazil

My experience at the Borghese Gallery also encouraged me to learn more about ways to describe the different emotions I felt while looking at the David. I wanted to compare my experience with the words written by others, which led me to read books like James Elkins’ book Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings. Although I have armed myself with great adjectives and flowery phrases over the years, I still don’t feel like I have mastered the skill of translating emotions into words. Perhaps it is a fruitless endeavor to try and give words to seemingly ineffable emotions, but I like to try. If there is one reason why I like to write about art history, it is because I’m compelled to practice and find better ways to communicate such emotions with only words.


ADDENDUM: “Why Art History Blogging?”

Since Hasan’s passing, I have had more opportunities to think about art history and why I am compelled to have an art history blog. I started this blog when I was in graduate school, simply to help keep track of some of the ideas I was learning and exploring at the time. I didn’t tell anyone about my blog for several weeks – perhaps months – back then. I felt like my blog was something personal to share, and I didn’t feel like my ideas were developed enough to show to others.

I graduated about the same time that the economy crashed, which left me without a job for over a year. During this time, my art history blog became a way for me to stay connected with art historians and current art historical ideas. I felt like my blog kept my mind sharp. It was during this period that Hasan reached out to me, and we began communicating via email and sharing ideas through our blog posts and comments. Although Hasan and I rarely discussed our personal lives with each other, his friendship meant a lot to me during this dark period of my life which was extremely difficult on many levels. I came to value the friendships associated with blogging as much as the act of blogging itself.

Once I found a job and began to teach, I began to use my blog as a way to save and share educational resources that I wanted to implement in my physical and virtual classroom discussions. At present, I think that this is probably the main way that I use blogging now. Although I do like to write posts to share some recent insights or ideas, more often than not I have my current or future students in mind when I write a post. I still value the friendships that I have within the online art history blogging community too, but I have to admit that this aspect of blogging is also hard for me: I still feel a sense of loss since Hasan has passed away. Over this past year, I have written about half the amount of posts that I wrote in the year leading up to Hasan’s sudden death. (Granted, this past year also has been uniquely busy for me, but that’s beside the point.) I think that somehow knowing that Hasan was out there to read and enthusiastically comment on my posts – even if the posts contained things meant for my students – gave me an impetus to write more frequently back then.

Ben, Frank, Sedef and I met in New York during CAA conference of February 2013. We took this photo for Hasan, since he couldn't join us.

Ben, Frank, Sedef and I met in New York during CAA conference of February 2013. We took this photo for Hasan, since he couldn’t join us.

While I’ve always enjoyed blogging about art history, I have come to treasure the personal interactions that I have made with people across the globe. Even since Hasan’s passing, I have been able to connect and re-connect with various art historians and history bloggers. It is partially because of these interactions that my art history blog has assumed an additional function and purpose this past year: this is a virtual space where I can honor my late friend and celebrate the art history community which he helped to foster. So, similar to how my emotional interaction with Bernini’s David in 2003 helped to inform and influence the way I think about art, I can say that my personal interactions with Hasan and the impact of his death help to inform and influence the way I approach art history blogging today. In some ways, thanks to Hasan, art history blogging has a new emotional weight and purpose for me.


The Barbizon School and Impressionism

Camille Corot, Fontainebleau- Oak Trees at Bas-Bréau, 1832 or 1833. Oil on paper laid down on wood; 15 5/8 x 19 1/2 in. (39.7 x 49.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, “Fontainebleau – Oak Trees at Bas-Bréau,” 1832 or 1833. Oil on paper laid down on wood; 15 5/8 x 19 1/2 in. (39.7 x 49.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art

When I was a senior in high school, my best friend and I studied art history at the same time. We also loved to hike together, and whenever we came across a beautiful vista or lookout we would exclaim, “Barbizon!” Although I would say “Barbizon!” in a breathy voice that mimicked a 1980s television commercial for the Barbizon School of Modeling (and perhaps it was also a breathless one, given altitude for some of the mountains we climbed?), the true reference of our exclamation was the Barbizon School of artists from 19th-century France. In essence, my friend and I were saying that the Barbizon painters would have enjoyed painting what we were seeing at that moment on our hike.

The Barbizon School was a group of painters who gathered near the French village of Barbizon (about thirty miles southeast of Paris) in the forest of Fontainebleau. These artists, despite coming from various artistic techniques and backgrounds, collectively were dedicated to studying nature and painting landscapes of the Forest of Fontainebleau region. In some ways, this interest in nature was prompted by the display of the John Constable’s landscapes at the Salon of 1824. (You can read more about the history of the Barbizon School on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.) However, it was several decades later in the 19th century, after the rise of Impressionism, that this group began to be known as the Barbizon School.1

Camille Corot, "The Ferryman," ca. 1865. Oil on canvas; 26 1/8 x 19 3/8 in. (66.4 x 49.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, “The Ferryman,” ca. 1865. Oil on canvas; 26 1/8 x 19 3/8 in. (66.4 x 49.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art

I wonder, in fact, if the term “Barbizon School” was coined in order to better distinguish the differences between this early group of arists and those associated with Impressionism. (If anyone knows more about the origins of the “Barbizon School” name, please share!) In many ways, we can see how the Impressionists were influenced by the Barbizon School painters. Not only do both groups have an interest in depicting nature, but two members of the Barbizon School, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (shown above) and Jean-François Millet, have parallels with Impressionism because of their interest in depicting an accurate rendering of light and color. Additionally, the Barbizon School painters were the pioneers of painting en plein air, a method which the Impressionists also embraced.And, although Millet was interested in painting peasants and drawing attention to the plight of the poor, which is in contrast to the Impressionists’ focus on the bourgeoisie, we can still find parallel with the fact that both Millet and the Impressionists sought to the depict contemporary people who surrounded them.

Paul Durand-Ruel

Paul Durand-Ruel

There is another interesting connection between the Barbizon School and Impressionism as well. The art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel was a supporter of the Impressionists. His father, Durand-Ruel Senior, was also an art dealer, but he was instrumental in promoting the purchase of Barbizon School landscapes. Paul Durand-Ruel sold Barbizon School art in the 1860s and 1870s, like his father, but then became particularly interested in the art produced by the Impressionists after meeting Monet and Pissarro in London in 1870. (All three men had gone to London to avoid the Franco-Prussian War.) Durand-Ruel could see how the Impressionists were building upon the principles and ideas put forward by the Barbizon School, and he already had built an existing clientele who were interested in landscape painting.

As a result, Durand-Ruel became a promoter and representative of the Impressionists, even committing to outright buying some of their art. In essence, Durand-Ruel wanted to create a commercial demand for Impressionist art, building off of his customers who appreciated the aesthetic and subject matter produced by the Barbizon School. This bold entrepreneurial move to create a commercial demand for Impressionism would help transform the way that the art market operated in the future; art dealers would not merely rely on the annual Salon to dictate which artists or paintings would be commercially popular.3 Durand-Ruel also succeeded in generating an interest for Impressionism in America by setting up a gallery in New York. He applauded the open-minded American public for embracing Impressionism by once saying, “The American public does not laugh. It buys!”

I know there are a lot of sources and ideas that fed into the Impressionist movement, including Chevreul’s scientific studies on color relationships and the possibility that Monet, during his time in London, saw paintings made by Turner. But I also like exploring this connection between the Impressionists and their French predecessors. Do you know of any other similarities or parallels between the Impressionists and members of the Barbizon School?

1 “The Barbizon School: French Painters of Nature,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed October 22, 2014,

2 Will Gompertz, What Are You Looking At? The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 38.

3 Ibid, 41.

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Lavinia Fontana and the Female Self-Portrait

This month marks one year since my friend Hasan Niyazi, blogger from Three Pipe Problem, unexpectedly passed away. I have thought about Hasan a lot lately, particularly because I think he would enjoy some of the topics I am exploring with my students. I also miss the enthusiastic emails, comments, and tweets that he would write. I thought that this month I would post one or two of the guests posts that I wrote for Hasan’s blog. The following post first appeared on Three Pipe Problem in March 2011. Currently, the content of Hasan’s blog is no longer online, although I hope that will change in the near future. In the meantime, I would like to make this post I wrote available again, in Hasan’s memory.

Lavinia Fontana, "Self-Portrait at the Spinet," 1577

Lavinia Fontana, “Self-Portrait at the Spinet,” 1577

As an art historian who is interested in female artists, I am particularly intrigued by the way that Lavinia Fontana chose to depict herself in self-portraits. Since Renaissance women weren’t always in control of how they were portrayed in art (women were often depicted by male artists), I like to see how a female artist represented herself when she did have control over her image.

There are five self-portraits by Lavinia Fontana that are known: four paintings and one drawing. I would like to examine two of these self-portraits, including my own ideas with those that have been previously presented by Catherine King and Babette Bohn.1 I think these two portraits are quite revealing in terms of what Fontana felt was important to communicate about herself.

Fontana’s earliest self-portrait is quite unique, since it was created as a marriage portrait. This painting, Self-Portrait at the Spinet (also called Self-Portrait at the Keyboard) was made in 1577 for Fontana’s future father-in-law, Severo Zappi.2 I think Fontana felt some pressure at this time, since she was marrying into a family which held a higher social status than her own.3 One senses that Fontana felt a need to emphasize her wealth and status by observing various elements in her painting: her lavish clothing, jewels, and a servant in the background. Fontana also chooses to emphasize her accomplishments and abilities: she is playing an instrument and her easel is distinctly placed in the background. In addition, her knowledge and learning are emphasized by the fact that she includes a Latin inscription in the upper corner of the canvas.

I think this Latin inscription is rather interesting, since it is indicative of the social situation for female Renaissance artists. In translation, the inscription reads, “Lavinia virgin/maiden of Prospero Fontana has represented the likeness of her face from the mirror in the year 1577.” Isn’t it interesting that Fontana is emphasizing her virginity? Unsurprisingly, virginity was highly desired by prospective husbands at the time, but I think that Fontana mentions her virginity to fit further societal expectations. As Catherine King points out that in terms of self-portraiture, “the act of showing oneself to another was very different for a young woman than it was for a young man.”4 Hence, female artists needed to be careful in how they presented themselves in portraits. Fontana visually manifests this care by not only stressing her virginity, but by appearing in modest red dress that suggests marriage (red was the traditional color for wedding dresses in Bologna).5

Lavinia Fontana, "Self Portrait In a Tondo," 1579

Lavinia Fontana, “Self Portrait In a Tondo,” 1579

The self-portrait by Fontana that interests me the most was painted just two years after Fontana’s wedding portrait. This portrait is a tondo painted on copper (1579) and was created expressly for placement in a collection. On 17 October 1578, Dominican scholar Alfonso Ciacón wrote to Fontana and requested her portrait; Ciacón intended to publish an engraved gallery of 500 portraits of respected scholars, artists, and statesmen.6 No doubt Fontana felt honored to have her portrait be included in this engraved “gallery.” Fontana sent this portrait to Ciacón in 1579, but the book of engravings was never published.

Nonetheless, we can see that Fontana wanted to portray herself in a certain way, especially since she knew that her image was intended for display alongside portraits of other prominent individuals. As with the marriage portrait, Fontana opts to emphasize her learning and wealth. She manifests her scholarly pursuits (she’s not just a mere “craftswoman”) by showing herself among anatomical casts and classical statuettes. (A nineteenth century engraving of Fontana’s painting is helpful in seeing these details.) In addition, Fontana is interested in suggesting her wealth; she depicts herself in lavish clothing and she is sitting in an armchair (poor people owned only stools at this time).7

Once again, Fontana is careful in how she has presented herself (in order to meet societal expectations). Not only is she wearing modest clothing, but she further emphasizes her respectability by stating that she is married. The inscription in the right-hand corner of her portrait states: “Lavinia Fontana married into the Zappi family made this 1579.” In fact, this reference to her marriage was advantageous not only for purposes of societal decorum, but also a way to emphasize her social status, since the Zappi family held a comparatively high status in society.

As I have been writing this post and thinking about Fontana, I’ve come to a realization as to why I am drawn to female self-portraits. For one thing, I’m an art historian who is a woman. Although I am hopeful that the job market for women in academia is ever-improving (and equalizing), I think many women still feel cautious in how they present themselves in the academic world (in order to keep a competitive edge against men). I certainly feel that way. Along these lines, as a female blogger, I sometimes find myself concerned with how I portray myself in writing. Although I don’t feel that I experience the same difficulties as women in the Renaissance period, I experience an element of self-awareness when I need to portray myself (either visually or in writing). I think blog posts are my equivalent for self-portraits, especially since I’m not an artist!

UPDATE: Since writing this initial post in 2011, I have written more about Lavinia Fontana’s “Self-Portrait” for the Ciacón collection elsewhere on my blog: “Lavinia Fontana’s ‘Self-Portrait’ and Gender.”

1 Catherine King, “Italian Artists in Search of Virtue, Fame, and Honour c. 1450-c.1650,” in The Changing Status of the Artist, eds. Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 72-74. See also Babette Bohn, “Female Self-Portraiture in Early Modern Bologna,” in Renaissance Studies 18, no. 2 (2004): 251-256. If you are interested in seeing information about the remaining three self-portraits which are not discussed in this post, see article by Bohn.

2 Bohn, 253.

3 Ibid., 254.

4 King, p. 67. For an example of extreme modesty in portraiture, see Sophonisba Anguissola’s Self-Portrait from c. 1555, in which she modestly covers herself with a mirror (which she protectively places in front of her body like a shield).

5 Bohn, 254. The red knot that is placed on the instrument was a symbol of love and betrothal at the time, which can also tie into Fontana’s interest in maintaining social decorum. For more information, see Liana De Girolami Cheney, et. all, Self-Portraits of Women Painters (London: Ashgate/Scolar Press, 2000), p. 60 (revised. Washington: DC: New Academia, 2009). The red knot is also discussed in Caroline P. Murphy, Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and her Patrons in Sixteenth-century Bologna (New Haven and London, 2003), 41–3.

6 Name also appears in art history texts as Alonso Chaçon and Alfonso Chacon.

7 King, 73.


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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.