Category

18th century

Mirrors and Optical Effects in Ukiyo-e Prints

Hokusai, "Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror," 1805. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Hokusai, “Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror,” 1805. Image courtesy Wikipedia

In a recent podcast on Hokusai from Stuff You Missed in History Class,  I learned an interesting detail about Hokusai’s biography and background. Although it is difficult to create a comprehensive biography on Hokusai, we do know that his uncle was a mirror polisher. This was a skilled profession since mirrors were made out of bronze at the time (which was the late 18th and early 19th century, during the Edo period in Japan). As a young boy, Hokusai was adopted by his uncle, Nakajima Ise. His uncle intended to train Hokusai to become a mirror polisher too. Although Hokusai did not end up following this profession (we can tell that he went another direction by the time he was a teenager), the exposure to his uncle’s line of work caused “reflections, refractions, lenses, and optical effects [to become] a huge part of Hokusai’s work.”1

This comment in the podcast made me decide to look and see what examples I could find of mirrors and reflections in Hokusai prints. One of the more popular examples available online is Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror (shown above). However, in my research I have found that the other ukiyo-e print maker, Kitagawa Utamaro, also made a lot of prints which depict women looking in mirrors (see one example directly below). I assume, then, that Hokusai was not only influenced by his background and uncle’s profession, but also by his contemporaries who were producing similar subject matter in their art.

Kitagawa Utamaro, "Woman Before a Mirror" (also called "Beauty at Her Toilet"), c. 1790. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Kitagawa Utamaro, “Woman Before a Mirror” (also called “Beauty at Her Toilet”), c. 1790. Image courtesy Wikipedia. 

In fact, Mara Miller connects the idea of reflections to the production of ukiyo-e prints as a whole: “Ukiyo-e artists thematized perception in countless ways; they were fascinated with the instruments (mirrors, telescopes, and eyeglasses) and the phenomena of perception as a process — lantern light and fireflies and moonlight, mist and shadows and veils. They were fascinated with the act of looking.”2

It is interesting to me how the use of mirrors in these images can play with the ideas of Subjecthood and Objecthood. Do the mirrors make the subjects seem more tantalizing to a (male) viewer, or do the mirrors give more subjecthood to the women who are portrayed (since they are actively engaged in looking)? Mara Miller thinks that the women in these images “assume the right to gaze” at themselves: they employ the power to turn themselves (as subjects) into objects for their own gaze.3

There are lots of examples of reflections and optical effects in ukiyo-e prints, and I thought I’d include some of my favorites below. I especially like these images, because they make me think of how ukiyo-e prints must have influence by the reflections and mirrors that Mary Cassatt depicted in her own paintings, such as Mother Combing Her Child’s Hair (1879), Mother and Child (1900), The Mirror (c. 1905), Woman At Her Toilette (1909).

Kitagawa Utamaro, Takashima Ohisa, c. 1795. Woodblock print. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Kitagawa Utamaro, Takashima Ohisa, c. 1795. Woodblock print. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Utamaro, Woman Breastfeeding Her Child

Kitagawa Utamaro, “Woman Breastfeeding Her Child,” late 18th century.

This print especially reminds me of Cassatt’s Mother and Child (1900), since the baby’s head is slightly visible in the mirror, similar to how Cassatt paints the reflection of little baby buttocks in her mirror!

Utagawa Toyohiro (1773-1828), Daruma Looking in a Mirror at the Reflection of a Woman behind Him, late-18th or early-19th century

Utagawa Toyohiro (1773-1828), Daruma Looking in a Mirror at the Reflection of a Woman behind Him, late-18th or early-19th century

Hokusai, Megana-ya (Seller of Eyeglasses), c. 1811-1814

Hokusai, Megana-ya (Seller of Eyeglasses), c. 1811-1814

Hokusai, Reflection in Lake at Misaka in Kai Province, from the series "Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji," ca. 1830-32. Woodblock print.

Hokusai, Reflection in Lake at Misaka in Kai Province, from the series “Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji,” ca. 1830-32. Woodblock print.

If you have a favorite ukiyo-e print (or Mary Cassatt painting!) with mirrors or optical effects that I did not include, please share and comment below!

1 Holly Frye and Tracy V. Wilson, “Hokusai,” podcast from Stuff You Missed in History Class (quote found approx. 7:30 into recording). Accessed August 18, 2015. Available online HERE.  

2 Mara Miller, “Art and the Construction of Self and Subject in Japan,” in Self as Image in Asian Theory and Practice by  Roger T. Ames, Thomas P. Kasulis, Wimal Dissanayake, eds. (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1988), p. 444. Available online HERE.

3 Ibid., 445. Available online HERE.

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Winking in Art

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail of "Netherlandish Proverbs," 1559. Image courtesy via Wikipedia.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail of “Netherlandish Proverbs,” 1559. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

This afternoon my students and I were discussing some of the proverbs that are referenced in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s complex painting Netherlandish Proverbs (1559). One student pointed out one particular detail on the wall of the house that I had never noticed before: a pair of open scissors with an eye placed above. I wasn’t familiar with a proverb or a reference to this detail in the painting, so I looked it up afterward.

It turns out that these two symbols are a reference to winking! This image is a play off of the words “Een knip oog,” which means “snip-eye,” or a wink.1 Scholar Alan Dundes, who wrote about the appearance of this symbol in Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s copy of his father’s painting, explained that through this symbol “Bruegel the artist is winking at his audience and he expects the viewer to understand that what he has painted in a huge put-on.”2

Learning about this fun detail made me wonder about the history of winking and whether other winks (either literal or symbolic) appear in art. I haven’t been able to find any scholarly information on the cultural history of winking (if anyone does find something, please let me know!), but I have noticed that obvious references to or depictions of winking appear in examples of art from the Renaissance and onward. (I also realized that it is futile to determine if ancient figures in the composite pose are winking: if the head is in profile view, then only one eye is visible to the viewer, which makes it impossible to ascertain whether a second eye would be open or closed! Ha! I like the thought that Egyptians are actually winking in all of their art, but we just can’t tell.)

I was also interested to see that references to winking appear in both Western and non-Western art. Here are a few examples I came across:

Giuseppe Maria Crespi, “The Courted Singer,” 1700s. Oil on canvas, 58 x 46 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Image courtesy the Web Gallery of Art.

In this painting by Crespi, The Courted Singer (shown above), the winking figure of on the left reminds the viewer that the scene, which depicts a singer being courted, is not inherently gallant or noble. Instead, this singer and her affections are essentially being “bought” with the jewelry and riches offered to her.

Simon Vouet, “The Fortune Teller,” c. 1618. Oil on canvas, 120 x 170 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Image courtesy the Web Gallery of Art.

Winking was also used between characters within works of art, so that the viewer could understand when a figure was sly or involved in trickery. In this painting by Vouet, a man on the right of the canvas steals the purse from a gypsy woman (who is reading the palm of the woman on the far left). This thief winks to a male accomplice, who looks to me like he might be winking in return.

Master of the Winking Eyes, "Madonna and Child," ca. 1450. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC.

Master of the Winking Eyes, “Madonna and Child,” ca. 1450. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC.

Although the winking in this picture may be an aesthetic effect rather than an actual part of the subject matter, I still wanted to include this painting by the so-called “Master of the Winking Eyes.” This piece is included in a current exhibition dedicated to representations of the Virgin Mary in art, which includes a section on representations of her as a wife and mother. This painting, among another in the show, prompted one writer to publish this article: “Did the Virgin Mary Tickle the Baby Jesus?”

Huang Yongyu, Owl, 1973. Image courtesy via Wikiart.

Huang Yongyu, Owl, 1973. Image courtesy Wikiart

Huang Yongu’s Owl is an interesting depiction which caused a lot of controversy. Some interpreted Yongyu’s painting as a self-portrait of the artist who expressing a critique of socialism, and the painting was officially condemned as blasphemous by the Ministry of Culture in March 1974.3 The winking eye in this instance was thought by some to imply, on a basic level, a critique of the socialist system (e.g. officials were turning a blind eye to incorrect behavior). Others did not agree with this interpretation. Even Chairman Mao, who was frustrated with the extent of censorship happening at the time, said with exasperation, “An owl habitually keeps one eye open and one eye closed. The artist does possess the common knowledge, doesn’t he?”Yongu created other versions of the winking owl after this 1973 fiasco, such as this 1977 version and 1978 version.

Of course, to end this list, I have to include a .gif of the Nefertiti bust winking. (Since she has an unfinished eye, she does look a little like she could be winking today.) Do you know of other representations of winking in art? I’m sure there are lots of .gifs with winking works of art too, and feel free to also share those in the comments below!

1 Eric Nicholson, “Et in Arcadia the Dirty Brides,” in Transnational Mobilities in Early Modern Theater, by Professor Robert Henke and Dr. Eric Nicolson, eds (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2014, p. 99.

2 Alan Dundes, “‘How Far Does the Apple Fall from the Tree?': Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s Netherlandish Proverbs” in The Netherlandish Proverbs: An International Symposium on the Pieter Brueg(h)els, ed., Wolfgang Mieder (Burlington: University of Vermont Press, 2004): 20. Citation also found online HERE.

3 The painting was subsequently put on display in a Black Paintings Exhibition, in order for its subversive content to be publicly shamed. Eugene W. Wang, “The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description,” in Critical Inquiry 26, no. 3 (Spring 2000): 435. Article available online HERE.

4 Ibid., 436.

— 1 Comment

Images of Mothers with Children

Over a year ago, I began collecting images of mothers who were with either a little baby or a young child. I have enough that I want to start a compilation here, so that I can keep track of them all. I know there are hundreds of works of art depicting mothers and children (particularly ones of the Madonna and Child), but these ones are my absolute favorites:

Berthe Morisot, "Le Berceau," 1872

Gustave Klimt, detail from "The Three Ages of Woman," 1908

Kitagawa Utamaro, Midnight-The Hours of the Rat-Mother and Sleepy Child, Edo period, ca. 1790 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

This woodblock print by Utamaro is from a series called Fuzoku Bijin Tokei (Women’s Daily Customs). To illustrate the “daily custom” of midnight, Utamaro depicts a mother sleepily emerging from her mosquito net to attend to her baby (who in turn rubs sleep from its own eyes). Having lost many hours of sleep myself when my son was a newborn, I can relate! A little more information about this print is available HERE.

Marie Danforth Page, "Her Littlest One," 1914 (National Museum of Women in the Arts)

Her Littlest One was made during a period in which Marie Danforth Page created a lot of noncommissioned paintings of mothers with children. Mary Cassatt’s art had a lot of influence on Page at this time, as did Flemish art from the 17th century.1

Eric Gill, "Madonna and Child," 1925. Wood engraving on paper (Tate)

William Sergeant Kendall, At the End of the Day, 1900 (Seattle Art Museum)

Mary Cassatt, "Breakfast in Bed," 1897 (Huntington Library)

What are your favorite images of mothers with children? Why do you particularly like them?

1 Museum label for Marie Danforth Page, Her Littlest One, Washington, D.C., National Museum of Women in the Arts, June 11, 2013.

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A Timeline of Early Modern Censorship

Masaccio, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve, 1424-25. Image on right shows the fresco after its restoration in the 1980s, which removed the fig leaves that were added in the 17th century. Image courtesy Wikipedia

A few weeks ago I was contacted by an art magazine, specifically requesting information on nudity and censorship in the history of art (since I had previously written on this topic). It took me a few hours to compile the necessary information for this group. Unfortunately, I never received any response after sending a detailed email to my contact, so I assume that the information I sent will not be used in the final article or timeline about censorship. Instead, I have decided to publish my research here.

Although the following timeline is not complete by any means, I think that these are some of the most significant and interesting events which surround the issues of censorship and nudity for the Early Modern period in Western art.

Reconstruction of copper “skirt” which allegedly was placed on Michelangelo’s “David”

  • c. 1504: Objections arose regarding the nudity of Michelangelo’s “David” (to the point that people threw stones at the statue). It is reported that a skirt of copper leaves was created to cover the statue at one point, although we don’t have a mention of this skirt by Vasari (see some commentary on this problematic story HERE). If anyone knows of more historical accounts that discuss this skirt, please share in the comments below!
  • Around 1541: Cardinal Carafa and Monsignor Sernini (Ambassador of Mantua) work to have Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” censored, due to the nudity. This undertaking is known as the beginning of the “Fig Leaf Campaign.”
  • 1547: In Spain, the first edition of the Index of Prohibited Books (written in 1547, published in 1551) does not mention nudity specifically, but condemns “all pictures and figures disrespectful to religion” (my emphasis).
  • 1555-1559: Pope Paul IV undertakes censorship of nude works of art, which includes the castration of ancient statues.¹
  • 1563 (December 3-4): 25th session of the Council of Trent (as part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation) specifies that art should avoid lasciviousness, “in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust.”
  • 1565: Daniele da Volterra (later known as “Il Braghettone” or “The Breeches Painter”) was hired to paint bits of drapery over the nude figures of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. These “breeches” by Volterra were the first; other bits of drapery were added to this fresco in the following centuries.
  • 1592 – Clement VII undertakes a personal inspection of Rome to ensure that revealing sculptures, including semi-nude depictions of Christ on the cross, are covered with drapery.
  • 1644 – 1655: Pope Innocent X had phalluses chiseled off of Roman sculptures in the Vatican. Metal fig leaves were placed on the figures instead.
  • About 1680: Fig leaves were added to the bodies of Masaccio’s Adam and Eve figures in the Brancacci Chapel (see image above). These were removed in the 1980s, when the frescoes were cleaned and restored.
  • 1758-1759: Pope Clement XIII covers more sculptures at the Vatican with fig leaves

Spanish stamp from 1930, based off of Goya’s painting “La Maja Desnuda,” c. 1797-1800. Image courtesty Wikipedia

  • About 1797-1800: Goya paints “La Maja Desnuda” (sometimes called “The Naked Maja”) which is among one of the first works of Western art to depict a woman with visible pubic hair. In 1815, Goya was summoned before the Spanish Inquisition to discuss this painting. “La Maja Desnuda” was turned into a stamp in the 1930s by the Spanish government, but the US Postal service would not deliver incoming letters that were marked with this stamp. One source reports that the US Postal service ruling was reversed as late as 1996!
  • About 1803: Goya paints “La Maja Vestida” (“The Clothed Maja”), which is a painting of the same woman who posed for “La Maja Desnuda.” It could be that this painting was created in order to be more acceptable than the previous version.
  • 1846-1878: Pope Pius IX places fig leaves on more statues at the Vatican.
  • 1878-1903: Leo XIII places fig leaves on more statues at the Vatican.
  • 19th century: Modifications were made to Bronzino’s “Allegory of Venus and Cupid” (discussed in detail HERE).

Large fig leaf covering the plaster cast of Michelangelo’s “David” in the Victoria and Albert Museum

  • About 1857: Large fig leaf is created for the plaster cast of Michelangelo’s “David” which is located at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
  • 1865 – Victor Lagye creates copies of Adam and Eve for the Ghent altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, with the figures clothed. These copies were placed in the altarpiece.
  • Between 1981-1994: Some (but not all) of the “breeches” of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” fresco are removed during restoration and cleaning of the chapel. Others are not removed because the painting could have been damaged in the process.

Censorship in regards to nudity really begins to end in the late 19th century. The early twentieth century sees a lot of nude sculptures that are also more provocative and sexual in nature.

Can you think of any other significant dates in regards to nudity and censorship? I stuck with the Early Modern period in my timeline, but we could also go back to ancient period (I’m reminded of when Early Christians destroyed nude sculptures of the Parthenon in the 5th century CE.)

If you are interested in learning more about censorship and nudity, I would recommend watching this documentary: “Fig Leaf: The Biggest Cover Up in History.”

1 Art historian Leo Steinberg explained that we don’t know a lot about the specific censorship actions taken by Pope Paul IV. He writes, “But we are not well informed about the chronology of these practices. Montaigne (Essays, III, 5) cites ‘many beautiful and antique statues’  which were being ‘castrated’ in Rome during his youth by order of ‘that good man,’ meaning Pope Paul IV (1555-1559).”  See Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014) p. 186. This book is a reprint of Steinberg’s original 1983 publication. Citation online HERE.

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Politics, the Capitoline Museum, and the She-Wolf

This quarter I am working with just a few of the senior art history majors on a special “Directed Study” course. We are exploring museum history and curatorial theory, using two new books: The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of an Institution in 18th- and 19th-Century Europe (2012) and New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction (2011). I really like that The First Modern Museums of Art is written in a very approachable, yet scholarly, way. Each chapter serves a case study for a different museum that was established; the book proceeds in a chronological fashion, based on founding dates for the institutions.

This week, my students and I read about the Capitoline Museum (established 1733). Carole Paul writes about how the objects within the museum serve as strong signifiers of political and cultural heritage. The museum, which contains a lot of Roman art, emphasizes Roman authority and jurisdiction. The artistic “progression” and superiority of Roman culture (and those Westerners who are heirs to the Roman tradition) are implied in many ways, including the display of art. For example, the visitor encounters Egyptian figures before the Greco-Roman antiquities, which suggests both artistic and political succession.

Capitoline She Wolf, 5th century BC or medieval

The political associations and signifiers of power also extend into the collection. I think it’s particularly interesting that the bronze sculpture of the she-wolf forms part of the collection, given the history of the piece. Before Sixtus IV donated this sculpture to the Compidoglio (Capitoline Hill), the she-wolf was displayed in the Lateran Palace, the pope’s official residence.1 This she-wolf was seen as a symbol of the city, since the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by a she-wolf. As part of the papal collection, this statue then served as a symbol of papal jurisdiction and the papal succession of authority after pagan rule.

Given these associations with Roman history, I can see why the Capitoline Museum seemed a bit hesitant to acknowledge the recent analyses which determined that the “She-Wolf” statue was cast during the medieval period! This was big change in the traditional attribution, which placed this statue in the fifth century BC (as an example of Etruscan art). When I covered this story in 2010, over two years after the new study results were made available, I was surprised that the Capitoline Museum did not have the updated medieval date on its website! Now that I understand the political and authoritative statements behind the formation of this museum, though, I can see why the museum seems to have been hesitant to acknowledge this new information. The museum would want to endorse this as a work of art as an authentic piece from the Etruscan/pre-Roman period, in order to emphasize the institutional message of Roman authority. If the “She-Wolf” is a medieval work of art, there isn’t as direct of a connection to Roman history.

However, today I went back and checked the Capitoline Museum website again. Now the site has been updated to acknowledge the alternate date and also mentions the Carbon 14 analysis (albeit that the information is slightly hidden under a “Reveal text” button).

What have been your experiences at the Capitoline Museum? Did you feel like the message of Roman authority and power came through during your visit?

1 Carole Paul notes that this wolf (lupa) was in fact returned to its rightful home through Sixtus IV’s donation. Paul writes that the wolf “had originally stood on the Campidoglio and in 65 BC had been struck by a bolt of lightning that apparently broke her feet and destroyed the suckling twins, who were replaced only in the fifteenth century.” See Carole Paul, “Capitoline Museum, Rome: Civic Identity and Personal Cultivation” in The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of An Institution in 18th- and 19th-Century Rome, Carole Paul, ed., (Los Angeles: Getty, 2012), 22. Given that the she-wolf is now thought to have been produced in the medieval period, I personally think that Paul might be referring to a different depiction of a wolf (perhaps lost) or that this story might have been a myth. Paul cites a 1980 publication by Richard Krautheimer in relation to this story about the lightening bolt. Therefore, she does not seem take into account the more recent Carbon 14 analysis and medieval date.

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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.