Category

18th century

Art History and Murder!

David, Death of Marat, 1793

“Murder can be an art, too.” – Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope (1948)

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When I was a kid, I used to watch rerun episodes of “Perry Mason” on TV all the time. Maybe that series initially sparked my interest in murder mysteries. Even now, as an adult, I still like to read detective stories and watch murder mystery shows. Lately I’ve been coercing my husband to watch episodes from the fourth season of “The Mentalist” almost every night. I guess “The Mentalist” is my modern version of “Perry Mason.”

Anyhow, I thought it would be fun to write a post on art history topics that involve murder. I’m not necessarily interested in depictions of murder, though. Gruesome depictions of murder are commonplace (yawn!) in art, including David’s famous Death of Marat shown above. Instead, I thought it would be interesting to discuss when artists or art historians have been murdered, committed murder, or accused of murder. These were the three cases that came to my mind:

Leoni, Portrait of Caravaggio, 1621-25

1) In 1606, the volatile painter Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassini. The pretext for the duel had to do with a tennis match, but art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon believes that these two men were really fighting over a prostitute. Graham-Dixon believes that Caravaggio was attempting to castrate Tomassini, since Tomassini bled to death from a femoral artery in his groin.

But Caravaggio’s associations with murder go even further. It is also thought that Caravaggio himself was murdered. While on the run from his murder conviction, Caravaggio fled to Malta and then Porto Ercole (Italy). Scholars think that Caravaggio was murdered either by relatives of Tomassoni or by the Knights of Malta (or at least one knight from Malta). The latter theory is suggested because it appears that Caravaggio was convicted of inflicting bodily harm on a noble knight in Malta. The knight (with or without his fellow knights) may have pursued Caravaggio and killed him.1

Mengs, Portrait of Winckelmann, after 1755

2) This murder story is probably one of the least expected, I think. The 18th century art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who is best known for his studies on Greek sculpture and open homosexuality, was murdered in 1768. After visiting Vienna (and being received by the Empress Maria Theresa), Winckelmann stopped at a hotel in Trieste on his way back to Rome. At that point, he was murdered at the hotel by a man named Franceso Arcangeli. Winckelmann was showing coins that had been presented to him by the Empress Maria Theresa, so it is possible that the motive for murder was monetary. However, Professor Alex Potts has mentioned other possible reasons for murder (including conspiracy or a sexual motive). Potts also explored how Winckelmann’s murder affected scholarship (both Winckelmann’s own scholarship and a later interest in the deceased art historian’s work).2

Left: Ana Mendieta, Untitled from The Tree of Life Series, 1977. Right: Photograph of Carl Andre

3) This murder story involves not one, but two, 20th century artists. In 1985 the performance artist Ana Mendieta (depicted above on the left) fell 34 stories to her death, falling from her apartment in Greenwich Village (in New York). The only other person who was with Mendieta at the time of her death was her husband of eight months: Carl Andre, the minimalist sculptor. Andre was charged with second-degree murder, but was acquitted after a three-year struggle in the court system. Art in America claims that evidence was suppressed in the trial, due to sloppy work on the part of the police and prosecutors.

The turbulent relationship between this couple has been turned into a play, “Performance Art in Front of the Audience Ought to be Entertaining.” The play is set on the night that Ana was murdered, but the curtain falls before Ana actually dies – in other words, the theatergoer is left to decide what happened right before Ana died.

Okay, now it’s your turn. Do you know of other artists or art historians who have been involved with murder cases?

1 The death of Caravaggio is explored by Andrew Graham-Dixon in his book Caravaggio andin his BBC documentary, “Who Killed Caravaggio?” Watch Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 on YouTube.

2 Alex Potts and Joahann Joachim Winckelmann, History of the Art of Antiquity: Texts and Documents (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2006), p. 15-15. Text available online HERE.

— 12 Comments

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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The Farnese Hercules and Renaissance “Substitutions”

Farnese Hercules (also known as the "Weary Hercules"), 3rd century CE. Roman copy by Glykon after the 4th century BC bronze original by Lysippos. Height approximately 10.4 feet (3.17 meters).

This past week my research meandered into Roman art and the Farnese Hercules. This Roman statue was excavated in various pieces from the Baths of Caracalla during the Renaissance period, in 1546. The legs, however, weren’t found during the early excavations. Before the original legs were discovered, the Renaissance sculptor Guglielmo della Porta provided other legs for the piece. And although the original legs were found not long after, della Porta’s legs were still kept with the statue until 1787, when the originals were finally put into place!

Apparently, Michelangelo advised that della Porta’s legs be retained with the original statue, in part to prove that modern sculptors could compare with those from antiquity.2 I think this is interesting, given that Michelangelo had already been involved in a longstanding debate with Bandinelli regarding the original composition of the Laocoön. Michelangelo obviously wanted to respect the original composition of classical statues, but it seems like he didn’t necessarily care if the original marble took part in the composition. Perhaps Michelangelo also wanted to promote Guglielmo della Porta, who was his protégé. Anyhow, Michelangelo obviously found that della Porta’s legs were acceptable, although some slight differences can be observed in the position of the feet (see below).

Jocob Bos, Farnese Hercules, 1562. Engraving. Michelangelo designed the niche in which the Farnese Hercules was placed.

After the original legs were finally reunited with the sculpture in 1787, Goethe recorded that he saw the Farnese Hercules in his Italian Journey (1786-1788, German: Italienische Reise). Goethe criticized della Porta’s “substitute” legs, and felt that the installation of the original legs made the sculpture “one of the most perfect works of antiquity.”3

Of course, the Farnese Hercules isn’t the only piece of classical art which was “restored” during the Renaissance period. Although it seems like della Porta’s legs functioned as an adequate substitute for many, I’ll admit that there are other Renaissance “restorations” which seem a bit awkward to me. Perhaps I’m just used to the missing limbs of the “Apollo Belvedere,” but I think that the Renaissance additions on this statue aren’t completely graceful, especially Apollo’s hands and fingers.

Left: Apollo Belvedere as restored in the 1530s. The left hand, right forearm, and fig leaf were added at the request of Pope Paul IV. Right: The Apollo Belvedere as restored after WWII. The Renaissance additions were removed, with the exception of the fig leaf. Today, the fig leaf also has been removed.

Left: "Apollo Belvedere" (2nd century AD) as restored in the 1530s. The left hand, right forearm, and fig leaf were added at the request of Pope Paul IV. Right: "Apollo Belvedere" as restored after WWII. The Renaissance additions were removed, with the exception of the fig leaf. Today, the fig leaf has been removed, but it appears that the Vatican currently displays a restored version of the statue that is similar to the Renaissance restoration. If anyone has information on when this most recent restoration took place, I would love to know!

When considering the post-WWII restoration of the “Apollo Belvedere” (in which the Renaissance additions were removed), Jas Elsner wrote that “whether the modern concern to return such marbles to their ‘authentic’ form constitutes an improvement is, and will remain, a moot point.”4 I’m up for discussion, and I’d like to see what people think about “improvements” and “authenticity.” Do you have any thoughts on the substitutions and “restorations” of Greco-Roman sculpture that took place during the Renaissance? Is it better to only leave original material on these works of art? Should we make conclusions about later “restorations” on a sculpture-to-sculpture basis, depending on the nature and quality of the addition/substitution? (And if so, does that mean that we value aesthetics and our opinion of quality more than original history?)

I feel like these are tough questions for me; I fluctuate between both camps. I am a sucker for original context and original works of art, but I do think that sometimes a substitution can help to recreate the original context in some form. If della Porta didn’t create substitute legs for the Farnese Hercules, the monumental height and overwhelming effect of that sculpture would have been lost (until, of course, the original legs were found). On the other hand, I also think it’s important to realize that the works of art have their own history, even beyond the period in which they were created. Sometimes I like having a visual reminder that specific works of art held importance during the Renaissance.

1 Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500-1900 (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1981), 229.

2 Ibid. See also Jan Todd, “The History of Cardinal Farnese’s ‘Weary Hercules,” in Iron Game History (August 2005): 30. Todd citation can be read HERE.

3 Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey (Penguin Classics, 1970), p. 346. Citation can be read HERE.

4 Jas Elsner, Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 16.

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Book Review and Giveaway: “Irene Parenti Duclos: A Work Restored, an Artist Revealed”

Cover image of "Irene Parenti Duclos: A Work Restored, an Artist Revealed"

Over the past few weeks I have had the pleasure to read a new book on a female painter, Irene Parenti Duclos. This book, Irene Parenti Duclos: A Work Restored, an Artist Revealed, was published by the Florentine Press in October 2011. I wasn’t familiar with Duclos before reading this book; she was well-respected female painter in 18th century from Florence. This book was written (in part) to discuss the restoration of Duclos’ copy of Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna del Sacco (18th century, detail of Duclos’ copy appears on book cover above). Coincidentally, the restoration of the Duclos canvas occurred at the same time that Andrea del Sarto’s original fresco (1525) underwent restoration (compare del Sarto’s pre-restoration fresco to the restored version). Scholars were able to collaborate and learn more about Duclos (and the del Sarto fresco) during this restorative period. You can read a little more about the Duclos copy and restoration here.

Duclos' "Madonna del Sacco" (18th century) in the Accademia post-restoration

This book is great for a lot of different reasons. For one thing, I like that this book was written and promoted with the help of the Advancing Women Artists Foundation. (What a great cause!) I also like the book has appeal to a lot of different types of people: art historians, feminists, connoisseurs, and restorers. The book pages are divided to accommodate text in two languages (English and Italian), and therefore appeals to an international audience.

Book chapters are divided into different topics of interest. Some of the chapters are more technical than others (especially the last two chapters, which discuss the restoration of the canvas and the digital microscopy used in the process). Although these last two chapters were the most difficult for me to read (my art-historical brain isn’t used to scientific language!), I still thought the discussion was interesting.

As a feminist art historian, I was particularly interested the discussions on female artists. I liked reading a little bit more about Angelica Kauffman, Elizabeth Vigeé Le Brun, and other Italian female artists with whom I was not familiar before. Although Duclos was a painter in the 18th century, the discussion of female artists even expands to include the Renaissance artist, Suor Plautilla Nelli. I was happy to see that Nelli was discussed in detail; I learned just a little about her when I read Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, but I’ve had difficulty learning more biographical information about her. I also appreciated that this book served as a call to action. Nelli’s large-scale painting from the 16th century, Last Supper (which is the only known version of this subject matter produced by a female artist) is in dire need of restoration. Hopefully this publication will bring more exposure to the works of female artists that need preservation and attention.

Johann Zoffany, detail of "The Tribuna of the Uffizi," 1772-78

I also enjoyed reading the chapter on the fondness for copying art during the 18th century. Today I think that artistic copies often are viewed with some disdain, implying that the copy is of lesser quality than the original work of art. In the 18th century, however, copies were seen in a much more favorable light. The collecting of copies was seen as a mark of respectability and prestige. One of the paintings which typifies the 18th century rage for Italian works (and the copying of such paintings) is Zoffany’s The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-78). Not only did Zoffany copy many great works of art to produce his final canvas, but he also includes an artist in the process of copying a work of art (see above)!

Along the lines of copying and prestige, though, I found it interesting that the book emphasized that 18th century female artists received acclaim as copyists and portrait artists.1 While I do think that this is true, I think it is also important to emphasize that women were still not considered capable of the highest level of achievement (i.e. history painting) as their male artistic counterparts. It seems to me that women only were acclaimed for the types of art which men found them capable of producing. A woman might be able to impressively copy or paint what she saw in front of her (as is the case with portraiture), but it seems apparent that women were also thought (by men) to lack the imagination and intellect necessary to create large-scale history paintings.

But enough of my little rant. This book is very interesting and an informative read. I highly recommend it. And now for the big news: a GIVEAWAY! I am able to offer a copy of this book free, thanks to the generosity of the Florentine Press. Local and international readers may enter this giveaway. I will be randomly selecting one winner (using this site) on December 31, 2011. So you have ten days to enter this giveaway! You can enter your name up to four times. Here are the ways you can enter: 

1) Leave a comment on this post!

2) Tweet about the giveaway (be sure to include my Twitter name: @albertis_window in your tweet, so I can find it). After tweeting, leave a comment on this post to let me know too, please.

3) Write about this giveaway on your own blog, and then include the URL in a comment on this post.

4) Become a fan of The Florentine on Facebook and enter your email address here (so we can cross-check it with your other entries) in the giveaway for a book by Linda Falcone – this way you have a chance to win yet another book! Please also leave a comment on this post, to let me know that you became a fan on Facebook.

While you wait to find out if you won a free copy of the book, check out this nice video of the book presentation.

1 Linda Falcone, ed. “Irene Parenti Duclos: A Work Restored, an Artist Revealed,” (Florence: Florentine Press, 2011), 18, 27.

Thanks to the Florentine Press for supplying the review copy of this book. Those who are interested in purchasing a copy of “Irene Parenti Duclos: An Work Restored an Artist Revealed” can find information here.

— 15 Comments

Hillwood Estate: Self-Portrait of an Heiress

Edward Chandor, "Portrait of Marjorie Merriweather Post," 1952

How I’ve missed blogging over this past month! These past several weeks have been some of the most hectic that I have experienced in a long time. I don’t even have a Halloween-themed post for today (you can look at my Rubens and Goya posts from previous Halloweens). Instead, I want to share some thoughts on something completely different: a female collector who was interested in frothy, powderpuff, sumptuous decorative arts that are often called “feminine.” (And hey, I know that a few of you may find this art to be just as frightening and off-putting as a ghoulish work by Goya!)

Marjorie Merriweather Post was an art collector in the mid-20th century. In 1955, Post purchased the estate Hillwood in Washington, DC to house her large art collection. Hillwood is one of the “collection museums” that I listed in an earlier post. The museum has a short introduction film on their website which is as fabulous as the tag line for the museum: Where Fabulous Lives.

Early in life, at the young age of twenty-seven, Marjorie Merriweather Post became the heiress of the Postum Cereal Company (later known as General Foods Corporation) in 1914. Many biographers have commented on how Post was thrust into a “man’s world” of industry and business at a very early age.1 Several years after inheriting the family company, Post began to acquire furniture and decorative art with the help of art dealer Joseph Duveen. Interestingly, Post developed a keen interest in art during the same period in which she pushed for her business to merge with Birdeye Frozen Foods. Post’s art collection and museum can be interpreted as a self-portrait of Post, visually emphasizing her approachability, gender and femininity in order to draw a contrast with her perceived “masculine” pursuits in business.

Clock, 1896, silver gilt, bowenite, watercolor on ivory. Height 11.25", width 4"

The works that Marjorie Merriweather Post collected seem eclectic and even disparate at first glance: she was interested in French decorative arts from the 18th and 19th centuries, porcelain, jewelry, objects from imperial Russia, Farbergé, costumes, and even Native American art. However, when analyzing Post’s collection, one can see the majority the collection requires the viewer to interact with the objects in a similar way. Many of the items in Post’s collection are created on a small-scale, which require the viewer to examine the finely detailed objects at an extremely close distance. It has been commented that Post was considered to be intimidating and off-putting to many people, because she gave the impression of “being very grand.”2 In one sense, Post’s art collection reflects and even extends this idea of grandeur, since the objects are very fine, luxurious, and extremely expensive. However, Post’s collection of small, dainty objects also presupposes an environment of familiarity, approachability, and even intimacy. In turn, one can assume that Post wanted to have these characteristics extended to her own persona. Post wanted her objects to be seen up close, and perhaps used these smaller objects to creatively assert that she, as an individual, was also approachable.

French Drawing Room at Hillwood Estate

The interior decoration and collective effect of the display contribute to the sense of femininity at Hillwood Estate. Such femininity is particularly manifest in the French Drawing Room, which is designed to “evoke the splendor of the French aristocratic life from the 18th century.” Such objects, particularly those from the Rococo period of 18th century France, historically have been considered “feminine” in nature. Art historian Melissa Hyde has stated, “During the second half of the eighteenth century, the rococo qualities exemplified by the work of [the artist] Boucher – grace, plenitude, emphasis on the seductions of color…came to be identified exclusively with the feminine.” Post includes a tapestry by Boucher in her drawing room, which compliments the flowery objects and lyrical decorative lines that suggest plenitude and grace. Such femininity can be seen in the rugs, chairs, and even the gilded molding of garlands on the wall. It is this particular room at Hillwood Estate that is decorated with many of the objects that Marjorie collected in the 1920s, the period in which she rallied to have her business merge with Birdseye Frozen Foods.

This post isn’t long enough to give a sense of the rich, luxurious quality or the expansiveness of Post’s collection- it’s quite amazing. There are many other ways that the collection and estate relate to gender, femininity, and domesticity too (I didn’t even get to the estate gardens!). Has anyone visited Hillwood Estate? What was your impression of the place?

1 For one example, see interview with Ellen Charles, granddaughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post (Hillwood introduction film at 3:39). Available at: http://www.hillwoodmuseum.org/welcome.html

2 See interview with Dina Merril, daughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post (Hillwood introduction film at 2:42). Available at: http://www.hillwoodmuseum.org/welcome.html

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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.