Category

19th 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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Unkempt Artists

Photograph of Antoni Guardi, March 15, 1878. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Lately I’ve been listening to episodes of the podcast Stuff You Missed in History ClassEarlier this week I listened to an episode on the architect Antoni Gaudi (shown in his younger years above), who is best known for buildings like Casa Milà, and the yet-unfinished church La Sagrada Familia. In the latter part of the podcast, I was surprised to hear about the circumstances surrounding Gaudi’s death. As Gaudi became older in age, he began to care less about his personal appearance and looked rather disheveled, albeit that he devoted care and attention to his work project at La Sagrada Familia. (Gaudi also appears to have been camera-shy during his later years, because I couldn’t find any photographs of him in such a disheveled state!).

After leaving the La Sagrada Familia work site on June 7, 1926, Gaudi was struck by a tram. Due to his disheveled appearance, people at the scene did not recognize the famous architect and the taxi drivers refused to drive a vagabond to the hospital. (The taxi drivers were subsequently fined.) Since Gaudi was not immediately helped (and also was ultimately taken to a pauper’s hospital), by the time he was found by his friends he was in very poor condition. He died three days after the accident, on June 10, 1926. His funeral was a very large affair in the city of Barcelona, and he was buried in the crypt of La Sagrada Familia.

If Gaudi had not been mistaken for a vagabond, perhaps he could have received better medical attention and his life would have been spared! What a tragedy!

This story made me think about other instances in which artists have been described as unkempt or disheveled in their appearance, including those Renaissance artists written about by Vasari. I realize that by writing this post I am fostering the “artist-genius” construct in a way (in the sense that these artists are creative nonconformists who care more about the appearance of their art than their own appearance), but it still is interesting to consider. Here are a few particular examples that I wanted to highlight:

  • Parmigianino: Vasari writes that Parmigianino’s obsession with alchemy affected the artist’s personal appearance, “changing [him] from a dainty and gentle person into an almost savage man with long and unkempt beard and locks, a creature quite different from his other self.”
  • Vasari writes that Gherardi was very unconcerned about his personal appearance, who would wear his cloak inside out or two different types of shoes. When Duke Cosimo de Medici questioned Gherardi on his inside-out cloak, Gherardi, responded, “…but let your Excellency look at what I paint and not my manner of dressing.”2 The Duke responded by sending Gherardi a reversible cloak, so the cloak could never be inside-out!
  • Perhaps given Van Gogh’s emotional health issues, it is unsurprising that this artist is described as unkempt. However, I was interested to learn that Van Gogh seemed to deliberately dress in an unkempt fashion. I was about to write that is seems contradictory for one to consciously try to appear unkempt, but upon second thought, it seems like a lot of fashion trends strive for just that effect!
Moritz Nahr, Gustav Klimt in front of the entrance to his studio at Josefstädter Strasse 21, 1912.

Moritz Nahr, Gustav Klimt in front of the entrance to his studio at Josefstädter Strasse 21, 1912.

  • Gustave Klimt is described as having a long, disheveled beard. It seems fairly groomed in the photograph above, but I wanted to draw attention to the floor-length smock that Klimt would typically wear when he was painting in his studio (see above). Perhaps Klimt was not as disheveled and unkempt as some of other artists mentioned here, but his mode of dress was a little bizarre, to say the least (especially since he typically did not wear anything else underneath the smock!). Oddly, he posed for many photographs dressed in this smock, including one of him in a boat!.

What other artists do you know of that are described as unkempt or disheveled in their appearance?

1 See Paul Barolsky, Why Mona Lisa Smiles and Other Tales by Vasari (Penn State Press, 2010), p. 28. Available online HERE.

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Guest Post: Artistic Depictions of Card Games between 1880 and 1980

Editor’s note: I was recently contacted by Sophie Jackson, a gaming journalist and writer. Sophie wrote an article which featured a several paintings with depictions of card games. I had never seen some of these paintings before, which so it was fun to discover them through Sophie’s article. Although I rarely feature guest posts from outsiders, I feel like this article fits well with my blog (I’m reminded of when I set out on a quest to find depictions of laundresses), and I’m happy to feature Sophie’s post here.

Artistic Depictions of Card Games between 1880 and 1980

by Sophie Jackson

From Caravaggio to Picasso, Boulogne to Cézanne, the depiction of card games in major works of art has become an increasingly popular subject of study amongst critics. Many have focused on how the controversial but enduring topic of gambling and its place in society has, as with all major social issues, been examined by artists in various ways throughout the centuries. These artworks offer us unique insight into the spread of specific games, the changing manner in which they’re played and – in the case of games such as poker – the legal history. Inspired by Francesco Esposito’s original article, this piece seeks to comment on individual artistic depictions of card games over a time period of one hundred years, starting with Gustave Caillebotte’s ‘Game of Bezique’ from 1880.

Gustave Caillebotte, "The Bezique Game," 1880

Gustave Caillebotte, “Game of Bezique,” 1880

Born into a wealthy family, Caillebotte was brought up in Paris and pursued a career in painting after returning home from the Franco-Prussian war. His art typically depicted the intimate, every-day ongoings you might find in a 19th century upper-class household.1 Caillebotte’s subjects were usually engaged in some leisurely activity, whether it be piano playing, sewing or high tea. Bezique was a popular card game in Paris during the latter half of the 1800s, deriving from its earlier variant, ‘Piquet.’ In Caillebotte’s Game of Bezique, a group of men are crowded around a card table in observation of the trick-taking game being played between the younger and older gentlemen.

Caillebotte is particularly famed for his ability to portray a perspective of depth in his paintings, a quality especially prominent in his paintings of balcony and window views. Though not as notable in Game of Bezique, the man seated on the sofa in the distance certainly contributes a depth perspective to the painting, as he seems far removed from the action and somewhat generally out of place. Perhaps he does not know how to play, or maybe there is a more metaphorical purpose to his inclusion. Perhaps his presence symbolises a depressive state which renders him incapable of enjoying social and trivial activities such as a card game amongst friends.

John George Brown, "Bluffing," 1885

John George Brown, “Bluffing,” 1885

Though Brown had himself endured the hardships of an impoverished childhood, the street urchins depicted in his paintings were always cheery and healthy-looking. Paintings of anything too grim or sordid would have been unpopular with the upperclass, to which the majority of Brown’s commissioners belonged. In this particular painting we see two poor children, with ripped clothes and dirty feet, deeply immersed in a card game. The title Bluffing might suggest the game is some variation of poker; however the boys could also be playing ‘cheat.’ The mischievous and smug look on the boy to the left indicates he is the one ‘bluffing,’ whilst the other boy frowns with frustration as he looks down upon his cards. The pale and plain background focuses our eyes on the boys and their cards – indeed, the boys themselves seem totally absorbed by the game. Brown was known to have said he painted underprivileged boys because he, too, “was once a poor lad like them.”2 A pack of cards would have offered plenty of pastime for poor children without many toys. Perhaps Brown had fond childhood memories of playing cards on the streets.

Albert Beck Wenzell, "A Showdown," 1895

Albert Beck Wenzell, “A Showdown,” 1895

Wenzell’s paintings typically depicted scenes of wealth and optimism, reflecting the Belle Epoque age in which he lived. His subjects and setting were fantastically exaggerated with opulent detail and radiant colours, accurately capturing the wave of content that moved across the West at that time. Wenzell had himself grown up in a wealthy environment and been educated in Paris and Munich. Painting what he knew, Wenzell portrayed the luxurious and somewhat hedonistic lifestyle of the era’s upperclass. The artist was usually commissioned by rich American families who wanted artwork that depicted casual yet glamorous scenes. Wenzell therefore focused on beautiful, fashionably clad women interacting with older gentlemen in a familiar home setting.3 In A Showdown, however, Wenzell portrays only men, chewing cigars and dressed in business suits, engaged in what appears to he be the later stages of a poker game. Special attention should be given to the body language of all players. It seems almost as if the men are attempting to adopt a relaxed pose to ease the tension, but end up looking especially rigid as a result. The gentlemen to the far right looks particularly distressed, whilst the gentlemen to the left is slouching so far back in his chair that he looks uncomfortable. The painting’s title A Showdown confirms the confrontational and competitive nature of the scene. In poker, ‘showdown’ is the term used to describe the requirement for final players to show their hands at the end of the game. Clearly, a dramatic moment is about to unfold.

William Holbrook Beard, ‘The Poker Game’, 1887

William Holbrook Beard, ‘The Poker Game’, 1887

Dogs aren’t the only animals to have been painted at the card table. American painter Beard had a fascination with nature and famously portrayed wild animals in a disturbingly humanistic manner.4 The Poker Game is particularly unsettling in its depiction of chimps in Renaissance or Baroque clothing, gathered around a table. Most of the chimps are deeply concentrated on the card game at stake, though the servant and monk merely observe. Another chimp seems to be advising one of the players, whose four cards in hand, along with a fifth being passed to him, would indicate they are playing a five-card draw. The dark, stone setting and candlelight seems to imply the scene takes place in a castle room. Perhaps the non-participating chimp to the far left is the king, watching his subjects play cards and drink wine.

Norman Rockwell, "The Bid," 1948

Norman Rockwell, “The Bid,” 1948

Rockwell’s influential art has undoubtedly become symbolic of American culture. Characterised by sunny colours and cheerful scenes, his illustrations depict sportsmen, industrial workers and the atomic family – all of whom in some way represented the American Dream. During the war, his paintings instilled a sense of righteousness and triumph, a sentiment with which the American government was keen to inspire people when they published Rockwell’s art as motivational posters. In The Bid, Rockwell depicts a casual and pleasant card game between friends in post-war America. The sandy floor, bright shades and sleeveless shirts of the women suggests the subjects are playing during the summer. Contrasting businessmen with a beach-like setting, Rockwell blends business with pleasure – reflective of the upper class lifestyle in late ’40s America. The mismatch of chairs is a charming detail, as it implies the seating was arranged hurriedly and without care, as if the card game was a spur-of-the-moment idea. Along with good company and good weather, the subjects in this postcard-esque painting are said to be enjoying a game of ‘Bridge.’

LeRoy Neiman, "Stud Poker," 1980

LeRoy Neiman, “Stud Poker,” 1980

The very distinctive style of LeRoy Neiman can be characterized by his brisk brush strokes and hazy colouring, a method which seemed to capture the motion of his subjects and atmosphere of his setting. There are few places as bright and bustling as a casino, which perhaps explains with Neiman chose Vegas as the setting for so many of his artworks. Titled simply Stud Poker, this lively depiction of players around a card table is curiously reminiscent of Monet’s gardens. Indeed, the colourful chips on the green card table might as well be lillies in a pond. When looking at the poker players in closer detail, one can start to differentiate the features of each character, most of whom appear to be formally-dressed men – with the exception of a red-headed woman. Vibrant, busy and modern; the impressionistic and expressionist Stud Poker is a perfect example of Neiman’s eccentric style.

Most fascinating, when comparing the depiction of card games in art, is a consideration of how these games can be said to transcend social class. Not only have card games been infallibly popular over the past centuries, but they have always appealed equally to peasants as they have to kings. Another aspect worth studying is how the type of card game depicted in art changes depending upon era and, at times, the nationality of the painter. One should also note how, in the last two 20th century paintings sampled above, there are women participating in the games. This marks a shift in social attitudes, reflecting the move from ‘gentlemen’s poker nights’ toward a tendency of more gender-inclusive games. The final facet worth considering is how the depiction of gambling in art has often hinted toward its legal status during the artist’s era. Whilst many popular works of art have portrayed betting activities taking place in dark back rooms, between shifty and drunken characters, paintings such as Neiman’s Stud Poker shows the incorporation of gambling into mainstream culture. In short, the depiction of card games, as seen in works of art, can offer us insight into the unique and fascinating role these social yet competitive games play in our society.

[1] Gustave Caillebotte, The Complete Works, Early Life, 2009

[2] Birmingham Museum of Art, ‘Three for Five’ by John George Brown, 2012

[3] Society of Illustrators, Hall of Fame, Albert Beck Wenzell, 2005

[4] Art.com, Wiki, William Holbrook Beard, 2013

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French Art at the Exposition Universelle of 1889

Café Volpini poster, cover and front page for Volpini exhibition, 1889. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Café Volpini poster, cover and front page for Volpini exhibition, 1889. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

This week my students and I are discussing a show that Gauguin and his friends mounted in June 1889 at the Café des Artes (later known as the Café Volpini, after its owner). Gauguin and his friends, who failed to exhibit at the official art show that was mounted by the committee of the Exposition Universelle, decided to mount their own show at a venue on the grounds of the fair.  This café was located in an ideal location: it was right outside the Italian galleries from the Décennale exhibition (a show which was devoted to art from the past decade), and also near the Pavilion de la Presse.1 As a result, journalists were sure to pass by the café and see the art on display. Although the Café Volpini show was a flop from an economic standpoint, the artists must have gotten some exposure by being on the fair grounds, given that an overwhelmingly impressive number of people – 28 million! – visited the Exposition Universelle that year; the fair ran from May 6th until November 6th.2

After class yesterday, a student asked me whether any avant-garde artists (like the Impressionists) exhibited their work at the Palais des Beaux-Arts show at the Exposition Universelle. I thought I would address that question here, in order to showcase why Gauguin and his friends were not invited to exhibit at the Exposition Universelle. For the most part, conservative, juste milieu, academic (including “pompier”), and/or Naturalist (i.e. late Realist) painters were highlighted in the official show. There were only few Impressionists who exhibited work (see below), but overall the show largely ignored this artistic movement. It seems logical to me that Post-Impressionists like Gauguin would not have been invited to exhibit in this show, given that a small dose of Impressionism was barely palatable enough for the exhibition committee.3

To prepare for this post, I have been combing through two catalogs from the 1889 exposition: Catalogue général officiel and Catalogue général officiel; Exposition centennale de l’art français (1789-1889). French art was divided into two exhibitions, the “Exposition centennale de l’art français (1789-1889)” and the “Exposition Décennale de l’art français (1878 to 1889).” There are over six hundred paintings that appeared on display in the Palais des Beaux-Arts (not to mention sculpture, drawings, and prints), and I am only highlighting a few artists and paintings which I find to be of interest. Since there were so many conservative artists that monopolized the show, I will discuss a few of these first, and then highlight some of the more avant-garde and recent artists which were accepted to the official show.

Meissonier is one artist who is particularly praised by the international jury. Perhaps this praise reveals a bit of a bias, since Meissonier was serving as president of the jury for the fine arts division of the Exposition Universelle that year! Meissonier, who was seventy-four at the time, had nineteen works of art on display at the show. These works of art included L’Auberge au Pont de Poissy (shown below), which was painted the same year as the exhibition itself.

Meissonier, "L'Auberge au Pont de Poissy," 1889

Meissonier, “L’Auberge au Pont de Poissy,” 1889

Other paintings included in the show were Bouguereau’s La Jeunesse de Bacchus (The Youth of Bacchus, 1884) and Jules Bastien-Lepange’s Joan of Arc (1879). One of the prize winners of the Palais des Beaux-Arts show was  Léon-Augustin Lhermitte, who exhibited The Harvest (1874).

Alfred Stevens, "A Portrait of Parisian Celebrities" from "Panorama of the Century," 1889

Alfred Stevens, “A Portrait of Parisian Celebrities” from “Panorama of the Century,” 1889

Alfred Stevens, who was born in Belgium but moved to Paris in the 1840s, was another artist who was highlighted at the Exposition Universelle. However, Stevens was not featured in the retrospective fine arts exhibition, but received the commission to create a panoramic painting specifically for the Exposition Universelle of 1889. This painting, Panorama du Siecle (Panorama of the Century), was painted with the help of Henri Gervex. It was an astonishing 120 meters long and 6 meters high (in other words, the size of a football field)! The immense panorama was installed at the Tuileries during the Exposition Universelle. Unsurprisingly, Stevens was unable to secure a permanent place to display the panorama after the fair ended, so he cut the painting into sections and distributed them to shareholders. One of these sections is now titled A Portrait of Parisian Celebrities (shown above, more information HERE). A few other segments of the panorama can be seen HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Édouard Manet, "Boating," 1874. 38 1/4 x 51 1/4 in. (97.2 x 130.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Édouard Manet, “Boating,” 1874. 38 1/4 x 51 1/4 in. (97.2 x 130.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy Wikipedia. Exhibited as part of the “Exposition centennale de l’art français (1789-1889)” from May-November 1889.

Artists with more of a notorious reputation were invited to show their work, too, thanks to the influence of the critic Roger Marx.4 For example, Courbet had twelve paintings on display at the Centennial Exhibition, and Manet had fourteen paintings in that show. In addition to Boating (shown above), Manet also exhibited The Spanish Singer (an earlier work of art that I highlighted in a recent post). Manet first received critical success for The Spanish Singer, so it makes sense to me that this painting by Manet would be included in the centennial show. Unsurprisingly, his infamous Olympia painting was also shown. I think the inclusion of this painting really shows how accepting the French public had become of Realism by 1889, considering that this painting caused a scandal when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1865.

A few Impressionist paintings were on display as well. Monet had three paintings on display in the Centennial Exposition, listed as Les Tuileries, Vetheuil, and L’église de Vernon (read about the series for this latter painting HERE). Pissaro also had a work of art on display, Soleil d’hiver. Degas was invited to exhibit, but he declined the invitation.(Given the ambiguity of these titles in the catalog and the fact that Impressionists would often paint the same subject more than once, I haven’t been able to concretely pinpoint which specific paintings were exhibited. If anyone knows, please share!)

Gustave Moreau, "Jacob and the Angel," 1878. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Gustave Moreau, “Jacob and the Angel,” 1878. Image courtesy Wikipedia

I think that Gauguin and his colleagues would have been most interested having their show compete with the art that was displayed in the “Exposition Décennale de l’art français (1878 to 1889),” since this art would have been the most recent. And, as I mentioned earlier, the Italian galleries for the overall décennale exhibition were located near the Café des Artes (Café Volpini).

I haven’t found a catalog for the décannale show specifically – please share if you know where I can find one in print or digital format! I do know, though, that Moreau’s Jacob and the Angel (1874-1878) was part of this official show. I find this subject matter striking, given the context of Gauguin and the ongoing Cafe Volpini show, because of Gauguin’s interest in this biblical subject. Although Gauguin’s famous painting Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) was not included in the 1889 Café Volpini show, Gauguin had painted this work of art just a year previously. Perhaps he noticed Moreau’s painting on display and considered how the painting was different from his own interpretation of the subject matter. I wouldn’t be surprised if this painting prompted Gauguin to brood over the fact that his own painting was not on display!

Are there particular works of art from the 1889 Beaux-arts exhibition or Café Volpini show that stand out in your mind?

 1 Heather Lemonedes, “Paul Gauguin’s High Yellow Note: The ‘Volpini Suite,'”, p. 29. Available online HERE.

2 Gill Perry, “Exhibiting ‘les Indépendents': Gauguin and the Café Volpini Show,” in The Challenge of the Avant-Garde by Paul Wood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 180.

3 The unequal representation of the French artistic scene caught the attention of at least one writer who covered the 1889 exhibition: “Offrons-nous aujord’hui à un artiste quelque chose que ressemble à cette collaboration silencieuse et efficace? Analysez les éléments dont se compose un public d’exposition, écoutez les jugements contradictoires et les théories discordantes des critiques; voyez le désarroi de l’esthétique contemporaine et toutes les nuances d’opinions, de gouts et d’idéals, depuis M. Bougereau jusqu’à M. Degas, depuis M. Bonnat jusqu’à M. Manet, depuis M. Paul Flandrin jusqu’à M. Claude Monet, depuis M. Meissonier jusqu’à M. Raffaëlli. Chacun a son public, ses défenseurs ou ses contradicteurs, souvent également acharnés.” See Librairie Illustrée, L’Exposition de Paris 1889 p. 242. Available online HERE.

4 Lemonedes., p. 28. Available online HERE.

5 Degas refused to participate in group exhibitions after 1886, and the World Fair of 1889 was no exception. See Lemonedes, p. 28. See also Metropolitan Museum of Art, Edgar Degas (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988) p. 363. Available online HERE.

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Cleopatra and the Carpet Myth

Jean-Leon Gérôme, "Cleopatra and Caesar," 1866

Jean-Leon Gérôme, “Cleopatra and Caesar,” 1866

Today in class I showed my students the beginning of a short video clip by Sotheby’s about Gérôme’s Cleopatra and Caesar (shown above). The clip highlights how Cleopatra is depicted as having hidden in a rug (either a Persian or Turkish rug), which isn’t an accurate representation of what is described in Plutarch’s text. However, given the taste for exoticism in Orientalist art at the time, I can see why Gérôme’s opted to depict a carpet rug instead, despite the cultural inaccuracy and anachronism.

The video clip mentions how Gérôme’s painting has influence on Cecil B. DeMille, who directed Cleopatra (1937, starring Claudette Colbert). I can see how the inaccurate inclusion of a carpet could perhaps connect to this point, since a carpet rug was used to smuggle Cleopatra into Caesar’s presence in DeMille’s film (see image below). Similarly, a later version of Cleopatra which was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1963, starring Elizabeth Taylor) has a great scene which shows the queen dramatically and unceremoniously unrolled from a rug before Caesar (who is played by Rex Harrison). I can see why these filmmakers opted to depict a lavish carpet – it is more visually striking and dramatic than a sack used to hold bedclothes (as described by Plutarch).

Claudette Colbert in film "Cleopatra" (1937)

Claudette Colbert in film “Cleopatra” (1937)

To be fair, though, I want to highlight something about this “carpet myth.” While I think that Gérôme’s painting may have inspired 20th century filmmakers to portray Cleopatra with a carpet, other sources should be acknowledged too. I don’t think that this painting, which was completed in 1866, should be highlighted as the ultimate source for the myth. In fact, a 1770 translation of Plutarch by Langhorne introduced the word “carpet” instead of “sack of bedclothes.”1 A few decades after Gérôme’s painting was completed, George Bernard Shaw highlighted the carpet in his 1898 novel, Cleopatra and Caesar, by writing, “It is a Persian carpet – a beauty!”2

Do you know of other examples in art or popular culture that display Cleopatra with a carpet?

1 Christopher Pelling, Plutarch Caesar: Translated with an Introduction and Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 385.

2 Ibid.

 

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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.