art theory and philosophy

What if Sculptures Were Painted?

This week I have been reading Colin Cunningham’s essay “The Parthenon Marbles” (a preview of which is available here). Cunningham spends much of this essay examining how the bringing of the Parthenon marbles (by Lord Elgin) to the British Museum has affected the Western canon of art. (When using the word “canon” I am referring to the artistic standard and aesthetic value that has been determined by Western culture over centuries.)  The bringing of original Greek statues to England was huge, especially in the 19th century, since many artists had only known Greek art through Roman copies.  After the marbles were brought to the British Museum in 1816, thousands of artists began to study these works for their aesthetic properties.

I was most intrigued by Cunningham’s discussion of how classical sculpture continues to be left unpainted.  We know that Greek and Roman sculpture used to be painted, and many sculptures have left behind traces of paint (including sculptures on the Parthenon). Modern techniques have enabled exhibitions (such as this one and this one) to show reconstructions of how these sculptures appeared originally, such as this example of Augustus of Primaporta (right, original dated ca. 20 BC).

However when ancient sculptures were discovered, most of the paint had usually come off.  Obviously, people decided to leave the works unpainted.  On one hand, no one wanted to risk damaging the original works of art.  Plus, at the time no one knew how the paint originally appeared.  In time, though, the idea of unpainted sculpture began to be propagated by art historians as correct/beautiful/preferred, particularly Winckelmann (1717-1768), who declared that “color ought to have a minor part in the consideration of beauty.”1

So, what do you think of painted sculpture?  Does it weird you out? Cunningham points out, “If the idea of coloured sculpture seems strange to you, that shows the influence the western canon has had on all of us.”2 Personally, I like looking at painted reconstructions of ancient sculpture, because it reminds me how much the Western canon and my own artistic preferences have been constructed.  I’m sure that ancient Greeks and Romans would think it bizarre that later cultures left their sculptures white and unadorned.  And the funny thing is, we’ve continued to create unadored, unpainted sculptures for centuries, all in the name of classicism!

What if classical sculpture had still been painted when it was discovered?  That could have changed the face of the Western art – quite literally, in fact, if you think about painted faces!  Consider if Michelangelo’s David had been painted. You can get an idea of what it might have looked like from this sculpture created after Michelangelo’s David (left, by a German artist, displayed in Cologne as part of the Museum Ludwig collection).  Or what if Bernini’s sculptures had been painted?  Or neoclassical sculptures, like Canova’s Cupid and Psyche?

Art and art history could have been totally different than how they have turned out.  How do you feel about that?

1 John Hooper, “The Ancients: Now Available in Color,” in The Guardian, 22 November 2004.  Available online here.

2 Colin Cunninghman, “The Parthenon Marbles,” in Academies, Museums and Canons of Art, Gill Perry and Colin Cunningham, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 70.


Forgers, Copyists, and Authenticity/Authority

I remember being surprised to learn that the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) that exists today is not entirely a product of the fifteenth century.1 One of the panels in the altarpiece (“The Just Judges“) was stolen in the 1930s, and was repainted by the copyist Jef Vanderveken in 1945 (see left).

I think it’s telling that none of my art history books mention anything about Vanderveken or this copied panel. And when I traveled to Ghent to see this altarpiece in 2003, I don’t remember seeing any information about any other artist than van Eyck. I think there’s a reason for this “cover-up”: the altarpiece doesn’t appear to be a product of pristine history and genius with the knowledge that not everything is “authentic” (i.e. by van Eyck’s hand). And I would argue that by extension, to undermine the genius of van Eyck’s work would also undermine the genius and authoritative voice of the art historical discipline.

This connection between authenticity and the authoritative voice is interesting. One of the most prominent places to encounter an authoritative (and institutional) voice is within the museum setting. Pieces of art are displayed within the museum, and an unspoken authoritative voice tells museum visitors, “This is important and authentic by the mere fact that it’s on display.” And museum visitors do not question that implied statement (at least, they’re not encouraged to do so!).

But what happens when a work of art in a museum collection is determined to not be authentic? This change in status (i.e. artistic genius) reflects poorly on the museum because it loses a measure of authority. (Museums don’t want to admit that they make mistakes, too!)

I’m particularly reminded of the forger Han van Meegeren, who duped the art world into thinking it had discovered several paintings by Vermeer (among a few other artists). Van Meegeren’s forgeries are now scattered throughout the world in many prominent collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery (Washington, DC). However, from what I can tell, these paintings are not on permanent display at most of these museums. Instead, the forgeries are shuttled down to the depths of storage, to hide the blemish of mistake and allow the museum to still “speak” authoritatively.

Furthermore, whenever Van Meegeren paintings are on display for temporary exhibition, it appears that they are almost always labeled with “Imitator of Vermeer” or “After Johannes Vermeer.” Even though Van Meegeren was exposed and we know who made the forgeries, museums don’t give him any credit for his work! It’s as if the museum world still wants to try and tap into the genius of Vermeer by association, even though we know that the paintings are fakes. Bah!

Do you know of any other instances where a question of authenticity has undermined the authority of a museum/art appraiser/work of art/art history textbook?

1 In fact, the Ghent altarpiece was not entirely a product of Jan van Eyck “hand.” It appears that the Ghent altarpiece was begun by the painter Hubert van Eyck, Jan’s brother. See my post on the topic here.

Loggia dei Lanzi and Subjugation

Several years ago, I sat in the Loggia dei Lanzi (Florence) and sketched some details of the statues found there. If I had thought hard about it, I might have noticed that several of the sculptures there share an interesting commonality. See if you can find the common theme:

Giambologna, Rape of a Sabine, 1581-83

Cellini, Perseus, 1545-54
(I recently wrote a post about Perseus here.)

Pio Fedi, Rape of Polyxana, 1866

Do you notice anything? All of these sculptures have subject matter which emphasizes the subjugation of women or “man’s longed-for control over woman.”1 I’ve been reading an article this week by feminist Yael Even who reveals this common theme in the loggia space. It’s quite fascinating. The most interesting thing to me, though, is that another sculpture used to be located here. Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes (1456-57, shown right) was the first sculpture placed in the Piazza della Signoria (where the Loggia dei Lanzi is located). However, over time, Donatello’s sculpture was shuffled around different sections of the loggia and elsewhere. In 1980, the sculpture was eventually moved (concealed?) to the inside of the Palazzo Vecchio. Yael Even points out that the difficulty with placing this sculpture has to do with the subject matter – instead of emphasizing the subjugation of women, Donatello’s sculpture depicts a woman killing a man.1

When looking at all the depictions of female subjugation in the loggia, it’s no wonder that this sculpture sat uneasily (literally!) with the Florentines. After all, wouldn’t it make a (male) viewer uncomfortable to know that women can retaliate?

I really recommend that you read Even’s article.

1 Yael Even, “The Loggia dei Lanzi: A Showcase of Female Subjugation,” in Woman’s Art Journal 12, no. 1 (1991): 10.

2 Ibid.


Vasari and Female Artists

I’m in a state of shock. Vasari is best known as the biographer for the great (male) artists of the Italian Renaissance – Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo, etc. But did you know that Vasari mentioned four females in his Lives of the Artists? I had no idea, until I discovered Vasari’s chapter on Properzia de’Rossi the other night. I seriously was dumbfounded – I stared at the word “sculptress” for at least ten seconds.

But don’t get too excited, my feminist art historian friends. Vasari only mentions Rossi in a few paragraphs, and then taps on a few short sentences about three other female artists: Sister Plautilla, Madonna Lucrezia, and Sofonisba Anguissola. You’ve never heard of these artists, you say? Let me show you a sampling of their work:

On the right is Properzia de’Rossi’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1520s). Vasari mentions that the subject matter of this panel can parallel the unrequited love that Rossi experienced in her own life. I think this comparison is telling about Vasari’s views on women and feminine nature. The editor of my Lives edition also echoed my thoughts, saying that “while male artists execute works without regard to their personal feelings throughout the Lives, Vasari seems unable to imagine a woman creating a work of art without sentimental or romantic inspiration.”1

On the left is Lamentation with Saints (16th century) by Sister Plautilla (Plautilla Nelli). Vasari mentions that Plautilla was an extremely prolific painter, but surprisingly (or perhaps not-so-surprisingly), only three works are definitively attributed to her today. In an effort to bring public awareness to this artist, the Florence Committee of National Museum Women in the Arts paid to have Lamentation restored in 2006 (see news article here).

I think it’s especially interesting that Vasari doesn’t make any statements about Plautilla’s divine role as an artist or God-given talent (which he makes about the male artists in his book). Instead, he stresses that Plautilla and the other ]female artists learned and acquired artistic skill. Futhermore, Vasari wrote this about Plautilla: “But best among her works are those she imitated from others, which demonstrates that she would have created marvellous works if, like men, she had been able to study and work on design and draw natural objects from life.”2 Plautilla was alive when Vasari wrote her biography, and I wonder if she cringed to know that Vasari thought her best works were those that she copied from the divinely inspired, male artists.

Sofonisba Anguissola is the only female artist with whom I was familiar before reading Vasari. I read about Anguissola when I was doing research on Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard. Several scholars think that Caravaggio’s two versions of this subject were influenced by Anguissola’s Boy Bitten by a Crayfish (also called Boy Bitten by a Crab, c. 1554, on right). Mary Garrard has discussed Anguissola’s drawing in depth. She mentioned how Anguissola painted a picture of a laughing girls, which Michelangelo saw and commented that “the image of a crying boy would have been better.”3 Garrard finds that Michelangelo’s statement implied that boys are better artistic subjects than girls, and tragedy is better than comedy.4 Upon hearing this, Anguissola sent Michelangelo the drawing of Boy Bitten by a Crayfish. However, instead of showing the crying male in a tragic, noble position (and follow Michelangelo’s inferred suggestion), Anguissola shows the boy in an ignoble state with an amused female standing nearby. Wasn’t Anguissola a little sassy? I wonder what Michelangelo thought of the drawing.

Madonna Lucrezia is the other female artist mentioned by Vasari. Unfortunately, there isn’t any (known) surviving art by her. In fact, we know little about Lucrezia beyond that she was active around 1560 and her teacher was Alessandro Allori. It’s sad to think that her work and life is lost to history, most likely because she was a female. I’m glad that Vasari made the effort to mention her and these other females in his Lives, but also disappointed that most females didn’t receive artistic opportunity or art historical attention at the time. It makes me wonder what other female artists have been unappreciated and obscured by historical biases.

Is anyone else shocked that Vasari mentioned female artists in his text?

1 Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, translation by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella (London: Oxford University Press, 1991), 565.

2 Ibid., 342.

3 Mary D. Garrard, “Here’s Looking at Me: Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist,” Renaissance Quarterly 47, no. 3 (Autumn, 1994): 611.

4 Ibid., 612.


Linda Nochlin Lecture at SAAM

Last night I watched a live webcast of Linda Nochlin’s lecture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Nochlin is one of the forefront feminist art historians today (she practically created feminist studies in art history with this article). She has influenced a lot of my thinking in regards to feminism and postcolonialism, and I was really excited to hear her speak. Nochlin spoke about female American artists, ranging from Mary Cassatt to the contemporary period. (On a side note, don’t you think it’s interesting how both the Americans and French want claim the ex-pat Cassatt as belonging to their country/art movements? Is she a French Impressionist or an American Impressionist?)

There were two things in Nochlin’s lecture that I thought were especially interesting. I liked how Nochlin compared Mary Cassatt to the compositional devices in Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (c. 1878, shown above on right). Nochlin pointed out that Cassatt was extremely aware of childhood and its discontents, as is evidenced in the painting and subject matter. The little girl is slumped in her chair – it’s obvious that she is annoyed with the convention of portraiture and having to sit still (for a long time!) while her portrait is painted. The girl’s resistant attitude is emphasized by her angular body within the composition: there’s an interesting contrast between the angular body of the girl and the soft, circular body of the dog.

Nochlin paralleled this painting to the discontent that Cassatt felt in her own life. Like this little girl, Cassatt was also resistant to convention and tradition. As a suffragist and avant-garde artist, Cassatt defied the standards that were upheld by 19th century society. Cassatt’s disregard for the tradition of painting is even emphasized in the unconventional perspective of Little Girl in a Blue Armchair; the viewpoint has been lowered so that the scene is viewed from the perspective of a child, not that of an adult.

Nochlin also made a passing comment that I thought was interesting. She was discussing Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936, shown on right) and mentioned that she liked that the photograph was black and white. Nochlin feels like there is a true feeling of “documentation” when a photograph is black and white – there is a refusal of the decorative, emotional quality that comes with color. In terms of facts and documentation, the idea of “black and white” is extended to the newspaper and media paradigm, since people say “I read it in black and white.” Interesting, huh?

Did anyone else have a chance to hear Nochlin’s lecture? What do you think of the two ideas I mentioned?


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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.