museums and exhibitions

Observing Flowers: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites

Jan Van Eyck, "Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. Oil on panel, 2′ 8″ x 2′ 0″. National Gallery of Art (London)

Jan Van Eyck, “Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. Oil on panel, 2′ 8″ x 2′ 0″. National Gallery of Art (London)

I am really sad that I am unable to see the exhibition Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites that is going on at the National Gallery in London right now (until April 2, 2018). This show has some of my favorite artists and works of art, including Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, which is one of the first works of art that I came to love as a teenage student. I also love thematic exhibitions that link works of art by their content (such as symbols and subject matter): this exhibition revolves around the inclusion of the convex mirror in both Van Eyck’s and the Pre-Raphalites’ art. What a fun and novel idea for a show! Even though I can’t travel to England for this exhibition, I look forward to reading the catalog.

The basic premise of the show explores how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was inspired by the art of Jan Van Eyck. The Arnolfini Portrait was acquired by the National Gallery in 1842. Just six years later, in 1848, the Pre-Raphalite Brotherhood formed. Despite their name and connection to an Italian artist (Raphael), this group of artists were not very familiar with Italian art. Instead, they looked to early artistic examples that were available to them, such as medieval art or the including the newly-acquired painting by Van Eyck. As an Early Northern Renaissance painter, Van Eyck embodied art that was anti-classical or un-classical, which is what the Brotherhood strove to depict in their art. Furthermore, the Pre-Raphaelites were inspired by the rich colors and extreme detail for which Van Eyck was famous, even during his own lifetime. I love this video that the National Gallery created to promote the exhibition:

I think this connection to Van Eyck is a really great way for students to understand how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood style is unique and different from the other art produced in Britain in the 19th century, not only in terms of subject matter but also style. Van Eyck’s art is highly detailed and has very bright, saturated colors; such features are also a hallmark of Pre-Raphaelite art. As a Northern artist, Van Eyck was influenced by the Aristotelian mindset that places value on finding knowledge through empirical observation. This parallels with how the Pre-Raphaelites, as influenced by the art critic John Ruskin, sought to depict truth and find a moral, virtuous foundation by studying nature. All of these artists were compelled to look closely at the world around them.

As a gardener, I especially like to think about how Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites are similar in how they studied the natural world through plants and flowers. One of my favorite Pre-Raphaelite paintings is Millais’ Ophelia (1851-52), and a Smarthistory video includes amusing anecdotes about the practical frustrations that Millais experienced by going into nature to paint this scene.

John Everett Millais, "Ophelia," 1851-52. Oil on canvas, 76 x 112. Tate

John Everett Millais, “Ophelia,” 1851-52. Oil on canvas, 76 x 112. Tate

This painting has a lot of very specific flowers included therein, which are part of the Shakespearean story of Ophelia from the play “Hamlet.” Millais took special pains to make sure that all of the plants were identifiable, especially since they each held symbolic value. Millais even furthered the floral motif by depicting his model in an embroidered floral dress which he bought specifically for inclusion in the painting.

Millais, "Ophelia," 1851-52 (details of violets, forget-me-nots, daisies, and wild roses)

Millais, “Ophelia,” 1851-52 (details of violets, forget-me-nots, daisies, and wild roses)

The Rag Rose blogger, a fabric florist named Ruth, has identified the different plants and flowers found in this painting. One of my favorite flowers in the painting is the poppy (a symbol of sleep and therefore death), placed in the water near Ophelia’s hand. I also like the small pansy laying on her dress, since Ophelia says in the play that pansies represent thoughts:

Millais, "Ophelia," 1851-52, detail of red poppy

Millais, “Ophelia,” 1851-52, detail of red poppy

Millais, "Ophelia," 1851-52. Detail of pansy

Millais, “Ophelia,” 1851-52. Detail of pansy

Like Millais, Van Eyck also paid strict attention to detail when he painted his flowers, which emphasizes that he keenly looked toward nature when painting. Although flowers aren’t depicted in the Arnolfini Portrait, there are other identifiable flowers included in another famous work of art by Jan Van Eyck and his brother Hubert Van Eyck: the Ghent Altarpiece. In fact, Van Eycks’ attention to botanical detail is so striking that a few years ago an exhibition was dedicated to the plants shown in the Ghent Altarpiece. Here are two details of some of my favorite flowers in this painting, including lilies, irises, roses and columbine:

Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, Ghent altarpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb), 1432. Oil on wood panels

Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, Ghent altarpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb), 1432. Oil on wood panels.

Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, the Ghent altarpiece ("Adoration of the Mystic Lamb"), detail of the Virgin's crown

Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, the Ghent altarpiece (“Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”), 1432. Detail of the Virgin’s crown

As with Millais, Van Eyck included flowers for symbolic purposes, and many of them relate to the Virgin. For example, white lilies are associated with the Virgin because they are a symbol of purity. Roses are associated with the Virgin: her virginity was compared to an enclosed garden and she was known as by titles such as the Mystical Rose.

Although these artists were separated by about 400 years, there are some definite similarities in their art. Millais and Van Eyck had a love for depicting fine details, a similar interest in using symbols to depict literary or biblical themes, and a devotion to accurately depicting nature. If anything, I think that Millais had an easier time depicting nature than Van Eyck, since the recent invention of oil paint in tubes enabled Millais to go outdoors to paint. As I myself sit indoors and impatiently wait for spring to begin, I especially love these vibrant, detailed paintings because they help keep flowers alive for me all year long.


The Alexander Mosaic: Originality, Copies, and Displays

Alexander the Great Confronts Darius III at the Battle of Issos, floor mosaic, House of the Faun at Pompeii, Italy. 1st century CE Roman copy of a Greek wall painting of c. 310 BCE, perhaps by Philoxenos or Eretria or Helen of Egypt. Entire panel 8'10" x 17' (2.7 x 5.2 m). National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Alexander the Great Confronts Darius III at the Battle of Issos (or possibly Battle of Gaugamela), floor mosaic, House of the Faun at Pompeii, Italy. 1st century CE Roman copy of a Greek wall painting of c. 310 BCE, perhaps by Philoxenos or Eretria or Helen of Egypt. Entire panel 8’10” x 17′ (2.7 x 5.2 m). National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Yesterday one of my students gave a presentation on the Alexander mosaic from Pompeii. The student mentioned having a chance to visit the House of the Faun when he was younger, and showed the class an image of his younger self at the site. The House of the Faun is most important surviving house from Pompeii, and originally it was so large that it comprised a whole city block!

Today, the Alexander mosaic in the House of the Faun is a copy and the original mosaic is located in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. The original mosaic was discovered at the House of the Faun in 1831; it was located on the floor of the exedra, which is a rectangular room off of the first peristyle court. This indicates that guests would have seen this mosaic when they came to visit with the owner of the house in the exedra space. In order to better preserve the Alexander mosaic, it was moved to the National Archaeological Museum of Naples in 1843.

Alexander Mosaic display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Image courtesy Steven Zucker via Flickr and Creative Commons license.

Alexander Mosaic display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Image courtesy Steven Zucker via Flickr and Creative Commons license.

My student’s presentation reminded me of a lecture that Dr. Diana Kleiner gave on Pompeii, in which she discussed the Alexander mosaic (see 47:10 – 54:00 of this video clip). In her lecture, Diana Kleiner expressly points out how the museum displays the mosaic on the wall, which is inaccurate to the original placement of the floor mosaic. I can see her point, especially since the museum display tries to replicate the exedra of the House of the Faun (where the mosaic originally appeared). However, I also don’t mind that the mosaic currently is on the wall, because it can also serve as a reminder of how the original mosaic itself is a copy of a now-lost Greek wall painting from the beginning of the Hellenistic period in Ancient Greece (probably from c. 310 BCE, which is just a few years after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE).

Alexander Mosaic replica, c. 2003-2005. House of the Faun, Pompeii. Image courtesy Steven Zucker via Flickr and Creative Commons license.

Alexander mosaic replica, c. 2003-2005. House of the Faun, Pompeii. Image courtesy Steven Zucker via Flickr and Creative Commons license.

A copy of the Alexander mosaic was placed in the House of the Faun in 2005. The process of creating this replica was daunting, since the large mosaic is comprised of over two million pieces of tesserae.1 The project took 16,000 hours of work and cost $216,000.So, in essence, this replica is a modern copy of a Roman copy of an original Greek painting.

Detail of Alexander the Great mosaic, 1st century CE Roman copy of a Greek wall painting of c. 310 BCE.

Detail of original Alexander the Great mosaic, 1st century CE Roman copy of a Greek wall painting of c. 310 BCE.

Both the mosaic replica and the original mosaic are impressive in their own right. Diana Kleiner makes a good point in her lecture, too, about how the original Alexander mosaic is perhaps even more impressive than the original painting, since illusionism and foreshortening appear with small pieces of stone instead of pigment (see 50:11-51:19). It is unsure whether this floor mosaic was created by a Roman or Greek artist, but the translation of the imagery into mosaic form shows a high level of technique and precision!3

1 Ada Cohen, The Alexander Mosaic: Stories of Victory and Defeat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 1. 

2 Marco Merola, “Alexander, Piece by Piece,” from Archaeology Magazine 59, no 1 (2006). Available online at:

3 It is possible that this mosaic was created by a Greek artist who worked in the Roman empire in the 1st century. We know of other Greek artists who created mosaics for the Romans. For example, in the 2nd century a Greek mosaicist named Herakleitos worked in Rome and created “The Unswept Floor” mosaic that is currently in the Museo Gregoriano Profano (Musei Vaticani). This mosaic is signed by Herakleitos: ΗΡΑΚΛΙΤΟΣ ΗΡΓΑΣΑΤΟ


Presence and Absence at the Gardner Museum

My son and I looking into the Garden Court at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, March 2015

My son and I looking into the Garden Court at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, March 2015

My family and I recently returned from a trip to Boston. One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Boston was to better understand and analyze the gallery space in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Long-time readers of this blog may recall my fascination with this American art collector; several years ago I wrote a post on how Mrs. Gardner (called “Mrs. Jack” by her friends) is a “female subject” that visitors encounter when they visit the space.

As I analyzed the museum space last week, I do feel like my observations about a “female subject” were justified. In fact, in a broader sense, I think that Isabella’s subjecthood and presence were very much part of the museum, despite her obvious absence (Isabella died in 1924). On one hand, the whole curation of the museum is an indication of Isabella’s presence, since she stipulated in her will that the objects in the museum should be kept just as she had arranged them. But objects throughout the museum, specifically the “palace” (the original museum), also hinted at the collector’s presence and absence.

Roman marble throne, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, n.d.

Roman marble throne, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, n.d.

Upon entering the Garden Court of the museum, I first became aware of Isabella’s simultaneous presence and absence through a printed guidebook that is placed in the garden to orient visitors. The guidebook specifically explains that Mrs. Gardner liked to sit in the Roman marble throne (shown above), among other representations of classical figures and goddesses. The guidebook then presents the question, “Could it be that [Mrs. Gardner] was setting a place for herself in the company of these powerful women?”1

For me, this brief inclusion in the guide helped to build up the idea of Isabella’s presence within the space, by drawing attention to the fact that she physically sat among her works of art. However, the guide simultaneously draws attention to the fact that the marble throne is now vacant, without a sitter, which is also made apparent by the guide’s discussion of Mrs. Gardner in the past tense. So, this marble throne gave off a presence and a void.

Detail of Titian Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Detail of Titian Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Mrs. Gardner’s presence and absence was also included in the museum in other ways as well. One of the most interesting inclusions for me was not through a painting or sculpture, but a piece of fabric. In the Titian Room, on the wall just underneath Titian’s Rape of Europa, Mrs. Gardner placed a piece of silk that was taken from a gown which was designed for her by Worth of Paris. A catalog for the museum explains that the color and tassel pattern complement the nearby end tables, but I think that this silk fabric suggests much more.2 In an indirect way, this silk fabric hints at an embodiment of Mrs. Gardner and her physical presence, since she herself wore this fabric as a ball gown. However, the idea of absence is implied in two ways: 1) the fabric is not part of a dress, and therefore not part of Mrs. Gardner’s body or presence and 2) the current fabric displayed is a reproduction, not the original that was once physically associated with Mrs. Gardner.

Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1887-1888. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1887-1888. Oil on canvas, 190 x 80 cm. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Probably the most obvious indication of Mrs. Gardner’s presence and absence throughout the museum are the portraits of her which are scattered throughout various rooms. Some examples are Mrs. Gardner in White in the Macknight Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice in the Short Gallery, as well as Study for Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice in the Blue Room. These portraits suggest the presence of the sitter through their visual reproduction of Mrs. Gardner’s likeness, but the portraits’ mere presence in the gallery space also suggests that they are substitutes for an actual person who is absent. Probably the most striking and poignant example of Mrs. Gardner’s presence is in the Gothic Room on the third floor of the museum, just as as the visitor is completing their survey of the museum as a whole. In this space is placed Sargent’s imposing Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1887-1888, shown above), which was painted when she was forty-seven years old.3 The painting is placed in the corner of the gallery (so it is the focal point of the room, regardless of which entrance is taken). After having subtle hints at both the presence and absence of the museum collector throughout the whole space, I felt like with this imposing, life-size portrait I was getting as close to the physical presence of Isabella as possible. I think a visitor could make no mistake as to who is the powerful benefactor who created and controlled their gallery experience, after being faced with this frontal, full-length portrait!

South Wall of the Dutch Room in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Room. The frame on the left held Rembrandt's "A Lady and Gentleman in Black" (1633) and the frame on the right held Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" (1633)

South Wall of the Dutch Room in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Room. The frame on the left held Rembrandt’s “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” (1633) and the frame on the right held Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” (1633)

On a side note, I’ll also just add that today the Gardner Museum embodies the idea of presence and absence in another way too: the empty frames for the stolen paintings in the Dutch Room are still on display, suggesting both a presence and unsettling void for these works.

Have you ever been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum? Can you think of other instances in which her presence and absence are simultaneously emphasized to the visitor?

1 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Garden Court guidebook, unpublished. March 2015.

2 The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: A Companion Guide and History, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 118. Frederick Worth designed this fabric around 1890.

3 Sargent also painted Isabella’s portrait in 1922 (titled “Mrs. Gardner in White”) it was painted three years after a stroke which paralyzed Isabella’s right side.


Manet’s Pavilion and the 1867 Exposition Universelle

Manet, "A View of the 1867 Exposition Universelle," 1867. Oil on canvas, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway

This afternoon, when my student gave a presentation on Manet, she mentioned that she found information about a pavilion that Manet set up during the 1867 Exposition Universelle (“World Fair”), near the grounds of the exhibition itself. At first, I worried that this student was referring to the “Pavilion of Realism” set up by the artist Courbet over a decade before. When Courbet’s monumental canvas, The Painter’s Studio 1854-1855) was rejected from the 1855 Exposition Universelle, Courbet set up his own pavilion – a circus-like tent – within sight of the grounds of the official site. There, Courbet displayed more than forty of his own works, including The Painter’s Studio. He also used his own exhibition as a means to propagate his own ideas: the exhibition catalog included Courbet’s famous “Realist Manifesto,” where Courbet proclaimed that he wanted to create “living art” by depicting modern life.

After my student’s presentation, I told my class about how the “Pavilion of Realism” is an example of how avant-garde artists sometimes seek alternate venues for displaying their art. Then I said that it wouldn’t be surprising if Manet had done a similar thing in Courbet’s wake, and I would look forward to checking into this point further.

Manet did host his own pavilion in 1867, between the 22nd and the 24th of May, since he was not invited to participate in the official show which was overseen by an exhibition committee. Manet’s pavilion was located near the grounds of the exhibition, near the Champs de Mars in L’Avenue d’Alma, just across the street from one of the entrances to the main grounds of the fair. At this same time, Manet also painted a picture (albeit one that was abandoned in its early stages) to commemorate the ongoing exhibition (see image above and read more information HERE).

Manet’s pavilion included more than fifty works of art, including his by-then-notorious painting Le Dejuner sur l’Herbe (1863), which previously had been displayed in the Salon des Refusés in 1863. Other works of art included Young Lady in 1866 (Woman with a Parrot) and A Matador (1867, see below). Around twenty other paintings in this show revolved around Spanish themes, which evidences Manet’s penchant for the style and culture of artists like Velasquez (Manet had studied Velasquez when visiting the Museo del Prado in Madrid).

Manet, "A Matador," 1867. Oil on canvas; 67 3/8 x 44 1/2 in. (171.1 x 113 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art

Manet’s pavilion did not attract a lot of attention; it was ignored by both the press and the general public.1 To accompany the exhibition, Manet also “published a catalog with a short, unsigned preface, one of the few statements about his art that can be attributed to his own ideas (it has been presumed that he received help from his literary friends). In it the importance of exhibiting is stressed, and his work is characterized as ‘sincere’, one of the watchwords of the Realist movement.”2 (Note: I believe that ‘sincere’ is translated as ‘honest’ in the translation that is linked above).

The preface comes across as a little whiny too me – Manet seems to wallow in misery a little too much, oft complaining about his consistent rejection from the juries of the Salon. I do respect his assertion that it is important for artists to exhibit their work, but he seems to emphasize this point in too much of a defensive way. I also imagine that visitors to the pavillion would feel a little put-off by his statement that the “public has been supposedly turned into an enemy.” I wouldn’t want to enter a show, having just been accused as being an enemy of the artist!

I’m surprised that I didn’t hear about Manet’s exhibition before today. Why is Courbet’s “Pavilion of Realism” better known among art historians than Manet’s 1867 pavilion? On one hand, both exhibitions received poor attendance and not very much critical attention at the time they were mounted.3 My guess is that Courbet’s pavilion draws more attention from a historical perspective after-the-fact because 1) his own personally-funded retrospective exhibition was the first of its kind and 2) the “Realist Manifesto” is perceived as more groundbreaking and substantial than the ideas that Manet presented. Another reason is that it may be more appealing for art historians to focus on discussing the display of Manet’s work at the Salon des Refusés of 1863, simply because that story involves more dramatic content and ridicule.

I feel like general art history has abandoned a discussion of Manet’s pavilion somewhat, perhaps similarly to how Manet quickly abandoned his own painting of the 1867 Exposition Universelle (see image at top of post). Does anyone else have ideas as to why Manet’s pavilion isn’t frequently cited or mentioned in basic art history texts? Is there anything else that you know or appreciate about either Courbet’s exhibition or Manet’s exhibition?

1 Beatrice Farwell. “Manet, Edouard.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed February 11, 2014,

2 Ibid.

3 For a discussion of Courbet’s Pavilion and its reception, see Stephen Eisenmann, “The Rhetoric of Realism: Courbet and the Origins of the Avant-Garde“, in Ninteenth-Century Art: A Critical History (London: Thames and Hudson, 2007), p. 221. Text available online HERE.


War and “Place de la Concorde” by Degas

Edgar Degas, "Place de la Concorde," 1875. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Last night, I watched The Rape of Europa PBS documentary about Nazi looting during the World War II era. Near the end of the film, I was surprised to see Edgar Degas’s painting Place de la Concorde (1875, shown above) appear on the screen. This painting apparently resurfaced in 1995 after having been missing for four decades. Place de la Concorde was brought to Russia by Soviet “trophy bridgades” after World War II. These Russians had been sent to Germany to reclaim the stolen art which the Nazis had taken from Russian collections. In addition to reclaiming art which had been taken in the first place, some of these “trophy brigades” retaliated and decided to help themselves to works of art held in German collections. Such is the case with Place de la Concorde, which was taken from the collection of the German collector Otto Gerstenberg. It is likely this shady history contributed to the reason why this painting was held from public view for four decades. Today, the painting is a celebrated work in the Hermitage Collection and was featured in a six-month exhibition which ended at the beginning of this year.

The current context and location of this painting in the Hermitage Museum is interesting to me on several levels. On one hand, the subject matter and of this painting (especially what intentionally is not depicted in this scene) raises some interesting contrasts in relation to the current Russian ownership. Back when Degas painted this scene, only a few years had passed since the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the bloody civil war in Paris, the Commune (1871). During that time, the French lost the territory of Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians. As a result, a statue by James Pradier that was located in Place de la Concorde, The City of Strasbourg (1836-38, shown below) came to be seen from 1871 onward as a symbol of the lost territory. The statue was draped in black on state occasions and occasionally decorated with wreaths until France regained the region in following World War I.

James Pradier, "The City of Strasbourg," 1836-38. Place de la Concorde, Paris. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Degas, however, chose to not depict The City of Strasbourg in his painting; the statue would have been draped in black to mourn the loss of the territory, therefore serving as a direct reference to the war and destruction which recently took place in France.1 Instead Degas intentionally removed this statue and reference to war with his strategic placement of the striding figure of Baron Lepic. Degas, along with other Impressionists, sought to escape from and ignore the death of the French and Parisians (and the figurative death of the territory of Alsace-Lorraine) by not referencing the recent wars in their Impressionist art.2 In contrast, with the placement of Place de la Concorde in the Hermitage Museum today, it seems as if the Russians are trying to compensate for the death of their people (1.6 to 2 million Soviets died in the Siege of Leningrad during 1941-1944) by keeping this trophy painting that once belonged to a German collector.

Although in the 19th century Degas tried to avoid a direct reference to war, this painting no longer can function in that way. The current context and placement of Place de la Concorde within the Hermitage Museum has created a new meaning for this painting which is intrinsically linked to war. The current museum label at the Hermitage proudly displays that this painting came “from the collection of Otto Gerstenberg.” This painting has changed in its function due to its current context, arguably and ironically opposite to what Degas intended in relation to its subject matter.

In 1997 the Russians created a law which claimed that this painting, along with other “displaced” trophy items that were part of the Russian post-war expedition, are inalienable property of the Russian Federation. The painting is now displayed in the Hermitage with a dark brown frame, which reminds me a little of the dark drapery which would have cloaked the statue that represented the lost territory of Alsace-Lorraine. Although Degas didn’t want to depict the draped Strasbourg statue within his painting, Place de la Concorde itself is now cloaked in a state of mourning, serving as a reminder of the past and the loss of Russian lives.

1 Paul Wood, “The Avant-Garde and the Paris Commune,” in The Challenge of the Avant-Garde (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 122.

2 Ibid. Paul Wood discusses how “The Commune and the Prussian war silently haunt Impressionist painting in small tics and changes in viewpoint,” which includes the striding figure of Baron Lepic.


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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.