Frank Capra, Gauguin, and Diagonal Lines

Lately, in coordination with my volunteer responsibilities at a local art museum, I have been reading What Are You Looking At? The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art by Will Gompertz. Although a good portion of the things in this book are a review for me, I still am learning several new things, which is fun. I also appreciate Gompertz’s humorous and approachable writing style.

This book isn’t without a few minor flaws, however. I am only about a third of the way into the book, but so far I have noticed a few assertions which seem historically unfounded, as well as a quote about Cézanne which was interpreted slightly out of context. But even these slight errors are providing a diversion for me, since they are making me curious in wanting to know more.

One such diversion for me revolved around Gompertz’s assertion that a scene from Frank Capra’s movie It’s a Wonderful Life was influenced by Gauguin’s painting Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling the Angel). Gompertz points out that the tree in Gauguin’s painting is used to as a compositional device: the tree is set at a diagonal to divide the earthly realm in the lower left portion of the canvas from the heavenly vision in the upper right (shown below).

Gauguin, "The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling the Angel)," 1888. Image courtesy WikiArt

Paul Gauguin, “The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling the Angel),” 1888. Image courtesy WikiArt

Gompertz then explains that there is a similarity with this composition and a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life in which George Bailey, who has just attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge into a river, is resting and drying off in a wooden shack with his rescuer, the angel Clarence. Due to the perspective of the camera, some shots of this scene are divided by the diagonal of a clothesline; this line separates the heavenly angel Clarence from the burdened, careworn mortal George Bailey (see below).

Film still from Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)

I agree with Gompertz that there are compositional and symbolic parallels between Capra’s film and the Gauguin painting. And I appreciate that Gompertz brought this to my attention, especially since It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my favorite movies. My issue, however, is that Gompertz asserts a direct, one-to-one historical relationship between the painting and film. He explicitly states that Capra “referenced this painting” by Gauguin.1 I cannot find any source by Frank Capra or anyone else associated with It’s a Wonderful Life to verify that Capra had Gauguin’s painting in mind when he created his classic film.

Interestingly, though, my research did lead me to find that Capra was interested in Gauguin and his art. Capra’s autobiography, The Name Above the Title (1972), discusses Gauguin at one point. In this section, Capra addresses what some critics could perceive as the “gee whiz!” factor in his films – that is, characters in the films walk around wide eyed, perceiving things as larger than life. Capra defends this “gee whiz” factor by explaining that to some people, “all that meets the eye is larger than life, including life itself.”2 Capra then explains, “Gauguin was a gee whizzer. He painted the South Seas not as he found them, but as he wanted to find them. He created his own South Seas.”3

There is no doubt, then, that Capra thought highly of Gauguin, and it seems like he also liked Gauguin’s paintings, by extension. However, I’m still waiting to find a direct historical connection between It’s a Wonderful Life and Vision After the Sermon, even if a visual connection can be made. If I was writing Gompertz’s book, I would have wanted to point out this visual similarity, but also mention that Capra may have been influenced – either directly or indirectly – by other artistic factors when he considered the set up for this scene with George Bailey and Clarence. I’m particularly reminded of Japanese paintings which use diagonal lines to divide different spaces, such as the division between private and public spheres in a scene from the Tale of Genji (see below).

Kano Ryusetsu Hidenobu, scene from "Tale of Genji," late 17th century - early 18th century

Kano Ryusetsu Hidenobu, scene from “Tale of Genji,” late 17th century – early 18th century

Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon was definitely influenced by the Japanese aesthetic, but Gauguin wasn’t the only 19th century artist who was interested in diagonal lines (or even trees-as-diagonal-lines, for that matter – see Van Gogh’s Flowering Plum Tree, which is a copy of a Hiroshige print). So, my guess is that several factors are contributing to Frank Capra’s scene. Does anyone have other thoughts or know more about Capra’s artistic influences as a director?

Also, do you know of other places in which diagonal lines are used to create a strong symbolic distinction between two types of spaces (such as earthly and unearthly, or public and private)? This compositional device is intriguing to me.

1 Will Gompertz, What Are You Looking At? The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art (New York: Plume, 2012), 66. Source available online as a Google Book:

2 Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography (London: W. H. Allen, 1972), 138. Source available online as a Google Book:

3 Ibid.


Images of Mothers with Children

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

Berthe Morisot, "Le Berceau," 1872

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


East and West: The Edo Period in Japan and the Baroque Period in Europe

Due to my involvement as a volunteer at a local art museum, I’ve been learning and thinking a lot about non-Western art lately. I feel really incompetent when it comes to the Asian and African art – especially in terms of building historical context – so I feel a little out of my comfort zone. I’m excited to learn more about these artistic traditions, though.

In order for me to better contextualize and understand these new historical and artistic periods, I try to mentally cross-list each non-Western period with what is happening contemporaneously in European history. It also has been helpful for me to learn about ways that the Westerners interacted with these different cultures, so I can understand each country and time better within its history at large. So far, I feel like I have been able to best remember things that happen during the Edo Period of Japan (1603-1868), because that period coincides with the Baroque period (as well as Romanticism, Neoclassicism, and Realism). It’s been fun for me to find parallels with Baroque art and the early Edo period.

One parallel that I have found between the early Edo period and the Baroque style is the interest in light. The cultural and artistic approaches to light, however, are quite different. In the Baroque period, light was used as an illusionistic painting in order to create drama through tenebrism. Artists created sculptures and architecture which utilized natural light in order to create dramatic visual contrasts of areas which were brightly lit and cast in shadow.

Kano Shigenobou, “Bamboo and Poppies,” early 17th century. Pair or six-panel screens; ink, color and gold on paper. Seattle Art Museum

In the Edo period, the interest in light was quite different and practical. Due to the introduction of Western of firearms in Japan in the 16th century, the Japanese began to build fortress palaces with thick walls.1 The interiors of these fortress palaces was very dark, especially in contrast to the airy, filtered light which permeated through the paper walls of their previous palaces. The Japanese favored indoor screens that were decorated with gold in order to better illuminate the interiors of their new, darkened fortresses. A few examples of such screens are the Shigenobou screen shown above, the Shigenobou screen “Wheat, Poppies, and Bamboo” at the Kimbell Art Museum, as well as the Crow Screen at the Seattle Art Museum. The reflective gold surface provided more light, but I think the gold also is visually dramatic and stunning too, which makes a nice connection with the Baroque style in Europe. In fact, even the flat gold background has some parallel with the dark or ochre monochromatic backgrounds that are found in Caravaggesque paintings.

Hishikawa Moronobu, Beauty Looking Back, 17th century. Tokyo National Museum

The popularity of woodblock prints during the Edo period also is easy for me to remember, due to some parallels with what happens in the West at the same time. During the Edo period, wealthy Japanese merchants could afford to have art, particularly prints. The widespread accessibility of art reminds me a bit of the wealthy middle class and rise of the open art market in Holland during the 17th century. In Japan, a wealthy merchant might decide to purchase a print of a famous geisha or actor. Such subject matter is found in Ukiyo-e prints (“pictures of the floating world”), which were popular between the 17th and the 19th centuries. The artist Hishikawa Moronobu is one of the earliest to have made these types of prints in the 17th century (see one such example above). The accessibility of woodblock prints continued to rise in the subsequent century; technological advancements enabled the printing of multiple colors on a single sheet in 1765.

Do you know of other chronological or artistic parallels between Western and non-Western artistic periods? I’m familiar with chinoiserie and japonisme from a Western perspective, for example – this time I’m trying to make parallels to help me specifically remember points about Asian or African art.

1 “SAMART: Golden Screens of the Kano School,” SAMBLOG of the Seattle Art Museum, accessed May 15, 2014,




Christian and Islamic Art: Flesh vs. Word

Christ, Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai, 6th century

I just finished a very busy, busy quarter. One of the classroom discussions that I will remember most involved a comparison between Islamic imagery and Christian imagery. Before discussing Islamic imagery, I introduced my students to Byzantine icons. We discussed how the frontal orientation of figures and direct eye contact were essential in the icon tradition, since such compositional devices encourage interaction with the viewer.1 In the case of the icon of Christ from the Monastery of Saint Catherine (one of the few icons which escaped destruction during the period of iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries), we also discussed how the composition of Christ’s face was significant: “The right side of Christ’s face (our left) is open, receptive and welcoming, whereas his left side – Byzantium’s tradition side of judgment and condemnation – is harsh and threatening, the eyebrow arched, the cheekbone accentuated by shadow, and the mouth drawn down as if in a sneer.”2

To continue this discussion, I emphasized to my students that in many ways figural imagery lends itself to Christianity: Christ assumed a human body (“the Word became flesh”) and Christians are supposed to emulate the actions of Christ. Christians are also encouraged to emulate the lives of virtuous individuals, such as saints and martyrs. Such emulation and mimicry is encouraged when there is figural imagery, perhaps especially when such imagery exists in a narrative scene.

To emphasize this point about mimetic behavior, I had my students read a short article by Gary Vikan on Byzantine icons: “Sacred Image, Sacred Power.” I really like Vikan’s discussion of images and imitative behavior, which he supports with a 4th century quote from St. Basil. Basil explains how there is a parallel between the workshop practice of artists and the appropriate behavior of Christians:

“…just as painters in working from models constantly gaze at their exemplar and thus strive to transfer the expression of the original to their artistry, so too he who is anxious to make himself perfect in all the kinds of virtue must gaze upon the lives of saints as upon statues, so to speak, that move and act, and must make their excellence his own by imitation.”3

Jan Steen, "The Dissolute Household," ca. 1663-64

Although there were periods of iconoclasm in Christian history, I believe that the mimetic behavior of Christians is one of the reasons that figural imagery generally has prevailed in Christian art. And even during some of the comparatively later periods of iconoclasm, such as that experienced by Protestants, the secular imagery at the time was still based on mimetic behavior – particularly the moralizing themes found in Northern Renaissance and Northern Baroque art. Even when Christians weren’t looking toward strictly religious subject matter, they still looked toward paintings to help enforce what behavior they should mimic or avoid. Such moralizing paintings were created by Jan Steen, including The Dissolute Household (ca. 1663-64, see above).

Dome of the Rock, 687-91 CE, Jerusalem. Image courtesy Wikipedia

In contrast with Christianity, Islam doesn’t have exactly the same type of foundation in mimetic behavior: God revealed himself to Mohammad through his word, and therefore the words of the Qu’ran take precedence in religious imagery.4 For Islam, words are the embodiment of God. This point was emphasized in an article that I shared with my students, “The Image of the Word” by Erica Cruikshank Dodd. She explains, “The written or the recited Koran is thus identical in being and in reality with the uncreated and eternal word of God. . . If God did not reveal Himself or His Image to the Prophet, he nevertheless revealed a faithful ‘picture’ of his word.”5 God sent down his image in the form of a book. In turn, Muslims decorate the interior and/or exterior of their religious spaces with phrases from the Qu’ran, as can be seen on the exterior of the Dome of the Rock (a structure that Oleg Grabar describes as a “very talkative building”).

Floriated kufic script at the Sultan Hassan Mosque-Madrassa in Cairo, after 1356 CE

Despite the fundamental differences in Islamic art and Christian art, it is fun to notice some visual similarities. I like to consider how the words of the Qu’ran, as depicted in flat, two-dimensional text, have parallels with the flat stylizations found in many Byzantine icons. In some cases, as seen in the kufic script above, the elongation of the script has an interesting parallel with the elongation of human figures in Byzantine art. Furthermore, both text and image limit the distance between the viewer and representation by rejecting three-dimensional illusionism. As a result, the devout viewer is able to get as close to the embodiment of God as possible, whether that be an image or text.

1 Other visual devices in icons which encourage interaction with the viewer include the gold background (which removes the distraction of earthly or “real” time), half-length figures (to push the figure closer to the viewer), and overly-large eyes.

2 Gary Vikan, “Sacred Image, Sacred Power,” in Late Antique and Medieval Art of the Mediterranean World by Eva R. Hoffman, ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 137.

3 Ibid., 140.

4 Although Muslims strive to maintain lifestyle outlined and practiced by the Prophet Muhammad, as explained in the Sunnah, the writings of the Qu’ran are the primary source for the Islamic faith and its religious art.

5 Erica Cruikshank Dodd, “The Image of the Word,” in Late Antique and Medieval Art of the Mediterranean World by Eva R. Hoffman, ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 193.


Mosaic Restorations at Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey, 532-537. Image courtesy Wikipedia

This summer I am going to Istanbul (and other parts of Turkey) with some old roommates from college. One of the things that I am most excited to see is Hagia Sophia. This church-mosque-museum has such a rich, nuanced, and even rough history.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the mosaics located inside Hagia Sophia. These mosaics, which were created over several centuries, have had a hard time due to earthquakes and other forms of damage. The early mosaics were removed during the latter part of the 720s as a result of iconoclasm, only to be returned under the rule of Empress Irene (752-803). Later, with the sack of Hagia Sophia under the Fourth Crusade of 1204, some mosaics were removed and sent to Venice. Other relics from Hagia Sophia also ended up in Europe during this same time.

After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. Subsequently, perhaps over time, the mosaics were covered up with plaster and painted decorations.1 To finalize the process, the mosaics were uniformly covered with plaster sometime between 1847-1849, at the request of Ottoman ruler H. M. Sultan Abdul Medjid.2 The widespread covering of mosaics was part of a project to help give more strength, uniformity, and consistency to the structure, which had weakened and been subject to many modifications over the past several centuries. Old plaster had also fallen off some of the mosaics, and Medjid wanted the mosaics to be restored (i.e. removing the remaining old plaster) and then covered with new plaster.

This 19th century project on Hagia Sophia was overseen by Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati, two Italian brothers. These men oversaw a crew of more than eight hundred people. During this process, the Fossati brothers “recorded the location and description of many of the mosaics before replastering over them.”3

Seraphim in dome pendentive of Hagia Sophia, probably from the mid-14th century (post-dating an earthquake of 1344). The face of this seraphim was covered by the Fossati brothers in the 19th century. About one hundred and sixty years later, the face was uncovered and restored in 2009.*

In class yesterday, some of my students speculated that the covering of mosaics could have been done as an act of retaliation or anger against the Christians (perhaps as a result of the Crusades). From what I can tell, though, it doesn’t seem like the mosaics were covered to signify vengeance or even political domination. Instead, Muslims seemed to respect the original structure and its decoration.4 After all, the mosaics were covered with plaster instead of destroyed.

I have even read some discussion of how Muslims began to incorporate Hagia Sophia into their own cultural history, in order to justify the conversion of this structure into a mosque. These stories from Ottoman historical texts indicate to me that cultural appropriation of Hagia Sophia by Muslims was seen from more practical and religious viewpoints, instead of one that was riddled with spite. One version of this story relates that when the half-dome of the apse collapsed on the night of the Prophet Mohammad’s birth, it could only be repaired with a mortar composed of sand from Mecca, water from the well of Zemzem, and the Prophet’s saliva.5

The fate of the plastered mosaics would change again, after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in the 20th century. The mosaics began to be uncovered in 1931, and work continued until 1938. During this same time period, Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum by Kemal Atatürk. The space officially opened as a museum in 1935.

Hagia Sophia, interior of dome during restoration in 2007. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Restorations of the mosaics continued in the 20th century, and a major restoration took place between 1993 and 2010. This most recent restoration was fraught with its own difficulties, partially due to lack of consistent funding. And even though the Ministry of Culture and Tourism declared that the project was complete in 2010, there is still much more restoration work that needs to be done. In 2011, it was reported that many walls and passageways in Hagia Sophia were still covered with plaster. In the 19th century the Fossati brothers also recorded that a great Christ Pantocrator mosaic was located in the dome (among a number of other mosaics that are not visible today). I wonder if these mosaics still exist. Many are hopeful, including myself, that more mosaics are waiting to be uncovered.

*More information and pictures regarding the seraphim restoration can be found HERE.

1 We know that different individuals in the 17th and 18th centuries made some drawings of mosaics that they saw in Hagia Sophia. Evilya Effendi made some drawings of mosaics in the 17th century and Swedish traveler Cornelius Loos did some drawings in 1710. See Dr. Helen C. Evans, “Byzantium Restored: The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia in the 20th Century,” 4th Annual Pallas Lecture, University of Michigan, p. 2. Online copy of lecture available at: (accessed 24 May 2012).

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 It has been noted, though, that there was some internal resistance from the conversion of a Christian structure into a mosque. Robert Ousterhout writes, “Yet tension remained, and the Christian memory was never entirely erased. A firman of 1573 indicates that there was still some opposition to the preservation of a building built by non-Muslims.” See Robert Ousterhout, “Ethnic Identity and Cultural Appropriation in Early Ottoman Architecture,” in Muqarnas 12 (1995): 49. Online copy of article available at: (accessed 24 May 2012).

5 Ibid., 49.


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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.