Book Review: “The Museum of Lost Art”

I recently finished reading Noah Charney’s new book The Museum of Lost Art. I have an academic crush on Charney’s work – he always manages to write about fascinating topics that I wish I had thought to write about myself. I’m glad that he is one step ahead of me, though, because he writes in a very engaging and approachable way. I wish that more art history texts were written like his.

The book is divided into sections, and within each section Charney considers different ways for how a work of art can be “lost.” For example, some works of art are destroyed intentionally or destroyed accidentally, while others are altered from their original conception. Each section is tied unified by beginning and ending with an anecdote that relates to the topic. I found this to be a bit confusing when I read the first section, but then I perceived what Charney was doing and the remaining sections made more sense.

Masaccio, "Holy Trinity," 1425-28. Santa Maria Novella

Masaccio, “Holy Trinity,” c. 1425-28. Santa Maria Novella, Florence

The thing that I liked most about The Museum of Lost Art was that I learned new things about famous works of art that I thought I already knew well. For example, I didn’t know that Masaccio’s Holy Trinity painting was covered up with a false wall in the latter part of the 16th century when Vasari was hired to alter the space.1 This canonical painting, which appears in most introductory art history textbooks as an example of mathematical (linear) perspective, was only rediscovered in 1860 when the church was remodeled.2

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on panel, 207 x 209.5 cm (81.5 x 82.5 in), National Gallery, London

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on panel, 207 x 209.5 cm (81.5 x 82.5 in), National Gallery, London

I also was also intrigued to learn that part of Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors was “lost” at some point after it first was painted in 1533. The crucifix in the upper left corner originally was created to be partially obscured by the green curtain (which has been connected to the political tension of the day), but at one point the crucifix was completely painted out. Only in recent times, when conservators at the National Gallery cleaned this painting in 1891, was the crucifix discovered.This clear alteration before 1891 suggests that this political message (which references Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church through the formation of the Church of England) was offensive or problematic.

Holbein, "The Ambassadors," detail of crucifix

Holbein, “The Ambassadors,” detail of crucifix

The only section that I wish had a little more attention in this book is that of the “Looting in the Ancient World.” I think that the ancient Near East could have gotten more coverage here in the book, since many works of art were altered or lost due to the different warring groups who lived in this area. Probably my favorite article which discusses this topic is Marian Feldman’s “Knowledge as Cultural Biography: Lives of the Mesopotamian Monuments,” which includes a discussion of the Akkadian King portrait head. I realize that Charney was giving a brief overview of this topic in his book, but I do wish that the ancient Near East could have received a bit more discussion.

Otherwise, I really did enjoy this book and I heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested in the biographies of works of art, art crime, looting, conservation, and restoration.

1 Noah Charney, The Museum of Lost Art (Phaidon: New York, 2018), 215.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 235.


The Trophy on “Augustus of Prima Porta”

"Augustus of Prima Porta," side view, a copy of a bronze statue of c. 20 BCE. Marble, height 6' 8" (2.03 m). Musei Vatican. Photograph by Ilia Shurygin used with permission.

“Augustus of Prima Porta,” side view, a copy of a bronze statue of c. 20 BCE. Marble, height 6′ 8″ (2.03 m). Musei Vatican. Photograph by Ilia Shurygin used with permission.

Yesterday I was looking for a detail image of “Augustus of Prima Porta” to show to a student, and I came across an image that showed the back of the cuirass (breastplate). “Hold on! What is that?” I thought. I never knew that the back of the sculpture was decorated. Underneath Augustus’ arm you can see that there is a small object that looks like a figure. It appears in considerably lower relief than the figures on the front.

Augustus of Prima Porta rear view. Photograph by Ilia Shurygin used with permission.

Augustus of Prima Porta rear view. Photograph by Ilia Shurygin used with permission.

Detail of trophy from the "Augustus of Prima Porta," early 1st century CE

Detail of trophy from the “Augustus of Prima Porta,” early 1st century CE.

This figure is a Roman trophy (tropaeum). It is not a human figure, but it is an armored body with a helmet and breastplate that is put together on a tall pike to give off the semblance of a man. The armor is supposed to come from that of a defeated enemy. A similar trophy image, which includes the shields of defeated enemy soldiers, is located within a frieze from at the Temple of Apollo in Circo (Capitoline Museums).

I can’t tell what is projecting from the trophy of the Augustus of Prima though. Can anyone tell what is coming out from its left (our right) side?

This website explains that the back of the cuirass is not only decorated with a trophy, but also wings. From my perspective the imagery looks less like wings and more like some ribbon or string that is used to tie the cuirass together.

Detail of side rear of cuirass

Detail of side rear of cuirass with so-called “wings”

I’m curious as to why this trophy was included, especially if it might not have been in a location where the imagery would have been seen regularly (a metal rod in the back of the statue suggests that it was meant to be placed on a wall). Part of me wonders if there was some awkwardness at portraying this trophy with the armor of defeated enemies, since Augustus’ victory over the Parthians was won more through diplomatic means than actual fighting on the battlefield per se. Does anyone else have more information or theories regarding the inclusion of this trophy?


Making Damage an Advantage

Marcel Duchamp, "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)," 1915-1923. Oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels, 9 feet 1 1/4 inches × 70 inches × 3 3/8 inches (277.5 × 177.8 × 8.6 cm)

Marcel Duchamp, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass),” 1915-1923. Oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels, 9 feet 1 1/4 inches × 70 inches × 3 3/8 inches (277.5 × 177.8 × 8.6 cm)

Last week, some of my students and I were discussing Duchamp’s readymades. One student mentioned something to the effect of, “Well, I wouldn’t be able to just march up to a museum and hand them a broken window and expect them to accept it as a work of art.” I chuckled a bit at that comment, since Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (also called The Large Glass) is made of large panes of cracked glass. The glass wasn’t broken initially, but it cracked in transit accidentally after an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926-27.

Luckily for Duchamp, he found that the broken glass helped to complete the work of art. Previously, he had declared that the art was “definitively unfinished,” but then later determined the work of art to be complete after he pieced the glass panes back together. The cracks remind me of the delicacy of a bride’s veil. You can read more about the different forms in this object both here and here.

It is interesting to me how this accidental damage was used to help complete the work of art, and even become a feature that is celebrated as part of the aesthetic. This is different than the slashed canvases of Lucio Fontana, since those slashes were intentionally made by the artist as part of the original conception of the object.

In contrast to this accidental damage, I have blogged previously about art that is damaged intentionally, often as a result of attack. In addition, there are countless examples of works of art that have been damaged by accident, too, such as the boy who tripped in a museum in 2015, the Cairo Museum workers who accidentally knocked off King Tut’s beard (and then infarmously tried to glue it back on), and the $40 million painting by Picasso that Steve Wynn accidentally punctured with his elbow. In these instances, however, the works of art are restored to give a semblance of their original appearance; the damage isn’t celebrated from an aesthetic standpoint.

Duchamp’s cracked The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even reminds me of “biography” of a work of art – the concept that objects have lives of their own. The broken glass is a reminder of the fateful trip that the object took after the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum – and it was the only time this work of art was displayed in a temporary exhibition! Interestingly, though, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which permanently houses The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, is interested in keeping the work of art in a more timeless and historicized space. The museum website proudly declares that the object is exhibited in the same space that Duchamp chose for it over half a century ago, when The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even was acquired by the museum in 1953. In a way, perhaps this static display counteracts the sense of a living “biography” that is suggested by the object itself.

Do you know of other works of art that were accidentally damaged, and then this damage was incorporated into the finished work of art? Of course, I’m thinking of situations that are more extreme than the “happy little accidents” that Bob Ross talks about in his painting show. If you know of anything, please share!


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.


Stags and Elk in “Adam and Eve” scenes

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), Adam and Eve, 1526, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), Adam and Eve, 1526. The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

I have been combing through dozens of paintings of Adam and Eve this morning by Lucas Cranach the Elder. I knew he painted several versions, but I had no idea that he painted so many! I’ve been struck at seeing the different animals that Cranach chose to depict within the Garden of Eden, especially since these images by Cranach are influenced by Dürer’s Adam and Eve engraving of 1504. However, Cranach’s animals don’t have the same symbolic meaning relating to the four humors that Dürer intended. Instead, the Courtauld Gallery points out that their version (shown above) includes a multiplicity of animals that are “less solemn and portentous” than Dürer’s few animals. Cranach’s animals seem to suggest the exotic and lively environment within the Garden of Eden, which the Courtauld Gallery describes as a “seductive vision of Paradise.”

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve," 1504. Engraving

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve,” 1504. Engraving

Dürer’s Garden of Eden seems less seductive: there are clearly identifiable animals, but they aren’t visually-celebrated and displayed in the same way as the Cranach painting (notice Dürer’s rabbit is turned away from the viewer). Instead, these animals serve a symbolic purpose. According to Erwin Panofsky, four of the animals each represent one of the four humors and their associated temperaments, which is something that I have written about previously.

One particular animal in Dürer’s print is striking to me: the elk was seen as a symbol of melancholy, one of the four humors. I wonder if Dürer ended up thinking about this animal in a different way later on in his career: a few years after this print was created, a philosopher in Germany named Agrippa of Nettesheim connected the melancholic temperament specifically to creative, imaginative people involved in the arts.1 Dürer himself references to the melancholic temperament and the creative genius in later works of art: the Melencolia I engraving from 1514 is thought by some to be an allegorical portrait of the artist himself. Could Dürer have felt any sort of connection with the elk as an animal, after knowing of this connection between the melancholic temperament and artists? He did also complete a drawing of an elk, but the date of the drawing is disputed and unclear.

Cranach, Adam and Eve, first half of 16th century, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Cranach, Adam and Eve, first half of 16th century, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Since Cranach and Dürer were contemporaries, I began to wonder if Cranach depicted any elk that could possibly reference the melancholic temperament. However, I learned that Cranach rejected the idea of the Renaissance genius and the hubris of humanism, so it makes sense that he wouldn’t be interested in including symbols of the four humors. Furthermore, I noticed that Cranach’s paintings clearly depict stags instead of elk. There is a clear difference between these animals! Stags are much bigger than elk (see this photo). Cranach also makes an effort to depict the shaggy neck/chest mane that is characteristic of stags (see painting above), to make sure that the stag is clearly identified.

But why stags? This also has symbolic meaning, but in a different way than the elk. Since the medieval period, stags were viewed as a symbol for Christ and Christians. Just as a stag can escape the hunter or a predator, Christ was able to escape the devil and the permanence of death. Similarly, a Christian could also escape the snares of the devil through emulating Christ and living a virtuous life.Cranach emphasizes this idea by showing a stag pulling back from a predatory lion in his 1533 painting of Adam and Eve in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.

It’s revealing to me that Cranach often depicts the stag appears behind Eve (shown above) or peeking behind Adam (as seen in this 1528 example in the Detroit Institute of Arts collection), too. This seems intentional because Adam and Eve are not following the “escapist” behavior of the stag, but instead are falling into the trap of sin by partaking of the Forbidden Fruit. Therefore, the stags in these paintings serves as a reminder for the need of Christ, since sin enters into the world due to Adam and Eve’s actions.

So, both the elk and the stag can relate to the idea of imbalance due to the introduction of sin: either the imbalance of the four humors or the need for mankind to find redemption through Christ. I think that Dürer was able to include a more obscure reference to the four humors, since his engraving was intended to produce a smaller amount of prints that would have been circulated in humanist circles that understood the reference. In contrast, Cranach included a traditional medieval symbol with his stag, which explains why he felt comfortable reproducing the stag in numerous paintings, since he knew his broader audience would be more familiar with such symbolism.

1 Paul Wood, “Genius and Melancholy: The Art of Dürer,” in The Changing Status of the Artist by Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods, eds. (Open University Press, 1999), p. 156-157. Available online:

2Lindsey Nicole Blair, “Cats and Dogs: The Development of the Household Pet through Symbolic Interpretations and Social Practices in the Middle Ages and Renaissance,” in Iowa Research Online (Summer 2016): 15-16. Available online:


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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.