August 2009

Gauguin + Eiffel Tower

The following anecdote won’t be as funny if I have to explain it. Hopefully you know/can surmise enough about architectural symbolism and Gauguin’s personality/lifestyle to see the humor.

This is more-or-less an excerpt from tonight’s dinner conversation:

M: So, I read this case study about the Eiffel Tower and modernity today, and I was surprised to find that Gauguin commented about the 1889 exhibition. He said that he was impressed with…

J: [Interrupts] …the Eiffel tower’s virility?

M: [Chokes on spaghetti while laughing] Ha ha ha!
[Recovers and clears throat] No.

J: [Chuckling and looking pleased about his clever remark] Then what did he say?

M: Gauguin admired the technical modernity of the Galerie des Machines; he called the exhibition a “triumph of iron.”1 I am always surprised at how Gauguin really embraced modern life. On one hand, he wanted to be “primitive” and earthy by living in Tahiti and being a “savage,” but really, at same time he loved modern life. It seems like he really embraced primitivism because it was the modern, avant-garde thing to do. He didn’t want to be primitive because he wanted to get away from modern life – he wanted to embrace modernity by being primitive.2

—Don’t you wish you ate dinner at our house? Then you could choke on spaghetti too. Don’t get your hopes up too much though, because footnotes aren’t included in our actual dinner conversations.

1 Gauguin admired the technical modernity of the tower, but he did think that the tower was designed with outdated decorative forms. This is the the full quote: “This exhibition represents the triumph of iron; not only regarding machines but also architecture. Though architecture is in its infancy, in that, as an art it lacks a sense of decoration proper to its own materials. Why, alongside this iron, so rugged and strong, is there trivial terracotta decoration? Why, next to these geometric lines or a wholly new character, this ancient stock of old ornament?” See Paul Wood, ed., The Challenge of the Avant-Garde (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 159.

2 During graduate school, I wrote a paper about how Gauguin was in a state of denial regarding his savage, primitive lifestyle in Tahiti. Even though Gauguin renounced modern civilization and claimed to be a “barbarian” in his writings, in actuality he couldn’t part with modern life. For example, he was almost entirely reliant on tinned foods from the trading store in the area; he couldn’t even bring himself to eat the native food! In addition, Gauguin frequently used oil paint when creating his art – a medium which not only is European, but also is closely tied to the art market, commodofication, and avant-gardism. In my opinion, Gauguin was “primitive” because it was the hip (ahem, “modern”) thing to do. Gauguin’s 1889 reaction to the Eiffel Tower solidifies my opinion that the artist was not leaning away from modern life before going to Tahiti (he arrived there in 1891), but leaning towards it.


Pronunciation of Dutch Masters’ Names

If you want to learn how to pronounce the names of Dutch masters correctly, click here. “Peter de Hooch” makes a more gutteral sound than I originally thought.


Intro to Architecture: Greek Capitals

Someone requested that I write a few introductory posts on architecture, and I am more than happy to comply! I thought that it would be fun to start with the architectural orders that were popular in ancient Greece. (I thought about waiting to write this post until I reached this same chronological point in my intro/survey posts, but I’m too excited to wait. So, sorry for the anachronism. Just pretend that the architectural posts are separate from the other survey posts.)

The three Greek architectural orders are called Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. These orders are easily defined by a key characteristics, namely the capitals (decorative heads) at the tops of the columns. There are several other architectural features which define these three orders (and there also are variants within these orders, as you can see in the drawing on the right), but I don’t want to overwhelm anyone. For now, we’ll just focus on the capitals of these basic columns.

As you can see from the pictures above, the Doric capital essentially is split into two simple sections. In contrast, the Ionic capital is decorated with large volute scrolls and the ornate Corinthian capital is decorated with acanthus leaves and scrolls. If you want to see some other examples of these capitals (and some other awesome capitals in general), click here and here.

Throughout history, the Greek architectural style has been adopted and revived by many other cultures. The Romans quickly adopted the Greek architectural style (really, they borrowed tons of their artistic ideas from the Greeks), and the term “Classical style” can refer to either Greek or Roman art. However, Romans put a twist to Greek design by sometimes using a superimposed order on buildings which had more than one story – each of the successive stories are decorated with a different order (this is a deviation from the Greeks, who consistently would use one order throughout a whole building). For example, you can see a superimposed order on the outside of the Colosseum (Rome, 70-80 AD). The Doric order is on the bottom level, the Ionic is on the middle level, and the Corinthian is on the top:

You can also see another drawing of the Colosseum orders here
(Note: the fourth level of the Colosseum also is decorated with Corinthian capitals – but these capitals are atop pilasters instead of columns).

The Greek/Classical style has been revived many other times throughout history. Due to the excavation/discovery of Pompeii in 1748, Europeans became enamored with the Classical style once again – which led to the popular Neoclassical movement. Neoclassical architecture can be seen all over America and Europe. In America, the classical style is often used for civic buildings (which makes sense, because the Founding Fathers took part in this Neoclassical revival – they were influenced by the ideal of the Roman Republic). Here are a couple of Neoclassical examples:

William Wilkins (architect), Downing College, Cambridge (1807-21)

Note the large Ionic columns that decorate the porch

Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia (1770-1806)
Jefferson used Doric columns for the porch of his home

Jacques-Germain Soufflot, the Panthéon (Ste.-Geneviève),
Paris, 1755-1792
See the large Corinthian columns?

So, where have you most recently seen some columns with Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian capitals? I most recently saw Corinthian columns on this iron pergola:

Pergola, Historic Pioneer Square, Seattle (first built 1909)


Paul Revere as Artist

Paul Revere, The Bloody Massacre, n.d.

I watched the first episode of the John Adams miniseries last night. The beginning of the episode revolves around the Boston Massacre, and at one point, John Adams briefly holds a print which depicts the massacre (shown above). My husband mentioned that he thought the patriot Paul Revere was the engraver of the print. I had never heard before that Paul Revere was an engraver, but my husband was right. Both the The National Gallery of Art and Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) own copies of this engraving (see here and here).1

Actually, Paul Revere made many engravings. Many of them were political, and some were just decorative. Here is are two other engravings by Revere:

Paul Revere, The Able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught. (Royal American Magazine, June 1774; National Archives)

Paul Revere, William Wetmore Bookplate, n.d. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

It isn’t very surprising that Paul Revere dabbled in engraving, since he was a silversmith by profession. (It’s always funny for me to think that Paul Revere actually had a day job – I always associate him with his infamous horse ride, not normal day-to-day life.) Here are some examples of Revere’s handiwork in silver:

Paul Revere, Tea Service, 1792-93 (Minneapolis Institute of Arts)

I think one of my favorite silver pieces by Revere are this silver teaspoon and this silver teapot and stand. You can see some of Revere’s other engravings and silver pieces in the online collection of the Addison Gallery of American Art.

My final thoughts on Revere as an artist? I think he was a fantastic silversmith, but his engravings are just alright. It appears that Revere wasn’t too passionate about engraving; he mostly used the medium for political propaganda.2 I think this lack of artistic passion separates the quality of Revere’s engravings from his beautiful silver work. For example, The Bloody Massacre has several problems with linear perspective (look at the orthogonal lines of the buildings) and disproportionate figures.

I don’t want to be too harsh, though. Really, Revere’s massacre engraving has a quaint, folksy aesthetic. And hey, that’s just the kind of art that a patriot should create. It has kind of a “by the people, for the people” feel, right?

1 Paul Revere is often referred to as “Paul Revere II” since his father, Apollos Rivoire, assumed the name Paul Revere upon emigrating to America.

2 See Esther Forbes, Paul Revere and the World He Lived in (New York: Mariner Books, 1999), 110 (available online here).


Phrygian Caps in Art

Yesterday I was reading about Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1831) and started to think about the Phrygian cap that Liberty is wearing. The Phrygian cap is a soft, conical, red cap was traditionally worn in ancient Phrygia (modern day Turkey). In ancient Greek art, these caps were used as headdresses for people from the Orient. Eventually, the Phrygian cap developed into a symbol of freedom and liberty – they were worn by emancipated slaves in ancient Rome. In the eighteenth century, the Phrygian cap became popular with the French revolutionaries and subsequently was known as the “cap of liberty.” (The Phrygian cap has even been used as part of the official seal for the United States Senate.) This is a detail of Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap in Delacroix’s painting:

This cap made me think of my thesis, in which I argue that Aleijadinho’s Prophets (1800-1805) composition is laced with abolitionist sentiment. I briefly mentioned that the clothing of the prophet Amos could allude to abolition (it is possible that Afro-Brazilian capoeiristas wore similar outfits at the time the sculpture was created), but I didn’t consider Amos’ cap until now:

I wonder if this cap could have been influenced by the Phrygian cap. Part of my thesis ties in these statues to the political/revolutionary sentiment of the day, since these statues were created relatively soon after the 1789 French Revolution. Could Aleijadinho have been influenced by the Phrygian cap of the French revolutionaries? At first glance, it seems to me like Amos’ hat might be too long to be a Phrygian cap. I’m curious about looking at my photo archives, though, to see if I can see his cap in better detail. Interestingly, people have written about how the “turbans” of Aleijadinho’s Prophets seem to be influenced by Turkish costume (which perhaps could be a connection to Phrygia instead?).

It will be interesting to follow up on this idea and see if it leads anywhere. In the meantime, though, here are a couple of other depictions of Phrygian caps in art:

The Three Magi (Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar), mosaic at Sant’Appollinare Nuovo (6th century); Ravenna, Italy
(In this instance, the Phrygian cap indicates the that the wise men are from the Orient, not that they are emancipated slaves!)

Berthel Thorvaldsen, Ganymede Waters Zeus as an Eagle (1817)

Joseph Chinard, The Republic (1794)

Anonymous, Louis XVI of France Wearing a Phrygian Cap, 1792 (Library of Congress)


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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.