October 2009

Ingres’ Oriental Pastiche

It took me forever to find a copy of Walter B. Denny’s article, “Orientalism in European Art,” but I’m glad that I finally got one (Dr. Denny was kind enough to mail me a copy). I plan on using this article as an introduction to Orientalism (i.e. European depictions of Middle Eastern/Far Eastern imagery). This article is great because it explains the concept of Orientalism in art but it really doesn’t delve into any theory. How perf for an intro class!

My favorite part of this article was actually in a footnote. Denny pointed out various anachronistic and inappropriate Oriental objects in Ingres’ painting, Odalisque with Slave (1839-40). For example, the slave’s headwear is 18th century Ottoman, but her pantaloons are Indian in design. Furthermore, the architectural background is Cairene and the drapes are European velvet. Denny also notes that the taj helmet on the left is also out-of-place.1

What a pastiche of Oriental elements! Obviously, Ingres was trying to depict the Orient with some degree of authenticity, but he wasn’t too concerned about historical, geographic or cultural accuracy.

1 Walter B. Denny, “Orientalism in Art,” The Muslim World 3-4 (1983): 267.

*I decided to count my reading of this article for a category in Heidenkind’s Art History Challenge.


"The Challenge of the Avant-Garde" & Caillebotte

I read The Challenge of the Avant-Garde (Paul Wood, ed., Yale University Press, 1999) several weeks ago for Heidenkind’s Art History Challenge. This is a textbook is comprised of case studies which discuss 19th-mid 20th century art, particularly in how art relates to the concept of “avant-garde.”

Overall, I was quite pleased with this book. I’ll be using it for an upcoming class. I particularly like how the book examines how the term “avant-garde” and has changed over time. I did think that some parts of the book were confusing and biased (the authors seem extraordinarily bent on discussing art that has been underprivileged or underexposed in art historical studies), but I still would recommend it.

I was particularly interested in one case study that discussed Caillebotte and domestic space. I have always associated Caillebotte with modernity through his outdoor depictions of 19th century Parisian life, such as Paris Street: A Rainy Day (1877) and Pont de l’Europe (1876), I didn’t realize that Caillbotte also was interested in domestic space and interior settings. Two such paintings involve depictions of floorscrapers:

Caillebotte, Floorscrapers, 1875

Caillebotte, Floorscrapers, 1876

Fionna Barber (the author of this case study) emphasizes that these paintings are also depictions of modern Parisian life – the floorscrapers are modern individuals (wearing contemporary clothes) who are involved in their professional work.1 Understandably, this painting didn’t sit too well with critics at the time – largely because the image of the lower-class, “heroic worker” was clearly identified with paintings by the controversial artist Courbet (for an example, see Courbet’s Stonebreakers (by the way, did you know that the Stonebreakers was destroyed in 1945 during a bombing of Dresden? Isn’t that tragic?)).

If you want to learn more about Caillebotte and domestic space, I’d recommend that you pick up The Challenge of the Avant-Garde.

1 Paul Wood, ed., The Challenge of the Avant-Garde (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 145.


Artist as Thief: Filarete

If I was taught anything about Filarete in school, I don’t remember it. I’ve been reading up on this artist in preparation for an upcoming lecture on self-portraiture. I like that Filarete included portraits of himself and his assistants on one of his best-known works, the bronze doors for St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome (see door on the right of the facade here). This portrait is located on the lowest part of the right valve of the doors, on the back. Filarete identifies himself and his assistants with Latin inscriptions, includes the date of completion (July 30., 1445) and then the statement: “To other artists satisfaction from payment or from pride, but for me – joyfulness.”1

Aww, isn’t that cute? Really, Filarete seems like an interesting character. He changed his real name, Antonio di Pietro Averlino, to “Filarete”, which can be translated from Greek as “lover of virtue.”

But I have to say, the more I read about Filarete, the more I question how much he loved virtue. The artist was expelled from Rome in 1448, after being accused of stealing some relics.2 And it appears that these weren’t just any relics that Filarete wanted to steal – he tried to steal the head of John the Baptist that used to be located in San Giovanni in Laterano.3 I assume this is the same head that is still in Rome, but is now located in San Silvestro in Capite (shown on the right).

Why anyone want to steal the head of John the Baptist is completely outside my realm of comprehension.

And, by the way, did you know that there are several sites which claim to have the relic of John the Baptist’s head? It’s interesting that John the Baptist was important to multiple religions and groups. Amiens Cathedral (Amiens, France) and the Umayyad Mosque (Damascus, Syria) both claim to have the head, and you can read about a few more places/groups here. There is even a palace/museum, the Munich Residenz, which currently displays the (decorated) heads of John the Baptist and his mother (click here to see a picture of the Baptist display). I don’t know if anyone is counting, but that makes a lot of heads. And I’m pretty sure that John the Baptist only had one head. Maybe the Roman officials should have given Filarete a break; if it is supposed that one of the heads is legitimate, then there is a only a one-in-six chance that Filarete actually stole something valuable.4

1 Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods, eds., The Changing Status of the Artist, (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 63.

2 Evelyn S. Welch, “Art and Authority in Milan,” no. 8846 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 152 (page can be accessed online here).

3 John Pope-Hennessey, Italian Renaissance Sculpture (London: Phaidon, 1958), 332.

4 It’s interesting to add that Mormons would find that none of the heads could be legitimate. They would say that the Baptist’s head is back on the resurrected man’s shoulders (see here).


Caravaggio Restoration

QUICK! Somebody buy me a ticket to Rome!

Caravaggio’s Adoration of the Shepherds (1609, shown above) is going to be restored, starting next week, and the public is invited to watch the restoration process. According to The History Blog, small groups of tourists and students will be invited to watch the restorers work. Apparently, there isn’t too much restoration work which needs to be completed; the project is scheduled to end in February.

Swoon! I would love to be there. I heart Caravaggio SO MUCH.


Obama’s Taste in Art

My brother sent me this link with some pictures of the art pieces that the Obamas have selected for the White House. Before seeing these pictures, I had already read different commentaries on how Obama had selected mostly modern pieces for his walls. Although other first families have hung modern art before, no one has displayed as much modern art as the Obamas.

There are two articles from today (one from the Guardian and another from the London Times), which discuss how Obama’s taste in art can be a reflection of his presidency and policies. I think it’s interesting (and kind of humorous) that Obama picked this above painting, “I think I’ll…” (Ed Ruscha, 1983) for the White House collection. If you can’t tell, the subject of the painting deals with indecision.

I’m sure that the White House art is a reflection of the Obama family’s taste, but I can’t help but think about all of the political messages that the Obamas needed to consider in the selection process. What a headache that must have been! For example, I think it’s likely that the selection of Alma Thomas’ Watusi Hard Edge (1963) was chosen because Alma is an African American and female. Of course, the painting is really nice, but I wonder if its aesthetic was the primary motivation for selection. What do you think?

Although some pieces entered the White House earlier this year, some paintings have just recently arrived. The painting above, Rothko’s No. 17/No. 15 (1949) is kind of in limbo right now; the Obamas aren’t quite sure what to do with it. I hope they find a place for this painting. It’s quite lovely. (Do you think there’s a reason that the Obamas want a Rothko that is comprised of red, white, and blue? Maybe? Maybe not?)

What do you think of the Obama’s art? Are there any pieces that stand out to you?


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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.