January 2010

Super Bowl Bets Extend to Museums!

In true art-history-nerd fashion, I did not realize that the Super Bowl was next Sunday (February 7th) until I read this art news article from today.

It’s common for people to place bets on the outcome of Super Bowl games, and it looks like art museum directors are no exception! The directors of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and New Orleans Museum of Art have agreed to wager items from their collection in order to support their hometeams. If the New Orleans Saints win, then the Indianapolis Museum of Art will send Turner’s The Fifth Plague of Egypt (1800, shown above) to be displayed in the New Orleans Museum of Art for three months. In turn, if the Indianapolis Colts win the Superbowl, then the New Orleans Museum of Art will send Lorrain’s Ideal View of Tivoli (1644, shown below) to be displayed in the Indianapolis Museum of Art for three months.

It appears that the bet was instigated and encouraged by Tyler Green, whose writes the Modern Art Notes blog. You can see Green’s Super Bowl post here.

I honestly have no opinion as to which team is going to win the Super Bowl. But if I had to root for one, I guess it would be the New Orleans Saints – purely because I think the Turner is an interesting painting and it should have a chance to travel for temporary exhibition!

Is anyone else rooting for one painting to travel over another?


Bacchus/Dionysus in Classical Art

I was recently asked a question something like, “If you had to choose a favorite god or goddess from ancient Greek/Roman mythology, who would it be?” I quickly answered Bacchus (Dionysus), the god of wine. It’s not because I’m into bacchanalian parties (I don’t even drink!) or Dionysiac cults, but Bacchus just seems like he’d be a really entertaining friend. I bet that guy can be funny-on-command.

Anyhow, I started to think of all of the depictions of Bacchus/Dionysus in art. Since my speciality is in 17th century art, it’s not surprising that I first thought of art created in the Renaissance/Baroque periods: Michelangelo’s Bacchus (1497), Caravaggio’s Bacchus (c. 1596), Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus (c. 1593), Velazquez’ The Triumph of Bacchus (c. 1629; see detail above), and Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-22). While researching for this post, I also came across a fun depiction of a hefty Bacchus (1638-40) by Rubens. I think it might be my new favorite Bacchus painting, partially because the god’s face and girth remind me of a physics teacher from my old high school.

But what about ancient art? What about depictions of Bacchus/Dionysus by the Greeks and Romans themselves? I had a hard time thinking of many examples, which is partially because it’s outside my realm of expertise. I did think of three examples, though. Praxiteles’ Hermes and the Infant Dionysus (marble copy after an original of 340 BC, shown right) would have been fun to see in its pre-damaged state, since Hermes was originally dangling a bunch of grapes to tease the infant god of the vine. I also thought of the Dionysiac Mystery Frieze (Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, Italy, ca. 60-50 BC) and figure from the Parthenon which might be Dionysus (ca. 438-432 BC). These depictions are are a little disappointing though, since they are both damaged. (P.S. Can anyone identify the head with the bulging eyeballs on the left of the Dionysiac wall? I can’t figure it out.)

With only those few examples in mind, I began a quest to familiarize myself with depictions of Bacchus/Dionysus in classical art. I ended up finding a couple of fun examples that I thought I’d share:

Dionysus (2nd century AD; Roman copy after Hellenistic model, Louvre, Paris)

Dionysus (460 BCE; Louvre, Paris)
This is thought to be one of the earliest depictions of Dionysus as a young man (see here)

Exekias, Dionysus in a Ship, Sailing among Dolphins (Attic black-figure kylix; ca. 530 BC; Vulci)
I actually remember seeing this vase in a course on ancient Greek art. It’s a good example of how early Christians picked up on the reclining figure of Dionysus and reused that imagery in the figure of Jonah (see bottom scene from the ceiling painting in the Catacomb of Saints Peter and Marcellinus, Rome, Italy, early 4th century)

Bacchus, (3rd century, Roman mosaic, El Jem Museum, Tunisia)

The Birth of Dionysus (ca. 405-385 BC, Greek, National Archeological Museum in Taranto, Italy)
According to mythology, Dionysus was born out of Zeus’ thigh. I love this vase painting – check out Dionysus’ cute lil’ postnatal wreath!

There are a lot more depictions of Bacchus/Dionysus than the few I’ve shown here. Do you have a favorite depiction of the god of wine? If you had to pick a favorite god or goddess from classical mythology, who would it be?

Sympathy for Renoir

Anyone who reads this blog regularly can attest to my distaste for Renoir – particularly Renoir’s later works. (Case in point: I used the word “hideous” to describe a Renoir painting in this post and in a comment for this post.)

I’m not the only person who dislikes Renoir. In fact, people have critiqued his work for decades. Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt wrote in 1913 that Renoir was painting horrific pictures “of enormously fat red women with very small heads.”1 Even Renoir once admitted, “I had gone as far as I could with Impressionism, and I realized I could neither paint nor draw.”2 I couldn’t agree more.

Although Renoir’s later paintings have gotten a bad reputation, a new traveling exhibition called “Renoir in the 20th Century” strives to place the painter in a more positive light. You can read more about this exhibition (and further critiques of Renoir’s style) in a recent Smithsonian article.

Personally, I have no desire to see this show. My opinion of Renoir is pretty much solidified at this point, and I wouldn’t want to waste my time. However, I must admit that the Smithsonian article has changed my perception of Renoir. I didn’t realize that the artist suffered from extreme rheumatoid arthritis in his later life. Due to this disease, the artist painted while under constant pain. He later suffered from paralysis in his right shoulder, which forced the artist to paint with his left hand (see image above).

So, although I don’t find any aesthetic appeal in Renoir’s later works, I do have much more sympathy for the artist. I guess in a way, I can now relate to Renoir on a very small level. Any discomfort that I feel when seeing his art was also painfully experienced by Renoir when his paintings were created.

UPDATE: I just came across this video which shows footage of Renoir working in his later life. You can really get the sense of his physical limitations and suffering in this clip.

1 Richard Covington, “Renoir Rebels Again” in Smithsonian 40, no. 11 (January 2010): 67.

2 Ibid.


New Gardner Museum Addition

I just read here about recently unveiled plans for a new addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. I’m really surprised about this new modern wing, especially since Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will requires that the museum cannot be altered from how she originally designed and curated the collection display. In fact, in order to get approval for this new modern addition, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had to approve a deviation from the will last year.

But why meddle with Gardner’s aesthetic vision? I think that shows great disrespect for the person who amassed this collection in the first place. Gardner stipulated that if her collection/museum ever deviated from her aesthetic vision, then her whole collection would immediately be transferred to the ownership of Harvard University. (Until recently, the museum staff has followed these instructions insofar as to hang empty frames when masterpieces were stolen off of the wall in 1990.) If Isabella knew about the new changes taking place in her museum, I’m sure she’d sent the collection to Harvard posthaste.
What do other people think? Am I being irrational? Do you think the museum is justified in their plans for expansion? Maybe I’m just a historical purist – I hate to see things change just to accommodate modernity.

Forgers, Copyists, and Authenticity/Authority

I remember being surprised to learn that the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) that exists today is not entirely a product of the fifteenth century.1 One of the panels in the altarpiece (“The Just Judges“) was stolen in the 1930s, and was repainted by the copyist Jef Vanderveken in 1945 (see left).

I think it’s telling that none of my art history books mention anything about Vanderveken or this copied panel. And when I traveled to Ghent to see this altarpiece in 2003, I don’t remember seeing any information about any other artist than van Eyck. I think there’s a reason for this “cover-up”: the altarpiece doesn’t appear to be a product of pristine history and genius with the knowledge that not everything is “authentic” (i.e. by van Eyck’s hand). And I would argue that by extension, to undermine the genius of van Eyck’s work would also undermine the genius and authoritative voice of the art historical discipline.

This connection between authenticity and the authoritative voice is interesting. One of the most prominent places to encounter an authoritative (and institutional) voice is within the museum setting. Pieces of art are displayed within the museum, and an unspoken authoritative voice tells museum visitors, “This is important and authentic by the mere fact that it’s on display.” And museum visitors do not question that implied statement (at least, they’re not encouraged to do so!).

But what happens when a work of art in a museum collection is determined to not be authentic? This change in status (i.e. artistic genius) reflects poorly on the museum because it loses a measure of authority. (Museums don’t want to admit that they make mistakes, too!)

I’m particularly reminded of the forger Han van Meegeren, who duped the art world into thinking it had discovered several paintings by Vermeer (among a few other artists). Van Meegeren’s forgeries are now scattered throughout the world in many prominent collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery (Washington, DC). However, from what I can tell, these paintings are not on permanent display at most of these museums. Instead, the forgeries are shuttled down to the depths of storage, to hide the blemish of mistake and allow the museum to still “speak” authoritatively.

Furthermore, whenever Van Meegeren paintings are on display for temporary exhibition, it appears that they are almost always labeled with “Imitator of Vermeer” or “After Johannes Vermeer.” Even though Van Meegeren was exposed and we know who made the forgeries, museums don’t give him any credit for his work! It’s as if the museum world still wants to try and tap into the genius of Vermeer by association, even though we know that the paintings are fakes. Bah!

Do you know of any other instances where a question of authenticity has undermined the authority of a museum/art appraiser/work of art/art history textbook?

1 In fact, the Ghent altarpiece was not entirely a product of Jan van Eyck “hand.” It appears that the Ghent altarpiece was begun by the painter Hubert van Eyck, Jan’s brother. See my post on the topic here.

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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.