September 2010

Glowing Prehistoric Horns

It’s always interesting to see what knowledge spews from the depths of my brain during lecture. Yesterday, while lecturing on cave paintings, I found myself telling the class about a theory I hadn’t thought about for years.

Back when I was an undergraduate, one of my professors explained a theory about why bulls were important to the prehistoric people (and they were obviously important, since bulls are depicted in so many prehistoric caves. This example on the left comes from Lascaux Cave in France (c. 15,000 BCE)).

The theory presented by my professor revolves around the St. Elmo’s Fire phenomenon. Basically, sometimes during electrical weather storms (i.e. storms with thunder and lightning), the tip of a bull’s horns can have a soft glow. The glow often is accompanied with a hissing or crackling sound.

It is thought that this phenomenon would have impressed prehistoric people, which may account for the supposed veneration of the bull. It could have been seen as a mystical creature with supernatural powers, since its horns had the ability to glow.


Henry "Box" Brown’s Moving Panorama

Have you ever picked up a book and pleasantly discovered that the reading was more interesting than you anticipated? I recently read The Unboxing of Henry Brown by Jeffrey Ruggles, and I ended up feeling that way. I’m very interested in issues of slavery/antislavery in the United States (and elsewhere), and for a long time I’ve wanted to learn more about Henry “Box” Brown. I didn’t anticipate reading about art history when I picked up this book, though, but was excited to find a lot of discussion about the moving panorama, a popular form of art (and entertainment) in the mid-19th century.

Before reading this book, the only thing I knew about Brown was his escape from slavery: he climbed into a box and shipped himself from Virginia (a “slave” state) to Philadelphia (a “free” state). Various images of Brown’s “resurrection” from his box (the one above is from Boston, 1850 (unsigned)) were used by abolitionists. One art historian commented that these images of the unboxing were “perhaps the most potent single metaphor [that abolitionists used] for the displacement of the traditional image of the ‘runaway’ slave in popular imagination.”1

The thing that surprised me most about this book, though, was to learn how Brown decided to earn a living after escaping from slavery. Brown commissioned a moving panorama to be painted, which he titled Mirror of Slavery.2  Moving panoramas consisted of huge canvases (sewn together) which were displayed on a type of vertical spool. The paintings could then be scrolled in front of an audience, revealing a sequence of scenes. In some ways, the moving panorama was the predecessor to the slide show.  (If you like, you can get a sense of the moving panorama idea by watching the beginning of this scene from the film “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” 1948).  During the middle of the 19th century, the moving panorama was an extremely popular form of entertainment. It’s sad that few moving panoramas exist today. Those that do exist are never shown in their original format, either, largely due to conservation issues.

A good portion of Ruggles’ book discusses the history of the moving panorama (as a type of art) and the scenes which appeared on Mirror of Slavery. Although Mirror of Slavery doesn’t exist today, it was interesting to learn about the subject matter for the scenes. We also have a basic idea of the composition for some of the Mirror of Slavery scenes too, since it’s obvious that Mirror of Slavery found inspiration in the illustrations for the Charles Green’s book The Nubian Slave. Ruggles book is replete with lots of images that may have resembled the scenes from Mirror of Slavery.

Anyhow, for several years Brown traveled around the United States and England, giving presentations and lectures while exhibiting his moving panorama. I have to admit – while I was very interested to learn about Brown’s life, I found it even more fascinating to learn more about the moving panorama. Although I was familiar with the idea of the moving panorama before, I didn’t realize that such an artistic device helped to aid the antislavery movement.3

1 Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 (Manchester, England: 2000), 103. (See text online here.)

2 Henry “Box” Brown’s moving panorama was painted by three painters from Boston, with the primary artist probably being Josiah Wollcott. The other artists are described in an 1850 newspaper from Liverpool as “Rouse and Johnson.” Ruggles suggests that these artists might have been Samuel Worcester Rowse and David Claypoole Johnston. See Ruggles, p. 75.

3 Henry “Box” Brown was not the only person to use the moving panorama to discuss slavery. Ruggles mentions a couple of others who also produced moving panoramas, including the black abolitionist William Wells Brown. See Ruggles, p. 72.


Picasso on a Bicycle

I don’t know how I’ve functioned as an art historian without seeing this Monty Python clip about Picasso on a bicycle:

I found this clip after coming across another art history blog, Art History Ramblings. The author Catherine lists as many artists as she was able to hear in the clip, and I couldn’t decipher the others ones shouted by John Cleese.

So now I propose a game, readers. Do you know of any the artists mentioned in this clip which actually depict a bicycle in their art? (And I don’t think that I heard Duchamp listed in the clip, so you can’t choose his Bicycle Wheel (original of 1913). That’s too easy, anyway.)  I’m not too savvy on bicycle art, but I do have one contribution:

Georges Braque, My Bicycle (Mon Velo), 1941-60
This painting is in a private collection, so I don’ t know much about it. But it is briefly mentioned in this MOMA biography on Braque
Happy bicycle hunting! And happy weekend!

Boy Bitten by a Lizard: Posner vs. Gilbert

About this time of year, several years ago, I was assigned my absolute favorite project in graduate school. I was required to read every single published work about one work of art, in order to trace the artwork’s historiography. I ultimately decided to research Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard (c. 1594).

Soon after I began to research my topic, I discovered that there are actually two versions of this painting – and both are attributed to Caravaggio. One version (shown left) hangs in the National Gallery in London, and the other (shown below, right) is in the Fondazione Roberto Longhi in Florence.  Several connoisseurs argued over the authenticity of the paintings during the 20th century, but that debate essentially ended in 1992 (when Denis Mahon asserted that both examples are original, although he thinks that the Florence version was painted several years earlier than the London version).1

The most interesting thing I learned from my research project, however, was that one single article can forever change the shape of discourse (for better or for worse). In 1971, Donald Posner wrote a seminal article on the homo-erotic nature of Caravaggio’s early paintings.2 Posner argued that Boy Bitten by a Lizard is one of the most pronounced homosexual characters painted by Caravaggio. He finds the boy in this painting to appear sensuous, androgynous, and seductive (as suggested by the off-the-shoulder robe). Since that 1971 article, just about everyone has latched onto this homo-erotic theory and it still remains (mostly) undisputed.

What is interesting to me, though, is that no one (not even Caravaggio’s contemporary biographers) ever mentioned anything about homosexuality or effeminate characteristics until 1971. If this was such a key part of Caravaggio’s work, why was it unmentioned (perhaps unnoticed?) for centuries? I think that “Posnerian” scholars have imposed a 20th century perspective on this painting, and we need to rethink some of the homo-erotic interpretations of Caravaggio’s work. Creighton Gilbert also has come to this conclusion, arguing that the fair appearance of youthful men, was long celebrated in society.3 Gilbert argues that it was only during the nineteenth century, with the rise of capitalism, that men no longer wanted to be considered beautiful. The life of the artistocrat was not considered a social ideal anymore, for it was replaced by work ethic. With this change, men (particularly those of the middle class) began to insist on their difference from women, which not only changed clothing, but also changed other social norms (such as men kissing or crying).

From a historical (and historiographic!) perspective, I think that Gilbert’s argument makes a lot of sense. I also like much of Gilbert’s argument that this painting has roots in classicism. Gilbert finds that Boy Bitten by a Lizard was inspired by a Latin poem which was popular during the time of Caravaggio: O treacherous boy, spare the lizard creeping toward you; it wants to die in your fingers. The elements in this painting point towards this poem, including the bare shoulder, which recalls classical antiquity (instead of homosexuality, as interpreted by Posner).

What do people think? What was your immediate reaction upon seeing this painting for the first time? (Did you think that the subject was “effeminate” or merely “classical”?) Are we so entrenched in homo-erotic theory that it is difficult to examine this painting in any other way?

P.S. This post was indirectly inspired by the ongoing contest at Three Pipe Problem. People can submit a limerick about Caravaggio in order to win a copy of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s new book, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. Last night I was thinking up words that rhymed with “lizard,” and decided I also better write a Boy Bitten by a Lizard post.

1 See Keith Christiansen and Denis Mahon, “Caravaggio’s Second Versions,” The Burlington Magazine 134, no. 1073 (August 1992): 502-04.

2 Donald Posner, “Caravaggio’s Homo-Erotic Early Works,” Art Quarterly 34 (1971): 301-324.

3 Creighton E. Gilbert, Caravaggio and His Two Cardinals (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).


"La Bella Principessa" by Von Carolsfeld?

My longstanding readers may remember a short post that I did last year, expressing reservations that the painting nicknamed “La Bella Principessa” (shown left) was a work by Leonardo da Vinci. (You may recall that a fingerprinting method was used to attribute this painting to Leonardo.)  I question this attribution for a couple of reasons, including the fact that this painting was done on vellum, a medium which Leonardo never used. I’m not the only art historian or curator with reservations about this attribution, and now people are coming forward to suggest who the actual artist might be.

I just read this news release about a new attribution: Fred R. Kline (an independent scholar) has come forward to suggest that the actual artist is Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, a lesser-known 19th century artist who belonged to the Nazarene Brotherhood in Germany. Kline’s argument is supported by a sketch called “Half-Nude Female” (shown below) which Klein discovered in the State Art Museum in Mannheim, Germany. Not only was this sketch created on vellum (just like “La Bella Principessa”), the model and braided hair are quite similar. Kline thinks that “La Bella Principessa” could have been a gift from Von Carolsfeld to this model.

This is a really interesting idea, and I congratulate Klein on his sleuthing. If this painting is by Von Carolsfeld, “La Bella Principessa” would be one of the best paintings that he ever created. I’m not familiar with all of Von Carolsfeld’s work, but I haven’t been terribly impressed with the paintings that I have seen.1 I do really like Von Carolsfeld’s sketches, though (for example, his sketches Seated Boy Playing a Pipe (1818) and Portrait of Victor Emil Jansen (n.d.) are very good). In my opinion, Von Carolsfeld was a much better draftsman than a painter, and I kind-of doubt he could create as fine of a painting as “La Bella Principessa.”  Even though Von Carolsfeld’s Klara Bianka von Quandt (1820) is an alright painting (despite the fact that the lute looks like it’s been cut-and-pasted into the model’s hands – sorry, I couldn’t help myself), it lacks the sfumato and modeling that gives the Principessa’s image a sense of depth and richness.

So, there you have it. We may have found a possible artist for “La Bella Principessa,” but (yet again!) I’m still not quite sure. I wonder, though, if “La Bella Principessa” might have been painted by another person associated with Nazarene Brotherhood. Perhaps someone who used the same model as Von Carolsfeld’s “Half-Nude Female” sketch, but also had more talent as a painter?  Does anyone know any information about Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld (Julius’ older brother)? I know that he was a painter too, but so far I can only find information about Julius’ son, who was given the same name.

1 Let me explain some of my reasoning. I think a lot of Von Carolsfeld’s painted figures seem a little too static. Consider The Family of John the Baptist Visiting Christ (1817), where the Christ child is awkwardly spread out like a lifeless doll. Or look at The Annunciation (1818): it seems strange that the Gabriel’s drapery is flowing behind him (suggesting movement), when the angel appears absolutely frozen in its stance. I realize that “La Bella Principessa” doesn’t allow for much comparative analysis in terms pose (since it is a bust portrait), but I still think that the face and upper figure of the “Principessa” seem much more relaxed and natural than any of the Von Carolsfeld paintings which I have seen.


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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.