September 2011

Fragonard’s “The Swing” and a Little Dog

Jean Honoré Fragonard, "The Swing," 1767

The first art history paper I ever wrote in college was on Fragonard’s The Swing (shown above). I remember writing about the Rococo style and the rise of the French aristocracy in the 18th century. I also remember discussing how this scene represents a young woman who is being pushed on a swing by an older man (shown in the background on the right). This older suitor or husband seems unaware, however, that a younger suitor is hiding in the bushes (on the left). To put it mildly, this younger suitor is getting a very privileged viewpoint of his beloved on the swing: he can look up her dress!1 She, in turn, kicks off her shoe (a symbol of sexuality) in the direction of the young suitor. I think that the shoe also seems to fly in the air as a defiant gesture toward the cupid figure on the right, who holds a cautionary finger to his lips (seen by some as a symbol of discretion).2

I remember feeling so sure of myself when I submitted my final draft of this paper, which I think was no more than 6-8 pages in length. As a naive little student, I felt like I had mastered that painting and knew everything that there was to know about it. Boy, was I wrong about that!

Since writing that paper several years ago, I have learned several new things about this painting by Fragonard. I even have spotted some new details after watching a Smarthistory video clip on the painting. I really like this short clip, and I actually am assigning some of my art history students to watch this video as part of a homework assignment.

One of the things mentioned in this video, which I had never spotted previously, is the inclusion of a little tiny dog in the bottom right corner of the painting, not too far from the feet of the older suitor. The dog is standing on its hind legs and appears to be yapping. It’s easy for the viewer to miss this little detail at first glance; the bouncy curls in the dog’s coat look similar to the surrounding flower petals and leaves.

Detail of Fragonard's "The Swing," 1767

So why is the dog included in this scene? The Smarthistory video raises the issue that the dog, which normally appears in art as a symbol of fidelity, obviously is inappropriate in this context. But, considering that the dog seems agitated and upset, perhaps the symbol still is appropriate. Does anyone have any thoughts? Now that I have noticed the dog, I think that there might even be some interaction between the discretionary cupid figure (with its finger toward its lips) and the yapping dog. The cupid might be trying to get the dog to quiet down while the lovers enjoy a rather, ahem, intimate moment.

There is one thing in the Smarthistory video that I think it interesting, but I’m not sure that I accept. The video suggests that in the background of the scene, the two cupid figures might be sitting next to a beehive (which could be seen as a symbol for the “sting of love”). This is an interesting idea, but I’ve always thought that the figures were sitting next to a large fish. The fish is looking toward the viewer with a large eye, a gaping mouth, and thick lips (see below). I obviously am not alone in my interpretation, since other commenters on the Smarthistory page mentioned the same thing. (By the way, you should check out the comments. They are absolutely fascinating.)

Detail for Fragonard's "The Swing," 1767

It makes sense that a fish would be depicted here for a few reasons: first of all fish (and more specifically, dolphins) were associated with the imagery for Venus, the goddess of love. According to some mythological accounts, Venus was born out of the sea. Fish also would be appropriate for French Rococo imagery, which often includes motifs of plants, rocks, shells, foam, etc. Fish were even included as decorative features during this period, as can be seen on some fish-shaped vases.

Do you see a fish or a beehive in this painting? What do you think about the inclusion of the dog? Any other thoughts about this painting?

1This privileged view and “happy accident” for the young suitor was quite intentional subject matter on part of the patron, Baron de Saint-Julien. Saint-Julien specified the details of the painting and wanted his mistress to be depicted as the woman in the scene. The baron also wanted to include a clever pun with his chosen theme, since he served as the government representative who collected taxes paid by the Church. His government title was “Receiver of the general goods offered by the clergy” (Receveur général des biens du clergé). Saint-Julien originally requested that the older gentleman be represented as a bishop, but it appears that Fragonard omitted a such an impudent reference to the Church. Nonetheless, the older suitor (who may be clergyman or a husband) is delivering “goods” to be seen by the young suitor. See David A. Wilkins, “Art Past Art Present,” 6th ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 408.

2 Along the lines of discretion, some feel that the cupid “enjoins [the young suitor] to keep the secret of what he has seen.” See Wilkins, 408.


Welcome to the New “Alberti’s Window” Blog!

Matt Cartwright, "Malabar Bombax," 2009

Friends! Readers! Bloggers! Welcome to the new website and design for Alberti’s Window! My husband J designed and programmed this site for me as a Christmas present, but it has taken nine months to get things underway. I’m thrilled to have a more visually-appealing location to discuss things that are visually appealing.

I thought I’d share with you a quote that I read a few weeks ago, when visiting the sculpture garden of the Maryhill Museum of Art (a simply delightful “collection museum” that was listed in a post from earlier this summer). Artist Matt Cartwright wrote this for the text label of his sculpture, Malabar Bombax (shown above): “This flower of the Red Silk Cotton tree – with its blooming shape – is a colorful, luscious inspiration to me. . . And perhaps this sculpture can evoke the viewer’s inner insect as they buzz from sculpture to sculpture within the Maryhill Sculpture Garden.”

I love the comparison between an insect and someone visiting a sculpture garden (or even a museum, for that matter). Like Cartwright, I’m hoping that I can evoke your “inner insect” with this new visual emphasis at Alberti’s Window. Feel free to flit from post to post, enjoying the larger images and clean design. Please update your RSS feeds and links to this new website. And while you are at it, could you please do a little pollination and share this new website with others?


Book Review: “Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome”

"Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome" by David Franklin and Sebastian Schütze

I recently had the pleasure of reading the new exhibition catalog, Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome. I’ve read this book with a great deal of personal interest – not only do I love Caravaggio, but I will be traveling to Texas later this year to see this historic exhibition! Many of you are probably aware that I highlighted some details from this catalog on a post at Three Pipe Problem – particularly information regarding the painting, Saint Augustine (c. 1600) which recently has been attributed to Caravaggio.

When opening this book for the first time, I was immediately struck by the beautiful images. This catalog is chock full of gorgeous, simply delicious color reproductions of paintings by Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti. There are numerous detail images for many of these paintings, too. The catalog also includes several dozen images that are not included in the actual exhibition, too. Honestly, I would own this book just for the reproductions themselves.

But praise for this catalog goes beyond the reproductions. This book also includes a lot of great essays about Caravaggio, written by prominent scholars like Sebastian Schütze, Francesca Cappelletti, and Michael Fried. That being said, though, this catalog isn’t for someone with just a casual interest in art history or Caravaggio. The essays are pretty dense, and some writers (I’m particularly thinking of Fried and Schütze) use art historical terms that would be unfamiliar to the casual reader.

The first half of the book is dedicated to essays about general history regarding Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti (even mentioning Caravaggio’s plate of artichokes that recently grabbed a bit of attention in the news). This section also includes a theoretical essay by Michael Fried. The essay is interesting (and, granted, is written in a slightly more approachable way than many of Fried’s other essays on similar topics of absorption and spectatorship), but it seems quite out-of-place with the other historical essays in the book.

Caravaggio, "The Cardsharps," c. 1595

The second part of the book is dedicated to thematic essays related to works in the exhibition. I loved this section of the book the most. The essays are generally organized by different types of subject matter: gypsies, cardsharps, musicians, saints, etc. It’s really fun. I was interested to learn that Caravaggio’s painting The Cardsharps has inspired more copies and variants than any other work by Caravaggio.1

In fact, themes of gambling (which expands to include dice players) and were popular among Caravaggio’s Roman followers. One popular subject matter for the Caravaggisti was The Denial of Saint Peter (as can be seen in Bartolomeo Manfredi’s work of c. 1616-18). These scenes were often expanded to include depictions of soldiers playing dice or cards. Interestingly, though, the Caravaggisti were not inspired by Caravaggio’s personal treatment of the subject; Caravaggio’s Denial of Saint Peter (c. 1609-10) includes only three half-figures. Instead, the Caravaggisti used Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600) as a prototype for their Denial of Saint Peter scenes. One can see similarities in composition by comparing Manfredi and Caravaggio’s paintings, particularly since both works involve groups of men huddled around a table. In addition to these similarities, Nancy E. Edwards points out that “The Denial of Saint Peter and The Calling of Saint Matthew have similar subjects: an apostle’s response to Christ’s call of faith.”2

Anyhow, that interesting tidbit of information is just a taste of what is available in this great catalog. I would heartily recommend it to anyone that has a keen interest in Caravaggio or the Caravaggisti. I only have one small complain about the book itself: it needs to have an index! I know that it is not common for exhibition catalogs to have indexes, so I realize that this complaint is geared more toward a cultural standard than this particular book. However, I have noticed that exhibition catalogs are becoming increasingly more scholarly in their content. If museums want scholars to use their catalogs as an academic resource, more indexes need to start showing up in catalogs!

As I read Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome, I wrote down a makeshift index on the last page of my book copy (see above right), with some of the topics that are particularly interesting to me. If there was an index, I would be spared such effort…

1 Nancy E. Edwards, “The Cardsharps,” in Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, edited by David Franklin and Sebastian Schütze (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 180.

2 Ibid., 199.

Thank you to H Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem, Inbooks and Yale University Press for supplying the review copy.


New(ish) Romanesque Theories

Boy, art history keeps me on my toes! If I ever start to feel too comfortable in my knowledge of an artistic period, I get knocked off of my feet again by discovering some new theories! Here are two new(ish) theories that I recently have learned about Romanesque art:

Theory #1 – Gislebertus the Count

Detail of Last Judgment Tympanum, Autun Cathedral, c. 1120-1130 or 1130-1145

For those of you who love that Autun Cathedral and the sculptural program there, this fairly new theory by Linda Seidel may come as a surprise. For a long time, it was thought that Gislebertus (and his workshop) were responsible for the sculptures here. This well-founded assumption is based on the inscription, Gislebertus hoc fecit (“Gislebertus made this”) which is located underneath the text of Christ in the Last Judgment tympanum (see above). It sure seems like Gislebertus was the sculptor based on that inscription, right? It was unusual for Romanesque sculptors to sign their work, so Gislebertus has received quite a bit of attention and recognition in the art historical world.

However, Seidel argues that Gislebertus wasn’t a sculptor at all. She finds that he was a late Carolingian count who might have contributed financially to the Autun Cathedral.1 Count Gislebertus made significant contributions to local churches, and his name might have been included in the tympanum in remembrance of his patronage. Seidel even goes further to suggest that this inscription may “challenge those in power to respect and continue the venerable tradition of patronage.”2 For more information, I would recommend Seidel’s book, “Legends in Limestone: Lazarus, Gislebertus, and the Cathedral of Autun” (1999, University of Chicago Press). I haven’t read Seidel’s book myself yet, but I look forward to checking it out. I think this theory is quite compelling.

And regardless of whether Gislebertus is an artist or count, I “heart” him all the same.

Theory #2 – Hildegard as Artist

"Hildegard and Volmar" from "Liber Scivias," facsimile of an original of 1150-1175 CE

I’ve always remembered when I first learned about the “Hildegard and Volmar” frontispiece of the Liber Scivias (shown above) as a student, since my professor joked that the stylized flames of fire (representing Hildegard’s vision) looked like tentacles. I can’t remember his joke verbatim, but it was something like, “and we can see in this manuscript that the Spirit of the Lord descended on Hildegard like a squid.”

All joking aside, I’m very interested in the new(ish) theory regarding the Liber Scivias. This book is a text that contains descriptions and illustrations of Hildegard of Bingen’s visions. This theory by Madeline Caviness proposes that Hildegard might have been the designer for the illustrations for her visions. Caviness supports her argument in two ways: 1) She finds that these depictions of visions of very unconventional and 2) She thinks these designs also conform to some of the “visionary” aspects that are experienced by people during migraines.3 Hildegard had migraines throughout her life, but especially during the period when she was composing the Scivias.

"Vision of the Angelic Hierarchy" from "Liber Scivias," 1150-1175 CE

I think this is another interesting argument, and I to think that many of the designs are quite unconventional and unique. One of the images that I like is the “Vision of the Angelic Hierarchy” (1150-1175, shown right). You can see read a synopsis of Hildegard’s visions (and see some small images for some of the designs that may have been created by Hildegard) by looking here.

I hope I can get my hands on a copy of Caviness article; I’d like to learn what “visionary” aspects of these illustrations compare with the effects produced by migraines. More information can be read in Caviness’ article, “Hildegard as the Designer of the Illustrations of her Works” (1998, Warburg Institute).

“Hildegard and Volmar” image courtesy of Wikipedia.

“Vision of the Angelic Hierarchy” image courtesy of Wikipedia.

1 The example of an owner (or patron) signing their name in connection with a work of art has also been seen in later medieval art. An early 14th c manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS selden supra 38) has an inscription which could be interpreted as an indication of the artist, but is certainly the name of a later owner (since it is written in a 15th c hand): “Jehan Raynzford me deit.”

2 Stokstad, Art History (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 478.

3 Ibid., 487.


Fragments of the Gates of Hell

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed I my tweets about Byzantine art over the past day or so. I’ve been revisiting Byzantine art this past week – it’s been quite a while since Justinian and I have hung out together. And I can always use more gold backgrounds in my life, right?

Today, while finishing up my Byzantine projects, I happened to notice some fun details in “anastasis” depictions that have caught my attention. ”Anastasis” is the Greek word for “resurrection.” Depictions of anastasis don’t reference the biblical story of Christ’s resurrection, but are inspired by the Gospel of Nicodemus (also called “Acts of Pilate”), an apocryphal text. These scenes show a triumphant, victorious Christ who has broken the Gates of Hell in order to rescue his Hebrew forbearers. Probably the best known anastasis painting is this one:

Anastasis, Funerary chapel of Theodore Metochites, located at the Monastery of Christ in Chora, 1310-1321

Here, Christ is shown rescuing Adam and Eve from their tombs. Other patriarchs, prophets, and kings wait on the sidelines – perhaps waiting their turn to be rescued by Christ. I like a lot of things in this painting, particularly that Christ and Adam are dressed in similar white robes. Since Christ was perceived as a “new Adam” to reverse the effects of the Fall, I think it’s fitting that they are depicted in matching clothes.

Anyhow, what I noticed today were details at the bottom of this wall painting. The Gates of Hell are depicted in reddish panels, located underneath Christ’s feet. In between the two gates is the defeated Satan, who is wrapped in a bundle. Underneath Christ’s feet there are a bunch of tiny fragments:

Anastasis, detail of funerary chapel of Theodore Metochites, located at the Monastery of Christ in Chora, 1310-1321

It turns out that these fragments are keys, nails, hinges, bolts, locks, and other tiny bits from the locks which sealed the Gates of Hell shut. Christ, in his triumph over death, has burst through the Gates of Hell with a dramatic gesture. From a historical standpoint, these different depictions are especially valuable to scholars and archaeologists. Some scholars have found that this fresco includes the most detailed depictions of keys, locks, etc., that exist and have compared the wall painting to actual historical artifacts.1

I decided to look at the Gospel of Nicodemus to see if there were any specific references to keys, locks, or the Gates of Hell. There are a few references, particularly Chapter V (XXI): 1-3. Christ announces his arrival at the doors, and Hell cries “unto his wicked ministers: Shut ye the hard gates of brass and put on them the bars of iron and withstand stoutly, lest we that hold captivity be taken captive” (Verse 1). The captive saints in Hell protest against this action, and King David reminds Hell that Christ is the individual who “hath broken the gates of brass and smitten the bars of iron in sunder” (Verse 2).

The artist for the funerary chapel of Theodore Metochites really took the “in sunder” description to heart! Other Byzantine artists also depicted this scene, but usually with less fragments of locks and keys. Here are three other anastasis scenes that include some keys and pieces of the “bars of iron.” I’m showing details of the images below, but also providing links in case anyone wants to see the full scene.

Detail of Anastasis, Russian icon from 17th century (Hermitage Museum). Detail image courtesy of jimforest via Flickr[/add_caption_link].

Detail of Anastasis, west vault from Cathedral of St. Mark, Venice, c. 1180

These artists have left the Gates of Hell in shambles – it’s no wonder anastasis scenes are sometimes called the “Harrowing of Hell!”2 If you know of any other anastasis scenes that have fun depictions of keys, locks, bolts, hinges and the like – please let me know!

1 George Fletcher Bass and James W. Allan, Serçe Limanı: An Eleventh-Century Shipwreck Vol. 2, (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 2009), 449. Available online here.

2 If you want to be nitpicky, though, I think it’s more accurate to refer to Byzantine works of art as “anastasis.” The term “Harrowing of Hell” is an Old English and Middle English term, so it doesn’t perfectly apply to the Byzantine period.


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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.