My Week in Assorted Thoughts

This week I’ve been thinking about several random art historical facts and ideas. Several of you might have seen some of these links on my Twitter feed, but I wanted to flesh out a few ideas here:
  • Norman Rockwell included a portrait of Grandma Moses in his painting Christmas Homecoming (1948, see right). You can see Moses on the left side of a painting, wearing an old-fashioned dress. The two artists were friends who lived relatively close to each other at one time. (In fact, you can read parts of a story about Norman Rockwell at Grandma Moses’ surprise 88th birthday party here.)
  • I really don’t know that much about Grandma Moses. She never was discussed in any of my art history classes, but I didn’t focus on American art from the 20th century. But could she have been excluded from courses and textbooks because she is a folk artist? Out of curiosity, have any Americanists studied Grandma Moses’ work in an academic setting?
  • I was surprised to learn that Johann Winckelmann, one of the early scholars of art history, was murdered in 1768. He was fifty years old. What if Winckelmann had lived a full life? I wonder if he would have retracted any of his ideas about unpainted classical sculpture, “good taste,” or how Greek art has “noble simplicity.”1 (For example, scholars in the early 19th century were able to document the traces of paint on certain Greek statues after their excavation. If Winckelmann had lived longer, would he have learned this news and changed his ideas about white marble and beauty?) Maybe it’s a stretch, but I like to think about how the Western canon might have been different if Winckelmann had not been murdered.
  • I’ve been reading about the Laocoön statue lately, partially because I want to know more about the theory that Michelangelo created the Laocoön (which is a rather far-fetched idea, in my opinion). I’ve also enjoyed looking at this annotated chronology of the statue: this piece has a pretty rich history!
  • A comment from a student also led to me to look at a pre-20th century restoration of the Laocoön statue. This restoration depicts the arm of the priest as being fully-extended. (The restored arm (now lost) was the work of Renaissance artist Bandio Baccinelli. For those interested, Vasari wrote a little bit about Bandio Baccinelli’s work on the Laocoön here.) It appears that has been a lot of debate regarding how Laocoön originally appeared. As recently as 1989, one scholar argued that the whole composition needs to be more compact and pyramidal in order to be historically accurate.2

How was your week? Were your art historical thoughts as assorted as mine?

1 Johann Joachim Winckelmann, “Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture,” in The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology by Donald Preziosi, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 31-39. For an interesting critique on Winckelmann’s theories, see also Kenneth Lapatin, “The Fate of Plate and Other Precious Materials: Toward a Historiography of Greek Minor (?) Arts,” from Ancient Art and its Historiography by A. A. Donohue, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 69-91.

2 Seymor Howard, “Laocoon Rerestored,” in American Journal of Archaeology 93, no. 3 (July 1989): 417-422.


What if Sculptures Were Painted?

This week I have been reading Colin Cunningham’s essay “The Parthenon Marbles” (a preview of which is available here). Cunningham spends much of this essay examining how the bringing of the Parthenon marbles (by Lord Elgin) to the British Museum has affected the Western canon of art. (When using the word “canon” I am referring to the artistic standard and aesthetic value that has been determined by Western culture over centuries.)  The bringing of original Greek statues to England was huge, especially in the 19th century, since many artists had only known Greek art through Roman copies.  After the marbles were brought to the British Museum in 1816, thousands of artists began to study these works for their aesthetic properties.

I was most intrigued by Cunningham’s discussion of how classical sculpture continues to be left unpainted.  We know that Greek and Roman sculpture used to be painted, and many sculptures have left behind traces of paint (including sculptures on the Parthenon). Modern techniques have enabled exhibitions (such as this one and this one) to show reconstructions of how these sculptures appeared originally, such as this example of Augustus of Primaporta (right, original dated ca. 20 BC).

However when ancient sculptures were discovered, most of the paint had usually come off.  Obviously, people decided to leave the works unpainted.  On one hand, no one wanted to risk damaging the original works of art.  Plus, at the time no one knew how the paint originally appeared.  In time, though, the idea of unpainted sculpture began to be propagated by art historians as correct/beautiful/preferred, particularly Winckelmann (1717-1768), who declared that “color ought to have a minor part in the consideration of beauty.”1

So, what do you think of painted sculpture?  Does it weird you out? Cunningham points out, “If the idea of coloured sculpture seems strange to you, that shows the influence the western canon has had on all of us.”2 Personally, I like looking at painted reconstructions of ancient sculpture, because it reminds me how much the Western canon and my own artistic preferences have been constructed.  I’m sure that ancient Greeks and Romans would think it bizarre that later cultures left their sculptures white and unadorned.  And the funny thing is, we’ve continued to create unadored, unpainted sculptures for centuries, all in the name of classicism!

What if classical sculpture had still been painted when it was discovered?  That could have changed the face of the Western art – quite literally, in fact, if you think about painted faces!  Consider if Michelangelo’s David had been painted. You can get an idea of what it might have looked like from this sculpture created after Michelangelo’s David (left, by a German artist, displayed in Cologne as part of the Museum Ludwig collection).  Or what if Bernini’s sculptures had been painted?  Or neoclassical sculptures, like Canova’s Cupid and Psyche?

Art and art history could have been totally different than how they have turned out.  How do you feel about that?

1 John Hooper, “The Ancients: Now Available in Color,” in The Guardian, 22 November 2004.  Available online here.

2 Colin Cunninghman, “The Parthenon Marbles,” in Academies, Museums and Canons of Art, Gill Perry and Colin Cunningham, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 70.


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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.