What you (probably) don’t know about 3 masterpieces

There are some works of art that everybody can identify and we all know a few stories more or less true about them. Just like celebrities, they have a luring effect on people, and they usually get looked at through the lenses of a camera.

Van Gogh’s dying sunflowers

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, with their dazzling yellows, are some of his most recognizable paintings. Unsurprisingly, Paul Gauguin’s portrait of the artist in Arles is showing him painting sunflowers.

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Paul Gauguin, The Painter of Sunflowers, 1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Source: Wikipedia

Van Gogh’s series on these flowers begins in August 1888, at a time when he was enthusiastic about organizing a colony of artists in Arles, in the south of France, inviting fellow painters Gauguin, Emile Bernard and others. He conceived a villa in which every object, from furniture to paintings, is a part of a total work of art. His sunflower paintings were supposed to decorate Gauguin’s room.

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Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888, National Gallery, London
Source: Wikipedia

Around the same time, Van Gogh’s beliefs take a turn towards a pantheist view of the world. His father was a pastor and he had been a passionate, even zealous, Protestant missionary in Belgium, but he replaces dogma with a vision of the divine manifesting itself in every part of Nature. He read Walt Whitman and he spoke about the importance of joy: that of the artist working, and that of the spectator in front a work of art meant to be as comforting as music.

Van Gogh paints his sunflowers as they are drying out. In fact, most of the flowers in the London National Galley version are dead. The artist was interested in representing the traces left by the passage of time on objects and beings. At the same time, Van Gogh is Dutch, and flower painting has been a staple of Dutch painting for centuries.

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Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, Bouquet of Flowers in a Glass Vase, 1621, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Source: Wikipedia

During the 17th century, the golden age of Dutch painting, such realistic representations of flowers served as memento mori, a reminder of our mortality: no matter how blossoming your life might feel, you have to prepare for the inevitable demise. But this shouldn’t leave us engulfed in despair, since the sunflowers have already formed their seeds which will continue the cycle of life.

The veiled Statue of Liberty

Our story of the statue begins with Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801). Meant to block Britain’s access to India while reinforcing the young French Republic, the campaign included scientists and artists, documenting and exploring the surroundings. This event created the science Egyptology and lead to an enduring Egyptomania, reflected in Verdi’s Aida as well as the Washington Monument.

In 1855, Auguste Bartholdi, the designer of the “Liberty Enlightening the World”, met Ferdinand de Lesseps, the developer of the Suez Canal, on the boat taking them to Egypt. The sculptor was fascinated by the country and he spends his time in Northern Africa drawing and photographing the locals and the monuments. Eventually, some years later, he begins working on a monumental statue, playing the role of a lighthouse for the Suez Canal, in the spirit of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. His drawings and terracotta models show a Fellah woman, an agricultural laborer in the Middle East and North Africa, wearing a veil and holding a lantern or a torch.

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Auguste Bartholdi, terracotta figures and drawing, 1867-1869, musée Bartholdi, Colmar

Despite the favorable reception, the monument was finally dropped, due at least in part to the excessive expenses generated by the construction of the Canal, inaugurated in 1869. However, Bartholdi never abandoned the project, and when his journeys took him to America, the Fellah woman transformed into the famous figure lighting the arrival into the New World.

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Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, metal framework by Gustave Eiffel, Liberty Enlightening the World, 1886, New York
Source: Wikipedia

Mona Lisa’s layers

The most famous Renaissance masterpiece arrived in France when Da Vinci fled Italy, welcomed by the king Francis I, who bought the painting for the Palace of Fontainebleau, near Paris. Just like any seasoned celebrity, the Mona Lisa is surrounded by countless anecdotes and rumors. Some of the most outrageous concern its disappearance from the Louvre in 1911, when the painting was stolen by an Italian worker who wished to return it to its homeland.

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« The Louvre lost La Joconde », article published in Excelsior on the 23rd of August 1911
Source: Gallica
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Achille Beltrame, Theft of the Mona Lisa, illustration for La Domenica del Corriere, 3rd-10th September 1911
Source: Getty Images

The Mona Lisa is almost intrinsic to the Louvre, and every one of its movements has been eventful. After Fontainebleau, it was displayed in Versailles, the main royal residence, and because of the 1789 Revolution and the fall of the Monarchy, the royal art collections moved to the newly created museum in the Louvre.

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Samuel Morse, The Gallery of the Louvre, 1831-1833, Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago
Source: Wikipedia

After a short stay in Napoleon’s chamber in the Tuileries Palace, next to the Louvre, the Mona Lisa barely left the museum, except for the two World Wars, when it was hidden for protection. The two occasions when the painting left France to be exhibited have been memorable: in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy convinced the French to borrow it for an exhibition at the MET in New York, where the United States Coast Guard escorted its ship entering the harbor. Finally, in 1974, the Tokyo National Museum and Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts broke visitor records thanks to its short presence.

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It is easy to get starstruck in front of her smile, but this shouldn’t stop you from noticing some of the details that make it a masterpiece. Painted in Leonardo’s renowned sfumato, the portrait is a superposition of very thin layers of paint, each of them having to dry before the next one can be applied. The result is a seamless surface, particularly striking around Mona Lisa’s forehead, where a delicate veil frames her face and covers her hair. Leonardo was also interested in the aerial perspective, meaning that air is not transparent in his pictures: contours are blurred, and objects get a bluish hue as we move farther into the background.

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Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c. 1503-1506, The Louvre Museum, Paris
Source: Wikipedia

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