art analysis

trompe l’oeil

One of the earliest things you learn about at art school, is trompe l’œil, a favourite of teachers and students alike it is a celebrated demonstration of artistic talent. Besides, students love the chance to be cheeky. “Rembrandt’s students are reputed to have played a cruel joke on the great master when they painted some highly realistic gold coins on the floor of his studio. The great master was forever poor and much in need of funds, and so his pupils hoped to trick him into scrabbling around on his hands and knees trying to pick them up” 1. As mentioned in a previous article, the illusion of having drapery or a curtain partially covering a work is a time-honoured favourite of many artists. The Dutch Golden Age is a treasure trove of trompe l’oeil curtains, but the tradition dates back through a boom in early Christian artwork, but the origin story is given to us of course, from Ancient Greece, wherein two skilled artists submitted a painting in competition. “Zeuxis produced a magnificent still life, which featured grapes that were so lifelike that a bird flew down to peck at one. Not a bad result. However, Zeuxis unwittingly and by implication admitted defeat when he turned to his rival Parrhasius and asked him to draw back the curtain of from of his own painting in order to reveal its subject in its entirety” 2.


“Escaping Criticism” by Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874

So in my early art student days I too was enamoured with the illusion and trickery of a trompe l’œil, admiring above all the proficiency of the craftsman to create something in two dimensions which your eye believes is three. Creating, through skill, a challenge of our senses and our perception of the world. There are many fantastic examples of trompe l’œil throughout the ages, one of the most beloved being Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874. However, the example given to me, which sparked a great passion in my heart, and of which I had the utmost privilege of beholding in person recently, The Goldfinch (Carel Fabritius), 1654.


The Goldfinch (Carel Fabritius), 1654.

When the Maruritshuis was under renovation during my first trip to Holland, I was so disappointed to have missed the opportunity to view some really wonderful artwork. When I returned home I found out that a “treasures” collection had traveled to North America and I considered making the 10 hour drive to get a peek at the collection when it arrived at the Frick. My patience was rewarded last fall, however when I went back to view the entire collection at the newly opened Mauritshuis in the Hague.

On a quick sidenote, I always love looking for digital images of paintings. Ideally you can find an extremely high res version supplied online by the museum, but sometimes it’s quite hillarious to do a google image search. For very famous paintings, you will find all sorts of stuff showing up. For example, if you google image search the Mona Lisa you will find a great number of hillarious chops. But when you search for a small painting which is fairly unknown to the public  but much beloved by art aficionados, this is what you get. Zillions of copies of the same image, uninterrupted. All with slightly varying levels of colour and contrast, depending on who took the picture and what they did to it.


Spot the difference!

The Goldfinch is a small painting. It’s only 13.2 by 9.0 in (33.5 by 22.8 cm) but I hesitate to refer to it as very small, in context. It is painted on very thick board, which is speculated to have been part of a cupboard door or panel 3. It displays a goldfinch, atop a wall perch, its captivity evident by the thin chain which attaches it. “In the 17th century, goldfinches were popular pets because they could be trained to draw water from a bowl with a miniature bucket. The Dutch title of the painting pertains to the bird’s nickname puttertje, which refers to this custom and translates literally as ‘little weller’” 4.


Self Portrait (Carel Fabritius), 1645

Fabritius leaves very few paintings to us, perhaps only a dozen. He died young, perishing along with most of his paintings in a magazine explosion 5. However a very distinct personal style was carved out in his few years, the few remaining paintings marked with simple beauty in quiet and solitary moments, beautifully presented in impressive perspective and wonderful palette. Fabritius can be considered the stylistic connection between Rembrandt, his master, and Vermeer, his pupil. Fabritius experimented with perspective and lighting, both expertly executed in the Goldfinch. Though the majority of Rembrandt’s pupils emulated his style, Fabritius was interested in delicately lit subjects with bright, warm backgrounds, while retaining the gestural brushwork of his subjects. The uniqueness of Fabritius’ style which in turn inspired Vermeer is his honest and unembellished observation of the world around him, giving faithful devoted attention to the lighting and feeling of the scene. “Moving away from the Renaissance focus on iconography, Fabritius became interested in the technical aspects of painting. His personal style is “marked by an exquisite feeling for cool colour harmonies and (even though he often worked on a small scale) unerring handling of a loaded brush” 6. “He painted the goldfinch with visible brush strokes. The wing he indicated with thick yellow paint, where he put in with the back of his brush a scratch” 7.


get back! I’ve got a fully loaded brush!

Fabritius also experimented with spatial effects and forced perspective. A major goal of Dutch paintings at the time, especially those to be hung in homes for personal use, was to blend with the room. We can imagine the work hanging on the wall, or perhaps inlaid into a cabinet door, hearkening at the simple homely visual of the captive pet, the thick paint vibrating with intensity in emulation of the birds little heart, the glint of light off its round eye, and streak of black and yellow a familiar visual cue. The gestural application of the paint and the commonality of the subject matter gives the viewer the impression the painting hanging on the wall is instead a glimpse of the real thing. Like the wall calendar by the phone in the kitchen, it’s a familiar and homely element, something we are used to seeing out of the corner of our eye without taking time to observe it closely.

1, 2 Green, Malcom. “Book of Lies” London: Essential Works, 2005.

3 Frederik J. Duparc, “Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) His Life and Work” in Carel Fabritius 1622-1654, Zwolle, 2004.

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glace aux pétals de rose

We are far enough in to our vacation that the ending is coming in sight and we’ve started counting down instead of up. Missing holidays and events back home, missing our family and friends, missing our pets, our language and our lifestyle, we’ve begun to respect the time we have left in France and look forward to home. We currently have a “to-do” list of things we want to see and do and considering SO works all week we only have a few weekends left to accomplish these. I have the unique opportunity to be able to come and go and check stuff out around town without obligations but it’s tricky to strike a balance between spending vacation blogging in your apartment and seeing all the sights without your partner. I’ve taken to checking out small or so-so things, (or places I would uniquely go nuts for) during the week and leaving the show stoppers for the weekend.


This includes, of course, shopping. In the plethora of research I did before coming to France, I heard that the French dress very smart and jeans and sneakers are unheard of. This is not true. It’s probably an outdated statement because they fashion sense here is very similar to back home. This time of year people all around this latitude bust out their scarves for fall. As far as I can tell the French wear scarves all year. If it’s too hot they wear amazing Hermès silk scarves and if it gets cold you would be hard pressed to find someone without a pashmina, even the guys. The gentlemen here seem less concerned about preserving a “manly” attire opting for fashionable scarves, jewelry, shoes and purses. I don’t know what they’re called. Murses? Regardless they are very popular, especially the small, flat ones that go across the shoulder and sit against the body. These are super common due to the pickpocket problem.

Women’s style is almost indistinguishable from back home until you go shopping. The whole low waist thing never happened here and all the pants, skirts, panties and shorts all are what I would call “high waisted”. You will also find a greater amount of slacks to jean material here. I don’t think of myself of a “tall” lady, I’ve never shopped in a special section because I’m a pretty average 5′ 8”, but I have to buy special pants here or I end up with floods. I dunno if people are just shorter on average here or something but back home pants are always long enough. That’s ok I just have to shop in the “tall” section.


There is also the stereotype of the French having an aversion to bathing. SO’s supervisor informs me that 20 years ago you would see people around town with really greasy hair but the whole shampoo trend seems to have caught on. Though, women seem less concerned with their coif then back home, and the men moreso. Recently a lot of men have adopted the super spicy pompadour-fade hairstyle, which you probably saw a lot of if you caught the world cup this year. You won’t find $50 blow dry bars here, just average small stylist shops and nice cuts without all the straightening and highlights you find back home. I’ve heard foiled hair referred to as bacon strips.

France Soccer WCup.JPEG-08b28

Hnnnngg  Photo: AP

French ladies seem to go for a more au naturel hairdo, embracing their hair in all its frizzy curly wonderfulness. The most attractive thing is the confidence. Back home everyone is so worried about their appearance they go to such lengths to preserve a perfect look, so me being the schlub that I am I often feel embarrassed when I see gorgeous primped ladies walking around. The bad news is everybody feels that way, primped or not. I’ve ran across the street enough times to buy bread without a bra, no makeup and my crazy unbrushed hair thrown up in a bun.. and nobody batted an eye.


Photo :

Anyway, getting back to excursions, I took a trip out to Chantilly to see the Fra Angelico exhibition they have going on. Chantilly is about 45 minutes to the north. It’s a nice, small town with lots of forest to stroll through. Chantilly is famous for it’s horse racing and the Château de Chantilly which houses the Musée Condé (one of the oldest art collections in France). Of course you may also know Chantilly lace or Chantilly cream. The latter is not exactly ditinguishable from regular “whipped cream” though some think the addition of sugar and/or delicate flavours like orange flower water is the distinction. It’s very light, not like that waxy stuff that comes out of a can. Regardless, it is delicious. I went to Dame Juliette to snack on a crepe topped with raspberry-violet jam, rose-petal ice cream and chantilly cream. Omg the best thing I’ve eaten in I dunno how long. Seriously if your mother ever told you not to shove flowers in your mouth she’s wrong. Well, flowers that have been whipped and frozen with cream and sugar. Also, not poisonous flowers.


“Saint Benoit en extase au désert” (Musée Condé),
“Saint Romuald interdit l’entrée du couvent des Camaldules a lEmpereur
Otton III, coupable d’adultère” (Koninkijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten),
“La conversion de saint Augustin” (Musée Thomas Henry),
“Scènes de la Thébaide” (Collection particulière), “Saint Grégoire le Grand
(ou Célestin V) refuse la tiare pontificale” (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

(Fra Angelico) 1395 – 1455


“Cinq anges dansant devant le soleil” (Giovanni di Paolo) 1405-1480

The museum itself has a collection of Fra Angelico works as well as some contemporaries such as Botticelli and Raphaël. The highlight was the curator’s brilliant deduction of how a number of pieces from various different collections are actually fragments of a larger work, so they managed to get these works on loan and rearranged them. It’s really astonishing. They also had a number of works that formed the panels of a chest which for hundreds of years had been separated. Not only this but they had a number of works from the permanent collection of Musée Condé that were of the highest calibre from that era I’ve seen yet. Indeed, the Musée Condé itself has a great amount of very old and/or very famous works, which shown in an intimate interior setting is a refreshing change to the pristine and echoing halls of contemporary galleries. The Château’s interior is unsterilized with amazing patterned parquet floors, marble topped furniture, elegant wainscoting, high ceilings, gleaming objet d’art and shimmering chandeliers.


In preparation of my return to Paris I had purchased a return RER ticket thinking that if the RER goes there it must go back the same way. I’m not sure if this is so because all the trains seemed to be TER or IC, which I’m not sure the ticket is no good for. The train station was under construction and consequently there was no one to ask for help. Afraid of becoming stranded but also not wanting to spend another ten euros on a duplicate ticket, I eventually decided to just get on a TER and hope that my ticket was valid, playing the ignorant tourist if I had to. Instead of delving into my notebook I spent my travel time nervously fiddling with the ticket in my pocket, my eyes darting around the train for ticket control. The fellow next to me asked me something in French that I didn’t understand but upon spotting the control officer at the back of the car he shiftily changed seats looking as guilty as I did. Relax, I thought. You paid a fare it’s not like you’re stealing. Even still I left the car for one not containing ticket control to join the group of shifty freighthoppers, getting off at Gare de Nord before anyone was wise.

parapluies dans le bain

Despite my SO working long hours we try to make time to get out and sightsee.. and it’s easier to accomplish when I show up at work for a three course lunch and afternoon husbandnapping. We finally managed to get French SIM cards, which means cell usage is now local rates instead of international so it’s easier to meet up while out and about. That being said I still forget what its like to live without data so we inevitably forget to look up the hours for things before we go.. like the Orangerie and Grand Palais. Hint : both closed on Tuesdays.



We still managed to get some more mileage on the vélos before this realization. We instead went to the Petit Palais, and though the collection is somewhat small and Courbet-y its still a ridiculously nice building (Palace) complete with amazing chandelier.. well really, everything is nice. The more time we spend in France the more I foresee a courtyard in our future.


They also have a little collection of non-Courbet realism, which is very nice. The dichotomy of the subject matter with their grand size and detail, hung in the glimmering halls of a palace is interesting. The way the subject is treated inherently gives you information about how you should feel about the painting. Two paintings really caught my eye, both by Fernand Pelez.


Sans Asile“, 1883, gives you a scene firmly grounded in the stone foundation of Paris, the stark wall behind the figures not giving you any way around the figures, no where else to look except to notice the remnants of posters on the wall advertising fancy parties for the aristocracy. The woman is not engaged in chores nor is she distracted by anything else. She directly faces you, her gaze fixated on you, demanding attention. The children sleep around her and the baby suckles at her breast, participating in things that all children do. However the older boy has become more aware of their situation, aware that they are in a different situation to other children. He is growing up in this painting, coming to realize the disparity of it all and begins to emulate the same actions of his Mother. The mirroring of mother and child here also gives the impression that their poverty is cyclical, their impoverishment passed down and continuing through the generations.


By contrast, Géricault created a series of portraits of beggars and insane people, some of these are at the Louvre. The figures are those who are normally hidden and marginalized by society but Géricault elevates them to a stature worthy of having your portrait painted, normally reserved for the rich and important. But the information that’s given in the works is much different than Sans Asile in the relatively small scale and quickness of the application. The figures are not carefully painted appearing looking away and fidgety as if they are constantly distracted by their malady. They are fully consumed by it. The blackness of the background gives the impression they are enveloped in a world of uncertainty. The figures are not given names, only identified by their condition. Criticisms of early psychiatry argue that “classifying, containing and observing people was effective only in silencing the voices of the mentally ill, rendering them invisible and therefore subject to abuse”1. But giving them recognition and exploration into their personal lives provides an air of empathy and dignity. Géricault is believed to have had a mental breakdown after completing his psychologically taxing masterpiece the “Raft of the Medusa” and as a Romantic painter is devoted to portraying intuition and emotion over reason, exploring the wild and aweful turmoil of the natural world, as well as a revolt against order and idealization, and rationality. “What perhaps strikes one most about the portraits is the extraordinary empathy we are made to feel for these poor souls, who might not strike us immediately as insane, but who certainly exhibit outward signs of inward suffering”2.


There is another Pelez painting right beside entitled “au lavoir”, 1880. The scene is of washerwomen perpetually engaged in their labour. There are some items around but none that aren’t washing-related indicating the is no reprieve or separate identity for these women. Similarly, they are in a darkened room with no reference of time of day to determine beginning or end to their chore. The woman rings out the garment, her arms muscular from practice, her legs apart and anchored firmly. She represents the hardworking and resilient woman, the labourer. She embodies both the typical role of a woman but at the same time, the antithesis of typical feminine appearance and demeanour.


Another nice painting in that room is Les Halles” (Léon Lhermitte), 1895. I really like the bustling composition and the snippets of folks in their market-day actions. I also like that you can still go to Les Halles well over 100 years later and walk around the open air shops and stalls that run down the same streets. Though these days there are less chickens.




We also biked to Église de la Madeleine, situated just north of Place de la Concorde: the giant roundabout complete with Egyptian obelisk and crazy fountains. Église de la Madeleine’s design is based on the Roman temple Maison Carrée. Interesting side note : Frederick Chopin requested Mozart’s requiem be sung during his funeral but the church did not permit women it its choir. Eventually, the funeral was allowed to proceed only if the female singers remained hidden by a curtain.



After checking out the church we walked down rue Réaumur to ogle the copper pans in the highfalutin chef stores and wander down some tiny restaurant-filled alleys just ducking into the subway before the rain started. Though we did manage to encounter our first subway delay in two months and ended up walking the four remaining subway stops in the rain, stopping for bread and chouquettes, which are little puffed clouds of deliciousness. I seriously need to learn to make these because they are so delicious, plus they’re the closest thing to timbits here.

0290017105961502-c2-photo-oYToyOntzOjE6InciO2k6NjU2O3M6NToiY29sb3IiO3M6NzoiI0ZGRkZGRiI7fQ==-recette-pas-a-pas-de-la-pate-a-chouquettesCrédit : © AlexQ –

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mon tuyau de plomb fait un peu mal

If you guys remember two posts ago I was talking about Millet’s Gleaners and so on, so I wanted to mention the guy who paved the way for this sort of stuff, Gustave Courbet. He is considered to be the head of the Realist movement, and was influenced early on by a trip to the Netherlands to see Dutch masterpieces depicting every day life. There are some very famous examples of Courbet’s work at the musée d’Orsay, such as “Burial at Ornans” (1850) and “The Artist’s Studio”(1855). His style looks quite different than Millet’s, aesthetically, but at the heart of the matter, they are Realists; which means they are concerning themselves with painting real, modern people doing accurately real things. They are concerning themselves with shedding light on the average peoples of France (read: lower class) instead of giving attention to subjects which previously were committed to paint such as royalty or religion. A major difference in aesthetics can be attributed to the fact that Millet was a Barbizon School artist, which is a group of artists that traveled to the French countryside in search of rural subject matter (mainly in Barbizon). The movement was coming out of Romanticism so the subjects are somewhat Idealized, but at the same time moving towards Realism in subject matter. Unfortunately, Courbet’s works have always been somewhat rejected by my personal tastes because I consider his execution of ideas to be offensively heavy-handed and vulgar. None the less his works are quite celebrated.


Burial at Ornans

Ornans is significant because it depicts an event that happened during his lifetime, and the figures were posed by the people themselves. It is important to remember that previously the only people important enough to pose for their own portraits were generally royalty, or ancient greek or biblical figures were often posed for by poor students or prostitutes from lack of finances. In addition, this work is unbelievably enormous: 10 x 22 ft, a size normally reserved for biblical scenes. As the fantastical and decadent style of Romanticism was losing public interest, Courbet’s Ornans offered an every-day realistic view of life, and more importantly death, as the ordinary funeral procession is splayed out in huge scale before us. “The rigorous frieze-like composition and the gaping grave strewn with bones invite us to think about the human condition” 1.


L’Atelier du peintre. Allégorie réelle déterminant une phase de
sept années de ma vie artistique et morale

In the same room at musée d’Orsay, there is the Artist’s Studio which features Courbet in the centre and allegorical figures depicting the turmoil and reality of his life. On his right, he is flanked by his supporters, contemporaries and friends such as Alfred Bruyas, Proudhon, Champfleury and Baudelaire. On his left are his contenders, the wretched, the exploited and the twisted. He also added in a man with hunting dogs much later, supposed to be an allegory for Napoleon III, depicting him as a criminal. “The unemployed worker and a beggar girl symbolis[e] poverty. We can also see the guitar, the dagger and the hat, which, together with the male model, condemn traditional academic art. […]  When faced with the rejection of his painting, intended for the 1855 Universal Exhibition, Courbet built a “Pavilion of Realism” at his own expense. Here, outside the official event, he organized his own exhibition, which also included A Burial at Ornans” 2. A great amount of viewership were people who only came to belittle the artist, offended at his audaciousness and lack of tact.

Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer)

The self-proclaimed “proudest and most arrogant man in France” 3

Courbet secured some financial success by flanking his controversial paintings with long standing favorite views, such as hunting scenes. He furthered his work of female nudes and erotic art depicting such scenes as women in bed, prostitutes napping with their undergarments showing, or just extreme vagina close ups, some of which attracted attention from the authorities. Two examples are the “Le Sommeil”(1866), and “Ces demoiselles des bords de la Seine”(1857), both at the Petit Palais. Ces demoiselles aimed to portray the “realism of the scene, with a frank sensuality” […] Courbet deliberately provoked critique, sparking a scandal by exposing Ces Demoiselles at the Salon of 1857” 4. Le Sommeil was never shown, instead immediately went into a private collection. There is a long history of erotic artworks and of France in particular there is a long history of the eroticised female nude painted by men for the appreciation of men. So while I can appreciate Courbet’s desire to bend the rules and question authority I find his treatment of his subjects crude and ugly, and his works make every attempt to bash his ideology over our heads like a lead pipe.



One of his most celebrated works, which has a more realistic and less sensualised feel, is the “Stonebreakers” (1850). The work is no longer viewable as it was destroyed during allied bombing in WWII. It depicts the lower-class people of abject poverty, two men whose only means of survival is breaking rocks to make way for a road. Courbet witnessed this scene and hired the two to come to his studio to pose for the painting. This painting, created a year after the Communist Manifesto was published, aims to shed light on class structure and the reality of the low class in France. The fact that we can’t see the end of the road, and the nondescript ambient lighting gives no indication that the work will be completed on any discernible timeline. Instead, the stonebreakers are engaged in perpetual labour. They are enslaved by the land they must work, and the only peep of any light on the horizon almost imperceptibly out of reach.

Courbet participated in the Paris Commune (French socialist uprising) and upon his suggestion, the Vendôme column was demolished. Following the fall of the brief reign of the commune, Courbet was sentenced to six months in prison and a five hundred Franc fine for his involvement. However when the Republic elected a new president it was decided that the Vendôme should be rebuilt, entirely financed by Courbet (323 091 Francs). Courbet went into exile to avoid bankruptcy. He was then told he could pay in installments of 10 000 francs per year until the age of 91, but he died the day before the first installment was due from the effects of heavy drinking.


A group of artists coined the “bande noire” working later in the 1800s, were inspired by Courbet who employed dark colours and whose compositions held a turbulent feel, especially his self portraits. They rejected the bright and colourful light of the Impressionists and Barbizon school in favour of dark and violent colour to express melancholy, the precision and realism of everyday life. The group included Charles Cottet , Emile-Rene Menard, Dauchez André, Rene Prinet Xavier, Lucien Simon, and associated non-members Edmond Aman-Jean and George Desvallières.


l’ascention du poilu, (1931)

Desvallières work made use of dark and turbulent subjects, eventually becoming more twisted and expressive as his life and work progressed.  Desvallières met Gustave Moreau at the Académie Julian who influenced his work significantly, drawing  Desvallières away from making traditional copies and influencing his personal style and independence. “Devallières devoted himself to the creation of the Salon d’Automne […] “whose role is to be excessive because the role of the other salons is to be quite the opposite”, for forgotten masters and for talented artists that were currently excluded from official exhibitions” 5. Desvallières aimed to give attention and public exhibition to Salon-rejected artists and to give support to those dedicated to their cause even if unpopular eg) Fauves. Upon the outbreak of WWI he voluntarily enlisted at the age of 53, and “it was on the occasion of one of these sallies, when he had passed close to death, that he vowed to paint only religious subjects in the future: a vow that he kept scrupulously until the end of his life” 6. His style mixes the dark and furious aesthetic of Courbet with the same turmoil felt during wartime France. The subject matter is in a modern setting, but expressive and inventive in its execution. Devallières began mixing religious images with violent military battle scenes, expressing his pain and horror of the war in which he lost his son Daniel (aged 17) in his own battalion, with the grace and comfort he found in religion.





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le cercueil caché

If you ever wanted to get into the artist Jean-François Millet, the place to start would be “The Gleaners”, 1857. It is probably his best known work and the one of the most cherished examples of Realism painting. The scene depicts the ancient right of poor women to scour the wheat fields after harvest and collect and bits of edible wheat that remain. The painting shows three figures, hunched over in perpetual labour, hard working for a menial meal. The triad and the triangle in painting is one that brings a feeling of balance – the triad of women rise in front of us like a sturdy mountain. Indeed, their own forms are drawn to the ground like mountains, ever rooted in the soil.


“What does The Gleaners show? [The women] embody an animal force deeply absorbed by a painstaking task. The contrast between wealth and poverty, power and helplessness, male and female spheres is forcefully rendered.” – Liana Vardi

Even if you aren’t familiar with the process of gleaning there are visual cues in the process to tell the story ; we can see the hay being harvested and piled up in the background, indicating to us that the harvest has already occurred and the women are engaged after. In addition, the contrast of the heaping piles of plentiful food hovers over them, almost danging above their heads as a strong reminder of their situation. The gleaners themselves are hunched and tired looking, their skin darkened from the sun as a testament to their unending labour.


Their faces are obscured from us shrouding their identity and allowing the gleaner to act as a placeholder for all impoverished women. They’ve collected but mere handfuls of grain as the sun is setting, an indicator of the small reward for such a difficult and lengthy task. But the work is not in condemnation of the gleaners, instead the warmth of the golden light shines gracefully upon them as they are presented to us in impressive scale compared to the “privileged” in the background.

“[They] have gigantic pretensions, they pose as the Three Fates of Poverty, their ugliness and their grossness unrelieved” 1.

“Part of the shock value of Millet’s painting was undoubtedly due to the fact that in the past gleaning had usually been represented in art through the Old Testament tale of Ruth the gleaner, in which Ruth is characterized as a modest and virtuous example of the way to God, and not – as it was now – a statement on rural poverty” 2. There is both a literal and metaphorical disconnect between labourer and upper class as exemplified by the master on horseback (top right) who is leading the harvest but not participating. He is shaded and solitary, not involved in the scene, and physically set apart from any work being done, yet he represents the consumer, both in food and class.


When the Gleaners was submitted to the salon of 1857, the reception was disapproving, even hostile, especially among the upper classes (the usual patrons and audience of art). “To them, it was a reminder that French society was built upon the labor of the working masses, and landowners linked this working class with the growing movement of Socialism” 3.  The work was viewed as a glorification of poor subjects and idolization of rural life, a common theme in Millet’s work. This theme and subsequent raw depiction and admiration is nowadays widely revered and respected but was generally rejected at the time of its debut, and the painting sold for much less than the asking price. Millet desperately needed the money, but in his embarrassment tried to keep the pathetic sale price a secret from the public.


Two Peasant Women Digging in the Snow, April, 1890
Foundation E.G. Bührle, Zurich, Switzerland.

Not much later, Van Gogh idolized and drew inspiration from Millet. Rural scenes were important in Van Gogh’s work both on a cultural and psychological level. Van Gogh did over twenty copies of Millet, especially during his self-admitted stint in Saint-Paul asylum which his brother thought Vincent created his best work. These paintings interpret the symbolism of Millet’s rural scenes and translate subjects into his own style. Van Gogh did in fact copy the Gleaners but reworked the scene into women digging in a field of snow. The work takes on a futile and uncomfortable aspect, changing what they dig through to something illustrative of that which is barren and hostile.

“One does not expect to get from life what one has already learned it cannot give; rather, one begins to see more clearly that life is a kind of sowing time, and the harvest is not yet here.” 4


Another very famous work is The Angelus” (Millet), 1859, also at Museé d’Orsay. It depicts a rural scene of two peasants standing in a field with gentle illumination from the sunset. They are gently bowed, praying over a basket of potatoes. This simple painting is another depiction of the humble and righteous peasant. It was commissioned by Thomas Gold Appleton, who never collected it. It is about half the size of the Gleaners, and sold for less than half the price, so you can imagine Millet’s embarrassment. It was finally shown in 1874, a year before Millet’s death, and by the end of the century had completely about-faced in reception. It sold in 1889 for 553 000 francs5 (originally sold for 1000), the highest price for a modern painting to date. Only a month later, The Gleaners sold for 300,000 francs. Posthumous fame is a common theme in art history, and in this case owes itself in part Millet’s oeuvre, which was exhibited and auctioned after his death6. “They presented an artist whose works depicted “the man and the woman of the field in all the states of their lives. [Millet] admirably shows developments from infancy to youth, from youth to maturity, from maturity to old age, with the most solid logic and precise observation, with no more bias toward ugliness than toward beauty” 7.


An interesting side note is the Dali’s fascination with this painting, which led him to create a series of works and writings exploring his horrific associations and dark obsession with the Angelus. Dali was convinced that the work was sinister on some other level. Dali experienced hallucinations where he could see the painting in his mind but his interpretation was changed and distorted. Dali became convinced the painting was a funeral scene and that the two figures were playing over a child-sized coffin. Dali eventually convinced the Louvre to conduct an x-ray of the painting and discovered a small coffin-shaped object between the figures, which had been painted over with the basket of potatoes, presumably to make it more saleable. In his book The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus Dali “recounts an instance in which a man knifed the Angelus and was put in an insane asylum, and uses that anecdote to make a point about the painting’s unpredictable power: exactly what David Freedberg and Leo Steinberg were to chronicle over forty years later.  [… He also wrote] an essay explaining “Why They Attack the Mona Lisa”; [wherein] it divides assailants into “ultra–intellectuals” such as Duchamp, and “more-or-less Bolivians” who throw “pebbles,” or just steal the image” 8.


The Angelus is similar in composition to the Gleaners, in that the background extends out and away from the subject. Millet is said to have drawn inspiration by the memory if having to recite the Angelus prayer upon hearing the toll of the church bell9. However the tiny indication of the church, fading away in the background serves to both to indicate the context in which the subject should be considered, but also physically depicts the physical and representational distance between them. “Millet pictured not the rift that modernization had driven between rustics and the land but a nostalgic union of humankind and nature”10. What is foremost delineated are the two figures engaged in solemn thanksgiving within the sustenance borne of the soil. “The shift in attitude toward Millet, The Gleaners, and The Angelus in France owed not to the workings of the marketplace but to nostalgia and to the creation of a fluid republican national identity in France in the generation after the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune” 11. The socio-political upheaval uncertainty in France encouraged the public to take solace in the simple and unchanging rural scene, and the direct relationship between need and satisfaction ie)hunger/food, purpose/job.


Similarly, there are other examples of rural idolatry from this era, including Ploughing in Nivernais” (Rosa Bonheur), 1850. Bonheur, in contrast to Millet, enjoyed a great deal of success in her lifetime. “Photographic realism is the hallmark of her work, yet she rises far above mere photographic representation. She was intelligent, conscientious, & hard working. She believed in honesty in art & kept as close to nature as she could” 12. Bonheur studied animal anatomy and osteology and dedicated her life to the honest and factual depiction of animals. She was met with wide success of her realistic rural depictions. Nivernais was a commission awarded to her by the Second Republican government of France. “The inspiration for this famous painting may be from a novel by George Sand, the pen-name of Baroness Dudevant (1804-1876). In “The Devil’s Pool” (1846), she wrote about the displacement of peasants and farmers by industrialization, and espoused a return to nature” 13.

boeufsanother example, Boeufs allant au labour, effet de matin (Troyon, Constant) 1855.

In contrast to Millet, however the scene was not interpreted as a critique of the upper and middle classes, it was instead thought of as an loving depiction of simple life and stability, ideals which were yearned for within France. Unlike Millet’s Gleaners and Angelus, they are not bathed in golden warming light, they are illuminated in cold, clear light as if to indicate there is no question to the motivation or appreciation of the subject, it is purely Realism. “It is primarily an animal scene, whose heroes are the horse themselves, leaving little room for the man: the herdsman is very small on the canvas. It is a hymn to work in the fields whose magnitude is even more magnified it is easy to oppose, in the aftermath of revolution, the depravity of the city” 14. The public’s desires for stability and tranquility was reflected in their artistic interests. “They found solace in their image of what they considered unchanging: country life. In Labourage they see the sunny blue sky, the hills and moving oxen create a comfortable flow across the canvas. There is harmony between man and beast” 15.

1 “Story behind the picture – The Gleaners”. University of St. Andrews. Retrieved 2008-01-10.


3 Kleiner, Fred; Christian J. Mamiya. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (12 ed.). California: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning. 2005.

4 Erickson, K. At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision Of Vincent van Gogh. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdsman Publishing. 1998. pp. 150–151.

5 W. Walton et al., Chefs-d`oeuvre de l`exposition universelle de Paris, 1889 (Philadelphia: George Barrie, 1889), 53.

6, 10, 11–The-Intertwined-/65DB908A334354D8

7 Theophile Silvestre. Catalogue des 95 dessins de J.-F. Millet composant la collection de M. Gavet (Paris: Pillet, 1875) ; and Catalogue de la vente qui aura lieu par suite du deces de Jean-Francois Millet, peintre, sale cat., Hotel Drouot, Paris, May 10-11, 1875.



12, 15



le chant interrompu

Usually, long after my SO has gone to bed, I’m up late blogging or editing photos or working working on some kindof arty thing. Unfortunately the little time we have to share together gets minimized when I sleep in and miss breakfast. So after staying up past 4am I woke up around 7:30 with my SO to try and adjust my schedule. Yeah. So to keep myself from lounging around and being sleepy I decided it would be a good idea to go out and see the sights!


After passing by a few vélib stations that only had seriously broken-down bikes I finally found a mostly usable vélo and made my way downtown. I’m kindof getting the hang of the street layout, but I have to make a serious effort to bear right more than I think I should have to. Otherwise I always end up in the west end. Alas, as they say; All roads lead to.. the Bastille.


giant lampost-baby mocks your pathetic sense of direction! muhaha!

Oh well. I ditched my vélo and tried to find a landmark that I knew was nearby : Place des Vosges. I had read about it that morning, but didn’t really look into it because I didn’t think I would be in that end of town. After a little searching, we found each other. Places des Vosges is the oldest planned square in Paris, built in 1612 by Henri IV. There is a fine statue of Louis XIII, erected in 1818 to replace the original which was melted down during the Revolution. The surrounding buildings are all the same, made of red brick with white stone stripes and vaulted arches.



look at the trees! they match the square’s perfect squareness!

The garden’s weren’t really that impressive, they were tidy but very modest, and all of the fountains were turned off. Even so there were still hordes of art students sitting in the grass drawing the fountain fixtures and possibly the maintenance workers. On my way out I passed a number of expensive restaurants and small art galleries, one of which featured the same kind of optical illusion I saw in the Escher museum in Amsterdam. I love those!!


Making my way through the fifth, I ended up on Rue Étienne Marcel and biked around for a while looking for a vélib station that had a free spot. My next stop was the Jardin des Tuileries, the much hyped-up 70 acre palace gardens originally created by Catherine de Medici in 1564. The gardens here are absolutely massive and highly manicured. All trees are clipped to a certain size, the flowers are grown in neat rows deposited smack in the middle of neatly trimmed perfectly carpeted grass.. and of course there’s a little fence around anything growing so you cant ever go near it.


This place is so perfectly organized  I find it a bit stressful rather than relaxing. However the locals seem to love it and there’s no lack of green chair to sit and relax. I don’t know if today was fountain cleaning day or what, but there weren’t any fountains on, except for one you could smell a mile away. It was one of those boring ones where a jet just shoots some water straight into the air, so of course there are lots of tiny particles of water misting around the area. Normally, this would be kindof nice but this was the most disgusting fountain I have ever seen. I believe it was originally some type of koi pond because there were almost imperceptible orange blobs swimming around in the brown muck. It smelled like a stagnant pool /hobo bath house.


That being said, if you can find a tiny building to duck into on the west end of the garden, it contains a nice garden-related bookstore! I managed to find a book written by a rosa-horticultural genius David Austin discussing the various types of heirloom roses and their history! Awesome! David Austin roses are my favourite and someday… someday I will grow my own!


you’re welcome for not taking a picture of the hobo bath house

For a garden there was very little beauty of nature. However, there were some nice statues, and the Louvre peeking out at the end of the garden isn’t a bad thing to look at. Also, I really like all the street crossings nearby because you can tell who has been walking around the Tuileries due to the dusty white footprints they leave on the pavement.


My favourite new saying is “c’est parfait!”. I usually say it as a nicety when people do things for me, like put together my order at the boulangerie, bag my purchases at the magasin, or help me mail things at the post office. I’ve been saying it so much, I even say it when bad things happen, like when the strap on my purse gets caught around a barrier-post and I nearly go flying, or when I get wedged in some inescapable bike lane between trucks and some douche has parked his motorbike directly across the whole lane. C’est parfait! Granted I’ve been known to be a little insincere.


 Moving on, I then biked down the eastern part of Ave. Champs-Élysées, checking out some nice canal views, while trying to bike as rule-abidingly as I could infront of the massive amounts of police for some reason, and eventually found my way to the Petit Palais. It’s exactly what you might think. It’s a little palace. It’s across the street from a bigger palace. But down the road from the even bigger palace. I don’t know what in Paris wasn’t once a palace.

IMG_6972wait, thats the petit palace? ok don’t look across the street then.

Everything in that neighborhood is just enormous grand architecture built by some king-or-another and probably has some cool history with the revolution(s). I don’t know if you’re meant to tour Paris this long.. because eventually it all just mashes itself into one big fancy building and I’m not impressed anymore. Well, not entirely. If you get tired of looking at nice buildings from the outside, just head on in because damn it’s nice inside too!


The Petit Palais is now an art gallery and admission is free. Always. There was lots of Courbet, whom I never liked, but I got to spend some time in the courtyard imagining what it might be like to live in a place like this, and in the basement found some really nice paintings made by people I’ve never heard of.


The first painting that really caught my eye was “Jean Carriès dans son atelier” (Louise Breslau), 1887. Breslau was a German-Swiss painter who achieved much success in Paris until the First World War, and afterwards in Switzerland. She won the World Fairs gold medal in 1900 and in 1901 became a Knight of the Legion of Honor, the third woman and first foreign woman to do so. The subject of her painting was a young artist, Carriès whose imaginative and often horrific sculptures captivated much attention. Carriès’ work is said to be a “junction between tradition and modernity [… and that he] spent his life pursuing an artistic ideal that the plastic covers genuine metaphysical event” 1. The thing that struck me most about this painting is the light and lively treatment of the subject matter, and the depiction of the artist’s process. I don’t know how you can depict creativity, but she’s done it!


Another lovely work is “Ophélie” (Paul Albert Steck), 1894. The story of Ophelia (Hamlet) is romantic and tragic, and is one depicted frequently in paintings. The majority of these paintings show the drowned (or drowning) Ophelia from above the waterline, however Steck’s depiction is completely submerged, allowing the viewer to be more involved in the experience. The treatment of the underwater scene is gentle and flowing, the tendrils of aquatic plants mimicking her long hair as if to indicate her impending anchoring to the bottom of the lake. The attention paid to the texture of the bubbles, fabric and flower petals is really as lovely as it is haunting.


man, I didn’t know santa was a dutch woman

Farther on down the basement corridor there is a small chamber adorned with plenty of nice Dutch paintings including “The interrupted song” (Frans van Mieris “the younger”), 1671. The small painting depicts a young woman who previously was preoccupied with singing a song (as indicated by the sheet music in her lap) but is interrupted by a man offering her a drink. There are a number of fine elements in this painting painted in delicate and loving detail, such as the vase of flowers, the sleeping dog on the cushion, the twinkle of light on the glass, and the satiny texture of her gown. The inclusion of a dog in Dutch paintings often is meant to indicate fidelity, and the husband offers his wife a symbolically full glass. Indeed, the entire work is very finely crafted with much love and devotion. “This style of painting has undertones of gallantry, with the association of music and love so common in Dutch painting of the 17th century representing the artist and his wife Cunera van der Cock (1629/1630 – 1700). It also illustrates the theme of the five senses” 2.


After my palais excursion I decided it would be a good idea to start heading back towards downtown, while following the Seine of course. There are a number of nice parks and greenspace surrounding the petit and grand palais to check out. Included was a nice bas relief with (non smelly) koi pond.. and birds!



I also managed to find a bagel shop that has fantastically amazing bagels. They also have humerous photos on the wall and signed pictures of celebrities, which I think are jokes because the majority of them just has a funny caption written on. They also say they’ve been in business since 1789 and if you check that out on their website they have a hilarious family tree of “bagelsteins” with photos ranging from astronauts to folks in straight jackets.. and enviably many “paninis” and “sandweeches” married in to the family. Awesome atmosphere, even awesomer food… I managed to get mine just before the queue exploded.


Oh, and I also managed to find a very cool floral archway. The florists were busy not only creating it but taking pictures for people who wanted to pose with it. I opted for an OP-less photo.



obtenez-vous la blague ?

On the top floor of the Louvre, in the corridor opposite the escalators lives many famous and celebrated Dutch paintings. Of these, there are many fine examples of the ever cultivated Dutch Genre painting, which is characterized by detailed realism, moralizing overtones, and simple depictions of common life. Painting in the Netherlands underwent a great change in the 17th century, due in part to the demands of the growing middle class. As trade routes were opening up, and industrial and agricultural advancements allowed for more income and more free time, many people were moving to the cities, especially for commerce. At the same time, the invention of the printing press allowed more accessible eduction, faster and more broad sharing of ideas, and giving a voice to the individual. This, coupled with the Protestant reformation rapidly changed the types of artwork desired and being produced.

The Protestant Reformation, sparked by Martin Luther’s ninety-five point manifesto against the corruption of the Catholic church, namely the sale of “indulgences” (buying a pass to get into heaven). The questioning of corruption and abuse prevalent in the church lead to a split in Christianity into Roman Catholics and Protestants. The reformation took strong roots in northern Europe, where radical changes to churches took place, such as the destruction of any idolatry, ie) sculpture, stained glass, paintings, frescoes, and basically anything that an artist made a living on and generally devoted their life to. Religious works were suppressed, if not banned and works were thoroughly and violently destroyed. This iconoclasm, or “beeldenstorm” led therefore a huge reduction in the amount of religious art created for places of worship. However, one of the principle elements of the Protestant reformation, and largely due to the printing press’ influence, was developing a personal relationship with God rather than relying on a intermediary body to direct you. Therefore a demand grew for private icons and the depictions religious ideals through allegory.

The rise of the middle class and the emergence of Protestantism allowed for a plethora of artists to emerge to create a wide array of works of a considerably different in subject and execution. The Calvinist rejection of iconography all but eliminated the church-funded commissions that were historically an artist’s bread and butter. More and more artists turned to the middle class, who chose to spend their extra income on home furnishings, or commissions of a personal nature (ie. Portraits). An interesting note is that with the rise in literacy and the distribution of personal literature, many 17th century Netherlanders had access to what were called “emblem books” : emblematic images with corresponding text. These emblem books allowed for the average person to be able to interpret visual cues into ideas, or more commonly, moral lessons. Most modern people aren’t able to decipher these mnemonic devices and sometimes it can be hard to “get” the point or appreciate the irony of the works. That being said, there are still a number of works that are pretty obvious in their scathing depictions of debauchery.  One fine example is “La Mauvaise compagnie” (Jan Steen), 1670.


Voor herberg, achter bordeel

In addition to his practice as an artist, Steen also kept a tavern. “As well as additional income, this provided him with a rich source of material based on the behavior and characters of his customers. In this painting, the depiction of contemporary manners is combined with a serious underlying theme: the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32), who squanders away his inheritance on licentious living and prostitutes”1. The scene is laid out fairly clearly; the inebriated man falling into the lap of his enabling companion as he drunkenly gropes for his dropped pipe. The poor fellow gets pickpocketed  by the other lady of the evening, and evidence of their debaucherous stint litters the floor : empty oyster shells, playing cards, cigarette butts and his dropped and subsequently forgotten hat. Yet as the fellow reaches his limit for the night, there is no indication that the activity stops there. There will always be more music, more thieving, more drunken revelry.


“er.. jes hanggon a sec…onf.. I drop..ped my pipe.. “

To go off on a tangent, these paintings remind me of punk music. Strangely enough, they follow a similar pattern; to compose a song or painting, which on the surface glorifies a atrocious thing, but in it’s obvious horror we see the irony. I’m not really saying they’re the same thing.. punk music prides itself on pushing buttons and making jokes. But the irony of these paintings is pretty evident. Coming very quickly after a time in which only the most revered and beautiful subjects were committed to paint, is it not strange to turn the corner and suddenly all the pictures you see are of drunken bumbling fools, hookers and riffraff?


© Amos Kennedy

What does it mean to commit something to paint? For many years if you weren’t Jesus or kings or some kind of Greek mythology, you weren’t good enough to go on canvas. Then later, if you were rich enough, you could afford it. Nowadays I have seen all manner of things committed to paint that it seems there is no low too low. It’s within the context of the “joke” that makes these paintings really special, and more importantly worth looking at even though the times have changed quite a bit since their day. The moral lessons of Dutch genre painting often depict interior scenes of loose women and drunken fools, a common occurrence as indicated by the Dutch proverb Voor herberg, achter bordeel.. or, Inn in the front, brothel in the back. Even without knowing historical or biblical stories, or the context of emblems and other iconography, we can read these images like a book and glean a pretty full moral story from it. Don’t get wasted with a bunch of strange women at a party or you might get your pockets picked. No offense, ladies.

Genre painting also depicted scenes from everyday life, such as sprawling landscapes, simple peasant life or seemingly banal personal actions such as pouring milk, reading a letter or taking a stroll. Artists in the 17th century Netherlands “elevated what was critically regarded as a humble form to heights of desirability rivaling more classically esteemed subjects. […]  Indeed, a large facet of a genre scene’s appeal was the opportunity it afforded to gaze into a private interior much like the one in which it might have hung and, in many cases, to identify with the values expressed by the subject”2. Another fine example of Dutch genre painting is “Joueurs de cartes dans un riche intérieur” (Pieter de Hooch).


“looking at ones cards is a crutch for players who rely on skill”

This painting is very small, but very rich and velvety in its treatment of the paint, the shining marble floor, imposing fireplace and rich velvet drapes absolutely dripping with luxury. This rich and decadent interior mirrors the indulgent lifestyle the room provides, where they can “discreetly enjoy the company of accommodating young ladies. […] Here, love is a game that may be cheated at like any other, as the hand proudly displayed by the beautiful courtesan – four aces – seems to suggest”3. The young men are eager to engage the ladies, either in a game of cards or a intimate moment by the window, but the simple young maid, timidly waits to fill their glasses and hesitates at interrupting their goings-on. Indeed the technical expression of opulence lends itself to the interpretation of the sumptuous lifestyle of the young people and the hesitation of the simple maid.

1 Lessing, Erich and Vincent Pomarède. The Louvre All the Paintings. New York : Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2011.



waarom je moet liefde de rijksmuseum

I’ve been to a lot of different art galleries. I’ve been to small spaces where the artist stands up on a milk crate and introduces the work as you eat tiny sandwiches with the artist’s close friends. I’ve been to small galleries in small towns where the you’re the only person around and the complete silence is only interrupted by the click of your shoe and swish of your jacket. I’ve been to large galleries where small pockets of people mill around admiring the works and it’s no consequence for you to usurp an extended private audience with a work. I’ve also been to large galleries where the crowds are so prevalent it’s difficult to walk around or even stand in front of a work without having your personal space sufficiently violated. I’ve also been to galleries where the mass assemblage of pilgrims whip through like a hurricane, cameras flashing, luggage bumping and neon group tour stickers shining. Even in galleries like Musee d’Orsay, where photography of any kind is forbidden, I still saw dozens of eager photographers shamefully snapping away.

The issue of photography in art galleries is very complex and rapidly changing. There is a long tradition of copying in the history of art. It was and still is considered good practice for a student to faithfully copy masterworks. With the invention of the printing press in 1450ad many illustrated copies of paintings were made and easily (and cheaply) distributed within Europe. Artworks that had previously donned only Cathedrals, palaces and private estates were now reaching a larger audience through copying. “Woodcut colour printing helped the rapid circulation of ideas, information and images and led to increased levels of literacy and education. As well as being valuable teaching aids, mass-production of coloured prints also met the demand for high-quality images in the well-established book publishing industry. Many artisans reproduced existing works by some of the finest artists such as Parmigianino, Raphael and Titian. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is a very well-known example. Coveted by connoisseurs for their technical brilliance and visual impact, high-quality reproductions of drawings and paintings became much sought after items”1. As artistic instruction began to shift from apprenticeships (where students would copy their master’s work) to artistic institutions and academies, where students began to attend galleries and public art displays to spend time copying the works. Academies also organized annual Salons, exhibitions of juried artwork which lead for a more social gathering rather than analytical discourse. More and more artwork has become literally more accessible to the general public, and at the same time becoming a more social event. “Why do we go to art galleries? The standard answer is to look at the art. And in theory that ought to be the end of the matter. Except that in practice it is not the whole story – and never has been. Ever since galleries have existed, visitors have flocked to them not just to see but to be seen in the act of seeing. As anyone who has got close to the Mona Lisa will know, the most famous galleries have long been secular cathedrals of mass pilgrimage”2. For the majority of people who visit galleries, I think they want to take something home with them. Increasingly, galleries have relied on gift shop sales to supplement their earnings, with a great number of works entering the public domain and our modern ability to cheaply print and manufacture goods there are any number of items from the most expensive framed print or delicate pendant, to € 2 fridge magnets and printed disposable napkins. Not only do people desire a kind-of souvenir, but a copy of the work.


oh, look! MonetTM shoe polish!

A great number of people have access to cameras, and in the digital age, each picture is essentially “free”. I highly doubt that people would take as many photos at museums if they had to pay to process said photos. Especially with social media, there is a cultural desire to document. “We’re in an age when people take pictures just about everywhere, an act that photography critic Jörg M. Colberg describes as “compulsive looking.” The phenomenon has created a unique set of challenges for art museums, many of which have historically had strict limitations on photography—either for the purpose of protecting light-sensitive works or because of copyright issues”3. Our need to document our lives is persistent and ever-growing with the simplifying of technology. Nowadays basically everyone has a tiny camera in their pocket with the built in ability to share said photo instantly with friends. “People taking photographs of their food in a restaurant instead of eating it,” says [Antonio] Olmos. “People taking photographs of the Mona Lisa instead of looking at it. I think the iPhone is taking people away from their experiences.[…] Guardian photographer Eamonn McCabe agrees:  I don’t think photography’s dead, it’s just become lazy. People are taking lots of pictures but nobody’s looking at them”4. No longer are we standing back to admire said work. We aren’t even trying to cultivate quality reproductions or works we want to look at again. The act of looking is surely changing. Not only are we becoming more and more removed from the subjects canonized in the annals of fine art, but our pervasive and compulsive drive to experience the world through a lens further cheapens the event.


“Two studies examined whether photographing objects impacts what is remembered about them. Participants were led on a guided tour of an art museum and were directed to observe some objects and to photograph others. Results showed a photo-taking-impairment effect: If participants took a photo of each object as a whole, they remembered fewer objects and remembered fewer details about the objects and the objects’ locations in the museum than if they instead only observed the objects and did not photograph them”5. Damage to artwork is one of the major problems with photography in museums. It is most common that flash photography is forbidden due to the damaging effect it has on artworks but there is always someone who forgets or for whatever reason is still flashing away. Cameras in museums is also annoying because of the constant clicking sound of real cameras or the horrible TCJHHGRRRTT artificial sound of a camera phone. For some reason people think that this sound is completely acceptable at large volumes. The sad thing is, these photos look like crap. “Instead of reflecting and appreciating brush strokes, technique, perspective, lighting, […] you’re staring at a 2″ x 2″ display screen on the back of a camera. You might end up with a picture of the Mona Lisa, but you won’t remember having seen it for yourself. The photos you take will be pointless. Without a flash, it will be blurry. With a flash? You’ll get a glare, wash out the painting, and probably do permanent damage to the work”6.

Mona Lisa relocated in the Louvre's Salle des Etats in Paris, France on April 06th, 2005.


I’ve spent many many uncountably many hours in art galleries and I myself used to take pictures with whatever I had available to me at the time, from super DSLR to 3MP cell phone camera. I took pictures because I wanted to remember. There were particular paintings that I liked and wanted to remember what they looked like. Unfortunately my crummy pictures do very little justice to the original work and they end up in some mass graveyard folder or digital art images that I rarely look at. I’ve instead opted to buying postcard-sized reproductions to jog my memory, or in recent years, downloading official photos (better ones than I could ever take). A great number of galleries will offer free images of their collection on their website. There has been a definite push to get galleries and museums to participate in the digital age, between tweets and facebook updates to installing wifi and downloadable content in museums. But it also encourages and sometimes facilitates the sharing of media. “Museums often do not hold the copyrights to the works they display, which creates legal problems when visitors start snapping away. […] But the deluge of cameras, along with the fact that the vast majority of visitors simply want to snap a pic for a Facebook album, has led some institutions—such as MoMA, the Indianapolis Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum—to ask [for permission]”7. The accessibility of artworks in digital format has lead me to change my method of documentation of art galleries. I usually just write down the name of the work, and look it up on the museum’s website later. Not only do they often have very good images of the work there are usually notes from the curator, giving you the change to learn a little more about the work. The subjet matter is oftentimes so removed from modern life that artwork is difficult to approach. Museum-goers will often look to the thumbnails of the gallery guide to determine what they want to (read: feel they should) see, or rely on the level of compaction of people in front of a work to determine whether it’s revered enough to join in. Art has become so inaccessible that the average person feels they cannot connect on virtually any level with a work and abandon any hope in having any kind of personal experience with a work. What is artwork without viewers? If a painting is locked in a windowless room, does it exist as art at all? Or merely as an artifact that blossoms into art once exhibited?

tumblr_l6z55rJdaG1qar0xt© John Hughes / Paramount

“One attendant [at the British National Gallery] told The Times there were flashes every 10 minutes as tourists snapped the Arnolfini Portrait, an oil painting on oak panel dated 1434 by the Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck. “You have people taking photos all the time – selfies, pictures of their kids, everything. Some of the staff are seething,” he said. “People take pictures with flashes and you can’t stop them because by the time the flash goes off it’s too late.” She said she had seen people trip over plinths when they had their backs to the works trying to take a selfie. “We have got plinths with a sculpture on and they knock into them. It also distracts security. While two people are being silly with a selfie somebody else can go and stick a pen through a painting,” Ms Ward said. “Perhaps we need to change the rules. Allowing people to interact physically with a work of art by taking pictures would probably increase the risk but if you can’t do that how are you going to attract people? How we interact with people has got to change”8. There is always a mix of viewers at any gallery, a full spectrum between the quiet, musing aficionados who linger contemplatively around works, and the high-energy loud and bustling tour group snapping cellphone pictures or pointing and giggling at the sculpted Greek nudes. But, without participation and patronage there wouldn’t be many galleries to speak of.

While the artist is burdened with the task or painting or sculpting something in such a way to give you a particular experience upon viewing the work, once it’s out there it’s up to the audience to validate that work’s existence. That’s the beauty of art. It’s not stuffy old men shushing you for giggling at the Greek sculpture’s tiny wiener. Art is what you perceive it to be. Quite often, a great number of people agree on a work’s impact and why it should be appreciated but as we know these things change over time. Sometimes hundreds of years later we change our mind that something that was bad is now good. There isn’t anything wrong with going to a gallery and not “knowing anything” in the academic sense. Granted, I would argue it’s more interesting to have some kind of back story. But if your experience is different that someone else’s, that’s okay too.

“So extensive and subtly pervasive are the ideas that set Art upon a remote pedestal, that many a person would be repelled rather than pleased if told that he enjoyed his casual recreations, in part at least, because of their esthetic quality. The arts which today have more vitality for the average person are things he does not take to be arts: for instance, the movie, jazzed music, the comic strip, and, too frequently, newspaper accounts of love-nests, murders, and exploits of bandits. For, when what he knows as art is relegated to the museum and gallery, the unconquerable impulse towards experience enjoyable in themselves finds such outlet as the daily environment provides. Many a person who protests against the museum conception of art, still shares the fallacy from which that conception springs. For the popular notion comes from a separation of art from the objects and scenes of ordinary experience that many theorists and critics pride themselves upon holding and even elaborating. The times when select and distinguished objects are closely connected with the products of usual vocations are the times when appreciation of the former is most rife and most keen. When, because of their remoteness, the objects acknowledged by the cultivated to be works of fine art seem anaemic to the mass of people, esthetic hunger is likely to seek the cheap and the vulgar” 9.

The way we interact with and experience artwork is definitely changing with the times. Our personal experience is perpetually changing, coupled with the inaccessibility of historical “fine art” and the strive to create something “new” and the strangeness of modern artworks. There pretension in the art world that leaves the average person saying “I don’t get it” and the artist pretending that artistic expression exceeds the realm of understanding for those not imbued with artistic aptitude by saying “you wouldn’t get it”. The relationship with art is strained and strange; we are happier to take some kind of small ownership over it with shitty photos and giftshop napkins than to admit our own participation in events.

Of course this leaves me to believe there is a separation of camera-wielding-museum-goers: one half trying to document their day and sharing their experiences of all kinds with others, and those who really do just want a photographic copy of said work so that they can look at it again at home. So next time you see a work that you really actually do want a copy of, do yourself a favour and spend some money on a reproduction. Either that or go on the internet, where the vast majority of galleries post way better pictures that you could take. Speaking of which, while feeling quite sad that my digital photo of “A Windmill on a Polder Waterway” by Paul Joseph Constantin Gabriël had turned out so crummy, I turned to the website of the newly-renovated Rijksmuseum and lo and behold they had an amazing high-resolution photo of it (and every single painting in the museum) available for anyone to download. All 25812864 glorious pixels.





5 A “Present” for the Future: The Unexpected Value of Rediscovery Psychological Science, August 29, 2014.




9 Dewey, John. Art as experience. New York, New York: Penguin group 1934.

l’autre dans la peinture

As you make your way among the light and ethereal Bouguereaus with delightful elegance and grace, you can see peeking around a tight corridor a bloody severed head with anguished expression. Making your way up some small steps and around the corner, you can find “Execution sans jugement sous les rois maures de Grenade” by Henri Regnault. Regnault was a French painter, who studied at Ecole des Beaux Arts and won the Prix de Rome, but traveled to Spain and was fascinated with Velasquez and soon thereafter with the visual displays brought on by the Revolution of 1868 and afterwards, with Andalusia. He became enamored with the Alhambra and spent months painting there. He then settled in Morocco, where he “proposed to paint a picture which […] amid the splendours of the Alhambra should symbolize the magnificence of Moorish civilization” 1. He abandoned all artistic endeavor to join the Franco-Prussian war on the homefront and was killed at age twenty-seven in one of the last battles to occur therein.


Taking inspiration from local legends2, the painting exhibits the crumpled lifeless body of the victim laying directly in your eye’s view, with the tall and imposing executioner towering above. The location, somewhat based on Alhambra exudes Moorish architectural grandeur with grand shining patterned walls and grand arches, and from a distance you feel the presence of this place however it is not painted in particular detail. The closer you get to this painting, the more obvious the lack of background detail is and considering the room the painting is housed in is probably only ten feet deep, it’s difficult to stand too far back. The lack of detail in the background allows for even more attention to be drawn to the foreground, specifically to the victim whose dark, lush and ornate clothing stands out in strong contrast.


The figures are back-lit by the golden haze entering the building, yet it is hinted by the scale of the background that they are far within the depths of the room, the warm light fading away between the executioner and the victim, allowing for a cold and subdued shadow to enshroud the crime. “The executioner’s detached attitude and commonplace gesture contrast with the foreground in which the blood drips down the steps along the severed head to the body. The colors […] take opposition because the executioner’s caftan, which picks up the orange tones of the background, contrasts with the victim’s green and black clothing”3. There are some hints in this painting to give us clues as to the timing of events: the coagulating pool of blood indicates the body has not just hit the floor, but has remained there, motionless, for some moments. The sword is not on the upswing, nor is the executioner in a kinetic motion, but he is calmly standing with no need to act further but only to calmly clean his blade. These are all indications that the moment of death has passed, and we are experiencing the quiet aftermath of the event.

The executioner stands with erect posture, his face slightly turned away but eying the victim with a slight grimace of disgust though it’s not clear if the disgust is directed at the victim and what he represents, or terrible reality of the events that just transpired. “The low angle and vigorous rising composition give [an] imposing presence” 4. The reduced perspective of the audience allows for more attention to be given to the victim; the vantage point is not where a person would be, of average height, standing on said steps but instead is equal with the bodily heap, so low on the step that we cannot meet the executioner on any equal ground but instead peer up from below in horror. The darkness and weight of the crumpled victim fallen on the heavy stone stairs and shaded by the shadows is in great contrast with the executioner whose illuminated garb draws our attention as he uses it to clean the freshly drawn blood from his blade. He does not carry armour or even a sheath, giving some indication that this is not his usual profession or something he is prepared for, and we are not given any clues as to the identity of the characters with the exception of the context given by the setting, costume, and title of the work.


I will not claim to know much at all about Moorish or Arabic history and culture, but there is fascination that is developed in a European perspective at “exotic” style artwork, exemplified in this work, and many others. “In his groundbreaking study Orientalism, [Edward] Said argued that nineteenth-century Europe fostered a derogatory and univocal impression of the Orient in order to justify the imposition of colonial governance on its lands and peoples. The significance of his study was to suggest that stereotypes of Arab men and women—as violent, lazy, sexually promiscuous or irrational—were only the most patent examples of a broader cultural attitude that constituted the Orient as a subject of knowledge. Although Said did not deal with paintings or other visual media, historians soon recognized the significance of his thesis and adapted its insights to the study of pictorial materials.” 5. Was Regnault just in his sensationalizing the subject matter, or was he innocently drawing on cultural artifacts that he was experiencing first hand? There is no doubt that in the course of art history there is much fascination with exhibiting that which is intriguing, emotionally charged, or sensationalized in many different cultural contexts. It is quite possible, especially from a curated, European perspective, that this work is popular for it’s sensational display of the “other”, but what responsibility do the most popular artists (read: often white European males of some privilege) have in their depiction of that which is different than themselves?

What obligation do you have to truth and accuracy? What can the authenticity of your opinion and more importantly, your interpretation of something to which you do not belong? Is it enough for you to exhibit your personal interaction with the “other” and your personal representation of it? For any token element of a work it can be said that the context will be applied to the whole of that which it represents. So the token Moor, the token madman, the token bourgeois gentleman, the token intellect, the token addict, the token noble. How does one transcend that which they are burdened by; the mold of their classification.


Farther on down the corridor, amid the stoic and classic Greek figures, we find ‘Jeunes Grecs faisant battre des coqs’ by Jean-Léon Gérome. Now, the alternative title to this work is “Un combat de coqs” simply, a cockfight. But what’s lost is the intention of the original title.. Young Greeks making roosters fight. The young girl recoils slightly at the flying feathers and violent pecking but keeps her interested gaze fixed on the action, while her accomplice fervently eggs them on, pushing the fighting rivals closer together. A great number of paintings which display Greek culture are often idolized stoic victors or demure women lounging and displaying the ever-present nip-slip. However it’s not obvious that this “Greek Revival” painting isn’t tongue-in-cheek with it’s unusual and somewhat condemning depiction.

“Few commentators noticed the disillusioned meditation of the artist in the concert of praise that greeted the work” 6. The fountain that hides their mischievous activities is in some state of ruins, the carvings crumbled and fading, the white stone stained and unkempt, as if to symbolize the erosion of character and humility. “Contrast is found between the lush vegetation and dead branches on the ground, in the clash of the two birds, one of which will soon perish. […] The young artist made the history painting, but by focusing on daily life and not, like David (1748-1825), the great episodes of antiquity. […] It’s hard to go to talk about subversion of these paintings, but it’s new compared to traditional academic subjects” 7.

2, 3, 4

les faibles de cœur

Conservation : the real, the “real” and the monumentality of place.

In my research of things to do in France, I of course looked into the Lascaux cave paintings. Any retrospective art history course will begin with Lascaux. These cave paintings, discovered in 1940, contains almost 2000 Upper Paleolithic cave painting images, estimated to be 17000 years old. One major problem with the Lascaux cave is that due to the heat and carbon dioxide produced by so many visitors, as well as changes to the air due to air conditioning systems, molds have been growing on the surface which are destroying the paintings. Now the only people allowed to enter are people dedicated to preserving the works, and only a few of them, a couple times a year. That being said people are absolutely fascinated with Lascaux and so a handmade replica was created nearby the original so that people could still experience the work.

Peinture des grottes de Lascaux II, Dordogne  (24).Lascaux II

Now, when you look at online reviews of the reproduction “Lascaux II’ some people express positive impressions but an overwhelming majority of people think it’s pretty terrible. Opinions ranging from “waste of time“, “just a facsimile“, to just “reproduction paintings in a plastic underground hole.” Even positive sentiments are often enclosed with the condition that it’s “not the real thing, but..“. A lot of the reviews maintain that the paintings are amazing and impressive, yet lack some “magic” or inexplicable “zip” that accompanies the real thing. What exactly is this magic that gets removed? A few reviewers admitted to having a great experience until they found out that it wasn’t the real thing. Does it really matter? If they never found out the truth wouldn’t they have had a wonderful experience? What is it that makes us cherish the monumentality of a thing that bore witness to an event?

La_BastilleThe Bastille, then, and now

The first time I went to Paris, I wanted to go to the Place de la Bastille, thinking that the historical building was still standing there. It was not, and has not since 1790. What remains there is simply the location and the knowledge of it’s importance, historically and culturally. I felt quite frustrated at this, and felt no comfort in simply knowing that an important thing once happened here. Does it have more significance the more ancient it is? Does the thing have to exist in our personal memory? Or is it more impressive that something important happened 200 years ago, or 17000 years ago? Is it not enough to behold a laboured and loving reproduction of a visual artwork too delicate for viewing in it’s original? To have beheld the closest thing to its likeness? Why is it that tourists, disappointed with Lascaux II will sometimes wander over to the sealed entrance to the original Lascaux cave and sigh with satisfaction that they were at least near the place where the entrance was to the cave that they understand to house some old paintings? Why is it that people will flock to the Mona Lisa to get a glimpse of a small portrait of someone to whom they aren’t acquainted, from behind bullet proof glass reflecting the maddened masses desperately waving their digital cameras to obtain some kind of crude memento. Why? Why is it so important to document and find a way to personally take something away from it with you? Is it not enough to stand in front of something, admire it for what is is, and go home smiling at the experience you just had?

pablo-picasso-problems©Francois Mori/Associated Press

Another recent example is the proposed redevelopment of Picasso’s home for many years and birthplace of many revered works. “Some high-profile art lovers are up in arms and say the studio deserves state protection from re-development. The case has raised questions about whether the birthplaces of great art — not just the works — deserve state protection from re-development as part of national heritage”1. What is this obsession of preserving anything that came in contact with famous people or events? If we could have the brushes, paint and jars that Picasso used, we would preserve them too. What about the clothes he wore that day? What about the fork he used to eat his meal? What about his cigarette butts? Sound ridiculous? Don’t forget people have purchased things like Amy Winehouse’s cigarette butts, William Shatner’s kidney stone, and Britney Spear’s discarded chewing gum. How much information does there have to be present in the object to deem it to be of value? Some French cultural officials anonymously admitted that the space “bears no visible traces of Picasso’s presence [and] noted that the artist was evicted in 1955 for not paying his rent.” 2

roadside-memorials-ghosts© Jacob Rice 2014

Like the modern construction of road-side shrines the importance is placed on the location itself. For those unfortunate people who perish in road accidents, there are no doubt cemetery plots and tombstones decorated with loving tributes, newspaper obituaries clipped out and saved in scrapbooks, and sometimes even the date and time tattooed on loved one’s skin in commemoration. Yet there is still the urge to remember the place, the exact spot where the person died. Many people come to lay flowers and tributes at the location of someone’s death, but roadside shrines are often lovingly up-kept, trimming the grass and refreshing the adornments for years and years. Not only do they serve as a gesture from the grieving families, but also as a kind of memento mori for others engaged in the same task which lead to the deceased’s demise. At what point does the actual location of an important event supersede any other useful event that might occur there in the future? In contrast, a section of the remaining Berlin wall was removed 2013 to make way for condo development. I would argue that the “East Side Gallery” speaks to the maintenance of cultural values and historical perspective. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana). It’s preservation is more important to the future as it is to cataloging the past. Though the wall is supposed to be reinstalled following the construction of said condos, the “re-development project has sparked outrage among citizen groups, who say the site is a symbol of freedom.” 3

vulpeneinstein© Museum Boerhaave

If you saw a pen in a museum, you might go “hey nice old pen, cool” and probably only if you kindof have an interest in pens. Now what if you look down at the plaque and it says “Einstein’s pen”. Holy crap, grab your camera! What is it about normally mundane objects that automatically get imbued with magic and importance worthy of documentation and conservation? Van Gogh’s actual palate on display at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam has a lot of people oohing and aahing. Getting to see the actual tool used to create artwork we deem important you might argue has some technical clues to the process that the artist employed to create their masterpiece, such as certain pigments or the size and material composing the brushes, etc. It is perhaps that the disconnect between the instrument used and the work created that instills reverence. For example, almost anyone can use a pen, but not anyone could make such fundamental contributions to science. Almost anyone can use a brush and paint, but not anyone could paint the revered masterpieces we now hang in museums. What about a hammer? Like pens and brushes, they are common items that most people use to create things, often housing and furniture, things we don’t consider to be that impressive or worth of conservation, that is of course unless the hammer belonged to somebody famous or is extremely old.

The subject of authenticity is very complicated and in the art world is subject to much argument. What is an authentic work? Usually, we think of it as something that was created by an artist’s hand. What about a photograph? Does it owe as much merit to the camera manufacturer as the artist to composed the photos? “It is easy to take a photograph, but it is harder to make a masterpiece in photography than in any other art medium” (Ansel Adams)4. Adams meticulously slaved over his negatives and was instrumental in recognizing photography as a “legitimate” artform. Surprisingly, he also signed on as a consultant to Polaroid regularly involving himself in the labs and testing new products. We often think of a Polaroid as an inferior camera, something of a toy we had as children. Polaroid cameras by nature remove interference by the artist’s hand, such as Big Shot used by Andy Warhol which had no focus adjustment. Reducing an image down to iconography was important to Warhol, especially in later work who aspired to remove all traces of the artist’s hand. Warhol also used silk-screening, which “allowed for rapid and repeated production of artwork. Warhol—who questioned whether art was different from any other commercial commodity—had virtually no sustained involvement in the production of his art by the 1970s; he allegedly called this “art by telephone.” Dozens of assistants helped Warhol produce his art at a studio called ‘The Factory.” 5. Art production in this nature makes it really difficult to determine what is “authentic” in the traditional sense. Assistants and students having a varied level of involvement in the creation of artwork has a very long history. Sometimes paintings will be ascribed to a particular artist, only to later be associated with an entire team of students. Or vise versa. Or paintings purchased at garage sales and thrift shops deemed to be worthless until they are determined to be a genuine work and are worth millions.

wtfWho the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?

Unfortunately there is no way of actually determining the authenticity of a work, and even so the lines are quite blurred. Even though Warhol can transfer a photo to acetate plates and get them printed, and signs and dates them can be determined not the be “authentic” because he was not present at the time of the printing. “The separation of the real from the fake is the cornerstone on which our understanding of any artist’s work is based. The very nature of the silk-screening process makes Warhol a particularly easy artist to fake because there is virtually no difference between the appearance of a silk screen that Andy Warhol made with his own hands and one that an assistant might have run off after-hours. From early on, Warhol signed some works and used a stamp of his signature on others—but sometimes he didn’t sign a work at all.” 6

vangoghWhy preserve Van Gogh’s Palette?

People tend to get uncomfortable when it is suggested that an artist used some kind of aid to create a revered masterpiece. We would like to think of famous artists as brilliant creators who have received some kind of magical gift, something that us regulars can’t duplicate. There is quite a bit of documentation to support the use of aids in the creation of artwork; grids, camera obscuras, tracings. Yet it sends everybody into a panic when this is suggested of a work that was previously not linked to such a device. It somehow diminishes the “magic” and brings us a little closer to understanding it.. but we really just like to believe in magic. That’s why we like to keep brushes and pens around that were used by some brilliant person. Because we can’t understand how they could take such a simple tool and use it to create something amazing. Perhaps this is why if someone showed us a replica brush or pen we would just laugh right in their face. The banal object reestablishes the magic of the wielder. Perhaps the same principle applies to the reverence of geographical locations. It might just look like a regular roundabout or sealed off cave entrance, but the magic of the place is just as important as the actual object or related objects that bore witness to important events. So if we can’t have the authentic, we prefer the monumentality of the original place.

4 Adams, Ansel (1985). Ansel Adams, an Autobiography. Boston: Little, Brown.