The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael

The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael (c.1660)

When I come to think about the painting I am going to use for My Daily Art Display I like to try and find one by an artist I haven’t featured before.  I also like to showcase an artist I had not heard of previously so that when I research his or her life it is a learning curve for me.  Today, however My Daily Art Display is a three-fold repeat which limits what I can say, without being accused of repeating myself.

 Firstly I have offered you a painting by Jan van Ruisdael before (January 9th) but I will not apologise for that as he is an amazing painter and has completed many superb works of art.   Secondly, the painting today is a Vanitas-type painting, a type of painting, which I talked about when I offered you the Still Life of Food and Drink by Willem Heda on February 11th, and lastly this painting resembles in many ways the painting by Arnold Böcklin which I gave you on January 5th.  Having said all that, I have to tell you that when I was looking through some art books for my next presentation I was immediately taken aback by the strength of this painting and the aura that emanates from it.

My Daily Art Display today is The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael which he completed around 1660 and now hangs in the Gemäldegalerie Alter Meister in Dresden with a larger version in the Detroit Institute of Arts.  This is a Vanitas genre painting, which is a type of painting that depicts an object or collection of objects symbolizing the brevity of life and the transience of all earthly pleasures and achievements.  In other words it is a painting which reminds us that we are not immortal and notwithstanding how rich or powerful we are –  we will all die sooner or later.

There is a definite melancholic and depressing feeling about this painting.  There is also that sense of foreboding which was present in Arthur Böcklin Island of the Dead which I gave you on January 5th.  The ruins, the graves and the dark skies set the mood of the painting.  Ruisdael had this uncanny talent to be able create such feelings in how and what he depicts.   This is a painting of the Portugeuse-Jewish Cemetery at Ouderkerk on the Amstel River close to Amsterdam, however to be absolutely accurate, I must tell you that only some of the elements in the painting actually exist such as the three large tombs shown in the mid-ground, but that’s about it !  

The backdrop to the cemetery bears no similarity to the place at Ouderkerk.  There are no ruins overlooking the actual cemetery.  The ruins Ruisdael painted were the remains of the Egmond Castle which is situated near Alkmaar some thirty miles away.   There is no river running through the cemetery but Ruysdael just used it to portray the fact that the water like time rushes away from us.  The landscape, the river and the “added-in” ruins were just figments of Ruysdael’s imagination but one has to admit they do lend themselves well to the atmosphere he wanted to project.   

The three large tombs in the middle ground, which immediately catch one’s eye, the dead beech tree in the right foreground and the broken tree trunk overhanging the fast flowing river all indicate allegorically the fast approach of death.  However, Ruisdael does offer us a glimmer of hope in the way we can see a shaft of light penetrating the black clouds.  We can also see a rainbow and if we look carefully there are signs of flourishing growth amongst the dead trees, so he is telling us there may be a better life still to come after death.   Art historians have interpreted this painting simply as a reminder that man lives in a transient world and that despite being beset by sinful temptations there is always hope for salvation and deliverance.

La Mariée by Marc Chagall

La Mariée by Marc Chagall (1912)

Last night I was watching the old rom-com film Notting Hill.  I had seen it before but sometimes when you watch a film a second or third time one notices new things about it.  Last night I noticed the Marc Chagall painting La Mariée that Julie Roberts gave Hugh Grant so I thought I would make it the subject of My Daily Art Display today.

Reading some of the press releases at the time regarding the film I note that the choice of painting was that of the film’s screenwriter, Richard Curtis, who was a fan of Chagall and he wanted one that depicted a yearning for something that is lost.  However to include such a picture, or a copy of it, in the film the producers had to get permission from the owner of the original, a private collector in Japan and the Design and Artists Copyright Society.  Agreement was reached but one proviso which was stipulated was that after filming the copy of the painting used in the film had to be destroyed !

Marc Chagall, a Russian Jew, was born in Vitebsk in Belarus in 1887 to a poor Jewish family and was eldest of nine children.  After finishing at school he decided to study art, much to his father’s annoyance.  He went to St Petersburg and studied art under Leon Bakst, the Russian painter, set and costume designer.   In 1910 he moved to Paris and joined an avant-garde group which included Modigliani, Robert Delauney and Fernand Léger and soon became one of the most successful artists of the twentieth century.  His works were unique and distinctive and he worked in many mediums besides fine art painting.  He illustrated books and worked with ceramics and stained glass, producing windows for the cathedrals at Metz and Reims as well as windows for the United Nations.

He was a pioneer of Modernism and one of the precursors of Surrealism.  Chagall achieved recognition and with it came affluence.  The art historian Michael Lewis said that Chagall was “the last survivor of the first generation of European Modernists and for decades had also been respected as the world’s pre-eminent Jewish artist”.

He visited his homeland Russia on a number of occasions and set up and became the director of the Free Academy of Art in his home town of Vitebsk.  He returned to France in 1922 and remained there except for the war years in the 1940’s when he fled to America.  Chagall was very affected by the Nazi atrocities during that time and some of his paintings depicted the horror of the Nazi rise of power and the ensuing martyrdom of the Jewish people.

Chagall died in Saint Paul de Vence in 1985, just two months short of his ninety-eighth birthday.

Today’s painting; La Mairée features a young woman in her bright vivid red wedding dress clutching her bouquet of flowers.  Her long white veil covers her head and reaches down to her feet.  In contrast, the background is a mixture of blues and grays. The background, coloured as it is, evokes the darkness of night and in some ways a feeling of sorrowfulness and gloom whereas the colours used with the bride suggest a sense of elation and happiness.   It is this dissimilarity of the background colours and the colours of her dress which also projects the image of the woman towards us.  She is being presented to us, the observers, by the man in such a noticeable and confident way that makes us believe that she is our bride and we are the groom.

To the right of the woman is a goat playing a cello.  This strange combination of an animal playing a musical instrument was often used by 20th century European artists.  A fish leaps high and looks as if it is conducting the music.  A table floats above the fish.  To the right of the goat we can see a man playing what looks like a clarinet.  The man hovering above the woman, presents her to us and as he adjusts her veil.  If we look carefully to the right of the picture we can just make out a church.   I suppose this was a requirement for a “wedding picture” but the way it has been squeezed into the painting makes me wonder if this was added by Chagall as an afterthought.

In Luxury, Look Out by Jan Steen

In luxury Look out by Jan Steen (1663)

The first ever painting of My Daily Art Display was the Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and today’s painting has many similarities to that great work of art.

My Daily Art Display for today is entitled In Weelde Siet Tot, (In Luxury, Look Out) painted by the Dutch artist Jan Steen in 1663.  Steen was born in 1626 in Leiden, Netherlands and came from an affluent Catholic family who ran a brewery and tavern named the Red Halbert.  After he passed through the local grammar school he settled down to an artistic education in Utrecht under the German-born, Dutch Golden Age painter, Nicolaes Knupfer.  In 1648 Steen, with his friend Gabriel Metsu, founded the painters’ Guild of St Luke at Leiden.  A year later he became an assistant to the Dutch landscape painter Jan van Goyen who was also his landlord.  In 1649 Steen married van Goyen’s daughter Margriet and this couple went on to have eight children.

Jan Steen’s favourite theme for his paintings was ordinary daily life.  The scenes he painted were often lively and chaotic and the Dutch to this day often use the phrase “A Jan Steen household” meaning a chaotic and messy household.  His paintings of household chaos were supposed to act as a warning to observers that life needed to be more organised and orderly.  Today’s painting is one of these typical works of art of Jan Steen – chaotic, messy and full of hidden meanings.

In today’s painting Steen interprets the moralistic truths of Dutch genre painting as a humorist in which realistic actions and educational advice are confused.  Steen has illustrated in his painting various examples of overindulgence and recklessness in a degenerate household.  Many of the individual scenes within this painting allude to Dutch proverbs and sayings, similar to Bruegel’s Proverbs painting.  The housewife sitting left of centre in a respectable dress, who is probably the head of the household, has fallen asleep at the table and unbeknown to her, chaos has broken out around her.  Asleep with tiredness or asleep through inebriation ?

In the painting we have a plain room in a house which has fallen into complete chaos.  We can see four adults, an adolescent, three children, a baby, a pig, a monkey and a dog.  A young woman faces us with a glass of red wine in her left hand placing it on the crotch of the man sitting next to her.  Her low-cut neckline would be more customary on a barmaid or a prostitute.  The man next to her is distracted by a woman and an older gentleman, who is reciting to him from the book he holds.  The older man is standing slightly hunched over his book and has a duck on his shoulder which is staring at another young man as he plays a violin and at the same time is watching a young girl stealing a coin from a purse.  The woman sleeps on despite the chaos and does not hear the bowl crashing to the floor knocking over the pewter tankard.  Next to her is a small boy with a pipe, possibly blowing smoke at her in order to wake her up and alert her to the fact that the dog standing on the table is eating their meat pie.  The baby sitting at the table turns around and stares at the barrel spilling beer onto the floor.  Why is the beer pouring out of the barrel ?  Look at the pig on the right of the painting and see what he has in its mouth – the beer barrel tap !  The pig with its teeth clenched around the tap is nuzzling a rose on the floor which has fallen from the stem of roses in the man’s hand.  Scattered across the floor is the man’s hat, his pipe a number of pretzels.  Couple these with the large amounts of alcohol on show one could not be blamed for thinking the setting for this painting is a tavern or brothel.  However because of the presence of children, the kitchen to the right of the scene and the purse above the violinist one has to revert to the belief that this is simply a room in somebody’s house.

In the foreground at the right there is a slate leaning against a step and it is inscribed with the first part of a Dutch proverb:  In weelde siet tot, which translated means “In Luxury, Look Out”.  The ending of the proverb, (not inscribed on the plate) is “and fear the rod”.  Translated it means “beware the punishment which follows excess as fortunes often change especially through bad management”.  Maybe as a reminder of such consequences the artist has painted a basket hanging from the ceiling, in which one can see, precariously hanging out of it, crutches and a sword.  On the floor we see playing cards littering the floor while at the top right we see a monkey stopping a clock.  Maybe the stopping of the clock stopped the passage of time, giving the artist time to record the proliferation of chaos !  This is a large painting, 1.5m across and would have taken the artists weeks, maybe months to sketch in all the characters.

As the woman sleeps....


Total and utter chaos !  But should we read more into the painting?  Take for instance the sleeping woman and the child furtively stealing money from the purse in the cupboard.  Could this mean that if one is not resolute and in control of what is happening around one, then poverty will follow?   This is indicated by the flat purses hanging on the wall above the woman’s head and which appear to be empty and devoid of coins.  The dog being allowed to get on the table and eat the food of the humans underscores the negligence of the adults and sets out a bad example to the children.  Moralists traditionally likened dogs licking pots to children being brought up badly.  

What of the pig ?   There is a Dutch proverb which says “The pig runs off with the tap” meaning “the party is drinking with abandon”. 

The snuffling pig

The pig nuzzling the rose was a reminder of another proverb.   “Throwing roses before the swine” meaning wastefulness.  The monkey stopping the clock reminds us of the saying “In folly, time is forgotten”.  A “quacking” duck symbolizes nonsensical banter.  The duck on the man’s shoulder therefore probably alludes to his conversation being futile banter during which they have chosen to ignore the chaos around them.

Hanging basket

Will the occupants of this room receive what they deserve for their lack of attention ?  The artist hints that they may receive their “come uppance” by in the way he drew a basket hanging from the ceiling above their heads – a kind of Sword of Damocles !  The content of this hanging basket is full of items which suggest poverty and disease.  There are crutches, a leper’s rattle and switches which were used to lash petty criminals.

This painting by Jan Steen is a real but comical distortion of a Dutch family household, living in chaotic conditions and may act as a warning to observers of the folly and the consequences of such a lifestyle.  If you live in chaotic conditions maybe you should go out and buy yourself a print of this painting and hang it on the wall to remind yourself and your housemates of the dire consequences of living in such disarray.

Venus of Urbino by Titian and the Sleeping (Dresden) Venus by Giorgione

Today I am remaining in Italy for My Daily Art Display but moving from fresco painting to one of the most famous and controversial oil paintings, the Venus of Urbinio by the Italian master Tiziano Vecellio.  Simply known as Titian, he is considered to be the most important member of the sixteenth century Venetian School of painters.  This oil on canvas painting hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and was completed by Titian in 1538.  The painting was commissioned by Guidobaldo II della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino, a title he inherited that same year, after the assassination of his father.   The painting was more than likely intended for the bridal chambers of the palace.  Titian was almost fifty years old when he painted this picture. 

However this is not a tale about one painting, rather a tale about two paintings of the Roman goddess of love, Venus.  One needs to go back to 1510 to the studio of Giorgione, the Italian High Renaissance artist, who painted, but never completed his painting, the Sleeping Venus, sometimes known as the Dresden Venus, which now hangs in the Gemäldergalerie, Dresden.  Giorgione had worked long and hard at this painting putting great effort into the background details and shadows.  Sadly he died at the young age of 33 and the completion of the landscape and background was left to his assistant Titian

The Dresden Venus by Giorgione (1510)

Giorgione’s painting of a nude woman reclining marked a revolution in art and some art historians believe this painting marked one of the starting points for modern art.   At this time, a nude of this size, as the main focal point of the painting, was unparalleled in Western painting.  Giorgione was actually reviving a tradition of the female nude that can be traced back to ancient Greek art.
 Was this painting erotic?   Maybe that is for the individual observer to decide.  The way she lies with her right arm behind her head exposing her breasts and her left hand on her groin may lead you to the conclusion that there were underlying erotic implications to this work of art.  Giorgione’s nude is painted in an idealized landscape setting. Many believe that she has not been painted for sexual desire, and that the nude is portrayed as a demure goddess asleep and oblivious that we are stealing a look at her.

So one can be certain that Titian had seen this painting for he completed the work of art for his dead colleague.   Titian was no doubt influenced by what he saw and there has to be a correlation between this work and his own Venus of Urbino some twenty eight years later.  Two well known sayings come to mind. An English cleric and writer, Charles Caleb said that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and Pablo Picasso said “Bad artists copy.  Great artists steal” by which he meant that great artists can draw inspiration from somebody else’s painting while still putting their own touch on it.   There can be no question that there is a definite similarity between the nude figure in the Venus of Urbino and the one in the Dresden Venus.

Venus of Urbino by Titian (1538)

Titian’s oil on canvas painting Venus of Urbino is one of his most celebrated and possibly the most debated of paintings.  Art historians will have us believe that the reason the word “Venus” (the Roman goddess of love and beauty) is in the title of the painting is because of the presence of roses and the myrtle tree in the painting which are traditionally attributed to Venus.   However other historians reason that because the painting shows maidservants searching in the cassone for clothes for the young woman, then this is simply a portrait of a naked mortal rather than a goddess.

Titian’s Venus is in complete contrast to the Venus of Giorgione. The main character in Titian’s painting is a young women reclining on a bed and as was the case with Giorgioni’s Dresden Venus; her left hand covers her groin.  Both women are voluptuous.   However there are some distinct differences between the paintings.  Titian’s Venus is painted in an indoor setting of some opulence, in what looks like a palace, somewhere in Venice whereas Giorgione’s Venus is painted in a landscape.   Titian’s Venus does not present us with any of the characteristics of the goddess she is supposed to symbolize: she is not shy or retiring, she does not give us the belief that she is unattainable, or aloof.  This Venus is a flesh-and-blood mortal, awake and fully conscious of the viewer’s presence

Titian’s young woman has her eyes open whereas Giorgione’s Venus has her eyes closed and may be asleep (hence the alternative title of his painting: Sleeping Venus) which gives her an air of aloofness and one has the feeling that she is unattainable.    With her eyes closed there is a lack of sensuality and seduction in her demeanour.  On the other hand, look at the facial expression of Titian’s Venus – what is she saying to you?  Is she giving you a look of indifference or is it a look of seduction?  Allegorically, is her expression one of lust or of one of marital love?   She appears to be totally at ease with her situation and maybe you, as the viewer, are the ones who are uncomfortable.  Her long chestnut hair falls over her naked shoulders.  Her nipples are erect.  The fingers of her left hand barely cover her groin and the dark shading is almost as if Titian has painted in pubic hair.  Notice how the painting is split in half vertically by the vertical line of the dark curtain behind Venus.  The drape ends just at her left hand which draws the observer’s eye to her loins which her fingers cover

The painting oozes with sensuality which is often played down by art historians but I will leave you to be a judge of that.  She is also wearing jewellery in the form of earrings, a small ring and a bracelet whereas Giorgione’s Venus was devoid of any such man-made accoutrements. 

In her right hand Titian’s Venus is holding a posy of red roses, the symbol of Venus and they give an accentuated tonal contrast against the white bed linen.  This same red is present in the mattress and the dress of one of the maidservants.  The small dog lies asleep nearby and symbolises fidelity, which lends to the theory that the overriding premise of this work of art is one of marital love.  On the window sill we can see a myrtle tree which symbolises undying love and commitment and a Hebrew emblem of marriage.

Titian’s Venus of Urbino will delight some and horrify others, like Mark Twain who saw the painting at the Uffizi, and wrote in his book, Tramp Abroad:

“…You enter [the Uffizi] and proceed to that most-visited little gallery that exists in the world –the Tribune– and there, against the wall, without obstructing rap or leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses — Titian’s Venus. It isn’t that she is naked and stretched out on a bed –no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe that attitude there would be a fine howl –but there the Venus lies for anybody to gloat over that wants to –and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and art has its privileges. I saw a young girl stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gazing long and absorbedly at her, I saw aged infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her –just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world…yet the world is willing to let its sons and its daughters and itself look at Titian’s beast, but won’t stand a description of it in words….There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure thought — I am well aware of that. I am not railing at such. What I am trying to emphasize is the fact that Titian’s Venus is very far from being one of that sort. Without any question it was painted for a bagnio and it was probably refused because it was a trifle too strong. In truth, it is a trifle too strong for any place but a public art gallery…”

Bad Government and the Effects of Bad Government on the City Life and on the Countryside by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Bad Government and the Effects of Bad Government on the City Life by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1338-40)

Today is my final look at the three frescoes which were collectively known as Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government and were painted by the Italian artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti.  My Daily Art Display today is the third fresco entitled Bad Government and the Effects of Bad Government on the City Life and on the Countryside.

This fresco is on the long wall of the Sala della Pace in the Plazzo Pubblico, the town hall in Siena and is opposite the wall which bears the fresco entitled Effect of Good Government on the City and the Country which we looked at yesterday.  The artist again uses the same forms and compositional devices as for the other two frescoes, but inverts them.   The fresco unfortunately is in poor condition and some of the plaster has fallen away over the years due to climatic changes within the building.  This was one of the main reasons why fresco paintings died away.  Of course another reason was that the frescoes could not be moved and so if you had a fresco on the wall of your house and you sold the house, the fresco had to be part of the sale !  Wooden panel painting came more popular.  They at least could be moved from one venue to another but the wooden panels warped and cracked due to changes in temperature and humidity and so a different surface medium had to be found (invented) and lo and behold we eventually discovered canvas.

The main focus of the allegorical part of the fresco is the malevolent-looking figure representing Bad Government and labelled Tyranny who sits on his throne and stares out at us.  The figure is neither male nor female, although it has flowing woman’s hair.  We can see it is cross-eyed and pig-like.  It has a demon-like appearance with horns and fangs.  The figure, with a gold cup in its hand, is bloated and we are thus to believe that such bloatedness is due to its corruption.  Whereas in the Allegorical fresco Effects of a Good Government we saw the figures of the Cardinal Virtues, in the form of the female figures of Peace, Fortitude and Prudence on the left, Magnanimity, Temperance and Justice on the right, we now see personifications of Avarice, Pride and Vanity fly over the head of Tyranny and it is flanked by three clearly labelled seated figures, Cruelty, Treason and Fraud on Tyranny’s left and on his right sit Frenzy, Divisiveness and War.  At Tyranny’s feet is a goat, a symbol of lust.  On the floor below the enthroned Tyranny is the vanquished and bound figure of Justice, her scales lying broken besides her. 

To the left of the fresco we can see the city of Siena.  It is clearly falling to ruin.  Houses are being torn down and set ablaze.   Streets are in a mess and full of rubble.  Robbers roam the streets freely, all around one can see soldiers committing acts of violence and some thugs can be seen dragging a woman off by her hair.  This fresco, for the observers of the time, was to be a salutary warning of what would happen to the city if the rule of law was to fail.

Bad Government and the Effect on the Countryside

On the right hand side of the fresco, similar to yesterday’s fresco, we see the countryside outside the city walls.  However, unlike yesterday, when we were treated to the sight of workers harvesting their crops and tending their animals, in this fresco we see what happens to the countryside when a Bad Government is in power.  The only activities we see are ones of death and destruction with houses and entire villages in flames.  The countryside has been laid bare and barren.  The trees are not bearing fruit and the land is not being cultivated.

 So there you have it, three massive frescoes in one room.  Would it not be exciting to stand in that room and take in the magnificent work of this 14th century artist ?

Effect of Good Government on City and Country by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

Sala della Pace in the Plazzo Pubblico, Siena

Yesterday, (February 12th) I looked at one of three frescoes painted on a wall of the Sala della Pace in the Palazzo Palace, Siena by the Italian artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti.  Yesterday’s fresco was on the end wall of the room opposite the windows (shown on the left of the picture above).  Today, My Daily Art Display looks at the long fresco on one of the side walls of the room.  This fresco is entitled Effect of Good Government on City and Country Life (shown on the right hand side of the picture above)

Effect of the Good Government on City and Country Life by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (c.1338-40)

The Effect of the Good Government on City and Country Life fresco was painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti and is situated on the longer wall (14.4m long) of the room. The picture above shows the left hand side of the very long fresco depicting the city.  This panoramic fresco represents several scenes indicating the life of Siena and its environment in the 14th century. It depicts life under a good government.  The fresco illustrates the centre of the city with all its beautiful buildings, undifferentiated architecturally, which establishes justice and the equality of the citizens. There is a school for the children of the city as well as shops for the city’s traders and merchants who can be seen busily at work.  In the background, one can see men working hard on roofs of buildings.  Everybody is busying themselves to keep the city running smoothly.  In the middle foreground the dancing young women probably represent the nine Muses symbolising beauty and justice.

The Effects of Good Government (countryside)

The picture above shows the right hand side of the long fresco depicting the countryside outside the city walls, where Lorenzetti has painted farm workers in the fields, harvesting the crops as well as an abundance of livestock, illustrating that food was plentiful in this well governed city. 

"Security" with the scroll

Hovering above the city walls is the personification of Security, holding a small gallows in one hand and a scroll in the other.  The text on the scroll promises safety to all who live under the rule of law and the gallows acts as a reminder to those who do not obey the rule of law.

Tomorrow I will talk a little about the third fresco in the Sala della Pace, Bad Government and the Effects of Bad Government on City and Country Life.

Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Palazzo Pubblico, Siena

My Daily Art Display today will, I hope, tempt you to travel and by so doing actually see today’s work of art.  Your journey will be well worth it and for those of you who live close to my proposed destination, I have to say I am indeed very jealous.   I have been there and the whole area is so beautiful and full of many places and things to see.  As an added bonus  for my female readers, I will also offer you an alternative way to lighten your hair à la Sienna !!


Sala della Pace

You need to go to Italy.  You need to go Tuscany.  You need to visit the beautiful city of Siena and to find today’s offering you need to visit the Plazzo Pubblico. The erstwhile palace is now the town hall.    Inside this beautiful building is the Sala dei Nove, also known as the Sala della Pace, where the nine chief magistrates held their meetings. 

On three walls of this high-ceilinged room is the fresco series painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti and this work of his is looked upon as one of the most revolutionary and remarkable endeavours of the Renaissance.  Over the next three days I will show the three frescos, which are collectively known as Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government.  The aim of the frescos was to acclaim the political doctrine of the government of the Nove, who retained power in Siena until 1355.  The commissioning of the frescoes was uncommon for that time period as they were not commissioned by the church, as was the norm, but by the governing body of the city.  The scenes in some of the frescoes had nothing to do with religion and were definitely of a secular nature which in 14th century Italy was very unusual.  The group of frescoes elaborate on two themes.  Firstly that of justice and secondly the importance that private interests must always be secondary to the interests of the majority and  therefore for the common good of the majority.

Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (c.1338-40)

The painted frescoes essentially work on two levels, one allegorical and symbolic and the other concerned with description and exemplification, while the whole cycle covers three walls of the great hall.   On the wall opposite the window, which is 7.7 metres long, is Allegory of Good Government, which is My Daily Art Display for today.    

The Allegory of the Good Government is situated on the smaller wall of the room and faces the windows. The fresco is built up from three horizontal bands. In the foreground the figures of contemporary Siena are represented. Behind them, on a stage, there are allegoric figures in two groups, representing the Good Government. The two groups are connected by the procession of the councillors. The upper band indicates the heavenly sphere with the floating body-less ghosts of the virtues.

The enthroned man on the right side of the middle band represents the city of Siena and embodies the Good Government.   Around his head the four letters C S C V (Commune Saenorum Civitatis Virginis) explain his identity. At his feet sit two children who are the sons of Remus, Ascius and Senius, the founders of Siena according to the Roman legends. On both sides of Siena the virtues of Good Government are represented by six crowned, stately female figures: Peace, Fortitude and Prudence on the left, Magnanimity, Temperance and Justice on the right. On the far left of the fresco the figure of a woman, the personification of Justice, can be seen as she balances the scales held by Wisdom who is floating over her throne.  On the viewer’s left, a convicted criminal is beheaded; on the right, figures receive the rewards of justice. At Justice’s feet, the personification of Virtue, also, unusually for the time, portrayed as a female figure, passes virtue among twenty four recognizable images of prominent male citizens of Siena. The men face towards the largest figure in the image, a judge located in the centre-right.   The figure of Justice bears a resemblance to the figure of Mary, Queen of Heaven, the patron saint of Siena, on a throne. The Judge reflects the tradition in the Christian Last Judgment to have God or Christ judging the saved on the left; the damned on the right. While classified as medieval or proto (pre)-renaissance art, this fresco shows a transition in thought and an evolution in theme from earlier religious art.

The judge is surrounded by additional personifications including Peace, who is represented as a fashionable, white-clad contemporary female figure with elaborate blonde hair.  Although blonde hair was fashionable it was not the dominant hair colour of Italian women from this region but it was not unusual in those days for women to lighten their hair by streaking it with urine and letting it dry in the sun!

Below the fresco there is the signature of the painter:


Tomorrow and the day after I will look at the other two frescoes which appear on the walls of the Sala della Pace.

Still Life of Food and Drink by Willem Claesz Heda

Still Life of Food and Drink by Willem Heda (1631)

My Daily Art Display is another first.  It is the first time my chosen painting has been a still-life.   Still-life paintings are not one of my favourite art genres but I do admire the skill of the artist who paint still-life subjects.  So what does one mean when one talks about still-life works of art ?   Still-life paintings are works of art, which, in the main, depict inanimate objects.  Such inanimate objects maybe either natural, such as flowers, plants and food or they may be man-made objects, such as vases, jewellery, books and drinking vessels etc. 

The history of still life painting can be traced back as far as Ancient Greek and Ancient Egyptian times.  If one goes back to the Ancient Egyptian times one has learnt that among the items found in their burial chambers in those days were still life paintings of the deceased’s favourite foods.  These were placed with the mummified body in the belief that they would travel to the after-life with the deceased and when he or she arrived there, the food would become real and available for use by the now re-born person. 

An artist painting a still life, of course, had more scope in arranging the design within a still life composition than a landscape or portrait painter had when transferring their subject on to canvas.  Still life artistry developed separately in the Netherlands in the late sixteenth century and this term “still life” probably derives from the Dutch word “stilleven”.  Illustrations in illuminated manuscripts were often decorated along the borders with intricate displays of flowers.  Later when books took over from illuminated manuscripts the same artistry was used in scientific botanical illustrations.

Another favourite item to feature in “still-life” paintings, especially those of Northern Europe, was food and kitchenware.  These, often massive works of art, were favoured by the Flemish artists of the time, such as Pieter van Aelst and Joachim Beuckelaer.   At the beginning of the seventeenth century oil paintings of flowers became very trendy.  Another style of still life painting was known as “breakfast paintings” which were works of art which not only represented a literal presentation of the food which the upper-class of the time would consume but they would be a religious reminder to steer clear of one of the seven deadly sins – that of gluttony.

This brings me nicely to our artist of the day and his still life painting.  My Daily Art Display artist for today is the Dutch artist Willem Claeszoon Heda.  Heda was born in Haarlem in 1594 and devoted all his artistic life to still life painting.   His father Claes was the city architect for Haarlem and his uncle Cornelis Claesz Heda was a painter.  Willem Heda was to become, along with his countryman Peter Claesz, one of the most important representatives of ontbijt (breakfast piece) painting in the Netherlands.

Today’s painting entitled Still Life of Food and Drink was completed in 1631.  This is one of five known still-life paintings featuring items of food and drink on a simple table by Heda.  On the food tables that he painted, one would often see mincemeat pies, ham and oysters.  Today’s painting by Heda is a Vanitas.  A Vanitas is a symbolic type of work of art which was associated with Heda and other Northern European artists in Flanders and the Netherlands during the 16th and 17th centuries.  The word is Latin and means “emptiness”.   Vanitas works of art were usually still-life pictures depicting an object or group of objects symbolising the shortness of life on earth and the transience of all earthly pleasures and triumphs.

In today’s painting we see left-over, half eaten mincemeat pies which will soon decay and be gone, symbolising the brevity of life.  On the table we can also see a knife, an upturned tazza, a glass römer goblet and a timepiece, the latter being another symbol of the passing of time. The peeled lemon alludes to a deceptive appearance – beautiful to look at but sour tasting.  The half-peeled lemon appeared in a number of Heda’s still-life paintings of the time and was clearly favoured for artistic reasons, lending strong colour to the picture.  Lemon was also used in those days to improve the taste of wine.  The painting is characterized by subdued, close tonal harmonies.  Heda wanted to contrast the different textures of the objects on display – the dull sheen of the pewter plate and the gloss of the upturned silver tazza.  For this painting, Heda painted a plain, softly illuminated background which gave a fleeting appearance that the objects in the foreground were floating.

A Roman Slave Market by Jean-Léon Gérôme

A Roman Slave Market by Jean Léon Gérome (c.1884)

For My Daily Art Display today I am moving away from landscape artists and their works and delving into the world of Academicism and Academic art.  The term “Academic Art” is associated particularly with the French Academy and its influence on the Paris Salons in the 19th century. Though Academic art can be meant to extend to all art influenced by the European Academies, it’s often meant to refer to artists influenced by the standards of the French Académie des Beaux Arts.   Academic Art was in fashion in Europe from the 17th to the 19th century. It practiced under the movements of Neoclassicism and Romanticism and more usually used to refer to art that followed these two movements, in the attempt to synthesize both of their styles.   Artists such as today’s featured artist, Jean-Léon Gérôme epitomize this style. Academic Art is often referred to as art pompier, or eclecticism.

Jean-Léon Gérôme was born in 1824 in Vésoul in the Haute Saône region of France.   His father was a goldsmith and did everything in his power to discourage his son from studying to become a painter but to no avail.  At the age of sixteen, Jean-Léon went to Paris and studied at the studio of the painter, Paul Delaroche where he inherited his highly finished academic style Delaroche closed his studio in 1843 and took Gérôme with him to Italy.  There they visited Rome, Florence and the Vatican but for Gérôme the place which impressed him the most was Pompeii and Herculaneum.  It was here that new excavations were taking place and frescoes and sculptures were being uncovered.  Inspired by these, Gérôme was later to establish, in 1848, the Néo-Grec (New Greek) group of artists.  Ill health forced him to return to Paris in 1844.  He attended the Académie des Beaux Arts and entered some of his paintings into the Prix de Rome but with only mixed fortune.  However his works of art were being noticed by the art critics and in 1847 his painting The Cock Fight, an academic exercise depicting a nude young man and a lightly draped girl with two fighting cocks and in the background the Bay of Naples, won him a medal at the Paris Salon.

Jean-Léon Gérôme travelled extensively and recorded all that he saw on his journeys especially those to Turkey and Egypt.   These visual notes he recorded, whether they were simple drawings or paintings gave him an abundance of material to use when he returned home to his studio in Paris and had the time and space to convert his material into large scale works.  As an artist he was highly successful and never lacked profitable commissions.  In 1860 he married the Marie Goupil, the daughter of Adolphe Goupil a wealthy and well-established art dealer and from that day forth Gérôme’s international popularity and recognition grew.

My Daily Art Display for today is Jean-Léon Gérôme’s oil on canvas painting entitled A Roman Slave Market which he completed around 1884.  In all Gérôme painted six slave market scenes set in either Rome or 19th century, Istanbul.  Today’s work of art was originally entitled Sale of Circassian Slave.  This beautiful painting depicts a naked female slave standing before the male bidders at an auction.  Gérôme found a novel slant on the common 19th century theme of the slave market by viewing the action from behind the podium.   The slave is seen from behind, as if through the eyes of the next slave who is waiting to be moved forward and be auctioned off.  What was controversial about this painting was the way in which he portrayed the leering crowd which undermined the notion that bodily perfection could be viewed with a pure and disinterested gaze

Jean-Léon Gérôme died in his atelier on 10 January 1904. He was found in front of a portrait of Rembrandt and close to his own painting “The Truth”.   At his own request, he was given a simple burial service without flowers.   But the requiem mass given in his memory was attended by a former president of the Republic, most prominent politicians, and many painters and writers. He was buried in the cemetery at Montmartre in front of the statue Sorrow that he had cast for his son Jean who had died before him in 1891.

Maybe the last words on Jean-Léon Gérôme should come from the Lorenz Eitner, the Stanford University Art History professor who wrote about Gérôme and his works of art in his book An Outline of 19th Century European Painting saying:

“… In the variety and sensationalism of his subjects Gérôme surpassed all his rivals at the Salon – murder in the Roman Senate and carnage in the gladiatorial arena, luscious nudity at the slave auction or the harem bath; Bonaparte contemplating the Sphinx – all served equally well for his carefully plotted picture-plays, graced with sex, spiced with gore and polished into waxwork life-likeness by a technique that his admirers took for realism….”

Kindred Spirits by Asher Brown Durand

Kindred Spirits by Asher B Durand (1849)

A few days ago (February 4th), I gave you a landscape painting by the American (although born in England) artist Thomas Cole.  Today, My Daily Art Display, relates to three men, a poet and two artists, both of the Hudson River School of painting, one of whom, Thomas Cole, was the founder.  Today’s work of art is not a painting by Thomas Cole but one in which he is depicted.

The Hudson River School paintings are among America’s most admired and well-loved artworks. Such artists as Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Albert Bierstadt left a powerful legacy to American art, embodying in their epic works the reverence for nature and the national idealism that prevailed during the middle of the 19th century.  The Hudson River School artists shared an awe of the magnificence of nature as well as a belief that the untamed American scenery reflected the national character. Members of the school shared their iconography and responded to one another’s paintings.  Their works of art reflected nineteenth-century American cultural, intellectual, and social backgrounds. It is interesting to study paintings by this group of artists and discover how they represented the landscape and look at their depictions of weather, light, and season.

Thomas Cole died an untimely death from pneumonia in 1848 at the age of forty-seven and the poet and his good friend William Cullen Bryant gave a eulogy of Cole which touched the hearts of many, including the wealthy New York dry-goods merchant and art collector Jonathan Sturgess.   In appreciation of Bryant’s tribute, he commissioned the painter Asher Durand to capture the friendship of Cole and Bryant and incorporate it into an America landscape, similar to one which often featured in one of Cole’s paintings.

Asher Brown Durand was also an American painter of the Hudson River School.  He was born in Jefferson Village, now known as Maplewood, New Jersey in 1796.  His father was a watchmaker and silversmith.  He came from a large family being the eighth of eleven children.  Initially he followed in his father’s footsteps and at the age of sixteen was apprenticed as an engraver.  He was very successful in his career and his reputation as an engraver was enhanced when he was commissioned to engrave John Trumbull’s painting The Declaration of Independence.

During the late 1820’s and the early 1830’s Durand’s interest moved away from engraving to oil painting.  In 1837 he and Thomas Cole went on a sketching expedition to Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks and this enforced his love of landscape art.  He spent many summers sketching in the Catskills and the White Mountains of New Hampshire during which time he drew hundreds of sketches and drawings.

The commission from Jonathan Sturgess in 1849 set the task for Durand to create a painting which would show  Cole and his poet friend Bryant as “kindred spirits” which was inspired by John Keats’ “Sonnet to Solitude” which celebrates how aspects of nature enhance our lives, and ends:

Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Those words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s a pleasure; and sure it must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

Sturgess also wanted the backdrop of this painting to be typical of Thomas Cole’s landscapes.  

My Daily Art Display today is Kindred Spirits painted in 1849 by Asher Durand and was considered to be one of the best works of the Hudson River School.  It shows Cole and Bryant engulfed by the wilderness of the Catskill Mountains of New York state.  As was the case in many of the paintings of the Hudson River school this painting was a tribute to American nature and to the two men who had celebrated its unique exquisiteness.  It was an idealized composition which brought together scenes from several sites around that area and fashioned them into one panorama.  So the scene itself was not real in itself but brought together all that was best in the Catskill Mountain area.

The painting, once completed, was given to the New York Public library by Bryant’s daughter Julie where it remained until it was sold in a blind auction at Sotheby’s  in 2005 to a private collector, Alice Walton, the Walmart heiress for $35 million, which at the time was a record amount for a painting by an American Artist.

And finally for those of you who took a look at My Daily Art Display on February 2nd when I was showcasing La Lecture by Pablo Picasso.  I mentioned it was up for sale with a guide price of between £12million and £18million pounds.  Last night at Sotheby’s, London it sold for £25,241,250.  Anybody fancy taking up art as a hobby ?