Saturday, November 24, 2012


The Milkmaid, c. 1658
The Kitchen Maid
Current Loc Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Milkmaid (De Melkmeid or Het Melkmeisje), sometimes called The Kitchen Maid, is an oil-on-canvas painting of a "milkmaid", in fact a domestic kitchen maid, by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. It is housed in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, which esteems it as "unquestionably one of the museum's finest attractions".
The exact year of the painting's completion is unknown, with estimates varying by source. The Rijksmuseum estimates it as circa 1658. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, it was painted in about 1657 or 1658. The "Essential Vermeer" website gives a broader range of 1658–1661.
Despite its traditional title, the picture clearly shows a kitchen or housemaid (a low-ranking servant) in a plain room carefully pouring milk into a squat earthenware container (now commonly known as a "Dutch oven") on a table. Also on the table are various types of bread. She is a young, sturdily built woman wearing a crisp linen cap, a blue apron and work sleeves pushed up from thick forearms. A foot warmer is on the floor behind her, near Delft wall tiles depicting Cupid (to the viewer's left) and a figure with a pole (to the right). Intense light streams from the window on the left side of the canvas.
The painting is strikingly illusionistic, conveying not just details but a sense of the weight of the woman and the table. "The light, though bright, doesn't wash out the rough texture of the bread crusts or flatten the volumes of the maid's thick waist and rounded shoulders", wrote Karen Rosenberg, an art critic for The New York Times. Yet with half of the woman's face in shadow, it is "impossible to tell whether her downcast eyes and pursed lips express wistfulness or concentration," she wrote.
"It's a little bit of a Mona Lisa effect" in modern viewers' reactions to the painting, according to Walter Liedtke, curator of the department of European paintings at The Museum of Modern Art, and organizer of two Vermeer exhibits. "There's a bit of mystery about her for modern audiences. She is going about her daily task, faintly smiling. And our reaction is 'What is she thinking?'"
(Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
None of the sitters, including the young woman who poses in the Milkmaid, has ever been identified even thought there persists a romantic propension to associate her with a maid of the Vermeer household, Tanneke Everpoel. Whether she is Tanneke or not, the painting was certainly not intended as a portrait. This small painting has been renowned throughout its history.
Twenty years after Vermeer's death it was auctioned with 20 other works by the artist for the sum of 175 guilders while the much larger View of Delft, always highly considered as well, went for 200 guilders. The title given to the painting in 1719 already speaks volumes: "The famous Milkmaid, by Vermeer of Delft, artful."
Later, English painter and critic Joshua Reynolds praised the striking quality of the work. The painting passed through a number of noted collections until it was purchased for the Rijksmuseum in 1908 along with 39 paintings from the famous Six Collection after much public squabbling and the intervention of the parliament. Vermeer, like his contemporaries, possessed a very limited number of pigments when compared to those available to the modern artist. Throughout his career, he seemed to have employed no more than 20 different pigments although he rarely used more than 10 with any regularity. The only difference in Vermeer's palette in respects to his contemporaries was his preference for the costly natural ultramarine, made of crushed lapis lazuli, frequently imported from Afghanistan through Venice. Other painters used the more common and much cheaper azurite.
Although the Milkmaid bears much in common with the technique of the preceding Officer and Laughing Girl, in it we find, perhaps, the most brilliant color scheme of his oeuvre. Lead-tin yellow and natural ultramarine are used full force although the purity of strong local color cannot in itself account the exceptional luminosity of this work. It still has not been explained why the artist passed in space of just two works from a somber and rather conventional rendering of light of the early paintings to the startling sunlight of the Milkmaid.
In any case, artists in Vermeer's time usually set out their palettes differently each day with only those few pigments necessary for the day's work. In fact, once a monochrome underpainting was worked up sufficiently defining basic forms and lighting, each color was worked up piecemeal, one at a time. It is more likely than not that the bread in Vermeer's Milkmaid was not made at home but purchased at the bakery shop, perhaps from one of Vermeer's collectors, Hendrick van Buyten, who owned the largest bakery in Delft. It is known that the Vermeer family had run up a considerable debt for bread which Vermeer's wife, Catharina, paid off Van Buyten with a picture by her late husband. The number of bakeries was considerable in 17th-century Holland, and like most merchants, bakers usually set up their operations in their own homes. Because their ovens were considered fire threats to adjacent property, they were often forced to live and do business in stone buildings. Since rye bread was the main food for the people, the price and quality of the rye bread were strictly regulated, but always low according to the bakers. They tried to make the bread smaller, but the authorities appointed official controllers - obviously unpopular - to measure and weigh the bread in the shops. But beside common rye bread bakers produced fine breads in various kinds of quality and taste. The regulation concerning white bread and other luxurious kinds of bread were not as strict as for rye bread. The bread baker was not allowed to make biscuit, pie or pastry. Since 1497 the guild had been split up and each delicacy had its own guild.
The small picture (18 x 16 1/8 in., or 45.5 x 41 cm) could be described as one of the last works of the Delft artist's formative years (ca. 1654–58), during which he adopted various subjects and styles from other painters and at the same time introduced effects based on direct observation and an exceptionally refined artistic sensibility. Influenced by the detailed realism of Gerrit Dou (1613–1675) and his followers in Leiden, Vermeer created his most illusionistic image in The Milkmaid. To modern viewers, the painting may seem almost photographic in its realism. However, the composition was very carefully designed. This is evident from several revisions made in the course of execution, and from the finished work's subtle relationships of light and shadow, color, contours, and shapes. As in the Woman with a Water Pitcher (89.15.21), of about 1662, Vermeer restricted his palette mainly to the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow, and he favored geometric shapes (in The Milkmaid, the right triangle formed by the figure and the table are balanced within the rectangle of the picture field). A low vantage point and a pyramidal buildup of forms from the left foreground to the woman's head lend the figure monumentality and perhaps a sense of dignity. Indeed, several authors have speculated about the activity and character of the "milkmaid" (who is actually a kitchen maid pouring milk)
(Walter Liedtke, Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art at

Sunday, November 18, 2012


Napoleon on Horseback at the St. Bernard Pass, 1800
Napoleon Crossing the Alps
Current Loc Musée national du château de Malmaison
R.M.N. Rueil-Malmaison, France

Napoleon Crossing the Alps (also known as Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass or Bonaparte Crossing the Alps) is the title given to the five versions of an oil on canvas equestrian portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte painted by the French artist Jacques-Louis David between 1801 and 1805. Initially commissioned by the king of Spain, the composition shows a strongly idealized view of the real crossing that Napoleon and his army made across the Alps through the Great St. Bernard Pass in May 1800.
(Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
Perhaps the most striking and memorable of the many hundreds of portraits of Napoleon, this is a potent allegory of power that conveys Napoleon’s mastery over man, beast and even nature. In the French painting tradition, the depiction of leaders on horseback was usually the reserve of royalty. David shows a Napoleon totally in command, the saviour of France from the political instability of the post-Revolutionary period. David painted five versions of this portrait.

Charlottenburg version, 1800
Current Loc Charlottenburg Palace
Source The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei

Belevedere version, 1800
Current Loc Kunsthistorisches Museum
Source The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei

First Versailles version, 1801

Second Versailles version, circa 1804
Current Loc Palace of Versailles

Having taken power in France during the 18 Brumaire on 9 November 1799, Napoleon determined to return to Italy to reinforce the French troops in the country and retake the territory seized by the Austrians in the preceding years. In the spring of 1800 he led the Reserve Army across the Alps through the Great St. Bernard Pass. The Austrian forces, under Michael von Melas, were laying siege to Masséna in Genoa and Napoleon hoped to gain the element of surprise by taking the trans-Alpine route.
By the time Napoleon's troops arrived, Genoa had fallen; but he pushed ahead, hoping to engage the Austrians before they could regroup. The Reserve Army fought a battle at Montebello on 9 June before eventually securing a decisive victory at the Battle of Marengo.
The installation of Napoleon as First Consul and the French victory in Italy allowed for a rapprochement with Charles IV of Spain. While talks were underway to re-establish diplomatic relations, a traditional exchange of gifts took place. Charles received Versailles-manufactured pistols, dresses from the best Parisian dressmakers, jewels for the queen, and a fine set of armour for the newly reappointed Prime Minister, Manuel Godoy. In return Napoleon was offered sixteen Spanish horses from the royal stables, portraits of the king and queen by Goya, and the portrait that was to be commissioned from David.
The French ambassador to Spain, Charles-Jean-Marie Alquier, requested the original painting from David on Charles' behalf. The portrait was to hang in the Royal Palace of Madrid as a token of the new relationship between the two countries. David, who had been an ardent supporter of the Revolution but had transferred his fervour to the new Consulate, was eager to undertake the commission. On learning of the request, Bonaparte instructed David to produce three further versions: one for the Château de Saint-Cloud, one for the library of Les Invalides, and a third for the palace of the Cisalpine Republic in Milan. A fifth version was produced by David and remained in various of his workshops until his death.
(Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
Napoleon is illustrated as winner in the picture. This picture is also described as “propaganda painting”, because Napoleon is illustrated some weeks before his victory over the Austrian troops. The picture is created during the second coalition war. The crossing over the Alps happened in another way in the reality. Napoleon stretches his right arm victoriously upwards. His horse raises the front hoofs.
Napoleon is known principally as a man of war, perhaps the greatest commander the world has ever seen. He swept a whole generation headlong into ever more bloody battles. Forged by the military, war was his craft and held no terrors for him. In his age it was very much part of the portfolio for a Head of State. Numerous accounts survive of Napoleon’s courage in the thick of action. Frequently in the front line and even leading the assault on occasions, he was thrice wounded …. Scornful of danger, he was intolerant of fear in others. ‘Death is nothing, but to live defeated and abject is to die every day’, he said.
(Thierry Lentz in Napoleon, Revolution to Empire, Catalogue, NGV)
Following his elevation to Emperor, Napoleon continued to triumph over the Coalition of European nations that declared war on him and on whom he in turn declared war. These Napoleonic Wars (from 1803 -1814) at first brilliantly successful, saw Napoleon conquer most of Europe, only to be undone by hubris. His invasion of both Spain and Russia (the latter especially) were ill-judged and proved fatal to Napoleon’s reign. The retreat from Moscow in 1812, when most of his army perished and his “allies” turned against him, was the beginning of the end. He failed to anticipate the rise of Nationalism among his European neighbors – and the negative impact of forced Coalitions. Forced to abdicate in 1814, he returned from exile on Elba to stage one last valiant attempt to regain power and Empire. In his famed One Hundred Days, Napoleon again launched himself into war with England and Europe, but this now legendary Battle of Waterloo was his last. His exile to St Helena ensured the end of his powers. It has been argued that Napoleon was a military genius, revolutionizing warfare, deploying innovative tactical maneuvers - and conducting it on an unprecedented scale thanks to mass conscription. He arguably created Modern Warfare both in scale and conduct. (
During the century that followed Jacques Louis David’s death, three forces struggled for position in French art; classicism, romanticism, and realism. But their initial struggle took place in the art of David. His heroic style, suppressing passion beneath a hard chilly surface, made him the artistic dictator of Europe. Louis XVI, Robespierre, and Bonaparte were united in admiration of David. He emerges from most biographies as one of the least sympathetic personalities in the history of art, an impression not mitigated, for most people, by his painting, which they find as hard and chilling as the man.
Such judgment is somewhat superficial, as there is endless fascination under a layer of iciness. David began his career as a protege of the state under Louis XVI, continued it as a powerful figure in the Revolutionary government, went on from there to become the grand old man of French painting as a favorite of Napoleon’s, and in the process redirected the course of French art at just the time when Paris was emerging as the art center of Europe. Something of a political chameleon, he holds a record for adaptive longevity under hazardous circumstances.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Hide and Seek, 1877
Oil on wood
Source and Loc National Gallery of Art
Washington, D.C., USA

Several children are playing a game of hide and seek in the home and studio of the French painter James Jacques Joseph Tissot (pronounced JAHM ZHOCK JO-SEF TEE-SO).
"READY OR NOT...HERE I COME," shouts the child whose turn it is to look. Ooops! One girl has just peeked from her hiding spot. How many children do you see hiding? Let's take a closer look. Do you think the child in the white dress is a boy or a girl? We're still not positive, but based on the date of the painting and details we know about the artist's family life, we believe that the child on the floor is the artist's daughter. For many years people thought she was Tissot's young son! Back then young boys and girls often wore the same frilly clothing, so it was kind of hard to tell. The children who are hiding may be her cousins, who lived next-door, or playmates. Mom is shown at the far right, reading. The studio is a wonderful place to play hide and seek because it's so cluttered. There are chairs and rugs and tables and screens, each made of a different material and with a different design or pattern on its surface. Each has a different texture (the way something looks and feels: smooth, bumpy, rough, sticky).
In early 1874 Degas wrote, "Look here, my dear Tissot. . . you positively must exhibit at the Boulevard (in the first impressionist exhibition). . . Exhibit. Be of your country and with your friends."
Degas and Tissot, who met as students during the late 1850s, stayed in close communication even after Tissot fled to London in 1871 to avoid punishment for activities in the abortive Commune. Arguing that the benefits of declaring his allegiance to French art outweighed the potential harm it might cause among Tissot's London audience, Degas urged Tissot to show with the impressionists and thereby affirm his ties to France and more particularly to Degas and realism.
Although he chose not to accept the invitation, Tissot, like Degas, worked in a realist vein. Hide and Seek depicts a modern, opulently cluttered Victorian room, Tissot's studio.
After Kathleen Newton entered his home in about 1876, Tissot focused almost exclusively on intimate, anecdotal descriptions of the activities of the secluded suburban household, depicting an idyllic world tinged by a melancholy awareness of the illness that would lead to her death in 1882.
The artist's companion reads in a corner as her nieces and daughter amuse themselves. The artist injected an atmosphere of unease into this tranquil scene by comparing the three lively faces peering toward the infant in the foreground at the left with an ashen Japanese mask hanging near Mrs. Newton in the entry to the conservatory.
Here we’re inside an English room, the artist’s studio. In the fore and middle grounds, four children play at hide and seek (one infant and three faces), while in the background lounges a lovely lady: it’s Kathleen Newton, with whom Tissot lived from 1876. The way Kathleen’s clapped open her paper and wears a slightly sardonic air, while her nieces and daughter amuse themselves, infuses the scene with a kind of cool calm. Once this woman had entered his house and home, Tissot focussed almost only on intimate, everyday depictions of the cut and thrust of the secluded suburban household. So here we get the delicious clutter of a high-end Victorian interior, complete with collapsed cushions on the couches and chaises, animal pelts, angled frames, rimpled rugs and gleaming lamps and ceramics. We also get the delightful froufrou dress on the infant (topped off by a tumble of California curls) and an array of tiny, tense faces behind. Seeping into this room though is a sense of sadness that links to the woman and the way we’d want her to be with the kids. Her separation from them has to do with her health: Kathleen died in 1882 and it’s as if Tissot is trembling with an awareness of her illness here. Just see how he undermines the tranquility with an ashen mask that hangs near Mrs. Newton at the entry to the conservatory.
Just like a real game of hide and seek, the painting "Hide and Seek" by James Jacques Joseph Tissot invites children to be creative and look carefully! Find the painting "Hide and Seek" on the ground level of the East Building in the National Gallery of Art. Take a few minutes to look at this painting. Challenge your children to answer to following questions about the painting:
1) How many chidren do you see?
2) Do you see any toys? Where?
3) What's the adult doing?
4) Can you spot the mask?
5) By looking out the windows in the painting, what kind of day do you think it was?
6) If you were playing hide and seek in this room, where would you hide?
7) How do these children seem different from you (point out their clothes, for example)?
8) How do these children remind you of yourself?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


The Gare Saint Lazare, 1876
huile sur toile. Paris
Musée d'Orsay

After his return to France from London, Monet lived from 1871-78 at Argenteuil, on the Seine near Paris. In January 1877 he rented a small flat and a studio near the Gare St-Lazare, and in the fourth Impressionist exhibition which opened in April of that year, he exhibited seven canvases of the railway station.
This painting is one of four surviving canvases representing the interior of the station. Trains and railways had been depicted in earlier Impressionist works (and by Turner in his 'Rain, Steam and Speed'), but were not generally regarded as aesthetically palatable subjects.
Monet's exceptional views of the Gare St-Lazare resemble interior landscapes, with smoke from the engines creating the same effect as clouds in the sky. Swift brushstrokes indicate the gleaming engines to the right and the crowd of passengers on the platform.
(Senex Magister at
The Gare Saint-Lazare, Arrival of a Train, 1877
Current Loc Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum Cambridge, Ma.
Source Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Monet eventually found that by painting subjects repeatedly--at different times of the day, during different seasons, and under varying light conditions--he could best practice the Impressionist emphasis on light and atmosphere.
Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare is one of seven paintings Monet made of the famous Paris train station that served the suburbs along the Seine valley. A completed example of modern iron-frame-and-glass architecture, the station was an enormous vault filled with steam and bustling with movement. Using rapid, often sketchlike, brush strokes, Monet captured the light as it poured through the glass roof and mixed with the whirling clouds of steam. Despite its bold style, the painting is a significant example of the Impressionist focus on city life, as seen in the architectural environment and the train itself.
Later in his career, Monet would largely abandon urban views in favor of depicting the undisturbed world of nature.
(Senex Magister at