Blog Post #8 – Japonism & Woodblock Printing

First Geisha

Japonism is a term used to describe the influence of Japanese art on European artists. Japonisme was coined in France by Jules Claretie. From Wikipedia: “Japanese wood-block prints became a source of inspiration for many European impressionist painters in France and elsewhere, and eventually for Art Nouveau and Cubism. Artists were especially affected by the lack of perspective and shadow, the flat areas of strong color, and the compositional freedom gained by placing the subject off-center, mostly with a low diagonal axis to the background. “

I fell in love with Japanese painting and Japanese woodblock printing, last spring when I took my Color Design class. The instructor was teaching us how to create color palettes for either digital or regular painting and he had us download several of these images for the assignment.

Japanese woodblock (sometimes called woodcut) prints lend themselves perfectly to this training because of their limited, simplistic, yet pleasing palettes. The images I chose to use to create my palettes are shown below. As with most of these prints, artists are unknown.

First we import the image into Photoshop and with the Eyedropper tool we pick out the various colors and fill the rectangles in the color bar with them. At first glance there seems to be just a handful of colors, but with the Eyedropper tool you soon discover that what at first looks to be orange is actually three shades of orange.  This fun exercise also required the estimation of the percentage of the whole painting that each color was used. The vertical bar to the right of each painting shows the resulting color palette and the approximate amount of each color.

Color Palette Exercise for Color Design Class by Laura J. Larson

Color Palette Exercise for Color Design Class by Laura J. Larson

After you finish this exercise, you can save your palette for a future digital painting, or you can print it in order to mix your own palette from paints, or your choice of medium, from pastels to colored pencil. This method allows one to create art that has pleasing hues and color combinations. It’s also very efficient because you can make all your color decisions up front, prepare your colors in advance, and have a general idea of the overall color tone of your piece.

I promised myself at the time to collect more of these Japanese woodblock prints for future use. I found several themes in this style of art: nature, floral, fruit, fish and birds, waves, etc. but my favorites are the Geishas. Many of these prints were never signed, so accreditation is rarely possible. For the purposes of this blog, I want to share them with you without details.

Two Kois

History of Woodblock Printing

During the Edo period in Japan (1603-1867) Japan began to adopt the Chinese method of woodblock printing to print books. The earliest known examples of woodblock printing from Japan were small wooden pagodas, each with a woodblock scroll in Buddhist text. One million of these were commissioned by the Empress Koken to give to temples around the country as symbols of thanksgiving that the Emi Rebellion was over.

Woodblock printing was a method that allowed for the first attempts at mass production. It was used for the printing of many literary materials to include the Japanese classics, travel guides, advice manuals, novels, art books, and plays.

Technique

The text or image was first drawn on paper, glued to a block of wood (usually cherry), and then the wood was cut away based on the design. Ink was applied to the block and pressed onto paper. This was first done all by hand; later complex mechanisms were invented to hold the wood block still, apply consistent pressure, and allowed for precision alignment when multiple layers of color were later introduced.

Geisha One and Two

There were many types of Japanese woodblock printing as technology developed:

Sumizuri-e: Monochrome printing using only black ink

Benizuri-e: Red or green details or highlights were added to the monochrome

Aizuri-e: A single color, mostly indigo or purple, was used instead of black ink

Urushi-e: Ink was thickened with glue for relief, and sometimes gold or mica

Nishiki-e: A method of using multiple blocks for different portions of the image, using several colors to achieve complex and detailed designs; registration marks called “kento” were used to align each application of blocks.
Right Geisha

Research:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japonism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodblock_printing_in_Japan

http://www.ehow.com/about_5246819_japanese-woodblock-prints-history.html

http://www.stolaf.edu/people/kucera/YoshidaWebsite/evolution/essay_pages/jason_bossen.htm

http://www.ukiyoe-reproductions.com/html/history.html

http://www.artelino.com/articles/japanese-woodblock-prints.asp

 

This entry was posted on December 5, 2012. 1 Comment

Blog Post #7 – Frida Kahlo

Self-Portrait, 1926, Oil on canvas, 31 x 23 in., Private collection, Mexico City

Self-Portrait, 1926, Oil on canvas, 31 x 23 in., Private collection, Mexico City

Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 in Coyoacan, Mexico. At first glance, looking through her paintings, one notices that she did a lot of self-portraits over the years. Frida was truthful when she said, quote: “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” I also noticed there were quite a few disturbing, bloody paintings depicting seemingly helpless women with surgical scars. I looked into her biography in order to learn the meaning of all of this macabre subject matter.

Kahlo endured lifelong health problems during her relatively short life of only 47 years. At the age of six, she was afflicted with polio, which caused one leg to be much thinner than the other. For most of her life she wore long, colorful skirts to disguise her defect. Then at the age of 18, Kahlo was in a major bus accident and she suffered a whole list of serious injuries: a broken spinal column, collarbone, ribs, pelvis, eleven fractures in her withered leg, a crushed right foot, and a dislocated shoulder. In addition, an iron railing punctured her abdomen and uterus, ruining her ability to ever have children.  She spent three months in a full body cast and had pain her entire life, sometimes to the point of requiring many hospitalizations. She had as many as 35 operations to repair the various injuries, thus the theme of many of her paintings.

A Few Small Nips, 1935, Oil on metal, 15 x 19 in., Collection of Dolores Olmedo Foundation, Mexico City

A Few Small Nips, 1935, Oil on metal, 15 x 19 in.,
Collection of Dolores Olmedo Foundation, Mexico City

The one good outcome of the bus accident is that Kahlo painted to occupy her time during her various recoveries, and decided to forgo the study of medicine which was her original life plan. Her mother had a special easel made so she could paint in bed, and her father gave her a box of oil paints and some brushes. She was self-taught and eventually went on to create 143 paintings, of which 55 are self-portraits. She said, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

Kahlo’s other influences included her native Mexican culture and her stormy relationships, shown in an almost primitive style, along with her use of bright colors and emotional symbolism. She is considered a Mexican surrealist.

At the age of 22, Kahlo married the famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, who was 20 years older than her. They had a very contentious, stormy, yet passionate marriage, divorces, and then remarriage. There were many affairs on both sides; and Kahlo was rumored to have had affairs with both men and women.

Kahlo’s work was very different from her contemporaries but that allowed her to go on and become one of “Mexico’s greatest and most shocking of painters.” She was popular in her day and had many fans. One interesting story is about the day of her cremation. Many mourners came to the crematorium to witness the event. At one point the sudden blast of heat from the open incinerator doors caused her body to bolt upright. On fire, her hair blazed around her head in a giant halo; a very dramatic goodbye from a very dramatic artist.

Self-Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Farill, 1951, Oil on Masonite,16-1/2 x 19-3/4 in., Private collection, Mexico City

Self-Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Farill, 1951, Oil on Masonite,
16-1/2 x 19-3/4 in., Private collection, Mexico City

An excellent website about the life of Frida Kahlo, with many photographs is found at http://www.pbs.ord/weta/fridakahlo .

Recovering from her many surgeries, Frida Kahlo often painted in bed. Here is Frida painting while her husband, Diego Rivera, holds her canvas.

Recovering from her many surgeries, Frida Kahlo often painted in bed.
Here is Frida painting while her husband, Diego Rivera, holds her canvas.

Research:

http://www.fridakahlo.com/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frida_Kahlo
http://www.pbs.org/weta/fridakahlo/

This entry was posted on December 1, 2012. 2 Comments

Blog Post #6 – Virtual Exhibit

Ethereal Glassworks:
A Sublime Fusion of Light, Color, Transparency and Reflection

Chihuly in Motion: Arc of Fire, a photo by Aaron Dailey

I think the most perfect, sublime, and ethereal works of art come from glass artists and their fusion of light, color, transparency, and reflection. This mixture results in an ever-changing heavenly experience, depending on the time of day, angle and motion of the light source, degree of transparency, and reflective surface on which these art elements are built or placed.

Opaque glass works have a certain beauty of their own, but without the dimension or beauty that transparent glass achieves. Two styles of this medium that I love are stained glass and hand-blown glass. These are two very different methods requiring two exhibitions, so the purpose of this Virtual Exhibit of mine focuses mainly on the latter. I call it “Ethereal Glassworks: A sublime fusion of light, color, transparency, and reflection.”

There is a wonderful online gallery of contemporary glass artists to be found here: http://holstengalleries.com/artists . It is an enjoyable experience to explore this online glass gallery, learn about all the different artists, their styles, and how many of them are interconnected with one another. For my exhibition I narrowed my choices to five artists: the famous and prolific Seattle artist, Dale Chihuly; the Italian maestro of glass, Lino Tagliapietra; New York artist, Dorothy Hafner; Alabama artist, Stephen Powell; and Massachusetts artist, Nancy Callan. There is also one unique glass work that I just had to include at the end of my blog.

Dale Chihuly

I believe Dale Chihuly may be the best known glass artist in the world. He was born in 1941, in Tacoma, Washington. While studying interior design at the University of Washington, he was first introduced to glass blowing and in 1967 received his M.S. in sculpture. He established a Glass Department (I wish UAA had one!) at the Rhode Island School of Design and in 1971 was one of the founders of the famous Pilchuck Glass School.

He was one of the first to use a team approach to the art of glass blowing, enabling him to produce architectural glass at a large scale and in quantities that would be impossible alone, or even with one assistant.

In 1976, he lost his left eye sight in a car accident which forced him to turn over his position as chief glassblower to his partner, William Morris, and others.  Morris had both the talent and physical strength; together they developed large scale glass works in the form of chandeliers, glass ceilings, and other outdoor installation. A common theme of their work was formations and colors that could be found under the sea.

Chihuly’s body of work is enormous. I have a coffee table book that is actually a 365-day calendar, showing beautiful glass creation by Chihuly on every page. Two samples of his work are shown below. I wish I could show you more!

Lino Tagliapietra

Lino Tagliapietra is another world famous glass artist. Dale Chihuly has said “Lino is perhaps the world’s greatest living glassblower.” He was born in 1934 in Murano, Italy. At the age of 12 he apprenticed with Archimedes Seguso and by the age of 21 he had worked his way up to “maestro” in the world of glass. By the end of the 1970s, Tagliapietra was creating his own designs. In 1979 he came to teach at Chihuly’s Pilchuck School of Glass in Seattle and taught centuries-old glassblowing techniques to American artists.

Tagliapietra’s preference was to design his glass pieces in various series and often named them after famous places that inspired him such as Maui, Borneo, Balboa, etc. Sometimes his series were names after shapes or themes such as Angel Tears, Dinosaurs, Masai, etc. Some of my favorites are from the Angel Tears series:

Dorothy Hafner

Dorothy Hafner received her B.A. from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. She is known for creating colorful, free-standing glass panels and layering colored glass panels to create secondary colors.  She is a painter and a sculptor, but first tried glass works and ceramics in 1973. She also has created over 12 lines of tableware for Corning Glass, Tiffany & Co. and Rosenthal in Germany.

From her website: “The poetry of the sea, the marvel of outer space and scientific imagery, and the love of music and dance are the inspirational springboards from which Hafner has worked for over 30 years. Whether creating glass sculpture, functional objects, or architectural installations, her works have consistently won both critical praise and commercial acclaim. Widely published and eagerly collected, her works are in museum collections worldwide.

Two of my favorites of her work:

Stephen Powell

Stephen Powell was born in 1951 in Birmingham, Alabama. He received his M.S. in Fine Art from Louisiana State University. He currently teaches Glass Art at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Lino Tagliapietra has been a guest instructor in Powell’s classes and has been a life-long inspiration.

Powell is known for his playful, whimsical, large-scale blown glass sculptures. He also uses a team of several glass artists to create these very large pieces. He has a technique for creating colorful, delicate designs by laying out intricate patterns of glass beads before applying heat. Two of my favorites of Powell’s work:

Nancy Callan

Nancy Callan received a B.F.A. from Massachusetts College of Art in 1996. After attending a workshop given by Lino Tagliapietra, she moved to Seattle. Since then she has been a member of the Tagliapietra glassblowing team as well as his assistant as they travel across the globe holding workshops.

Callan has designed collections of her own for both public museums and private collections – some owned by celebrities such as Elton John. She specializes in tops and orbs as her influences come from childhood toys and comic books. I love the beauty of her pieces as well as the reflections they create on the surfaces in which they are placed.

Two of my favorites of Callan’s work:

And finally…

In glassworks, usually color is favored but not always necessary to create a beautiful work of art. I want to share with you one last, unique piece to illustrate what I mean by that. The work below is called “Black Reticello Leaf and Acorn” by California artist, Dante Marioni. Marioni also studied at Chihuly’s Pilchuck School of Glass and he says his major influence is also glass maestro, Lino Tagliapietra. As I did my research for my virtual exhibit, I found that many of these glass artists are connected to one another.

Research:

http://www.chihuly.com

http://www.holstengalleries.com

http://dorothyhafner.com

http://www.stephenrolfepowell.com/biography/index.html

This entry was posted on November 18, 2012. 2 Comments

Blog Post #5 – Ironers Analysis

Ironers by Jacob Lawrence, 1943, Gouache on paper, 21.5″ x 29.5”, Private collection of Ann and Andrew Dintenfass.

Jacob Lawrence was an amazingly prolific painter who emerged out of The Harlem Renaissance and achieved recognition and success as an African-American painter. He finished painting his famous “Migration Series” at the age of 23. That series of 60 paintings were immediately bought up by two museums and published in Fortune magazine. This series showed the Great Migration of southern African-Americans to cities in the North. They were seeking work and a new life away from Jim Crow and the plantation/slavery mindset.

Lawrence was born in 1917 and raised by a single mother. His mother, recognizing her son’s early passion enrolled him in arts and crafts classes in Harlem. After dropping out of school at the age of 16 to go to work, he began attending classes at the Harlem Art Workshop, taught by another Harlem Renaissance artist, Charles Alston.

Soon after, the sculptor, Augusta Savage got Lawrence a scholarship to the American Artists School and then a paid position with the Federal Arts Project through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) set in place to employ workers during the Depression to rebuild America and create lasting works of art.

Throughout his long career, Lawrence focused on history and telling the stories about the struggles of the African-American people. He was very prolific in doing so. In addition to the 60-panel series of the Migration Series, he painted a 41-panel series on the life of Haitian General Toussaint L’Ouverture, and then a series on Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown, the Abolitionist.

In the 1940s he was given a major solo art show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. At this time he became the most famous African-American painter in the United States. He also taught at several schools, ending up at the University of Washington in Seattle in the 1970s.

Gouache, watercolor, and tempera were Lawrence’s favorite media. He used simple shapes and bold colors in his compositions. He always worked in series of paintings telling stories of dignity and hope, celebrating the hardworking man and woman. He called his style “dynamic cubism.” He and the other artists he worked with did not like the Abstract Expressionists, calling their work “elitist.” They did however, identify with the Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, although Lawrence chose to do smaller scale paintings rather than murals.

My favorite of his paintings, and there are many, is Ironers. This painting shows three laundresses in various poses ironing very colorful clothes. The shapes of their arms and hands indicate great strength and physical exertion. The blues and the complementary oranges and reds, are beautifully placed, giving this painting a lot of energy. I think it is one of Lawrence’s very best, although I think all of his paintings celebrating hard work are excellent.

Here is another painting of a washer woman. It is number 57 in the 60-panel Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence.

Research:

http://www.phillipscollection.org/migration_series/index.cfmhttp://www.phillipscollection.org/migration_series/index.cfm

http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/odonnell/w1010/edit/migration/migration.html

http://asitoughttobe.com/2009/08/11/jacob-lawrence/

http://www.myblackhistory.net/Jacob_Lawrence.htm

http://www.artchive.com/artchive/L/lawrence.html

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/aaworld/arts/lawrence.html

http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/may2002/lawr-m31.shtml

http://www.vangoghgallery.com/artistbios/Jacob_Lawrence.html

This entry was posted on November 7, 2012. 4 Comments

Blog Post #4 – La Grande Jatte Analysis

La Grande Jatte by Georges-Pierre Seurat. Oil on Canvas. Approx. 82″x121″. The Art Institue of Chicago.

The painting I selected to share and analyze is titled, La Grande Jatte, by the artist Georges-Pierre Seurat. This painting, which hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, was painted by Seurat over a period of two years; he completed it in 1886 at the young age of 26. It is a very large oil painting on canvas and measures approximately 7 feet by 10 feet (81.7” x 121.25.) The scene is of a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the sun enjoyed by 48 people, 3 dogs, and a monkey, although they seem to be a little more solemn than one would think; particularly the children. It could be that it was really a very hot day in Paris, so that’s why there is not much frolicking going on. The setting is on La Grande Jatte Island in the Seine River which runs through Paris. During Seurat’s time, the island was a retreat from the city site. At one time this island became an industrial site, but then was restored with a public garden and housing complex.

The overall style of this painting is Impressionism, using the Pointillist method, one that was pioneered by Seurat. Seurat believed that this technique, the painting of miniature dots, would produce more brilliant colors than the use of standard brush strokes. He was intrigued by his studies in optical and color theory, and knew that through the phenomenon of “optical mixing”; the viewer’s eye and mind would “mix” the colors and produce secondary hues.

Finally, Seurat surrounded the painting with a border of a mixture of dots, and then framed it in white for an even more powerful color effect. It is still framed in white today. One interesting thing to note is that Seurat used a new pigment called zinc yellow to areas in the lawn to show bright highlights, but sadly that pigment has darkened to a brown. I think it would be easy to replicate what Seurat had planned if you processed this painting through Photoshop and restored that color to its intended hue.

Seurat looked to Eugene Delacroix, a Romantic artist, to understand the character of juxtaposing complementary or related hues, and then to Camille Pissarro, an Impressionist, for his bright color palettes. On a side note, Pissarro, after meeting Seurat, practiced pointillism himself from 1885 to 1888, so they really influenced each other. Pissarro went from being the “Dean of the Impressionists” to a Neo-Impressionist painter himself.  Seurat’s other influences included the Impressionists Claude Monet and Pierre-August Renoir. When La Grande Jatte was first shown, it was a bit of a scandal, and seen as a challenge to Monet and Renoir. It was pivotal and a precursor to change in the course of painting styles and was eventually classified as Neo-Impressionism.

This painting is a good example of one which can show comparisons between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. The similarities of the two styles include the use of real-life subjects, distinctive brushstrokes, thick dabs of paint, and bright colors. The difference between the two styles is that Post-Impressionists added more form and structure to their compositions and included emotion and action to their paintings. I guess you could say a quick moment like an atmospheric setting that changes from minute to minute where you get just a sense of a mood, versus an hour or two where there is more to contemplate as to what is happening and how the subjects are feeling.

Starry Night over the Rhone by Vincent Van Gogh

Starry Night over the Rhone by Vincent Van Gogh is another example of Post-Impressionism. It has more distinct forms and specific details like the reflection of the city lights in the water, and two persons, their gender obvious, a male and a female.

Sunrise by Claude Monet

Sunrise by Claude Monet is an example of Impressionism. It is a looser style with less form and structure. There are two figures on a boat in the foreground, but the details are not specific as to their gender. The background is very loose, implied and focuses on the sunrise.

In summary, my personal impression of Impressionism for the most part, is one of enjoyment. I like the loose styles, the softer colors, the capturing of a fleeting moment in time; ones that were mostly pleasant in nature. However, I find that I love Post-Impressionism much more, with artists like Vincent Van Gogh being a favorite. Paintings like La Grande Jatte are also my favorites because I prefer detail; one can examine each character and imagine how they are enjoying this beautiful day. Although this painting is not really a loose style, but a painting of painstakingly placed dots that were planned meticulously, it still leaves that impression of a gauzy, dreamy, sunny afternoon. I particularly like the way the surface of the water seems to shine as it reflects the sun’s rays. I was surprised to learn how large this painting is, and understood why it took two years for Seurat to complete. Sadly, Seurat lived for only 31 years.

http://www.artinthepicture.com/styles/Post-Impressionism/

http://www.artic.edu/aic/exhibitions/seurat/seurat_themes.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Sunday_Afternoon_on_the_Island_of_La_Grande_Jatte

This entry was posted on October 29, 2012. 1 Comment

Blog Post #2 – The Milk Maid Analysis

The Milkmaid by Jans Vermeer. 1658-1661. Oil on canvas. Approx. 18″x16″. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

The painting I selected to share and analyze is titled, The Milkmaid, by the artist Johannes (Jan) Vermeer. This painting, which hangs in The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, was painted by Vermeer between 1658 and 1661, during what is called the “Dutch Golden Age”. It is oil on canvas and measures approximately 18” x 16” and is sometimes called The Kitchen Maid. This is what is called a “genre painting” and it is also a still life of magnificent compositional planning on the part of the artist. Although the title of the piece is The Milkmaid, the person depicted here is actually a kitchen maid. In those days, milk maids strictly did the milking and kitchen maids did the cooking. The scene shows a thoughtful, plump, young woman, carefully pouring milk into a Dutch oven. The surrounding bread leads one to believe she is preparing a bread pudding, a popular dish in those days.

As far as the composition, it is pyramidal in nature with the lines and the light from the window flowing to the maid’s face where her gaze and the positioning of her left arm leads the viewer to the focal point, which is the flow of milk. The skill at capturing the soft light of this scene is amazing. In one place, the artist Vermeer painted a very thin stroke of white paint, contouring the maid’s body on the right side which resulted in the luminescent and radiant quality of the subject.

http://essentialvermeer.com/cat_about/milkmaid.html

This painting is very illusionistic with skillful three-dimensional rendering of the woman’s face and clothing, as well as the use of pointille’ to pattern the breads and the basket. There is also much symbology in this scene as in other still life paintings of this era. Some people see the dignity and morality of hard work, but others see eroticism and sexual undertones. In Dutch literature and paintings of the time, maids were often depicted as objects of male desire. The main clue that this may well be the hidden meaning to this scene is the appearance of Cupid in the Delft wall tiles near the floor.

http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Milkmaid_(Vermeer)

Cupid was also a common symbol as an innocent messenger of love, but also had a more erotic meaning implying “arousal of the fairer sex.” That symbol, being juxtaposed next to a common foot warmer on the floor probably meant that Vermeer had love on his mind. The foot warmer was an item known to symbolize “a lover’s desire for constancy and caring” as well as it was used to heat up the underside of women’s skirts in an erotic sense. It was interesting to learn that Vermeer had painted over a large wall map and made the wall blank except for a few nail holes, and he replaced a sewing basket with the foot warmer for reasons only Vermeer knows, but we know now because of the use of X-Rays to analyze these masterpieces.

http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2009/vermeer

Vermeer painted about 45 paintings in his short lifetime; only 37 of them exist today. No one knows who his teacher was, and he seemingly had no students himself. He married a wealthy divorcee’, they lived in the central part of the city of Delft; and he died at the age of 43, leaving his wife and eleven children. Vermeer was able to command high prices for his paintings while alive, and it seems his main patron was a man named Pieter Claesv Ruijven. Ruijven worked for a city institution but was also independently wealthy. This was the beginning of an era when the merchant class began to buy artwork for their personal enjoyment, not just the royalty and/or the Church. In fact, Ruijven pre-paid in part for many of the paintings he purchased from Vermeer. Vermeer was known to like to use high quality paint, for example ultramarine (made with the rare mineral, lapis lazuli) instead of azurite.

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/verm/hd_verm.htm

http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/milkmaid.html

I am so interested in this artist that as I finish this analysis, I just purchased the Kindle version of the book The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (a 2000 Bestseller Winner at Barnes & Noble) and also plan to view the movie of the same title on DVD with Colin Firth playing the part of Jan Vermeer, and Scarlett Johansson as the girl with the pearl earring.

Blog Post #1 – Netherlandish Proverbs Analysis

Netherlandish Proverbs by Peter Bruegel the Elder, 1559.  Location: Staatliche Museum in Berlin, Germany. Oil on oak panel,  46” x 64” .

The painting I selected to share and analyze is titled, Netherlandish Proverbs, by the artist Peter Bruegel the Elder. This painting, which hangs in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin, Germany, was painted by Bruegel in 1559. It is oil on an oak panel measuring 46” x 64” and had two former titles: The Blue Cloak and The Folly of the World. The overall style of this painting is Humanism, and it is also a form of religious Protestant art.

When I first commented on this painting in a previous class assignment, I wrote: “There were so many things to look at in this painting and many questions to contemplate regarding each character within it. Mostly: Why are they doing what they are doing? What does this painting mean as a whole? Why are people doing bad things to one another? Why are there pies on the roof? I also love this artist’s use of the color red, also shown in his painting, Peasant Wedding. I actually loved his color palette overall. This is an artist that I would like to study in depth.”

I first was attracted to the overall color palette of this painting and others by Bruegel. I particularly like his use of colonial blue with crimson red. He seems to use these two colors as focal points within his paintings, as if he wanted us to “look here first” as well as highlight areas of sin and foolishness. Subsequently, I also learned that in those days, the color blue often symbolized cheating as well as folly, while the color red symbolized sin, rudeness, and disrespect. http://www.all-art.org/early_renaissance/bruegel01biography.html

Secondly, I was interested in the sense of commotion and human activity throughout his works and wondered what it all meant. In the Netherlandish Proverbs, I started looking at all the characters and realized most of them were doing harmful, futile, wasteful activities, both to themselves and to others. This generated an extreme sense of curiosity on my part and I had to know more about both the artist and the theme of this painting.

Peter Bruegel the Elder, born in 1525, was a famous Flemish painter. He was a well-known member of a four-generation artist family during the 16th and 17th centuries. Many of his paintings contained themes regarding the foolishness of mankind, their stupidity, absurdity, and wickedness. He portrayed many of the characters with blank, wide-eyed stares, thus identifying them as fools. His son Peter Brueghel the Younger (who added an “H” to his last name) often made copies of his father’s work. He painted up to twenty copies of this painting alone, but they were not exact duplicates. Peter Bruegel died in 1569 at the young age of 44, but both his sons Peter and Jans, carried on the family painting dynasty.  http://www.arthistoryguide.com/Dutch_Proverbs.aspx

In the Netherlands, the language of the time contained a rich collection of proverbs and words of wisdom. The people were very fond of their proverbs and Erasmus himself published a collection of about 800 of them in Adagia, published in 1500. The style of Mannerism also held society’s preference for ambiguous, mysterious, hidden meanings contained in many of their visual art works.  www.visual-art-cork.com/famous-paintings/netherlandish-proverbs.htm

There are estimated to be about 120 proverbs and proverbial expressions identified in the Netherlandish Proverbs, through 100 different scenes, some having more than one meaning. Many of these proverbs are still in use today. Some of my favorites illustrated in this painting include:

01. Banging one’s head against a brick wall – means trying to do something  that will never work, or one who never learns from past mistakes

02. Swimming against the tide – means making life hard for oneself

03. Casting roses before swine – means wasting time on unworthy persons

04. Armed to the teeth – means possessing many weapons

05. To carry fire in one hand and water in the other – means to be two-faced

06. Leave at least one egg in the nest – means to always save something

07. To lead each other by the nose – means to fool each other

08. The die is cast – means the decision has been made

09. To find the dog in the pot – means to be late for dinner and find all the food has been eaten, or to be too late to prevent trouble

10. To gnaw on a single bone – means to constantly talk about the same   subject over and over

11. To marry under the broomstick – means to live together without marrying

12. To have a hole in one’s roof – means to be unintelligent

13. Two fools under one hood – means stupidity loves company

14. To run like one’s backside is on fire – means to be in great distress

15. He who eats fire, craps sparks – means the possible outcome of attempting a dangerous venture

16. To toss feathers to the wind – means to work fruitlessly

17. To see bears dancing – means to be starving

18. To fall through the basket – means to have your deception uncovered

19. To barely reach from one bread loaf to another – means to have difficulty  living within a budget, or making ends meet

20. To have a toothache behind the ears – means to be avoid work by pretending to be sick, or to be a time waster

The whole chart listing 112 proverbs with a snapshot of that particular part of the painting can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netherlandish_Proverbs .

Many of the illustrations are mere depictions of mankind’s foolish and impossible ways; such as the man carrying daylight in a basket, and the one who is pissing against the moon. The central figure of a woman placing a blue birdlike cloak on a man was a symbol for her cuckolding her husband; which in the old days meant she was cheating on him and having an affair behind his back.

Finally, my original question: “Why are there pies of the roof?” was answered as actually “Having one’s roof tiled with tarts”, which symbolizes someone who is very wealthy or to have an abundance of everything.

The theme within this painting, Netherlandish Proverbs, is directly tied to the style of Humanism. Humanists of the Northern Renaissance had more interest in religious ideas than in the secular. Desiderius Erasmus of Holland wrote Familiar Conversations and the Praise of Folly which poked fun at greedy businessmen, scholars and priests. In this painting, there were many humorous depictions of foolish behavior as well as more serious ones which were meant to illustrate the danger of human weaknesses which lead to sin.

This painting was successful not only because there were at least 20 different copies made by his son, but also because of the impact of the development of the print industry after Brueghel’s death. This allowed people to own prints of this painting and others; more of these were ordinary citizens, not just the wealthy.

This entry was posted on October 5, 2012. 2 Comments