Archive | October 2012

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 .

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