Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy (c. 1770)

Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy (c 1770). Oil on canvas, 70 5/8 x 48 3/4 inches. The Huntington (The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens), California.

Gainsborough's Blue Boy is perhaps his most famous work and is thought to be to be of Jonathan Buttall, the son of a merchant. Often seen as an homage to Sir Anthony van Dyck because of his costume and pose. The work itself is a comment or rebuke to Gainsborough's rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the head of the Royal Academy and master of Grand Manner Portraiture.

Reynolds once wrote:
"It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed, that the masses of light in a picture be always of a warm, mellow colour, yellow, red, or the green colours be kept almost entirely out of these masses, and be used only to support or set off these warm colours; and for this purpose, a small proportion of cold colour will be sufficient. Let this conduct be reversed: let the light be cold, and the surrounding colour warm, as we often see in the works of the Roman and Florentine painters, and it will be out of the power of art, even in the hands of Rubens and Titian, to make a picture splendid and harmonious." Implying as he did that no work could be painted with the primary color being a cold, or blue, tone Reynolds inadvertently challenged the younger Gainsborough (14 May 1727 – 2 August 1788) to prove him wrong. He did this admirably.

From Huntington's own website the challenge seems less important than the huge influence van Dyck had on Gainsborough and this influence is obvious in most of Gainsborough's work. The website states, "The artist has dressed the young man in a costume dating from about 140 years before the portrait was painted. This type of costume was familiar through the portraits of the great Flemish painter, Anthony van Dyck (1559-1641), who was resident in England during the early 17th century. Gainsborough greatly admired the work of Van Dyck and seems to have conceived The Blue Boy as an act of homage to that master. - from Huntington.org

For myself, I believe it was a bit of both. The acrimony between Gainsborough and Reynolds is well-documented from the day Gainsborough left the Academy to develop his own style outside of that of the Academicians that ruled the art world in England during that period. This work is a charming portrait that has a long history of dispute. Also very valuable, some of its fame is also due to the astronomical price that was paid for it when it first came to the United States.

The Old Masters dealer, Lord Joseph Duveen, sold the work to American railway mogul Henry Edwards Huntington in 1921 for $728,800 which was record price for any painting sold before that time. To see a thoroughly British painting go across the Atlantic was heartbreaking for may Britons but the sale went through and now the paintings has pride of place as the star piece of the Huntington Library's collection in San Marino, California.


Louise Bourgeois, Maman (c. 1999)

Louise Bourgeois, Maman (c. 1999) Stainless steel and marble, 352 in. x 386179 in. x 456 inches. These measurements from the cast at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain.

Louise Bourgeois is one of the most important female contemporary artists today. Though currently 98 years old, she is still a force to be reckoned with are her fame seems to increase every year. Two years ago she had a major retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York that I was able to attend but that is only one of the many shows recently exhibiting her work. This particular work is important to me because of my huge, and largely irrational, fear of spiders. Attending the opening of her retrospective in New York was something that helped me to acknowledge that the spiders of my nightmares exist only in marble and steel and rather than killer insects they can represent a mother.

By far the largest arachnid sculpture by Bourgeois, Maman is a symbol of her mother's great strength and protective instincts while also an allusion to her profession as a weaver. Towering above people the spider is both threatening and maternal. The female arachnid clings to the sack of her eggs beneath her belly with care, while her long spindly legs splay to cover vast amounts of ground. As the viewer walks among her legs and around the sculpture the feeling of confronting a fear is present but so is comfort. Viewer a spider, for me at least, in the guise of a mother brought up conflicting emotions of intimidation and love and I realized quickly that that is often the relationship between mothers and daughters. Bourgeois's sculpture is a metaphor for the modern relationship between mother and child and the complexes that arise from being both loved and intimidated by one's parents.

Maman (1999) is exhibited all over the world in various casts and here is a list of some of the places you can experience this incredible work:
* Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri
* National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
* State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
* Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
* Mori Art Museum, Roppongi, Tokyo
* Samsung Museum of Modern Art (Leeum), Seoul
* Jardin des Tuileries, Paris
* Havana, Cuba[3]
* Pappajohn Sculpture Park Des Moines, Iowa

For another take on the work, one that is less personal than my own, I found this excerpt from the Guggenheim's own website, I hope it proves enlightening:
"Like a creature escaped from a dream, or a larger-than-life embodiment of a secret childhood fear, the giant spider Maman (1999) casts a powerful physical and psychological shadow. Over 30 feet high, the mammoth sculpture is one of the most ambitious undertakings in the long career of Louse Bourgeois (b. Paris, 1911). Through a vast oeuvre spanning over 60 years, Bourgeois has plumbed the depths of human emotion further and more passionately than perhaps any other artist of our time. In its evocation of the psyche, her work is both universal and deeply personal, with frequent, explicit reference to painful childhood memories of an unfaithful father and a loving but complicit mother. Bourgeois first gained notice in the 1940s with her Surrealist-inspired Personnages: thin, vertical forms in wood or stone that evoke the human body. Installed in clusters, suggesting a small crowd or perhaps a family, the Personnages were meant to symbolize figures from the artist's past. Maman, in fact, is associated with the artist's own mother. The spider, who protects her precious eggs in a steel cage-like body, provokes awe and fear, but her massive height, improbably balanced on slender legs, conveys an almost poignant vulnerability." - Taken from guggenheimcollection.com, written by Meghan Dailey.


Laocoön and His Sons (early 1st century)

Athanadoros, Hagesandros, and Polydoros of Rhodes, Laocoön and His Sons (early 1st century marble copy of ancient Greek Bronze). Marble, 6 ft. ¼ in. Located in the Vatican Museum, Rome.

The Laocoön sculpture was first discovered during the Renaissance. It was found near the Domus Aurea or "Golden House of Nero" in 1506. The Pope at the time, Julius II (a Rovere and the man who commissioned the Sistine Ceiling) quickly bought the work and displayed it with his numerous other antiquities. Michelangelo and his protege/friend Guilio Romano where two of the first people to see the statue and it was one of the defining influences of Michelangelo's life. Anyone who knows of this work can see its echoes in Michelangelo's nudes, male or female, painted or in stone, from that day forward.

Laocoön and His Sons is a work rooted in antiquity in more ways than one. The subject matter, a priest of Posedion from Troy and his sons, is mentioned Homer's epic The Iliad, Virgil's Aeneid, and the sculpture itself, or the original bronze, was mentioned by Pliny the Younger in his Natural History. Laocoön's story is a cautionary tale of meddling in affairs that are greater than oneself. A Trojan priest of Poseidon, Laocoön is suspicious of the wooden Horse the Greeks seem to have left as a gift for Troy upon retreating in defeat. In Virgil's Aeneid he says the following to the effect of trying to convince the Trojans that this is not a gift but a trick. His words are the origins of the proverb, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts."

"'O my poor people,
Men of Troy, what madness has come over you?
Can you believe the enemy truly gone?
A gift from the Danaans, and no ruse?
Is that Ulysses' way, as you have known him?*
Achaeans must be hiding in this timber,
Or it was built to butt against our walls,
Peer over them into our houses, pelt
The city from the sky. Some crookedness
Is in this thing. Have no faith in the horse!
Whatever it is, even when Greeks bring gifts
I fear them, gifts and all.
(Virgil, Aeneid, Book II, 59-70)

After proclaiming thus, Laocoön hurled a spear into the Horse. Soon after that incident, while sacrificing to his god Poseidon, a pair of giant sea serpents came out of the sea and attack Laocoön and his two sons. Though this punishment, sent by Poseidon, was because of a previous grievance against the priest and his conduct, the Trojans interpreted the grotesque punishment as a sign that Laocoön had offended the gods by attacking the Horse. Laocoön and his two sons were brutally killed by the serpent and no one dared to help them. After this episode, the Trojans believe the Horse is a gift and haul it through their formerly impenetrable city walls and leave it in the center of the city for the night. The rest, they say, is history.

The statue itself is a complex and powerful work that draws the eye over it with the long, fluid lines of the serpents' bodies. The figures twist and pull furtively against the sinister bonds and the pain and agony of the father is very evident and emotional. The sons look to their father for guidance and he is powerless to help them, or himself. The viewer is pulled into the fight for survival by the blatant feelings depicted on the faces of the young boys and the struggle of the father. Laocoön's gaping mouth is so beautifully detailed one is almost able to hear his furious yell. The agony of betrayal, by both his gods and his people, is written on Laocoön's face as clearly as fear is written on his sons'. This is by far one of the most moving works of art, and it is clear why Michelangelo so worshipped the work.

Pliny states his own view its artistic merit in his own description:
"the Laocoon, which stands in the palace of the Emperor Titus, a work to be preferred to all that the arts of painting and sculpture have produced." - Pliny the Younger, Natural History XXXVI, 37

*Ulysses is the Roman name for Odysseus, the exceedingly clever Greek protagonist of the Odyssey.


Edvard Munch, The Death of Marat I (1907)

Edvard Munch, The Death of Marat I (1907) Oil on canvas, 150 x 200 cm. Currently on exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, Hungary. Owned by the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway.

A few weeks ago, on March 10th, I wrote on the work by Jacques-Louis David of the Death of Marat from 1793 (pictured below). That masterpiece of the French Revolution and Terror was copied in style and subject matter for years and continues to be. A fantastic example of the same subject matter but completely different style comes in Edvard Munch's Death of Marat I (1907), the first in a series of two works of the same subject by the artist.

Munch (12 December 1863 – 23 January 1944) is best known for his work The Scream (1893) that depicts an isolated figure on a walkway with a wide-gaping mouth and raised arms. This work is one of the most recognizable in art but it is not Munch's only important work or very indicative of his overall style. A Symbolist painter, he worked in macabre subject matters like the inevitability of death, the chilling stories of writers like Edgar Allen Poe, and other sinister aspects. It has often been called the "darker, Gothic side of Romanticism." The dark aspects of Munch's work are obvious in The Scream and in the Death of Marat I.

I explained the long story of Marat's death in the March 10th post but for new readers I will quickly explain the highlights. For a more detailed description and the political importance of the event and David's painting of it, please refer to the March 10th post.

The two figures in the work are the political and writer Jean-Paul Marat and the young woman Charlotte Corday who assassinated him. Marat, as any radical politician is likely to do, gained many enemies from the oppositional parties through his work and writings. On July 13th, while Marat was in his medicinal bath, Charlotte Corday, a member of the opposition party, came to his house to as a supplicant looking for help in exchange for what she said was important information about his enemies. Marat summoned her in. While giving him information about his enemies, her allies though he did not know it at the time, he proclaimed that they would all soon be dead. Upon hearing this, Charlotte stabbed him once with a long knife she had concealed within her corset. The single wound killed him within seconds. Charlotte Corday was a Girondin supporter whose family was impoverished aristocracy and royalist supporters. Corday was quickly caught and guillotined four days later. Her last words were, "I killed one man to save 100,000."

Munch's interpretation is unlike David's in many ways, the least of which being a more stylized technique. Here the sympathy seems to be with Corday who is shown naked and vulnerable while Marat is not depicted as a sickly invalid in a bath but rather lain on a bed where it seems to be implied they had been. Why Corday is naked is an interesting question because it is completely outside the realm of possibility that she was naked in real life when she stabbed Marat. This work is more of an allegory. As with many works of art that depict Judith and Holofernes and have deeper meanings of women overcoming the tyranny of men, this seems to be a work more about the powerless exerting themselves than the actual account of the assassination. Corday's nakedness implies that Marat had debased her in some way. The sexual implication is a symbol of her oppression by this figure rather than an assertion that any sex act might have taken place. Marat was far too ill to attend political hearings sitting down and so it may be safe to say his skin would not have endured the irritation of human contact for long. The juxtaposition of this work with David's of the same subject shows the different ways diverse movements can comment on similar events or feelings in such a myriad of ways.

Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat (1793) Oil on canvas, 64 in × 50 in. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels


Tracey Emin, My Bed (c. 1999)

Tracey Emin, My Bed (c. 1999) Installation.

Tracey Emin is the original bad girl artist. A member of the Young British Artists (YBAs) collective, her works exhibit shocking revelations about the artist herself and her past. Her most famous works, including the above My Bed (1999), all revolve around her personal life or aspects of her past. Like other members of the YBAs she works with assistants on all her works and so does not always create them herself. The other most prominent YBA is Damien Hirst, known for his ostentatious creations including a stuffed shark and a diamond-encrusted skull.

My Bed is a notorious work of art. Though it was first displayed in the Tate Gallery during its nomination for the Turner Prize in 1999 the work caused an uproar. The work itself consists of Emin's bed after she had lain in it for roughly seven days while contemplating suicide. The objects that surround the bed include used condoms, stained undergarments, cigarette butts, empty bottles of alcohol and the bed itself is covered in stained sheets with bodily fluids. The stark exposure of the audience to the artist's most intimate space was a bit much for many of the crowds and though it was received well by critics and Turner committee alike it did not ultimately win the Prize in 1999. This work was purchased by Charles Saatchi for £150,000 that year.

The work is an important step in understanding the YBAs because of its fabrication and its shock value. The movement of Young British Artists is one of the most well-known contemporary art movement in large part because the works cause such a sensation when exhibited. The shock value makes them great fodder for the newspaper because controversy sells newspapers. My Bed and Emin's other most famous work, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, are both controversial and shocking because of their content and blatant sexuality. I hope to hear readers comments on this work because it is so much more about the audience's reaction than any detailed explanation of influence.