Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors (1533)

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors (1533). Oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm. The National Gallery, London, UK.

This painting was commissioned by Jean de Dinteville (on the left) the French ambassador to England and his friend Georges de Selve, the bishop of Lavaur, who was, at different times, an ambassador to the Pope, the Republic of Venice and the Emperor. This work was meant to show the education and culture of two men, and to proclaim their status as part of the cultural and social elite. The objects shown behind them are various instruments such as globes, sundials, musical instruments and religious texts. The men's importance during the time period is attested to by the breadth of objects shown and their significance as a depiction of the varied interests and large range of knowledge they were portrayed to have.

"Holbein was one of the most accomplished portraitists of the 16th century. He spent two periods of his life in England (1526-8 and 1532-43), portraying the nobility of the Tudor court. Holbein's famous portrait of Henry VIII (London, National Portrait Gallery) dates from the second of these periods. 'The Ambassadors', also from this period, depicts two visitors to the court of Henry VIII. 'Christina of Denmark' is a portrait of a potential wife for the king. He was taught by his father, Hans Holbein the Elder. He traveled a great deal, and is recorded in Lucerne, northern Italy and France. In these years he produced woodcuts and fresco designs as well as panel paintings. With the spread of the Reformation in Northern Europe the demand for religious images declined and artists sought alternative work. Holbein first traveled to England in 1526 with a recommendation to Thomas More from the scholar Erasmus. In 1532 he settled in England, dying of the plague in London in 1543." - The National Gallery, London.

Holbein is, as mentioned above from an excerpt on the artist from the National Gallery's website, famous for depicting the royal wives of Henry VIII and other court luminaries, including the King himself in his most famous portrait. The complexity of this work makes it stand out from the other formal portraits he executed during his time in England. Though Holbein often included objects as symbols of his subjects, the objects represented here are so specific to the patron that their meanings would have been very evident and obvious to the contemporary viewer. The religious texts shown are allusions to the strife going on in Europe at the time, and the broken strong of the lute signifies the division that was occurring during the Reformation, on the continent and in England. The celestial and terrestrial globes represent the men's earthly and cosmic intelligence and education and allude to their understanding of things of both this world and the spiritual world.

However, by far the most interesting aspect of this work is the elongated skull in the foreground. This distorted image represents the mortality of human beings and the shortness of life. This type of allusion to death in painting, and the visual arts in general, is called 'vanitas'. Also, when the picture is viewed from a specific point to the right of the work, the distorition is corrected and the skull is clearly seen (as shown below).


Robert Rauschenberg, Erased De Kooning Drawing (1953)

Robert Rauschenberg, Erased De Kooning Drawing (1953). Traces of ink and crayon on paper, mat, label, and gilded frame with mount and hand-lettered ink by Jasper Johns on frame, 64.14 x 55.25. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California.

"The simultaneous unmaking of one work and the creation of another" - Robert Rauschenberg

I have been waiting a long time to write about this work because it is one of my favorites, but I could not figure out a way to adequately explain the history of the work and how it came to be while still giving the sense of its creation. However, I just found this clip on YouTube (above) of Rauschenberg explaining the work himself! I hope you will watch the clip to understand the work while I give blog today only about how the work effects me and why I have loved it for so long.

Rauschenberg has been a favorite of mine for a long time but it was only recently when I have come to understand more about art and the progression of the modern movements that his true importance and brilliance has become evident. Here, while the works drew me in, the artist's own progression is what kept me interested. Rauschenberg, working in New York, challenged viewers to interact with his works in a way that the Abstract Expressionists did not. By creating collages that used everyday material to creating monochrome white paintings that made the viewer's shadow the art work, his work is an experience that is on par with his frequent collaborator John Cage's music. A wonderful quote by Cage, when remarking on the praise his silent composition was eliciting, is:

"To Whom It May Concern:
The white paintings came first;
my silent piece came later."

Rauschenberg was interested in the creation and collaboration of art that could move and challenge an audience in its inception and completion. The erased de Kooning Drawing is an example of how he needed always to look outside what was being done at the time and use a new approach to evoke the feelings he felt needed to be expressed. As with other artists of the time his sometimes audacious tactics did not always please the general public or art world critics, but the work's continuing fame and importance proves just how necessary this idea was to the movements and the generational feeling in New York during the 1950's. The concept of this work and the idea of iconoclasm (the destruction of images) are often debated and discussed but as Rauschenberg explains, he did not need to destory de Kooning's art, but rather he wanted to make art out of art. By erasing a piece that would have been considered high art he was attempting to show how subtraction could also create something as important or expressive.

I hope you have listened to Rauschenberg's own words on the subject because it is his interpretation and the story of its inception that makes this work so absolutely fantastic.

Here is also a wonderful interactive site from the SFMoMA about the work and it will give you all the details and another video of Rauschenberg speaking about it.


Technical Difficulties

Hello Everyone,

I am currently having some problems with my connection at the apartment, and I must beg your pardon that I write this from an iPhone. Posts will resume tomorrow. My apologies!