The Origin of Candidates

The free citizens of Ancient Rome wore a “toga,” which is a large piece of wool draped over the body. There were different togas for different occasions, and one of them is the origin of the word “candidate.”

 

Roman statue with toga, c.2nd century, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

 

The basic toga for free adult citizens was beige, the natural color of wool.

However, when citizens were running for election to public office, they wore a special toga that was bright white, to symbolize purity and honesty, and to show everyone that they were participating in the election.

This white toga was called “toga candida,” from the Latin word “candidus,” which means “bright white.” Someone wearing the toga candida was a “candidatus,” meaning someone “dressed in white.”

“Candidatus” logically came to mean “someone running for election to public office,” and the word has been used with the same meaning in many western languages for over two thousand years, even though candidates don’t wear a bright white toga anymore.

Gothic Rays and Flames

The stone decorations and patterns in the windows of Gothic cathedrals are not only spectacular, but also quite informational. Those patterns are called “tracery,” and their shape can tell you when they were created.

If the pattern is based on straight lines dividing the window, like the wheel of a bicycle, then you have Rayonnant Gothic, which means it’s probably from the 1250 to 1350 period.

The most striking example of Rayonnant Gothic is perhaps the rose window of the Strasbourg Cathedral:

 

Rose window, Strasbourg Cathedral, 13th century

 

But you can also see it in Paris and Chartres:

 

Rose window, Notre Dame de Paris, c.1250

 

Rose window, Chartres Cathedral, 13th century

 

From the outside, the Rayonnant south rose window of Notre Dame de Paris looks like this:

 

 

If, however, the pattern is based on S-shaped lines that look like flames, then you have Flamboyant Gothic, which means it’s probably from the 1350 to 1550 period.

 

Rose window, Sainte-Chapelle, c.1490, Paris

 

Rose window, Sens Cathedral, c.1516 — Photo by wiki user Pline

 

From the outside, the Flamboyant rose window of the Meaux cathedral looks like this:

 

Rose window, Meaux Cathedral, 14th century — Photo by wiki user Vassil

 

Sometimes, you can find both styles in the same cathedral, because it took such a long time to build that styles changed before it was finished. In that case, the Rayonnant part was probably built earlier than the Flamboyant part.

Of course, there are other Gothic styles and variations that developed from the 12th to the 16th century, but the Rayonnant and Flamboyant are the most spectacular, and they’re quite easy to spot.

The Rayonnant (1250-1350) is based on straight lines, like this:

 

By wiki user Benutzer

 

The Flamboyant (1350-1550)  is even easier. It looks like flames:

 

The Color of Emperors

In western culture, the color that is traditionally associated with emperors is purple, a special kind of reddish purple that was discovered over 3,000 years ago on the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea.

 

Emperor Justinian I mosaic, 6th century, San Vitale Church, Ravenna

 

According to legend, it was a god’s dog that discovered the secret to this purple dye, when it ate a murex sea snail during a walk on the beach.

 

Peter-Paul Rubens, The Discovery of Purple, c.1636, Bonnat Museum, Bayonne

 

The god is Melqart in the Phoenician tradition and Hercules in Greek mythology, but in both stories the dog eats a sea snail that gives its mouth a deep reddish purple color, which gives its master the idea to use these snails to dye clothes.

 

Illustration of Murex sea snail in Martin Lister, Historia Conchyliorum, 1685-1692

 

The beautiful purple that these sea snails produce was one of the most expensive dyes in the ancient world, because it is said to take over 10,000 snails to produce about 1.5 grams of coloring, and the process is difficult and very smelly.

The resulting color is known as Tyrian purple, as its main center of production was the Phoenician port of Tyre, which is in Lebanon today.

Naturally, Tyrian purple was a color for the elite only. Kings, high magistrates, victorious generals, and of course emperors. In Ancient Rome and Byzantium, Tyrian purple clothes were mainly reserved for emperors and their families, so the color simply became known as “imperial purple.”

And that’s how in the West purple became the color of emperors.

Spot a Style: De Stijl

This is one of the easiest modern styles to spot, and it has inspired the most iconic crossover between art and fashion. It’s called De Stijl, which in Dutch simply means “The Style.”

 

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930, Kunsthaus, Zürich

 

Yves Saint-Laurent, Day Dress, fall / winter 1965 on French Vogue cover

 

De Stijl started in the Netherlands in 1917 as a new art and design movement. The main idea was to create a style that would be universal, based on simplicity and logic, a style for modern times. The result was the following characteristics, to be applied in painting, architecture and design:

 

-only straight, perpendicular lines

-only primary colors (red, blue and yellow) and black, white and gray

-only abstract forms

-no symmetry in composition

 

It was Theo van Doesburg, a painter, poet and architect, who founded the movement.

 

Theo van Doesburg, Composition VII: The Three Graces, 1917, Kemper Art Museum, Saint Louis

 

Theo van Doesburg, Simultaneous Composition XXIV, 1929, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

 

Theo van Doesburg, Cornelis van Eesteren, Model Artist House, 1923, reconstruction 1982, Collection Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag — Source: arttattler.com

 

A prominent member of the movement from the beginning was Gerrit Rietveld, who produced the two best-known creations of De Stijl architecture and design:

Gerrit Rietveld, Red and blue arm chair, 1918

 

Gerrit Rietveld, Schröder House, 1924, Utrecht — UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000 — Source: rietveldschroderhuis.nl

 

However, the most famous member of De Stijl is Piet Mondrian, whose paintings inspired Yves Saint-Laurent’s highly popular fall / winter 1965 collection.

 

Piet Mondrian, Composition No. II, with Red and Blue, 1925-29, Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930, Kunsthaus, Zürich

 

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, 1937–42, Tate Gallery, London

 

Yves Saint-Laurent, dresses from fall / winter 1965 collection in American Vogue

 

Mondrian’s work had already inspired designers to create bags, shoes and other accessories with a De Stijl look, and it continued to inspire them long after Saint-Laurent’s collection, for a great variety of products.

So, if it has straight lines arranged in squares or rectangles with only red, blue, yellow, black and white, chances are it’s De Stijl, or De Stijl-inspired.

Ancient Problem-Solving Tip

Sometimes, difficult problems require simple but extreme solutions.

According to legend, when Alexander the Great came to the city of Gordium in Phrygia, an area which is in Turkey today, he came up with a radical way of solving the ancient problem of the Gordian Knot.

 

 

The Gordian knot was a very complicated rope knot. It was tied to the ox-cart of the ancient king Gordias, which was kept in a temple, and the legend said that the person who could undo this knot would become king of Asia.

There are several versions of the story, but in the most popular one Alexander the Great looks at the knot, fiddles with it a little, then takes out his sword and simply cuts the knot in half. Problem solved.

 

Studio of Fedele Fischetti, Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot, 18th century, sold at Bonhams Auction in 2003

 

This is the origin of the phrase “cutting the Gordian knot,” which means “solving a very difficult problem with an unexpected and radical solution.”

“Thinking outside the box” or “hacking” sound like modern ways of solving problems, but that’s exactly what Alexander the Great was already doing over two thousand years ago, around 333 BC.

How Mona Lisa Got Famous

Before 1911, the Mona Lisa was already considered a Renaissance masterpiece, but it did not have the cult status it has today. It was the not even the most famous painting in the Louvre.

 

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c.1505, Louvre Museum, Paris

 

So what happened in 1911? The Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre and disappeared for over two years. The story made the front page of major newspapers after the theft in August 1911 and continued to appear until the end of the year, making the painting a topic of conversation everywhere:

 

New York Times front page, December 31, 1911 — © New York Times Company

 

As the investigation made no progress, however, many feared that the Mona Lisa would never be seen again, but it was finally recovered in Florence in December 1913.

 

New York Times front page, December 13, 1913 — © New York Times Company

 

The Italian police found the painting in the hotel room of Vincenzo Peruggia, a former Louvre employee from Italy, who confessed he had stolen it from the museum in 1911.

 

Vincezo Peruggia’s Identity Papers, 1909 — Source: wiki

 

After a highly publicized tour of Italy, the painting came back to the Louvre in January 1914, with great fanfare:

 

Mona Lisa back at the Louvre, January 1914 — Photo by Roger Viollet / Getty

 

This unprecedented publicity turned Mona Lisa into a celebrity, and suddenly everyone wanted to see her.

And that’s how da Vinci’s painting became the most famous in the world.

The Most Romantic German Painter

One of the greatest contributions of Romantic painting was to bring emotion to landscapes, and Caspar David Friedrich did that better than any other German painter of the 19th century.

 

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise over the Sea, 1822, Old National Gallery, Berlin

 

In Friedrich’s paintings, the contemplation of nature leads to intense feelings that cover a wide range of experiences. From the gloom of melancholy:

 

Caspar David Friedrich, Abbey among Oak Trees, c.1810, Old National Gallery, Berlin

 

To the excitement and awe that sublime landscapes can generate:

 

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Kunsthalle, Hamburg

 

Caspar David Friedrich, Woman before the Rising Sun, c.1818, Museum Folkwang, Essen

 

Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice / The Wreck of Hope, c.1823, Kunsthalle, Hamburg

 

But he was also a master of the softer, more introspective mood:

 

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise by the Sea, c.1821, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

 

Caspar David Friedrich, A Walk at Dusk, 1830-35, Getty Center, Los Angeles

 

Friedrich’s reputation has had major ups and downs, but he is now often seen as the most important painter of German Romanticism, the one who best captured the range of emotions that the sublimity of nature makes us feel.

Michelangelo’s Dome

While Michelangelo is mainly remembered for his sculptures and frescoes, he also made significant contributions to architecture, the most important of which is Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

 

Saint Peter’s Basilica, built 1506-1626, Rome

 

By the time Michelangelo took over the Saint Peter project as chief architect, he was already in his seventies and had to deal with being the seventh architect working on the building, the first six having died before their designs were completed.

Michelangelo took the best ideas from those designs and managed to refine them into a new, coherent whole, which became one of the most influential examples of religious architecture from the Renaissance.

A key part of his design is the dome, which was completed in 1590, 26 years after his death, with only minor modifications.

 

Saint Peter’s Dome

 

Combining the latest engineering advances with an exceptionally grand vision, Saint Peter’s dome became a major influence in Europe and beyond. A case in point is Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, whose dome is based on Saint Peter’s.

 

Sir Christopher Wren, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, built 1675-1720, London — Photo by Mark Fosh

 

Another is the United States Capitol, whose dome is based on Saint Paul’s and Saint Peter’s.

 

Thomas U. Walter, United States Capitol, dome completed in 1866, Washington, D.C.

 

The most influential structure in Rome probably remains the Pantheon, but Saint Peter’s dome comes very close, and that’s saying something.

How Brazil Got its Name

When Portuguese sailors first set foot in the land we now call Brazil, they found something they had seen before on another continent. Something precious and useful for European art and fashion. Only this time, there was a lot more than they had ever seen, and the quality was much higher.

 

Coast of Brazil on the Portuguese Cantino Planisphere, 1502, Estense Library, Modena

 

What the Portuguese found in great abundance in that land was a kind of wood that has such a deep, fiery red color that it was called Pau-brasil, which in Portuguese means “ember wood,” like the color of glowing coals in a fire.

 

 

Brazil wood, as it is known in English, had been imported to Europe from India since the late 14th century. It produces a beautiful pigment that was used to create the first pinks in painting and dying, as well as orangey reds. Here’s a famous example given by Michel Pastoureau to illustrate the use of Brazil wood pigment in both art and fashion:

 

Limbourg Brothers, “Going on a Pilgrimage” miniature in Petites Heures du Duc de Berry, added to manuscript c.1412, National French Library, Paris

 

When the Portuguese found Brazil wood in South America when they arrived in 1500, that wood quickly became central to the economy of the area where it grew, to such an extent that Europeans started to refer to that land simply as “the Land of Brazil,” instead of using its original name.

 

A Brazil wood tree

 

And that’s how Brazil got its name.

The Origins of Road Sign Colors

With their bold colors and stylized shapes, road signs look perfectly modern, but their color rules were actually defined in the 12th century, in Western Europe.

 

 

Road signs are not the first signs that had to be easy to see and read from a distance.

When metal armors developed in the Middle Ages, it became impossible to identify people on battlefields by looking at them, because their faces were hidden by their helmets and most armors looked the same. The solution was to use their shields to paint bright signs that would represent their identity, which helped avoid confusing friends and enemies in battles and tournaments. Then the designs spread from the shield to robes worn over the armor and on the horse. That’s how coats of arms were born.

 

Knights Jousting in MS Harley 4205, f. 12, c.1446, British Library

 

Because these signs had to be easy to see from a distance, rules were created to make them stand out as clearly as possible, especially regarding colors.

There were six colors allowed: red, yellow, white, black, blue and green. These six colors were divided into two groups: white and yellow in the first group, and red, black, blue and green in the second.

The main rule was that the background had to be in a color from one group, and the large shape on top had to be in a color from the other group. You could not have a background and a large shape from the same color group. For example, if the background was red, the main shape on top could only be white, or yellow. If the background was yellow, the main shape on top could not be white, because white and yellow are in the same group.

 

Modern Rendition of Panel 1, detail, Camden Roll of Arms, c.1280, British Museum, London

 

The same color rules apply to road signs everywhere in the world today.

 

 

In some cases, as in the US, road signs even have the shape of shields:

 

 

And that’s the origin of road sign colors — 12th-century battlefields in western Europe and the rules of color composition for coats of arms, which had to be easy to see from a distance.

The Beauty of Mediterranean Light

With the paint tube revolution came new bright colors and the freedom to paint anywhere. This allowed 19th-century artists to paint a kind of light that had never been captured in all its glory before: the bold sunlight of the Mediterranean coast in France and Italy.

 

Paul Cézanne, Bay of Marseille Seen from L’Estaque, c.1885, Art Institute of Chicago

 

Paul Cézanne, Rocks at L’Estaque, c.1885, São Paulo Museum of Art

 

Impressionists like Monet were among the first to extensively travel along the Mediterranean coast to paint its wonders along the way.

 

Claude Monet, Villas at Bordighera, 1884, Art Institute of Chicago

 

Claude Monet, Antibes, 1888, Courtauld Gallery, London

 

Claude Monet, Antibes, Afternoon Effect, 1888, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

Pointillists followed and found their technique perfectly suited to the vibrant landscapes of the Italian and French Riviera:

 

Paul Signac, Capo di Noli, 1898, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

 

Henri-Edmond Cross, Antibes, 1908, Fine Arts Museum, Grenoble

 

L’Estaque, Bordighera and Antibes are among the small but legendary places on the Riviera where western art first captured a bit of the Mediterranean magic. In the small town of Collioure, that magic even inspired a whole new movement, Fauvism, which played a key role in the development of modern art in Europe.

That’s the beauty of Mediterranean light.

What Inspired the Uncle Sam Poster

The 1917 poster of Uncle Sam recruiting for the U.S. Army is one of the most iconic American images, but its design and concepts are actually British in origin.

 

James Montgomery Flagg, I Want You for U.S. Army, 1917

 

The design and “want you” concept come from the 1914 poster featuring the British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener:

 

Alfred Leete, Lord Kitchener Wants You, 1914

 

As for Uncle Sam, the symbol of the U.S., he is modeled on John Bull, who has been the personification of England since John Arbuthnot’s The History of John Bull, published in 1712. John Bull eventually became the symbol of the UK and was famously used in war recruiting posters:

 

British Government, John Bull Recruiting Poster, 1915

 

Combine the designs and concepts of these two posters, and you get Uncle Sam’s I Want You for U.S. Army.

 

That’s the inspiration for the most iconic recruiting poster ever.

The Symbols of Medicine

It all started with Asclepius, the Ancient Greek God of Healing, who was always represented carrying a wooden rod with a snake around it.

 

Asclepius statue, c.2nd century BC, Vatican Museums, Vatican City

 

In Greece the snake was associated with wisdom, healing and resurrection due to its ability to shed its old skin after growing into a new one. Harmless snakes were even kept in temples dedicated to the God of Healing, where the sick would come and hope to be cured.

It is from these ancient times that the Rod of Asclepius developed into the symbol of doctors in the West.

 

The Rod of Asclepius

 

This symbol is part of the Star of Life, which is found on ambulances and represents emergency medical services in the US and many other countries.

 

The Star of Life

 

Among Asclepius’ daughters is Hygieia, the Goddess of Cleanliness, whose name gave us the modern word “hygiene.” Hygieia was often represented carrying a jar or a cup, with a snake drinking from it.

 

Hope Hygieia, 2nd century AD Roman copy of Greek original, c.360 BC, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

 

The cup with a snake is known as the Bowl of Hygieia and has become the symbol of pharmacy in most western countries, where it identifies pharmacists and stores selling medication.

 

The Bowl of Hygieia

 

Another daughter of Asclepius’ is Panacea, whose name means “universal remedy” and is still used today to mean “a solution to all problems.” She was thought to have a potion that could cure every disease, and in that sense she represents medicine’s ambition. There is, however, no symbol for Panacea.

A symbol that is often confused with the Rod of Asclepius is Hermes’ Caduceus, a staff with two snakes and wings at the top:

 

The Caduceus

 

Because Hermes was the protector of travelers and tradesmen, his Caduceus became a symbol of commerce.

It had nothing to do with medicine at all until the 19th century, when the US Army started using it on the uniforms of its medical personnel. It is not clear whether this was the result of a mistake or a deliberate choice. In any case, it became wrongly associated with medicine and the confusion continues today.

In the end, there are only two symbols everyone agrees upon. The Rod of Asclepius, one snake around a rod as the symbol of doctors, and the Bowl of Hygieia, a snake drinking from a cup as the symbol of pharmacists. Both are based on the single snake, which represents wisdom and healing thanks to its skin-changing abilities.

The Paint Tube Revolution

How important was the invention of the paint tube? Perhaps Pierre-Auguste Renoir said it best when he told his son that “without colors in tubes, there would have been no Cézanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro, nothing of what the journalists were to call Impressionism” (quoted in Jean Renoir, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, My Father, 1962).

 

 

The man who invented the paint tube is the American artist John Goffe Rand, who patented it in 1841.

 

John Goffe Rand patent, Improvement in the Construction of Vessels or Apparatus for Preserving Paint, 1841 — Source: Archives of American Art

 

Rand never became famous, however, even though the metal tube he invented also inspired the toothpaste tube, among other things we use every day.

Before Rand’s invention, storage options were too fragile to transport fresh paint easily or keep it for a long time. Painting was therefore mostly done in a studio and relatively few colors were available.

The metal tube changed everything. It made paint portable and easy to store for much longer. It made new colors more widely available and expanded painters’ palettes. In other words, it enabled artists to paint anything, anywhere, with the brightest and freshest colors.

And that’s what made the Impressionist revolution possible.

 

John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood, c.1885

 

Not bad for a little metal tube.

The Symbol of Self-Sacrifice

In ancient Europe it was believed that the pelican would cut its breast open with its beak and feed its young with its own blood if there was not enough food, even though pelicans don’t actually do that. Some even believed that the pelican had the power to bring its dead young back to life by giving them its blood.

This belief lasted at least until the 17th century, as shown by this late 16th century work on plants and animals, published again in 1622:

 

Geoffroi Linocier, Histoire des plantes, appendix on birds, 1584

 

The description under the image says: “This pelican lives near the Nile river and marshes in Egypt. It loves its young so much that when snakes kill them it strikes its sides until blood comes out and with its blood brings them back to life.”

Because of that belief, the pelican became a major symbol of self-sacrifice and charity. Early Christians had adopted it by the 2nd century and started using it in texts and images, making it a very special bird.

 

Edward Burne-Jones, Pelican stained glass, 19th century, Saint-Martin’s Church, Brampton — Source: roseandphoenix.wordpress.com

 

The representation of a pelican piercing its breast to feed its young with its own blood is called a “Pelican in her Piety.” It can be found in illuminations, stone reliefs, gold jewels, paintings, stained glass windows and more, from the Middle Ages to the modern era.

 

Pelican Illustration in MS. 89/54, Folio 5, late 12th century, Grootseminarie Library, Bruges

 

Pelican in her Piety bas-relief, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery, Montréal

 

Restored Pelican in her Piety bas-relief, Saint-Etienne Cathedral, Metz

 

Pelican in her Piety pendant, c.1550s, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

One of Queen Elizabeth I’s most famous portraits is called The Pelican Portrait, based on a similar pelican jewel in the painting (just above her hand), which suggests that the Queen is like a mother pelican, sacrificing herself for her country if necessary.

 

Nicholas Hilliard, Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I / The Pelican Portrait, c.1575, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

 

Nicholas Hilliard, Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I / The Pelican Portrait — detail, c.1575, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

 

Pelican in her Piety stained glass window, Saint-Andrew-by-the-Lake Church, Centre Island — Source: karenlaw.ca

 

Sometimes the bird doesn’t really look like a pelican in such representations, but if it’s feeding its young with drops from its breast or if its beak is piercing its breast, it’s definitely a pelican, and it represents self-sacrifice and charity because it was believed to feed its young with its own blood.

Black, the Color of Opposites

Black has been favored by monks, princes, pirates, anarchists, judges, fascists and fashionistas, just to name a few contrasting groups. It is the color that was a color and stopped being one when Newton analyzed light. Then it became a color again, and remains the color that has been most often associated with opposite values throughout western history.

 

Pierre Soulages, Peinture, 222×628 cm. avril 1985, Grenoble Museum

 

The association of black with sadness, death and mourning in the West is well-known, but black is much more than that and it is part of a fascinating network of contradictory values, superbly explained in the works of Eva Heller and Michel Pastoureau, among others.

Perhaps the most striking contrast is between authority and rebellion. Black is the color of many uniforms that represent authority, the law and other forms of control. Think of judges, for instance, who have been wearing black robes in court since the late 13th century.

 

George Romney, Portrait of Judge Sir John Wilson, c.1782, Town Hall, Kendal

 

The most extreme example of black as the color of authority and control gone mad is in the uniforms of fascist groups in the 1920s and 30s — the Blackshirts in Italy and the Nazis in Germany.

 

Benito Mussolini with Blackshirt Legion, 1922 — © Underwood / Corbis

 

At the same time, those who reject authority and the law in the most violent ways also made black their color. Think of pirates and their black flags, most of which were just plain black until the introduction of the skulls and crossbones in the late 17th century, which kept black as the background color.

 

Skulls and Crossbones Flag

 

Anarchists, who reject all forms of government, also use a black flag, as well as a more recent half-black half-red variation.

Another major opposition has to do with the religious symbolism of black. In the Middle Ages, black became the color of sin and of the devil, as in this painting depicting Christ resisting the devil’s sinful ways:

 

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, c.1311, Frick Collection, New York

 

Despite this association between black and evil, many priests and monks wear black, as the monks of the Order of Saint Benedict, who are known as the Black Monks.

 

Philippe de Champaigne, Anna of Austria and her Children Praying to Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica, 1640s, Versailles Palace, Versailles

 

Then in the 16th century Protestant Reformers also adopted black, which became the color of Puritan clothes in England and in North America, confirming it as a sober, moral color.

In parallel, bright colors had been banned for anyone except the nobility in 14th-century Italy. Rich Italian merchants responded by wearing the most expensive black fabrics and furs, which associated black with wealth and made it fashionable in Europe for the first time. As the fashion spread, black even became fit for kings.

 

Sofonisba Anguissola, Portrait of Philip II of Spain, 1565, Prado Museum, Madrid

 

This led to another opposition, between black as a sober, humble color and black as a color of luxury.

Today, black continues to be worn by religious orders throughout the world as a sign of humbleness and to be the color of choice for tuxedos and other glamorous evening garments, such as the iconic black dress. Not to mention the “black label” trick that can make any product appear more luxurious.

Unlike blue, which started as a minor color and then became Europe’s favorite, black has always been in conflict with itself, as the color of authority and rebellion, morality and evil, humbleness and luxury — the color of opposites.

Masters of Sublime Light

When you put together American landscapes, Romanticism and a spiritual view of nature, you get a uniquely American kind of sublime in 19th-century painting. Not the thrilling sublime of storms and volcanoes, but a serene, contemplative sublime that connects nature with the divine.

 

Frederic Edwin Church, Morning in the Tropics, c.1858, Walter Arts Museum, Baltimore

 

Few American painters captured that spirit better than Frederic Edwin Church, one of the most prominent artists of the Hudson River School, which was the first major school of painting in the US.

Frederic Edwin Church was not only a master of detail and composition, but also a master of that special kind of light that turns looking at nature into a religious experience.

 

Frederic Edwin Church, Rainy Season in the Tropics, 1866, Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco

 

Frederic Edwin Church, The River of Light, 1877, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

 

Church traveled all over the Americas in search of new landscapes and light phenomena, looking at each location with the same sense of spiritual wonder.

 

Frederic Edwin Church, The Andes of Ecuador, 1855, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem

 

Frederic Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860, Cleveland Museum of Art

 

Frederic Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis, 1865, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

 

The only other American painter who comes close to Frederic Edwin Church in that regard is Albert Bierstadt, who also belonged to the Hudson River School.

 

Albert Bierstadt, Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, 1865, Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama

 

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 1868, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

 

Albert Bierstadt, Rocky Mountain Landscape, 1870, The White House, Washington, D.C.

 

In the end, the Hudson River School painters are to American light what Ivan Aivazovsky is to the sea. Few other painters have made it look more sublime and in the process connected us with something so much greater than ourselves.

How Blue Became Popular

Blue used to be a minor color with negative connotations in much of Western Europe, but now it’s the favorite color of over 50% of Europeans, and the color they wear more than any other. How did that happen?

 

 

In Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the noble colors in the arts were white, black, red, yellow and green. For clothes, red and purple were the colors of emperors and kings. Blue was also widely used, but it was not seen as a positive or noble color.

For the Romans, blue was actually the least civilized color. For them, it was the color of Barbarians, the color of the blue-eyed Germanic invaders and of the Celts who painted their faces and bodies blue to frighten their enemies in battle.

According to Michel Pastoureau’s work on the history of the color blue, this negative view continued until the 12th century, when two major changes happened.

First, blue became the color of the Virgin Mary in Christian art. It is not clear exactly when Mary started to be represented wearing blue, but by the 12th century it had become her color, giving it a highly positive image in the Christian world.

 

Comnenus mosaics, 12th century, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

 

Jan van Eyck, Annunciation – detail, c.1435, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

 

Blue therefore appeared in stained glass windows, following Abbot Suger’s pioneering use of cobalt blue for the windows of the Saint-Denis Basilica around 1140. This had such an impact that the shade of blue he used became known as Saint Denis Blue, featuring in many Gothic cathedrals after that.

 

Moses Window, c.1140, Saint Denis Basilica, Saint-Denis

 

Secondly, Philip Augustus, King of France from 1180 to 1223, started to wear blue and saw the development of the design of the French coat of arms that would be used for 600 years, with golden fleur-de-lys on a field of azure blue.

 

Jean Fouquet, Crowning of Philip Augustus illumination in Grandes Chroniques de France, c.1455, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

 

First French coat of arms with blue field, official French arms from 1211

 

This was the first time a European king had worn blue or had a coat of arms with a blue background.

His grandson Louis IX, aka Saint Louis, King of France from 1226 to 1270, then became the first king to wear blue most of the time. This started a trend that spread throughout Europe and made blue a noble color, which eventually became known as Royal Blue.

The positive image of blue was reinforced in the 16th century, during the Protestant Reformation. Reacting against the excesses of the Catholic church, reformers identified two groups of colors: honest colors and dishonest colors. The dishonest colors were red, yellow and green. The honest ones were white, black, gray, brown and blue.

In about 400 years, blue came to be associated with the Virgin Mary, royalty, honesty and morality.

Then new pigments were invented, such as Prussian Blue, and the palette of blues became even richer, setting the stage for the rise of blue as Europe’s favorite color.

And that’s how blue became so popular.

The Invention of Photography

The basics of light reflection and light-sensitive chemicals were already known in Antiquity, but it was only in the early 1800s that they were successfully combined to invent photography.

The key processes were developed in France and Britain in the 1820s and 30s, with Nicéphore Niécpe producing the first permanent photograph in 1827, a view of roofs and walls:

 

Nicéphore Niécpe, View from the Window at Le Gras, 1827 (enhanced)

 

It may not look like much, but that’s the earliest permanent photograph there is, and it required at least 8 hours of exposure.

Louis Daguerre then used Niécpe’s research to develop his own process, the Daguerrotype, which required much shorter exposure times on sheets of metal, as in this 1838 photograph, which only took ten minutes to take:

 

Louis Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 1838

 

At the same time in Britain, William Henry Fox Talbot pioneered light-sensitive paper and the negative / positive process, which he called Calotype, paving the way for photographic film.

 

Hill and Adamson, calotype portrait of Thomas Duncan, 1844

 

Niécpe had called his process “heliography,” which literally means “painting / writing with the sun,” but in the 1830s others called it “photography,” meaning “painting / writing with light,” and the name stuck.

From the late 1830s on, photography developed very rapidly, reaching a first golden age in the 1850s. Major figures of the period include Roger Fenton, the British photographer who became one of the very first war photographers with his work on the 1855 Crimean War.

Exposure times were still too long for battle scenes, but Fenton captured the desolation of war on battlefields covered in canon balls:

 

Roger Fenton, Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855

 

Photography was already changing the way we experience the world and understand history. In the following century, it also redefined how we remember and share our experiences, how we see ourselves, and it now has a profound influence on how millions are building their social identity.

Not bad for a process that’s essentially about catching light.

 

Ancient Influence on Modern Art

When you look at this kind of sculpture, it’s hard not to think of modern art:

 

 

This particular head, however, was carved over 4,000 years ago in the Cyclades, a group of islands off the coast of Greece. It is the head of a canonical figurine from around 2800–2300 BC, kept at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens.

Cycladic culture developed around 3000 BC and for over one thousand years produced sculptures that had a strong influence on modern artists such as Picasso, Modigliani, Brancusi and many more.

Here is the Cycladic head that inspired Romanian sculptor Brancusi to create his series of female muses, for example:

 

Head of female figure, c.2700–2300 BC, Louvre Museum, Paris

 

Constantin Brancusi, Sleeping Muse, 1910, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

 

Constantin Brancusi, The Muse, 1912, Guggenheim Museum, New York

 

Cycladic art is obviously characterized by its geometric stylization of the human form, especially in female figures:

 

Standing female figure, c.2600–2400 BC, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Standing female figurine, c.2600–2400 BC, The British Museum, London

 

Female figure, c.2400 BC, Getty Museum, Los Angeles

 

The simple geometry of Cycladic art appealed to modern artists in search of pure forms, and along with other forms of primitive art, such as African and Cambodian art, it gave them inspiration for sculptures, drawings and paintings:

 

Amedeo Modigliani, Head of a Woman, 1910, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

 

Amedeo Modigliani, Caryatid (detail), 1913, The New Art Gallery, Walsall

 

Pablo Picasso, Woman with Joined Hands (study for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon), 1907, Picasso Museum, Paris

 

In the most stylized cases, Cycladic figures are almost abstract:

 

“Violin” figurine, c.2800 BC, The British Museum, London

 

However, surface analysis has revealed that Cycladic sculptures were originally painted in bright blues and reds, among other colors. This means that eyes and other features were probably painted onto the stone, resulting in a much less abstract look than what we see today.

Just as Ancient Greek statues lost their colors and influenced the Neoclassical taste for pure white marble, so too did Cycladic art influence the rise of pure geometry in the early 20th century.

And that’s the influence of ancient forms on Modern art.

Spot a Style: International

From the early 1930s to the late 1980s, International Style architecture was the main choice for office buildings and other large commercial or institutional projects, especially in the US and Canada. The resulting skyscrapers reshaped major cities and gave them the skylines they are famous for today.

 

Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer and Wallace Harrison, United Nations Headquarters, built 1948-1952, New York — Photo by Selwyn Manning

 

The United Nations Headquarters in New York is a great example of International Style architecture, perfectly illustrating the main characteristics of the movement:

 

- Glass façades

- Steel frames

- Simple square or rectangular forms / straight lines and 90° angles

- No decorations

- Large open spaces

 

United Nations Headquarters in New York skyline — Photo by Hajat Avdovic

 

These characteristics, as well as the name “International Style,” come from the exhibition “Modern Architecture – International Exhibition” held in New York in 1932, which was the first architecture exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

Even though the style is strongly associated with Chicago and New York, it is not purely American. It is the fusion of modern ideas and building techniques developed at the German Bauhaus school of design and in the US in the 1920s. Other European architects, such as Le Corbusier, also contributed to its development before it was defined as a style and given a name at the New York exhibition.

Let’s take a look at other works in the International Style by key architects of the movement, starting with one of the most prolific, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe:

 

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, Seagram Building, built in 1958, New York  — Photo by Tom Ravenscroft

 

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Parkin and Associates, Bregman and Hamann Architects, Toronto-Dominion Centre, built 1967-1969, Toronto — © Cadillac Fairview Corporation Limited

 

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, IBM Plaza / AMA Plaza, built 1966-1973, Chicago

 

Another major name is Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus school of design in 1919:

 

Walter Gropius, John F. Kennedy Federal Building, built 1963-1966, Boston — © LeMessurier

 

Other famous examples include:

 

I.M. Pei and Partners, Place Ville Marie, built 1958-1962, Montreal — Photo by Stephan Poulin

Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Sears Tower / Willis Tower, built 1970-1973, Chicago — Photo by Daniel Schwen

 

Early International Style buildings are on a smaller scale and also include private houses, but the movement’s main contribution is definitely the rectangular skyscraper made of glass and steel with no decoration, which can be found in almost every major city around the world today.

Master of the Sublime Seascape

Every country with a port has at least one master of sea painting, but Russia can claim perhaps the very best.

 

Ivan Aivazovsky, The Ninth Wave, 1850, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

 

Ivan Aivazovsky produced some of the most celebrated seascapes in history, capturing the changing colors and moods of the sea more spectacularly than any other artist before him.

 

Ivan Aivazovsky, Chaos — Genesis, 1841, San Lazaro degli Armeni Monastry, Venice

 

Ivan Aivazovsky, Stormy Sea at Night, 1849, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

 

Ivan Aivazovsky, Strong Wind, 1856, Sphinx Fine Art Gallery, London

 

Even the British master J.M.W. Turner recognized Aivazovsky’s genius, and in 1842 wrote him a poem to let him know, praising effects “that only genius could inspire” (quoted in Bolton, Roy, Views of Russia & Russian Works on Paper, 2010, p.141).

 

Ivan Aivazovsky, Rainbow, 1873, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

 

Ivan Aivazovsky, View of the Sea by Moonlight, 1878, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

 

Ivan Aivazovsky, Black Sea, 1881, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

 

Ivan Aivazovsky, Among the Waves, 1898, The Aivazovsky Art Gallery, Feodosia

 

The sea doesn’t get more sublime than that.

The Loneliest Light

Edward Hopper captured a wider variety of American lights than any other painter of his generation, from the morning sun on Cape Cod houses to the neons of New York diners at night.

 

Edward Hopper, Cape Cod, Morning, 1950, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

 

In the process, he also captured more scenes of isolation than most, giving the brightest and the dimmest lights an equally lonely quality:

 

Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927, Des Moines Art Center

Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Edward Hopper, Gas, 1940, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942, The Art Institute of Chicago

Edward Hopper, Morning Sun, 1952, Columbus Museum of Art

Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City, 1953, Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

Hopper must have been tired of people telling him that his paintings were only about loneliness when he said: “The loneliness thing is overdone. It formulates something you don’t want formulated” (quoted in Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: The Complete Prints, 1979).

But looking at the paintings above, it is difficult to deny that Hopper did paint some of the most haunting moments of isolation in Western art.

And these moments are bathed in the loneliest light.

The Caesars’ Months

July and August are the only two months named after actual people, and they’re both named after Caesars.

“July” comes from the name Julius, as in Julius Caesar. It used to be simply called “fifth month” in the Roman calendar, but because Caesar was born that month, the Senate renamed it Iulius in his honor after making him dictator for life. He was assassinated a month later, in March 44 BC.

 

Nicolas Coustou, Julius Caesar, 1696, Louvre Museum, Paris — Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

 

In his will, Julius Caesar had named his grandnephew Octavian as his adopted son and heir, giving Octavian not just his wealth, but also the Caesar name.

Octavian became the first Roman emperor in 27 BC, when the Senate gave him the title Augustus, which means “venerable.” Because he won major victories in the “sixth month” of the Roman calendar, the Senate decided in 8 BC to rename that month Augustus, in his honor.

Unlike Julius Caesar, Augustus survived having a month named after him, but he died in that month two decades later.

 

Unknown sculptor, bust of Augustus, 1st century AD, Louvre Museum, Paris — Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

The Global Story of @

Starting in the early Renaissance and still developing in the digital age today, the story of the “@” sign is in many ways the story of globalization itself.

 

The most famous part of that story is of course the creation of email addresses. In 1971, an American computer engineer named Ray Tomlinson sent the first electronic message from one computer to another. For this to work, he had to create a unique kind of address, linking each user’s name to the name of their host computer.

He needed a sign that was not used in the names of people or host computers, so he could not use letters, numbers or common punctuation marks. When he looked at his keyboard for what was left, he saw that “@” was the only sign that was almost never used, so that’s what he chose, and the email address was born.

The question is, why was there this “@” sign on his keyboard? What was it for?

It turns out that the “@” sign can be found in European documents as early as the 14th century, used for many different purposes.

It was, for instance, a short form of the syllable “an” at the beginning of a variety of words, such as “anno,” which means “year.” An early example from 1391 shows the sign used in the French word “anciainnes” written “@ciainnes”:

 

Source: Marc Smith, “La véridique histoire de l’arrobase,” 2013 (at 37 minutes 24 seconds)

 

“@” was also used in the Renaissance in Spain and Portugal as a short form of the word “arroba,” which is a unit of weight, and in other European countries for various units of measure.

At the same time, it was used as a preposition to introduce the date, the day, the place, or the name of an addressee or beneficiary in commercial and diplomatic documents from Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Here’s an example from 1487, in which “@” introduces “nineteenth of November”:

 

Source: Marc Smith, “La véridique histoire de l’arrobase,” 2013 (at 46 minutes 16 seconds)

 

And, most importantly, “@” also became a sign introducing the price per unit, for “at the price of,” or just “at.” For example, “2 apples @ 1$ = 2$.” This is the use found in English-speaking countries and the origin of the “commercial at.”

Because this sign appeared frequently on bills, it featured on the keyboards of typewriters in the US, the earliest known example being the keyboard of the Caligraph No. 2 typewriter from 1883. The first computer keyboards were based on typewriter keyboards, and therefore included the “@” sign, which by 1971 was almost not used anymore.

So the many uses of the “@” sign developed in the early Renaissance through commercial and diplomatic communications among European countries, then reached their American colonies, and the sign eventually spread to the rest of the world over the internet in the 20th century. A perfect illustration of the globalization process.

The Inescapable Olive Tree

When painters traveled to the Mediterranean coast in the late 19th and early 20th century, they all encountered the magic light of southern Europe, as well as one of the most important trees of the region, the olive tree. They all painted their version of that tree, each revealing a unique style.

 

Claude Monet, Olive Grove at the Moreno Garden, Bordighera, 1884, Private Collection (sold at Christie’s in 2010)

 

The most prolific olive tree painter of the period is Van Gogh, who in 1889 produced over 15 paintings of that subject in different lights, over a period of about six months.

 

Vincent Van Gogh, Olive Trees with Alpilles Background, 1889, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Vincent Van Gogh, Olive Trees with Yellow Sun, 1889, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis

 

Vincent Van Gogh, Olive Orchard, 1889, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

 

Edgar Degas preferred dancers and horses at the races, but he still gave a pastel tribute to the landscape with olive trees:

 

Edgar Degas, Olive Trees Against a Mountainous Background, c.1890, Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena

 

And when Matisse went to the south of France to develop a new style that would become Fauvism, he turned to the same subject:

 

Henri Matisse, Olive Trees at Collioure / Promenade among the Olive Trees, c.1905, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Around that time, just before he developed Cubism with Picasso, George Braque went south to meet Matisse, and painted his version (which was stolen from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2010 and is still missing).

 

George Braque, The Olive Tree near L’Estaque, 1906, Unknown location

 

Even John Singer Sargent, the exiled American painter who specialized in portraits, produced several works with olive trees as the main subject during his travels in the south of Europe in the early 1900s:

 

John Singer Sargent, Olive Trees, Corfu, 1909, Harvard Art Museums

John Singer Sargent, The Olive Grove, c.1910, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis

 

Because of its symbolism and because it is everywhere around the Mediterranean Sea, the olive tree is just inescapable in Western art.

When Music Meets Painting

Music has the power to create moods like no other art form, and painting has been influenced by that power throughout its history. The 19th century produced one of the best-known examples of this influence in Whistler’s series of “nocturne” paintings.

 

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver, 1872, Harvard Fogg Museum

 

In 19th-century music, a nocturne is a short, intimate piece that evokes the dreamy atmosphere of the night.

When the British art collector Frederick Leyland saw Whistler’s paintings entitled “moonlights,” he immediately thought of Chopin’s music and called Whistler’s paintings “nocturnes.”

Whistler loved the idea and changed the titles of his “moonlight” paintings to “nocturnes.” He then painted new ones, evoking the dreamy mood of a walk by the river Thames and other places in the moonlight.

 

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea, 1871, Tate Gallery, London

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights, 1872, Tate Gallery, London

 

One of the places Whistler often painted is the area near Cremorne Gardens, a fashionable park by the river Thames, famous for light displays and fireworks at night. Whistler especially liked the sparks that softly rained down after the fireworks, and he painted those golden sparks and fireworks in the sky of several of his nocturnes:

 

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, c.1872–5, Tate Gallery, London

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel, 1875, Tate Gallery, London

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Black and Gold – Falling Rocket, c.1875, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit

 

The influence also went the other way, as the French composer Debussy was inspired by Whistler’s paintings to compose Nocturnes, a three-part piece in which the music evokes the movements of clouds at night, the mood of evening parties, and the movements of the sea in the moonlight, which he had seen so poetically suggested in Whistler’s works.

That’s the kind of magic that happens when music meets painting.

Spot a Style: Neoclassical

After the Baroque and Rococo styles led to highly decorated buildings, objects and works of art in the 17th and early 18th centuries, there was a need for simpler, more symmetrical forms. At the same time, 18th-century archeologists were starting to discover or study ancient Roman and Greek sites that had been lost or overlooked, such as Herculaneum, Pompeii and Paestum.

 

Second temple of Hera /Poseidon temple, c.450BC, Paestum — Photo by Norbert Nagel

 

All this led to a renewed interest in classical antiquity, the time of Ancient Greece and Rome, and in the arts and architecture of that period.

So, starting in the 1760s, artists and craftsmen started to create new works inspired from the nobility, simplicity and harmony of Ancient Greek and Roman works. These new productions were called “neoclassical,” “neo-” meaning “new” and “classical” referring to the period of Ancient Greece and Rome.

 

John Flaxman, Homer Invoking the Muse, Illustration for The Iliad, c.1793 — Source: mccunecollection.org

 

Of course each country has its own versions of Neoclassicism in architecture and design, and each version is named after the King or the type of government of the period when it was created. For example, it was called “Georgian” then “Regency” in England, “Louis XVI” then “Empire” in France, and “Federal Style” in the US.

Despite differences, all these styles share the characteristics of neoclassical works:

 

- Symmetry

- Balanced proportions

- Forms inspired from Ancient Greek and Roman architecture and interiors

- Columns and fluting inspired by the Classical Orders

- Topics and decorations from Ancient Greek and Roman history and mythology

 

For music, by the way, it’s a different story. “Classical” refers to the music of the 1730-1820 period and “neoclassical” to a type of work produced in the first half of the 20th century.

As always, the best way of becoming familiar with a style is to look at examples. Let’s start with neoclassical paintings, from the late 18th century to the early 19th.

 

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, c.1785, Louvre Museum, Paris

 

Jacques-Louis David, Death of Socrates, 1787, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Angelica Kauffman, Venus Convinces Helen to go with Paris, 1790, Hermitage Museum, Saint-Petersburg

Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Apotheosis of Homer, 1827, Louvre Museum, Paris

 

For architecture and the decorative arts, Neoclassicism covers the period that goes from the 1760s to the end of the 19th century, competing with other styles and revivals, in some cases even into the 20th century. It includes many government buildings and monuments, as well as furniture styles that feature decorations such as eagles, leaves and other forms inspired by Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.

 

The United States Capitol, built from 1793 to 1863, Washington, D.C.

Palais Bourbon, façade built from 1806 to 1810, Paris — Photo by David Monniaux

Louis XVI Blue Room, c.1770s, Musée Carnavalet, Paris — Photo by wiki user Thesupermat

Typical fluted leg of Louis XVI furniture, by wiki user Cyril5555

Neoclassical Grand Salon from the Hôtel de Tessé, Paris, c.1768-1792, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Roentgen gaming table, c.1780, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Russian Imperial Settee, 1803, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Now for neoclassical sculptures, often inspired by the forms and characters of Ancient Greek works:

 

John Flaxman, Cephalus and Aurora, c.1790, Liverpool Museums

Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, 1793, Louvre Museum, Paris

Bertel Thorvaldsen, Ganymede Waters Zeus as an Eagle, 1817, Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen

 

So, if you’re looking at a building, interior, object or work of art that was created after the 1760s and looks inspired from Ancient Greek and Roman forms like the ones above, it’s probably neoclassical, and that includes a large number of buildings and works throughout the world.

The Lady with a Wheel

Not all ancient gods and goddesses disappeared with the spread of Christianity in the West. In fact, there is one that continued to be represented throughout the Middle Ages and beyond the Renaissance, one we still refer to today. That goddess is Fortune.

Her Ancient Greek name was Tyche, and her Roman name Fortuna, which is the source of the word “fortune” in many European languages, including English. She was also known as Lady Fortune and is still referred to as Lady Luck, especially by gamblers.

 

“Lady Fortune” illustration in Christine de Pizan, The Book of The Queen (Harley MS 4431 f. 129r), c.1410, British Library, London — Source: bl.uk/manuscripts

 

Since Ancient Roman times, Fortuna has been associated with a wheel, which represents the changeable nature of chance. As she turns the wheel at random, some are carried up, all the way to the top where one becomes a King or Queen, but even Kings and Queens must fall:

 

“The Wheel of Fortune” illustration in John Lydgate, Troy Book and Siege of Thebes (MS Royal 18 D II  f. 30v), c.1438, British Library, London — Source: bl.uk/catalogues

 

Fortune was often, but not always, represented with a blindfold over her eyes, to suggest that she does not discriminate and that she distributes both good luck and bad luck equally.

 

“Fortune, Good and Bad,” illustration in Pierre Michault, MS Français 1654, 1466, French National Library, Paris — Source: gallica.bnf.fr

 

The Goddess of Luck is also often represented with a ball, sometimes even standing on it, showing that things can roll in any direction at any time:

 

Hans Sebald Beham, Fortuna, 1541, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam — Source: rijksmuseum.nl

 

Tadeusz Kuntze, Fortune, 1754, National Museum, Warsaw

 

In time, she naturally came to be associated with gambling and games of chance. Her nickname was even the name of a casino in Las Vegas from 1964 to 2006:

 

Lady Luck Casino — Source: viewlinerltd.blogspot.com

 

And yes, the game show Wheel of Fortune is named after Fortuna’s wheel, which must have brought it good luck, as the show has been running in the US since 1975.

Most civilizations in the world have their own idea about how luck works. The Western one happens to be a blindfolded lady spinning a wheel at random.

Paintings Bright and Bold

Fauvism is the movement that produced some of the brightest and boldest paintings in the early 20th century, just before Cubism and Abstraction.

 

Maurice de Vlaminck, La Machine Restaurant at Bougival, 1905, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

 

Fauvism got its name from art critic Louis Vauxcelles’s review of the 1905 Salon d’Automne art show (published in the “Supplément à Gil Blas,” October 17, 1905), in which he compared the painters in room VII to fauves, which means “wild beasts” in French.

The founder of the Fauvist movement is Henri Matisse, who developed it in the south of France in the summer of 1905, working with fellow painter André Derain.

 

Henri Matisse, Open Window, Collioure, 1905, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

André Derain, Mountains at Collioure, 1905, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

 

Those works and others exhibited at the Salon d’Automne art show in 1905 defined the characteristics of Fauvist paintings:

 

- simplified outlines and composition based on color planes

- bright, unmixed colors (except in some of Derain’s London views)

- heavy brushwork, or even paint applied from the tube

- colors that do not match the colors of reality

- real subjects, mainly landscapes, but also portraits

 

 

Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905, San Francisco Museum of Art

Henri Matisse, Portrait of Madame Matisse / The Green Stripe, 1905, Statens Museum, Copenhagen

André Derain, Henri Matisse, 1905, Tate Gallery, London

André Derain, Charing Cross Bridge, 1906, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Maurice de Vlamnick, A Street at Marly-le-Roi, 1906, Centre Pompidou, Paris

Maurice de Vlamnick, Châtou Bridge, 1906, Centre Pompidou, Paris

 

Fauvism was a very short movement, lasting only from 1905 to about 1910, but the works produced in those five years influenced Western art for the rest of the 20th century, redefining composition and taking a key step towards freedom of color.

Gothic Skyscrapers

What you don’t expect to see in architecture is the combination of a style from the Middle Ages and the height of a modern building. After the European Gothic Revival movement reached the US, however, it eventually produced just that, in the form of Gothic skyscrapers.

One of the earliest and tallest is the Woolworth Building in New York, with 57 floors built between 1910 and 1913:

 

imagePhoto by Marshall Gerometta

imagePhoto by Antony Wood

imagePhoto by Flickr user Nicola since 1972

 

Next is the Tribune Tower in Chicago, with 36 floors built between 1923 and 1925:

 

imagePhoto by Luke Gordon

imagePhoto by Gary Jackson

 

Finally, the last wonder of Gothic Revival architecture is the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, with 42 floors built between 1926 and 1934:

 

imagePhoto by Bill Price III

imagePhoto from beesfirstappearance.wordpress.com

imagePhoto from frihost.com

 

Those skyscrapers of course remain exceptions in the history of architecture, the visions of a few men who refused to follow modern styles but embraced modern building techniques.

The Madeleine Building Story

If you’ve seen the Madeleine Church on the Place de la Madeleine in Paris, have you ever wondered why it doesn’t look like a church at all?

 

image

The Madeleine Church

 

With its Neoclassical architecture inspired from Ancient Greek and Roman temples, the Madeleine Church looks more like a government building. In fact, it looks like the Palais Bourbon, home of the French National Assembly, which faces it across the river.

 

image

The Palais Bourbon

 

The reason why the Madeleine Church looks like that is simple. It was not supposed to be a church.

To be more precise, there were plans to build a church there and construction was started in 1763, but with the French Revolution of 1789, building churches was no longer a priority. As a result, the unfinished building did not have a purpose anymore and parts of it were demolished.

In 1806, Napoleon had the idea of using it to build a monument to honor his Great Army, and he chose a new design, the one that can be seen today. The façade of the Palais Bourbon was actually built at the same time and based on the same design, so that the two buildings would match.

 

imageSource: frenchmoments.eu

 

After his defeat during the Russian campaign in 1812, however, Napoleon lacked the funds and the support to fully complete the temple to honor his army, so it was decided that the building would become a church.

Napoleon’s final fall from power and the return of the Catholic King Louis XVIII in 1815 sealed that decision, and the church was finally completed in 1842, based on the design chosen by Napoleon, but with a different purpose.

And that’s how a temple to military glory became a church that doesn’t look like a church.

Changing Points of View

One of the most amazing applications of the painting principles developed in the Renaissance is a process called “anamorphosis,” which is still used today in art, road signs, sports adverstising and more.

imageFelice Varini, Carrés dans le passage, bleu, 2013, HAB Galerie, Nantes

 

Anamorphosis is the process by which the shape of an image is changed so that it can only be seen from one specific point of view.

The best-known example of anamorphosis from the Renaissance is a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger entitled The Ambassadors. At the bottom of this painting, there is a strange shape in front of the two men

 

imageHans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, The National Gallery, London

 

That shape is actually a skull that only looks normal when you look at the painting from the side:

 

image

 

The same principle is used for all the words and images painted on roads, so that drivers can see them clearly. Take this bicycle, for example. On the left, you have the image painted on the road seen from above, with wheels that are not round, and on the right you have the same image seen from the driver’s point of view, in which the wheels look round:

 

image

Source: physics.uoguelph.ca

 

All of the ads on rugby pitches and other sports grounds are designed in the same way. They only look normal from the point of view of the cameras, so that TV spectators can see them. This ad for J.P. Morgan, for instance, is actually just a flat painting that looks like a 3D board thanks to anamorphosis:

 

imageSource: infield3d.com

One of the coolest examples of anamorphic signage was created by Alex Peemoeller and Emery Studio for the car park of the Eureka Tower in Melbourne in 2006:

 

imageimageimageimage
Source: moillusions.com

 

According to Emery Studio, the inspiration for this design is the work of Felice Varini, an artist who has been specializing in large scale anamorphosis since the 1970s:

 

image

Felice Varini, Deux cercles concentriques, rouge n.1, 1992, Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris

image

Felice Varini, Huit rectangles, 2007, Musée des beaux arts, Arras – Source: varini.org

 

In the end, anamorphosis is like a lot of things in life. It only makes sense if you change your point of view.

 

imageimageimageJoseph Egan and Hunter Thomson, It’s a Point of View, 2010, Chelsea School of Art and Design – Source: designboom.com

Painting in Circles

Not all paintings are rectangular or square. The circle has since Antiquity been a symbol of perfection, and its association with divinity made it a popular shape for paintings in the Renaissance, with round masterpieces produced throughout the period.

 

Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi, Adoration of the Magi, c.1440-1460, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

 

A round painting is called a “tondo,” from the Italian “rotondo,” which means “round.” In fact, any large round painting, sculpture or relief is called a tondo today, because that shape was popularized in Italy during the Renaissance. It even applies to early examples of round paintings, which are found at the bottom of wine cups from Ancient Greece.

Among the Renaissance masters who used the tondo format, we have Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Veronese.

 

Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, 1481, Uffizi, Florence

 

Botticelli, The Virgin Adoring the Child, c.1480-1490, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

 

Most of Michelangelo’s paintings are frescos on walls and ceilings. He produced only two or three movable paintings in his life, and one of them is a tondo:

 

Michelangelo, The Holy FamilyDoni Tondo, c.1506, Uffizi, Florence

 

Other stunning examples include some of Raphael’s madonnas:

 

Raphael, Alba Madonna, c.1510, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

 

Raphael, Madonna della Seggiola, c.1513, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

 

As well as the 21 ceiling tondos of the Saint Mark Library in Venice, three of which are by Veronese:

 

Paolo Veronese, Honor, c.1557, National Library of Saint Mark, Venice

 

Paolo Veronese, Arithmetic and Geometry, c.1557, National Library of Saint Mark, Venice

 

Paolo Veronese, Music, c.1557, National Library of Saint Mark, Venice — Source: marciana.venezia.sbn.it

 

 

View of the library’s Salon — Source: anagrafe.iccu.sbn.it

 

After the Renaissance, the tondo format did not disappear, but painters used it very rarely. Two examples from the 19th century are a painting of emigration by Ford Madox Brown and a playful trompe-l’oeil by Pere Borrell del Caso:

 

Ford Madox Brown, The Last of England, 1855, Birmingham Museum, Birmingham

 

Pere Borrell del Caso, Two Laughing Girls, 1880, Museum for Catalan Modernism, Barcelona

 

In the modern age, one of the few artists who often used the tondo format is Swiss painter Fritz Glarner, a student and friend of Piet Mondrian:

 

Fritz Glarner, Relational Painting Tondo No.1, 1944, Kunsthaus Museum, Zürich — Source: flickr.com

 

Fritz Glarner, Relational Painting Tondo No.4, 1946, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra — Source: nga.gov.au

 

In the end, the rectangle of course remains the most common shape for paintings and the square comes second, but the tondo has a special place in Western art history, from wine cups in Ancient Greece to modern art, with a period of great popularity during the Renaissance.

Ancient Art in a Cup

You would probably not expect to find art at the bottom of wine cups, but that’s where you can see some of the earliest round paintings in the West, which were a major type of painted decorations in Ancient Greece around the 6th and 5th centuries BC.

 

Briseis Painter, red-figure kylix (drinking cup), Theseus Arrives in Athens / Theseus in Poseidon’s Undersea Palace, c.480BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — Source: metmuseum.org

 

The kind of wine cup the Ancient Greeks used at drinking parties is known as a “kylix,” and it usually features a round painting at the bottom, as well as paintings on the outside, which are often about heroes and scenes from Greek mythology.

 

C Painter, black-figure kylix, Heracles and Triton, c.570BC, British Museum, London — Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

 

Douris Painter, red-figure kylix, Athena and Heracles, ca. 475 BC, State Collection of Antiques, Munich

 

Other common topics include scenes from everyday life, especially music, drinking, and all kinds of celebrations.

 

Ashby Painter, red-figure kylix, Symposium Scene / Trumpet, c.500BC — Source: metmuseum.org

 

Makron, Libation Scene, c.480BC, Louvre Museum, Paris — Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

 

The painted circular part at the bottom of this kind of cup is called a “tondo,” from the Renaissance Italian “rotondo,” which means “round.”

Because round paintings became very popular in the 15th century in Italy, the Italian word “tondo” was then used to refer to all round paintings as well round sculptures and reliefs, including those at the bottom of ancient wine cups used for drinking parties.

Medieval Book Art

One of the most inspiring contributions of the Middle Ages to Western cultures is in the art of book illustration, with over 800 years of stunning compositions.

 

Echternach Gospels, Folio 75v, Lion, Symbol of Saint Mark, c.690, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris — Source: wiki

 

Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Annunciation, 1411-1489, Musée Condé, Chantilly — Source: historymedren.about.com

 

Illustrated texts are as old as writing itself, with examples found in Ancient Egypt and other ancient civilizations around the world, but in the West very few examples from before the Middle Ages survive, and none of them have the range of colors and designs found in Medieval works, many of which are religious. Illustrated Medieval books are usually called “illuminated,” and the process is known as “illumination.”

One of the earliest illuminated manuscripts is the Rossano Gospels, which dates from the 6th century:

 

Rossano Gospels, Folio 8v, Christ before Pilate, 6th century, Diocesan Museum, Rossano — Source: wikicommons

 

In the Middle Ages, those who learned to read usually learned from a psalter, which is a book of religious songs. Along with gospels, which are the books forming the Bible, psalters are a common type of book from that period, and many are beautifully illustrated:

 

Saint Albans Psalter, Psalm 136, c.1125, Cathedral Library, Hildesheim — Source: wiki

 

Psalter of Saint Louis, Folio 3v, Noah and the Dove, c.1250-1270, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris — Source: gallica.bnf.fr

 

Then, starting in the 13th century, a new type of illustrated book appears: the Book of Hours, which gives what prayer should be said at what time of the day and also has a calendar of important events. Books of Hours ultimately became the most richly illuminated books of the late Middle Ages and of the Early Renaissance:

 

Visconti Book of Hours, King David and Portrait of Visconti, c.1390-1430, National Library, Florence — Source: meraviglienascoste.it

 

Belles Heures du duc de Berry, The Duke on a Journey, c.1408, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — Source: metmuseum.org

 

Hastings Book of Hours, Adoration of Kings, 1475-1483, British Library, London — Source: bl.uk

 

Hastings Book of Hours, Devotion to St Christopher, 1475-1483, British Library, London — Source: wiki

 

The most famous Medieval Book of Hours of all perhaps remains the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, created between 1411 and 1416, with later additions in 1440 and the 1480s. It is particularly noted for its calendar, which features full-page illustrations dating from the 1410s and 1440s:

 

Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, January, 1411-1489, Musée Condé, Chantilly — Source: wiki

 

Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, February, 1411-1489, Musée Condé, Chantilly — Source: wiki

 

Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, May, 1411-1489, Musée Condé, Chantilly — Source: wiki

 

And book illustration is only one of the contributions of the Middle Ages to Western cultures, a unique art still developing today in children’s books and other genres, both in print and digital form.

Vikings in America

Yes, Christopher Columbus’ travels completely changed the world because they led Western European powers to colonize the Americas, but Columbus and his crew were not the first Europeans to reach the American continent. Vikings were, about 500 years before Columbus.

 

Viking ShipThe Gokstad Viking Ship, late 9th century, Viking Ship Museum, Oslo — Source: promare.org

 

Around the year 985, a merchant sailor from Iceland called Bjarni Herjólfsson was on his boat with his crew, going from Iceland to Greenland, when there was a big storm.

The boat was pushed away from Greenland, and Herjólfsson and his men saw a huge land mass covered with forests. Herjólfsson, however, did not stop to explore that new land, instead finding his way back to Greenland. According to what is known today, that was probably the first time Europeans had seen America.

Bjarni Herjólfsson told his story to others and about 15 years later another man from Iceland, called Leif Erikson, decided to go back and explore that new land. So it was that Vikings first landed on the American continent around the year 1,000 and founded a camp in the area that is Newfoundland in Canada today.

 

Leif Erikson paintingChristian Krohg, Leiv Eiriksson Discovers North America, 1893, National Museum of Art, Oslo

 

This story was then told in a book written by Adam of Bremen in the 1070s, and in the Icelandic Sagas of Erik the Red and of the Greenlanders in the 13th century.

In 1960, Norwegian archeologists proved that there was some truth in the story, when they discovered an ancient Viking camp near a small fishing village called L’Anse aux Meadows, in the area where Erikson had been.

 

imageL’Anse aux Meadows Location — Source: britannica.com

 

The evidence they found between 1960 and 1968 confirmed that this was a Viking camp from around the year 1,000, which proved that Vikings had sailed to the American continent about 500 years before Christopher Columbus.

 

image Excavation of buildings at the site © National Library of Norway/Ingstad Collection

imageReconstructed earth houses on the site — Photo by Dylan Kereluk

 

L’Anse aux Meadows became a World Heritage site in 1978, which the UNESCO describes as “the first and only known site established by Vikings in North America and the earliest evidence of European settlement in the New World. As such, it is a unique milestone in the history of human migration and discovery.”

Spot a Style: Baroque

In Western visual arts, “Baroque” refers to the works of the 17th century, which are all about engaging the viewer with drama, emotion and dynamism.

 

Peter Paul Rubens, The Tiger Hunt, c.1616, Fine Arts Museum, Rennes

 

Like “Gothic” before it and “Impressionist” after it, the word “Baroque” was actually first used as a kind of insult. Critics from the 18th century thought that some of the art of the 17th century was too busy and irregular, so they started calling it “baroque,” which referred to irregular pearls. The word is still used by jewelers in that sense today:

 

Pearl Shapes — Source: shecypearljewelry.com

 

It is only in the late 19th century that the word “Baroque” stopped being negative and started to describe the art of the 17th century as a whole, which was a period of exuberance and excess after the more orderly Renaissance and the austere Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The Baroque style was especially used by the Catholic Church and absolutist monarchs in Europe to show their wealth and power in the most impressive ways.

How do you spot the Baroque in the visual arts? Here are its main characteristics:

 

  • strong sense of movement
  • asymmetrical design
  • emphasis on diagonal lines
  • strong contrast between light and shadow
  • use of curves in interior design
  • rich decorations

 

One of the best-known Baroque painters is Peter Paul Rubens, who is famous for portraits, female nudes, and highly dramatic scenes like the tiger hunt above and the hippopotamus hunt below:

 

Peter Paul Rubens, The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt, c.1615, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

 

Others include Georges de la Tour, whose use of chiaroscuro, that is to say a strong contrast between light and shadow, is typically Baroque, along with tension, emotion and drama:

 

Georges de la Tour, Saint Sebastian Attended by Irene, 1649, Louvre Museum, Paris

 

Baroque sculptures show the same characteristics, with a lot of tension and movement. Major examples can be found in the works of Bernini, the most famous Baroque sculptor and architect:

 

Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1620s, Galleria Borghese, RomeSource: nihilnovum.wordpress.com

 

Bernini, David, 1620s, Galleria Borghese, RomeSource: pinterest.com

 

Bernini also created the main Baroque decorations for the interior of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, including the central baldachin:

 

Bernini, Saint Peter’s Interior, 1629-1676 — Source: all-free-photos.com

 

A lot of the architecture and design of the 17th century follows similar rules, with rich decorations showing wealth and power. A case in point is the Palace of Versailles, where the Royal Chapel perfectly illustrates Baroque principles:

 

Jules Hardouin-Mansart, Palace of Versailles Royal Chapel, built 1684-1710 — Photo by J.M Manaï

 

By the way, an amazing virtual visit of the Royal Chapel can be found at chapelle.chateauversailles.fr. Give it time to load. It’s really worth it.

 

So, if it’s from the 17th century or thereabouts and is very dynamic, dramatic and richly decorated, it’s Baroque. If it’s from the 18th century and looks like an extreme version of Baroque, then it’s probably Rococo.

The Robot Origins

The idea of artificial creatures that can do things by themselves is very old, and it can be found in many cultures around the world. The word “robot” itself, however, has very specific origins, which are earlier than Isaac Asimov’s 1950 novel I, Robot. 

 

Screenshot from the 2004 movie adaptation of I, Robot, directed by Alex Proyas

 

The word “robot” was created in the Czech language in 1920, for a highly influential science-fiction play entitled R.U.R. : Rossum’s Universal Robots.

The play was written by Czech author Karel Čapek, who needed a new word to refer to the artificial creatures in his story. His brother Josef, a painter and writer, is the one who created the word “robot,” based on the word “robota.” In the Czech language “robota” means “unpaid work” and is related to the word that means “slave.”

 

1920 cover of the play — the first time the word “robot” appeared in print

 

In the play, R.U.R is a company that invents biological machines called robots, which quickly become a necessary part of society as they work and produce things for free. The robots cannot feel or think at first, but then the company gives them a form of intelligence to make them more useful. Ten years later, the robots organize a revolution and destroy humanity. In the end, two robots discover feelings and become the new humans.

Parts of this sound familiar? This 1920 story has inspired a huge number of science-fiction works, from I-Robot to The Terminator, and the questions these stories raise about the social and economic consequences of intelligent machines are becoming more relevant every year.

So next time you hear or read the word “robot,” think about its 1920 origins in the Czech language, from the words meaning “unpaid work” and “slave.”

Laser Light Art

Lasers are always awesome, but when they explore major developments in Western art history, they can be truly spectacular. A case in point is the work of Matthew Schreiber, whose creations engage with light, geometry, technology and their place in the arts.

 

Matthew Schreiber, Garnett Cross, 2006 — Source: Johannes Vogt Gallery

 

Geometry has been playing a central role in Western art history since Ancient Greece, enabling crucial developments in the understanding of lines, volumes, proportions and perception of space. Some of Schreiber’s works play with these developments, including the invention of linear perspective in the Renaissance:

 

Leon Battista Alberti’s Linear Perspective Model, developed in the 1430s

 

Matthew Schreiber, Crystalline Lattice, 2010 — Sources: theartstack.com and juxtapoz.com

 

Schreiber has also engaged with volume geometry in a work that evokes another Renaissance master:

 

Leonardo da Vinci, Dodecahedron llustration for De Divina Proportione, 1498-99 (published 1509)

 

Matthew Schreiber, Mysterium Fixed, 2010 — Source: newmuseum.org

 

Weave-like geometries that blur the lines between the material and the immaterial are also a major feature of Schreiber’s laser installations:

 

Matthew Schreiber, Triple Ring, 2011 — Sources: Johannes Vogt Gallery and juxtapoz.com

 

Matthew Schreiber, Gatekeeper, 2014 — Source: thecreatorsproject.vice.com

 

Unsurprisingly, Matthew Schreiber spent thirteen years as the chief lighting expert for James Turrell, a pioneer of light art, before fully developing his own approach and creating those stunning laser spaces.

That’s what you get when you combine a childhood love of lasers and films with a strong understanding of art history.

The Muses in Paris

 

Why is one of the best-known artistic districts in Paris history named after a mountain in Greece? The Montparnasse area is indeed famous for being a major center of cultural life in the late 19th and early 20th century period, but its relation with Mount Parnassus in Greece is actually much older.

Mount Parnassus

Mount Parnassus – Photo by wiki user Electron08

 

In fact, the relation with the Greek mountain goes all the way back to the 17th century. At that time, the Montparnasse area was partly rural and the city of Paris used it to get rid of rubbish and waste from stone quarries. In time, all this rubble formed a small hill, where students from the Latin Quarter would come to hang out, find inspiration and recite poetry.

In Ancient Greek mythology, the goddesses who inspire poetic and artistic creation are known as the Muses, and their home is Mount Parnassus. So, the 17th-century students in Paris playfully called their small hill Mont Parnasse, which is French for Mount Parnassus, by association.

The Mont Parnasse nickname stayed and the entire area was eventually named Montparnasse. About three hundred years later, in the 1910s and 20s, the Montparnasse area became home to some of the biggest names in modern art and literature, including Picasso, Chagall, Modigliani and Fitzgerald, among many others.

 

Picasso Montparnasse

From left to right, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso and André Salmon in Montparnasse, photographed by Jean Cocteau in 1916

 

By then the small hill had disappeared, but the 17th-century students had got it right. For a time, Montparnasse truly became the home of the Muses in Paris.

 

 

Art Deco Glamour

The 1920s were the age of slim and sporty chic, of little dresses and cloche hats, the age when automobiles started to take over cities and ocean liners reached new heights of glory. It was an age of modern glamour that is perfectly captured in the works of the two best-known Art Deco visual artists of the interwar period — Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka and French poster artist A.M. Cassandre.

 

Tamara de Lempicka, Self-portrait – Tamara in the Green Bugatti, 1925

 

Tamara de Lempicka’s 1925 self-portrait in the green Bugatti, which is her most famous work, was actually commissioned for the cover of the German fashion magazine Die Dame. This reflects the strong links between Art Deco visuals and the fashion and lifestyle revolution that was taking place at the time, which few artists embraced more fully than Tamara de Lempicka herself, both in her art and life.

 

Tamara de Lempicka, The Green Turban, 1929

 

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of Mrs. Bush, 1929

 

Tamara de Lempicka, Young Lady with Gloves, 1930

 

Tamara de Lempicka’s most famous works are from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, which also happens to be the period when A.M. Cassandre designed his best-known Art Deco posters, starting with an ad for the very car brand in which Tamara de Lempicka portrayed herself the same year:

 

A.M. Cassandre, Bugatti poster, 1925

 

Cassandre was also commissioned to create posters that advertised the sporty-chic lifestyle of the age:

 

A.M. Cassandre, Grand-Sport poster, 1925

 

A.M. Cassandre, Italia-Sport poster, 1936

 

And his best-known works are for ocean liner companies and transatlantic cruises, on which Tamara de Lempicka had made her way to New York in 1929:

 

A.M. Cassandre, L’Atlantique poster, 1931

 

A.M. Cassandre, Normandie poster, 1935

 

Art Deco visual arts seldom engage with the profound implications of new machines and World War I. In that sense, they are different from other artistic movements of the interwar period. Instead, Art Deco visual arts often celebrate the glamour and the glitz of the era, fully embracing the revolution in fashion and lifestyle that came to define the Roaring Twenties.

Find out more about Art Deco here, and more about Tamara de Lempicka and Cassandre at delempicka.org and cassandre-france.com.

Spot a Style: Brutalist

Brutalism may well be the most controversial architectural style of the 20th century, loved by a few for radically new monumental structures, but usually hated by the public for its perceived negative impact on the urban environment, and used in cinema accordingly.

 

William Pereira, Geisel Library, 1970, University of California, San Diego — Photo by Katherine York

 

Alison and Peter Smithson, Robin Hood Gardens, completed in 1972, London — demolition of the estate started in 2013

 

The origins of the term “Brutalism” are unclear. Out of the possible explanations, the most common is that that the term comes from Le Corbusier’s béton brut, meaning rough concrete, but there is no consensus on this question. There is, however, agreement on the fact that the very word “Brutalist” has contributed to the style’s bad reputation, as it inevitably evokes violence and a lack of refinement.

 

How do you spot Brutalist architecture? Here are its main characteristics:

- Massive blocks repeated in geometric patterns

- Monumental scale of structures

- Extensive use of rough concrete, glass and industrial materials

- Emphasis on function

- Visible structural and functional parts

 

Emerging after World War II and continuing into the 1970s, Brutalism is strongly associated with the Cold War period, developing both in the Western bloc and in the Eastern bloc.

 

Marcel Breuer, Hubert H. Humphrey Building, 1972-1977, Washington D. C. — Source: wikicommons

 

Charles F. Murphy, J. Edgar Hoover Building, 1965-1975, Washington D. C. — Source: wikicommons

 

Mihajlo Mitrović, Western City Gate — Genex Tower, 1977, Belgrade — Photo by Blago Tebi

 

Andrey Meerson, Apartment Building, 1978, Moscow — Photo by Sergey Duhanin

 

Because of its looks and socio-political context, Brutalist architecture is often used in dystopian movies to represent the crushing weight of totalitarian states or dehumanizing societies.

 

The Ludovico Medical Facility in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 A Clockwork Orange — scene shot on location at Brunel University, Uxbridge

 

On a related note, the James Bond villain Goldfinger was reportedly named after the Brutalist architect Erno Goldfinger, who built the Trellick Tower in London and was reputed to be a particularly harsh person.

 

Erno Goldfinger, Trellick Tower, 1966-1972, London — Source: lovelondoncouncilhousing.com

 

Many Brutalist buildings have been demolished over the past decades, and more are scheduled to be. Many still remain, however, and can be seen on nearly every continent. So, if you find yourself looking at a massive building with rough concrete blocks and visible functional parts, chances are it’s Brutalist or was inspired by Brutalism.

 

The Graces and the Fates

Groups of three female figures are quite common in Western art, but they can represent very different ideas. In fact, the two most common groups, which are the Fates and the Three Graces, are both associated with life, but the Fates represent destiny and death, while the Graces represent life at its fullest.

 

Unknown tapestry maker, The Three Fates – The Triumph of Death, early 16th century, Victoria and Albert Museum, London — Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum

 

The Fates were considered to be the ones who decide of birth, life and death for each person. They were called Moirai by the Greeks, Parcae by the Romans, Norns by the Scandinavians, and share very similar features across those three civilizations.

The first was the spinner who made the thread for every human life, the second was the one who measured the length of that thread, and the third the one who cut the thread, deciding how the person would die.

 

Giorgio Ghisi, The Three Fates, 1558, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — Photo © Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

They usually have a serious, old or sad appearance, and they hold the rod on which the thread is spun, the thread itself, and most of the time, but not always, the scissors to cut the thread.

 

Alfred Agache, The Parcae, 1880s, Fine Arts Museum, Lille

 

The Fate’s appearance greatly contrasts with that of the Three Graces, who are usually young and playful. Their best-known representation is in Botticelli’s Primavera:

 

Botticelli, Primavera, c.1482, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The Three Graces in Botticelli’s Primavera

 

The Three Graces represent beauty, joy and plenty. They are usually shown holding hands, smiling at each other, dancing or hugging, forming a close-knit group.

 

Smile of The Three Graces, Roman copy of Greek statue, (c.2nd century, then restored in 1609), Louvre Museum, Paris — Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

 

Antonio Canova, The Three Graces, 1814-1817, Victoria and Albert Museum, London — Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum

 

So if you find yourself in front of a group of three female figures in a painting or sculpture, look at what they’re holding and doing. If they’re holding something that has to do with thread, they’re probably the Fates, representing human destiny and death. Otherwise, they’re probably the Graces, representing beauty, joy and plenty, in a great celebration of life.

Poster Pioneers and Cabarets

As a visit to any art or souvenir shop in Paris proves, late 19th-century advertising posters have a special place in French art history. The printing techniques were developed in Germany then perfected in England, but the first masters of the color-poster form are strongly associated with France and its cabarets. The father of them all is Jules Chéret, who pioneered brightly colored designs for the most famous Parisian nightclubs and entertainers of his time:

 

Jules Chéret, Bal du Moulin Rouge, 1889

 

Jules Chéret, Moulin Rouge: Paris Cancan, 1890

 

Jules Chéret, Folies Bergère: La Loïe Fuller, 1893

 

Jules Chéret, Folies Bergère: Emilienne d’Alençon, 1893

 

The best-known cabaret poster designer of the time, however, remains Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a younger artist who created some of the most recognizable posters in early advertising history. Unlike Chéret, whose posters covered many other topics, Toulouse-Lautrec mainly focused on the nightclubs and their stars, and he did so in a bold style that reveals the influence of Japanese woodblock prints, which were very fashionable in late 19th-century Western Europe:

 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891

 

 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Ambassadeurs: Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret, 1892

 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret, 1892

 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril au Jardin de Paris, 1893

 

By the late 1890s, advertising posters included all sorts of products and designs, but few of them are more iconic than the cabaret series by Jules Chéret and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. An exception is of course Steinlen’s Chat Noir, but that’s also a cabaret poster.

Stained Glass Evolution

Stained glass is usually associated with Medieval art, but the craft continued to develop and also includes masterpieces by Art Nouveau and modern artists, as well as designs that go beyond the religious. Here are some of the most stunning.

The Saint Vitus Cathedral window by Art Nouveau master Alfons Mucha:

 

Alfons Mucha, Stained Glass, 1931, Saint Vitus Cathedral, Prague — Source: insidenanabreadshead.com

 

Tiffany Windows by Art Nouveau master Louis Comfort Tiffany:

 

Magnolia and Irises, c.1908, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Magnolia and Irises, detail

Dogwood, c.1902-1915, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

When it comes to modern stained glass, a major name is Marc Chagall, the Russian-French artist who produced both religious and non-religious windows in the last phase of his career:

 

Marc Chagall, Stained Glass, 1974, Reims Cathedral — Source: dailyartfixx.com

 

Marc Chagall, America Windows, 1977, Art Institute of Chicago — Source: thehistoryblog.com

 

Just after Chagall finished the America Windows to celebrate the 200th anniversary of US Independence, Mexican artist Leopoldo Flores started work on one of the most monumental stained glass projects on the American continent, a mural around an entire building representing the cosmos. Known as Cosmovitral, it took sixty craftsmen and three years to build.

 

Leopoldo Flores, Cosmovitral, 1978-80, Toluca, State of Mexico — Photos by Lucy Nieto

 

From the first use of stained glass windows in Early Medieval churches all the way to Cosmovitral, there has always been something special about light shining through colored glass — something that lends itself to celebration and still fascinates, even after over 1,000 years of stained glass evolution.

 

 

 

When Vandals Ruled

The funny thing about history is that sometimes it takes shortcuts. By taking these shortcuts it can reduce an entire people to one feature, which comes to define that people for ages to come. A case in point is the word “vandal.” Today a vandal is someone who destroys or damages public or private property, and that kind of behavior is known as “vandalism.”

 

A vandalized train

 

Originally, a Vandal was a member of the Vandal tribes, which included different groups from Scandinavia. In the 4th and 5th centuries the Vandals fought and plundered their way through Eastern Europe, France and Spain, then created a kingdom on the north coast of Africa. From there, they crossed the Mediterranean and sacked Rome in the year 455.

 

 

Other tribes, especially the Huns and Goths, caused at least as much destruction as the Vandals in the Roman Empire. In fact the Goths sacked Rome a few decades before the Vandals did, and the Romans themselves had razed entire cities to the ground. Yet by the 17th century it was the name “Vandal” that had become synonymous with destruction in Europe.

In reality, the Vandals had their own language, religious practices and social structures. They had kings, with an organized kingdom, and for about a hundred years, they ruled. Then they were completely destroyed by the Eastern Roman Empire and disappeared. Ironic, isn’t it?

Spot a Style: Streamline Moderne

Streamline Moderne, with an unexpected -e at the end, is a highly influential architectural and industrial design styles of the 1930-1950 period. It has its origins in Art Deco, but goes beyond it by smoothing out Art Deco’s features and expanding its reach to include mass-produced everyday objects.

 

K.E.M. Weber, Lawson Zephyr Clock, 1933 — Source: collectorsweekly.com

 

While Art Deco prefers straight lines and angles, Streamline focuses on aerodynamics and relies on smooth curves, borrowing elements from boat design, which is why it’s called Style Paquebot, i.e. Ocean Liner Style, in French.

How do you spot Streamline Moderne? Here are its characteristic features:

- emphasis on horizontal lines

- aerodynamic design suggestive of speed

- perfectly smooth and polished curves

- rounded corners and edges

- round openings inspired by porthole windows

- strong presence of chrome

- walls of glass bricks

 

The most striking examples of Streamline design are naturally related to transportation. Here is the S1 Locomotive, designed for Pennsylvania Railroads by Raymond Loewy, the French-American designer who is one of the pioneers of Streamline:

 

PRR S1 at New York World’s Fair, 1939-1940 — Photo from William Burket collection

 

In the automobile industry, Hudson cars from the 1940s are typically Streamline:

 

1947 Hudson Commodore Convertible — Source: wikicommons

 

Streamline trailers are perhaps even more iconic, especially the originals — the 1935 Bowlus Road Chief and the 1936 Airstream Clipper:

 

 Vintage 1935 Road Chief, designed by William Hawley Bowlus — Source: vintagetrailercamp.com

 

 

1936 Airstream Clipper on the road — Source: boston.com

 

Streamline Moderne, however, had an even more significant impact in the field of home appliances, as it became part of everyday life from the late 1930s to the late 1950s:

 

Crosley Streamlined Fridge, 1930s — Source: sciencemuseum.org.uk

Robert Heller, Airflow Fan, 1940s — Source: arttattler.com

 

Walter Dorwin Teague, Desk Lamp, c.1939 — Source: 1stdibs.com

 

Streamline applies to architecture as well, especially when associated to transportation, as in Greyhound bus stations from the 1940s and 50s:

 

1940s Greyhound Station, Blytheville, Arkansas — Source: waymarking.com

 

1940s Postcard — Source: viewlinerltd.blogspot

 

Another great example is San Francisco’s Bathers’ Building, now a museum, built in the late 1930s and designed to evoke a boat:

 

Source: nps.gov

 

Larger examples of Streamline Moderne can be seen in Miami’s Art Deco district, which includes the Marlin Hotel, built in 1939, and the Sherbrooke Hotel, built in 1948:

 

Source: ruskinarc.com

 

Source: images.travelpod.com

 

So, if it’s from the 1930-1950 period and has smooth, aerodynamic curves evoking horizontal speed, chances are it’s Streamline Moderne. If it’s brand new but has clean retro curves, it’s probably inspired by Streamline Moderne.

 

The Atlas Connection

The Atlantic Ocean, the Atlas Mountains, books of maps, architecture and statues, vertebrae and legendary islands are all connected by Atlas, the titan who appears in a wider variety of fields than perhaps any other character from ancient Greek myth.

 

Lee Lawrie, Atlas, 1937, Rockefeller Center, New York — Source: cmiper.com

 

In the myth, Atlas is one of the first gods, the Titans, who fight against the new gods, the Olympians led by Zeus, to decide who will rule the world. The Olympians win, and Zeus punishes Atlas by sending him to the western edge of the world to hold up the sky on his shoulders.

 

Vase with Atlas and Heracles, c.480 BC, National Archaeological Museum, Athens

 

For the Ancient Greeks, the western edge of the world was the north coast of Africa, starting in the area that is Libya and Tunisia today, so everything there was related to Atlas for them.

Naturally, they gave the name Atlas to the massive mountain range that starts in Tunisia and goes all the way to the ocean on the coast of Morocco in the west, even creating a myth according to which these mountains are Atlas himself turned into stone by Perseus with the head of Medusa.

 

Atlas Mountains (red) on satellite image — Source: commons.wikimedia.org

 

Also naturally, they gave the name Sea of Atlas, in Greek Atlantis Thalassa, to the ocean at the western foot of the Atlas Mountains, which has given us the name Atlantic Ocean, and because a powerful ancient island was supposed to be in that area, Plato called it Atlantis.

In the oldest known statue of Atlas, which is a Roman copy of an older Greek statue, the sky is represented as a sphere with a map of the stars and constellations known to the Ancient Greeks, which they represented as objects, animals and mythological creatures and characters:

 

Farnese Atlas, 2nd century, National Archeological Museum, Naples

 

Because of the sky map, and perhaps because it looks like Atlas is holding the Earth, 16th-century map-makers started using the image of Atlas holding a globe to decorate their books of maps. Here is the first example in history, at the top of this title page:

 

Antonio Lafreri, Tavole Moderne Di Geografia De La Maggior Parte Del Mondo Di Diversi Autori, 1572

 

By association, an “atlas” became a word referring to a book of maps. Also by association, a column with a male statue holding up part of a building is known as an “atlas” as well, and so is the vertebra that holds the skull at the top of the spine.

 

Atlantes (plural of Atlas), at 116 rue Réaumur in Paris — Source: fr.academic.ru

 

Atlas Vertebra Diagram — Source: ffcpc.org

 

So if you see a statue or image representing a male figure holding up something big and heavy, it’s probably Atlas, the titan who was forced to hold up the sky and whose name is still used today in geography, architecture and more.

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