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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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

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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?



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.



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.




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:




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:





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:



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:




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:



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


Felice Varini, Huit rectangles, 2007, Musée des beaux arts, Arras - Source:


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:

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:



View of the library’s Salon — Source:


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:


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


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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


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


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:


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:


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:


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:


Bernini, David, 1620s, Galleria Borghese, RomeSource:


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:


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 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: and


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:


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


Matthew Schreiber, Gatekeeper, 2014 — Source:


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 and

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:


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:


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:


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


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:


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:



1936 Airstream Clipper on the road — Source:


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:

Robert Heller, Airflow Fan, 1940s — Source:


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


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:


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:




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:






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:


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:


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:


Atlas Vertebra Diagram — Source:


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.

Horses and Art History

From cave paintings to Cubism, nearly every major period in art history can be illustrated with a horse, as no other animal in Western Art has been represented in such a variety of styles.


Horse Painting, c.15,000 BC, Lascaux Caves, France


Horse Heads on Corinthian black-figure plate, 600–575 BC, Kunstareal State Collections of Antiques, Munich


By the 5th century BC, there already were paintings about the horse as a sculpture:


Foundry Painter, Athena in the Workshop of a Sculptor Working on a Marble Horse, c.480 BC, Kunstareal State Collections of Antiques, Munich


Ancient Rome used the equestrian statue as a way of celebrating important men, but most of the statues were eventually melted for metal, so only one has survived:



Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, 160-180 AD, Capitoline Museums, Rome


The convention of representing powerful people on horseback did not disappear in the Middle Ages, but the horse is never represented for its own sake in Medieval Art, which mainly highlights its military and agricultural roles:


Battle of Hastings, scene 55 from the Bayeux Tapestry, 1070s, William the Conqueror Center, Bayeux, France


Limbourg Brothers, October in Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1412-1440s, Musée Condé, Chantilly, France


The Renaissance brought back the Roman tradition of the large equestrian statue, the first being Donatello’s Gattamelata:


Donatello, Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata, 1446-1453, Padua — Photo by Mary Ann Sullivan


Then the 1600s saw the confirmation of the portrait on horseback as a genre:


Diego Velázquez, Equestrian Portrait of the Count of Olivares, 1630s, Prado Museum, Madrid


As well as the rise of animal painting, with the horse represented for its own sake:


Paulus Potter, The Piebald Horse, 1650s, L.A. County Museum of Art, Los Angeles


The absolute master of horse painting, however, remains the 18th-century English painter George Stubbs:


George Stubbs, Whistlejacket, c.1762, National Gallery, London


George Stubbs, Mares and Foals in a Landscape, 1760s, Tate Britain, London


In the 1800s in France, Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix brought a Romantic sensitivity and drama to the representation of horses:


Théodore Géricault, Grey-White Arab Horse, c.1812, Fine Arts Museum, Rouen


Eugène Delacroix, Arab Horses Fighting in a Stable, 1860, Louvre Museum, Paris


Horses can also be found in the Impressionist paintings of Edgar Degas, who captured snapshots at the races:


Edgar Degas, At the Races: Before the Start, 1892, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond


Even Wassily Kandinsky, who claimed to be the first abstract painter, could not escape the horse:


Wassily Kandinsky, Rider, 1911, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam


Nor could the Cubists (the horse’s head is in the upper right-hand corner):


Jean Metzinger, Woman with a Horse, 1911, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen


So if you find yourself looking at a painted or sculpted horse, remember that it’s part of a history of representation that dates back about 17,000 years and includes nearly every major movement or period all the way up to World War II, making the horse the most widely represented animal in Western Art.

The Scales of Justice

Even though all Western cultures represent justice in the same way — a female figure holding scales and a sword, sometimes wearing a blindfold — only the sword and blindfold come from Western sources. The scales of justice originated in a more ancient civilization, and today’s common representation of justice only came together gradually over centuries.


A typical representation of justice

The most recent addition is the blindfold. It did not feature in the early Roman representation of justice called Iustitia, but appeared later to represent impartiality, as justice is supposed to be the same for everyone, regardless of appearance, gender, wealth or any other characteristic. The blindfold, however, is the one feature that is not always present, even in more recent representations.

F. W. Pomeroy, Lady Justice, 1880s, Old Bailey, London


Unlike the blindfold, the sword was a key attribute of Roman Iustitia, which cut through conflicts and punished the guilty. Ironically, the sword of justice was and still is a double-edged sword in every representation.

The Ancient Greek goddess of divine justice and order, called Themis, was not clearly said to carry a sword, nor was her daughter Dikē, goddess of human justice, but modern statues of these two goddesses often include one, perhaps by association with Iustitia.

As for the pair of scales, it represents the weighing of evidence, first recorded not in Ancient Greece but in the Ancient Egyptian myth of the Weighing of the Heart.


Papyrus of Hunefer, detail, c.1285 BC, British Museum, London


In Ancient Egyptian culture, Maat was the goddess of truth, justice and order. When someone died, it was believed that their heart was weighed by the god Anubis against the feather that Maat always wore in her hair, an ostrich feather representing truth and justice.


Statue of Maat, 6th-3rd century BC, Louvre Museum, Paris


If the person had committed a crime, their heart would be heavier than the feather and Ammit, the demon with the head of a crocodile, would eat the heart, dooming the person’s soul to stay forever in the underworld and never find rest.


Papyrus of Ani, detail from Plate 3, c.1200 BC, British Museum, London


It is not clear to what extent Maat and the Weighing of the Heart influenced Greek and Roman representations of justice, but the first version of the scales is definitely Egyptian.

The Quest for Realism

From the first reported painting competition in the 5th century BC to the latest innovations in digital imagery, one of the major features of Western cultural history is a fascination with the perfect imitation of reality and all its lights, colors, textures and volumes.


Giovanni Ruoppolo, Grapes on a Tree Trunk, 17th century, Louvre Museum, Paris


That first reported painting competition in Western history is probably a legend, but it reveals the West’s fascination with convincing realism. The competition was between Zeuxis and Parrhasius, two real painters in Ancient Greece.

When Zeuxis removed the curtain to reveal his painting of a boy with grapes to the jury, the fruit looked so real that it attracted birds, which tried to eat the painted grapes. Zeuxis thought he had won the competition for sure and asked Parrhasius to remove his curtain and show his painting.

Parrhasius said he would not, so Zeuxis went to do it himself. It was only when Zeuxis tried to remove it that he and the jury realized that Parrhasius’s curtain was his painting. Zeuxis had fooled the birds, but Parrhasius had fooled everyone with his painting of a curtain and won the competition.

Since then, every technical innovation has brought that perfect imitation closer, especially affecting genres such as still life and portraiture, with fabric often playing a prominent role.


Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Turkey Pie, 1627, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Princess Albert de Broglie, 1853, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The same quest is found in sculpture as well:


Raffaelle Monti, A Veiled Vestal Virgin, c.1847, Chatsworth House, England


The quest for perfect realism in the West was abandoned by most artists in the 20th century, but the digital revolution brought it back to life. Computer-Generated Images now win major cinema awards and tech companies are competing to produce the most convincing Virtual Reality experiences. The difference is in the purpose. It’s no longer just about imitating the reality we know. It’s also about creating new ones.

Everyday Symbols from Alchemy

Alchemy, the ancient mystical study of the transformations of matter, may not have reached its goals, such as changing lead into gold and finding a universal cure for all diseases, but it did make contributions to ancient sciences and cultures that are still used today. Two of the most common symbols in the West, for instance, come from Alchemy:

Left, the symbol for “female” — Right, the symbol for “male”


In alchemy, each of the seven moving objects that can be seen in the sky with the naked eye — the sun, the moon, and the five classical planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — is represented by a symbol and associated with one of the seven metals known to the ancient world — gold, silver, mercury, copper, iron, tin and lead.

The symbol for iron and the planet Mars, named after the Roman god of war, is the symbol that still represents “male” in the West today, and the symbol for copper and the planet Venus, named after the Roman goddess of love, still represents “female.”

So, the idea that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” may have been popularized in the early 1990s by the book using that sentence as a title, but the association is actually much older, and we have alchemists to thank for the symbols, which started to represent “male” and “female” in the late Renaissance.

The seven days of the week, by the way, are also named after the seven visible moving objects in the sky and the gods whose names they bear, as shown here.

The Impressionist Insult

This is the painting that is considered to be the source of the word “Impressionist:”


Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris


More specifically, the term “Impressionist” was created by journalist and playwright Louis Leroy as an insult inspired by Monet’s painting. In the April 25, 1874 edition of the Charivari journal, Leroy published an imaginary dialogue in which he ridiculed Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, suggesting that the title was very good because the painting was indeed impressively impressionistic, that is to say extremely vague and not precise enough. Here is an extract from Leroy’s article, with a translation:


“— Que représente cette toile? Voyez au livret.

— Impression, soleil levant. 

— Impression, j’en étais sûr. Je me disais aussi, puisque je suis impressionné, il doit y avoir de l’impression là-dedans… Et quelle liberté, quelle aisance dans la facture ! Le papier peint à l’état embryonnaire est encore plus fait que cette marine-là…”

“ What’s this painting about? Look at the booklet.”

Impression, Sunrise.

“Impression — I knew it. I was thinking that since I’m impressed, there must be some impression in there. And the draftsmanship is so free, so effortless! Sketches for wallpaper are more developed than that seascape.”


The rest of Leroy’s article, which can be read here in French, is just as sarcastic and contemptuous, echoing the views of a large part of the French public of the 1870s, who dismissed the Impressionists as worthless. History, however, decided otherwise, and the word that was born as an insult grew to be the name of one of the most influential movements in Western arts.

Cultural Inspiration Flows

One of the main revolutions that took place in Western cultures in the 20th century is the breaking down of the boundaries between so-called high culture and popular culture. Take Hagia Sophia, for instance:



Hagia Sophia was built in the early 6th century in Constantinople, the city that is Istanbul today and that was first known as Byzantium. The building spent over 900 years as a Greek Orthodox church, with a brief conversion to a Roman Catholic church in the first half of the 13th century.

In 1453, when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, Hagia Sophia became a mosque, with the addition of the required minarets, the tall and thin towers from which the faithful are called to prayer. In 1935, a few years after Constantinople was renamed Istanbul, Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum that preserves the architectural and religious wonders of its rich history, including a spectacular interior:


Hagia Sophia interior — Photo by Dean Strelau


Hagia Sophia inspired architects and artists alike. They tried to capture some of its magic, as John Singer Sargent did when he painted the golden light he saw inside one morning:


John Singer Sargent, Interior of the Hagia Sophia, 1891, Speed Art Museum, Louisville


However, Hagia Sophia did not only inspire so-called high culture. As a matter of fact, it is also the main inspiration for the architecture of a city seen in Star Wars — Naboo:


Naboo architecture — Source


As inspiration flows back and forth between the two ends of the spectrum of so-called high and popular forms of cultural expression, one thing is for sure — cultural creativity has never been more inclusive, or more inspired.

Paintings of Paintings

Before photography and the Internet, knowledge of art collections spread through art itself, as collectors and artists collaborated to show their worth, especially in painting. This resulted in a genre of paintings about galleries of paintings, which was popular in the 17th and 18 centuries.


Willem van Haecht, The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, 1628, Rubenshuis, Antwerp

Cornelis de Baellieur, Interior of a Collector’s Gallery of Paintings and Objets d’Art, 1637, Louvre Museum, Paris


David Teniers the Younger, The Art Collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels, c.1650, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


One of the last projects in this genre was Samuel Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre. Yes, that Samuel Morse, the one who invented the telegraph and the Morse code. He actually was an accomplished painter as well as an inventor. With this ambitious project, he wanted to bring the best of the Louvre to America, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which can be seen in the bottom row on the right side of the door:


Samuel Morse, Gallery of the Louvre, 1831-33, Terra Foundation for the Arts, Chicago


Other examples of paintings with works of art feature both real and imaginary ones:


Giovanni Paolo Panini, Ancient Rome, 1754-1759, three versions: Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart – Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – Louvre Museum, Paris


Giovanni Paolo Panini, Modern Rome, 1754-1759, three versions: Boston Museum of Fine Arts – Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – Louvre Museum, Paris


In these two works, the painted sculptures do exist in Rome, but the paintings do not. They are different views of famous Roman buildings that were specifically created by Panini for this series on views of Rome. They cannot be seen anywhere else.

The genre of paintings of paintings disappeared in the 19th century, but the commentary of painters on their art did not. In a way, it was just beginning. With Modern Art around the corner, painting was about to be questioned like never before.

The Origin of Clues

The word “clue,” as in “a piece of evidence used as a guide in solving a mystery or a problem,” originally means “a ball of thread,” and it was spelled “clew.” What’s thread got to do with clues? The answer is in the story of Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur.

In Greek mythology the Minotaur is a violent monster, half human and half bull, born on the island of Crete. To keep it from hurting people, the king of the island makes Daedalus, an inventor and architect, create a labyrinth that the Minotaur will never be able to escape.

One version of the Labyrinth


Then one day the king’s son is killed in Athens. The king goes to war against Athens, wins, and as a punishment forces Athens to send seven girls and seven boys to Crete every year, or every seven years, depending on the version of the myth. The girls and boys are forced into the labyrinth, where they are eaten by the Minotaur.


House of Theseus Mosaic, c.3rd century, Paphos, Cyprus


One year Theseus, the son of the king of Athens, decides to go to Crete in order to kill the Minotaur and stop the sacrifices. When Theseus arrives in Crete he meets Ariadne, the king’s daughter, and she falls in love with him. Theseus tells Ariadne that he intends to kill the Minotaur and that he will marry her if she helps him. That’s when Ariadne gives him a ball of thread, called a “clew,” which Daedalus had given her, and she tells Theseus how to find his way back out of the labyrinth with it:


Nicolo Bambini, Ariadne and Theseus, early 18th century, Private Collection


Theseus ties one end of the thread to the door of the labyrinth, manages to find and kill the Minotaur deep inside the labyrinth, and then follows the thread back out.

The word “clew” therefore always meant both “a ball of thread” and “something that guides a person out of a difficult or mysterious situation.” The spelling changed from “clew” to the modern “clue,” and the word we use today was born. That’s the origin of clues in English.

The Liberty Hat

This is the story of a common hat from Ancient Turkey that became a major symbol of freedom in Western cultures, a hat that can be seen in the United States Capitol, in representations of the French Republic, and more generally in flags, paintings and sculptures from Ancient Greece to the modern age. Here it is at the top of the Official Seal of the United States Senate, still used today to authenticate documents:


Worn in ancient times in Phrygia, a region that is part of Turkey today, the soft hat known as a Phrygian cap was seen by the Greeks as a sign of non-Greek people from the East, including heroes such as the Trojan prince Paris:


Helen and Paris on a red-figure krater, c.380BC, Louvre Museum, Paris


In Greece itself a relatively similar cap was worn by travelers. Called pileus by the Romans, that hat was later used for a special ceremony that is the main source of the association between this simple hat and freedom. When Roman slaves were given their freedom, there was a ceremony during which their master touched their shoulder with a special stick and gave them a pileus to wear, which showed they were not slaves anymore.

This is the symbol that features on the coats of arms of Argentina and Haiti today, as well as on the emblem of the US Department of the Army, and the flags of several states, including New York:

Coat of Arms of Argentina


Coat of Arms of Haiti


US Department of Army Emblem — Source:


Flag of New York State


Because the pileus and the Phrygian cap look similar, they were eventually both associated with freedom and mixed up, resulting in the liberty hat, which became an important symbol in the 18th century during the French and American Revolutions.


Illustration of French revolutionary


The Phrygian cap even became the official hat of the female representation of the French Republic, Marianne:


Bust of Marianne, second half of 19th century — Photo by Laurent Lecat


Logo of the French Republic


Delacroix also used this figure in his painting about the Revolution of July 1830, representing Liberty as Marianne with her freedom hat:


Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Guiding the People, 1830, Louvre Museum, Paris


The same hat can be seen on the head of the figure representing Young America and on Lady Liberty, sitting next to Washington, in Brumidi’s 1865 Apotheosis of George Washington in the US Capitol Rotunda:



Through association with heroes and freed slaves, a simple hat became a major symbol of freedom in the West. It may not look like much, but it signifies a lot.

Connecting Rainbows

From a great snake to a sign from God, the rainbow is one of the most varied natural symbols in cultures worldwide. In European and North American cultures, however, the rainbow has a common function that is found in Scandinavian mythology, Greek and Roman mythology, as well as Judeo-Christian traditions. That function is to connect. More specifically, to connect the human world with the world of gods.

In Scandinavian mythology, the bridge that connects Asgard, home of the gods, with the Earth is a rainbow that can only be crossed by gods or the souls of those who died bravely in battle. Described as having only three colors in the 13th century poetic Eddas, the Bifröst is now commonly thought of as a complete rainbow:


Sally Cutler / Rob Sheffield, illustration for Francis Melville, The Book of Runes, 2003


In Ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the rainbow is associated with the goddess Iris, whose main function is to deliver the gods’ messages to humans and other gods. Depending on sources and times, Iris is described as having golden wings and rainbow-colored robes, or rainbow-colored wings, or leaving behind her a rainbow as a sign of her passage.

Iris’s name used to be the word for “rainbow” in many languages and still is in some. In Spanish, for instance, the word for rainbow is “arcoiris.” Her name is also still used as the basis of words that describe rainbow-like effects, such as “iridescence.” Descriptions of Iris therefore often include shimmery wings or a rainbow, to clearly show who she is, including in Disney animation:


Screenshots from the Pastoral scene of Fantasia, originally released in 1940


In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the rainbow appears to Noah after the Flood as a sign of the covenant, or agreement, between humankind and God. More specifically, it symbolizes God’s promise not to destroy life on Earth with a flood again, as long as Noah’s children follow God’s laws.


Joseph Anton Koch, Landscape with Noah’s Thank Offering, c.1803, Städel, Frankfurt


John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1831, The National Gallery, London


Sometimes these traditions seem to be mixed, as in Brumidi’s Apotheosis of George Washington. “Apotheosis” literally means to “make into a god,” so the painting depicts George Washington being taken up to heaven as a god. How does he go up? On a rainbow:


Constantino Brumidi, Apotheosis of George Washington – detail, 1865, Capitol Rotunda, Washington, D.C.


So if you come across a rainbow in relation with European or North American cultures, chances are it represents the Bifröst bridge, Iris the Ancient Greek messenger of the gods, the agreement between God and humankind, or possibly a mix of those. In all such cases, the rainbow connects the Earth with the heavens, the human with the divine.

Calder and the Art of Balance

Creativity strives on the careful balance of control and letting go, which few artworks embody more gracefully than Alexander Calder’s mobiles, the suspended, freely-moving structures he invented in the early 1930s.

Alexander Calder, Arc of Petals, 1941, Guggenheim Foundation, Venice


Reacting to the slightest changes in the air around them, the mobiles are delicately dynamic and move with a natural randomness that looks deceptively simple. They actually require quite a bit of calculation involving what gravity does to a mass in movement, as well as very precise assembly. In other words, Calder carefully designed possibilities of movement and then gave up control to nature, to the moment.


Alexander Calder, Big Red, 1959, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


The mobiles’ shapes are abstract and reveal the surrealist influence of Calder’s friend Joan Miro, but in many ways they manage to blend the abstract with the organic forms of nature in their endless variety. Some of the mobiles evoke flower petals suspended in mid-air, or whirling leaves, others a shoal of fish, a prehistoric creature, or the sudden visualization of sounds, as some of the titles suggest.


Alexander Calder, Vertical Foliage, 1941, Calder Foundation, New York


Alexander Calder, Triple Gong, 1951, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Calder’s largest work, Untitled, 1976, hangs in the atrium of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building in Washington, D.C., as restored by a team that includes the grandson of Henri Matisse, Paul Matisse, a friend of Calder’s:



The National Gallery has a large collection of Calder’s works, and more can be seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Centre Pompidou in Paris also has several pieces by Calder, as does the Queen Sofia Museum in Madrid. The mobiles are definitely worth a trip, as pictures don’t do them justice.

Calder’s mobiles are not simply about balance in relation with gravity. Their ever-changing forms manage to balance the natural and the abstract, the timeless and the modern, order and chaos, control and letting go, in ways that make Calder’s pieces absolutely unique in the world of art.

Fantin-Latour’s Roses

While Monet was breaking new ground with his water lilies and Van Gogh creating his sunflowers series, Henri Fantin-Latour painted roses. He also produced much-admired individual and group portraits as well as other still-lifes, but he remains associated with roses more than any other 19th century painter.


Fantin-Latour, A Vase of Roses, 1895, Auckland Gallery of Art, Auckland


The rose is one of the flowers with the most diverse meanings in western symbolism. A few examples include the red rose as a symbol of love, the white rose as a Christian symbol of the Virgin Mary, the red rose as emblem of most center-left political parties in Europe including the British Labour Party, and the red and white Tudor Rose as national flower of England representing political union after the civil war.

There is, however, no symbolism or hidden meaning in Fantin-Latour’s roses. No political or religious undertones. Only subtle harmonies celebrating natural beauty, and a hint of the passing of time.


Fantin-Latour, Roses de Nice on a Table, 1882, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Fantin-Latour, Marechal Neil Roses, 1883, Private Collection

Fantin-Latour, Basket of Roses, 1890, National Gallery, London


Fantin-Latour painted so many hundred-petalled roses that one variety was named after him:


A Fantin-Latour Rose — Photo by Virginie Douce, lejardinsainteanne.blogspot


This may look like another case of life imitating art, but this variety of roses was actually created long before Fantin-Latour was born. It is still grown today, its name now honoring the association between a master painter and one of the most inspirational flowers in Western cultures.

Ancient Gods in Weekday Names

In many Western languages the days of the week are still named after ancient gods we seldom think about anymore, even though some of them have been the source of major Hollywood blockbusters recently. Think about Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in English. Three days in a row, referring to one powerful family of gods:


Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Renée Russo as Frigga in Thor, 2011 and Thor: The Dark World, 2013


Wednesday is Woden’s day, from one of the names of Odin, the most important Scandinavian divinity, god of victory and death.

Thursday is Thor’s day, from the name of Odin’s son, the god of thunder Thor, who is the equivalent of the Roman god Jupiter.

Friday is the day of Frigga, Odin’s wife and goddess of love, the equivalent of the Roman goddess Venus.

What about the rest of the week?

Tuesday is the day of Tiwaz, also called Tyr, who is the Scandinavian god of war equivalent to the Roman god Mars, and Saturday is the day of Saturn, the Roman god of Agriculture.

Tyr is the least-known of them all now, but he is famous in Scandinavian mythology for sacrificing his right hand to Fenrir, the wolf that threatens to destroy other gods, in order to tie it down with a magic ribbon:


Illustration from Icelandic manuscript NKS 1867 4to, 1760, Royal Danish Library


As for Monday and Sunday, their names do not refer to gods, but to the moon and the sun, which have always been as important as gods, and in some cultures worshipped as such.

Ultimately, the seven days of the week refer to the seven moving objects visible in the sky to the Ancients, that is to say the sun and the moon, and the five classical planets — Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn — each of which was named after a god from ancient mythology.

All these religious figures may have faded away, but their stories remain as a major part of Western cultures. We still refer to them every day of the week.

The Art of Stripes

Stripes have had complex and sometimes contradictory meanings throughout Western history — think the American flag vs. prison uniforms — but in modern visual arts, stripes are less complicated. They’re all about rhythm, division and unity, as evidenced by their use on canvas, installations, and even warships.


Barnett Newman, Voice of Fire, 1967, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa


Stripes are powerful because they unite and divide in equal measure. They unite through repetition, while forming boundaries that sharply divide planes and colors at the same time. In the process, they create rhythm like no other pattern.


Daniel Buren, Les Deux Plateaux, 1986, Palais-Royal, Paris — Photo by Pierrot Heritier


Daniel Buren, Color and its Reflections, 1996, Odaiba, Tokyo — Source:


While Daniel Buren is known for always using the same 8.7cm stripe in perfect regularity, Sean Scully is famous for creating clashing rhythms through the combination of different stripes:


Sean Scully, Aruba, 1998, Private Collection


Sean Scully, Blue, 1981, Irish Museum of Modern Art


In the case of Agnes Martin, the stripes are always much lighter, more balanced and quieter:


Agnes Martin, Untitled #10, 1991, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam


Moving from the slight irregularity of the first line to the perfect order of the following ones, Agnes Martin manages to create a sense of calm and quiet that is found in every one of her minimalist works.

On a bolder note, stripes were used during World War I to make large ships more difficult to track by creating confusion about their size and the direction they were going. The patterns were so bold and confusing that they became known as Razzle Dazzle Camouflage.

SS Osterley, November 11, 1918 — Source:




Whether Razzle Dazzle Camouflage actually worked is a debated question, but the sailors thought it worked and that’s what mattered, as it made them feel safer and therefore more confident, which is why it was also sometimes used in World War II despite the advances in tracking technology:

French Cruiser Gloire — Source:


Loud and bold or calm and quiet, stripes can create almost any rhythm. That’s their power in the visual arts.

The Dove and the Olive Branch

Why is the olive branch a symbol of peace in the West, and what has the dove got to do with it? The answers take us far into the past, before the Bible, then bring us back to the modern age with Picasso.


Pablo Picasso, Dove, 1949, Succession Picasso/DACS 2010


Because it is one of the most easily tamed birds, the white dove has been a symbol of peace, innocence and love since Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and it was the bird associated with Aphrodite / Venus, the Goddess of Love, in Ancient Greece and Rome.

As for olives, they are such an important crop for countries around the Mediterranean Sea that the branch of the olive tree has been a highly positive symbol in their cultures since ancient times.

According to mythology, the city of Athens was named after the goddess Athena because it was her who gave the people of Athens their best gift — olive trees, which produced the city’s most precious oil. This actually featured on their coins:


Athenian Coin, c.430 BC; Left: Athena wearing olive leaf wreath — Right: Olive branch and owl, the bird that always goes with Athena — Source



The olive tree was so important that the reward for winning an event in the ancient Olympic Games was not a gold medal, but a wreath of olive leaves with which the winner was crowned, just like Athena on the coin above.

The olive also appears in many ancient texts in relation with peace. In Virgil’s Aeneid, for instance, the main character holds an olive branch to offer peace, and in other texts there are records of Roman generals holding up an olive branch to ask for peace after being defeated in battle.

These symbols were used in Judaism as well and put together in the Old Testament story of Noah’s ark. After the Flood, Noah released a dove from his ship and when it came back, it was holding an olive branch in its beak, showing that there was land again. The dove also appears in the New Testament and in Christian art as a symbol of the Holy Spirit of God, the innocence of Mary, and as a messenger from God.


Nicolas Poussin, The Annunciation, 1657, National Gallery, London


So a combination of tameness, precious crops, mythological and religious factors from the ancient world brought the olive branch and the dove together. Their association then went beyond the religious, especially with the World Peace Congresses that took place after World War II, which used Picasso’s doves as logos.


Poster for the first World Peace Congress, 1949


Poster for the 1962 Peace Congress


Picasso created many variations of his dove with olive branch, and it became one of the signs of the peace movement of the second half of the twentieth century, adding one more chapter to a story of symbols that began over three thousand years ago.

When Life Imitates Art

What did Oscar Wilde mean when he wrote that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life”? Simply put, this quote from The Decay of Lying (1891) is about how art affects the way we look at the world around us. Take fog, for instance:


J.M.W. Turner, Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


One of Wilde’s ideas is that we appreciate the beauty of fog in nature today because painters, such as Turner, revealed that beauty.

Another famous example is how Nietzsche was moved by the works of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain. These two masters gave Nietzsche his most intense emotions in front of paintings, so whenever he saw a beautiful natural landscape after that, he saw it as a Poussin or Claude Lorrain painting, which his writings confirm:


Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with Ruins, c.1634, Prado Museum, Madrid


“The beauty of the whole was awe-inspiring and induced to a mute worship of the moment and its revelation. Unconsciously, as if nothing could be more natural, you peopled this pure, clear world of light (which had no trace of yearning, of expectancy, of looking forward or backward) with Greek heroes. You felt it all as Poussin and his school felt—at once heroic and idyllic,” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow (1880), translated from German by Paul V. Cohn.


Claude Lorrain, View of Delphi with a Procession, 1673, Art Institute of Chicago — one of the Claude Lorrain paintings Nietzsche saw in Rome in 1883


“Never in my life have I experienced such an autumn, nor had I ever imagined that such things were possible on earth — a Claude Lorrain extended to infinity, each day equal to the last in its wild perfection,” Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo (written in 1888, published posthumously in 1908), translated from German by Anthony M. Ludovici.

A similar idea was illustrated by Marcel Proust in the first volume of In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927), but this time in relation with people. In the novel, Swann falls in love with Odette, who is not his type, only because she suddenly reminds him of Zipporah in Botticelli’s fresco:


Botticelli, The Trials of Moses — detail, 1481-1482, Sistine Chapel, Rome

Botticelli, The Trials of Moses, 1481-1482, Sistine Chapel, Rome


The idea is that our perception of life is changed by art, so that nature sometimes seems to imitate paintings we have seen before, giving us the emotions we felt when looking at those paintings. When that happens, life seems to imitate art.

As Wilde puts it in The Decay of Lying, “things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the arts that have influenced us.”


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