a painting in the louvre

Selected works from The Louvre: All the Paintings

The Funeral of Love

Entry 39, March 4, 2017


I was curious about the painting entitled The Funeral of Love (ca. 1580) from the first time I saw it at the top of page 489 in The Louvre: All the Paintings. I couldn’t make sense of its combination of the familiar and unfamiliar. After trying for a while to come up with a theory, I’ve decided to content myself with explaining why it perplexes me.

From the start, I liked many things about The Funeral of Love: the sweep of the pathway rising from lower left to upper right; the buildings in the lower left foreground and the upper right background; the distant, atmospheric landscape of sea and mountains in the upper center; and the figures arranged on the path and around it, particularly the contrast between the naked cherubs and the classically robed adults.

I could also understand something of what was happening. The painting depicts a funeral. There is a shrouded body lying on the lid of a closed casket, and a group of solemn-faced men are standing behind the casket. The dignity of the casket followers is echoed in the onlookers: their facial expressions are serious, even sad, but show no extravagant signs of grief. The cherubs too—those supporting the casket; those grouped with the adult onlookers; and those walking in front of the casket and carrying banners, musical instruments, and poles decorated with ribbon—harmonize with the overall tone of the gathering.

I liked the title, too. Although I hadn’t heard the expression before, I was certainly familiar with art that linked love and death.

But that was as far as I could go without help. What in the painting suggests, except perhaps the multiplicity of cherubs, that it was Love’s corpse on the casket lid? However, if it isn’t Love, whose corpse is it? Was it a deceased person whom all the mourners loved, or was it perhaps that the mourners were there to support one of their number whose beloved had died? But which of them was singled out as the one who had lost his or her partner? Besides, don’t love stories customarily suggest that the beloved’s death doesn’t end the lover’s attachment?

Maybe I was missing clues that would lead me to a particular story, perhaps one from classical mythology. But neither Cupid, the god of love, nor Venus, the goddess of love, experienced death, nor do the stories of their human lovers include a funeral rite. The Louvre contains a number of works in which Venus mourns her human beloved, Adonis, but in none of them is there a funeral depicted. Although Cupid’s beloved, Psyche, was forced to travel to the Underworld, and at one point falls into a death-like sleep, she does not die.

The Atlas Database on the English-language Louvre website didn’t give me much help about where to look or what to look for. It says, “The subject of this painting has sometimes been interpreted as the mourning of Love, who is being followed by the poets of the Pléiade, a reference perhaps to the new direction the poet Ronsard had taken in his work, replacing the tone of his Amours and Odes with that of the Discours. Alternatively, the work might have been painted in response to the death of Diane de Poitiers in 1566.” How tantalizing to be left with two unattributed interpretations that, in themselves, weren’t altogether intelligible, at least for me.

Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to track down Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585) and the Pléiade, the group of poets who shared his interests. Moreover, I located references to Ronsard’s shift away from his early, very popular love poetry and to attacks on his subsequent work. What I didn’t find was anything that suggested the members of the Pléiade were grieved by the new direction he had taken. An alternative explanation suggests itself: they were anticipating the death of Ronsard, who was in ill health for some years at the end of his life.

The second sentence refers to a powerful presence of the period shortly before the painting was done, Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566), mistress of King Henry II (1519-1559). Diane was celebrated for her beauty and her skills in navigating through court politics. The many paintings that survive of her bear witness to her power. She was often the model for portrayals of the goddess Diana. For example, the painting, Diana the Huntress (ca. 1550), which appears just three pages before The Funeral of Love in The Louvre: All the Paintings, is described as a likeness of Diane de Poitiers.

Both of these interpretations are plausible. They both feature the loss of a person identified in the culture as a proponent of love. But how could I choose between them or provide evidence in support of another candidate?

One final point of frustration: I didn’t get much help from looking into the artist with whom The Louvre: All the Paintings associates The Funeral of Love, Henri Lerambert. Lerambert’s biographical information is sketchy: he’s identified not by life dates but by years in which he is “known”: 1568-1608. There is a little more about Lerambert on the Louvre website in an “Artwork of the Day” article that describes a tapestry, The Petitions (ca. 1610), from the series of tapestries entitled The Story of Artemisia. In the article, Lerambert is mentioned as “painter to the king’s tapestry-makers” and described as contributing to the tapestries by creating “cartoons” based on illustrations from Nicolas Houel’s poem, The Story of Artemisia. The poem took a story from ancient times of Artemisia, the widow of King Mausolos, to praise Catherine de Medici, the wife of Diane de Poitiers’ royal lover, Henry II. Both Artemisia and Catherine had served as regents for young sons.

There are other signs beyond the noncommittal reportage of clashing opinions that the writer of the English-language Atlas Database entry was having some trouble. The title of the painting on the English-language website isn’t The Funeral of Love but Allegory: The Funeral of Love. The name on the French language website is only The Funeral of Love (Funeraille d’Amour), as is the name in the Louvre book. Perhaps the English-language author thought adding “allegory” to the title would help to close the gap between what the painting shows and what interpreters had suggested was meant to be conveyed, that is, a love story from among Lerambert’s contemporaries. I also found it hard to reconcile the following statement from the Atlas Database with the interpretations I quoted above. “The funeral cortège of Love, followed by a group of poets, heads for the temple of Diana, while Venus, accompanied by her son, crosses the sky in a chariot pulled by doves.” It may be the temple of Diana, although I can’t make out any distinguishing marks, but I don’t see Cupid sitting next to Venus. If he were there, wouldn’t that rule out the identification of the corpse as Love?


Recognizing a Musketeer

Entry 38 September 3, 2016

I’ve written before about occasions when I thought I recognized a painting from some previous acquaintance, only to find after trying to verify the connection that I’d made a mistake.

In entries 14 and 15, I wrote about jumping to the conclusion that St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata by Taddeo Gaddi (ca. 1290-1366), included in a 2013 traveling show at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, was a painting on the same subject by Giotto (1265-1337) that I had recently looked at in my Louvre book. If I had thought about it a bit longer, I might have noticed that Gaddi’s painting didn’t include the three much smaller images Giotto placed along the bottom of his painting. in which other scenes from the life of St. Francis were depicted (see entry 4 for more on Giotto’s painting). Moreover, despite the imposing size of Taddeo Gaddi’s work (measuring 212 cm by 149.5 cm), Giotto’s work was even larger, 313 cm by 163 cm.

In entry 28, I told the same sort of story, only in reverse. When I saw the Louvre book’s reproduction of Canaletto’s The Molo Seen from the Bacino di San Marco, I carried the book upstairs to compare the reproduction with a Canaletto print I’d had for many years. I was sure my print must have been based on the Louvre painting; however, despite many similarities, the two paintings clearly differed, particularly in the foreground arrangements of small boats and human figures.

26543_p0002687.001The Leaders of the Brotherhood of St. Sebastian of Amsterdam, by Bartholomeus van der Helst (1613-1670) looked familiar to me. It wasn’t the image as a whole that I thought I’d seen before but, rather, the human figures in it. They reminded me of the principal characters in Richard Lester’s 1973 film, The Three Musketeers. It wasn’t just that, like Athos, Aramis and Porthos, the brotherhood leaders were dressed in black doublets over white linen shirts; after all, many of the portraits in the Northern Schools section of the Louvre are of men dressed in similar clothing. But none of the other male subjects include the same broad-brimmed black hats the brotherhood leaders wear. Moreover, Helst’s subjects, particularly the man sitting at the end of the table and the man seated in front of the table and looking squarely at the viewer, also share with Lester’s musketeers a swaggering self-confidence. They look comfortable in their clothes.

IMG_1346Another image, from an 1893 edition of Dumas’s second sequel to The Three Musketeers, The Vicomte of Bragelonne, may help to show how important the hat style is in linking Helst’s brotherhood with Lester’s musketeers. The tall figure on the left of the image, addressing the crowd, is D’Artagnan; notice how small his hat is relative to the size of his head. It gives a very different impression from the black hats affected by Lester’s musketeers. Their hats’ size and arrangement—especially the turned-up brims—add volume and drama to the men’s faces.

MV5BMTM0MTcxNTg5NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMzYyNTQ5._V1_It seemed strange to find such a match between a Northern Schools painting and Lester’s depiction of the special soldiers of the king of France. I wondered if perhaps all men at arms dressed this way in the early 17th century, the time period in which Alexander Dumas’s story is set. But a quick look back through the Italian section, followed by a quick look ahead in the French section, did not produce any similar images.

I decided to test the connection from a different angle: I looked on the Internet for information about the film’s clothing designer, Yvonne Blake, who was nominated for an Oscar for the costumes in The Four Musketeers, the sequel Lester released a year after the success of the first film. Blake says in an interview with Deborah Nadoolman Landis, published in Landis’s book, Film Craft: Costume Design (2012), that she was inspired by “the paintings of Van Dyck and Rubens.” Her comment goes a long way toward establishing a link between her work and the Northern Schools, although the extensive Louvre collection for both painters she names does not include any clothing that resembles the sort of costume I saw in Helst’s painting. Still, I see a kind of family resemblance between some of the costumes worn by the Duke of Buckingham in the film and Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I (ca. 1635) that is part of the Louvre’s collection.

Blake’s career, which includes extensive costume design work for Spanish films, suggests another possible source of inspiration for the musketeers’ dress. Just six years before the release of Lester’s Three Musketeers, More Than a Miracle, a fairy tale love story shot in Spain, includes many scenes depicting soldiers in the service of reluctant royal bridegroom Omar Sharif. They are dressed in black doublets and white linen shirts; their black hats are large, with brims turned up. Perhaps the most striking visual similarity between the soldiers of the two films is that on horseback they sit very tall and straight in the saddle; they look much larger in proportion to the size of their horses than cowboys in American Westerns do.

Although she did not design the costumes for More Than a Miracle, it seems likely Blake would have been familiar with them.

A Woman Half-Naked and a Man Fully Dressed

26689_p0005674.00126703_p0005673.001Entry 37 July 10, 2016

They are next to one another on page 351 of The Louvre: All the Paintings. They appear in two works by the same artist, Jacob van Loo (1615-1670), in the small format (here 1.5 by 2 inches) that is used for most of the paintings in the book. The man isn’t only fully dressed but rather ostentatiously covered right up to the chin, whereas the woman has no clothing, only a drapery on which she’s leaning, with the fingers of her left hand supporting a fold of it, perhaps to help the cloth cover a small portion of her naked leg. The man looks out confidently, and his left hand is extended toward the viewer. The woman’s head is lowered to her throat, and her right hand is resting just above her breasts in such a way that the right one is concealed; these two gestures suggest she is in some measure acting self-conscious and perhaps ashamed of the way her body is exposed.

The titles of the two paintings demonstrate a further distinction between the two subjects. The man is identified by profession, by name, and by importance of post. His portrait is entitled The Painter Michel Corneille the Elder (1601-1664), Rector of the Académie Royale de Peinture de Paris from 1656 (ca. 1663). The woman is defined as an anonymous representative of her sex, and the painting labeled as only a preliminary work, in the title Study of a Half-Naked Woman (ca. 1650). A visit to the Atlas Database on the English-language website of the Louvre adds the further information that the portrait of Corneille was the painting van Loo presented to the Academy on his entry in 1663, while the information on the second painting adds only that the woman pictured was probably a well-known model painted by many of van Loo’s contemporaries in Amsterdam; her name is not given.

Pointing out the juxtaposition isn’t meant to suggest that the Louvre’s collection contains only clothed males and naked females. Even in the very small number of paintings I’ve been able to include in the blog we’ve had naked males and clothed females; for example, Entry 24 includes a clothed Diana looking down on the naked body of Orion. It is an intriguing question, though, whether we might be able by tracking the incidence of nudity to learn something about the attitudes of past ages on such contemporary issues as gender identity. For now, though, the juxtaposition of the two van Loo paintings is, as Freud would say, just a juxtaposition.

Working through the Louvre book has made me think all sorts of things about looking at paintings, with most of them having to do with the problem of whether any experience can ever compete with the experience of being in the presence of the painting itself. In the area of juxtaposition, a gallery visit seems to have quite the advantage over my book of reproductions. A gallery wall and a page spread of the book both usually group a number of paintings, often by some commonalty such as artist or school or historical period, but not too surprisingly the impressions made by images next to one another are likely to be more involving in the gallery, where all the details of the works are easy to examine. The small-format reproductions tend to swallow up details; this is particularly true of landscapes, whose human figures are often hard to make out even with a magnifying glass. This is one thing, I believe, that caused the two van Loo paintings to attract my attention; quite by chance, it seems, two very different and yet very resonant images happen to have found their way next to each other, and I happened to notice them.

In previous blog entries, I’ve sometimes used juxtaposition. For example, Entry 32 examines two paintings of Lot and his Daughters; in Entry 24, mentioned above, I pointed out two paintings in which the dynamic of male power and female subordination was overturned: Diana and Orion’s Corpse (ca. 1685) and Juno and Argus (ca. 1685). The two paintings by van Loo provided me with a ready-made juxtaposition of images, one I decided to write about because it gave me, yet again, an opportunity to consider the relative merits of a gallery visit and a visit to the pages of my Louvre book.

Undoubtedly, the ultimate source of whatever value I find in my book and in online resources is the Louvre collection itself; equally true is the uniqueness of experiencing that collection in person. The reverse, however, is also true. My next in-person encounter with the Louvre collection (may it be soon) will be informed and enriched by the access to knowledge of the collection I have gained from my Louvre book.

I’m glad, too, that I decided I would usually write in the blog about paintings that were either the only work by an artist in the Louvre collection, or one from a small group. Van Loo has four paintings on page 351. Looking at my Louvre book has made me determined to take time when I’m in the Louvre again to pause with every painting rather than hurry by most of them in favor of a must-see work in another gallery. My progress through the book is slow, but I’m determined to see all 3,022 of the paintings presented in it. I feel like such a resolution calls for a count-down: 1,250 done, 1,772 to go.

The Marriage of Thetis and Peleus, Twice

Entry 36 April 7, 2016

25103_p0002414_001clerckI’ve come across three paintings so far in the Louvre book that depict the marriage of Thetis and Peleus, the parents of Achilles, but I’m only going to write about two of them in this entry, the ca. 1606 painting by Hendrick de Clerck (1570-1629) and the ca. 1618 painting by Hendrick van Balen (1575-1632). The other one by Bartolomeo di Giovanni (ca. 1488-1501) from ca. 1480-1500 is also lovely, but it’s very different from the other two, and it’s their similarities that interest me.

25086_p0005345_001balenI saw a line in a newspaper story recently that said a particular painting wouldn’t have been painted the way it was if it hadn’t been for photography. I wrote the line down because it struck me as peculiar: photography influencing painting and not the other way around?

But it occurs to me that the idea of the camera—a mechanical device that would accurately generate images of objects—lived in the minds of at least some painters before cameras were invented. For example, Canaletto (1697-1768) may have welcomed the help of images cast by a camera obscura (an elaborate pin-hole camera) in his ten very similar paintings of the Doge’s Palace, which I wrote about in Entry 28. He could have been motivated by a desire for accuracy or, at any rate, accuracy that could be consulted in the studio; it might also have been a way to satisfy flattering demands from the tourist trade for precisely the same, striking image of a Venice landmark. Whatever the reason, the camera wasn’t necessarily only prized as an alternative to a painted image but prized for its potential to help make painted images, not just accurately but over and over again.

It may go against an ideal of painting as a unique creation from the genius of a single person, and yet the Louvre book has already provided evidence that not all paintings can be traced to such a unique source. It isn’t only duplicates of the same painting that suggest it; the Louvre also provides considerable evidence that assembly line methods were used by which artists specializing in different features, e.g., human figures and landscapes, worked on the same canvas. I’ve written about this in Entry 26.

The two paintings by de Clerck and van Balen present a curious variation on this phenomenon. They were both created by two artists, each working in his own specialization, but de Clerck and van Balen are both figure specialists. In both cases, the same artist, Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), provided the landscape expertise. In fact, in both cases, Brueghel provided an extraordinarily similar landscape. The organization of the painting, a forest grove with a long table placed horizontally in the foreground and the guests arranged around it, is much the same. In particular, the glimpse of blue sky on the left, between the tree branches and the rise of ground, made me curious about how they happened to be so similar.

The answer, that Brueghel did both the landscapes, is not mentioned in my Louvre book. Neither of the paintings is accompanied by a commentary, which is disappointing but not too surprising, since only 400 of the more than 3,000 paintings reproduced are accompanied by material beyond basic facts about the work’s origin and location in the Louvre. I discovered Brueghel’s contribution when I visited the Louvre website to learn more about van Balen, whose name doesn’t even appear in the book’s Index of Artists. The website also made things difficult by failing to mention The Marriage of Thetis and Peleus when I searched for the artist by his full name; that search only gave me the name, Air or Optics. A search for “van Balen” and “Balen” alone returned two results, one The Marriage of Thetis and Peleus and, again, Air or Optics. I discovered that both the marriage painting and the other one, Air or Optics, are actually collaborations of van Balen with Brueghel. The Air or Optics painting, interestingly, appears in the Louvre book but under Brueghel’s name, rather than van Balen’s. At some point in my searching for van Balen, I looked for the marriage painting in the Index of Works and was reminded that only 19 pages before it another painting on the same subject, the one by de Clerck, was presented. A search of the website established that this one, too, had a landscape provided by Brueghel.

When I look at them now, after so much remarking on their similarities, I notice differences: the de Clerck has a heavenly orchestra above the table, while van Balen doesn’t. De Clerck’s triangle of blue is larger and contains a landscape of water and shoreline with buildings, while van Balen’s is smaller and contains some shapes of darker blue that may be clouds or mountains only.

And yet there’s one more similarity, perhaps linked to the triangle of blue and yet a part of the figures rather than the landscape, to mention. Did you notice the blue robes on three members of the feasting party positioned very similarly in the two paintings?

A Guessing Game about the Five Senses

Entry 35 January 20, 2016
paladedesz1aAnthonie Palamedesz (1601-1673) has two painting in The Louvre: All the Paintings, but neither of them, at least as presented in the very small reproduction size most of the paintings in the book come in (there are, after all, reproductions of 3092 paintings in the book, and even at the very small size the book weighs eight pounds), is particularly impressive. Still, the first of them, which is entitled Series of the Five Senses: Taste attracted me because it was only one painting out of a series, presumably five so that all the senses could be depicted, and I was puzzled as to why the image of a woman sitting at a table with no food or drink in front of her should be an image of taste.

A visit to the Louvre website in search of a larger reproduction revealed that the woman was supporting a baby nursing at her left breast; hence, taste. The website also revealed that the Louvre actually has all five of the paintings from the series, and there are reproductions of all of them available. Although only one is displayed in the Atlas Database entry on the series, there are links to the other four in the entry. Moreover, the gallery photographs for Sully, 2nd floor, Donation of the Princesse Louis de Croy, neé Eugénie de l’Espine (Room B), suggest all five of the series paintings are hanging in a group. I’m basing this on the frames and the number of grouped paintings rather than on the paintings themselves, which are not visible due to the angle from which the photograph was taken.

paladedesz2I’m writing about them because I was curious about how to match the images, once I’d found them, to the five senses. As far as I can determine, the Louvre doesn’t supply the information. That the one reproduced represents taste appears only in my book, not on the Louvre website.

paladedesz5By a process of elimination I hypothesized that the man holding the stringed instrument must be hearing, and the smoker would probably be smell, but I was stumped by the other two: which one is sight and which is touch?

paladedesz4The girl could be either touch or sight, I thought. After all, she’s looking at her reflection in a mirror, which is sight, but then her fingers are on her forehead, which would be touch. But the man holding the chicken didn’t suggest any particular match to either sight or touch. We don’t say: “Look, he’s holding a chicken.” No one says, “That chicken is a sight for sore eyes.” For that matter, I wasn’t sure that I’d gotten smell and touch right: Why wasn’t the woman with the nursing infant touch rather than taste? Maybe the smoker represented the taste of tobacco in the mouth. Maybe the guitarist should be counted as touch, rather than hearing.

I’ve long since moved on in the project of viewing all the paintings in the book without being able to satisfy myself entirely as to who is who among these images of sense experience. But I did gather some clues; I’m a little embarrassed, though, especially as a doubter of the reliability of Internet sources, to admit that the best I could do was to examine Internet auction sites on which paintings from the group were mentioned. There I found some instances of the individual paintings being labeled, including at least one clear application of the word “touch” to the man holding the chicken. The explanation? He’s blind, and he’s identifying the chicken by touch. Did you see that coming?


Louvre Website Feature, “A Closer Look,” Relaunched as “Focus”

Entry 34 October 24, 2015

I noticed a few weeks ago on the Louvre website banner that “A Closer Look” was being relaunched with a new multimedia treatment of the Mona Lisa. I clicked the tab on the banner and found, as the website promised, a remarkably rich selection of brief commentaries keyed to the work’s features: the Mona Lisa smile, of course, but also her eyes, her hands, the pillars of the porch on which she’s seated, the landscape behind her, and so on. There are appreciations of the painting from renowned art critics, a thrilling account of the time the Mona Lisa was stolen, and a close comparison between the Louvre Mona Lisa and a copy of it, housed in the Prado, which was painted in Leonardo’s studio by one of his students. In almost every way, this new multimedia treatment is an improvement on the original “A Closer Look” presentation, and it’s a promising start to the new series, called “Focus”, which is replacing “A Closer Look”.

Screenshot (1)I say almost every way because one of my favorite elements of the old feature on the Mona Lisa isn’t duplicated in the new “Focus” feature. The old “A Closer Look” at the Mona Lisa began with a long video shot of the camera moving toward the painting through its current gallery. The new “Focus” treatment starts with a brief video view, too, but, unlike the old feature, which showed the painting in an empty gallery, the new view shows the painting at a distance, from behind a crowd of jostling, photo-snapping, murmuring gallery occupants.

As much as I appreciate the decision to include this crowd element of seeing the Mona Lisa—in fact, the experience of sharing the painting with other viewers is what I especially wrote about in blog entry 12, I miss the image of the painting by itself. I tried going to “A Closer Look”—there’s still a link with that name under the “Learning About Art” section of the website’s home page, but the old Mona Lisa feature isn’t listed there anymore. Instead, you’re taken to the new “Focus” feature. Other old “A Closer Look” features are there, but not the Mona Lisa.

I’m happy to say that for now, at least, the old “A Closer Look” feature on the Mona Lisa is accessible, even though I can’t find a link to it on the Louvre website. A Google search for “A Closer Look” and “The Mona Lisa” will take you to the old feature on the painting, the one I especially liked when I first found it a couple of years ago. Here’s a link to it: http://musee.louvre.fr/oal/joconde/indexEN.html.

One of the things that this makes me think is that visiting a website isn’t like viewing a perfected work, with every element just so. Rather, it’s like approaching a medieval cathedral, an object constantly undergoing renovation, with those renovations, and the tools involved in carrying them out, on full display.

And now for something completely different: in my review of Louvre painters, I’ve just reached the first female artist whose work is listed under her own name rather than under the name of a male artist with whom she’s associated. It’s Judith Leyster (1609-1660), wife of Jan Miense Molenaer (1609-1668) and contemporary of Frans Hals (1581-1660). The Merry Company (1630), the painting attributed to her in my Louvre book, gets almost a full page. According to the commentary that accompanies it, the painting was brought into the Louvre collection as the work of Frans Hals and attributed to him until 1893; the Grove Art Online states that a painting attributed to Leyster, The Jester (Amsterdam, Rijksmus.), is a copy of a Hals painting now in the Louvre collection, called The Lute Player (1623). I mention this painting because of the Louvre connection, but I’m not sure it’s the same painting that my book calls Clown with a Lute (1623). The only other female artist I’ve written about in the blog (entry 22) was Agnese Dolci (1635-1686), daughter of Carlo Dolci (1616-1686), and the conflicting reports as to whether or not the Louvre contains a painting by her.

I hope Mona Lisa won’t mind that I’ve brought another female, this one an artist, into this account of the new multimedia treatment of her. Perhaps someday Leyster, who for a time had no paintings attributed to her but who is now the subject of an extensive bibliography, will merit such attention.

Proud of the Peacock

Entry 33 August 23, 2015

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a new entry, all the way back to February. I started something for the blog back in June, but then I got sidetracked. Since then, I’ve been doing pretty well with looking at paintings in my Louvre book, The Louvre: All the Paintings. I’ve done 27 in August, and I did 35 in July, but I’ve only thought about some possible blog entries, not actually started one.

When I got the book as a present in 2012, I decided to go one by one through all its 3,022 paintings. This project led me to start the blog the following year. This is the beginning of the second week of the project’s fourth year. I’m currently at 1,028 paintings, which means that at this rate I’ll be done in another six years or so. Although simple multiplication suggests that I’m right on track, my numbers are actually a little discouraging because I have often adjusted my daily practice in hopes of speeding up the process. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it; I do. It’s just that things keep working against what I thought of as a modest hope of spending half an hour a day learning a little more about art and also staying connected to the Louvre.

My job is the biggest obstacle–I was on sabbatical in 2012 when I got the book and the idea for my big project, followed by the blog. But the blog has certainly also slowed me down. Whenever I’ve decided to write something, it’s always gotten in the way of my plan to check out a new painting every day.

But yesterday’s painting, Peacock and Farmyard Birds (ca. 1650) by Adrien van Utrecht (1599-1652), interested me so much that I decided to risk my recent painting statistics in favor of writing something for the blog.

What usually slows me down when I’m writing an entry is that I wish to know more than either my book or the Louvre website has to say about a painting; this is especially true for a painting that is the only one in the collection from the work of a lesser known painter. The search for additional information has taken me all sorts of place. This time, what I wanted to know was something more about peacocks.


I don’t have lots of peacock experience, but I have looked them in the eye, outside the animal enclosures, several times at the Metro Toronto Zoo, and Van Utrecht’s peacock didn’t look right to me. Although the other birds, especially the ones with white feathers, were striking, the peacock was hard to see, almost lost in a shadow occupying the center of the painting. I knew it might not be Van Utrecht’s fault, of course; I’m working with reproductions, and I’ve occasionally found that the museum website reproduction of a painting is much clearer, and brighter, than the book version, especially the small ones of large canvases. Still, even the better view on the website, which I’m including a copy of here, suggests that the peacock Van Utrecht painted didn’t look much like the one I photographed at the zoo. The eyes on the tail are dark spots, rather than royal blue, and the bird’s torso is too slender and too navy-colored.

zoo1207 019

It’s been four centuries, of course; peacocks may have changed. If anyone has some information on how breeding has transformed the species, send it along. If you’ve seen the painting in person, and perhaps reproduced it with truer renderings of its colors, send your photo along. In the meantime, here are the two peacocks, Van Utrecht’s and mine. My photo comes from 2012, near the large refreshment stand in the Africa area, which this peacock seemed to have a special fondness for. A screeching voice and a rather imperious stare, but still quite lovely.

Lot and His Daughters

33167_rf1185lotEntry 32, February 12, 2015

The reproduction of Lot and His Daughters (ca. 1517), a painting by an early 16th century anonymous painter from Antwerp or Leiden, got barely a postage stamp’s worth of space in The Louvre: All the Paintings. The landscape surrounding the three figures includes Sodom and Gomorrah on fire; an enormous harbour surrounding the burning city; and a monumental bridge on which Lot’s wife, turned to salt, is standing looking back. All this detail dwarfs the title characters, who are positioned in front of a tent on an overhang across the water from the burning city. Still, despite their minuscule size, they were what interested me the most. I was especially curious about why Lot was depicted embracing one of the two young women. I had never thought of the incident as involving sexual desire; Genesis 19 says the girls were afraid that, with the destruction of the city, there was no man except their father to give them children, so they made Lot drunk, and each daughter in turn “lay down” with him. Verse 33 says specifically that Lot was a passive participant: he “did not know when she [his first daughter] lay down or when she arose”. The same words are used to describe the second daughter’s experience. I wondered if anyone else had thought it worthwhile to investigate the painting’s portrayal of Lot as sinning rather than sinned against.

Although I didn’t find what I set out to locate, that is, expert analysis that commented on this particular feature of the painting, I decided to write about some of the things I did find out.

First, it wasn’t easy to locate information about the painting on the usually user-friendly Louvre website. I started, as usual, by clicking on Collections and Louvre Palace on the Louvre home page; I then chose Search the Collection from the menu. Scrolling down brought me to a box with two search options: Simple Search and Databases. I started with the Simple Search. Its results, in addition to identifying paintings on the website that are accompanied by a substantial commentary, usually, although not always, include a list from the Atlas Database. For “anonymous artist from Antwerp or Leiden,” the Simple Search produced no results, including no results from the Atlas Database. Just to be sure, I went back to the Databases tab and clicked. The first database listed there is the Atlas, with a link to it. Again, no results, and no results also from searching for variations on the artist’s identification, e.g., “anonymous Antwerp”. I considered trying the French-language version of the Atlas Database but wasn’t sure about the proper search terms. Sometimes an unnamed artist is referred to by a city name, sometimes by a country, and sometimes simply by his or her status as unknown or anonymous. I made one more try with the English Atlas Database with the search terms “lot daughters”, which produced three results, one of them the painting I was looking for. In the entry, I found that the artist was called “anonymous artist”. I hadn’t tried searching with just those two words because I thought it would likely bring up a discouragingly large list to go through, but when I tried “anonymous artist” in the English Atlas Database, the list was brief and included the painting; it still didn’t work for the Simple Search, however. After all that, the text accompanying the painting gave very little information: it was by an anonymous artist from either Antwerp or Leiden, active ca. 1525-1530, and it was acquired by the Louvre in 1900.

Although the website had very little information about my particular painting, I had found out from my search that there were in the Louvre at least two other paintings entitled Lot and His Daughters. I realized that I must have looked at both of them before during the first year of my Louvre project: Bernardo Callavino (1616-1656) had painted the subject many times, with the one in the Louvre collection dating from 1645, and shortly after him, Guercino (1591-1666) had painted the same subject in 1661. In both painting, the subject clearly shows Lot under the control of his two daughters. My notes didn’t say anything about Guercino’s version, but in August 2013 I wrote the following about Callavino’s: “The painting doesn’t make much sense. The man doesn’t really look all that appealing. He looks old and gaunt and confused; he is being supported by the young women, whose fresh white garments contrast starkly with his ragged robes. He is their prey, but they don’t show pleasure in their power. Are the women preying on him because they want sex, or are they angry because they feel they must subordinate their own preferences to the needs of the human race?”

Or should we see in their actions a reference to an earlier event in the story, before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Lot offered his daughters to an angry mob as a way to save the messengers from God who had taken shelter in Lot’s house? In Genesis 19:7-8, Lot says, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters, who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” For Katherine B. Low, Lot should be seen as an abuser because he treated his daughters as property he could dispose of. Low’s article, “The Sexual Abuse of Lot’s Daughters: Reconceptualizing Kinship for the Sake of Our Daughters” (Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 2010), is one of a number of texts I found in which the incest of Lot and his daughters is re-examined. Explaining and evaluating the complex arguments involved in these re-examinations of the Bible story are beyond the scope of this blog entry, but they deserve mention, I think, because they were what first pointed out a connection between Lot’s offer of his daughters to the mob and his daughters’ plot to have him impregnate them. Was my painting’s view of Lot as seducer rather than the dupe of his daughters meant also to relate the two events by proposing that the earlier instance of Lot’s exercise of power was in some way present in the incest, even though the story in this incident describes Lot as a victim?

I will end with a brief comment about a Google search I did for “Lot and His Daughters”. I located a Wikipedia entry about the Bible story, with a link to the WikiCommons, where I found reproductions of several paintings, including the one I was investigating. It was identified as part of the Louvre’s collection, but the artist was identified as Lucas van Leyden. Van Leyden (1489-1533) does have a painting in the Louvre, The Fortune-Teller (ca. 1508). Just how the mistaken attribution got started, I don’t know, but I found it elsewhere as well, including in the Web Gallery of Art, a site I’ve often used and found reliable.

Resemble I the Amorous Dove?

Entry 31 October 19, 2014
40-11-28/24When I looked at Mars, Venus and Cupid (ca. 1550) by Lambert Sustris (ca. 1515-1584), I didn’t pay much attention at first to anything except the lovely nude, reclining Venus that dominates the image. None of the minor figures—Mars in the background, Cupid in the foreground pointing an arrow at two small doves next to him—interested me, not even the doves, even though Venus’s right hand clasps one of them by its extended wings and positions it on the back of the other, and the editors underscore the doves’ importance by including a separate, enlarged reproduction of them on the two-page spread devoted to the Sustris painting.

As it turns out, though, I’m going to write mainly about the doves. It isn’t because of what they look like, or even because of the wealth of images I’ve looked at now of Venus accompanied by a pair of doves, but rather because of the way the commentary from The Louvre: All the Paintings refers to them. They are called “two amorous doves,” a phrase that reminded me of a line from Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Iolanthe, from the song “Oh Foolish Faye”, in which the queen of the fairies, ashamed because she has experienced desire for a mortal, a love which is forbidden to fairies and which she is planning to punish Iolanthe for indulging in, protests to her fairy subjects that she would never yield to the desire. She will not disobey the fairy laws, she says, even if her heart is as soft as that of “the amorous dove.”

I enjoyed the reminder of the play, a favourite of mine, and I wondered whether the commentary’s choice of words indicated that there was some kind of relationship between the painting and lyricist W.S. Gilbert. For example, was it known that Gilbert had coined the phrase after seeing Sustris’s painting?

As with so many of my bright ideas, this one hasn’t led me where I thought it might. Although it seems likely that Gilbert, a cultured Englishman, visited the Louvre, there’s no sign that the Venus inspired him the way the sword falling in his office inspired The Mikado. And there’s plenty of evidence that he did not invent the phrase “amorous dove.” On the contrary, a Google search for “amorous dove” produced several instances, within the first two pages of results, of the phrase showing up in Googlebooks, mostly in 19th century poetry collections, but notably, also, in Henry Fielding’s popular and influential novel, Tom Jones, where, in Book I, Chapter vi, there is a reference to “the amorous dove and every innocent little bird” who in response to a kite flying overhead “spread wide the alarm, and fly trembling to their hiding-places.” Another, admittedly tenuous, link between Fielding and Gilbert is that both refer to Ovid: Gilbert calls the “amorous dove” “type of Ovidius Naso”, using Ovid’s Latin name; in the epigraph of Book V, Chapter x, of Tom Jones, Fielding promises the chapter will show “the truth of many observations of Ovid.”

These verbal links don’t add up to identifying where Gilbert came up with amorous dove, let alone where the author of my Louvre book’s commentary came up with the word pair. With respect to Gilbert’s source, I console myself with the thought that I’m not alone; my Google searches so far haven’t produced any solid link between the lyrics of “Oh Foolish Fay” and any previous usage of the phrase “amorous dove,” although the topic has certainly intrigued previous researchers. The most striking was from 2011, a contribution to a listserve from David Cookson, http://www.musicsolutions.com, that made a link between the fairy queen’s love experience and the story of a dove in Book XV of Ovid’s Heroides. Here’s a link to Cookson’s post: https://mailman.bridgewater.edu/pipermail/savoynet/2011-August/015741.html.

Even if I were to find where Gilbert first came across “the amorous dove”, of course, it wouldn’t explain where the author of the Sustris commentary acquired the phrase.

I have tried to approach the subject through art history as well; I hoped someone might have connected visual artists’ renderings of Venus accompanied by doves to the many poetic celebrations of the same image. So far, nothing, although I’ve looked at far more paintings of Venus with doves than I ever imagined there might be, and some of them perhaps not quite so idealizing as I would have liked. I must admit that after looking at them I felt a little less comfortable about what Sustris might have been suggesting when depicting Venus piling one dove on top of another.

Perhaps Gilbert’s fairy queen was right. Maybe it’s best to be cautious when acting on one’s feelings. But to Sustris I owe a pleasant few weeks of humming “Oh Foolish Faye” and even attempting the wonderfully complex lines with which the queen of the fairies expresses her admiration for a human in uniform.

Is it Canaletto who’s dear to me, or his nephew, Bernardo Bellotto?


Entry 30, September 18, 2014

I’m pausing in my pursuit of the exact moment when I first met the paintings of Canaletto. Although I’ve made some discoveries, they suggest that the hunt could go on for a long time and still not yield any absolute proof of that first encounter. Besides, as much as I want to continue, I’m worried about my original project: looking every day at new work or works from my Louvre: All the Paintings. After all, Canaletto is a holdover from the Italian section of the book; I’m supposed to be enjoying works from the Northern Schools now. So, I’m moving on.

But I can’t stop without mentioning something I’ve found out. My cherished fondness for Canaletto’s art appears to rest on shaky ground. It’s not that I doubt the beauty of his work; moreover, there’s no question that I’ve seen some of his paintings in person, particularly in London’s Wallace Collection. But my attempt to look back beyond the Wallace into earlier museum visits, particularly ones in North America, in hopes of finding evidence of earlier encounters with the painter, have shown that the paintings I fondly, if vaguely, looked back on as by Canaletto weren’t by him after all but by other artists, Bernardo Bellotto (c. 1721/2-1780), for example, Canaletto’s nephew and student, but also by anonymous contemporaries of Canaletto no more precisely identified than by labels such as “Follower of Canaletto” or “School of Canaletto”, that is, definitely not Canaletto, and, in one instance, a 20th century forger.

In my investigations, I encountered Bernardo Bellotto’s name often, although he isn’t mentioned either in my Louvre book or on the Louvre website as someone represented in the Louvre’s collections. Still, everything I read in other sources encouraged me to think that it wasn’t surprising to come across Bellotto when Canaletto was mentioned. After all, commentaries on Bellotto on various gallery websites, including the National Gallery of London, see the men’s family and work relationships echoed in Bellotto’s early style; the connection, I also learned, was furthered by Bellotto’s practice of signing himself as Bernardo Canaletto or even just Canaletto later in his career, especially when painting outside of Italy. What did surprise me was to find that I already had evidence of this intimate connection in my possession. A review of my small cache of souvenir postcards from early museum trips uncovered four paintings I felt confident were by Canaletto, but I found that two of them from the National Gallery of Canada were actually labeled on the back as by Bellotto. Given the dates of trips, etc., it may well be that these were the earliest works that I admired for the special characteristics I thought of as distinctive to Canaletto; gorgeous colors of sky, water and grand buildings, buildings that command vast open-air gathering places; the tiny but well rendered human figures that inhabited the grandeur, and so on.

entry30chicago23501_3223645A third postcard was even more intriguing: a lovely view of St. Mark’s in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art is identified on the back as by Canaletto the elder, but the website of the museum now identifies it as the work of Bellotto. I’d love to know more about how the change in attribution came about. I’ve included a reproduction of this painting here. I found a somewhat similar switch of attribution in examining an old postcard from the Art Institute of Chicago; a painting entitled Portico with a Lantern, also reproduced here, is identified on the back of the postcard as by Canaletto but on the website is now described as by a “Follower of Canaletto.” Interestingly, both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Milwaukee Art Museum, collections I visited in my university days, have this same image in the form of an etching that is identified as Canaletto’s, although the Guide to the Permanent Collection from Milwaukee states that this etching, along with many others by Canaletto, is rarely on public display; therefore, I conclude that it’s unlikely that I had ever encountered it until noticing it in the museum guide.

entry30canal506I came across the forger while trying to track down another work by Canaletto, one that my husband remembered as hanging years ago in another Milwaukee gallery, the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum. I was able to confirm, thanks to the Villa Terrace staff, that a painting entitled The Rialto and attributed to “School of Canaletto” had at one time been displayed along with other Italian works in the building’s Great Hall, but that sometime around 2000 the paintings’ owner, the Milwaukee Museum of Art, had had the paintings appraised. The Rialto was deaccessioned; a document reporting the results of the appraisal indicates that the painting was judged to be a forgery and that the famous auction house, Christie’s, where the painting was eventually sent to be sold, dated it as from the 20th century. A reproduction of the painting wasn’t on file at the Villa Terrace, but I was sent a black and white copy by the Milwaukee Museum of Art staff, who also told me that there might be more information available from Christie’s. I would have enjoyed seeing a color reproduction. Judging by some other Canaletto paintings of the same cityscape that I’ve seen on the Web Gallery of Art (blog entry 28), I would have enjoyed being able to compare the forgery with authentic Canalettos for the sake of determining whether the forger had some particular version from the master in mind. But I decided I would stop short, for now, of approaching Christie’s. I’ve included both a link to the black and white reproduction of the forgery (M1962.1180<) and one of Canaletto’s paintings of the Rialto here for comparison.

Perhaps my most intriguing discovery was that my husband thought he recognized the black and white image sent from Milwaukee as the one he had seen years ago. He said, “Well, maybe it’s just a trick of the eye, but I think this is the painting I remember.”