Leonardo DaVinci Was a Loser and Why it Should Make You Happy

Leonardo DaVinci is held up as the genius of the renaissance but you might be surprised to learn that for a large chunk of his career he was also considered a renaissance loser. These two short videos on Vimeo from Delve.tv give some brief thoughts on why being a loser isn’t as bad as it sounds, and can even lead to genius.

The Long Game Part 1: Why Leonardo DaVinci was no genius from Delve on Vimeo.

The Long Game Part 2: the missing chapter from Delve on Vimeo.

Exploring Still Life Painting

It has been a busy week and the posts have suffered a little but things should be picking up soon. In the mean time I’ve been thinking about still life painting.

My own personal attitude about still life has changed quite dramatically. At one point I think I had the same view as a lot of people that still life was just some stuff on a table. Now I’ve come to look at it as more than just a recording of what was in front of you but as a way to explore themes, styles, and meanings of life.

Still Life with Salmon and Lemons by Luis Melendez
Still Life with Salmon and Lemons by Luis Melendez

This still life is from the golden age of Spanish still life painting and is done in the Bodegon style. It comes from the Spanish word bodega, meaning tavern, because the subjects are usually objects that could be found in a kitchen or tavern such as fruit and vegetables, board games and dressed animals. Melendez actually didn’t want to explore great themes but concentrated on using ordinary things to make beautiful compositions. He was also a forerunner to Realism a painting movement that was controversial since it painted things and people as they were, and didn’t cover up or hide the faults of the world.

Vanitas by Pieter Claesz 1630
Vanitas by Pieter Claesz

About a hundred years before Melendez the Dutch artists had a thriving still life market. Still lifes were painted for several reasons, one of which was as a kind of advertisement of skill so that people would know that they could paint different textures and lighting conditions well. They also were glorying in the success of the newly wealthy middle class who had become the main art buyers of the time since it was a largely Protestant area and the Catholic church was no longer the chief patron of art. But most also had a moral comment on life to remember that even with all of life’s pleasures, downfall was always present and death came for everyone. The theme was called Vanitas, coming from the word vanity as a reminder against becoming or being conceited, and was often represented by a skull, broken glass, or a peeled lemon since even something that looks sweet can be bitter.

Still Life with Drinking Horn by Willem Kalf
Still Life with Drinking Horn by Willem Kalf

Still lifes were also done simply to show off interesting objects, or to show exotic objects that only the wealthy could afford. But often by painting the objects the artist created another object more valuable than the original objects themselves.

Four Cans by Christopher Thornock
Four Cans by Christopher Thornock

Current still life painting seems to run the gamut from paintings with meaning to simply liking the way the object looks. This painting by Christopher Thornock seems to combine the ideas of painting an object he finds interesting but also as a means to explore lighting, composition, and paint handling.

Olives by Sarah Lamb
Olives by Sarah Lamb

As a whole, I think that still life painting is a good measuring stick of the art of its time. Right now I believe that the state of painting is approaching a period where all styles and themes will coexist and people will champion different camps, but that there will never again be a universal or semi-universal standard. And I believe that still life painting will still be there quietly acting as a reflection and anchor of our many paths.

Christopher Thornock Art

Sarah Lamb Paintings

Art History vs. Art History

The Sea Of Ice oil painting by Caspar David Friedrich
The Sea Of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich

This post was not the one I intended tonight. I was going to talk about principles of design for my Basics series of posts but then this idea struck me and I thought I would see how it fits.

While I have not studied art history as extensively as some, I believe that I have enough of a grasp to venture some ideas not typically taught or acknowledged. Or I could be completely off track or be stating something that is well known.

Art history as a field of research is broken down into periods of style which took its form from A History of Ancient Art by Johann Joachim Winckelmann written in the 18th century. So we learn art history as a set of sections similar to a Dewy Decimal system and have categories like the Renaissance, High renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, etc. I agree that it is an orderly way to split the history of art into manageable, and more importantly, referable chunks. But I believe it has a hidden flaw, or at least an untaught flaw.

The Icebergs oil painting by Frederic Edwin Church
The Icebergs by Frederic Edwin Church

By breaking down the history of art into stylistic periods, we tend to think of those periods as all of the art and art philosophy that was being produced or explored at that time. So, we end up with a view of art history that seems to be comprehensive, but if given visual form looks more like an iceberg with the tip being chosen by whoever is doing the talking.

iceberg of art history
Comparison of art history with an iceberg

Which makes me wonder if artistic taste and the current trends in art would be different if different stylistic periods had been championed?

Works by Johann Joachim Winckelmann

Orientalists – Jean-Leon Gerome

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte set out to invade Egypt as a means to reduce British influence in the Mediterranean, but he also believed that it shouldn’t be just a military conquest and should have educational and scientific goals. Along with his army he set up the Sciences and art commission of the army of the east which was 167 members strong. From this expedition they started to publish Description de L’Egypte (Description of Egypt) in 1802, a ten volume book of what they saw and found.

This started a rage for all things about the near east, which they called the Orient, and inspired the golden age of Orientalist painting. Jean-Leon Gerome was taken with the fad and became possibly the most famous Orientalist painter.

Arab Purchasing a Bridle by Jean-Leon Gerome

Arab Purchasing a Bridle is one of my favorites by Jean-Leon Gerome. I love the way he’s split the composition into three main values. The white of the horse, the diagonal middle tone from lower left to upper right and the two shadow areas on the top left and lower right corners. The shadow areas are key to this painting since they relieve the eye from some of the almost too crisp details he tends to get in some of his paintings.

The Serpent Charmer by Jean-Leon Gerome

The Serpent Charmer might be his most known work, and also one of his most controversial. It has been maligned as having a hidden sexual meaning between the boy and the men watching, it has been pointed out that it combines Egyptian, Turkish, and Indian elements as as such is a “complete fiction”, and (along with Orientalism in general) shows the superiority of colonial culture over those that were colonized since it was painted by a Frenchman.

Much of these thoughts and criticisms are being overturned in recent years since they are not supported by historical evidence and it is being recognized that Orientalism as a genre has been used as a whipping boy to prop up a political agenda.

And it astounds me that the true subject of the painting, that magnificent blue wall, gets overlooked by critics. The boy’s hand and the head of the snake are practically pointing at it, and Gerome has even added the weapons on the wall to stop your eye and make sure you see it. Viewed in this context the men and boy serve as compositional devices and an excuse so we are not left wondering why the artist painted just a wall if they had been left out.

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx by Jean-Leon Gerome

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx brings us back to Napoleon. Gerome wasn’t born until 1824 so this is a scene he imagined took place.

I love that the Sphinx is not yet excavated and that no archaeologists have dug trenches or marked off grids. This is the spirit of exploration as one man confronts something both amazing and mysterious at the same time. Which for me is the true heart of the painting, and Orientalism as a whole.