Archive for the '2.1 Mythology in High Renaissance' Category

UA1-WA:P2-p1 Project 1 Review, plus some tutor feedback

Time for a brief review of the work done for Part two Project one: Mythology in the High Renaissance. Here I’ll follow the order of the course notes rather than as I attempted exercises.

Engraving Published by: Johannes Boel After: Marten van Cleve I Print made by: Philips Galle, Arachne (1574) © The Trustees of the British Museum,0520.436&page=1

Engraving Published by: Johannes Boel After: Marten van Cleve I Print made by: Philips Galle, Arachne (1574)
© The Trustees of the British Museum,0520.436&page=1

For a Research Point on paintings of a mythological subject I chose the story of Arachne and Minerva (see 8-July-2013).

Looking back now I see that I became somewhat distracted by different translations of the text – fascinating, but not the goal of the research. The two artworks I focused on were very different in their treatment of the myth. This print of the Netherlandish school uses the myth in a factual way as a personification of textile production.

Peter Paul Rubens, Pallas and Arachne (1636–37) Image used with kind permission of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,_Sculpture_+_Works_on_Paper/Rubens,_Peter_Paul_58_18_Pallas_and_Arachne.aspx

Peter Paul Rubens, Pallas and Arachne (1636–37)
Image used with kind permission of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,_Sculpture_+_Works_on_Paper/Rubens,_Peter_Paul_58_18_Pallas_and_Arachne.aspx

The second work was painted around sixty years later and is a dramatic and emotional moment in the story. I’ve now started reading in the course textbook (Honour and Fleming, 2009) about Baroque painting in the seventeenth century, including quite a lot of information about Rubens. For some reason I’ve had fixed in my mind an association of Rubens with Italy, but although he spent some time in Italy and diligently studied the works of the masters there he trained and lived most of his life in or near Antwerp. This geographical link makes the contrast between the two works seem even more pronounced.

Nicolas Régnier Hero and Leander (c. 1625-1626) Image provided by NGV

Nicolas Régnier
Hero and Leander
(c. 1625-1626)
Image provided by NGV

Working on an annotation of this painting of Hero and Leander drove home to me the value of seeing the work in person (see post 23-July-2013). There are few overt symbolic “clues” to the myth given here, and one I completely misread in the web image – sea shells, not garlic! That direct, personal experience also helped me to build a connection to the work, in some sense to experience it as well as look at it. In his report on my first assignment my tutor commented favourably on my increasing use of emotive language. I’ve been trying to push that further, to respond to artworks and not just analyse and dissect them in an intellectual way.


Plate: Europa and the bull
Pesaro, workshop of the Zenobia painter
c. 1552-60

My choice of subject for an exercise on analyzing a sixteenth-century Italian painting felt a little dangerous, although I believe it meets all the stated requirements. I gave my rationale in my post (see 28-July-2013).

Wanting to do some more in-depth research on this piece led me to another great local resource, just downstairs from where the plate itself is displayed – the Edmund and Joanna Capon Research Library at the Art Gallery of NSW ( Not only is this a treasure trove of information, I just loved being there – quiet and calm, surrounded by interesting books, light flooding into my study carrel from the windows above, in a new corner of one of my favourite places in Sydney.

ngv_03In fact my local art gallery felt so much one of my safe and familiar places that I deliberately went elsewhere for the required visit to an art gallery. For that I travelled down to Melbourne, to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV – see 21-July-2013). In that report I focused on the International building of NGV. I didn’t mention the clever way NGV co-ordinated exhibitions. While I was there the Monet’s Garden exhibition was on in the International exhibition space (, showing works from The Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. In the Australian exhibition space was AUSTRALIAN IMPRESSIONISTS IN FRANCE ( I spent a morning at the Australian Impressionists exhibition, but will delay writing about it until I reach that period in my studies.

That Australian content remains a major goal for me in as much of the course as I can manage, and my tutor was happy with my adaptation of assignment one tasks to Australian conditions. When in Melbourne it was an amazing experience to actually hold and leaf through the Book of Hours at the State Library of Victoria (see my annotation of 22-June-2013 and the story of my visit posted 17-July-2013) – something so unexpected and that I still can’t quite believe, and certainly impossible if I hadn’t kept that local focus. It was an incredible bonus on a trip that was aimed at the older artworks displayed in the NGV. Scale is an interesting thing. Seeing that Book, how it fit into my hands, enforced the idea of its original purpose and the people who used it. Being small also made it more precious, more jewel-like. In contrast, having Régnier’s Hero and Leander fill my field of vision intensified the emotion of the captured moment.

I received my tutor’s feedback on Assignment One very quickly, just as I was beginning this project. Overall it was very positive and encouraging. Unfortunately the Assignment essay itself was a complete miss – I totally misread the question (a review of the textbook). I focused on the practical usability of the book, ignoring the content and issues such as any prejudice or assumptions in the selection of material included. Perhaps my situation as a female non-indigenous Australian with a particular interest in textiles led me to expect and accept a bias in any “comprehensive” textbook, with little attention given to my direct concerns. My current plan is to return to the Assignment before assessment but after I have completed reading for the course – who knows, perhaps I’ll find mention of Australia beyond the tiny page and a half allocated to indigenous art.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

UA1-WA:P2-p1 Project 1 Review
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project one: Mythology in the High Renaissance
Topic: Review

UA1-WA:P2-p1-Ex Analyse a sixteenth-century Italian painting

For this exercise we are asked to analyse an artwork with the following properties:
* Sixteenth century
* Italian
* painting
* mythological subject
* if possible from an original picture.

I have found one object in Sydney which meets all the above criteria.


Plate: Europa and the bull
Pesaro, workshop of the Zenobia painter
c. 1552-60
Diameter 23.6 cm

The above photo is actually a composite of a number of less than satisfactory shots I took in the Art Gallery of NSW. There is a much better image (both in focus and better colour) available on the Gallery website at

I hesitated over this selection. A more obvious choice would be Titian’s Rape of Europa (1559-62), held at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (see – a “blockbuster” image by a big name painter, with a link to my previous work on Arachne (8-July-2013) having been quoted by Velázquez and Rubens, and even discussed and illustrated in the course textbook (Honour and Fleming, 2009, pp. 491-492).

On the other hand one could argue the textbook puts too much focus on the achievements of a few greats and very little on crafts such as ceramics (points made by my tutor in response to my total misread of the Assignment 1 question). “Art” goes far beyond sculpture and paintings on canvas, board or walls – something I should be very conscious of given all the research points on craft, design and art in Textiles 1: A Creative Approach (see Ceramics also have the advantage of appearing very much as they did when new, unlike paintings and frescoes that have darkened and undergone multiple cleanings. I have decided to use the plate for this analysis, and to include some additional material about maiolica in the Italian Renaissance.

The plate shows the abduction of Europa, told in Book II of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The myth of Europa’s abduction and rape

Jupiter saw and desired Europa, the daughter of a king, who was playing by the shore with other maidens of Tyre. Jupiter asked his son Mercury to drive the royal herd of cattle towards sea, then took the form of a beautiful white bull and mingled with the herd near the young women. The bull was so beautiful and gentle that Europa gradually overcame her fear, petting him and garlanding his horns with flowers. Finally she even sat on the bull’s (Jupiter’s) back. The deceitful god slowly moved from land to sea, then was carrying Europa over water before she realised her danger. Terrified, Europa clung to his horns, looking back at the distant shore and her companions. Jupiter took Europa to Crete, where he resumed his normal form and ravished her.

I have based the account above on a combination of (Kline, 2000) and (Hall, 2008). Hall includes that in medieval Christendom this myth was re-interpreted as Christ the bull, carrying a soul to heaven – rather a leap in modern eyes.

The plate shows four figures in Classical dress across the foreground, occupying a very shallow space. Trees frame the view of the grassy foreground and sandy paths. Behind is the sea, and in the distance a figure on a bull. Above is a larger figure on clouds.

The colour palette is limited but the colours themselves are clear and strong. Golden yellow to brown tones cover the greatest area, but the saturated tones of blue in sky, sea and some clothing draw the eye. Green, a small amount of dull purple and some outlining in black complete the palette.

There is some shading giving volume to the figures, with light appearing to come from the front left of the picture, but there are no shadows.

The figure on the left and especially the one second to the right show movement in body and clothing, but overall the figures are rather blocky and static. I find the feet in particular unconvincing. There is not a lot of fine detail.

europa_composite_lineThe composition as a whole is unified and balanced, but quite busy. A triangle in the upper half contains the major points of attention, with other horizontal elements reflecting the base. The two figures showing movement are at the two lower corners of the triangle, acting to bring focus into the centre. At the top the space outside the triangle is filled with trees. The sandy path provides some limited diagonal movement up through the image and helps to give some depth to the image.


The plate shows four maidens of Tyre, one seated on a grassy hillock. Behind them is the sea, and Europa can be seen being carried away by Jupiter in the form of a bull. Mercury is sitting on the clouds above.

The information provided in the display case at the Gallery includes “The story is confusing in this scene because the maiolica painter has omitted a white bull which should appear in the centre foreground.” I explore this possibility in more detail in the evaluation below.

If one accepts the possibility of a second bull, the image can be interpreted as showing two moments in the story of Europa. In the centre foreground she has become accustomed to the bull and is seated on it (not a hillock), chatting with her companion on the left. In the centre distance we see Europa again, abducted by Jupiter, while the most animated figure on the right is one of her distraught companions, unable to reach her.


My principal investigation concerned the possible omission of a bull in the foreground. Could not the plate represent a single episode of the myth rather than two?

This myth has received a lot of attention by artists and I have been able to find multiple examples of each approach.

Plate Pesaro, Italy (possibly, made)  Urbino, Italy (possibly, made) ca. 1540-1550 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pesaro, Italy (possibly, made)
Urbino, Italy (possibly, made)
ca. 1540-1550
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
See note below

This plate in the V&A collection shows Europa on the bull, her companions beside her on the shores of the sea. The palette is similar to my subject plate, with perhaps more variety in the greens. The lines of the maidens and their robes are much more fluid and overall there is substantially more detail. This plate is slightly larger at 27.9 cm diameter.

Titian’s Europa (c. 1560 – 62) is the ultimate example focused on the bull carrying Europa away over the water. Her agitated companions are in the far distance. Europa herself seems terrified, the impact heightened by how close she and the bull are to the front of the picture plane (see ).

The third alternative, a combination of both episodes, can be seen in a plate in The Fitzwilliam Museum collection – Italian maiolica, dated 1524 and 25.5 cm in diameter, this version includes other cows in the herd but none of Europa’s companions. The familiar blue, yellow, brown and green predominate, but there is also red created by using copper in a reduced pigment lustre. Although there is a lot of detail and unusual elements included, I get very little sense of drama or movement in the web image, perhaps because there are no additional figures reacting to the situation.


My impression of how the plate might appear with a bull added in the foreground

I experimented with my photograph in gimp (an image manipulation software) to get an idea of the impact of a bull in the foreground. It would make more sense of the seated figure, which on the actual plate seems to float just above the grass and to be pointing to nothing in particular. Depending on placement the bull’s head would fit within that triangle of focus.

How could a central element of the myth being illustrated go missing?

One possible explanation can be found in Wilson (1987) who described maiolica in the Italian Renaissance as “‘middle-brow’ art” (Wilson, 1987, p. 12). Although classical subjects such as the myths from Ovid’s Metamorphoses were very popular it was not necessarily well understood by the painters of maiolica or many of those who commissioned or used it. Unlike Titian who was able to access a variety of common and more obscure texts and to make his own inventive contributions to the myth (Campbell, 2003), maiolica painters are thought to have worked from engravings or sketches of paintings, or from designs provided by local painters (Wilson, 1987, p. 113). The painter may have substituted the simpler grass and tree stump for the sake of speed or ease, not considering its importance in the narrative.

Another less likely possibility that has occurred to me is that the painter was covering an error. Maiolica painting is a demanding technique and reworking is not possible. A slip of the brush might be corrected with some quick improvisation in the composition.

I would like to direct you to one more illustration of the abduction of Europa. Wilson (1987) mentions a version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses published in Venice in 1497 which helped to drive the vogue for these mythological subjects. A scanned version of Ovidio Metamorphoseos Volgare is available online, and if I interpret the site correctly this is the one Wilson refers to – see for the page showing Europa’s story. I believe this shows three episodes: Europa and her attendants garlanding the bull’s horns; a back view of the bull carrying Europa towards the shore; and the bull on the waves, Europa clutching one horn and looking back. In addition I think I can see Mercury twice, being commanded by Jupiter and again with the herd. I like this page very much, but I can see that substantial modification would be needed to adapt it to a small, circular format in an unforgiving medium.

Maiolica in Renaissance Italy

Maiolica is earthernware with a white tin glaze. The clay vessel would have an initial firing taking it to a brownish ‘biscuit’ condition. It would then be dipped into the glaze bath and dried. The opaque white surface created was particularly well-suited to brush painted decoration using a range of pigments. In particular it remained stable, without runs or blurs, during the second firing. A transparent glaze could be added over the painting before the second firing, or (and?) additional pigments could be added before a complicated third firing that added a lustre to the work. During painting the white surface absorbed pigments immediately with no retouching possible, leading to a direct quality in the artists’ work. (Information from Rackham, 1963, pp. 2 – 3).

These techniques, learnt from the Islamic world, combined with new discoveries from ancient Rome and Italian expertise in painting on board and especially fresco, leading to the development during the Renaissance of a narrative style in painted ceramics. In ‘istoriato’ or story painted wares the main image takes up the entire space (rather than a separate rim treatment for example). These works would have been only a small part of ceramic production, intended primarily for display rather than utilitarian use. At its highest level istoriato was fine art created for wealthy and discriminating patrons – for example the series especially commissioned by Duke Guidobaldi as a present to King Philip II of Spain (Wilson, 1987, p. 113).

Limited colours were possible: blue from cobalt, green from copper, yellow from antimony, orange from antimony and iron, purple and brown from manganese. Black would be made from a mix of pigments, white came from tin. Red was a very difficult colour to produce and was only used sparingly. (Wilson, 1987, p. 13).


Campbell, SJ. (2003) “Europa,” in Chong, A. et al (ed.) Eye of the Beholder (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 103-107. [online] Available at [Accessed 28 July 2013]

Hall, J. (2008) Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (Second Edition). Boulder: Westview Press.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

Kline, AS (translator) (2000) Ovid’s Metamorphoses University of Virginia [online] Available from [Accessed 27 July 2013]

Rackham, B (1963) Italian Maiolica 2nd edition. (London: Faber and Faber)

Wilson, T. (1987) Ceramic art of the Italian Renaissance (London: British Museum Publications)

Note: The image of the plate from V&A is used under their permissions for students, interpreting this learning log as an e-book and following correspondence with V&AImages.

UA1-WA:P2-p1-Ex Analyse a sixteenth-century Italian painting
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project one: Mythology in the High Renaissance
Exercise: Analyse a sixteenth-century Italian painting

UA1-WA:P2-p1-Ex Annotation of a mythological painting

This exercise asks for an annotation of a mythological painting, with no restriction on time period. I have chosen Hero and Leander (c. 1625-1626) by Nicolas Régnier which is on display at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) (see

The main reason for my choice was simple availability. I would rather work from a painting that I can visit and experience directly and this painting is one of those I spent time with on my recent trip to Melbourne.

Hero and Leander  (c. 1625-1626)

Nicolas Régnier
Hero and Leander
(c. 1625-1626)
Image provided by NGV

Hero kneels on the beach by the body of her drowned lover Leander. She looks up to the heavens, her face white, her arms stretched wide, imploring, desperate. There is tension, but no movement. This is a moment of still, dramatic intensity between two violent actions.

The story of Hero and Leander has attracted many writers, including Virgil, Ovid and Christopher Marlowe. The one I found easiest to read and understand was written in Greek by Musaeus around the middle of the 5th century AD and translated by E.E. Sikes (Sikes, 1920). Hero was a virgin priestess of Aphrodite, living in a high tower in Sestios. Leander was a youth in Abydos, across the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles strait). They saw each other at a festival and “Love bent his bow; a single arrow flamed Piercing two mortals”. Leander persuaded Hero to become his wife secretly, with Night the celebrant and Silence the bridesmaid. He would swim across the water to her each night, guided only by a lamp that Hero lit in her tower. This worked for a time until winter came bringing fierce winds and swollen waves. Hero lit her lamp and Leander braved the surf, but “Love had confronted Fate, and Fate prevailed”. A violent gust of wind blew out the light, Leander’s strength was spent, and his life and love lost.

Hero watcheed through the night, hoping that Leander could still come, that he might have landed elsewhere when the guiding light failed. Finally dawn came and Hero saw Leander’s broken body on the rocks below. She leapt from her tower, to take her last breaths at her husband’s side. “So Love, in Death itself, was satisfied.” (All quotes from Sikes, 1920).

ngv_4289I’ve put a small version of NGV image to the left, just to save scrolling up and down so much. Click on it to go to the NGV page, Hero is still alive, but death is approaching. Behind to the left we can see dawn breaking, the storming clouds clearing, and the waves calming. Above at the right the dark hill leading to Hero’s tower can just be made out. Further placing the scene, at the front there are some scattered shells on the beach. These are a good example of the benefits of seeing the original work. When planning my trip to Melbourne I looked at the web image and thought the foreground objects were garlic, but strangely none of my internet searches on variants of “Leander Hero garlic” found any matches!

ngv_regnier_linesketchI love looking for lines and rhythms in paintings, and I kept finding more and more. The most dominant is that great, wide sweep of Hero’s arms. She reaches almost edge to edge, and the slightly shallower and shifted echoing sweep of Leander’s arms completes that span. On the line sketch you can see that I’ve found more echoes (in red) in the folds of Hero’s clothing.

Hero’s pale face is at the apex of a triangle and together with her pallor, almost lightest value in the image, makes this the focus – but the upward thrust of the triangle is stabilised by those sweeps. In purple and blue I’ve shown other diagonals that repeat and cross each other. I think this complex of stabilised movement really drives that sense of a still, dramatic intensity that I mentioned at the beginning.

Finally, those little rhythms in orange, connecting the two lovers together, one in death, one still living for a few more moments – I find so poignant.

The colour palette is mainly restricted to tones and values of a warm brown, with touches of blue in sky, water and Hero’s sash. There is a spotlight effect on Hero’s face and breast, both through higher values and in the cold tones of her skin. She, still living, is paler than Leander in death, her apparent pallor increased by the contrast of a warm pink in her bodice. In addition to directing focus and increasing drama, this skin treatment could be a reference to passages in Musaues’s text – earlier, that “And from her perfect face a radiancy Shone, as the clear moon in a cloudless sky” (Sikes, 1920, pp. 14 – 15) and then “Watched, leaden-eyed, in sleepless vigilance” (Sikes, 1920, p. 26). Although I have included colour value as one of the means used to direct our eyes, in fact I think this is largely achieved through the composition. There are areas of light value across virtually the entire width and height of the painting, including her large right sleeve and at the edges the dawn and those shells, but Hero’s face and chest at the apex of that triangle continue to draw the eye.


Detail from Nicolas Régnier
Hero and Leander
(c. 1625-1626)
My photograph, used with kind permission of NGV

The richness of Hero’s clothing and jewels gives texture and detail interest to the painting and also indicates Hero’s status as a priestess. The pearls could be a reference to Hero’s waterside home, or possibly a symbol of profane love (Hall, 2008). I haven’t been able to find further information on the symbolism of rubies. The detailed band edging Hero’s bodice caught my attention – I would love to try weaving that pattern (it could be embroidery, but naturally I prefer to push my preferred textile technique!). I enjoy the way the placement of the pearls repeats the weave structure of the band. The patterning of the skirts links to the foliage behind, their warm brown-orange tones with and enriches the colouring of Hero’s environment, and their shape helps anchor that triangle.

Leander’s arms reflect Hero’s, but there is no tension – they lie heavily on the ground. His body has the physique of a fit young man, one who can undertake feats of strength swimming across the straits, but it lies bent awkwardly, heavily foreshortened, inanimate. Leander’s near nakedness contrasts with Hero’s rich and voluminous clothing. On his closed eyes you can see every eyelash.

There is a high level of finish on the figures of both Leander and Hero, smooth and without any visible individual brushstrokes. They are moulded with shadow, not edged with lines.

Although there are indicators of the myth of Hero and Leander – a young man dead on the beach, a richly dressed woman beside him, signs of dawn, of waves, of a storm passed, of a hill that may hold a tower – some of the stronger identifiers are not seen. There is no tower on the hill, no lamp, no sign of Poseidon, Cupid or a Nereid or sea-horses. It seems to be similar to a comment in the course textbook, referring to the work of Titian: “”His aim was neither to illustrate a literary text not to enrich it with variations, but to create autonomous works of art” (Honour and Fleming, 2009, p. 491). They go on to mention Hero and Leander (Marlowe’s version) as a particular example of a suitable subject. This would have been around the 1550s, so well before Régnier’s work.

I haven’t been able to find a great deal of information about Nicolas Régnier on the internet or the reference books immediately to hand. He was born in Maubeuge, in the very far north of France, around 1590. He may have been an apprentice in the workshop of Abraham Janssens, a Flemish painter who had travelled to Italy at least once. Régnier himself went to Rome sometime between 1615 and 1621. He left Rome for Venice in 1625 or 1626 – that is, right around the time of this painting. Stair Sainty Gallery states that Régnier’s work while in Rome was more “dramatically charged” than his later work in Venice which tended to “smooth and languishing” (Stair Sainty Gallery [n.d.]). I think based on this that Hero and Leander was painted in Rome, or if in Venice before other influences came into play.

I found some other interesting interpretations of this myth.

The National Trust in the UK has tapestries circa 1660 to circa 1690 after a design by Francis Cleyn, on show at Cotehele, Cornwall – see The Death of Hero and Leander at This version includes more symbolic items, such as cupid holding an extinguished torch.

Yale University Library holds a c. 1605-06 version by Peter Paul Rubens – see This is very dramatic – massive waves surrounding the drowning Leander, who is being supported by Nereids. Unfortunately I’m not able to make out any detail on the web image. I think on the right may be Hero plunging to the ground.

Joseph Mallord William Turner’s The Parting of Hero and Leander (before 1837),, is held by The National Gallery in London. This seems to show an earlier episode in the myth, complete with substantial Classical buildings and temples covering the hill beside the sea.

Hero Mourning the Dead Leander (1621 – 1622) by Domenico Fetti is held at Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna (Museum of Fine Arts) and can be seen online in the Google Art Project This has almost a comic strip effect and includes a crying cupid, Nereids and the falling Hero.

There are many more, but the one I would really like to see is Hero Mourns the Dead Leander by Jan van den Hoecke, 1635-1637, also at Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna. See This seems to be one of those “exactly the same but entirely different” paintings – a shell-strewn seashore, the distorted body of the drowned man, Hero kneeling over him with outstretched hand. In an upper corner (right-hand side this time) can be seen the strait, distant land, and dawn breaking through a cloudy sky. Cupid makes an appearance in this version, possibly with a lamp. Jan van den Hoecke was a Flemish painter and this was painted around 10 years after Régnier’s. The Flemish link makes me wonder whether van den Hoecke may have seen a copy of Régnier’s work, or if both were influenced by some other, earlier painting.

Hall, J. (2008) Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (Second Edition). Boulder: Westview Press.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

Sikes, EE (1920) Hero & Leander: Translated from the Greek of Musaeus (London: Methuen) [online] Available at [Accessed 10 July 2013]

Stair Sainty Gallery [n.d.] REGNIER, NICOLAS: MAUBERGE 1591 – VENICE 1667 [online] Available from [Accessed 23 July 2013]

UA1-WA:P2-p1-Ex Annotation of a mythological painting
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project one: Mythology in the High Renaissance
Exercise: Annotation of a mythological painting

UA1-WA:P2-p1 Visit to an art gallery – National Gallery of Victoria

This task asks for a visit to an art gallery, focusing on the gallery itself. I chose to fly down to Melbourne for a few days to visit the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).

To address two slightly confusing aspects of the name: The NGV was established in 1861, forty years before the Federation of Australia, so the “National” part refers to the self-governing colony of Victoria. Secondly, “the Gallery” is actually two buildings separated by the Yarra River.

ngv_01On the southern side is NGV International. Designed by Sir Roy Grounds in 1968, between 1999 amd 2003 the building was redeveloped and designed by Mario Bellini. There was a further renewal for NGV’s 150th birthday in 2011, with a series of new and redesigned spaces opened.

ngv_02Standing at the entrance to NGV International one can’t quite see The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, which is the other side of the road and the other side of the river, at the edge of the CBD.

ngv_3NGV Australia is in one of a cluster of buildings in Federation Square. Opened in 2002, it was designed by architects Lab Architecture Studio in association with Bates Smart Melbourne.

Before moving inside, I need to thank NGV staff in the Publications department for providing images of some of the artworks and also taking the time to vet some of my own photos for use on this blog. Although visitors can take photos for their own use in non-restricted areas generally these can’t be displayed on a personal website. The photos I’m showing are general views and don’t include any copyright works, so NGV has very kindly approved their use.

ngv_planA rough and simplified plan of NGV International. I think there are four levels at least partly open to the public. The red square in the middle is a full height void. The red at the back is a Hall with a beautiful stained glass ceiling by Leonard French (a small photo of one of his windows at the National Library in Canberra is in a post from 13-April-2013). Grey at the front is a mix of services, escalators etc. The blue is gallery space and the green also galleries, but at half levels reached by ramps (which had me very confused at first). I hardly ventured into the left half of the building. There was a special Monet exhibition in part and also the 19th century and later. My focus was fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, on the right.

ngv_03ngv_interior_5The walk beside the water along that long, undecorated wall starts to build a sense of anticipation, then at last you are through the arch and into the dark interior looking back at a wall of water.

ngv_interior_1The space closes in, then opens out again in the bright central void with those lovely shadows. This photo is actually quite misleading. There were crowds of people around, and the floor of the void was almost filled by clinamen by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot (see In this work white porcelain bowls of various sizes float around in a shallow round pool of intense aqua blue. The bowls strike against each other, sounding like small gongs. Given its proximity to the Monet’s Garden exhibition, thoughts of serene musical lily ponds were inevitable.

ngv_interior_7I resisted the siren call of the Garden and went up an escalator, enjoying the lines and shapes created by the architecture. What could have been a simple balcony with the focus on the void below on the left became much more interesting, its own space – although by this stage I was becoming impatient to reach the artworks I had come to see.

ngv_interior_4Below is one of three rooms in one of those mezzanine levels (green on my little diagram above). The room is large, the art works given space and consideration. Lighting overall was very good – no works in dark corners and very few annoying reflections even in works framed behind glass. In this room directional lighting created some lovely shadows around the central sculpture. One thing missing here was seating. There was some in one of the adjoining rooms, but overall seating was sparse.

NGV International is generally organised by period. The room above holds sixteenth to seventeenth century art and design. Within that framework thought has clearly been given to the grouping of individual works.

Perino del Vaga The Holy Family  (c. 1545-1546) Image provided by NGV

Perino del Vaga
The Holy Family
(c. 1545-1546)
Image provided by NGV

Annibale Carracci The Holy Family  (c. 1589)

Annibale Carracci
The Holy Family
(c. 1589)
Image provided by NGV

For example to the left in the far corner of the room is The Holy Family by Perino del Vaga.

On the right of the corner is the same subject by Carracci.

I found each painting interesting in its own right, but being able to compare the two – the same subject, both by Italian painters, both in oils (the del Vaga on wood panel, the Carracci on canvas), painted less than fifty years apart – really enhanced the experience.

Vaga_line_sketchI find the composition by Perino del Vaga very dynamic. There are lots of diagonal lines repeating across the image, the Child is clambering up Mary, the cloth around His lower body flipping up in the energy of the movement. The flesh is rounded, modelled using chiaroscuro, and I love the little touch of reflected light on the underside of the Child’s right thigh. The figure of Joseph is interesting. Although clearly subsidiary to the main triangle focus of Mother and Child, Joseph is involved, part of the family, his face turned towards them as he observes their shared gaze. Joseph’s hands holding his staff look capable, and I think I can see lines that echo those diagonals of the main image. This is quite different to another Perino del Vaga Holy Family painting I found at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (see There Joseph is looking away to the side, his hands look more closed. In the audio file at that link curator Andrea Bayer mentions how separate and disconnected that Joseph appears.

carracci_line_sketchThe Carracci version is much more solid and stable. The vertical of Mary’s veil and upper arm combines with the strong, stable horizontal of her supporting forearm to create a frame within the frame of the image, both static and excluding Joseph. There is a rhythm of curves in Mother and Child, but they do not create movement. The Child rests his heavy head on Mary’s shoulder, passive.

Both paintings have an view to the outside at the upper right . In del Vaga’s work it is hardly visible. In Carracci’s there is a stormy sky and trees – foreshadowing Gethsemane perhaps? Both works have warm dark tones in the background, lighter tones in the skin. Both have red in Mary’s dress, but del Vaga adds greens in her cloak and Joseph’s garment, while in Carracci’s work the mustard yellow of Joseph’s cloak is repeated in the trees outside. Del Vaga’s Madonna shows a Classical influence in her hair and clothes. The image appears elegant, refined, polished. Carracci’s family seem more robust and solid, more real and less idealised than the earlier work.

Going back to the gallery itself, in the general view above you may be able to see the small plaques of information next to each artwork. These always included the names of the artist and the work, media, date and acquisition credit (bequest etc). For most works there was additional information, some background and context for artist and/or work. Occasionally a work would get extended information, for example a protrait of Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara by Dosso Dossi and Battista Dossi (attributed to) (see gave quite a detailed back-story. In some rooms information highlighting themes or general movements was given. I found the overall amount of information given suited me very well – enough to keep me interested and a little informed, without being overwhelming.

ngv_interior_6Another example of curatorial decisions enhancing the experience can be seen here in one of the 17th to 18th century Art & Design rooms. On the left is Still life with fruit (c. 1640 – 1650) by Jan Davidsz de Heem (see On the right is a cabinet with a display of items similar to those in the still life – fluted glasses, a silver-gilt standing cup and cover, a Ming dynasty porcelain basin. I won’t go into detail here (still life is included in a later assignment), but I enjoyed the combination of actual items and the painted image.

ngv_interior_2You might have noticed in the earlier photos that the walls in those areas of NGV are lightly coloured. A series of very large rooms have much stronger colour on the walls. Given the size of the works on display and the space given to them, I think they can handle it. The largest work shown here, by Poussin, is over two metres wide. Even the “small” work by Gentileschi to its right is about 1.6 metres wide.

On the days I visited the Gallery these rooms always felt quiet and empty, so there were no issues in wandering around, backtracking, or oscillating between close and distant views for twenty or thirty minutes in front of a single work. In part that feeling was probably due to the size of the rooms – there were people around, just it would take hundreds to feel like a crowd.

The situation was different over in the 19th-20th century Art & Design – a lot more people and in the first few rooms white walls and works I think hung a bit closer together. I peeped around a corner and saw a room that was hung more in the Salon style, with paintings hung close together and stacked four or more rows high up the walls, but I didn’t explore – my focus for the trip was the older works.

ngv_interior_3One thing I found slightly strange while navigating NGV International was the Mezzanine levels. They were boxes separated from the main gallery level by the ramp going up and down. At first I didn’t even realise there was anything interesting in that area – it looked like glass doors going to a service area of some kind, no artworks visible to tempt you in to see what you could find. It also interrupted the flow of moving through the rooms, needing you to backtrack along the featureless passage or continue to the next main level breaking your overall progression. The long days of gallery exploration combined with the low level of seat availability had my feet and ankles complaining, and any extra walking was not welcomed. Clearly the designers of the building see advantages to this arrangement that I don’t. It did create a kind of light-well effect in the centre of the building (the ramps are translucent), but not much was made of this in the main gallery areas.

A second gripe is the website There is a lot of good information there, but I seem to trip over it rather than navigate to it. When I was planning my visit I was interested in works in the fifteenth to seventeenth century, but couldn’t find an advanced search to help me find them. Just now I tried “Channel”, which turns out to mean audio and video files. Maybe I just need to learn the language. It’s just that I end up feeling there is lots there that could help me, if only I knew how to access it.

At the risk of being indelicate, another important issue – for women, a single cubicle in the restrooms isn’t enough. Yes there are more along and around the corner or downstairs, but … who ever thought one was a good idea?

A plus for the gallery that goes beyond the architecture, collection and curating is the staff. I didn’t meet anyone unhelpful, and a few went above and beyond – a security man who obviously has a lot of knowledge about the collection and its stories, and when I showed interest in one work told me of another I’d really like to see then took me to it (he was right that I would find it interesting); staff in the bookshop who searched high and low to find a particular NGV publication I wanted (successfully!); and of course the publications department, who very quick and accommodating in getting images and permissions to me.

It’s interesting to compare NGV with the Art Gallery of South Australia which I visited earlier this year (see 5-May-2013). NGV has a very logical approach – manage the two locations by splitting Australian and International art, then within International organise overall by period with a few takeouts for things like Fashion & Textiles and some Asian areas. For this visit this was great for me – I wanted Western art of a particular period and it was all conveniently grouped. On the other hand South Australia hung part of its collection by theme and on an open exploratory visit that was mind blowing, the juxtapositions and interactions made me see works with new eyes. Very exciting. Different buildings, different collections, different strategies. I like both. I just wish they were closer to Sydney.

UA1-WA:P2-p1 Visit to an art gallery – National Gallery of Victoria
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project one: Mythology in the High Renaissance
Topic: Visit to an art gallery

UA1-WA:P2-p1 Research Point: A mythological story – Arachne and Minerva

velazquez_arachneFor this Research Point I have chosen the story of Arachne and Minerva (also called Athena or Pallas Athene). On the right is Velázquez’s The Fable of Arachne (Las Hilanderas) (copied with kind permission of Museo del Prado). I mentioned this painting in my post of 22 Mar 2013. That was in the context of reading about the disguised meaning in paintings in What is art history? by Mark Roskill.

The story of Arachne is told in Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There are some wonderful translations on the internet (see note at the end), but a not-quite bare-bones version follows.

The myth of Arachne

Arachne came from a poor family. She developed great skill in spinning, embroidery and most of all weaving. Not only were the finished cloths beautiful, but the way she worked, every graceful movement of her hands, added to the art. It was clear when watching her that she had learnt from Minerva the goddess of women’s arts, especially spinning and weaving.

Arachne was proud of her skills. She denied that Minerva had taught her and grew angry at such suggestions. Minerva herself was angry at this insolence, and visited Arachne in the guise of an old woman, advising her to beg the goddess for forgiveness for her presumption. Arachne abused the “old woman”, challenging the goddess to a contest.

Minerva then appeared as herself. The other women and nymphs there worshipped Minerva. Arachne blushed, then paled, but was unrepentant. She “rushes on to her fate, eager for a worthless prize” (Kline, 2000).

There is a lovely passage describing the dressing of the looms, the fine threads, rich colours and gold, and the actual weaving. Minerva’s tapestry shows the enthroned gods in all their power and majesty. An olive tree has grown where Minerva struck the earth, and the gods are marvelling. In the corners are scenes of mortals who have been metamorphosed, punished by the gods in the past for daring to challenge them.

Arachne’s weaving showed scene after scene of gods transforming into other shapes to pursue and rape women, including “Europa deceived by the form of the bull: you would have thought it a real bull and real waves” (Kline, 2000). The workmanship was flawless, and this together with the subject further inflamed Minerva’s rage. Minerva tore Arachne’s work to shreds, then hit the girl on the head with her shuttle.

Arachne could not bear such treatment and insult. Either overcome by the wrath of Minerva, or still proud and courageous (slightly different translations), she made a noose and hung herself.

Minerva was moved by pity and remorse to save Arachne’s life but, still angry, cursed Arachne and her descendants. Minerva sprinkled on poison and Arachne was transformed into a spider.

Sources of the myth

From my research to date Ovid’s account seems to be the most complete telling of Arachne’s story. There is an earlier mention in Virgil’s Georgics. There is a brief mention of Arachne in Dante’s Inferno. I also found a couple of links to Shakespeare – Troilus and Cressida, The Winters Tale and maybe Bottom’s experience in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Arachne is one of those included in Giovanni Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus (Of Famous Women), which includes considerable additional information. Other links are given on the very helpful website of the Chair of Iconography and iconology in the Department of Art History of the Faculty of Humanities of the ‘ University of Rome “La Sapienza”: and in particular, however the auto-translator in my browser left something to be desired.

The myth harnessed to promote Christian values

The sin of pride, one of the seven Deadly Sins, is the most obvious message in the story. Arachne’s hubris leads her not only to challenge Minerva, but to rush on to the contest and her fate. Arachne was also led astray by her anger. To the end she was intransigent, “courageously” choosing death rather than accept her treatment and humiliation.

There is also a warning of the consequences of challenging god(s), or those on this earth put in authority – either religious or civic. In addition one should listen to and heed the advice of elders / superiors. Images of Arachne could be used to remind viewers to accept their social position – especially in times of change or when new aristocracy challenged the old order.

A parallel could be drawn between Minerva appearing to Arachne to teach her of her errors and offer a path of repentance and deliverance, and the Christian God sending His Son in the form of man to teach and to save mankind.

There is a contrast between the proud and angry Arachne and the more common view of virtuous, productive women working in their domestic sphere. This can be extended to the contrast of Arachne’s pride and disobedience to the behaviour of the Virgin Mary who although at first deeply disturbed, submitted and was obedient to God’s will. Part an image in a fifteenth century miniature shows Minerva, complete with wings like the Archangel Gabriel, appearing to Arachne who is working at her loom. The similarity to scenes of the Annunciation is unmistakable. (See for the Arachne miniature and my post of 22-June-2013 annotating an image of the Annunciation).

Arachne’s story links to the idea that from one who has been given much, much is expected. One should give thanks to God for all his gifts, and use those gifts not just for oneself but for the benefit of all.

The futility of personal pride and any ephemeral personal glory is highlighted by Arachne’s fate as a spider, forever weaving webs that will break and be brushed away.

Given my modern perspective I find it difficult to assess the acts of the gods as depicted in Arachne’s weaving and how they would have been interpreted by Ovid’s original readers, or in Medieval or Renaissance times. Was Arachne expressing a widely accepted sense of horror and outrage at the abuse of power in violence that can never be accepted or justified? During my research I found the following:
“…to be coerced by a god is no ordinary human experience of sexual violence. Rather, it is a terrifying but transformative experience of supernatural possession or ecstasy, which may have a positive outcome.” (1)
The quote above was in the context of discussion of Titian’s Europa – linked to some of the works shown below. In my research I did not find anything to suggest that earlier viewers would have seen Arachne’s behaviour as justified protest of abuses of power. Possibly there could be an argument that prudence was required in expressing negative views of one’s superiors.

Descriptions of two Artworks

Engraving Published by: Johannes Boel After: Marten van Cleve I Print made by: Philips Galle, Arachne (1574)
(Image © The Trustees of the British Museum. Used under the Museum’s Standard Terms of Use. Source:,0520.436&page=1)

This is one of a series of eight plates. Arachne is shown as the personification of textile production. I think this could show Arachne four times – in the centre spinning, at the back left embroidering (in the larger image on the museum website you can see the thread being held up, and good light outside would assist the work), she is weaving on the right and is in the top right corner as a spider.

The image is serene, purposeful and busy, as befits a view of industry. There is no sign of Minerva or any of the dramatic events of Arachne’s story. The two background figures are intent on their work. The main figure wears an elaborate headdress and there may be a cloth laid across her to act as an apron to protect the full skirts of her dress. She looks absorbed as she draws the fibres from the distaff and turns the wheel, but there is no overt sign of pride or anger. Perhaps there is a touch of petulance about the mouth, but overall this is not an emotional presentation.

Arachne is surrounded by the tools of textile work and the various stages of materials from fibre to skeins of yarn and the final bolts of cloth. The loom setup is not familiar to me. There is considerable detail – beater, cloth beam, treadles – but no apparent harnesses to make the shed.

Outside can be seen another house in what could be a tidy, prosperous Flemish township.

The composition is quite balanced and static. The main focus is central and forms a triangle in the frame.

Peter Paul Rubens, Pallas and Arachne (1636–37)
(Image used with kind permission of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Source:,_Sculpture_+_Works_on_Paper/Rubens,_Peter_Paul_58_18_Pallas_and_Arachne.aspx)

This image is full of action and emotion, showing one of the most dramatic moments of Arachne’s story. Minerva flies at Arachne, her arm lifted to strike at the girl with the weaving shuttle, which is held like a spear. Arachne has fallen to the ground, her feet scrabbling on the floor, one hand holding Minerva’s arm. Their gazes are locked, Minerva looking down with cold fury and implacable mouth as she metes out her punishment, Arachne wide-eyed, hair in disarray, looking perhaps shocked and at last fearful at the consequences of what she has done. There is a shadow behind and to the right of Arachne, cast by Minerva’s wrath.

To the right is Arachne’s completed tapestry, showing a scene similar to Titan’s Europa. The bodies of Arachne and Europa reflect each other in shape and together form a strong diagonal line across the painting. Minerva’s body above has a parallel diagonal, but also vertical thrusts from her right leg and that descending hand and shuttle.

Behind at the left a woman works at the loom. Her bare feet seem to dance on the treadles. Her long-fingered hands are working feverishly. Her gaze is intent, flushed with effort. She doesn’t seem to notice the drama taking place in front of her. I think this figure may represent Arachne as she weaves in the contest, her clothes rearranged to give freedom to her quick movements but her hair still in place, her confidence intact. Her body leaning forward echoes the diagonals already seen.

At the centre rear is another figure. She seems to watch with concern, but is not a part of the drama. I wonder if her presence is more a compositional device to fill and balance the rest of the image.

The loom is a counter balance, with horses and one shaft visible. The breast and cloth beams seem to be combined. No other equipment or materials are shown – all focus is on the drama unfolding.

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, The Spinners, or The Fable of Arachne (Las Hilanderas) (Ca. 1657)
(Image used with kind permission of Museo del Prado. Source:

This painting is the one I first chose for this research project – and now I am not going to include it. It is a very complex image with a fascinating history and I really don’t feel I can do it justice in a post which is already too long. I’ve included some interesting links below, and hope there will be another opportunity to write about it (including the surprising omission of any loom).

Similarities and differences

The two descriptions above show the almost entirely different interpretations of the artists involved. Both images have a central triangle in the composition, but in the etching this is quite static while in the Rubens there is strong diagonal movement.

The media used differ, and each supports the different styles of the artworks. The etching is very precise with clear details and careful tones. The oil painting is almost sketchy, with just enough detail to support the movement, drama and emotion of the captured moment.

Reasons for artists choices.

The etching is one of a series of personifications of Human Labors. Others in the series include Bellona personifying the arms industry and Panacea personifying the medical profession. The detailed story of each is not relevant. The myth is subordinated to the theme of the print series.

The painting is also one of a series, although I have not been able to locate other members. Rubens was commissioned by the brother of Philip IV of Spain to create a series of works of mythological subjects to decorate a hunting lodge, the Torre de la Parada. Rubens executed sketches for each of the works and the actual paintings were executed by collaborators. The final Arachne and Minerva was painted by Juan Bautista del Mazo and has been lost (2).

Apart from the name of the subject and the inclusion of a loom in the background there is little in common between the two artworks described above.

One more work

Although this post has gone on too long, I would like to finish by pointing to one more artwork – Yasumasa Morimura’s A requiem: spinning a thread between the light and the earth/1946, India (2010). This photograph can be seen at The myth of Arachne is layered – it is a myth telling in part other myths. Both Rubens and Velázquez include references to previous paintings – more layers. Morimura’s photograph also references earlier artworks, including Velázquez’s The Fable of Arachne. The text information on the gallery website suggests that Morimura, like Arachne, is challenging the gods.

(1) Campbell, S.J. (2003) “Europa,” in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press pages 103-107). [online] Available from [Accessed 6 July 2013]

(2) Mataloni, C. [n.d.] Pallade e Aracne.Cattedra di Iconografia e Iconologia del Dipartimento di Storia dell’Arte della Facolté di Scienze Umanistiche dell’Università di Roma [online] Available from [Accessed 6 July 2013]

Kline, AS (translator) (2000) Ovid’s Metamorphoses University of Virginia [online] Available from [Accessed 4 July 2013]

Roksill, M. (1976) What is Art History? London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

The text

The Ovid Collection at the University of Virginia Electronic Text Center ( [Accessed 5-July-2013]) has links to a number of translations. George Sandys’ 1632 verse is a little tricky to read but feels on some level a good match (being roughly contemporary) with the artworks I viewed. See

Anthony S. Kline’s 2000 modern prose version ( is more approachable, with my favourite bonus of freely allowing any non-commercial use.

Yet another translation is by Brookes More at Each version brings another perspective, a bit more richness.

More paintings

The website of the Chair of Iconography and iconology in the Department of Art History of the Faculty of Humanities of the ‘ University of Rome mentioned above has a page full of paintings on the theme of Arachne – see

Links related to Velázquez’s The Fable of Arachne

Georgievska-Shine, A. (2010) “Velázquez and the unfinished story of Arachne,” in The Subject as Aporia in Early Modern Art, edited by Alexander Nagel and Lorenzo Pericolo (Ashgate). [online] Available at [Accessed 6 July 2013]. Comment – I found this fascinating, but beyond me. One day I hope to read and understand it – I think there is a lot about the nature of art and art history.

Absolutely last, and quite off-topic: Ziogas, I. (2011) Ovid in Rushdie, Rushdie in Ovid: A Nexus of Artistic Webs. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics at Boston University 19 (1) [online] Available from [Accessed 6 July 2013]

UA1-WA:P2-p1 Research Point: A mythological story – Arachne and Minerva
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project one: Mythology in the High Renaissance
Topic: Research Point – A mythological story


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