Posts Tagged 'UWA-P2-annotation'

UA1-WA:P2-p4-Ex Annotate a Post-Impressionist image

The course notes request a painting by Seurat, van Gogh or Gauguin. The Art Gallery of NSW has an early van Gogh, so I have selected that for my focus.

Head of a peasant Vincent van Gogh 1884  oil on canvas

Head of a peasant
Vincent van Gogh
1884 oil on canvas

This is quite a dark picture, so click on the link to the Gallery site for a better image.

The painting is around about life size and feels warm and intimate. I get a real sense of an individual, a particular person with his own story. He’s looking down, perhaps weary or lost in thought, but I think I can see smile lines around the eyes – life may have been a struggle but he has had times of pleasure. The clothing may be rough, dark and drab, but also warm and comfortable.

The picture’s colouring is based on the red / green complements, generally dark, muddy and subdued. The face is lit from the left side, while the lighter background on the right allows us to see the shape of the face and body on that side.

vangogh_02Every line of the painting seems to be an angle, and the paint itself often leaves a thick raised line. I get a sense of the energy and commitment of the artist, loading up his brush, pushing and dragging the pigment around the canvas. With those lines and angles there is no softening, no sentimentality about the hard life of the man portrayed.

This portrait was one of a “Heads of the People” series van Gogh worked on early in his artistic career while living Nuenen, a rural area in the Netherlands. Van Gogh wanted to make many such studies – fifty or more – and despite my initial comments above about the individual further reading has shown that he desired to find “the type distilled from many individuals” (1). Art could show something with soul, something more than any one individual.

“I don’t yet know what I shall do with those heads, but I want to extract the motif from the characters themselves”(2) wrote van Gogh in December 1884. Just a few months later, in April 1885, he had almost finished his painting The Potato Eaters which is now in the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. The web image in the Google Art Project has better detail than the museum website – see It seems one of the heads is very closely based on the study which is my focus picture, although here connecting with his gaze to another figure. Not wanting to turn this post into a marathon, I’ll just link to a couple of van Gogh’s letters which I found interesting particularly in respect to colour. Writing to Theo on 30 April 1885 (see van Gogh talks about how far he has moved with colour, and goes into considerable depth on colour use by weavers. He’s also concerned about the framing of the picture, wanting it surrounded by gold or else on a wall “a deep tone of ripe wheat”. Apart from the colour interaction he wanted, that reference to wheat seems symbolic. In a similar vein, van Gogh notes the “rough and coarse look” of the painting, not at all the “conventional smoothness” which he believes would be wrong for this subject. In another letter just days later (see there is a lot more about colour, and a phrase that I’ve seen quoted repeatedly about the colour of the heads “something like the colour of a really dusty potato, unpeeled of course” plus quoting Senier about Millet’s painting “his peasants seem to have been painted with the soil they sow”. Colour and interactions of colour are vitally important, but the literal accuracy of the seen colour is not. Colour, texture and line are used to carry and deepen the meaning of the picture.

A further comparison to my focus picture is given by van Gogh’s 1888 Portrait of a Peasant (Patience Escalier), now in the collection of the Norton Simon Museum (see This has the lighter, brighter palette than I automatically associate with van Gogh (before this exercise!), developed following his exposure to more Impressionist works while in Paris and by the light and colour in Arles where he was then living. With this painting van Gogh was explicit: “Because instead of trying to render exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcefully.” (3)

The course notes ask about “Post-Impressionism” – its very name defined by what was happening before. Was it a significant movement in its own right, a stepping stone to Cubism and Expressionism, just “different stuff that happened after Impressionism”…? The name itself was coined by Roger Fry in a show he organised in 1910 in London, “Manet And The Post Impressionists”, which included the work of Seurat, Van Gogh, Gaugin and Cézanne. Together with a second exhibition two years later, Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, the exhibitions are seen as highly significant to British artists (see It continues to be a useful concept, for example appearing on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see However while all seeking something more, something new, something authentic to themselves, the artists grouped under “Post-Impressionism” were following quite different lines of inquiry. It’s not a term or a grouping they would have recognised – the main figures were all dead by the time of the exhibitions. In fact I wonder if their rather short painting careers, especially compared with some of the giants of Impressionism and later – Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Braque – could be a factor. If each of the Post-Impressionists had been able to develop their ideas further, would it still be possible to lump them together? – quite possibly “Yes”, when you consider the range of artists regarded as “Impressionists”.

However based on the reading I’ve done on van Gogh, he is most definitely “After-Impressionist”. He was highly aware of the work of artists before him, and of those working at the same time. He drove himself to build skills, to experiment, to find a way to achieve the paintings that were in his head. He consciously used the previous work of those he admired – for example Millet’s Man with a Hoe – combining it with his own experiments with colour and line. Van Gogh’s very deliberate use of line and colour to represent his ideas about his subjects, not their physical appearance, seems to me something quite new at the time. I’ve just come back from a few days in Canberra, looking mainly at the work of abstract expressionists as preparation for the next assignment. In a room with work by de Kooning and Pollock I thought I could see some echoes of van Gogh.

Some other oddments which didn’t fit into the flow above but I would like to capture:

* A talk by Judy Sund of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York: Van Gogh’s Peasants: The Essence of Earthiness Van Gogh’s portraits of Patience Escalier, is available at My focus picture and of course Potato Eaters are included in her discussion of the later work. I found this quite late in my research and there’s a lot of overlap in material. Sund’s inclusion of literary and musical links is very interesting.

* In my research I found different accounts of van Gogh’s perceptions of peasants. He was interested in having his work reproduced, so that even the poorest could have art on their walls. In 1882 he wrote to his brother Theo “I believe that if one wants to make figures, one must have a warm feeling, what Punch calls in its Christmas picture, Good will to all – that means one must have real love for one’s fellow creatures. I for one hope to try my best to be in such a mood as much as possible.” (4) In 1885: “No — one must paint the peasants as if one were one of them, as feeling, thinking as they do themselves. As not being able to be other than one is. I so often think that the peasants are a world in themselves, so much better in many respects than the civilized world. Not in all respects, because what do they know of art and many other things?” (5), and in 1888 “an unspoiled creature with the instincts of a wild beast” (6). In her talk Judy Sund provides a number of quotes where van Gogh seems to see peasants as dangerous, brutal beasts. It makes me question my initial description of the painting – is there really the warmth and affection that I see?

* An article in Nature shows a newly discovered van Gogh painting – found underneath an unrelated landscape. It seems clearly to be one of his Nuenen peasants, and I was surprised to see the level of detail including partial colour obtained using a Synchrotron X-ray and known metallic components of pigments used by van Gogh. See Ball, P 2008, ‘The hidden van Gogh’, Nature, 454, 7204, p. 563, Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 23 November 2013.

(1) Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh. The Hague, 3 January 1883.
(2) Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, 30 December 1884
(3) Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh. Arles, 18 August 1888
(4) Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh. The Hague, 29 October 1882
(5) Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, 13 April 1885
(6) Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Emile Bernard. Arles, 1 or 2 November 1888

UA1-WA:P2-p4-Ex Annotate a Post-Impressionist image
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project four: Impressionism and post-impressionism
Exercise: Annotate a Post-Impressionist image

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Annotate a realist image

Landscape with stagGustave Courbet1873   oil on canvas   65.5 x 81.6 cmArt Gallery NSW

Landscape with stag
Gustave Courbet
1873 oil on canvas 65.5 x 81.6 cm
Art Gallery NSW

For this annotation I have chosen Landscape with stag by Gustave Courbet, in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Once again my desire to work from the actual painting drove my selection. The photos in this post were taken on my mobile phone and are particularly poor, so I strongly recommend the Gallery website version: or for even more detail on the google art project,

courbet_galleryviewI don’t entirely blame the equipment (phone) or the operator (me) for the bad photo. The gallery shot shows the Courbet in situ, one of a number of works squeezed in around the flamboyant Vive l’Empereur by Edouard Detaille (1891). My subject painting is the one to the left, above the heads of the people reading the signage for Vive l’Empereur. The Gallery is very short of space (plans for an expansion have been floated but money is yet to appear), and unfortunately in this instance the Courbet is left languishing, hung too high and too poorly lit to see properly (Vive l’Empereur literally taking the spotlight).

I’ve had great difficulty seeing this picture – not just the physical aspects mentioned above, but being able to focus on it and make sense of what I was looking at. It took me quite a while to even find the stag, the triangle of blue sky in the top right distracted me, and what was the source of that light behind the trees? It was closed in as if the side of a mountain, but filled with almost glaring light. I’ve viewed the painting multiple times over the past few weeks, sometimes a detour on trips with other purposes (Renaissance to Goya, the sarcophagus of Yu Hong, The defence of Rorke’s Drift), later as the primary focus. I’m enjoying it more and more as I go, but it still escapes me somehow. I’ve made up my own story…

courbet_01We are beside, almost standing in, a stream running through a forest. The waters froth as they pass over and around rocks that have tumbled in. Ahead and to the right a mountain rises. There was a rockslide not too long in the past – the source of the clearing on the steep slope behind the fringe of trees. The bared rock of the mountainside reflects light into the glade where the stream reflects the light again – it is a bright sunny day outside. The landslide was also the source of the rocks that have disrupted the flow of the stream. In the front left stands a stag that has come to drink the waters in a quiet side pool. Further back the forest closes in and the stream disappears into a shadow made even darker by the contrast of the reflecting light.

courbet_04My standard drawing of lines doesn’t yield much information. I was surprised that the very centre of the picture was actually one of the brightest areas. Adding a square and the rectangles left by squares put the stag (circled in purple) into its own nice area, but no other insights.

courbet_05Looking for lines was more interesting. The most obvious is related to the bright light bouncing around the scene. There’s also that (to me bothersome) triangle of blue sky. The scene is otherwise so enclosed, with so little depth and with a restricted palette that the distant blue seems very out of place. It took me longer to see and appreciate the fresh yellow-green of leaves catching sunlight directly rather than reflected from the mountainside. It’s quite mottled – I think it may have been sponged on – and makes a lovely irregular diagonal above and not quite parallel to the relatively harsher light. The colour is not so much reflected as repeated in other small areas around the picture. With all these brighter diagonals it’s rather nice to find the darker vertical rhythm of tree trunks proceeding in their subdued diagonal down across the painting. All this light and movement makes the source of the stream on the left even darker and more mysterious.

courbet_02This is a closeup of the stream at the bottom right of the picture. The colour is very broken up. There are patches with little lines running through which I think may be the result of using a palette knife. On the rock there it looks like the end of a brush may have been dragged through paint, creating line and texture. In areas the shadows of earlier colour show through – from what I’ve read this suggests the use of transparent glazes (not being a painter I’m not sure of my ground here). There are still solid shapes in the large rocks. There is a wide range of values and quite a mix of colour in the water. I think it is very effective in suggesting a fast-running mountain steam forming rapids over the rocks, with light reflected from the hillside and also filtering directly through the trees.

courbet_03Another closeup, this time up the bank of the stream near the centre of the picture, just above the large rock. Once again there is a jumble of broken-up colour and shape. I think I can see signs of the brush being used in different ways, scrubbing and stroking, perhaps sponge near the top. Some shapes are blurred and indistinct, but there is a certain angularity, a repetition of triangular forms, that can also be seen in other parts of the painting. In my interpretation of the picture there a little space behind the trees, closed off by the remains of the rockslide. I suppose it could be snow, but there is no sign of that elsewhere in the scene. I also think the colour is too warm for snow.

Landscape - solitude Richard Westall 1811 oil on canvas 102.6 x 127.9 cm

Landscape – solitude
Richard Westall
1811 oil on canvas 102.6 x 127.9 cm

The course notes ask whether the chosen painting has reference to other artistic traditions. Pondering this, I went wandering through the Gallery and came across this painting by Richard Westall (the Gallery’s image is at Note the triangle of blue top left and the stream running over rapids and around rocks, its source disappearing into darkness. On the left instead of a stag we have a bird (heron perhaps?), on the right trees going up a hillside.

Information from the Gallery signage: “The artist was brother to the William Westall who (on the recommendation of Benjamin West) was chosen to accompany Flinders on his voyage to Australia in 1801. Though Richard remained in England he brought a certain savagery to romantic visions of landscape such as this.”

westall_03This detail shows Westall’s handling of the cascading water. I rather like the patterning that is formed, but the whole approach is an extraordinary contrast to Courbet’s later work, although the colour range of the stream has a lot of similarities. The painting was hung high, so once again I had difficulties in seeing clearly, but I’m fairly sure the surface of the picture was very smooth and uniform. Texture and volume are created by areas of colour, not by physical layers and lumps of paint.

westall_02This closeup of the bottom left corner shows the detail provided by Westall (the fuzziness is in the photograph, not the painting). Separate leaves, flowers, and fronds of fern or bracken can be seen – quite possibly botanically correct, although the gothic branches and clutching roots of the trees look like an illustration to a ghost story.

I think this gives a wonderful indication of how far Courbet had moved from a Romantic style. The paintings are superficially similar in subject and composition, but seem much further apart than 62 years.

Going further back, it was interesting to return to my notes on the two Rembrandt’s I saw at NGV (see post 13-Sept-2013). In the earlier work, Two old men disputing (1628) (, individual brushstrokes could be seen as many small flecks creating light and texture and shape.

rembrandt_2372_handThe second work by Rembrandt was Portrait of a white-haired man (1667), see and my detail shot at the right. My notes back then included “so varied and fluid and uneven, none of that sense of painstaking precision”. In my eyes Courbet’s work has echoes of this textured, free painting. It was gratifying to find some support for this in a paper by David Bomford. He wrote of the ‘rough manner’ which developed in Spanish and Dutch painting, and mentions in particular the late works of Rembrandt. Rather than deliberately copying Rembrandt, Bomford suggests Courbet showed an “almost unconscious exercise of visual memory”, “absorbing a sort of mnemonic code of representation, to be rediscovered and reinvented in the extraordinary low-relief formations that were his landscape paintings” (Bomford, 2007, p.11). This went beyond the surface to the dark prepared surface lying under the painting.

Courbet himself both acknowledged his study and debt to earlier artists and claimed his own independence. “I have studied … the art of the ancients and the moderns. I have no more wished to imitate the one than to copy the other… I simply wanted to draw forth from a complete knowledge of tradition the reasoned and independent understanding of my own individuality” (Courbet, 1855).

Rather pleased with my earlier success finding the Westall picture, I went searching for a link forward, to works created after Courbet’s. I’d read of Courbet’s influence on Cézanne, but the only work in the Gallery’s collection is very solid and horizontal and open, much flatter in its brushwork, wider and brighter in its palette and in my eyes not a strong connection.

On the other hand, this painting by Georges Braque seems to me to have some relationship. Apologies this time for the speck of dust on the lens. The Gallery link is

Landscape with houses Georges Braque Winter 1908-1909 oil on canvas 65.5 x 54.0 cm

Landscape with houses
Georges Braque
Winter 1908-1909 oil on canvas 65.5 x 54.0 cm

In one – many – senses the paintings are nothing alike. What caught my eye: the tree on a steep slope, an angularity and repetition of triangular forms, a sense of being closed in, the colour palette, the dark area coming into light.

The brushwork is quite different, more ordered, moving together to distinguish forms and create movement around the picture. One similarity would be that the individual marks are visible, and important in the overall effect of the painting.

The course notes ask to what extent the image combines “an imaginative grasp of [the age’s] paradoxical spasms of ‘heroism’ and its moral and spiritual desolation” (quoting Honour and Fleming p. 670 in reference to Baudelaire). How can I know of that age’s spirit and valour? My research for Rorke’s Drift is just one example of the malleable nature of history, and it can all get a bit circular – I know of the age what I learn from the artifacts left from that age, and of course the histories and stories written since.

Schwartz suggests that at this late period in his life Courbet’s work was more reflective of his personal experiences than society as a whole – “his subject matter ultimately became the act of painting itself, an expressive emotionalism dictated by his own exacerbated psychology which had been brought about by circumstances of exile and political outrage” (Schwartz, 1998, p7). Far from an expression of society, “He revealed things as they were without cultural makeup” (Schwartz, 1998, p. 8).

In contrast, Fernier has written that Courbet was driven “back to nature in search of serenity. … From this point on, Courbet would depict deer and stag – innocent victims of man’s violence – in place of the peasant class and social outcasts” (Fernier, 1998, p. 16)

Perhaps these concepts of the individual or of society are not contradictory or opposing, but rather different aspects of a whole. In Rubin’s analysis “Realism, the translation of one’s own times, depends on freedom because it depends on bringing one’s own vision to the representation of experience” (Rubin, 1997, p.159). These ideas seem very modern to me. This relates as well to the question of Courbet’s place with regard to academic tradition. “Courbet had forever changed the role of art in society by insisting that its vision be rooted in reality and that its purpose be related to society” (Rubin, 1997, p. 164).


Bomford (2007) Rough Manners: Reflections on Courbet and Seventeenth-Century Painting. In papers from the Symposium Looking at the Landscapes: Courbet and Modernism Held at the J. Paul Getty Museum on March 18, 2006. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust [Online] Available from (Accessed 15-Oct-2013)

Courbet, G (1855) The Realist Manifesto Cited in Rubin, J (1997) Courbet. London: Phaidon pp. 157-158

Fernier, J (1998) “The Natures of Courbet”, in Courbet: Later Paintings, New York: Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, LLC.

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

Rubin, J (1997) Courbet. London: Phaidon

Schwartz, C. (1998) “Courbet: The Late Years”, in Courbet: Later Paintings, New York: Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, LLC.

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Annotate a realist image
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project three: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanicism and realism
Exercise: Annotate a realist image

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Analyse a painting of a historical event

This exercise asks for an analysis of a painting of an event in nineteenth-century history. I’ve chosen The defence of Rorke’s Drift 1879 by Alphonse de Neuville (1880), now in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW.

The Painting

The defence of Rorke's Drift 1879 Alphonse de Neuville 1880  oil on canvas   181.4 x 301.5 cm

The defence of Rorke’s Drift 1879
Alphonse de Neuville
1880 oil on canvas 181.4 x 301.5 cm

There’s a much better photo and lots of detail shots on the gallery’s website: The selection started with my standard “meets requirements, can see in person”, but I also found it of particular interest because it’s a different example of British imperialism and the impact on indigenous people (see also 10-Oct-2013).

The painting depicts an incident in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. The numbers vary depending on the source, but around 140 British troops withstood a 12 hour attack by 3 or 4 thousand Zulu warriors. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded based on the action.

rorke_04The painting is large, dynamic and full of action. Huge depth has been created, from the foreground at the bottom left to the distant hills through the pass (both marked with a green x). There are lots of diagonals, with a major zig-zag leading the eye through multiple vignettes. The primary focus is on the British soliders, with the Zulu warriors occupying only a small area.

rorke_02In the left foreground, marked “1” in the diagram version above, we see the cost of the battle, and the care and concern of the soldiers for each other, ignoring their own injuries. Even in dreadful circumstances a blanket, a makeshift support and the rough protection of a box have been found for the most injured. At “2” and “4” can be seen more examples of the effort the men are making to assist and protect their wounded comrades even at the height of the battle, at the risk of their own lives carrying them from the burning building which had been used as a make-shift hospital.

rorke_03At “3” we get the most detail of the battle in progress. The defenders stand shoulder to shoulder, resolute in the face of the horde, ignoring the slain Zulu fallen over the hastily built barricade. In the centre stand men co-ordinating the defence. The soldiers are working as a well disciplined and well trained unit, some men passing forward ammunition to those fighting, shooting and using bayonets, never taking their eyes off their enemies, never faltering in their determination. Some of the defenders can be seen motionless on the ground, some arch their bodies, hit moments earlier by the thrust of a spear (although the only spears I could see were fallen on the ground or in the hands of the attacking force). Few of the British stand alone. They are in small groups across the middle ground of the picture, forming a protective barrier between the viewer and the Zulu warriors.

The attackers can hardly be seen in the smoke and dust of battle. There are two bodies of those who almost breached the defenses, and in the middle distance to the right one can be seen standing out, shaking his spear and shield, urging the tribesmen on. They are important as a mass in the picture, but the detailed rendering is reserved for the heroic British. And we know how this story ends – in the triumph of Her Majesty’s troops, fighting gallantly against incredible odds and ultimately prevailing.

The History
The battle at Rorke’s Drift was one part of the wider conflict of the Anglo-Zulu war. There are some variations in the accounts I’ve read about the origins of the war.

A bare-bones version: Sir Bartle Frere was appointed British High Commissioner to southern Africa in 1877. He was charged with creating a confederation, a new dominion for Britain. To achieve this Frere needed to gain control over the Zulu warrior kingdom. King Cetshwayo refused to disband his army or meet other demands of the British. Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford led a force into Zululand to take it by force. On 22 January 1879 a portion of the British force, around 1,700 men, was overwhelmed by the Zulu at Isandlwana and virtually all were killed. Later that same day a large group of Zulu attacked a tiny British garrison at Rorke’s Drift. The British managed to defend their position for 12 hours. Finally the Zulu left off the attack, apparently seeing British reinforcements approaching.

The details and responsibilities are less clear.

O’Connor (2006) suggests that the primary motive for the British presence was to protect the ports and thereby the Cape shipping route to India. Control of the interior was required to ensure food supplies. This was a defensive move, in case of war with Russia. O’Connor rejects any suggestion that there was an economic motive, dispossession of original inhabitants to provide raw materials and markets for British goods, on the grounds that the country was just too poor. Instead in a complex situation O’Connor believes Frere was reacting to avoid the multiple evils of “a Zulu invasion coinciding with a Boer rising and a Russian naval attack which would result in burning ports, razed farms, the route to India severed, and the destruction of British prestige” (O’Connor, 2006, p. 304).

In another version, rather than seeing the conflict as a response to the Russian threat, that threat is seen as the reason that the government in London particularly wanted to avoid a war in Zululand. Sir Michael Hicks Beach, the colonial secretary, wrote to Frere in November 1878 ‘We cannot now have a Zulu war, in addition to other greater and too possible troubles’ (quoted in David, 2011). In this interpretation Frere took unilateral action, encouraged by the ambitious British commander, Lord Chelmsford.

Even the nature of the opposing forces is unclear. Who were/are “the Zulu” and what was the nature of their kingdom? Hamilton and Wright (1993) write that it came into existence in the 1820s and rather than a cohesive entity was an amalgamation of chiefdoms conquered by the Zulu. There were periods of civil war in the 1840s and 50s, and it was in response to external threats that some unity was achieved. In this analysis, following the defeat of the Zulu army the British were able to impose a form of indirect rule, dividing any opposition by division of the land into separate chiefdoms and presenting this as liberation of the people. It was later, in the 1920s and in response to the political landscape of the time, that more Africans began to identify themselves as Zulu.

The importance of Rorke’s Drift
In terms of the war as a whole the action at Rorke’s Drift was a minor sideshow. The location had no particular strategic significance. However in terms of British public morale and imperial pride it was vital. The defense of Rorke’s Drift came the same day and immediately after the stunning, humiliating defeat of the British by the Zulu at Isandlwana which has been described as Britian’s “worst colonial defeat of the nineteenth century” (O’Connor, 2006, p. 285). The action at Rorke’s Drift wasn’t universally admired, as seen in a comment by Sir Garnet Wolseley who succeeded Chelmsford: “…it is monstrous making heroes … of those who shut up in the buildings at Rorke’s Drift could not bolt and fought like rats for their lives which they could not otherwise save” (Wolseley, 1880). Clearly this was not the majority view, or at least the public view. The triumph of Rorke’s Drift was celebrated, the defeat of Isandlwana was sidelined, the war against the Zulu was won, and British prestige, reputation and interests were preserved.

My mother, who was in high school in England during World War II, was quite excited when I took her through the Art Gallery to see this painting. She knew all about the brave defense and the British triumph at Rorke’s Drift. She hadn’t heard about Isandlwana. I’m not really railing against the dishonesty and the self-interest of the British here. After all I’m a winner in this colonial conquest thing, and I try to keep my hypocrisy to a muted roar. This is simply what happens – no one person can ever encompass “the whole story”, the victors write the history, and we’re all being manipulated by the media and the powers-that-be. It’s just interesting when you happen to see the machinery at work.

Other images from Rorke’s Drift and the Anglo-Zulu war
Part of the mythology of Rorke’s Drift is based in the intense and personal interest of Queen Victoria. The Defence of Rorke’s Drift by Lady Elizabeth Butler (1880, oil on canvas, 120.2 x 214.0 cm) was commissioned by Queen Victoria and is held in the Royal Collection (see It has many of the same features as de Neuville’s work – the focus on the the gallant defenders, standing shoulder to shoulder, shooting or in hand to hand fighting. There is the care for their wounded companions, the discipline of the soldiers and the figures of officers in the centre directing the defence, one man close to the centre, back arched as he is hit (again it is unclear what struck him – there are no spears in bodies, although some can be seen flying through the air). Buildings are on fire, and the attacking horde has been relegated to one side, their numbers indicated by the small figures disappearing into the distance. There does appear to be more detail and space given to a few of the attackers, their faces and expressions visible, one reaching up to grasp a defender’s rifle. Great emphasis was placed on accuracy and detail in the painting. Lady Butler visited the regiment in Portsmouth and they put on uniforms and gave a representation of the battle. The final work ‘managed to show, in that scuffle, all the V.C.’s and other conspicuous actors in the drama’.

After the Zulu War- Windsor Castle, Dec. 9, 1879 from 'The Graphic', 20 December 1879 © Trustees of the British Museum

After the Zulu War- Windsor Castle, Dec. 9, 1879
from ‘The Graphic’, 20 December 1879
© Trustees of the British Museum
Museum number 1902,1011.9279

The (political) importance of the action and the personal approval of Queen Victoria would have been visible to her subjects through publication of images such as this wood engraving showing her pinning the Victoria Cross on Corporal W. Allan, one of a row of men who ‘distinguished themselves during the campaign’. This is a clear statement of the might and success of the British armies, who even against enormous numbers of attackers will prevail, protecting the interests of the Queen and all her subjects.

Silver and gold brooch in the form of a Zulu shield. John Brogden 1875-1880 © Trustees of the British Museum

Silver and gold brooch in the form of a Zulu shield.
John Brogden
Gold and silver on an oxidised and textured ground. 72 x 35 mm
© Trustees of the British Museum

This brooch is a military trophy, shaped as a shield, showing the clubs and spears of the Zulu warriors.

I imagine such a piece would have been quite expensive, worn by a woman to show her pride in and support of the British troops. There’s been enough in recent years of troops returning home having fought for their country only to find themselves criticized for the policies of the government. I have no quarrel with support and pride. However the symbology of treating the weapons of the conquered peoples as a decorative item is very uncomfortable to modern eyes.

A more personal view of the war can be found in the watercolours of William Whitelock Lloyd, some of which can be seen at These give a wonderful sense of the wide landscape, an image of a charging Zulu warrior as well as one of a young woman carrying a basket on her head. All of these have a sense of the honesty and immediacy of a moment in time (perhaps not so much the charging warrior!), a welcome contrast to the politically charged images found elsewhere.

I tried to find images of works created in the period from the perspective of those on the other side of the conflict – the Zulu – without success. This is hardly a surprise, given the different art-making practices and history. The course textbook includes an image of doors carved by Olowe of Ise in around 1916 for the palace at Ikere in Nigeria, and comments the doors “are unusual – possibly unique – in sub-Saharan African art in that they represent an historical narrative” (Honour and Fleming, 2009, p. 755). How ironic that these doors are now also in the British Museum (see,01.4546.a&page=1 and

I found a contemporary response to the conflict and its memorialisation by Themba Mthethwa, We, “The Children of Isandlwana”: Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift Revisited. I think it is a sign of the change in attitudes over time that this is published on a website with a primary focus on the men who were awarded Victoria Crosses, albeit with a disclaimer – see Mthethwa questions the “history” and myths surrounding the battles at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, and also gives a personal account of visiting the sites.

In 1999 a memorial by sculptor Gert Swart was erected at Isandlwana – see The large bronze sculpture takes the form of an “isiqu”, a necklace carved by Zulu warriors as a symbol of valour. The sculpture was created in response to “the indefensible bias of the history of the country” – “The Isandlwana battlefield was a telling example: the fact that memorials to British soldiers had been erected on the site, but nothing existed there to commemorate the Zulu warriors who won a decisive victory over the British in 1879 was embarrassing.” (Swart, n.d.). With more time it would have been interesting to learn more about Gert Swart and the idea of giving a voice to those forgotten and challenging a history that no longer met the needs of a modern country. His site led me to an article that discusses “a few new battlefield memorials commemorating the previously unrepresented Zulu victims of the respective battles … pointing out how the designing artists attempt to fuse a Western, Eurocentric concept with local imagery and Afrocentric references”, finding “on the whole, the commemorative objects discussed in this article represent a shift towards modernity and commodification and reflect the values of a hybrid, transforming society” (Marschall, 2008). Unfortunately I could only access the Abstract.

Another modern work is The Battle of Isandlwana by Michelle Basso – see The artist states this “depicts the moment in the famous Battle of Isandlwana, when Chief Mkhosana stood up and encouraged his men to stand up and fight. They won the war, but he lost his life, making him a hero amongst the Zulu people.” (Basso, n.d.). This is a complete turnaround from the original Victorian focus, moving to the battle the British lost and showing as hero one of the Zulu.


Basso, M. [n.d.] About “The Battle of Isandlwana (print)” [online] Available from (Accessed 17-Oct-2013)

David, S. (2011) Zulu: The True Story [online] Available from (Accessed 17-Oct-2013)

Hamilton, C. and Wright, J. (1993) The Beginnings of Zulu identity, in Indicator South Africa, (10, 3) pp 43 – 64. [online] Available from (Accessed 17-Oct-2013)

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

Marschall, S (2008) Zulu Heritage between Institutionalized Commemoration and Tourist Attraction (Abstract) In Visual Anthropology (21, 3), 2008 (Abstract only online) Available from (Accessed 20-Oct-2013)

Mthethwa, T. [n.d.] We, “The Children of Isandlwana”: Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift Revisited [online] Available from (Accessed 15-Oct-2013)

O’Connor, DP (2006), ‘Imperial Strategy and the Anglo–Zulu War of 1879’, Historian, 68, 2, pp. 285-304, Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 17 October 2013.

Swart, G. [n.d.] Isandlwana Monument [online] Available from (Accessed 15-Oct-2013)

Wolseley, G. (1880) entry for 19 March 1880 in Prof. Adrian Preston (ed.) Sir Garnet Wolseley’s South African Journal 1880, Cape Town 1973, as quoted in Knight, I. [n.d.] ‘Wood Tells Me’;
The Quiet Assassination of John Chard’s Character
[online] Available from (Accessed 24-Oct-2013)

Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project three: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanicism and realism
Exercise: Analyse a painting of a historical event

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Annotate an image of contemporary events

For this annotation I have chosen Turner’s The Wrecked Female Convict Ship, the Amphitrite: Women and Children Abandoned in a Gale, also known as A Disaster at Sea, also known as Fire at Sea, ?c 1835, oil on canvas. I saw this painting in Adelaide earlier this year, part of the Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master. You can post of that visit at 4-May-2013 and a photograph I took then (with permission of course) is below. The much better image on the Tate website is at

The picture was never exhibited in Turner’s lifetime, is generally regarded as incomplete, and clearly there have been issues in establishing the precise subject and the date of the work. However it is now believed to show the shipwreck of the Amphitrite in 1833. The ship was carrying a load of women convicts, bound for Australia. It ran aground off Boulogne. Assistance to carry the convicts and crew to safety was offered by French sailors, but apparently rejected by the captain on the grounds he did not have the authority to land the convicts anywhere other than Australia. The ship broke up in the gales and high seas with the lost of almost all lives (including the captain’s).

I chose this picture because it meets the assignment requirements, I’ve seen it in person, and of course it has the preferred link to Australia.

turner_linesThe painting is quite large, 1714 x 2203 mm, and had quite an emotional impact seen in person – my comments at the time included “the waves crashing over the sinking vessel, the sprays of foam and swirling water, the tumult of the sea adding to the horror of the women convicts”. There is a pyramid of bodies clinging to the breaking ship, surrounded by great swirling vortices in the sea and sky pulling the group apart – including the vortex formed by the bodies of women and a child in the foreground to the right.

turner_07The water is seething, rushing up at the people in wild spatters and flecks of foam then sucking them away to their deaths. The water both pushes up the pyramid of humanity but is also undermining and collapsing it.

turner_paintThis next photograph is pretty awful as photos go, but it does show the uneven surface of the picture, the lumps of paint adding to the sense of confusion and energy and tumult and drama, perhaps even the lack of control, the danger of the situation.

turner_facesIn my memory the faces and bodies of the people contrasted with the rough seas, being smooth and with more defined detail. Again the poor photo from my mobile phone doesn’t really show this, but I can convince myself that any flecks of texture are water and foam. I’m not sure if this is intention, or related to those areas being the most unfinished in the painting. I’ve also noticed in some paintings that faces (especially) and figures appear much smoother and more detailed than other areas and have wondered if it’s a choice or because the artist put in extra effort on a focus point or it’s the “money-shot” of a commission or …(annoyingly I can’t find a note of a specific example, so will have to look out next time I’m at the Gallery).

The painting is mainly middle to light in value, with no real darks. Colour is also restricted – greys, dull blue and whites in the sea and sky, yellow, red and white on the figures, and browns on the right side. One of the previous titles has mentioned “Fire” but I found that hard to see. Perhaps on the far right of the painting is the hull of the ship and the red-brown in the sea and sky on that side could be reflections of flames. The focus remains on the light, central pyramid of struggling and drowning bodies.

In the exhibition catalogue there is the statement that “Turner’s pyramidal composition is clearly derived from the celebrated Raft of the Medusa (1819; Louvre, Paris) by Théodore Géricault” (Warrell, 2013). See for an image. There is a pyramid of people / bodies on a raft in the sea as a result of incompetent bungling by those in charge, however to me the two works are quite different. One is in a violent storm, the victims in immediate danger of violent death. In the other, the victims have endured and are seen in a moment of hope for rescue for the few survivors. In Turner’s work the swirling sea and sky occupy most of the canvas, although the wreckage and people are the focus. In Géricault’s work almost the entire canvas is filled by the raft and its occupants.


Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg
A shipwreck off a rocky coast

I think the painting by Loutherbourg that I showed in my last post (10-Oct-2013) is much more similar in both look and composition. This work is in the Art Gallery of NSW –

loutherbourg_2linesturner_linesOn the left is the Loutherbourg with my lines picked out. Above a thumbnail of the Turner with lines is repeated so they can be seen together. Both pictures show a shipwreck in the moments when the boat is breaking up. Both works have a vortex of clouds and swooping, crashing lines of waves. Both have a pyramid as a focus, although in the Loutherbourg it is mainly the jagged rocks on which the ship has foundered. To my eyes both have a secondary echoing diagonal to the right of the pyramid. Both have a minor focus of drowning bodies in the foreground at the base of the pyramid – a swirl on the right in the Turner and a more indistinct body to the left on the Loutherbourg.

There are so many ways to extend this annotation, if only time allowed, such as:
* The influence of Loutherbourg on Turner. I found a reference suggesting that at one stage Turner lived next-door to the family and harassed Loutherbourg’s wife to get information (Chandler and Gilmartin, 2011, p.195).
* Ideas on why the work was never finished. I think the detail of that mass of bodies, for example if similar to Géricault’s work, would be very difficult to combine with the sublime, atmospheric, color and form, wild painting of the rest of the canvas. On the other hand it has been suggested that a finished work had the potential to be the “Guernica of nineteenth-century British Art” (Schama, 2006. pp. 236-95).
* The (any) Australian and convict transportation links.
* Meaning and symbology within this particular painting. Is it a statement about bureaucratic incompetence? I think there can be no suggestion of redemption in such needless waste of life, although there may be a suggestion of light behind the clouds on the left. Alternatively could it have a personal aspect? Venning (1985) claimed “It is beyond dispute that shipwreck imagery bulked large in Turner’s mental life, and he used it constantly as a metaphor for his state of mind and his professional cares” (p.304).
* It would be interesting to compare and contrast other works on the theme of shipwreck in Turner’s work – for example:
The shipwreck (1805)
Wreck of a transport ship (1810)
The Loss of an East Indiaman [formerly ‘Loss of a Man of War’] (c.1818)
Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) (1840)
I also find the capture and development of ideas in Turner’s sketchbooks fascinating, including:
The shipwreck sketchbook (1803-04)
The fire at sea sketchbook (1834)


Chandler, J., Gilmartin, K. (ed) (2011) Romantic Metropolis: The Urban Scene of British Culture, 1780-1840, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [extract only online] Available from (Accessed 10-Oct-2013)

Schama, S. (2006) Simon Schama’s power of art Cited in Warrell, I (2013) “A Disaster at Sea, also known as The Wrecked Female Convict Ship, the Amphitrite: Women and Children Abandoned in a Gale” in Turner from the Tate: The making of a master, London: Tate Publishing, p.197.

Venning, B (1985), ‘A MACABRE CONNOISSEURSHIP: TURNER, BYRON AND THE APPREHENSION OF SHIPWRECK SUBJECTS IN EARLY NINETEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND’, Art History, 8, 3, pp. 303-319, Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 10 October 2013.

Warrell, I (2013) “A Disaster at Sea, also known as The Wrecked Female Convict Ship, the Amphitrite: Women and Children Abandoned in a Gale” in Turner from the Tate: The making of a master, London: Tate Publishing.

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Annotate an image of contemporary events
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project three: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanicism and realism
Exercise: Annotate an image of contemporary events

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex David and neo-classicism

The focus of this exercise is Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Tennis Court Oath 20th June 1789, and in particular how David invests the event with political and moral significance.

My strong preference is to study original works rather than photographs in books or on the internet – not feasible in this instance since one particular work is specified. I set out searching on the internet to find the best, largest, highest quality image of the painting available. I have found multiple versions, sketches and preparatory work, but no single definitive painting.

The actual historical event occurred on 20th June 1789, just weeks before the storming of the Bastille on the morning of 14th July 1789. At the time in France the First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate the nobility, the Third Estate the rest. All had been called together to Versailles by King Louis XVI to discuss the nation’s financial problems and taxes. Discussions stalled on initial questions of power and decision making of the various parties. The 577 delegates of the Third Estate declared themselves a National Assembly, representing all the people of France. A few days later, finding themselves locked out of their usual meeting hall, they met in a nearby indoor tennis court. There all bar one of them took an Oath not to separate until they had drafted a new Constitution of France. David’s image shows the moment when the Assembly President, Bailly, reads out the Oath and (almost) all in the room surge to pledge their oath, declaring the independence of the Assembly.

Jacques Louis David was not at that meeting, but was actively involved in later events of the French Revolution. Just over a year later, on 28th October 1790 he was invited by the Club des Jacobins (one of the most radical groups) to execute a painting of the Oath and a subscription was established to pay for it (de Nanteuill, 1990, p. 23). David made numerous sketches and studies, including a full, detailed pen and ink sketch, 66 x 101.2 cm. This was completed in May 1791 and exhibited in September at the Salon. A huge canvas was prepared, some sketching done and the heads of a number of deputies painted. A cut-down section 358 x 648 cm remains, and I have found suggestions the planned original was 701 x 1006 cm (Wendt, 2008, p. 2) or 792 x 1097 (University of South Carolina, n.d). I have found reference to the project being abandoned in September 1792 (Roberts, 1989. p.58) and 1801 ((de Nanteuill, 1990. p. 23), also (Brookner, 1980, p.97)). With the wisdom of hindsight it makes sense that it would be near impossible to complete such a massive undertaking. With the wildly swinging politics and allegiances the time, many of the delegates were discredited or dead by the time the project was given up.

The best image I have found of the full drawing is at This site is edited by Réunion des musées nationaux, a national public institution under the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. An image of the remaining fragment of the incomplete oil on canvas work is at the same link.

There is a completed oil painting held at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris – It’s 65 x 88.7 cm and is dated by the museum “after 1791”.

A study for the work is held at the Fogg Museum at Harvard – It also has a number of other sketches on the subject, previously attributed to Jacques-Louis David but now given to Jean-Pierre Norblin de la Gourdaine. There is also a location sketch by David of the actual tennis court – a photograph is at, but I haven’t found where it is held.

From the small image in the course notes I think the analysis is meant to be based on the oil painting at the Musée Carnavalet. It seems to be latest in date, the complete intended scene, and has colour – certainly a tool for expressing political and moral significance. However the image I’ve found on the internet is small and to my eyes low quality.
david_tennis_court_oath_comparisonAbove is a comparison of the heads of the same figure, showing the difference. On the left is the full drawing from In the centre is the oil painting from I’m sure this is later than the sketch – it would make a reasonable progression in developing the work, plus I think I can see in the snippet below a leg “sans culottes” (that is, wearing trousers rather than breeches, a significant political element later in the revolution), a detail not in the drawing. The incomplete painting on the right would be closest to the artist’s final intention and is a good size, but there isn’t really enough to analyse.

I have decided to base my work on the larger and clearer reproduction of the pen and ink sketch at

Above is a rough tracing of the sketch. I believe the major elements of political and moral significance that David wanted to capture are the oath itself, the unity of those there, the representation and inclusion of all people of France, the intensity of emotion and purity of purpose, the energy and commitment of those taking the oath and the righteousness of the moment with even nature supporting their actions.

* The absolute centre of the painting is the Assembly’s President Bailly standing on his chair and reading out the Oath (marked “2” above). The sills of the windows above form lines pointing to him and the centre. On the coloured version of the image it’s clearer that Bailly is back-lit by a beam of light.

* The initial impression is that all the crowd of delegates are looking at Bailly and raising an arm toward him as they participate in the oath. This reinforces the action of the moment – the Oath – and the participation and unity of the delegates. However there are many variations among the individuals, bringing energy, spontaneity, movement and a sense of realism and literal history to the work as well as emphasizing the individual commitment and choice.

tennis_court_surgeI see it as a surge of energy with Bailly and the Oath the primary focus, and have tried to mix a few photos to give that sense of the surge of waves (energy) crashing and converging on a rock in a tumultuous sea and that spray of enthusiasm and emotion. Looking at my result leads to thoughts of under-currents and dangerous tides, uncontrollable forces.

* On the right (marked “8”) is the one delegate, Martin Dauch, who objected and would not vote against the wishes of his king. Dauch is huddled in his chair, drawn back, motionless, determined, arms defensively crossed, body in stark opposition to the overwhelming majority. However even this dissension is put to use to emphasize the unity and free choice of the gathering. While one delegate looks back and has taken hold of Dauch’s arm a second delegate leans forward protectively over Dauch, holding back the first delegate and raising a finger to silence him – each must make their own decision. The Assembly is not a mob, they respect the individual’s choice, but the overwhelming choice is to take the Oath.

* In the centre of the image, just below Bailly and marked “1” three members of the clergy embrace. Roberts (1989, p. 52) identifies them as representing secular, regular and Protestant clergy “whose fraternal embrace (and compositional symmetry) symbolize the creation of a new society, free of former divisions”. The three men are Dom Gerle, Grégoire and Rabaut Sanit-Etienne (Roberts, notes to figure 16). This illustrates that David was willing to change history even while illustrating it, in order to enhance the unity shown. Dom Gerle was not actually there at the Oath (Roberts, 1989, p. 52).

* Further pairs or groups are seen embracing across the picture (marked in blue on the graphic above), underlining the fraternal joy of the moment.

* In addition to the delegates the proceedings are watched by a wide representation of the general populace, including women, children and soldiers of the National Guard. All of France is shown supporting the Oath.

* The scene is presented as if on a stage, increasing the sense of drama and helping to make the viewer feel a part of the action and emotion. As previously noted the delegates are ranged around the central figure and the high windows reinforce that central focus. This is probably another example of David’s artistic license, based on differences to an engraving produced by Flouest who was drawing while at the occasion (Roberts, 1989, p. 52). This shows the action turned through 90 degrees, with the high window behind the delegates who are more spaciously ranged in rows of chairs. The change allows David to crowd the action, increasing intensity while the blank wall behind and the high windows direct the attention.

* Right of centre (marked “3”) is Robespierre, leaning back, hands to his chest, bursting with emotion. De Nanteuill see this as symbolising “revolutionary purity and passion’ (de Nanteuill, 1990, p. 74). David intended “1,000 to 1,100 figures in the most energetic attitudes” (quote from (de Nanteuill, 1990, p.23). This huge array, many recognisable to the contemporary viewer, would further emphasize the massive support for the Oath.

* Some further quotes from David, ideas jotted in notebooks, show his deliberate intention to capture the range and depth of emotion and commitment of the participants: “remember to show the deputies moved to tears and holding their hands to their eyes”; “remember the dust that the movement of the action must have raised”; “some [delegates are] serious and frowning, some laughing as if filled with delight, some respectful, some looking fiercely patriotic”; “Mirabeau, great energy, strength, vehemence, [Emmanuel] Sieyès, depth, [Antoine] Barnave, calm” (Schnapper, 1982, pp 112-113).

* The clothing of the figures was as current at the time, not harking back to Classical dress. However many of the poses of individual figures have Classical roots, a subtle link to borrow authority from the past and giving some grandeur and monumentality to the occasion. The delegates, and David as painter, knew that they were creating history. “If Roman events were taking place in modern France, there was no longer any need for classical disguise: the day of the republic had dawned” (Brookner, 1980, p. 96).

* At top left, strong winds blow the curtains, suggesting nature itself supports the Oath with winds of change. Through the window can be seen a bolt of lightening striking Versailles (the royal chapel, itself “a symbol of monarchical power and the divine right of kings (Roberts, 1989, p. 53) – apparently based on the historical event, and acting here as both symbol and prophecy.

I haven’t yet written up my notes about the Enlightenment and its impact on art and architecture. I think this painting exemplifies Diderot’s attribution of “political, social and moral ends to painting” (de Nanteuill, 1990, p. 10). However I found it interesting to turn back to Rembrandt’s The Night Watch of 1642, 150 years earlier (see an image at This shows another group of militaristic men, set on a stage, made up of individual portraits. It’s not a specific event, but is presented as “a grand historical spectacle” (Honour and Fielding, 2009,p. 593). The composition is I think more complex, taking the eye on a zigzag rather than David’s intense central focus. The individuals are in modern dress, and the painting moves beyond a simple depiction of a group of people to a celebration of the Dutch republic. Both works have propaganda value, when they were painted and today. I have two quotes which for me capture the major difference in responding to the pictures. Of David’s work “… for the last forty years of the eighteenth century it was the duty of painters to hold the mirror up not to nature but to the ideal and to show physically perfect specimens performing morally perfect actions with little subjective comment from the artist” (Brookner, 1980, p. 27). Of Rembrandt’s: “It portrays not only what the Dutch, but all democracies ought to hold dear – the courage of flawed human beings to come together while acknowledging one another’s individuality and difference. It is an icon of tolerance, diversity and the magic golden light that makes a society work” (Jones, 2013).


Brookner, A (1980) Jacques-Louis David. London: Chatto & Windus

de Nanteuill, L. (1990) Jacques-Louis David. London: Thames and Hudson

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

Jones, J. (2013) Time to revisit Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, a glowing symbol of democracy The Guardian [online] 6 May 2013. Available from: (Accessed 2 October 2013)

Roberts, W. (1989) Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist: Art, Politics, and the French Revolution. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Schnapper, A. (1982) David. Cited in Roberts, W. (1989) Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist: Art, Politics, and the French Revolution. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, p. 51.

University of South Carolina [n.d.] [online] Available from (Accessed 29-Sept-2013)

Wendt, MK (2008) Jacques-Louis David: Artistic Interpretation in Tumultuous Times Anistoriton Journal [online] 11(2) Available from (Accessed 27-Sept-2013)

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex David and neo-classicism
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project three: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanicism and realism
Exercise: David and neo-classicism

UA1-WA:P2-p2-Ex Annotate two seventeenth-century art works (part 2)

The first part of this exercise was posted 7-Sept-2013 and was an annotation of The Crossing of the Red Sea by Nicholas Poussin.

The subject of the second annotation is Two old men disputing (1628) by Harmenszoon van Rijn Rembrandt, held in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).

Harmenszoon van Rijn REMBRANDT Two old men disputing (1628) Image provided by National Gallery of Victoria

Harmenszoon van Rijn REMBRANDT
Two old men disputing
oil on wood panel
72.4 x 59.7 cm
Image provided by National Gallery of Victoria

This picture is beautiful – luscious and rich, warm and enveloping.

Two men sit in a study, surrounded by all the paraphernalia of learning. They are deep in conversation, intent on a passage in the book held on the lap of one. A shaft of light from a high, unseen window falls between them, illuminating their discussion and casting the rest of the room into relative shade.

rembrandt_eyesOne man dominates the painting. He sits in the larger chair – apparently at his desk in his study, speaking to a visitor. His face is lit as he leans forward, making his argument. His body is expansive, filling the centre of the room, one side brilliantly lit the other side, in the centre of the painting, virtually the darkest area of all. His face is lined and his eyes rheumy, but still intent and focused. rembrandt_beardThere are still some flecks of brown in his white beard, still some vigour left.

rembrandt_candleThere is a clutter of books in bags, on a stand, almost falling off a stack on the floor. A shape which may be a globe looms behind. A half-burnt candle with wax running down can be seen, sitting on yet another book, suggesting the occupant studies late into the night. This is what matters in his life, the world of thought and ideas.

The man in brown, his back to the viewer, appears to be a visitor – is he wearing a travelling cloak? He sits on a lower stool, below the chair of authority, and listens. His feet are bare. Is he a supplicant or a disciple of the scholar he is visiting? A quill is laid beside the ink pot – perhaps he interrupted the owner busy making notes. I don’t get a sense of a dispute, more a debate, an exchange, an exploration.

Above I described the painting as “luscious and rich”, but in some ways it is austere. It shows an intellectually rich life but there is no overt wealth – the room and furniture look a little shabby. They are of no consequence. Much of the richness comes from the textiles which cover a large portion of the picture – the fringed brocade cloth draping across the desk, and their clothing, the possibly wool robes simple but warm and well-kept. The palette is also rich but limited – mostly golden yellows and browns, with some touches of pink and neutrals.

rembrandt_1It’s the light which captures me in this work. It could have a metaphorical intent – knowledge bringing light, or a religious message – but it’s the physical light that warms and attracts. It is reflected everywhere, shaping and defining the room and its occupants. The corner of the visitor’s robes, its border made up of small individual brushstrokes rather than lines or smooth shading, is lightened and brightened by the light reflected by the table drape.
rembrandt_3Zooming in still more (if you click on the thumbnail to the left) you can see the myriad colours, yellows and pinks, flecks that bring texture and depth to the picture.

rembrandt_2Where the brocade cloth spills onto the floor there is reflected light shaping the deep folds, an extra touch of comfort. You can see the highlights and shadows (but not dark shadows, no lost detail) of the scholar’s face above. The glints in the eyes enliven the whole face, bringing personality and that sense of piercing intellect.

It is interesting that in a painting so full of light the centre is such heavy, dark shadow. I found my eyes circling around it, unable to piece it, and enjoying the contrasting detail and warmth around it. Some sense of depth to the room is suggested by the shadows behind the globe (if that’s what it is), but the focus remains at the front of the picture plane in a fairly shallow area containing the two men and the desk, centered around that shaft of light connecting the two scholars.

Although there is a lot of texture in the picture, including the background stucco (?) wall, the old wood on the left and all those textiles, there seemed to me an overall uniformity in the paint strokes in the foreground and highlighted areas and in the background. This work was painted in Rembrandt’s early Leiden period, when he was about 22 years old.

rembrandt_2372_handHanging next to it at NGV was another Rembrandt from near the end of his life – Portrait of a white-haired man (1667), see I didn’t spend much time with this work, just enough to notice the difference in the brushwork – so varied and fluid and uneven, none of that sense of painstaking precision. Although so different both seem to me to have a sense of assurance, of purpose.

Two old men disputing was bought around 1934-36 for the NGV. The actual purchase was by the Felton Bequest – a massive bequest from merchant Alfred Felton in 1904 (Mangan, 2004). There is an independent Committee managing the bequest, interacting with the Council of Trustees of NGV. This arrangement became very difficult when the Rembrandt, previously thought lost, appeared in Amsterdam having been in a private family collection in England. Bernard Hall, then acting as London adviser to the Felton Bequests Committee and a former NGV director, made the discovery and urgently recommended purchase. A long and frustrating process followed, the Council of Trustees keen and the Bequests Committee dubious about the painting’s authenticity (Perkin, 2006).

Obviously in this case the concerns were allayed, the painting was purchased and the attribution appears to be sound. However on the same wall of the gallery, alongside Two old men disputing and Portrait of a white-haired man is a third painting – Rembrandt (1660s), purchased by the Felton Bequest in 1933. It was then thought to be a self-portrait by Rembrandt. The NGV online collection listing today shows artist/s name REMBRANDT Harmensz. van Rijn, REMBRANDT Harmensz. van Rijn (studio of) ( The painting hung on the gallery walls for fifty years, a star attraction, before the attribution was revised in 1984 to “Unknown”, and subsequently revised again to “studio of” ((Maslen, 2006) and National Gallery of Victoria (2007)). The NGV website doesn’t seem to have a photo of Rembrandt, but I found a couple in other sources (linked below) which show an interesting contrast in the authors’ responses to the work as a fake.

The first is at Here W H Chong wrote “I’ve always thought it was a very good piece, and if it was by another hand it means that the other painter had very good eyes and hand, too” (Chong, 2011). Chong has done his own sketch from the work as a way of exploring its structure and leading on to comments about the nature of portraits.

In contrast at Boyle used photography and photo-manipulation to investigate well known paintings and perceived value, with one conclusion being “Our perceptions of art are very strongly influenced by our knowledge of the status of the artist who created the work” (Boyle, 2012. p. 2). Boyle “reverently admired” the Rembrandt in the 1970s and 80s. Revisiting the work with the knowledge that it was not painted by Rembrandt, Boyle identified “an anatomical impossibility” (Boyle, 2012. p. 33) and poor draughtsmanship (Boyle, 2012. p. 13).

My own experience of “what’s in a name” came while studying Two old men disputing. A woman walking through called her child over to look at “this one by a really famous painter” – pointing at the only work hanging on the wall which wasn’t a Rembrandt. Having already read the label I felt slightly superior in my better information – a reaction rather unattractive and nonsensical, but not I think unique. I’ve been musing since on whether knowing the artist should make a difference to my response to a work.
* Clearly there’s a difference in financial terms. Estimates for the “Rembrandt” fell from $3 million to less than $54,000 (Maslan, 2006).
* We may be unduly influenced by the perceived status of the artist, as described by (Boyle, 2012). On the other hand it seems a good idea to try to approach each work on its own merits – after all, not every item produced by a master is a masterpiece.
* We can have a sense of history, a sense of connection to another, when looking at a work. When I was able to see and touch the Book of Hours (posted 17-July-2013) I was thinking of the person who may first have used it, rather than the artist(s) or artisan(s) that created it, but it’s still that feeling of a link to another person, another time.
* I want to look at work which is an authentic expression of a person’s creativity, part of their artistic exploration, and certainly not falling off the end of a cynical and deceptive production line (this thinking of forgeries rather than mis-attributions). I don’t know how that fits with the Book of Hours, or the Italian plate (posted 28-July-2013), or any work created because a person wanted to eat as much as or more than they wanted to express their inner thoughts.
* As I learn more it becomes really interesting to look at a work in context – what was happening in the world around at that time, influences on the artist, work they did before and after. All that becomes meaningless if a work isn’t what it purports to be.
* Attributions can change, and change again, as seen with the “Rembrandt”. Both Art Historical knowledge and the technology available continue to develop. Another revised attribution at NGV is a work previously thought to be by van Gogh, and a report by the Van Gogh Museum and the NGV response is available at The museum’s art historical investigation included literature, provenance, the identity of the sitter and style of the painting including comparison to known works of van Gogh. The technical examination used light microscopy, x-radiograph, analysis of thread and paint samples and more. The NGV’s response, at the same link, is worth reading.

I’m sure I’ll learn and think more on this, but the immediate conclusion is that I am very happy that NGV has continued to display both the “Rembrandt” and the “van Gogh”.

It hasn’t quite fit into this particular post but I want to mention one other resource I found while researching Two old men disputingArticulating Desire by Leonie Watson. Watson’s discussion on the depiction and use of light in Two old men disputing is detailed and rather different to mine, especially where she finds a “central brightness” and definitely not a “central dark void” (Watson, 2012, p. 30), while I was disturbed by my eye circling around a central deep shadow. In addition to light Watson discusses the use of drapery and folds in artworks. She doesn’t discuss the Rembrandt specifically in this context, and I found her discussion beyond my current grasp. I hope to return to it another time.

Reference List

Boyle, M. (2012) Do you like my pics?: Exhibition and exegesis as self reflective study. Master of Education thesis. Victoria University. [online] Available from: (Accessed 12-Sept-2013)

Chong, WH (2011) Self-portraits: why do it? (Rembrandt in NGV’s “Naked Face”) Crikey 8 February 2011 [online] Available from: Accessed 12-Sept-2013)

Mangan, J. (2004) The bequest of a century The Age 12 January 2004 [online] Available from: (Accessed 13-Sept-2013)

Maslan, G. (2006) Fakery in the frame The Age 12 August 2006 [online] Available from: (Accessed 13-Sept-2013)

National Gallery of Victoria (2007) Head of a Man Background Information [online] Available from: (Accessed 13-Sept-2013)

Perkin, C. (2006) Oh! We’ve lent the Rembrandt The Age 25 February 2006 [online] Available from: (Accessed 13-Sept-2013)

Van Gogh Museum (2007) Summary Report: Examination of Portrait of a man [online] Available from: (Accessed 13-Sept-2013)

Watson, L. (2012) Articulating desire. Doctor of Creative Arts thesis. University of Wollongong. [online] Available from: [Accessed 8-Sept-2013]

UA1-WA:P2-p2-Ex Annotate two seventeenth-century art works (part 2)
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project two: The age of Baroque
Exercise: Annotate two seventeenth-century art works

UA1-WA:P2-p2-Ex Annotate two seventeenth-century art works (part 1)

This exercise comprises two annotations – one a work by Bernini, Caravaggio or Poussin, the second a painting by an artist from the Low Countries.

I have chosen The Crossing of the Red Sea (1632-34) by Poussin and Two old men disputing (1628) by Rembrandt. Once again my choice was driven by availability and my strong desire to see in person the works I study. Both paintings are held at the National Gallery of Victoria. In this post I will focus on the work by Poussin. A later post will consider the Rembrandt. I also need to compare and contrast the two annotations.

Nicholas Poussin The Crossing of the Red Sea

Nicholas Poussin
The Crossing of the Red Sea
Image provided by National Gallery of Victoria

The painting shows a biblical scene from Exodus. Called by his God, Moses led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. When the Eyptians gave chase, God parted the waters of the Red Sea giving the Israelites a dry path. In the painting the Israelites have reached dry land. Guided by God, Moses has stretched out his hand and the waters have flowed back, overwhelming the chariots and horsemen of the Pharaoh’s army. Horses can still be seen struggling in the rush of the water. Some of the Israelites have turned to give thanks and praise for their deliverance. Others are salvaging weapons and arms. More have walked on, continuing the journey to their promised land.

Viewing the painting
The painting has recently had extensive conservation work and the light, bright colours in the image correspond fairly well to the actual painting (on my screen at least), although the full spread of values and crispness and detail of the original have been lost.

ngv_interior_2My first impressions when seeing it was that it is very large – 155.6 x 215.3 cm. My second was that I couldn’t make sense of it. I couldn’t work out what to look at, it was all a confused jumble my eyes roamed around without any path or guidance. Taking the photo of the gallery I was standing in a large doorway with Nicolas Régnier’s Hero and Leander (see 22-July-2103), so human and personal in scale and emotion, just behind me. In front of me, the Crossing. I stood back, I stood close, I sat mid-way. I couldn’t connect.

ngv_4271_radiatepoussin_frameA few people came by and we chatted about where we were visiting from or Charlton Heston or the amazing frame. I tried to find lines in the composition, but wasn’t convinced. It just eluded me.

There are no buildings to be seen, only a jumbled sea, people milling in confusion, and a vast distance of land behind. Small clusters have formed in the throng. They give thanks, or comfort each other, or gather salvage, or trudge on. Moses stands quite apart from the people he is leading, looking back.

It was only on my second visit, having done some reading overnight, that I saw the red column at the very edge on the right – the pillar of fire that was the visible form of God guiding the Israelites. Not the shadow of the frame after all! In fact possibly the elaborate frame was itself a distraction from the intended flow for the eye. The figure of Moses together with the column of fire would seem to be the focus of the painting – strange when they are so far to one side, isolated, and Moses smaller than other figures in the painting. There is also that pull of the vast land, and the mountains and dawn light in the sky in the left.

There are clearly different levels of finish for major figures in the painting. Places in the sky seemed almost bare, although it wasn’t possible to see closely.

History of the painting
This painting and its pendant (the other of a pair of paintings) The Adoration of the Golden Calf were commissioned for Amedeo dal Pozzo, Marchese di Voghera from Turin, by Cassiano dal Pozzo in 1632. They were completed by Poussin in 1634. Cassiano worked as secretary for Cardinal Francesco Barberini, one of the powerful Barberini family. From the dal Pozzo family the two paintings passed though a number of collections in France and eventually in 1741 were sold to Sir Jacob Bouverie in England. In 1945 the Adoration was sold to the National Gallery in London and in 1948 the Crossing was sold to the National Gallery of Victoria (Benson, 2012).

Interestingly this history, so neat and clear, was less clear fairly recently. In 1971 Helsdingen reviewed then-current theories placing the painting of the Crossing later than the Calf, perhaps 1637-38. Based on his analysis of composition, motifs and stylistic differences, Helsdingen suggested the Crossing was the earlier work, perhaps 1633 (Helsdingen, 1971). Benson cites a paper published in 2000 (Cifani and Monetti, 2000) which established payments by installments for the two paintings from 1632, recorded in banking details.

The Crossing of the Red Sea underwent a major restoration in 2011, documented in an online conservation treatment diary at and the book Poussin: the Crossing of the Red Sea: a conservation project (Villis, 2012). Both sources expose some of the difficult and delicate choices that must be made in a conservation project. If you follow the link above to the project diary, there is a part describing where what had appeared as a face and is now returned to being the back of a head – all part of a balance between “fidelity to the image, the artist’s hand and the physical history of the picture” (Villis, 2012 p. 25).

More to the point for my current study, it was recognised that there had been darkening of colours and tones. In particular changes in middle tones could cause increased contrasts in the image, causing some elements to appear isolated, other areas flat, and space indeterminate (Villis, 2012, p.13). Research carried out as part of the conservation project included examination of a well-preserved replica from the 1680s, once presumed lost. This valuable resource allowed understanding of “the full harmonies of Poussin’s carefully arranged tones and colours, along with his integration of figures into the landscape” (Villis, 2012 p. 24). However in maintaining that fine conservation balance, intervention in the original was limited to a carefully judged minimum. Writing about the outcomes of the conservation, Benson observed that it had revealed Poussin’s manipulation of light – “a discernible sense of unity between land, sea and sky has returned, making it far more visually coherent and appealing”. Perhaps, given my current state of development and understanding, some of those changes over time that are still in place contributed to my difficulties in reading the painting.

Helsingen’s work was published decades before the recent conservation. Despite this, and despite subsequent scholarship overturning some of his conclusions, I found Helsingen’s analysis of the Crossings composition rather comforting given my own struggle. He saw “…virtually no attempt … to co-ordinate large groups of figures” which remained isolated rather than linked. Helsingen believed “Poussin has failed to achieve a coherence”, “the attitudes of the figures and the fall of the drapery display an ambivalence and lack of consistency” and “the indistinctness of many figures is such that the observer is unable to acquire an insight into the spatial relationships between the figures and the groups” (Helsingen, 1971, pp. 66-67).

ngv_4271_zigzagHelsingen did mention a zigzag line suggesting depth, which I have traced out on this version. It’s not a complete answer – there is a horizontal frieze-like band of figures across the centre which isn’t included. On the other hand that sense of depth is supported by changes in saturation and value. I would say the sense of enormous space is one of the undeniable successes of the painting.

ngv_4271_ratiosAnother helpful approach was suggested to me by work at It was only after I created this version of the image that I realised that this link was to another OCA student’s learning log! It certainly appears that diagonals and the use of golden sections helps in organizing the placement of major figures and that central frieze.

However I feel that there is more than geometry or changes in appearance underlying the difficulty of the composition. A paragraph in a 1994 exhibition review by Robert Hughes had me scratching my head (Hughes, 1994). Hughes was reviewing a retrospective of Nicolas Poussin at the Grand Palais in Paris (I am fairly sure the Crossing was not included, presumably because of its fragile state). Referring to The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem Hughes wrote “With its structure of color, bound by a repeated accent of red, with its perspective lines, its golden-section ratios, its echoes and reversals of pose and gesture, and the contrast of the milling crowd of figures with the stately columns of the temple, it is an incredibly complicated pictorial machine.” Most of this sounds applicable to my focus work – but further description just didn’t jell with the image I found on the internet. Eventually I discovered two pictures on this theme by Poussin – The Destruction and Sack of the Temple of Jerusalem (1625–26) in the collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (, the second Zerstörung des Tempels in Jerusalem durch Titus (1638/1639) in Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna (

Both are crowded battle scenes. The earlier one has more information in a sense – the flames on the roof of the temple can be seen, while in the later version major figures are looking out of the picture frame. However the space and detail in the foreground of the later version gives a more horrible concreteness to the conflict. The dates of the two works straddle that of The Crossing of the Red Sea. In my eyes elements of each Jerusalem can be seen in Poussin’s handling of the Crossing. It could be that this chronology suggests a progression in Poussin’s handling of large crowd scenes. Alternatively, Poussin may have chosen the milling confusion of the Crossing in “simple” reflection of the milling confusion of a crowd at a highly dramatic moment.

The Crossing of the Red Sea, together with The Adoration of the Golden Calf and other paintings illustrating the life of Moses commissioned from other artists at the same time, presumably met the requirements of Amedeo dal Pozzo on whose behalf the work was commissioned from Poussin. It is large, imposing and grand. Together with its subject and content this would demonstrate the learning, devotion and wealth of its owner.

The documentation of the recent conservation effort demonstrates that the painting on view is the best possible presentation to a modern viewer, although it cannot be entirely the visual experience first produced by Poussin.

As one of those modern viewers, earnest but not learned, I have clearly struggled to understand and appreciate this painting. It is not immediately engaging or giving. Imposing, grand and scholarly does not equate to approachable or warm. I did not easily see the drama of the moment. The different reactions of the participants, their confusion, wonder, thankfulness and stoicism, the scale of the historical incident, became a visual confusion for me.

However I feel that the painting may reward the effort needed to appreciate it. With reading and thinking in the time since my visit, perhaps I understand a little more of the intention and the presentation of the painting. Unfortunately I think that to get further I would need to see the painting again in person. I hope that is feasible some time in the future.

Reference List
Benson, L. (2012) A Brief History of The Crossing of the Red Sea In: Villis, C. et al Poussin: the Crossing of the Red Sea: a conservation project Melbourne: The Council of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 1-5.

Cifani, A. and Monetti, F. (2000) The dating of Amedeo dal Pozzo’s paintings by Poussin, Pietro da Cortona and Romanilli. Burlington Magazine 142, September 2000, pp. 561-64. Cited in Benson, L. (2012) A Brief History of The Crossing of the Red Sea In: Vissis, C. Poussin: the Crossing of the Red Sea: a conservation project Melbourne: The Council of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria, p. 35.

van Helsdingen, H.W. (2971) Poussin’s Drawings for the Crossing of the Red Sea. Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 5(1), pp. 64-74. [online] Available from: [Accessed 5/9/2013]

Hughes, R. (1994) ‘Decorum and fury’, Time, 144(23), p. 86, Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 7 September 2013.

Villis, C. et al (2012) Poussin: the Crossing of the Red Sea: a conservation project Melbourne: The Council of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria.

UA1-WA:P2-p2-Ex Annotate two seventeenth-century art works (part 1)
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project two: The age of Baroque
Exercise: Annotate two seventeenth-century art works

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


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