Posts Tagged 'UWA-P2-research_point'

UA1-WA:P2-p4-Research Point – Seurat

The focus of this research point is Seurat’s painting techniques and any link they have to his working-class subject matter.

Seurat’s techniques were based on emerging science of the time, proceeding in a very logical and disciplined way. In an effort to bring greater luminosity and vibrancy into his paintings he used pure colours on his canvas. Rather than mixing on the palette, he placed small strokes or dots of colour next to each other, intending for the colours to mix optically in the eyes of the viewer. I’ve seen the technique termed “pointillism”, “divisionism” and “chromo-luminarism” (although I think more precisely “pointillism” refers to painting in small dots, while “divisionism” is keeping colours separate).

Peasants' houses, Eragny Camille Pissarro 1887   oil on canvas

Peasants’ houses, Eragny
Camille Pissarro
1887 oil on canvas

Here is an example by Camille Pissarro, who used Seurat’s technique for a time (the Art Gallery of NSW doesn’t have a Seurat). As always I encourage anyone reading to follow the link to the Gallery website, which has clearer photos and show the bright colours used.

pissarro_02Below I’ve included a detail of the lower area of the painting, which more clearly shows the individual dots of pigment. In this instance the marks vary in size and are sometimes more short strokes than dots. The detail also shows the colour choice in an area of shadow. Looking closely it seems that some colours are used in both the shadowed and the brightly lit areas.

One difference to most of Seurat’s work is that Pissarro’s has more movement and looks more lifelike. Here there isn’t that simplification and rounding of forms that at least in web images makes Seurat’s work look a bit stiff and eerily still. For examples of what I mean see A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884 ( or Bridge at Courbevoie (

This isn’t the first time I’ve read about Seurat and pointillism, having been asked to look at them as part of Assignment 3 in Textiles 1: A Creative Approach. My post of 13-Dec-2011 includes some brief comments about A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884 by Itten (The art of color: the subjective experience and objective rationale of color) and John Gage (Colour in art). There are also some exercises using french knots as the “points” in colour mixing. In my review of that assignment on 16-Dec-2013 I quoted from Smee (Side by side: Picasso v Matisse), regarding Matisse’s experiments with divisionism and its problems with haziness and actual reduction of colours.

This time around I’ve found some contemporary comment on Seurat’s work and its impact. I’ve chosen to include rather long quotes because of the very close involvement of the authors with Suerat.

Camille Pissarro writing to Durand-Ruel, November 6, 1886, explained: “THEORY: Seek for the modern synthesis with scientifically based means which will be founded on the theory of colours discovered by M. Chevreul and in accordance with the experiments of Maxwell and the measurements of O. N. Rood.
“Substitute optical mixture for the mixture of pigments. In other words: break down tones into their constituent elements because optical mixture creates much more intense light effects than the mixture of pigments” (Pissarro, 1886).

A more extended explanation from Félix Fénéon, a critic who championed Seurat’s work: “M. Surat’s innovation has as its basis the scientific division of colour. It goes as follows: instead of mixing the colours on the palette, with the end product, when spread on the canvas, providing roughly the colour of the object to be represented, the painter will cover the canvas with separate touches corresponding, some to the local colour of that object, others to the quality of the light falling upon it, yet others to the reflections cast by neighbouring bodies, others still to the complementarities of the surrounding colours.

“These touches are effected not by the thrust of the paint-brush, but by the application of a scattering of lesser spots of colour.

“The following are the advantages of this manner of operating:
“1. The colours are composed on the retina. We thus have an optical mixing. Now the intensity of the light of the optical mixing (mixing of colour and light) is far greater than that of the pigmentary mixing (mixing of colours and materials). This is what modern physics expresses when it tells us that all mixing of colours on the palette is a journey towards blackness.
“2. This mixing on the retina imparts a luminous vibrancy which gives the picture great vitality.
“3. The relief which cannot be translated precisely through the trails of paste of the traditional method, is achieved in all its infinite delicacy, since the respective proportions of the particles of colour can vary infinitely over a very small space.
“4. Dexterity of the hand becomes a negligible matter, since all material difficulty of execution is removed. It will suffice that the executor should have an artist’s vision, that he should be a painter, in a word, and not an illusionist.” (Fénéon, 1887)

Finally, Pissarro describing his disillusion in a letter to Henri Van de Velde: “Having tried this theory [divisionism] for four years and having now abandoned it, not without painful and obstinate struggles to regain what I had lost and not to lose what I had learned, I can no longer consider myself one of the neo-impressionists who abandon movement and life for a diametrically opposed aesthetic which, perhaps, is the right thing for the man with the right temperament but is not right for me, anxious as I am to avoid all narrow, so-called scientific theories. Having found after many attempts (I speak for myself), having found that it was impossible to be true to my sensations and consequently to render life and movement, impossible to be faithful to the so random and so admirable effects of nature, impossible to give an individual character to my drawing, I had to give up. And none too soon!” (Pissarro, 1896).

As to the question of any link to Seurat’s more working class subject matter, it’s not obvious to me that his subject matter was hugely different to the Impressionists. Is a circus by Seurat more working class than the Folies-Bergères by Manet? Seurat’s Bridge at Courbevoie ( seems to show a factory in the background. Is this more working class than Monet’s Coalmen (, or even John Peter Russell’s fisherman (see 11-Nov-2013)? To support that this is not simply my limited knowledge of the oeuvre of the various artists, I found on The National Gallery (London) website: “Modern life and the way that ordinary people spent their free time were popular subjects with many Impressionist painters.

“Monet, Renoir and Degas show us the theatres, cafés, and popular countryside resorts of late 19th-century Paris.

“Traditionally in France the middle classes had not been considered fit subjects for serious painting, while the working classes and the peasantry were usually portrayed as comic yokels, or timeless figures of rural life.” (The National Gallery, [n.d.])

Putting that question to one side, a potential link to working class values and aspirations may be seen in Seurat’s political views – or at least the views of others who experimented with or championed his techniques. An article by Stephen Eisenman in 1989 provides more information.

Eisenman quotes Signac writing in an anarchist journal “By the synthetic representation of the pleasures of decadence – balls, chacuts (cancans), circuses, such as those done by the painter Seurat who had such a vivid perception of the degeneration of our transitional era – they will bear witness to the great social trial that is taking place between workers and Capital” (Signac, 1891). To me this doesn’t confirm that Seurat’s subject matter was directly working class, rather that his overall purpose or theme, at least in part, was supportive of the working class struggle.

Going more closely to the question of Seurat’s technique, Eisenman suggests Signac believed that “stylistically innovative art, by its very freedom from convention, was necessarily revolutionizing” (Eisenman, 1989, p. 213). It was not simply that Seurat’s technique was innovative, it actually changed the relationship between artist and audience. Eisenman explains “rather the question [of Seurat’s politics] is whether a given work by Seurat initiates a political and aesthetic dialogue with its spectators, thereby encouraging them to realize their capacities for critical thought and aesthetic pleasure…” (Eisenman, 1989, p. 214) He continues “[Grand Jatte’s] Chromo-luminarism demands the collaboration of its audience, thereby positing the revolutionary ideal of overcoming the alienation of artistic producers from consumers within capitalist society”. The spectator is collaborating, an active participant, and this aesthetic pleasure is available to anyone regardless to class or education.

As often seems to happen, I found more interesting material than quite fits the theme, time and space here. Some brief comments and links:
* an explanation of the misunderstanding of the science underlying Seurat’s theory: Lee, A (1987) ‘SEURAT AND SCIENCE’, Art History, 10 (2), pp. 203-224, Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 12 November 2013.

* An on-line copy of one of the books with science used by Seurat: Rood, O.G. (1879) Modern Chromatics: With application to art and industry. New York: D. Appleton and Company [on-line] Available from (Accessed 12-November-2013)

* Chevreul, one of the commonly mentioned sources influencing Seurat, was a chemist who became interested in colour as Director of Dyes at the Gobelins where he was responsible for the dyeing of wools for tapestries. Nice to have the textile connection, but I’d suggest a more useful book that ventures into science and Pointillism but also yarn structure and loom-weaving is Lambert, P. et al (1986) Color and Fiber. West Chester: Schiffer.

* As well as his techniques in applying colour to the canvas, Seurat experimented with expressing emotion through lines and colours. This was based on the work of Charles Henry, a French physicist. I have seen only brief mention of this – it would be interesting to learn more.

* There seems to be a lot written about the science and the politics of Seurat’s work. It was refreshing to read an article reminding us to see the art. Kramer, H. (1991) “Seurat, one hundred years later” The New Criterion. 9 June 1991. p.4. [online] Available from–one-hundred-years-later-5498. Accessed 13-November-2013.


Eisenman, S.F. (1989), “Seeing Seurat Politically” In Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 14 (2), pp. 210-221+247-249. [online] Available from (Accessed 12-November-2013)

Fénéon, F. (1887) “Impressionnisme,” Emancipation sociale, 3 April 1887, reprinted in Kapos, M (ed.) (1991) The Impressionists: A retrospective. London: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, pp. 219 – 221

Pissarro, C. (1886) letter quoted in Kapos, M (ed.) (1991) The Impressionists: A retrospective. London: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, p.219

Pissarro, C. (1896) letter quoted in Kapos, M (ed.) (1991) The Impressionists: A retrospective. London: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, p.239

Signac (1891) In La Révolt p. 4. cited in Herbert and Herbert 1960 p.480, cited in Eisenman, S.F. (1989), “Seeing Seurat Politically” In Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 14 (2), p. 213

The National Gallery ([n.d.]) Guide to Impressionism: Modern Life ([online]) Available from*/viewPage/2 (Accessed 13-November-2013)

UA1-WA:P2-p4-Research Point – Seurat
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project four: Impressionism and post-impressionism
Research point: Seurat

UA1-WA:P2-p3 Research point: the Enlightenment

This Research Point asks for study of the Enlightenment and its impact on art and architecture.

“The Enlightenment” refers to a range of ideas and attitudes in the last three quarters or so of the eighteenth century. It is generally seen as European, but for me it’s exciting because my own country finally has a chance of at least a footnote in some of the books. That excitement is tempered by the knowledge that “my country” started with the colonization of Australia by the English. The area in which I live was originally inhabited by the Cam-mer-ray-gal Group of the Ku-ring-gai Aboriginal Tribe. The “Enlightenment” had its limitations, one being that it pretty much ignored or denied the existence of other cultures including the people already living here – with devastating results. So before I begin I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the Traditional Owners of the land where I am, and direct any readers interested to for more information.

There are dangers in looking back and writing about “movements” and “revolutions” because at the time things probably weren’t so neat and linked, steps in a progression. Labels are added later, as we try to make sense and order – information – out of a whole heap of data. So labels it is.

The seventeenth century “intellectual revolution” included Galileo’s observations with his telescope, discovering new astronomical phenomena that were impossible to reconcile with classical explanations and also his arguments for a new approach to science, using one’s senses and reason to explore the mysteries of nature; Kepler used Tycho Brache’s earlier observations to develop new “laws” of planetary motion; Newton developed mathematically a theory of universal gravitation, a quantitative system for understanding the world and the cosmos; Descartes applied reason to his fundamental statement “I think therefore I am” to develop a system of knowledge; Locke wrote about natural rights and government, religious tolerance and property.

These ideas and more began to circulate more widely, be developed and be applied in the eighteenth century. One impact I was surprised to find was the “agrarian revolution”. In a vague way I had assumed the enclosure of common land in England was a classic land-grab by the wealthy and never mind the cost to the poor. While this would have been part of it, it seems that enclosures were a vital part of improving agricultural practice, allowing trial of new methods and investment in equipment and land improvements. The results included wealth for some and dislocation for others, but also a break from the ongoing cycle of famine for the population in general.

To quote an earlier post (4-Apr-2013) “in the period of The Enlightenment there was focus on the application of reason and interest in combining voyaging with science. Knowledge was liberating, challenging ancient certainties, but “knowledge is power” was quite literal, with men such as Francis Bacon alert to the political possibilities of science. The voyages of exploration had a very pragmatic quality – they were looking for things to bring back, to improve and use for the benefit of the empire.”

This interest in voyaging and colonization is what finally earns my home a passing mention – “Never was an empire won at smaller cost than was ours in Canada and India. As to Australia, Captain Cook had merely to pick it up out of the sea” (Trevelyan, 1964 edition, p. 189). Any mention is better than nothing?? That really is just awful. In fairness, the book was first published in 1942 and was focused on English social history.

Adam Smith worked with ideas around wealth, property and trade. Malthus wrote about populations and also the testing of theories by experimentation. Montesquieu developed theories of politics and the separation of powers. He also wrote about the influence of climate on man and society. It would be interesting to investigate that – was there anything there that, if more widely known and accepted, might have influenced those explorers and their judgments about so-called savages?

Carl Linnaeus developed a biological taxonomy, carefully classifying relationships based on carefully observed similarities. DNA and cladistic methods have shaken this up a bit, but I think the point is that as part of the Enlightenment people believed they could understand, classify, explore, theorise, challenge, progress. The rational, critical, active mind of the individual could engage with the world around them, to develop and use theories about it.

André Le Breton hired men including Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert to produce a new Encyclopaedia and from my brief reading this seems to be both an example of and a collection of all these new rational ways of thinking about and understanding the world.

Mention of Diderot brings me back to the major focus, which is Art. Like all the others mentioned above Diderot did much more than a simple one-liner can encompass, and in addition to being an encyclopedist Diderot was an art critic. Indeed “the middle of the eighteenth century in France saw the invention of art criticism as we know it” (Fried, 1980, p. 2) – and it seems reasonable that at a time when men (mainly) were developing theories about everything, art would be included.

This Research Point has grown out of proportion and I’m still skipping from topic to topic and leaving out most. In the interests of time I will just note down some points showing some interaction of thought between the Enlightenment generally and art in particular.

In France the “philosophes” or intellectuals regarded the decorative, intimate and elegant art leading up to the 1750s as frivolous, hedonistic style over substance. Diderot believed art should have express serious political, social and or moral principles. Rousseau “called for … plain manners, not the insincere politeness of artificially refined people; what he admired was not the liberal spirit of ancient Athens but the severity, rigour, and discipline of Sparta” (Roberts, 1989, p. 26). Neoclassicism “is related to man’s desire for perfection and is summed up in Rousseau’s piercing phrase ‘I want to be what I should be’ ” (Brookner, 1980, p. 27).

Chénier, a student of Montesquieu and Rousseau believed “only in the open and free climate of democracy would the artist be free to develop his talent fully and only within such a society would the arts remain healthy” (Roberts, 1989, pp. 31-32).

Goethe “even formulated a law, the Law of Required Change, to explain the inner necessity of abandoning old ideas and embracing the new” (Brookner, 1980, p.25)

David, the subject of my previous post (5-Oct-2013), displays the impact of some of the new ideas swirling around in both his paintings and his active participation in both the political and revolutionary process. “His art is more than a personal statement; again it expresses the deeper, spiritual changes within his world” (Roberts, 1989, p. 6). Although he had achieved success with the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture David became a vocal critic of the institution, which was abolished (although later re-established) – another instance of the rejection of old ideas combined with a belief in progress.

Francois Boucher A young lady holding a pug dog mid 1740s

Francois Bouçher
A young lady holding a pug dog
mid 1740s

One of the pleasures of reaching more recent history is that I have been able to view some works locally which illustrate the changes. As mentioned above, in the period prior to the Enlightenment there was a preference for light, frivolous and decorative paintings. The work on the right is in the Art Gallery of NSW (catalogue entry here). This delightful young lady looks fresh and pretty, carefully made up with powdered hair, rouged cheeks and a beauty spot (mouch) beneath her eye. She ties a ribbon on her little dog, which seems almost as dainty. In this rococo work there is a lightness of touch, an exuberance and sense of joy in the rich glowing surfaces of skin, fabrics and jewels. This would certainly seem to fit in the category of works dismissed by Diderot as frivolous, an indulgence in extravagances.

It would not sit well in a world of serious men asking and answering serious questions, propelling civilisation forward in triumphant progress.


Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg
A shipwreck off a rocky coast

On the right is another work from the Art Gallery of NSW (catalogue entry here – my photograph is particularly poor, so I recommend clicking through to see a very much better one). This dramatic scene shows the end of a storm, a wrecked ship, a few survivors and, in the left foreground, a struggling figure being swept away in the crashing waves. The information label at the gallery notes that the painting “dates from the period of [Loutherbourg’s] hugely successful early Parisian career when his Solon exhibits were fêted by the critic Denis Diderot”.

I can see that Diderot could have noted of this painting “the nobility of certain masses of rock, the persuasiveness of the rendering of space”, as he did of another of Lutherbourg’s paintings (Diderot, [n.d.] cited in (Fried, 1980, p.119)). This painting could well have “persuaded him beyond all doubt of the work’s dramatic and expressive unity” (Fried, 1980, p. 85).

A side exploration: On the Art Gallery of NSW website I found another work, a 1794 print after Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, after John Webber, The apotheosis of Captain Cook (see Searching on the title led to a scholarly debate, duelling books at dawn, between Gananath Obeyesekere and Marshall Sahlins around imperialism, conquests, and how explorers such as Cook were viewed by natives. Who writes the history, what is the rational mind and who can speak for the original inhabitants?

Contact wall, Mount Borradaile

Contact wall, Mount Borradaile

There seems to be a few strands, maybe a gradual coalescence: reading for this research point and the impact of the Enlightenment in art and in the foundation of my country; some work I’ve started for a later course task, looking at Rorke’s Drift and the Anglo-Zulu war; the “contact wall” rock art at Mount Borradaile (seen on my holiday, posted 29-Aug-2013); a low level disquiet studying Western Art as an Australian with an english/irish heritage… I’m not sure where this is going, if anywhere.


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

Diderot, D. ([n.d.]) Salons, I, 225-26 cited in Fried, M. (1980) Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot Berkeley: University of California Press [online] Available from (Accessed 6 October 2013)

Fried, M. (1980) Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot Berkeley: University of California Press [online] Available from (Accessed 6 October 2013)

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

Trevelyan, GM (1964) Illustrated English Social History: 3. The Eighteenth Century Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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

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

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

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

The myth of Arachne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources of the myth

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

The myth harnessed to promote Christian values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Descriptions of two Artworks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Similarities and differences

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

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

Reasons for artists choices.

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

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

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

One more work

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

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

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

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

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

The text

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

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

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

More paintings

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

Links related to Velázquez’s The Fable of Arachne

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

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

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


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