Art can be a daunting subject to cover in depth. Art has been a part of history since the test of time and continues to grow in astonishing quantities. There are thousands of artists, thousands of pieces including paintings, sculptures, and architectures, all of which are scattered across the world. Along with the long history of art are two questions that are often asked and debated. What truly makes art important? What makes art truly beautiful? Is it the subject matter, depictions, or representations? While each of these aspects are magnificent, my answer is no, these are not what makes art important or truly beautiful. Covering the Pre-Renaissance art period, beginning in the late 14th century, through the Contemporary art of today, I will be critiquing two pieces of art from two artists over several art periods that embodies technique and style which is unique during the time.
Sposalizio Della Vergine, better known as Giotto, takes a step away from the Medieval style in paintings in the early 14th century and focuses on more humanism and realism that is present in Pre-Renaissance art. Giotto is best known for the frescos he painted in the Arena Chapel that depicts the theme of usury in several different paintings (Harris & Zucker, 2011). Giotto, however, does more than paints a series of pictures; he creates a story. Within each scene, he illustrates feelings, emotions, and how such biblical prophets are no different from common people.
The "Lamentation" is a scene in the Arena Chapel when Christ dies for our sins. Painted in 1304, Giotto paints this scene in great depth. The angels, looking down upon Christ, hold their faces; faces that show the agony they feel over Christ's death. Mary, a mother, is holding her son with love and tenderness, as well as looking down at his face with the sorrow of never seeing her child again. What I find most striking is the grief Giotto was able to capture on the faces of the disciples while a few throw their arms in the air, some cry, and others show pity for Mary. Having experience with such raw emotion of loss draws you into the painting. Another astounding piece in the Pre-Renaissance period is the "Arnolfini Portrait.”
Jan van Eyck's " Arnolfini Portrait" in 1434 appears to be a straightforward oil painting that depicts a wealthy merchant and his wife (Artstor, 2017). However, this painting is packed with images that signify wealth and religious implications (Artstor, 2017). The chandelier, mirror, rug, dog, and oranges are all signifiers of wealth but also religious motifs (Artstor, 2017). The chandelier has one candle lit, representing the seeing eye of God; the mirror is decorated with scenes from the Passion of Christ, and there are also rosary beads hanging next to the mirror (Artstor, 2017). What stands out the most is how van Eyck creates space in this piece and masters the art of drapery, which is a focal point during the Pre-Renaissance.
When viewing the "Arnolfini Portrait," what stands out the most is the merchant's and his wife's drapery. The drapery is vibrant and boosting with colors. It beautifully cascades down their bodies with remarkable grace with creases and folds; as if the drapery was elegantly put into just the right place. It is also unavoidable to miss the space that van Eyck creates in several different ways. First is the overlapping of objects. The merchant is blocking the table with the oranges; the woman obscures a portion of the bed, and the woman's drapery leaving only a hint of the rug to be seen. There is also the visual appeal that the dog and pair of shoes on the floor are closest to the viewer while the bed and chandelier seem the farthest away. Lastly, is the use of the mirror in which is the center piece of the painting, that van Eyck masterfully places in between the merchant and his wife. Giotto's "Lamentation" and Jan van Eyck's "Arnolfini Portrait" are marvelous examples of artwork during the Pre-Renaissance. As we move into the Renaissance period from 1400 through the 1600’s, there is a shift in artistic mastery.
During the early Renaissance, the artwork became intended to generate an emotional reaction. Leonardo da Vinci evokes a sense of love, contentment, and adoration in the oil on panel painting "Benois Madonna" (Villarreal, 2010). Painted between 1475 through 1480, the "Benois Madonna" depicts baby Christ sitting in Mary's lap (Villarreal, 2010).
What first comes to my attention in this masterpiece is how natural both the mother and child look. A mother's attention and happiness on her child as the child plays, contently, with a flower in her lap. Mary looks young and with a simplistic beauty. Also, the way Leonardo da Vinci painted the baby's body with rolls and chubbiness is a masterful representation of what is seen in babies that makes them adorable. What gives me an emotional reaction to the "Benois Madonna" is da Vinci's use of light and shadows. Da Vinci creates a dark background as if nothing is beyond the scene except for a window, which provides light on the mother and child. This creates a private moment between the mother and child where nothing else matters, and they are entwined in the company of each other. Also helpful in creating the private moment is the shape of the picture in comparison to the window. It's almost as if the viewer is looking through another window peering onto the mother and child. After the early Renaissance is the brief period of the High Renaissance.
Michelangelo Buonarroti's tempera on wood "Doni Tondo" of 1504 is an extraordinary piece from the High Renaissance. "Doni Tondo" sometimes called The Holy Family depicts Christ as a child, Mary, and Saint Joseph, along with John the Baptist and five nude male figures in the background (Finnan, 2018). The picture is surrounded by a wood gilt frame; designed, but not carved by Michelangelo (Finnan, 2018).
What captures my attention the most in this painting is the flawlessness of these religious figures. Mary is very muscle toned, and her cheeks are a perfect rosy pink, Christ as a child has divine, beautifully grown out brown curly hair, and even in Joseph's age, with balding on the top and grey hair, his face is smooth without a wrinkle. Next is how balanced the picture is. Mary, Joseph, and Christ are in the center of the piece, and their bodies are in the perfect shape of a triangle. It is almost as if the background is divided evenly into three sections; the ground that the holy family sits upon, the naked men behind them, and the sky above all of them. The colors in the picture also stand out. The light tones of the sky, grass, and nude men become a backdrop of the vibrant shades of pinks, reds, yellows, and blues of Mary and Joseph's drapery. Lastly, the shadows and light on the face and skin of the religious figures depict their holiness and perfection. This painting is a spectacular representation of such divine characters but still grasps more humanistic feel. Thus, da Vinci and Michelangelo’s artwork are inspiring during this period.
Into the Late Rennaissance, a new style is formed; mannerism. Mannerist artists begin to dismiss the harmony and ideal proportions of the Rennaissance for irrational settings, artificial colors, unclear religious matters, and elongated figures (Clarke & Clarke, 2014). This style is present in Pieter Aertsen's "Meat Stall." This 1551 oil on panel depicts a peasant market scene, with an abundance of meats and other foods (Schaudies, 2015).
My first awareness is how the religious aspect of the painting is not in the forefront, although it is present. The background on the left is a small scene depicting the Flight into Egypt when Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus flee to Egypt because they learn that King Herod intends to kill the male infants in the area of Bethlehem (Schaudies, 2014). Along with the idea, is everything that is going on in the picture itself. In the right background, there is a tavern. Inside it looks like people are sitting around eating with a big animal carcass hanging next to them which they don't seem to pay any mind. Then you see the butcher; he is signified as the butcher because of his red coat (Schaudies, 2014). The butcher appears to be putting water, from the well, into another canister. Most importantly is an abundance of meat, and carcasses, including the heads of animals that is the forefront of this painting. There is an assortment of meat, including pig's feet, sausages, fish, and beef. There are also different depictions of how the meat has been prepared; cooked, raw, off, and on the carcass. It looks life-like; the cow or ox head is bigger than the pot that sits within the meat, the fish and pig's feet small but still detailed, and the sausages of different sizes showing the skill in making them. However, the choice of colors used to for the meat also gives it an artificial feel. Given the religious scene and the abundance of meat, the painting is almost like a sign of greed. Another Mannerist artist is El Greco.
"Adoration of the Shepherds" a vibrant, beautiful art piece is created by artist El Greco, that he began in 1612 and finished just before his death in 1614 (Metropolitan Museum, 2015). This piece like so many others including "The Holy Family," "Christ Carrying the Cross," and " Christ Healing the Blind," is oil on canvas and depicts Christ's life (Metropolitan Museum, 2015). "Adoration of the Shepherds" is the moment when the shepherds visit Christ in Bethlehem at birth to honor what would be the salvation of humankind (Metropolitan Museum, 2015). El Greco didn't achieve balance, agreeable colors, and understandable space that you see in the early and high Renaissance period but exemplifies the mannerism style.
The first aspect to note is how the shepherds are elongated and how small baby Christ is in comparison. It almost seems like the shepherd on the right is a giant, toppling over everyone else to look at baby Christ. Even the body of the shepherd kneeling on the rock looks as if his torso has been stretched to peer at the tiny naked baby Christ. Next, I notice the angels looking down from the heavens. When I look closely, you see that their bodies are twisted but are still posed with grace. Another compelling aspect of the "Adoration of Shepherds" is the contrast between light and dark. The surrounding, swirling, black background confines the viewer to the scene. This compresses space, which is radiated with light from baby Christ. The light El Greco paints coming from baby Christ; lights the faces of the shepherds and extends upward so we can see the angels looking through the clouds. It is compelling and fascinating that such light can come from tiny Christ. Lastly is the vibrant yellows, reds, and blues that highlights the swirling background and draws you into each shepherd, Mary, and the two angels. "Adoration of Shepherds" really captures the naturalism and complexity that came in the Mannerist period. The mannerism style that is seen in these two painting is the last art mastery of the Renaissance period as artists begin to transition into the Baroque period from 1600 to 1725.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's mastery of the characteristics of Baroque art can be seen in his oil on canvas painting "Death of a Virgin" that took two years to complete from 1604 to 1606 (Loire, 2013). "Death of a Virgin" depicts Mary in a red dress laying on a table with apostles gathered around her as well as St. John and St. Peter grieving over her death (Loire, 2013).
The first distinctive characteristic that I see in the painting is Caravaggio's ability to make Mary's death naturalistic. Instead of traditionally making religious figures holly, there is a more raw and realistic view. Mary has an unattractive appearance and the apostles, St. John and St. Peter look like typical people, some balding with age, grieving over a loss. Next is the use of light and shadows that Caravaggio masters. The light appears to enter from the top left corner of the room. The light shining onto the bald heads of the two apostles and the upper part of Mary's body, is very uncomplimentary. However, because Mary's body and the light are at different angles, Mary becomes the center of the painting. Lastly, the large red cloth on the top of the art, almost like a banner, forms an arch that makes the scene look more dramatic. Another great artist during the Baroque period is Peter Paul Ruben.
The 1618 oil on canvas painting "Head of Medusa" is a repulsive depiction of the moment that Greek hero Perseus has just cut off the head of Medusa which is lying on top of a cliff (Kappe, 2017). There is no way to make a severed head look beautiful, but Rubens version of the tale of Medusa is gruesome. The gruesomeness, along with many other techniques in the painting creates a masterful representation of artwork during this period.
Most eye catching in the painting is how the snakes and Medusa’s face are natural and lifelike. You see snakes in all different shades of browns and greens, and Medusa's face is pale, her eyes roll downward, and her lips are losing their color, almost the same pale as her lifeless face. The lizards and spiders which are also very lifelike, makes my skin crawl. Next, the addition of spiders, lizards, and spatters and pool of blood with what seems to be baby snakes create a dramatic effect. The addition of lizards and spiders also appeals to the sense that in nature, you are never alone; there is always some form of life nearby. Another aspect of this painting is the motion. The snakes are slithering around Medusa's head, over each other, in all different directions and one snake is eating the other. The dark cloud in the background makes it seem as if a storm is coming. Lastly, I notice Ruben's magnificent use of shadows and light. Medusa's face appears to be the light of the art pieces surrounded by shadows underneath her head and a dark background. This makes her face the center of the painting. Moving away from the Baroque period, artists enter the Enlightenment period.
During the Enlightenment period from 1760 through 1850, there are two new but distinct art movements; Neoclassicism (1760-1830) and Romanticism (1800-1850). One famous artist from the Enlightenment period is Jacques- Louis David, who is known for his Neoclassicism style. "Death of Socrates" a 1787 oil on canvas painting exemplifies David's mastery of such technique (The MET, 2019). This painting depicts when the Athenian courts execute Socrates for the crime of blasphemy; his behavior toward the Gods was irreverent, and he had exerted a corrupting influence on his young male followers (The MET, 2019).
Traditional of Neoclassicism, "Death of Socrates" has a Greek theme and the scene glorifies bravery. Socrates is sitting on the bed strong and confident as he is about to meet his fate. I can see the cup of poison that is held out to Socrates by one of his distressed followers. Next is the drama that this scene depicts. Socrates' male followers are emotional and distraught. One is holding his face, another pointing up to the sky, and one other who is crying against the wall as if the wall is his comfort. There is even a man praying at the foot of the bed. Then there is Socrates, who has his finger in the air and a stern look upon his face almost like his is ridiculing his followers for being upset. However, true to Neoclassicism style, all the male figures look statue-like in their poses. Another point to note is the illusion of space. There is a dome-shaped hallway that leads to another room that seems amazingly huge and then to follow that room; you see a magnificent staircase. Lastly, I notice the light shining down upon the scene from the top of the painting as if creating the depiction of a holy scene. Jacques-Louis David does an astounding job at capturing the Neoclassicism style in the "Death of Socrates. Just like David, Joseph Mallord William Turner does a fantastic job of capturing Romanticism during the Enlightenment period in his painting "The Slave Ship" in 1840.
Based on a poem that describes a slave ship adrift in a typhoon, and on the story of the slave ship, Zong, whose captain had thrown overboard sick and dying slaves so that he could collect insurance money for slaves lost at sea, "The Slave Ship," depicts the violence against African Americans during this particular time period (Thomson, 2013). This painting also is a political statement in which the idea of shipping slave abroad was despicable. Such injustices were a significant focus for Romanticism artist. Along with political statements, the landscapes were also used to evoke an emotional response.
The landscape is terrifying and unsettling. The unpredictable dark grey murky ocean has white foam-like waves with streaks of blood. Although not part of the landscape itself, you can't help but notice the limbs of slaves scattered throughout the ocean in the horrific notion of what humans did to other humans. The jagged clouds and color comparison from the left and right side of the painting depicts that even with the chaos in the ocean, the storm is just beginning and is going to get worse. The bright, warm colors of red, yellow, and orange are not cheerful but rather alarming and catches the viewers eye at the first glance of the painting. Lastly, the sun swirls in the sky almost evoking the fiery wrath that has been brought upon the slave ship. The landscape that Turner creates in this painting captures the appalling nature of the slave trade overseas. Thus, Turner’s painting, “The Slave Ship” exemplifies the very style and technique pertinent to Romanticism during the Enlightenment period. The next time period in art history is Impressionism between 1870 and 1900.
Two astounding artists from the Impressionist period are Claude Monet and Georges Seurat. However, coming from the same art period, they have two different styles and techniques. The "Woman with a Parasol" is an oil on canvas painting from 1875 by Claude Monet. This painting depicts Madame Monet and her son (Butler, 2008). Monet created this painting outdoors in several hours (Butler, 2008). The parasol, the veil, and the dress of Madame Monet symbolize status while her dress refers to her purity (Butler, 2008).
Important for Impressionist artists is to paint everyday scenes, outdoor scenes, and the use of color at the moment of a glimpse of it. I can see the masterful depiction of light as well as the movement of air. The effects of sunlight are captured by using shades of dark and light colors to indicate shadows and sunlit areas. The imperfection of brushstrokes in different sizes and directions create an endless sky and almost a bending of the grass; reflecting a breeze. Likewise, the sway of the wildflowers and the almost floatiness of the parasol heightens the sense of the breeze. I can also see the essence of the breeze in the way the woman's dress flows towards the left. Lastly, the mix of colors creates fluidity, making the landscape more realistic. Along with the view, the combination of pinks and yellow within Madame Monet's white dress makes it shimmer and flow in the same direction as the rest of the objects within the art piece.
Quite like Claude Monet and other Impressionist artists, Georges Seurat also focuses on outdoor scenes but uses pointillism instead of bold brushstrokes in his painting. An excellent example is Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," an oil on canvas painting finished in 1886. Seurat depicts people relaxing on a Sunday afternoon in a suburban park on an island in the Seine River called La Grande Jatte (Stanska, 2016). It is just an ordinary day with a total of 48 people, eight boats, three dogs, and even a monkey (Stanska, 2016).
What caught my eye in this painting are the shadows. Instead of traditionally represented by the color black, the idea of pointillism allows the colors that the shadow meets to define its color. So instead of seeing black shadows that will mask the color of the painting, we see darker shades of green surrounded by lighter shades. Also, I find the use of light to be unique in this art piece. The sun, coming in from the left, meets with every person and object and I think that it is masterful how Seurat was able to blend colors. Lastly, I notice there isn't a lot of movement in this picture. Thus, instead of focusing on movement, I see a focus on form. For example, the illusion of space; people and objects that are supposed to be closer to the viewer are more prominent, while those that are supposed to seem further away are smaller. However, with the lack of movement within the scene, the figures and objects tend to be stiff instead of looking as if they are relaxing. After the Impressionist period, the early 20th century begins the artistic era of Abstraction.
During the Abstract or Modern period in art history, several different techniques take form. Some of which include fauvism, expressionism, cubism, and symbolism. Henri Matisse created the new style of fauvism which focuses on vibrant colors to evoke an emotional reaction and abstracted form. A great example is his 1905-1906 oil on canvas painting "The Joy of Life." This exuberant painting depicts an Arcadian landscape filled with a forest, meadow, sea, and sky surrounding nude figures (Harris & Zucker, 2014).
First, because the landscape includes the sky, a lake, a meadow, and trees; everything that I find tranquility in when my life is stressful; this painting speaks to me. Next, I love the use of vibrant, bold colors. For me, I can see all the seasons. On the left, the oranges, reds, and greens of the trees remind me of fall. The right side of the painting with the purple and teal colors gives me the depiction of winter. The meadow in which all the nude figures are embarking in different activities is a mix between spring and summer. The meadow is a yellow-green that looks like it is beginning to grow after a long winter, but the red flowers and green and purple grass suggests that it could be summer. What sticks out the most for me is the idea that humans and nature are as one. The two nude females in the middle of the picture have this red and green outlines as if nature, itself, is comforting or protecting them. Even the figures to the right and left of them are painted as if when they touch the ground, the color changes like their surrounding are entirely aware that these figures are present. Likewise, the nude subjects seem as though their every movement is delicate because of the love they have for their beautiful surroundings. Another magnificent artist during this time period is Pablo Picasso.
Pablo Picasso, unlike Henri Matisse, isn't known for the style of fauvism but another exemplary technique. Of the many artworks of Pablo Picasso, one that stands out the most to me is "Reading at a Table." A 1934 oil on canvas painting that depicts Picasso's lover, Marie-Therese Walter reading a book (The Met, 2019). A woman seated alone, is one of Pablo Picasso's favored subject matters (The Met, 2019). In this painting, I can see the mastery of technique that Picasso is known for.
What is the most notable aspect is Pablo Picasso’s use of cubism in "Reading at a Table.” First, I can see the use of geometric shapes with the long, thin rectangle shape of the table legs, the triangle in the woman's dress underneath the table, and the rectangle behind her head; that I would consider to be a picture hanging on the wall. Next, traditional to cubism, the painting is flat or two-dimensional. The lampshade looks as if someone has squashed it, the plant on the left side of the picture looks as if it is part of the wall, and the woman's dress and the chair look as though they are one. The last aspect of cubism I see in the painting is the different angles of the woman's face. This painting is to the side so I should only be able to see the woman's left side of her face. However, I can see her whole nose along with her right eye. Aside from the use of cubism, the color scheme stands out in this art piece. Picasso’s use of dark and light colors makes the piece pop. The use of dark colors in the background and light shades of the woman and around her, makes the woman stand out, and she becomes the center of attention. Thus, before moving on to contemporary art, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso are two examples of different mastery in technique seen during the abstract period.
Reaching the final art period; Contemporary art begins in the late 20th century into the early 21st century. Contemporary art generally defines artwork produced after the Modern art movement to the present day. Even though Contemporary is a substantial period filled with numerous artists, art pieces, and techniques, I will be focusing on artwork from the late 20th century only. The first painting is Jasper Johns 1959 oil on canvas, "False Start" (Gershman, 2014).
One extraordinary aspect of this painting that I first notice is the use of written colors that depicts the colors used within the art, itself. What makes these written words of colors so exciting is the fact that they don't seem to be handwritten, but a stencil was used. The words are also in the different colors which are used throughout the painting and lay on top of opposite colors. For example, the word "RED" overlays on yellows and oranges. Another notable aspect is the vibrant colors that are part of this painting. There is bright reds, bold oranges, light and dark blues, and even splashes of white. What stands out the most is the brushwork. It seems like a gestural technique of applying paint to the canvas in erratic arm movements. The brushwork creates almost an explosion of colors like a firework display. The effective use of colors gives the painting an abstract feel. The second painting that I found inviting during the Contemporary period is “Varus.”
"Varus" is an oil and acrylic painting on burlap done by Anselm Kiefer in 1976. This painting depicts a battle in Teutoberg forest where the Hermann and the Germanic people fought the Romans under the command of Varus who died a humiliating death after watching his men being killed (Lambert, 2016). There are many aspects of this tragedy depicted within the painting.
When first looking at this marvelous painting, the brush strokes used to create the ground and the use of white and light blue colors give the feeling that the battle occurs in the winter months. What stands out the most is the red on the snow-covered ground. It’s almost looks like a blood trail from someone who was hurt during the battle and was trying to walk to safety. I also see the deep red color with the tree trunks, which look as if an enormous amount of blood has been splashed about throughout the area. Something else that is interesting about the trees is, often not seen during the contemporary period, they are identifiable. Another significant aspect of this painting is the path between the forest. The swaying motion, instead of a straight path makes it seem like it continues beyond the canvas and never ends; it just begins to blend in with the fading landscape. Lastly, are the names written throughout the art piece. Varus is printed in black and very large in comparison to the other names which are written in white and much smaller. Another notable aspect is that the names seem to be hand-written. Thus, even though the battle that Kiefer was depicting in the painting happens before 1976 and the extension of names added to the painting, it is almost like the viewer is a part of this horrific day.
In conclusion, art is an enormous part of the past, present, and future. Throughout the years, beginning from the Pre-Renaissance through Contemporary art, artists have given viewers depictions of religious figures, landscapes, everyday scenes in mass amounts of different materials from oil paints on canvas and sculptures to architecture. So, what do I think makes art important and truly beautiful? In my opinion, the depictions and subject matter such astounding artworks capture are intriguing, but what makes art important and beautiful is the culture. And what makes each artwork the embodiment of our culture is what they represent. Each piece of art represents technique, mastery, and imagination given by the artists. It’s such skill that gives us the vision of how society, the world, and people have grown throughout history; the triumphs, failures, and everyday living. Thus, the real beauty of art is evoking emotions, presenting an array of perspectives, and broadening the view as well as capturing the very essence of our existence.