Women as Subjects in Art

While women have not enjoyed the luxury of equality in many area of life, I can say that they have always been subjects depicted in the arts throughout the whole of our history.  From the early fertility “Venus” statues/ religious icons found dating from the Upper Paleolithic era to the overly sexualized images of the modern world, women have been objects of desire and necessity from the very beginning. That does not mean that we have been depicted with respect and integrity at all times but, we have always been in the hearts and minds of artists; on the tongues of the scared, the critical, and the curious. Of course, we always have a bit of controversy surrounding us but, as I see it women are now and have always been interesting and often misunderstood creatures that deserve some consideration. In my mind one thing is for sure, to understand the role and status of women in any given culture or era one must only look to the art of the age to gauge the ebb and flow of our journey.

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Women as Artists Throughout the Ages

While largely unrecognized and certainly under-valued, women have been involved in the creation of art throughout the ages. As one might suspect, women have faced many challenges relative to their social status, culture, and gender in regard to their ability to learn, create, and receive acknowledgement for their work. Not to mention, the detriment that these biases produce thus stunting their ability to travel, trade, and sell their works of art. To fully understand the whole experience of female artists throughout history we must go back to the beginning where we can form a basis of knowledge to build upon and thus better appreciate the long and arduous struggle leading up to the feminist movement in the mid twentieth century that truly empowered women and begat change in the modern world.

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Jacques-Louis David

French painter Jacques-Louis David, painted, The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons in the Neo-Classical style in the year 1789. David depicts a moment of grief wherein Brutus, the Roman leader, grieves the loss of his sons. They had attempted to overthrow the government, so their father, Brutus ordered their death to so save the republic. He was seen as the heroic defender of the republic of Rome, who at any cost, even at the loss of his own family, would protect that republic. He was loyal to them above all else. The Mother of the ill-fated sons holds her two daughters close and reaches out in anguish toward their lifeless bodies. Also seen is a servant who seems to be equally distraught. All the while, Brutus sits on alone, stewing upon his loss, the choices he had to make, and his loyalty to country over family. What I see is the pro-Republican ideology of the painter, as well as, the chaos, change, and overall state of affairs regarding the French republic, the revolution, and demands of the people. Not mention, the reminder that our loyalty must first be with our country and government before friends and family; it’s a way of life and code of honor, not just the flavor or the month. There is an air of virtuousness about the work, sense of being moral, and also triumph reason; the greater good over personal needs and feelings. Don’t forget the painting also illustrates the cost of such fierce loyalty, revolution, and the loneliness it brings.

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Important Influences of the Classical Greek and Roman Eras

Stated in the Classical Art Notes, is that Ancient Greek culture formed the corner-stone of Western Cultural Tradition. Like many other cultures the Greeks are not absolutely original. They too, were partially influence by and in some cases stole from those that came before. It seems that they inherited some practices from their neighbors in Egypt and Mesopotamia.  However, they developed an artistic and architectural identity all their own, that in turn had a large impact on Western culture. We are able to gather information on and study the work of the Greeks via three difference sources. We can accomplish this from surviving works, Roman Copies, and Greek literary sources describing their own work. Sadly, much of the literary sources describe works that no longer exist. Like many other cultures, the Greeks did not have a specific word for art which provides some challenges for the modern day inquirer.  Although, the arts were defined by classes of skilled crafts which were given a god/goddess mentor figure from which their wisdom of said skill was gained. Artistry was separated from the physical/ manual ability and the technique and wisdom of the craft. Architecturally, Greek achievement is divided into three classical orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. These are governed by tenant of structural logic which is the core of Greek thinking. Following this theme, the Greeks applied logic and mathematics to their portrayal of the human body in sculpture; for it is not about the individual but, instead of the relationship of each body part proportionally to all the others thus creating the perfect relationship with in the human form. It would seem that Pythagoras shared the same interest in the origin of all beauty laying within a ratio.  These statues were like aesthetically pleasing mirror images of ourselves existing three-dimensionally in our world.

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Pieter Bruegel, the Elder

Pieter Bruegel, the Elder was a Netherlandish Renaissance painter and printmaker. He was well known for his landscapes and peasant scenes (genre painting). Bruegel’s apprenticed under the painter Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1545-1550). He entered the Antwerp painters’ guild in 1551 and that same year Bruegel became a free master in the Guild of Saint Luke of Antwerp. It has been noted that he was heavily influenced by the Dutch Master, Bosch. His genre paintings full of peasant and often included a landscape element, but he also painted religious works. By making the life of peasants the main focus of a work of art was rare in painting in this time; he was a pioneer of genre painting. His depiction of the rituals of village life are unique windows into the culture and are still characteristically of Belgian life and culture today. Bruegel’s works are a prime source of iconographic evidence that speaks to the physical and social aspects of 16th century life. In general, his works are created with high contrast in light and shadow, use of vivid, intense color and have an overall dramatic and chaotic vibe. There is action and movement about the entire work. Religious themes are prevalent and as is the use of symbolism to represent both context and moral dilemmas.

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The Lucrezia Romana

The Lucrezia Romana, an oil on wood panel painting circa 1500-1540, was masterfully created by an active member of Leonardo’s master circle in the city of Milan, Italy; one Pierto “Giampietrino” Rizzoli. While, I was not able to determine the actual size of this work during my visits to the Chazen Museum and or in further research, I can say that this piece is a portrait that is roughly three-foot high by two-foot wide. The subject is that of a Roman Aristocratic Matron by the name of Lucretia. This is a historical work depicting the moment before her subsequent suicide after having been raped by an Etruscan king’s son. She is undoubtedly the focal point and only figure represented in Giampietrino’s painting.

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