This plaster caste of Michelango was taken from the original statue which dates to around 1501, and is in Florence, Italy. The caste of Michelangelo was presented to Queen Victoria by the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1857. She donated it to the V&A Museum. Apparently when Queen Victoria first saw the statue of ‘David’, she was so shocked at his nakedness that she commissioned a fig leave to be made to cover up his private parts. The fig leaf was made to be proportionally accurate and it was designed so that it could be hung on the figure using two hooks. It was kept in readiness for any royal visits to preserve the Queen’s modesty. At the time male nudity was quite a contentious issue. In 1903 Mr Dobson sent a letter to the museum complaining about the statues: ‘One can hardly designate these figures as “art”. If it is, it is a very objectionable form of art.’
Michelangelo was only 26 years old when he accepted the commission for the Cathedrale of Florence in 1501. He was at this time one of the best paid and most famous artists of his time. The Cathedrale of Florence had already asked two other sculptures to create the ‘David’ sculpture. The project was started in 1464 by Agostino di Duccio, and when he gave up, Antonio Rossellino took over in 1475. Both artists refused to work on the enormous block of marble because it had too many imperfections, which may have threatened the stability of the statue. But Michelangelo was unfazed by such an enormous task. It took him two years to create the original sculpture in beautiful white marble.
The statue shows David, the biblical hero carrying his slingshot over his shoulder before he begins his battle with the mighty Goliath. Goliath has offered to determine the outcome of the battle between the Philistines and the Isrealites with a single combat battle. David steps up to the challenge and defeats Goliath by hurling a stone from his slingshot which hits him in the centre of his forehead. David then cuts off his head and stands triumphantly. With a single shot he has won the battle between the Philistines and the Isrealites.
Alessandro Peretti, the Cardinal Montalto, commissioned this impressive sculpture for the garden of his Villa in Rome. It formed the centre piece of a larger display of fountains and cascades, above a series of waterfalls that flowed into a large oval pond. Bernini was one of the most gifted and influential sculptors of the 17th century. He carved ‘Neptune and Triton’ within a year, between 1622 and 1623. In classical mythology Neptune was the god of the seas and his son Triton was a merman. Neptune stands tall bearing his trident, while Triton sits beneath him blowing through a conch shell. Originally the conch shell projected a single jet of water, and the piping still remains inside. Neptune and Triton are portrayed with great exuberance, as though they are commanding the seas, which would have been represented by the pond.
This scene may represent the mythological story from Ovid’s Metamoprhosis, Book 1. In the story Jupiter, the King of the Gods in Roman mythology becomes enraged with humanity and considers scorching the earth with fire. He decides to flood the world instead, and asks his brother Neptune to help. Neptune commands the seas and the river gods to flood the world. All the world is flooded except for two people who stand on a mountain peak. Jupiter regrets his decision and calls the seas back to spare their lives. Neptune orders Triton to blow his conch shell into the winds to summon the waters to retreat.
Peter Paul Reubens was born in Siegen, Germany in 1577, and when he was 10 years old he moved to Antwerp, Belgium with his parents. He was described as a likeable chap, with ‘a tall stature, a stately bearing, with a regularly shaped face, rosy cheeks, chestnut brown hair, sparkling eyes but with passion restrained, a laughing air, gentle and courteous’.
He ran a large studio in Antwerp, which produced paintings popular with nobility and art collectors throughout Europe. Reubans was also a classically trained scholar, an art collector and a diplomat. He was knighted by Philip IV, the King of Spain and Charles I, King of England.
In 1630, four years after the death of his first wife, the 53 year old painter married the 16 year old Hélène Fourmant. His young wife was the inspiration for the sensuously painted female goddesses in this painting. This painting brings to life the stories from ancient Greek legends.
Paris, the seated gentlemen in the blue robe, is the son of Priam, the King of Troy. Paris was abandoned as a baby by his father, because of a prophecy that he would bring ruin to the city of Troy. Priam was rescued by sheperds who raised him as one of their own. Mercury the messenger with his winged hat, has brought Paris to judge a beauty contest between the three godesses. Minerva, on the far right tried to bribe Paris, by offering him wisdom and skill in war. She stands next to a shield which bears the monstrous Medusa with her hair of snakes. One look from Medusa would turn anyone to stone. Venus, the Goddess of love, the second from right, offers Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy. Juno stands with a peacock, and tries to tempt Pais with the promise of power and wealth.
Paris chooses Venus and offers her the prize, a golden apple. He then goes on to abduct Helen of Troy, stealing her away from her husband Menelaus, the King of Sparta. This starts the disastrous Trojan Wars.
This crystal skull was carved from a single block of rock crystal. The British Museum records show that it was bought in 1867 from Mr Frederick Kunz. Mr Kunz was an obsessive collector of gemstones, amassing around 4,000 precious stones, by the time he reached the age of 20. The jeweller describes his fascination with the sparkling gems:
‘Every boy has his passion – his collection of stamps or coins, or marbles or what not, and the only difference between another boy’s and mine was that I never outgrew it. Given a fresh excavation today, I am just as apt to go down on my knees and begin grubbing about as I was at the age of ten.’
He claimed that he acquired this skull from a Spanish officer who brought it back from Mexico. Aztec art is characterised by skulls, death and the beautiful blue turquoise stone. Frederick Kunz sold the skull to an antiquities dealer, and it was later bought by the British Museum. But scientists have discovered that it was actually all a big fraud! In 1996 an international team of scientists had a closer look at the skull with an electron microscope, and found machine cut marks. These cut marks show that the skull was made with a rotary cutting wheel. Rotary cutting wheels were introduced to Mexico after the Spanish Conquest in 1521. This sparkling crystal skull was actually made in the 19th century.
The dodo is one of the most famous extinct species in history. The name probably comes from the Portuguese word, ‘doudo’, meaning foolish or the Dutch word ‘dodoor’, which means sluggish. The dodo has been immortalised in popular film and fiction. Lewis Carol was so impressed by a specimen at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, that he created a talking dodo character in his book, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. The poor dodo has been accused of being so stupid and obese that it caused its own extinction by failing to outrun its captors. We now know that isn’t true.
The dodo was only found on the isolated island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, over 800Km from Madagascar. Portuguese settlers reached the island in the early 16th century, but they made no record of their encounters with the curious flightless bird. The first reports of a large, clumsy, flightless bird came from Dutch settlers in 1598. The Dutch nicknamed the bird, ‘Walgvogel’ meaning disgusting, as the meat from the bird was tough and unpalatable. Within a hundred years of its discovery, the entire species was wiped out. The dodo was hunted for its meat and for specimens to be brought back to Europe for scientific study. However, this activity was not the main cause for the extinction. The Dutch settlers introduced new predators onto the island, such as dogs, rats, cats, pigs and monkeys, which ate the dodo’s eggs.
Rousseau paints extraordinary visions of exotic jungles, lion hunters and fierce jaguars that remind us of Rudyard Kipling’s, ‘The Jungle Book’. He had never seen a jungle before, so these pictures are painted entirely from his own imagination. He created his own fantasy jungle scenes using domestic pot plants and tropical specimens from Paris’ botanical Gardens. His animals were inspired by visits to see stuffed animals in museums. His work includes fantastical situations that would never happen in the natural world; from a jaguar attacking a horse in a jungle, to a monkey shooting a hunter.
Henri Rousseau was born in 1844 in Leval in Western France. He left his job as a gatekeeper at the Paris Municipal in 1893 to pursue a career as an artist. He was called a naïve artist because he had no formal training at an art school. Academics at the time criticized his work for his poor handling of proportion and perspective.
The tiger in this painting stands ready to pounce on any unsuspecting prey, in the midst of a violent storm. Lightning flashes in the background and the rain falls in heavy sheets. The entire painting is covered with delicate transparent stripes of white and grey, which represents the heavy downpour. The slightly unrealistic, surprised tiger is based on a range of sources including oriental prints and the domestic cat.
Do you think of art as something beautiful? Why has this ugly old woman been chosen for display at the National Gallery?
Quinten Massys enjoyed painting satirical pictures which had a moral message. This withered old woman is wearing a very unflattering low cut Italian gown, which does not suit her. Massys is mocking her and warning against the follies of being ‘mutton dressed as lamb’.
Medical research has shown that this unfortunate woman was actually suffering from Paget’s disease, a chronic disease which enlarges and deforms the bones. This is a very severe case as her jaw bones have been enlarged, her upper lip extended and her nose has been pushed upwards.
It was thought for a long time that Leonardo Da Vinci inspired Massys’ paintings, but recent research has now revealed that it was actually the other way round. Massys inspired Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the greatest painters of all time!
Da Vinci was not the only artist inspired by Messys. John Tenniel was a British artist in the 19th century who created illustrations for Lewis Carole’s fantastically imaginative book, Alice in Wonderland. Tenniel’s drawings of the extravagant, overbearing and wicked Ugly Duchess character were inspired by ‘An Old Woman’. In 2010, Tim burton created a visionary film version of Alice in Wonderland, starring Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonhma Carter. Helen Bonham Carter plays the ugly duchess character, who has a ridiculously large head with exaggerated features. It is a great example of how a painting of an ugly old woman from 1513 can influence popular culture today!
John Lubbock (1834-1913) was a banker, politician, geologist, zoologist, naturalist, biologist and archaeologist. Lubbock collected archaeological and ethnographic objects from all over the world. In 1869 he commissioned Griset to create a series of paintings showing what he thought prehistoric life was like.
John Lubbock commissioned this painting of a Pacific Atoll in 1871. It seems a bit out of place in a collection of paintings about prehistoric life. It has been suggested that Lubbock may have commissioned it for his good friend and neighbour Charles Darwin.
In 1831, Darwin set off on a five year expedition to chart the coasts of South America on a ship called the Beagle. The ship returned via Tahiti and Australia, having circumnavigated the Earth. In 1836 Darwin saw his first coral atoll at the Cocos or Keeling Islands, in the North East Indian Ocean. In 1842, the pioneer of evolutionary theory wrote a book about about coral reefs and their origins, called ‘The structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs and their origins’.
Do you think the ship in the background of this painting could be the Beagle?
Ernest Griset was born in 1843 in France and came to England as a child. He was an animal illustrator and was best known for his drawings of animals from London Zoo. The Times reported his death on July 9th 1877, describing him as:
‘An admirable and apparently inexhaustable draughtsman who possessed much satirical power and produced countless drawings in grotesque of animals and human savages, which wise collectors obtained for trivial sums at an untidy little shop near Leicester Square.’
On the 16th July, it was subsequently reported, however, that he was not dead or ‘even ailing’. The quality of his work declined as he got older and busier. When he finally died in 1907, he was almost forgotten and most likely a pauper.