A Digital Curiosity Cabinet

Posts tagged “Art

Chinese Imperial Throne

Chinese Imperial Throne © V&A Museum

Chinese Imperial Throne © V&A Museum

This ornately decorated throne represents the supreme power of the Chinese emperor. It was made by the greatest of China’s craftsmen at one of the most productive periods of Chinese art during the eighteenth century. It is one of the largest single pieces of red lacquer in the world. It shows five clawed dragons and the exotic figures that represent people from foreign lands bringing tributes to the emperor.

The emperor of China was the source of all power. He ruled over statesmen and administrators who supported him in governing the country. The Chinese term for the emperor was ‘Son of Heaven’, and he was considered to be the sole link between heaven and earth. For the most part the emperor led a secluded life and did not leave the Forbidden City, the palace complex in the centre of Peking.

This throne was made for the emperor Ch’ien Lung between 1775 and 1780. It was used at the Tuanhe Travelling Palace in the Nan Hasi hunting park immediately south of Beijing. The Palace was one of several temporary homes of the emperors of the Qing dynasty.

Thrones do not have the same significance in Chinese culture as they do in European traditions. They had no ceremonial importance and were just a grand piece of furniture for an imperial palace. The throne would have originally been furnished with cushions.

Caste of ‘David’ by Michelangelo, V&A Museum

Michelangelo's David, © V&A Museum

Michelangelo’s David, © V&A Museum

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.’

Fig Leaf, © V&A Museum

Fig Leaf, © V&A Museum

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.

Gold Warrior Pendant, British Museum

Gold Warrior Pendant,  © British Museum

Gold Warrior Pendant, © British Museum

This intricate warrior figurine recaptures the image of a fierce Mixtec warrior. The warrior wears a lip plug, from which hangs a severed head, which maybe a war trophy. From the head dangle three intricate bells. You can almost imagine the warrior fiercely tinkling into battle.  Mixtec goldsmiths fashioned gold into prestigious objects to show off their wealth and prowess in battle. This warrior has a decorated crown, curved earrings, a nose piece, and pendant pectorals across his chest. On his left arm he carries a circular shield, and his right arm he carries a spear thrower. His elaborate regalia indicates that he is a high ranking warrior ruler.

Warfare was central to Aztec society. Its purpose was to take live captors for sacrifice to the Gods. Military accomplishment was highly prized by the Aztec warriors.  Aztec warriors improved their rank by capturing an ever increasing number of victims. The most distinguished warriors were the eagle and jaguar warriors whose dress represented these animals. The Aztecs were cosmopolitan in their tastes and they bought in high prestige goods such as gold from Mixtec artists in Oxaca. Mixtec artists would have visited Tenochitlan, the capital of the Aztec world, and they would have been encouraged to settle in Tenochtitlan.

Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas

Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas © The National Gallery

Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas © The National Gallery

Miss Lala was a circus performer famous throughout Europe for her amazing feats of strength. She was born in 1858, was christened Olga Kaira, and she started performing at the age of 9.  She was a tightrope walker, a trapeze artist and an accomplished acrobat. In this picture, she is being hoisted up towards the roof of the circus with a rope, which passes over a pulley. She is supporting her entire body weight by gripping the end of the rope with her teeth

In February 1879, she came to London to perform at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster. In an amazing act of showmanship, she progressed from suspending a boy, a woman and then a man from her jaw, while hanging upside down. The finale was described in a newspaper at the time:

‘Her great feat, and that which should undoubtedly prove the sensation, comes at the end of her share of the entertainment. Six men strain their muscles to lift to her a cannon of no mean dimensions. This also she supports by her teeth alone, never leaving her hold even when, the match being applied, the gun is fired and gives a tremendous report.’

The Cirque Fernando was built in 1875 in Paris, near Degas’ home. Degas does not focus on her as an individual, as he was more interested in capturing the spectacle of her body as she flew through the air. If you look closely, you can see that her arms and legs run parallel to the lines of the roof and the rope. Miss Lala is deliberately off centre. Degas was inspired by Japanese prints, which often placed their main subjects to one side and cropped them in dramatic ways.

He made many preparatory sketches for this painting, including oils, pastels and pencil sketches. An x-ray of this painting shows that Degas struggled to achieve the correct perspective for the roof. The x-ray shows that the figure of Lala was unchanged, but that the beams of the roof have been altered. The x-ray reveals three separate roof beams, which would have been his first attempt to paint the roof. Perhaps he decided that three beams would have crowded the composition with too much architectural detail. The two beams we can see in the painting are painted over the top.

When Walter Sickhart, an artist, visited the artist’s studio in the Rue Pigalle, Montmartre, he describes how Degas, ‘ had been unable to solve the problem of the perspective and had hired a professional for the drawing of the architecture of the ceiling.’

Neptune and Triton, V&A Museum

Neptune and Triton © V&A Museum

Neptune and Triton © V&A Museum

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.

The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Reubens

The Judgement of Paris by  Peter Paul Reubens, c.1632, © National Gallery

The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Reubens, c.1632, © National Gallery

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.

Double Headed Serpent, British Museum

Double Headed Serpent,  © British Museum

Double Headed Serpent, © British Museum

This striking Aztec double headed serpent would have been worn to ceremonial occasions as an ornament across the chest. It is carved out of a single piece of Spanish cedar wood, and decorated with beautiful turquoise mosaics, which come in a variety of colours. The open jaws have menacing fangs, which are made of conch shell. The red gums and details are made from thorny oyster shell.

Snakes were sacred to the Aztecs. They thought that snakes were powerful creatures that could travel between the different layers of cosmos; between the underworld, water and the sky. Serpents were also associated with fertility, and with water. Snakes shed their skin every year, which may have been linked with the idea of renewal and transformation. The Aztecs worshipped many different serpent Gods, including Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, Xiuhcoatl, the fire serpent, Mixcoatl, the cloud serpent and Coatlicue, she of the serpent skirt.

The Aztec Empire came to an end when Hernando Cortez and his Spanish troops arrived in 1519. The Spanish expedition was welcomed by the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma who gave them gifts. This double headed serpent may have been one of the gifts given to Cortez and his men. The Aztecs had a tradition that the god – king of their ancestors, a pale skinned bearded god would return one day to claim their land. The Spanish became greedy after receiving the gifts and were not so friendly. After bitter fighting the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish in 1521.

Rock Crystal Skull, British Museum

Crystal Skull, 19th century, British Museum. Photographer: Rafał Chałgasiewicz

Crystal Skull, British Museum. Photographer: Rafał Chałgasiewicz

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 by Roelandt Savery

The Dodo by Roelandt Savery,  c.1626 © Natural History Museum, London

The Dodo by Roelandt Savery, c.1626 © Natural History Museum, London

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.


Surprised! By Henri Rousseau, 1891

Surprised, Henri Rousseau, 1891, © The National Gallery, London

Surprised, Henri Rousseau, 1891, © The National Gallery, London

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.

An Old Woman by Quinten Massys, c. 1513, The National Gallery

An Old Woman, Quinten Massys, c.1513 © The National Gallery, London

An Old Woman, Quinten Massys, c.1513 © The National Gallery, London

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!

Illustration by John Tenniel from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865

Illustration by John Tenniel from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865

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!


Love is the Drug, or is it? Sandro Boticelli’s Venus and Mars


 Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, about 1485, © The National Gallery, London

Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, about 1485, © The National Gallery, London

This painting at the National Gallery tells the tale of a complicated love triangle from an ancient Greek myth. Venus, the goddess of love and beauty is married to Vulcan, the Roman God of fire. But Vulcan cannot satisfy her passions, so Venus has an affair with Mars, the God of War. Venus is the beautiful lady in the white dress, with it’s elegant drapery. This scene illustrates the classic post-coital moment. Mars is fast asleep, exhausted after their lovemaking and she is still awake and wants to chat.

There are four mischievous satyrs cavorting in this painting. A satyr is a mythical creature, with the body of a man and the legs of a goat. One of the satyrs is blowing through a conch shell in an attempt to wake Mars. But he does not stir. The other satyrs are playing with Mar’s armour and one of them is trying on Mar’s helmet. The armour is a reminder that the liaison is adulterous, as it has been made by Vulcan, the cuckolded God of Fire. The satyr in the bottom right corner is playing with a hallucinogenic plant, known as ‘the poor man’s acid.’ The plant called Datura Stramonium, causes madness and the urge to take ones clothes off. The traditional interpretation of this painting is that Venus the God of love has conquered Mars the God of War. But did she have a little bit of help from a Renaissance love drug?


Cognoscenti in a Room Hung with Pictures, c.1620

This painting by an unknown Flemish artist provides a glimpse into the world of collecting and connoisseurship in Antwerp in the 17th century. It is probably an imagined scene, but it shows how artworks were displayed at the time. They are densely crammed onto the walls, alongside other valuable treasures. You can see coins, medals, sculpture, a fine Persian rug, Chinese porcelain and a range of scientific and astrological instruments. The richly dressed gentlemen are Cognoscenti, which is  the Italian word for connoisseur. These rather pretentious art connoisseurs are engrossed in studying these precious objects. The monkey in the open window is a symbol of the foolishness of man’s endeavours. The monkey is mocking their dedication to study, when perhaps they should be devoting their time to religious worship.

Cognoscenti in a Room hung with Pictures,  © National Gallery, London

Cognoscenti in a Room hung with Pictures, © National Gallery, London

Pacific Atoll by Ernest Griset

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.

Pacific atoll

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?

Dead Mammoth on Ice Flow by Ernest Griset

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.’

Dead Mammoth on Ice Flow By Ernest Griset

Dead Mammoth on Ice Flow By Ernest Griset

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.

Mammoth Hunters by Ernest Griset

John Lubbock and Ernest Griset

John Lubbock (1834 – 1913) was a keen archaeologist who invented many of the archaeological terms that are still in use today: Paeleolithic (old stone age) and Neolithic (new stone age). He is most famous for writing ‘Prehistoric Times’, in which he charts how Western man rose to ‘civilised supremacy’.

In 1869 he commissioned Griset to create a series of paintings showing what he thought prehistoric life was like. They were never actually reproduced in any of his books. They were probably used to decorate his home,along with all the other spears, clubs and any other artefacts that were hung on his walls, over fireplaces, doorways and windows.

Mammoth Hunters

Mammoth Hunters by Ernest Griset