How To Talk About Art History

It's easier than it seems.

Artist Feature: Who Was Amrita Sher-Gil?

Oil painting on canvas of a woman with light brown skin and black hair swept up in a yellow beret. She is sitting next to a table with only her torso visible. Her head is turned in profile looking towards our left. Her left hand is resting on the table in front of her next to a small gold-coloured bowl.

Amrita Sher-Gil, Self-portrait (Untitled), 1931, oil on canvas, private collection

Movement/Style: A mixture of Western modernism and traditional Indian art styles

Country: Hungary and India

Years: 1913 – 1941

Well, who was she?

Amrita Sher-Gil was a Hungarian-Indian painter who was born in Hungary and moved to India later in her life. She’s known as a pioneer of modern Indian art, and is one of the most influential Indian women artists in history. Her work portrayed the lives of women, especially Indian women, and her style evolved from Western influences to classical Indian influences.

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Are There Any “Art Movements” in Photography?

Monochrome photograph of two women sitting in a wooden rowboat on the floor of a photography studio. One woman wears a dress and a hat and looks at us, while the other wears a coat and a cap and looks down. Both woman have cigarettes in their mouths. A backdrop of a wooded area hangs on the wall behind them and a small dog sits in the boat.

An example of pictorialist photography. Marie Høeg and Bolette Berg, Marie Høeg og Bolette Berg i båten, ca. 1895-1903. Preus Museum, Norway.

Reader question: “My question is related to photography. More specifically movements in photography. For example, in paintings we have romanticism, surrealism, minimalism, etc. Are there anything similar in photography or are there anything specific to photography in this regards?”—asked by Phaisal

That’s a great question, and my short answers are: yes, photography was often part of those art movements (once it was invented), but also, yes; there are a couple of movements that are specific to photography.

(Sidenote: “Art movements” are often there to help us understand a large range of influences, aims, and styles that were happening in a certain period of time, but it’s also of course true that not all art belonged to a movement. In this early blog post, I answered the question “Are all artists and their works classified as part of a particular movements?”, which could be useful reading for this topic as well.)

  1. Photography in ‘non-photography’ art movements

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5 Examples of Animals Acting Like Humans in Art History

Oil painting on canvas of seven dogs of different breeds sitting around a round poker table. Each dog is holding playing cards and there are poker chips on the table. The dog closest to the viewer is holding an extra playing card with its toes beneath the table.

I was recently challenged by Tamar Avishai of the art history podcast The Lonely Palette to write a blog post inspired by her recent episode on C. M. Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker, the famous series of paintings of dogs playing poker (she herself was challenged by a listener). Her episode is a great exploration of kitsch in art history and you should definitely check it out!

When thinking about how to approach this truly beautiful challenge, I was inspired to focus on one of my favourite things: animals in art history. Specifically, animals acting like humans in art history. This is a theme that reoccurs again and again, across cultures. Why is it so popular? What are these artworks saying about society? How cute are the animals in them? To start to answer these questions, I’ve compiled a short list, in no particular order, of animals acting like humans in art history below.

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Some Spanish Art, and How it Reflected Spanish Society

Oil painting on canvas of an old woman sitting in a kitchen frying eggs in a red pot in front of her and holding another egg in her hand. A young boy holding a package and a bottle stands next to her.

Diego Velázquez, Vieja friendo huevos (Old Woman Frying Eggs), 1618. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Reader question: “My question is what does the Spanish art from the late Middle Ages and early modern period tell us about Spanish culture and society at that time period. Thank you!” —asked by Kaylie

It’s a very broad topic but I’ll do my best to give an overview! Let’s start with some definitions:

Late Middle Ages = generally understood to be ca. 1300 to 1500.

Early modern period = there are various definitions of where the early modern period starts, but let’s say roughly the mid-1400s to the 1700s.

That means that the time period we’re looking at here is between 1300 and the 1700s. Before we get to the juicy bits—the art—I just want to take a few paragraphs to look at what happened in Spain during this period (which wasn’t even really “Spain” until the end of the 1400s). Let’s start by looking at a brief timeline (borrowed from BBC) to help us:

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Can We See Evidence of Poor Hygiene in Art History?

Three grotesque old men with awful teeth grimacing and pointing at each other (1773), engraving by T. Sandars after J. Collier. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

Three grotesque old men with awful teeth grimacing and pointing at each other (1773), engraving by T. Sandars after J. Collier. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

Reader question: “How can you see on people in for example the 17th century that they didn’t take care of their hygiene as well as us? Did they try to hide their teeth in paintings because they were so bad? How was their skin? Are there examples of paintings where the artist doesn’t try to make the subject look ‘better’ than they actually where?” – asked by Agnes

This is an interesting question, and one that’s actually quite difficult to answer because it’s so broad. Let me just say straight off the bat that my answer will definitely not be able to encompass all of 17th century art history (especially non-Western art history), and if you have any relevant artworks or information that I’ve missed, feel free to contact me and I’ll add it to the post. But using the limited information that I do have, let me just give you some very brief answers first: it’s complicated, maybe, fine unless they were sick, and definitely yes.

Now, let’s go a bit deeper, starting with what we know about overall hygiene in the 17th century, and finishing with a specific genre where you’ll actually find depictions of poor hygiene.

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“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”: A Case Study

five female artists 2

This post is a collaboration with Jennifer Dasal from the ArtCurious Podcast, in which we’ve both taken art historian Linda Nochlin’s 1971 article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and talked about it from new, contemporary perspectives. Go check out Jennifer’s episode here!

It’s easy for the average person to name one or two famous artists throughout history. Most can probably even manage nine or ten. But specify female artists, and things get a lot more difficult.

Even when people can name a few female artists, there’s usually only a small repertoire that gets repeated over and over: Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, Artemisia Gentileschi, Mary Cassatt, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marina Abramović. Only a handful of female artists have become famous enough to become (somewhat) household names. Why is that? Why have there been no great women artists? That’s the famous art historical question I’ll be answering today, by looking at five specific women artists – along with five gender-related reasons for why they’ve been left out of art history.

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Artist Feature: Who Was Osman Hamdi Bey?

An old-fashioned, black and white photograph of Osman Hamdi Bey from the nineteenth century. The photograph depicts an older bearded man wearing a suit, glasses and a fez.

Movement/Style: Academic art

Country: Turkey (Ottoman Empire)

Years: 1842 – 1910

Well, who was he?

Osman Hamdi Bey had many roles – museum director/curator, academician, archaeologist, administrator – but here, I want to focus on his art. Hamdi Bey came from Istanbul (part of the Ottoman Empire at the time) and studied art in Paris, adopting a European academic art style.

What’s important about Hamdi Bey’s work is that it shows a very different version of Islam, the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East than what was portrayed in European Orientalist paintings at the time. While European painters were fascinated with Islam and the Middle East, falsely depicting it as a world of unbridled eroticism, savagery and exoticism, Hamdi Bey painted scenes that were more in line with reality. A common line of thinking among art historians is that Hamdi Bey was in some ways “speaking back to” or subverting European Orientalist paintings.

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Academic Art in the 19th Century: What Exactly Were the Impressionists Rebelling Against?

800px-Odalisque

Odalisque (1874), Jules Joseph Lefebvre. Lefebvre frequently exhibited his works at the Paris Salon, and is a good example of 19th century Academic art.

Reader Question: “It has always struck me that the Impressionists were in their time not considered as what you could call “officially acceptable painters”, and that for instance the yearly Salon in Paris consecrating the best painters of the year regularly refused their paintings (hence the “Salon des Refusés). Could you enlighten us about who were the official painters of the time and give some examples of their works?” – asked by Myriam

Thanks for this question, because it’s one of my favourite topics! It’s fascinating how the Impressionists, who were initially excluded by the institutional art world, are now much more famous than any of the artists that exhibited regularly in the Salon. These artists really reflect the most widespread tastes, aesthetics and ideas of their time. Despite this popularity, however, most of them have now drifted into obscurity.

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Where were all the female Abstract Expressionists?

Abstract painting with blue shapes on a black background. A mix of large rectangular blocks and smaller curvilinear shapes.

Blue & Black (1951 – 53), by female Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner

Reader question: “I wonder if there have been women engaging in abstract expressionist art and if we maybe only don’t know them because Clement Greenberg forgot to tell us about them?” – asked by Natascha

Short answer: Yes! There were plenty of women engaging in Abstract Expressionist art that simply never gained the fame and recognition that their male counterparts did. Perhaps more so than any other art movement (except for maybe Neoclassicism and Minimalism), Abstract Expressionism has always been regarded as a highly masculinised movement. While it’s true that female artists were often systematically excluded and/or marginalised within the movement (hint: most of them used male pseudonyms), they were definitely there, and deserve as much attention as the men.

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Why was Cimabue so Important?

A Medieval-style painting of the Madonna sitting on a golden throne holding the Christ child. She is surrounded by four angels on either side, and below her throne there are four bearded men in robes. Golden halos surround the heads of each figure in the painting.

Maestà di Santa Trinità (1280–1285), Cimabue

Reader question: “Consider explaining how or why Cimabue is considered important—what were his influences on art and WHY was he considered great? Why is this perfectionist trait important? Did his pride influence others?” – asked by Eric

Cimabue was an Italian (more specifically, a Florentine) painter who was active in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, right before the Renaissance period started. As you correctly write, he is considered to be a very important figure in European art history. If I were to explain why, I would say that it’s for these two main reasons:

  1. He was the teacher of Giotto, considered to be the first truly great Renaissance painter, and
  2. He is seen as a kind of “transitional” artist between the Medieval and the Renaissance periods.

You’re also correct in that there are anecdotes suggesting that he was a “haughty and proud” artist who would destroy his work if there were any flaws in it. Before explaining why that legacy is so important, though, let’s look at why being Giotto’s teacher is such a big deal.

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