How To Talk About Art History

It's easier than it seems.

Category: Reader Questions (Page 1 of 3)

Why are Portraits so Important in Art History?

Oil painting on canvas depicting a portrait of a man with long brown hair, a brown mustache and small pointy brown beard. He is dressed in a red outfit with an elaborate white collar and a gold medallion hanging around his neck with a wide blue ribbon. On either side of the man, he appears again, one facing the right and once facing the left. He wears the same outfit but in pale purple and dark blue. All three versions of the man are depicted against the grey stormy background.

Anthony van Dyck, Charles I in Three Positions, 1635-1636. Oil on canvas. Royal Collection.

Reader question: “Why are portraits so important in art history? And even in museums today, some which are dedicated to portraits (like the National Portrait Gallery in London)? To me, portraits are not aesthetic or interesting, so I’m interested in your opinion on what we could appreciate about them.”

Why are portraits important? I guess it depends on how you define ‘important’, but as you said, it’s obvious that portraits are a staple of art history, with entire museums dedicated to them. Within European art history, portraits are one of the genres within the hierarchy of genres, and elsewhere, portraits have more or less always existed as representations of people from real life.

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Paleolithic vs. Neolithic Art: How and Why are They Different?

A collection of large stones in the middle of a field. The stones are set upright in a circle. Some flat stones lay on top of the others.

Stonehenge, a Neolithic monument, in Wiltshire, England.

Reader question: “Can you tell me about the changes that took place in human development from the Paleolithic through the Neolithic periods, and the ways in which art was affected by those changes?”

This is an exciting question for me, because as someone who currently works every day with contemporary visual culture, I don’t get much of a chance to look this far back in history.

As always with questions asking me to look at broad time periods or geographies, I have to start with the disclaimer that this will be an incredibly brief overview of a very complex subject (as in…thousands of years worth of history), and with some definitions:

The Paleolithic era is a period from around 3 million to around 12,000 years ago.

The Neolithic era is a period from about 12,000 to around 2,000 years ago.

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Who is the Englishman in Malevich’s ‘An Englishman in Moscow’ (1914)?

Oil painting on canvas depicting a man with green-yellow skin in a black suit and bowler hat, staring straight at the viewer. The left side of his face is covered by a large white fish. Various other images and symbols cover the man and the painting, including a lit candle, a ladder, a red spoon, a sword, and words written in the Cyrillic alphabet.

Kazimir Malevich, An Englishman in Moscow, 1914. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Reader question: “Who is the Englishman meant to be in Kazimir Malevich’s 1914 painting An Englishman in Moscow?”

Well this is quite rare: a question focusing on just a single painting! A painting that, the more you look into it, makes you want to slam your head against the desk and yell “WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?”

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3 Ways Romanticists Imbued their Landscapes with Emotions

Oil painting on canvas depicting two wooden fisherboats in a slightly wavy ocean at night. The moon is breaking through the clouds, casting a dim light on the scene.

J. M. W. Turner, Fishermen at Sea, exhibited 1796, oil on canvas, © Tate, London.

Reader question: “How did Constable and Turner decide to emphasise the emotion in their landscapes?”

Well, that’s a great question, because Constable and Turner were of course all about emphasising emotion. Constable even once wrote that painting “is with me but another word for feeling”.

For those who don’t know (or need a refresher), John Constable and J. M. W. Turner were both British landscape painters, who were alive during around the same time (end of the 18th century to the beginning of 19th century), and who are both associated with the Romanticism movement. Although they were different in many ways—with Constable often taking a more serene and pastoral approach to nature, and Turner using turbulent scenes of nature to reflect social or philosophical concepts—they both used landscape painting as a primary way of creating emotional reactions in their viewers.

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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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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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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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