How To Talk About Art History

It's easier than it seems.

Tag: 1600s

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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Art History 101: The Difference Between “Genres” and “Genre Painting”

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The hunters at rest (Охотники на привале) (1871), a genre painting by Russian artist Vasily Perov

Ok, so this might get confusing. First of all, there’s a traditional hierarchy of genres in Western art history, and genre painting is actually one of those genres, even though it’s called “genre painting” which kind of makes no sense. Wait, let me back up: genres, a.k.a. categories, in Western art history are not styles (like Impressionism, Pop Art, Realism) but are instead about the types of scenes that are being painted (portrait, landscape, still life). Let me back up again: a “genre painting” is not, as you might think, a painting that fits into any one of these genres; instead, a genre painting is a type of scene and is therefore “a genre” in itself.

Let’s see if we can make sense of this.

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A Brief History of Hairless Vulvas in Art

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Object (Le déjeuner en fourrure), 1936, Méret Oppenheim. A Surrealist sculpture often interpreted as a visual pun referencing a hairy vulva, as the tea set is traditionally feminine.

Reader question: “I loved your post about penises, but what about vaginas? We think hairless vaginas started with porn, but I’ve definitely seen paintings in museums with hairless vaginas. What’s the deal? When did it all start?”

Aah, nudity in art, a subject dear to my heart. Vaginas and vulvas (with vulva referring specifically to the external genital region) in art have a quite different history than penises do, ranging from being symbols of fertility and life to being symbols of shame and impurity. As I wrote in my post on the Female Nude, hairless vulvas have been around in art for a long time. How long? At least 2,000 – 3,000 years, and maybe even since the beginning of art as we know it.

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