Painted Figure with Lyre

Painted Figure with Lyre

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Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione
(1514-15) Louvre, Paris. One of
the greatest portrait paintings by
the High Renaissance genius Raphael.

Paintings are traditionally divided into five categories or 'genres'. The establishment of these genres and their relative status in relation to one other, stems from the philosophy of arts promoted by the great European Academies of Fine Art, like the Royal Academy in London, and the influential French Academy of Fine Arts (Academie des Beaux-Arts).

The five categories of fine art painting, listed in order of their official ranking or importance, are as follows:

1. History Painting
Religious, historical or allegorical work, with a moral message.
2. Portrait Art
Includes individual, group or self-portraits.
3. Genre Painting
Scenes of everyday life.
4. Landscape Painting
Paintings whose principal content is a scenic view.
5. Still Life Painting
An arrangement of domestic objects or everyday items.


Lower Norwood under Snow (1870) National Gallery, London.
Camille Pissarro. One of the famous
Impressionist landscape paintings of
the 19th century French School.


Bouquet of Flowers (1884)
By Ivan Kramskoy.
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
One of the great still-lifes of
19th century Russian painting.

Why Were Paintings Ranked?

This 'hierarchy of genres' was adopted as the main agenda for "academic art" because it reflected Italian Renaissance values about what was the 'best' or 'noblest' type of art. In Italy, where a great deal of art was commissioned by the Church for public display inside churches, large-scale paintings with a moral or uplifting message were considered the highest form of art. Whereas landscape and still lifes typically contained no humans and thus no moral message.

This Renaissance ranking system, which formed the basis of the official "academic art" taught in European and later American academies of fine art, was not seriously challenged until the 19th century, despite the fact that the Old Masters of Northern Europe (that is, those living in Flanders, Holland, Germany, Britain and Scandinavia) developed quite different painting traditions and methods from those in Italy and Spain. For example, from 1520 onwards, Northern Europe rejected Rome and adopted the Protestant faith instead. And since Protestant religious leaders totally rejected the idea of decorating their churches with expensive works of art, Northern artists were forced to turn to middle-class patrons, who wanted small scale paintings - portraits and still lifes, as well as genre paintings - to hang in their homes.

This switch was further encouraged by the fact that the North European climate, being damper, was less suitable for fresco painting and more suitable for oil painting, which was the ideal medium for the detailed Dutch Realism style of art.

The main reason why the ranking system became so unpopular among artists during the 19th century, was because of the way the system was applied. Academies (notably the French Academy) were conservative institutions who followed rigid, unchanging teaching practices, and insisted that all artists follow a detailed set of conventions (relating to theme, composition, colours, finish etc.) when creating a work of art. Penalties for non-conformers included exclusion from the Academy's annual "Salon", a fate which made it impossible to pursue a career as an artist. Furthermore, this unyielding approach to aesthetics made no concessions to new movements, such as Romanticism or Realism, or to developing genres such as landscape and genre painting. By the mid-19th century, debate raged between advocates of traditionalist academic art and their more open-minded critics.

Famous Paintings in Each Category

Traditionally the most-respected of all the genres, "history painting" is not limited to pictures depicting 'historical scenes'. The term derives from the Italian word "istoria", meaning narrative (story), and refers to paintings showing the exemplary deeds and struggles of moral figures. It includes Christian imagery involving Biblical figures, as well as mythological painting involving mythical or pagan divinities, and real-life historical figures. History paintings - traditionally large-scale public works - aim to elevate the morals of the community.

Famous History Paintings

Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-1319)

Stroganoff Madonna and Child (1300)
Tempera and gold on wood, Metropolitan Museum of New York.
Maesta Altarpiece (1308-1311)
Tempera and gold on wood, Siena Cathedral Museum.

Scrovegni Chapel Frescoes (c.1303-10)
Fresco painting, Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua.
- The Betrayal of Christ (Kiss of Judas) (1305)
- Lamentation of Christ (1305)

Robert Campin (c.1378-1444)

Seilern Triptych (1410)
Oils/gold leaf on panel, Courtauld Institute, London.
Merode Altarpiece (c.1425)
Oil on panel, Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York.

Limbourg Brothers (fl.1390-1416)

Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1413)
Gouache on vellum, Musee Conde, Chantilly.

Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441)

Ghent Altarpiece (1425-32)
Oil on wood, St Bavo Cathedral, Ghent.

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475)

Battle of San Romano (1438-55) (HISTORICAL)
Tempera on panel, National Gallery London Uffizi Florence Louvre Paris.

Tommaso Masaccio (1401-28)

Brancacci Chapel frescoes (1424-8)
Fresco painting, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.
Holy Trinity (1428)
Fresco painting, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

Piero Della Francesca (1415-92)

Flagellation of Christ (1450-60)
Tempera on panel, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino.

Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c.1470-80)
Tempera on panel, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

Hans Memling (c.1433-94)

Last Judgment Triptych (1471)
Oil on panel, Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk.
Donne Triptych (1480)
Oil on panel, National Gallery, London.

Hugo Van Der Goes (1440-1482)

Portinari Altarpiece (1479)
Oil on wood, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)

La Primavera (1483) (ALLEGORICAL painting)
Tempera on poplar panel, Uffizi, Florence.
Birth of Venus (1486) (ALLEGORICAL painting)
Tempera on canvas, Uffizi, Florence.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Virgin of the Rocks (1483-5)
Oil on panel, Louvre, Paris.
The Last Supper (1495㫺) (Il Cenacolo or L'Ultima Cena)
Mixed media/oil and tempera, Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

Matthias Grunewald (c.1475-1528)

The Isenheim Altarpiece (c.1515)
Oil on wood panel, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar.

Michelangelo (1475-1564)

Genesis Fresco (1508-12)
Fresco painting, Ceiling of Sistine Chapel, Rome.
Creation of Adam (1511-12)
Fresco, Sistine Chapel, Rome.
Last Judgment Fresco (1536-41)
Fresco painting, Altar Wall of Sistine Chapel, Rome.

School of Athens (Scuola di Atene) (1509-11) (HISTORICAL)
Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican.
Sistine Madonna (1513-14)
Oil on canvas, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.
Transfiguration (1518-20)
Oil on panel, Pinacoteca Apostolica, Vatican.

Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18)
Oil/panel, Saint Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569)

Netherlandish Proverbs (1559)
Oil on oak panel, Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin.
Massacre of the Innocents (c.1565-7)
Oil/panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Supper at Emmaus (1601-2)
Oil and tempera on canvas, National Gallery, London.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)

The Oath of the Horatii (1785)
Louvre Museum, Paris.
Death of Marat (1793)
Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels.

Portrait art includes pictures of people, deities or mythological figures in human form. The genre includes group-portraits as well as those of individuals. A portrait of an individual may be face-only, or head and shoulders, or full-body. Academic portraiture is executed according to certain conventions, concerning dress, the position of hands and other details. This genre was practised by artists of almost all movements, typically in a true-to-life or 'realist style. Ninteenth century portraits also mirrored the realist style of the day, while later we see a number of fine Impressionist portraits, along with even more colourful Expressionist portraits, including the portraits painted by Picasso.

Famous Examples of Portraiture:

Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441)

Man in a Red Turban (1433)
Oil on wood, National Gallery, London.
Arnolfini Portrait (1434)
Oil on wood, National Gallery, London.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Lady with an Ermine (1490)
Oil on panel, Czartoryski Museum, Krakow.
Mona Lisa (1503-06)
Oil on wood, Louvre, Paris.

Pope Leo X with Cardinals (1518)
Oil on panel, Galleria Palatina, Pitti Palace, Florence.

Pope Paul III with his Grandsons (1546)
Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.

Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)
Oil on canvas, Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Night Watch (1642)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Portrait of Jan Six (1654)
Private Collection, Amsterdam.
Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild (1662)
Oil on canvas Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Jan Vermeer (1632-1675)

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Head of a Girl with a Turban) (1665)
Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Girl with a Red Hat (c.1666-1667)
Oil/panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

NOTE: Painters noted for their "self portraits" include: the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), the Dutch genius Rembrandt (1606-69), the tragic 19th century expressionist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90), the short-lived neurotic Austrian prodigy Egon Schiele (1890-1918), the moody German painter Max Beckmann (1884-1950) and the contemporary Anglo-Irish artist Francis Bacon (1909-92).

"Genre painting" or "genre-scenes" refers to pictures that portray ordinary scenes of everyday life. Subjects include domestic settings, interiors, celebrations, tavern scenes, markets and other street situations. Whatever the precise content, the scene is typically portrayed in a non-idealized way, and characters are not endowed with any heroic or dramatic attributes. The foremost example of this category of art was the school of Dutch Realist Genre Painting of the 17th century.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569)

Netherlandish Proverbs (1559)
Oil on oak panel, Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin.
Hunters in the Snow (1565)
Oil on oak panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Peasant Wedding Feast (1568)
Oil on oak panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Jan Vermeer (1632-1675)

The Little Street (c.1657-58)
Oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Soldier and a Laughing Girl (c.1658)
Frick Collection, New York.
The Milkmaid (c.1658-1660)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Woman Holding a Balance (1662-3)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
Woman with a Pearl Necklace (c.1663)
Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin.
The Art of Painting: An Allegory (c.1666-73)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
The Lacemaker (c.1669-1670)
Louvre, Paris.

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)

Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717)
Louvre, Paris and Charlottenburg, Berlin.

Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75)

Edward Hopper (1882-1967)

Hotel Room (1931)
Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation, Lugano.
Nighthawks (1942)
Art Institute of Chicago.

The term "landscape painting" comes from the Dutch word 'landschap', meaning 'a patch of ground', and denotes any picture whose main subject is the depiction of a scenic view, such as fields, hillscapes, mountain-scapes, trees, riverscapes, forests, sea views and seascapes. Many famous landscape paintings include human figures, but their presence should be a secondary element in the composition.

Landscape as an independent genre was pioneered by the 17th century school of Dutch painting, and later developed by the likes of Constable and Turner of the English school of landscape painting, who also pioneered outdoor painting. The latter was mastered by Theodore Rousseau, Millet and other members of the Barbizon school of Landscape Painting, who were active around Fontainebleu south of Paris. In Russia, meanwhile, landscape painting was taken up by the Wanderers Art Movement, and then in France by the world famous school of Impressionism led by Monet, Renpir, Pissarro and Sisley.

Famous Landscape Paintings

Note: For an explanation of modern landscapes by Monet, Turner and the like, please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

John Constable (1776-1837)

Boatbuilding Near Flatford Mill (1815)
Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
The Hay Wain (1821)
National Gallery, London.

Burning of the House of Lords & Commons (1835)
Philadelphia Art Museum.
Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842)
Tate Collection.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875)

Ville d'Avray (c.1867)
Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

American Lake Scene (1844)
Detroit Institute of Arts.
For more, see: Hudson River School of Landscape Painting (1825-75).

George Caleb Bingham (1811-79)

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845)
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
See also: Luminism (1850-75).

Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75)

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900)

Cotopaxi (1862)
Detroit Institute of Arts.

Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Poppies Near Argenteuil (1873)
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
Water Lilies (1903) Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio.

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)

Lower Norwood under Snow (1870)
National Gallery, London.
The Vegetable Garden (1879)
Hermitage, St Petersburg.
For more, see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting (1870-1910)

Alfred Sisley (1839-1899)

Misty Morning (1874)
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
The Road at Louveciennes, Winter (1874)
Private Collection.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

Wheat Field with Cypresses, Saint-Remy (1889)
National Gallery, London.
See also: History of Expressionist Painting (1880-1930).

Childe Hassam (1859-1935)

Boston Common at Twilight (1886)
Museum of Fine arts, Boston.
For more, see: American Impressionism (1880-1900).

A "still life painting" typically comprises an arrangement of objects (such as flowers or any group of mundane objects) laid out on a table. It derives from the Dutch word 'Stilleven', a term used in 17th century Dutch painting to describe pictures previously entitled 'Fruit' or 'Flower Pieces'. A form of still life painting that contains biblical or moral messages, is known as Vanitas painting - as practiced by exponents of Dutch Realism like Harmen van Steenwyck (1612-56), Pieter Claesz (1597-1660), Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-83), Willem Kalf (1622-93) and Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1681).

Famous Still Life Paintings

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)

A Young Hare (1502)
Watercolour painting, Albertina, Vienna.

Great Piece of Turf (1503)
Watercolour painting, Albertina, Vienna.

Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-83)

Still-Life with Lobster and Nautilus Cup (1634)
Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart.

Harmen van Steenwyck (1612-56)

An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life (1640)
National Gallery, London.

Still Life with Chinese Porcelain Jar (1662)
Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin.

Jean Chardin (1699-1779)

The Silver Tureen (1728)
Metropolitian Museum of Art, New York.

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97)

Still Life with Goldfish (1974)
Oil and magna on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

• For more information about the traditional classification of paintings, see: Homepage.

Victorian Wash Stand

This nicely accented Victorian wash stand with painted panels has a back shelf attached to the stand that coordinates with the paint scheme. Front doors open to reveal a shelving area. The condition that was listed by the auction house was good to very good. Measurements are 35 1/2 inches by 29 inches by 15 inches. This piece sold for $210 by Morphy Auctions in February 2012.

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There are primarily two categories of antique tables: accent tables and dining tables. The following list includes the most common types of antique tables that you are likely to encounter in the collectibles world. Though the forms may date back centuries, most remain common today and can be found in both antique and modern versions.​

Butler's table: This type of accent table originated as a light, portable type of furniture during the 18th century. It consists of a tray and a folding stand. It is the antique version of the current-day TV tray table.​

Butterfly table: This drop-leaf, gate-leg table is a smaller table used for dining that likely developed in America at the turn of the 18th century. The term "butterfly" refers to the wing-shaped braces that hold the leaves up when they are in use.

Console or pier table: A console table has one plain, straight side that is placed up against a wall. The other side of the table can be quite ornate. Console or pier tables of the late 17th century were accent tables that were attached to the wall, which were visually reminiscent of a pier that juts out from one end of land into the water.

Demilune table: The name of this accent table refers to its shape. Demilune means "half-moon" in French. This table is shaped like a semicircle or has a leaf that drops down to form a full circle when raised. These tables were stored against a wall and were moved into the room for serving as needed.

Gate-leg table: This useful drop-leaf dining table has legs that swing out (like a gate) to support leaves when a larger table is needed. Often used in smaller settings, these tables can be stored against a wall and used as accent tables when they are not being used for dining.

Guéridon table: These mid-17th century French small tables were originally used as candle stands, many times in pairs, and often with columnar or bodily figure pedestals. They usually have a circular or oval tray-like top. The term "gueridon" was a word describing the African servants of the time, which were also sometimes used as the bodily figures in the table design.

Hutch table: Often called chair tables, the tops flip up and lock so that the tabletop is the seat back and the base is the seat. The base often has a drawer for storage, thus the reference to "hutch" in its name. These dining tables dated back to the Middle Ages, though this form was perfected in the early 1600s and remained popular in England and America through the early 19th century as space-saving, multi-purpose furniture.

Kang table: This type of long, low accent table can be used as a modern cocktail table. Dating back to the Ming dynasty of the 1300s, they were originally used in China on a kang or a raised platform for sleeping or relaxing.

Pembroke table: A Pembroke table is a small accent table that is portable with small leaves that fold down on each side. Originally dating to mid-1700s England, these tables are usually rectangular with rounded edges. The petite leaves allow for versatility in use as an end table or a small serving table when they are raised.

Tea table: Tea accent tables were used for tea presentation at a time when tea was an expensive commodity prior to the American Revolution. These small, square tables were stored out of the way and then moved to the center of the room when it was time for tea service.

Piecrust table: Piecrust accent tables usually have three legs and round tops. The wood along the edge of the top is crimped in a decorative way, resembling a pie crust. Piecrust tables were popular during the Queen Anne and Chippendale periods and often used to serve tea.

Trestle table: This type of table dates back to the Middle Ages. They have rectangular tops sitting on two or more trestles. At the turn of the 20th century, there was a resurgence of this style during the American Arts and Crafts Movement. These tables are common today in farmhouse-style or country kitchen-style rooms.

Figure Painting

The phrase 'figure painting' is an imprecise alternative to the equally vague umbrella term 'figurative painting' which itself commonly refers to a type of representational art, based on figure drawing, in which the focus is on the realism of the human form without encroaching on the more 'artificial' genre of portraiture. Put simply, figurative paintings typically include depictions of people in informal situations, with no special emphasis on the face.

Even so, figurative works encompass a wide range of different styles, including the Impressionism of Edgar Degas, the expressionism of Egon Schiele and the contemporary realism of Lucian Freud. The largest single category of figurative painting is the Nude. Contemporary expressionist figuration is sometimes called 'neo-figurative art'.

Life Drawing: the Basis of Figure Painting

Life drawing is the classical method of learning how to draw, which appears in the curriculum of most fine art schools. Students study and draw the body of a live model, typically nude and positioned on a raised platform. Most fine art experts consider this to be the truest and most authentic way of learning how to depict the three-dimensional shape and contours of the human body, and it is no surprise that most of the greatest figure painters were academy-trained.

Students may use a variety of mediums, including pencil, charcoal, crayon, chalks, pastels, pen and ink or even paint. During the 1900s, Dublin Metropolitan School of Art ran its first life class, taught by the academic portraitist William Orpen.

Human Figures in Paintings

There is no independent genre of 'figure painting'. Painting genres are limited to: history paintings, landscapes, portraits, genre-scenes (ordinary daily situations), and still life. However, all these genres may include figurative elements, indeed the history of art is full of famous painters whose main focus was on painting the human form.

Seated Woman (1920) by Picasso.
For more details, please see:
Neoclassical Paintings by Picasso

For an guide to the aesthetic and
classification issues concerning
fine/decorative/applied arts, see:
Art Definition, Meaning.

Fulcrum (1997-99) by Jenny Saville,
noted for her postmodernist and
sometimes disturbing depictions
of obese naked women.

For a brief survey of the tradition
of drawing from the nude, see:
Female Nudes in Art History (Top 20)
Male Nudes in Art History (Top 10).

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

Stone Age cave painters were history's first primitive figurative artists, incorporating a wealth of crude representations of human hunters. They were followed by Egyptian painters who painted innumerable figurative works, as did artists from ancient Greece, Etruria and Rome. Unfortunately, most of the frescos from Classical Antiquity have perished.

Great Figure Painters of the Renaissance

Most Italian Renaissance Old Masters were supremely skilled in the technique of figure painting. For example, Leonardo da Vinci's detailed knowledge of anatomy, his skill at representing human physiognomy, and how expressions and gestures reflect emotion, and his use of sfumato to create subtle shading, are all reflected in famous figure paintings such as: The Last Supper, and The Virgin of the Rocks, among others.

Michelangelo was responsible for possibly the most spectacular and influential of all figure paintings in the history of art - the biblical images on the ceiling and altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The ceiling fresco alone comprised over 300 figures. (For details, see: Sistine Chapel Frescoes.)

Outside Italy, the greatest Renaissance figure painters were Roger van der Weyden (Flanders) and Matthias Grunewald (Germany) whose devotional altarpieces set new standards in the depiction of the human body.

Figurative painters of the 16th century included Caravaggio - the first artist to depict major religious figures as 'ordinary people' - see, for instance works like The Death of the Virgin (1601-6) - as well as the great 'set-piece' painter Paolo Veronese, noted for Wedding Feast at Cana (1563) and Feast in the House of Levi (1573).

Figure Painters (1600-1800)

During the 17th century Baroque era, the tradition of figuration was kept up by Old Masters like Rubens, and the Spanish school led by Velazquez. In Italy, Poussin produced masterpieces like The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1634-8). The 18th century witnessed wonderful human forms created by William Hogarth, (see also English Figurative Painting) and the academic classicist J.A.D. Ingres - see his Valpincon Bather (1808).

Modern Figure Painting

Edouard Manet, the 19th century French Impressionist artist was one of the great modern figure painters. His subjects included: prostitutes, drinkers, beggars and singers, as well as the Parisian bourgeoisie. Among his famous figure paintings is Olympia (1863). Manet's artistic influence on his contemporaries such as Paul Gauguin, and Paul Cezanne was profound, as it was on later artists like Pablo Picasso.

Ilya Repin, the prolific Russian/Ukrainian realist genre-painter and portrait artist, noted for his precisely coloured and composed canvases of peasants, revolutionaries, religious processions and celebrities.

Thomas Eakins, the American figurative realist, subject-painter and academic portraitist noted for Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871) and The Gross Clinic (1875).

Edgar Degas, the French Impressionist artist and talented draughtsman, was another master of the painted human form. Himself a student of Michelangelo's and Manet's works, and a keen photographer, his paintings include a wide array of ballet dancers, portraits of friends, ordinary Parisian women and female nudes. He became especially interested in how a person's physiognomy, posture, dress, and other attributes, reveal their social status or occupation. Among his many virtuoso figure paintings, are: Dancers at The Bar (1888), and Woman in the Bath (1886).

NOTE: Cezanne's work The Large Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) (1894-1905) was another highly influential figure painting, which featured female nudes in a landscape setting. Part of the 'classical revival', it had a major impact on soon-to-be Cubists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

20th Century Figure Painting

Pablo Picasso was one of the most talented figure painters of the early 20th century. See, in particular, works like: Garcon a la Pipe (1905, private collection), Girl In a Chemise (1905, Tate Collection) and Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Although responsible for a good deal of abstract art, Picasso was also a key figure in the Classical Revival in modern art (1900-30): see, for example, Two Nudes (1906, MOMA, New York) Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920, Paris) Large Bather (1921, Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris) and Two Women Running on the Beach (1922, Musee Picasso, Paris). Another neoclassicist was Fernand Leger (1881-1955), whose modernist works included The Mechanic (1920, National Gallery of Canada) Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) (1921, Museum of Modern Art, New York) Nudes against a Red Background (1923, Kunstmuseum, Basel) and Two Sisters (1935, Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin). Aside from Picasso, the young Viennese artist Egon Schiele (1890-1918) was perhaps the first truly outstanding figure-painter of the century, noted for his troubling and occasionally grotesque self portraits. Then came the equally controversial Balthus, who focused on erotic figurative depictions of young girls 1930-55.

The abstract wing of the figurative tradition is exemplified by the Dutch-born American artist Willem de Kooning (1904-97), in his Woman series, an early example of which is Seated Woman (1944, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Another of the great modern figure painters is Lucian Freud, the German-born British artist and grandson of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. His main subject was the human body, usually depicted nude in contrived positions. Rarely exhibited, his canvases featuring the human body include masterpieces like: Naked Man With Rat (1977) Naked Girl With Egg (1980) Bella (1982) and Painter and Model (1986).

The latest word on figure painting, photo-realism is a modern art movement led by American artist Richard Estes (b.1932) and Chuck Close. Photo-realist painters create paintings that resemble colour photographs but are in fact meticulously executed paintings. Their portrait art and figure paintings are amazingly life-like.

Da Vinci Musical Code Seen in 'Last Supper'

ROME (AP) — It's a new Da Vinci code, but this time it could be for real. An Italian musician and computer technician claims to have uncovered musical notes encoded in Leonardo Da Vinci's "Last Supper," raising the possibility that the Renaissance genius might have left behind a somber composition to accompany the scene depicted in the 15th-century wall painting.

"It sounds like a requiem," Giovanni Maria Pala said. "It's like a soundtrack that emphasizes the passion of Jesus."

Painted from 1494 to 1498 in Milan's Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the "Last Supper" vividly depicts a key moment in the Gospel narrative: Jesus' last meal with the 12 Apostles before his arrest and crucifixion, and the shock of Christ's followers as they learn that one of them is about to betray him.

Pala, a 45-year-old musician who lives near the southern Italian city of Lecce, began studying Leonardo's painting in 2003, after hearing on a news program that researchers believed the artist and inventor had hidden a musical composition in the work.

"Afterward, I didn't hear anything more about it," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "As a musician, I wanted to dig deeper."

In a book released Friday in Italy, Pala explains how he took elements of the painting that have symbolic value in Christian theology and interpreted them as musical clues.

Pala first saw that by drawing the five lines of a musical staff across the painting, the loaves of bread on the table as well as the hands of Jesus and the Apostles could each represent a musical note.

This fit the relation in Christian symbolism between the bread, representing the body of Christ, and the hands, which are used to bless the food, he said. But the notes made no sense musically until Pala realized that the score had to be read from right to left, following Leonardo's particular writing style.

In his book — "La Musica Celata" ("The Hidden Music") — Pala also describes how he found what he says are other clues in the painting that reveal the slow rhythm of the composition and the duration of each note.

The result is a 40-second "hymn to God" that Pala said sounds best on a pipe organ, the instrument most commonly used in Leonardo's time for spiritual music. A short segment taken from a CD of the piece contained a Bach-like passage played on the organ. The tempo was almost painfully slow but musical.

Alessandro Vezzosi, a Leonardo expert and the director of a museum dedicated to the artist in his hometown of Vinci, said he had not seen Pala's research but that the musician's hypothesis "is plausible."

Vezzosi said previous research has indicated the hands of the Apostles in the painting can be substituted with the notes of a Gregorian chant, though so far no one had tried to work in the bread loaves.

"There's always a risk of seeing something that is not there, but it's certain that the spaces (in the painting) are divided harmonically," he told the AP. "Where you have harmonic proportions, you can find music."

Vezzosi also noted that though Leonardo was more noted for his paintings, sculptures and visionary inventions, he was also a musician. Da Vinci played the lyre and designed various instruments. His writings include some musical riddles, which must be read from right to left.

Reinterpretations of the "Last Supper" have popped up ever since "The Da Vinci Code" fascinated readers and movie-goers with suggestions that one of the apostles sitting on Jesus' right is Mary Magdalene, that the two had a child and that their bloodline continues.

Pala stressed that his discovery does not reveal any supposed dark secrets of the Catholic Church or of Leonardo, but instead shows the artist in a light far removed from the conspiratorial descriptions found in fiction.

"A new figure emerges — he wasn't a heretic like some believe," Pala said. "What emerges is a man who believes, a man who really believes in God."

Navajo Sandpaintings

The masks, prayersticks, and sandpainting altars that Navajo singers used were of Pueblo origin, but were reworked into distinctly Navajo forms Navajo Yeibichai--the dancers who embody Navajo Holy People--resemble Pueblo katsinam.

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There are two schools of ceremonial blanket-makers -those who endeavor to make each rug a perfect replica of a sand-painting and so avoid the anger of the gods, and those who purposely change the details of the design in order to escape the curse. The members of the first school are medicine-men, or their women relatives, who perform elaborate ceremonies to placate the gods. The others are modern weavers who have cast off in large measure the ancient beliefs or have yielded to the temptation of greater profits. For to the average Navajo there is a curse attached to the making of a sand-painting blanket.

Navajo Sandpaintings, also called dry paintings, are called "places where the gods come and go" in the Navajo language. They are used in curing ceremonies in which the gods' help is requested for harvests and healing.

The figures in sand paintings are symbolic representations of a story in Navajo mythology. They depict objects like the sacred mountains where the gods live, or legendary visions, or they illustrate dances or chants performed in rituals.

Sandpaintings are but one rite in a ceremonial. From the distinct set of paintings that belong to a specific chant, the chanter selects those that will best heal the patient, never using the entire repertoire of paintings on a single occasion.

In the two-night form of a chant, one sandpainting is made, while the last four days of a nine-night ceremonial would have sandpaintings.

After its sanctification, the patient sits on the painting while the chanter performs a ritual to enhance the absorption of its healing power. Immediately afterward, the remains of the painting are taken outside to an area north of the hogan, where they are returned to the earth.

According to Navajo belief, a sandpainting heals because the ritual image attracts and exalts the Holy People serves as a pathway for the mutual exchange of illness and the healing power of the Holy People identifies the patient with the Holy People it depicts and creates a ritual reality in which the patient and the supernatural dramatically interact, reestablishing the patient's correct relationship with the world of the Holy People ( GriffinPierce 1992:43).

For the Navajo, the sandpainting is a dynamic, living, sacred entity that enables the patient to transform his or her mental and physical state by focusing on the powerful mythic symbols that re-create the chantway odyssey of the storys protagonist, causing those events to live again in the present.

The performative power of sandpainting creation and ritual use reestablish the proper, orderly placement of the forces of life, thus restoring correct relations between the patient and those forces upon which the patient's spiritual and physical health depend. The sandpainting works its healing power by reestablishing the patient's sense of connectedness to all of life ( Griffin-Pierce 1991:66).


A description of the four great pictures drawn in "The Mountain Chant" ceremonies has been deferred until all might be described together. Their relations to one another rendered this the most desirable course to pursue. The preparation of the ground and of the colors, the application of the sacred pollen, and some other matters have been already considered.

First Picture. The picture of the first day (Plate XV) is said to represent the visit of Dsilyi‘ Neyáni to the home of the snakes at Qo¢estsò.

In the center of the picture was a circular concavity, about six inches in diameter, intended to represent water, presumably the house of water mentioned in the myth. In all the other pictures where water was represented a small bowl was actually sunk in the ground and filled with water, which water was afterwards sprinkled with powdered charcoal to give the impression of a flat, dry surface.

Why the bowl of water was omitted in this picture I do not know, but a medicine man of a different fraternity from that of the one who drew the picture informed me that with men of his school the bowl filled with water was used in the snake picture as well as in the others.

Closely surrounding this central depression are four parallelograms about four inches by ten inches in the original pictures. The half nearer the center is red the outer half is blue they are bordered with narrow lines of white. The same figures are repeated in other paintings.

The Second Picture is said to be a representation of the painting, which the prophet saw in the home of the bears in the Carrizo Mountains (paragraph 40). In the center of this figure is the bowl of water covered with black powder, to which I referred before. The edge of the bowl is adorned with sunbeams, and external to it are the four ca‘bitlol, or sunbeam rafts, on which seem to stand four gods, or yays.

The Third Picture commemorates the visit of Dsilyi‘ Neyáni to Çaçò‘-behogan, or “Lodge of Dew” (paragraph 56). To indicate the great height of the Bitsès-ninéz the figures are twice the length of any in the other pictures, except the rainbows, and each is clothed in four garments, one above the other, for no one garment, they say, can be made long enough to cover such giant forms.

Their heads all point to the east, instead of pointing in different directions, as in the other pictures. The Navajo relate, as already told (paragraph 56), that this is in obedience to a divine mandate but probably there is a more practical reason, which is this: if they had the cruciform arrangement there would not be room on, the floor of the lodge for the figures and at the same time for the shaman, assistants, and spectators.

Economy of space is essential but, although drawn nearly parallel to one another, the proper order of the cardinal points is not lost sight of. The form immediately north of the center of the picture is done first, in white, and represents the east. That immediately next to it on the south comes second in order, is painted in blue, and represents the south.

The one next below that is in yellow, and depicts the goddess who stood in the west of the House of Dew-Drops. The figure in the extreme north is drawn last of all, in black, and belongs to the north. As I have stated before, these bodies are first made naked and afterwards clothed.

The exposed chests, arms, and thighs display the colors of which the entire bodies were originally composed. The glòï (weasel, Putorius) is sacred to these goddesses. Two of these creatures are shown in the east, guarding the entrance to the lodge.

The Fourth Picture represents the kátso-yisçàn, or great plumed arrows. These arrows are the especial great mystery, the potent healing charm of this dance. The picture is supposed to be a fac simile of a representation of these weapons, shown to the prophet when he visited the abode of the Tsilkè-¢igini, or young men gods, where he first saw the arrows .

There are eight arrows. Four are in the center, lying parallel to one another—two pointing east and two others, alternate, pointing west. The picture is bordered by the other four, which have the same relative positions and directions as the bounding serpents in the first picture. The shafts are all of the same white tint, no attention being paid to the colors of the cardinal points yet in drawing and erasing the picture the cardinal points are duly honored.

Among the central arrows, the second from the top, or north margin of the design, is that of the east it is drawn and erased first. The next below it is the arrow of the south the third is that of the west. The one on top belongs to the north it is drawn and erased last.

The heads are painted red to represent the red stone points used the fringed margins show the irregularities of their edges. The plumes at the butt are indicated, as are also the strings by which the plumes are tied on and the notches to receive the bowstring.

Was Emperor Nero Really as Monstrous as History Suggests?

From ancient texts to modern TV shows, depictions of the Roman emperor Nero have never been flattering. He’s known for murdering family members and strangers alike, as well as starting the Great Fire of Rome that destroyed much of the city in 64 A.D.—not to mention forcing audiences to sit through his terrible singing. But a new exhibition at the British Museum, “Nero: The Man Behind the Myth,” asks visitors to rethink their perceptions of one of the most powerful people in the ancient world.

As Jill Lawless reports for the Associated Press (AP), the show starts with an image from the 1951 film Quo Vadis. The emperor strums a lyre, evoking the famous expression “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” Then, visitors learn that this story, like many tales of the emperor’s terrible behavior, is a myth.

“Our goal here is to show that this, however popular, image is actually based on very, very biased accounts and therefore we should challenge it,” curator Francesca Bologna tells the AP. “The Nero story is about how we should approach information, how we should always approach our sources critically. This is relevant for Nero, it’s relevant for historians, archaeologists, it is relevant for everyday people living their everyday lives.”

Among the artifacts on view are statues, weapons, jewelry and graffiti. Many come from the London cultural institution’s collection, but others are on loan from museums across western Europe.

The great-great-grandson of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, Nero came to power in 54 A.D., when he was just 17 years old. He succeeded his stepfather Claudius—who, according to the exhibition, was probably not poisoned by Nero’s mother, as many stories suggest.

Fresco painting of a seated actor dressed as a king and female figure with a small painting of a mask, dated to between 30 and 40 A.D. (Ministero della Cultura / Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli)

Accounts written in the decades after the ruler’s death in 68 A.D. portray him as decadent and violent, notes Charlotte Higgins for the Guardian. The Roman biographer Suetonius wrote that Nero entertained himself by wandering the city in disguise, stabbing people and throwing their bodies into the sewers. Tacitus, the famed historian and orator, describes him killing his pregnant wife, Poppaea, by kicking her in the stomach. Other accounts focused on the emperor’s opulent lifestyle and voracious sexual appetite.

Curator Thorsten Opper tells the Guardian that the writers who contributed to Nero’s awful reputation used a standard toolkit of shocking stories about sex and violence to boost their own agenda. They idealized the oligarchic Roman Republic, which ended about 80 years before Nero took power, and disapproved of populist rule by a single person. Opper explains that Nero tried to shore up his position by cultivating the support of ordinary Romans, creating anxiety among the traditional elite.

“The sources need to be seen as texts that have a clear agenda,” Opper says.

In fact, the Art Newspaper’s Maev Kennedy reports, Nero appears to have ruled well in many respects. He reformed the tax system, improved Rome’s food supply, and organized public works projects and popular entertainment like chariot races. He was more than 30 miles away from Rome when it caught fire, and in the disaster’s aftermath, he worked to rebuild the city. (Still, wrote Joshua Levine for Smithsonian magazine last year, Nero did scapegoat Christians for the fire, ordering many “burned in his own gardens, which conforms to the standard Roman legal practice of fitting the punishment to the crime.”)

The exhibition is not intended to glorify Nero. Opper tells the Art Newspaper that it’s likely the emperor murdered his mother or forced her to commit suicide. And it’s true that his grand palace, the Domus Aurea, was wildly extravagant. But Opper notes that murdering relatives and living in an opulent fashion were far from unfamiliar actions undertaken by Roman rulers.

A 17th-century sculptor restored this ancient bust of Nero, adding a cruel-looking mouth and large chin. (Musei Capitolini, Sala Imperatori, Rome)

“There was a lot of money sloshing around Nero’s Rome,” he tells the Art Newspaper. “Most of the Domus Aurea seems to have been dining rooms: lavish entertainment would have been expected of him, including hosting the entire Senate. And if you are going to invite 600 people to a banquet once a week, you are going to need a big dining room.”

“Nero: The Man Behind the Myth” places the emperor’s rule in its historical context, according to the AP. One section shows chains that bound enslaved workers forced to mine lead for the empire in Wales. During Nero’s reign, Celtic people in southern England, led by Queen Boudicca, rebelled against Roman rule the empire also faced war with the Parthian Empire, which was centered in what is now Iran.

Ultimately, facing intractable opposition from within the Roman government, Nero committed suicide at age 30. His death ended the Julio-Claudian Dynasty and led to a chaotic scramble for power known as the Year of the Four Emperors.

Accounts written by Suetonius, Tacticus and others cemented Nero’s villainous reputation for centuries. As Opper tells the Guardian, one bust in the exhibition was heavily restored in the 17th century. An artist who had clearly heard stories about the emperor’s depravity shaped the lower half of the face to create a distinctly unpleasant appearance that may or may not have much in common with the man himself.

“I am not setting out here to rehabilitate Nero as a blameless man,” Opper says to the Art Newspaper. “But I have come to the conclusion that almost every single thing we think we know about him is wrong.”

About Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for JSTOR Daily, the Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, and Vice, among others.

John Gast, American Progress, 1872

Historian Martha A. Sandweiss demonstrates how John Gast’s 1872 painting, which was widely disseminated as a commercial color print, conveys a range of ideas about the frontier in nineteenth-century America.

John Gast, American Progress, 1872.
Chromolithograph published by George A, Crofutt.
Source: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

John Gast, a Brooklyn based painter and lithographer, painted this picture in 1872 on commission for George Crofutt, the publisher of a popular series of western travel guides. Few Americans saw the actual painting, but many encountered it in reproduction. Crofutt included an engraving of it in his guidebooks and produced a large chromolithographic version for his subscribers. The painting is so rich in detail that my students—encountering it as a slide projected on a screen—usually imagine it to be a large canvas. But in fact it is tiny, just 12 3/4 x 16 3/4 inches in size.

I use this image early on in my western history classes for several reasons. First, even students with little experience in talking about visual images find it easy to talk about what they see here. Second, students quickly grasp that although the painting does not convey a realistic representation of actual events, it nonetheless expresses a powerful historical idea about the meaning of America’s westward expansion. This sparks a discussion about the ways in which ideas—whether grounded in material fact or not—can both reflect and shape human actions. Finally, after a discussion of the larger cultural ideas embodied in this image, we move to a discussion of Frederick Jackson Turner’s celebrated 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Students quickly perceive that while Turner had a way with words, his argument was not wholly original. He distilled ideas already present in American popular thought and many of them are present in this painting, painted some two decades earlier.

As students begin to describe what they see, they quickly realize that they’re looking at a kind of historical encyclopedia of transportation technologies. The simple Indian travois precedes the covered wagon and the pony express, the overland stage and the three railroad lines. The static painting thus conveys a vivid sense of the passage of time as well as of the inevitability of technological progress. The groups of human figures, read from left to right, convey much the same idea. Indians precede Euro-American prospectors, who in turn come before the farmers and settlers. The idea of progress coming from the East to the West, and the notion that the frontier would be developed by sequential waves of people (here and in Turner’s configuration, always men) was deeply rooted in American thought.

Then, of course, there is that “beautiful and charming female,” as Crofutt described her, whose diaphanous gown somehow remains attached to her body without the aid of velcro or safety pins. On her head she bears what Crofutt called “the Star of Empire.” And lest viewers still not understand her role in this vision of American destiny, he explains: “In her right hand she carries a book—common school—the emblem of education and the testimonial of our national enlightenment, while with the left hand she unfolds and stretches the slender wires of the telegraph, that are to flash intelligence throughout the land.” The Indians flee from progress, unable to adjust to the shifting tides of history. The painting hints at the past, lays out a fantastic version of an evolving present, and finally lays out a vision of the future. A static picture conveys a dynamic story.

The ideas embodied in this painting not only suggest the broad sources for Turner’s essay about the importance of the frontier in American life, they suggest that his essay reached an audience for whom these ideas were already familiar. Students often imagine the issues raised by visual images to be peripheral to the more central questions raised by literary sources. The Gast painting, however, allows one to demonstrate the ways in which painters, too, could engage large historical questions, cultural stereotypes and political ideas, by using a visual vocabulary that viewers found both familiar and persuasive.

Watch the video: the song of times. Lyre Gauloise - Tan - Atelier Skald