Before There Was Reality T.V. There Was……….Anatomy Lessons?

“Hey honey, what do you want to do this weekend?” “Oh, I definitely want to go see Mrs. Smith dissected. I heard she had some WORK done!” This is a possible discussion between a couple during the Renaissance. (Somewhat kidding here) During that time public dissections were very popular. In fact, you might even purchase admittance to one as a marriage present. Can you imagine? You payed to gain entrance to these dissections per visit or per corpse and they lasted up to a week. Many small dissection theaters were built all over Europe to cater to this public fascination. Since the theaters were made of wood, many did not survive.

Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp by Rembrandt Van Rijn
Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp by Rembrandt Van Rijn

One such public dissection was captured for posterity. The affair would have been crowded with doctors, lawyers, intellectuals,etc. In other words, if you were important you would be there. The painting is called “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.” Dr. Nicolaes Tulp was actually a real man who was a member of the local Amsterdam surgeons guild. Dr. Tulp apparently commissioned this painting and chose a young artist in town to render his likeness. You might have heard of him? His name was Rembrandt. Only twenty-six at the time Dr. Tulp chose this young artist probably thinking to do him a favor and give him an artistic break. Dr. Tulp chose well. In the video he narrates “Every Picture Tells a Story” art historian Waldemar Januszczak explains that Dr. Tulp was not his real name. His real name was Claes Pieterszoon. Nicolaes is apparently a more proper version of Claes. Tulp means “tulip.” At this time, tulip mania had broken out in Holland. Apparently Dr. Tulp hoped to cash in on some of the notoriety. Later Dr. Tulp was to go on to be mayor of Amsterdam four times. Ironically, though Tulp hoped to achieve notoriety, he only did so because he became a subject in a painting by Rembrandt. There is a lesson in humility for you.

Also ironic is the fact that even though Dr. Tulp meant himself to be the “star of the show” he is at least rivaled, if not upset by the corpse. We also know his name too. A petty criminal, his name was Adriaan Adriaanszoon, also known as “The Kid.” He was convicted of armed robbery and hanged for stealing a coat. Well, sort of. It was just the “last straw” in a series of criminal acts. The hanging took place on January 16, 1632. The city of Amsterdam permitted only one public dissection per year and it had to be an executed criminal. Adriaanszoon was the lucky model and he gained a notoriety beyond his wildest dreams. He is, however, immortalized as a criminal. His body literally shines a ghostly white and is face is partly in shadow. Perhaps this is to indicate every man is a mixture of good and bad. Or maybe it is to indicate “the shadow of death.”

Dr. Tulp has started the anatomy lesson with the arm, which is probably not the likely place where most anatomy lessons would have begun. The body has apparently already been prepared for dissection. Dr. Tulp’s fingers are pressed together to show that if you lifted the muscle indicated, the fingers would come together. Januszczak notes that in art the ability to paint the body accurately “separates the men from the boys,” and Rembrandt proves himself here to be a master. In the lower right corner of the painting you see an enormous open textbook on anatomy.

Surrounding Dr. Tulp you see a gaggle of doctors. Some of the men are leaning in, observing closely and hanging on to every word of Dr. Tulp. Some of the men seem to be staring off into the distance, maybe a little bored? Two men stare straight out at the viewer. One of those holds a paper, which lists the names of the men in the painting. Most likely everyone paid to be in the portrait. The way it works is the more you pay, the better the position you secure in the painting. This is also how it worked in Rembrandt’s famous portrait “The Night Watch.” Rembrandt has also signed his full name, as opposed to his initials.

As Januszczak points out in the video, there is something missing from this portrait, and that is the audience. Where is the larger audience viewing the autopsy? Simple. The audience is you. Rembrandt cleverly makes you a participant of the painting, not just a viewer. If you notice closely, Dr. Tulp isn’t looking at the men in the painting. His gaze extends out beyond them to the invisible audience. Also, one of the two men who look directly out at the viewer is pointing down at the corpse. This Januszczak says, is to illustrate the fact that death is the inevitable end of every man. So Dr. Tulp got his portrait for posterity and Rembrandt got to make his point. Death IS the end of every man. The only question really is what kind of man have you been? Good or evil? After all, in the end it is only the anatomy of the soul that really counts.

 

 

 

 

Notorious: Inside The World Of Art Heist

Unlike the theft of money or jewels, cars and other collectibles, the theft of a
singular work by an artistic virtuoso is truly a crime against all of us.

Anthony Amore, Tom Mashberg

Let’s say hypothetically, that you wanted to become an art thief.

You pick your museum of choice. You case the joint. You lay out your plan. You watch the change of the guard. Then you go for the prize.

Here’s the rub: What exactly do you rob? How do you know what you should take?

Well according to Anthony Amore and Tom Mashberg, who have written a book on the subject, the jewel of any museum’s collection is a Rembrandt.

That being said, take note of their warning: “It’s very rare for a Rembrandt thief to gain something valuable from the act….Almost never has a theft brought them riches or happy lives.”

Art theft is a serious crime and it’s never a victimless one as they point out. In fact we all suffer at the loss of an irreplaceable work of a Master. Amore, one of the authors of “Stealing Rembrandts, The Untold Stories Of Notorious Art Heists” knows a little about this as he is the head of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The Gardner Museum, located in Boston, was robbed in 1990 on the eve of Saint Patrick’s Day. Two men posing as Police officers knocked on a side door of the museum supposedly in response to a call about a disturbance. The two guards let them in and they were promptly tied up. The thieves then spent the next two hours leisurely robbing the museum, in some cases cutting the canvases from the frames. One of the items they took was Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” It is Rembrandt’s only known seascape. They also stole Rembrandt’s “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” as well as a postage stamp sized self-portrait etching. As Gardner had stipulated in her will that none of the artwork was to be moved, today the empty frames stand as mute testimony to the greed of men. None of the stolen artwork has been recovered.

Art theft is often portrayed as glamorous, but it reality it is far more gritty. Amore and Mashberg describe it as “disorganized crime” often done by petty offenders who are also involved in all sorts of other thievery. It’s not as beautifully orchestrated as it is in films such as “The Thomas Crown Affair.” I also highly doubt the thieves are as good looking as Pierce Brosnan.

Gaugin Brooding WomanIn the book they describe different robberies that have occurred. One example is the robbing of the Worcester Museum in Massachusetts. Upon driving off from the museum during the getaway Gauguin’s painting “Brooding Woman” was placed on top of the car’s luggage rack while the thief stuck his arm out the window to hold it down. One has to wonder if the thieves thought it would be bad luck to have a brooding woman in the car with them. It would remind them too much perhaps of the nagging woman they were going to go home to who would be extremely upset about the stolen artwork now under her bed. He just didn’t want to think about it.

In stealing art, the thieves often quickly find out that the frames are just too #*!* heavy to carry.  In one art heist Rembrandt’s Saint Bartholomew was stolen. Along the way the thief tossed out the original seventeenth century frame. Thrown into a canal it was never recovered. Another amusing, but lucky fact is that many art thieves often pass by works of greater value than the one they are stealing.

In the book there are other interesting facts they bring out about art theft. For example, do you know who has the dubious honor of being the most stolen artist in history? Picasso.

Another interesting fact is that “thieves who rob museums more than once are unusual. Rarer still is the painting that is stolen for a second time.” The exception to this they point out is Rembrandt’s portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III.

Rembrandt's Portrait of Jacob De Gheyn
"The Takeaway Rembrandt": Stolen four times!

Outlandishly it has been stolen four times all from the same museum, the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. It is known as “The Takeaway Rembrandt.” After the third theft and subsequent return the museum bolted the painting to the wall. It did no good. The fourth time the thieves brought a crowbar. The miserable director of the gallery was informed “The Rembrandt is gone again sir.” It was found three years later. It had been place at a railway station “wrapped in paper and placed inside a series of three boxes.” Upon receiving the painting back once again the director wryly remarked: “The temptation is to lock the wretched thing away and put up a color photograph.” The portrait had been a set of two done at the request of two friends: Jacob de Ghen III and Maurits Huygen. As a symbol of their friendship they wanted their portraits painted and whoever died first the surviving friend would get the other’s portrait. The portraits were meant to stay together, but over time they were separated. If only de Ghen knew what an exciting journey his portrait has been on!

Art museums give considerable thought to how artwork is secured to a surface. As Amore and Mashberg point out “stealing art is difficult.” It’s basically done any way it can be. Sometimes even teenagers have been able to carry off a piece, by creating a distraction in one part of the museum while stealing something in another. I personally can’t imagine doing it. To me a museum always seems like such a highly watched environment. Having just been to the St. Louis Art Museum recently my husband set off an alarm by stepping too close to a painting. I also realized I had stepped over a line on the floor I was not supposed to step over. The motives are many for stealing art and thankfully the recovery rate is usually high. Art doesn’t really have “street value” which often leaves the criminals at a loss for how to exactly profit from their heist. You can’t exactly pawn a Rembrandt.

Far away from all of this is the artist himself. I wonder what Rembrandt would think about all the clamoring over his work. As the authors point out “Even those with little background in fine arts- and that includes most criminals- are impressed when standing before a Rembrandt.” In other words you know you are a really great artist when even the dummies realize you are. You also know you are a great artist when people the world over recognize you by your first name.

I recently showed Rembrandt’s “Adam and Eve” etching to a group of people. I asked them if they knew who the artist was. None of them did. When I told them who it was however they let out a collective “Ahh, as in I should have known that!”

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born July 15, 1606 and died October 4, 1669. Eschewing the high money of court painting he led a gritty urban life. He drew constantly immortalizing the common life. He had a particular skill for portraits and painted many as that was where the money was in art in his day. He also drew and painted many self-portraits in a sense making Rembrandt a “household brand.” Unlike some artists he was famous in his day. People knew his name and his face and he had financial success. In the end however he died “grief stricken and barely solvent” and was buried in an unmarked tomb in Amsterdam’s Westerkirk Chruch. He was a prolific artist who left the world some 2,000 works. “Today Dutch and American scholars agree on the following minimum numbers: 300 paintings, 700 drawings, and 80 metal plates from which Rembrandt made etchings.

One of Rembrandt’s most famous pieces is called “Nightwatch” (1642).

Rembrandt's Night Watch

As the author’s note: “It portrays men in charge of guarding Amsterdam by night as a gaggle of dandified and half-cocked musketeers rather than redoubtable sentries.” Ironically it is often this gaggle of dandified and half-cocked musketeers who guard Rembrandt’s art today who are easily duped and outwitted by art thieves. Rembrandt will get the last laugh if “Nightwatch” is carried off. He already predicted it.

How To Write A Biography Of Vermeer or How to Make Lemon Pie with no Lemons

To all those who are ambitious and want to set out to write a biography of Johannes Vermeer, then read on because I am going to give you some tips.

Johannes Vermeer The Art of Painting
The Art of Painting: Vermeer paints us a mystery.

First go to the refrigerator and get yourself a nice icy cold coke. Then find yourself a big comfy armchair and plop yourself down in it. Pick up a pad and pencil and put on your thinking cap. Then sit there.

Wait for inspiration to come.

Look out the window, watch the sunlight streaming in and dream because here is the honest truth: they ain’t got nothin’ on the dude!

I recently read a “biography” of Vermeer and I enjoyed it immensely. Yet I must say I had to laugh upon completion of the book at how much I had NOT learned about Vermeer. There are no known letters or writings by Vermeer. The only thing that remains is his signature on some of his paintings and a few legal declarations. Here are a some of the things we do not know about Vermeer:

  • We know very little about his youth
  • We do not know who he apprenticed under as a painter
  • We do not for sure what his first painting was
  • We do not know where Vermeer was when there was an explosion in his hometown of Delft
  • We are not sure where he and his wife Catharina lived when they were first married
  • We do not know for sure who the subjects in his paintings were
  • We do not know for sure if he ever created a self portrait
  • We do not know if Vermeer saw any action though he was listed as being in the city militia
  • We do not know what Vermeer died of at the age of 43

There are some things of course we do know.

We know that Vermeer lived in Delft and that his father was an art dealer and owned an Inn called the “Flying Fox.” Later his father bought a larger inn called “Mechelen”.

Vermeer married Catharina Bolnes and together they had eleven children (they also had three children who died).

We know that Vermeer registered as a Master painter with the local art guild. We know Vermeer also was an art dealer and his brother-in-law a frame maker.

Pieter Claeszoon van Ruijven was to become Vermeer’s most stalwart patron, eventually owning twenty of his paintings (there are only thirty-five total paintings in Vermeer’s oeuvre).

We can see that the subject of most of Vermeer’s paintings were young women and that he liked to paint with beautiful hues of blue and yellow. Vermeer died young at the age of forty three, leaving his widow heavily in debt and with ten children still at home.

Though his paintings were sold, most of the profit did not benefit his family. In 2004, the first painting to come to auction in eighty years by Johannes Vermeer, “A Lady Seated At The Virginal”, was sold by Sotheby’s. They estimated it would fetch 5.4 million. It sold for 30 million dollars.

It seems appropriate that we do not know much about Vermeer.

His paintings have a lot of mysterious elements to them and they are more poetical in nature. They do not lead to a straight-forward interpretation. They seem to draw back a curtain and let us peer into the private reflective moments of people’s lives.

They make us wonder.

What is the woman reading that she holds her letter so tightly? Who is the woman looking for out the window while she tunes her lute? Are the couple in the painting lovers? What is the woman laughing about with the officer? Who is the beautiful girl with the pearl earring? Where does the geographer long to travel to? What knowledge of the heavenlies has the astronomer discovered? What is the lady thinking about as she works so intently on her lace making? Why does the woman at the table seem so despondent?

These and many more questions could be asked.

In “The Art Of Painting” Vermeer created one of his largest paintings. It is a painting of an artist painting. I think one of the reasons Vermeer is so masterful as a painter is because he realized that the true “art of painting” lies in creating mystery. We live in a culture where every detail of a celebrity or public figure’s life is scrutinized. A lot of famous artists painted self-portraits. Vermeer, if it is him in “The Art Of Painting”, turned his back to us. He understood intuitively that the less we know, the more intrigued we will be.

He was right and he has held our fascination ever since.

The Art of Heist: What would Vermeer think of the greatest art robbery in history?

It is the year 1665.

The artists sits reflectively in front of his easel lost in thought. All is quiet in the house.

The light of the first streaks of dawn stream through the window. He picks up his brush. Quickly he paints in master strokes. He is placing the finishing touches on the painting.

He looks at his subjects. They are so lively, so lost in the enjoyment of music. One young woman is singing as she claps her hands to the beat. A young man, sword lashed to his side, holds what may be a cittern. Another young woman plays a clavecin.

On a nearby table lays a guitar, and on the floor possibly a double bass. The landscape of the painting on the wall is echoed in the the upraised lid of the instrument the woman is playing. The other painting framed in black is a copy of van Baburen’s “The Procuress.”

The artist muses then paints the back of the man’s chair with a beautiful bold orange color. He smiles at the way the sunlight perfectly illuminates the honey yellow of the woman’s blouse. He steps back. He hopes his patron will be pleased.

Downstairs he hears the stirrings of children. Life calls. The artist takes one last longing look at his creation. It is lovely.

It is the year 1990.

It is St Patrick’s day and while all of Boston is celebrating, two night shift guards stand watch over the Isabella Stuart Gardner museum.

That night two unknown males knocked on a side door of the museum. Dressed in police uniforms they told the guards they were responding to a call about a disturbance. They proceeded to tie up the guards and put them in the basement.

They spent the next two hours roughly cutting or ripping out artwork from their frames. One of the paintings taken was Johannes’ Vermeer “The Concert.” They also stole the only known seascape by Rembrandt, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” They made off with this and other priceless artwork which has never been recovered.

Johannes Vermeer The Concert
Vermeer's "The Concert" has never been recovered.

“The Concert” is not the only Vermeer which has been stolen.

The Love Letter” was stolen in 1971 from an exhibit in Brussels. It was found two weeks later under a bed. (A hotel waiter had stolen it).

The Guitar Player” disappeared in 1974 in London. It was later found, from a phone in tip, “wrapped up in a newspaper, leaning against a gate.”

The Lady Writing A Letter With Her Maid” has the dubious honor of being the only Vermeer stolen twice. It was found both times, though the second time it was “unframed, and a bit damp; it also had a dent in the canvas but was otherwise unharmed.”

As mentioned “The Art of Painting” was taken by the Nazi’s as well as “The Astronomer.” “The Astronomer” in fact was “stamped with a swastika, put in a crate marked H (for Hitler) and sent on a special train to Germany.” These paintings were recovered.

One owner of a Vermeer, “A Lady Writing” was found murdered.

Vermeer also has been forged.

Bailey notes in his Biography, “A View of Delft” that “the art world was brought to it’s feet when in 1937 Abraham Bredius (an art historian who was an expert in Vermeer) wrote a piece in Burlington Magazine about the discovery of a new Vermeer entitled “The Supper At Emmaus.”

Eventually it was found to be a forgery by an artist named van Meegeren, who too had once lived in Delft and was an admirer of Vermeer. In a strange twist of fate van Meegeren sold his forgery of a Vermeer, “The Woman Taken In Adultery” to a Nazi who “paid” for the “Vermeer” with 200 other paintings the Nazis had looted.

Van Meegeren did have to serve a one year jail sentence for fraud, but he was seen as a hero because he saved so much artwork from potential destruction. These forgeries of van Meegeren became known as Van Vermeegerens.”

Vermeer only has thirty five known paintings in his oeuvre.

Though known in Delft as a Master painter, he died young, heavily in debt, and obscure to the wider known world. Even the sale of his paintings did not benefit his offspring.

I think about Vermeer.

I wonder how he would feel that his artwork would eventually become so valuable and so coveted that it would be at the center of one of the greatest art heists of all time.

Being that he was such a family man and much of the subjects of his paintings revolved around things he knew and loved, I wonder how he would feel about his art being ripped out of a frame and stored who knows where.

Would he feel pleased that is work was highly valued? Would he be pleased that others thought it so beautiful they would steal it? Or would it make him sad? Would it make him wish he had not shared his gift of painting with the world? I wonder what he would think of the fact that one of his painting was owned and enjoyed by Adolf Hitler for a time? (The Art Of Painting).

That Hitler in fact gave orders to destroy this painting and others the Nazi’s had confiscated, but fortunately for once his order was ignored. It is strange to think that what one creates so lovingly might one day be at the center of such intrigue, in the hands of evil people.

I would think as an artist that one would wish one’s art to be in the hands of people who care for it, value it and enjoy it. As one who enjoys looking at the beauty of Vermeer’s paintings, I for one feel sadness over the fact that this painting is lost to the world.

I feel the same for the loss of Rembrandt’s only seascape. It makes me want to tack up a simple sign to the robbers: Please give it back!

Though at various points it has been said that negotiations were in the works to recover the artwork from the Gardner heist, but so far the paintings remain hidden.

Apparently Gardner stipulated in her will that all the artwork should remain as she left it and not be moved. So if you visit the museum today you will see the empty frame where “The Concert” once hung.

Everyone who views the museum has to be struck by the beauty of what is there, and the ugliness of what is not. The empty frames hang as a testament to the greed, selfishness and ugliness of men.

As a side note, though “The Concert” has never been returned, it was spotted once on the wall of C. Montgomery Burns, Homer Simpson’s boss. One can only hope that Homer Simpson might steal it for us and be a hero and return it to the world. Then again, he might trade it for a beer and a doughnut.

Such is the art of heist.

What Is Art? Longing for Van Gogh In A Campbell’s Soup Can World

Christianity alone has the resources to restore the arts to their

proper place, for Christianity is a worldview that supports human

creativity yet does so with appropriate humility.”

Chuck Colson

“All the great artists copy the greatest artist.”

Stacey

van gogh starry nightWhat is art? How do we define it? How do we know that it is good? What makes a piece of art good? Can we answer these questions? In his book “How Now Shall We Live” Chuck Colson tells a story that exemplifies how confused we are about these questions. Back in the nineties “the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts held a competition where an award was to be given to a watercolor entitled Rhythm of the Trees” because the work displayed “a certain quality of color balance, composition, and technical skill.” To their embarrassment the artist turned out the be a four-year-old child. Apparently the mother had submitted it as a joke. What it exemplifies is that we are so thoroughly confused about what good art really is, that we can no longer tell the work of a skilled artist from that of a child. What this makes clear is as Colson says, “No one can say what art is any longer. And if art cannot be defined, then it will be destroyed.” Those are powerful words. How did we come to this place?

In the chapter entitled “Soli Deo Gloria” Colson explains how art lost its place in the world and then regained it in a false way. Our culture made a shift to elevating science to the sole source of knowledge. Once that shift took place it seemed to many that “if science is true, then art must be false.” Artists began to struggle with the idea of whether what they did had any purpose and meaning. Colson explains that Cubism was a reaction to this struggle. Cubism attempted to “portray the mathematical structures underlying the physical world.” It was a way to infuse art with meaning by connecting it to science. Colson then explains that artists began to overcompensate by making an idol or art. Art became a realm only for the elite and not the average person. Artists too were seen as “people gifted with unique insight, offering a vision of an ideal world, and as people who denounced the sins of the real world.” What this eventually translated to was art that attacked the real world. As Colson comments, “Art that attacks all standards ends up destroying itself-because even artistic standards are attacked and cast aside.” This is evident in a lot of the art that passes itself off as art today. One piece of modern art in the St. Louis Art Museum is simply broken glass arranged on the floor. I am sure the artist would say I am horribly truncating his work, but that’s what it looks like to me. Pollack’s art was paint dripped around on canvas. Warhol of course reproduced the infamous Campbell’s soup can. Warhol once said, “Art is what you can get away with.” Apparently that is the new standard.

Besides the cultural paradigm shifts that brought a change in art, another aspect of society that affects art is how society as as whole incites envy. Envy is defined as “a desire to have a quality, possession, or other desirable attribute belonging to someone else.” In “The Seven Deadly Sins Today” Henry Fairlie comments: “One of the destructive forms that envy takes today is the widespread assumption that everyone should be able to do and experience and enjoy everything that everyone else can do and experience and enjoy.” One of the results of this inciting to envy is that we can no longer acknowledge great talent. We must instead level it. Fairlie notes: “If we cannot paint well, we will destroy the cannons of painting and pass ourselves off as painters………We are today surrounded by young people who think that they are artists and poets. They dabble and daub with no talent. It would be hard to count the number of them who, in the absence of real talent to write or paint, foist themselves on us as filmmakers, or who have taken up photography as an art form that will nevertheless bring a commercial reward as well. They are artists, have a right to be artists, and must be acknowledged as artists, and a camera will serve in place of any artistic vision or skill.” Fairlie calls this “The Revenge of Failure.” The artist Kandisky once likened art to music. He said, “Color is a way to exert a direct influence on the soul. Color is the key. The eye is the hammer that strikes it, and the soul is the instrument of a thousand strings. The artist is the hand that plays one key or another to trigger the vibrations of the soul.” If art is like music, we might call what currently passes as art “the day the music died.” (Don McLean).

In the quote mentioned at the beginning, Colson says that “Christianity is a worldview that has the resources to restore the arts to their proper place.” We were made in the image of God. God is the ultimate creator. We reflect Him when we are creative. Yet unlike God, we do not create or bring into existence that which did not exist before. All art is in some way a mere reflection of the beauty God has already created. When I think of the truly great artists, all of their art reflected the glory of God. Michaelangelo spent his life painting and sculpting the human body, that most magnificent of art forms. Monet spent much of his life painting water lilies. Van Gogh painted the starry sky and magnificent sunflowers. Davinci painted The Last Supper. Colson remarks, “Who more than Christians have good reason to appreciate and create works of art?’ The church need to encourage contemporary artists to create works of beauty. Works that inspire, works that uplift, works that are music for the soul. We can do this in many ways. We can encourage artists to exhibit their gifts in worship, or to use their talents and skills for and in the church. Our homes should also be places where both “art and culture are nurtured.” We need to be a part of encouraging the renewal of art to a place of beauty and inspiration that infuses both the artist and his audience with purpose, meaning and hope.

Edgar Degas: The Tub

What fascinates me about art, is the history behind it.  People go to art museums, look at the paintings, nod and move on.  People who truly appreciate art are moved by it.  They want to understand something of the message of the artist.  Paintings speak volumes if we understand a little about them and the artist.

The Tub by Edgar Degas
The Tub By Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas was an impressionist, known largely for his beautiful paintings of ballet dancers.  Yet he also produced models and paintings of other subjects, one such type being women bathing.  When we look at these paintings today of women washing they hardly seem risque.  Yet at the time they were horrifying to the public.  His nudes depicted simple working girls in the act of washing.  These girls would have been assumed by the public to be prostitutes.  Their portrayal was deemed offensive, specifically because of the different postures used in washing in a tin bath.  The women seem to be unaware of the viewer, which puts the viewer in the position of voyeur. They were thought to be degrading, overturning that “cherished idol” woman by showing her in “humiliating postures.”1

Degas later admitted, “Perhaps I have treated women too much as animals.”2

I have to admit that in this particular instance knowing the history of the painting changes my opinion of the work.  In his effort to pursue an honest portrayal, he pushed the envelope of decency.  We have been pushing it ever since.  His paintings look prim compared to pornography, yet the end result of pornography is the same: showing women in humiliating postures and treating them like animals.  I hardly think of women today as “cherished idols.”  Part of the essence of beauty is mystery.  Degas took the liberty of unveiling, which did not reveal beauty, but shrouded it.  The essence of great art is to magnify and glorify the Creator.  Art which demeans the beauty of the creature isn’t art, it’s selfishness.

1,2 Cunningham, Antonia, Essential Impressionists (Bath, UK: Paragon Publishing, 2000) 185.

Claude Monet: The Three Poplars

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands

Day after day they pour forth speech, night after night they display knowledge.

There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.

Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”

Psalm 19: 1-4

People always say, “Well I would believe in God if only I could see Him.” Perhaps the problem is not God’s visibility, but one’s sight. God is certainly manifest in His world. His signature is on his painting, just like a Monet. Did you see God today? Sure you did. You just might not have recognized Him. We tend to neglect the things that are familiar. We begin to pass them by without reflection. Those things like the sun, moon and stars. They are there every day, so we cease to marvel at them. But King David in the Psalms says these things “proclaim God” just as surely as if God were speaking.

All great artists emulate the master artist, and Monet is no exception. He is famous for his impressionistic paintings of water lilies. I want to speak here of a series of twenty four paintings he did of poplars on the banks of the river Epte. He painted them from spring to fall in 1891. What astonishes me is that Monet said that “each poplar painting represented only seven minutes of the day: when the light left a certain leaf, he would take out the next canvas and work on that.” 1   What this reflects is that God’s glory is so great that you could spend your entire lifetime as an artist capturing it. Monet was someone who could see that God’s canvas changed during the day with the shifting of the light. He understood that poplars were amazing and he wanted to show us how their beauty changed as the glory of the blazing sun moved over it.

Claude Monet - Three Poplars
Claude Monet - Three Poplars

I am not saying Monet was a man who saw God. I am saying he is a man who captured some of God’s glory, the way God was speaking through sunlight on poplars one afternoon along the banks of the river Epte in the fall of 1891. When you look at Monet’s paintings can you see God? He is there in vibrant hue.

1. Cunningham, Antonia, Essential Impressionists (Bath, UK: Paragon Publishing, 2000) 66.