A Dash of Art History

Large (Wikimedia)

John William Waterhouse painted his moderately creepy but characteristically beautiful Consulting the Oracle in 1884. This is not, in fact, it—instead, it’s a slightly smaller (but otherwise faithful) copy he painted in the same year.

According to Christie’s, “[t]he source of this subject, unprecedented in British art, seems to have been one of several 19th-century editions of Antiquities of the Jews, written by the historian Flavius Josephus in the first century AD.”

Certainly it’s not something I’ve ever seen before—the oracle itself is a rather desiccated human head.

Large (Wikimedia)

I don’t often have to specify, since the 19th century isn’t exactly known for workshop-produced paintings, but in this case I do: Allegory of Time Governed by Prudence, from around 1565, was painted by Titian and his workshop.

The painting seems to be fairly consistently interpreted as representing time —the three men of different ages along the top—and prudence—the dog, wolf, and lion below. Titian’s specific intent, though, is up for debate.

We are helped along only slightly by the inscription at the top, which can be approximated as meaning, “based on the past, the present acts prudently to avoid future mishaps.”

Large (Wikimedia)

Harry Edwards painted Handsome Morning—A Dakota in 1921.

As the Brooklyn Museum describes, Edwards painted Handsome Morning “wearing a fringed shift with painted emblems, a bead-and-quill necklace, beaded moccasins, and a ceremonial blanket of fur-lined buffalo hide painted with abstract motifs (a specialty of Dakota women).”

Edwards picks up the bold colors of her garments in the indistinct strokes of the background, tying the subject and her setting together.

In fact, Edwards seems deliberately to have composed the scene to highlight her garments, her delicate moccasin emerging from behind her carefully arrayed blanket.

Large (Wikimedia)

Camille Léon Louis Silvy took this photograph, The Day’s Orders, in May of 1859.

The Art Institute of Chicago summarizes it best: “In this highly staged composition, which he nevertheless presented as a news photograph, Camille Silvy adapted a traditional genre painting for the depiction of a topical event.”

It makes for an interesting contrast—the form most often features deliberately timeless crowd scenes, but here it captures a very timely moment in Napoleon III’s reign in France.

Large (Wikimedia)

Henri Fantin-Latour painted Portrait of Madam Léon Maître in 1882.

As the Brooklyn Museum points out, “[w]ith one hand ungloved, the subject may be at either the beginning or the end of the sitting.”

Indeed, though the setting is clearly constructed and her pose has the studied self-conscious of a portrait-sitter, her gaze is distracted.

It is as though Henri Fantin-Latour were depicting some single moment in the process of painting his subject, rather than delivering the final result.

Large (Wikimedia)

One of the most interesting considerations when it comes to George Inness is not any one of his paintings, but the progression of his style from work to work.

This is his 1893 painting The Home of the Heron, of which the Art Institute of Chicago aptly writes, “[t]he picture’s blurred outlines, broad handling, and delicate, subtle tonalities, as well as the solitary presence of the heron, masterfully evoke nature’s stillness and mystery.”

From that description—and from the painting—it would be perfectly reasonable to classify him with the Tonalists, a style of landscape fairly accurately summarized by its name.

Yet his early work was heavily influenced by the Hudson River School, which (though often romanticized) always retained at least a visual plausibility.

Large (Wikimedia)

Mary Hiester Reid painted A Study in Greys in around 1913.

According to the Canadian Women Artists History Initiative, Reid “was best known and most admired for her paintings of flowers which received extensive reviews in the Toronto press.”

And it’s not hard to tell why—Reid captures a lovely variety of textures and colors even in this tonally unified still life.

Large (Wikimedia)

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s "Why Seek Ye the Living Among the Dead" St Luke 24 v5 depicts a moment from the New Testament that isn’t often illustrated.

According to the passage in which the title of this painting appears, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and another Mary (the mother of James) go to Jesus’ tomb, carrying spices—traditionally myrrh—and discover Jesus’ absence.

At that point, two men appear to them in shining garments (here represented by one man in gilt-edged garments with fiery peacock-feather wings) and ask the titular question: “Why seek ye the living among the dead?”

Large (Wikimedia)

Julian Ashton painted The Prospector in 1889.

As the Art Gallery of New South Wales points out, “[t]his heroic representation of an Australian ‘type’ is more a character study than a portrait, recalling the artist’s work as a newspaper illustrator.”

Certainly the work reveals the impulses of a documentarian—in the almost diagrammatic pose of the prospector as he examines his pan of water, and in the careful array of his tools behind him.

Large (Wikimedia)

Tom Roberts painted Coming South in 1886.

The ship travels, bearing its variety of passengers, from Europe to Australia.

As the National Gallery of Victoria advises, “[n]ote the dual sources of power, steam and sail.”

Back to top


No, seriously.

Give me ideas. There's way too much art in this world, and I'm never sure what to write about. It might as well be something you're curious about, dear reader. Or tell me I'm wrong, or ask me questions, or tell me things.


Whatever you'd like.