A Dash of Art History

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Bonhams does a beautiful job of summarizing what makes Carl Holsøe’s Mother and Child in a Dining Room Interior both so effective and so typical of Holsøe: “The exquisite detail brought into the composition of this scene draws together two aspects of Holsøe’s artistic pursuits: the pictorial representation of space on the one hand, and that of maternal devotion on the other.”

Though Holsøe shares Vilhelm Hammershøi’s proclivity for quiet, clean, Vermeer-evoking interiors with stunning attention to light—from the soft shadows on the wall to the highlights on the glazed prints on the wall, Holsøe achieves a photograph-like precision—Holsøe has none of Hammershøi’s alienating impersonality.

Far from it, as Bonhams highlights: Hosøe’s Mother and Child positively oozes maternal warmth and domestic comfort.

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Often, impressionistic cityscapes like Robert Koehler’s Rainy Evening on Hennepin Avenue—circa 1902—capture a sort of urban anonymity.

The people who walk past are, generally speaking, both interchangeable and—though they may have some fascinating purpose or history—illegible.

Here, though, the woman, her rain-booted son, and their loping dog all have just a little bit more personality than might be expected.

But then, that shouldn’t be surprising: they are, as the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts identifies them, “the artist’s wife, Marie, and their son, Edwin, along with the family dog.”

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There’s something slightly wonderful about the way Robert Henri suggests movement in Dancer in a Yellow Shawl (1908).

Instead of posing his subject in mid-dance, Henri simply fringes the edges of her garment. Though it hangs still for the moment, even so it evokes the possibility of motion.

Interestingly, Henri was actually (as the Philips Collection points out) an important early teacher of Edward Hopper’s at the New York School of Art.

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James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s 1860–1861 Harmony in Green and Rose initially seems to be rather definite (and even a bit ordinary) by comparison to his usual evocative paintings.

However, the two women—who may conceivably be looking at each other—have their gaze disrupted by the mirror. To the viewer, they each appear to stare into the distance.

And, as the Freer and Sackler Galleries point out, “[a] number of formal peculiarities underscore the atmosphere of psychological distance: the perspectival grid formed by architectural and decorative elements in the room refuses to line up properly; the tilting floor and the strange angle of image in the mirror further disrupt the illusion of three-dimensional space.”

But, like most Whistler paintings, the whole composition is tied together by its unified palette.

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Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry painted Charlotte Corday in 1860.

Now, likely as not if you’ve seen it you know the work on which it’s based: Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 Death of Marat.

Jacques-Louis David's "Death of Marat"

I just can’t help myself, though. I adore how transparently Baudry has translated David’s painting into the mid-nineteenth century interpretation of Marat and Corday.

Instead of a grandly tragic hero of the French Revolution, Marat has become a contorted, bizarrely foreshortened villain, kitchen knife still jutting from his chest as his writing desk falls haphazardly into his therapeutic bath.

Meanwhile, the previous unseen Corday becomes the brave hero of the scene.

If ever there were proof of the effect of time on historical interpretation, this, dear reader, is it.

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Jean-Eugène Buland painted Alms of a Beggar in 1880.

The title lends itself to a number of different readings: the alms of the beggar might refer to the money he has received in alms, or the money he gives to the church as alms—or perhaps “beggar” refers instead to the woman who asks for money on behalf of the church.

In any case, the multivalence and heightened composition of the scene evoke Buland’s past as a Symbolist.

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While John Everett Millais’ 1872 Hearts are Trumps centers on a less theatrical subject than many of his most famous paintings, he brings to its execution the same subtlety—and off-kilter approach.

Portraits aren’t generally known for their didactic intent. The purpose of any symbolic content is to convey something about the specific individual, not the world as a whole.

Trust Millais to use his elegant portrait of three identically dressed sisters to make a social point, however.

As the Tate points out, “the card game [delicately] hints at sisterly competition in husband-finding.”

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This is Henry Stacy Marks’ rather ambitiously titled work, his 1874 painting Capital and Labour.

But then, the title is deliberately a bit of a stretch; instead of a meaningful allegory, (and although it’s set in the usually elegant Renaissance) it’s clearly just a big-dreaming man of means and his complicit architect and their rather more practical builders.

According to National Museums Liverpool, a critic wrote (of Marks) that “[t]he forte of this artist is humour.”

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Charles Sprague Pearce painted his Lamentations over the Death of the Firstborn of Egypt in 1877.

It illustrates one of the Old Testament plagues in a surprisingly personal scene of the grief of one particular family.

But also, as the Smithsonian American Art Museum points out, “[i]n the Victorian era, when infant mortality was still prevalent and many parents endured the loss of a child, Pearce’s Old Testament subject aroused all-too-modern feelings of grief.”

The little stone figures in the bottom right of the image suggest both toys, and—more tragically—funerary figures.

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While Jakub Schikaneder’s monumental-scale Murder in the House (painted in 1890) certainly makes for a striking composition, its narrative is unsatisfyingly open-ended.

It invites scrutiny, and even vain attempts at amateur sleuthing: does the broken, unlatched window represent a possible point of entry, or merely the ramshackle poverty of the little alley? Are the marks of blood on the far wall of the rounded arch and the ground before it signs of a struggle? The trail of a dumbfounded murderer staggering away, steadying himself with his bloodied hand once here, then once more there? Simply the vestiges of the victim’s own terrified flight out to the alley?

The reactions of the onlookers are a little more self-evident, but even their discussion remains a little ambiguous: it’s fully possible, for example, that the gesturing man witnessed the crime from his candle-lit window, and emerged through his door (now ajar) with his wife and daughter to tell the little crowd that formed. Or perhaps they’re just all trying to decide what they’re supposed to do about the body.

What about you, dear reader—any theories?

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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.