A Meeting of Nature and Reason
In the Tropics, 1856
Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826-1900)
Oil on canvas, 25¼ x 36¼ in.
Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund, 65.28
In his idyllic view of the tropical world of Latin America, Frederic Edwin Church presents various biomes of the natural world including a jungle, savanna, desert, wetlands, and snow-capped peak. This piece falls into a large category of paintings by Church of South American scenes from his journeys, underscoring his obsession and awe with the exotic lands that are nothing like the United States. A small man, clad in red, seemingly insignificant to the vast size of nature, is seen at the bottom right of this picture, exhibiting the Romantic ideals that Church, along with the rest of the Hudson River School, stressed. There is a noticeable trend in the plethora of Church’s paintings that consists of a progression of biomes, with lush, green wetlands in the foreground; rocky, barren landscapes in the middle ground; and, as seen in his numerous renditions of Ecuadorian peak Mt. Cotopaxi, a snowy mountain in the background. The Romanticism is clearly present and easily identifiable, as Romantics believed that nature is the supreme power, mankind is nothing in comparison, and the natural world needs to be protected and glorified through the arts. This beautiful scene of the Latin American landscape was, unfortunately not painted from an actual vista seen by Church, but instead from a compilation of various sketches that Church made on a trip to South America. This method, known as composite painting, was typical of Hudson River School artists as they would simply sketch various scenes and views during their exotic trips, and then upon return to their studio in the United States to paint fantastic natural scenes.
Student of legendary painter Thomas Cole and a crucial member of the Hudson River School, Church was inspired to take his trip to South America, and in turn to paint In the Tropics, by famed German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt and his magnum opus, Kosmos, an influential work on the science and the theories of the natural world. Humboldt’s logical presentation of nature appealed to Romantics like Church because it combined reason and nature, two key tenets of Romantic belief. Church’s primary purpose in creating this magnificent painting was to depict the wonders of nature and its enormous scale compared to the minor role played by humankind. Despite the current state of natural affairs, where humanity is cruel and devastating to nature, Church wanted to exhibit the magnitude of the natural world both in beauty and in power. Although this is not Church’s most recognized piece, the way that he portrayed a host of different natural settings in one painting is both impressive and unique. On account of Church’s incredible portrayal of the gorgeous world of South America, this piece is of the highest quality and will continue to have a lasting impact in art history.
2. Scherer, Barrymore Laurence. “South American Sublimity.” Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2011. Accessed April 17, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703389004575033112932891000.html.
Near the end of his life, Church painted with his left hand because of medical problems.
Whadda ya know?!
Can you find any similar paintings in the museum? There’s a high chance that the artists may have gone to the Hudson River School together!
Wanna know more?
For more on the artist, please visit http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chur/hd_chur.htm.
For more on the Hudson River School, please visit http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hurs/hd_hurs.htm.
Watch this video slideshow to see more of Church’s artwork! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G48k28a31l8
Eclectic, Yet Cohesive
The Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John, ca. 1540s
Bacchiacca, aka. Francesco d’Ubertini Verdi (Italian, 1494-1557)
Oil on panel, 68½ x 56 3/8 x 5½ in.
Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund and various donors by exchange, 2007.16
The Virgin and Child with Young Saint John is a richly colored piece focusing on what first appear to be chubby babies. However, it is actually a much richer piece than it initially seemed to me.
Scholars who have studied Bacchiacca’s work have noted the similarity in the composition of this piece to that of a piece by Leonardo da Vinci entitled Virgin of the Rocks. Both feature Mary and the young Jesus and St. John the Baptist, all of whom are situated in the foreground of a natural setting. In this piece, Bacchiacca also draws on his experience painting flora and fauna while working for the de Medicis.¹
Lighting plays an important role in the work. The main subjects illuminated are the Virgin Mary, Christ Child, and St. John the Baptist in the foreground and, to a lesser degree, the peasant farmers in the background. The dark, smoky backdrop of rock contrasts dramatically with the illuminated subjects. The shepherds in the background reflect the Humanism of the Renaissance.
Scholars have noted that one of Bacchiacca’s primary weaknesses was in his depictions of the human form.² In this piece, his weakness shows most prominently in Mary’s hand. The appendage is highly disproportionate, appearing larger than her face. However, I interpreted this disproportion of the hand as a commentary on Mary’s strength. She possessed enough strength to bear God’s only son. The manly hand could thus allude to Bacchiacca’s belief that she was strong as a man, even though her body was that of a woman.
Bacchiacca was a leading Renaissance artist, known quite well for his eclectic painting style. He was associated with artists like Perugino and Andrea del Sarto, though he never adhered strictly to a single style. This specific painting pays homage to the artists Michelangelo, Lucas van Leyden, Raphael, and da Vinci.³ Bacchiacca let the techniques and styles of these artists flavor his work and the result is an eclectic yet cohesive painting.4
1. Grove Art Excerpts, “Bacchiacca,” Artfact, accessed April 18, 2013, http://www.artfact.com/artist/bacchiacca-9zejhm6hr4.
3. "Francesco d’Ubertini Verdi," Benezit Dictionary of Artists, English ed., vol. 13 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
4. "Director’s Choice Tour," Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, accessed April 18, 2013.
Fun Fact: Bacchiacca’s style of painting is known as mannerism.
Want to know more?
For more information about mannerism visit:
The Great Female Pharaoh
Elizabeth Ezzelle, Peer Mentor
Cleopatra, modeled 1858, carved 1865
William Wetmore Story (American, 1819-1895)
White marble with traces of pigment, 54 x 45 x 27 in.
J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American Art, 2005.73
Sitting in the center of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ American Galleries, William Wetmore Story’s Cleopatra draws my attention like no other piece in the room. Peacefully, yet powerfully, Cleopatra reclines in her seat. It is hard not to be awed by everything about her, from the tiniest detail of a fold in her clothes, to the focused expression on her face.
This life-size representation of Cleopatra, the great female pharaoh of ancient Egypt, was created by Story during the Neoclassical period. Cleopatra has been known throughout history and art to symbolize strength and power, knowledge, and sexuality. Her head gently rests on her right hand as she casually sits. It appears as though she is lost in thought, perhaps contemplation.
William Wetmore Story’s ability to capture the emotion and compelling disposition of Cleopatra is extraordinary. The detail of her clothing is remarkable; especially when one considers that the sculpture’s medium is solid marble. The contrast of the details in the drapery and the body is something to take note of. The skin of Cleopatra seems very delicate and simple, especially when visually matched with the exquisite and quite realistic drapery of her elegant robe. Any viewer and guest of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts could see Cleopatra with a great amount of awe and amazement.
1. O’Leary, Elizabeth L., et al. American Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 159–62. Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2010. 159-62.
Fun Fact: William Wetmore Story attended Harvard Law School, then decided he wanted to be a sculptor (Something he had never done before). I Wonder what his parents thought about that?
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From Geometric to Organic
Marley Phillips, College Mentor
Splotch #22, 2007
Sol LeWitt (American, 1928-2007)
Acrylic on fiberglass, 148 x 96 x 86 in. (approximate)
Museum Purchase, The Sydney and Frances Lewis Endowment Fund, and partial gift of the Artist and Pace Wildenstein in honor of Frances Lewis and in memory of Sydney Lewis, 2007.68.a-f
Sol LeWitt’s conceptualist approach to sculpture is perhaps best represented in one of his final pieces, Splotch #22, created in 2007. Each work by LeWitt in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts collection appears to adhere to a strict set of design guidelines applied to both geometric and organic shapes and lines. LeWitt’s sculpture 1 2 3 4 5 6, is very geometric, whereas Splotch #22 features organic curves, as if liquid was dropped out of a large pail onto the floor and we are catching it jumping up after hitting the floor. Upon approaching the towering sculpture, one may feel overwhelmed by its monumental appearance, its size amplified by the mix of bright colors and smooth texture.
The colors of the piece are outstanding—the reds and greens sit next to purples, blues, oranges, and yellows. It is as if LeWitt melted giant crayons over the top of limestone stalagmites from a cave. The use of color is integral in this work. It appears that each unit of color was carefully planned out and placed in a certain height and color to his liking. Some of the colors connect as the points converge, although there was never an attempt made to shade the colors together – it is very clear where one stops and the other begins. Although the colors are flat, the piece itself casts shadows, depending on where the light hits it. At over twelve feet tall, the sculpture, or rather, the structure stands high above the viewer. The interiors of the stalagmites are made of fiberglass, giving them their strong and smooth shape, and the color we see on the exterior is acrylic paint. LeWitt drew out the sketches in extreme detail in order for others to create the piece to its completion.1
As one of the last works of LeWitt’s career and life, the piece is strong and memorable. The grand success of Splotch #22 will be celebrated by generations to come at the VMFA in Richmond, Virginia.
1. VMFA, Museum label for Sol LeWitt, Splotch #22, Richmond, Virginia, March 31, 2013.
Fun Fact: Sol Lewitt was a minimalist who created conceptional art.
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Abstraction of a Battle Plan
Reed Canaan, Peer Mentor
Synopsis of a Battle, 1968
Cy Twombly (American, 1928–2011)
Commercial oil-based paint and wax crayon on canvas, 79 x 103 1/8 in.
Gift of Sydney and Frances Lewis, 85.451
From across the room, it might be mistaken for the frenzied scrawling of a professor. At this distance, Virginia—born artist Cy Twombly’s Synopsis of a Battle appears to be an oft-used chalkboard hanging on the wall in the Mid to Late 20th—Century Galleries.
It is not the painting’s color that immediately catches the viewer’s eye, but rather the mark-making. The piece is a realistic depiction of a chalkboard, monotone with color variation only to indicate eraser marks. Gestural lines used across the canvas suggest constant, spontaneous motion. A passionate professor might not have the self restraint to express ideas in a strictly linear way. Twombly’s work often includes these loose, gestural lines.1 In this painting, line quality helps to make the work even more realistic by suggesting the movement and process that created these lines. However, the artist’s marks are not solely gestural. Numbers and text are scattered across the canvas, and begin to hint that this piece has a meaning beyond its aesthetics.
The title reveals one facet of this piece: the marks allude to the frantic explanation of, or perhaps planning for, the movement of troops into the battlefield. Cy Twombly was fascinated by the history of Greece and Rome, and references to classical culture appear in many of his works.2 If you move closer to the canvas, you can see the word Issus in the upper left corner. This may refer to the Battle of Issus, when Alexander the Great led his men against the forces of Persia.3 Without this context for the piece, a viewer may not identify the historical allusion. However, Twombly’s abstraction of a battle plan effectively communicates the organized chaos that accompanied Alexander the Great on his campaigns. The repetition of line across the canvas creates a sense of order despite the scribbling in the background.
A chalkboard is most often associated not only with school, but any kind of learning or lecture. It is specifically used as a teaching tool, and this would have been even more the case in 1968 when the piece was created. By painting a chalkboard, Twombly has turned the canvas into a teaching aid. He communicates the subject matter in a way that indicates you are not supposed to simply glance at the piece, but rather attempt to understand it. In this context, the connotation of the piece transcends simply a depiction of a battle. It is now directed specifically to the audience, and you are expected to interact and learn from the chalkboard on the wall.
There is something darkly intriguing about reducing the fighting, passion, and deaths on a battlefield to gestural lines in a diagram, especially when you feel compelled to view the piece as a teaching aid. Synopsis of a Battle serves as a reminder that regardless of victory or defeat, there is something beautiful in the struggle that takes place.
1. VMFA Docent Manual, Modern Art—Painting, VMFA, Richmond.
Fun Fact: Cy Twombley’s real name is Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombley, Jr.
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The Stony Road to Fortune by Hiba Seager
Lotus and Laurel, 1904
Henry Prellwitz (American, 1865-1940)
Oil on canvas, 30 x 60 in.
Gift of Joseph T. and Jane Joel Knox, 2008.42
Lotus and Laurel is a distinctly Greek- and Roman-inspired painting. On the far left, we see two women watching the scene unfold; a man carrying a rust-colored amphora is directly behind them. In the middle of the painting are two female figures in loose dresses that appear to be a part of the group. On the far right two shadowy figures can be observed; the hooded figure is dressed in a loose grey gown and seems to exude mystery. The youth appears to look back at the womanly figures before preparing to turn and walk beyond the boundaries of the painting.
Henry Prellwitz crafted this painting in 1904 using oil on canvas.The painting’s ethereal quality is achieved through the soft brushstrokes used in combination with lighter color tones. These brushstrokes combined with darker shades make the figures seem less defined and more mysterious. Prellwitz used dark overtones most prominently on the right side of the painting to amplify this mysteriousness. The identity of the hooded figure on the far right of the piece is particularly uncertain because of the dark shadow cast upon the face.
Luckily, we have the artist’s own words to help us begin to interpret the work. While Lotus and Laurel was being displayed at the world’s fair in Missouri in 1904, Prellwitz submitted a statement for the fair’s official history book to give background on his motivations. He stated that “the youth, clad like a pilgrim on the stony road to Fortune, encounters the maids of pleasure… . As he seems about to turn to the life of music, wine and love, Ambition, holding aloft the laurel wreath, recalls him.” With this succinct summary, the gestures of the figures of Lotus and Laurel fall into place—the women are trying to entice the youth to stay. The youth’s pose is perhaps the most significant. By placing him just about to turn, Prellwitz conveys both the youth’s reluctance to leave and his sense of ambition and responsibility as he sets off on the “stony road to Fortune.”
Ultimately, Lotus and Laurel is a masterful piece of art, but also a fitting tribute to Greek and Roman styles of dress; similar depictions of classical dress can be found in the Ancient Art Galleries of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I personally was attracted to the piece because of its resemblance to Roman painting. I was surprised to find it in the American Galleries, but after reading the label I learned there was an American Renaissance when these types of paintings were abundant! I think the combination of the content and the allusions in the painting make it a successful work.
1. O’Leary, Elizabeth L. et al. American Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2010.
Fun fact!: Henry Prellwitz’s wife, Edith, was a prominent American painter as well!
Whadda ya know?!?: Are there any other artworks in the museum that remind you of the Greeks and Romans?
Want to know more?:
For more information on the artist and this specific painting, visit http://pinkney.cov.virginia.gov/default.asp?IDCFile=%2Fvmfa%2FDETAILS.IDC%2CSPECIFIC%3D21993%2CDATABASE%3D35049646.
For more information about the time period in which Prellwitz worked, visit http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=11®ion=na.