A Postcolonial Analysis of Carmen Herrera’s Untitled (c. 2012)

Near the end of the twentieth century, revisions concerning postcolonial theories of Said and Nochlin occurred. Rather than focusing on strict binaries, theorists considered that issues of postcolonialism were more complicated because the colonial experience is not only complex but also ambiguous. The colonized and the colonizer were plays in various locations—psychological, philosophical, geographical, social, political, and economic—and these theorists desired to examine the space in between the colonized and colonizer. This paper will provide a postcolonial analysis of Carmen Herrera’s Untitled (c. 2012), using the theories of Homi Bhaba, Gaytri Chakravorty Spivak, and David Carven to reveal the hybridity that occurs in this piece of art.

Figure 1. Carmen Herrera, Untitled, c. 2012, acrylic and pencil on paper, 50 x 70 cm.

Homi Bhaba wrote “Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” in 1984, which focused on mimicry, or how the colonized are compelled to imitate the colonizer through language, religion, and so forth in order to be considered civilized. Bhaba believes that there is a place of empowerment for the colonized—to talk back or to mimic—which becomes a form of mockery. For Bhaba, he wants us to consider what it means for both parties, the colonized and the colonizer, to exhibit mimicry. Carmen Herrera’s Untitled (c. 2012) shows this mimicry happening. The painting has strong diagonal lines, creating a dynamic, exciting work to look at. The bottom left is red, while the other half is crisp white. The strong diagonal line does not meet at opposite corners but slightly before, which creates a balancing type of effect. Then we see two rectangular shapes in the center of the painting, both interrupting the blocks of color; on the white area, there is a prominent red box, and on the red area, a white box appears. It looks like cut outs—a cookie cut out—and then the reversal of colors in their respective areas. However, the blocks still connect, making the line continue on, otherwise uninterrupted.

This painting has a Bhaban influence of mimicry. Here each colored area could represent the colonizer and the colonized. Each box mimics the other, just as the colonized mimics the colonizer and vice versa. Yet each can never fully become the other, which is why there is no pink in the painting or the boxes. The colonized can never truly be white because of their skin color; similarly, the colonizer can never be fully native because of their Western traditions, religion, birth, etc.

Gaytri Chakravorty Spivak, an Indian theorist, wrote “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in 1988, which is one of the most popular essays in postcolonial readings. The subaltern is inferior and the colonizer cannot even imagine the subaltern existing or acknowledge them as a discrete, autonomous entity. She uses a geographical metaphor here and has an Indian perspective because of the Indian social castes and the specific expectations of how to conduct life for each caste. Spivak wonders if there is any way for the subaltern to be heard or if they can make a difference if the subaltern are not acknowledged, are not cohesive, are scattered and fragmentary, and do not have a social, political, or economic presence. Therefore, if the subaltern has no history, then they cannot speak. The way of being in the West includes a history—something visible or written—which in turn creates identity. Because Westerners have a history, then they can be acknowledged and heard. Yet so many of these subaltern peoples do not become registered because they lack the forms and abilities of visibility that Westerners claim are necessary to be seen and heard.

In this painting, there is tension between the red and the white blocks. If the red area represented the subaltern, the red block could represent a section of that society who wished to be heard and acknowledged. However, as mentioned before, there is no pink in this painting; if there were any pink, then we could assume that the subaltern was heard and acknowledged. Instead, the red is isolated and alone, continuing in its in-acknowledgment. Additionally, the painting is outlines with a gray line; there continues to be white surrounding the painting and then the frame. This suggests that the subaltern (i.e., the red area) could be ignored because it is surrounded and overlooked by the colonizers (i.e., the white areas). Yet the red actually stands out in this painting, and even though the colonizers can attempt to ignore the subaltern, the colonized can still find a voice and demand to be heard.

David Carven, an art historian, wrote about Pollock and Abstract Expressionism, which was seen as the great, American movement. Yet Carven saw this as problematic because the First Nation People were not acknowledged and neither was their art. If Native American art is acknowledged, it is re-colonized or re-appropriated. Additionally, Carven found the focus on the very closed-knit circle of male, heteronormative, white men based in New York problematic, since it did not recognize the international element of this movement, which occurred in South American and other places. This movement was much more global than we acknowledge, yet we continue to only focus on those artists and the cannon that we have formed. The movements themselves and the way that we define these movements shows colonialism. Carmen Herrara was largely ignored during her life time and now, over 100 years old, she is finally receiving recognition.

Herrara’s obscurity as a painter has been the case for most of her life. She is a Cuban-American artist who also lived in Paris, which shows hybridity. She trained at New York’s Art Students League and would later have exhibitions at four different times at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris from 1949 to 1953. In 1954, she moved to New York, where she continues to live and work today. She has works in the following collections and museums: Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Tate Collection, London; the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC; The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. In the article “Carmen Herrera on Her Centennial,” published 19 November 2015, it reads, “Herrera’s body of work has established, quietly but steadily, a cross-cultural dialogue within the international history of modernist abstraction.” Despite her successes, she is finally receiving recognition. Herrera, as an artist, could represent the subaltern, or even a hybrid of Cuban and American cultures, who is finally being heard.

The artist, Carmen Herrera, shown here.


A Psychocritical Analysis of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Door with Snow

Georgia O’Keeffe is well known for her paintings of zoomed-in, detailed flowers. Often these paintings are compared to vaginas, which would lead towards an easy analysis for a psychocritical analysis of the artist and her work. However, this paper will present a psychocritical analysis on O’Keeffe’s Black Door with Snow, which was created in 1955, using the concepts of the Neo-Freudian Karen Danielsen Horney. This painting enables the viewers to have a male perspective and better understand the concept of “womb envy,” thus enabling us to see the Western social and cultural constructs of male psyche.


Georgia O’Keeffe is shown here.

Horney, who lived from 16 September 1885 until 4 December 1952, was a German Neo-Freudian. This Neo-Freudian discipline was formed by Alfred Adler and Horney together, although Horney is often overlooked. She practiced in the United States of America later on in her career and presented theories which questioned Freud’s theories. Horney, one of the first psychiatrists who was female, founded the feminist psychology in response to Freud’s patriarchal theory and disagreed with Freud, arguing that differences in psychology among men and women occur because of society and culture instead of biology.


Here is a photograph of Karen Danielsen Horney.

Horney believed that sex and aggression were not the main ingredients in creating personality. Horney disagreed with Freud’s concept of “penis envy,” arguing that Freud only figured that women were jealous of male power in the world. Neurotic women might desire to have penises, but Horney introduces the idea of “womb envy”—that men are envious of women’s ability to bear children. Additionally, she argues that men are envious of women because women are able to “fulfill” their role in society by simply “being,” since women can become pregnant and give birth. In contrast, men must look externally to satisfy their need to be productive, and men think they must achieve manhood through the ability to provide and succeed. The focus on the male sexual organ was puzzling to Horney. For her, men were envious of pregnancy, nursing, and motherhood, which led to men making claims of superiority in other areas of life, specifically the workforce. Therefore, by reformulating Freudian thought, Horney presents a more humanist perspective on the human psyche, emphasizing on social and cultural differences.


Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Door with Snow, 1955.

Black Door with Snow is beautifully painted with neutral colors. The sharp diagonal lines in the painting add drama to the piece. A deeply tan wall stands bare and unadorned, and in the top left hand corner, we see a glimpse of a grey sky. Perhaps we, the viewers, are walking towards the house, looking to the opening from the side rather from directly in the front. This wall is both protective as well as inviting, drawing the viewers towards the entrance of the black doorframe. What stands out on this austere exterior are the snowflakes. As a female artist of New Mexico, it seems strange that she chose to depict snow. These snowflakes do not appear to be real snow but rather dabs of abstraction. Instead, they look more like falling white flowers or tissues from an unknown source. Interestingly, the snowflakes on or close to the ground are not white but rather a pink shade, which are next to the orange-red of the stones before the door.

This painting could be representative of womb envy, or the envious feelings that men feel towards women’s ability to create life. The tan wall looks almost like smooth skin, perhaps both sides of the legs spreading open for the black entrance, becoming symbolic of the vagina. Because we do not see the entrance directly but from an angle, perhaps we are experiencing the male gaze and perspective. Men, for Horney, experience womb envy, yet patriarchal society has many misconceptions and taboos about female anatomy. We see a sharp binary between the white—of the snowflakes—and the black—of the doorframe/vagina. In our Western patriarchal society, men and women are often seen as binaries, thus suggesting the black as women (represented by the female anatomy) and white as men (represented by a whole instead of a part, as with the women here). This is not a sexual depiction, and there are no phallic symbols here. Instead, although men may enter the vagina during sexual intercourse and be a part of the woman, this is only momentarily. Men never truly experience what is like to have a vagina or give birth. Just as the snowflakes stay out of the house so do men stay separated from women biologically because men lack vaginas and cannot experience pregnancy and birth. As a result, tension arises from this lacking, which is portrayed through the strong diagonal lines. Because women have their roles biologically assigned internally, men feel the need to search for purpose externally, reinforced by the painting of the snow remaining on the outside.


Western women can be labeled derogatorily based on their anatomy, and female anatomy is sometimes considered ugly or less developed in Western society. The splotches of color before the doorframe are pink, orange, and red, which could be connected with menstruation. A woman’s monthly bleeding occurs when the lining of the uterus or womb is shed. The menstrual blood passes through the cervix and out of the body through the vagina. On heavier days, the color is more red, while on lighter days, the color is pink. Sometimes menstrual fluid, which is often referred to as blood, is sometimes a darker color, black or brown, which means that the blood is flowing out of the body at a slower rate. This change in color is normal. However, menstrual fluids can sometimes be orange, which means that the bright red menstrual blood becomes mixed with fluids from the cervix; as a result of this mixture, the menstrual blood appears orange with red streaks, and this color can be associated with infections and should be inspected by a doctor.

Although men may experience womb envy, they may not actually fully comprehend the responsibilities and associations that happen with having female anatomy. Additionally, men are commonly disgusted with the mere mention of menstruation, let alone the actual fact that it occurs naturally with most women. The orange splotches could represent a disease—here meaning the widespread problems with Western men and how they talk about and try to control female bodies. Something here is strange: How do we account for the pink snowflakes on the ground? Perhaps these pink spots are representative of men, who may still have womb envy, but are tolerant and even understanding of female anatomy and its natural processes. Rather than dismissing women and their problems with menstruation, men can potentially be sympathetic with biological differences and what occurs naturally, even if men do not have vaginas. If sympathy is possible, this tolerance can be extended to other areas of gender inequality, presenting a societal construct that can be changed rather than a biological stagnation.


Birth of the Field of Art History

The birth of the field of art history is largely due to Winckelmann (1717–68), a German art historian called “The Father of Art History and Archaeology.” He was the first scholar to write a history of art rather than artist biographies and wrote The History of the Art of Antiquity, published in 1764. His book impacted the field of art history because Winckelmann redefined this field, contrasting the differences of ancient and modern cultures. Therefore, his text is seen as foundational during a time when art history was becoming an established discipline.



The objects he focuses on are Greek sculptures, which he molds as the cultural ideal and foundation of antiquity that seemed at odds with modern perspectives. As an eloquent writer, Winckelmann analyzes these ancient sculptures. Of course, he is a product of his time, reflecting the Enlightenment concern of the progress and decline in ancient and contemporary culture.

Winckelmann’s writing differs from earlier writings about ancient art. First, his writing is ambitious because he was concerned with art history in relation to external circumstances. His writing contributed to not only the wealthy buying masterpieces but also the less wealthy pilgrimaging for aesthetic education in Italy.

Second, his text emphasized on analyzing the visual and style. This approach would influence later art historians attempting to understand the aesthetic qualities of artworks depending on the social and cultural circumstances of the time when they were created. Winckelmann sought to distinguish true Greek art versus Roman and modern copies. However, now some of these are seen as Greco-Roman copies.


Apollo Belvedere statue

For example, the Apollo Belvedere statue, claimed by Winckelmann to be the finest surviving examples of the Greek ideal, is actually Roman. Therefore, art of antiquity was seen as part of the history and the development of various styles.

Although Winckelmann stands out as a unique figure in the birth of the field of art history, other figures from 1650 through 1830 also impacted this emerging field. Fellow German scholar and writer Lessing also loved antiquity.

Lessing critiques Winckelmann’s analysis of the sculpture Laocoon and his sons created around 25 BCE and argues his own thoughts, which presents “entering the conversation” about a specific artwork from the beginning of art history. Although both Lessing and Winckelmann have Neoclassical and Platonic tendencies, their theories present unique German perspectives because of the events occurring in Germany and the country’s separate states. By looking back to antiquity, these German scholars paved the way for the future of art history as a field of study.


Laocoon and his sons statue

Both Kant and Burke became central figures in the history of art during the Romantic period. Kant, a German philosopher, reflects the culmination of the debate of Beauty and Taste in the eighteenth century as well as the target for later perceptions of aesthetics. Kant’s concept of the artist genius—who could express, enrich, and communicate understanding and experience in such a way that normal discourse could not—would continue throughout the Romantic period. The Irish-born British statesman and writer Edmund Burke acknowledged the aesthetic value of art, which was based not from imitation or idealization alone but also from emotions. Also, he explored the sublime, the impressions of awe and how tranquility was shadowed with horror. As a result, Burke expanded the art cannon of what could be considered to have Beauty.

The Earl of Shaftsbury, Reynolds, and Diderot influenced the birth of the history of art, as well. As the “Father of Aesthetics,” the Earl of Shaftsbury considered aesthetics as a separate branch of human experience that presented an interrelationship of morality and beauty. He believed that the development of an interest in fine arts would result in the improvement of the general level of British morality and politeness. Therefore, in order to develop interest in art, creating a history of art would be necessary.

Reynolds argued that studying great ancient art was more important than natural talent. Once again, in order to study art from the past, a history of art would be needed.

Lastly, from 1759 to 1781, Diderot wrote critical writings about the Salon exhibitions organized by the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. In his writings, Diderot takes his reader beyond mere description and judgment in order to discuss art as well as truth, nature, and morality. Thus, Diderot’s writings present a study of art, its history, and the questions that we continue to ask today.


Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture

Agnes Block—Mother Figure, Property Owner, and Working Woman: Comparing Netherlandish Female and Male Artists’ Family Portraits in the Seventeenth Century

Agnes Block[1] was an eminent paper artist, illustrator, horticulturalist, and patron of the arts in Amsterdam.[2] In 1649, Block married for the first time to Hans de Wollf, who was a silk merchant. She reportedly studied, read, drew, painted, and sculpted, and when she drew, she preferred flower beds and arbors because they were important to her.[3] In fact, Joost van den Vondel wrote poems about how she could draw and paint beautifully.[4] Jan Weenix painted a portrait of Block and her family titled Agnes Block, Sybrand de Flines and two children in the outdoor courtyard Vijverhof,[5] presenting Block, her second husband, and two children (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Jan Weenix, Agnes Block, Sybrand de Flines and two children in the outdoor courtyard Vijverhof, 1674 (?).

Scholars argue concerning who these children are, since no offspring resulted from either of Block’s marriages. It is important to consider how portraits present perspectives of the individuals portrayed, sending a message about their socioeconomic background, elegance, and family to the viewers. Although these children could be Block’s stepchildren or her niece and nephew, the children could be allegorical of Block’s ability to be not only a mother figure but also a working woman and property owner. The portrayal of Block and her family portrait subverts societal expectations of women and the identity of the family, which are also portrayed in other family portraits of Netherlandish male and female artists.

Block’s Family Portrait
The date of this family portrait is debated. Albert Blanken believed the painting was created much later in Block’s life.[6] In contrast, Catharina Van de Graft, the biographer of Block, argues that the painting was created in 1674 because Block married de Flines, who was a silk merchant like her first husband, during this year; therefore, this portrait could be commemorative of their wedding. On the actual portrait, the third number of the year is not readable, explaining the differences in scholarly opinions.[7] Block’s second husband had two daughters from a previous marriage: Elizabeth (1662–1717) and Anna (1661–1713). However, in 1674, the two daughters would have been twelve and thirteen years old, which is older than the two children shown here (Fig. 1). Nevertheless, if Jan Weenix did paint the portrait at a later date, it would still be problematic because the girls would have either been depicted as adults or shown as prepubescent teenagers, not children.[8]

While the children could be de Flines’ daughters, the portrait could be depicting a girl and a boy rather than two girls. If this is the case, then the children are probably not de Flines’, since he only had two daughters. It is possible that the children are a nephew and a niece of either Agnes Block or de Flines.[9] Block, not de Flines, determined who would become heirs and continue her legacy; however, throughout her life, Block struggled with creating a will, changing it over ten times. During this time, family members entered and fell out of favor with their aunt. In her will from 1694, Block required that her heir must purchase Vijverhof, the property she owned with the garden depicted in the family portrait (Fig. 1). However, after Block died on 20 April 1704, none of the cousins wanted to buy it. As a result, Vijverhof was sold, the gardens disappeared, and the house destroyed in 1813.[10]

Although the children’s identity are unknown, we see an amalgamation of Block’s material successes. Block, a skilled botanist and breeder of rare and exotic plants, was the first person to successfully grow the foreign fruit of pineapple in the Dutch Republic. In the left hand corner of the painting, a spiky, squat pineapple is depicted in addition to a cactus.[11] Her plants and flowers in Vijverhof came from all over the world—some seeds came from America or Asia. Educated male visitors, including a professor of botany and a German physician, observed her gardens.[12] In the painting, we see poinsettia-looking flowers with long red leaves and smaller white blossoms on either side of the sitting child. In the background, an orange tree and a pomegranate tree are shown. During the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, domestic scenes were commonly depicted in art because “the domestic interior . . . was a reflection of Christian principles in an ordered setting and the roles of women in the home.”[13] Additionally, Laurinda S. Dixon argues, “[D]omesticity was a moral imperative imposed on women from without.”[14] This portrait is one of the few from the seventeenth century that portrays the client’s yard rather than inside of the home, subverting the traditional portrait and expectations of women. Block is not portrayed as being amoral, even though the scene is portrayed outside. Therefore, the background of the portrait could represent what Vijverhof actually looked like.[15]

When the painting was created could influence whether or not this is an actual portrayal of how Block’s property looked. After her first husband’s death in February 1670, Block bought her own land along the River Vecht in July of that same year. The beautiful Vijverhof included an orangery, buildings, orchards, gardens, and areas of water. However, the work was delayed in 1672 because of war. We do not know how much of Block’s property was completed or when the construction began again. If the painting was dated 1674—a mere two years after work was stopped, it is possible that Vijverhof was still not finished. Block’s home was fortunately spared from the damages of war, but her flower beds were empty, and her joy was marred by broken statues in the spring of 1674.[16] If some of Block’s gardens were not constructed or were damaged from the war, the painting could represent what Block hoped the rest of her property would look like one day.[17] Just as the background of the portrait could represent an imagined, hoped-for Vijverhof, the children in the portrait could also represent hoped-for children.

With Block’s property, works of art, and plants all portrayed, it could seem that the inclusion of family would make the painting overflow with figures and details. However, we see two children, a husband, and a wife, representing what was expected for a “traditional” family unit. De Jongh argues Block adopted the view that imperfect nature had to be perfected by human ingenuity.[18] We see Block’s ingenuity here at work to create a perfect image of herself. Block presents herself as a woman who could have it all, so she would be seen as the hard-working, independent woman, the devoted wife, and the caring mother—or mother figure—even if she never had any children of her own.

The Perception of Widows
The mystery children in the portrait could represent Block’s hope of the future or her mourning of the past she never had. Block was approximately forty-five years old when she remarried. Dating the portrait at 1674 would suggest the possibilities of the future—a new marriage, a new life, and a new legacy. Menopause can affect women at various ages; although we do not know when Block experienced menopause, some women can bear children in their forties. By extension of the portrait, it could suggest the hope “which children were to fulfil in the future”[19] or the hope of conception. On the other hand, dating the portrait around 1694 could represent the fact that the elderly Block knew, near the end of her life, she would never have any children of her own.

Jacob Cats’s Houwelyck, which was published originally in 1625 and was the second bestseller after the Bible, discusses the stages of a woman’s life and includes a chapter on widowhood. This book represents commonly held beliefs and opinions of the day. In the Dutch Republic, portraits of elderly women often focused on their spirituality. Widows were expected to bridle their passions because the elderly were expected to be better at controlling themselves than the younger generation.[20] However, in Block’s family portrait, Block—although not a young woman—is a widow; nevertheless, she is not portrayed as overly pious (e.g., she is not depicted as praying or reading scripture). Additionally, widows were examples not only to young women who were about to marry but also to married women on how to interact with their husbands and rear their children.[21] The words widow and mentor were synonymous in the perspective of the Dutch, yet Block would not have completely fit that mold. Yes, she was a widow and did not bear any children, and thus she had no experience raising children.

Whoever the children are in the portrait, Block appears to accept and take on the appearance of role model and mother figure. Nevertheless, she complicates the role proscribed by patriarchal values and expectations in early modern Europe and re-fashions herself into who she is and how she wants to be seen. Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare centers around how people believed they had malleable roles and identities in life during sixteenth-century England.[22] Similarly, Block sees herself as having malleable roles and how that influences the depiction of her family and her in the portrait (Fig. 1). The following sections will compare and contrast Block’s family portrait with other portraits of Netherlandish male and female artists during the seventeenth century.

Male Artists’ Family Portraits
In contrast to the portrait of Agnes Block, we see family portraits of artists, sometimes with or without children. The Artist with his Family (c. 1646–47), a self-portrait by Karel van Mander III, depicts no children—only his wife and mother-in-law are shown (Fig. 2). His wife reads the Bible, while her mother does needlework. Both women appear to be pious and respectable. In contrast, family portraits of other artists do include children in the picture. In Cornelis Dusart’s Jan Steen and Family, we see a nagging wife, while Jan Steen, the artist, tries to work (Fig. 3). A boy kneels before the father with a puppy in hand, trying to distract the father who is turning away from the wife, pestering him from behind. Additionally, there is another child in the background who appears to be riffling through the father’s paintings. This portrayal suggests that the wife should be taking care of the children so the husband can focus on his work, the painting resting on the easel.

Figure 2. Karel van Mander III, The Artist with his Family, 1646–47.

Figure 3. Cornelis Dusart, Jan Steen and Family, date unknown.

Figure 3. Cornelis Dusart, Jan Steen and Family, date unknown.

The family portraits of Karel van Mander III and Jan Steen are different from Block’s family portrait. Block’s family portrait includes the children in the painting, but Block is not shown as being distracted or unable to complete her work, as in Steen’s family portrait. Children are portrayed in her family portrait, unlike van Mander’s, while Block efficaciously displays her accomplishments from her collection, such as shells and butterflies, without overcrowding the painting with too many knick knacks. Block appears to be more successful than the male artists because she seemingly can do both with neither her work nor the children suffering. The children appear to be happy (e.g., the smiling faces of both children) and loved (e.g., the girl and Block’s affectionate interaction). Additionally, the children do not rummage through her things or interrupt her, showing that she has been able to work, create drawings, and establish her own home in a peaceful environment. Although she may not be the ideal role model (i.e., a woman with children of her own), Block is still portrayed as a successful mother figure.

Figure 4. Peter Paul Rubens, Rubens, His Wife Hélène Fourment, and Their Son Peter Paul, probably late 1630s.

In other family portraits of Netherlandish artists, we see the portrayal of blending new families together, such as if one spouse died and the remaining spouse remarried. For example, Rubens’s first wife died, and he remarried a woman named Hélène Fourment. The painting by Rubens called Rubens, His Wife Hélène Fourment, and Their Son Peter Paul shows him at a new stage of his life (Fig. 4).[23]

There is no attention shown here to children from the first marriage[24] or other children from the second marriage. Rather, the focus is on the new family Rubens has created; Hélène Fourment was only sixteen and Rubens was fifty-three when they married. They are shown together, Rubens staring at Fourment, who is looking down at the child, who is gazing up at his mother. Rather than painting all of his children from both marriages, he painted only his youngest son. This painting does not represent a blending of the entire family; rather, it represents a specific portrayal of Rubens with his second wife and youngest son.

Figure 5. Michiel van Musscher, Portrait of Michiel Comans (d. 1687), calligrapher, etcher, painter and schoolmaster, with his third wife Elisabeth van der Mersche, 1669.

Another example of an artist’s family portrait without children is Portrait of Michiel Comans (d. 1687), calligrapher, etcher, painter and schoolmaster, with his third wife Elisabeth van der Mersche by Michiel van Musscher, which was painted in 1669 (Fig. 5).

We see no children in this family portrait because both figures are older. The woman represented here is the artist’s third wife. Therefore, because of their age and time of life, it is possible that no children resulted from this marriage. As with Rubens, rather than showing a portrait of the entire family with children from previous marriages, we see Comans and his third wife together, perhaps commemorating their new union. Additionally, we see Comans’s work as an artist, with his brushes, palette with color swatches, and painting on an easel in the background. In contrast, his wife is shown reading, perhaps the Bible, which would be similar to van Mander’s wife in that family portrait (Fig. 2). As a result, Comans proudly presents his work and gazes directly into the viewers’ eyes, while the wife merely sits to the side and piously looks up to her husband. At this time, the Netherlandish tradition was to portray no children or show only one child rather than all the children. If the children in the Block’s family portrait would not have been included, it would not have been considered extraordinary. Rather it appears that the inclusion of children is a deliberate decision.


Figure 6. Wallerant Vaillant, Maria van Oosterwyck, 1671.

Female Artists’ Family Portraits
Female artists who are married or single portray themselves differently in portraits. To begin with, the Netherlandish, unmarried female artists are at greater liberty to represent themselves for three reasons. First, they do not have to include husbands in their paintings. Second, they do not have to include children because having children out of wedlock in a Protestant society would be scandalous, perhaps even detrimental to their careers. Third, they can focus on representing themselves in association to their profession. For example, Wallerant Vaillant’s Maria van Oosterwyck (c. 1671) depicts a representation of this female artist, van Oosterwyck (Fig. 6).

While she never married nor had any children, we see a pallet with paint colors and several brushes in her left hand. Additionally, in her lap, we see a book, which could possibly be the Bible, and her right hand is in the process of turning to the next page. Therefore, we, as the viewers, learn how van Oosterwyck wanted us to perceive her. She is portrayed as an educated, pious woman who identifies as an artist and is proud of her work. Because she is single, she does not have responsibility or societal expectation to portray herself as a wife or a mother.


Figure 7. Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, 1630.

Another female artist from the Netherlands is Judith Leyster, who painted a portrait of herself while she was a single woman. Her Self-Portrait (c. 1630) depicts Leyster in the middle of her work with a painting, turning around with numerous brushes in hand (Fig. 7).

Because she is an unmarried woman, she does not have to conform to societal expectations and portray herself as a mother or wife. In contrast, Jan Miense Molenaer’s The Duet (c. 1635–36) depicts a marriage portrait of a couple who are believed to be Leyster and her husband (Fig. 8). Nothing is shown here of Leyster’s work as an artist. Instead, Molenaer is significantly taller, and the hat exaggerates his height in comparison to Leyster, even though both are sitting down. Molenaer was an artist, like his wife, so there is the possibility he felt he was in competition with his wife.

Figure 8. Jan Miense Molenaer, The Duet, 1635–36

Figure 8. Jan Miense Molenaer, The Duet, 1635–36.

Figure 9. Juriaen Pool II, Self-portrait of Juriaen Pool with Rachel Ruysch and their son Jan Willem Pool, 1716 or first quarter of 18th century (1700–1724).

Figure 9. Juriaen Pool II, Self-portrait of Juriaen Pool with Rachel Ruysch and their son Jan Willem Pool, 1716 or first quarter of 18th century (1700–1724).

Another example to consider is Rachel Ruysch (c. 1664–1750), a famous still-life painter. Juriaen Pool II’s Self portrait of Juriaen Pool with Rachel Ruysch and their son Jan Willem Pool (c. 1716 or first quarter of 18th century) is a self-portrait painted by Ruysch’s husband (Fig. 9).

We see a pyramid structure with Pool at the apex and Ruysch at a lower level than her husband. The child, a son, appears to be standing or kneeling, but since he is a child, he is smaller than both parents. We still see a hierarchy with the tallest figure being the man as husband and father, while the woman is placed at a lower level as wife and mother. However, there is still a subtle reference to Ruysch’s work as an artist. Because Ruysch leans away from Pool and rests her arm on the table, the focus is drawn towards the floral arrangement to the side of her. We may not see paintbrushes or any specific representation of her artwork. However, the positioning still shrewdly draws attention to Ruysch’s identity as an artist, since she was well-known for her still-life paintings, specifically of floral arrangements.

Figure 10. Anthony van Dyck, Family Portrait, 1621

Figure 10. Anthony van Dyck, Family Portrait, 1621.

Male artists and female artists are depicted differently in family portraits. Male artists are depicted as taller or larger than everyone else. In van Dyck’s Family Portrait (c. 1621), van Dyck’s wife appears to be sitting with a child on her lap; in contrast, van Dyck does not seem to be sitting but sort of leans awkwardly forward (Fig. 10).

However, van Dyck’s wife and child are still lower in comparison. Additionally, the child looks up to the father in complete adoration.[25] This portrayal contrasts to Rubens’s family portrait of the mother and child looking at one another (Fig. 4). By showing van Dyck’s young child staring devotedly up to the father, the focus is on van Dyck, and the eye immediately is drawn to that corner of the painting. Another example to consider is Jacob Jordaens’s Portrait of the Artist’s Family in the Garden (c. 1623) (Fig. 11). The wife, servant, and child seem to be separated from Jordaens by an invisible line, creating a clear distinction between the man, standing taller above the others, and the rest of the household. With the family portraits of van Dyck and Jordaens, there is no direct representation of themselves as artists (e.g., no brushes or paint is depicted). Yet these two male artists were more well-known—van Dyck, internationally, and Jordaens, in Flanders—perhaps than some Netherlandish female artists and, therefore, did not need to depict their identity as artists.

Figure 11. Jacob Jordaens, Portrait of the Artist’s Family in the Garden, 1623

Figure 11. Jacob Jordaens, Portrait of the Artist’s Family in the Garden, 1623.

Unlike the male artists, these three female artists discussed in the previous paragraphs had to compensate. As an independent woman, van Oosterwyck could work as a painter but was never a wife or mother and could not identify as either (Fig. 6). Leyster seems less independent and confident in the portrait with her husband because her identity as artist is not portrayed, and she is placed physically lower than her husband (Fig. 7). Ruysch’s position is more complicated because although her work is hinted at, she is still placed lower than her husband (Fig. 8). In contrast to these three female artists, Block’s portrait of her family is different. Block herself was an artist and that is shown dominantly in the painting. We see a drawing of a bird, and since she is the one holding the painting or drawing of the bird in her left hand, that seems to suggest a connection between Block and the drawing. Although we do not know for certain if this specific drawing is an exact replication of one of her pieces, it could generally represent her work and study. The book that is bound with two leather straps could be a portfolio of her drawings of plants and animals, suggesting that perhaps this drawing of the bird was one selected from amongst her collection. In the family portrait, depicting children shows Block as a mother figure and role model, while depicting her work reveals her identity as a botanist and an artist.

In the Dutch Republic, if the boundaries of the world and the home were not strictly observed, people expected trouble within the family and in society.[26] But this strict distinction does not seem to be a problem with Block and de Flines. De Jongh claims that de Flines and Block’s marriage must have been in the minority of seventeenth-century marriages because their view of the position of women, in many respects, was not inferior to that of men. Block and de Flines appear to have had a unique relationship built on greater equality and encouragement. Although her husband is shown standing, it is Block who is center stage, and she plays the prevailing role in this family portrait.[28] She is not merely some woman, but she is the mother figure, the wife, the role model as well as the property owner, the artist, and the botanist.

Family portraits represent the identity of the family as an essential unit in society, especially in the Netherlands. Sometimes children are shown, sometimes a single child is included, or none are depicted. If the artist is a female, her work may or may not be suggested in the painting, which could depend on her marital status. Yet Block’s family portrait is unique when compared to the others because Block challenges societal expectations of women of the Netherlands. We see a woman who takes on her role as a mother figure, while also embracing her pride of her property and of her work as a botanist and an artist.


[1] Agnes is sometimes called Agneta Block instead. However, in this paper, she will consistently be referred to as Agnes Block.

[2] Jennifer M. Killian, “Weenix: (2) Jan Weenix,” Oxford Art Online, 22 October 2015, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T090961pg2?q=%22Agnes+Block%22&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit.

[3] Marioes Huiskamp, “Block, Agneta (1629–1704),” Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland, 22 October 2015, http://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/vrouwenlexicon/lemmata/data/Block.

[4] John Landwehr, De Nederlander Uit En Thus: Spiegel van het dagelijkse leven uit bijzondere zeventiende-eeuwse boeken, (Amsterdam: A. W. Sitjthoff, 1981), 114.

[5] This painting is also known as Portrait of Sijbrand de Flines, Agnes Block and two children. Another title for the piece is Agneta Block and her garden Flora Batava at Vijveho.

[6] Eddy de Jongh, Portretten van echt en trouw: Huwelijk en gezin in de Nederlandse kunst van de zeventiende eeuw (Zwolle; Haarlem: Waanders; Frans Hals Museum, 1986), 265.

[7] Marioes Huiskamp, “Block, Agneta (1629–1704),” Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland, 22 October 2015, http://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/vrouwenlexicon/lemmata/data/Block.

[8] “Portrait of Sijbrand de Flines (1623–1697), Agnes Block (1629–1704) and two children Amsterdam, Amsterdam Museum, inv./can.nr SA20359,” Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, 21 October 2015, https://rkd.nl/en/ explore/images/record?query=Agnes+Block&start=0.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Marioes Huiskamp, “Block, Agneta (1629–1704),” Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland, 22 October 2015, http://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/vrouwenlexicon/lemmata/data/Block.

[11] In Amsterdam’s Glory: The Old Masters of the City Amsterdam, Norbert Middelkoop and Tom van der Molen believe that the pineapple is believed to originate from Brazil and the cactus from Curaçao. (See page 84.)

[12] Marioes Huiskamp, “Block, Agneta (1629–1704),” Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland, 22 October 2015, http://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/vrouwenlexicon/lemmata/data/Block.

[13] Katherine Hoffman, Concepts of Identity: Historical and Contemporary Images and Portraits of Self and Family, (New York: IconEditions, 1996), 31.

[14] Laurinda S. Dixon, Perilous Chastity: Women and Illness in Pre-Enlightenment Art and Medicine, (London: Cornell University Press, 1995), 9.

[15] Eddy de Jongh, Portretten van echt en trouw: Huwelijk en gezin in de Nederlandse kunst van de zeventiende eeuw, (Zwolle; Haarlem: Waanders; Frans Hals Museum, 1986), 265.

[16] C. Catharina Van de Graft, Agnes Block: Vondels Nicht en Vriendin, (Utrecht: A. W. Bruna & Zoon’s Uitgevers-Mij, 1943), 66.

[17] Loughman writes, “Dutch depictions of the interior from the seventeenth century provide a skewed impression of what domestic dwellings looked like and how families conducted themselves in these spaces.” Therefore, it is not surprising that artists presented a representation rather than a reality of a particular scene. See John Loughman, “Domestic Bliss? Images of the Family and Home in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Art,” Images of Familial Intimacy in Eastern and Western Art, ed. by Nakamura Toshiharu (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2014), pp. 102–103.

[18] The original statement reads, “Agnes Block lijkt de opvatting te hebben aangehangen dat de onvolkomen natuur door het menselijk vernuft vervolmaakt diende te worden” and comes from Eddy de Jongh, Portretten van echt en trouw: Huwelijk en gezin in de Nederlandse kunst van de zeventiende eeuw (Zwolle; Haarlem: Waanders; Frans Hals Museum, 1986), 266.

[19] Mirjam Neumeister, “Changing Images of Childhood: The Children’s Portrait in Netherlandish Art and Its Influence,” Images of Familial Intimacy in Eastern and Western Art, ed. by Nakamura Toshiharu (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2014), pp. 114–115.

[20] Wayne E. Franits, Paragons of Virtue: Women and Domesticity in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 161.

[21] Ibid, pp. 188–189.

[22] Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980), xiii.

[23] Rubens painted numerous paintings of Hélène Fourment with their children or of Rubens and Hélène together. However, this family portrait is unique because we see Rubens, Hélène, and a child all together. See page 39 of Janice Anderson’s Children in Art (London: Bracken Books, 1996) for information on the attractive painting, Hélène Fourment and Two of Her Children (c. 1635).

[24] Rubens and Isabella Brant, his first wife, had three children, who were named Clara, Nikolaas, and Albert.

[25] This depiction of the child looking up adoringly could be compared to his portrait of James Stuart, Duke of Richmond and Lennox (c. 1634–35), where the greyhound looks up, idolizing its master.


Anthony van Dyck, James Stuart (1612–1655), Duke of Richmond and Lennox, ca. 1634–35.

[26] Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches, (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 400.

[27] The original statement reads, “De echtver- bintenis van De Flines en Agnes Block moet tot die minderheid van zeventiende-eeuwse huwelijken worden gerekend waarin de positie van de vrouw in velerlei opzicht niet voor die van de man onderdeed.,” which comes from Eddy de Jongh, Portretten van echt en trouw: Huwelijk en gezin in de Nederlandse kunst van de zeventiende eeuw (Zwolle; Haarlem: Waanders; Frans Hals Museum, 1986), 266.

[28] Eddy de Jongh, Portretten van echt en trouw: Huwelijk en gezin in de Nederlandse kunst van de zeventiende eeuw (Zwolle; Haarlem: Waanders; Frans Hals Museum, 1986), 266.


Anderson, Janice. Children in Art. London: Bracken Books, 1996.

De Jongh, Eddy. Portretten van echt en trouw: Huwelijk en gezin in de Nederlandse kunst van de zeventiende eeuw. Haarlem: Frans Hals Museum, 1986.

Dixon, Laurinda S. Perilous Chastity: Women and Illness in Pre-Enlightenment Art and Medicine. London: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Franits, Wayne E. Paragons of Virtue: Women and Domesticity in Seventeenth-Century Ducth  Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Hoffman, Katherine. Concepts of Identity: Historical and Contemporary Images and Portraits of Self and Family. New York: IconEditions, 1996.

Huiskamp, Marioes. “Block, Agneta (1629–1704).” Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland. 22 October 2015, http://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/vrouwenlexicon/lemmata/data/Block.

Killian, Jennifer M. “Weenix: (2) Jan Weenix.” Oxford Art Online. 22 October 2015. http://www.oxfordartonline.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T090961pg2?q=%22Agnes+Block%22&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit.

Landwehr, John. De Nederlander Uit En Thus: Spiegel van het dagelijkse leven uit bijzondere zeventiende-eeuwse boeken. Amsterdam: A. W. Sitjthoff. 1981.

Loughman, John. “Domestic Bliss? Images of the Family and Home in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Art.” Images of Familial Intimacy in Eastern and Western Art. Edited by Nakamura Toshiharu. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2014.

Middelkoop, Norbert, and Tom van der Molen. Amsterdam’s Glory: The Old Masters of the City of Amsterdam. Amsterdam: Thoth Publishers Bussum. 2009.

Neumeister, Mirjam. “Changing Images of Childhood: The Children’s Portrait in Netherlandish Art and Its Influence.” Images of Familial Intimacy in Eastern and Western Art. Edited by Nakamura Toshiharu. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2014.

“Portrait of Sijbrand de Flines (1623–1697), Agnes Block (1629–1704) and two children Amsterdam, Amsterdam Museum, inv./can.nr SA20359.” Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie. 21 October 2015. https://rkd.nl/en/ explore/images/record?query=Agnes+Block&start=0.

Schama, Simon. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Van de Graft, C. Catharina. Agnes Block: Vondels Nicht en Vriendin. Utrecht: A. W. Bruna & Zoon’s Uitgevers-Mij, 1943.

The Age of Modernity—Art History

The age of realism raised the idea of what it meant to be modern. Alcoholism, prostitution, and rampant poverty were results of the industrial revolution. Art and architecture of the modernist period reflected the competing ideas about modernity when speaking of progress and decline for Western Civilization.


Philosopher Georg Simmel addresses “the transition to the individualization of mental and psychic traits which the city occasions in proportion to its size” (134), suggesting “The same factors which have thus coalesced into the exactness and minute precision of the form of life have coalesced into a structure of the highest impersonality; on the other hand, they have promoted a highly personal subjectivity” (132).

Simmel (image from here)

Therefore, in order for a person to preserve a sense of self and security, a person must create barriers. A person creates bubbles in order to be not over-simulated. As a consequence, meaningful relationships are not formed, dehumanizing us from one another. Progress during the modernist period included technology, social justices, and new ideas of expression and technique.


The Year of Revolutions was 1848. France, Italy, and Germany had little small revolutions where the workers rebelled, who found the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels as giving shape or name to the concerns and ideas circulating about the time of social injustices. These revolutions enabled people to explore new ideas about human experiences and rights, impacting the modern world. There was, however, also a decline shown in themes of dehumanization and isolation/alienation. The modern period exhibits these displays of both progress and decline through subject matter, style, sources of inspiration, and mood.

World Fairs enabled people to explore new ideas of other countries and see developments of technology. The Eiffel Tower was built by Gustave Eiffel in Paris in 1889 to commemorate the World’s Fair there.

The Eiffel Tower (image from here)

France desired to build an icon to Modernity, using the latest materials and engineering. This building had no façade or veneer. When going up the tower, the viewer could see how it actually works. At first, Parisians hated it, thinking it ugly. People thought this looked unfinished, that it need to be covered, that it was merely a frame. It was painted different colors in different eras.

The tower was meant to be temporary. It was one of the tallest structures at the time, scaling new heights at 920 feet. There are important religious connotations; the verticality draws the eye upwards into the heavens.


In London, at the Courtauld Gallery, there are several paintings on display from the era of modernity. About Impressionistic art, the exhibit explained that Impressionistic works engaged with the changing nature of modern society because the Impressionists interest in contemporary subjects was expressed through innovative techniques, which aimed to convey a more direct and powerful experience. One named this style impressionistic, but it was originally meant to be a critique. Impressionistic art appeared loose and sketchy in comparison to conventional standards of art. The developments of pre-prepared canvasses and tubes of paint enabled the artists to work out of doors and paint quickly and efficiently.

For example, Monet’s Saint-Lazare Train Station (c. 1877) depicts a nave-like space, suggesting that the train is shutting into a new holy area. Monet does not give the viewer every element and detail but rather the impression of the time, supposing the atmosphere is productive. There is the aspect here of modernity of people coming and going and isolation. The forms of the people are mere shadows. They are not in detail. There is a sense of energy or excitement by the different perspectives though, based off of new knowledge of technology and communication. Monet was not very interested in painting people. There are tighter and looser brushstrokes, indicating the experimentation of the application of paint. Monet, ultimately, was more interested in the urban environment than in painting people very often.

Saint-Lazare Train Station (image from here)

Another example is Degas’s The Rehearsal on Stage (c. 1874). This shows the behind-the-scene look of training very young dancers and the depravations that go on there. Degas offers an oblique perspective. He liked dance in attempts to perfect the sense of moment and movement. His faces of the women were not all that sympathetic. They can be seen in a kind of demoralizing light. Too often women were treated like animals. This contemporary world of the modernity showed progress in Impressionistic art in depicting ideas such as movement and light yet depicted less of the individual, highlighting their isolation from one another.

The Rehearsal on Stage (image from here)

Whistler was loosely associated with the Impressionists. His Nocturne in Black and Gold (The Falling Rocket) (c. 1875) shows a painting of fireworks while on the Thames, which was what Whistler was trying to capture the effects of fireworks.

Nocturne in Black and Gold (The Falling Rocket) (image from here)

Whistler was inspired by Japanese prints, the vertical through of Japanese firework displays, which emerged possibly from World Fairs and other communications and expansions between various countries. The figure down below seemed absolutely indiscriminate and abstract to him, thus dehumanizing, and “More interested in conveying the atmospheric effects than in providing details of the scene, Whistler emphasized creating a harmonious arrangement of shapes and colors on the rectangle of his canvas” (Gardner 831). When the painting was brought to court, Whistler was brought to the stand. The barrister asked how long it took Whistler to knock this thing off. Whistler answered that it took a day but a lifetime to conceptualize. Whistler was essentially saying that art is about conception and about ways of looking at the natural world and finding a wholly new means of expression. The artist must decide the most effective way, which could take a lifetime to learn to see the world in a new way and deconstruct it.


The Courtauld Gallery also had an exhibit on pointillism or divisionist technique. It explained that pointillism relies on the scientific theory that colours are stronger if juxtaposed in small dots instead of being mixed together.

For example, post-Impressionist Seurat’s The Bridge at Courbevoie (c. 1886–7) was an oil on canvas that showed disembodied human figures, giving it a sense of melancholy. The mood was silent and somber, but the scene was tragically beautiful, as well. The blues and different hues meshed together to give it this conflicting scene of beauty and isolation.

The Bridge at Courbevoie (image from here)

Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (c. 1884–86) also reveals these conflicting ideas of modernity. At first glance, it may not appear that anything political is happening here, being simply a beautiful Sunday. But this could reveal socialist practices, with every individual being part of the whole or collective identity and mentality here like in a Utopic space because “La Grande Jatte (the Big Bowl) is an island in the Seine River near Asnieres, one of Paris’s rapidly growing industrial suburbs. Seurat’s painting captures public life on a Sunday—a congregation of people from various classes . . . . Most of the people wear their Sunday best, making class distinctions less obvious” (Gardner 833). By looking at this painting, there is a suggestion that art is harmony or community or well-being. This is displayed not only in the subject matter but also the style of neoimpressionism or pointillism. Every dob of color, about the size of the top of a pencil eraser, is the same size and just as important as the next. The idea is that you are contributing to the whole. There is something meaningful embedded in that practice, raising the question of how much do we understand as viewers. Could this look bleak, frozen, or artificial? Instead of seeing engagement, there seems to be alienation, suggesting the topic for the period of modernity. There was great concern among artists concerning the alienating affects of modern, urban society.

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (image from here)


Some artists were called post-impressionists “Because their art had its roots in Impressionist precepts and methods, but is not stylistically homogenous” (Gardner 831). Artists “By the 1880s, . . . were more systematically examining the properties and the expressive qualities of line, pattern, form, and color” (Gardner 831).

Although Van Gogh is also considered a post-impressionist painter, “in marked contrast to Seurat, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) explored the capabilities of colors and distorted forms to express his emotions as he confronted nature” (Gardner 833). The mood is very solitary in his Le café de nuit (The Night Café(c. 1888).

Le café de nuit (The Night Café) (image from here)

The figures are slumped. They are together but alone in their own thoughts. The bar tender is a specter-like form. The colors are quite dissonant and jarring, arbitrary, or non-naturalistic in color. This is not, of course, the poor design of the interior decorator. The green goes against the red. Van Gogh is trying to capture the mood by trying to talk about the way one could lose one’s mind in the café, through drinking, whoring, gambling, etc. The use of color, or artificial color, creates dissonances. The billiard table is coming down right into the viewer, making this an oppressive work and making the viewer feel uncomfortable. The thick layering of impasto paint comes out so much, adding that physicality or materiality to the painting. The urgency, palpable experience of painting the radiating light is done by short, broken brush strokes. The artificiality of the light adds to the ominous tone. This painting becomes one of decline, of isolation, of loneliness so inherent in Modernist paintings.


The modernist period, a time of progress and of decline, enabled artists to explore new concepts, new techniques, and new styles. This led to the explosion of –isms, even more so than ever before. The modernist ideas of there being no universal truth would lead to the idea that humans can select from millions of different truths to live life by or outright silliness suggested by the Dadaists.

Questions lead by the Modernists of what is good or right and no way of knowing would lead into the idea of there being no hierarchies of value, shown by pop artists of the 1960s. The modernist concern that we can never really know ourselves or others would lead in to the idea of post-modernists about experimenting with multiple selves, as displayed in the art of Surrealists.

The Age of Realism—Art History

Romanticism, 1750–1850, did not die out completely yet tinkered off, while artists continued to pursue romantics ways of viewing the world into the twentieth century. By 1830, there was a rise of a new movement of nineteenth century Realism, which called into question the over-emphasis of passions, irrationality, and subjectivity of the Romantics. Realists wanted a return to an objective framework that was more empirical and systematic, which followed philosopher Comte’s positivism of “promot[ing] science as the mind’s highest achievement and advocate[ing] a purely empirical approach to nature and society” (798).

Realism was characterized by the need to be current, dealing with contemporary issues and social realities of the day. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, spreading throughout the continent, and social relations were different. The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels was published in 1848. This writing showed the history of class struggle and how those who controlled the means of production—the bourgeoisie—therefore controlled those who worked—the proletariat. Recognizing the reality for the average human became bleak: “man is compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind” (1331). Ultimately, realism raised the idea of modernity, changing how artists saw the world and their own art.

Landseer’s The Stone Breaker and His Daughter represents the view of academic realism or appealing to the pallet of the bourgeoisie.

The Stone Breaker and His Daughter (image from here)

The viewer has access to the faces. Here a father is relaxed and resting, while a daughter brings lunch to him of wine, fruit, and bread. Their dress is nice with differing colors. The lighting is brighter and beautiful, picturesque even. The setting shows more of the sky and natural world. This social environment of happy peasants is not the alienation that Marx would suggest. The vision of the working class life here is one that the middle class, wishing after the simpler life, would be comfortable seeing—thus romanticizing realism.

In contrast to academic realism, Courbet’s The Stonebreakers (c. 1849) suggests avant-garde realism, where the artist advances the cause of art, perhaps at the risk of sacrificing fame and fortune. The canvas here is less beautiful, murky, and monochromatic. The quality is dull, and the finish is matte. Because of the loose brushstrokes, the composition seems rough and has a sense of randomness. This painting was shown in the Salon 1848, one year after expelling King Louis Phillip and the agitation of the proletariat. The museum-goers, the bourgeoisie, were confronted with their material existence and forced to look at individuals and their harsh realities. These figures were from the Paris countryside, repairing the roads, and “By juxtaposing youth and age, Courbet suggested that those born to poverty remain poor their entire lives” (798). This work was extremely menial, but the artist seems to give needed dignity back to the individuals. Without any idealization, realism is seen here by the terse figures wearing torn clothing, revealing dirty skin, and having shoes in a wretched state. Work here is not beautifully idyllic. There is little blue sky, almost used purely to taunt the figures. Additionally, the figures faces are hidden—could they be plotting? By pushing the figures to the front of the picture plane, the viewers have to look and confront the figures with their sense of reality. Realist art, therefore, was used to attempt to change society.

The Stonebreakers (image from here)

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who “refused to be limited to the contemporary scenes strict Realists portrayed” (809), was a group of artists who were unhappy with the art being painted at this time and thought that art did not seem true, sincere, or real. They rebelled against the academy by looking at art made prior to Raphael. Yet Millias’s art seemed to still follow traces of Realism: “So painstakingly careful was Millias in his study of visual facts closely observed from nature that Charles Baudelaire . . . called him ‘the poet of meticulous detail’” (809).

Millias’s Christ in the House of His Parents (c. 1848) reveals realism as the truth the artist wants to get to. The models did not come from the academy but from the streets. Dickens’s scathing review criticized that the scene was too real, too naturalistic, veering toward sacrilegious. The hair color of Christ and Mary is auburn, which would appeal to the redheads of the British audience. This would create greater accessibility, making it more real for the audience to connect with the paintings.

Christ in the House of His Parents (image from here)

Advances in science and technology changed society as well as art. The reality of science, including Darwin’s evidence of natural selection, evolution, and the idea that “[m]an still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin” (1322), shook many people’s faith.

Charles Darwin (image from here)

Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in London, England (c. 1850–51) looks like a modern cathedral yet an ode to science. It was built in only six months but used so much glass it literally glowed in the sunlight. The exterior had classical elements: “The plan borrowed much from ancient Roman and Christian basilicas, with a central flat-roofed ‘nave’ and a barrel-vaulted crossing ‘transept’” (813). The visitor was brought through the central nave or passage, and the actual movement of going down the center. It was a place where people go to see and to be seen. Here this new building suggested the new reality, showing what people worshiped now and what they prayed to, sought after, and found inspiration in all kinds of modern equipment. The Crystal Palace became the spectacle of modernity or modern experience.

Crystal Palace (image from here)

Rosa Bonheur’s Plowing in the Nivernais (c. 1849) depicts another example of realism according to how the bourgeoisie would have liked. Bonheur was the best-celebrated, nineteenth-century French artist, and “[a] Realist passion for accuracy in painting drove Bonheur, but she resisted depicting problematic social and political situations seen in the work of Courbet, Millet, Daumier, and other Realists” (803). Her art was seen as commemorating France. No flies, sweat, or manure are shown here, but rather it is a very sanitized representation of plowing. The earth is rich and realistically painted. The eyes of the animals gaze directly out to the viewer. The land and animals she painted celebrate all that is beautiful and good in life as well as French national identity.

Plowing in the Nivernais (image from here)

The lure of order, reason, and categorization in art continued into the 1870s. This time was a critical moment of formation of self, identity, economic sources, and nations. Later, realism would transfer into an emphasis on nationalism that would change the world after the “War to End all Wars” would occur.

Romanticism & Art History

Romanticism is “a shift in emphasis from reason to feeling, from calculation to intuition, and from objective nature to subjective emotion” (Gardner 784), thus indicating a distinct transition from Neoclassicism. Rousseau’s claim that “‘Man is born free but is everywhere in chains!’—the opening line of his Social Contract (1762)—summarizes a fundamental Romantic premise” (784).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (image from here)

Romanticism reflected an attitude, desiring “freedom of thought, of feeling, of action, of worship, of speech, and of taste” (784). Romanticism encompasses several concepts, including nostalgia, Gothic, and exotic. Edmund Burke’s discussion celebrates not the mechanical laws of nature but the mystical, spiritual ways of the natural world.

The rhetoric of seeing the artist as a misunderstood genius began during this time. Escapists went back to the medieval past, valuing the primitive and attempting to get to a Golden Age. There were various national schools (German, Spanish, French, and English) that depicted this revolutionary era of Romanticism.


Spanish artist Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters comes from a series called Los Caprichos, revealing Goya’s “considerable thought about the Enlightenment and the Neoclassical penchant for rationality order” (786) transitioning into Romantic tendencies. Goya is committed to the Romantic spirit of “the unleashing of imagination, emotions, and even nightmares” (786). This print is an etching and aquatint created in 1789. The bended, sleeping figure is a depiction of Goya, where owls (symbolizing folly) and bats (symbolizing ignorance) flock over him. These creatures are menacing and threatening upon the slumbering dreams of the artist.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (image from here)

But Goya’s paintings often show tension or troubling images the artist struggled with internally. Saturn Devouring One of His Children is a fresco Goya painted onto the walls of his home, which were for the artist’s eyes alone and not for any paying patron, thus revealing the emotional carnage of the artist. Goya was going through a personal crisis and health issues, and he lacked faith in humanity, which is reflected in the brutality of the fresco. The bulging eyes scream out to the viewer of anguish, and the thickness of the paint is like tare coming out, which emphasizes the blackness surrounding the emaciated Saturn that seems to engulf almost everything it touches—a living world of nightmares.

Saturn Devouring One of His Children (image from here)


French artist Ingres’s Grande Odalisque shows a “rather strange mixture of artistic allegiances – the combination of precise classical form and Romantic themes” (783). Ingres follows the tradition of the reclining nude, yet “by converting the figure to an odalisque (woman in a Turkish harem, the artist made a strong concession to the contemporary Romantic taste for the exotic” (783). Critics complained the way Ingres painted the nude body, which seemed to lack tone and had a strange flatness about her. Her foreshortened leg and elongation of the back makes the Turkish concubine appear odd. The peacock feathers, the animal skin, the beautiful clasp, the turban, the hookah pipes all suggest an exotic space, a favorite subject for Romantics.

Grande Odalisque (image from here)


English artist Constable’s The Hay Wain depicts nostalgia. The Industrial Revolution enabled hoards of people moved to cities, increasing the flux of people in a concentrated area. Constable’s work celebrates works and the disappearing landscape. The cottage is unassuming, needing some repairs, yet it is warm and cozy with curling smoke. This picturesque painting shows English value of land, showing the artist’s desire to keep some spaces sacred and out of the hands of industrialists.

The Hay Wain (image from here)


German artist Friedrich’s Abbey in the Oak Forest, 1810, reveals “The reverential mood of this winter scene with the ruins of a Gothic church and cemetery demands the silence appropriate to sacred places” (794). Friedrich, “a master of the Romantic transcendental landscape” (794), painted during a dark time that the Germans were experience occupation by Napoleon. In this bleak moment of the grave-like, dead of winter, the fog is just about the lift along with the rising of the sun. It is as if the dark hour of winter is over, and the season of spring, the promise of regeneration and hope, is on its way at last.

The use of the Gothic abbey in ruins harkens back to another age and time. The similitude of the natural world and the man-made engagement is suggested in the paralleling tracery of the windows where the stain glass has gone out in conjunction with the similar branches and smaller limbs coming out to create graceful patterns, suggesting a continuum between man and nature. Rather than political, Friedrich’s art is more contemplative, considering the inner world and our subjectivity.

Abbey in the Oak Forrest (image from here)

Age of Enlightenment and Revolution—Art History

Art produced in seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century was mobilized for political purposes. Royalty and revolutionaries used art as a means of solidifying their power. Anthony van Dyck specialized in court portraiture. International painters copied the artist’s refined style; other painters reflected his style well into the nineteenth century (Gardner 678-9).

Charles I Dismounted (image from here)

His Charles I Dismounted (c. 1635) depicts “the absolutist monarch Charles I at a sharp angle so that the king, a short man, appears to be looking down at the viewer” (678). The king was in fact five foot, four inches. Because the monarch was rather short, this “forced him to exert his power in ways other than physical” (678-9). Charles I was a Stuart king, whom Parliament did not like because of his absolute reign. Although Charles I was actually a sickly man, he appears here as a man of action as he appears to be moving forward as well as confident with his arm akimbo and in a contrapposto stance. His sword is displayed as he overlooks the ocean, suggesting his rule over the navy and trade, in order to solidify his power as a leader.

Louis XIV, the sun king, “was a master of political strategy and propaganda” (Gardner 696). He sought adherence to the idea of the divine right of kings. Rigaud’s Louis XIV (c. 1701) depicts the king’s direct gaze down on the viewer, even though the king was short. The king was sixty-three years old at the creation of this painting, yet he appears young here, harkening back to Roman traditions of depicting authority. This painting was placed over his throne, so when the king was not present, no one was allowed to turn their back on the painting. This portraiture is carefully crafted to depict absolute authority.

Louis XIV (image from here)

The Age of Enlightenment led men and women to think and experiment. In the philosophical poem “Essay on Man,” Alexander Pope explains, “Far as Creation’s ample range extends, / The scale of sensual mental power ascends,” suggesting the importance of agency and reason in addition to pointing out that humans ought to try to understand man and this world. Additionally, Voltaire’s satirical Candide mocks the aristocracy and the German philosopher who claimed that everything is for the best. Voltaire concludes with the importance of community, ending “we must cultivate our gardens,” which is all that one can do. After all the terrible occurrences, Pangloss and his friends do not continue to try to solve the world’s problems. However, the development of thinking introduced new ideas concerning government, emphasizing a shift from royal absolutism to republicanism.

Overseas, the colonial leaders questioned the idea of absolute authority. Houdon’s George Washington (c. 1788–92) was commissioned by the newly established United States government, which was trying to dismantle the old ideals of absolute monarchy and to move towards republicanism. Washington was not to look too kingly so no crown is present, yet he leans on a walking stick, which has associations with scepters and royalty. Washington, a gentleman farmer, does lean on Roman fasces, “a bundle of rods with an ax attached . . . an emblem of authority” (Gardner 773). This refers back to the Roman Republic and their ideals of government.

George Washington (image from here)

Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the St. Bernard (c. 1800) depicts Napoleon in an attempt to appear as a leader. When crossing the Alps to fight the Austrians, Napoleon had followed the soldiers who had gone before him on a donkey, while the painting by David shows the foil of the actual reality. After the coup d’état, staging the overthrow, France needed a strong leader to govern.

Napoleon Crossing the St. Benard (image from here)

The French loved that Napoleon was a military hero, which was seen as a romantic career, leading expeditions to conquer the Italians, settle land, and colonize. While Napoleon acted as first Consul in 1799–1804, Napoleon attempted to show himself as capable, based on meritocracy or through his ability to rise to the top. Napoleon stroked the French ego, suggesting they did the right thing by overthrowing the monarchy and killing the idea of absolutism. He attempted to model himself after Republican leaders. By having his name engraved in stone along with Hannibal and Charlemagne (both had crossed the Alps), Napoleon joins with past authority. His white horse is symbolic of power. His cloak functions as a cloth of honor. His upward hand appears like a gesture of blessing, similar to Christ’s. Thus, he endows himself with associations of the divine and great military rulers. This false illusion makes better propaganda for the French people than what actually occurred.

The Age of Scientific Revolution—Art History

The Age of the Scientific Revolution changed the way people essentially thought. Descartes “discovered that he could doubt everything except that he was doubting” (Davis 496) and explains in Discourse on Method: “whilst I thus wished to think all things false, it was absolutely essential that . . . remarking that this truth ‘I think, therefore I am’ was so certain . . . that all the most extravagant suppositions brought forward by skeptics incapable of shaking it” (502).

Descartes (image from here)

Descartes first proves his own existence and then seeks to prove the existence of God. His approach is called Cartesian skepticism, meaning to doubt everything. Therefore, people no longer accept what they had been told. However, just because an individual had faith in science did not necessarily mean that they had no faith in God.

After the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and the Treaty of Westphalia, “the United Provinces of the Netherlands . . . expanded their authority” (Gardner 673). Territorial boundaries changed in addition to granting greater religious freedom because “This treaty . . . marked the abandonment of the idea of a united Christian Europe” (Gardner 673). This reconciliation between Christianity and science is evident at the dawn of the Golden Age of the Dutch republic. The Dutch, who were very prosperous and cosmopolitan, were interested in tolerance, other areas, and ideas, which is evident in their art.

Art related to the development of the Scientific Revolution. Scientists experimented, prompting greater intellectual freedom. Free thought led to greater religious toleration, especially by the Dutch. For example, Johannes Vermeer was Catholic in Protestant Dutch Republic. His genre painting Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664), where the woman holds “empty scales in perfect balance, ignoring pearls and gold on the table, is probably an allegory of the temperate life” (688). Thus, the woman thinks about her life, free from worldliness and in search of balance.

Woman Holding a Balance (image from here)

Additionally, Calvinism was influential by its emphasis on modesty. This period became the embarrassment of riches. For example, Frans HalsCatharina Hooft and Her Nurse (c. 1620) depicts the ostentatious versus the modest. In this time of greater freedom of thought and experimentation, “the traditional conventions [of portraiture] became inappropriate and thus unusable,” so “Hals produced lively portraits that seem far more relaxed than traditional formulaic portraiture” (Gardner 681). There is evident interest in the detail and fidelity to nature. The nursemaid dresses almost puritanical, contrasting black and white, while the baby has a beautiful lace. This says much about the tension of the classes and the pious versus the ornate in Dutch society.

Hals’ Catharina Hooft and Her Nurse (image from here)

Landscape paintings, such as Jacob van Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem (c. 1670), reflect life experience. Art in the home was important; however, the paintings usually were not biblical or historical, but rather they were genre or landscape, since “Most Dutch families owned and worked their own farms, cultivating a feeling of closeness to the terrain” (686). Haarlem was one of the major cities in the Netherlands, and the viewer could recognize the church and the sea. By depicting the bleaching of linen and clusters of homes, this piece becomes a celebration of work, industry, or the common way of life.

van Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem (image from here)

Here the artist “not only captured the appearance of a specific locale but also succeeded in imbuing the work with a quiet serenity that becomes almost spiritual” (688). The sky is given great attention, since it covers more than two-thirds of the painting. Van Ruisdael is observing the world around him and valuing the virtue of honesty and sincerity. The realm of the sky stresses the openness of religious tolerance and the recourses in the reality of this great age of exploration and development. The people were inquisitive and nationalistic, which is displayed in their art.

Art could moralize, as with Flower Still Life (c. 1726) by Rachel Ruysch, because “As living objects that soon die, flowers, particularly cut blossoms, appeared frequently in vantias paintings” (Gardner 690). The Dutch Republic is surrounded by flowers, and flowers are taken seriously in a commercial way and made into an enterprise. Here flowers are depicted in different stages of bloom and decline along with caterpillars and bugs, thus brining greater naturalism. After the first flush of beauty, the cut flowers eventually decay and reveal imperfections. This still life moralizes, since the viewer should not value that which is transient, whether it be flowers, food, clothing, or wealth. Instead, the viewer should focus on humbler or simpler things. Still life paintings made more money though, suggesting that still life art relates to their world being described and what the buyers wanted.

Ruysch’s Flower Still Life (image from here)

The Age of Catholic Counter-Reformation

The religious conflicts in the 16th century continued throughout the 17th century. The Catholic Reformation (AKA the Counter-Reformation) did not work in tandem with Protestant Reformation.

Pope Paul III (image from here)

It was a long process because certain popes did not want to respond to those who had questions; additionally, there was much civil unrest. Plus, reforming the Catholic Church, which covered all of Europe and spread into the New World, was overwhelmingly difficult.

However, in 1545, Pope Paul III held the Council of Trent. This council reviewed certain Church doctrine, such as transubstantiation, but did not conclude until 1563.

An edict written by the Council of Trent stated there should be “images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints” (Gardner 596). For example, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini depicts a nun, who had visions and was made a saint, thus “correlating with the ideas of Ignatius Loyola, who argued the re-creation of spiritual experience would do much to increase devotion and piety” (654). The various kinds of media, from the electrified, marble-carved fabric against the clouds and radiant beams, draw the viewer in. However, the male figures on the side could suggest that this woman’s spiritual experience was regulated by men and not to make everyone think that they could be like her. Something was exceptional about this.

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (image from here)

By resisting the Protestant objection of having art in church, Catholic Counter-Reformation art was seen as a means of instruction that was accessible to the masses by being more realistic or naturalistic. The edict explained that bishops should teach “by means of the stories . . . portrayed in paintings . . . the people are instructed and confirmed in the articles of faith, which ought to be born in mind and constantly reflected upon” (596).

For example, The Last Supper (c. 1592–94) by Tintoretto is realistic because the setting is a darkened tavern lighted by torches and candles. This is a common place where household objects are seen in addition to servants—even women—preparing dishes. However, this is not a regular feast scene. The viewer could step in by identifying with the woman washing the dishes. The individual viewer could be a part of this scene but is also instructed concerning the sacrament.

The Last Supper (image from here)

Additionally, Entombment by Caravaggio “gave visual form to the doctrine of transubstantiation” (661) because the lowering of Christ’s body is parallel to the table where the altar would have been; therefore, the body of Christ is lifted down and given to you to take the literal body of Christ. Some critics charged this portrayal as too naturalistic because Christ’s feet are dirty and callused. His body is not idealized with skin obviously exposed to the sun.

Entombment (image from here)

Another important element seen in the Counter-Reformation was the generation of community or the gathering of the flock back together. For example, Vignola and Giacomo della Porta’s Il Gesu (c. 1573–84) in Rome was “the most influential building” of the time. After Pope Paul III “formally recognized this group as a religious order” (622), the Jesuits were effective missionaries by sending missionaries across the world and educators by establishing schools.

Il Gesu (image from here)

With Il Gesu, “the nave takes over the main volume of space, making the structure a great hall with side chapels” (622). Making the nave the center area, similar to the area of a ship, the individual is brought towards the altar and—consequently—Christ. The person could not just stand in the lobby, or the narthex of early Christian basilicas or churches where a person must decide whether to go in or not. Instead, everyone who enters is thrown into the nave—they are on the ship moving towards Christ. The plain exterior contrasts with the majestic interior, representing the soul, to make viewers marvel, not to make viewers feel insignificant. Thus, this unites all those inside on seeing what heaven is like.

Supposedly, all this was done so the faithful may remember God: “give God thanks for those things, may fashion their own life and conduct in imitation of the saints and be moved to adore and love God and cultivate piety” (596). However, the new age of the Scientific Revolution would have people who would find the old ways not sufficient to their questions.