Enigmatic Portraits

Kehinde Wiley is just one of those painters whose work I never tire of seeing/observing/studying. From a technical point of view, his style is stunning, while from the point of view of art history, there are few modern portraitists who have engaged with the history of art as deeply as Wiley. What is most important, however, is that his work emphasizes people of color dressed in everyday clothes from a large variety of geographical locations by placing them in front of, and intermingling with, a background filled with ornamental patterns and motifs taken from a large variety of textiles. This can be seen quite clearly in his work, MORTHYN BRITO IV, which is the subsequent focus of this post.

Kehinde Wiley, MORTHYN BRITO IV, OIL ON CANVAS, 2012. Image Source: http://kehindewiley.com/works/selected-work-2012/

MORTHYN BRITO IV is an oil on canvas created by Wiley in 2012, and is a gorgeous painting. The subject of the work is a young-ish man of color dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie. The man stares down at the ground, deliberately avoiding our gaze. He is depicted in a powerfully realistic manner, a point which Wiley emphasizes to great effect with the popping veins and tensed muscles of the model’s proper right hand – which is a focus of the work as it rests between the model’s waist and the “picture plane” of the painting.

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Francis in Meditation, ca. 1635. National Gallery, London.

All of this would make the work powerful as it is, and, due to the hooded, shaved head of the model, could bring to mind a host of Baroque Spanish portraits of monks or saints. In fact, this would be almost a perfect contemporary cognate of the works of the Spanish painter Zurbarán if the background were black and the painting’s atmosphere suffused with a kind of heavy, yet invisible, sense of space, as in Zurbarán’s Saint Francis in Meditation now in the National Gallery in London.

Wiley did not choose to paint an homage to Zurbarán, however. Instead, he placed his model in front of a brilliant blue background populated by red and gold floral motifs that seem to swirl around him and capture his attention. The man seems to be contemplating the blooms of the motifs. Why this may be is an interesting question – but at the risk of creating a book where a blog post should be, I will leave that question open to your interpretation. Let me know what you think he is contemplating/why he is contemplating the floral motifs in the comments – and please do not forget to follow my blog if you like what you have read!

Hypnotic Images

Lately, I have noticed a rise in the popularity of the late-nineteenth-century artist Alphonse Mucha. In particular, his allegorical images of elegant women, dressed in flowing garments and framed by swirls of “art-nouveau” lines, blooming flowers, and jewel-like ornamental designs, seem to have captured the imagination of a variety of audiences. And so, I decided to do a little bit of writing about why this might be, using Mucha’s allegorical lithograph Dance as a means to do so.

Alphonse Mucha, Dance, Lithograph.

Dance, pictured at left, is a stunning piece. The work features a woman dressed in swathes of elegant cloth, standing on her toes, and looking back at us over her right shoulder. Around her seems to grow out of thin air a strange metallic semicircle decorated with a repeating circular motif containing an abstract pattern reminiscent of certain kinds of seashells. The image as a whole is framed on its lower half by thin lines that are reminiscent of plant tendrils, and in its upper corners by two large flowers swarmed by butterflies. The whole work is colored in tones ranging from the lightest peach of the background to the deep rich red of the dancer’s hair and hair-ornaments.

Much of Alphonse Mucha’s work, and especially his allegorical lithographs, seems to contain a kind of smooth, flowing visual energy, a quality that draws the viewer into the work. That said, I think that Dance expresses this more ably than some of his other prints. This is so due both to the dancer’s inviting gaze and to the impression of movement that leads the eye across the plane of the image.

The visual movement I mentioned above is generated by the impression that we have come upon the dancer either mid-spin or just as she is about to perform a pirouette. This is the case not because she herself is moving, but because Mucha deftly organized both her clothes and her hair into a number of undulating cascades that form a kind of broken spiral. This would have been enough to fool the eye into seeing some movement, but Mucha goes one step further by composing a line of rose petals that slowly drifts in the opposing direction, thus rendering a subtle visual helix that continually revolves around the axis of the dancer’s body.

It is this slow spiraling composition that many of Mucha’s images share, and it is primarily this movement, when combined with the artist’s subtle coloring and brilliant sense of graphic design, that I believe draws the viewer into his works. This visual magnetism is easy to get lost in, and works almost like a magical spell that hypnotizes any viewer who steps into the image’s path, and is the foundation for why I would argue Mucha is so popular.

Transcendent Visions

One of my favorite memories of Madrid took place when I visited the royal palace-monastery of El Escorial. At the time, I had just completed the coursework for my MA in the History of Art. I went to Madrid to begin researching the topic that would become my Master’s Thesis, which took as its subject the phenomenal Retablo de la Sagrada Forma in the sacristy of the royal palace-monastery of El Escorial. However, upon exploring the palace after studying the central work for my Masters Thesis for as long as my “handlers” would allow (the Sagrada Forma is not open for tourists, you must make an appointment with the government to see it!), I stumbled onto the grand staircase and happened to look up. I was stunned by what I saw.

Luca Giordano, The Adoration of the Trinity by the Spanish Habsburgs. 1690s. Fresco. El Escorial.

Above me was a beautiful fresco that seemed to blur the lines between reality and illusion. At its base were lunettes, but where I would have expected to see a physical ceiling was instead a space that opened out into the heavens. This illusion was intensified by the presence a number of airy clouds that covered over parts of the lunettes, further cracking my cool, cynical post-modern sense of self and space. I was dazzled as I ascended each step, only to see at the staircase’s turning the image at its fullest power. Directly above me was a canopy of clouds infused with golden light. I saw at the zenith of the skyscape a small brilliant white dove flanked by two men dressed in white robes; one held a scepter and the other stood beside a floating cross held aloft by elegant angels and playful putti. I knew at once that I was gazing up at a glittering image of the Catholic Holy Trinity surrounded by a celestial court of adoring saints.

As I became accustomed to the glowing intensity of the image, I noticed a man kneeling on a cloud just below the Trinity. He was dressed in golden armor and draped in a heavy crimson cloak lined with ermine; in his hands he held two crowns. It dawned on me that I was looking at a painting of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and originator of the Spanish line of the Habsburg family. Sure enough, I quickly realized that kneeling behind him was his son Philip II, builder of the royal palace-monastery of El Escorial. From there, I noticed a man standing at a balustrade below them both, who gestured towards the sky, as though he were explaining the mystery above to the two women who accompanied. The man was Charles II, who would soon become known as the last of the Spanish Habsburg kings.

I had seen this work only a few times before in a number of books. It was a fresco made by Luca Giordano in the early 1690s on the orders of Charles II, and is traditionally considered by many scholars, along with the Sagrada Forma, to be the ending to the “Golden Age” of Spanish Baroque painting. It was gorgeous in every reproduction that I came across, but none of them prepared me for either the work in reality, or the fundamental role of the staircase in the image’s activation. After all, I hope my memories of this work revealed that the this vast illusion of light, of divinity, of royal presence just cannot be conveyed in a snapshot – they only gain their miraculous immediacy as you ascend the staircase step by step.


Pierre-Adrien Dalpayrat and Alphonse Voisin-Delacroix. 
Vase with face, 1892–93. 
Stoneware, 25 1/2 × 16 7/8 × 16 in.
Object Location/Image Source:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Pierre-Adrien Dalpayrat and Alphonse Voisin-Delacroix,
Vase with face, 1892–93. Stoneware, 25 1/2 × 16 7/8 × 16 in.
Object Location/Image Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

From the moment I first saw this vase, made by the French Symbolist artist Pierre-Adrien Dalpayrat and Alphonse Voisin-Delacroix, I knew I had to write about it. It is a beautiful example of the elegant strangeness of fin-de-siecle nineteenth-century art of the Symbolist variety.

So what is Symbolism?

Symbolism is a movement that grew alongside and out of the Impressionism and Post-Impressionism movements. It focuses on, well, symbols and hidden meanings, on mysticism and magic, on dreamworlds and hallucinatory experiences. The movement was generated by artists as diverse as the French painters Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Odilon Redon, and Gustave Moreau; the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch; and the Austrian painter Gustave Klimt. The Symbolist movement also provided a block in the art historical foundation for movements at the time, like Les Nabis, and those yet to come, namely Art nouveau and – to an extent – Surrealism.

What is fascinating to me about this vase is its dreamlike quality. The face that emerges from the body of the object depicts a sleeping woman, but the swirling lines that emanate from her, as well pale blue glaze that seems to rise up from her left eye as though it were smoke or flame, indicates that we are looking into her own dreamworld. This dreamworld, populated by color and texture, is heady with possibility and creates a beautiful sense of self-containment, for which the boundaries of the vase become the boundaries of her dream.

Detail of Dalpayrat/Voisin-Delacroix, Vase with face, 1892-93.
Image Source:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Detail of Dalpayrat/Voisin-Delacroix, Vase with face, 1892-93.
Image Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

However, we are also viewing this object, and it could very well be that its dreamy aura is produced by us as the viewers – that we are somehow interacting and manipulating the vase through our gaze. This is a startling thought, as the sleeping woman could very well be just a symbol of our own dreaming state, which, again, is a startling thought. Allegory is a powerful tool in the artist’s conceptual/iconographic/symbolic toolkit, and oftentimes one allegory can have multiple meanings.

I will stop my analysis here, though there are many other ways one could view this wonderful work. Please share your own interpretations of this work in the comments section below!

The Power of Fools

It’s April Fool’s Day today and I want to honor the occasion with a little post on a painting made by Quentin Massys in the early sixteenth century. It is generally entitled Allegory of Folly, though I prefer to title the painting as Mere Folle.

Quentin Massys, Allegory of Folly, 1510-20. Oil on Canvas. Private Collection.

The painting, regardless of its title, is strange. On the one hand, the old (or at least wizened) woman before us seems to be leering at us with a jeering smile – almost as though she is egging us on in some form of laughter or jest.

On the other hand, she has one finger pressed into her sneering lips, a pose which visually emphasizes the words that are inscribed in red to her proper right.

The inscription, which reads “Mondeken toe” (Dutch for “Shut your mouth”) is even more provocative when we realize that we are being simultaneously squawked at by the rooster growing out of the hag’s hood and mooned by an impish fool crowning the top of the allegory’s staff. It is as though we are being simultaneously goaded into laughing and chastised for our humor – which makes the woman all the more odd…

Odd, that is, until we see the strange bubble of skin on her forehead. Within that patch of skin is none other than a “Fool’s Stone”, a fragment of rock embedded in her brain and serving as the source of her erratic, off-kilter behavior. She is, after all, the allegory of foolishness, and it through her magical ability to make a fool out of anyone who sees her that grants this painting its own ability to transfix the viewer.

Because, after all, what could be more foolish than being tricked into laughing by a painting, especially in within the context of the silent world of contemporary museums?

And what could possibly be more embarrassing than being silenced by the very same painting that fooled you in the first place?


Imagine yourself in the midst of a medieval tournament. Think about it – the glint of metallic weapons and the shimmer of polished armor; the thud of a lance hitting its target and the shrill clang of metal swords meeting metal cuirasses; the sting of sweat and dust in your eyes and maybe even the metallic tang of blood in your mouth. Battle-hardened warriors clash around you with heart-stopping yells and then, for a moment, silence sets in as the melee or joust ends, only to be ripped apart by the raucous roars of the crowds in the stands.

This moment, these sensations, are what Pisanello offers to us for our viewing pleasure in one of three frescoes designed and only partially completed for the Gonzaga family in their Ducal Palace in Mantua. Done between 1447-48, these frescoes illustrate one tale from the larger saga of the deeds King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. Pisanello’s work focuses on a tournament, a love affair, and a quest, each of which forms one third of the tale of the Knight Bohort.

This fresco is a powerful example of the kinds of art that Northern Italian courts commissioned and displayed in their palaces. Pisanello was, at the time, one of the artists most associated with the production of the visual culture of aristocratic Italian courts, and this fresco goes a long way to showing why.

Images of knights clamoring to survive a melee on horseback fill the space of the fresco. While the faces of the warriors (and the ladies watching the scene) have been covered in fresco, the armor of the men and the gowns of the women remain in their sinopie (underdrawing) form, revealing to us the planning stage of the fresco. However, the combination of painted faces and fluidly drawn armor and bodies against the slick black background of the fresco creates an arresting image of the violence inherent in a chivalric tournament. Ultimately, though the fresco itself is damaged and the people depicted have long since passed (if they ever existed at all), this work is a testament to the immediacy of Italian Renaissance frescoes – even when they are more “decorative” than “real.”


Gentile Bellini is important in many respects. He is crucial to the art historian in any telling of the story of Venetian painting, and is important also in the history of Italian drawing.  But here, I am going to describe a drawing made by Bellini between the years of 1479 and 1481 to reflect a subject he witnessed not in Venice, but in Istanbul-Constantinople.

Gentile Bellini, Seated Scribe, 1479-81. Pen in
brown ink with watercolor and gold on paper. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

We have before us Bellini’s drawing of a sumptuously dressed man. Around his head is a large turban, on his earlobe glints a small gold earring, and clothing his body is a rich kaftan made from dark blue, plum, and scarlet cloth embroidered with gold and silver thread shaped into a variety of abstract floral and vegetal forms. He sits crouched in a position that allows him to rest a tablet on his knees, upon which he in turn has placed the end of a sharpened stylus. The man stares intently down at the blank space of the tablet before him, ignoring the foliage beneath him and the intrusion of us, his viewers, in front of him. Behind him is a blank space of the same color and tone as the tablet that he holds, and at first glance we may expect it be a wall – an expectation dashed by the appearance of a clump of flowers set in the distance on the upper-left of the composition. At the far upper-right of the drawing is a gold-lettered inscription, written in Ottoman cursive script, set within a cartouche that is filled with small flowers. The inscription itself is set into the corner of a thin red, blue, and gold frame that surrounds the entirety of the scene upon which we have been musing, which in turn breaks the spell that we are looking at a real person instead of a drawing.

What draws the eye, or at least my eye, in this work is the relationship between word and image, though maybe not in the way in which one might first expect. To be sure, the glittering inscription and the lines made up of beautiful gold and silver embroidery draw our attention due to the play of light that they enact over the space of the drawing, but even more than this, they draw our attention to the ways in which it is “line”, rather than color or shade, that undergirds the visual construction of this piece – the lines of words, the lines of embroidery within the visual field of the kaftan, the stark black outline of the kaftan, and finally the two strong frames that encircle both the inscription and the image overall. 

Even more than this, however, the profusion of different types of line draws our attention – guided in part also by the invisible sightline of the man upon whom we have been gazing – to the tiny yet powerful point at which the tip of the stylus meets the blank “ground” of the tablet. All of the lines seem to lead up to that point, a point upon which rests the beginning of a new work – the work that the man before us is contemplating so carefully. And it reminds us that we do not know whether this man is an “artist” or a “scribe”, or whether such distinctions even matter in the context of this small but profound drawing.

What this leads to is a breakdown of our categories of writing and drawing, of the ambiguous role of the line as a creator of both visual and written language. Because both writing and drawing are kinds of language, they remind us that they each are not wholly understandable without curiosity, learning, and empathy. In the end, this drawing then becomes a meditation of the attempt at understanding between Bellini, the painter, and the unnamed, unknown Ottoman scribe-artist that he portrayed. In placing Ottoman script in juxtaposition to his own Italian-inflected form of visual language, one could argue that Bellini is showing his aim to learn about Ottoman culture as something worth learning about, as an entity that could offer just as much – if not more – than Bellini could offer back in return. In the end, this drawing to me seems to have been made in a spirit of cross-cultural friendship, a spirit which we could all try to inhabit more often.