Tag Archives: art history

Blue Beyond the Sea


A piece of lapis with a wire work bail I made to echo its pyrite sparkles.


Lapis is sometimes considered a secondary birthstone to sapphire. That’s probably due to its brilliant blue color, and the fact that through the middle ages the word sapphire was used pretty loosely!



Lapis is a vibrant blue stone consisting of lazurite and usually pyrite and sodalite as well as a host of other minerals. It’s the pyrite that gives lapis its midnight sparkle of stars.

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Some Untidy Spot

Landscape with fall of Icarus

Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden


About suffering they were never wrong,

The old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.



In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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The Worm at the Heart of the Rose

Songs of innocence and of experienceAs I’ve confessed before, William Blake tends to wax a bit too metaphysical for me. I do appreciate their very visual nature. After all, who reads The Tyger without fantastic images filling their mind?


Even if it’s the images of others and not his own that come to mind first!


I think perhaps one of the Flemish floral still life paintings would suit this poem more than his own illustration.

I suppose they are big, enveloping pieces too large for a small poem, but the textures and fine details seem to fit it better.


Take his poem,


“The Sick Rose”


O Rose thou art sick.

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm:


Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.



In the case of still life painting during the Northern Renaissance they might even have shared a certain metaphysical/metaphorical point of view.


Hans Gillisz. Bollongier. Floral Piece. The most expensive bloom was normally placed at the top. In this it is a Semper Augustus tulip, the most expensive bulb of its time. This unique pattern was caused by a particular form of mosaic virus and died out with the last of the affected bulbs.

Hans Gillisz Bollongier. Floral Piece.

Flowers in still life painting were popular because they were a way to show off detail, and also the wealth of the individual. Often the flowers were rare, a tulip bulb could cost more than a painting!


The most expensive bloom was normally placed at the top of the bouquet. In the painting to the right it is a Semper Augustus tulip, the most expensive bulb of its time. According to some records it was worth 100x the average working man’s yearly salary! Its unique pattern was caused by a particular form of mosaic virus, so the only way to get it was in offsets of the original bulb. It no longer exists.


Sometimes they would be collections of flowers from different continents, or that bloomed at different times of the year. An artist might use a reference book for the flowers and/or insects-something similar to what Maria Sibylla Merian would be creating a century or so later.


Besides being prestigious, they could also act as a subtle vanitas painting- after all, flowers very beautiful but don’t live very long!



Roelant Savery. Still Life. It includes 44 different animal and 63 floral species.

On a tour the guide told us that in some of the paintings the flowers are slightly overblown and that the insects were symbols of the coming decay. So there was a hint of mortality about overindulgence tucked into some of the paintings.


The worm at the heart of the rose, if you will.

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Topaz seems to be winning…

Erte’s Topaz, a part of his Precious Stones Suite, is a November gem of a different sort. It’s inspired by one of November’s traditional birthstones. (The other two being citrine and tigerseye. Since topaz also inspired a piece by Mucha, I think topaz is hogging the limelight…)


I’ve known of Erte for a long time, and in many ways he’s my touchstone image for Art Deco, but outside of knowing his style I never thought much too much about him.


So I hadn’t stopped to think about that iconic name, as streamlined and deco as his art. Not a surprise that it’s a pseudonym. I always link Erte to Paris, so it was a little more of a surprise is that he was born in Russia. His birth name was Romain de Tirtoff. He used the French pronunciation of his initials to distance himself from his career military family.


Erte was famous for his Art Deco fashion and set designs. Born in 1892 he was lucky enough to not only enjoy being part of the emergence of deco in the 1920s, but lived help its revival in the 1960s and his enduring influence on art and the fashion industry.

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Mummies and Redheads

 I was talking about my hieroglyphic pendant at the market yesterday, and then today at the Eastern States expo a rendition of Seti I’s tomb ceiling on papyrus caught my eye. So it felt like time for a little more on ancient Egyptian art. (I was very good and did not cut in when a customer asked about how papyrus was made though it took a lot of effort to keep my history geek bottled!)


The coffin of Hor was the inspiration for my cameo style papyrus pendant more because I liked the saying than for its particular artistry. Artistry alone I would have chosen like for like and grabbed something off of papyrus-less problematic to carry over!


I generally prefer slightly earlier eras for ancient Egyptian art and architecture.


Hor lived during the 22nd dynasty, around 850 BCE. This was the Third Intermediate Period, a time with multiple centers of power-the priests in Thebes and the royal dynasty in the Delta region- bickering amongst themselves. It was more stable than the previous Intermediate periods, but not as solid as the dynastic eras with their mostly orderly succession of kings.

My favorite periods of ancient Egyptian art are either the Middle Kingdom (the elegance and color of the glass and jewelry) and the early New Kingdom for stonework. Especially the funerary and wall decoration of Seti I.


Seti I was a pharaoh of the 19th dynasty and father to the famous Ramesses II. He ruled around 400 years before Hor would have been born. Seti I consecrated and ordered less monuments built during his lifetime than his son, but they had beautiful quality detailing.


(An interesting article on his tomb, sadly without the degree of photography I’d expect from National Geographic! So a quick tour guide view instead. And a nice museum’s page for children, but with an x-ray of his mummy and a nice close up view of carving. Ignore Dr. Hawass, he seems to get into nearly every photoshoot…)


For example, next time you’re at a museum look closely at the hieroglyphics on/in stone. The most common are incised, cut into the stone and then raised in relief in their little niche.

Incised relief from the tomb of Seti II


This was a more cost effective way because the entire wall could be cut evenly and then the hieroglyphs added. (This was the style most often used in Ramesses II’s building projects.) The purely relief hieroglyphics on stone required more planning and delicacy of carving, because the wall had to be reduced around them, almost like little sculptures.

Relief from Seti I’s temple at Abydos




Okay, and some morbid trivia because part of me is still that third grader who wanted to be an Egyptologist and loved the gruesome:


The mummies of Seti I, Ramesses II and Ramesses V were well enough preserved that you can see the family resemblance, especially in the hook nose and high cheekbones. (Which in the case of Ramesses II was propped up with a small animal bone and some peppercorns.) They’re very interesting but still a bit gruesome, so I’ll let you choose to follow that link or not.


Scientists could also tell than Ramesses II used henna to dye his hair red even as an old man. (And since he was a pharaoh his hair would have normally been covered by his crown and regalia.) It has been proposed that the family were natural redheads, which would explain why they took the name of the god Set who was originally viewed as a god of evil. As well as of the desert and foreigners (!) He was often imagined as a redhead.


So far as family resemblance goes, there is an unknown mummy that some think might be another Ramesses and he was being compared to these guys to see if he too held a family resemblance.

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Brecciated Backgrounds

A bit of a bookend for Chatoyant Skies and its ode to Blue Pietersite and El Greco…

The more sharply delineated golden pietersite with its iron oxide shimmers sometimes reminds me of the backgrounds in Gustav Klimt’s paintings.

Klimt was an Austrian symbolist painter. The son of a jeweler, he was born and studied near Vienna and became a successful muralist. In the early 1890s his father and brother both died and Klimt became the head of both families. This newfound responsibility is believed to be part of what caused the significant change in his personal style.

One piece I saw and really liked (and didn’t realize it was his right away) is Two Girls with Oleander. It isn’t as planar, or hammering death and the erotic as his usual work. (Though it is two pretty girls admiring a poisonous plant…) It’s an almost gentle piece. The painting is dated to 1892, so I wonder if it’s before his new style fully took over.

After the turn of the century he entered his Golden phase, where he incorporated gold leaf into the increasingly flat plane of his paintings. (It was these that pietersite sometimes brings to mind.)

His most famous piece, The Kiss, is from this period. It is probably on as many totes, mouse pads, umbrellas, dorm room posters and ‘what-have-you’s as Monet’s water lilies.

Klimt is generally not my style. I can appreciate the work and the impact, but unlike in Egyptian art, for some reason the flatness doesn’t really appeal to me. Or perhaps it’s the way the figures have to fight the background to escape.


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Chatoyant Skies

Chatoyancy is the term used to refer to the cat’s eye effect that occurs when a fibrous mineral or fibrous inclusions line up parallel to one another and create that famous shimmer. (It comes from the French for cat’s eye.) More generally it can be used to refer to that sort of shimmer and texture, even if it doesn’t create the classic cat’s eye effect.

As chrysocolla reminds me of Claude Monet, blue pietersite is a chatoyant stone that reminds me of El Greco.

Pietersite is breccia aggregate of hawk’s eye and/or tiger’s eye. (It’s chemical makeup is silicon dioxide.)

Those stones are created when silica replaces crocidolite (blue asbestos-sodium iron silicate), a fibrous mineral. Hawk’s eye is when the quartz replaces the crocidolite directly and the rich gold and browns of tiger’s eye occurs when some of the crocidolite has decomposed into iron oxide before the silica replacement happens.

Basically pietersite is hawk or tiger’s eye that’s been broken apart and twisted and generally mangled then squashed back together again. This gives each stone a unique patterning and coloration. Melding swirls, chunks of very different colors all together, a gentle variegation of shades, different angles of chatoyancy in the same color scheme– all in the rich gold and brown and red of iron oxide ranging to sleek grey and steel blues. The one of a kind nature makes for an addictive gemstone-each piece tells its own story.

The pieces with the blue and steel shimmer remind me of El Greco’s moody skies.

El Greco (1541-1614), Domenikos Theotokopoulos, was a Greek-Spanish painter. He was born on the island of Crete (then owned by Venice) studied in Italy, and spent his career in Spain. His time in Crete and Italy appears to have given a slightly Byzantine fascination with color and a feel for mannerist elongated forms.

He moved to Toledo with hopes of becoming a court painter and moving to the capital. He did get two commissions from King Philip, but the king wasn’t satisfied with the paintings and gave him no further commissions. So El Greco settled in Toledo.

His View of Toledo is one of my favorite paintings. The broody ambiance and deceptively simple perspective always intrigues me. Yet there’s something refreshing in the colors. Like a slightly raw breeze after a muggy day.

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz is a beautiful example of the elegance of his elongated figures, his skill at portraiture and shows off how well he handles the complexity of composition.

Sometimes there is a surreal edge to his paintings that makes for an interesting counterpoint to the almost hyperrealism that some of his Spanish Renaissance contemporaries espoused. (Juan Sanchez Cotan and Francisco de Zurbaran are my favorites in that category.)

El Greco’s painting of Laocoon is a great example of his taking the fluid and elongated figures to  nightmarish extremes. (And of a lighter but still tempestuous sky.) It’s inspired by a story from the Aeneid: Laocoon is a Trojan priest who tries to warn his people against taking in the wooden horse that the Greeks left behind. For his pains the vengeful gods send sea serpents to strangle him and his sons and frighten the Trojans into accepting the horse.


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Pendants and Papyri

“I arrive as a dweller on earth-I do what is right”

– the coffin of Hor, incense priest of Amun, Late New Kingdom (22nd Dynasty, circa 850 BCE)


First, props to the ancient Egyptian scribes. Papyrus is not easy to paint on.

Ancient Egyptian scribes started young, probably around age 9. They had an intricate language to learn!  

Egyptian hieroglyphics consisted of several hundred symbols, most of which could be used phonetically or as more of an ideogram, depending on their context and nearby modifying symbols. Hieroglyphics is used to refer to the most formal written form of their language, the version represented on public buildings and funerary art. It could run right to left, left to right, or top to bottom.

There was a cursive version called hieratic that scribes used for contracts, records and letters. In later times another variant called demotic appeared. It was probably a descendant of the hieratic styles of northern Egypt and became more common once the Greeks conquered Egypt.

So by the late period a scribe would have to know at least three written versions of his native tongue plus Greek. (Hieroglyphics were still used for public buildings and religious regalia.)

A scribe’s basic materials were simple: a wooden palette with a few holes for different colors of ink (made from soot or ground minerals plus beeswax) and reed pens.

The ancient Egyptians were the first to write on paper. They created theirs from the papyrus plant, a tall reed with a thick triangular body. The outer layers were peeled off, then the pith was cut into strips. Those strips would be placed in two layers, one horizontal and the other vertical. They’d be covered in linen and pressed. The fibers would adhere together with their own sap to form a durable paper.

My papyrus was in the form of a notebook I was given as a gift years ago. (Ah, modern comforts!)

This piece is, oddly enough, based on one of my favorite t-shirts. I bought it at the British Museum when I was there years ago. I loved the saying, but almost never wear t-shirts anymore. So somewhere along the line of sealing images behind glass to wire wrap, my brain went well you have that papyrus that you never used…

I made a few attempts to scale down the hieroglyphics. Based on a t-shirt. Based on the painting on a coffin. So it’s at least once again removed from the original. If anyone has a proper image of this inscription I’d love to see it! I found the exhibit information listed on the British Museum’s website, but they didn’t have images of the right portion of the coffin.

(I’m sure it’s somewhere along the perimeter of the wooden coffin, that’s where the styles match up…)

I wasn’t sure what colors to use. The shirt wasn’t terribly close to the original colors and the coffin was paint on wood rather than ink on papyrus. So I chose copper, green, blue and brown metallic paints since those colors crop up in Ancient Egyptian art fairly often, and I thought the metallic colors were pretty and might be a nod to their jewelry. I outline the hieroglyphs in black to try to preserve their shape.

(Given the texture of the papyrus I’m thinking a stiffer brush might be worth trying the next time, though I suspect paint texture has a lot to do with how well it would flow.)

Then I sealed the papyrus behind glass and waterproofed the papyrus from behind as well. I usually paint the back before sealing it, but I wanted to keep the texture of the papyrus. You can see the two directions of the stems and I was afraid that painting the back would lessen that effect.

Once it was dry I wrapped it in silver coated copper, bronze and blue colored copper. I topped it off with a blue lapis bead, because, really, it was that or carnelian for classic Egyptian jewelry gems, and carnelian didn’t match!


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The Impression that I get

Impressionism is almost a cliché by now- it’s on address books and calendars and dorm room walls.

But I still find it a great inspiration. I feel like I grew up with the French Impressionists. My mother was a fan, and I read Cristin Bjork’s Linnea in Monet’s Garden as a little girl.

Like the girl in the book, I had decided to test this up close dots and splotches and far away sunlit garden effect in person, moving closer and further to watch the magic happen. (Rather to the concern of the security guards and my parents!)

Impressionism as a movement dates from the late 19th century. It was a snide term tossed out in a review of a group show upon seeing Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise. (A painting that is famous for giving the movement it’s name, but not so much for being an excellent example of its intent…)

Impression, Sunrise

Impression, Sunrise

Though they’re considered establishment today, in their day the Impressionists were (admittedly briefly) the radicals of the art world. They ignored centuries of received wisdom about color and composition, and the value of detail and precision. Instead they focused on capturing light, finding a way to show the passage of time in the feel of the lighting. They emphasized brush strokes, and by playing with the effects of adjacent colors seen from a distance.

The French Impressionists also tended to take a more human view of the world. Their landscapes had ordinary people, bathers on the coast or people eating lunch. Monet’s famous flowers were from his garden, not plucked out of nature untamed.

They used the world around them, and its people, as their subjects.

Many also took advantage of modern technology, not looking towards an idealized past, but taking in the world around them.

Gritty and dirty and terribly useful, train stations could serve both as models and as the transport that allowed city living artists to get to the countryside in a timely fashion for painting in the open air. Progress in chemistry created new paints which allowed for new shades, and much more affordable variants of the classic ones.


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Magritte’s Peridot

Peridot Flower ArrangementEarlier this summer I went to the World Association of Flower Arrangers Show. I thought it was a regular flower show, so it was not the photography nirvana that I’d been hoping for. The lighting was abysmal, but there were some really clever category challenges.

My favorite was ‘mineral’. The challenge was based on composing a monochrome composition evocative of a mineral. Not all minerals are monochrome, of course… Some pieces really shone, though plenty skipped the mineral inspiration and stuck to color alone.

There was a great arrangement based on peridot. The clean shape and lines combined with such a perfect green were a nice nod to both August’s birthstone (and perhaps unintentionally) to the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte.

Son of Man by Rene Magritte

Son of Man by Rene Magritte

Magritte is probably best known for his 1964 portrait, The Son of Man. His paintings are often crisp, with sharp lines and a clear demarcation of color. His idealized yet realistic style underscored the unreliability of images.

The classic example is his Ceci n’est pas une pipe. It’s a painting of a pipe with a line underneath it stating ‘this is not a pipe.’ Which is true, it is an image of a pipe. As the artist himself pointed out, try putting tobacco in it. He revisits this same point in the lesser known Ceci n’est pas une pomme, which came to my mind along with The Son of Man when I saw the peridot arrangement at the show.

Peridot is a pale to middling green gemstone. It’s reasonably durable so suitable for rings. Unlike emeralds, which range from pure to blue tinted green, peridot is normally on the yellow shades of green. (It is also known as olivine for it’s tendency towards olive greens.)

What’s interesting is that it is one of the few gemstones that is almost never treated, so the richness of color you see is truly natural. Also interesting is that peridot has been found in meteorites. I got to see a sample at a gem show last week. They weren’t the most beautiful stones, but it was fascinating to see them growing with the so very foreign metal.

Large stones of the purer green color are unusual and becoming harder to come by. That’s part of the reason I mostly use peridot in my tree of life pendants, stones large enough to wire wrap are few and far between. In chips and cabochons peridot tends to have great dept of color, but it also takes faceting well and paler green ones can sparkle brilliantly.

Like most gems that have been known since ancient times, peridot is surrounded by myths and metaphysical attributions. My favorite is that it is supposed to neutralize jealousy and envious thoughts, and so aid in friendships.


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