Social History of Art

.

List of Public Lectures Available

Robert Baldwin, Associate Professor of Art History, Connecticut College

rwbal@conncoll.edu

Since going digital in 2003, I have given 90 lectures in public libraries and museums in SE Connecticut on the topics listed below. My lecture fee is $125.00 for libraries and a range of $250-500 for museums, academic institutions, and for-profit organizations. Some of these talks are available as essays on my web site:

 www.socialhistoryofart.com. To arrange for a lecture, please email me at:robert.baldwin@conncoll.edu.

 

New Lectures in 2014/2015

The Humanizing of the Sacred in Late Medieval Art

The Architectural Revolution of the Early Italian Renaissance: Brunelleschi's Pazzi Chapel, Michelozzo's Medici Palace, and Alberti's Church of San Andrea

Fabritius’ Goldfinch, Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring, and Kalf’s Still-Life with Nautilus: Humble Subjects and High Aestheticism in Dutch Baroque Art

 

LIST OF LECTURES WITHOUT ABSTRACTS

Overview of Western Art Since the Renaissance

Western Art as a Language from the Renaissance to Modernity

 

Late Medieval Art

The Humanizing of the Sacred in Late Medieval Art

The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries: Courtly Love, Female Power, and the Five Senses

 

Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art

The Architectural Revolution of the Early Italian Renaissance: Brunelleschi's Pazzi Chapel, Michelozzo's Medici Palace, and Alberti's Church of San Andrea

Gardens of Chastity, Love, and Power: A Social History of Gardens in Western Art from the Late Middle Ages to Versailles

From the Courtly Love Garden to Inner Flower: Gardens and Flowers in Art from 1700-1940

Gods on Earth: Court Culture and Mythological Portraiture in Renaissance and Baroque Art

Botticelli’s Mythological Works

Botticelli’s Religious Art: From Madonna to Apocalypse

The Real Leonardo: Beyond The Da Vinci Code

Michelangelo as Painter: Papal Politics, Gender Values, and Classicism in the Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo as Sculptor

Landscape and Villa Culture in Sixteenth-century Venice

Arcimboldo and the Courtly Cosmos: Fantasia, Fertility, Power

The Allure of Witches and Other Dangerous Women in German Renaissance Art

(multiple nudes make this talk not suitable for children)

 

Bruegel and the Mercantile Universe

Anguish, Healing, and Redemption in Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece

Caravaggio, Artistic Innovation and Catholic Spirituality

Power and Illusion in the Court of the Sun King at Versailles

The Revolutionary Art of Vermeer

 

Fabritius’ Goldfinch, Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring, and Kalf’s Still-Life:

Humble Subjects and High Aestheticism in Dutch Baroque Art

 

Rembrandt and 17th Century Dutch Society

Rubens' Garden of Love: Medieval Courtship in an Age of Renaissance Paganism

Rubens and the Politics of Gender: From Deadly Siren to Powerful Goddess

Bernini and Ecstasy: Religion, Gender, and Catholic Spirituality

Impressionism: A Revolution in Technique, Style, and Subject Matter

Feminine Mystique and Femme Fatale as Male Psyche in Late 19th-Century Art

Gauguin’s Tahiti and the Male Symbolist Imagination

 

GENERAL LECTURES AND LARGER TOPICS

 

Western Art as a Language from the Renaissance to Modernity

This lecture explores Western art as a changing language of theme and style shared by artist and audience and geared to the values of the ruling elites – church, court, and upper middle class  - who monopolized art production. The history of art since 1400 is the story of rival groups and their patronage, with church art (religious subjects) and court art (mythology) dominating from 1400-1700, burgher art (everyday life) rising after 1600 and achieving a certain dominance in the 18th century. Modern politics emerges as a major artistic category from the French Revolution (1789) to 1830 followed by landscape which becomes the great bourgeois category of 19th century art. Modern urban experience takes on a new importance between 1865-1915 with abstraction triumphing as a “universal” artistic language in the early 20th century.

 

LATE MEDIEVAL ART

The Humanizing of the Sacred in Late Medieval Art

This lecture examines the sea-change in Christian aesthetics in the later Middle Ages (1200-1400) as the rise of the city shifted the balance away from monastic withdrawal to a new, more secular, urban spirituality engaged with everyday life. New preaching saints like Francis redirected monastic piety from retreat to urban pastoral care. Writers and artists reinterpreted the sacred with a new, more familiar language of natural forms. The human lives of Mary, Christ, and the saints displaced static icons of worship. The new cult of Mary in the Catholic church transformed the otherworldly Queen of Heaven into a humble, nursing or grieving mother or a beautiful queen in a courtly garden. Artists invented new subjects rich with emotion such as the Lamentation, Pieta, and Man of Sorrows. The piety of feeling also included fear and guilt, expressed in the new themes of the Triumph of Death, the Last Judgment, and the torments of Hell. The new naturalism translated the sacred down into an earthly vernacular, much like the new devotional writing produced in the vernacular and aimed at mass audiences. In the overall shift toward a bodily world of feeling, Christianity was profoundly “feminized” in ways which paralleled the evolution of late medieval chivalric culture with its worship of “feminine” love, refinement and spiritualized beauty.

 

 

The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries in Paris: Courtly Love, Female Power, and the Problem of Masculine Courtly Identity

 

Late medieval court society moved from a “masculine” world of feudal combat to a “feminine” world of refined privacy dedicated to courtly love, beauty, fashion, polite conversation, gardens, poetry, dance, music, and art. In late medieval chivalric culture, the legend of the wild and masculine unicorn captured and tamed by a chaste maiden allegorized the courtly theme of “feminine” civilization and love subduing “masculine” passion and violence. By the 1490s when a social climbing lawyer commissioned a cycle of tapestries on the Lady and the Unicorn as the “Five Senses of Love”, court culture could celebrate love’s pleasures more openly without violating a larger framework of chaste refinement. By fusing the tamed unicorn theme with the more erotic theme of amorous delight enjoyed through the five senses, the tapestry cycle now in the Cluny Museum quietly eroticized traditional medieval chastity and transformed it into more of an Early Renaissance love fest. Even as these tapestries allegorized the newly tamed and civilized warrior, they also quietly celebrated the unicorn as a virile, well-equipped lover. A revealing parallel can be found in new nostalgic images of the primitive “wild man” now seen as a handsome lover, not a savage ravisher. Like the new “wild man,” the new unicorn imagery resolved anxieties about overly feminized, modern noblemen by reconciling rough and refined.

 

 

RENAISSANCE AND BAROQUE ART

 

The Architectural Revolution of the Early Italian Renaissance: Brunelleschi's Pazzi Chapel, Michelozzo's Medici Palace, and Alberti's Church of San Andrea

 

Using three masterpieces of Early Italian Renaissance architecture as case studies, this talk explores the architectural revolution pioneered in Florence by Brunelleschi, continued by his pupil, Michelozzo, and transformed by a third, Florentine architect, Alberti.  After studying classical monuments in Rome, Brunelleschi returned to Florence and completely overthrew Late Gothic architecture. Gothic verticality leading towards a celestial eternity gave way to Renaissance classical forms firmly planted on this earth and geared toward a new civic piety of everyday life (work, family, political engagement). Gothic stained-glass immateriality and luminosity gave way to Renaissance solidity and horizontal forms firmly planted on this earth. Where Gothic architects concealed flying buttresses as vital supports, Brunelleschi's buildings revealed their structural system and replaced sacred miracles with human reason. Ornate Gothic surfaces yielded to plain, "unadorned" walls offering a new Stoic simplicity "and virtue" and displaying their own architecture structure and logic. Mystical geometry tied to medieval faith gave way to simple ratios and proportions, further affirming human reason in line with a new Renaissance discourse on human  dignity and free will.  Finally, the vast scale of Gothic cathedrals was reconfigured with a Renaissance language of modular forms scaling grand and monumental structures down to the human body and to the experience of ordinary viewers - the citizens who governed themselves in republican Florence. All of these revolutionary architectural qualities appeared in Brunelleschi's masterpiece, the Pazzi Chapel, commissioned by a wealthy banking family. Within two decades, Brunelleschi's artistic revolution rendered Gothic architecture obsolete in Italy. With some important exceptions in the 19th century, the classicism introduced by Brunelleschi dominated architecture until the early twentieth century.

 

Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art

This overview examines the contributions of Italian artists from 1400 to 1700 with particular attention paid to the revival of classical values and mythological subject matter, the rise of portraiture and landscape, the new system of one-point perspective, the humanizing and feminizing of the sacred, the new dignity of emotion, and the idea of the body as divinely beautiful.

 

 

Gardens of Chastity, Love, and Power: A Social History of Gardens in Western Art from the Late Middle Ages to Versailles

This history of gardens in four hundred years of European art (1300-1700) examines the distinct garden culture created by leading patronage groups (church, aristocracy, and middle class) and the way gardens defined a rich array of values encompassing religion, politics, class, and gender. Church culture patronized monastic gardens of solitude, inwardness, and female chastity from the 13th to 15th centuries. The nobility favored gardens of refined leisure, love, and privacy in the fifteenth century before embracing the formal garden in the 16th century as a grand arena of wealth, power, and rule. Finally, middle class gardens developed in the seventeenth century to express moderation, sobriety, virtue, marriage, and family.

 

(a second lecture on gardens in 18th-20th-Century art is listed below)

 

 

Gods on Earth: Court Culture and Mythological Portraiture in Renaissance and Baroque Art

With Renaissance humanism (1400-) and the revival of classical antiquity, European elites had themselves portrayed as mythological deities and heroes. Such portraits flattered Renaissance aristocrats as “gods on earth” by defining their power as both earthly and transcendent,  by invoking divine ancestry and divine providence, and by using moral allegory to endow nobles with every virtue. More broadly, mythological portraits gave new life to classical cosmology and astrology and to prevailing ideas of nature as a hierarchical order. Finally, myth licensed male fantasies about an erotic body liberated in nature while defining sexual power in male terms.

 

 

Botticelli’s Mythological Works

Large-scale mythological painting emerged in Italian Renaissance art after 1460 and remained a major category of Western art through the nineteenth century. No pioneer of mythological painting was more important than Botticelli. This talk will discuss his four major mythologies: Birth of Venus, Primavera, Minerva and the Centaur, Mars and Venus as examples of the Renaissance revival of classical antiquity recast to serve contemporary values tied to Christian marriage and Medicean politics.

 

 

Botticelli’s Religious Art: From Madonna to Apocalypse

The leading Florentine painter of religious art in the 1480s, Botticelli drew on classical art to introduce a new aristocratic beauty, elegance, and sensuality into Christian art. This talk will examine his groundbreaking images of the Annunciation, Madonna and Child, and Pieta before turning to his later, renunciation of “worldly” aesthetic values in favor of Apocalyptic themes and forms under the influence of the Florentine doomsday preacher, Savonorola.

 

 

The Real Leonardo: Beyond The Da Vinci Code

Much of the religious history and art history in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is false, distorted, or speculative. No evidence suggests Christ was married nor did the Prior of Sion exist before 1958. Paganism made the mind, not the erotic body, the chief bridge to the divine. Although patriarchal, Christianity was sufficiently women-friendly that two thirds of early worshippers were female. By reducing the Church to a single monolithic entity supposedly defined by power politics, corruption, deception, violence, and misogyny, Brown steps outside history into a world of anti-Catholic prejudice and modern gender myths. This talk offers a more historical look at Leonardo, with a focus on four major innovations: 1) the new importance of drawing from nature which allowed painting to take on a new naturalism based on scientific study; 2) the rise of a self-conscious artistic originality, invention, and poetic imagination; 3) the adoption of oil painting with its atmospheric mystery and spiritual infinity, and 4) the feminization of nature, human nature, and the sacred.

 

 

Michelangelo as Painter: Papal Politics, Gender Values, and Classicism in the Sistine Chapel

Commissioned by Julius II and Paul III, the frescoes of the Sistine Ceiling and Last Judgment gave aesthetic form to Roman Catholic religious values at a time of increasing papal authority. The Sistine Chapel offers a Catholic world history from the beginning to the end of all time. While affirming papal values, Michelangelo’s frescoes also redefined Western aesthetics, making the heroic, classical nude the primary vocabulary of painting and sculpture for the next four hundred years. Amidst this optimistic pagan spirit, Michelangelo’s art also suggested a more tragic, Christian understanding of the body as the “prison of the soul” suffused with human limitation and mortality.

 

Michelangelo as Sculptor

This talk examines all of the major sculptures of Michelangelo including the Battle of Nude Men, early Madonnas, Bacchus, David, the Pietas, Moses, and the Medici Chapel. Major issues include the revival of classical nudity in secular and Christian art, civic values in the republic of Florence (David), papal authority (Moses) and the Medicean conquest of Florence (Medici Chapel).

 

 

Landscape and Villa Culture in Sixteenth-century Venice

This talk will explore the rise of landscape painting in sixteenth-century Venetian religious and mythological art, its relationship to an emerging Renaissance villa and pastoral culture patronized by powerful aristocrats, and the appearance of landscape as an independent category after 1550. Featured artists include Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, and Palladio.

 

Arcimboldo and the Courtly Cosmos: Fantasia, Fertility, Power

This talk explores Arcimboldo's playful handling of cosmic imagery (Four Seasons, Four Elements) as examples of a new humanist fantasia (artistic imagination) and playful intellect which runs though later Renaissance court culture. As an element in sixteenth-century aesthetics, Fantasia shifted the focus away from the study of nature toward a higher realm of “divine mind”, artistic originality, learning, visual cleverness, wit, paradox, illusion and artifice. Nature remained important, even central to the new fantasia but only as a starting point to be explored philosophically, wittily inverted or parodied, and playfully reinterpreted in the higher “nature” of art. The talk also examines phallic fertility and male sexual power (Vertumnus) as a patriarchal theme favored by Renaissance rulers including Arcimboldo's imperial patrons.

The Allure of Witches and Other Dangerous Women in German Renaissance Art

Witchcraft first emerged as a popular subject in the visual arts in German art in the early sixteenth century. Since no major persecutions of witches took place at that time, we must look elsewhere to explain the sudden currency of the witch. This talk examines four trends. The first grounds witch imagery in middle class attitudes toward sexuality and the body. In the early sixteenth century, Northern European aristocrats were eagerly investing in the new, Italian Renaissance aesthetic ideals of heroic nudity and bodily beauty revived from antiquity. In contrast, German middle-class artists and patrons continued a late medieval monastic tradition representing the body in wholly negative terms as a false, sinful and corrupt. Second, the German witch emerged from a much larger universe of late medieval misogynist themes worrying about powerful women and emasculated men. In patriarchal burgher homes, the witch was the nightmarish antithesis to the obedient, chaste, domesticated wife. Third, the sinful framework of witchcraft allowed artists to exploit a wide range of erotic imagery which was otherwise off limits to art. One way to tame the witch was to turn her into a figure of male erotica enjoyed privately in small prints kept in albums. Finally, the new Renaissance idea of artistic invention and imaginary creation transformed witchcraft into an arena where artists could display their artistic ingenuity, originality, and the fecundity of their own “demonic” imaginations. Note: Since almost all Renaissance images of witches feature sexualized, female nudes, this lecture is not suited for children.

 

Bruegel and the Mercantile Universe

Working almost exclusively for burghers (wealthy middle class), Bruegel used a detailed imagery of nature and peasant life to fashion an imaginary universe confirming burgher values of hard work, moderation, family, and communal harmony. Challenging the dominion of traditional church and court cultures, Bruegel’s art contributed to an emerging burgher culture in a number of ways. His paintings redefined religion in burgher humanist terms as a living piety grounded in everyday life (work, family, civic commitment) rather than in church rituals, dogmas, or institutional authority. So too, Bruegel either replaced the heroic classical subjects of court art with an everyday imagery or translated those subjects down into an everyday Dutch vernacular tied to burgher values (Fall of Icarus). In his grand worldscapes, Bruegel replaced courtly ideas of nature as a timeless feudal order confirming aristocratic power, wealth, sensuality and leisure with a burgher universe geared to work, community, moderation, and simplicity. Feudal land ownership and power became an inner, burgher intellectual dominion, a philosophical mastery of the world available to art-collecting educated urban elites eager to contemplate their new place in this painted universe.

 

 

Anguish, Healing, and Redemption in Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece

As the greatest work of religious art in sixteenth-century Northern Europe, Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece transformed late medieval Passion piety with the new, emotionally gripping aesthetic language of High Renaissance naturalism. Commissioned as an altarpiece for a hospital chapel run by the Antonite order, Grünewald’s imagery of Christ’s anguish on the cross worked compassionately to affirm and transcend the sufferings of dying patients in an age before anesthesia. As the multi-layered altarpiece opened, brutal suffering yielded to resurrectional triumphal over pain and to visions of a Paradise garden protected by a tender Madonna.

 

 

Caravaggio, Artistic Innovation and Catholic Spirituality

Caravaggio developed an original and influential naturalism grounded to some extent in everyday experience. At the same time, his art was highly theatrical and used a dramatic light and dark which heightened both reality and artistic artifice. Although a few of his religious works offended traditional taste by taking lowly naturalism too far, most of his work expressed mainstream Catholic values during the Counter-Reformation. So too, his radical naturalism affirmed traditional ideas of inward vision beyond the mundane world captured so vividly in his art. For all his innovation, Caravaggio was no revolutionary.

 

 

Power and Illusion in the Court of the Sun King at Versailles

Art, architecture, gardens, opera, and theater were fundamental to the projection of national power in seventeenth-century Europe. Nowhere was this more elaborately developed than at the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. Originally a hunting lodge and get-away, Versailles dramatically expanded under Louis and eventually became the capital of France with ten thousand permanent residents. This talk will explore the formal gardens and the major outdoor sculptures, the Hall of Mirrors with its cycle of paintings on the life of Louis, and the comprehensive use of history and mythology to extol the king’s divine power and eternal fame. More broadly, I will discuss the central important of art, illusion, and theater to new ideas of political power.

 

Note: This lecture can be expanded to a two or three-part series. 

 

 

The Revolutionary Art of Vermeer

Vermeer’s unique artistry is set against the changing social and aesthetic morays of the seventeenth-century Netherlands. After 1660, Dutch society shed traditional middle class, Protestant values of “manly” simplicity, moderation, hard work, and family. Abandoning Dutch images of diligent peasants, attentive mothers, and sober homes, Vermeer created a new Dutch world of expensive townhouses filled beautiful young women absorbed in the refined, “feminine” leisure of polite conversation, letter writing, chamber music, courtly love, and artistic pleasure. Here Vermeer’s uniquely self-conscious aestheticism helped redefine art as an inherently ennobling pursuit similar to the refined music he frequently depicted. Despite embracing a wide array of courtly qualities, Vermeer shunned the giant canvasses, extravagant nudity, rhetorical emotion, and grand historical imagery of court artists such as Rubens and van Dyck. In the end, Vermeer’s art remained grounded in middle class, Dutch values confined to small drawing rooms and modest paintings such as Girl with a Pearl Earring.

 

Set against larger shifts in European culture, Vermeer’s art takes on even greater significance. By transforming everyday life into a refined world of musical poetry and noble mind, Vermeer demolished traditional courtly aesthetics which reserved artistic greatness for noble, heroic, and timeless subjects taken from religion, myth, and classical history. By redefining everyday life as a worthy subject of the highest artistry. Vermeer helped open the way for the cultural revolution of the eighteenth century when everyday life emerged across Europe as a major subject in art and literature (the novel).

 

 

Fabritius’ Goldfinch, Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring, and Kalf’s Still-Life with Nautilus: Humble Subjects and High Aestheticism in Dutch Baroque Art

 

As the only country in seventeenth-century Europe where ordinary citizens ruled themselves, the Netherlands favored an art of everyday life tied to Dutch homes, farms, urban views, portraits, and still-life. Elsewhere in Europe, aristocratic patrons favored timeless, heroic subjects (myth, empires), and refined leisure (beauty, love, idyllic landscapes, chamber music, and fashion). After 1660, Dutch culture abandoned traditional burgher austerity and Protestant simplicity in favor of courtly themes. Using three masterpieces of later Dutch Baroque art as case studies, this talk explores the Dutch artistic embrace of aristocratic aesthetics. To elevate mundane Dutch subjects to the higher world of Art, painters such as Vermeer, Fabritius, and Kalf developed hyper-aesthetic styles featuring atmospheric light, poetic color, and abstracting brushwork. By separating high aestheticism from lofty subject matter, Dutch artists contributed to the growing autonomy of the aesthetic sphere which later artists took further. And by raising the status of everyday existence and still life as subjects for Art, Dutch painters helped give those categories new value in 18th-century art, even among courtly collectors. 

 

Rembrandt and 17th Century Dutch Society

During his long career (1625-1669) Rembrandt grappled with the tension between traditional Dutch values of humility, simplicity, and ordinary humanity and a more classical, courtly aesthetic grounded in beauty, splendor, and wealth which transformed Dutch art after 1650. Between 1625 and 1650, Rembrandt succeeded in two categories of art: lowly, Protestant religious scenes and elegant society portraits. Charting a more individual path in his last 20 years, Rembrandt avoided the new Dutch world of elegant interiors (Vermeer) and the lovely ladies in silk dresses (Ter Borch). With a rough brushwork detached from the new materialism, an ordinary yet spiritual humanity, a rich color glowing with feeling, and a mysterious shadow creating psychological depth and spiritual, Rembrandt drew on the new Dutch aesthetic of outward splendor while completely transcending it.

 

 

Rubens' Garden of Love: Medieval Courtship in an Age of Renaissance Paganism

     Although rooted in classical antiquity, the garden of love was largely invented in the courtly literature of the late Middle Ages and in the art of the Renaissance. In Early Renaissance art (1400-1500), the love garden imaged an exclusive, aristocratic arena of relatively chaste, courtly love, refined leisure (fashion, music, dancing, polite conversation), and privacy.

     With the rise of an openly erotic, classical mythology as a major subject in High Renaissance art (1500-), the love garden shed much of its late medieval chastity and embraced a Renaissance, “pagan” sexuality grounded in a sanctified, cosmic nature. And with the merchant class taking up the courtly love garden in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century and rulers competing to build larger and more complex “formal gardens” tied to wealth and power, the intimate love garden acquired a new scale and grandeur in later Renaissance and Baroque art.

     With one foot in upper middle class culture and the other in court life, the elderly Rubens spent his last decade in rustic retirement painting sensual landscapes filled with goddesses and nymphs, shepherds and shepherdesses, contemporary peasants, and Flemish aristocrats. This historical background will set the stage for a reading of Rubens’ late masterpiece, The Garden of Love (1630s, Prado). Mixing courtly values of wooing, conversation, music, unembarrassed sexuality, and “feminine” civilization with burgher values of marriage, family, respect for women, and domesticated masculinity, Rubens created a hybrid love garden tied more to feeling than wealth and power, and appealing to both courtly and burgher elites.

 

Rubens and the Politics of Gender: From Deadly Siren to Powerful Goddess

This talk explores Rubens’ contradictory gender values in mythological and religious representation. The first section deals with mythological images of male power in scenes of rape and rescue (Perseus and Andromeda) and with images of malevolent female power (Samson and Delilah, Judith and Holofernes). The second section explores Rubens’s more original images celebrating female power in positive terms such as The Origins of the Milky Way  (Juno’s milk creating the stars), Venus at Her Toilette, Judgment of Paris, and Festival of Venus, a large canvas celebrating the divine power of female sexuality and its ruling place in a cosmic nature and human nature. At a time when female virtue was still closely tied to chastity, Rubens used mythology and landscape to sanctify and naturalize a more positive view of the female body.

 

 

Bernini and Ecstasy: Religion, Gender, and Catholic Spirituality

Drawing on erotic pagan mythological art, Bernini developed a more sensuous Christian art tied to ongoing shifts in Catholic spirituality. Contrary to Dan Brown, Bernini’s “erotic” approach to Christian subjects enjoyed official support from the highest ranking church officials and expressed mainstream Catholic ideas on the mystical love between Christ the bridegroom and the “bridal” soul of the ordinary Christian worshiper. While patriarchal values remained present in Bernini’s world of nuptial piety and religious ecstasy, his art contributed to an ongoing feminizing of official Catholic piety which brought a new respect for the “feminine” realm of emotion and the body. 

 

 

18-19TH CENTURY ART

 

Impressionism: A Revolution in Technique, Style, and Subject Matter

Impressionism was an artistic revolution in subject matter and style. Abandoning traditional, heroic subjects from literature, Impressionism favored mundane scenes from modern life, especially middle-class leisure. Aesthetically, some Impressionists like Monet pursued a radical technique of "pure seeing" using abstracting color and brushwork to separate art from traditional moral and spiritual values. Others like Renoir mainstreamed Impressionism by applying it to all manner of popular subjects. Still others like Lautrec, Degas, and Manet explored the troubling subject of prostitution. Though committed to an art of perception, Impressionism also embraced a new artistic freedom which enabled the next generation to move beyond seeing into a new world of personal vision and abstraction. Thus Impressionism helped end a 500-year tradition of naturalism stretching back to the Renaissance. 

 

Feminine Mystique and Femme Fatale as Male Psyche in Late 19th-Century Art

The nineteenth century saw disturbing economic, social, and political changes including socialist and feminist attacks on traditional gender roles. Fear of modern politics, industrialization, urbanization, and female independence created a wave of images sanctifying or demonizing women. The Pre-Raphaelites (and later, Aesthetic Movement and Symbolist artists) developed a “feminine mystique” elevating women as Madonnas, mothers, nuns, and angelic creatures tied to emotional and spiritual interiority and to the refined world of art itself. On the other side of this psychic coin, male artists demonized women as hypersexual sirens, harpies, vampires, prostitutes, witches, and purveyors of chaos, disease, destruction, and death. By deifying and demonizing women, artists and writers imaged male hopes, fears and fantasies, confined women to impossible, mutually exclusive roles as “Madonnas” and “whores” and created massive conflicts in the male psyche. This presentation is not suited for children.

 

Gauguin’s Tahiti and the Male Symbolist Imagination

This talk explores Gauguin’s Tahitian art as French Symbolist modernism. Initially, Tahiti helped Gauguin develop a more appealing and accessible Symbolist aesthetic by fusing a rich array of European artistic traditions: paradise, love gardens, floral women and women as nature, the Pastoral-Anarchist Utopia, Islands of Love, the Orientalist harem, and the new Japonisme sweeping French art. By catering to male colonial fantasies of Tahiti as an erotic paradise, Gauguin’s Tahitian nudes repackaged traditional European images found in the academic art he claimed to despise.

After 1894, Gauguin developed a deeper engagement with Tahitian life by exploring themes of family and community. In 1898, Gauguin move beyond Tahitian community with a universalizing, philosophical mural entitled, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” My talk concludes with a close reading of this work as a reassuring allegory of the cycle of life amidst the troubling uncertainties of the late 19th century. In this mural, Gauguin explored themes of universality, eclectic spiritualism, kindred-spirit interiority, gendered pastoral, and feminine, nocturnal wisdom. More than any work of the 1890s, this mural offers a culmination of Western landscape since the Renaissance at a time when modern artists were on the verge of abandoning nature and naturalism for private abstraction.

 

 “From the Courtly Love Garden to Inner Flower: Gardens and Flowers in Art from 1700-1940”

     Eighteenth-century garden culture saw two major trends. Court culture endowed the traditional love garden with a new escapism, theatricality, and hedonism (Watteau, Fragonard). And the rise of a picturesque nature replaced the static geometries of the absolutist garden with a curved, “natural” topography geared to “untouched” nature, individual feeling, personal exploration, and “childlike” innocence.

    In the first half of the nineteenth century (1790-1860), the garden largely disappeared as a theme in art, undermined by two developments. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the garden was tainted by ties to courtly politics, artifice and pleasure. And the rise of Romanticism (1790-) replaced the intensely social garden with the solitary wilderness as the most authentic landscape. Gardens survived in Romantic art and literature primarily as the visionary flower, the inner blossom of the isolated, modern self retreating from industrialization, urbanization, and political disappointment.

    The later nineteenth and early twentieth century offered three forms of garden culture. Between 1860 and 1885, middle class patrons of the Pre-Raphaelites and early Impressionists revived a bourgeois version of the courtly garden of leisure. And for the next two decades (1890-1910), the courtly garden of splendid leisure and delight returned in late Impressionism and Fauvism. Emphasizing the garden’s outward beauty, both trends were distinct from a third tradition. Rooted in Romanticism and adopted widely in the Pre-Raphaelites, Art Nouveau, the Symbolists, and Expressionists, this approach rejected outward beauty for inner gardens and solitary flowers transfigured with spiritual yearnings (Van Gogh, Hodler, Redon, early Mondrian). A fourth option – seen in the floral art of the Nabis artist, Vuillard, developed a middle path between outward beauty and inner feeling.

     After 1915, the garden disappeared as a prominent theme in modern art. In a modernist world focused on machine-age geometry and grand, heroic, “masculine” forms, the garden and the flower were sidelined as trivial and decorative. With some notable exceptions – above all Georgia Okeeffe, a few Surrealists, and some English artists between the wars, the flower and the garden all but vanished in Cubism, Constructivism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism, and Earth Art. With the collapse of modernist orthodoxy in the 1960s, gardens and flowers returned to a variety of artists including Mapplethorpe, Baselitz, Kelly, Dine, Steir, Graves, and Kiefer. 

 

 

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