‘Pity, like a naked newborn babe, striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim horsed, upon the sightless couriers of the air, shall blow the horrid deed in every eye’ — These lines from scene 7, act 1 of Macbeth inspired William Blake to create one of his ‘frescos’ — a heavily worked form of monoprint where Blake began with a relief etching, then applied oil or tempera mixed with chalk, and finally finished by hand with and pen. Blake illustrated many scenes by Shakespeare and Milton — creating a strangely cohesive world of ghostly figures and supernatural ritual.
We don't know much about Wenzel Hablik's painting of the glittering cosmos. Titled, Starry Sky, Attempt, Hablik seems to understand the imperfection of his vision. It's too full, too bright, too hopeful. He paints a universe as alive as a busy street, outer space with a pulse. But that's Hablik for you, the boy who stared into crystals and saw palaces inside, the man who designed cities perched on mountain tops. The man who lived through WWI, and was still able to say "Speak out! Speak out! Delight in existence — in the universe— in being and perishing."
Historians used to wonder if Giuseppe Arcimboldo was a madman, assembling human faces from vegetables and flowers. But Arcimboldo was just wildly creative. Spring is from his Four Seasons collection — a suite of paintings showcasing the literal fruits of the prosperous reign of Emperor Maximilian II. The Emperor loved the work so much, he had Arcimboldo reproduce the paintings multiple times, so he could send them to his friends and family.
J.M.W. Turner was a great admirer of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson — the unconventional tactition and brilliant leader of the British Navy at the close of the 18th century. In 1822, King George IV commissioned Turner to commemorate Lord Nelson's victory and tragic death at the Battle of Trafalgar — Turner's first and only royal commission. While Turner had painted the Battle of Trafalgar multiple times, he exhaustively researched his new work, studying Lord Nelson's ship, the "Victory" — requesting the ship's plan from the admirality and working with marine artist J. C. Schetky to capture accurate perspective.
Peter Paul Rubens's The Four Continents personifies the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa and America as beautiful women, lounging nude with the male personifications of their majoy rivers — the Danube, the Ganges, the Nile and the Río de la Plata. It's a lush, sexy scene — heightened by the surreal presence of wild beasts, upended decor, and putti playing just on the edge of danger.
Rachel Ruysch’s flowers electrified the court of the Netherland’s Elector Johann Wilhelm — a childhood in the home of a botanist, a steady hand and an eye for dramatic composition made Ruysch one of the most successful still life artists of her day.
The Rose Trellis Egg was a gift from Tsar Nicholas II to his wife, Alexandra Fedorovna commemorating the birth of their son — Alexei Nicholaievich. This was the first Imperial Easter egg that Peter Carl Fabergé made for the Tsar since the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. Each of Fabergé's Imperial eggs contained a surprise, to delight the tsarevich. This egg hid a diamond necklace and an ivory miniature portrait of Alexandra Fedorovna framed in diamonds — unfortunately, these items are now lost. Fabergé's invoice, dated April 21, 1907, listed the egg at 8,300 rubles, roughly a half a million US dollars today.
For a year and half, Rosa Bonheur dressed in mens clothes to avoid attention and wandered the Parisian horse market at the Boulevard de l’Hôpital. Her sketches informed The Horse Fair — a painting of such grand scale that Bonheur called it her “Parthenon frieze.” The Horse Fair was first shown in the Paris Salon in 1583, but Rosa reworked the painting for the next two years. 32 years later the painting would be aired by Cornelius Vanderbilt, who donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Girl with a Pearl Earring has become one of the most well known paintings of the modern age. The mysterious girl is the subject of novels, she’s been played by Scarlett Johansson, and recreated as a Banksy mural — but we know nothing about the girl herself, and with good reason. The painting is what’s known as a Tronie, an idealized portrait designed to evoke an emotion rather than depict a specific person.
Every class has its clown. Joseph Ducreux worked alongside the great Neoclassical French painters like Vigée Le Brun, and Jacques-Louis David, but his work sparks with humor and weird energy. His self-portrait from 1793 is still phresh enough to generate its own meme — ‘Gentlemen, who hath released the hounds?’