It's hard to overstate the incredible clarity and beauty of traditional Arabic calligraphy. Calligraphy was and is a major element of Islamic design, found on household objects, weapons and armor, and embedded in architecture. Calligraphy, like Egyptian heiroglyphics, was used as both art and communication.
If you could predict the future, would you share your knowledge? In 1933, the archeologist André Parrot uncovered 32 clay tablets shaped like sheep's livers. They document the practice of hepatoscopy, a form of divination where abnormalities in the livers of sacrificed animals were used to foretell coming events. And in the case of this liver, the future was looking grim indeed.
We don’t know who Flora was — but the Venetian painter Titian painted her at least five times. Here, she carries flowers in her hand, and takes her name from the Greek goddess of Spring. She was painted first as Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, then painted with a mirror, representing vanity, and finally as the betrayer Salome, carrying the head of John the Baptist.
During the Dutch golden age, paintings of card players were popularized by artists like Jan Miense Molenaer and Antoine and Louis Le Nain. Men and women lit by candle light, laughing and shouting and drinking and betting on a good hand. They were fun paintings, and 150 years later Paul Cézanne came along and bled all the fun out of the genre.
François Thomas Germain inherited his father’s position as silversmith to the King of France in 1748 — a time of rococo luxury for the wealthy and powerful. His whimsical designs in silver brought commissions from Russia and Portugal, but the attrition of the Seven Years War crippled the indulgent lifestyle of the monarchy. In 1765 Germain declared bankruptcy.
Every class has its clown. Joseph Ducreux worked alongside the great Neoclassical painters Vigée Le Brun and Jacques-Louis David, but his work sparks with humor and weird energy. This self-portrait from 1793 is still phresh enough to generate a meme: ‘Gentlemen, who hath released the hounds?’
The extravagantly costumed Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven poses with the Jamaican author Festus Claudius "Claude" McKay, who starting in 1928, published four novels that would establish him as one of the most important voices of the Harlem Renaissance. McKay is also costumed in floral patterns and pearls, and looks like his patience with the situation may be running low.
The Alterpiece Tryptich was an old idea by the time that Heironymus Bosch got ahold of it. Three painted panels in an elaborate frame, often telling a story from right to left. Giotto's Stefaneschi Triptych for St. Peter's cathedral is a good example of what a tryptich should look like — Christ, serene, surrounded by adoring disciples. But Bosch had a different story to tell.
Alexander Pope was a satirist, whose biting verse skewered the romantic ideals of 18th century English the high-society. In 1712, he published a mock-epic poem entitled "The Rape of the Lock" in which a lock of a woman's hair is stolen by an admirer, and the incident is embellished into a drama parodying Homer's Iliad.
Vogelherd cave in Stetten, Germany, has been one of the most exciting sites of Neolithic discoveries, and home to some of the oldest neolithic objects ever found. Excavated in 1931 by Gustav Riek, an archaeologist from the University of Tübingen, it is thought to be a site where early peoples gather to feast after successful hunts. Riek attributed the tools and figures discovered in Vogelherd to multiple stone age societies, including the Mousterian, Aurignacian, Magdalenian and Neolithic.
In this illuminated miniature by Bichitr, the Mughal Emperor Shah-Jahan welcomes his three sons and his father-in-law Asaf Khan. The miniature is part of the Padshahnama, a beautiful collection of 22 single and 11 double-page miniatures by 14 of the finest artists of the Mughal courts.
John Everett Millais, painter and inveterate whiner, was a member of the insufferably romantic boy's club known as the Pre-Raphaellite Brotherhood. Early in his career, Millais was a dedicated realist, working in a densely detailed style, and at the age of only 22 he began what would be one of his most successful paintings.
Today, Impressionism is one of the most well known and beloved movements in Western Art. But in 1872, when Claude Monet was painting a hazy interpretation of the seaport in his hometown of Le Havre in France, the birth of a movement was far from his mind. Monet was interested in light.
Duchamp bought this small glass ampoule from a Paris pharmacist as a souvenir for his friend and patron Walter C. Arensberg. In 1949, the vial was accidentally broken and repaired, which begs the question: Is the air even from Paris anymore?
You have to admire the honesty of ancient Roman portraits. In this bronze sculpture, the Roman Emperor Caracalla looks like a square-jawed bull of a man. Caracalla is nearly always shown with his brow furrowed with the intensity unique to men who feel they're being treated unfairly by the world that hails them as king.
In 1305, Pope Clement V moved the home of the Roman Catholic Church from Rome, to Avignon in France — a controversial move that eventually caused a split in the church known as the Western Schism.
It’s a work of deep symbolism — Goya’s airborne witches wear sanbenito, the tall conical hats worn by heretics during the Spanish inquisition. A cowering peasant makes the figa gesture with their hands to ward off evil. A donkey, symbol of ignorance, observes without fright. Scholars say the image is a critique of superstition, we say it's a damn scary painting.
1795 was a dark time for Jaques-Louis David. The French Revolution was in full bloody swing — and David, who's waffling political allegiances had kept him safe had finally gone too far.
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.
Ad Reinhardt wanted to create work “about which no questions can be asked” — images that represent only themselves. But we're pretty sure we can spot a cigarette in this untitled work, and pacman eating a mountain. Reinhardt's early work feels like an extension of cubism and the abstraction of early modernism. Later, his work would become severely minimal, less like looking for shapes in the clouds, and more like staring into a star-less night sky.
Jade cong are among the most enimatic Neolithic artefacts. Cong are found ringed around bodies found in China's Liangzhu grave sites. No language remains from the Liangzhu culture, so we don't know what meaning the cong had — but if you look closely, each outer edge is inscribed with rows of stylized faces.
Henri Matisse referred to his painting the Harmony in Red almost dismissively, calling it a “decorative panel.” And like a piece of ornamental furniture, he scattered the massive canvas with arabesques and floral pattern — a dining room scene with no conventional focal point and a strangely flattened perspective.
Not to diminish the work of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, but we owe Hieronymus Bosch for The Triumph of Death. In an era of royal portraits and pious depictions of the Christ, Bosch introduced the fever-dream of apocalyptic art, and Brueghel brought his own dark flavor to the genre just a few years later.
We don’t know who created this vivid, otherworldly portrait, but its subject is Guan Yu, descending from heaven. Guan was a Han dynasty warrior who died in 219 CE, and posthumously elevated to the status of Emperor. Guan became a venerated symbol of courage and faithfullness, honored by the Manchu rulers in shrines throughout China.
Meet Louis XV. He's ten years old in this portrait by Rosalba Carriera. Young Louis was the heir apparent of France, since the death of his father in 1715. But you can't have a ten-year-old running France.
Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of the most well known paintings of the modern age. The mysterious girl has been the subject of novels, acted on screen by Scarlett Johansson, and recreated as a Banksy mural — but we know nothing about the girl herself, and with good reason.
Albrecht Dürer was obsessed with proportion and symbolism. In this engraving, Adam holds a mountain ash branch, the tree of life, while Eve holds a fig branch — the forbidden tree of knowledge.
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.
It's more disturbing to look at a painting of a beheading when you know that the artist had recently murdered a man.
When John Muafangejo was 12 years old, his father died and his mother moved their family to Epinga, an Anglican mission village on Namibia's northern border. The villiage had an art school, called Rorke's Drift, where Muafangejo took his first art classes. But this print, like many of Muafangejo's works, is both biographical and deeply political...
In 1660, Andreas Cellarius compiled every competing theory and philosophy of the cosmos in a single, beautiful volume. He called it the Harmonia Macrocosmica. This first plate in the 29 print series shows the planisphere of Ptolemy — the movements of the heavenly orbits.
"It seems to me that a man like our St. Anthony, with his self-inflicted mortification of the flesh, would be most crushingly tempted by sexual desires and, more particularly, the vision of woman in all her voluptuous aspects."
These wax disks were created by the scientist and magician John Dee, to act as the anchors for his Holy Table — a platform designed for divination and contacting angelic beings. On top of the Holy Table sat an obsidian mirror for scrying, and these wax seals were placed under each leg of the table.
‘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 this obsessivly worked monoprint, a style he called his frescos.
During the Italian Renaissance it was rare for women to have access to artistic education — but by 1558 Sofonisba Anguissola had already been apprenticed to two painters of the Lombard school, and traveled to Rome to meet and learn from Michelangelo. At the time of this self-portrait, she was just 26 years old, and her career was about to explode.
In the winter of 1897, Paul Gauguin set down his brush, walked up a hill near his home in Tahiti and swallowed a huge amount of arsenic. The painting he completed before this suicide expressed his personal gospel, a dream-state allegory spanning the largest canvas of his career.
In art, it's never too late to change. Alma Thomas had retired after 3 decades of teaching high school art classes when she began experimenting with a new style—a dense, patterned abstraction she would first exhibit at Howard University in 1966, the year she turned 75.
We know very little about the origin of this beautiful and symbol-laden quilt by Harriet Powers. The arresting use of graphic applique to illustrate stories is linked to artistic techniques in Benin, West Africa, and combines Biblical stories with meteorological events in a beautiful tapestry that gains an ominously apocalyptic tone on deeper inspection.
Meet the Tegu lizard, painted here by Maria Sibylla Merian. Tegu are intellegent and very social, known to seek out human affection like a pet dog. Exotic animal veterinarian Dr. Mark gushingly calls them "the best, the perfect pet lizard." We do not know Merian's precise thoughts on the tegu, but she certainly painted this one with a smile on his face.
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.
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.
By exposing photosensitive paper soaked in iron salts to light, Hippolyte Bayard created some of the first direct positive prints — beautiful impressions of ferns and lace laid. Sadly, Sir John Herschel invented the Cyanotype the same year, stealing yet another photography milestone from the unlucky Bayard.
Sappho embraces her fellow poet Erinna in a garden at Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos. Sappho was born on Lesbos in 612 BCE, and wrote nine books of poetry about the joy and frustration of love. Her most complete surviving poem is an invocation to the goddess Aphrodite to help her woo another woman.
Vincent Van Gogh was a late bloomer, just beginning to seriously pursue art at age 29, at the prompting of his brother Theo. In Sorrow, we see the progress that Van Gogh had made after two years of serious study. Always lacking in money, Van Gogh often drew and painted his neighbors or people he hired off the street to model, but Sorrow is a portrait of his mistress — the pregnant, homeless prostitute Clasina Maria Hoornik, who went by the name Sien.
Koloman Moser designed this chair for the first Vienna Secession exhibition, organized by the already-famous Gustav Klimt. The chair would eventially become synonymous with the Purkersdorf Sanatorium, a sort of artist retreat near Vienna created by the architect Josef Hoffmann.
Piet Mondrian is famous for his rigorously geometric abstract paintings, but earlier in his career, like many of his fellow painters in the early 20th century, Mondrian painted landscapes. In 1911, Cubism was exploding in Paris, and Mondrian was vacationing in the Netherlands seaside town of Domburg, where his paintings of sand dunes and churches blended cubist shapes with fauvist color.
This relief sculpture, officially known as a the Wilbour Plaque, is an artist's reference — a sketch in stone that was hung in the workshop by the hole at the top of the stone, studied and copied by students. The figure on the left is thought to be Akhenaten, oposite him queen Nefertiti, they both wear uraeus headdresses bearing the sacred serpent — emblems of supreme power.
Following the shape of the stone1931-1998
A life of longing1916-1956
...and now we go to Samba, live in Kinshasa1956-
Why do you paint women? — "Because they are more courageous than men"1934-
A natural academic creates beauty by the rules1825-1905
Bigger is better1798-1863
All in with color1867-1947
"Artistic creation ... is an affirmation of Existence in its metaphysical horror"1885-1939
The apex of Baroque portraiture1599-1660
"Art must be inspiration controlled by mathematics"1884-1962
Finding the calm center in the storm1890-1977
The unconscious mind and a horsehair brush1908-1963
An essay on inwardness and silence1912-2004
Exploring the strange world of dreams1910-2012
The brilliant bisexual cat-lady of surrealism1907-1996
Paint until you're 90, then keep painting1914-2012
Cocoons, totems and twins1943-2005
No story. Pure poetry.1902-1982
Who carries the memory of the people?1947-1981
Many souls to save1953-2015