Trivium Art History

Welcome to Trivium, a place to explore 40,000 years of human creativity

Discover →Explore ↓
Show another
Golden Hat of Schifferstadt

Life in the Bronze Age may have been more fashionable that we typically give it credit for. This magnificent hat is the oldest known example of a strangely specific form of Prehistoric couture known as golden hats

Golden Hat of Schifferstadt photo

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. 

Spring photo
Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene

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.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene photo
Louis XV of France as Dauphin

The Child King

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.

Louis XV of France as Dauphin photo
50 cc of Paris Air

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?

50 cc of Paris Air photo
Statue of Aphrodite

Ancient Rome owed much of its art and culture to Greece, whose obsession with physical perfection and philosophical rigor left an easily co-opted legacy of art and myth.

Statue of Aphrodite photo

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.

Sorrow photo
The Cave of Spleen

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.

The Cave of Spleen photo
Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy?

Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? was an elaborate prank by Marcel Duchamp. An assisted readymade — a found object 'enhanced' by the artist, in this case by filling a birdcage with 152 marble 'sugar cubes,' a thermometer and cuttlefishbone.

Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? photo
Self-portrait in the Guise of a Mockingbird

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?’

Self-portrait in the Guise of a Mockingbird photo
In Advance of the Broken Arm

Some jokes are worth telling over and over. In 1915 Marcel Duchamp walked into a hardware store, purchased a snow shovel, signed it, dated it, called it In Advance of the Broken Arm and hung it from his studio ceiling. Art!

In Advance of the Broken Arm photo
Emperor Guan

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. 

Emperor Guan photo

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.

Untitled photo

Richard Teschner elevated puppetry to a fine art by applying the grace of Javanese rod puppetry to his own strange, sinester worldbuilding.

Princess photo
Alfred Tennyson

Thomas Woolner considered this plaster relief of England’s poet laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson to be the best portrait roundel he’d made, though Tennyson’s wife requested he shorten the poet’s nose.

Alfred Tennyson photo
Divination Liver Model: Omen of siege

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.

Divination Liver Model: Omen of siege photo
The Battle of Trafalgar

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. 

The Battle of Trafalgar photo
The Card Players

Playing cards has never been less fun.

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.

The Card Players photo
The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters

In 1797 Francisco Goya created 80 etchings that laid out a scathing critique of pre-enlightenment Spain, illustrating the damaging effects of superstition, arraigned marriage, and a wasteful ruling class.

The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters photo

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.

Self-portrait photo
Akhenaten and Nefertiti

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. 

Akhenaten and Nefertiti photo
Forest Grotto in Juqu

Wang Meng brings his distinctively dense brushwork to this painting of the Forest Chamber Grotto at Lake Tai. The composition is claustrophobic, but it can be deciphered by looking closely at his brush-strokes.

Forest Grotto in Juqu photo
Pictorial Quilt

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.

Pictorial Quilt photo
The Horse Fair

For a year and half Rosa Bonheur dressed in mens clothes 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 photo
Sigillum Dei, Wax Disks

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.

Sigillum Dei, Wax Disks photo
Composition in Gray (Rag-time)

Composition in Gray is minimal to the point of monotony—a dour stack of rectangles. But this painting by Theo van Doesburg captures a pivotal moment in the evolution of modern art.

Composition in Gray (Rag-time) photo
The Temptation of St. Anthony

"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."

The Temptation of St. Anthony photo
The Witches Flight

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.

The Witches Flight photo

Ahmed Yacoubi worked during the heyday of abstract expressionism, and brought a uniquely dark, knife-worked density to the movement, earning him the patronage of the influential collector Peggy Guggenheim.

Untitled photo
Harmonia Macrocosmica Plate 1 — The Planisphere of Ptolemy

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.

Harmonia Macrocosmica Plate 1 — The Planisphere of Ptolemy photo
Natal Where Art School Is

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...

Natal Where Art School Is photo
Bicycle Wheel

Marcel Duchamp's readymades were sculptural assemblages of found objects, often created as jokes, visual puns, or as with the 'Bicycle Wheel' — for the simple pleasure of the juxtaposition.

Bicycle Wheel photo

Stop complaining, Millais

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.

Ophelia photo
Red Rambling Rose Spring Song

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.

Red Rambling Rose Spring Song photo
Arrangement of Specimens

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.

Arrangement of Specimens photo
Jesus in Podravina

It's hard to describe Ivan Večenaj's color palette as anything other than alarming. But to the self-taught painter, bold color illustrated the pragmatic idea that traditional religious scenes could be placed in the snowy woods of his home in the Podravina river basin in Croatia

Jesus in Podravina photo
Oval Sculpture (No. 2)

Shortly before the start of WWII, Barbara Hepworth left her friends in the London avant-garde, and moved with her family to Cornwall, where wind-blasted cliffs and wave-smoothed stone inspired a new body of work.

Oval Sculpture (No. 2) photo
The Four Continents

 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.

The Four Continents photo
A Nosegay of Roses, Marigolds, Larkspur and a Bumblebee

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.

A Nosegay of Roses, Marigolds, Larkspur and a Bumblebee photo
Shah-Jahan receives his three eldest sons and Asaf Khan during his accession ceremonies

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.

Shah-Jahan receives his three eldest sons and Asaf Khan during his accession ceremonies photo

This small gouache by the beloved Indian painter Gaganendranath Tagore frames a sublime moment in cubist angles. On the back it is inscribed "I am with you always, even until the end of the world."

Resurrection photo
The Life Clock

A still from Richard Teschner's 1935 puppet theater production Die Lebens-Uhr, "The Life Clock." The still image shows Teschner's unusual porthole-shaped viewer, giving the audience the impression they are viewing the production through a camera lens ringed by astrological signs.

The Life Clock photo
David with the Head of Goliath (1610)

Self-portrait as a dead man.

It's more disturbing to look at a painting of a beheading when you know that the artist had recently murdered a man.

David with the Head of Goliath (1610) photo
Camelid Sacrum in the Shape of a Canine

Made or simply loved?

Prehistoric objects often raise a tricky question: was the stone or bone fragment shaped by human hands in an intentional act of creativity, or does it just look it was?

Camelid Sacrum in the Shape of a Canine photo
Inkpot and Desk Clock

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. 

Inkpot and Desk Clock photo
Stefaneschi Triptych

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.

Stefaneschi Triptych photo
Church Tower in Zeeland

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. 

Church Tower in Zeeland photo

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.

Flora photo
Lady at the Tea Table

This portrait sits the viewer down for tea with Mary Cassatt’s mother’s cousin, about to pour from a porcelain teapot. Cassatt’s approach to impressionism maintained detail, allowing her to capture both the patterns in the porcelain and the pensive boredom of her subject. 

Lady at the Tea Table photo
Impression Sunrise

The accidential genesis of a movement

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.

Impression Sunrise photo
The Dessert: Harmony in Red

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.

The Dessert: Harmony in Red photo
Adam and Eve

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.

Adam and Eve photo
Charles I

Why paint three portraits in one? Because in this extrordinary portrait of King Charles the 1st, Anthony van Dyck had prepared a three-dimentional schematic for a sculptural bust.

Charles I photo

‘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.

Pity photo
Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces

About this monumental painting Jacques-Louis David wrote: "This is the last picture I want to paint, but I want to surpass myself in it. I will put the date of my seventy-five years on it and afterwards I will never again pick up my brush."

Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces photo
Portrait of the emperor Caracalla

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.

Portrait of the emperor Caracalla photo
Heavy Jade Cong 琮

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.

Heavy Jade Cong 琮 photo
Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

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. 

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? photo
The Triumph of Death

The skeletons are winning.

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.

The Triumph of Death photo
Starry Sky, Attempt

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.

Starry Sky, Attempt photo
Bowl with Arabic Proverb

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.

Bowl with Arabic Proverb photo
The Garden of Earthly Delights

A window into Hell.

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.

The Garden of Earthly Delights photo
Obsidian Mirror

This mirror was used by John Dee to contact angels. For ten years, Dee and his scryer Edward Kelley received messages through the mirror. Dee believed the messengers were angels, Kelley thought they were demons, and begged to end the rituals...

Obsidian Mirror photo
Purkersdorf Sanatorium Armchair

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.

Purkersdorf Sanatorium Armchair photo
The Intervention of the Sabine Women

David's greatest painting, and a get-out-of-jail-free card.

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.

The Intervention of the Sabine Women photo
Bust of Five-Headed Shiva

A five-headed god may be a disorienting concept to western viewers, so let's break it down. Meet Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.

Bust of Five-Headed Shiva photo
Rose Trellis Egg

How much would a Fabergé egg cost today? Peter Carl Fabergé charged Tsar Nicholas the Second 8300 rubles for the Rose Trellis Egg in 1907, roughly a half a million US dollars today.

Rose Trellis Egg photo
Vogelherd Ivory Lion Figurine

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. 

Vogelherd Ivory Lion Figurine photo
Claude McKay and Baroness von Freytag

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. 

Claude McKay and Baroness von Freytag photo
Girl with a Pearl Earring

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.

Girl with a Pearl Earring photo

After years of working in archeological excavations, Gonzalo Fonseca created sculptural windows into humanity's distant past. Carving tiny spaces from cast-off architectural stone, we project ourselves into the alcoves. We came from the caves, Fonseca forces us to return.

Palomar photo
Black Tegu Lizard

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.

Black Tegu Lizard photo