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. Millais began 'Ophelia' in 1851, painting the river and background by the river Ewell near Kingston-Upon-Thames. But painting outdoors is difficult for the time-intensive work of realistic painting, and Millais was sure to let people know of his suffering, describing the experience in a letter:
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.
In renaissance Italy it was rare for women to have access to artistic education — but in 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. This was the year she would meet the Duke of Alba, who would recommed her to King Philip II of Spain.
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.
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.
We don’t know the artist who created this vivid, otherworldly portrait, but we know its subject is Guan Yu, descending from heaven. Guan was a Han dynasty warrior who died in 219 CE, and was 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.
In 1919, Theo van Doesburg was working with Piet Mondrian to push art past cubism. Just a year before, van Doesburg had written a manifesto defining 'the new art' which he called De Stijl or 'The Style'. Composition in Gray captures the transition between these two styles. The gradients and ovals common to cubism, giving way to the rigid vertical and horizontal structure of the burgeoning De Stijl movement.
It's hard to overstate the incredible clarity and beauty of traditional Arabic calligraphy. This bowl is from the Samanid dynasty of Medieval Persia, when Islamic culture was being enriched by Persia's (now Iran's) many artists, poets and craftsmen. Calligraphy was and is a major element of Islamic design, found on household objects, weapons and armor, and embedded in architecture, and like Egyptian heiroglyphics was used as both art and communication. This bowl carries the message:
التدبیر قبل العمل یؤمنك من الندم الیمن والسلامه
Planning before work protects you from regret; good luck and well-being
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! This intentional perversion of artistic creation is called a 'readymade' — claiming a found object as an artwork. Readymades were a popular form of Dadist art, and Duchamp is often cited as the inventor of the idea, however, for all his innovation, we believe it was his much wilder friend Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven who created the first Readymades.