Rijksmuseum

The morning after seeing Keukenhof, we walked to the Rijksmuseum, arriving a half hour before opening time. After purchasing the Amsterdam museum card, we hurried to the Gallery of Honor, which has masterpieces of the 17th century, before large tour groups mobbed the popular paintings.

Above the Rijksmuseum and the two-meter-tall I amsterdam logo at Museumplein.

Continue reading Rijksmuseum

Art from the National Galleries of Scotland

We found two notable pieces from the National Galleries of Scotland exhibit showing at San Francisco’s de Young Museum.

The above Lady Agnew of Locknaw by John Singer Sargent is wonderful. A dark-haired beauty stares right at you. The bottom of her gown is painted with long brush strokes, as if it’s out of focus. The bottom of her gown is closer than her face. This short depth-of-field is a photographic technique that brings the viewer’s attention to the subject’s face. The sign for the painting noted that the 27-year-old Lady Agnew was “convalescing from nervous exhaustion”. Perhaps being young, beautiful, rich, and titled was too much for her to handle? 😉

The other notable work is Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. We wouldn’t have found the painting interesting if it weren’t labeled as being a Vermeer. The head of the seated Mary is nice, especially her head scarf. Much of the rest of the painting seems coarse by comparison. At 1.60 m x 1.42 m, it’s large for a Vermeer. There’s a theory that Vermeer used mirrors to assist his painting. Perhaps Vermeer used this technique paint a small section with Mary and then completed the painting the old-fashioned way.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

Rescuing Da Vinci

Rescuing Da Vinci tells the story of art seized by the Germans during World War II and how the art was recovered by a special group. Rescuing Da Vinci is the basis for the movie The Monuments Men.

As a young man, Adolf Hitler applied to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna but was rejected. Later, as the leader of Germany, he dreamed of establishing an art museum in his birthplace, Linz, Austria.

As Germany conquered countries during World War II, Hitler had units hunt down and collect art. Many European museums prepared before hostilities started by closing and moving their art to hiding places.

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is included in the book, but the painting was never seized by the Germans. Like many other pieces owned by the Louvre, it was packed up and hidden. The French moved it six times during the war to evade seizure.

Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Art held by private collectors didn’t fare as well. For example, Vermeer’s The Astronomer was owned by a Jewish banker in Paris, and the Germans seized it. The Astronomer was eventually found it a mine in Austria and returned to the owner. The painting was subsequently sold to the French government as part of a settlement of inheritance taxes, and it now hangs in The Louvre.

The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer
The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer

Rescuing Da Vinci has lots of good pictures of World War II to help tell the story. Two paintings by Hitler aren’t bad; photos of devastated German cities are sad. The book discusses one da Vinci painting rescued. Shown on the book cover, it was in Poland and unknown to me, so the title is a stretch. The story is decent but less dramatic than the movie. Rescuing Da Vinci will appeal to folks who saw the movie and want to learn more, but there’s not much more because most of the best art was successfully secreted away.

Pi Day at the Exploratorium

We visited the Exploratorium on March 14, taking advantage of free admission on Pi Day. The Exploratorium is a San Francisco museum that fosters learning about science through hands-on exhibits. March 14 is 3.14 using dot notation, and 3.14 is a short approximation for pi, a mathematical constant that equals the ratio of a circles circumference to its diameter. So March 14 is pi day. Cute idea, and the free admission persuaded us to attend.

Shown below, the museum organized a parade celebrating pi, showing pi to 500 digits. The blue sign with “pi day” leads the parade, followed by photo of Einstein, who was born on 3.14. Then two adults holding a 3 and probably a decimal point, facing away from us. The next digits are 14159 26535 89793 2. It’s tough to get people interested in an abstract number like pi. The 500 parade people got a slice of pi(e), along with the next 1,000 people. These was also a pizza pie demo. The Exploratorium people certainly tried hard!

pi day parade
pi day parade

The Exploratorium is on the San Francisco bay. The patio has a great view of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Yerba Buena Island, and Treasure Island on the far left.

Bay Bridge
Bay Bridge

My favorite exhibit is the camera obscura, an ancient type of optical instrument that projects an image of the surrounding landscape onto a surface inside a small chamber. The white structure below is a camera obscura, a small, light-proof chamber that you walk into.

camera obscura
camera obscura

Here’s the image projected inside the camera obscura — the bay, bay bridge, and ferry — the view from the patio. Of course, the ferry moved in the projected image.

image from camera obscura
image from camera obscura

As you can see, the camera obscura projects an image of the outside world onto a surface inside. In Vermeer’s Camera, the theory is that Johannes Vermeer used a camera obscura to aid his painting. He could trace the projected image to start his painting.

When you can see a scientific concept in front of you, it’s much more real and understandable than reading a book. That’s the idea behind the hands-on exhibits of the Exploratorium. 

Stadel Museum, Frankfurt

From Strasbourg we caught a train to Frankfurt. We considered Heidelberg, but chose Frankfurt for its art and shorter travel time to Nuremberg, our final destination.

We started with the Städel Museum and walked to the Christmas market. During World War II, the Städel collection was moved to Bavaria, where it was found by an American Monuments unit tracking down art.

In After the Luncheon by Renoir, the seated actress is lost in thought during a lull in the conversation, after lunch with a satisfied gentleman.

After the luncheon
After the luncheon

Vermeer’s The Geographer is one of only three paintings signed by the artist. As usual, a window on the left illuminates the room with nice shadows. Saturated colors in this picture, unlike those at other museums, where lights and reflections off glass diminished the photo. As usual, I boosted the ISO in order to obtain the right exposure, in this case 1/40 second at f/7.1.

The Geographer
The Geographer

Botticelli has a way drawing young women. According to wikipedia, Simonetta Vespucci was a great beauty beloved by the nobility of Florence despite her marriage. Per his wishes, Sandro Botticelli was eventually buried at her feet.

Simonetta Vespucci as a Nymph
Simonetta Vespucci as a Nymph

After the museum, we walked along the Main River to the city center. These bare, pollarded trees remind me of some van Gogh drawings we admired years ago. The path and trees illustrate perspective and vanishing point.

Pollarded trees along the Main River
Pollarded trees along the Main River

The Frankfurt city center is across the Main, with the Dom (cathedral) on the right. The lights on the riverbank are Christmas market stalls.

Frankfurt Christmas market  and Dom
Frankfurt Christmas market and Dom

Vermeer’s Camera

At the recent David Hockney exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, we noticed Hockney’s theory that the painter Johannes Vermeer used optical device to assist in his paintings.

Vermeer is famous for his realistic paintings of people with very precise lighting, and our posts show Vermeer paintings at The Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum. Vermeer painted in the 17th century, producing fewer than 3 dozen paintings when he died at the age of 43. In debt when he died, Vermeer wasn’t popular during his lifetime, and little is known about him. He fathered 15 children, with 11 surviving. It’s hard to imagine anyone showing such painstaking attention to detail with so many children underfoot.

Richard Steadman, a professor at University College London wrote Vermeer’s Camera, in which he suggests that  Vermeer uses an optical device and then evaluates his own theory. Of course, he finds that his theory is sound.

Vermeer's Camera
Vermeer’s Camera

Many of Vermeer’s paintings, such as The Astronomer, show people indoors, lit by light from windows on the left. This could reflect Vermeer’s atelier, or it could indicate the use of an optical device that wasn’t easily transported.

Steadman calculates the room shape and size from various paintings, based on geometry and vanishing points, and finds that Vermeer was very precise and correct in depicting walls, objects, and floor tiles across his paintings. He argues that this consistency would be difficult to achieve without some sort of aid.

For example, the edges of the floor tiles in The Glass of Wine (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) converge on two vanishing points. See how the size and angle changes for tiles that are more distant.  And similarly for Allegory of the Catholic Faith. Of course, perspective was well-known in Vermeer’s time. Implementing perspective would take time by hand, and it would be free with an optical device.

The Glass of Wine
The Glass of Wine

Steadman discusses what sort of optical device Vermeer might have used to project the image of the room onto his drawing surface. Steadman points out that Vermeer’s paintings exhibit depth of field, a photography concept where objects within a range are in focus and objects outside that range are out of focus. In The Lacemaker (Louvre), the red threads in the foreground are fuzzy. With the simple lenses of the 17th century, we’d expect a narrow depth of field, where foreground is fuzzy. In contrast, indoor paintings, such as a still life, usually show everything in focus, because the human eye will refocus on the objects being observed, so that object is in focus. The painter paints what he sees, and whatever he looks at is in focus.

The Lacemaker
The Lacemaker

One argument is whether the optics of Vermeer’s day would be adequate to construct such a optical device. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who created a microscope and first saw single-cell organisms, lived near Vermeer and was appointed executor of Vermeer’s estate. There is no record that the two communicated, but it’s possible.

To test the hypothesis that Vermeer used an optical device, Tim Jenison, a Texas inventor, created an optical device and a room from a Vermeer painting owned by the English royal family. He then used the device to recreate the painting. This process and painting is the subject of the documentary movie Tim’s Vermeer, released in February.

All this shows that the theory is consistent with Vermeer’s paintings, but we still don’t know what Vermeer did in the 17th century.

The Rest of The Louvre

After a refreshing lunch, we tried to tackle the rest of the Louvre in an afternoon, a daunting task. To save time, we ate at a restaurant at the Louvre and enjoyed I. M. Pei’s pyramid that opened up a underground museum entrance.

Louvre pyramid
Louvre pyramid

Guided by the Louvre’s map, we tried to see our favorite art before our feet gave out. We enjoy marble statues, especially after our visit to Rome. Michelangelo’s slaves:

Bound Slave by Michaelangelo
Bound Slave by Michaelangelo
Dying Slave by Michaelangelo
Dying Slave by Michaelangelo

Canova’s Pysche Revived By Cupid’s Kiss. A museum patron happily takes it all in, while a second looks away.

Psyche and Cupid by Canova
Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, by Canova

And the incomparable Venus de Milo. The bright sunlight through a window overwhelms the side in shadow, so the shadow side is too dark without a fill flash or reflector. But perhaps the picture is stronger this way — art versus craft. Whatever the answer, this Greek woman has shaped the ideals of western beauty for centuries.

Venus de Milo
Venus de Milo

No visit to the Louvre would be complete without da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, despite the crowds and glare off the protective glass.

Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa

And some personal favorites:

self portrait by Albrecht Durer
self portrait by Albrecht Durer

Vermeer is noted for his scarce, photo-realistic paintings.

The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer
The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer
The Lacemaker by Johannes Vermeer
The Lacemaker by Johannes Vermeer