London, Day Three: Beauty and riches beyond belief

January 5, 2018 at 2:45 pm (Art, London 2017)

That is what I encountered at London’s National Gallery.

Somehow in the course of my lifelong Anglophilia, I’d never been to this museum. This past May, my friend Jean and I attended a Smithsonian lecture entitled “A Day at the National Gallery and the Tate Britain.” Ron and I then watched “Museum Masterpieces: The National Gallery, London,” a set of DVDs accompanied by a book length insert with, among other things, a terrific bibliography. The professor, Catherine Scallen, is outstanding. (This set of Great Courses is produced by The Teaching Company.)

Just as my longing to visit this storied institution was reaching its peak, the opportunity arose for me to spend a week in London. I naturally took it.

The British Museum was about a half a block from my hotel. I was there once, many decades ago. It was the first place we went to – “we” being my sister-in-law Donna and myself. We spent an unforgettable day attending to its enchantments.

And speaking of enchantment….

Coronation of the Virgin, by Jacopo di Cione 1370-1


The Wilton Diptych 1395-99


Saints Jerome and John the Baptist 1428, by Masaccio (1401-1428).

Look at those dates! What a tragedy, the early loss of one so greatly gifted. His real name was Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone; Masaccio was a nickname bestowed upon him Giorgio Vasari. In his ground-breaking work Lives of the Most Excellent (sometimes translated as ‘Eminent’) Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Vasari describes the architect Filippo Brunelleschi‘s reaction to the news of Masaccio’s death:

It is said that when he heard the news Filippo Brunelleschi, who had been at great pains to teach Masaccio many of the finer points of perspective and architecture, was plunged into grief and cried: ‘We have suffered a terrible loss in the death of Masaccio.’

Vasari also says the following:

Although Masaccio’s works have always had a high reputation, there are those who believe, or rather there are many who insist, that he would have produced even more impressive results if his life had not ended prematurely when he was twenty-six. However, because of the envy of fortune, or because good things rarely last for long, he was cut off in the flower of his youth, his death being so sudden that there were some who even suspected that he had been poisoned.

Two Watermills and an Open Sluice, by Jacob van Ruisdael at Singraven  1560-2

Really brilliant landscapes like this one put me in transports. I want to be in that very place, or at least to powerfully imagine that I am.

A Man and a Woman, by Robert Campin ca. 1435


A Scene on the Ice near a Town, by Hendrick Avercamp ca. 1615


The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, 1483-86

Two versions of this painting exist: the one above, and one in the Louvre in Paris:

Virgin of the Rocks, Louvre 1483-86


Virgin of the Rocks, National Gallery, London 1495-1508

I read somewhere that the National Gallery version features ‘John’s traditional cruciform reed staff’ in order to differentiate between the two infants, as to which was John the Baptist and which, the Christ Child. (For more on this subject, see the Wikipedia entry.)

For whatever reason, I’ve never heretofore been able to respond to Leonardo’s art. Perhaps because of its iconic status and media overexposure, the Mona Lisa has never moved me. Of course I acknowledge its greatness, but for me this has always been an intellectual response rather than an emotional one. The same is true of Ginevra de’ Benci, though I well remember the excitement caused by the acquisition of this work by our own National Gallery in 1967.

(Demand, not to mention price, for Leonardo’s paintings remains stratospheric. Salvator Mundi, in recently restored condition, was just sold to a Saudi prince for $450.3 million dollars.)

Virgin of the Rocks affected me profoundly: the atmosphere created by the rocky seascape, the aura of holiness and stillness, the infants exchanging blessings, and above all, the beauty and serenity of the face of the Virgin – I found this painting incomparably beautiful. And deeply haunting as well.




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London, Day Two: the British Museum, second post

December 23, 2017 at 3:54 pm (Art, History, London)

If you have only one hour to spend in the British Museum, these are some of the objects you’re advised  not to miss:

In this space, there will be more on the British Museum. In the meantime, here is a video on the Parthenon Sculptures:


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The Nature of California

November 13, 2017 at 9:45 pm (Art, California, Family)

The bark of the Madrone Tree is reddish in color. When you handle it, it feels like some sort of heavy fabric, pliable and singularly lacking in the expected brittleness.

Bet you didn’t know that…

Neither did I. But this I learned and more, while walking and hiking in the woods and forests of the Bay Area, more specifically the Peninsular region of Northern California. The photo above was taken in Huddart Park in Woodside. We hiked the Bay Tree Trail.   Being enveloped by these woods was delicious. Most of the time, we were the only ones there. The words that kept recurring to me were: ‘This is the forest primeval….’

From Bay Trees such as these, we get the leaves of culinary fame. Growing in profusion along the eponymous trail,  they gave their scent to the air around us.

I’m a great lover of ferns; they are so primordial. They were plentiful along this trail.

And then. of course,  there are the majestic redwoods….

My younger brother, who loves and savors the nature of California

We went for a walk in a place called Hidden Villa. Nestled in a nook of Los Altos Hills – when they say ‘Hidden,’ they mean Hidden!’ – this is a nature preserve with a mission, to wit:

Hidden Villa is a nonprofit educational organization that uses its organic farm, wilderness, and community to teach and provide opportunities to learn about the environment and social justice.

From the Hidden Villa website

At Hidden Villa, we encountered a lush growth of trees and shrubs, a modest number of sheep, goats, cows, horses – oh, and plenty of children on school outings. All added to the magic of the afternoon.

We even came across a brook that was actually babbling! This was significant, as many dry creek beds were pointed out to us in the course of this visit. In a dry land, that sound is magical.

Hidden Villa was established by Frank and Josephine Duveneck.   The Duvenecks come across as entirely admirable people, but something else was going on for me as well. ‘Duveneck’ is an unusual name, and as soon as I saw it on the information brochure, I recognized it as a name I’d seen before – and recently, too.

Of late, I’ve been reading quite  a bit about American artists of the late nineteenth century, and the early part of the twentieth. The father of Frank Duveneck, husband of Josephine pictured above, was also (confusingly) named Frank. Frank the elder was a painter of some repute. He was married to Elizabeth  Boott, herself a painter as well. Elizabeth Boott and her father Francis were good friends of the novelist Henry James (someone I am always reading, and reading about).

All of this was revealed to me in the Wikipedia entry for Frank Duveneck. (I had simply googled ‘Duveneck.’) Click on the name of the son – Frank Boott Duveneck – and you’re taken straight to the entry for Hidden Villa.

In 1886, Lizzie Boott gave birth to a son Frank; she died of pneumonia in 1888, leaving behind her small son and a devastated husband.

Apple Tree Branches, by Elizabeth Boott

Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Boott, by Frank Duveneck


Linden Tree Books in Los Altos specializes in Children’s books. In this era of disappearing bookstores, it was a pleasure to spend time there.

When I mentioned that I’d like a book for my four-year-old grandson, a lover of cars and other means of transportation, one of the sales associates suggested this:

My sister-in-law favored this:

And I simply coundn’t leave without The Water Hole by Graeme Base, a truly amazing illustrator:

This shop also carries a small but carefully chosen selection of books for adults. Luckily, the marvelous News of the World was there. Handing it to my sister-in-law I exclaimed “You have to read this!” Naturally it made the cut.


My lucky brother and sister-in-law live amidst great beauty. In their yard, a lemon tree flourishes:

In the yard also is a sign of the times, alas….

Finally, in the kitchen of their lovely home, my sister-in-law, a gifted and enthusiastic cook, whipped up one heck of a moussaka!

Yours Truly helped as best I could. This assistance mostly consisted of measuring out spices and other foodstuffs, stirring the bechamel sauce, and struggling with recalcitrant containers:

When finally assembled, the dish was delicious!
On our final night, a harvest moon shone brightly:

Ah California, mi amor.










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Once again, Etta and Grandma ‘Berta visit the Art Institute of Chicago

October 29, 2017 at 2:06 pm (Art, Family)

Etta and I enjoyed our first visit to the Art Institute of Chicago so much that we decided to go again. This we were able to do, earlier this month.

This time we entered through the Modern Wing.

We went first to an architecture display.  One of the exhibits allowed you to draw lines on a screen just by waving your hands around! Etta enjoyed this quite a bit.

Next we went to the French Impressionist Gallery. We have decided that this is one of our favorite spaces in the museum. We saw some of our old friends, and some new art as well.

And then of course there’s Georges Seurat’s marvelous canvas, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (‘Un dimanche aprèsmidi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte‘). Etta has learned about the technique of pointillism used by Seurat in the creation of this masterpiece. As a result, she refers to it as ‘the dot painting.’

A beautiful child, a beautiful painting…Life is good

One pleasing result of time spent with the French Impressionists: Etta now delights in  the art of Claude Monet:

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect, 1903


Irises 1914-1917


Étretat, The Beach and the Falaise d’Amont, 1885

For this visit, we were lucky to come across some lovely objets d’art.

We then proceeded to the Asian and ancient art galleries. We had our eye out for a truly strange object that had fascinated us on our previous visit and that I’d somehow failed to photograph. As we rounded a corner on our way to the Artist’s Studio in the Ryan Learning Center, Etta spotted it – “There it is!” we chorused together.

This is actually a some kind of Roman theater prop. (I had thought it was Asian.) Etta attempted to enter into the spirit of the thing:

Next, we went to the Artist’s Studio. In this gracious space, tables and art supplies are freely provided for the children. We came here last time, and Etta was looking forward to a return visit.

Finally, it was time to visit the Museum Shop. This being partly a celebration of Etta’s birthday, I encouraged her to pick out several items that appealed to her. (Actually, I might’ve said, “Knock yourself out, Kid!” – I don’t quite remember.) Museums are among my favorite shopping venues, and this one did not disappoint – quite the opposite, in fact. We were both like kids in a candy store (Etta being the actual kid, of course).

Etta understood what was being asked of her and rose wonderfully to the occasion. As befits her generous nature, she picked out a nifty toy for little brother Welles, and a set of coasters for her Mom and Dad. Finally, for herself she selected this lovely tote bag:

Finally, after this thoroughly exhilarating day, we trooped back outside, to be hailed by Etta’s Dad, who’d been with Welles at a birthday party not far from the museum. Welles – known to some of us as ‘Wellesy’ – was also on hand to greet us; Mom too.
The Art Institute is located within the grounds of Grant Park (much as the Metropolitan Museum of Art dwells within the precincts of Central Park). When we initially arrived at the museum, it was not yet open. It being a beautiful day, Etta and I crossed  the street and strolled a bit through the park.

We found a peaceful water feature and sat down on the coping above it.   People had thrown coins into the water and presumably made wishes in the process. Etta wished to do this, and I provided her with the means. She solemnly explained to me that you shouldn’t reveal the substance of your wish until after the coin had  been tossed. I concurred. She followed suit, making several wishes as she did so. A benign sun shone down on us.

I admit that I can’t recall Etta’s wishes. I know that I had only one: that this moment could last forever, and that my heartfelt gratitude would be known.

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The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam’s magnificent palace of art

September 27, 2017 at 1:26 pm (Art)

After a renovation that was supposed to take five years but instead took ten and went substantially over budget, Amsterdam’s renowned Rijksmuseum finally reopened in 2013.

What a treasure house! Several weeks ago, these and other works were commended to us and expounded upon by lecturer Aneta Georgievska-Shine in “A Day at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam,” one of a series of art programs organized by the Smithsonian Associates. Dr. Georgievska-Shine teaches art history at the University of Maryland College Park.

And now: feast your eyes….

Adoration of the Magi by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, c.1480-1485


The holy kinship by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (workshop of) c.1495


Temptation of St Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch, c.1550-1600

Hieronymus Bosch being extremely strange, as is his wont…


Self-portrait by Johan Gregor van der Schardt, c.1573

When  this slide came up on the screen, there was an audible gasp from the audience – you can see why. This is the commentary from the museum’s site:

To make this small bust – it is half life-size – the sculptor had to resort to all kinds of tricks with a mirror. Van der Schardt did not portray himself frontally, but with his head turned sideways, as if to avoid looking at the viewer. The nude upper torso alludes to sculpture from Classical antiquity.

portrait of an African Man by Jan Mostaert, c.1525-1530


The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn, c.1650


Dolls’ House of Petronella Oortman, anonymous, c.1686-1710


The Windmill at Wijk bij Duustede by Jacob van Ruisdael c.1668-1670


Still Life with Asparagus by Adrian Coorte, 1697

A favorite veg gets its due!

Still Life with Turkey Pie by Pieter Claesz, 1627


Banquet Still Life, Adriaen van Utrecht, 1644


Still Life with Books by Jan Lievens, c.1627-1628


The Merry Fiddler by Gerrit von Honthorst, 1623


Portrait of a Girl Dressed in Blue by Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, 1641


Still Life with Cheese by Floris Claesz van Dijk, 1615


Portrait of a Couple, Probably Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, by Frans Hals, c. 1622

All this – and I’ve barely scratched the surface – all this, mind you, before we get to Vermeer and Rembrandt!

First, Vermeer:

The Little Street, c.1658


Woman Reading a Letter, c.1663


The Milkmaid, c.1660

Eight years ago, The Milkmaid was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I saw it there, and I will long remember the experience. From time to time, on certain days, members of the museum can get in a half hour before official opening time. I was there at 9:30, as were a number of others. Most of us went straight to the  gallery where  this painting was hung. It occupied a solitary space, well away from anything else.

The Milkmaid’s dimensions are modest: approximately eighteen by sixteen inches. About ten or twelve of us formed a semicircle around it and stared. No one said a word; we were stunned into silence.

Dr. Georgievska-Shine commented on the way in which certain works by Vermeer seem to stop time. That is part of why paintings like this exert an almost unearthly power upon the viewer.


Self-portrait, c.1628


Man in Oriental Dress, c.1635


Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca, known as ‘The Jewish Bride’ c.1665-1669


Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul, 1661


The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, Known as ‘The Syndics’, 1662

I grew up knowing this painting as ‘Masters of the Cloth Guild.’ I love the way they’re all staring at you as if you’d just unexpectedly entered the room. The gentleman rising from his chair seems about to say, “And what can we help you with, Sir?”

And finally, the magisterial work which one commentator described  as the Rijksmuseum’s answer to the Louvre’s Mona Lisa:

The Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Bannink Cocq. Known as the ‘Night Watch’

The dimensions of the Night Watch are as follows: eleven feet eleven inches by fourteen feet four inches. It reigns, as it did before the renovation, in solitary splendor.

Dr. Georgievska-Shine confessed that when she first began to study art, she didn’t ‘get’ Rembrandt: “Too much brown, too dark!” That view, of course, changed with time. I understood what she was saying, having gone through a similar progression. Rembrandt now seems the most subtle, momst profound of artists, his greatness almost beyond description.

Due to the vagaries of public transportation, we were somewhat late to this program. During the first break, I asked someone if the speaker had begun the proceedings by showing the video of the re-enactment of the Night Watch that was staged in a shopping mall in 2013, to coincide with the reopening of the museum. I was delighted to be answered in the affirmative.

Here is that video. Note the way in which denizens of the seventeenth century march right into the twenty-first without blinking an eye. It’s pure  genius in my eyes, accompanied by the triumphant finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony:

‘Onze helden zijn terug!’ means “Our heroes are back!”

And so they are.









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Hans Holbein

September 1, 2017 at 12:49 pm (Art)

[Click to enlarge]

What an astonishing portrait! The Sieur de Morette’s gaze is so piercing, one almost feels the need to turn away.

Hans Holbein the Younger – his father was also an artist – is probably best known for his portraits of King Henry VIII:

And then there is this lavish double portrait, with the strange and sinister object – called an anamorphosis – at the  bottom:

Although he was a skillful and inventive draftsman, printmaker, miniaturist and jewelry designer, Hans Holbein the Younger is best known as a painter, in particular as a portraitist. An assured, meticulous technician, Holbein’s insights into the character of his sitters are achieved, somewhat paradoxically, through his cool, emotional detachment and objective, astonishing realism. Working primarily in Switzerland and England, he is nonetheless one of the greatest German artists of the sixteenth century.

Hans Holbein the Younger, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


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The eclipse at our house, with a poetical digression

August 23, 2017 at 4:22 pm (Art, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Poetry)

We were forewarned that in central Maryland, the eclipse would not be total. We weren’t expecting much, and frankly we didn’t get much. That’s not to say we didn’t try. And the sun was, in fact, shining – a happenstance not at all dependable here in the Old Line State.

We didn’t have  the special glasses and so did not gaze directly at the phenomenon. We were able to see this indicator, though, as the light penetrating through the leaves of the tree in our  front yard provided a sort of pin hole camera effect:

You will no doubt be impressed by the delicately calibrated scientific instrument that we also made use of:

At any rate, here was the sun once again, yesterday morning, being normal in our backyard:

Being of a literary turn of mind (and an incorrigible English major from way back),, I wish to cite three poetical allusions. The first is famous:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Oh, thanks to thee, Shakespeare, for having words of beauty and meaning for every occasion.

And  then there’s John Donne, who in his poem “The Sun Rising”, is not praising the sun but chastising it. (Imagine scolding the sun! But then, lovers can  be a pretty cheeky lot):

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus.
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

Finally there is W.H. Auden’s meditation on the sad fate of the too-audacious Icarus (and by implication the rest of us, sooner or later). This poem, titled “Musee des Beaux Arts,” was inspired by Auden’s viewing of Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69) [Click to enlarge]

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‘Transcendence in Ordinary Domestic Life’ – and a transcendentally beautiful essay

August 23, 2017 at 1:13 pm (Art, Magazines and newspapers)

The above painting by Pieter de Hooch is variously titled “A Mother Delousing Her Child’s Hair” or, more succinctly and less specifically, “A Mother’s Duty.” Made some time between 1658 and 1660, it is currently housed in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

Of the artist, Willard Spiegelman tells us this:

About De Hooch we know little. Born in Rotterdam to a bricklayer and a midwife, he trained (perhaps) in Haarlem, and moved to Delft in 1652, where Vermeer also lived. It’s unclear if they had dealings. In 1661 De Hooch went to Amsterdam. He died impoverished, in a madhouse.

Spiegelman has more to say about the painting itself, which he calls ” a northern, secular version of a traditional Madonna and Child.”

In  the course of this eloquent explication, Spiegelman draws a subtle difference between the art of de Hooch and that of Vermeer:

We do not find in de Hooch what we most prize in Vermeer: a mysterious sense of human inwardness, an artist’s interest in the psychological depth of his characters, either alone or in small groups.

Reading this sentence, I felt a light turn on in my mind. So that is it, that is the secret – or at least, part of it – of Vermeer’s uncanny hold on those of us who are transfixed by his art. But Spegelman does not allow us to get sidetracked by Vermeer. The subject of this jewel-like essay is the many virtues of “A Mother’s Duty.”

Spiegelman refers to the dog at the left as an element in the picture that “…increases domestic charm.” In art, the dog is a symbol of fidelity and loyalty. Two of my favorite examples of this usage are the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck and St. Augustine in His Study by Vittore Carpaccio:

(I highly recommend Jan Morris’s delightful little volume, Ciao, Carpaccio!: An Infatuation.)

(Willard Spiegelman’s essay appeared in the August 19 – 20 edition of the Wall Street Journal. The link provided in the previous sentence may not lead you to the full text. If that happens, the article can be accessed via the ProQuest database. Please see this post for instructions on how to do this through the Howard County Library’s website. Scroll down to the bottom to view those instructions.)

I am deeply grateful for the weekly Review section of the Wall Street Journal, in which literature and the arts have unquestioned pride of place.

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The art of the Northern Renaissance, with a side trip to Colmar

August 19, 2017 at 11:48 am (Art)

I have fallen in love with the art of the Northern Renaissance. Can you blame me? Just look:


Adoration of the Shepherds –  Martin Schongauer  1475-1480

Depictions of the nativity, along with other images of Virgin and Child, abound in this period. Many share with this painting a powerful mix of awe and sweetness. Humble shepherds worship together with exalted rulers. Class distinctions have fallen away.


Rest on the Flight into Egypt – Gerard David  c. 1510


Madonna in the Church – Jan Van Eyck 1438


Madonna in the Rose Garden – Stephan Lochner c.1440


Nativity at Night – Geertgen tot Sint Jans c.1490

Geertgen’s Nativity at Night is one of the period’s most poetic paintings….Christ’s radiance illuminates Mary, who leans over the manger to adore her son, and the angels….Only rarely at this date had light been the organizing feature of an entire composition….Mary is the universal mother awed by her son’s majesty and haunted by his martyrdom….This humanization of the holy, promoted by the mendicant orders, such as the Franciscans and the Dominicans…would be one of the persistent characteristics of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century art.

From The Northern Renaissance by Jeffrey Chipps Smith


Madonna of the Rose Garden – Martin Schongauer  c.1473

A great admirer of Schongauer’s work. Albrecht Durer traveled to Colmar in 1492 in the hope of studying with this great master. But when he arrived there, he discovered that Schongauer had recently died. He would have been about 43  years old. (It never ceases to astonish, the poignant fact of the tenuousness of life in those times.)

There was, of course, no stopping the prodigiously gifted Durer:

Self-portrait at age 13, in 1484


Self-portrait, 1498


Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1498


Praying Hands, 1508


Young Hare 1502


Adoration of the Trinity 1511

Oil painting, wood block print, engraving, silverpoint, water color – Durer did all of them, and did them superbly. He also authored two theoretical works: Four Books on Measurement and Four Books on Human Proportion.

I highly recommend Professor Catherine B. Scallen’s lectures on The Art of the Northern Renaissance. They’re available on DVD on the Great Courses series.  If you’re lucky as we are, your local public library will carry these wonderful learning tools.
Reading about Colmar put me in mind of two things, one artistic; the other, literary. First: Colmar is home to the Unterlinden Museum, which among its other treasures houses one of the most stunning works of the Northern Renaissance, an image of suffering so profound that it can almost seem painful to gaze upon: Matthias Grunewald’s early sixteenth century masterpiece, the Isenheim Altarpiece:

The Isenheim Altarpiece as it is currently displayed in the chapel of the Unterlinden Museum

For more views of the Altarpiece, with an in depth explication, click here.

The composer Paul Hindemith wrote an opera based on the life and work of Matthias Grunewald. Called Mathis der Maler – Mathis the Painter – it is rarely performed nowadays; however, a suite of music taken from it is frequently performed as a symphony and is widely admired as such:


When I was in high school, I was fortunate in having a French teacher who was a knowledgeable and passionate Francophile. Her name was Gail Davis. She shared with us a short story by Alphonse Daudet called “La Dernière Classe” – “The Last Class.”  The time is approximately 1873. Victorious in the Franco-Prussian War, the Germans have decreed that in the schools of the Alsace-Lorraine region, the German language must be spoken to the exclusion of French. In this story, the author describes the effect that this decree has on one small boy and his teacher.

To read, click here.




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‘The world holds its breath in this painting:’ The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca

May 27, 2017 at 2:21 pm (Art)

The Baptism of Christ,by
Piero della Francesca
Date made: 1450s
 The National Gallery, London

The world holds its breath in this painting; as hushed and still, ordered, cool and clear as a crystal. This is the moment when Christ, being baptised by Saint John in the River Jordan, is revealed as the Son of God. The Holy Spirit descends on him ‘like a dove’ (Mark 1:10) and his hands are closed in prayer to his Heavenly Father. It is unique moment in history, and is also timeless. The original viewers would once have recognised Christ’s divinity anew every time they worshipped beneath this altarpiece. Now in the National Gallery many still do, but for others  today this lonely, pale figure at the centre of things is just a human being like ourselves. Stripped bare, he looks deeply into his own heart, reflecting on his destiny. We have all known decisive moments like this, when nothing will ever be the same again, and we ourselves will be changed. Soon the dove must fold its wings, the river flow again, and the baptismal water will trickle down over Christ’s head; and he will step forward to confront and embrace his future. Another man behind Christ readies himself for baptism. Because this picture shows a universal experience, Piero della Francesca has relocated Palestine to the familiar countryside of Tuscany, near his native town of Borgo San Sepolcro.

This description appears in Masterpieces from the National Gallery. First published in 2000, a revised edition came out in 2003; it was reprinted in 2004. The author is Erika Langmuir.

Stunned by the beauty and depth of insight reflected in this commentary, I resolved to find out more about this writer. She held a Masters in Art History from Stanford and earned a doctorate from London’s Warburg Institute, where she studied under the renowned art historian Professor Sir Ernst Gombrich. Having  led an extraordinarily eventful and fascinating life, Ms Langmuir passed away in December of 2015 at  the age of 84. An affectionate an illuminating  tribute by her daughter is well worth reading.

Erika Langmuir receiving an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1995. Daughter Val is at the far left.

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