Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Hidden Van Goghs

A team of scientists and art historians have used the latest technologies to find the portrait of a woman hidden beneath one of van Gogh's paintings. Pictured is a digital reconstruction of the face underneath "Patch of Grass,"otherwise known as "Pasture in Bloom," a painting done in 1887 while Vincent was living in Paris (today in the Kröller-Müller Museum). The team first used conventional X-ray to examine the picture and were able to see the rough outlines of the face. But by using a particle accelerator and more advanced X-ray techniques at a laboratory in Germany, they were able to "see" the portrait better and reconstruct its colors. An article summarizing the findings appears in today's Los Angeles Times and more detailed results are being published in a scientific journal. The team's research not only uncovers a "hidden" van Gogh but leads the way to similar uses of X-ray technology in the examination of other artworks.

As for the woman's portrait--the style links it to a series of 'peasant' heads Vincent painted while he was living in Nuenen with his parents in 1885, a series that culminated in "The Potato Eaters." For some reason, Vincent didn't think this study worth keeping and reused the canvas. Because his work output often outpaced his canvas supply, he seems to have reused canvases quite a bit...which leads one to wonder what else lies beneath the canvases hanging in museums. Last year, one of the Van Gogh Museum curators and a restorer from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston discovered a scene of wild vegetation beneath a scene of a ravine done while Vincent was in Saint-Rémy (read about that discovery here). Van Gogh Museum curators also discovered a portrait of a woman beneath the 1887 portrait of café owner Agostina Segatori (the VGM has the x-ray on their website). Vincent didn't think these discarded images important, but they're important for art historians, giving a more complete view of van Gogh's artistic production.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

May he rest in peace...

Vincent van Gogh died about 1 am on Tuesday 29 July 1890. The funeral was held the following day in Auvers-sur-Oise, at the cemetery on the plateau overlooking the town. The funeral was attended by Vincent's brother Theo, Dr. Gachet and his son, the owner of the Auberge Ravoux and other friends Vincent had made during his brief time in Auvers, and several artist friends who came from Paris.

One of those artist friends was Emile Bernard, who wrote a moving letter to art critic Albert Aurier describing the occasion. Vincent's body was laid out in a ground-floor room at the Auberge Ravoux for his friends to pay their respects. Bernard says:

On the walls of the room where his body was laid out all his last canvases were hung making a sort of halo for him and the brilliance of the genius that radiated from them made this death even more painful for us artists who were there. The coffin was covered with a simple white cloth and surrounded with masses of flowers, the sunflowers that he loved so much, yellow dahlias, yellow flowers everywhere. It was, you will remember, his favourite colour, the symbol of the light that he dreamed of as being in people's hearts as well as in works of art.Near him also on the floor in front of his coffin were his easel, his folding stool and his brushes.

Theo speaks of arranging Vincent's paintings around the coffin and of his friends bringing yellow flowers in his own letters to his family in the Netherlands. Bernard goes on to describe the brief funeral in the Auvers cemetery:

The sun was terribly hot outside. We climbed the hill outside Auvers talking about him, about the daring impulse he had given to art, of the great projects he was always thinking about, and of the good he had done to all of us. We reached the cemetery, a small new cemetery strewn with new tombstones. It is on the little hill above the fields that were ripe for harvest under the wide blue sky that he would still have loved…perhaps. Then he was lowered into the grave… Anyone would have started crying at that moment…the day was too much made for him for one not to imagine that he was still alive and enjoying it…

Bernard explains that Dr. Gachet gave the eulogy. Theo was so overcome with grief he could say very little to the gathering.

The Van Gogh Museum has in its archives a collection of letters and notes of consolation sent to Theo after Vincent's death. These were translated into English and published in 1992 as a volume (together with the family's letters to each other about Vincent's passing) and are incredibly moving reading. Last summer when I visited the VGM, a small display of a few of the notes was included in a focus-exhibition on Van Gogh's friendships. Paul Gauguin's brief but touching note was among them. Theo had this to say in a letter to his mother of 1 August 1890:

It is a grief that will weigh on me for a long time and will certainly not leave my thoughts as long as I live, but if one should want to say anything about it, it is that he himself has found the rest he so much longed for. If he could have seen how people behaved toward me when he had left us and the sympathy of so many for himself, he would at this moment not have wanted to die. ...
Oh, Mother, he was so very much my own brother.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

On This Day...

On Sunday, 27 July 1890, sometime around dusk, Vincent van Gogh shot himself in the lower chest, in a wheatfield at Auvers-sur-Oise. He managed to stumble back to the Auberge Ravoux,the inn where he'd been staying since late May; the owners discovered what had happened and sent for a doctor. As far as events can be reconstructed, Dr. Gachet and the village doctor, Dr. Mazery, both examined Vincent and determined nothing could be done. Vincent died around 1 am on Tuesday 29 July. Thankfully, he did not die alone: Theo was summoned from Paris and stayed with his brother for the last twelve hours or so of his life.

The details of what happened differ among various accounts. Theo's letters to his family and artist Émile Bernard's letter to art-critic Albert Aurier are our best sources of information from the time. Much later, in the 1950s, Adeline Ravoux, daughter of the man who owned the then-Auberge de la Mairie, recounted her memories of Vincent's stay and of his death. But her account seems biased: she obviously did not like the Gachet family. According to her account (for example), her father's telegram summoned Theo, but Theo wrote to his family that Dr. Gachet sent him a note. Similarly biased is the account given by Dr. Gachet's son, Paul Gachet fils, in the years after his father's death. Paul Gachet fils claimed, for example, to have sat with Vincent until Theo's arrival, but this does not seem to be true.

What no source tells us--because no one knew--is why Vincent chose to take his life. That secret died with him.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Van Gogh in Vienna

Visitors to Vienna this fall will be able to enjoy a major van Gogh exhibition at the Albertina Museum entitled "Heartfelt Lines" (5 Sept-8 Dec), a collection of 150 paintings, drawings, and watercolors intended to explore the relationship between Vincent as draughtsman and Vincent as painter. This exhibition differs from the drawings exhibition presented by the Metropolitan Museum in 2005 in having a large number of paintings (50) along with the rarely-displayed works on paper. It's the largest van Gogh exhibition in Vienna for half a century--wish I could see this one. You can read about it, and see some images of works in the show, on the Albertina website as well as on the very nice (and rather new, I think) website Tracing Vincent.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Casting Fun

On a lighter note compared to my earlier post, anybody else see what I see? Yoohoo, Mr. Bale... !!

Vincent's Last Letter

Vincent's last letter to Theo was sent from Auvers-sur-Oise on 24 July 1890. (See a translation of the letter here.)

Piecing together the events of the last weeks of Vincent's life is difficult. His disjointed final letters to Theo reveal dispiritedness and anxiety about the future, and with good reason: when Vincent wrote his last letter, he believed Theo's position as manager of the Boulevard Montmartre branch of the Boussod & Valadon gallery was in jeopardy. Theo had asked for a raise (hence Vincent's reference to "those worthy gentlemen") and threatened to quit if he was not given one. Theo had the idea of opening his own gallery--an idea that Vincent disagreed with (and which fell apart when Theo's brother-in-law, Dries Bonger, withdrew financial support from the venture). The subtext of Vincent's July letters suggests he felt himself a burden on Theo, surely a factor in his decision to shoot himself on 27 July. However, there is no indication in this letter, nor in the draft version found in his pocket after he was wounded that he was contemplating suicide. He even asks for more paints as if planning to work as usual. Based on surviving evidence, his suicide does not appear to have been premeditated. That particular day, things may have proved to be too much.

Here is the irony. Vincent did not know--and never found out--that Theo settled matters with his bosses on 21 July. He decided to stay at the gallery and forfeit a raise. Theo wrote his wife Johanna that evening (she was in Amsterdam with her parents) to tell her the news, and he wrote his sister and mother 22 July to reassure them as well. But Theo's letter to Vincent from 22 July does not mention it. Instead Theo refers to an earlier, now-lost letter from Vincent, which evidently mentioned "domestic quarrels" between Theo and Johanna, and spends much of his letter trying to clarify matters. Why Theo did not tell Vincent about settling things with his job is genuinely mysterious. Did Theo underestimate Vincent's worry on the matter? Assume that Vincent would hear it from their mother or sister? Simply forget to mention it in focusing on the alleged "domestic quarrel"? (Theo's letters to Johanna reveal a similar puzzlement over Vincent's allegations.) Theo would not deliberately withhold the information to hurt Vincent--that much is clear from the concern expressed from Theo to Johanna about Vincent's health at this point, and from Theo's deep love for his brother in general.

Suppose Theo had told Vincent everything was fine at work and he had no need to worry. How differently would Vincent's last letter read? Worse to think about ... would it have *been* the last letter?

[For a recent analysis of the events leading up to Vincent's death, see the excellent compilation, "Brief Happiness: The Correspondence of Theo van Gogh and Jo Bonger" (Van Gogh Museum 1999) 42-44, and see too Theo and Johanna's letters to each other in the same volume. The Van Gogh Museum's new edition of the complete van Gogh correspondence, due to be released in late 2009, may shed further insight on events with new research.]

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


I don't often post about movies here, but I love them, and in a summer filled of overhyped who-cares at the theater, it's nice to find something worth watching at home. I just watched on cable, for the second time, the lovely and lyrical Irish film "Once," proof that you don't need big names, big budget, or a big studio to create something meaningful and heartfelt. I think I liked it even better the second time. Glen Hansard (who was in another favorite of mine, The Commitments) and Marketa Irglova play musicians just getting by with their day jobs. They meet as strangers while Glen's character (the characters are never given names) is busking with his guitar on Grafton Street in Dublin, but don't remain strangers for long, drawn together by their music. It's a story filled with longing and dreams. And the music! I sought out the film after seeing Hansard and Irglova play the sublime "Falling Softly" on the Oscars. I truly believe that is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. It brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it.

"Once" is good old-fashioned storytelling, musicmaking, and moviemaking. Highly, highly recommended.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Satirist Par Excellence

With all the discussion this week about satirical cartoons in the media (!!), it seems a good time to share a wonderful website devoted to the graphic work of Honoré Daumier, the brilliant satirist whose 200th birthday was celebrated earlier this year. Daumier's pen chided, lampooned, and highlighted the political and social events of his day; pictured here, for example is an 1864 image commenting on the state of Parisian public transportation (omnibuses were a favorite subject). On the Honoré Daumier website, you can not only read about Daumier's contributions and enjoy the work posted by the webmasters, but also click to enter the Daumier Register, where you can search virtually the entire Daumier graphic corpus and see images. It's a fantastic resource.

Vincent was a huge fan of Daumier's work, not surprising given his own left-leaning politics, sense of social populism, and his longstanding interest in graphic illustration. (Van Gogh actually intended first to become a graphic illustrator, not a painter!) Many times in his letters, Vincent mentions something he's seen or is working on and evokes Daumier. In writing to artist friend Émile Bernard about a portrait he did of postman Joseph Roulin, Vincent says happily, "What a motif to paint in the manner of Daumier, eh?" In addition to admiring Daumier's subject matter, Vincent admired his artistic style, able to get at the essence of a subject in minimal lines and strokes.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Books, Books, Books

I don't usually fill out memes (usually because I'm lazy), but Julianne has a good one over at Writing the Renaissance about reading.

*Do you remember how you developed a love for reading?
My Mom's an avid reader--she even found my name in a novel!--so books were always around our house. She first started taking me to the library when I was about three. About the same age, I had a bunch of read-along-storybooks-on-tape and apparently taught myself to read partly from following along to the tape in the books.

*What are some of the books you read as a child?
A storybook called "Big Dog, Little Dog" is one I remember from when I was very little. In elementary school, I liked the Little House books, the Nancy Drew series, easy-reader biographies of famous historical people (I wonder if Julianne and I read the same Molly Pitcher book!), and the Narnia books best. And books on Greek mythology! In high school, I was very into Agatha Christie as well as historical fiction authors like Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy. Elizabeth Peters and Phyllis Whitney are two other authors whose books I liked in high school. I was very into fantasy for a while and liked Tolkien and David Eddings.

*What is your favorite genre?
Historical fiction, although I tend to be very particular about what I read. There has to be a solid grounding in real history. I also like some mysteries, but I'm picky there too. I'll read some contemporary fiction, especially if it's set in Europe. :-) Basically whatever strikes my fancy is my favorite genre!

*Do you have a favorite novel?
Of all time, I'd say my top five (in no particular order) are Gone With the Wind, Jane Eyre, Little Women, Wuthering Heights, and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.

*Where do you usually read?
Wherever! My novel-reading tends to be at night before bed on the sofa. I used to read in bed until I learned that might contribute to my insomnia.

*Do you usually have more than one book you are reading at the same time?
Only one novel at a time. But I have nonfiction going simultaneously, because I need to be reading for lecture preparation, for my scholarship, and for novel research. I could be in ancient Greece before lunch and 19th century Paris after!

*Do you read nonfiction in a different way or place than you read fiction?
Reading fiction is for relaxation, so it's a nighttime activity. I'm digging into nonfiction books all day for other things, and most times I don't read nonfiction books beginning to end. I read and take notes on the parts that are most useful for what I'm doing. Although there are exceptions, of course.

* Do you buy most of the books you read, or borrow them, or check them out from the library?
With nonfiction, whether I buy or check-out depends on how expensive the book is and how much I plan to use it. I have about 80 or so books checked out from the university library, some of which I've literally had on my shelf since 2001 (nobody else wants them...). But I buy voraciously in nonfiction too; I've been actively acquiring for my personal research library for 20 years and have a nice art history collection, especially in ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, the medieval period, and van Gogh. I'm running out of room in my office and apartment! I used to get fiction from the library, but nowadays I buy. I seldom borrow books from people, unless it's my mom or my sister, because I don't like to lend out my own books and don't want to be a hypocrite. I'm one of those people who keeps their books near-mint: no dog-earing, no writing in the book, no highlighting, I don't even EAT around the book. It's the one thing I'm really fastidious about.

*Do you keep most of the books you buy?
Yes, because I see my books as an active and growing collection.

*If you have children, what are some of the favorite books you have shared with them?
I have no children, but I have a nephew, and I've already bought him "D'Aulaire's Illustrated Book of Greek Myths," which was a childhood favorite of mine. Three other books I've bought him that he already loves (he's too little for the myths yet) are "Vincent's Colors," "Museum ABC," and "Museum 123," all published by the Met. Those books didn't exist when I was little or I would have had them too!

*What are you reading now?
I'm nearly finished with Sandra Gulland's "Mistress of the Sun" as my current fiction reading. In nonfiction, I'm updating my lectures for Roman Art class this fall, and so am reading actively in that area, and I've been reading a lot this summer about the painter Manet too.

*Do you keep a TBR (to be read) list?
Not really, unless a research bibliography counts. The physical stack of books is the list!

*What's next?
Elizabeth Robards' "With Violets" (my editor kindly sent me an ARC for this one, which is coming out in paperback with Avon this fall). I have Michelle Moran's "Nefertiti" and about five others in the TBR fiction stack too.

*What books would you like to reread?
I don't really reread books any more. I did when I was younger. Gone With the Wind, especially! It'd be fun to go back and reread some of my favorites from years past to see how differently I identify with them, but I'd rather read new things right now.

*Who are your favorite authors?
Since I listed my favorite novels 'of all time' up above, here are some authors whose work I've been reading consistently more recently: Elizabeth Peters (I've been reading her for over twenty years!), Susan Vreeland, Tracy Chevalier, and Joanne Harris. Among mystery authors, I like Cara Black, Donna Leon, and Steven Saylor's Roma sub Rosa series the best. Some of the newer authors I like are Elizabeth Hickey, Catherine Delors, Karen Essex, and Barbara Quick. Among the 'classics,' I like the Brontes and E.M. Forster. And many many's so hard to pick favorites!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Good column today over at the Chronicle of Higher Education about revision in writing.

Personally, I love revisions, whether in my scholarly writing or with "The Sunflowers." I find revising much more fun than writing the first draft. The first draft gets the ideas down, but only in revision (or sometimes, in rewriting altogether) do you begin to see the deeper angles, the connections, the nuances. I could tinker forever on anything, and usually only surrender it when there's no choice but to do so. My students haven't learned yet the seduction of revision--neither had I, as an undergraduate--and they think they're done with the first draft. Nope. That's just the beginning.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Hot off the press! Get yer VGC!

My sister, who knows more about these things than I do, told me how to add a subscription link (at left), evidently a new feature on Blogger. I assume I did it right, and readers can then get the scoop via RSS or whatever the heck that is. If I did it wrong, somebody tell me. ;-)

Bonne fete!

Happy Bastille Day to all! To celebrate, here is Vincent's festive painting of the town hall of Auvers-sur-Oise on Bastille Day in 1890, a view from in front of the Auberge Ravoux.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


The other night, I was watching on late-night cable a venerable 80s classic from my high-school days, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," when I noticed something I had never noticed before. Among the rock-band posters on Ferris' bedroom walls is a smallish image of Clouet's "François I" !! (Thought of you, Julianne!)I looked for a screencap online, but the best I could do is the one seen here: look just to the right of the door, and you'll see the king's sleeve. Naturally I geeked out all over the place and pondered the symbolism of this choice. And it's obvious when you think about it. At the end of the film, you get a really good view of François when Ferris has just returned from his day's adventures, jumps in his bed, and his parents open the door to check on him. They stand in the doorway smiling at their son, completely duped, and there's François next to them, looking in this context very sly. At this point in the film, in the lingo of the day, someone might be tempted to say ... "Ferris Rules!" [One of the movie-poster taglines for Ferris Bueller was actually "Leisure Rules."]

"Ferris Bueller" of course has that great scene in the Art Institute of Chicago. Every year, when we talk about Seurat's La Grande Jatte in survey, I ask the class, "Where have you seen this painting before?" It invariably comes like a chorus: "Ferris Bueller!!" Then I proceed to feel old, remembering that hardly any of my students were BORN at the time I sat in the theater enjoying the movie...

Ferris Bueller is not the only John Hughes film character to have a telling art poster on his walls. Prominent in shots of Molly Ringwald's room in "Pretty in Pink" is a Mondrian poster, which is appropriate for her as an aspiring designer, but it could be read symbolically too. Mondrian's famous Composition series was all about achieving a harmonious balance among opposites, black/white, vertical/horizontal, etc. Isn't that the whole plot of rich-boy-meets-poor-girl "Pretty in Pink"?

Meanwhile, I wonder if any of my former students recognized Délacroix's "Liberty Leading the People" on Coldplay's new CD ... who says art history survey class can't come in handy?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Crying Wolf

Wow, here's an archaeological shocker: the famous Capitoline Wolf (pictured) has a suggested new date...a good 1700-1800 years later than art historians have traditionally supposed. The Wolf has long been thought by the majority of scholars to be Etruscan in manufacture, dating to the first quarter of the 5th c BC (but the babies are usually described as Renaissance, legend attributing them to Antonio Pollaiuolo), and she's in all the survey textbooks as exactly that. The Wolf is also the symbol of the city of Rome, appearing everywhere in civic logos. But Prof. Adriano La Regina, a highly respected scholar, went on record yesterday in the newspaper La Repubblica, revealing that a series of radiocarbon tests done at the University of Salerno show the Wolf is...medieval. The new date was first proposed by conservator Anna Maria Carruba, who worked on the statue's restoration and followed-up with further research.

My first reaction: Oh pooh, I have to rework my lectures! I'll probably take her out from the intro survey class for the sake of simplicity (now I have time to discuss the Arezzo Chimera, yippee), but leave her in my upper-level Roman Art class' relevant lecture, revising to discuss issues of attribution and dating, and the contention over the revised view. My second reaction is one, honestly, of disappointment. The Capitoline Wolf is (was) such an archaeological icon. Not that there's anything inferior about medieval art--certainly not--and the news makes her no less beautiful an artwork, but it'd be hard thinking of her as anything but Etruscan. Read more about the Shocking News here in the Guardian. The Associated Press article points out that the Capitoline Museums director is still skeptical, and that more tests will come. Not surprisingly, some are reluctant to accept the news. La Regina claims that civic authorities deliberately sat on the new evidence, but the museum director denies this.

Score One for the Good Guys

Yesterday in Miami federal court, Bernard Jean Ternus -- a French national living in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale -- pleaded guilty to conspiring to sell stolen art. He thought he was making a $4.7 million deal...but his 'clients' were undercover FBI agents and French police. Whoops! The four paintings in question were stolen in August 2007 during a masked & armed robbery at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nice: Monet's "Cliffs Near Dieppe," Alfred Sisley's "The Lane of Poplars at Moret," and two allegorical paintings by 17th century Flemish artist Jan Breughel the Younger.

Months of police work and faux-negotiations between the undercover agents and Ternus took place before the cops pounced. The artwork was recovered on June 4, 2008 in Marseille: when the 'purchase' was supposed to happen, French police arrested two other people and found the paintings undamaged in a van. You can read more about the story and possible consequences for Ternus here.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Vincent's Palette

Claudia over at Museworthy has an interesting post today about artists' palettes, including photographs of palettes used by painters at one of the venues where she models. I thought I'd chime in with a photograph of a palette allegedly used by Vincent in June 1890 to paint a portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet's daughter, Marguerite, seated at her piano (see an image here). According to Dr. Gachet's son (also named Paul), Vincent discovered when he began working at the doctor's house that he'd left his palette at the Auberge Ravoux, where he lived. Dr. Gachet lent Vincent one of his palettes to use instead (Gachet was an avid amateur artist), and the palette remained in the Gachet family's possession ever since. Paul Gachet fils donated it to the French state as a "souvenir" of van Gogh when the state acquired the remaining paintings of the Gachet collection. Today it belongs to the Musée d'Orsay and is seldom put on display.

The conservators of the Musée d'Orsay, in preparation for the major 1999 exhibition about the Gachet collection (which was also shown at the Met), analyzed under electron microscope samples of the paints on the palette, as well as paint from six van Goghs formerly in the Gachet collection (now in the Orsay), and a tube of geranium lake pigment said by Paul Gachet fils to have been Vincent's. (They were not able to analyze the pigments used in "Marguerite Gachet at the Piano," because that painting is in the Kunstmuseum Basel.) They were particularly interested in the reds/pinks used by van Gogh; the pink colors on the palette are more vivid than the pinks in the paintings. The conservators determined that the tin carmine lake pigment used by Vincent in the paintings has faded over time, sometimes extensively. So Marguerite Gachet's dress was probably a much deeper rose than it is now, which makes sense because Vincent describes the dress as such in a letter to Theo. In the same way, "The Church at Auvers"originally had much more pink in the foreground, which again Vincent himself says, referring in a description for Theo to "sand with the pink glow of sunshine on it." The red pigments Vincent used while living in Auvers-sur-Oise were simply not stable. Which of course makes us wonder how many of Vincent's other paintings were originally even brighter than they are now? [For more about this, see J.-P. Rioux, "The Discoloration of Pinks and Purples in Van Gogh's Paintings from Auvers" in A. Distel and S.A. Stein, "Cézanne to Van Gogh: The Collection of Doctor Gachet," Metropolitan Museum 1999, pp. 104–113.]

Claudia refers in her post to the individuality of each artist's palette and the fact a palette can say something about them. If Vincent did use this palette as the Gachets claimed, don't you think it says something about his personality and working method? I see restlessness and impatience to keep moving, myself. Not necessarily "frenzy"--because although Vincent worked quickly, he worked with deliberation and forethought. But certainly a lack of tidiness, which Vincent was apparently known for. Paul Gauguin complained in his autobiography about the haphazard state of VIncent's Arles studio, and Vincent's lack of housekeeping skills seems to have caused friction when he was living with the more fastidious Theo.

The Musée Marmottan in Paris has one of Claude Monet's palettes on display. He was much more tidy!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sunny Days at the VGM

How'd they know I couldn't resist? The Van Gogh Museum Online Shop has a new "Sunflowers" themed promotion especially for summer. I'm especially excited about the new volume in the Van Gogh in Focus series, curator Louis van Tilborgh's "Van Gogh and the Sunflowers." I have two other volumes in the series (Van Gogh and His Letters, Van Gogh and Love) and found them both informative and enjoyable. These books are only available at the VGM itself or the online shop, alas, but proceeds (as with everything else there) go toward future museum acquisitions. I'm tickled to order it just in time for the last revisions on my novel! And if a pretty Sunflowers printed shawl hopped into my online cart too...well, what can I tell you? *wink*

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Poignant Remembrance

Today begins Master Drawings Week in London galleries and auction houses, and among the artworks for sale by dealer Emanuel von Baeyer is this etching by Dr. Paul Gachet (under the pseudonym Paul van Ryssel), showing Vincent on his deathbed. The etching was inspired by an original charcoal sketch done by Dr. Gachet at Vincent's bedside; the date on the drawing is July 29 [1890], but it's not clear whether it was done before Vincent passed away at 1:30 am that morning, or after. The drawing today belongs to the Musée d'Orsay, a gift to the French state from Dr. Gachet's son Paul. Another drawing, however, is in the Van Gogh Museum--Dr. Gachet made a copy as a gift to Theo, inscribing it "à mon ami Theo." In a letter of 12 August 1890, Theo told the doctor, "I must also tell you that it gave my mother immense pleasure to see the drawing you have made of our dear Vincent. A number of people have seen and admired it." Gachet exhibited his original drawing at the 1891 Salon des Indépendants in Paris; artist Paul Signac organized a memorial display of ten van Gogh paintings at the same Salon. Later Gachet made a painting after his drawing and gave it to Johanna van Gogh-Bonger in 1905 (it's now in the Van Gogh Museum collection). Gachet also made an etching after the drawing--you can still see his etching press at the house in Auvers-sur-Oise--and both he and his son made prints which they gave to friends and visitors. The etching has almost a halo effect compared to the drawings. I had the opportunity to see the drawing Gachet gave Theo at the Van Gogh Museum last year (it's not always on display, but it was for the focus-show "Van Gogh and Friends"), and it is difficult not to be moved by it.

For more information, see A. Distel and S. A. Stein, eds., "Cézanne to Van Gogh: The Collection of Dr. Gachet" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999) pp. 140–41 for Gachet's drawings and etchings, and p. 266 for Theo's letter, quoted above.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Stealing Athena

Many novels these days are set in the Roman Empire, but hardly any in Classical Athens. Art of fifth-century BC Athens is my academic specialty and the locus of my scholarship, so I was excited to hear about Karen Essex's new novel "Stealing Athena," which explores the lives of two women important to the story of the Parthenon sculptures: Aspasia, mistress of Perikles, the Athenian strategos credited with commissioning the monuments of the Classical Akropolis, and Mary Nisbet, wife of Lord Elgin, the man who oversaw the removal of many of the sculptures to Britain in the early 19th century. Just finished reading it, and I LOVED it!! The novel sweeps back and forth between Aspasia in the 5th c BC and Mary in the 19th c AD; although of course I enjoyed the parts set in ancient Athens, I actually was most caught up in Mary's story. The author's descriptions of Ottoman Constantinople in particular are sensory and evocative. The novel certainly gets one thinking about women's roles in the two time periods: how they were treated under the law, how they were expected to behave, etc. And of course (more on this in a second), one also gets to thinking about the so-called Elgin Marbles and the debate that still surrounds them.

I have to give Karen Essex two thumbs up on her research. She stays mostly true to the history and departs from it only to enhance the narrative. (Although I feel compelled to say Pheidias was *not* an architect. I know she made him the architectural mastermind of the Akropolis to enhance his role in the story, but Iktinos, Kallikrates, and Mnesikles deserve 100% credit.) Even the pickiest of classicists will be pleased how fact and fiction work together and will find occasion to smile at bits they recognize. She has a partial bibliography on her website (see link at left): of the books she lists, I recommend Jeffrey Hurwit's excellent "The Acropolis in the Age of Pericles" (available in hardcover and paperback from Cambridge Univ Press) for anyone wanting a good introduction to the Akropolis monuments, and I'd add to Essex's list the superb "The Parthenon Frieze" by my colleague Jenifer Neils, also available in hardcover and paperback from Cambridge UP. My own CUP book, "Music and Image in Classical Athens" (might as well plug myself!), has a short discussion of the representation of musicians on the Parthenon frieze, as well as discussion of the musical contests Essex briefly mentions in her novel.

Essex's book appears at a very appropriate time, for the new Acropolis Museum is nearly completed. Anyone who visited the old Acropolis Museum knows how cramped it was, very unpleasant to visit, and the new museum promises to be wonderful. Its construction re-awakens the question of the "Elgin Marbles," since one of the arguments against returning the sculptures to Greece was a lack of space. It does not erase the thorny legal issues surrounding the Greeks' desire for repatriation, but the museum takes the debate to a whole new level. Essex's novel has the potential to raise awareness of the issues among new audiences; although she does not tackle the legality question head-on, a reader can move from this novel to reading about the debate with a good background of Elgin's role (and Mary Nisbet's, more crucial than was traditionally acknowledged). The blog Elginism is a good place to keep track of the latest developments (the bloggers are pro-repatriation). It will be interesting to see how things unfold...

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

New on My Blogroll

My fabulous sister Chantel is blogging now at My Marathon Mommy. She's Mom to an active 15-month-old, is starting up her own franchise of Baby Boot Camp, and is training for the 2009 Disney World Marathon! [I can't believe somebody related to me is that into exercise!] She will be blogging about her marathon training and mommy-adventures (with lots of humor...). There are pics of my precious nephew too. Stop by and say hi!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Blogging Excellence

When Catherine from Versailles and More was tagged with her Blog Award of Excellence last week, she chose ten blogs/bloggers to next receive the award -- and one of those is yours truly and Van Gogh's Chair. Merci, Madame Delors! I am taking a virtual bow, or should I say an elegant curtsey worthy of panniers.

Now I must choose ten blogs to crown with their own excellence awards. Took some thinking, and here are my choices. I know a couple of them duplicate Catherine's list, but proclamations of excellence are worth repeating. In no particular order...

Writing the Renaissance: I learn new things at Julianne's French-Renaissance themed blog and I like reading about her writing adventures.

Museworthy: The very museworthy Claudia is a professional art model in New York City. She blogs about her experiences and about the great muses of art history.

The Earthly Paradise: Margaret blogs about William Morris, the Arts and Crafts Movement, her travels in places like Paris and Colombia, and other things that strike her fancy.

Historical Tapestry: The gals at Historical Tapestry blog about historical fiction, old and new.

Word After Word: I love writing professor Heather Sellers' books "Page After Page" and "Chapter After Chapter" -- I enjoy her blog too.

History Buff: Keep up with current archaeological events with historical novelist Michelle Moran.

Notes on the Writing Life: Blog of novelist Sandra Gulland.

Reading the Past: Keep up with what's happening in HF here!

Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore: The Red Wheelbarrow is a sweet little bookstore tucked in the Marais. The owners blog with book recommendations and other news. Makes me feel connected to Paris!

Looting the Past: Prof. David Gill has been on the front ranks of the fight against looted antiquities for years. His blog reports on the latest developments. A Very Important Read!