This is the second part of a series about art that moves me. See part 1.
5. The Coronation of Napoleon, David
Everyone wants to see the Mona Lisa. It is always crowded in that little room in the Louvre. What all those folks might not know is that in the next gallery behind the Mona Lisa they will find one the greatest masterpieces of neoclassical style in the world. The Coronation of Napoleon always makes me smile. Not only does this stunning composition explode in opulence and color, but it depicts one of the most shocking displays of presumptuous conceit the world has ever seen. Napoleon’s ego was even so inflated as to have Jacques-Louis David paint Napoleon’s mother into the painting, despite the fact that she had refused to attend, thereby insulting his mother and rewriting history in one clever hoss move.
4. The Herring Net, Homer
Why are there so few benches in art museums? It is difficult to savor the art when dealing with angry feet. In the Art Institute, however, I can count on the bench in front of this Winslow Homer painting. I almost always sit there when going through the American gallery. It’s a good thing, too, because this painting becomes mesmerizing once you give it a few still minutes. If you look at this painting long enough, you find yourself beginning to sway as if rocked by the waves. You heave a sigh of patience, as if willing the fish to flock to your nets. The painting somehow summons our sympathies for Homer’s faceless fishermen.
3. Pardon in Brittany, La Touche
Have you ever seen so delicate and accurate a portrayal of twilight and candlelight as in this haunting impressionist image? I haven’t.
2. Annunciation, Ossawa Tanner
Last fall we toured Italy and visited as many art museums as we could fit into our itinerary. I can’t tell you how many dozens and dozens of ‘Annunciation’ paintings we saw. What’s more, they were all, well, boring. And this is a shame, for this, of all subjects, should never be boring. Think about it: an ANGEL (i.e. horrifying extraterrestrial supernatural being) comes to an impoverished TEENAGER and tells her that she going to have a BABY who is actually GOD. It is a terrifying encounter of heaven’s greatest grandeur descending to meet earth’s greatest lowliness. Despite this intensely dramatic subject, most of the medieval and renaissance depictions are set in plush and gilded palaces, with the angel announcing, “I have come to fluff your pillows,” and with Mary placidly replying, “that would be divine.”
Once inundated with these less than realistic Annunciations, we Googled around looking for a more interesting Annunciation. So it was we discovered the works of Henry Ossawa Tanner. I had never heard of him before, but I highly recommend looking up his body of work as it is all truly stunning. In his Annunciation, we see both an accurate and intriguing portrayal of Gabriel’s arrival, and I don’t know about you, but I can’t stop staring at it.
1. Las Meninas, Velasquez
I don’t much care for the city of Madrid, but I firmly believe everyone should go there. Why? One reason: Las Meninas. In the Museo Del Prado there is an enormous ovular room where this Velasquez masterpiece hangs high on the wall, large and imposing and demanding attention. When I first turned the corner into this room I stopped breathing. This was the first time a piece of art had this literal breath-taking effect. It even scared me a little. I just stood there in the uncomfortably crowded room, but I didn’t move. The funny thing is that, to this day, I don’t really know why the painting commanded such power over me. Something about the marvelously complex composition, perhaps; I love how the subject of the painting is ambiguous, for all at once it is a portrait of the little princess, a self portrait of the artist, an indirect portrait of the royal couple, and yet the painting is called Las Meninas in reference to the princess’s servants. The painting is an enigma. When you go see it, come back and explain it to me. (And, for an extra treat, once you see it, go then to Barcelona and see the Picasso museum where there are rooms and rooms of Picasso’s cubist studies of Las Meninas. Absolutely fascinating.)