Misty Copeland and Degas: Emulation at its Finest

Emulation is a challenging middle ground between imitation and invention.”

– David Mayernik, Professor of Architecture, University of Notre Dame


(C) 2016 Hearst Communications. Harper’s Bazaar, Misty Copeland and Degas: The Art of Dance. Photographs by Ken Browar and Deborah Ory, featuring Misty Copeland

It’s refreshing to see older works of art reimagined in a modern context, and the latest photo shoot from Harper’s Bazaar is a breath-taking example of a modern reinvention. Featuring the amazing Misty Copeland posing as the young ballerina of Degas’ celebrated paintings, this blend of paint and photography, past and present, puts a modern twist on the graceful, fleeting dancers of a century ago. Photographers Ken Browar and Deborah Ory preserve the earthy pastels and unique poses of Degas’ ballerinas while capturing the strength of Copeland’s movements and the power of her personality, revealing the transformation of the 19th century girl into a confident modern woman who has perfected her art. Continue reading


Lost in a Landscape

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, 1868

Have you ever lost yourself inside a beautiful picture? Whether a fiery sunset, a perfect beach, or a stellar cosmos, there is always a scene that leaves us breathless, wishing we were inside the picture, not outside looking in.

There are a few works that draw me in without fail, and one of them is a breathtaking view of the California landscape: Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, by Albert Bierstadt. Continue reading

4 Reasons Why Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s Self-Portrait is a Feminist Manifesto

As I talked about in my post about Rembrandt van Rijn, self-portraits allow artists to create their own public identity, encompassing much more than their physical likeness. In fact, self-portraits don’t have to match their creator’s appearance at all! We each define ourselves by our character, our goals, our accomplishments, or even our failures. We want to be remembered for what we stand for, who we are.

That’s why Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, whom I introduced in my previous post, made several strategic choices in her Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat, choices that would surprise and challenge her contemporaries. At a time when the art world was dominated by male masters and scholars like Jacques-Louis David, Lebrun was a female painter with impressive talent, astute social acuity, and a strong sense of personal pride in her work. Even though feminism was not yet a powerful social movement at the time, there are four profound reasons why Lebrun’s Self-Portrait undoubtedly embodies the spirit of future feminist movements:

Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat, 1782

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Feminism in the Rococo

What comes to mind when you think about Marie Antoinette? You might associate this unfortunate queen and her entire retinue as the epitome of frivolity and naiveté, aristocrats with little awareness of (or interest in) the realities of the outside world. In many ways you would be right. But what if I suggested that this society of lavish luxury and Dangerous Liaisons also witnessed the early expression of some feminist attitudes?

Jean-Etienne Liotard, Mme d’Epinay, 1759

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A 17th Century Selfie Documentary

These days, the ubiquitous selfie has become the a common form of self-expression, easily created and shared with online “friends” or made public on social media. While taking excessive selfies can seem narcissistic and self-absorbed, selfies construct personal identity and document life experiences over time, contributing to greater self-awareness. For instance, Hugo Cornellier (2014) and Christophe Rehage (2009) created time-lapse videos of selfies spanning several years of their life to document important experiences.

Although technology has certainly contributed to our obsession with public self-promotion, the idea of self-documentation is not a modern invention. Take Rembrandt van Rijn, a Dutch master from the 1600s, as an example. In addition to his exquisite paintings, etchings, engravings, and drawings, Rembrandt produced almost 100 self-portraits throughout the course of his life. With a little bit of biographical context, these works trace the timeline of his life and his art.

Early Beginnings:

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait of 1629

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Hunt or Be Hunted

Diana the Huntress of Versailles

Diana the Huntress of Versailles

Power is all about the game. In love, this game becomes a hunt, with most traditional stories depicting a male hunter chasing after the woman, his “prize.” But mythological goddesses are some of the most powerful women around, and they often don’t wait to be chased. Take the goddess Diana, for instance. Known for her beauty and skill as a huntress, the goddess of the moon was a uniquely powerful female figure among the repertoire of characters from history, mythology, and religion that constituted the Western artistic canon. For this reason she was adopted as a namesake by several powerful noblewomen, most notably Diane de Poitiers, who wielded formidable influence in the French court.

One of the most famous anecdotes of the life of Diana is her encounter with Actaeon, who saw her bathing naked with her nymphs while he was riding with his hunting party. When Diana discovered him, she became enraged and transformed him into a stag, and he was chased down and devoured by his own hounds.

This story has been represented in many ways over the centuries for decoration, education, and (mostly) delectation. As times have changed, so have artistic perspectives. How can an artist capture the power of a huntress? Continue reading

A Dutch Cleopatra

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as Antony and Cleopatra, from the film Cleopatra (photo courtesy of Fox entertainment)

Remember when I mentioned that the same story can be presented in many different ways based on the artist’s formal and narrative choices? Well let’s take a look at this unusual example…

Antony and Cleopatra were two great historical figures from Classical antiquity, and their legendary love story has inspired countless paintings, poems, and films. Over the centuries, their story has adopted many symbolic meanings as both a scandalous, immoral love affair and a passionate, poetic expression of devoted love (think of Elizabeth Taylor’s and Richard Burton’s classic yet controversial rendition of Cleopatra…).But various elements of their story have also been transformed in surprising pictorial representations such as Jan de Bray’s portrait historié, the Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra, in which the painter presents a portrait of his parents in the guise of Antony and Cleopatra surrounded by their family. Continue reading

The Naked and the Nude

Today I want to go into a more difficult subject and talk about the phenomenon of nudity in Western art, particularly the female nude. Looking around at advertisements, music videos, television, magazines, and other popular visual “art,” I feel that feminine sexuality is a constant presence that is sometimes taken for granted, even though there are profound psychological implications on how women are viewed by society and by men and how women view themselves. I know this is a very broad topic, so I want to focus on a very interesting quote taken from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (featured in The feminism and visual culture reader, 2003):

“To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself… Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.”

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“Divine” Royalty and Symbolic Propaganda

The gods and goddesses of Classical mythology had as many vices as they had virtues, but their most important attribute was their divine power over nature and over man. As such, their symbols and narratives became essential components of the artistic representation of Europe’s most powerful noblemen, especially since kings were believed to retain a divine right to rule over their people.

One of the most ambitious projects of political propaganda was commissioned by Marie de Medici in 1622 from Peter Paul Rubens, Europe’s greatest court painter and a talented diplomat. Continue reading