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"Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler," William Merritt Chase (1883). She sits in a chair, neither slouching nor rigid, both comfortable and correct in her ease. One hand rests on the arm of the chair; her other hand is coiled under her chin and cheek. She looks out--not so much at the audience as beyond them. She is thinking of something else. There is a table behind the chair, and on the table a vase of yellow flowers. The vase is blue, echoing the color of her dress. The yellow flowers blend into the golden tapestry on the wall behind.
"Flower Basket," Balthasar van der Ast (c. 1640s). Despite its name, this painting contains a variety of things other than flowers. There's a moth in the top left corner, and a butterfly perching on an iris not too far below. A pomegranate lies split open next to some fruit still on the branch. A lizard nearly slides off the bottom of the canvas. Next to him we find some sea-shells and a caterpillar. A formidable grasshopper stands firm in the lower right corner. Above him, mid-right, hangs a spider. And in the top center of the painting two dragonflies hover.
"Southend Pier," James McNeill Whistler (1880s). The top third of the canvas is grey-white sky, with clouds along the topmost edge. The middle third is water, blue, grey, and turquoise. The meeting of sky and water is marked by a faint land mass on the horizon and a pier jutting in from the painting's right. Four ships float: three are brown, spindly skeletons; the fourth (and smallest) has its white sails up. The final third is beach, along which people stroll. They are composed of black and white. Some are so sketchy that they seem to be ghosts or shadows.
"Naomi entreating Ruth to follow Orpah," William Blake (1795). Orpah exits off to the right, with both her head and back bowed. She has lifted one hand to her face, presumably to wipe away tears. Her hair is black. Ruth is almost Orpah's opposite. She is blonde, and she is also bowed (but to the left). She is bent to embrace Naomi around her mid-section. And her hands, instead of wiping away tears, wrap around Naomi's middle. Her head is against Naomi's chest. Naomi stands Madonna-like in blue, with a white veil and halo. Her open arms suffer Ruth's embrace.
"Cupid and Psyche," Antonio Canova (c. 1800-1802). Cupid and Psyche are standing next to each other. Cupid is leaning his head on Psyche's shoulder. Cupid's right arm is wrapped around Psyche's shoulders. Cupid's left arm is extended in front of her; in his palm he holds a moth. Psyche's right arm touches the moth's wing, while her left hand gently supports Cupid's left wrist. Both are naked, although Psyche has a wrap drapped over her left arm. She also has a bow in her hair. They are both androgynous; without the bow it would be difficult to tell them apart.
"Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan," Hans Holbein the Younger (1538). A full-length portrait against a spare background. Green wall, tan floor. Christina stands near the wall and casts her shadow upon it. She wears black: a long black robe over a long black dress. Fur trims the robe. At her wrists and neck white ruffles peek out. Her hair is gathered and covered by a black cap. Her pale face and hands draw attention. Her hands hold ivory gloves, and she wears a red ring. Her lips are pink, and her eyes are dark. She has a knowing look.
"Portrait of a Poet," Palma Vecchio (c. 1510). The upper half of the seated poet is shown. His torso is shifted slightly to the right, and his head is turned slightly to the left. His eyes look off left, wistfully or wryly. His clothes are white, black, and pink--his jewellery (necklaces and a bracelet) is prominent. He has a beard, moustache, and long hair. He is neither young nor old. A laurel plant is placed behind him, a poet's living wreath. The laurel seems to be growing from his head, the fruits of inspiration as well as its reward.
"St. Sebastian," Nicolas Regnier (c. 1620). Sebastian's pale body makes a sharp contrast with the dark background and its shadowy landscape. Sebastian is nearly stripped and is bound with his hands crossed above his head. His head leans to the left, and his eye rolls upward and slightly left. Three arrows are stuck into his body: one in the left arm, one in the right side, one in the left hip. There are only the smallest trickles of blood from the wounds. Because he is barely clothed, we can scrutinize his body and see his muscles straining in their bondage.
Self-Portrait, Romaine Brooks (1923). She stands against a background of grey. She is wearing men's clothing in neutral tones: a black hat, a long black coat, grey gloves, a white shirt showing at neck and cuffs. There are some moments of red: a red pin on her lapel, red lips, a hint of blush on her cheeks. Her face is ghastly white, almost a mask. Her dark hair is cropped short, just covering her ears. The shadow from the brim of the hat seems to hide her eyes, but if you look closely, you can see them, looking out fearlessly.
"The House of Cards," Jean-Simeon Chardin (1736-1737). A boy in a brown coat stands, leaning gently over a desk, as he builds a house of cards. He has made some progress--a square with a roof--and he is about to position another card. He looks only at his work. There are some folded cards at the far end of the desk. A coin and a ticket also rest on the green desk-top. The boy's long hair is held back by a green sash, and he wears a black three-cornered hat. The front drawer of the desk is partly open.
"A Man in a Turban," Jan van Eyck (1433). A painting portrait bust. The man sits facing left, but with his head slightly turned to the right and his eyes looking to the right, at us. His eyes would seem to be looking at you almost anywhere you stood. His face is not relaxed; the man is used to holding a fixed, tight-lipped expression. He wears black that blends into the background. A hint of a white shows at his neck. The turban covers his hair entirely. And for this restrained man, the red turban seems extraordinary in its size.
"Self Portrait," Salvator Rosa (c. 1645). The artist stands against a sky that is blue with clouds. He wears a three-cornered hat over his shoulder-length hair. His coat is brown, with a white shirt showing at the collar. His hands seem large: he holds his left close to his body; with his right he supports a sign that enjoins (in Latin), "Either be silent or say things better than silence." The sign is in the bottom left corner; he looks away from it, his head slightly tilted and turned to the right. He has the look of self-enforced, determined silence.
"Hypnos," Fred Holland Day (c. 1896). A black and white platinum print. A young man presented as the god of sleep. He stands turned to the left, giving us something between a profile and a full-front view. Around his head he wears wings, feathers attached to a head-band. This is the only "clothing" that we see--the photograph stops just at the nipples of his bare chest. He holds a flower to his lips and nose, presumably a poppy. It is as artificial looking as the wings. But the poppy affects even the god of sleep--his eyes are closed.
"The Holy Family," Jacob Jordaens (1615-1617). Joseph in the back left; below him a young John the Baptist. Mary, seated, holds Jesus in a standing position in the center. Mary wears red, and Jesus is naked. There is a blue curtain behind them and a hint of classical architecture. Joseph looks as if he's been caught in mid-conversation, just as he's been trying to say something--but to the viewer or someone else, not to Mary nor the children. John seems vaguely happy as he holds his staff and wears his animal skin. Mary seems vacant. Jesus holds a rosary.
"Weeping Cherry and Bullfinch, from the series Small Flowers," Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1834). A blue background with purple undertones. A branch moves across the page, entering mid-left, curving down at the center, climbing up on the right. The branch and its leaves are green with brown details. The flowers are five-petalled and white, with a circle of yellow ringing each center. The closed petals of the flower buds are outlined with pink. A bird perches, vertiginously, as viewers look up at him as if from beneath. The bird's breast and throat are fuzzy red; we see one large black eye.
"Gentle Spring," Frederick Sandys (c. 1860). Spring is voluptuous, wide-hipped, full-breasted, red-lipped, fuzzy-eyed. Her hair is red-orange, just a little more orange than the red butterflies that fly above her. A rainbow in the distance creates an arc around her as she advances. She holds the folds of her dress; in them (and in her hair) is a scattering of flowers. More flowers grow at her feet. Although it seems like Spring advances out of the far-receding depth of the painting, she also seems to stand still, almost like a marble statue with her white, classical robes and ivory skin.
"The Seine," Henry Ossawa Tanner (1902). The Seine and the sky are almost indistinguishable: both are pink. But they are separated by a line of purple buildings on the horizon and by a brown bridge of low arches across the center of the canvas. On the right side of the painting we see a boat and a dock, and--dimly--a figure standing on the dock--all these are brown. The purple of the buildings in the distance helps to soften the contrast between the pink and brown. Everything is insubstantial, misty, in this world of early morning or twilight.
"Bouquet with Flying Lovers," Marc Chagall (1934-1947). The background is blue; purple, green, and yellow selectively shine through. A bouquet commands the canvas: red and white flowers in a purple vase. A smaller pot of purple flowers is nearby. The lovers swoop in top-right. The woman is dressed as a bride. Below them shines the moon. An oversized bird's head appears above the city pictured in the bottom-right. A boat passes by. A chair, bottom-left, is pulled up to the table holding the flowers. Top-left is a pair of windows; in one lurks a mysterious horned creature holding an instrument.
"Fifth Avenue," Childe Hassam (1919). The city is royal blue and white. The artist has us looking down an avenue lined on the right with tall buildings. On the left, the street opens up. Across the bottom of the painting and up into the middle-left are crowds of people. Each person is impressionistically rendered: if you saw just one, you wouldn't necessarily be able to recognize it as a person, but en masse their identity is clear. The entire length of the avenue itself is packed with with vehicles. Again, what they are is made clear by context and quantity.
"The Castle of Muiden in Winter," Jan Beerstraaten (1658). A white sky with round grey clouds occupies two-thirds of the canvas. A castle sits at the center. Its stones are tawny, and its pointed roofs are white and grey. The sharp shapes of the castle's architecture contrast with the free curves of the cloudy sky. Ice surrounds the castle: on it, people skate, socialize, sled. Some hold hockey sticks. A bridge connects the castle to a strip of land at the left side of the painting; there, a few people walk on a path. Leafless trees gently frame the scene.
"The Balbi Children," Sir Anthony van Dyck (1625-27). Three children stand on some steps between two columns. Draped tapestry is tied to the column on the right. In the bottom right are two black birds. In the far left, a tree. The children's rich clothing of red, black, and gold almost glows. The oldest, a boy, has one foot on the ground and the other on the bottom step. The middle child, also a boy, has assertively stationed himself at the top of the stairs. The youngest, a girl, stands next to him, holding a dead bird at arm's length.
"Tulips," a page from a florilegium (c. 1608). The featured tulips are bordered by other flowers--yellow and blue--as well as by a collection of miniature fruits and vegetables. Three tulips occupy the majority of the page. The ones on the right and left are depicted from bulb to blossom, as if dug up from the ground. The one in the center is shown with cut stem, and one of its petals is purposefully peeled down to reveal the interior of the flower. The outline of an animal, part of the illustration on the verso, peeks through the page.
"Note in Pink and Purple: The Studio," James McNeill Whistler (early 1880s). Two women sit, one at a table, the other on a couch. The one at the table wears light pink; the other wears purple clothes with a red hat. The couch is red. Behind the couch there is a blue room-divider draped with a cloth of lighter blue. These colors are surrounded by the light browns of the rest of the studio: bits of furniture, canvases leaning against the wall. The woman at the table is writing or reading, I think. The other woman may hold a teacup.
"Helene Rouart," by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (c. 1886). She stands in her father's study, sandwiched between the wall and her father's large (and empty) chair. Hanging on the wall to the right are two paintings. On a desk to the left are piles of paper and a display case filled with statuettes. The lines of the room are straight and rectangular: the wall decoration, the case, the paper piles, the paintings, the back of the chair. Helene herself presents some curves, by contrast, but she also seems to echo the stance of one of the statues, cooped up in the case.
"Portrait of a Man," Parmigianino (16th c.). A stern man sits, slightly turned to the right. One hand lies on a table in front of him; the other holds a small book, ornate and closed. His skin is pale, his eyes are glaring. He wears black trimmed with fur. A dark hat sits atop his shoulder-length brown hair. Behind him on the right is an improbably green tree. Behind him on the left is a sculptural relief of an amorous scene. On the table rest some ancient coins and a small statuette (or stiff animal corpse?) lying on its back.
"Nightway I: Into the Night," Laura Marshall (1993). A starry night, deep blue with flecks of light. Three children on the move--to left from right. They are on a journey or mission. A horse and a dog accompany them. The horse is white with a red mane and a big blue eye. The dog is also white; its eye is black. The dog is painted as if caught in the middle of a springing step. One child leads the way; horse, dog, and the other two children follow. The lower bodies of the last two children seem to disappear.
"Harlequin," Paul Cezanne (1888-1890). The wall is made with daubs of blue, green, purple, pink, yellow. The floor contains the same colors, with the exception of yellow and addition of brown. A drape is festooned in the upper left; it is mostly blue, yellow, green, and white. The harlequin stands in a costume of red and black diamonds. His hands are gloved and he holds a cane. His hat is shaped like a crescent moon. He is not performing, but he doesn't seem at leisure either: he is wistful, yet he holds himself self-consciously, ever-mindful of the possibility of audience.
"Cardinal Richelieu," Philippe de Champaigne (1639.) The cardinal stands stately at center. Behind him on the right is a draped curtain and a chair. On the left is a partial view of an arch, leading outside; beyond, we can see some trees. The cardinal's robe is pinkish-red and voluminous, almost massive. Around his neck he has a thick band of light blue from which hangs a cross. A white collar comes to just beneath his chin. His left hand holds up a fold of his robe. His right hand--in a striking gesture--hold his cardinal's cap at arm's length.
"Portrait of a Woman (A Nun of San Secondo)," Jacometto, 1490. Her habit is composed of plain fabric, grey and light-blue, with multiple tucks along the neckline. Her hair is visible at the temples; elsewhere, it is covered with a smooth, tight-fitting wrap. Her head-covering falls in folds below her ears and under her chin. She seems kind. She is turned to the left, looking off. Sometimes artists paint eyes so they look at the viewer, wherever the viewer stands. Here, the opposite is the case: a viewer cannot make eye contact from any angle. Her gaze eludes my own.
"Girl in a Red Dress by a Swimming Pool," John Lavery (early 20th century). The pool is a strip at the top of the painting. Four women in swimming suits are partially depicted: one sitting near the pool's edge, two standing inside the pool, one stepping in. The perspective is steeply raked; at the bottom of the canvas a woman in a red dress and red hat sits in a folding chair, facing away. One arm rests atop the neighboring chair; her elbow is bent, and she supports her head with her hand. She reads a book in her lap.
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