Non-Fiction: A Study of Five Pieces of Art and Their Periods.

The Calling of St. Matthew was painted from 1599 to 1600 by an artist known as Caravaggio, and was the piece that won him lasting fame. I chose this work because the dramatic lighting and easily identifiable emotions on the subjects’ faces are common qualities of the Baroque style. It highlights several new techniques and ideas of the times, and endures as an impressive work, even today. The figure of Christ is placed on the edge of the painting, only his head and upraised arm visible, emerging from deep shadows. This positioning is directly contrary to the Renaissance practice of placing the most important figure in the center of a work. A robed man stands next to Christ, possibly a disciple or apostle. A group of well-dressed money-lenders sit at a table counting coins and poring over ledgers, two of which fail to see Christ’s arrival. St. Matthew is one of these, his head bowed as his hands greedily separate gold coins. One of the lenders points to himself wonderingly, mistaking Christ’s pointed finger as intended for him. A dynamism to the figures’ arrangement and form speaks of the tension of the event, with the lenders looking on in confusion at the solemn face of Christ. Warm light spills from a high window, casting complicated shadows from limbs and folds of clothing. The palette is narrow, mostly earthy browns and yellows, but saturated reds and even greens can be seen.

While difficult to assign a specific set of characteristics to, the Baroque period certainly saw painters emphasizing realistic depictions of un-realistic subjects in everyday situations. For example, Caravaggio took this well-known scene from the Bible and placed the fantastic event (Christ calling a sinner from his greed to join Him in his ministry) into a very human and naturalistic setting. His subjects are relatable, not idealized, shown in believable positions, not contrived postures. The pronounced chiaroscuro (called tenebrism) of the lighting and darkened background, painstakingly rendered through real-world observation in his studio, was a stylistic breakthrough and influenced many artists of the Baroque period and later. It brought a new level of three-dimensionality and a theatrical quality to art.

This scene is more than just a depiction of a biblical story. It also serves as an allegorical warning. By placing the figures in contemporary clothing (of the time), Caravaggio gives the viewer pause, perhaps in an attempt to spark a thoughtful and emotional reaction in them. The meaning is clear: we are all sinners and slaves to greed. Only Christ can save us, if we but listen to his call.

The Calling of St. Matthew brought a new standard to painting, challenging artists to observe and recreate the reality of the natural world. Its subjects, blemishes and all, brought art closer to the common people, inviting everyone to benefit from its message, not just the aristocracy. This humanization of biblical figures was no doubt an instrumental influence on the later works of Realists, beginning a tradition that eventually led to the Impressionist movement and the popularity of candid photography.

Parnassus was painted in 1761, a work by Anton Raphael Mengs. I chose this piece because of its solid embodiment of the Neo-Classical ideals of simplicity, harmony, and order. The clothing stays firmly within the expected Neo-Classical palette of primary colors, and the figures within the careful framing pose with decorum, formed with severe idealism. The clear connection to the tenants of the Neo-Classical movement is thorough and plain.

The scene depicts Apollo (the god of music, intellectual inquiry, and poetry) surrounded by muses. He stands as a vitruvian nude, save for a drape across his shoulders. A wreath of laurels crown his head and another is clutched in his formally upraised hand, perhaps intended as a gift. A lyre rests on his hip, calling to mind his role of dominion over music. The muses surrounding him are arrayed in colorful clothing from antiquity, dancing, composing music (or poetry), and posing with elements of the theatre. Aspects of Classical architecture are evident in the fluting of the small corinthian column and Apollo’s sandals. The collection of figures calls to mind a sculptural frieze, with little attempt at creating a sense of depth or three-dimensionality. Little to no ornamentation shows the Neo-Classic reaction to the gaudiness of the Rococo, and the calm, almost sedated expressions of the subjects defy the emotionalism of the Baroque.

The laurel leaves symbolize accomplishment, and combined with the elements of dance, performance, and music, is meant to convey worldly achievements in the arts. The message is nearly didactic in its overt depiction of excellence, championing the merits of the Classical era and adherence to tradition (the use of Classical orders and ornamentation in art and architecture), suggesting that the viewer also, should claim such virtues as honor and restraint.

Paintings such as Parnassus contributed much to the growth of Neo-Classicism, influencing later works that in turn brought a renewed interest in the ideals, or virtues, of the classical past. With its noble air and simple execution, Parnassus helped bring about the development of many new styles, some complimentary, others in direct opposition to Neo-Classicism.


Romanticism was a direct reaction to the values of Neo-Classicism, replacing didactic pieces featuring reason, primary colors, and statuesque figures with the strange and fanciful, portraying feeling and imagination. Johann Henry Füseli embraced this rebellion when he painted The Nightmare in 1781. The subject of this painting is that of dreams, specifically nightmares. It gives an fantastical portrayal, going so far as to show the dreamer within the composition, side-by-side the ghouls she dreams of. A young woman lays draped upon a bed, her upper torso and arms falling over the side, long tresses of wavy hair cascading toward the ground. She is dressed in clothing reminiscent of the Classical past: a simple but well-made garment of filmy white material. The contours of her body show through sensuously, revealing an idealized form not unlike those within Neo-Classical pieces. A nightstand plays host to several jars and perfume bottles, while the carved wood and gold-trimmed tassels speak of wealth. Her face might be that of a former lover from Füseli’s own life.

Upon the dreamer’s stomach perches a sinister incubus, caught in the motion of turning to face the viewer, his bulging, darkened eyes piercing through the surface of the painting. Thick limbs and stocky legs give it a sense of immense weight, as do the shadows cast across the majority of its body, pinning the woman to her bed. This could well be a reference to the sensation many report feeling while experiencing nightmares: being unable to move despite the clawing desperation of fear. It is said that the incubus’s grim face bears a resemblance to Füseli himself, a fact that if true, casts the portrayal of a former lover as the dreamer in a new, disturbing light. In the background, the night mare pushes its head through the thick red drapes, nostrils flared, teeth jutting, and eyes rolling wildly.

The prominent shadows, reminiscent of tenebrism, dictate the use of copious blacks, highlighted dramatically by light source from beyond the frame that makes the pure white of the dreamer’s gown glow. Deep red drapes and blankets add color, as do the browns of the incubus’s corrupted skin. Paint is applied with less attention to detail than previous works; the lack of defined outlines representing rather than describing details.

The fantasy with which this supernatural piece is painted, along with the dark elements of fear and the indiscernible madness of the horse draw the viewer in, eliciting an emotional response, a primary goal of Romantic art. The beauty of the dreamer’s form and the grotesque features of the incubus are shoved side-by-side, displaying a juxtaposition that was thought to lead to the Sublime, a state of great admiration and awe.

Romanticism isn’t one particular style, or even collection of styles. It is an approach that attempts to find truth in intense emotions and experiences, be they exquisite or ghastly. The Nightmare contains elements of both, though the painting as a whole leans to the disturbing. The meaning of the work is ambiguous, though some conclusions can be drawn: the inclusion of recognizable features from the artist’s own life can be interpreted as a venting of negative feelings after being shunned. Even so, the meaning of the piece remains subjective rather than reasonable and easily interpreted, another tenant of Romanticism.


Claude Monet’s Impression: Soleil Levant (Sunrise) was the first true Impressionistic painting, created in 1873. It was painted as one of many works intended for exhibit outside of the accepted Salon system in order to rebel against the Académie. Thirty oft-rejected artists sought to engage the art viewing public directly, bypassing the critics. The reviews of the resulting works were generally positive, but one man named Louis Leroy, dubbed Monet’s contribution scathingly as impressionistic because of its obvious brushstrokes and unfinished look, not knowing that the term would stick, and eventually come to represent an entire art movement (Stokstad et al 984). It was this rebellion against the Salon system that brought about the modern art age. Monet uses colors exclusively to represent the scene. A small boat drifts in a harbor, the two men inside mere silhouettes against the rising sun. In the background to the right a group of masted ships ride at anchor, their bulk barely visible as a collection of vertical and diagonal lines of color. To the other side we see the tall smoke stacks of industry, plumes of smoke hovering in the air, partially obscuring the sun. This scene would have been absolutely common in his time, making this a modern-life painting.

Monet uses pure pigments in this work, with little mixing of paints, instead relying on the science of optics and color theory to create the proper hues. Blues, purples, oranges, and yellows are all applied with care and purpose. The palette lacks any blacks, whites, or grays, utilizing varying saturation of pigments to represent light and shadow. Brushstrokes themselves also play a role in the forming of shapes, using differently sized swathes of color to create a “feeling” of the objects, as opposed to plainly describing them.

One of the main components of Impressionism is realism, in that objects and people are represented as they are, true to life. Many artists, such as Monet, employed the practice of plein-aire painting (open air paintings, where the subject is directly observed). Because of this, casual subjects such as the harbor in Impression: Sunrise became popular, in part from the growing popularity of photography, a relatively candid art form. The realist ideas of the Impressionism movement eliminated symbolism and iconography within paintings, instead focusing on communication of moments-in-time to a viewer. The depiction of casual events led to the idea of “art for art’s sake”, the thought that making art is its own motivation, without any extrinsic need for symbols or religious meaning. Impression: Sunrise wasn’t the first work to feature objects suggested with paint (not explicitly depicted), and it wasn’t the last. However, it does hold a place in history as the painting that sparked a new era of art, leading into modern day. Monet’s work directly influenced the styles of Modern painters like Henri Matisse with their focus on color and shape, not line. Impression: Sunrise is still greatly admired for its simplicity of detail and complexity of artistic composition.


The Triumph of Death is a work by Pieter Bruegal the Elder, completed in 1562. I chose it because of its clear separation from the naturalism and idealism of the High Renaissance. Unnatural color tints, elongated proportions, and a high emotional content all make this piece a prime subject for study as a Northern Mannerist piece. The Triumph of Death was an unusual painting in its time, and can still illicit a fair amount of unease from viewers today.

Death is the focus of this scene, both allegorically and literally. The terror of sickness and plague was not far from anyone’s thoughts in this era, and brought such devastation that towns and cities were wiped out in less than a year. This fear and despair is depicted here with gruesome detail. Hundreds of figures fill the frame, some mortals, others the harbingers of death. Skeletons, withered corpses, and grotesques cavort in black delight as they wantonly slaughter men and women alike for sport. The carnage is complete and nearly pornographic in the amount of delight it takes from itself.

Everywhere horrors abound: gaping wounds pour blood, naked men are netted like fish and herded into the depths of hell, and bodies are spitted by spikes. Men are tossed into a pool with millstones tied to their necks while the grim parody of a fanfare is played by the bodies of the dead dressed in the robes of the church. All around lies the sickly green of plague upon the ground, poisoning the very air, mixing with the smoke of bodies burned alive. In the lower-middle foreground, a bound man’s throat is slit by a robed ghoul, and on the far right a skeleton gropes a woman dressed in fine clothes from behind, and toward the bottom edge a skeletal dog eats the face from a baby. A kingly figure in the robes of office and expensive armor lies dying upon the ground, oblivious to the figure of death propping him up, his own short life dwindling within an hourglass clutched by spidery fingers.

The Christian symbol of the Crucifix stand impotently as the host of the dead march over the land. This speaks clearly of the terror so many useless prayers would have brought. Two figures ring a large bell, announcing the coming of death, possibly even an advance on the viewer’s life. The visceral quality of the victims’ faces (screams, disbelief, and weeping), are direct connections to the emotional centers of the viewer, bypassing the intellectual from the start. Mannerist form is also observed: long-limbed skeletons and twisted corpses exist within irrational spacial relationships, putting the viewer on edge.

The color palette is comprised of browns, burnt reds, deep blacks, infectious yellows, and malignant greens. While incorporating many different hues, the general range of color stays relatively narrow, as Bruegal uses secondary colors in place of the typical Renaissance primaries. The resulting effect is an overall feeling of dread and distaste, once again bringing the viewer’s emotions into play.

It is works such as this that began the movement toward the macabre, filtering down the centuries. It also openly addressed the fears of the people of its time, assisting in the development of self-awareness that society required. Without The Triumph of Death and others like it, art might have shied away from such subjects as death and horror. The Mannerist practice of irrationality vs rationality was instrumental to the breadth of styles and art forms we enjoy today.

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