The Art of Light, Color and Space

James Turrell is a rare kind of visual artist. He works with light itself.


James Turrell, Gard Blue, 1968, Projection Piece — Photo by Florian Holzherr — Source:


Turrell has been exploring the wonders of light, space and visual perception since the 1960s and in the process has become the American master of light and color installations.


James Turrell, Breathing Light (Ganzfeld), 2013, Los Angeles County Museum of Art — Photo by Florian Holzherr — Source:


Among his stunning creations is the Ganzfeld series, in which rooms are transformed into endless color fields. In these spaces, distances and bearings disappear, giving you the impression that you are simply floating in pure color.



James Turrell, Dhatu (Ganzfeld), 2009 – 2010, Gagosian Gallery, London — Photos by Florian Holzherr — Source:



James Turrell, Amrta (Ganzfeld), 2011, Jarna — Photo by Florian Holzherr — Source:




James Turrell, Akhob (Ganzfeld), 2013, installed at Louis Vuitton at CityCenter, Las Vegas — Photos by Florian Holzherr — Source:


One of the largest spaces Turrell has transformed is the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It usually looks like this:



James Turrell’s installation transformed it into this:



James Turrell, Aten Reign, 2013, Guggenheim Museum, New York — Photos by Florian Holzherr — Source:


James Turrell, Aten Reign, 2013, Guggenheim Museum, New York — Photo by David Heald — Source:


Using artificial light with a touch of natural light, Aten Reign is a kind of super-sized version of James Turrell’s most celebrated work, his series of Skyspaces, which frame the sky with light.

Who said installation art couldn’t be dazzling?


Walking through Color

By taking over entire spaces, installation art has the power to put you right in the middle of a work of art. When you combine that power with an exploration of the wonders of color, you get the spectacular experience of walking through color itself.


Olafur Eliasson, Your blind movement, 2010 — Installed at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 2010 — Photo by Jens Ziehe — Source:


This type of installation is one of the specialties of Olafur Eliasson, a Danish-Icelandic artist who focuses on elements such as light, color, perception, water and weather phenomena.

He began his career in the 1990s and from the start he created works that surround visitors with color, especially yellow at the time:


Olafur Eliasson, Room for one color, 1997 — Installed at 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan, 2009 — Source:


Working on the effects of color changes on the eye, he created several rooms in which screens enclose visitors in ever-changing colors:


Olafur Eliasson, 360° room for all colors, 2002 — Installed at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany, 2004 — Photo by Jens Ziehe — Source:




Olafur Eliasson, Your colour memory, 2004 — Installed at Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo, 2004 — Photo by Fin Serck-Hanssen — Source:


Then he enhanced the experience by using fog to materialize color around visitors:


Olafur Eliasson, Your atmospheric colour atlas, 2009 — Installed at 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan, 2009 — Source:




Olafur Eliasson, Feelings are facts, 2010 — Installed at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2010 — Source:


Eliasson also explores natural phenomena, and in one of his most famous works he combined his interests in the weather, light and color to create the illusion of a sun inside the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London, bathing visitors in the glorious orange color of a sunset:




Olafur Eliasson, The weather project, 2003 — Installed at Tate Modern, London, 2003 — Photo by Andrew Dunkley & Marcus Leith — Source:


After the sun, Eliasson tackled nature’s most colorful phenomenon, in a circular creation that enables visitors to walk inside a rainbow and see the world through its colors as they move.


 Olafur Eliasson, Your rainbow panorama, 2006-2011 — Installed at ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Denmark, 2011 — Source: Panoramio







Olafur Eliasson, Your rainbow panorama, 2006-2011 — Installed at ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Denmark, 2011 — Source:


With these works, Eliasson has established himself as one of the leading artists creating installations based on light, color, perception and nature. He is, of course, one among many, and in the next post I’ll be looking at the master of them all.

The Month of Resolutions

The month of January is named after Janus, the ancient Roman god of beginnings and ends, who is one of the reasons many of us are currently busy making, keeping and breaking New Year’s resolutions.


Head of Janus, Vatican Museums — Photo by wikicommons user Loudon dodd


Janus was in charge not just of beginnings and ends, but also of all passages, such as doors and bridges. As a matter of fact, his name is related to the Latin word for “door,” janua.

In other words, Janus was the god of all transitions, both in space and time. He therefore has two faces, one looking backward and the other looking forward.

When the Roman calendar changed and the month of January was created in his honor, ancient Romans started making promises to Janus and making offerings on the first day of his month, in the hope that he would help them in the new year. That was the beginning of New Year’s resolutions in January.

The tradition was less popular during the Middle Ages, when the date of the new year changed, but it became common again in the Renaissance when January 1st was chosen as the first day of the year once more.

Since then, we’ve more or less forgotten Janus, but we’ve kept the idea, trying to improve a little every year.

In that spirit, all the best for 2015!

How Cézanne Influenced Cubism

Even though Cézanne’s painting project was very different from Picasso’s, Cubist painters including Braque, Metzinger and Picasso himself all said that Cézanne’s work profoundly influenced them.


Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibemus Quarry, c.1897, Baltimore Museum of Art


In fact, the painting that gave Cubism its name is directly connected to Cézanne, first through its title, as Cézanne often painted the small village called L’Estaque in the south of France, and then through its lines and colors, which strongly evoke Cézanne’s work.


Georges Braque, Houses at L’Estaque, 1908, Museum of Fine Arts, Bern



Paul Cézanne, Bibemus Quarry, c.1895, Museum Folkwang, Essen


Braque also painted this scene of L’Estaque, equally reminiscent of Cézanne:


Georges Braque, Viaduct at L’Estaque, 1908, Centre Pompidou, Paris


The Cubist painters saw two key elements in Cézanne’s work, especially in his late paintings, which influenced them the most.

First, geometry.


Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1904, Philadelphia Museum of Art


Paul Cézanne, The Grounds of the Château-Noir, c.1904, National Gallery, London


Even though Cézanne was mainly trying to create volume through color planes, the Cubists saw in Cézanne a tendency to represent nature with geometric shapes, which is central to the early development of Cubism.


Pablo Picasso, Brick Factory at Tortosa, 1909, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg


The second element is perspective. In many paintings by Cézanne, it looks as if each object has its own independent space with its own point of view, which goes against the traditional single-point-of-view linear perspective introduced in the Renaissance.


Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples and Oranges, 1895-1900, Musée d’Orsay, Paris


The Cubists followed Cézanne in breaking the traditional rules of perspective, and then went further by introducing multiple views of the same subject from different perspectives at the same time, which is another feature of their style. A good example is the cup in this painting, seen both from the side and from the top:


Jean Metzinger, Tea Time (Woman with a Teaspoon), 1911, Philadelphia Museum of Art


The development of Cubism was also inspired by other art forms, such as Cycladic art and African art, but Cézanne played a key role for Cubist painters, despite major differences in their approach to nature and painting.

Actually, Cézanne’s work was so influential that he has not only been called a father of Cubism, but also a father of modern art itself.

The Story of Christ’s Birth in Art

The oldest known reference to the Christmas Festival is in the Calendar of the Year 354, in which the celebration date of Christ’s birth is December 25 for the first time, which is also the time when Christ’s birth became an important subject in Western art.


Gerard David, The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard — detail, 1510-1515, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The birth of Christ is traditionally called the “Nativity,” from the Latin word for “born,” and one of its earliest representations is found on the tomb of an Ancient Roman general in Milan:


Birth of Jesus detail on Sarcophagus of Stilicho, 4th century, Sant’Ambrogio Basilica, Milan — Photo by Giovanni Dall


From the beginning, one of the characteristics of Nativity scenes is the presence of an ox and a donkey, which represent virtues such as patience, strength and humility, as well as different groups of believers.

Many of the early representations are carvings or mosaics, which have survived in better condition than paintings from those times.


Central panel of Scenes from the Life of Jesus Christ Triptych, late 10th century, Louvre Museum, Paris — Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen


Nativity Mosaic, 1132-1140, Palatine Chapel, Palermo


The first master paintings and illuminations of the Nativity date from the 14th and 15th centuries:


Giotto, Nativity Fresco, c.1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua


Duccio, Maestà, Nativity detail, 1308-1311, Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena


Limbourg Brothers, Nativity in Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 44v, 1411-1489, Musée Condé, Chantilly


Fra Angelico, Nativity, c.1439, San Marco Museum, Florence


Domenico Ghirlandaio, Nativity, 1492, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


During the Renaissance, however, the birth of Christ itself became a less popular subject than what comes before and after it in the Biblical story.

What comes before is the “Annunciation,” in which the archangel Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to the son of God:


Fra Angelico, Annunciation, c.1430, Prado Museum, Madrid


And what comes after is the “Adoration,” which means “worship.” The first worshippers are the shepherds:


Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1505-1510, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


And the second important group is the Magi, who are the three foreign kings who came from far away to worship Christ when he was born:


Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi, Adoration of the Magi, c.1440-1460, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Together, the Annunciation, Nativity and Adoration form the story of Christ’s birth, which has been celebrated on December 25 since the 4th century, inspiring quite a few masterpieces along the way.

Merry Christmas!

When Music Meets Abstract Painting

For thousands of years, painting mainly represented what could be seen in the world or imagined from it, while music was about melody and tone. Painting and music broke away from those traditions around the same time and it was music that showed the way, which resulted in one of the most significant innovations in art history, the birth of abstract art.


Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 26, 1912, Lenbachhaus Gallery, Munich


Around 1908, Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky started working on paintings that did not represent reality or anything that could be easily identified. He wanted to represent his internal and spiritual life without painting objects, but he was having trouble finding a visual language that could do that. What inspired him the most in this process was music, first Wagner’s, and then Schoenberg’s, which changed everything.

In January 1911, Kandinsky heard Schoenberg’s first attempts at breaking away from traditional tonality at a concert in Munich. The audience was shocked to hear Schoenberg’s music, but it gave Kandinsky the inspiration he needed to complete the abstract painting style he had been developing.

After the concert, Kandinsky wrote Schoenberg an enthusiastic letter about the similarities in their attempts at finding new harmonies in their art forms, and he painted his impressions of Schoenberg’s new music in a breakthrough piece:


Wassily Kandinsky, Impression III (Concert), 1911, Lenbachhaus Gallery, Munich


After that, Kandinsky’s paintings became more fully abstract, structured by the contrasts between colors, lines and planes, still using words from music as titles, such as “composition” and “improvisation.


Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 19, 1911, Lenbachhaus Gallery, Munich


Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VI, 1913, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg


Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow


Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VIII, 1923, Guggenheim Museum, New York


Abstraction was not invented overnight. It was the result of a long process started by different 19th-century artists, but Arnold Schoenberg and Wassily Kandinsky are among the most important ones in that process.

For over ten years after that famous concert, they remained close friends and collaborators. They shared their theories and applied them in innovative ways to their respective art forms, influencing the development of abstraction for decades to come, profoundly changing the history of Western art.

Picasso at the Ballet

Picasso’s less familiar works include the sets and costumes he designed for modern ballets, which gave him the opportunity to create his largest painting, as well as mobile works of modern art.


Donlon Dance Company in Parade ballet, 2009— Photo by Holger Badekow


Picasso’s most famous contribution to the ballet is his collaboration with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on Parade, a 1917 ballet about circus life for which Picasso designed all the sets and costumes.


Pablo Picasso, Chinese Conjurer Costume for Parade ballet, 1917, Victoria and Albert Museum, London


This costume was used on the cover of the ballet’s program, in a watercolor version also by Picasso:


Pablo Picasso, Chinese Conjurer from Parade ballet, 1917, Victoria and Albert Museum, London — © ADAGP Paris and DACS London


And the inside of the program featured Picasso’s watercolor of the costume for one of the Acrobats:



Parade is also the source of Picasso’s largest painting, the ballet’s stage curtain:


Pablo Picasso, Stage Curtain — Parade ballet, 1917, Centre Pompidou, Paris


Lachmann, Picasso [with a hat] and his Assistants Sitting on Parade Stage Curtain, 1917, Musée Picasso, Paris — © RMN-Grand Palais / Madeleine Coursaget


He also worked on the Ballets Russes’ The Three-Cornered Hat in 1919 and Pulcinella in 1920:


Pablo Picasso, set design for The Three-Cornered Hat, 1919, Musée Picasso, Paris


Bolshoi performance of The Three-Cornered Hat with Picasso’s set and costumes, 2005 — © Bolshoi Moscow


Europa Danse performance of Pulcinella with Picasso’s set and costumes, 2007 — © M.Loginov


At the time, Picasso was not the only major visual artist creating for modern ballets. Other contributors include painters Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia and Giorgio de Chirico, photographers and film-makers such as Man Ray and René Clair, as well as writers such as Jean Cocteau, which perfectly illustrates the diversity of influences shaping modern art forms at the beginning of the 20th century.

How Photography Became Art

Although photography quickly became popular after its invention, it was mainly considered to be a craft and not an art form at all. For nearly one hundred years it had no place in art shows or art galleries, and photographers were only seen as technicians, not artists. This changed, however, with the work of innovators such as Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams, who transformed the perception of photography and elevated it into fine art.


Ansel Adams, Evening, McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park, 1933-1942, National Archives and Records Administration


Photographers had considered themselves artists long before Alfred Stieglitz came along, but the art world had not. Stieglitz was the first to introduce photography into art galleries in the 1900s, first by founding his own, which he called “The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession” in 1905 and then “291” from 1908.

It was in Stieglitz’s gallery that photographs were first exhibited along paintings and sculptures and given the same status as art works. These of course included Stieglitz’s own images, which proved through their composition and quality that photographs could not only do what paintings did, but also stand on their own as unique works of art.


Alfred Stieglitz, A Venetian Canal, 1894 (printed 1897), The Art Institute of Chicago


Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, 1907, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, New York


It was also in Stieglitz’s gallery that modern artists first understood the potential of photography as an art form. One of the best examples is Man Ray, who discovered photography thanks to Stieglitz and went on to become one of the most versatile photographers of the 20th century, notably famous for his visual pun on Ingres’s violin.

Stieglitz himself never stopped innovating, with unusual portraits such as the series on the hands of his wife, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, and nearly abstract works such as his Equivalents series of cloud and sky photographs, which were often unconventionally oriented.


Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait, 1919, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1925, Alfred Stieglitz Collection


Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, Series XX No. 3, 1929 Alfred Stieglitz Collection


Another major figure in the development of fine art photography is Ansel Adams. His work not only broke new aesthetic ground, but also supported the early environmental movement in the United States. He also developed a new system to control exposure and contrast that gave his photographs a crispness and depth rarely seen before.

In many ways, he expanded upon the works of the masters who painted the sublime lights of the great American wild, and in the process he set a new standard for landscape photography.


Ansel Adams, The Tetons and the Snake River, 1942, National Archives and Records Administration


Ansel Adams, Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada from Manzanar, California, 1944, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Ansel Adams, Church, Taos Pueblo, 1942, National Archives and Records Administration


In addition, Ansel Adams’s collaborators founded the Photography Department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which had an important influence on the perception of photography in the art world. Some of Adams’s works were first exhibited there, including one of his most striking photographs:


Ansel Adams, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust


By the early 1940s photography had officially become an art form in the United States, and it soon received the same consideration in Europe and beyond.

Many others have contributed to the development of photography as an art form since its invention in the 1820s, but Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams and their collaborators made some of the most significant contributions to that development.

From the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th, their work forever changed the perception of photography. Most importantly, they brought photography into the world of art galleries and museums, where they revealed its true potential through pioneering work.

And that’s how photography became art.

Cubism and the Disdained Painting

Just like “Impressionism,” the word “Cubism” comes from one painting and its insulting description by a conservative art critic who could not understand its value. Here is the painting in question:


Georges Braque, Houses at L’Estaque, 1908, Museum of Fine Arts, Bern


This painting was exhibited at the 1908 Salon d’Automne in Paris and inspired art critic Louis Vauxcelles the following comment about Braque:

“He despises form and reduces everything — places, shapes and houses — to geometric diagrams, to cubes.” In the original French: “Il méprise la forme, réduit tout, sites et figures et maisons, à des schémas géométriques, à des cubes,” (published in the “Supplément à Gil Blas,” November 14, 1908). In other words, Louis Vauxcelles thought that Braque’s work was terrible.

Starting with Vauxcelles’ article, the word “cube” gradually became negatively associated with the works of Braque, Picasso, Metzinger and others, until their style was called “Cubism” at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants, even though their style has little to do with cubes themselves.

In this sense, Cubism got its name not just like Impressionism did, but also like Fauvism. These three movements are among the most influential developments in western art history, but their names were originally meant to be insulting and dismissive, because they broke traditional rules.

The Map that Named America

The American continent is the only one named after a real person, and the reason it bears that name is a map from 1507.


Martin Waldseemüller, Universalis Cosmographia — detail, 1507, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.


In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann were working on a new map of the world, and they had to decide what to call the new land mass that had been explored between 1499 and 1502.

They did not name the new land after Christopher Columbus, perhaps because Columbus had always said that he had found a new way to the Indies in Asia, not a new continent.

They could not name it after the first Europeans who had traveled to the American continent, because they probably did not know that Vikings had been there around the year 1000. After all, evidence of Viking presence in America was only uncovered in 1960.

Instead, the map-makers decided to name the land after Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine navigator who had famously explored the coast of what is now South America between 1499 and 1502. They believed that Vespucci was the first to realize that the land was a whole new continent and not a part of Asia, so they gave him credit for his discovery by naming the land after him.

At the time, Latin was still the language of international communication in Europe, so the German map-makers knew Amerigo Vespucci as Americus Vespucius, which is the Latin form of his name.

Because they believed that Europe and Asia were feminine names, the map-makers decided to use the feminine version of Americus’ name, America, for the new land in the bottom left-hand corner of their map.


Martin Waldseemüller, Universalis Cosmographia, 1507, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.


Copies of the map spread throughout Europe and, despite disagreements, the name “America” stuck, eventually referring to not only the southern area of the new land mass, but also to its northern and central parts.

And that’s how the New World came to be known as America.

The Metal Frame Revolution

The use of metal in building structures came much later in the West than in China, but when it came, it was a revolution that changed Western architecture forever. It all started in factory buildings in the late 18th century in Britain, and then it inspired stunning developments that eventually made skyscrapers possible.


The Flatiron Building, built 1902, New York City — one of the early metal frame skyscrapers, photographed in 1903


Metal structures changed everything because they allowed for stronger, taller constructions, and they freed the walls from carrying all the weight in a building, so the windows could be larger than ever. Metal frames were also stronger against fire than wooden structures, which was one of the reasons for their early development in cotton factories, which were major fire hazards.


James Tingle, Cotton factory floor illustration, c.1830


In more formal buildings, metal was not always considered beautiful at first, so it was often hidden. During the 19th century, however, architects embraced it and built wonders:


Henri Labrouste, French National Library, built 1854-1875, Paris — Photo by Georges Fessy


One of the earliest wonders of metal and glass was the Crystal Palace, built in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851:


Joseph Paxton, Crystal Palace, built 1851 — Photos from Victoria and Albert Museum c.1910


The Crystal Palace was destroyed in 1936, but other buildings it inspired in the 19th century can still be visited today:


Ricardo Velázquez Bosco, Palacio de Cristal in Buen Retiro Park, built 1887, Madrid


Ricardo Velázquez Bosco, Palacio de Cristal in Buen Retiro Park, built 1887, Madrid — Photo by Mercedes Gómez


Charles Girault and others, Grand Palais, built 1897-1900, Paris — Photo by Mirco Magliocca


The Grand Palais during a Yoga assembly in 2013


The metal and glass roof of the Grand Palais, Paris


Metal frames are also what made the first skyscrapers possible in Chicago and New York in the late 1880s. Here is what is considered to be the very first:


William Le Baron Jenney, Home Insurance Building, built 1884 (destroyed 1931), Chicago — Photographed after 1884, United States Library of Congress National Digital Library


From that point on, building techniques developed quickly and the race for the tallest building in the world started. The US kept that record from 1908 to 1998 thanks to metal frame buildings in New York and Chicago, including these:


Cass Gilbert, Woolworth Building, built 1910-1913, New York


William Van Alen, Chrysler Building, built 1928-1930, New York


Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, Empire State Building, built in 1930-1931, New York


Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Sears Tower / Willis Tower, built 1970-1973, Chicago — Photo by Daniel Schwen


By the time the metal frame revolution spread to other major cities worldwide, it had supported some of the most important architectural styles of the 19th and 20th century, including Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and International Style. It had also revolutionized infrastructures, with bridges, towers, train stations, airports, and all the other engineering marvels it continues to make possible.

Believing in Unicorns

The unicorn has a fascinating cultural history, not only because many in the West believed that unicorns were real until the 18th century, but also because it symbolizes contrasting qualities.


Unicorn in illuminated manuscript, c.1450, France


One of the reasons why people believed in unicorns for so long is the narwhal whale, which is found in the Arctic waters around northern Canada, Greenland and Russia.


A narwhal, closeup— Source:


Narwhal illustration — Source:


When northern tribes caught or found a narwhal, they sometimes took its long tusk and sold it on the European continent, where it was thought to be a real unicorn horn.


A narwhal tusk — Source:


At the same time, confusion with exotic creatures such as the rhinoceros led travelers to write that they had seen a unicorn in distant lands, often in India, apparently confirming the unicorn’s existence.

It was only in the early 18th century that knowledge of the narwhal spread in Europe and revealed that all those precious unicorn horns were actually whale tusks, which greatly weakened the belief in unicorns in the West.

By the mid-19th century, the unicorn had become an imaginary animal like the dragon, and it found its way into fairy tales, where it acquired the romantic white-horse image it has today, without changing its symbolism.

Starting with ancient texts such as the Physiologus (2nd century), the unicorn has always symbolized purity and wildness in western cultures.

It was believed that the unicorn was so fast and strong that it could not be caught, except by young virgin girls, who were the only ones pure enough to approach it. In fact, the unicorn was thought to be attracted to virgins and fall asleep in their lap, which was the only way of catching it.


The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestry — Sight — detail, c.1500, Cluny Museum, Paris


The association with great purity explains why the unicorn horn was thought to have medical powers against poisons and diseases, including purifying water.

These qualities also explain why the unicorn is the national animal of Scotland. It can be seen on the Royal Coat of Arms of Scotland, which became part of the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom. If you are in Britain, look at any official building and you will see the Royal Coat of Arms with an English lion and a Scottish unicorn:


Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom by wiki user Sodacan


So difficult and so easy to catch, so strong and yet so delicate, the western unicorn has been a symbol of purity and wildness throughout its cultural history.

And for over 1,500 years, that history was based on the belief that unicorns were real.

The Sandwich Origins

Out of the many kinds of western foods that are named after people, the sandwich is probably the best-known worldwide.


Wayne Thiebaud, Sandwich, 1963, sold at Christie’s in 2013


Sandwich is the name of a town in south-east England, where the noble title “Earl of Sandwich” was created in 1660 for Edward Montagu, after he became an admiral in the British Navy. About a hundred years later, one of the family’s members made “meat and bread” so popular that it changed food history.


Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, 1783, National Maritime Museum, London


The 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, was a very busy man. Some say that he was busy playing cards at gambling tables, others that he worked a lot at his desk. In any case, he did not like to get up and go have a proper meal at a dining table. Instead, around 1762, he had the idea of asking his servant to bring him a piece of meat between two slices of bread, so that he could eat and continue being busy at the same time.

When he started doing this in public, his friends thought it was a great idea and ordered “the same as Sandwich.” Later, they just ordered “a Sandwich,” and the name stuck. At that time, eating with one’s fingers was not very polite, but the sandwich became highly popular anyway.

So, even though the Montagu family did not invent “meat with bread,” it gave its Sandwich title to what has become one of the most common snacks in the world.

Nike, Goddess of Victory

Her name is now mostly known as a famous sports brand, but in ancient times she was the “winged goddess of victory,” both in war and sports. The Greeks called her Nike, and the Romans Victoria.

The Louvre in Paris has her most famous representation, which returned to public view this summer after almost one year of cleaning:


Winged Victory of Samothrace, c.200 BC, Louvre Museum, Paris — Source:


Winged Victory of Samothrace, c.200 BC, Louvre Museum, Paris — Photo by AP


She can also be seen on many Greek vases:


Oil flask with “Nike Pouring a Libation at an Altar,” c. 490 BC, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge


Detail of vase with “Nike Pouring a Libation at an Altar,” c.470 BC, Tampa Museum of Art — Source:


Nike / Victoria often holds a laurel wreath, the reward of winners:


Statue of Zeus / Jupiter holding Nike, c.1st century, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg — Photo by George Shuklin


Victory Column, 1873, Berlin — Photo by wiki user Ailura


Because she represents speed and victory, Nike has inspired many logos, including the “swoosh” of the sports brand that bears her name, which is a stylized drawing of her wing, and the “Spirit of Ecstasy” figure on the hood of Rolls-Royce cars, which is based on the Louvre statue.


Charles Sykes, Spirit of Ecstasy, 1911 — Photo by Jill Reger


The goddess is also the origin of many first names, such as Nicholas and Nicole, Veronica, Victoria, and all their variations.

So if you see an image or statue representing a winged female figure holding a laurel wreath, it’s probably Nike, the goddess of victory, whose name survives in many forms.

Hands in Art

The human hand has been at the center of visual art history not just as the main tool of creation, but also as an important focus of representation, revealing the development of artistic skills and cultural trends in key periods.

Actually, painted hands may be the oldest form of art in human history.

The most fascinating cave art in this regard is found in Argentina, in the Cueva de las Manos, which literally means “Cave of Hands.” According to the UNESCO World Heritage Center, the earliest wall paintings in those caves were created about 13,000 years ago and the last ones about 9,500 years ago.


Cueva de las Manos, c. 11000 BC — Photo by wiki user Mariano


To go back even further, a hand marking in caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi has recently been dated to about 40,000 years ago, suggesting that representing the hand was one of the first artistic impulses of Homo Sapiens.


Hand marking, Sulawesi caves — Source:


Images of hands remained mostly flat and stylized for thousands of years, including in Ancient Greece and medieval Europe.


Dokimasia Painter, Ancient Greek “Killing of Agamemnon” mixing bowl — detail, 5th century BC, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Illumination in Vidal Mayor Manuscript — detail, c.1290, Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Then the Renaissance art revolution changed everything, with artists like Leonardo da Vinci studying the human body from both an artistic and scientific point of view.


Leonardo da Vinci, Study of Hands, c. 1474, Royal Collection Trust, Windsor Castle


Leonardo da Vinci, anatomical sketches, c. 1510, Royal Collection Trust


Leonardo da Vinci, anatomical sketches — detail, c. 1510, Royal Collection Trust


This period gave us the most reproduced pair of hands in the West:


Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam — detail, c.1512, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City


As well as other stunning representations and studies:


Sandro Botticelli, Magnificat Madonna — detail, 1481, Uffizi Gallery, Florence


Albrecht Dürer, Praying Hands, c.1508, Albertina Museum, Vienna


Quentin Metsys, The Lender and his Wife, 1514, Louvre Museum, Paris


Quentin Metsys, The Lender and his Wife — detail, 1514, Louvre Museum, Paris


Raphael, Upraised Right Hand, with Palm Facing Outward: Study for Saint Peter, c.1518, Art Institute of Chicago


A similar attention to detail is found all the way until the mid-19th century, with variations according to social trends and fashion.


Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun, Self-portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782, National Gallery, London


Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun, Self-portrait in a Straw Hat — detail, 1782, National Gallery, London


Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Hand Study, c.1827, Fine Arts Museum, Lyon


Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Comtesse d’Haussonville — detail, 1845, Frick Collection, New York


Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Princesse de Broglie — detail, c.1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Then in the 20th century, Western art questions itself, its history, its nature, and the hand is inevitably part of that reflection:


M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands, 1948


Giorgio de Chirico, Metaphysical Interior with Hand of David, 1968, Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico, Rome


And after all this time, the prehistoric impulse to leave a hand print on a wall is still with us:


Sally Morgan Designs, Hand Print, 2010

Masters of Realism

“Realism” is a tricky word, because it has different meanings. In painting, however, Realism mainly refers to a specific movement that started in France in the 1840s.


Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners — detail, 1857, Orsay Museum, Paris


By the 1840s, French painting had seen many trends that were based on idealized, amazing or imaginary people and places. Neoclassicism used Ancient Greek and Roman themes, for instance, and Romanticism produced paintings of extraordinary places and situations that most people would never experience.

In other words, painting represented everything, except the everyday life of most people, who worked in fields, workshops and factories.

And that’s what Realism changed.

The founder of the movement is Gustave Courbet, who developed the idea that painting should be about what you can see around you, shown as it really is, with all its imperfections, even if it’s not graceful.

This was new, and it greatly shocked critics at the time, because art had never really shown humble people in their daily lives.


Gustave Courbet, The Stone Breakers, 1849, destroyed in 1945 bombing of Dresden


Gustave Courbet, Young Ladies of the Village (Courbet’s sisters near their native village, Ornans, giving charity to a poor cowherd), 1852, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Gustave Courbet, The Wheat Sifters, 1854, Fine Arts Museum, Nantes


Another major realist painter is Jean-François Millet, who is known for his peasant scenes, which had an important influence on Van Gogh.


Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners, 1857, Orsay Museum, Paris


Jean-François Millet, Man with a Hoe, c.1860, Getty Center, Los Angeles


Jean-François Millet, Spoon Feeding, c.1870, Fine Arts Museum, Lille


Gustave Caillebotte also made major contributions in the realist style. Here is one of his most famous:


Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Planers, 1875, Orsay Museum, Paris


In the end, masters of Realism like Courbet and Millet changed the history of art by giving humble people a place in painting. As a result, the description of everyday life became a major theme in France, Britain, the US and most of the West in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Inspirational Castle

Walt Disney used it as inspiration for the castles of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, and it is often seen as the perfect example of 19th-century Castle Romanticism. This inspirational castle is Neuschwanstein, located in Bavaria, Germany.


Neuschwanstein Castle, built 1869-1892, Hohenschwangau


Neuschwanstein Castle was King Ludwig II’s mad project.

Ludwig loved stories of knights from the Middle Ages, and he loved Richard Wagner’s operas, many of which are based on medieval stories from the Germanic world. He was quite an eccentric king, so he decided to build a castle to make that medieval world come back to life.

Construction started in 1869 and stopped in 1892, six years after Ludwig’s death.


Photo by Cezary Piwowarski


The castle mixes different styles from the Middle Ages. There is Romanesque with the round arches and heavy walls, as well as Gothic with the pointy towers, for instance.


Photo by Oliver Bonjoch


Photo by wiki user Benreis


Neuschwanstein was highly criticized for its price and kitsch when it was built, but it has become the most famous castle in Germany, attracting over one million visitors every year.

Most significantly, it continues to inspire dreams of knights and princesses that are still very much part of western popular culture today.


Photo by wiki user Gliwi

The Origin of Candidates

The free citizens of Ancient Rome wore a “toga,” which is a large piece of wool draped over the body. There were different togas for different occasions, and one of them is the origin of the word “candidate.”


Roman statue with toga, c.2nd century, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen


The basic toga for free adult citizens was beige, the natural color of wool.

However, when citizens were running for election to public office, they wore a special toga that was bright white, to symbolize purity and honesty, and to show everyone that they were participating in the election.

This white toga was called “toga candida,” from the Latin word “candidus,” which means “bright white.” Someone wearing the toga candida was a “candidatus,” meaning someone “dressed in white.”

“Candidatus” logically came to mean “someone running for election to public office,” and the word has been used with the same meaning in many western languages for over two thousand years, even though candidates don’t wear a bright white toga anymore.

Gothic Rays and Flames

The stone decorations and patterns in the windows of Gothic cathedrals are not only spectacular, but also quite informational. Those patterns are called “tracery,” and their shape can tell you when they were created.

If the pattern is based on straight lines dividing the window, like the wheel of a bicycle, then you have Rayonnant Gothic, which means it’s probably from the 1250 to 1350 period.

The most striking example of Rayonnant Gothic is perhaps the rose window of the Strasbourg Cathedral:


Rose window, Strasbourg Cathedral, 13th century


But you can also see it in Paris and Chartres:


Rose window, Notre Dame de Paris, c.1250


Rose window, Chartres Cathedral, 13th century


From the outside, the Rayonnant south rose window of Notre Dame de Paris looks like this:



If, however, the pattern is based on S-shaped lines that look like flames, then you have Flamboyant Gothic, which means it’s probably from the 1350 to 1550 period.


Rose window, Sainte-Chapelle, c.1490, Paris


Rose window, Sens Cathedral, c.1516 — Photo by wiki user Pline


From the outside, the Flamboyant rose window of the Meaux cathedral looks like this:


Rose window, Meaux Cathedral, 14th century — Photo by wiki user Vassil


Sometimes, you can find both styles in the same cathedral, because it took such a long time to build that styles changed before it was finished. In that case, the Rayonnant part was probably built earlier than the Flamboyant part.

Of course, there are other Gothic styles and variations that developed from the 12th to the 16th century, but the Rayonnant and Flamboyant are the most spectacular, and they’re quite easy to spot.

The Rayonnant (1250-1350) is based on straight lines, like this:


By wiki user Benutzer


The Flamboyant (1350-1550)  is even easier. It looks like flames:


The Color of Emperors

In western culture, the color that is traditionally associated with emperors is purple, a special kind of reddish purple that was discovered over 3,000 years ago on the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea.


Emperor Justinian I mosaic, 6th century, San Vitale Church, Ravenna


According to legend, it was a god’s dog that discovered the secret to this purple dye, when it ate a murex sea snail during a walk on the beach.


Peter-Paul Rubens, The Discovery of Purple, c.1636, Bonnat Museum, Bayonne


The god is Melqart in the Phoenician tradition and Hercules in Greek mythology, but in both stories the dog eats a sea snail that gives its mouth a deep reddish purple color, which gives its master the idea to use these snails to dye clothes.


Illustration of Murex sea snail in Martin Lister, Historia Conchyliorum, 1685-1692


The beautiful purple that these sea snails produce was one of the most expensive dyes in the ancient world, because it is said to take over 10,000 snails to produce about 1.5 grams of coloring, and the process is difficult and very smelly.

The resulting color is known as Tyrian purple, as its main center of production was the Phoenician port of Tyre, which is in Lebanon today.

Naturally, Tyrian purple was a color for the elite only. Kings, high magistrates, victorious generals, and of course emperors. In Ancient Rome and Byzantium, Tyrian purple clothes were mainly reserved for emperors and their families, so the color simply became known as “imperial purple.”

And that’s how in the West purple became the color of emperors.

Spot a Style: De Stijl

This is one of the easiest modern styles to spot, and it has inspired the most iconic crossover between art and fashion. It’s called De Stijl, which in Dutch simply means “The Style.”


Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930, Kunsthaus, Zürich


Yves Saint-Laurent, Day Dress, fall / winter 1965 on French Vogue cover


De Stijl started in the Netherlands in 1917 as a new art and design movement. The main idea was to create a style that would be universal, based on simplicity and logic, a style for modern times. The result was the following characteristics, to be applied in painting, architecture and design:


-only straight, perpendicular lines

-only primary colors (red, blue and yellow) and black, white and gray

-only abstract forms

-no symmetry in composition


It was Theo van Doesburg, a painter, poet and architect, who founded the movement.


Theo van Doesburg, Composition VII: The Three Graces, 1917, Kemper Art Museum, Saint Louis


Theo van Doesburg, Simultaneous Composition XXIV, 1929, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven


Theo van Doesburg, Cornelis van Eesteren, Model Artist House, 1923, reconstruction 1982, Collection Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag — Source:


A prominent member of the movement from the beginning was Gerrit Rietveld, who produced the two best-known creations of De Stijl architecture and design:

Gerrit Rietveld, Red and blue arm chair, 1918


Gerrit Rietveld, Schröder House, 1924, Utrecht — UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000 — Source:


However, the most famous member of De Stijl is Piet Mondrian, whose paintings inspired Yves Saint-Laurent’s highly popular fall / winter 1965 collection.


Piet Mondrian, Composition No. II, with Red and Blue, 1925-29, Museum of Modern Art, New York


Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930, Kunsthaus, Zürich


Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, 1937–42, Tate Gallery, London


Yves Saint-Laurent, dresses from fall / winter 1965 collection in American Vogue


Mondrian’s work had already inspired designers to create bags, shoes and other accessories with a De Stijl look, and it continued to inspire them long after Saint-Laurent’s collection, for a great variety of products.

So, if it has straight lines arranged in squares or rectangles with only red, blue, yellow, black and white, chances are it’s De Stijl, or De Stijl-inspired.

Ancient Problem-Solving Tip

Sometimes, difficult problems require simple but extreme solutions.

According to legend, when Alexander the Great came to the city of Gordium in Phrygia, an area which is in Turkey today, he came up with a radical way of solving the ancient problem of the Gordian Knot.



The Gordian knot was a very complicated rope knot. It was tied to the ox-cart of the ancient king Gordias, which was kept in a temple, and the legend said that the person who could undo this knot would become king of Asia.

There are several versions of the story, but in the most popular one Alexander the Great looks at the knot, fiddles with it a little, then takes out his sword and simply cuts the knot in half. Problem solved.


Studio of Fedele Fischetti, Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot, 18th century, sold at Bonhams Auction in 2003


This is the origin of the phrase “cutting the Gordian knot,” which means “solving a very difficult problem with an unexpected and radical solution.”

“Thinking outside the box” or “hacking” sound like modern ways of solving problems, but that’s exactly what Alexander the Great was already doing over two thousand years ago, around 333 BC.

How Mona Lisa Got Famous

Before 1911, the Mona Lisa was already considered a Renaissance masterpiece, but it did not have the cult status it has today. It was the not even the most famous painting in the Louvre.


Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c.1505, Louvre Museum, Paris


So what happened in 1911? The Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre and disappeared for over two years. The story made the front page of major newspapers after the theft in August 1911 and continued to appear until the end of the year, making the painting a topic of conversation everywhere:


New York Times front page, December 31, 1911 — © New York Times Company


As the investigation made no progress, however, many feared that the Mona Lisa would never be seen again, but it was finally recovered in Florence in December 1913.


New York Times front page, December 13, 1913 — © New York Times Company


The Italian police found the painting in the hotel room of Vincenzo Peruggia, a former Louvre employee from Italy, who confessed he had stolen it from the museum in 1911.


Vincezo Peruggia’s Identity Papers, 1909 — Source: wiki


After a highly publicized tour of Italy, the painting came back to the Louvre in January 1914, with great fanfare:


Mona Lisa back at the Louvre, January 1914 — Photo by Roger Viollet / Getty


This unprecedented publicity turned Mona Lisa into a celebrity, and suddenly everyone wanted to see her.

And that’s how da Vinci’s painting became the most famous in the world.

The Most Romantic German Painter

One of the greatest contributions of Romantic painting was to bring emotion to landscapes, and Caspar David Friedrich did that better than any other German painter of the 19th century.


Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise over the Sea, 1822, Old National Gallery, Berlin


In Friedrich’s paintings, the contemplation of nature leads to intense feelings that cover a wide range of experiences. From the gloom of melancholy:


Caspar David Friedrich, Abbey among Oak Trees, c.1810, Old National Gallery, Berlin


To the excitement and awe that sublime landscapes can generate:


Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Kunsthalle, Hamburg


Caspar David Friedrich, Woman before the Rising Sun, c.1818, Museum Folkwang, Essen


Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice / The Wreck of Hope, c.1823, Kunsthalle, Hamburg


But he was also a master of the softer, more introspective mood:


Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise by the Sea, c.1821, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg


Caspar David Friedrich, A Walk at Dusk, 1830-35, Getty Center, Los Angeles


Friedrich’s reputation has had major ups and downs, but he is now often seen as the most important painter of German Romanticism, the one who best captured the range of emotions that the sublimity of nature makes us feel.

Michelangelo’s Dome

While Michelangelo is mainly remembered for his sculptures and frescoes, he also made significant contributions to architecture, the most important of which is Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.


Saint Peter’s Basilica, built 1506-1626, Rome


By the time Michelangelo took over the Saint Peter project as chief architect, he was already in his seventies and had to deal with being the seventh architect working on the building, the first six having died before their designs were completed.

Michelangelo took the best ideas from those designs and managed to refine them into a new, coherent whole, which became one of the most influential examples of religious architecture from the Renaissance.

A key part of his design is the dome, which was completed in 1590, 26 years after his death, with only minor modifications.


Saint Peter’s Dome


Combining the latest engineering advances with an exceptionally grand vision, Saint Peter’s dome became a major influence in Europe and beyond. A case in point is Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, whose dome is based on Saint Peter’s.


Sir Christopher Wren, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, built 1675-1720, London — Photo by Mark Fosh


Another is the United States Capitol, whose dome is based on Saint Paul’s and Saint Peter’s.


Thomas U. Walter, United States Capitol, dome completed in 1866, Washington, D.C.


The most influential structure in Rome probably remains the Pantheon, but Saint Peter’s dome comes very close, and that’s saying something.

How Brazil Got its Name

When Portuguese sailors first set foot in the land we now call Brazil, they found something they had seen before on another continent. Something precious and useful for European art and fashion. Only this time, there was a lot more than they had ever seen, and the quality was much higher.


Coast of Brazil on the Portuguese Cantino Planisphere, 1502, Estense Library, Modena


What the Portuguese found in great abundance in that land was a kind of wood that has such a deep, fiery red color that it was called Pau-brasil, which in Portuguese means “ember wood,” like the color of glowing coals in a fire.



Brazil wood, as it is known in English, had been imported to Europe from India since the late 14th century. It produces a beautiful pigment that was used to create the first pinks in painting and dying, as well as orangey reds. Here’s a famous example given by Michel Pastoureau to illustrate the use of Brazil wood pigment in both art and fashion:


Limbourg Brothers, “Going on a Pilgrimage” miniature in Petites Heures du Duc de Berry, added to manuscript c.1412, National French Library, Paris


When the Portuguese found Brazil wood in South America when they arrived in 1500, that wood quickly became central to the economy of the area where it grew, to such an extent that Europeans started to refer to that land simply as “the Land of Brazil,” instead of using its original name.


A Brazil wood tree


And that’s how Brazil got its name.

The Origins of Road Sign Colors

With their bold colors and stylized shapes, road signs look perfectly modern, but their color rules were actually defined in the 12th century, in Western Europe.



Road signs are not the first signs that had to be easy to see and read from a distance.

When metal armors developed in the Middle Ages, it became impossible to identify people on battlefields by looking at them, because their faces were hidden by their helmets and most armors looked the same. The solution was to use their shields to paint bright signs that would represent their identity, which helped avoid confusing friends and enemies in battles and tournaments. Then the designs spread from the shield to robes worn over the armor and on the horse. That’s how coats of arms were born.


Knights Jousting in MS Harley 4205, f. 12, c.1446, British Library


Because these signs had to be easy to see from a distance, rules were created to make them stand out as clearly as possible, especially regarding colors.

There were six colors allowed: red, yellow, white, black, blue and green. These six colors were divided into two groups: white and yellow in the first group, and red, black, blue and green in the second.

The main rule was that the background had to be in a color from one group, and the large shape on top had to be in a color from the other group. You could not have a background and a large shape from the same color group. For example, if the background was red, the main shape on top could only be white, or yellow. If the background was yellow, the main shape on top could not be white, because white and yellow are in the same group.


Modern Rendition of Panel 1, detail, Camden Roll of Arms, c.1280, British Museum, London


The same color rules apply to road signs everywhere in the world today.



In some cases, as in the US, road signs even have the shape of shields:



And that’s the origin of road sign colors — 12th-century battlefields in western Europe and the rules of color composition for coats of arms, which had to be easy to see from a distance.

The Beauty of Mediterranean Light

With the paint tube revolution came new bright colors and the freedom to paint anywhere. This allowed 19th-century artists to paint a kind of light that had never been captured in all its glory before: the bold sunlight of the Mediterranean coast in France and Italy.


Paul Cézanne, Bay of Marseille Seen from L’Estaque, c.1885, Art Institute of Chicago


Paul Cézanne, Rocks at L’Estaque, c.1885, São Paulo Museum of Art


Impressionists like Monet were among the first to extensively travel along the Mediterranean coast to paint its wonders along the way.


Claude Monet, Villas at Bordighera, 1884, Art Institute of Chicago


Claude Monet, Antibes, 1888, Courtauld Gallery, London


Claude Monet, Antibes, Afternoon Effect, 1888, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Pointillists followed and found their technique perfectly suited to the vibrant landscapes of the Italian and French Riviera:


Paul Signac, Capo di Noli, 1898, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne


Henri-Edmond Cross, Antibes, 1908, Fine Arts Museum, Grenoble


L’Estaque, Bordighera and Antibes are among the small but legendary places on the Riviera where western art first captured a bit of the Mediterranean magic. In the small town of Collioure, that magic even inspired a whole new movement, Fauvism, which played a key role in the development of modern art in Europe.

That’s the beauty of Mediterranean light.

What Inspired the Uncle Sam Poster

The 1917 poster of Uncle Sam recruiting for the U.S. Army is one of the most iconic American images, but its design and concepts are actually British in origin.


James Montgomery Flagg, I Want You for U.S. Army, 1917


The design and “want you” concept come from the 1914 poster featuring the British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener:


Alfred Leete, Lord Kitchener Wants You, 1914


As for Uncle Sam, the symbol of the U.S., he is modeled on John Bull, who has been the personification of England since John Arbuthnot’s The History of John Bull, published in 1712. John Bull eventually became the symbol of the UK and was famously used in war recruiting posters:


British Government, John Bull Recruiting Poster, 1915


Combine the designs and concepts of these two posters, and you get Uncle Sam’s I Want You for U.S. Army.


That’s the inspiration for the most iconic recruiting poster ever.

The Symbols of Medicine

It all started with Asclepius, the Ancient Greek God of Healing, who was always represented carrying a wooden rod with a snake around it.


Asclepius statue, c.2nd century BC, Vatican Museums, Vatican City


In Greece the snake was associated with wisdom, healing and resurrection due to its ability to shed its old skin after growing into a new one. Harmless snakes were even kept in temples dedicated to the God of Healing, where the sick would come and hope to be cured.

It is from these ancient times that the Rod of Asclepius developed into the symbol of doctors in the West.


The Rod of Asclepius


This symbol is part of the Star of Life, which is found on ambulances and represents emergency medical services in the US and many other countries.


The Star of Life


Among Asclepius’ daughters is Hygieia, the Goddess of Cleanliness, whose name gave us the modern word “hygiene.” Hygieia was often represented carrying a jar or a cup, with a snake drinking from it.


Hope Hygieia, 2nd century AD Roman copy of Greek original, c.360 BC, Los Angeles County Museum of Art


The cup with a snake is known as the Bowl of Hygieia and has become the symbol of pharmacy in most western countries, where it identifies pharmacists and stores selling medication.


The Bowl of Hygieia


Another daughter of Asclepius’ is Panacea, whose name means “universal remedy” and is still used today to mean “a solution to all problems.” She was thought to have a potion that could cure every disease, and in that sense she represents medicine’s ambition. There is, however, no symbol for Panacea.

A symbol that is often confused with the Rod of Asclepius is Hermes’ Caduceus, a staff with two snakes and wings at the top:


The Caduceus


Because Hermes was the protector of travelers and tradesmen, his Caduceus became a symbol of commerce.

It had nothing to do with medicine at all until the 19th century, when the US Army started using it on the uniforms of its medical personnel. It is not clear whether this was the result of a mistake or a deliberate choice. In any case, it became wrongly associated with medicine and the confusion continues today.

In the end, there are only two symbols everyone agrees upon. The Rod of Asclepius, one snake around a rod as the symbol of doctors, and the Bowl of Hygieia, a snake drinking from a cup as the symbol of pharmacists. Both are based on the single snake, which represents wisdom and healing thanks to its skin-changing abilities.

The Paint Tube Revolution

How important was the invention of the paint tube? Perhaps Pierre-Auguste Renoir said it best when he told his son that “without colors in tubes, there would have been no Cézanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro, nothing of what the journalists were to call Impressionism” (quoted in Jean Renoir, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, My Father, 1962).



The man who invented the paint tube is the American artist John Goffe Rand, who patented it in 1841.


John Goffe Rand patent, Improvement in the Construction of Vessels or Apparatus for Preserving Paint, 1841 — Source: Archives of American Art


Rand never became famous, however, even though the metal tube he invented also inspired the toothpaste tube, among other things we use every day.

Before Rand’s invention, storage options were too fragile to transport fresh paint easily or keep it for a long time. Painting was therefore mostly done in a studio and relatively few colors were available.

The metal tube changed everything. It made paint portable and easy to store for much longer. It made new colors more widely available and expanded painters’ palettes. In other words, it enabled artists to paint anything, anywhere, with the brightest and freshest colors.

And that’s what made the Impressionist revolution possible.


John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood, c.1885


Not bad for a little metal tube.

The Symbol of Self-Sacrifice

In ancient Europe it was believed that the pelican would cut its breast open with its beak and feed its young with its own blood if there was not enough food, even though pelicans don’t actually do that. Some even believed that the pelican had the power to bring its dead young back to life by giving them its blood.

This belief lasted at least until the 17th century, as shown by this late 16th century work on plants and animals, published again in 1622:


Geoffroi Linocier, Histoire des plantes, appendix on birds, 1584


The description under the image says: “This pelican lives near the Nile river and marshes in Egypt. It loves its young so much that when snakes kill them it strikes its sides until blood comes out and with its blood brings them back to life.”

Because of that belief, the pelican became a major symbol of self-sacrifice and charity. Early Christians had adopted it by the 2nd century and started using it in texts and images, making it a very special bird.


Edward Burne-Jones, Pelican stained glass, 19th century, Saint-Martin’s Church, Brampton — Source:


The representation of a pelican piercing its breast to feed its young with its own blood is called a “Pelican in her Piety.” It can be found in illuminations, stone reliefs, gold jewels, paintings, stained glass windows and more, from the Middle Ages to the modern era.


Pelican Illustration in MS. 89/54, Folio 5, late 12th century, Grootseminarie Library, Bruges


Pelican in her Piety bas-relief, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery, Montréal


Restored Pelican in her Piety bas-relief, Saint-Etienne Cathedral, Metz


Pelican in her Piety pendant, c.1550s, Victoria and Albert Museum, London


One of Queen Elizabeth I’s most famous portraits is called The Pelican Portrait, based on a similar pelican jewel in the painting (just above her hand), which suggests that the Queen is like a mother pelican, sacrificing herself for her country if necessary.


Nicholas Hilliard, Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I / The Pelican Portrait, c.1575, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool


Nicholas Hilliard, Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I / The Pelican Portrait — detail, c.1575, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool


Pelican in her Piety stained glass window, Saint-Andrew-by-the-Lake Church, Centre Island — Source:


Sometimes the bird doesn’t really look like a pelican in such representations, but if it’s feeding its young with drops from its breast or if its beak is piercing its breast, it’s definitely a pelican, and it represents self-sacrifice and charity because it was believed to feed its young with its own blood.

Black, the Color of Opposites

Black has been favored by monks, princes, pirates, anarchists, judges, fascists and fashionistas, just to name a few contrasting groups. It is the color that was a color and stopped being one when Newton analyzed light. Then it became a color again, and remains the color that has been most often associated with opposite values throughout western history.


Pierre Soulages, Peinture, 222×628 cm. avril 1985, Grenoble Museum


The association of black with sadness, death and mourning in the West is well-known, but black is much more than that and it is part of a fascinating network of contradictory values, superbly explained in the works of Eva Heller and Michel Pastoureau, among others.

Perhaps the most striking contrast is between authority and rebellion. Black is the color of many uniforms that represent authority, the law and other forms of control. Think of judges, for instance, who have been wearing black robes in court since the late 13th century.


George Romney, Portrait of Judge Sir John Wilson, c.1782, Town Hall, Kendal


The most extreme example of black as the color of authority and control gone mad is in the uniforms of fascist groups in the 1920s and 30s — the Blackshirts in Italy and the Nazis in Germany.


Benito Mussolini with Blackshirt Legion, 1922 — © Underwood / Corbis


At the same time, those who reject authority and the law in the most violent ways also made black their color. Think of pirates and their black flags, most of which were just plain black until the introduction of the skulls and crossbones in the late 17th century, which kept black as the background color.


Skulls and Crossbones Flag


Anarchists, who reject all forms of government, also use a black flag, as well as a more recent half-black half-red variation.

Another major opposition has to do with the religious symbolism of black. In the Middle Ages, black became the color of sin and of the devil, as in this painting depicting Christ resisting the devil’s sinful ways:


Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, c.1311, Frick Collection, New York


Despite this association between black and evil, many priests and monks wear black, as the monks of the Order of Saint Benedict, who are known as the Black Monks.


Philippe de Champaigne, Anna of Austria and her Children Praying to Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica, 1640s, Versailles Palace, Versailles


Then in the 16th century Protestant Reformers also adopted black, which became the color of Puritan clothes in England and in North America, confirming it as a sober, moral color.

In parallel, bright colors had been banned for anyone except the nobility in 14th-century Italy. Rich Italian merchants responded by wearing the most expensive black fabrics and furs, which associated black with wealth and made it fashionable in Europe for the first time. As the fashion spread, black even became fit for kings.


Sofonisba Anguissola, Portrait of Philip II of Spain, 1565, Prado Museum, Madrid


This led to another opposition, between black as a sober, humble color and black as a color of luxury.

Today, black continues to be worn by religious orders throughout the world as a sign of humbleness and to be the color of choice for tuxedos and other glamorous evening garments, such as the iconic black dress. Not to mention the “black label” trick that can make any product appear more luxurious.

Unlike blue, which started as a minor color and then became Europe’s favorite, black has always been in conflict with itself, as the color of authority and rebellion, morality and evil, humbleness and luxury — the color of opposites.

Masters of Sublime Light

When you put together American landscapes, Romanticism and a spiritual view of nature, you get a uniquely American kind of sublime in 19th-century painting. Not the thrilling sublime of storms and volcanoes, but a serene, contemplative sublime that connects nature with the divine.


Frederic Edwin Church, Morning in the Tropics, c.1858, Walter Arts Museum, Baltimore


Few American painters captured that spirit better than Frederic Edwin Church, one of the most prominent artists of the Hudson River School, which was the first major school of painting in the US.

Frederic Edwin Church was not only a master of detail and composition, but also a master of that special kind of light that turns looking at nature into a religious experience.


Frederic Edwin Church, Rainy Season in the Tropics, 1866, Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco


Frederic Edwin Church, The River of Light, 1877, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Church traveled all over the Americas in search of new landscapes and light phenomena, looking at each location with the same sense of spiritual wonder.


Frederic Edwin Church, The Andes of Ecuador, 1855, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem


Frederic Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860, Cleveland Museum of Art


Frederic Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis, 1865, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.


The only other American painter who comes close to Frederic Edwin Church in that regard is Albert Bierstadt, who also belonged to the Hudson River School.


Albert Bierstadt, Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, 1865, Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama


Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 1868, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.


Albert Bierstadt, Rocky Mountain Landscape, 1870, The White House, Washington, D.C.


In the end, the Hudson River School painters are to American light what Ivan Aivazovsky is to the sea. Few other painters have made it look more sublime and in the process connected us with something so much greater than ourselves.

How Blue Became Popular

Blue used to be a minor color with negative connotations in much of Western Europe, but now it’s the favorite color of over 50% of Europeans, and the color they wear more than any other. How did that happen?



In Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the noble colors in the arts were white, black, red, yellow and green. For clothes, red and purple were the colors of emperors and kings. Blue was also widely used, but it was not seen as a positive or noble color.

For the Romans, blue was actually the least civilized color. For them, it was the color of Barbarians, the color of the blue-eyed Germanic invaders and of the Celts who painted their faces and bodies blue to frighten their enemies in battle.

According to Michel Pastoureau’s work on the history of the color blue, this negative view continued until the 12th century, when two major changes happened.

First, blue became the color of the Virgin Mary in Christian art. It is not clear exactly when Mary started to be represented wearing blue, but by the 12th century it had become her color, giving it a highly positive image in the Christian world.


Comnenus mosaics, 12th century, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul


Jan van Eyck, Annunciation – detail, c.1435, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Blue therefore appeared in stained glass windows, following Abbot Suger’s pioneering use of cobalt blue for the windows of the Saint-Denis Basilica around 1140. This had such an impact that the shade of blue he used became known as Saint Denis Blue, featuring in many Gothic cathedrals after that.


Moses Window, c.1140, Saint Denis Basilica, Saint-Denis


Secondly, Philip Augustus, King of France from 1180 to 1223, started to wear blue and saw the development of the design of the French coat of arms that would be used for 600 years, with golden fleur-de-lys on a field of azure blue.


Jean Fouquet, Crowning of Philip Augustus illumination in Grandes Chroniques de France, c.1455, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris


First French coat of arms with blue field, official French arms from 1211


This was the first time a European king had worn blue or had a coat of arms with a blue background.

His grandson Louis IX, aka Saint Louis, King of France from 1226 to 1270, then became the first king to wear blue most of the time. This started a trend that spread throughout Europe and made blue a noble color, which eventually became known as Royal Blue.

The positive image of blue was reinforced in the 16th century, during the Protestant Reformation. Reacting against the excesses of the Catholic church, reformers identified two groups of colors: honest colors and dishonest colors. The dishonest colors were red, yellow and green. The honest ones were white, black, gray, brown and blue.

In about 400 years, blue came to be associated with the Virgin Mary, royalty, honesty and morality.

Then new pigments were invented, such as Prussian Blue, and the palette of blues became even richer, setting the stage for the rise of blue as Europe’s favorite color.

And that’s how blue became so popular.

The Invention of Photography

The basics of light reflection and light-sensitive chemicals were already known in Antiquity, but it was only in the early 1800s that they were successfully combined to invent photography.

The key processes were developed in France and Britain in the 1820s and 30s, with Nicéphore Niécpe producing the first permanent photograph in 1827, a view of roofs and walls:


Nicéphore Niécpe, View from the Window at Le Gras, 1827 (enhanced)


It may not look like much, but that’s the earliest permanent photograph there is, and it required at least 8 hours of exposure.

Louis Daguerre then used Niécpe’s research to develop his own process, the Daguerrotype, which required much shorter exposure times on sheets of metal, as in this 1838 photograph, which only took ten minutes to take:


Louis Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 1838


At the same time in Britain, William Henry Fox Talbot pioneered light-sensitive paper and the negative / positive process, which he called Calotype, paving the way for photographic film.


Hill and Adamson, calotype portrait of Thomas Duncan, 1844


Niécpe had called his process “heliography,” which literally means “painting / writing with the sun,” but in the 1830s others called it “photography,” meaning “painting / writing with light,” and the name stuck.

From the late 1830s on, photography developed very rapidly, reaching a first golden age in the 1850s. Major figures of the period include Roger Fenton, the British photographer who became one of the very first war photographers with his work on the 1855 Crimean War.

Exposure times were still too long for battle scenes, but Fenton captured the desolation of war on battlefields covered in canon balls:


Roger Fenton, Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855


Photography was already changing the way we experience the world and understand history. In the following century, it also redefined how we remember and share our experiences, how we see ourselves, and it now has a profound influence on how millions are building their social identity.

Not bad for a process that’s essentially about catching light.


Ancient Influence on Modern Art

When you look at this kind of sculpture, it’s hard not to think of modern art:



This particular head, however, was carved over 4,000 years ago in the Cyclades, a group of islands off the coast of Greece. It is the head of a canonical figurine from around 2800–2300 BC, kept at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens.

Cycladic culture developed around 3000 BC and for over one thousand years produced sculptures that had a strong influence on modern artists such as Picasso, Modigliani, Brancusi and many more.

Here is the Cycladic head that inspired Romanian sculptor Brancusi to create his series of female muses, for example:


Head of female figure, c.2700–2300 BC, Louvre Museum, Paris


Constantin Brancusi, Sleeping Muse, 1910, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.


Constantin Brancusi, The Muse, 1912, Guggenheim Museum, New York


Cycladic art is obviously characterized by its geometric stylization of the human form, especially in female figures:


Standing female figure, c.2600–2400 BC, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Standing female figurine, c.2600–2400 BC, The British Museum, London


Female figure, c.2400 BC, Getty Museum, Los Angeles


The simple geometry of Cycladic art appealed to modern artists in search of pure forms, and along with other forms of primitive art, such as African and Cambodian art, it gave them inspiration for sculptures, drawings and paintings:


Amedeo Modigliani, Head of a Woman, 1910, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Amedeo Modigliani, Caryatid (detail), 1913, The New Art Gallery, Walsall


Pablo Picasso, Woman with Joined Hands (study for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon), 1907, Picasso Museum, Paris


In the most stylized cases, Cycladic figures are almost abstract:


“Violin” figurine, c.2800 BC, The British Museum, London


However, surface analysis has revealed that Cycladic sculptures were originally painted in bright blues and reds, among other colors. This means that eyes and other features were probably painted onto the stone, resulting in a much less abstract look than what we see today.

Just as Ancient Greek statues lost their colors and influenced the Neoclassical taste for pure white marble, so too did Cycladic art influence the rise of pure geometry in the early 20th century.

And that’s the influence of ancient forms on Modern art.

Spot a Style: International

From the early 1930s to the late 1980s, International Style architecture was the main choice for office buildings and other large commercial or institutional projects, especially in the US and Canada. The resulting skyscrapers reshaped major cities and gave them the skylines they are famous for today.


Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer and Wallace Harrison, United Nations Headquarters, built 1948-1952, New York — Photo by Selwyn Manning


The United Nations Headquarters in New York is a great example of International Style architecture, perfectly illustrating the main characteristics of the movement:


– Glass façades

– Steel frames

– Simple square or rectangular forms / straight lines and 90° angles

– No decorations

– Large open spaces


United Nations Headquarters in New York skyline — Photo by Hajat Avdovic


These characteristics, as well as the name “International Style,” come from the exhibition “Modern Architecture – International Exhibition” held in New York in 1932, which was the first architecture exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

Even though the style is strongly associated with Chicago and New York, it is not purely American. It is the fusion of modern ideas and building techniques developed at the German Bauhaus school of design and in the US in the 1920s. Other European architects, such as Le Corbusier, also contributed to its development before it was defined as a style and given a name at the New York exhibition.

Let’s take a look at other works in the International Style by key architects of the movement, starting with one of the most prolific, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe:


Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, Seagram Building, built in 1958, New York  — Photo by Tom Ravenscroft


Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Parkin and Associates, Bregman and Hamann Architects, Toronto-Dominion Centre, built 1967-1969, Toronto — © Cadillac Fairview Corporation Limited


Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, IBM Plaza / AMA Plaza, built 1966-1973, Chicago


Another major name is Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus school of design in 1919:


Walter Gropius, John F. Kennedy Federal Building, built 1963-1966, Boston — © LeMessurier


Other famous examples include:


I.M. Pei and Partners, Place Ville Marie, built 1958-1962, Montreal — Photo by Stephan Poulin

Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Sears Tower / Willis Tower, built 1970-1973, Chicago — Photo by Daniel Schwen


Early International Style buildings are on a smaller scale and also include private houses, but the movement’s main contribution is definitely the rectangular skyscraper made of glass and steel with no decoration, which can be found in almost every major city around the world today.

Master of the Sublime Seascape

Every country with a port has at least one master of sea painting, but Russia can claim perhaps the very best.


Ivan Aivazovsky, The Ninth Wave, 1850, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg


Ivan Aivazovsky produced some of the most celebrated seascapes in history, capturing the changing colors and moods of the sea more spectacularly than any other artist before him.


Ivan Aivazovsky, Chaos — Genesis, 1841, San Lazaro degli Armeni Monastry, Venice


Ivan Aivazovsky, Stormy Sea at Night, 1849, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg


Ivan Aivazovsky, Strong Wind, 1856, Sphinx Fine Art Gallery, London


Even the British master J.M.W. Turner recognized Aivazovsky’s genius, and in 1842 wrote him a poem to let him know, praising effects “that only genius could inspire” (quoted in Bolton, Roy, Views of Russia & Russian Works on Paper, 2010, p.141).


Ivan Aivazovsky, Rainbow, 1873, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow


Ivan Aivazovsky, View of the Sea by Moonlight, 1878, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg


Ivan Aivazovsky, Black Sea, 1881, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow


Ivan Aivazovsky, Among the Waves, 1898, The Aivazovsky Art Gallery, Feodosia


The sea doesn’t get more sublime than that.

The Loneliest Light

Edward Hopper captured a wider variety of American lights than any other painter of his generation, from the morning sun on Cape Cod houses to the neons of New York diners at night.


Edward Hopper, Cape Cod, Morning, 1950, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.


In the process, he also captured more scenes of isolation than most, giving the brightest and the dimmest lights an equally lonely quality:


Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927, Des Moines Art Center

Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Edward Hopper, Gas, 1940, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942, The Art Institute of Chicago

Edward Hopper, Morning Sun, 1952, Columbus Museum of Art

Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City, 1953, Museum of Modern Art, New York


Hopper must have been tired of people telling him that his paintings were only about loneliness when he said: “The loneliness thing is overdone. It formulates something you don’t want formulated” (quoted in Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: The Complete Prints, 1979).

But looking at the paintings above, it is difficult to deny that Hopper did paint some of the most haunting moments of isolation in Western art.

And these moments are bathed in the loneliest light.

The Caesars’ Months

July and August are the only two months named after actual people, and they’re both named after Caesars.

“July” comes from the name Julius, as in Julius Caesar. It used to be simply called “fifth month” in the Roman calendar, but because Caesar was born that month, the Senate renamed it Iulius in his honor after making him dictator for life. He was assassinated a month later, in March 44 BC.


Nicolas Coustou, Julius Caesar, 1696, Louvre Museum, Paris — Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen


In his will, Julius Caesar had named his grandnephew Octavian as his adopted son and heir, giving Octavian not just his wealth, but also the Caesar name.

Octavian became the first Roman emperor in 27 BC, when the Senate gave him the title Augustus, which means “venerable.” Because he won major victories in the “sixth month” of the Roman calendar, the Senate decided in 8 BC to rename that month Augustus, in his honor.

Unlike Julius Caesar, Augustus survived having a month named after him, but he died in that month two decades later.


Unknown sculptor, bust of Augustus, 1st century AD, Louvre Museum, Paris — Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

The Global Story of @

Starting in the early Renaissance and still developing in the digital age today, the story of the “@” sign is in many ways the story of globalization itself.


The most famous part of that story is of course the creation of email addresses. In 1971, an American computer engineer named Ray Tomlinson sent the first electronic message from one computer to another. For this to work, he had to create a unique kind of address, linking each user’s name to the name of their host computer.

He needed a sign that was not used in the names of people or host computers, so he could not use letters, numbers or common punctuation marks. When he looked at his keyboard for what was left, he saw that “@” was the only sign that was almost never used, so that’s what he chose, and the email address was born.

The question is, why was there this “@” sign on his keyboard? What was it for?

It turns out that the “@” sign can be found in European documents as early as the 14th century, used for many different purposes.

It was, for instance, a short form of the syllable “an” at the beginning of a variety of words, such as “anno,” which means “year.” An early example from 1391 shows the sign used in the French word “anciainnes” written “@ciainnes”:


Source: Marc Smith, “La véridique histoire de l’arrobase,” 2013 (at 37 minutes 24 seconds)


“@” was also used in the Renaissance in Spain and Portugal as a short form of the word “arroba,” which is a unit of weight, and in other European countries for various units of measure.

At the same time, it was used as a preposition to introduce the date, the day, the place, or the name of an addressee or beneficiary in commercial and diplomatic documents from Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Here’s an example from 1487, in which “@” introduces “nineteenth of November”:


Source: Marc Smith, “La véridique histoire de l’arrobase,” 2013 (at 46 minutes 16 seconds)


And, most importantly, “@” also became a sign introducing the price per unit, for “at the price of,” or just “at.” For example, “2 apples @ 1$ = 2$.” This is the use found in English-speaking countries and the origin of the “commercial at.”

Because this sign appeared frequently on bills, it featured on the keyboards of typewriters in the US, the earliest known example being the keyboard of the Caligraph No. 2 typewriter from 1883. The first computer keyboards were based on typewriter keyboards, and therefore included the “@” sign, which by 1971 was almost not used anymore.

So the many uses of the “@” sign developed in the early Renaissance through commercial and diplomatic communications among European countries, then reached their American colonies, and the sign eventually spread to the rest of the world over the internet in the 20th century. A perfect illustration of the globalization process.

The Inescapable Olive Tree

When painters traveled to the Mediterranean coast in the late 19th and early 20th century, they all encountered the magic light of southern Europe, as well as one of the most important trees of the region, the olive tree. They all painted their version of that tree, each revealing a unique style.


Claude Monet, Olive Grove at the Moreno Garden, Bordighera, 1884, Private Collection (sold at Christie’s in 2010)


The most prolific olive tree painter of the period is Van Gogh, who in 1889 produced over 15 paintings of that subject in different lights, over a period of about six months.


Vincent Van Gogh, Olive Trees with Alpilles Background, 1889, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Vincent Van Gogh, Olive Trees with Yellow Sun, 1889, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis


Vincent Van Gogh, Olive Orchard, 1889, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City


Edgar Degas preferred dancers and horses at the races, but he still gave a pastel tribute to the landscape with olive trees:


Edgar Degas, Olive Trees Against a Mountainous Background, c.1890, Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena


And when Matisse went to the south of France to develop a new style that would become Fauvism, he turned to the same subject:


Henri Matisse, Olive Trees at Collioure / Promenade among the Olive Trees, c.1905, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Around that time, just before he developed Cubism with Picasso, George Braque went south to meet Matisse, and painted his version (which was stolen from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2010 and is still missing).


George Braque, The Olive Tree near L’Estaque, 1906, Unknown location


Even John Singer Sargent, the exiled American painter who specialized in portraits, produced several works with olive trees as the main subject during his travels in the south of Europe in the early 1900s:


John Singer Sargent, Olive Trees, Corfu, 1909, Harvard Art Museums

John Singer Sargent, The Olive Grove, c.1910, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis


Because of its symbolism and because it is everywhere around the Mediterranean Sea, the olive tree is just inescapable in Western art.

When Music Meets Painting

Music has the power to create moods like no other art form, and painting has been influenced by that power throughout its history. The 19th century produced one of the best-known examples of this influence in Whistler’s series of “nocturne” paintings.


James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver, 1872, Harvard Fogg Museum


In 19th-century music, a nocturne is a short, intimate piece that evokes the dreamy atmosphere of the night.

When the British art collector Frederick Leyland saw Whistler’s paintings entitled “moonlights,” he immediately thought of Chopin’s music and called Whistler’s paintings “nocturnes.”

Whistler loved the idea and changed the titles of his “moonlight” paintings to “nocturnes.” He then painted new ones, evoking the dreamy mood of a walk by the river Thames and other places in the moonlight.


James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea, 1871, Tate Gallery, London

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights, 1872, Tate Gallery, London


One of the places Whistler often painted is the area near Cremorne Gardens, a fashionable park by the river Thames, famous for light displays and fireworks at night. Whistler especially liked the sparks that softly rained down after the fireworks, and he painted those golden sparks and fireworks in the sky of several of his nocturnes:


James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, c.1872–5, Tate Gallery, London

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel, 1875, Tate Gallery, London

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Black and Gold – Falling Rocket, c.1875, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit


The influence also went the other way, as the French composer Debussy was inspired by Whistler’s paintings to compose Nocturnes, a three-part piece in which the music evokes the movements of clouds at night, the mood of evening parties, and the movements of the sea in the moonlight, which he had seen so poetically suggested in Whistler’s works.

That’s the kind of magic that happens when music meets painting.

Spot a Style: Neoclassical

After the Baroque and Rococo styles led to highly decorated buildings, objects and works of art in the 17th and early 18th centuries, there was a need for simpler, more symmetrical forms. At the same time, 18th-century archeologists were starting to discover or study ancient Roman and Greek sites that had been lost or overlooked, such as Herculaneum, Pompeii and Paestum.


Second temple of Hera /Poseidon temple, c.450BC, Paestum — Photo by Norbert Nagel


All this led to a renewed interest in classical antiquity, the time of Ancient Greece and Rome, and in the arts and architecture of that period.

So, starting in the 1760s, artists and craftsmen started to create new works inspired from the nobility, simplicity and harmony of Ancient Greek and Roman works. These new productions were called “neoclassical,” “neo-” meaning “new” and “classical” referring to the period of Ancient Greece and Rome.


John Flaxman, Homer Invoking the Muse, Illustration for The Iliad, c.1793 — Source:


Of course each country has its own versions of Neoclassicism in architecture and design, and each version is named after the King or the type of government of the period when it was created. For example, it was called “Georgian” then “Regency” in England, “Louis XVI” then “Empire” in France, and “Federal Style” in the US.

Despite differences, all these styles share the characteristics of neoclassical works:


– Symmetry

– Balanced proportions

– Forms inspired from Ancient Greek and Roman architecture and interiors

– Columns and fluting inspired by the Classical Orders

– Topics and decorations from Ancient Greek and Roman history and mythology


For music, by the way, it’s a different story. “Classical” refers to the music of the 1730-1820 period and “neoclassical” to a type of work produced in the first half of the 20th century.

As always, the best way of becoming familiar with a style is to look at examples. Let’s start with neoclassical paintings, from the late 18th century to the early 19th.


Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, c.1785, Louvre Museum, Paris


Jacques-Louis David, Death of Socrates, 1787, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Angelica Kauffman, Venus Convinces Helen to go with Paris, 1790, Hermitage Museum, Saint-Petersburg

Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Apotheosis of Homer, 1827, Louvre Museum, Paris


For architecture and the decorative arts, Neoclassicism covers the period that goes from the 1760s to the end of the 19th century, competing with other styles and revivals, in some cases even into the 20th century. It includes many government buildings and monuments, as well as furniture styles that feature decorations such as eagles, leaves and other forms inspired by Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.


The United States Capitol, built from 1793 to 1863, Washington, D.C.

Palais Bourbon, façade built from 1806 to 1810, Paris — Photo by David Monniaux

Louis XVI Blue Room, c.1770s, Musée Carnavalet, Paris — Photo by wiki user Thesupermat

Typical fluted leg of Louis XVI furniture, by wiki user Cyril5555

Neoclassical Grand Salon from the Hôtel de Tessé, Paris, c.1768-1792, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Roentgen gaming table, c.1780, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Russian Imperial Settee, 1803, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — © The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Now for neoclassical sculptures, often inspired by the forms and characters of Ancient Greek works:


John Flaxman, Cephalus and Aurora, c.1790, Liverpool Museums

Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, 1793, Louvre Museum, Paris

Bertel Thorvaldsen, Ganymede Waters Zeus as an Eagle, 1817, Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen


So, if you’re looking at a building, interior, object or work of art that was created after the 1760s and looks inspired from Ancient Greek and Roman forms like the ones above, it’s probably neoclassical, and that includes a large number of buildings and works throughout the world.

The Lady with a Wheel

Not all ancient gods and goddesses disappeared with the spread of Christianity in the West. In fact, there is one that continued to be represented throughout the Middle Ages and beyond the Renaissance, one we still refer to today. That goddess is Fortune.

Her Ancient Greek name was Tyche, and her Roman name Fortuna, which is the source of the word “fortune” in many European languages, including English. She was also known as Lady Fortune and is still referred to as Lady Luck, especially by gamblers.


“Lady Fortune” illustration in Christine de Pizan, The Book of The Queen (Harley MS 4431 f. 129r), c.1410, British Library, London — Source:


Since Ancient Roman times, Fortuna has been associated with a wheel, which represents the changeable nature of chance. As she turns the wheel at random, some are carried up, all the way to the top where one becomes a King or Queen, but even Kings and Queens must fall:


“The Wheel of Fortune” illustration in John Lydgate, Troy Book and Siege of Thebes (MS Royal 18 D II  f. 30v), c.1438, British Library, London — Source:


Fortune was often, but not always, represented with a blindfold over her eyes, to suggest that she does not discriminate and that she distributes both good luck and bad luck equally.


“Fortune, Good and Bad,” illustration in Pierre Michault, MS Français 1654, 1466, French National Library, Paris — Source:


The Goddess of Luck is also often represented with a ball, sometimes even standing on it, showing that things can roll in any direction at any time:


Hans Sebald Beham, Fortuna, 1541, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam — Source:


Tadeusz Kuntze, Fortune, 1754, National Museum, Warsaw


In time, she naturally came to be associated with gambling and games of chance. Her nickname was even the name of a casino in Las Vegas from 1964 to 2006:


Lady Luck Casino — Source:


And yes, the game show Wheel of Fortune is named after Fortuna’s wheel, which must have brought it good luck, as the show has been running in the US since 1975.

Most civilizations in the world have their own idea about how luck works. The Western one happens to be a blindfolded lady spinning a wheel at random.

Paintings Bright and Bold

Fauvism is the movement that produced some of the brightest and boldest paintings in the early 20th century, just before Cubism and Abstraction.


Maurice de Vlaminck, La Machine Restaurant at Bougival, 1905, Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Fauvism got its name from art critic Louis Vauxcelles’s review of the 1905 Salon d’Automne art show (published in the “Supplément à Gil Blas,” October 17, 1905), in which he compared the painters in room VII to fauves, which means “wild beasts” in French.

The founder of the Fauvist movement is Henri Matisse, who developed it in the south of France in the summer of 1905, working with fellow painter André Derain.


Henri Matisse, Open Window, Collioure, 1905, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

André Derain, Mountains at Collioure, 1905, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Those works and others exhibited at the Salon d’Automne art show in 1905 defined the characteristics of Fauvist paintings:


– simplified outlines and composition based on color planes

– bright, unmixed colors (except in some of Derain’s London views)

– heavy brushwork, or even paint applied from the tube

– colors that do not match the colors of reality

– real subjects, mainly landscapes, but also portraits



Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905, San Francisco Museum of Art

Henri Matisse, Portrait of Madame Matisse / The Green Stripe, 1905, Statens Museum, Copenhagen

André Derain, Henri Matisse, 1905, Tate Gallery, London

André Derain, Charing Cross Bridge, 1906, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Maurice de Vlamnick, A Street at Marly-le-Roi, 1906, Centre Pompidou, Paris

Maurice de Vlamnick, Châtou Bridge, 1906, Centre Pompidou, Paris


Fauvism was a very short movement, lasting only from 1905 to about 1910, but the works produced in those five years influenced Western art for the rest of the 20th century, redefining composition and taking a key step towards freedom of color.

Gothic Skyscrapers

What you don’t expect to see in architecture is the combination of a style from the Middle Ages and the height of a modern building. After the European Gothic Revival movement reached the US, however, it eventually produced just that, in the form of Gothic skyscrapers.

One of the earliest and tallest is the Woolworth Building in New York, with 57 floors built between 1910 and 1913:


imagePhoto by Marshall Gerometta

imagePhoto by Antony Wood

imagePhoto by Flickr user Nicola since 1972


Next is the Tribune Tower in Chicago, with 36 floors built between 1923 and 1925:


imagePhoto by Luke Gordon

imagePhoto by Gary Jackson


Finally, the last wonder of Gothic Revival architecture is the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, with 42 floors built between 1926 and 1934:


imagePhoto by Bill Price III

imagePhoto from

imagePhoto from


Those skyscrapers of course remain exceptions in the history of architecture, the visions of a few men who refused to follow modern styles but embraced modern building techniques.

The Madeleine Building Story

If you’ve seen the Madeleine Church on the Place de la Madeleine in Paris, have you ever wondered why it doesn’t look like a church at all?



The Madeleine Church


With its Neoclassical architecture inspired from Ancient Greek and Roman temples, the Madeleine Church looks more like a government building. In fact, it looks like the Palais Bourbon, home of the French National Assembly, which faces it across the river.



The Palais Bourbon


The reason why the Madeleine Church looks like that is simple. It was not supposed to be a church.

To be more precise, there were plans to build a church there and construction was started in 1763, but with the French Revolution of 1789, building churches was no longer a priority. As a result, the unfinished building did not have a purpose anymore and parts of it were demolished.

In 1806, Napoleon had the idea of using it to build a monument to honor his Great Army, and he chose a new design, the one that can be seen today. The façade of the Palais Bourbon was actually built at the same time and based on the same design, so that the two buildings would match.




After his defeat during the Russian campaign in 1812, however, Napoleon lacked the funds and the support to fully complete the temple to honor his army, so it was decided that the building would become a church.

Napoleon’s final fall from power and the return of the Catholic King Louis XVIII in 1815 sealed that decision, and the church was finally completed in 1842, based on the design chosen by Napoleon, but with a different purpose.

And that’s how a temple to military glory became a church that doesn’t look like a church.

Changing Points of View

One of the most amazing applications of the painting principles developed in the Renaissance is a process called “anamorphosis,” which is still used today in art, road signs, sports adverstising and more.

imageFelice Varini, Carrés dans le passage, bleu, 2013, HAB Galerie, Nantes


Anamorphosis is the process by which the shape of an image is changed so that it can only be seen from one specific point of view.

The best-known example of anamorphosis from the Renaissance is a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger entitled The Ambassadors. At the bottom of this painting, there is a strange shape in front of the two men


imageHans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, The National Gallery, London


That shape is actually a skull that only looks normal when you look at the painting from the side:




The same principle is used for all the words and images painted on roads, so that drivers can see them clearly. Take this bicycle, for example. On the left, you have the image painted on the road seen from above, with wheels that are not round, and on the right you have the same image seen from the driver’s point of view, in which the wheels look round:





All of the ads on rugby pitches and other sports grounds are designed in the same way. They only look normal from the point of view of the cameras, so that TV spectators can see them. This ad for J.P. Morgan, for instance, is actually just a flat painting that looks like a 3D board thanks to anamorphosis:



One of the coolest examples of anamorphic signage was created by Alex Peemoeller and Emery Studio for the car park of the Eureka Tower in Melbourne in 2006:




According to Emery Studio, the inspiration for this design is the work of Felice Varini, an artist who has been specializing in large scale anamorphosis since the 1970s:



Felice Varini, Deux cercles concentriques, rouge n.1, 1992, Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris


Felice Varini, Huit rectangles, 2007, Musée des beaux arts, Arras – Source:


In the end, anamorphosis is like a lot of things in life. It only makes sense if you change your point of view.


imageimageimageJoseph Egan and Hunter Thomson, It’s a Point of View, 2010, Chelsea School of Art and Design – Source: