A Dog’s Purpose

“It seems that nature has given the dog to man for his defense and for his pleasure. Of all the animals it is the most faithful : it is the best friend man can have.”

Voltaire, 1764

Apart from a brief respite in the autumn of 2020, museums and galleries have remained shut for a year. Fortunately, in the digital era, we do not need to travel to places to enjoy exhibitions and admire artworks. Many public establishments have online presences, through which they connect with those who cannot visit in person. Google Arts & Culture assisted these organisations by amalgamating online exhibitions into one place. This allows individuals to take virtual trips to museums and galleries all over the world. Not only this, Google developed some digital displays too, such as Paw-some Paintings, which celebrates canine companions in art.

As Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-86) once said, a dog is a man’s best friend. The creatures have appeared in artworks for thousands of years, including on the walls of caves. Since the 19th century, artists depicted dogs as loving, gentle creatures, symbolising protection, loyalty and faithfulness. Before then, “dogs are rarely depicted as faithful or as man’s best friend, but as vicious, ravening, or watchful.” (Oxford English Dictionary) Until dogs became pets and companions, they were bred for hunting, tracking and guarding. Nonetheless, Google Arts & Culture has found ten artworks spanning several centuries that show humans have always loved these furry creatures. 

Marble statue of a pair of dogs

During an excavation of Civita Lavinia, an ancient city near Rome, Italy, archaeologists discovered two similar marble statues of a pair of dogs. Although it is not possible to determine the date of production, the British Museum estimates it between the 1st and 2nd century AD. Gavin Hamilton (1723-98), a Scottish artist and archaeologist, discovered the dogs where he believed a palace belonging to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 86-161) once stood. Recent discoveries have disproved this theory, but Hamilton sold one of the statues to English antiquary Charles Townley (1737-1805) under this impression. After Townley’s death, his family sold the dogs and other items in his collection to the British Museum, where they remain today.

This pair of dogs, thought to be male and female, portray a tender, loving embrace. Compared to other statues found in the vicinity of Civita Lavinia, they represent peace rather than violence. A sphinx with a dog’s body and a statue of Greek hero Actaeon attacked by hounds are two examples of typical canine sculptures from the Roman Empire. The man’s best friend concept came much later, but this marble statue proves sculptors did not only view the animals as predators trained to hunt but as loving, caring creatures.

Portrait of a Noblewoman – Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614)

Lavinia Fontana’s portrait of an unknown Bolognese noblewoman emphasises her ability to depict luxurious clothing and jewellery in exquisite detail. Although the sitter is the main subject of this Mannerist painting, the eye travels to the small dog in the left-hand corner. Presumably a lap dog, due to its size, the animal has significance in this portrait aside from being the lady’s animal companion. During the 16th century, dogs represented marital fidelity. During this era, brides tended to wear red, so the noblewoman’s wealth, clothing and pet are suggestive of a recent marriage.

Portrait of a Noblewoman (c.1580) is not Fontana’s only painting to feature a canine friend. During her career, she produced over 100 paintings, including mythology and genre paintings, but mostly portraits of wealthy men and women. Portrait of a Lady with Lap Dog (1595) suggests smalls dogs represented the wealth of the sitter. For hunting and guarding, men needed large, fast dogs, whereas a tiny dog had little to contribute to the family other than provide comfort and companionship. Portrait of the Gozzadini Family (1584) depicts a senator sitting at a table with his daughters and son-in-laws. On the table sits a dog of similar size and appearance to the dog Fontana painted in other portraits. Portrait of the Maselli Family also features the same dog, this time in the arms of the mother.

The Painter and His Pug – William Hogarth (1697-1764)

The Painter and His Pug is a self-portrait by the English artist William Hogarth. Although not completed until 1745, x-rays reveal the artist began painting during the 1730s. Many alterations took place through the process, including a change of clothes and the addition of books by Shakespeare (1564-1616), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) and John Milton (1608-74). Critiques suggest these volumes indicate Hogarth’s attitudes towards literature, drama and poetry. One of the last things added to the portrait was Trump, Hogarth’s pet pug whose features resemble those of its owner. Some suggest Hogarth intended the dog to represent his pugnacious character. 

The pug, named Trump, was one of many owned by Hogarth during his lifetime. Records state the artist once named a dog “Pugg”, but the names of any others are unknown. Pugs frequently appear in Hogarth’s paintings, including group portraits of the Fountaine (1735) and Strode (1738) families. It is unlikely the pugs belonged to either family, instead, Hogarth included it as a trademark, thus earning him the nickname the “Painter Pugg”. A pug featured in one of the scenes of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1732-34) plus in a portrait of Lord George Graham (1715-47), a Scottish officer of the Royal Navy. 

So synonymous was Hogarth with pugs, French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac (1702-62) produced a terracotta model of Trump to accompany a statue of the artist. In 2001, Ian Hislop (b.1960) and David Hockney (b.1937) unveiled a statue of Hogarth in Chiswick. Made by Jim Mathieson (1931-2003), the sculpture features the artist in a similar outfit to his portrait with Trump sat at his feet.

A young lady holding a pug dog – François Boucher (1703-77)

A stark contrast between A young lady holding a pug dog by François Boucher with Hogarth’s painting is the physical features of the dog. Today, the breed is recognised for its distinctive wrinkly, short-muzzled face and curled tail. Trump’s face does not fit this description, suggesting that either Hogarth could not draw pugs or the animal was a cross-breed. Alternatively, until the 18th-century, when it became popular to own a pug, many people referred to ugly canines as pugs. It is for this lack of beauty that Boucher included a pug in his portrait of a young lady.

“The little Pug dog or Dutch mastiff has quitted London for Padua, I perceive. Every carriage I meet here has a Pug in it.” So said Welsh author Hester Piozzi (1741-1821) during a trip to Italy in 1789. Bred as lap dogs, pugs became the most desired companions of wealthy women across Europe. Rococo painter Boucher used the animal to contrast with his sitter’s beauty in A young lady holding a pug dog (c.1740). The lady in question is Boucher’s wife Marie-Jeanne Buseau (1716-96), dressed in the silks and fashions of 18th-century France. The paleness of skin accentuated with rouge, a beauty spot, and powdered hair was the epitome of beauty, but to emphasise this further, Boucher included her ugly pug as a contrast. At this time, dogs also had sexual connotations in paintings, but critics do not believe this to be the case in this portrait. 

Nude Woman with a Dog – Gustave Courbet (1819-77)

An example of a dog representing sexual relationships is Nude Woman with a Dog (1862) by Gustave Courbet. The nude model, Courbet’s mistress Léontine Renaude, leans towards the dog as though to give it an affectionate kiss. At the time of its first exhibition, critics described this painting as highly erotic. 

The woman’s body echoes the works of Titian (1488-1576), but her face is plain and ordinary. Courbet tried to bring the classical nude to the modern-day by removing the goddess-like beauty from the image. In Titian’s day, a small dog symbolised fidelity, but the model’s interaction with the animal breaks this definition. Although the painting does not suggest that she is in love with the dog, the signs of affection erase the innocence from the picture, replacing it with the metaphor of sensual love. Responding to the attention, the dog represents a complicit lover.

Still Life with Three Puppies – Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

Whilst living with experimental painters in Brittany, Paul Gauguin painted Still Life with Three Puppies (1888). The canvas is divided into three parts: a still-life of fruit, a diagonal barrier of wine glasses, and three puppies drinking from a large pan. This artwork marks Gauguin’s transition from Impressionism to the experimental style of his contemporaries, such as Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-90). 

Whilst still-life paintings tend to depict the scene in front of the artist, the inclusion of the wine glasses and puppies suggest Gauguin painted this particular artwork either from his imagination or from several sources. The wine glasses are disproportionate to the scale and perspective of the image, and the puppies appear to be on the table, suggesting they are doll-size creatures.

Gauguin’s new style is more evident when looking at the puppies rather than the other elements. He painted them with a blue outline, and their fur appears to be the same texture as the table cloth. Gauguin declared art is created “from nature while dreaming before it.” This observation explains the unrealistic qualities of the three animals. Gauguin also drew inspiration from Japanese art, which tended to have a two-dimensional viewpoint.

Howling Dog – Paul Klee (1879-1940)

Paul Klee goes a step further with his unrealistic painting of a Howling Dog (1928). Rather than depicting an accurate appearance of a dog, Klee focused on sound. With meandering lines, Klee drew the shape of a dog howling at a moon. The dog’s howl is also visualised in the same manner and accentuated by swirling colours. 

The howl, rather than the dog, is the dominant feature of the painting. Although painting is a visual medium, Klee tried to combine another of the senses. Life is both a visual and aural experience, and Klee is inviting the audience to try to hear his work as well as see it. A painting of a dog is usually static and posed, but in reality, dogs are full of movement and noise. While looking at Howling Dog, people can imagine the baying sound breaking the silence of the night. It is as though the dog is telling the world he is there, that he exists.

Children with taco – Diego Rivera (1886-1957)

Mexican artist Diego Rivera created many murals for the Secretariat of Public Education. Children with taco (1932) is a lithograph of one section of a mural, which Rivera wished to save in case of any damage to the original. The print shows a young boy eating a taco while a hairless dog sits patiently waiting for a crumb to fall. This dog, a Xoloitzcuintle, receives attention for its hairlessness and wrinkles, and since 2016, it is a cultural heritage and symbol of Mexico City.

Both Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo (1907-54), depicted the Xoloitzcuintle in their artwork. As well as being popular pets, the history of the breed dates back to the Aztecs. The name Xoloitzcuintle comprises Xolotl, the Aztec sun god, and “itzkuintli”, which means both “dog” and “slave”. According to Aztec religion, a Xoloitzcuintle accompanied the deceased along the path to the afterlife. For this reason, the Aztecs kept dogs as pets, which they then slaughtered and buried with their masters.

While their masters lived, Xoloitzcuintles served as guard dogs. Rather than guarding houses against intruders, the dogs protected their owners from evil spirits. The Aztecs also believed Xoloitzcuintles aided healing and often allowed the dogs to sleep in their beds. In some instances, this is true because a dog’s warmth can help relieve pain from arthritis and bring comfort to the distressed. There is also evidence of a dog’s presence normalising blood pressure. The more obscure health properties of a Xoloitzcuintle included curing toothache, headaches, asthma, and gastrointestinal problems.

Dogs – Hashimoto Kansetsu (1883-1945)

The peonies in a painting by Hashimoto Kansetsu are typical of nihonga (20th-century Japanese paintings). The dog, on the other hand, is inspired by western cultures. The artwork belongs to a series called Dogs from Europe, in which the artist combined traditional Japanese art with modern animal themes. In Japanese art, peonies and lions usually featured together, but Hashimoto daringly replaced the wild animals with dogs.

In Japan, peonies are known as the King of Flowers and represent bravery, fortune and honour. In China, where Hashimoto spent some time each year, the flowers represented wealth and were a favourite of past Emperors. Lions symbolise power, protection and strength, but the meaning of dogs is more ambiguous. In Japanese folklore, a racoon dog is a mischievous creature and a master of disguise. By replacing a lion with a dog, Hashimoto not only introduced elements of the western world to his artwork but also moved away from long-standing Japanese traditions.

Hashimoto fell in love with Europe after a trip in 1921, including a love of European animals.Throughout his career, Hashimoto owned up to 50 dogs, which he studied carefully for his paintings. Many breeds came from Europe, which made his artworks unusual to Japanese spectators.

Puppy – Jeff Koons (b.1955)

The final artwork Google Arts & Culture included in their online exhibition is a 40-foot high West Highland terrier made from flowers. Jeff Koons produced Puppy (1992) for the Kaldor Public Art Project in 1995, where it stood outside Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Today, the floral sculpture stands guard outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, where it fills viewers with awe.

Koons intended the public sculpture to instil confidence and security, plus entice and create optimism. Others have derived alternative meanings from the artwork, including references to past and present eras. Koons used a computer to design the giant model, whereas the flowers resemble an 18th-century garden. It is also a combination of high and low brow culture, topiary and dog breeding being high and greeting card images low.

West Highland terriers are not the usual choice for guard dogs, but they are known for their loving heart and loyalty. They are typically small, making them an ironic choice for a large sculpture, but they are also friendly-looking and comforting. Today, most people identify the artwork as a symbol of love and happiness.

As Google Arts & Culture proved, dogs have been part of human culture for centuries. Whether serving as hunters or companions, dogs appear in artworks across the world. Other animals also appear in paintings, but it is typically dogs that sit patiently at the feet of their masters or on the laps of their mistresses, providing protection and love. Admittedly, not everyone is keen on dogs yet, in the United Kingdom, there are over 10.1 million pet dogs, suggesting 24% of the population own one, which is more than any other animal. So, was Frederick the Great of Prussia right when he stated a dog was man’s best friend? Perhaps we should ask a dog. Woof!

To view the Google Arts & Culture exhibition, click here.


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A Life of Quixotic Adventure

Quixotism is a term to describe the impractical ideas or an extravagant chivalrous action made by an impulsive person. The term comes from the word Quixote, which was invented by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes for the titular hero of his 1605 novel Don Quixote. By the mid 17th century, the term was being widely used to describe someone who could not distinguish between reality and imagination, just like Cervantes’ famous character.

Don Quixote is considered by most to be the world’s first modern novel and Miguel de Cervantes is still regarded as the greatest Spanish writer. Searching through online exhibitions from Spanish museums via Google Arts & Culture, Cervantes crops up again and again, suggesting he is respected as a national hero. Yet, his life remains a bit of an enigma. It is generally believed he spent the majority of his life in poverty, however, there are some disputed claims in his biographies that sound rather quixotic…

It is not certain what Cervantes looked like, or even if that was his name. A portrait, attributed to Juan Martínez de Jáuregui y Aguilar (1583-1641), is said to be of the author, however, the signature and title were added to the painting centuries later. El Greco’s (1541-1614) Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman is rumoured to be a painting of Cervantes, however, there is no tangible evidence.

As for his name, he often signed his name Cerbantes, although his publishers always used Cervantes. He also had around eleven different signatures and, later in life, began to use the name Saavedra, which may have been the name of a distant relative or the Spanish version of an Arabic nickname he was given, meaning “one-hand”.

Miguel de Cervantes was born around 29th September 1547 in Alcalá de Henares, a Spanish city 22 miles from Madrid. His father, Rodrigo de Cervantes, was a barber-surgeon (someone who could use the same blade to shave your head or chop off your leg) from Córdoba, Andalusia. Although Cervantes’ paternal grandfather, Juan de Cervantes, was a successful lawyer, Rodrigo was frequently in debt and struggled to find work.

Cervantes’ mother was Leonor de Cortinas (c. 1520–1593) who came from Arganda del Rey but moved to Córdoba after marrying Rodrigo. Records suggest she was a resourceful woman, capable of looking after her children while Rodrigo was frequently in debtor’s prison. Records also reveal Leonor was able to read and write, therefore, she may have been responsible for educating her seven children when they were young: Andrés (b. 1543), Andrea (b. 1544), Luisa (b. 1546), Miguel (b. 1547), Rodrigo (b. 1550), Magdalena (b. 1554) and Juan (b.1556c).

By 1564, the family were living in Seville where Rodrigo had secured rented accommodation from his brother Andres. Although there is no written record, Cervantes and his siblings likely attended the local Jesuit college, however, in 1566, the family were forced to move to Madrid because Rodrigo was, once again, in debt.

An arrest warrant dated 15th September 1569 reveals Miguel de Cervantes was charged with wounding a man named Antonio de Sigura in a duel. Who this man was is unknown, however, the incident is likely the reason Cervantes soon left Madrid and travelled abroad to Rome.

In Rome, Cervantes found a position in the home of an Italian bishop, Giulio Acquaviva of Aragon (1546-74), who had just been made Cardinal-Deacon of San Teodoro by Pope Pius V (1504-72) on 17th May 1570. What Cervantes did during this time is, of course, unknown, however, he cannot have been there that long before the Ottoman–Venetian War began (1570-73).

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The Marquess of Santa Cruz

The Ottoman–Venetian War, also known as the War of Cyprus, was waged between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice, the latter of whom was supported by Spain and several Italian states. When the war began, Cervantes, perhaps hoping it would redeem him from his earlier arrest, travelled to Naples to enlist. Don Álvaro de Sande (1489-1573), a Spanish military leader and friend of the family, found Cervantes a position under the Spanish admiral Álvaro de Bazán, 1st Marquess of Santa Cruz (1526-88).

Cervantes’ brother, Rodrigo, also enlisted in Naples and in September 1571, the siblings sailed on the Marquesa, which was one of the ships in the fleet of Don John of Austria (1547-78), the illegitimate son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-58) and half-brother of King Philip II of Spain (1527-98). Cervantes’ written account of life aboard the Marquesa reveals he was put in charge of a 12-man skiff who were forced to fight despite suffering from malaria.

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The Battle of Lepanto by Juan Luna (1887)

On 7th October 1571, the fleet defeated the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto, however, the Marquesa suffered many fatalities. A total of 40 men were killed and a further 120 wounded, including Cervantes who received two blows in the chest and one in his left arm, which rendered it useless.

Cervantes wrote a poetic account of his experiences in battle, which was published in 1614 under the Spanish title Viaje del Parnaso (Journey to Parnassus). He declared he had “lost the movement of the left hand for the glory of the right”, but needed to spend six months in hospital in Messina, Sicily, to recover from the chest wounds.

In July 1572, Cervantes returned to service, however, records reveal it was still several months before his chest wounds had fully healed. During this time, Cervantes was mostly stationed in Naples, however, he took part in expeditions to Corfu and Navarino in Greece. The following year, he took part in the occupation of Tunis and La Goulette in Tunisia, which was, unfortunately, recaptured by the Ottoman Empire in 1574, thus giving them overall victory. Despite Spain’s loss, Cervantes was given letters of commendation from the Duke of Sessa, Gonzalo II Fernández de Córdoba (1520-78).

In September 1575, Cervantes and Rodrigo boarded the galley Sol to make their homeward journey to Barcelona. Unfortunately, the galley never got there. As they approached the city, the slender ship was attacked and captured by Ottoman corsairs, also known as Barbary Pirates, who took everyone on board to Algiers as their prisoners. The pirates sold many of their captives as slaves and kept the rest as hostages. Cervantes and his brother fell into the latter category and a ransom letter was sent home to their family.

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Kılıç Ali Paşa (1837)

The brothers’ family could not afford to pay the ransom for them both, so only Rodrigo was able to return home. Forced to stay, Cervantes may have been used as a slave, however, there is no proper evidence of what his life was like at this time. One suggestion is Cervantes was one of the construction workers of Kılıç Ali Pasha Complex, a mosque in Istanbul built between 1578 and 1580. If this is true, then Cervantes and some of the other prisoners must have been moved to Turkey. The mosque was named after the Grand Admiral of the Ottoman fleet, who had many names, including Kılıç Ali Pasha. Born Giovanni Dionigi Galeni (1519-1587), he is mostly known in history books as Occhiali, however, he did feature in Cervantes’ Don Quixote under the name Uchali.

If Cervantes did work on the construction, he would have likely struggled without the use of his left arm. It may have been here that he was given the nickname “one-hand”, which may have led him to adopt the Spanish equivalent, Saavedra, as his surname.

Cervantes was in captivity for five years during which he attempted to escape at least four times. Throughout this time his family never raised the required ransom money but, in 1580, Cervantes was fortunate to be “rescued” by the Trinitarians. The Order of the Most Holy Trinity and of the Captives, to give them their full name, was founded by Saint John de Matha (1160-1213) in the 12th century with the express purpose of paying the ransom for Christians held captive by Muslims.

After his rescue, Cervantes returned to Madrid, however, he struggled to find work. His military employers, Don John of Austria and the Duke of Sessa, were both dead, therefore, there was no one suitable to provide Cervantes with a reference. Not much is known about how Cervantes lived between his release and 1584, however, some sources claim he was employed as a spy in North Africa.

By 1584 he was back in Madrid where he had conducted an affair with a married woman called Ana Franca. In November, his illegitimate daughter Isabel was born and, although Cervantes acknowledge paternity, he was then engaged to someone else. After her mother died in 1598, Isabel went to live with Cervantes’ sister, Magdalena.

In December 1584, Cervantes married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios (c.1566-1626) who he had met when visiting the home of a deceased friend in Castile-La Mancha. It is not certain what year Catalina was born, therefore, she could have been anywhere between 15 and 18-years-old on their wedding day. Their wedding documents are the first written record of Cervantes’ use of the double surname Cervantes Saavedra.

It appears Cervantes continued to struggle to find work and even when he was employed, it was not always straightforward. In 1587, he was appointed a governor purchasing agent but soon moved on to be a tax collector instead. Either Cervantes was not good at the job or he was deliberately committing fraud because he was frequently arrested for irregularities in his accounts. Records also show he made several applications for posts in “Spanish America”, however, these were rejected.

At the end of the 16th century, Cervantes was living in Seville but moved to Madrid in 1606. Again, it is not certain what form of employment Cervantes took, however, he was later receiving financial support from Pedro Fernández de Castro y Andrade, better known as the Great Count of Lemos (1576-1622). The Count was a patron of several writers, which suggests Cervantes may have been a full-time author.

In 1613, Cervantes joined the Secular Franciscan Order, also known as the Third Order Franciscan, which was formed of male and female Catholics who wanted to follow the Gospels in the manner of Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). The order was not bound by any religious vows but was a typical way for a Catholic to gain spiritual merit towards the end of their life.

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Three years later on 16th April 1616, Cervantes died from what is believed to have been diabetes. Reports of his death record he suffered from excessive thirst, which is a common symptom of the disorder, which at that time was untreatable. As stipulated in his will, Cervantes was buried in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid. No evidence suggests Cervantes attended the Church, however, he felt he owed the Trinitarians for rescuing him from slavery.

As befalls many great authors of the past, Cervantes’ fame came after his death. Supposedly, Cervantes had written around two dozen plays by the end of the 16th century, however, only two survive today: El trato de Argel (The Deal in Algiers) and El cerco de Numancia (The Siege of Numantia). The former was based on his time in captivity, however, it did not earn him much money. Playwrighting was one of his many failed careers.

Cervantes’ first attempt at a novel was published in 1585 under the title La Galatea. Contrasting rural and city folk, the main characters, a rural herdsman called Erastro and a cultured shepherd called Elicio, vied for Galatea’s love. Through their dialogue, the reader learns about the differences between pastoral and urban life. Both men believed the other to have certain advantages and a simpler life, however, they soon learnt this is not the case. Cervantes promised a sequel but never got around to writing it.

La Galatea was not a major success in terms of earnings but attracted the attention of many readers and authors. Cervantes also wrote several short stories, which were collectively published in 1613 and dedicated to the Count of Lemos, who was by then his patron. It is not certain whether La Galatea earned Cervantes a patron or whether it was his second novel, for which he is most remembered.

In 1605, Miguel de Cervantes decided to challenge the ‘vain and empty’ chivalric romance stories that were popular at the time. The result was El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha), more commonly shortened to Don Quixote. This was actually volume one of the story we know today, however, at the time of publication, Cervantes may not have intended to produce a sequel.

Labelled “the first modern novel”, Don Quixote follows the adventures of Alonso Quixano, who had read so many chivalric romance stories that he lost his mind and decided to become a caballero andante (knight-errant) like the heroes of the tales and serve his country. Having recruited a simple farmer, Sancho Panza, as his squire, Quixano travelled around the country, imagining he was performing his knightly duties.

At the beginning of the story, 50-year-old Quixano was living with his niece and housekeeper in La Mancha. His niece realised her uncle was losing his mind when he, a typically rational man, began to lose touch with reality. Having donned an old suit of armour, there was nothing anyone could do to stop Quixano, who had renamed himself Don Quixote, from setting off on his old horse, Rocinante. Since the heroes of his favourite stories always had a “lady love”, Don Quixote set his heart on his neighbour, Aldonza Lorenzo, whom he renamed Dulcinea del Toboso.

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On his journey, Don Quixote met lots of trouble, mostly due to his irrational view of the world. He mistook a brothel for a castle, two friars for enchanters, windmills for giants and a serving girl for a princess. Being slow and ignorant, Sancho Panza did not realise Don Quixote’s monologues and actions were pure fantasy and offered his master his full support throughout the adventure. Eventually, after many mishaps, Don Quixote returned home.

When the book was first published, it was an immediate success. In an attempt to earn money, 400 copies were shipped to the Americas, although, due to shipwrecks, only 70 arrived in Peru. Unfortunately, Cervantes had sold his work to the publishers, therefore, there was no copyright. Pirated copies began to appear across Spain, which deprived Cervantes of financial profit.

In Cervantes’ 1613 book of short stories, he promised his readers a sequel to Don Quixote: “You shall see shortly, the further exploits of Don Quixote and humours of Sancho Panza”. The following year, however, he was preempted by an unofficial sequel to Don Quixote, published under the name Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda. There are many theories about who this pseudonym belonged to, including those who think it was Cervantes stalling for time by faking a scandal. Nonetheless, the writing is poor compared to Cervantes’ and was quickly rejected by the public.

The real sequel was eventually published in 1615, ten years after the first part. Whilst Part One had been farcical, Part Two was more serious and philosophical. Due to his previous antics, Don Quixote was well-known across the country. Still delusional, strangers decided to take advantage of the confused man, resulting in a series of practical jokes. Still devoted to Dulcinea, Don Quixote sent Sancho Panza to find her, however, he returned with three peasant girls and told his master they were Dulcinea and her ladies under an enchantment. A Duke and Duchess led Don Quixote to believe the only way to lift the spell was to receive three thousand three hundred lashes, although Sancho prevented this from happening.

The story begins to end after a battle on the beach in Barcelona, which Don Quixote lost. The agreed prize for the winner was that the other had to obey the will of the conqueror. The victor declared Don Quixote had to refrain from acts of chivalry for a year. Returning home, Don Quixote fell ill, which remarkably restored his sanity. His final act was the penning of his will, in which he stipulated his niece would be disinherited if she married a man who read books of chivalry.

Both parts of Don Quixote have been published together since 1617, the year after Cervantes’ death. The same year, Cervantes’ final work Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda), a romance story that he completed three days before he died. It did not, however, receive much praise.

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Miguel de Cervantes Memorial by Jo Mora, presented to city on Sept 3, 1916 – Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California

Don Quixote is Miguel de Cervantes biggest legacy, for which he is known throughout the world. He is celebrated across the ocean in America where a memorial statue sits in San Francisco by Uruguayan sculptor Joseph Jacinto Mora (1876-1947). In Australia, a town near Perth bears Cervantes’ name, as does a municipality in the Philippines and Spain. There are several establishments named after the author, including the worldwide education charity Instituto Cervantes, the Miguel de Cervantes European University (Spain), the Miguel de Cervantes Health Care Centre (Spain) and the Miguel de Cervantes University (Chile).

Nowhere, of course, celebrates Cervantes more than his home country of Spain. Located in the city of Valladolid, Spain, is the Casa de Cervantes, a museum set in the house in which Cervantes was living in 1605. The museum consists of 17th-century furniture, paintings and ceramics relating to the author.

In Madrid, the Museo Casa Natal de Cervantes (Cervantes Birthplace Museum) is situated in what scholars believe was the family home where Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra spent his early years. Each room of the house represents the culture, activity and customs of the 16th and 17th centuries to help visitors envisage the life of Cervantes. The museum also boasts a significant collection of Cervantes’ works and provides activities for children, theatre students and literature students throughout the year. They also celebrate the annual Cervantes Week around 12th October.

Whilst it is the legendary Don Quixote that draws people to these museums, it has to be said that Miguel de Cervantes had an equally interesting life. Despite very few facts being known for certain, his experience in war and his capture by pirates make a fascinating story.

Evidence of Spain’s love of Miguel de Cervantes can be seen on Google Arts and Culture, which features several online exhibitions and articles about the author. Examples include:
Miguel de Cervantes: a life of adventure by Agencia EFE S.A.U.
The Don Quixote Route by Agencia EFE S.A.U.
Miguel de Cervantes: From Life to Myth by Acción Cultural Española (AC/E)
Cervantes, the brilliant author by Archivos Estatales
Cervantes in the World by Agencia EFE S.A.U.
Museo Casa Natal de Cervantes by Museo Casa Natal de Cervantes
The female world in Don Quixote by Instituto Universitario de Investigación

“He who loses wealth loses much; he who loses a friend loses more; but he that loses his courage loses all.”
Miguel de Cervantes


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Childhood: A Visual Story

“Children should be seen and not heard,” says a 15th-century English proverb. That is certainly the case in a series of paintings featured on Google Arts & Culture. The Galleria d’Arte Moderna, which displays the modern art collection of Milan, Italy, teamed up with Google to produce an online exhibition of artworks depicting children in the 19th and 20th century. Titled simply Childhood, the exhibition explores a range of artists and styles that have one thing in common: the presence of a child.

It is interesting to see the different approaches to depicting a child. Some artists focused on the innocence of children, whereas others produced a maternal scene, emphasising the importance of motherhood. Many of the artworks in the exhibition were commissioned by proud parents who wished to capture the purity of their child before they grew up; it is much easier for parents to do this today with the development of the digital camera. Other artworks, however, contain a message or tell a story in which the child plays a vital role.

Portrait of Countess Antonietta Negroni Prati Morosini as a Child – Francesco Hayez (1791-1882)

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Portrait of Countess Antonietta Negroni Prati Morosini as a Child (Oil on Canvas), by Francesco Hayez (1858)

This portrait of Countess Antonietta Negroni Prati Morosini is an example of a painting requested by a parent. Her father, Count Alessandro Negroni Prati Morosini, commissioned the Italian painter Francesco Hayez to produce a series of portraits of his extended family, including one of his four-year-old daughter.

Rather than just painting the child, Hayez brought the plain background to life with a still-life of a magnificent display of colourful flowers. To connect the two genres of painting together, Antonietta was posed with a bouquet of the same flowers.

Usually, commissioned portraits were intended to express the wealth and status of the sitter. Costumes, hairstyles and facial expressions were carefully considered, as was likely done in this case with Antonietta’s dress. Unfortunately, the clothing was a little on the large side, causing the sleeves to slip down and expose much of her chest. Hayez could have used his skill and artistic license to change the position of the sleeves, however, he opted for a realistic likeness.

Photography had already been invented at the time of this portrait, although not widely used and only in black and white, and several were taken of Antonietta to limit the amount of time she had to pose. Once again, Hayez could have chosen the happiest or sweetest facial expression but opted for the most realistic instead. As a result, Antonietta looks slightly awkward and confused, as any 4-year-old would when forced to pose for a portrait.

The Two Mothers – Giovanni Segantini (1858-99)

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The Two Mothers – Giovanni Segantini (1889)

The Two Mothers by Giovanni Segantini explores the relationship between mother and child. The Italian Symbolist artist, whose mother died when he was seven after a long illness, painted this genre scene for the inaugural Milan Triennale in 1891. The child, who is only a baby, lies asleep on its mother’s lap. Sitting on a stool, the mother has also drifted to sleep, suggesting it took some time to settle the child.

As the title suggests, there are two mothers in the painting, the other being a cow who stands over her sleeping calf. Both woman and cow are symbols of motherhood. Segantini has not represented motherhood as a glamourous role, as some portrait artists might, but rather as a humble, selfless task. The humbleness is emphasised by the lowly barn, dimly lit by a lantern. It is likely the same place the calf was born, therefore, the scene also represents the beginnings of life.

Segantini’s biography claims his paintings represent his pantheistic view of life. He did not recognise God as an individual entity but rather recognised divinity within all natural things. “I’ve got God inside me. I don’t need to go to church.” Farms and barns were a common feature of the landscape in the Alps where Segantini lived, however, someone unfamiliar with the area may derive a different meaning from the painting. Although it was not intended to have religious connections, a Christian may recognise Christ’s humble beginnings in the artwork.

Christian Goddess, or the Angel of Life – Giovanni Segantini

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Christian Goddess, or the Angel of Life- Giovanni Segantini (1894)

Segantini was not a church-going man, which makes Christian Goddess a strange title for one of his paintings. This canvas, however, was a commission from the Italian banker Leopoldo Albini to be hung in his extravagant home. The figures are supposed to represent the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus sitting in a barren tree. Some have interpreted this as being symbolic of both Jesus’ birth and death, the branches representing the crown of thorns.

On the other hand, the branches may relate more to the mother than the child. The Virgin Mary has on occasion been nicknamed the “rose without thorns”, suggesting she has lived a sin-free life. The analogy developed from the idea that roses did not have thorns before the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Despite the painting’s depiction of the relationship between mother and child, the figures were actually modelled on the artist’s nanny, Baba, and Segantini’s son, Gottardo. With this in mind, Christian Goddess, sometimes known as the Angel of Life, demonstrates the maternal instincts of women towards babies and young children regardless of their relationship.

Madonna of the Lilies – Gaetano Previati (1852-1920)

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Madonna of the Lilies – Gaetano Previati (1893-94)

Gaetano Previati was an Italian symbolist and contemporary of Segantini who also painted a representation of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child. Unlike Segantini, Previati painted many artworks on a religious theme, particularly involving Catholic ideals.

Madonna of the Lilies, which originally had the shorter title Madonna, shows Mary in a seated position with the baby on her lap. This religious iconography has been around since the 15th century, although the Virgin is usually shown seated on a throne. Whilst Previati was influenced by tradition, he used the Divisionist style inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites. Divisionism involved separating colours into dots or dashes, although slightly subtler than Pointillism.

The title Madonna of the Lilies has been used by other artists working on a similar theme. Although Previati’s painting contains the theme of motherhood, it’s Catholic connection is a stronger subject. Just as a thornless rose is used to describe the Virgin’s sinless lifestyle, lilies represent chastity and purity.

Rural Idyll of the Meadows in the Volpedo Parish (Ring a Ring o’ Roses) – Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (1868-1907)

Rural Idyll of the Meadows in the Volpedo Parish is a copy of Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s original painting Idillio primaverile (Spring Idyll) that was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1903. It is not certain why Pellizza chose to make a copy, however, it was left incomplete at his death in 1907. It was eventually finished by Italian Impressionist Angelo Barabino (1883-1950).

It is thought Pellizza was inspired by The Dance of the Cupids by Italian Baroque artist Francesco Albani (1578-1660), which depicts several naked cherubs dancing around a tree. In contrast, Pellizza’s children are fully clothed and playing Ring a Ring o’ Roses in a field beyond a blossoming tree rather than around it. Pellizza also included a couple of children playing together in the foreground.

The setting is based on the commune Volpedo in the Piedmont region of Italy where Pellizza lived for his entire life – hence the new title of the painting. The original painting belonged to a series representing the theme of love. On its own, however, the painting is a metaphor for life. The trees are blossoming after the winter, demonstrating the cycle of the seasons. The children also represent new life; people grow old and die but new generations keep on coming.

The Troubetzkoy Children And Their Dog – Daniele Ranzoni (1843-89)

The Troubetzkoy Children And Their Dog

The Troubetzkoy Children And Their Dog – Daniele Ranzoni (1874)

As can be guessed by the title, this painting was a commission by Prince Paolo Petrovich Troubetzkoy (1866-1938), a Russian diplomat and sculptor who the playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) claimed was “the most astonishing sculptor of modern times.” The three boys, Pietro, Paolo, and Luigi, are shown with their dog in the family’s greenhouse at their villa on Lake Maggiore.

Despite being the portraits of children from a noble family, Daniele Ranzoni adopted an informal approach, which emphasised the children’s youth and energy. Ranzoni belonged to the Scapigliatura (Bohemian) movement and built up his paintings with splashes of colour, disregarding form and depth.

The painting was presented at the Brera exhibition in 1874 and is considered to be one of Ranzoni’s most successful works. Whether Troubetzkoy was pleased with this representation of his children is a different matter. The facial features are a blur, making the result a far cry from the realistic family portraits desired by the upper classes.

Girl Running on a Balcony – Giacomo Balla (1871-1958)

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Girl Running on a Balcony – Giacomo Balla (1912)

Giacomo Balla’s painting of his eldest daughter Luce running on a balcony can be interpreted as a unique depiction of childhood freedom. The Futuristic style, which borrows elements from Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Divisionism, Pointillism and Cubism, shows each movement Luce made as she ran from one side of the balcony to the other. The repetition of his daughter’s body also emphasises the speed in which she ran. This reflects what the Futurists believed, that everything is made up of dynamic forces and, therefore, everything is in constant motion.

The mosaic effect blurs the features of Luce’s face, making her the anonymous “Girl” running on a balcony. It was not Balla’s aim to capture his daughter or memory but rather study the movement of a child. The painting was also not intended to represent childhood, however, the artist’s meaning and the viewers’ interpretations can differ.

Some of the paintings included in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna’s Childhood exhibition have little or no explanation. This may be due to the artists being lesser-known or the true purpose of the paintings being lost. One example is Bambini e Fiori by Italian painter Armando Spadini (1883-1925). The title translates into English as “Children and Flowers”, which is an obvious description of the painting. An alternative title offers the names of the children as Anna and Lillo, however, nothing else is known of their identity.

Spadini was a Symbolist painter who moved to Rome from Florence in 1910 to focus on a career as a portrait and landscape artist. Despite being virtually unknown today, Spadini grew successful through his participation with annual exhibitions and, in 1924, had an entire room devoted to his work at the 14th Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte della Città di Venezia.

The way Anna and Lillo are sat suggests they are posing for the painting, therefore, it could either have been a commission or a double portrait of Spadini’s own children. Rather than glamorising the children, Spadini captured the bored expression of the older child and the baby’s distraction with the flowers. Rather than create an unflattering image, it makes a sweet, contemplative picture of two siblings in a moment of quiet and demonstrates the love and tenderness of the older for the younger and the trust the baby has for its sister.

Plinio Nomellini (1866-1943), on the other hand, painted a spontaneous scene that captured the interaction between mother and child. Nomellini, whose work became increasingly Divisionist in style throughout his career, shows a child’s delight at reading, or at least looking at, a book. Rather than the mother reading to her child, the child is attempting it for itself. The mother, whose arm stretches towards the book, is eager to help the child with this latest development, demonstrating her love and care.

The identity of woman and child is unknown and the little information the internet has about Nomellini does not uncover any clues. Nomellini was born in Livorno but studied in Florence where he took part in several exhibitions. His later work got him in trouble with the law and he was arrested and accused of anarchism. Fortunately, he was acquitted and joined a group of Symbolist painters. He spent the latter years of his life between Florence and the Island of Elba. With no knowledge of his family, it is impossible to guess whether his painting is of his wife and child, friends or strangers.

Of course, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna is not the only art gallery with paintings of children. Londoners do not even have to leave the city to view an excellent example of a day in the life of a child. The Guild Hall Gallery, home to beautiful Victorian art, owns two paintings on the theme of childhood by Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood co-founder, John Everett Millais (1829-96). Millais was very fond of children, particularly his daughter Effie who features in My First Sermon and My Second Sermon. The first was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863 and was warmly received by the Archbishop of Canterbury Charles Longley (1794-1868).

“Art has, and ever will have, a high and noble mission to fulfil…. we feel ourselves the better and the happier when our hearts are enlarged as we sympathise with the joys and the sorrows of our fellow-men, faithfully delineated on the canvas; when our spirits are touched by the playfulness, the innocence, the purity, and may I not add the piety of childhood.”
– Charles Longley, Archbishop of Canterbury

My First Sermon was painted in a church at Kingston-on-Thames, which had high-backed pews. Effie is seated on one of the pews wearing a hat, muff, red stockings and a red cape, which adds a splash of colour to her dreary surroundings. Effie was born in 1858, which makes her five years old in this painting, yet she appears to be trying to pay attention to the sermon.

My Second Sermon, however, reveals the sermon may have gone over her head and she has fallen asleep. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, it would not have been surprising if the painting had not been received well by the Archbishop, however, Longely was just as enthusiastic. In a speech, the Archbishop referred to the painting, saying, “I see a little lady there, who, though all unconscious whom she has been addressing, and the homily she has been reading to us during the last three hours, has in truth, by the eloquence of her silent slumber, given us a warning of the evil of lengthy sermons and drowsy discourses. Sorry indeed should I be to disturb that sweet and peaceful slumber, but I beg that when she does awake she may be informed who they are who have pointed the moral of her story, have drawn the true inference from the change that has passed over her since she has heard her ‘first sermon’, and have resolved to profit by the lecture she has thus delivered to them.”

Other commentators at the Royal Academy exhibitions noted that Millais painted his daughter “con amore” (with tenderness), emphasising his love for her. The girl’s facial expression openly expresses the purity of her soul and the innocence associated with childhood.

Another artist noted for his paintings of children is Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923), whose work was celebrated in an exhibition at the National Gallery last year (2019). Known as the “Master of Light”, Sorolla’s beach scenes are some of his best paintings and often featured children, whose movements Sorolla captured perfectly. He emphasised their carefree nature and unknowingly captured 19th-century Spanish beach culture, i.e. young boys wore nothing, whilst girls wore light cotton dresses.

Sorolla was a family man and adored his three children, María (1890-1956), Joaquín (1892-1948) and Elena (1895-1975). Although his artistic career was important to him, when Sorolla’s eldest daughter contracted tuberculosis, he put his profession to one side so that he could nurse her back to health.

The paintings by Millais and Sorolla demonstrate a paternal love for children, whereas, some of the artworks at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna illustrate maternal love. The love of a parent is an important factor in a child’s life, which some children sadly miss out on. Fortunately, the children in these 19th and early 20th century paintings had, or a least appeared to have had, a loving childhood during which they could maintain their innocence and enjoy a carefree life.

Of course, life is never as perfect as some of these paintings suggest and there will always be childish tantrums, pain and sadness. Yet, when looking back on life, it is these happier times we wish to remember. These artists have captured what many people associate with childhood and there is something more meaningful and personal seeing it in paint rather than the hundreds of photographs taken of children today.

To see more paintings from the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Childhood exhibition, click here.

All images are in the public database.

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Developing Selfies

Since 2013, the word “selfie” has been included in dictionaries as an official word. Statistics claim 93 million selfies are taken every day, usually on smartphones, and uploaded on social media. Access to smartphones with front-facing cameras has allowed everyone to participate in this “selfie culture”, and the ability to filter or edit the photographs has encouraged people to express a different version of themselves.

Some may say selfies are a part of a self-obsessed culture, however, the concept dates back centuries, particularly in the form of self-expression. Google Arts & Culture have produced an online exhibition to explore How the Self-Portrait Evolved into the Selfie. There is evidence of “selfies” throughout all times and cultures, which has helped us learn about how people once looked, or at least how they perceived themselves, what they wore, how they lived and so forth.

It was not until the mid-15th century, the Early Renaissance, that self-portraits became a trend. Portraits were common, however, artists mostly painted other people, usually on commission. The increase in self-portraits coincided with the availability of mirrors. Once expensive, mirrors were becoming cheaper and easier to get hold of, allowing even the poorest of painters to study their appearance.

The Early Renaissance also saw a change in painting technique. Before then, most paintings were done on walls and ceilings of buildings, but in the 15th century, the technique of panel painting began. Artists could now complete the artwork in their studio on wooden boards, which would later be positioned on the client’s walls. This also meant artists had access to surfaces on which they could experiment and produce work that they could later sell without a particular client in mind.

Artists were now freer to produce paintings for themselves as well as for their clients. With mirrors by their easels, many took the opportunity to depict themselves as the main subject. For some, this was a means of practising facial expressions, painting techniques and so forth, whereas, for others, it was a chance to express their personality, reveal who they were inside and demonstrate what they thought of their physical appearance.

Google Arts & Culture searched through several museums and galleries to find the best examples of self-portraits or “selfies” that also pinpoint the changes in style and the development of technology over time.

Rembrandt (1606-69)

When looking at the history of self-portraits, there is no better place to start than with Rembrandt, who produced nearly 100 self-portraits. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a Dutch painter whose works depict a wide range of subject matter, such as landscapes, allegorical scenes, historical scenes, biblical and mythological themes, portraits and, of course, self-portraits. The latter are amongst his greatest triumphs and form a visual biography of his life, which was marked by youthful success and later financial hardship.

Of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, at least 40 are paintings and the rest etchings or drawings. These made up around 10% of Rembrandt’s artwork and were produced over forty years. As a result, Rembrandt documented his ageing process and he encouraged his students to make copies of the paintings to practice drawing people of different ages.

Rembrandt’s etchings and drawings are usually more playful than his paintings and were probably not intended for public consumption. These sketches often depict the artist pulling a silly face, as though he was practising drawing different facial expressions. Rembrandt also drew himself in fancy dress, often in clothes from previous centuries.

The oil paintings are more formal than Rembrandt’s drawings, although there is one of Rembrandt laughing, which dates to around 1628 when Rembrandt was in his early twenties. Rembrandt’s style of painting remains consistent from the beginning of his career, when he was an ambitious young man, to the rugged face of his final years. Rembrandt’s final self-portraits usually included his signature velvet beret.

At the height of his career, Rembrandt’s self-portraits depicted him as a fashionable man, often wearing a hat. Similar to his etchings and drawings, Rembrandt occasionally painted himself in fancy dress, however, the quality of the oil painting suggests they were serious pieces of work and not experiments for fun. Several times, Rembrandt painted himself as a character from the Bible, for instance, the Apostle Paul and the Prodigal Son. He also depicted himself as Zeuxis, a Greek painter from the 5th century BC who supposedly died from laughter.

Rembrandt sat in front of a mirror when painting his self-portraits, therefore, the paintings are a reverse of his actual features. As a result, his etchings, which print a mirror image of the original sketch, reveal him in the correct orientation. Rembrandt did not usually include his hands in his paintings, for he realised they would be on the “wrong” side, for instance, his paintbrush would appear to be in his less dominant hand.

Frida Kahlo (1907-54)

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is remembered for her bold coloured self-portraits. Similar to Rembrandt, they document her life, however, her style is very different, often crossing the border into surrealism. Kahlo’s life experiences were the inspiration for the majority of her paintings, 55 of which were self-portraits. Kahlo was keen to depict her indigenous Mexican culture in her paintings but, most importantly, she wanted to demonstrate her physical and mental pain.

As a child, Kahlo had suffered from polio, which she fought to overcome so that she could earn a place at medical school. Unfortunately, at 18 years old, Kahlo was involved in a bus accident that, whilst she was lucky to survive, left her with medical problems that would cause her pain for the rest of her life. Whilst lying in bed for three months after the accident, Kahlo occupied herself by painting. She had no formal art training but her early paintings suggest she drew inspiration from European Renaissance painters before developing her recognisable style.

Kahlo’s surreal self-portrait The Broken Column, reveals the devastation to her body caused by the crash. Kahlo painted herself semi-nude with a large crack from chin to hips through which can be seen her crumbling spine. The bus crash had left Kahlo with several spinal fractures, a broken collarbone and ribs, a dislocated shoulder, a shattered pelvis and a broken foot. Although this painting was produced almost two decades after the accident, Kahlo was still feeling the effects and had a total of 30 operations in her lifetime.

The Broken Column shows Kahlo’s body held together by a corset, which was something she needed to wear for most of her life to protect her damaged spine. Her skin is pierced by dozens of nails, indicating her constant pain. Although her facial expression is devoid of emotion, there are tears on her cheeks to indicate the pain and frustration she felt inside, and yet she stares resolutely ahead, having accepted her situation and determined not to let it stop her from living.

For Kahlo, self-portraits were a method of self-expression, initially helping her deal with the aftermath of the bus crash and later her unhappy marriage to Diego Rivera (1886-1957). They were also a way to connect with her Mexican heritage, which was gradually disappearing as Central America became more westernised. Kahlo usually portrayed herself in traditional Mexican clothing, often with Pre-Columbian ornaments in the background. She also included her pet monkey in a few self-portraits. Monkeys are a symbol of lust in Mexican mythology, and Kahlo and her husband had several affairs during their marriage. Although Kahlo did own a monkey, its appearance in her paintings may have been an allusion to her turbulent relationship with Rivera. Alternatively, the monkey, usually shown with an arm or tail around Kahlo’s shoulders, may represent the monkey’s desire to protect its owner.

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-41)

Amrita Sher-Gil, like Kahlo, explored her heritage in her artwork. Born in Hungary, Sher-Gil was the daughter of a Hungarian-Jewish opera singer and a Persian Sikh aristocrat. As a child, Sher-Gil liked to paint the servants in her household but did not receive any formal training until the age of eight, by which time the family had moved to India.

At the age of 16, Sher-Gil returned to Europe to train as a painter in Paris. Her early works reveal she was significantly influenced by Western art, particularly Impressionism. She drew inspiration from European artists, such as Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), especially the latter’s depiction of non-western women.

During her time in Paris, Sher-Gil produced several self-portraits, which were later described by the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi as the artist’s way of capturing “her many moods – sombre, pensive, and joyous – while revealing a narcissistic streak in her personality.” Yet, whilst these paintings reflected Western art, her professors remarked that the richness of colours she used was more fitting with the atmosphere in the east. Despite being half-Hungarian, Sher-Gil found herself longing to return to her Indian roots.

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Village Scene, 1938

In 1936, Sher-Gil returned to India where she made a conscious effort to adopt the style of classical Indian art. Her subject matter reflected the traditional colourful clothing and the rhythms of rural life. She also depicted some of the poverty and despair she witnessed, which was a stark contrast to life in Europe. Her painting style became flatter and smoother the further away she went from Western art.

There are very few self-portraits in Sher-Gil’s later style as she prefered to paint the poor, deprived people of India. Unfortunately, her artistic career was cut short at the age of 28 when she fell ill, eventually slipping into a coma. She passed away on 5th December 1941, possibly from peritonitis, just days away from her first major solo show.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90)

“Rembrandt is with the possible exception of Van Gogh, the only artist who has made the self-portrait a major means of artistic self-expression, and he is absolutely the one who has turned self-portraiture into an autobiography.”
– Kenneth Clark, An Introduction to Rembrandt

Like Sher-Gil, Vincent Van Gogh died before he had the opportunity to earn significant recognition in the art world. Amongst his 2,100 artworks, 860 of which were oil paintings, Van Gogh created more than 43 self-portraits. Struggling financially for most of his life, Van Gogh could not afford to hire models, therefore, with the help of a mirror, he painted himself.

“If I can manage to paint the colouring of my own head, which is not to be done without some difficulty, I shall likewise be able to paint the heads of other good souls, men and women.” Suffering from depression for most of his life, Van Gogh had a very low opinion of himself and this quote from a letter written by the artist suggests he practised his technique by creating self-portraits until he felt he was good enough to paint other people.

Whilst living in Paris in 1887, Van Gogh became aware of impressionist artists, for instance, Claude Monet (1840-1926), and their method of applying dabs of paint to the canvas. It was around this time that Van Gogh began using rhythmic brushstrokes, introducing different pigments to highlight the contours of his facial features.

Unintentionally, Van Gogh’s self-portraits provide an autobiography of his mental and physical condition. In earlier paintings, Van Gogh had a fuller face but, as he approached the end of his life, his face became more skeletal with sunken eyes and cheeks, the latter indicating he may have lost some teeth. His brief “good” periods are determined by his choice of clothing and the neatness of his beard and hair. During his “bad” periods, Van Gogh tended to neglect his appearance.

Self-portraits in which Van Gogh’s head is bandaged were produced soon after he had mutilated his ear in 1888. Those painted after this event show Van Gogh from the right, hiding his damaged left ear from view.

Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998)

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Self-Portrait

After looking at Van Gogh, the Google Arts and Culture exhibition returns to the 20th century, during which Kahlo and Sher-Gil were both working. Although she only produced one notable self-portrait, Loïs Mailou Jones has been included because she too explored her heritage in her artwork. Unlike Kahlo and Sher-Gil, Jones did not experience her true ancestry until much later in life, yet this did not stop her looking towards Africa and the Caribbean for inspiration.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1905, Jones was the daughter of the first African-American to earn a law degree. Her mother, a cosmetologist, encouraged Jones to draw and paint during her childhood, which led to a lengthy education at a series of art schools. In 1945, Jones eventually received a BA in art education from Howard University, a historically black university, although she had previously earnt a degree in design.

Jones began teaching art before she had completed her degree but this did not prevent her from producing many artworks. Paintings titled Negro Youth and Ascent of Ethiopia contain African design elements, such as those found on African masks. Her work gradually became associated with the Harlem Renaissance, which was known as the New Negro Movement at the time.

In 1940, after spending some time in Paris during which she continued to represent African life in her art, Jones produced her self-portrait. Whilst she wears typical western clothing, the figures in the background are associated with African ceremonies. Although the French were appreciative of her paintings, Jones was not accepted in national galleries and competitions in America on account of her skin colour.

Jones married a Haitian artist in 1953 and began to spend her time between America, Haiti and France. Elements of Haitian culture crept into her artwork and her paintings became more abstract. Finally, in between 1968 and 1970, Jones was able to visit Africa where she interviewed contemporary African artists in Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Zaire, Nigeria, Dahomey, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leona, and Senegal.

It is partially Jones’ determination to portray her African heritage in her art that she has paintings in museums all over America. Rather than be deterred by racism, Jones fought to prove that black artists had talent and deserved to be known as American painters with no other labels attached. By her death in 1998, Jones had earned six honorary doctorates, won at least 13 awards and been honoured by President Jimmy Carter (b.1924) at the White House. In 1984, 29th July was declared Loïs Jones Day.

Victor Brecheret (1894-1955)

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Self-Portrait

A self-portrait does not need to be a painting or drawing, as evidenced by the Italian-Brazilian sculptor Victor Brecheret. Like Jones, Brecheret made only one known self-portrait but was keen to reference his native country.

Originally born in Italy, Brecheret spent most of his life in São Paulo, except for a brief period studying in Paris. His European modernist education is evident in his work but his human characteristics and forms were inspired by Brazilian folk art.

Many of Brecheret’s sculptures are of biblical or mythological characters, which appear similar to European sculptures until the face is studied more closely. The nose and eyebrows, as can be seen in his self-portrait, are sharp and precise with clean lines, unlike the soft features of classical sculptures. The nose, in particular, appears flat on top, although remains proportionally correct.

Albert Tucker (1914-99), Cindy Sherman (b.1954), Sarah Lucas (b.1962)

It was during the 20th century that having your portrait done changed meaning from painting to photography. Australian artist Albert Tucker, whilst better known for his paintings, demonstrates an early “selfie” taken in a mirror. Although it captures two people, only Tucker appears to be posing for the camera. The woman in the photograph was his first wife Joy Hester (1920-60) who was also an artist.

Whether Tucker’s photograph was spontaneous or staged is uncertain, however, one woman who goes to great lengths to stage her self-portraits is Cindy Sherman, an artist from New Jersey, America. Sherman’s work is exclusively photographic self-portraits, although you would not always know that it was her in the picture. Exploring the idea of identity, Sherman dresses up as characters from film, magazines, television and art history. Quite often she challenges stereotypes, particularly concerning women, and brings into question how much a self-portrait can be trusted.

Sarah Lucas, who is also concerned about the casual misogyny of everyday life, is more down to earth with her photography. Between 1990 and 1998, Lucas produced 12 photographic self-portraits that challenged the stereotypical representation of gender and sexuality. Perceiving her appearance as more masculine than feminine, Lucas dressed in “manly” clothing whilst staring directly at the camera, and thus the viewer, as though challenging them to question her appearance. She often used food to symbolise sexual body parts, such as fried eggs for breasts in Self Portrait with Fried Eggs, which draws attention to her gender.

Amalia Ulman (b.1989)

Whilst the “camera never lies” the subjects, filters and editing do. To emphasise this, Argentinian artist Amalia Ulman came up with an idea for a photography project called Excellence and Perfections, which she posted on a fake Instagram account. Ulman initially posed as an aspiring actress, which attracted a lot of attention, causing her follower account to soar. Many people posted messages of encouragement but soon became concerned when the photographs took a drastic turn.

Ulman made people believe she had flown to LA to pursue her dreams, she photographed herself in trendy clothing, taking pole-dancing classes, relaxing in posh hotels and eating expensive meals. Her appearance began to change; she dyed her hair, looked increasingly tired, and to top it off, pretended to have breast augmentation surgery.

When Ulman revealed the Instagram account was a hoax, her followers reacted in two different ways. Many were relieved that Ulman had not drastically changed her appearance and ruined her life, whereas others were so hooked on the story they wanted to continue to believe it was real.

Excellence and Perfections drew attention to how desperate people were to believe their first impressions. Media in the 21st century is inundated with edited images that trick people into believing what they are seeing. Photographs in newspapers are often taken from angles that tell a different story from the truth and other photographs are posed by heavily made-up models and celebrities. The same goes for selfies; how many people use photo filters, wear make-up or pose a certain way to conform to society’s beauty standards?

This brings into question the authenticity of painted portraits. Did Rembrandt really look the way he did in his self-portraits? We know he painted himself as biblical characters, which in some ways is similar to Ulman posing as an aspiring actress. Photographs of Frida Kahlo reveal she looked similar to her self-portraits but her art style, particularly her surrealist paintings, are not realistic. The same can be said for Van Gogh, Loïs Mailou Jones and Amrita Sher-Gil.

Sherman, Lucas and Ulman demonstrate how easy it is to manipulate your appearance in a photograph or selfie and, in this day and age, people can easily edit other people’s photographs. Yet, just because people are more likely to believe a photograph, does not mean people cannot embrace “selfies” as an art medium.

How the Self-Portrait Evolved into the Selfie provides a brief timeline of the selfie, revealing that artists have altered their appearances or included symbols and hidden meanings in their self-portraits for centuries. Is there much difference between Ulman pretending to be an actress and Rembrandt pretending to be the Apostle Paul? To argue against that is to bring into question what is art. But that is a discussion for another time…


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