The Starry Night is Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous and popular painting—so popular, in fact, it inspired a treacly song by “American Pie” balladeer Don McClean. That shouldn’t be held against Van Gogh’s work, which has certainly earned its place in art history. Shortly before he painted it in 1889, Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, and described the night sky as he looked out from his room at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, where he’d committed himself the same year: “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.” Venus (aka the morning star”) indeed figures prominently in the composition, glowing a hot white just left of center, close to the horizon line. The planet seems turbulently alive, an orb of radiating concentric brush marks that appear to have been applied at a frenetic pace. The rest of the scene is just as agitated, with the sky pictured as roiling waves of blue and white strokes, interrupted here and there by incandescent balls of light representing other features of the night sky—in particular, a huge crescent moon on the right, hovering above a darkened, sleeping village nestled in the canvas’s lower right corner. The foreground, meanwhile, is interrupted by a writhing cypress tree on the far left, shooting up to the top of the image. Though galvanized by direct observation, The Starry Nightis visionary expression, springing from the yin and yang of Van Gogh’s personal demons and awe of nature.
While this celebrated image of a matron in profile is colloquially known as Whistler’s Mother, its real title, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, speaks to the artist’s ambition to pursue art for art’s sake. James Abbott McNeill Whistler painted the work in his London studio in 1871, and in it, the formality of portraiture becomes an essay in form. Whistler’s mother Anna is pictured as one element of several locked into an arrangement of right angles. As with most famous paintings, there are stories, most likely apocryphal, surrounding its creation. One has it that Anna was substituting for another model who couldn’t make the appointment; another says that Whistler originally conceived the painting with the model standing up, but his mother’s frailty dictated the famous seated pose. Even then she’d tire, so Whistler supposedly asked a neighbor to serve as a stand-in on occasion. Anna’s severe expression fits in with the rigidity of the composition, and it’s somewhat ironic to note that despite Whistler’s formalist intentions, the painting became a symbol of motherhood: In 1934, for example, the Post Office used it for a stamp issued “in memory and in honor of the mothers of America.” In 1872, Whistler created another Arrangement in Grey and Black, this time featuring the writer Thomas Carlyle. While good, it doesn’t have the same impact as the original.
Opulently gilded and extravagantly patterned, The Kiss, Gustav Klimt’s fin-de-siècle portrayal of intimacy, is a mix of Symbolism and Vienna Jugendstil, the Austrian variant of Art Nouveau. Painted between 1907 and 1908, The Kiss depicts its embracing subjects as mythical figures made modern by luxuriant surfaces of up-to-the moment graphic motifs. The work is a highpoint of the artist’s Golden Phase, the period between 1899 an 1910 when he often used gold leaf. (Another example: His Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I from 1907) Klimt was inspired to use this technique by a 1903 trip to Italy, which included a visit to Ravenna. There, Klimt saw the Basilica di San Vitale’s Byzantine mosaics made with golden tiles. Klimt began The Kiss shortly after a controversial episode involving a series of ceiling murals he created for the University of Vienna. Critics denounced them as pornographic due to Klimt’s liberal use of nudity, which included figures that appeared to writhe in ecstasy. In any case, The Kiss was more demure, and for that reason, perhaps, it was both critically hailed and immediately snatched up by a collector.
One of the most significant works produced during the Northern Renaissance’s early years, this 1434 composition on wood by the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck is believed to be one of the first paintings executed in oils. A full-length double portrait, it reputedly portrays an Italian merchant, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, and an unidentified woman who may or may not be his bride. There’s been some dispute about that, as well as some question as to whether the man is, in fact, Arnolfini. Regardless, the painting is known as the The Arnolfini Portrait, or, alternatively, as The Arnolfini Wedding or The Arnolfini Marriage, though again, there’s disagreement that the scene is a wedding. In 1934, the celebrated art historian Erwin Panofsky proposed that the painting is actually a wedding contract. As proof, he cited the large signature inscribed on the back wall, which he claimed belonged to a witness. What can be reliably said is that the piece is one of the first depictions of an interior using orthogonal perspective to create a sense of space that seems contiguous with the viewer’s own. It feels, in other words, like a painting you could step into, if it weren’t for the fact that it measures a mere 33 by 24 inches. It is also one of the first depictions a mirror. Located in the center of the composition, its convex surface seems to extend the dimensions of the room even though it’s actually projecting them back at us, complete with tiny versions of the subjects seen from the back. Van Eyck’s work is a masterstroke of spatial complication, made all the more riveting by the translucent qualities of the paint.
This fantastical triptych by the early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch dates from somewhere between 1490 and 1510, and is generally considered a distant forerunner to Surrealism. In truth, it is an act of devotion, the product of a late medieval mind that believed God and the Devil, Heaven and Hell were real. Of the three scenes depicted, the panel on the left shows Christ presenting Eve to Adam, while the one on the right features the depredations of Hell. Less clear is whether the center panel depicts Heaven, though it certainly evokes a paradise with its nude figures gamboling with exotic animals, giant pieces of fruit, and pink and blue structures resembling the architectural handiwork of Dr. Seuss. Relationships of scale are thrown completely out of the window, especially in Bosch’s perfervid vision of Hell, where giant musical instruments tower over tormented souls, and an enormous set of ears wielding a phallic knife is unleashed upon the damned. Acts of degradation abound, most notably in the lower left corner where a bird-beaked bug king with a chamber pot for a crown sits on its throne, devouring the doomed—who are then promptly defecated into a hole that leads, presumably, to even baser forms of abjection. This riot of symbolism has been largely impervious to interpretation, which may account for its widespread appeal. It’s one of the major attractions at Madrid’s Prado Museum, where it hangs—and where Bosch is known by the Spanish honorific, El Bosco. Though the details of his life are as obscure as his masterpiece, it is believe that the face looming incongruously in the center of the right panel of the painting is his own.
Completed in 1886, Georges Seurat’s masterpiece of serenity is one of the most beloved paintings in art history, evoking in the minds of many the Paris of La Belle Epoque. Interestingly, Seurat is actually depicting a suburban scene well outside the city’s center. This is significant because the suburbs of 19th-century Paris were politically distinct from the heart of the French capital. Paris’s periphery was reserved for factories and homes for the working class. More to the point, this dispersion was deliberate, a way of defusing the masses, whose grievances led to the uprisings 1848 and 1871 (Baron Haussmann’s grand boulevards was another part of this strategy). Seurat often made Paris’s working-class milieu his subject, which differed from the bourgeois portrayals of his Impressionist contemporaries. Seurat abjured the capture-the-moment approach of Manet, Monet and Degas, going instead for the sense of timeless permanence found in Greek sculpture. And that is exactly what you get in this frieze-like processional of figures whose stillness is in keeping with Seurat’s aim of creating a classical landscape in modern form. In this, he was aided by his famous pointillist technique, which again ran counter to the Impressionist’s use of fluid brushwork. Instead of depicting form and light with intuitively rapid strokes, Seurat carefully laid down dashes and dots of complimentary colors that would optically resolve into recognizable shapes and patterns. Using this empirical method, he reached back into the deep roots of Western civilization to present a slice of contemporary life.
The ur-canvas of 20th-century art, Pablo Picasso’s 1907 breakthrough ushered in the modern era by decisively breaking with the representational tradition of Western painting, incorporating allusions to the African masks that Picasso had seen in Paris’s ethnographic museum at the Palais du Trocadro. It’s compositional DNA also includes El Greco’s The Vision of Saint John (1608–14), now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The women being intruded upon by the small still-life at the bottom of frame are actually prostitutes in a brothel. An early study for the painting featured a medical student entering from the left to make his selection for the night, but Picasso wisely decided to leave him out in the final composition, leaving only Avignon in the title as a clue to his subject’s origin: It’s the name of a street in the artist’s native Barcelona, famous for its cathouses.