“He has no talent at all, that boy! You, who are his friend, tell him, please, to give up painting.”
— Manet to Monet, on Renoir
When an emissary from Benedict XI asked Giotto for a sample of his work, the artist dipped his brush in red ink and painted a perfect circle freehand.
He got the commission.
Homer was a beggar; Plautus turned a mill; Terence was a slave; Boethius died in gaol; Paul Borghese had fourteen trades, and yet starved with them all; Tasso was often distressed for five shillings; Bentivoglio was refused admittance into an hospital he had himself erected; Cervantes died of hunger; Camoens, the celebrated writer of the Lusiad, ended his days in an alms house; and Vaugelas left his body to the surgeons, to pay his debts as far as it would go. In our own country, Bacon lived a life of meanness and distress; Sir Walter Raleigh died on a scaffold. Spencer, the charming Spencer, died forsaken, and in want; and the death of Collins came through neglect, first causing mental derangement. Milton sold his copy-right of Paradise Lost for fifteen pounds, at three payments, and finished his life in obscurity; Dryden lived in poverty and distress; Otway died prematurely, and through hunger; Lee died in the streets; Steele lived a life of perfect warfare with bailiffs. Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield was sold for a trifle to save him from the gripe of the law; Fielding lies in the burying-ground of the English factory at Lisbon, without a stone to mark the spot; Savage died in prison at Bristol, where he was confined for a debt of eight pounds; Butler lived in penury, and died poor; Chatterton, the child of genius and misfortune, destroyed himself.
— The Terrific Register, 1825
“There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.” — Salvador Dali
Anonymous German picture puzzle, 19th century.
Draw your own conclusions.
In 1626, Dutch artist Roelandt Savery composed this historic portrait of a dodo, one of the few painted from a live specimen. Unfortunately, he gave it two left feet.
Unrelated (one hopes): In Johann Tischbein’s portrait of Goethe in the Roman Campagna, the poet’s right leg bears a left foot.
Dick Termes paints murals on spheres. And he does it with a unique “six-point” perspective technique that permits a remarkable optical illusion.
As you watch this video, try to convince yourself that the front half of the sphere is transparent and that the mural is painted on the concave interior of the farther side — that is, that you’re standing in the center of the pictured room and turning in place to your left. If you succeed, the spin will seem to reverse direction and you’ll find yourself inside the painting:
Counterfeiting was a lot harder in the old days.
In the 1880s, Emanuel Ninger, known as “Jim the Penman,” drew $50 and $100 bills by hand, spending weeks on each one. Fifty bucks was a lot back then, about $2,000 in today’s money, so the effort was worthwhile. This also meant that his “work” ended up in the hands of rich people, and he actually gained a perverse following who realized the forgeries’ value as works of art.
He drew this note in 1896, just before the Secret Service nabbed him. He’d left a note on a wet bar, and the bartender saw the ink run. Ninger served six months and was forced to pay restitution of $1. He never forged again.
Detail from The Magpie on the Gallows, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Actually, you’d be hard pressed to build such a gallows — compare its top to its bottom.
Werewolf Returning Home, a 1901 illustration by S.H. Vedder.
Bach’s name forms a musical motif. The German note B is equivalent to the English B-flat, and H indicates B natural. So if you revolve this cross counterclockwise, the note at the center takes successively the German values B (treble clef), A (tenor clef), C (alto clef), and H (treble clef).
Bach himself used the four-note motif as a subject in The Art of Fugue, and it’s appeared since in works by Schumann, Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, Poulenc, and Webern.
In 1991 Harvard’s music library discovered a lost canon of Mozart, the composer who Leonard Bernstein said offers “the spirit of compassion, of universal love, even of suffering — a spirit that knows no age, that belongs to all ages.”
It’s called “Lick Me in the Ass.”
Paralyzed in a fall in 1836, John Carter discovered a talent for art, holding a brush in his teeth and working in bed. The figures below are after Albrecht Dürer.
The Mona Lisa has no eyebrows.
In Vertumnus, Giuseppe Arcimboldo portrayed his patron Rudolf II as the Roman god of growth and change. Fortunately, Rudolf appreciated the metaphor and awarded Arcimboldo one of his highest orders.
One candidate for the world’s shortest play is The Exile, by Tristan Bernard.
The curtain rises on a mountaineer in a remote cabin. An exile knocks on the door.
EXILE: Whoever you are, have pity on a hunted man. There is a price on my head.
MOUNTAINEER: How much?
The curtain falls.
But shorter still may be Samuel Beckett’s 1969 play Breath, which lasts 35 seconds. As we view a bare, litter-strewn stage, we hear a baby’s cry, a person inhaling once and then exhaling, and then another cry. At the play’s West End debut, one audience member said, “I just want to put on record that I thought the whole evening was completely bogus and pretentious.”
The great thing about Gustave Verbeek’s comic strips is that when you reach the end of a page, you can invert it to see the story continue.
He created 64 such comics for the New York Herald between 1903 and 1905.
The Isle of Dogs. An 18th-century engraving.
This 1872 Currier and Ives print is titled The Puzzled Fox: Find the Horse, Lamb, Wild Boar, Men’s and Women’s Faces. There are eight human and animal faces hidden in the scene. Can you find them?
Ironically, the birds that are visible have now disappeared — they’re passenger pigeons.
Most expensive paintings (sale prices expressed in dollars and adjusted for inflation):
- No. 5, 1948, Jackson Pollock: $142.7 million (2006)
- Woman III, Willem de Kooning: $140.2 million (2006)
- Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Gustav Klimt: $137.6 million (2006)
- Portrait of Dr. Gachet, Vincent van Gogh: $129.7 million (1990)
- Bal au moulin de la Galette, Montmartre, Pierre-Auguste Renoir: $122.8 million (1990)
- GarÃ§on Ã la pipe, Pablo Picasso: $113.4 million (2004)
- Irises, Vincent van Gogh: $97.5 million (1987)
- Dora Maar au Chat, Pablo Picasso: $97.0 million (2006)
- Portrait de l’artiste sans barbe, Vincent van Gogh: $90.1 million (1998)
- Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, Gustav Klimt: $89.1 million (2006)
Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito bought both #4 and #5 in 1990 and then announced he would have them burned during his cremation. Perhaps fortunately, he later ran into financial difficulties and was forced to sell them.
Someone once asked Jean Cocteau, “Suppose your house were on fire and you could remove only one thing. What would you take?”
Cocteau considered, then said, “I would take the fire.”
Finland’s national painting is Hugo Simberg’s The Wounded Angel.
Simberg refused to explain its meaning … but it was his favorite work.