Harry Whittier Frees did a booming business in novelty postcards in the early 20th century, posing animals in human situations, including props and sets.
“I take occasion to give my personal assurance that all pictures appearing in this book are photographed from life,” he wrote in 1915’s The Little Folks of Animal Land. “The difficulties encountered in posing kittens and puppies for pictures of this kind have been overcome only by the exercise of great patience and invariable kindness.”
1816 is known as “the year without a summer” — the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora flung huge amounts of volcanic dust into the atmosphere, dropping temperatures worldwide and giving the sky a sallow cast that’s visible in Turner’s landscapes of the period (above).
It was a great calamity for farmers, but a boon for horror literature — the “wet, ungenial summer” forced Mary Shelley and John Polidori indoors on their Swiss holiday, where they wrote both Frankenstein and The Vampyre.
Excerpts from the reviews of James William Davison, music editor of the London Times from 1846 to 1878:
- “Perhaps a more overrated man never existed than this same Schubert.”
- “[Schumann is] the very opposite of good.”
- “We should rather be inclined to class [Berlioz] a daring lunatic than as a sound, healthy musician.”
- “Never was a writer of operas so destitute of real invention, so destitute in power or so wanting in the musician’s skill [as Verdi].”
- “The entire works of Chopin present a motley surface of ranting hyperbole and excruciating cacophony.”
- “[Wagner] is such queer stuff that criticism would be thrown away upon it.”
- “He who imagines that, at any time within the last half century Franz Liszt was a musical composer must entertain either very odd notions of art or must be, qua music, an absolute ignoramus.”
But: “[William Sterndale Bennett] lives with us in his works. The music he created conquered, in some sense, the power of death.”
A gorilla made of coat hangers. David Mach’s 2007 sculpture Silver Back won him a place in the Guinness Book of Records for “largest coat hanger installation”; it’s not clear how much competition he had.
The whole piece is 7 feet tall, 9 feet long, and 5 feet wide, and it required 2,705 hours and 7,500 hangers to make.
This is the Flammarion woodcut, so named because it first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s 1888 book L’Atmosphère. No one knows who created it; it’s thought to depict a medieval pilgrim who discovers the point where earth and sky meet.
Flammarion’s book itself seemed touched by magic. As the astronomer was completing a chapter on the force of the wind, a sudden gale blew the last few pages out the window and off in a whirlwind among the trees. Then a downpour started, and Flammarion gave them up as lost.
He was astonished, then, a few days later when his printer delivered the full chapter, with no pages missing.
It seems the porter who normally brought Flammarion’s proof sheets had been returning to his office when he noticed the sodden manuscript leaves on the ground. He assumed that he himself had dropped them and so had collected them and carried them to the printer without telling anyone.
“Remember,” Flammarion writes, “it was a chapter on the strange doings of the wind.”
“I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It annoys me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius. Why, in comparison with him, Raff is a giant, not to speak of Rubinstein, who is after all a live and important human being, while Brahms is chaotic and absolutely empty dried-up stuff.” — Tchaikovsky’s diary, Oct. 9, 1886
Shortly before Nelson left England for the last time, he found himself sitting next to Benjamin West at an honorary dinner. The admiral complimented the painter on his Death of Wolfe and asked why he had produced no more pictures like it.
“Because, my lord,” West said, “there are no more subjects.” He said he feared that Nelson’s fearless courage might produce another such scene, and “if it should, I shall certainly avail myself of it.”
“Will you, Mr. West?” Nelson said. “Then I hope I shall die in the next battle.”
He got his wish — West found himself painting The Death of Nelson the following year.
“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.”