The Mozart of the Sea

Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900) earned fame throughout Russia for his astonishingly realistic seascapes, which capture the expressive quality of ocean waters, and in particular the play of sunlight and moonlight on surging waves. More than half of the artist’s 6,000 canvases are devoted to his fascination with moving water.

Remarkably, these were painted from memory, far from the sea. “We can perfectly well understand that when he painted The Ninth Wave or The Wreck, he had no need to watch the ever-shifting colour and movement of the great waters as he worked, for these pictures are poems in which the artist has concentrated an amplitude of observation and experience,” wrote Rosa Newmarch in 1917. “We realize that their impressive, haunting grandeur is no more spontaneous than the impressiveness of many a great sonnet; they are rather the aftermath of his passion for the sea.”

His successes made him equally popular among the people and among his fellow artists. Ivan Kramskoi wrote, “Aivazovsky is — no matter who says what — a star of first magnitude, and not only in our [country], but also in history of art in general.” And the saying “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush” was used in Russia to describe anything ineffably lovely.

Wikimedia Commons has a collection of his seascapes.

Payment in Kind

During a stickup, bank robbers order tellers to keep their hands up so they can’t defend themselves or the customers. In 1921 San Francisco inventor Harry McGrath offered this solution: The teller wears a loaded pistol under his arm, with a wire running down his coat sleeve to his palm. Now when his arms are raised he can still fire the gun.

The patent says nothing about aiming, but “in order to make the gun perfectly safe, a blank cartridge can be placed in the magazine to be fired first, followed by a ball cartridge.”

I don’t know whether McGrath himself was a bank teller. I hope not.

“The Frogs and Tumblers”

A puzzle by Henry Dudeney. Frogs sit on eight of these 64 tumblers so that no two occupy the same row, column, or diagonal. “The puzzle is this. Three of the frogs are supposed to jump from their present position to three vacant glasses, so that in their new relative positions still no two frogs shall be in a line. What are the jumps made?” The frogs may not exchange positions; each must jump to a glass that was not previously occupied.

(“But surely there must be scores of solutions?” “I shall be very glad if you can find them. I only know of one — or rather two, counting a reversal, which occurs in consequence of the position being symmetrical.”)

Click for Answer

Podcast Episode 361: A Fight Over Nutmeg

In 1616, British officer Nathaniel Courthope was sent to a tiny island in the East Indies to contest a Dutch monopoly on nutmeg. He and his men would spend four years battling sickness, starvation, and enemy attacks to defend the island’s bounty. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Courthope’s stand and its surprising impact in world history.

We’ll also meet a Serbian hermit and puzzle over an unusual business strategy.

See full show notes …


In honor of Halloween, here’s the first horror film, Georges Méliès’ The Haunted Castle. Originally released in 1896, the year before Dracula was published, it had been thought to be lost until 1988, when a copy was discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive.

Though it’s full of horrific trappings, in general Méliès intended it to amuse and astonish rather than to shock. The filmmaker himself appears as Mephistopheles, and the woman conjured from the cauldron is Jehanne d’Alcy, who would become his second wife.


Excerpts from the notebooks of English belletrist Geoffrey Madan (1895-1947):

Two impressions remaining, after a life of scientific research:

1. The inexhaustible oddity of nature.
2. The capacity of the human system for recovery.

— J.B.S. Haldane

“With people like you, love only means one thing.”
“No, it means twenty things: but it doesn’t mean nineteen.”

— Arnold Bennett’s Journal

“I simply ignored an axiom.” — Einstein, on Relativity

“Nowhere probably is there more true feeling, and nowhere worse taste, than in a churchyard.” — Benjamin Jowett

Happiness, only a by-product.

The fine flower of stupidity blossoms in the attempt to appear less stupid.

Boy, wanting to be a “retired business man.”

“Stand on the Right — and let others pass you.” — Directions on an Underground Escalator

“My sad conviction is that people can only agree about what they’re not really interested in.” — Bertrand Russell, New Statesman, 1 July 1939

The doctrine of omnipotence means that life is a sham fight with evil.

“All men wish to have truth on their side: but few to be on the side of truth.” — Archbishop Richard Whately

“Half-knowledge is very communicable; not so knowledge.” — Mary Coleridge

“Mastery often passes for egotism.” — Goethe

Unnatural Beauty
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Harvard’s Museum of Natural History owns a unique collection of botanical models made of glass, more than 800 startlingly realistic plants produced by the German father-and-son glassworking team Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. They were commissioned by Professor George Lincoln Goodale to serve as aids in the teaching of botany, but their strikingly accurate detail leads many to regard them as works of art in themselves.

The modern naturalist Donald Schnell, who painstakingly deduced the mechanism by which the butterwort Pinguicula is pollinated, was astonished in 1997 to see the glass butterwort that the Blaschkas had prepared a century earlier: “One sculpture showed a bee entering the flower and a second showed the bee exiting, lifting the stigma apron as it did so,” just as he had hypothesized. “As far as I know Professor Goodale never published this information, nor did it seem to have been published by anyone back then, but the process was faithfully executed.”

This raises a question in aesthetics. If we find, say, the Blaschkas’ glass chicory flower beautiful, shouldn’t we find a live chicory flower equally beautiful? For the two are practically indistinguishable. Some will say yes, but others will insist that “there is an important difference … between perceiving a set of characteristics in an object and perceiving that same set of characteristics as natural to that object,” writes University of Washington philosopher Ronald Moore. “To perceive something as a product of nature is not to perceive one more thing about it; it is to change the way we perceive everything about it.”

(Ronald Moore, “Appreciating Natural Beauty as Natural,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 33:3 [Autumn 1999], 42-60.) (See Perspective.)

Character Study

The Art Institute of Chicago has an actual picture of Dorian Gray — Ivan Le Lorraine Albright painted it for the 1946 film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel. Working with his twin brother Malvin, Albright started with a pleasant portrait of star Hurd Hatfield and prepared three further canvases reflecting his character’s moral decay.

“For research for these paintings,” reported LIFE, “the twins made the rounds of the local insane asylums, alcoholic wards and hospitals for the incurably diseased.” Even the props in the background were corrupted — the Egyptian cat grows gray and mangy, and Ivan tore the rug and soaked it with acid.

Interestingly, though most of the film was shot in black and white, the portrait was shown in Technicolor — which may have helped the film win its Oscar for best cinematography.