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Why do some painted portraits show the subject pointing?

Why do some painted portraits show the subject pointing?

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I've just been to the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland and I noticed that many of the portraits show the subject pointing at something, often out of the frame, for example this one.

Why is this?

The fact that the artist is unknown presents a problem in that different interpretations of hand gestures have been applied to different artists (see combination of pictorial and real space for example), especially when the subject is pointing to something out of the frame. However, there are some general 'pointers' which can be applied in many cases.

The most likely explanation for Augustus II's gesture in the portrait below is probably this one:

A hand with the index finger pointing but level means the person is on the path and is proceeding along it - in process as it were. There is the added implication that they know where they are going - know their Destiny.

Augustus II the Strong (d. 1733), Elector of Saxony, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania. Image source

There is a look of confidence about the portrait as a whole, that the subject knows where he is going, an image which pretty much any ruler would want to project. The gesture with the left hand emphasizes this.

Another common gesture is pointing down, representing

… their Higher spirit reaching down for the soul. The implication being that the person is not yet on the path and is being 'searched for', as they are in a state of innocence [or ignorance if you prefer].

Sir Thomas Chaloner (d. 1565). Image source

Pointing up is also seen in some paintings, perhaps most famously in Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper and also Saint John the Baptist, the common interpretation being (unsurprisingly) heaven. For example,

… characters represented in paintings St. Anna and John (1498-1499?, National Gallery, London, England), Last Supper (1495-1498, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy), St. John the Baptist (Leonardo da Vinci, 1513, Louvre) point to the heaven. In this way, they indicate supernatural ("heavenly") dimensions of being (God, paradise, grace etc.) and "high" values.

(see also this article: St. John the Baptist - by Leonardo Da Vinci)

Generally, pointing at people or objects within the frame is used to draw attention to who or what is being pointed at.

Other source:

Shearer West, Portraiture (Oxford History of Art)

The History of Portraiture

The Artist Explorer was generously funded by Foyle Foundation.


For 500 years we have been a nation of portrait lovers. We not only gave birth to great face painters - native geniuses like William Dobson, William Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Thomas Lawrence - but, when needs must, we lured them to our shores.

Masters like Hans Holbein, Sir Anthony van Dyck, Sir Godfrey Kneller, Carl Xavier Winterhalter and John Singer Sargent came to London for the riches and acclaim that a society in thrall to self-representation could bestow upon them.

In more recent years British artists like Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud and David Hockney have continued to keep the British face in the forefront of world class figurative art.


Today, portrait painting is a thriving art form that has enjoyed a notable revival, evidenced by the multifarious offerings and talents that surface annually at the National Portrait Gallery and Royal Society of Portrait Painters.

The breadth, depth and status of the National Portrait Gallery in London (founded in 1856) has no equal throughout the world, including America. It enriches this art form with establishment approval.

The House of Commons and the House of Lords are continuously commissioning new works for their art collections, as are numerous city guilds, inns of court and civic organisations across the country. At any given moment there are hundreds of individuals throughout the nation who are being immortalised in countless contrasting guises and media.

Tudor Origins

In Tudor times, a preoccupation with asserting (recently acquired) authority co-incided with a ban on religious art. As a result, the German genius Hans Holbein was commissioned with expectant gusto as a portraitist. Only a man of his illusionistic powers could transform the calorific bulk that was Henry VIII into an object of imperial strength.

He was little short of a magician. His drawings of the faces of the Tudor court reach the contemporary viewer with a cinematic clarity and conviction, laying the foundations of our portrait culture.

Power Portraits

The big players at the most evocative moments in English history benefited from the services of some outstanding painters. The supremely graceful marriage between the artistic genius of the Flem, Anthony Van Dyck and the spindly frame of Charles I led to images of almost divine power. Later in the century Charles II found in Sir Peter Lely a man who could voyage across the sensuous cheeks and bodies of the court mistress better than he could.

Meritocrats of the Enlightenment were immortalised in multifarious guises by Reynolds, who grafted the gesticulations of Roman antiquity onto pale English bodies.

Although the Victorians lacked the type of élan suited to the swagger brush, George IV’s early 19th century Regency froth was crystallised by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Afterwards, the Edwardian beau monde was captured by the dazzling, effervescent strokes of John Singer Sargent.

Innovation, chic, directness and theatre mark out all these portraitists: indeed it is tempting to believe that they in part created, rather than merely recorded, the history of British society.

Middle Class Pride

Underpinning the history of British portraiture has been an insatiable need to record status and achievement. The great swell in middle class population from the late 17th century created a merchant and professional class that began commissioning portraits. The mayor, the soldier, the banker, the cleric and the politician – together with their respective wives and sometimes children - all required a brush with immortality.

William Hogarth was the first native born painter of genius who understood the balance between rank and personality. Thomas Gainsborough’s portraits of his Ipswich sitters, Sir Henry Raeburn’s Edinburgh worthies, and the innumerable heads by artists like John Partridge, George Frederick Watts and John Everett Millais follow a path through the 20th century that culminates, amongst other places, at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.

Portraits for Art’s Sake

Portraiture, or the human face and body, have allowed artists to express their own concerns and interests about the human condition. This is part of a long tradition that in some ways could be said to have begun with the introspection of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. It has taken on exciting and varying directions.

Francis Bacon contorted bodies and visages brilliantly to express his psychic angst. In many ways every Lucian Freud is a self-portrait, so consistent are his compellingly individualistic, often unsettling characterisations.

What is keeping figurative portrait painting artistically alive is the work of genuinely innovative practitioners who infuse what could become a pedestrian art form with personal, reflective and challenging approaches.

© Philip Mould OBE 2009

Types of Portraits in Art

One could speculate that the majority of portraits are created while the subject is still alive. It may be a single person or a group, such as a family.

Portrait paintings go beyond simple documentation, it is the artist's interpretation of the subject. Portraits can be realistic, abstract, or representational.

Thanks to photography, we can easily capture records of what people look like throughout their life. This was not possible prior to the invention of the medium in the mid-1800s, so people relied on painters to create their portrait.

A painted portrait today is often seen as a luxury, even more than it was in previous centuries. They tend to be painted for special occasions, important people, or simply as artwork. Due to the cost involved, many people choose to go with photography instead of hiring a painter.

A "posthumous portrait" is one that is rendered after the death of the subject. It can be achieved by either copying another portrait or following instructions of the person who commissions the work.

Single images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, or any saints are not considered portraits. They are called "devotional images."

Many artists also choose to do a "self-portrait." It is a work of art depicting the artist created by their own hand. These are typically made from a reference photo or by looking in a mirror. Self-portraits can give you a good sense of how an artist views themselves and, quite often, it is rather introspective. Some artists will regularly create self-portraits, some just one in their lifetime, and others will not produce any.

German Painting in the Northern Renaissance

The German Renaissance is reflective of Italian and German influence in its paintings, and one is not present without the other.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the work of Dürer, Grünewald, Holbein, Altdorfer, and other artists of the Danube school during the Holy Roman Empire in Germany

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Albrecht Dürer ‘s work shows strong classical influence due, in part, to his travels to the Italian peninsula.
  • Matthias Grünewald combined Gothic and Renaissance attributes in his painted work on the IsenheimAltarpiece .
  • The Danube School is known for the first productions of painted landscapes (independent of foreground figures) in nearly 1,000 years.
  • Hans Holbein the Elder and his brother Sigismund Holbein painted religious works in the late Gothic style . The former was a pioneer and leader in the transformation of German art from the Gothic to the Renaissance style.
  • The outstanding achievements of the first half of the 16th century were followed by a remarkable absence of noteworthy German art.

Key Terms

  • perspective: The illusion of distance or depth on a two-dimensional surface.
  • en plein air: In an outdoor setting, as opposed to in a studio or other interior location.
  • polyptych: An artwork, usually a painting, consisting of four or more panels.
  • Classical ornament: Influenced by the Roman motif in style.

Albrecht Dürer

One of a small number of Germans with the means to travel internationally, Nuremberg born Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) helped bring the artistic styles of the Renaissance north of the Italian Alps after his visits to the Italian peninsula in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Like the Italian artists Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarotti, Dürer was a Renaissance Man, adept in multiple disciplines such as painting, printmaking , and mathematical theorizing. Dürer’s introduction of classical motifs into Northern art has secured his reputation as one of the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance . This is reinforced by his theoretical treatises, which involve principles of mathematics, perspective , and ideal proportions.

One of Dürer’s paintings that display a clearly classical rendering of the body is Adam and Eve (1507), the first full-scale nude subjects in German painting. A clear departure from flat and stylized representations of the Romanesque and Gothic periods, the bodies appear naturalistic and dynamic, with each figure posed in an engaging contrapposto pose. Although they stand against a black background, the ground on which both figures stand and the tree that flanks Eve comprise naturalistic landscape elements. Likely the first landscape painter in Early Modern Europe, Dürer honed his landscape painting skills working en plein air at home and during his travels.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve: Oil on panel. 1507. Two panels, each 209 cm × 81 cm (82 in × 32 in) Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Matthias Grünewald

Lying somewhat outside these developments is Matthias Grünewald, whose birthplace is located in eastern France and who left very few works. However, his Isenheim Altarpiece (1512–1516), produced in collaboration with Niclaus of Haguenau, has been widely regarded as the greatest German Renaissance painting since it was restored to critical attention in the 19th century. It is an intensely emotional work that continues the German Gothic tradition of unrestrained gesture and expression, using Renaissance compositional principles while maintaining the Gothic format of the multi-winged polyptych .

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (closed): Oil on panel (exterior). Wooden relief sculptures (interior). 1512–16. Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, Alsace.

In its closed form , the Isenheim Altarpiece depicts an emaciated Christ whose skin bears many dark spots. Its lower panel, which houses relief sculptures displayed on certain feast days, opens in a manner that makes the legs of Christ, being entombed, appear amputated. Not surprisingly, Grünewald produced the altarpiece for a chapel in an infirmary that treated patients with a variety of diseases, including ergotism and isolated remaining strains of the plague. A primary symptom of both diseases was painful sores on the skin. In some cases of ergotism, limbs developed gangrene and had to be amputated. Through the skin sores and seemingly amputated legs, Grünewald informs the viewer that Christ understands and feels the suffering of the sick. Such “humanization” of Biblical figures became common throughout Europe during the Renaissance in an effort to make them more relatable to worshippers.

The Danube School

Albrecht Altdorfer’s (c.1480–1538) Danube Landscape near Regensburg (c. 1528) is one of the earliest Western pure landscapes. The Danube School is the name of a circle of artists from the southern German-speaking states active during the first third of the 16th century in Bavaria and Austria, including Albrecht Altdorfer, Wolf Huber, and Augustin Hirschvogel. With Altdorfer in the lead, the school produced the first examples of independent landscape art in the West (nearly 1,000 years after China), in both paintings and prints. Their religious paintings had an expressionist style somewhat similar to Grünewald’s. Dürer’s pupils Hans Burgkmair and Hans Baldung Grien worked largely in prints, with Baldung developing the topical subject matter of witches in a number of enigmatic prints.

Albrecht Altdorfer (c.1480–1538), Danube landscape near Regensburg (c. 1528): One of the earliest Western pure landscapes, from the Danube School in southern Germany.

Hans Holbein the Elder

Hans Holbein the Elder and his brother Sigismund Holbein painted richly colored religious works. His later paintings show how he pioneered and led the transformation of German art from the (Late) International Gothic to the Renaissance style. Holbein the Elder was a pioneer and leader in the transformation of German art from the Gothic to the Renaissance style. His son, Hans Holbein the Younger, was an important painter of portraits and a few religious works, working mainly in England and Switzerland.

Hans Holbein the Elder, Dormition of the Virgin: Oil on panel. c. 1491. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

The outstanding achievements of the first half of the 16th century were followed by a remarkable absence of noteworthy German art. The next significant German artists worked in the rather artificial style of Northern Mannerism , which they had to learn in Italy or Flanders . Hans von Aachen and the Netherlandish Bartholomeus Spranger were the leading painters at the Imperial courts in Vienna and Prague, and the productive Netherlandish Sadeler family of engravers spread out across Germany, among other counties.

Why do the eyes in paintings seem to follow you sometimes?

It must have startled the first people who noticed it: The eyes in some paintings seem to follow you. We've been aware of the strange phenomenon for a long time now, and it's made its way into popular culture. All sorts of crooks have been able to keep tabs on Scooby-Doo and the gang without being noticed, simply because the young adventurers take it for granted that the eyes following them from the paintings they walk by aren't real. A "Haunted Harry Houdini Painting" you can purchase takes the illusion to its most extreme point. The Mona Lisa is as famous for her weird ability to follow you with her eyes as she is for her puzzling smile. And conceptual art group Flong has created a robotic art installation featuring an unsettling eye that really does follow you across a room -- and blinks!

We all know that some paintings seem like they watch us, but how exactly does this happen? Why does it work for some paintings, but not others? It turns out that it has to do with the way a painting is created and a canvas' lack of the third dimension we find in real life. Thanks to the elements of shadow, light and perspective, some paintings give us the uncanny feeling of being watched. It's only fair, if you think about it. We like to look at paintings, why shouldn't they get to look back at us?

Before we get to the bottom of this phenomenon, try a little experiment. Ask a friend to stand still and stare directly forward. Now move slowly around your friend, always keeping his or her eyes in view. Do they seem to follow you? No? Aha, we have a clue. So this optical illusion happens only in art, not in real life. Why? Read the next page to find out how a group of scientists finally solved a centuries-old puzzle.

It wasn't until the 14th century that perspective showed up in art. An Italian architect named Filippo Brunellesco who served as an architect stumbled upon perspective as he oversaw construction of the Baptistery in San Giovanni. Following Brunellesco's discovery, linear perspective -- a technique that uses a single point as the focus -- became all the rage in art. In linear perspective, all lines in a painting go to a common point (think about railroad tracks that vanish in the distance), and it creates the impression of depth and distance [source: Dartmouth].

Until artists discovered perspective, they relied on height and width to give their works dimension. So paintings seemed flat. Early artists could only make objects smaller or larger to create the appearance of distance. Early Egyptian paintings are a good example of lack of perspective.

Artists also use light and shadow to create the illusion of depth. Light demonstrates a surface's closeness to the light source. It protrudes and therefore reflects more light. On the other hand, a shadow denotes an area that is closed off, or farther away, from the light source. If you put light and shadow together, you have the illusion of depth -- or length, the third dimension.

Modern artists have a command of linear perspective, and they use the interplay of light and shadow to create paintings that look almost as if they're alive. But it's impossible to get past the fact that the medium in which a painter works exists in only two dimensions. Ultimately all depth created through perspective and light and shadow is a trick, an optical illusion, and this illusion gives rise to other illusions -- including eyes in a painting following you.

So how does it work? Essentially, what is going on is that the light, shadow and perspective depicted in a painting are fixed, meaning they don't shift. Remember when your friend stared forward and you walked from side to side? His or her eyes didn't follow you because the light and shadow, as well as perspective you see, actually change. Features that were close to you as you stood on one side are farther away when you stand on the other side. Since the elements of perspective and light and shadow are fixed in a painting and don't change, they look pretty much the same no matter from what angle you look at it [source: Guardian].

So if a person is painted to look at you, he or she will continue to look as you move about the room. If a person is painted looking away from you, the light, shadow and perspective shouldn't allow him or her to ever look at you, even if you move yourself to the point where the person has been painted looking toward.

In the 19th century, a man named Jules de la Gournerie first had the idea that the phenomenon could be proven using math. He came close, but it wasn't until 2004 that a group of researchers proved the idea. Using an image of a mannequin's torso, the team employed a computer to map out dots of the points on the torso which appeared close and far away. The researchers did this from different angles, including 90 degrees (looking straight at the image).

When they compared the dots, they found that features which appeared far away and close from one angle also appeared that way from other angles, too [source: Ohio State University]. In other words, the locations of the dots prove that perspective doesn't change much when it's fixed in a painting or photo. Of course, this doesn't apply to paintings in haunted mansions -- the eyes in those paintings really do follow you.

Elizabeth I – Why were Portraits Painted?

When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558 after the death of her sister Mary, she needed to win the support of all her people:

  • Catholics
  • Protestants
  • Those who believed that a woman could not run a country by herself.

One of the best ways for a monarch to win support was by making a tour of the country and showing themselves to the people. In Tudor times this was called a ‘progress’.

This was not an option for Elizabeth because she had many Catholic enemies and it was not safe for her to travel around the country.

She chose, instead, to use portraits to show herself to her people.

It was, therefore, essential that the portraits showed an image of Elizabeth that would impress her subjects.

At intervals throughout her reign, the government issued portraits of Elizabeth that were to be copied and distributed throughout the land.

Why do some painted portraits show the subject pointing? - History

The Self-Portraits of Albrecht Dürer

Men are not born, but fashioned- Desiderius Erasmus

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance, 1860. The following is from the introduction to the second part of the book, entitled "The Development of the Individual": In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness--that which was turned within as that which was turned without-- lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation--only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air an objective treatment and consideration of the State and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such. In the same way the Greek had once distinguished himself from the barbarian, and the Arab had felt himself an individual at a time when other Asiatics knew themselves only as members of a race. It will not be difficult to show that this result was due above all to the political circumstances of Italy.

Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 1980, p. 256: It seemed to me the very hallmark of the Renaissance that middle-class and aristocratic males began to feel that they possessed such shaping power over their lives, and I saw this power and the freedom it implied as an important element in my own sense of myself. But as my work progressed, I perceived that fashioning oneself and being fashioned by cultural institutions-- family, religion, state-- were inseparably intertwined. In all my texts and documents, there were, so far as I could tell, no moments of pure, unfettered subjectivity indeed, the human subject itself began to seem remarkably unfree, the ideological product of the relations of power in a particular society. Whenever I focused sharply upon a moment of apparently autonomous self-fashioning, I found not an epiphany of identity freely chosen but a cultural artifact. If there remained traces of free choice, the choice was among possibilities whose range was strictly delineated by the social and ideological system in force.

In our modern ideology, we take it as natural the sense of ourselves as unique, autonomous individuals. We have a belief in our unique personal identity. Modern Art History has reinforced this ideology with its construction of the narrative of art around the work of identifiable artists whose styles are seen as manifestations of the respective artists' unique personalities. Self-Portraits of artists like Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh are major monuments in this cult of artistic individuality. Where traditional narratives of Art History have explicitly or implicitly assumed the emphasis on artistic individuality beginning in the Renaissance as the "natural" emergence of the self, recent critical theory has emphasized that the conception of the self is in actuality a construction with a specific social history. We consciously or unconsciously fashion our identities out of the alternatives our cultural contexts provide.

Any discussion of the early modern conception of the artist needs to focus on the remarkable series of self-representations by the German late fifteenth and early fifteenth century artist, Albrecht Dürer. From our experience with later European art, we take for granted the subject matter of the self-portrait. While Dürer was not the first artist to produce a self-portrait, he can be arguably claimed to be the first artist that returned to this subject matter throughout his career. In these images Dürer constructs or, in the terms of Stephen Greenblatt, "fashions" his identity as an artist [for a discussion of the idea of "self-fashioning, see the excerpts from an article by John Martin]. Joseph Koerner, in his book entitled The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art , has written:

A glance at the artist's earlier likenesses. complicates our ideas about the unity and function of the self in self-portraiture at 1500. Viewed in succession, these works chronicle not so much one person's physical and artistic maturation as a sequence of roles enacted by the artist for a variety of occasions. In the Louvre panel of 1493 Dürer outfits himself dutifully as lover and as husband in the Prado portrait he appears as worldly gentilhuomo and in the Munich picture he is something more lofty and audacious, a being fashioned in the image of God. If we sense the person 'Dürer' behind this change of costumes, it is only in the gap between, on the one hand, the garb that fixes the sitter into his various roles and, on the other hand, the sitter's face that, remaining constant through the panels, gazes out of the picture with a conviction and an immediacy at odds with the variously clothed body.

The earliest self-portrait we have of Dürer is a remarkable silverpoint drawing he did in 1484 when he was thirteen years old. This portrait is frequently paired with what is perhaps a self-portrait of Dürer's father, a goldsmith:

The elder Albrecht Dürer, shown holding a piece of his goldsmith work, represents himself as a craftsman. Compare this representation to our discussion of Rogier van der Weyden's painting of St. Luke Drawing the Virgin:

Significantly, Rogier shows St. Luke making a silverpoint drawing. Implicit in this painting is the demonstration of St. Luke's "mastery" of this difficult drawing technique. Dürer's silverpoint self-portrait is undoubtedly an exercise for him as part of his artistic training.

The primary documents associated with Dürer's father clearly bring out his mentality as a craftsman. Read for example the excerpt from the Dürer family chronicle and a letter Albrecht Dürer the Elder sent to his wife. The double portrait of his mother and father that the younger Dürer painted in 1490 should probably be seen in relationship to other double portraits of husbands and wives as managers of household economies engaged in the craft industry:

Reverse of the portrait of Dürer's father. It represents the union of the Dürer and Holper families' arms.

The idea of the craftsman participating in a household economy is suggested by an engraving by Israhel van Meckenem (c. 1440/5-1503):

Dated about 1490, the print represents the artist with his wife Ida and can be seen as a statement of partnership of the husband and wife managing a successful workshop specializing in the production print copies of the works of other engravers. Of the over 600 signed prints by Israhel, 90% of them can be identified as being based on the work of others. 58 of his prints, for example, copy the work of Martin Schongauer. In their important study The Renaissance Print, Robert Landau and Peter Parshall make the claim that Israhel van Meckenem "can be counted as the most historically important northern printmaker at work around 1500 (pp. 56-57)." This seems to us an odd claim when we consider the apparent lack of originality of Israhel van Meckenem's work, but Landau's and Parshall's point has merit when the wide dissemination of his work is considered. He saw the potential of marketing prints as a commodity.

Making a marketable commodity was thus the priority of Israhel van Meckenem's shop over originality. A double portrait of the artist and his wife dated 1496 by an artist known as the Master of Frankfurt again documents the world of the household economy of the craftsman. The arms of St. Luke along with the motto Wt Jonsten versamt ('gathered from joy') above in the fictive frame document membership in the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke. The flowers held by lady and in the vase also refer to the guild. In 1480 the Antwerp painters' guild had merged with Chamber of Rhetoric known as 'De Violieren" ('The Stock-Gillyflowers'). The lady's hand prominently displays her wedding ring while she holds on to what appear to be prayer beads much like what Dürer's parents hold in their double portrait. The details of the still life on the table and their clothing are signs of their relative prosperity. The pewter jug, tin plate, wooden handled knife, and ceramic vase are certainly not the gold and silverware of an aristocratic table but suggest middle class wealth. Their value resides in the quality of their manufacture rather than the intrinsic cost of the materials used. The painter's mastery of illusionistic painting is attested to by the flies painted as if they had landed on the surface of the painting. Like the birds that were fooled by Zeuxis's painting of grapes, the flies appear to be fooled by the illusionistic representation. The painting attests to the quality of the master's work and the success of his well managed workshop. This painting perhaps served as a demonstration of the shops wares placed in the window of the shop. The reference to a workshop window with a ledge like that shown in the painting of the goldsmith by Petrus Christus was enhanced by the original format of having the painting protected by shutters.

The partnership of the husband and wife managing a successful workshop suggested by both the Israhel von Meckenem print and the Master of Frankfurt painting is echoed in a letter from Albrecht Dürer's father to his wife Barbara:

My friendly greeting to my dear Barbara. This is to let you know that, after a hard trip, I arrived in Linz on Sunday before St. Bartholomew's [August 19], and on Monday my gracious Lord [Kaiser Friedrich III] sent for me and I had to show him the pictures [presumably drawings for gold work under consideration]. His Grace was pleased with them and His Grace spoke with me for a long time. And as I was leaving, His Grace came himself to me put four florins in my hand and said to me "My goldsmith, go to the inn and get yourself something good." Since then I have not been with His Grace again. I have no more [news]: so greet the household for me, and tell the apprentices to work fast and I will earn more and especially recommend me to my children and tell them to be good. Given at Linz on St. Bartholomew's Day 1492.

This close partnership provides a striking contrast to the apparently distant relationship between Dürer himself and his wife Agnes. When they got married, Agnes had the expectation of being the wife of a master and helping him in the management of a workshop [see excerpt of Pirckheimer letter written in 1530]. It is significant that there is no double portrait of Dürer and his wife Agnes comparable to the Israhel von Meckenem print, the painting by the Master of Frankfurt, or Dürer's own portrait of his parents. In fact there are relatively few portraits of Agnes in all the work of Dürer.

Contrast these representations with the self-portrait that Dürer painted in 1498 that is now in the Prado collection:

Inscription: "Das malt ich nach meiner gestalt / Ich war sex und zwenzig Jor alt/ Albrecht Dürer" (I painted this from my own appearance I was twenty-six years old)

This painting was done after Dürer's first trip to Italy in 1494-95 and the year before the publication of his famous edition of the Apocalypse. In 1498, Dürer had been elevated to a status rivaling that of a member of the upper social circles of the city, the Ehrbaren, or wealth merchant. Compare this portrait to the attitudes he expresses in a series of letters he writes to his friend Willibald Pirckheimer during his second trip to Italy. Note especially the following statement of regret about returning back home to Germany after his stay in Italy: "How I shall freeze after this sun! Here I am a gentleman, at home only a parasite." Read Joseph Koerner's discussion of this self-portrait.

In 1500, Dürer painted his famous self-portrait now in Münich:

Inscription: "Albertus Durerus Noricus ipsum me propriis sic effingebam coloribus aetatis anno xxviii" (I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg painted myself thus, with undying colors, at the age of twenty-eight years)

While Dürer in the 1500 portrait does not wear the fashionable dress of the 1498 portrait, his clothing with the fur collar can be compared to that represented in the 1524 engraving of his friend and Nuremberg patrician, Wilibald Pirckheimer. The contrast in dress between the two self-portraits could be perhaps compared to the contemporary contrast between Gucci and Brooks Brothers, with one showing contemporary fashion and the other a traditional sign of high status.

It has long been known that this self-portrait is based on a convention for representing Christ that can be found in Netherlandish art like this image of the Holy Face associated with the work of Jan Van Eyck:

Van Eyck's image can be linked to a tradition of Pantocrator images found in Byzantine churches like the following one on the left from the church of Daphni built about 1100 just outside of Athens and two from Sicily (Monreale and Céfalu) from the end of the 12th century:

Pantocrator from Monreale in Sicily.

Pantocrator from Céfalu in Sicily. (text in Christ's book is John, 8, 12)

Notice how the Byzantine images and the Dürer Self-Portrait share details like the lock of hair extending down the center of the forehead and the prominent position of the right hand. This image of Christ as Pantocrator, or ruler and judge of the world, is a descendent of the so-called acheiropoetai, the "images not made by human hands." Read Koerner's account of this painting.

In 1522, Dürer created a dramatically different self-representation in a lead point drawing of himself in the guise of Christ as the "Man of Sorrows":

Compare this drawing to Dürer's painting of the Man of Sorrows from 1493-94:

While strictly not self-portraits, I would like to consider two other images as self-representations. One is a drawing of an artist drawing a nude that was used as an illustration of a perspective device in Dürer's Painter's Manual of 1525:

This image has been the focus of much discussion in contemporary theory. Read the excerpts included on the page dedicated to this image.

The other image is the famous engraving dated to 1514 entitled Melancolia I :

The principal figure can be identified as the female personification of melancholy. This temperament became associated during this period with the creative artist. This can thus be seen as a spiritual self-portrait of Dürer. "Number,weight, and measure."

Self-Portrait, 1484, silverpoint on prepared paper.

Albrecht Dürer the Elder, Self-Portrait, 1484, silverpoint.

Self-Portrait, c. 1491, pen and dark brown ink, Erlangen.

Self-Portrait at Age Twenty-two, c. 1493, pen and brown ink, Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Self-Portrait, 1493, Louvre, Paris.

Self-Portrait, 1498, Prado, Madrid.

Self-Portrait, 1500, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Detail of the 1500 Self-Portrait.

Adoration of the Trinity, 1508-11.

Adoration of the Trinity, detail:

Copy of the Heller Altarpiece, original 1508-9.

Detail of the Heller Altarpiece.

Feast of the Rose Garlands, 1506.

Detail of the Feast of the Rose Garlands.

Sel-Portrait as the Man of Sorrows, 1522.

Melencolia I, 1514, engraving.

Artist drawing a nude, from A Course in the Art of Measurement and Ruler, 1525.

Early years

Rembrandt was the fourth of 6 surviving children out of 10. Unlike many painters of his time, he did not come from a family of artists or craftsmen his father, Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn (1568–1630), was a miller. His mother, Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuytbrouck (1568–1640), came from a family of bakers.

The first name Rembrandt was—and still is—extremely rare. It is akin to more common Dutch first names such as Remmert, Gerbrand, and IJsbrand. The way Rembrandt inscribed his name on his work evolved significantly. As a young man, he signed his work only with the monogram RH (Rembrant Harmenszoon, “son of Harmen”) from 1626/27, with RHL and in 1632, with RHL van Rijn (the L in the monogram presumably standing for Leidensis, “from Leiden,” the town in which he was born). At age 26 he began to sign his work with his first name only, Rembrant (ending only with a -t) from early 1633 onward until his death, he spelled his name Rembrandt (with -dt) and signed his works that way. It has been suggested that he began using his first name as his signature because he considered himself the equal of the great artists of the 15th and 16th centuries Michelangelo (Michelangelo Buonarroti), Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), and Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) were also generally known by their first names.

Like most Dutch children of his day, Rembrandt attended elementary school (c. 1612–16), after which, from roughly 1616 to 1620, he attended the Latin School in Leiden, where biblical studies and classics were the main subjects taught. The school’s emphasis on oratory skills may have contributed to his ability to “stage” the figures in scenes depicted in his history paintings, drawings, and etchings. It is not clear whether Rembrandt completed his course of study at the Latin School. His first biographer, Jan Janszoon Orlers (1570–1646), provided a laudatory half-page biography of Rembrandt within his Beschrijvinge der stadt Leyden (1641 “Description of the Town of Leiden”). There Orlers wrote that Rembrandt was taken out of school prematurely and, at his own request, was sent to be trained as a painter. The fact that Rembrandt was enrolled in Leiden University on May 20, 1620, does not necessarily contradict this. Whether for tax reasons or simply because they had attended the Latin School, it was not unusual for Leiden boys to be registered as students without being expected to attend any lectures. The extent of Rembrandt’s intellectual development and any possible influence this might have had on his work remain matters of speculation.

From approximately 1620 to 1624/25, Rembrandt trained as an artist. As was quite common in his time, he had two masters in succession. Rembrandt’s first master was the Leiden painter Jacob van Swanenburgh (1571–1638), with whom, according to Orlers, he remained for about three years. Van Swanenburgh must have taught him the basic skills and imparted the knowledge necessary for the profession. He was a specialist in architectural pieces and in scenes of hell and the underworld, which called for skill in painting fire and its reflections on the surrounding objects. In Rembrandt’s time this skill was considered distinct and demanding. It may well be that Rembrandt’s early exposure to this kind of pictorial problem underlies his lasting interest in the effects of light.

Rembrandt’s second teacher, Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), lived in Amsterdam. According to Orlers, Rembrandt stayed with him for six months. Working with Lastman, who was well known at that time as a history painter, must have helped Rembrandt gain the knowledge and skill necessary to master that genre. History painting involved placing various figures from biblical, historical, mythological, or allegorical scenes in complex settings. In the 17th-century hierarchy of the various genres, history painting held the highest position, because it required a complete command of all subjects, from landscape to architecture, from still life to drapery, from animals to, above all, the human figure, in a wide range of postures, expressions, and costumes. One Rembrandt biographer, Arnold Houbraken, mentions another Amsterdam history painter, Jakob Pynas, as one of Rembrandt’s teachers. (In 1718 Houbraken wrote the most extensive early biography and characterization of Rembrandt as an artist, although it was mixed with spurious anecdotes.)

On the basis of stylistic arguments, one could speculate on the impact that Jan Lievens may have had on Rembrandt during his training. Lievens, one year younger than Rembrandt and originally a child prodigy, was already a full-fledged artist by the time Rembrandt must have decided to become a painter. Although scholars know for certain only that Rembrandt and Lievens worked closely together for some years after Rembrandt had returned to Leiden about 1625, following his training with Lastman, the contacts between these two Leiden boys may have begun earlier. However, no trace of Rembrandt’s student exercises has survived.

Top famous paintings

1. Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa, 1503–19

Painted between 1503 and 1517, Da Vinci&rsquos alluring portrait has been dogged by two questions since the day it was made: Who&rsquos the subject and why is she smiling? A number of theories for the former have been proffered over the years: That she&rsquos the wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco di Bartolomeo del Giocondo (ergo, the work&rsquos alternative title, La Gioconda) that she's Leonardo&rsquos mother, Caterina, conjured from Leonardo's boyhood memories of her and finally, that it's a self-portrait in drag. As for that famous smile, its enigmatic quality has driven people crazy for centuries. Whatever the reason, Mona Lisa&rsquos look of preternatural calm comports with the idealized landscape behind her, which dissolves into the distance through Leonardo&rsquos use of atmospheric perspective.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Dystopos

2. Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665

Johannes Vermeer&rsquos 1665 study of a young woman is startlingly real and startlingly modern, almost as if it were a photograph. This gets into the debate over whether or not Vermeer employed a pre-photographic device called a camera obscura to create the image. Leaving that aside, the sitter is unknown, though it&rsquos been speculated that she might have been Vermeer's maid. He portrays her looking over her shoulder, locking her eyes with the viewer as if attempting to establish an intimate connection across the centuries. Technically speaking, Girl isn&rsquot a portrait, but rather an example of the Dutch genre called a tronie&mdasha headshot meant more as still life of facial features than as an attempt to capture a likeness.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Nat507

3. Sandro Botticelli, , 1484–1486

Botticelli&rsquos The Birth of Venus was the first full-length, non-religious nude since antiquity, and was made for Lorenzo de Medici. It&rsquos claimed that the figure of the Goddess of Love is modeled after one Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, whose favors were allegedly shared by Lorenzo and his younger brother, Giuliano. Venus is seen being blown ashore on a giant clamshell by the wind gods Zephyrus and Aura as the personification of spring awaits on land with a cloak. Unsurprisingly, Venus attracted the ire of Savonarola, the Dominican monk who led a fundamentalist crackdown on the secular tastes of the Florentines. His campaign included the infamous &ldquoBonfire of the Vanities&rdquo of 1497, in which &ldquoprofane&rdquo objects&mdashcosmetics, artworks, books&mdashwere burned on a pyre. The Birth of Venus was itself scheduled for incineration, but somehow escaped destruction. Botticelli, though, was so freaked out by the incident that he gave up painting for a while.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/arselectronica

4. Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889

Vincent Van Gogh&rsquos most popular painting, The Starry Night was created by Van Gogh at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, where he&rsquod committed himself in 1889. Indeed, The Starry Night seems to reflect his turbulent state of mind at the time, as the night sky comes alive with swirls and orbs of frenetically applied brush marks springing from the yin and yang of his personal demons and awe of nature.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Wally Gobetz

5. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, 1871

Whistler&rsquos Mother, or Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, as it&rsquos actually titled, speaks to the artist&rsquos ambition to pursue art for art&rsquos 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&rsquos mother Anna is pictured as one of several elements locked into an arrangement of right angles. Her severe expression fits in with the rigidity of the composition, and it&rsquos somewhat ironic to note that despite Whistler&rsquos formalist intentions, the painting became a symbol of motherhood.

Photograph: REX/Shutterstock/Universal History Archive

6. Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907–1908

Opulently gilded and extravagantly patterned, The Kiss, Gustav Klimt&rsquos fin-de-siècle portrayal of intimacy, is a mix of Symbolism and Vienna Jugendstil, the Austrian variant of Art Nouveau. Klimt depicts his subjects as mythical figures made modern by luxuriant surfaces of up-to-the moment graphic motifs. The work is a highpoint of the artist&rsquos Golden Phase between 1899 and 1910 when he often used gold leaf&mdasha technique inspired by a 1903 trip to the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, where he saw the church&rsquos famed Byzantine mosaics.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Jessica Epstein

7. Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

One of the most significant works produced during the Northern Renaissance, this composition is believed to be one of the first paintings executed in oils. A full-length double portrait, it reputedly portrays an Italian merchant and a woman who may or may not be his bride. In 1934, the celebrated art historian Erwin Panofsky proposed that the painting is actually a wedding contract. 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&rsquos own it feels like a painting you could step into.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Centralasian

8. Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1503–1515

This fantastical triptych is generally considered a distant forerunner to Surrealism. In truth, it&rsquos the expression of a late medieval artist who believed that God and the Devil, Heaven and Hell were real. Of the three scenes depicted, the left panel shows Christ presenting Eve to Adam, while the right one features the depredations of Hell less clear is whether the center panel depicts Heaven. In Bosch&rsquos perfervid vision of Hell, an enormous set of ears wielding a phallic knife attacks the damned, while a bird-beaked bug king with a chamber pot for a crown sits on its throne, devouring the doomed before promptly defecating them out again. This riot of symbolism has been largely impervious to interpretation, which may account for its widespread appeal.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Centralasian

9. Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884–1886

Georges Seurat&rsquos masterpiece, evoking the Paris of La Belle Epoque, is actually depicting a working-class suburban scene well outside the city&rsquos center. Seurat often made this 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&rsquos aim of creating a classical landscape in modern form.

Photograph: Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago/Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection

10. Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907

The ur-canvas of 20th-century art, Les Demoiselles d&rsquoAvignon 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. Its compositional DNA also includes El Greco&rsquos The Vision of Saint John (1608&ndash14), now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The women being depicted are actually prostitutes in a brothel in the artist's native Barcelona.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Wally Gobetz

11. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters, 1565

Bruegel&rsquos fanfare for the common man is considered one of the defining works of Western art. This composition was one of six created on the theme of the seasons. The time is probably early September. A group of peasants on the left cut and bundle ripened wheat, while the on the right, another group takes their midday meal. One figure is sacked out under a tree with his pants unbuttoned. This attention to detail continues throughout the painting as a procession of ever-granular observations receding into space. It was extraordinary for a time when landscapes served mostly as backdrops for religious paintings.

12. Édouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863

Manet&rsquos scene of picnicking Parisians caused a scandal when it debuted at the Salon des Refusés, the alternative exhibition made up of works rejected by the jurors of the annual Salon&mdashthe official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts that set artistic standards in France. The most vociferous objections to Manet&rsquos work centered on the depiction of a nude woman in the company of men dressed in contemporary clothes. Based on motifs borrowed from such Renaissance greats as Raphael and Giorgione, Le Déjeuner was a cheeky send up of classical figuration&mdashan insolent mash-up of modern life and painting tradition.

13. Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red Blue and Yellow, 1930

A small painting (18 inches by 18 inches) that packs a big art-historical punch, Mondrian&rsquos work represents a radical distillation of form, color and composition to their basic components. Limiting his palette to the primary triad (red, yellow and blue), plus black and white, Mondrian applied pigment in flat unmixed patches in an arrangement of squares and rectangles that anticipated Minimalism.

14. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Las Meninas, or The Family of King Philip IV

A painting of a painting within a painting, Velázquez masterpiece consists of different themes rolled into one: A portrait of Spain&rsquos royal family and retinue in Velázquez&rsquos studio a self-portrait an almost art-for-art&rsquos-sake display of bravura brush work and an interior scene, offering glimpses into Velázquez&rsquos working life. Las Meninas is also a treatise on the nature of seeing, as well as a riddle confounding viewers about what exactly they&rsquore looking at. It&rsquos the visual art equivalent of breaking the fourth wall&mdashor in this case, the studio&rsquos far wall on which there hangs a mirror reflecting the faces of the Spanish King and Queen. Immediately this suggests that the royal couple is on our side of the picture plane, raising the question of where we are in relationship to them. Meanwhile, Velázquez&rsquos full length rendering of himself at his easel begs the question of whether he&rsquos looking in a mirror to paint the picture. In other words, are the subjects of Las Meninas (all of whom are fixing their gaze outside of the frame), looking at us, or looking at themselves?

15. Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, The Naked Maja, circa 1797–1800

Definitely comfortable in her own skin, this female nude staring unashamedly at the viewer caused quite a stir when it was painted, and even got Goya into hot water with the Spanish Inquisition. Among other things, it features one of the first depictions of public hair in Western art. Commissioned by Manuel de Godoy, Spain&rsquos Prime Minister, The Naked Maja was accompanied by another version with the sitter clothed. The identity of the woman remains a mystery, though she is most thought to be Godoy&rsquos young mistress, Pepita Tudó.

16. Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

Perhaps Picasso&rsquos best-known painting, Guernica is an antiwar cris de coeur occasioned by the 1937 bombing of the eponymous Basque city during the Spanish Civil War by German and Italian aircraft allied with Fascist leader Francisco Franco. The leftist government that opposed him commissioned Picasso to created the painting for the Spanish Pavillion at 1937 World&rsquos Fair in Paris. When it closed, Guernica went on an international tour, before winding up at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Picasso loaned the painting to MoMA with the stipulation that it be returned to his native Spain once democracy was restored&mdashwhich it was in 1981, six years after Franco's death in 1975 (Picasso himself died two years before that.) Today, the painting is housed at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid.

17. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Grande Odalisque, 1814

Commissioned by Napoleon&rsquos sister, Queen Caroline Murat of Naples, Grande Odalisque represented the artist&rsquos break with the Neo-classical style he&rsquod been identified with for much of his career. The work could be described as Mannerist, though it&rsquos generally thought of as a transition to Romanticism, a movement that abjured Neo-classicalism&rsquos precision, formality and equipoise in favor of eliciting emotional reactions from the viewer. This depiction of a concubine languidly posed on a couch is notable for her strange proportions. Anatomically incorrect, this enigmatic, uncanny figure was greeted with jeers by critics at the time, though it eventually became one of Ingres most enduring works.

18. Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830

Commemorating the July Revolution of 1830, which toppled King Charles X of France, Liberty Leading the People has become synonymous with the revolutionary spirit all over the world. Combining allegory with contemporary elements, the painting is a thrilling example of the Romantic style, going for the gut with its titular character brandishing the French Tricolor as members of different classes unite behind her to storm a barricade strewn with the bodies of fallen comrades. The image has inspired other works of art and literature, including the Statue of Liberty and Victor Hugo&rsquos novel Les Misérables.

19. Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1874

The defining figure of Impressionism, Monet virtually gave the movement its name with his painting of daybreak over the port of Le Havre, the artist&rsquos hometown. Monet was known for his studies of light and color, and this canvas offers a splendid example with its flurry of brush strokes depicting the sun as an orange orb breaking through a hazy blue melding of water and sky.

20. Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1819

The worship of nature, or more precisely, the feeling of awe it inspired, was a signature of the Romantic style in art, and there is no better example on that score than this image of a hiker in the mountains, pausing on a rocky outcrop to take in his surroundings. His back is turned towards the viewer as if he were too enthralled with the landscape to turn around, but his pose offers a kind of over-the-shoulder view that draws us into vista as if we were seeing it through his eyes.

21. Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818–1819

For sheer impact, it&rsquos hard to top The Raft of the Medusa, in which Géricault took a contemporary news event and transformed it into a timeless icon. The backstory begins with the 1818 sinking of the French naval vessel off the coast of Africa, which left 147 sailors adrift on a hastily constructed raft. Of that number, only 15 remained after a 13-day ordeal at sea that included incidents of cannibalism among the desperate men. The larger-than-life-size painting, distinguished by a dramatic pyramidal composition, captures the moment the raft&rsquos emaciated crew spots a rescue ship. Géricault undertook the massive canvas on his own, without anyone paying for it, and approached it much like an investigative reporter, interviewing survivors and making numerous detailed studies based on their testimony.

22. Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942

An iconic depiction of urban isolation, Nighthawks depicts a quarter of characters at night inside a greasy spoon with an expansive wraparound window that almost takes up the entire facade of the diner. Its brightly lit interior&mdashthe only source of illumination for the scene&mdashfloods the sidewalk and the surrounding buildings, which are otherwise dark. The restaurant's glass exterior creates a display-case effect that heightens the sense that the subjects (three customers and a counterman) are alone together. It's a study of alienation as the figures studiously ignore each other while losing themselves in a state of reverie or exhaustion. The diner was based on a long-demolished one in Hopper's Greenwich Village neighborhood, and some art historians have suggested that the painting as a whole may have been inspired by Vincent van Gogh&rsquos Café Terrace at Night, which was on exhibit at a gallery Hopper frequented at same time he painted Nighthawks Also of note: The redheaded woman on the far right is the artist's wife Jo, who frequently modeled for him.

23. Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912

At the beginning of the 20th-century, Americans knew little about modern art, but all that abruptly changed when a survey of Europe's leading modernists was mounted at New York City's 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets. The show was officially titled the "International Exhibition of Modern Art," but has simply been known as the Armory Show ever since. It was a succès de scandale of epic proportions, sparking an outcry from critics that landed on the front page of newspapers. At the center of the brouhaha was this painting by Marcel Duchamp. A stylistic mixture of Cubism and Futurism, Duchamp&rsquos depiction of the titular subject in multiple exposure evokes a movement through time as well as space, and was inspired by the photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey. The figure's planar construction drew the most ire, making the painting a lighting rod for ridicule. The New York Times's art critic dubbed it "an explosion in a shingle factory," and The New York Evening Sun published a satirical cartoon version of Nude with the caption, "The Rude Descending a Staircase (Rush Hour at the Subway),&rdquo in which commuters push and shove each other on their way onto the train. Nude was one of a handful of paintings Duchamp made before turning full time towards the conceptualist experiments (such as the Readymades and The Large Glass) for which he&rsquos known.

This is just the beginning…

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