This Girl is on Fire: Venus at Her Toilet

This Girl is on Fire
Woman as Goddess
Curated by Emma Krasnopoler


Diego Velasquez, The Toilet of Venus, 1650


When Velasquez painted The Toilet of Venus in 1647, nudity in Spain was heavily denounced. Except for the old masters’ paintings of gods and goddesses, contemporary artists were forbidden from painting nude figures, especially female nudes, which were considered disgraceful. The price for painting a nude painting was condemnation, banishment, and even excommunication. Everyone thought Velasquez would be subject to these consequences, yet somehow, due to favoritism or just fame, Velasquez managed to display his Venus without punishment. Philip IV proudly displayed the painting along with other paintings of nudes by Titian and Rubens.

But this post isn’t really about Velasquez. It’s about the woman in the painting. I feel as though I am interrupting a private moment between this woman and her reflection. She is enthralled with the face in the mirror, and I doubt she even realizes I am watching her. Who is she? Although the chubby Cupid beside her designates her as a goddess, she does not look like the typical Venus figure that appeared in many mythological paintings before this. Her buxom figure, pink flesh, and plain face differentiate her from other Venuses, yet Velasquez still calls her a goddess. What does she lack that other Venuses have? She has the youthful glow, perfect complexion, and enviable figure. While she may be a daughter of some court member, or even a prostitute, she also could very well be Venus.

I chose this painting to commence this series not because this woman is doing anything extraordinary, or because she is the most beautiful or progressive woman, but because she defies the standards of her time that condemned female nudity and demonstrates that any woman can be a goddess.

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Isolation: The Absinthe Drinkers


IsolationSolitude and Painting
Curated by Tommy Dunn


Edgar Degas, The Absinthe Drinkers, 1876

Increased urbanization in the 19th century, particularly in Paris, brought more people together than ever before. And yet, despite this, many people felt just as isolated as ever. On the one hand, the average person’s days were spent surrounded by other people and human connections seemed easy to make. On the other hand, it had never been more difficult to trust another human, with increased crime and a wide variety of vices in which to engage that were not available to people before their moves to the city.

Degas’ painting serves as a warning against certain types of lifestyles in 19th century Paris and a reminder of just how isolated one can feel buried in the middle of a crowd. Sprawled inside a bar in the middle of Paris, a man and a woman sit with vapid stares on their faces. Their minds have been deadened by absinthe. The terms of isolation have changed from earlier in the century. For one, they sit in the world’s most thriving metropolis. But even more than that, they have each other’s company. And yet, despite this, the sallow, pathetic looks on their faces tell a much different story. It is clear from their expressions that they are lost in their own depressing worlds.


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Isolation:The Raft of the Medusa


Isolation
Solitude and Painting
Curated by Tommy Dunn
Theodore Gericault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818

There is perhaps no greater isolation than dying on a wrecked ship in the middle of the ocean. This is the predicament in which the sailors of the Medusa found themselves after the French frigate was incapacitated off the western coast of Africa. The sailors hurriedly constructed a raft with the goal in mind of reaching some sort of civilization. Contrary to popular belief, the raft is not actually sinking. However, the poor men are no better off for it. Records indicate that of the more than 100 men who initially set off in search of help, fewer than 20 made it back. Disease and starvation hit hard, and the men were forced to resort to cannibalism. Abandoned by their colleagues who had climbed into ready made lifeboats and all but forgotten by the French navy—no search effort was made—the men drifted for thirteen excruciating, deadly days.

Gericault grew sort of obsessed with this event, which can pretty easily be seen in this painting. Each man and each mangled board of the raft, here being tossed about in a violent storm, is painted with meticulous detail. Those still living hold on to each other, desperately clutching at flags in search of rescue, while the dead men slip unceremoniously off of the side, out of sight and out of mind. Yet even in this horrific, dramatic painting there is still some hope. In the distance, the horizon lights up radiantly as the storm breaks apart. And on the horizon, barely visible, is the mast of the Argus, the ship that eventually rescued the seemingly damned souls. In the midst of true torture, there is hope after all.

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Isolation: David with the Head of Goliath


Isolation
Solitude and Painting
Curated by Tommy Dunn

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1610

David must have felt pretty lonely staring down Goliath with no one to back him up. David was just a young boy. Goliath was a mountain of a man, a head taller than any of the Israelites, and a fearsome fighter. Each day, he would venture out from Philistine lines to challenge any Israelite who would dare face him to a battle to the death. Each day, for 40 days, no man would dare risk his life. Then one day, David, the youngest of 7 brothers, took matters into his own hands and challenged Goliath to a duel. To this duel David brought only his sling and five stones from a nearby creek. He managed to strike Goliath in the head—or, if a modern translation is to be believed, the knee—and bring him to the ground. He then beheaded him and took his sword.

The moment that Caravaggio chooses to show here depicts two kinds of isolation—David’s in victory and Goliath’s in defeat. The battle for David represents an ascension of sorts, as it is this moment that shows that David is the rightful king of Israel. He stands alone as the only man brave enough to stand down the giant. For the deceased, the tortured expression on his face says it all. Additionally, Caravaggio’s rather personal touch adds a third dimension of isolation to this painting. The head is Caravaggio’s own. Goliath’s tormented expression parallels Caravaggio’s attitude at the time, as he was exiled and seeking a pardon and repatriation by Cardinal Borghese. David with the Head of Goliath, along with two other paintings, was created as a part-apology, part-bribe to convince Borghese to let him back into Rome. Tragically, he died on a ship on his way back to his home city, but his testament to pain and loss remains.

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Isolation: No. 8


Isolation
Solitude and Painting
Curated by Tommy Dunn

Mark Rothko, No. 8, 1964

It’s pretty easy to feel alone staring into a Rothko. I’ve only looked at one in person my whole life—Untitled No 11, which hangs in the gallery at the Nelson-Atkins. I’ve been told to stand as close to the painting as the museum will allow and try to let it fill up my entire vision. The effect is, needless to say, astounding. The feeling of the Rothko staring you full on in the face and leaving you nowhere else to look is not one that you’re liable to forget any time soon. It absorbs you completely; even standing in the middle of a crowded gallery on a Sunday afternoon on a trip with my art history class, I felt like it was just me and the painting.

The above painting hangs in Houston, in the Rothko Chapel, which houses one of the largest collections of Rothko’s works in the world.  It hangs in a room full of paintings that look very similar to it. And although I’ve never seen it in person, my imagination tells me that it must be awe-inspiring. The painting is just about the most intense expression of emotion that I think you can get. And it is dark. As with many of the paintings in my series, it is a product of the artist’s mindset at the time. The end of his life was certainly isolated. He was cut off from directly making the art he loved because of health concerns—assistants actually physically laid the paint on his last few works--and his family situation was almost non-existent. The chapel paintings were meant to be a religious experience, and the deep, dark colors of the paintings certainly seem to have a sort of religious quality. His suicide would come just two years later. This was a grim closing chapter to a tumultuous life, and that shines through in the painting.

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