The Walters Art Series 

View of the atrium at the Walters Art Museum, filled with bright light, white columns, and creamy golden walls.
View of the atrium at the Walters Art Museum

by Rohini G.

This fall, and continuing into winter, Howard County Library System partners with The Walters Art Museum to bring an educational approach to art as we discuss specific works of art and the themes behind them. This series of four classes launches with The Art of Looking on October 13. Asking us to slow down and take the time to see the details, Docents Jill Reynolds and Bonnie Kind examine, analyze, and interpret artworks. Expertise gained through this session can be applied to the subsequent session on Symbolism in Renaissance & Baroque Art. The winter sessions will have an exciting and other-worldly feel as we explore Fantastical Creatures in sculpture and paintings. This will segue seamlessly into the fourth session on Chinese Ceramics, just in time to celebrate the Lunar New Year.  

Sign up for the series or individual classes that interest you. REGISTER  

The Art of Looking brings forth the concept of Artful Thinking. Developed by Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education, this routine encourages students to make careful observations and develop their own ideas and interpretations based on what they see. By separating the two questions, What do you see? and What do you think about what you see?, the routine helps distinguish between observations and interpretations.

The painting depicts the aftermath of the murder of the emperor Claudius.  Gratus, a member of the Praetorian Guard, draws a curtain aside to reveal the terrified Claudius who is hailed as emperor on the spot.  Beneath the bloodtstained herm in the background lie the bodies of Caligula, his wife Caesonia, their young daughter, and a bystander.  Roman men and women are depicted at the left, overlooking the scene.
Image credit: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Roman Emperor: 41 AD, 1871, oil on canvas. Bequest of Henry Walters, 1931, acc. no. 37.165. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum. 

In this painting titled A Roman Emperor (Claudius), Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema OM RA (1836-1912), depicts the aftermath of a violent historical event. In AD 41, the debauched Roman emperor Caligula was murdered. Gratus, a member of the Praetorian Guard, draws a curtain aside to reveal the terrified Claudius who is hailed as emperor on the spot.  Beneath the herm in the background, lie the bodies of Caligula, his wife Caesonia, their young daughter and of a bystander. The blood stains on the herm* denote the struggle that has transpired as well as the setting, the Hermaeum, an apartment in the Palace where Claudius had sought refuge.

This detail from the painting depicts Gratus, dressed in the brown uniform of the Praetorian Guard, pulling back a green curtain with brown fringe and a white and brown circular pattern, to reveal the emperor Claudius behind the curtain.  Claudius is robed in white and his frightened face is half-hidden behind the curtain.  Gratus is bowing to him.
Image credit: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, detail from A Roman Emperor: 41 AD, 1871, oil on canvas. Bequest of Henry Walters, 1931, acc. no. 37.165. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.

In the detail of the painting, we see Gratus pulling back the curtain that has hidden Claudius while bowing and the half hidden, scared face of the new emperor.

What a story!

Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema, the creator of this magnificent artwork, was one of the most renowned painters of late nineteenth century Britain.

Born in Dronrijp, the Netherlands, and trained at the Academy of Antwerp, Belgium, he settled in England in 1870 and spent the rest of his life there. A classical-subject painter, he became famous for his depictions of the luxury and decadence of the Roman Empire, with languorous figures set in fabulous marbled interiors or against a backdrop of dazzling blue Mediterranean sea and sky. One may add that this painting, A Roman Emperor (Claudius), differs from most in the artist’s œuvre.

Analyzing paintings and sculptures, their form, symbolism, ideas, and meaning creates a space to understand and interact with history at a deeper level. Bring your curiosity and questions to the experienced and knowledgeable docents Jill and Bonnie as we embark on this journey intersecting Culture and History.  

The Walters Art series:   

Wednesday, Oct 13 at 1 pm – The Art of Looking REGISTER.  

Wednesday, Nov 10 at 1 pm- Symbolism in Renaissance & Baroque Art  REGISTER. 

Wednesday, Jan 26 at 1 pm – Fantastical Creatures REGISTER. 

Wednesday, Feb 23 at 1 pm – Chinese Porcelain REGISTER. 

Rohini is the Adult Curriculum Specialist with HCLS. She loves literature and rainy days.

*Herm: a squared stone pillar with a carved head on top (typically of Hermes), used in ancient Greece as a boundary marker or a signpost

The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks In Arles

By Nina L.

We know them today as giants of art history, but in 1888 French artist Paul Gauguin had an estranged family, a background in financial trading, and limited artistic success. Vincent Van Gogh, a 35-year-old Dutchman, had failed miserably at several vocations before turning to art with the encouragement and financial support of his brother Theo.

The Yellow House, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles, by Martin Gayford, is an intimate and revelatory look at a time when Van Gogh and Gauguin lived together in a self-styled artist’s colony of two. They were an odd pair, full of contrasts – Gauguin cerebral, Van Gogh emotional, but both drawn to the idea of inventing a new art of the future. The book follows the events as they unfold day-to-day with granular detail.  Drawing on the copious letters of both artists, Gayford makes it easy to imagine being in the house looking on as the two men worked in the small, cramped, ten-foot wide studio filled with the heavy atmosphere of tobacco and turpentine.  

While living in Paris, Van Gogh dreamed of starting an artist’s colony in the south of France. He settled on Arles, a provincial town on the way to the Mediterranean coast. Both he and Theo admired Gauguin, enticing him to Arles with the offer of free room and board in exchange for his paintings.  Van Gogh, who later became the greater artist of the two, regarded Gauguin as a mentor and had high expectations of living and working together. In anxious anticipation of Gauguin’s arrival, he set about transforming the little yellow house, carefully choosing furnishings, brightening the exterior and interior with paint, and hanging his art work throughout the house, including his newly created Sunflowers. The first few weeks went well, with exchanges of ideas and daily painting trips to the surrounding countryside, but when the weather turned cold and rainy, spending all day in the small, cramped space didn’t bode well for the two large personalities.

By late December of 1888 the relationship was fraying and Gauguin considered returning to Paris. On December 23rd, while feverishly working on a painting, Van Gogh suffered a mental attack and cut off part of his ear with a razor. He then wrapped the ear in newspaper and took it to a local brothel with instructions to give it to one of the women. Gauguin, alarmed at Van Gogh’s deteriorating state, had spent the night in a hotel. Returning to the house the next day he discovered a trail of blood and Van Gogh deep asleep in bed with no memory of the previous night. The traumatic events ended the dream of living and working together. Gauguin left for Paris, later moving to Tahiti, never to see Van Gogh again. For the rest of his short life Van Gogh struggled with mental illness, which Gayford attributes to bipolar disorder, gaining fame only after his death.

After reading the book, I found myself looking at the world differently, imagining how Van Gogh or Gauguin would see it. One of Van Gogh’s breakthroughs was in placing contrasting colors side by side. Placing colors together which are opposites on the color wheel creates a visual frisson, or what Van Gogh called electricity. He even had a box of yarn to test out color combinations before using his paints.

Interested in creating art work in the style of Van Gogh? Here is a project suitable for any age. Take some time to look at one of Van Gogh’s paintings, such as A Starry Night. Use a blue or gray colored pastel or construction paper along with chalk pastels in white, yellows, oranges, blues, and purples. Black can be added as an accent. Lightly sketch in your own version of A Starry Night. Look at how Van Gogh painted the wind, winding around the canvas, or the stars radiating out as if glowing. Working from dark to light, use thick, short broken strokes and follow the contour of shapes, repeating the pattern over and over until filling the composition. You may find yourself seeing the world just a little bit differently.

Did you know? You can even borrow a framed print of a Van Gogh painting or one from Gauguin via the HCLS Art Collection.

Nina L. is a Customer Service Specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS. She loves art, yoga, dogs, cats, and reading horizontally.