No Strings Attached: Emotional Interaction with Animated Sculptures of Crucified Christ

by Jonah Coman, University of St Andrews

Coman1In a manuscript in the National Library in Madrid, MS 3995 (c.15 C),[i] one can find one of the most bizarre depictions of human interactions with the crucifix. The miniature shows a kneeling Benedictine nun, her black and white robes flowing in front of her, calmly looking at a crucifix with her hands folded in prayer. From the textured wooden crucifix, an emaciated but smiling Christ has descended and stands on her ample habit, maybe even pinning it down. Both of his feet, and one of the hands, are pierced through with three massive iron nails, and all of his limbs are marked with the bleeding sores of crucifixion. His right hand hovers in front of the nun’s face, as if to show her from up close the bleeding wound left by the fourth nail in his palm. But that fourth nail is not affixed to his body anymore; in fact, the big iron peg is now stuck in the nun’s face, both ends visible on the surface of her cheeks. Is this a ‘compassio Christi’ gone remarkably literal?

The story accompanying it locates the event under the influence of English kings, at the (unidentified) Benedictine convent of Fontanblay.[ii] The nun kneeling was said to be of an unsurpassed beauty, and an equal devotion to her convent’s sculptures of Mary and Christ. Every time she would pass by the figures, she would kneel and greet them with an Ave and a cross. This nun nevertheless has captured the attentions of a young knight in the town, and she returned his affections. So much so, that she has planned to one day sneak out of the convent and run away with him; but in order to do that, she would have to go by the two sculptures she usually venerated. The nun, either still out of devotion, or so that she wouldn’t tip her sisters off, or still out of a quasi-animistic concern that she would tip off the statues themselves, went by and kneeled in front of the figures on her way out. At that point, Mary, who understood her intent, started scolding her, and Christ himself descended from the cross, removed one of his nails, and struck the nun with it across the face, so that it went through her cheeks. ‘After dealing the blow, Christ crucified returned to the cross just as he had been before, except that his right arm forever after remained in the position in which it had wounded the nun’. The modified position of the sculpture itself worked another miracle in the conversion of the knight, through visual confirmation if the truth: ‘When the knight heard about it, he could not believe it. To be sure he went to the convent to see what had happened. Once he has learned the truth about what had happened he considered himself a great sinner and repented of all the sins…’[iii]

The story above, like others mentioned in this chapter, are tales of interaction of medieval audiences with what appears to be life-size, mobile Christs. Nevertheless, very few scholars explicitly associate them with a specific typology in the plastic arts, and especially sculpture, of the middle ages. Such life-size Christs were not just the stuff of dreams (or nightmares), but have existed in Europe throughout the middle ages – massive wooden bodies, from the size of a small adult up to three metres tall, were habitually hung on the crosses above the nave. A special subset of these is formed by sculptures capable of moving their hands, bowing down, or even rolling their eyes and wagging their tongue, what Kamil Kopania terms ‘animated sculptures’.[iv] These sculptures appear in scholarship on established communal theatrical rites, such as processions and Easter sepulchral dramas, which used articulated Christ from the local cross as a multi-purpose prop for enacting the descent, burial and resurrection. [v] Nevertheless, their presence in the community outside of these ritualized moments, and their significance as presences, rather than props, has not been yet enquired.

Kamil Kopania considers this work on sepulchral drama as preliminary studies that explain the function and liturgical use of such statues, but do not address provenance, survival, construction and over-all physical aspects of the sculptures.[vi] His comprehensive cataloguing study comes as new knowledge in an art historical field already disgruntled with traditional analysis of art based on materials. His Animated Sculptures of Christ is, nevertheless, a needed addition to the field – as three-dimensional and emotional objects, these sculptures cannot be studied in isolation of their materiality. Only by taking into consideration their size and physical presence can their emotional impact be assessed. Coman 2and3In this essay, I take the materiality of the sculptures as a starting point, and, through the exploration of what this materiality implies, I arrive at the same destination as the knight in our story: at a meditation on the questions of truth that this sort of life-size figures pose.

The medieval story I started with is one of many taken from exempla as well as vitae, where sculptures of the crucified Christ become animated. Lukardis of Oberweimar reacted out of compassion for the man when, dreaming of walking around in her convent ‘into a certain portal’ (per quoddam ostium), she saw ‘Jesus Christ as if recently crucified on a cross’ (in quo Iesum Christum recenter cruci quasi iam affixum). Seeing a dangling hand (implicitly jointed) that has come loose from its peg and therefore left all Christ’s weight resting in only two nails, she tried to allay the pain of the crucified by tying it back to the rood.[vii] Rupert of Deutz saw the big crucifix above the altar he was praying at not only bow down to embrace him, but also ‘sensed how joyfully [a sculpted crucifix] received this gesture of love, since as he was being kissed he opened his mouth, that I might kiss him more deeply.’[viii] In 1340s, Margaret Ebner’s similar desire to kiss the altar crucifix came true in a dream when ‘my Lord Jesus Christ bent down from the cross and let me kiss His open heart and gave me to drink of the blood flowing from His heart’.[ix] This kind of feeding at Christ’s side-wound is not unusual for mystics of the period, although this story, and the one of Luitgard of Luxemburg, emphasize the concrete sculptural form the crucified takes in these encounters:

Christ came to meet her at the very entrance of the church, all bloody and nailed to the Cross. Lowering his arm which was attached to the Cross, he embraced her who was standing opposite and pressed her mouth against the wound in his right side.[x]

In MS Ludwig IX.7, St Hedwig of Silesia prays ‘prostrated’ in front of a crucifix that comes to life to gesture and talk ‘with a loud voice’ to the woman.[xi] The illuminator directs the extra-textual spectator’s reading of the right-arm motion of the crucified towards Hedwig in a concrete way emphasizing its body: ‘Here, detaching his right hand and arm (manum et brachium dextrum) from the cross beam, the image of the crucified (ymago c[ru]cifixi) blesses St. Hedwig’.


In all these narratives, as well as in images accompanying or independent of this sort of texts, the dangling right arm (always dextra, as counterpart of sinistra, where the sinners would rest) of the explicitly sculptural crucifix is read in multiple ways. It slaps the English nun, embraces Rupert, droops painfully in front of Lukardis, presses Luitgard’s head to Christ’s side, or points towards his side-wound in a donor portrait in the prayerbook of Bonne of Luxembourg.


This gesture of the crucified interacting with believers are treated as visionary or miraculous events, but they benefit from concrete, material support onto which the medieval imagination was able to map familiar gestures. Christ’s arm movement, kisses and intense gaze can be explained as the effect of articulated Christ sculptures witnessed in motion. Even though not all, not even a majority, of crucifixes were articulated, the stark impression the few animated Christs make on anybody witnessing it can then be mapped on a regular, unmoving crucifix. Once the viewer acknowledges the reality of sculptures in motion, any crucifix has the potential to animate, especially the highly affective, highly dynamic ones characteristic of the high and late middle ages. This contamination of imagery and imagination can be observed by comparing the manuscript images of crucifixion encounters with 12th century Romanesque Christs. Sculpted in a dynamic pose as if frozen during the descent from the cross, originally part of a larger devotional group, these images of the crucified alone could have been, by the 14th century, viewed in isolation from their original ensemble. [xii]

Coman 6 through 9

With their dramatic bend of the torso and the drooping arm, not quite fully surrendered to gravity, they seem to extend their right hand to caress, slap or hug the viewer. Not a lot of imaginative effort is required to envision these sculptures as suddenly animated, especially if moving sculptures of Christ already exist in the experiential horizon of the viewer.

The capacity for mutation and contamination of medieval religious sculpture has been demonstrated by scholars specifically working on medieval crucifixions. Sara Lipton asserts that ‘we can trace in these [diachronically] different depictions of Christ’s body visual characteristics that seem to align with contemporary devotional trends’,[xiii] while Lutz notes that artists and viewers adapted to and influenced each other in the design and reception of crucifixes.[xiv] This way, the 12-13th  century meditations on the crucifix imagine Christ bloody on the cross, even though the long-established iconography of the time was still the unbroken, quietly dignified pose that Rachel Fulton called Redeemer Christ;[xv] and Francis of Assisi’s devotion to the crucifix reveals that the materiality of his stigmata are quite plastic, closely mimicking the sculptural conventions  – not cavernous wounds but protruding simulacra of nails grown from his own flesh, and a side-wound where ‘the flesh was contracted into a sort of circle, so that it looked like a beautiful rose.’[xvi]

Coman 10

The relation between text and imagery, as well as the extent to which the trope of the moving sculpture infused the psychology of the medieval believer, can be mapped by using Sara Lipton’s case study. In cataloging viewer interaction with crucifix statues, Lipton has identified and collected one specific trope of the crucified slumping body of Christ read as one of the gestures compiled above: the motion towards an embrace and a kiss.

Therefore S. Bernard said: Who is he that is not ravished to hope of affiance which taketh none heed to the disposition of his body? He hath his head inclined to be kissed, the arms stretched to embrace us, his hands pierced to give to us, the side open to love us, the feet fixed with nails for to abide with us, and the body stretched all for to give to us[xvii]

This specific image appears in fourteen variations across the medieval Latinate and vulgate Christianity, spanning four hundred years.[xviii] The trope of the embrace, associated by Jacobus of Voragine with Bernard, was already a commonplace imagery in English miscellanies before it was widely disseminated by the Passio Christi chapter in the Latin Legenda Aurea and its vernacular translations. Manuscript copies of this work abounded even before being given a boost by Caxton’s own translation and print of the Legenda. This is just one of many tropes; the diversity of meaning the gesture has (blessing, punishment etc), as well as the wide geographical area of its spread attests to a quasi-animistic lay thinking about local sculptures of Christ.


If the statue moves for Easter, and for other special sermons, why could he not move in personal encounters with true believers? If the statue is capable of animation, then what keeps it from springing into life at any point?

The likeness with live humans was not just a result of the lifelike size and the affected poses of the statues of the crucified. Exceptional survivals like the ‘Mirakelmann from Döbeln’, highly jointed, with real human hair, fingernails and flexible skin, and capable of bleeding, should not discourage the scholar to investigate farther this type of sculptures. Kamil Kopania catalogues more than 150 figures with different degrees of articulation (see map), and he does not take into consideration other non-jointed, but still quasi-skeuomorphic sculptures.


The credibility of these sculptures was preserved by concealing the joints articulating head, hands (shoulders, elbows and wrists, as well as fingers), knees and hips of sculptures – which allowed it to perform a far larger set of movements than those required during the Easter sepulchre dramas – with skin-coloured leather, parchment or bone glue paste.[xix] The Christ sculptures of Burgos, Valvasone and Orense are covered in calf leather over a soft wool padding, which makes their body give to pressure – these sculptures are especially designed to be touched, and not just witness from a distance. Several examples have human hair and horn nails;[xx] other narratives of sculptures covered in parchment or leather imitating skin can be found in literature.[xxi] The Burgos, Döbeln and Boxley Christs could bleed from the side wound thanks to a liquid tank in the chest cavity. Another three sculptures, including the Boxley rood, the best documented but by no means the first or the only English artefact, have movable tongues and eyes, allowing them to conceivably perform the kissing, whispering and gazing that contemporary descriptions of animated Christ mention: ‘the iȝen of the ymage be turned hidirward and thidirward, and that the ymage semyngli speke.’[xxii]

So how did these animated sculptures of the crucified Christ perform in a medieval, emotional version of the Turing test? As the stories collected at the beginning of this essay demonstrate, this sort of moving images suffused the collective imagination of the Christian believers and cropped up as miracle tropes as well as in mundane depictions of interactions with the crucified. If from afar, and in candlelight, these Christs flickered between animated and static, between object and subject ‘hover[ed] in the gap between the visible and the visionary’, closeness to the statue could bring even more awareness in the spectator of the status of the image as human. [xxiii] Their size and weight, experienced in the process of (re)moving, cleaning, or praying to, the way they filled the space with presence creating slight changes in the air pressure, the way the breath and whispers of the believer bounced off the material reality of the body, imbuing it with its own echoed breath and whispers, and especially the somewhat uncanny give of the skin and slight sway of the hair, are all tools for emotional recall. This is a process Sara Lipton calls

‘resemblance and relation. The [spectator] roams freely within his visual memory, personal history, and cultural world in his search for images and gestures similar to, and therefore of significance for, the images and gestures of the artwork before his eyes…’[xxiv]

Jacqueline Jung also considers these statues as interpretable multi-dimensional texts that draw their power from memory and imagination: ‘the figures are best thought of as embodied templates for imaginative projection.’[xxv] These assessments are as poetic as they are deeply attuned to the medieval mnemonic and meditative practices, but I would like to slightly challenge the direction of their argument.

Sara Lipton’s focus on the gesture of the embrace emphasizes the dialogical dimension of these encounters. On two different occasions, she prompts the modern reader to see devotional art ‘as initiating a dialogue or conversation’, whether in one specific moment or ‘across many centuries’.[xxvi] This narrative of the dialogical relationship emphasizes difference of bodies and creation of ‘other’ in relation to an abstracted self. I communicate with him therefore he exists outside my body; I touch him therefore he is a physical entity separate from my own. Instead of the ‘other’ that dialogue presupposes, I propose reading these encounters through the Lacanian ‘mirror’ perspective. Lacan’s mirror, that stands at the core of the formation of self, is not a literal, but a metaphorical one: it is the body of mother or lover mirrors the self and represents the ideal ego.[xxvii] Recognition of these Christ images as human – by their size, materiality, and ability to move, speak and bleed – (re)materializes the self as reflection of Imago Dei. This is a concern prevalent in mystical and theological discourse of the 13-15th centuries, but, as Alexa Sand demonstrates, it is also reflected in the lay concern with mirrors, death and the body mortal.[xxviii]

The humanness, three-dimensionality, credibility and especially – and this is crucial – the essentially Christian incarnational belief of the spectator faced with an image of God embodied all collaborated toward a moment of visceral recognition, of heightened sense of presence and of identity.[xxix] Through acutely human, self-actualizing experiences like pain, revulsion, arousal, and terror, the believer is reminded of self as Imago Dei and, faced with his image, of Christ as god incarnate.[xxx] I touch him and he touches me; he suffered pains that I could suffer and I bleed like he bled; I understand his pain because he is like me – human fully. The three-dimensional sculptures of the crucifixion especially, but also visual and narrative cues (the blood of the crucifixion, the pains and tortures described) more generally, drive home one of the most important truths of the Christian church: the incarnation. Sand’s intuition about statues of Mary – that it is not her lifelike appearance, but her humanity (which allow her to give birth to Christ but also to be vengeful) make her statues so effective[xxxi] -productively maps on the crucified Christ examples. The impact of the imago crucifixi is doubly effective since Christ’s humanity – that allow him to caress the viewer as well as to suffer on the cross – is the fundamental dogma of the medieval church, and one that was over and over rehearsed through theological works as well as popular sermons.

Modern as well as medieval scholars have been concerned with the authenticity these statues assert with their presence. Echoing Lollard and other medieval iconoclastic ideas, Elina Gertsman re-emphasizes the incongruity between the ontological status of the figures and the recognition they demand.

‘The statue makes a claim for reality, for truth, not least through the use of real epidermis to render skin, real keratin to render nails, real human hair to frame his face. But this reality produces a corpse, pale and leeched of life.’[xxxii]

Nevertheless, the truth that is constructed in the encounter between the statue and spectator is, as I theorize it, in the body of the believer and not in the manufactured simulacrum of a human. The pale corpse is alive through the inspiration of the believer, through the act of imagining or believing, which makes it move not by ropes and pedals, but by imagination – Margaret Ebner, Lukardis and Rupert of Deutz gave life to the statues because they believed they were indeed alive. The real epidermis shell is filled with animation/animus by the human who understands the skin as part of the stuff of incarnation; this (re)animation of statues is, in a way, building a real presence from material and inspiration just like the Creation (Genesis 2:7 Formavit igitur Dominus Deus hominem de limo terrae, et inspiravit in faciem ejus spiraculum vitae) and, by its Chalcedonian nature, the Incarnation does.

This theoretical approach might seem to be a far-fetched animistic approach spurred by modern familiarity with robotronic fantasies that glorify, nonetheless, the human intellect behind the machine. Yet the Welsh-born bishop of Chichester, Reginald Pecock (d.1461), made the same kind of comparison between the ontology of animated sculptures (idols) and that of Christ:

People thought that the spirits would join themselves with the images in a complicated process incomprehensible to human perception, and that the spirit and the image combined in some inexplicable way would be a perceptible god; somewhat like the way we Christians believe that God descended into humankind and united to himself a human individual.[xxxiii]

For Pecock, idolatry was akin to the incarnation; but in the case of the sculptures of Christ, where the believer would not (or at least, was supposed not to) believe that the actual Christ resided, the similar process taking place was in fact not idolatry. The arguments of Lollards, a group that so adamantly condemned multiple practices of the institutional church, against image-based devotion construed it as ‘ner of kyn to ydolatrie’, but not idolatry quite yet.[xxxiv] The idol-worshipper believed that his god resided in the image – the image would be animated with the spirit of the god; the orthodox Christian believed that her god did not reside in this one specific image, but that the image signified him – in a sophisticated Christian semiology seen best at work in the Eucharist[xxxv] – and that the sculpture was animated by her imagination and belief.

So why do all the images that I found in narrative and illumination resemble the semi-detached Christ of the deposition? What makes this motif so appealing and iconic that it appears over and over again across time, space and story matter? One can use stylistic shifts around the period in order to explain the different approach of the viewer to the new motif, and therefore a feeling of uncanny and uncertainty around the new, more expressive sculptures, like Sand did with sculptures of Mary.[xxxvi] Nevertheless, this essay offered an alternative possibility predicated on the Europe-wide examples of jointed sculptures of Christ. By their ability to prompt the thrill or fear of the crucified suddenly coming alive because of their inherent animation mechanisms, I have shown that artifice – that is, the fabricated and staged sculpture, that represents the incarnated Christ in his most human of moments – can substitute, or better still, re-actualize nature. Contact with a credible simulacrum of embodiment and pain can bring one to recognition of the self, and therefore of the human, in her god. This process rests on witnessing the physicality of the sculptures, and on coming into close proximity, or even contact, with the inviting body of these figures. Intimate touch, therefore, is the key to this incarnational epiphany, a direct body contact that crucial to the very scene of the deposition, and sought by the medieval believer.

Coman14 and 15

Direct body contact produces an extremely visceral sense of truth, and body contact with a material Christ produced the truth of his incarnation. That that body is art, or artifice, idol, or inspired representation of god, it does not matter in the end; what matters is the knowledge that this contact brings.

Visiting the Christ of Burgos in the middle of the 19th century, Theophile Gautier was seriously disturbed by its appearance and the myths surrounding it:

Nothing can be more lugubrious and disquieting than this attenuated, crucified phantom with its human appearance and deathlike stillness; the faded and brownish-yellow skin is streaked with long streams of blood, so well imitated that they seem to trickle. It requires no great effort of imagination to give credence to the legend that it bleeds every Friday.[xxxvii]

For him, this sculpture was the pinnacle of ‘the craving for the true, however revolting,’ a characteristic that he ascribed to Spanish art as a whole, but which could be said to be the impulse for a lot of high and late medieval art. For Gautier, as well as for the nun that I started with, the tangible, credible materiality of the crucified sculpture provides a visceral jolt of (self)-recognition and maybe, a return to belief in the fundamental Christian paradox, a dead god made human.


[i] One of the seven surviving medieval copies of the Castilian mirror for princes attributed to King Sancho IV (1258-1295) ‘Castigos del rey don Sancho IV’. Colbert I. Nepaulsingh, ‘Notes for a Study of Wisdom Literature and Literary Composition in Medieval Spain’, in Hispanic Studies, Madison, Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies 1986, ed. John S. Miletich, pp.217-222; Barry Taylor, ‘Old Spanish Wisdom Texts: Some Relationships’, La corónica 1985 (14), pp.71-85.

[ii] The story closely resembles one episode (vol. I, distinction VII, capitulum XLIV) from Cesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum (1220-1235), with the twist of the end action by the statue of Christ and not of Mary. See Alexa Sand’s summary in ‘Vindictive virgins: animate images and theories of art in some thirteenth-century miracle stories’, Word & Image 26 (2010), p.155. Cesarius’ story quickly found its way in the Cantigas de Santa Maria attributed to Sancho IV’s father, Alfonso X (1221-1284), but the mutation is peculiar to the Castigo.

[iii] ‘Castigo del Rey don Sancho’, chp.19, translated by Emily C. Francomano, Medieval Conduct Literature: An Anthology of Vernacular Guides to Behaviour for Youths, with English translations, ed. Mark David Johnston, Kathleen M Ashley, (Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2009) pp.217-221.

[iv] Kamil Kopania, Animated Sculptures of the Crucified Christ in the Religious Culture of the Latin Middle Ages (Warszawa: Wydawn. “Neriton”, 2010).

[v] Easter sepulchre animations: Pamela Sheingorn, The Easter Sepulchre in England, Early drama, art, and music reference series 5 (Kalamazoo, MI : Medieval Institute Publications, 1987); Clifford Davidson, ‘The Bodley ‘Christ’s Burial’ and ‘Christ’s Resurrection’: Vernacular Dramas for Good Friday and Easter’, European Medieval Drama 7 (2003), pp. 51-67; Osborne Bennett Hardison, Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages, (Baltimore 1965), pp. 253-283; Peter Meredith, ‘The Bodley Burial and Resurrection’: Late English liturgical drama?’, in Alan J. Fletcher, Wim Hlisken (eds.), Between Folk and Liturgy, (Amsterdam, 1997), pp. 133-155.

[vi] Kopania, ‘”the Idolle That Stode There in Myne Opynyon a Very Monstrous Sight”: On a Number of Late-Medieval Animated Figures of Crucified Christ’, in Materiał Rzeźby, ed. Aleksandra Lipińska (2009), pp.132-3.

[vii] “Vita venerabilis Lukardis,” Analecta Bollandiana 18 (1899), pp.305‒67 (314) cited in Jacqueline Jung, ‘The Tactile and the Visionary: Notes on the Place of Sculpture in the Medieval Religious Imagination’ in Looking Beyond: Visions, Dreams, and Insights in Medieval Art and History, ed. Colum Hourihane (Princeton: Index of Christian Art, 2010), pp.217-18 and n.63.

[viii] Sara Lipton, ‘”The Sweet Lean of His Head”: Writing about Looking at the Crucifix in the High Middle Ages,’ Speculum 80 (2005), pp.1175-6.

[ix] Margaret Ebner, “Revelations,” in Margaret Ebner, Major Works, transl. Leonard P. Hindsley (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), p.96.

[x] Thomas of Cantimpré, The Collected Saints’ Lives: Abbot John of Cantimpré, Christina the Astonishing, Margaret of Ypres, and Lutgard of Aywières, transl. Barbara Newman, Margot H. King, (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2008), p.228.

[xi] ‘Ubi dum in oracione prostrata moram faceret, ut solebat, ymago iam dicta manum et brachium dextrum de ligno crucis absolvens extendensque ipsam benedixit dicens voce sonora: Exaudita est oracio tua et, que postulas, inpetrabis’ transcribed in Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, p.215 n.58

[xii] Carla Varela Fernandes, ‘Pathos – the bodies of Christ on the Cross. Rhetoric of suffering in wooden sculpture found in Portugal, twelfth-fourteenth centuries. A few examples.’ RIHA Journal 0078, 2013.

[xiii] Sara Lipton, ‘Images in the world: reading the crucifixion,’ in Medieval Christianity in Practice, ed. Miri Rubin (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2009), p.180.

[xiv] Gerhard Lutz, ‘The Drop of Blood: Image and Piety in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, Preternature 4 (2015), p.37.

[xv] Lutz, ‘Drop of blood’, p.39; Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

[xvi] Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, pp.223-4 n.85

[xvii] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints, ed.F.S. Ellis (Temple Classics, 1900), Chp 12 ‘The Passion of our Lord’.

[xviii] Lipton, ‘Sweet lean’, indexes several primary texts, of which I give a selection: Verse appended to the English text of the Ancrene Riwle (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.xiv, fol. 131v) England, c. 1225-50; Collection of biblical and patristic distinctions (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm. 23447, fol. 23v), 13C; Devotional verse in Latin, French, and English (London, British Library, Add. MS 11579, fol. 36r-v), England, 13C; Middle English devotional verse or excerpt (Trinity College Cambridge, MS B.14.39, fol. 83v). England, c. 1250; Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea, Italy, ca. 1260-63. Other famous medieval writers adopted the trope: Ramon Lull, Catherine of Siena, Thomas a Kempis, Richard Rolle of Hampole.

[xix] Kopania, Animated Sculptures, passim; Kopania, ‘Idolle’, p.135.

[xx]Kopania, ‘Idolle’, p.139.

[xxi] An interesting example is 13th and 14th C mechanic monkeys ‘with real (regularly replaced) skins.’ Jessica Riskin, “Machines in the Garden,” Republics of Letters 1:2 (2010), p.31.

[xxii] Reginald Pecock, The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy, Churchill Babington cited in Sarah Salih, “Idol Theory”, Preternature 4 (2015), p.31; Leanne Groeneveld, ‘A Theatrical Miracle: The Boxley Rood of Grace as Puppet’, Early Theatre 10.2 (2007), p.18; Kopania, Animated Sculptures, pp.118, 156 n.117. Misericords with movable tongues in Winchester and Halifax, St John’s cathedral, are mentioned in Paul Hardwick, English Medieval Misericords: The Margins of Meaning, (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2011), p.167, and Kopania mentions a ‘bad thief’ with a similar construction.

[xxiii] Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.155.

[xxiv] Lipton, ‘Reading the crucifixion’, p.181

[xxv] Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, p.219,220

[xxvi] Lipton, ‘Reading the crucifixion’, p.185 Lipton, ‘Sweet lean’, p.1201

[xxvii] Tamise Van Pelt, ‘Lacan in Context: An Introduction to Lacan for the English-Speaking Reader’, College Literature 24 (1997), p59.

[xxviii] Alexa Sand, ‘The fairest of them all: Reflections on some fourteenth-century mirrors’ in Push Me, Pull You: Imaginative, Emotional, Physical, and Spatial Interaction in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art, ed by Sarah Blick and Laura Gelfand (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 535, 544-5.

[xxix] In a somewhat similar manner, Hans Belting sees the body as a big organ receptive to reality from within: “The human being is the natural locus of images, a living organ for images, as it were… it is within the human being, and only within the human being, that images are received and interpreted in a living sense.” An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 37.

[xxx] Sand, ‘Reflections on mirrors’, pp.536, 558, touches on the latter two experiences, but does not give the rationale for their effectiveness.

[xxxi] Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.157.

[xxxii] Elina Gertsman, ‘’Bewilderment Overwhelms Me’’, Preternature 4 (2015), p.8.

[xxxiii] Reginald Pecock, The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy, ed. Churchill Babington (London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1860), I.244–45 cited in Salih, “Idol Theory”, p.28

[xxxiv] Salih, “Idol Theory”, p.15

[xxxv] Michel Camille suggests to take the Eucharistic theology as framework for understanding late medieval ‘perception of images, for here a visible thing was itself capable of becoming and not just signifying its prototype.’ The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-Making in Medieval Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p.217.

[xxxvi]  Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.150.

[xxxvii] Theophile Gautier, Voyage en Espagne, 1865.

‘Des Esseintes’ of Brussels: Artifice of the Villa Khnopff

by Maria Golovteeva, University of St Andrews

Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff erected his extravagant villa in Brussels at number 41, Avenue des Courses in Brussels, at its intersection with Avenue Jeanne, on the edge of the greenery of the Bois de la Cambre. It was a result of collaboration with Belgian architect Edouard Pelseneer. The first steps to create the house were most likely taken in October 1899; the plans were drawn in March 1900, and the residence was finished in 1902.[i] The villa is now only known from eyewitness accounts and photographs published in contemporary periodicals, as it was demolished in 1938 – 1940 to build a block of flats.[ii] It is still to be determined who took the photographs depicting empty rooms and corridors of the Villa Khnopff and one view of the dwelling from the outside, but their reproductions first appeared as illustrations in the article ‘Das Heim eines Symbolisten’ by writer and journalist Wolfram Waldschmidt in the Dekorative Kunst in 1906.

Facade of the Villa Khnopff
Facade of the Villa Khnopff. © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

Some of these photographic evocations were reproduced in the artist’s first biography published by his friend Louis Dumont-Wilden in 1907, which provides an insight into the Villa Khnopff too.[iii] Several reproductions also appeared in Hélène Laillet’s 1912 article ‘The Home of an artist: M. Fernand Khnopff’s Villa at Brussels’ for The Studio. Contemporaries that were invited to visit the magnificent building, designed in the Secessionist style that highlighted eccentric designs and superficial atmosphere, called it ‘la chapelle votive d’une esthétique personnelle et compliquée’ or ‘le Castel du rêve.’[iv] Dumont-Wilden, who visited the villa numerous times, recalls des Esseintes, the main character of Huysmans’ novel A Rebours, who decorated his house with rare, strange and beautiful things to establish an artificial environment to correspond with his overly sophisticated idiosyncratic personality. Indeed, artificiality was one of the main characteristics of the Villa Khnopff.

Just like the Goncourt’s ‘maison d’art’ at Auteuil, which its owners transformed into a proto-Symbolist work of art, the image of the Villa Khnopff was circulated in textual and photographic reproductions.[v] Photographic evocations of the house are of particular interest, as they provide visual depictions of the dwelling and perhaps less subjective descriptions than written testimonials. They characterise the self-documenting ability of the photography that gave the artist an opportunity to construct, preserve and project not only his vision of his house, but also of his artistic identity. At the same time, these photographs demonstrate the documentary capacity of the medium, which Khnopff considered to be one of its most important and valuable qualities. This creates an interesting reciprocity between his life and photographs and a certain ambiguity of these photographic representations. On the one hand, they provide a supposedly objective view of the villa; on the other, they exude an air of constructed reality and carefully controlled affectation. For instance, the photographs do not document the villa entirely: they depict only several areas probably chosen by the artist excluding the sleeping quarters of the dwelling. Khnopff’s avoidance of showing more utilitarian spaces in his house, whether it was common for that time or not, represents his meticulous control over his art as well as his personal image. This contributes to Khnopff’s intention to design an artificial aura of an intellectual and dandy around himself and mythologise his œuvre. Thus, the artificiality of the Villa Khnopff, which was also an continuation of the artist’s eccentric personality, extended even in its photographic depictions, which as a result of a technical process represent an opposition to everything natural.

Dumont-Wilden’s comparison of Khnopff to des Esseintes is even more detailed: he dubs the artist “un des Esseintes qui n’a pas subi l’éducation romantique, et n’a jamais fréquenté le grenier d’Auteuil.”[vi] The biographer thus contrasts the Villa Khnopff not only with des Esseintes’ residence, but also with the Goncourt’s aestheticised house. Dumont-Wilden most likely implies the stylistic differences between two dwellings, as in other aspects they shared certain similarities. The villa in Brussels represented a projection of the life of the artist into a living environment and explored the potential of interior rearrangements of art objects and artificial settings that would transform a domestic home into ‘an “artistic” retreat just like the house at Auteuil.[vii] However, while the Goncourts decorated their residence according to their main ‘collecting, literary, and aesthetic interests … in French eighteenth-century art, Gavarni and Romantic literature, near and far-eastern “objets d’art” ‘, Khnopff fashioned his villa in a completely different manner.[viii] He combined his preference for the laconic Secessionist architecture with his fascination with the Pre-Raphaelite art and the classical past.

Khnopff praised the Secessionist style and Viennese architects deriving inspiration for his residence from their works. He was impressed with Josef Hoffmann’s buildings and galleries already in 1898 while he was exhibiting in Vienna.[ix] This was visible in the white facades of the villa (see above) dominated by rigorous straight lines. Such architectural preference was not coincidental on Khnopff’s part: the concepts of straight and curved lines had certain aesthetic and philosophical meaning to the intellectuals of that time. Unsurprisingly, in the manner of his idealistic and spiritual art Khnopff predominantly preferred the supposed intellectualism and morality of straight lines to the sensuality and materiality of curved lines, as well as unelaborate ornamentation to heavy embellishment, both in the exterior and interior of the villa. Indeed, the facades were decorated only with black lines, golden circles, and black monograms on a golden background with Khnopff’s typical “cold yet noble aestheticism”. [x] The building exuded such an “air of reserve, almost of disdain” that passers-by sometimes mistook the austere exterior of the villa for one of a chapel or a vault.[xi] Khnopff used the colour black only for the exteriors together with gold, blue, and white, which he employed for decoration throughout his villa.[xii]

Even after such a laconic exterior, visitors were still struck by austerity of the interior. Khnopff emphasises in his 1904 article ‘Mein Haus’ for Die Zeit that from the beginning the dwelling was as uninviting as possible.[xiii] This statement borders on self-criticism, but not for Khnopff: for him as for an aesthete, the comfort and coziness of his residence is not of a high priority. What was more significant for him is projecting his desire to gather precious collectables and create a specific decadent and artistic setting, which was evident in the first room of the house – a small antechamber with white walls of polished stucco.

The Antechamber
The Antechambre. © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

Already this little room showed the touch of the artist, as it was inhabited by several emblems of Khnopff’s private symbolism. Those were symbols important for Khnopff and his art: a small laurel tree in the corner, a stuffed Indian peacock, a small Greek statue on a blue column and his work Blanc, Noir et Or (1901) with the word “Soi” (self) inscribed above it.[xiv]

Blanc, Noir et Or
Fernand Khnopff, Blanc, Noir et Or, 1901. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

The antechamber was followed by a long white corridor that ran through the villa.

The Corridor
The Corridor. © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

Like the antechamber, it was decorated with works of art. Among other paintings hanging on its walls was Khnopff’s work Arum Lily (1895)  that depicted his sister Marguerite with the strong features of a Pre-Raphaelite beauty and the portrait of Elisabeth of Austria  executed by Khnopff.[xv]

Arum Lily
Fernand Khnopff, Arum Lily, 1895. Photographic reproduction executed by Alexandre and reworked by Khnopff. © Le Cabinet des Estampes, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique.

Elisabeth d’Autriche
Fernand Khnopff, Elisabeth d’Autriche.

A copy of a Greek sculpture of Hope from the Munich Glyptothek was placed on a windowsill. The latter corresponded with the motto written on the walls: ‘Everything comes to him who waits’. The corridor continued the idea of the immersion into the personality of the artist and his private symbols, his art and sources of his inspiration introduced in the antechamber. In fact, Khnopff’s collection of his own works and of the works of others constituted an important part of his villa.

The space was lit with high windows glazed with Tiffany glass to control the light and reduce the distractions of the nature just as many windows around the house were heavily draped to minimise outside noise and reduce the distractions of the city. The confrontation between the carefully constructed artificial atmosphere of the villa and the outside world was noticed by the visitors: Dumont-Wilden called the house ‘le temple du Moi, … la forteresse d’une individualité en perpétuelle défense contre le Monde et la Vie.’ Hélène Laillet  described it as ‘the expression of his [Khnopff’s] own personality which he [Khnopff] has built for his own satisfaction; it is his immutable ‘Self’ which he has raised in defiance of a troubled and changing world.’[xvi] Khnopff’s dwelling conveyed an impression that the artist fenced himself, his artistic self, from the world in this perpetual defense. Thus, like des Esseintes, Khnopff strived to maintain an artificial environment in his dwelling. After all, he shared with the fictional aesthete from Huysmans’ novel his reclusiveness and eccentricity. At the same time, Dumont-Wilden characterises Khnopff as ‘un des Esseintes méthodique, épris, d’ordonnance harmonieuse beaucoup plus que de singularité.’[xvii] Indeed, Khnopff’s residence, in its austerity, did not share the opulence of des Esseintes’ house.

The austerity of the interiors was specifically evident in the White room on the ground floor, which almost no one could recognise as a dining room, as the space always struck guests with its severity and coldness.[xviii]

The White Room (Dining Room)
The White Room (Dining Room). © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

According to Laillet’s description, the doorway was curtained with pale blue satin, the windows were glazed with blue and gold glass forming in combination ‘flames and fantastic figures’, which demonstrates the artist’s intention to create an artificial interior.[xix] The walls were decorated with Khnopff’s most known works and a reproduction of Edward Burne-Jones’s Wheel of Fortune. The overall impression of the room was ‘vague and uneasy’, chairs did not ‘invite repose’, and a small table was ‘just big enough to hold a vase’.[xx] The miniature dining table would be brought in for every meal and quickly taken away afterwards. This again represents how the functionality and comfort of the living space was sacrificed for the sake of decadent perfectionism and aesthetic unity, the tension between the real and the ideal, the material and the immaterial, or as contemporaries put it, ‘the struggle between the ideal and the material’.[xxi] At the same, by sacrificing the domestic the artist reaches his main goal – to bedazzle the public, as pointed out by French journalist, critic and novelist Albert Flament, who wrote under a pseudonym Sparklet for L’écho de Paris: ‘Ah! l’intérieur de M. Khnopff, son vestibule aux dalles blanches, aux murs blanches, sa galerie blanche, sa sale à manger pareille, avec sa table pour deux, et son petit canapé pour unique siege, triomphe du ripolin, couloirs de sucre vernissé où s’ébaubissent les snobs de la Cambre!’.[xxii]

The artificiality of the Villa Khnopff was partly related to the cult of the artist as a thinker and a priest of art in the nineteenth century. The sacred nature of artists’ work was foremost promoted by the poet and novelist Joséphine Péladan, who addressed artists with the following call: ‘Artiste, tu es prêtre: l’Art est le grand mystère, et lorsque ton effort about it au chef-d’œuvre, un rayon du divin descend comme sur un autel.’[xxiii] In 1892 he founded an artistic group dedicated to spirituality and the aesthetics of mystery – the Salon de la Rose+Croix. Khnopff not only exhibited at the Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, but also to a certain extent followed Péladan’a dogmas. Indeed, Khnopff turned his living and working space into a temple of art by creating a religious, almost supernatural atmosphere in his villa and elevating his art and artistic process almost to the status of a cult, which he attempted to transmit in the photographs of the villa.

Several altars dedicated to the most important emblems in Khnopff’s art and scattered around the house contributed to this atmosphere of the artistic cult. On the ground floor, opposite the staircase leading to the upper floors, was a blue niche containing the first altar of the house.

The Altar
The altar to Imagination in the blue niche. © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

It was a shrine to Imagination and comprised Khnopff’s sculpture of a winged mask executed in ivory, enamel and bronze on a thin blue column.[xxiv] The installation was placed against a Japanese embroidery with a crane on a blue background. The winged mask was a recurrent emblem of the artist’s private symbolism: it existed in several versions, including a sculpture in a polychrome plaster and appeared in Secret-Reflet (1902).


Another altar, dedicated to Hypnos, was placed in the most important part of the house – the artist’s studio upstairs. It comprised a copy of the bronze head of Hypnos from the British Museum, which dates back to the fourth century B.C., a Byzantine medallion, a case of clear glass, gilded bronze sphinxes and a base of Tiffany glass.[xxv] The motto ‘On n’a que soi’ inscribed behind the altar again invited to the exploration of the inner world of the self.


There were in fact two studios separated by draperies, and the second, smaller, altar to Hypnos. One was for completed works, and the other one held works in progress and numerous costume and set designs for the Théâtre de la Monnaie. Only the main studio, with finished works, was ever photographed. First Maria Biermé and later Laillet provided the evocations of the second studio in contemporary periodicals.[xxvi] And the idea of the artist as a Symbolist priest creating art effortlessly is evident in the photograph of Khnopff in his studio.

Fernand Khnopff in his studio.
Fernand Khnopff in his studio.

The artist is posing in front of a painting on the easel as if working on it, but the painting is already framed, which indicates that it is a finished work. The relaxed pose of Khnopff wearing fashionable suit instead of working clothes suggests the staged composition and addresses an image of the artist as a dandy. The similar artificial image is created in the photograph of Khnopff in front of the altar to Hypnos in the main studio, which Günter Metken characterises in the 1980 exhibition catalogue as following: ‘[i]l [Khnopff] se faisait photographier en dandy ou en prêtre symboliste, devant son autel à Hypnos.’ [xxvii]

Thus, following the contemporary fashion, Khnopff created a cult of his own enigmatic artistic personality reflected in the artificial and thoroughly constructed environment of the villa. This was supported by mysterious rituals that the artist was believed to perform in his dwelling. For instance, Khnopff was thought to stand in a golden circle inscribed on the mosaic floor of his studio underneath another circle on the ceiling with the constellation of Libra in the middle to find his inspiration.[xxviii] The effect of such meditation was enhanced by a whisper of a shallow fountain (see above image of main studio) with rose petals floating on its surface placed in the studio.[xxix] And during the guest visits to his house, Khnopff supported and developed the idea of himself as a mysterious artistic genius in his temple of art whose inspiration comes straight from above. As the Viennese painter Josef Engelhart reported, to enter the main studio, the visitors had to participate in a special ritual. The artist would rush into his working space, while a butler would lower a thick bar in front of guests preventing them from entering the studio.[xxx] It would be lifted up after some time, and the visitors would proceed inside greeted by the artist, his works resting on easels and the altar to Hypnos placed exactly opposite the entrance. According to Khnopff, this ritual was necessary for the guests to collect themselves before meeting with his art. Therefore, like the Goncourt house the Villa Khnopff received an aesthetic extension in performances interacting with the interior spaces of the dwelling. Moreover, this demonstrates that the concept of artificiality dominated not only the interiors of the villa and the artist’s establishment of his artistic image, but also the extensions of the dwelling in photography and performance.

Artificiality of the Villa Khnopff was partly linked to a unified aesthetic experience, which was promoted by Wagnerian ideas. Indeed, the artist’s residence brought together architecture, interior designs, sculpture, painting, and even music, which all worked collectively. This was most evident in the Blue Room located above the studio.

The Blue Room
The Blue Room.© Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

It contained works by other artists, including a drawing by Burne-Jones of a woman’s head personally inscribed to Khnopff and an engraving made after Gustave Moreau’s David.[xxxi] The names of these two artists, who influenced Khnopff’s art and whom he held in a very high regard, were set in two gold rings on the wall separated by a small cast of Lord Leighton’s sculpture The Sluggard (1886).[xxxii] Moreau was one of the artists collected by des Esseintes. Khnopff’s portrait of his sister Marguerite (1887), who was his favourite model and his muse, crowned an altar dedicated to her. This familial shrine included a vase with flowers and a tennis racquet that referenced Khnopff’s first widely acknowledged work Memories (1889), which featured Marguerite in seven different poses. Khnopff would retire to this blue sanctuary at the end of the day to dream, contemplate and plan new works, surrounded by paintings and sculptures, while listening to the music coming through a large window from the studio downstairs.[xxxiii]

Fernand Khnopff, Memories (Du lawn tennis), 1889. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

This granted him a full aesthetic experience of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Like in other rooms of the house, the furnishing was rather scarce, represented only by a blue divan and a table in this case.[xxxiv] This signifies that Khnopff preferred the theatricality and realisation of his artistic vision to his own comfort. Again, in this respect his villa resembles the artificiality of des Esseintes’ dwelling, but distinguishes from it with its austerity of interiors.

Thus, every room of the villa was defined by Khnopff’s collection of art, the emblems of his private symbolism, his celebration of everything unnatural and his pursuit of aesthetic pleasures even in small everyday domestic things. So much so that Waldschmidt noticed than even the flowers in the garden behind the villa looked like the background of a Quattrocento painting.[xxxv] And Khnopff emphasised this link between art and life in his photographic portraits taken in his residence. The artist occupies a rather insignificant place in these depictions as if he wants to hide among his artworks, to immerse and dissolve in his œuvre. He wants to be identified with his works or maybe even become a work of art in the spirit of the Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957), who stated that she would want to be a living work of art.[xxxvi] At the same time, Khnopff elegantly poses in his dwelling harmoniously blending in with the interiors. It was probably his requirement as a sitter to be portrayed either contemplating in front of the altar to Hypnos and surrounded by his art or as if working in his studio. In the Symbolist world of Fernand Khnopff life and art were closely entwined.

Fernand Khnopff in front of his works.
Fernand Khnopff in front of his works.

As can be seen, the comparison of Khnopff to des Esseintes was very appropriate, as they both represented aesthetes withdrawn into their private artificial world. And the photographs of the Villa Khnopff closely reflect the artist’s celebration of everything that is unnatural as well as his carefully constructed artistic image. However, as Jeffery Howe points out in his book on Fernand Khnopff, this praise of artificiality and emulation of the main character of Huysmans’s novel sometimes bordered on self-parody.[xxxvii] A vivid example of that was a tortoise that des Esseintes decorated with precious stones and it eventually died. Khnopff had a living tortoise, which he considered too noisy and put it in the garden, and when he found it dead, he had it bronzed and kept it in his studio calling ‘My remorse’ (fig. 6: bottom right, next to Des Caresses).[xxxviii] Thus, artificiality in the artist’s life and perhaps art, though signified intellectualism and decadence, bore a mark of sadness and regret.


[i] Michel Draguet, Khnopff ou l’ambigu poétique (Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1995), p. 337.

[ii] Wolfram Waldschmidt, ‘Das Heim eines Symbolisten’, Dekorative Kunst, Vol. XIV, 1906, pp. 158-166; Maria Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, La Belgique Artistique et Littéraire, July-September 1907, pp. 96 – 113; Louis Dumont-Wilden, George Garnir, Léon Souguenet, ‘L’Atelier de Fernand Khnopff, avenue des Courses’, Pourquoi pas?, December 15, 1910; Hélène Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist: M. Fernand Khnopff’s Villa at Brussels’, The Studio, Vol. LVII, No. 237, December 1912, pp. 201-207.

[iii] Louis Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff (Brussels: G. van Oest & Cie, 1907).

[iv] Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, p. 26; Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, p. 97.

[v] For more information on the Goncourt’s ‘maison d’art’, see Juliet Simpson, ‘Edmond de Goncourt’s Décors – Towards the Symbolist Maison d’art’, Romance Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1, January 2011, pp. 1-18.

[vi] Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, p. 30.

[vii] Simpson, ‘Edmond de Goncourt’s Décors’, p. 2.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Michel Draguet, Khnopff ou l’ambigu poétique (Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1995), pp. 339-341.

[x] Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 201.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, p. 102.

[xiii] Fernand Khnopff, ‘Mein Haus’, Die Zeit, 37-38, 2 Dezember 1904, No. 483, p. 9.

[xiv] Jeffery W. Howe, The symbolist art of Fernand Khnopff (Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1979, 1982), p. 147. Though most of these details could be found in contemporary descriptions of the villa, according to Howe, he has enriched his overview of the house with the information obtained during his conversations with Khnopff’s former pupil in 1918-1920 M. Marcel Baugniet.

[xv] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 147.

[xvi] Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, p. 26; Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 201.

[xvii] Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, p. 30.

[xviii] Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 202.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ibid., p. 204.

[xxii] Sparklet [Albert Flament], ‘Le Trottoir roulant. Mardi 1er décembre’, L’écho de Paris, 6 December 1903, p. 1.

[xxiii] Sâr Péladan, “Préface au catalogue du pemier Salon de la Rose+Croix”, in Le Salon de la Rose+Croix: 1892-1897, Jean da Silva (Paris: Syros-Alternatives, 1991), p. 117.

[xxiv] Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 202.

[xxv] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 148.


[xxvi] Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, pp. 103-104; Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 205.

[xxvii] Günter Metken, “Fernand Khnopff et la modernité”, in Fernand Khnopff 1858-1921, Frans Boenders et al., (Brussels: Ministère de la communauté française de Belgique, Service de la diffusion des arts, 1980), p. 44.

[xxviii] Josef Engelhart, Ein Wiener Maler erzählt… Mein Leben und meine Modelle (Vienna, 1943), p. 89.

[xxix] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 148.

[xxx] Engelhart, Ein Wiener Maler erzählt…, p. 88.

[xxxi] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 149.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, p. 112: “… sur l’atelier, de larges baies vitrées, car c’est dans cette chambre bleue que Fernand Khnopff se retire pour venir écouter religieusement la musique que des artistes exécutent dans son atelier”.

[xxxiv] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 149.

[xxxv] Waldschmidt, ‘Das Heim eines Symbolisten’, p. 166.

[xxxvi] Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino, Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati (New York: Viridian Books, 1999), p. 1.

[xxxvii] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 145.

[xxxviii] Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 204.

[i] Michel Draguet, Khnopff ou l’ambigu poétique (Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1995), p. 337.

[ii] Wolfram Waldschmidt, ‘Das Heim eines Symbolisten’, Dekorative Kunst, Vol. XIV, 1906, pp. 158-166; Maria Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, La Belgique Artistique et Littéraire, July-September 1907, pp. 96 – 113; Louis Dumont-Wilden, George Garnir, Léon Souguenet, ‘L’Atelier de Fernand Khnopff, avenue des Courses’, Pourquoi pas?, December 15, 1910; Hélène Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist: M. Fernand Khnopff’s Villa at Brussels’, The Studio, Vol. LVII, No. 237, December 1912, pp. 201-207.

From Collective of Action toward Collective Behavior: The Human Condition 1958 and The Human Habitat 1959

by Andjelka Badnjar Gojnić, RWTH Aachen University


‘Durability, which alone determinates if a thing can exist as a thing and endure in the world as a distinct entity, remains the supreme criterion’ [i]

  1. The Collective, the Wall and the Law

In 1958, in her major philosophical work The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt refers to the term object in its Latin origin obicere as ‘something thrown’ or ‘put against.’[ii] This opposition serves as the basis upon which all further distinctions such as private and public, necessity and freedom, shame and honor, labor and action and man and the world are drawn. The human is finally positioned as a condition emerging between nature and the world. Once the world has been made up, the human can appear though activities of labor, work and action, each positioned differently between the poles of nature and the world. The appearance of the world built by ‘the work of our hands’[iii] serves as the ‘objective’ background that ‘stand against’ and ‘stabilize human life’ otherwise essentially subjective one. Being related to the ‘same chair and the same table…a man can retrieve their sameness’[iv], reconstruct their identity and overcome being part of a species no different than animal ones within elementary force and the eternal movement of indifferent nature. The sum of the things constituting human artifice stand as the world in its objective sense of being thrown in between man and nature. Such a world can be opposed to life, it is outside of life and unrelated to any of the bodily matters of reproduction, be they mental or physiological. It is the ‘worldly character of produced thing – its location, function and length of stay in the world’ which makes the distinction between ‘bread’ and ‘table’ and finally demonstrates the difference between a baker and a carpenter.[v] The criterion of the world understood as tangible, durable, permanent, and above all outside of the natural is an evaluative one. Contrary to the labor subjected to the necessity of the reproduction of life and thus the most natural of the three human activities, fabrication as a result of work produces an end beyond doubt: ‘an internally new thing with enough durability to remain in the world as independent entity added to the human artifice.’[vi] To have both a definitive beginning and a predicable end is a mark of fabrication, whose object further can be only multiplied instead of subjected to the repetition of the urged biological cycle of consumption. Although eventually subjected to dissolution, use objects – contrary to consumer goods and products of action – are present in the world long enough to stabilize nature and enable humans to appear through ‘products of action and speech…which lack tangibility of other things and are even less durable and more futile than what we produce for consumption.’[vii] Products of the action, words and deeds of the actor finally depend only upon ‘human plurality, upon the constant presence of other who can see and hear’[viii] by ‘living as a distinct and unique being among equals.’[ix]

The collective, in its notion of being done by man acting as a group, is a temporary state that falls into a web of human affairs. It is a status that has been agreed upon through men speaking and acting together. As such it is closest to Arendt’s concept of togetherness in the sense of being ‘with others neither for nor against them’[x] and having ‘inter-est which lies between people and can relate and bind them together.’[xi] Inter-est such as in-between varies depending on the group of people and constantly discloses itself by the agents of action and speech. As such speech and action are essential conditions for the collective and this is distinctive from collective action, as it would be rather ambiguous to address such a concept within Arendt’s argument. Namely, action is a highly individual condition by which man insert himself to the human plurality where in order to appear, one needs to disclose and to expose himself within the brightness of glory. Men thus seek to ‘reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world.’[xii] This appearance is very distinct from the exposure of ‘physical identities…without any activity…in the unique shape of body and sound of the voice.’[xiii] Contrary to the labor, action is as far as possible from the realm of the natural and the actor might be the only one being freed from bodily necessities and emotional constraints who discloses himself in front of others, seeking pride and excellence. Thus, it is not the virtue of negotiation but of competitiveness in excellence that channels the final result of men acting together. The collective, rather than being a collective action, is an event that emerges out of the situation in which each man acts uniquely, exposes and competes. Essentially based on the individual, such collective shifts extensively as regards the words and deeds of the doers, not having any divine aura of its own. Though Arendt gives primacy to the individual as the man qua man situation, the unpredictable, irreversible and fragile character of action and speech are in constant danger of being absorbed by the nature of man with his necessities and emotional constraints. Thus, it is for the sake of the futility of action and speech that Arendt keeps the independency and background character of the object of the world as a guardian for their appearance. It is in the same way that object in all its tangibility, relates to the collective: ‘as a table located between those who sit around it’, ‘a world of things in between those who have it in common…that like every in-between relates and separates men at the same time.’[xiv]

Such an object is not human, let alone natural: it is the outer device with which the man of action relates and identifies in order to appear. Referring to the Greek polis, Arendt states that ‘before men begging to act, a definitive space had to be secured and a structure built where all actions could take place’[xv], the space being the public realm of the polis, while the law acts as its structure. The wall and the law are made by the architect and the legislator as the builder of a city and a lawmaker. These could be commissioned from abroad and need to be finished before any political activity begins. ‘These tangible entities’ – the wall and the law – ‘were not the content of politics themselves’[xvi] but the space of appearance, where less tangible products such as action and speech can gain the reality of being seen and heard before an audience of their fellow man acting together. As such no architect or lawmaker is an actor but rather they are fabricators, providing the infrastructure for the gathering of the men sharing words and deeds. They are not even personalized as ‘public space in the image of the fabricated object…carried only the implication of ordinary mastership where the compelling factor lies not in the person of craftsman but in impersonal object of his art or craft.’[xvii] This assured neutrality of the object is a condition sin qua non, as without the stabilizing boundaries of wall and law, the public could not survive the moment of action and speech. Furthermore, without the independence of the object and homo faber to make it, acting and speaking together could not be remembered. It is homo faber that is a guardian of the man of action, just as the ‘sharing of words and deeds’[xviii] is guarded by the object. As a background, the object is not end itself as it cannot create nor action or form a collective. It can only serve as a neutralized precondition in advance and as a guarantee of the eventual appearance as ‘for what appears to all, this we call Being’ and ‘whatever lacks appearance comes and passes away like a dream, intimately and exclusively our own but without reality.’[xix]


  1. The Collective and the Dissolution of an Object

Without the object thrown against nature no action, speech or state of the collective exists as there is no background for plurality. Although essential in deriving the human, the object of the world is the ultimate aim itself only in the case of homo faber. In the cases of two other heroes of Arendt – the man of action and the animal laborans– the object and the world are an assumed precondition sin qua non in the case of the former, while they are disguised forever in the case of the latter.

Contrary to our introduction of the collective as done by people acting as a group, Arendt refers to the collective always using the same connotation of mass society which enlarged the realm of the domestic household over the public one, until the final destruction of the latter. We can trace the ‘substitution of society of a collective man-kind for individual man as its subject’ [xx] or the ‘collective nature of labor’ with its ‘loss of all awareness of individuality’ whose ‘values are no different from pleasure derived from eating and drinking in company’ and thus rest on the ‘human’s body metabolism with nature.’[xxi] The collective is related to bodily performance such taking food and belonging to the same biological species and ultimately rests on sameness instead of equality. These connotations of the collective are followed by the impossibility of ‘collective ownership (as) a contradiction in terms’[xxii] as property and the possession of an object is an essentially individual characteristic. The loss of property appears as a direct consequence of the initial loss of a place to hide and to labor within: a man’s household. By keeping the realm of nature away from the public realm, equality in antiquity meant having to exit the household and enter public life: ‘where everybody had constantly to distinguish himself from all others, to show through unique deeds…that he was best of all.’[xxiii] With the substitution of private property – as an individually possessed tangible object – by the intangible common wealth of the enormous ‘family’ of society, the boundaries withdrew leaving man to float within modes of behaviorism that replaced action. With lost distinction, the sameness of society emerges: a large number of people, ‘crowded together’ with their ‘almost irrespirable inclination toward despotism…of a person or of majority rule.’[xxiv] Arendt points to great numbers which account for conformism, behaviorism and automatism in human affairs with their statistical uniformity and scientific outlook as the main traits for human action. ‘The more people there are the most likely they are to behave and less likely to tolerate non-behavior.’[xxv] In relation to the large number, there is no crucial difference between totalitarian or liberal constitutions apart from the fact that the former took the reality of conflict and the latter the ‘natural harmony of interests’ as their starting points. Both are rooted in the ‘communistic fiction’ that society has one interest as a whole, which derives itself primarily from the household realm rather from any class interest, as advocated by Marx. Large numbers give rise to the social sciences as ‘behavioral sciences’ that ‘aim to reduce man as a whole until the level of a conditioned and behaving animal’ until ‘social behavior has become the standard for all regions of life.’[xxvi]

The issue of great number followed by behaviorism apparently excludes any chance of action as a possibility to begin anew, rather than to behave as predicted and as statistically covered. The collective understood as oneness – a sum of parts constituting a whole – replaces the collective as a shifting state of men gathering and acting together. Within the realm of society, the latter collective apparently is not possible at all and this is most explicitly manifested in the loss of the object of the world.

It is the world alienation rather than Marx’s self-alienation that is the ‘hallmark of the modern age’ as ‘enormous mundane activity is possible without any consideration for the world but only worry and care about the self.’[xxvii] Transmitting to the artifact natural role of consuming, monuments become not outer any more but rather an extension of biological life itself. Although a fence, a table, a chair or house, remain present, these are not worldly but ‘natural’ and nondurable. By losing the outer quality of the object, the difference between the tangible and intangible is blurred, shifting things from the world toward an ever-circulating natural swing. Instead of serving as a background for the human, the object is moved to the enlarged natural environment of man serving as an extension of his body from its primordial origin toward industrial equipment.


  1. Human / Non-human: In Search of an Environment / Object

One year after first publication of The Human Condition, familiar values related to habitat and the issue of large numbers based upon sociological analysis and the study of man’s behavior were the main preoccupations of the third generation of modern architects at the Otterlo Meeting in 1959.

Oskar Newman’s report book CIAM ’59 in Otterlo begins with the Adalbert Ames’s quote: ‘the processes that underlie our perception of our immediate internal world and those that underlie our perception of social relationships are fundamentally the same.’ Participants met ‘in the peace and quiet’ of the Kröller-Müller Foundation under the working title ‘The Group for the Research of Social and Visual Inter-relationships’. The meeting was organised by the coordinating group established at La Sarraz 1957 comprised of Bakema, Rogers, Roth, Voelcker and Wogenscky and counted 43 international participants invited according to the list made by the coordinating group. The event was funded by the government of the Netherlands, whose representative pointed out the difficult task of contemporary architects in order to fulfill ‘the happy feeling of social prosperity in which there is no longer a place for slum-dwellings’ and to search for a design based on the ‘life scheme and the shape of present and future society.’[xxviii] Bakema, in his introductory talk, called for the emergence of establishing architecture as ‘three-dimensional expression of human behavior’ in order to operate the ‘function of human identification with the ever extending universal space.’[xxix] After eight days of panels presenting individual work followed by discussions, the official conclusion rested upon the distinction of participants into two groups: a neutral and an aggressive one. The latter – that would go on – showed an attempt to understand architecture as a language ‘communicating directly about human behavior.’[xxx]

Rather than the official division, the meeting was actually characterized by another split. The most prominent advocates of a new language for modern architecture came into debate with Italian participation lead by Ernesto Rogers. The heated discussion following Rogers’ presentation of the Torre Velasca in Milan was charged with a critique led by Peter Smithson and Jaap Bakema and followed by Kenzō Tange. Their accusations relied on a historic understanding of architecture, describing the Torre Velasca in terms of its closed form, formalistic realism and as a quick solution to the problem of identity finally declaring the work done as unacceptable. The distinction was historically recognized as an origin of two approaches toward the roles of nature and history in modern architecture.[xxxi] From this point on, the distinction can be further traced toward two broader thoughts behind: reaction on establishment of the field of ethology with domain of anthropology on one hand and constant reversal to the antique on another. Following the first, Team 10 concept for the human habitat rested upon influence of anthropological sources.[xxxii] In contrast, the autonomy of the human condition in regard to the nature perhaps is most accurately present in Italian participation. As such, the origin of the conflict could be seen as a spot to unite different constellations on relation of the ethos of collective and the object within postwar modernism. Under conditions in which architects ‘will be asked to build billions of dwellings’, this being not a numerical problem alone but one also limited by sociological, economical, geographical, political and plastic conditions, [xxxiii] the attempt to translate this collective into materiality  resulted in urged search for its object.

Aldo van Eyck 'Eyes'
‘Eyes’, Children’s Home, Amsterdam, Aldo van Eyck; from CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, Oscar Newman, Karl Krämer Verlag Stuttgart, 1961

Par Nous pour Nous was the slogan of Aldo van Eyck’s introductory panel for presentation of his Children Home in Amsterdam and Congress building project in Jerusalem. According to van Eyck, after leaving the Euclidian groove, art and science have expanded the universe – ‘the outside and inside universe.’[xxxiv] With this awareness, this period of ours requires a new language, one at the same time old and new. The language is old as ‘man is always and essentially the same’ and this is most explicit in the constant human proportions that architecture is constantly rediscovering. ‘Archaic principles of human nature’ and a reconciliation of basic values need to be taken into account as an absolute condition of one. This is drawn into a status quo in the same way as biological necessity: ‘Man breathes both in and out; when is architecture going to do the same?’[xxxv] Accordingly to Bakema’s ‘architecture as a three dimensional extension of human behavior’, the object is equalized with bodily functions. The language is new as society is new. By contrast with the individual, who is old, primordial and constant with his physiological and cognitive processes, society shifts and is another polarity of the ‘dual phenomenon’, the two of which are supposed to reconcile through the issue of the ‘in-between’ nature of the object. Van Eyck concludes his theoretical introduction with the example of the house: ‘me inside and you outside or vice versa…with you inside, me outside, two worlds clashing no transition, individual on one side, the collective on another’, a lots of barriers of society ‘with architect so poor in spirit to provide a door…, hair-raising, brutal, like a guillotine…Each time we pass through such door we are split into two.’[xxxvi]

An attempt to provide an object with a blurred distinction between outside and inside in high interaction with the body was made through the Children’s Home of Amsterdam. ‘The whole thing is both outside and inside whether you are inside or outside.’[xxxvii] Sometimes there are cupolas above, sometimes there is sky, interior street walls are like exterior walls, ‘lots of tiny mirrors embedded in the concrete’, ‘the electric lighting is like street lighting’, ‘illuminating spaces are shifting with darkness’, ‘child’s movement (is) as violent as outside. ‘[xxxviii] In the search for the ‘dual phenomena of the individual and the collective without wrapping the meaning of either’[xxxix] the object becomes convertor of human behavior between the two. By withdrawing any difference between inside and outside, private and public, the object gains the role of a somatic extension of the biological human, always converting him from one to the number and vice versa. Appropriated by man, the object becomes natural itself and upgrades the collective body made from the human and the industrial, while placing it within the abstract context of sun, wind, rain, earth, highway and airplane. With the loss of its background character, this ‘behavioral’ object offers ultimate certainty to the ‘just beginning humanism’[xl] and the ultimate intimacy of a man walking through his surrounding environment in the manner of a savage walking through the forest.

This is certainly not in accordance with Arendt’s reliance on Greek materialism, which argues for the object serving as a neutral background for action governed by expertise – instead, the house in stake actually expresses all the inhabitability of modern age. [xli] With the language unable to correspond to any historical period, even the contemporary, van Eyck’s work constantly shows an attempt to reduce the house to its constituent universal elements of wall, roof, celling as a system of signifiers. This new environment seeks both universal and primordial expression in last consequences of the ethnological discourse on humanism.

Against this ‘behavioral’ aspect of the object maybe mostly explicit in van Eyck’s studies on the performances of the child and its surroundings, but actually present to the majority of ‘right side’ participants, stands the most discussed case of the Otterlo event: Ernesto Rogers’s panel with The Torre Velasca.

At the very beginning of his talk, Rogers immediately sets up limit by addressing the height of the Madellina at the top of Milan Duomo as the paramount criterion with no building allowed to be any higher. Although there was no deliberate reference to regional medieval towers as historical quotation per se, the similarities of form occur due to similar conditions, such as insufficient land area and the search for light and ideal views.[xlii] In contrast to the constancy of always-universal man in van Eyck case, here the fabrication condition is relevant and the artifact stays out of the human realm. The object is a result of a technique and of a set of pragmatic decisions while the rhetoric is apparently totally reduced. ‘It is important to speak technically, because technique requires precise decisions.’[xliii] This is quite clear in the way the architect presented the work by stressing pure facts and providing short conclusions such as: ‘steel in Italy would be too expensive so the concrete is used’, ‘windows are standard production’, ‘panels between columns are prefabricated elements’, ‘the construction is a very simple one’, ‘it would be impossible to know who the occupants will be’, ‘two main colours were used’ – a brick one from the Middle Ages and the colour of stone from the neo-classical period, yet none of these were chosen due to sentimental reason, but as ‘a technical approach to the vision.’[xliv]

‘We put the apartments above the offices so that might have better access to the sky, the cleaner air and in particular splendid view.’[xlv] While the first two reasons recall typically modernist concepts, it is particularly the splendid view that is main cause for elevating apartments. Yet, the view is not toward any of the traditional modernist symbols such as greenery, traffic or exposure to the airplanes passing over the heads of The Children’s Home in Amsterdam. Instead it is a view toward the fabric of the historical city that serves as the main reason for elevating apartments as well as for increasing the height of offices in a way to correspond to classical proportions of interior rooms instead of to modernist ones. ‘It was necessary to provide space for offices of a big surface area and this allowed us to give them a corresponding increase in height.’[xlvi] The view perceived from the interior constitutes the sum of the human artifact in the same way as the view toward the tower intensifies the recognizable image of a familiar object. Additionally, the corners of the tower are chamfered with the windows placed in, thus dissolving the cubical volume of the building into the mere plane picture. In the tower, almost seen as a two-dimensional image of a city organized with the articulation of windows, the structural components of modern architecture actually serve to intensify the type components of classicism. For this reason Rogers identifies Mies as the only modern architect from whom one could learn: as the language of Mies implies, gentrification in the constitution of an object in a tradition of commonly recognizable codes serves as the background to the human. ‘He is the only architect modern in the sense that Palladio was in his time’, for whom ‘the idea of plans and schemes was the idea of giving a model.’[xlvii] The quality of the permanence of a model is at the core of Arendt’s reference to Plato’s interpretation of the word idea or ‘shape’.[xlviii] This is what guides the craftsman who makes beds and tables in accordance with an idea, with his inner eye looking on the shape of the bed as envisioned instead of the real one. As such, the idea is more durable than the concrete thing as it derives from the ‘oneness of the model’, according to which a multitude of perishable things will appear, as the model exists before fabrication starts and remains after it has come to an end.

The persistence of the model annihilates novelty throughout all speech such as ‘I don’t see our work as sort of revolution at all’[xlix] and constantly positions the object within a limit. Thus, the limits being the constraints of industry, the acceptance of the language of modern architecture where it fits well such as ‘the structure is expressed as …we think that articulation of the structure is one of good qualities of modern architecture’[l] or simply the apparently indifferent acceptance of the impossibility of acknowledging the user. Yet, by this, Rogers and his followers do not abandon interfering in the relationship of the individual and the collective. They instead give up rhetoric on holistic collectivity relevant to the rest of the attempts to structure the environment according to the levels of neighborhood gatherings within a society of a large number. Rogers seeks the fabrication of an object as a counterpoint to man instead of an environment being an alter ego of men’s behaviorism. Such an object is not biological, but instead it is completely alien to nature and alien to the human as well. Bearing in mind Arendt distinction between the nature of man and human, where human is possible only when man is freed from the natural and the natural is no different than animal, Rogers attempt could be addressed as a search for an object as non-natural and non-human. This position runs contrary to the general attitude of the meeting, which was to make the object both human and natural, without actually pointing out much difference between the two, as the nature of a man is equalized with that of a human. As it is alien to nature, Rogers’ object is fabricated from the material of the outer world, seeking a durable and tangible enough state in stable continuity in order to become the thing of the world. As it is alien to the human, the architect should leave all rhetorical attempts toward the object being able to affect the human apart from serving as its background. The only morality should come from consistency of the object,[li] which is the only means of addressing the human by actually leaving the attempt to affect the human. As soon as we succeed in fabricating a durable, recognizable object other to both the natural and to the human, as manufacturers rather than creators, we actually strengthen the image of the world and thus serve the opportunity for the individual to be able to identify himself within a delirious collective. It is the reduction of the collective toward the individual that is the main attempt of Rogers’ object rather than its historical relevance per se. It is not the love for historical language that is in the origin of his attempt but rather the consistency of the object as device for the distinction of man: as an object being thrown against man. The language of modern architecture is fit as well as historical language with no crucial difference as long as they create a recognizable pattern. This may be most explicit in the plan of the tower where apartments are not much different from any of European modern movement references within welfare hosing development. This plan could actually be whatever is most affordable and pragmatic while there is certainty that whoever user is will perceive the totalized image of the object of the city and whoever looks upon a tower will perceive the same as well.

Trying to address his critique of the Torre Velasca with a bit more sympathy than Peter Smithson, Bakema pointed out that seeing from ‘a certain distance there is something in the building’s silhouette which suggest that it could have been there for fifty years.’[lii] One could assume that only by hearing this Rogers would be satisfied that his attempt had been completed as much as if it had remained unspoken. As the chain of reasons, though technically and pragmatically rooted, seemed deliberately guided toward what remained inexplicit, making Rogers one of the pioneers of the attempt to overcome the role of the avant-garde intellectual and reduce the architect to the level of the wall-maker in antiquity.

On one hand, the dominant attempt of the Otterlo meeting saw the dissolution of the object toward environment as an adequate response for new vision of holistic collectivity. This vision was based on the ethnological discourse of the primordial and universal man at the same time by taking its biological premises into account. On the other hand, Italian participation saw the object in its antique role, as the outer model that retrieve the sameness of a man and constructs the identity of the individual within retreat from the collective. In the first case, the aura of holistic collectivity failed to distinct between the biological nature of man and its human capacities. In the second, the attempt to distinguish two failed to acknowledge the defeat of homo faber within the automation process. The stage of technological development and electricity cannot fit the categories of homo faber ‘in terms of a gigantic enlargement and continuation of old arts and crafts.’[liii] What substitutes instruments as a means to achieve the prescribed end in killing, interrupting and imitating natural processes is an ‘unchain (of ) natural processes of our own’, and channeling ‘these natural forces into the world itself.’[liv] Finally, nature and the world leave no opposition but merge together into the ‘natural word’ with the final dissolution of the object toward Adorno’s anthropomorphized one.[lv] With the defeat of homo faber as the main hero of Arendt ‘indeed a lord and a master of himself and his doings’, ‘maker and the fabricator and the erector of the world’[lvi] and Tafuri’s dissolution of type within the process of prefabrication seemed that holistic collective of ethnological discourse gain dominance over the polis’ one. It is in this sense that, for the moment, van Eyck’s child took primacy over history and the collective over the individual.

[i] Arendt, H., The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998 (1958), p. 163.

[ii] Id., p. 137.

[iii] Arendt referencing to Lock, Id., p. 79.

[iv] Id., p. 137.

[v] Id., p. 94.

[vi] Id., p. 143.

[vii] Id., p. 95.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Id., p. 178.

[x] Id., p. 180.

[xi] Id., p. 182.

[xii] Id., p. 179.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Id., pp. 52, 53.

[xv] Id., p. 194,195.

[xvi] Id., p. 195.

[xvii] Id., p. 227.

[xviii] Id., p. 198.

[xix] Id., p. 199.

[xx] Id., p. 117.

[xxi] Id., p. 213.

[xxii] Id., p. 256.

[xxiii] Id., p. 41.

[xxiv] Id., p. 43.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Id., p. 45.

[xxvii] Id., p. 254.

[xxviii] Newman, O., CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, Karl Krämer Verlag Stuttgart, Stuttgart, 1961, p. 20, 21

[xxix] Id., p. 10.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Pedret, A., ‘CIAM ’59: the end of CIAM’, in Team 10 1953-1981 in search of a Utopia of the present, ed. by Max Risselada and Dirk van den Heuvel, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam 2005

[xxxii] For a reading of critical themes of postwar modernism see introduction in Anxious Modernisms, ed. by Goldhagen, S. W., and Legault, R., Canadian Centre for Architecture and The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 2000; for discourse on anthropology see Conklin, A., In the Museum of Man, Cornell University Press, 2013

[xxxiii] Newman, O., CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, Karl Krämer Verlag Stuttgart, Stuttgart, 1961, p. 13

[xxxiv] Id., p. 26.

[xxxv] Id., pp. 26, 27.

[xxxvi] Id., p. 28.

[xxxvii] Id., p. 32.

[xxxviii] Id., pp. 31, 32.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Ockman, J., ‘Venice and New York’, reference to van Eyck’s attack on Manfredo Tafuri arguing that: ‘The path of language as the communication of messages, which is the discourse of humanism does not exist and henceforth is completely closed’, from Europa/America Architetture urbane, alternative suburbane, ed. Franco Raggi (Venice: La Biennale di Venezia, 1978), pp. 174-82.

[xli] On overview to the notion of inhabitability of modernity see eg. Heynen, H., Architecture and Modernity. A Critique, MIT Press, 1999

[xlii] Newman, O., CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, Karl Krämer Verlag Stuttgart, Stuttgart, 1961, p. 92.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Ibid.

[xlvi] Id., pp. 92, 93.

[xlvii] Id., p. 96.

[xlviii] Arendt, H., The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998 (1958), p. 142.

[xlix] Newman, O., CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, Karl Krämer Verlag Stuttgart, Stuttgart, 1961, p. 219.

[l] Id., p. 92.

[li] Id., p. 95., Rogers responding to P. Smithson on issue of morality brought about by the latter

[lii] Id., p. 97.

[liii] Arendt, H., The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998 (1958), p. 148.

[liv] Id., p. 149.

[lv] Adorno, T., ‘Functionalism Today’, Oppositions, no. 17, 1979

[lvi] Arendt, H., The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998 (1958), p. 144.



On Matters, Materiality, and Materialism Entanglements with Art History

by Vanessa Badagliacca, New University of Lisbon

Addressing the significant role covered by materiality and matter as more than a superficial texture or feature to display the inherent meaning of artworks—whose content is generally considered as the unique herald to define and analyze them—it seems worthwhile mentioning Daniel Herwitz’s Aesthetics (2008) referring to Canova’s marble in sculpture.


Change the material and everything changes with it. The materiality of the finished form is something that cannot be abstracted from visual experience, or from meaning and effect. […] These things give truth to Hegel’s adage that ‘not all things are possible in all media of art’, and related, that it is the discovery of the potentialities of any given medium, their exploitation and indeed, creation, that defines the history of an art form as much anything else.”[i]


Herwitz’s assertiveness could lead the reader (a general reader external to the investigation in art history) to think about the central role of materiality in art as a given issue, but it is not. After a long marginalization of materiality in the arts over the last century, an interest in this field of enquiry finally emerged in the 1990s: the art historian Florence de Mèredieu provided an outstanding contribution with Histoire Matérielle & Immatérielle de l’Art Moderne (1994). In the introduction to her book she argued that “art history has always appeared as the result or the encounter of two opposed, and consequently, complementary factors: matter and form. […] Therefore, art history, for a large part, is that of its materials.”[ii] Nevertheless, she also acknowledged that, at least within the field of Western art, “it is noteworthy that these materials were relatively limited. […] Art, therefore, remained quartered for a long time in a relatively closed field of materials.”[iii] Moreover, she stated that every technique also evolved over the centuries, and consequently, de Mèredieu highlighted that, especially in the realm of European Avant-gardes at the beginning of the 20th century, artistic practices enriched and diversified themselves through the use of non-traditional materials .

Poor, recycled, industrial, inferred from nature, and even involving the human body, the materials of the 20th century inform one of an expansion in the realm of art, going hand in hand with the historical, economic, cultural, and societal developments of the century. In 1997 the art historian Adalgisa Lugli developed her investigations on Wunderkammern. Her approach—as Krzystof Pomian pointed out in the introduction to her volume—was stimulated by the conviction that an artwork cannot be treated as a text, in other words, “an artwork cannot be separated from its materiality.”[iv] This statement means that the choice of using one medium instead of another is not, and should not, be indifferent to the art historian, since that difference is foundational for the producer as well as for the consumer of a given art object.

At that time, the last decade of the 20th century, digital media were encountering a wide spread, which provoked the rise of visual studies as a field of interdisciplinary encounters. In this context, art history, traditionally the discipline devoted to the analysis of images and art objects, would lose its centrality. In that same period, art historian Carol Armstrong also emphasized the attention to the difference in materiality, in other words, to the use of a material instead of another for artistic purposes. Her statements, in fact, appeared in the “Visual Culture Questionnaire” published on, the journal October (1996), and directed to several art historians including Carol Armstrong.[v]

As a first remark, my aim is to follow Armstrong’s attention to artifacts in their materiality in a context broader than art history—as that of visual studies is. To that extent, I will appropriate a sentence formulated in 1980, “Do Artifacts have Politics ?”, the question entitling an article by Winner (1980). By transposing it into an affirmative sentence, inverting the order of the question, I would, therefore, argue that “artifacts do have politics,”[vi] and for this reason materiality should not be overlooked by art-historical studies. However, if we consider that art history might tend to privilege the visual aspects rather than the material ones, the image over the object, these references could be observed just as sporadic examples in this discipline. Nevertheless, more recently—precisely in the second decade of the 21st century—literature on art history and materiality have finally started to pay serious attention to this everything less than secondary aspect of art history.

Conversely, an essential part in archaeology research since the inception of the discipline in the 19th century, always involved the materiality of objects. “Material culture” is grounded on an analysis of material objects inherent to a specific context in which they were produced—especially in cases in which objects are the sole resources of information due to a lack of written documents. Apt to provide elements for knowledge on a specific culture, material culture has therefore been at the core of anthropology and sociology research as well. Regarding the relationship between material culture and art history, the art historian Michael Yonan argued


Materiality […] has been an implicit dimension of art-historical inquiry for more than a century, one that has suffered at the expense of other artistic qualities. Art history has tended to suppress its status as material culture even as it has flirted continuously with materiality, and this has evolved into a serious intellectual limitation. The prestige recently accorded to dematerializing approaches to art, which have resulted in a diminished concern for materiality in general, has only exacerbated the situation.[vii]


The issue of dematerialization stressed by Yonan underlines the importance of materiality in art. Moreover, Yonan also associated the disregard to material culture in art history as a theme which inevitably “overlaps with the larger concerns of historical materialism, which in art-historical discourse has meant a Marxist (or Marxist-inspired) history of art interested in the economic and therefore material conditions from which art is produced.”[viii] The materialist approach— inspired by Marxist historical materialism—would lead us to consider artworks as a commodity, an overly reductive perspective that has caused major resistance for applying it to art history.

At this point, it is important to underscore that the defense of materiality’s art as a perspective for art history research, neither me or Yonan (recalled here as a useful reference) or the art historians mentioned above, attempt to pursue any prevarication of materiality over the visual, but rather “to some extent it is possible to imagine visual culture and material culture as interrelated aspects of the same scholarly project.”[ix] Even“the digital image”, in its disembodied bi-dimensionality, “still requires a material means of conveyance […] to be seen.”[x] Moreover, I would add that the same technological devices are not neutrally interchangeable, since they affect the way we access information differently, and interact with people, facts and things; in this case, the way we see an image.[xi] Afterwards, Yonan referred to the position previously defended by Armstrong in 1996. According to the latter, whether the advantages of including visual studies in art history, it threatens to conceal  the importance of materiality. She, therefore, concluded her intervention to the questionnaire arguing:


The material dimension of the objects is, in my view, at least potentially a site of resistance and recalcitrance, of the irreducibly particular, and of the subversively strange and pleasurable. It is again, at least potentially, a pocket of occlusion within the smooth functioning systems of domination, including the market, the hierarchical thought-structures, and subject-positionalities: a glitch in the great worldwide web of images and representations. […] [T]o subsume material objects within the model of “text” is to discredit and misunderstand the particular intelligence involved in material facture. And least, I would propose that the differences between kinds of production, be they literary, or pictorial, painterly, sculptural, photographic, filmic, or what have you, matter absolutely, that they are the source of whatever philosophical work it does, and that to ignore those differences is to submit utterly to the system of exchange and circulation in which any cultural object undeniably participates.[xii]


In continuity with Armstrong’s insight, Yonan pointed out that “the interdisciplinary practices of material culture” must be taken into account, and suggested “mov[ing] toward a more complete synthesis” between art history and material culture, also highlighting “that art has a physical, sensual dimension, and not just a visual one. […] The physical dimension is an indissoluble component of art’s capacity to mean.”[xiii] He eventually proposed, instead of the allegory of shadow represented by Plato’s cave in The Republic, to consider Aristotle’s Metaphysics, “in which the philosopher conceives the world not as traces of something else but as organized embodiments of matter and form.”[xiv] Following this path, according to Yonan, could have the only beneficial result of empowering art history.

Nevertheless, this attention to materiality in art historical and theoretical investigation has just begun, if we also consider the position of the Dutch art historian Ann-Sophie Lehmann. She opened up her recent essay “The Matter of the Medium: Some Tools for an Art-theoretical Interpretation of Materials” (2014) declaring: “Materials, in spite of their decisive role in determining the meaning and effects of visual artifacts, have long been overlooked in art-theoretical discussion.”[xv] According to her colleague and scholar in gender studies and philosophy Iris Van der Tuin, Lehmann coined the “4Ms”, which attempt to define “the precise relationships between matter, materials, materiality, and materialism.”[xvi] Her approach must be framed in the broader intellectual context of cultural theory, whose interest in matter has determined in recent years the so-called philosophy of New Materialisms. According to the initial theorists of this current, Diana Coole and Samantha Frost


For materiality is always something more than “mere” matter: an excess, force, vitality, relationality, or difference that renders matter active, self-creative, productive, unpredictable. In sum, new materialists are rediscovering a materiality that materializes, evincing immanent modes of self-transformation that compel us to think of causation in far more complex terms; to recognize that phenomena are caught in a multitude of interlocking systems and focus and to consider anew the location and nature of capacities for agency.[xvii]


As Yanbing Er pointed out, the New Materialisms’ focus on matter involved also investigations in the fields of “material culture, eco-critical discourses, material feminisms, and science studies,” in the attempt not to abandon “the historical legacies of materialist thought,” but rather “to reconsider the notion of matter in “acknowledgement of the powerful constellation of geopolitical and biotechnological forces acting in the world today.”[xviii] These connections and inclusions towards pluralistic theoretical approaches, overcoming “the otherwise narrow boundaries of traditional academic disciplines,”[xix] highlight the transversal orientation of New Materialisms. The terms transversal, transversally, and transversality are repeatedly emphasized in Rick Dolphijn and Iris Van der Tuin’s New Materialisms: Interviews and Cartographies (2012) regarding different aspects.

In the first place, this theoretical approach dismantles the Cartesian dualism of mind and body. This cultural theory

Does not privilege matter over meaning or culture over nature. It explores a monist perspective, devoid of the dualisms that have dominated the humanities (and sciences) until today, by giving special attention to matter, which has been so neglected by dualist thought. Cartesian dualism, after all, has favored mind.[xx]


In second place, the transversality of New Materialism is also proposed as a “shift” from the

Dualist  gesture of prioritizing mind over matter, soul over body, and culture over nature that can be found in modernist as well as post-modernist cultural theories. […] In other words: a new materialism is constituted by demonstrating how the canonized relations between the aforementioned terms are in fact the outcomes of “power/knowledge” according to which Truth is an instantiation of a politics or régime, as Michel Foucault (1980) would have it.[xxi]


Moreover, renewed concern about the matter, materials, and materiality in artistic practices realized in the first years of the 21st century also coincides with a different approach to the objects in the ocean of production and consumption of them. In the realm of pollution, nature devastation and increasing amounts of waste, strategies such as recycling, reusing and even using less interrogate our own attitudes towards materiality even in our most ordinary activities. These concerns do not only belong, or can be relegated to, behavioral practices to which we can sympathize with, or have an interest in, but rather they have became a crucial necessity calling us to participate and take responsibility. Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden (2012) is just an example of this kind of reflections in the artistic practices.

Particularly remarkable Diana Coole and Samantha Frost’ statements at the core of the theories around the New Materialisms:


As critically engaged theorists, we find ourselves compelled to explore the significance of complex issues such as climate change of global capital and population flows, the biotechnological engineering of genetically modified organisms, or the saturation of our intimate and physical lives by digital, wireless, and virtual technologies. From our understanding of the boundary between life and death and our everyday work practices to the way we feed ourselves and recreate or procreate, we are finding our environment materially and conceptually reconstituted in ways that pose profound and unprecedented normative questions. In addressing them we unavoidably find ourselves having to think in new ways about the nature of matter and the matter of nature; about the elements of life, the resilience of the planet, and the distinction of the human.[xxii]

Facing “the elements of life, the resilience of the planet, and the distinction of the human,” the way the authors put them, in a time in which other philosophical perspectives replaced anthropocentrism, we should approach, more than ever, materiality as a resource for further investigations in the realm of art history. Regarding the most recent practice and theories of art, it is remarkable, in this context, the pivotal exhibition for the 21st century held in Kassel in 2012. In fact, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev conceived Documenta 13, with a program that was the fruit of a “‘holistic and non-logocentric vision,’ whose associative structure insisted upon ‘a more balanced relationship with all the non-human makers with whom we share the planet and our bodies.’”[xxiii]  This kind of perspective may be adopted not only for the analysis of artistic practices occurring in our present time, but also to re-read and propose renewed perspectives in the study of past artistic practices. In a nutshell, the discipline of art history would be enriched by including materiality in lateral sense in its field of research.


[i] Daniel Herwitz, Aesthetics. Key Concepts in Philosophy, London, New York: Continuum, 2008, 139.

[ii] “L’art est toujours apparu comme la resultante ou la rencontre de deux facteurs opposés et, par voie de conséquence, complémentaires: la matière et la forme.” […] L’histoire de l’art est ainsi, pour une large part, celle de ses matériaux.” Florence de Mèredieu, Histoire matérielle & immatérielle de l’art moderne, Bordas, Paris, 1994, 1.

[iii] “Mais, si l’on reste dans le seul champ de l’art occidental, il convient de remarquer que ces matériaux son restés en nombre relativement restreint. […] L’art est donc resté cantonné longtemps dans un champ matériel relativement clos”. F. de Mèredieu, Histoire matérielle & immatérielle de l’art moderne, Cit., 1.

[iv] K. Pomian, “Adalgisa Lugli: materialità e significato dell’arte”, Introduction to Adalgisa Lugli, Wunderkammer. Le Stanze delle Meraviglie, Torino: Allemandi, 1997, 14.

[v] See “Visual Culture Questionnaire”, October 77 (Summer 1996): 25–70. Available at <> (accessed in September 2015). Quoted by Michael Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, in West 86th, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Fall-Winter 2011), The University of Chicago Press, 232-248: 239.

[vi] Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?, Daedalus, Vol. 109, No.1, Modern Technology: Problem or Opportunity? (Winter, 1980), 121-136. I find extraordinary this kind of reflection having appeared already in 1980 and I think it can be useful to summarize its key points and arguments. In this article Winner suggested that technology is generally considered as a symptom by which we might recognize an authoritarian versus a democratic society. “We all know that people have politics, not things”, he argued and later added, “What matters is not technology itself, but the social or economic system in which it is embedded.” He also noticed that this would be a easy conclusion for social scientists and, therefore, proposed a theory of technological politics, in the attempt of, not replacing, but rather complementing theories of social determination and technology (Marxism, for instance). The approach would pay “attention to the characteristics of technical objects and the meaning of those characteristics.” For instance, Winner distinguished two ways that artefacts can contain political properties: 1) a specific invention, design or technical device can determine a particular social effect in a community (I would call it inductive) or; 2) when a particular political situation is the essential condition to establish a specific “man-made system” (I would call it deductive). He afterwards offered some examples of both ways, like Robert Moses’s buildings of roads, parks and public works (infrastructures) between the 1930s and 1970s in New York to create borders between upper and lower classes, white and black people; and the atomic bomb as “an inherently political artefact”.

[vii] Michael Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, in West 86th, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Fall-Winter 2011), The University of Chicago Press, 232-248: 233.

[viii] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 235.

[ix] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 239.

[x] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 239. Moreover, I would add that even technological devices are not neutrally interchangeable, since they different affect the way we access information, in this case, the way we see an image.

[xi] It seems appropriate remembering the writer Evgeny Morozov’s statement “Why technologies are never neutral”, which entitles the last part of the 10th chapter of his E. Morozov, The Net Delusion. The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, New York: Public Affairs, 2011.

[xii] Carol Armstrong, in “Visual Culture Questionnaire”, October, Cit., 28.

[xiii] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 243.

[xiv] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 245.

[xv] Ann-Sophie Lehmann, “The Matter of the Medium. Some Tools for an Art Theoretical Interpretation of Materials”, in The Matter of Art: Materials, Technologies, Meanings 1200-1700, in C. Anderson, A. Dunlop, P. H. Smith (eds.), Manchester: Manchester University Press 2014, 21-41: 22.

[xvi] Iris Van der Tuin, “On the Threshold of New Materialist Studies”, Forum: University of Edinburgh Post-Graduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, Jessica Legacy and Yanbing Er (eds.), Issue 19, Autumn 2014, 1-12: 4. Available at <> (accessed in December 2014).

[xvii] Diana Coole & Samantha Frost, “Introducing the New Materialisms”, in D. Coole and S. Frost (eds.), New Materialisms. Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010, 1-43: 9.

[xviii] Yanbing Er, “Editorial Introduction: The New Materialisms”, Forum: University of Edinburgh Post-Graduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, Cit., 1-6: 2-3.

[xix] Yanbing Er, “Editorial Introduction: The New Materialisms”, Forum: University of Edinburgh Post-Graduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, Cit., 3.

[xx] Rick Dolphijn and Iris Van der Tuin’s New Materialisms: Interviews and Cartographies, Open Humanities Press, University of Michigan Library, Ann Arbor, 2012, 85. Available at <> (accessed in December 2014).

[xxi] Rick Dolphijn and Iris Van der Tuin’s New Materialisms: Interviews and Cartographies, cit., 119.

[xxii] D. Coole and S. Frost (eds.), New Materialisms. Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Cit., 5-6.

[xxiii] C. Christov-Bakargiev, “The Dance Was Very Frenetic, Lively, Rattling, Clanging, Rolling, Contorted, and Lasted for a Long Time”, dOCUMENTA (13), The Book of Books, Catalog 1/3, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2012, 34. Quoted by Christopher Cox, Jenny Jaskey, Suhail Malik, “Introduction”, in Christopher Cox, Jenny Jaskey, Suhail Malik (eds.), Realism Materialism Art, Cit., 15-31: 28. Regarding the relationship among human and non-human agents sharing the planet and the human, in her essay Christov-Bakargiev made reference to D. Haraway, When Species Meet, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

To Each His (or Her) Own: Piero di Cosimo’s Bacchanals for the Palazzo Vespucci

by Bryn Schockmel, Boston University

Piero di Cosimo’s The Discovery of Honey and The Misfortunes of Silenus are two of the only works by the artist with a firm provenance. Completed around 1500, the pair of spalliera paintings were commissioned by a member of the Vespucci family to celebrate a marriage. As the paintings’ original location is known, the Palazzo Vespucci, it is possible to develop theories regarding the significance these material objects would have held for the original intended audience, the bride and groom. It is my assertion that the paintings held one set of specific meanings for the husband and his male guests, while concurrently impacting the young wife in a very different manner.

Piero di Lorenzo di Piero d’Antonio was born January 2, 1462, most likely in Florence, to a blacksmith father.  Little is known about his life, and most of his artwork remains undocumented.  Giorgio Vasari paints a colorful picture of the artist, though many of his anecdotes are likely fantastical exaggerations.  It is known that Piero studied under Cosimo Rosselli, from whom he took his surname.  Vasari writes that Piero travelled with his master to Rome to assist with the frescoes on the walls of the Sistine Chapel, stating that Piero painted the landscape background in the Sermon on the Mount.[i]  It is unclear whether or not this particular story is true. Many modern scholars doubt its authenticity; if the account is factual it would be the only documented time that Piero left his native Florence.[ii]  Throughout his life, Piero di Cosimo appears to have been a prominent, and sought-after, artist in Florence, fulfilling contracts for the Strozzi, Pugliese, and Vespucci families. Piero was known for his professionalism, always completing his commissions.[iii]  Vasari, however, describes Piero as a somewhat crazy recluse.  Though Vasari’s stories about Piero do not seem to be based in fact, they persisted well into the twentieth century, with Erwin Panofsky similarly stating that Piero preferred to live by himself and was a bit mad.  Panofsky goes so far as to praise Vasari’s “convincing psychological portrait” of the artist.[iv]  Piero di Cosimo died in 1522, at the age of 60, seemingly of the plague.[v]

Piero di Cosimo, The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus, c.1499, oil on panel, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA


Piero di Cosimo appears to have had a preference for painting on panels rather than frescoes.  The majority of his works are either commissions of religious subjects for private devotion or secular paintings for domestic settings.[vi]  Of the 50 or so paintings attributable to Piero di Cosimo, 18 have secular subjects, with the majority of those drawing their material from Classical mythology.[vii]  Ovid was certainly a font of inspiration for a number of Piero’s paintings; Lucretius may also have served as source.[viii]  In these domestic paintings, with their relatively limited exposure compared to large-scale public monuments, Piero had the freedom to be more adventurous, in terms of both subject matter and style.[ix]  At times, his works are even quite playful and comedic, as is certainly the case in the Bacchanals, which shall be the main focus of this paper.[x]

Piero di Cosimo, The Misfortunes of Silenus, c.1500, oil on panel, Harvard Art Museum, Cambridge, MA.

The storie baccanarie paintings, as they are called by Vasari, are comprised of The Discovery of Honey and The Misfortunes of Silenus, today in the Worcester Art Museum and Harvard Art Museums, respectively.[xi]  These two works are among the only paintings in Piero’s oeuvre that can be firmly linked to a specific patron:  the two spalliera paintings were almost certainly commissioned by a member of the Vespucci family, around the year 1500.  They would have been displayed in the Palazzo Vespucci in Florence, likely in the camera (bedroom).  The textual source behind the subject matter, as first noted by Panofsky, is Book III of Ovid’s Fasti.[xii]  The imagery closely follows the text, though Piero made some changes and added certain embellishments.

In the first of the pair, The Discovery of Honey, which dates from circa 1500, we find Bacchus and his entourage discovering (or perhaps more accurately, actively searching for) honey.[xiii]  As Ovid recounts the story, Bacchus and his satyr and nymph followers were walking along, clanging cymbals and other instruments, to rouse the bees and thus lead them to the honey.  Here the musical instruments are replaced with domestic household items, but with a similar effect:  the bees swarm out of their honeycomb attached to the tree in the center of the painting, revealing the honey to Bacchus and the others.[xiv] The main identifiable figures are Bacchus and Ariadne at the right, and Silenus, approaching the tree, riding a donkey.

In The Misfortunes of Silenus, Silenus takes center stage as he attempts to find honey on his own, but instead discovers a nest of wasps.  Here we have a true narrative, with the figure of Silenus repeated three times.  In the center, Silenus searches for honey in the old tree, only to be stung by a number of wasps, resulting in a fall from his donkey.  At the right satyrs attempt to help Silenus to his feet.  On the left the story continues, as they apply mud to help soothe his stings.  Here, too, the tale has been borrowed from Ovid’s Fasti.  This work is in a much worse state of repair than its pendant:  it was possibly left unfinished, and certainly heavily restored to remove the original rather explicit states of arousal of a number of the satyrs.[xv]  Like The Discovery of Honey, The Misfortunes of Silenus was painted around 1500 and is of a similar size.

Setting aside the dominant tree in the center of each work, the backgrounds are replete with landscape features.  Piero was known for his original and detailed landscapes, with the landscape itself frequently determining the layout of a painting.[xvi]  Many of these landscapes are quite different from those produced in Venice and other parts of Italy in the early sixteenth century, and seem to have more of a Flemish quality, like those of Hugo van der Goes.  Hugo’s famed Portinari Altarpiece arrived in Florence in May 1483 and had a profound affect on many Florentine artists—a function not only of his mastery of oil paint, but also his impressive and highly detailed landscapes.  Piero may very well have been influenced by the Portinari Altarpiece or other Northern works.[xvii]  The landscapes in his Bacchanals also have general connections to agriculture.  Bacchus, in addition to being the god of wine, was the god of grapes, and thus of vineyards and farming.  In Virgil’s Georgics, the author discusses the cultivation of bees, another type of agriculture.[xviii]

Tritons and Nereids
Piero di Cosmio, Tritons and Nereids, c.1505-1507, tempera on panel, Private Collection.

Two other works by Piero di Cosimo, each now in a private collection, are worth mentioning in relation to the Bacchanals.  Piero painted a pair of Tritons and Nereids, both long and thin, that may have been executed at the same time as the Bacchanals or, more likely, at a slightly later time, around 1505 or 1507.[xix]  The pair depict nereids (sea nymphs), satyrs, and tritons—classical creatures with the upper bodies of men, the tails of a fish or dolphin, and, occasionally, horse legs.  The two works are more of a frieze of characters than a true narrative.  They are relevant to a discussion of the Bacchanals as they, too, were displayed in the Vespucci Palace, likely alongside the Bacchanals.  They would have made for an intriguing grouping, with the terrestrial bacchanal thiasos contrasting with the marine thiasos found in the Tritons and Nereids. The inclusion of satyrs in the marine processional, an innovation on Piero’s part, would have further linked the two sets of paintings.[xx]


Tritons and Nereids4
Piero di Cosimo, Tritons and Nereids, c.1505-1507, tempera on panel, Private Collection.


Over the past century scholars have discerned a number of different meanings in Piero di Cosimo’s Bacchanals which are worth briefly examining here.  In a 1936/1937 article on The Discovery of Honey, Panofsky observed the distinct landscapes and features on either side of the large tree in the center of the composition.  He posited that to the right of the tree, with its dark and foreboding landscape, grey clouds, and twisting path up a treacherous hill, one finds man in his savage state, climbing trees, unrestrained.  On the left side of the tree one discerns a more civilized man:  an innocent pastoral scene, with a simple town in the background, the sun shining, and people processing in a neat, orderly fashion.  Panofsky coined the term “paysage moralisé” to refer to this kind of landscape.  He argued that, in this painting, honey is allegorical of a civilizing force, and that the scene reveals the advancement of mankind through small steps.[xxi]

More recent scholarship finds some trouble with Panofsky’s argument.  As a number of authors note, unlike the discovery of fire, for example, the discovery of honey is hardly a great civilizing achievement.[xxii]  Instead of interpreting the panels as moralizing works with great insight into humankind, some art historians simply view the paintings as playful, comedic entertainment.  There was certainly a taste for vulgar comedy among Renaissance Florentines, who would have enjoyed Silenus’ failed attempts to copy Bacchus and find honey on his own in The Misfortunes of Silenus.[xxiii]  That the paintings are humorous does not make them less intellectual or suitable for a humanist audience.  There are many examples of comedy and parody in Classical texts.[xxiv]  As entertaining works of art, the paintings still had the ability to provoke and challenge viewers.[xxv]  Piero has taken an ancient pastoral tale about the divine discovery of honey, and turned into something a bit more mischievous.[xxvi]

Though Panofsky’s reading has its merits, the more recent scholarship that focuses on the humor of the pieces, and what role they would have played for male viewers, in my opinion, perhaps comes closer to the artist’s original intent.  This is only part of the story, however.  To completely understand the function of the Bacchanals one must take into account where they were displayed, and the audience for whom they were intended, both male and female.  To do so, it is necessary to examine the patrons of the works—the Vespucci family.

The Vespucci were a prominent Florentine family in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and great patrons of the arts.  The family arrived in Florence from nearby Peretola.  The earliest Vespucci in Florence were wine sellers, not a particularly lofty profession.  By the late fourteenth century the Vespucci had risen to prominence:  Simone Vespucci, a silk manufacturer, was the first member of the family to gain wealth and status.  From 1434 onwards, the Vespucci regularly held office in Florence and had close ties with the Medici.[xxvii]  Amerigo Vespucci (1454 to 1512), an explorer for whom the Americas were named, is perhaps the most well-known member of the family.

In the second half of the fifteenth century, Guidantonio di Giovanni Vespucci (1436 to 1501) was a respected statesman, diplomat, and man of letters.  With his nephew, Amerigo, Guidantonio travelled to France as ambassador to King Louis XI.[xxviii]  After his return to Italy, Guidantonio served as the Florentine ambassador to the pope on multiple occasions in the 1480s and as ambassador to Charles VIII in Milan in the 1490s.[xxix]  On March 5, 1499, Guidantonio purchased the house on the Via de’ Servi where Piero di Cosimo’s Bacchanals were displayed.  The house had previously belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent, with Guidantonio acquiring the property from the Arte del Cambio (the Guild of Bankers).  In 1533, the house was sold to Piero Salviati.[xxx]

Less is known about Guidantonio’s son, Giovanni di Guidantonio Vespucci (1476 to 1549).  He is described as a “letterato e latinista,” so perhaps took after his father, who was known to be a very learned man.[xxxi]  In 1500, Giovanni married Namiciana di Benedetto Nerli, and most scholars agree that Piero’s Bacchanals were commissioned around the time of the marriage.[xxxii]  Vasari states that it was Giovanni who hired Piero to create the Bacchanals.[xxxiii]  More recent art historical scholarship suggests that it is likely that the father, Guidantonio, was the one who commissioned the works.[xxxiv]  Whether father or son ordered the paintings from Piero di Cosimo, The Discovery of Honey and The Misfortunes of Silenus were almost certainly installed in the Palazzo Vespucci around the time of the Vespucci-Nerli marriage in 1500.  As a wedding gift for the bride and groom, the paintings would most likely have been displayed in the couple’s camera, or bedroom, within the Palazzo Vespucci.[xxxv]

Returning to the Bacchanals themselves, the panels are examples of spalliera painting, a type of material object that became part of the décor of a room.  The word spalliera can be quite difficult to define.  The root of spalliera comes from the Italian word for “shoulder,” conveying that spalliera were typically displayed at shoulder-level.  While the term spalliera could refer not just to paintings but also to decorative wooden wainscoting or even textiles, this paper shall concern itself solely with spalliera paintings.[xxxvi]  This type of art was used to decorate patrician homes during the Renaissance, most commonly from 1470 to 1515.[xxxvii]  Spalliera paintings were often purchased at the time of marriage.  Typically a period of three to six months passed from betrothal to marriage, and spalliera and other decorative objects were frequently commissioned during this time.[xxxviii]  Wedding spalliera paintings were usually ordered by the groom’s family, to decorate the new couple’s bedroom within the house of the groom’s father (in this instance, the Palazzo Vespucci).[xxxix]  Spalliera panels could also be displayed in the sala or anti-camera.[xl]

Spalliera paintings were intended to be viewed sequentially, and often contained a continuous landscape throughout.  The paintings were set within wooden wall paneling, between decorative pilasters or entablatures, or attached to or above various objects of furniture.[xli]  Frustratingly, inventories of the time usually describe only the subject matter of the works, making difficult reconstruction of the manner in which spalliera paintings were displayed.[xlii]  Piero di Cosimo executed a number of spalliera paintings, where, as works intended for private, domestic contexts, he had a greater degree of freedom to explore interesting subjects and experiment with new styles.[xliii]  The subject matter for these works could be sacred or secular, with Classical scenes and pastoral landscapes both common themes.[xliv]  The images were intended not only to be entertaining, but also instructive.[xlv]  For men, this could mean paintings of bravery, duty, and virtue, to encourage the groom to be a good husband.  For women, the panels might display the bride’s role as a loving wife, mother, and caretaker.[xlvi]

To understand the specific meanings of The Discovery of Honey and The Misfortunes of Silenus we must consider the works as they would have been displayed as material objects in the Palazzo Vespucci, viewed by the new bride and groom.  The same pair of paintings, in my view, would have held vastly different meanings for the wife and the husband.  For Giovanni, the images emphasized his Vespucci lineage, his standing in society, and his general intellect and culture.  One of the main reasons the subject matter was chosen was the pun of the Vespucci family name. Vespa is the Italian word for wasp and the Vespucci coat of arms incorporated wasps.[xlvii]  In The Misfortunes of Silenus, Silenus attempts to find honey, but discovers a nest of wasps instead.[xlviii]  Clearly the wasp-related subject matter is meant to highlight Giovanni’s place in the Vespucci family and his pride in his lineage.  Bacchus may also be a reference to the first Vespucci in Florence, who were wine sellers.  Certain scholars have opined that The Discovery of Honey relates to the great discoveries made by Amerigo Vespucci.  As Amerigo’s accounts of his travels were not published until 1504 and 1505, this would suggest that the paintings were not commissioned at the time of Giovanni’s wedding—an unlikely scenario.[xlix]  However, the Tritons and Nereids paintings, with their nautical theme, may indirectly refer to Amerigo and his voyages.  These paintings, which appear to have been displayed with the Bacchanals, were commissioned at a slightly later date, around 1505 or 1507.  Regardless of whether the imagery makes reference to a specific Vespucci—Amerigo—it certainly, through the wasps, refers to the Vespucci family, and Giovanni’s lineage, in general.

Beyond highlighting his ancestry, the paintings would have served other functions for the groom as well.  That Giovanni (or perhaps his father, Guidantonio) could afford to commission such works of art comments on his status and wealth.[l]  It is important to remember that the camera, during the Renaissance, was not a private space as bedrooms are today.  The camera could have been a site of social functions and was a place where business was frequently conducted.[li]  Many visitors to the Palazzo Vespucci would have entered the camera and have seen Piero’s paintings.  The works were a symbol of luxury, and would have served to impress guests.

In addition to being a symbol of wealth and standing, the paintings would have displayed Giovanni’s intelligence and culture.  They were intended for sophisticated, curious, and wealthy guests—works that would entertain and perhaps enlighten.  The paintings highlight Giovanni’s humanist education, and would have afforded visitors an opportunity to expound on Ovid’s stories.  In The Misfortunes of Silenus in particular, only clever viewers would have understood that Ovid’s story had been told out of order (if one reads the work from left to right).  The paintings were conversation pieces, challenging the viewer, and reflecting positively on the intelligence of the host.[lii]  Notably, the room within the palace that contained Piero di Cosimo’s paintings was highly praised throughout the sixteenth century.[liii]

Turning to Namiciana, the bride, the same pair of paintings would have functioned in an entirely different manner.  On a basic level, the paintings would have been a form of escapism, a glimpse of an entertaining outside world for a woman who would have rarely been allowed to leave her husband’s home.[liv]  More significantly, the two paintings emphasized the roles that Namiciana was intended to fulfil:  that of loving wife and mother, and of caretaker and overseer of domestic affairs.  As Thomas Matthews first observed, much of the imagery in The Discovery of Honey relates to themes of love, marriage, and fertility.  At the right we have Bacchus and his wife, Ariadne, a figure who is not necessary for the story.  After wine, Bacchus’ secondary interest was love.  To the right sits Pan, holding an onion, an ancient aphrodisiac.  At the left are nymphs, creatures regarded as guardians of marriage, with other pairs of lovers nearby.[lv]  The entire scene could be read not simply as a quest for honey, but as a marriage processional, celebrating the love of Bacchus and Ariadne.

In addition to imagery of love and marriage, both paintings contain a number of scenes referencing the other new role Namiciana would be expected to embrace:  motherhood.  In The Discovery of Honey, at the left one finds a female satyr nursing a child.[lvi]  In The Misfortunes of Silenus, children are at play in the foreground.  In the first painting, the landscape in general is incredibly fertile, with lush vegetation and animals (bears, monkeys, a lion, a boar) in the background.  The dominant tree in the center of the composition, with its womb-shaped opening, seems to almost be birthing a young satyr.[lvii]  Piero utilizes the tree as the link between honey and love, two things that have been connected since antiquity and the writings of Sappho.  The artist may be wishing that the bride and groom have a married life that is fruitful and as sweet as honey.[lviii]  At the same time, however, when paired with The Misfortunes of Silenus, the artist conveys that love, though sweet as honey, is occasionally painful, like the sting of the wasp.[lix]

All of these details would remind Namiciana, in a playful but still instructive manner, of her role as wife and mother.  Another detail in The Discovery of Honey may emphasize an additional role she would have taken on as a married woman, that of overseer of domestic affairs in her husband’s home.  In Ovid’s telling of the story, Bacchus’ followers clang cymbals and other instruments to stir up the bees and alert them to the presence of honey.  Piero has deliberately deviated from the text, replacing musical instruments with pots and pans and other household items.[lx]  The fifth figure from the left holds a type of waffle iron that was used, among other purposes, to create wedding waffles.[lxi]  Piero has perhaps included these domestic items to instill in Namiciana her new role as caretaker and overseer in the Palazzo Vespucci.

In The Discovery of Honey and The Misfortunes of Silenus, Piero di Cosimo succeeds in imbuing the paintings with two distinct sets of meanings.  In my conceptualization, for Giovanni, the paintings highlighted the groom’s Vespucci family lineage, emphasized his wealth and status, and provided a form of entertainment for Giovanni and his guests, allowing the men to assert their intelligence and humanist educations.  For the young bride, Namiciana, the spalliera paintings served a different function.  On the most basic level, the works would have offered a glimpse of an outside world that Namiciana would have had little opportunity to experience first-hand.  Perhaps more importantly, The Discovery of Honey and The Misfortunes of Silenus both provided, in a light-hearted yet still instructive manner, models of the new roles Namiciana would be taking on:  wife, mother, and manager of domestic affairs.  Piero di Cosimo succeeds brilliantly in creating a pair of paintings that at first glance appear to be playful and amusing, and yet on a deeper level, served very specific and distinct purposes for the bride and groom.


[i] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 651.

[ii] Dennis Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions Beautiful and Strange (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2006), 14.

[iii] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 26.  None of Piero’s extant works were left unfinished, with the possible exception of The Misfortunes of Silenus, one of the subjects of this paper.

[iv] Erwin Panofsky, “The Early History of Man in a Cycle of Paintings by Piero di Cosimo,” Journal of the Warburg Institute Vol. 1, No. 1 (July, 1937):  29.

[v] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 18.

[vi] Sharon Fermor, Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, Invention and Fantasìa (London:  Reaktion Books, 1993), 16.

[vii] Fermor, Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, 41.

[viii] Alison Brown, “Lucretius and the Epicureans in the Social and Political Context of Renaissance Florence.” I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance Vol. 9 (2001):  20.

[ix] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 78.

[x] Paul Barolsky, Infinite Jest: Wit and Humor in Italian Renaissance Art (Columbia:  University of Missouri Press, 1978), 46.

[xi] Vasari uses the word “some” to describe the paintings, implying that originally the series may have consisted of more than two works. See John Miller, “Piero Di Cosimo’s Ovidian Diptych,” Arion Vol. 15, No. 2 (Fall, 2007):  7.

[xii] Patricia Emison, “The Paysage Moralisé,” Artibus et Historiae Vol. 16, No. 31 (1995):  131.

[xiii] The medium for the painting has alternatively been listed as oil on panel, tempera with oil glaze, and tempera and oil on panel. The most recent scholarship categorizes the painting as oil on panel.  See Gretchen Hirschauer and Dennis Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence (Washington, D.C.:  National Gallery of Art, 2015), 144.

[xiv] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 103.

[xv] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 101.  Some of this censoring seems to have been done by Piero himself, perhaps because the imagery was deemed inappropriate for the young bride (and groom) for whom the paintings were created. See Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: Poetry, 144.

[xvi] Fermor, Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, 106 and 163.

[xvii] Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: Poetry, 8 and Fermor, Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, 175.

[xviii] Paul Barolsky, “As in Ovid, So in Renaissance Art,” Renaissance Quarterly Vol. 51, No. 2 (Summer, 1998):  465.  Another sign that the landscape is perhaps more tamed than originally appears is the large central tree in The Discovery of Honey.  This tree is not uncultivated but has, in fact, been pollarded, or trimmed, to allow for bushier growth.  See Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 21.

[xix] Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: Poetry, 151.

[xx] Emison, “Paysage Moralisé,” 204.

[xxi] For Panofsky’s complete analysis, see Erwin Panofsky, “The “Discovery of Honey” by Piero di Cosimo,” Worcester Art Museum Annual Report II (1936-1937):  32-43.  See also R. Langton Douglas, Piero di Cosimo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946), 63.

[xxii] Thomas Matthews, “Piero di Cosimo’s Discovery of Honey,” The Art Bulletin Vol. 45, No. 4 (December, 1963):  358-359.

[xxiii] Barolsky, Infinite Jest, 48.

[xxiv] Fermor, Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, 85.

[xxv] Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: Poetry, 18.

[xxvi] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 102.

[xxvii] Gene Brucker, Renaissance Florence (Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 1969), 95.

[xxviii] Andreas Höfele and Werner von Koppenfels, eds., Renaissance Go-Betweens: Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Europe (Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2005), 126.

[xxix] Frederick Pohl, Amerigo Vespucci: Pilot Major (London:  Frank Cass and Company, 1944), 26.

[xxx] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 100.

[xxxi] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 82.

[xxxii] Anne Barriault, Spalliera Paintings of Renaissance Tuscany: Fables of Poets for Patrician Homes (University Park:  Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 152 and Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 100.

[xxxiii] Vasari, Lives, 657.

[xxxiv] R. Langton Douglas, “The Fall of Man by Piero di Cosimo,” The Burlington Magazine Vol. 86, No. 507 (June, 1945):  134, note 2 and Louisa Dresser, ed., European Paintings in the Collection of the Worcester Art Museum (Worcester:  Worcester Art Museum, 1974), 437.

[xxxv] Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: Poetry, 144.

[xxxvi] Barriault, Spalliera, 11-13.

[xxxvii] Peta Motture and Luke Syson, “Art in the casa,” in At Home in Renaissance Italy, eds. Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis (London:  V&A Publications, 2006), 274.  Painted spalliera panels replaced in popularity painted cassoni (chests), which had been a dominant domestic decoration earlier in the fifteenth century.

[xxxviii] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 80.

[xxxix] Barriault, Spalliera, 5 and 108.

[xl] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 80.

[xli] Barriault, Spalliera, 2.

[xlii] Cosimo Rosselli’s painting of the Last Supper in the Sistine Chapel provides a suggestion of how these panels would have looked in situ.  See Barriault, Spalliera, 10 and 20.

[xliii] Fermor, Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, 41.

[xliv] Barriault, Spalliera, 5 and 61 and James Lindow, The Renaissance Palace in Florence: Magnificence and Splendour in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Burlington:  Ashgate, 2007), 166.

[xlv] Motture, “Art in the casa,” 276.

[xlvi] Barriault, Spalliera, 6.

[xlvii] Patrons were often directly involved in the selection of the subject, so it may very well have been Guidantonio or Giovanni who proposed the clever pun with the family name. See Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 78.

[xlviii] Similarly, Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, also commissioned by the Vespucci, has a wasp’s nest in the upper right hand corner.  See Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 100.

[xlix] Höfele, Renaissance Go-Betweens, 126.

[l] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 78. 

[li] Lindow, Renaissance Palace, 129 and 131.

[lii] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 81-82.

[liii] Everett Fahy, Jr., “Some later works of Piero di Cosimo,” Gazette des Beaux Arts Vol. 65 (April, 1965):  203.

[liv] Barriault, Spalliera, 5-6.

[lv] Matthews, “Discovery of Honey,” 359.

[lvi] Matthews, “Discovery of Honey,” 359.

[lvii] Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: Poetry, 145.

[lviii] Matthews, “Discovery of Honey,” 360.

[lix] Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: Poetry, 144.

[lx] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 102-103.

[lxi] Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: Poetry, 148.



Barolsky, Paul. “As in Ovid, So in Renaissance Art.” Renaissance Quarterly Vol. 51, No. 2 (Summer, 1998):  451-474.

———. Infinite Jest: Wit and Humor in Italian Renaissance Art.  Columbia:  University of Missouri Press, 1978.

Barriault, Anne. Spalliera Paintings of Renaissance Tuscany: Fables of Poets for Patrician Homes.  University Park:  Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

Brown, Alison. “Lucretius and the Epicureans in the Social and Political Context of Renaissance Florence.” I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance Vol. 9 (2001):  11-62.

Brucker, Gene. Renaissance Florence.  Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 1969.

Douglas, R. Langton. “The Fall of Man by Piero di Cosimo.” The Burlington Magazine Vol. 86, No. 507 (June, 1945):  134-139.

———. Piero di Cosimo.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946.

Dresser, Louisa, editor. European Paintings in the Collection of the Worcester Art Museum.  Worcester:  Worcester Art Museum, 1974.

Emison, Patricia. “The Paysage Moralisé.” Artibus et Historiae Vol. 16, No. 31 (1995): 125-137.

Fahy, Everett, Jr. “Some later works of Piero di Cosimo.”  Gazette des Beaux Arts Vol. 65 (April, 1965): 201-212.

Fermor, Sharon. Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, Invention and Fantasìa.  London:  Reaktion Books, 1993.

Geronimus, Dennis. Piero di Cosimo: Visions Beautiful and Strange.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2006.

Hirschauer, Gretchen and Dennis Geronimus. Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence.  Washington, D.C.:  National Gallery of Art, 2015.

Höfele, Andreas and Werner von Koppenfels, editors. Renaissance Go-Betweens: Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Europe.  Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2005.

Lindow, James. The Renaissance Palace in Florence: Magnificence and Splendour in Fifteenth-Century Italy.  Burlington:  Ashgate, 2007.

Matthews, Thomas. “Piero di Cosimo’s Discovery of Honey.” The Art Bulletin Vol. 45, No. 4 (December, 1963):  357-360.

Miller, John. “Piero Di Cosimo’s Ovidian Diptych.” Arion Vol. 15, No. 2 (Fall, 2007):  1-14.

Motture, Peta and Luke Syson. “Art in the casa.”  In At Home in Renaissance Italy, edited by Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis, 268-283.  London:  V&A Publications, 2006.

Panofsky, Erwin. “The “Discovery of Honey” by Piero di Cosimo.” Worcester Art Museum Annual Report II (1936-1937):  32-43.

———. “The Early History of Man in a Cycle of Paintings by Piero di Cosimo.” Journal of the Warburg Institute Vol. 1, No. 1 (July, 1937):  12-30.

Pohl, Frederick. Amerigo Vespucci: Pilot Major.  London:  Frank Cass and Company, 1944.

Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects.  Translated by Gaston du C. de Vere.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Living in the Material World: Making Sense of Material Matters in Relation to Temporary Artworks

by Sophie Kromholz, University of Glasgow

The traditional idea of the artwork as a singular and stable art object was destabilized by practices of the early vanguards of the twentieth century, who challenged institutionalized ideas around art objects.[i] The continued exploration of new art forms alongside the inclusion of new art materials has brought into question how to carry an artwork forward – forcing consideration of how to stabilize materials which are difficult, if not seemingly impossible to preserve, and what to do when the art object cannot be preserved. American artists Ann Hamilton (b. 1956) and Kathryn Clark’s (b. 1944) collaborative work palimpsest (1989) is a perfect illustration of the problems which go hand in hand with the diversification and expansion of material possibility.[ii] palimpsest consists of cabbages, live snails, and an electric oscillating fan in a steel and glass vitrine within a room covered in beeswax tablets, under which, encased in the wax, lies nearly illegible yellowed newsprint.

Figure 2
Ann Hamilton and Kathryn Clark, palimpsest, 1989.

The cabbages inevitably rot. The snails die. The fan gives out and needs to be replaced. Should the original fan brand and design go out of production, how should this element of the piece be sustained? As for the wax tablets, these begin to accumulate the debris brought in by the artwork’s audience, as the debris slowly becomes embedded in the wax. Hamilton discusses the work as ‘a meditation on memory, its loss and our finitude.’[iii] These are common themes among temporary artworks, evoked in part by the material selected, and in part by how the material moves and acts. The work’s material is vulnerable, and thus potentially the piece itself, depending on how important the original material is. The work in its fullness is experience driven, focused on a kind of immediacy in its interaction with the audience. Indeed, Hamilton is known for creating ephemeral environments which catapult the audience into immersive experiences as they stand in the work and interact with it.

Despite the highly impermanent selection of materials that are bound to change and degrade quickly, palimpsest (1989) still exists. From analysing the work’s physical composition, as well as reading the artists’ statement about the work, one would initially assume that the work is indeed a temporary artwork. This surprising twist raises the following questions, namely how do we recognize a temporary artwork? What role does material, both its selection and movement, play in shaping the work’s reading and experience? These questions will be addressed in this paper, in order to come closer to considering what it might mean to conserve the artwork without its material form and what a temporary artwork can be for non-primary audiences.

Theories and Concepts

With the inclusivity of materials and structural methods brought on by contemporary art, many materially unstable works are in fact not temporary artworks. The significance in exploring the ambiguity of material and how it determines the longevity of a temporary artwork illustrates the argument put forth by cultural theorist Fernando Dominguez Rubio and sociologist Elizabeth Silva, namely that, one has to explore the trajectories of these artworks, how they come to occupy different object-positions in it, and how these object-positions shape the specific ways in which subject and institutional positions, as well as boundaries, are distributed and transformed over time.[iv] The term ‘object-position’ is borrowed from the field of Material Studies.[v] It refers to the relationship between the material object and human social and cultural practices and experiences. The material object is significant because of what we think it might tell us.[vi] A temporary artwork is interesting because it straddles the line between object and non-object. There is a distinction to be made between works the transience of which is mitigated by making them permanent and those which become non-objects, which is to say works which physically cease to be. Whether an artwork is a permanent object or a transitory object is not evident from the material selection, as palimpsest (1989) illustrates. Rather, to recognize whether the artwork provides a stable material reference point – whether it can be repeated or replaced – requires additional information. An artist must disclose what the role of the material is within the work as a whole in order to discern the most appropriate treatment of their work.

Parallel to the material selection, the manner in which the material moves – specifically referring to the material’s inherent physical properties and behaviour – and acts, also impacts the way the artwork functions as a whole and how it engages with various stakeholders (which include the artist, the exhibiting body, the collecting body, the art audience, the curator, and the conservator). For instance, returning to the example of palimpsest (1989), which consists of many organic components, including snails and cabbage, the ability to replace both the snails and the cabbage inherently changes the shelf-life of the work and the manner in which the work is carried into the future.

The material’s role within the artwork and how the artist envisions this impacting the audience’s encounter and experience with the work can be divided into three main categories:

  1. Artworks made of fugitive or otherwise vulnerable materials for which the artist supports conservation methods and measures which keep the work viable. These may be applied by the artist or can be applied in collaboration with a conservation team.
  2. Artworks made of fugitive or otherwise vulnerable materials which make the work as a whole temporary, according to the artist’s intent.
  3. Artworks made out of stable materials which are destroyed and therefore become temporary nonetheless.

The first category concerns works which are in fact not temporary artworks, though due to their material selection they could be, were it not for the artist’s collaboration in countering the work’s material instability. palimpsest (1989) clearly falls into this category. The second and third categories both comprise temporary artworks, with the third category being fairly commonplace in commissioned work. The second category is primarily the focus of this paper. This is because it is notably difficult to determine on the basis of material alone whether an artwork is indeed meant to be temporary. There is a tension created by the difficulty of distinguishing between artworks made of fugitive or otherwise vulnerable materials for which the artist supports conservation methods and measures that keep the work viable, and artworks for which the artist does not support measures to sustain the physical work. It is particularly interesting, in relation to how an artwork is experienced, to consider how to relate the first and second categories, and to evaluate exactly what they say about each other. In both categories, artists use difficult-to-conserve materials, and the artist’s intent cannot be read from the material selection and action alone.[vii] Art critic Michael Archer discusses the challenge of seeing material purpose as the ‘conflict between transience and persistence’.[viii] In both categories, the material’s instability does not function as inherent vice, but rather as a form of creative hubris. Exploring the significance of the medium how its symbolism and duration play a role in the work, is a means of excavating the underlying narrative that material plays in constructing and supporting the artwork as a whole. The artist’s intention nonetheless becomes a necessary component in understanding what the possible future of the work is. Whether an artwork needs to completely cease to exist, or can be replaced infinitely, much like palimpsest (1989), depends on the artist.

In short, the physical properties of the artwork as a whole, the material selection, movement, and manner in which the audience is aware of and participates in its action, inform the relationship between the artwork as object and its transition to non-object. These dynamics shape and underpin what it means for the temporary artwork to continue to exist outside its original material form. Understanding the relationship between the artwork as a whole and its material provides insight into what is lost or gained through the temporary artwork’s material loss. How we understand the artwork both short-term and long-term is affected by these primary dynamics, which include the material significance and changeability of the work.

Artist’s intent and modern and contemporary art materials

There is a shift with works from the twentieth century onwards between what the work offers and what additional information needs to be disclosed alongside the work in order to read and understand it. Moreover, further information is lost when the artwork ceases to be physically present at all, as is the fate of a temporary artwork. There has been what critic and curator Francesco Poli refers to as an ‘epistemological break’ in artistic practice and theory.[ix] Poli uses the concept of the ‘epistemological break’ to describe the shift in creative practice that we see in the twentieth century. This shift in thinking and creative practice, including the use of unconventional materials, has changed the kind of art made and how we can think of collecting and conserving for posterity. While the presence of unstable and unconventional media as art materials is no longer unusual, now including everything from foodstuffs, taxidermy and excrement, the artist’s intent cannot be read from the selection and application of these materials alone. As art historian and conservator Lydia Beerkens observes:

‘The conservation practice of modern and contemporary art has become increasingly  complex and dynamic. A thorough analysis of the artwork and the collection of detailed material knowledge no longer suffice to solve conservation issues. The artist, the choices   made by the artist and the history of creation of the artwork play an increasingly prominent part as (additional) sources of information.’ [x]

In order to begin to understand how we might read the artwork, additional knowledge of the artist’s intent has become critical. The artist’s intent can be understood as the artist’s ideas and wishes surrounding the artwork, and where he or she envisions the identity of the work as a whole lying. This has an impact on the perimeters of how the work’s material can be altered and interacted with, determining the treatment of the artwork.

The difficulty of understanding the role of material and artist’s intent is illustrated, among other cases, by the works made by German-born American artist Eva Hesse (b.1936 – 1970) in the 1960s. Hesse pioneered the use of latex, fiberglass and plastics in the Sixties, when little was known as to how these materials would age and affect the work as a whole. Hesse ultimately developed cancer and died at the tender age of 34 while her work was still gaining recognition.  Due to the heavy use of chemicals within Hesse’s work, as well as the material selection, Hesse’s oeuvre has aged poorly. As it was not known at the time how the material would age, and due to the untimely death of the artist, it is difficult to read from the material alone what Hesse would have wanted to happen to her work. In an interview, Hesse is recorded having said she was confused about the longevity of her works, elaborating to indicate that the complete properties of her materials were still unknown, and that her own stance was unclear.[xi] She discussed her awareness that the rubber she used in some of her works did not last, but that the creative use of the material might be more important than its longevity.[xii] However, she also indicated that she had thought about making more durable works to counter some of these problems. The interview makes apparent the artist’s own lack of clarity about her ultimate intentions. Mostly, the works seemed to be produced with a kind of immediacy and only later, when confronted with the work’s material change, did the artist begin to think about the work’s future.[xiii] The ambiguity of the material’s future is paralleled by further enigmatic statements made by the artist, including “Life doesn’t last; art doesn’t last. It doesn’t matter.” which are often applied to considerations of how Hesse’s work should be treated.[xiv] Arguably, in the case of Hesse, the reading of her choice of materials is influenced by an imposed reading of her illness. Art historian Anne Wagner criticizes this romanticisation of Hesse, stating that it creates a myth which does a disservice to the artist’s work.[xv] In the absence of the artist, traditionally one could expect the work to speak of the artist’s intention. Yet as we see with Hesse, and with some other artists’ works from the twentieth century, this is problematic. When deciding upon possible treatments, camps are divided. Art critic Stuart Morgan argued that ‘any attempt to ‘restore’ these late pieces by Hesse would be a travesty.’[xvi]  However, in opposition, fellow artist and friend Sol Lewitt argued that Hesse would not have wanted her work to completely vanish, arguing ‘She wanted her work to last’.[xvii] Yet this seems contrary to some of Hesse’s statements about her work, such as: ‘I think people should see it in all its faded glory.’[xviii] Discussions around Hesse’s work have formed part of the discourse on contemporary conservation and display practice and come to grips with material and artist’s intent – both shaping and being shaped by current conservation ideas on when to intervene with a material work, how to display it and when a work should be deaccessioned.

Moreover, the extent and manner in which an artist should control their work, particularly after the work has already been completed, is controversial.[xix] The artist is not always right. Artists’ concerns for their work are at times different from the conservators and the collectors. Furthermore, the artist’s original intent is a concept in flux, as artists may change their minds.[xx] In particular, later interventions suggested by the artist may no longer represent the artist’s own original intent when they first conceived of and made a work. This is notably a question of ethics, raising the issue of trying to evaluate at which stage the artist’s intention is most authentic, and equally when it ceases to be.

Taking an anthropological approach, philosopher and sociologist Renée van de Vall and art theorist Vivian van Saaze both propose that the artwork can be understood as having a biography, which is layered and dynamic.[xxi] The idea of an artwork as having a biography is indebted to anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, who first used the concept of a biography in application to things and whose work focused on the ‘life’ of things.[xxii]  Additionally, the notion that an artwork can have multiple authenticities is also acknowledged.[xxiii] It therefore follows that the artist’s earlier and later ideas can both be seen as part of the work. Through having a series of interviews with an artist over time, where possible, a change in the artist’s ideas can be documented and taken into account.[xxiv] However, at times artists may change their minds and express interests which are ‘either unachievable or undesirable by current owners.’[xxv] In these instances there is a clear conflict and the artist’s interests and intent cannot always be accommodated. When the artist’s intent is converted into action, it becomes what art theorist Sherri Irvin discusses as the ‘actionable sanctions’ which must relate to the identity of the artwork, lest this identity be changed and the work ultimately transformed into another work.[xxvi] The artwork’s identity is at the heart of what is at stake.

Temporary works are created with a particular limited lifecycle in mind, within a particular time and context. What defines the artwork and is critical to its state(s) is dependent on the conditions that the artist has intended and specified for the work.[xxvii] In cases such as German artist Gustav Metzger’s (b. 1926) auto-destructive art, the artist intriguingly decided to recreate his acid action painting from the Sixties for a retrospective of his work for Tate Britain in 2004. The remade work’s relationship towards the first work, made more than four decades prior, is not straightforward and how it is understood depends in part on how the artist sees this relationship. The compilation ‘Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979’ sets the framework for much of the discourse around the debate of performance and object and how to keep artworks ‘alive’.[xxviii]

Figure 3
Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1999.

Related to the complex discussion of remaking work and the life of the artwork, British artist Damien Hirst (b. 1965), infamously replaced the core material, namely the shark, in his piece The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1999) when the work was sold from one collector to another in 2004, and the artwork had aged poorly. The work consisted of a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde solution suspended in a glass and steel vitrine. After the artist replaced the contents, the vitrine was the sole ‘original’ material from the initial work. Nevertheless, Hirst maintained that it was the same artwork. The conservation treatment of the work in question poses considerable ethical questions around how to define and understand the ‘authentic’ artwork and where the boundaries of its integrity lie. Hirst has claimed that material posterity is not one of his concerns, but rather that he is focused on communicating an idea.[xxix] Cases such as Hirst’s are interesting because they signal the artist’s voice as the primary source of authority. They mark the stark shift away from a focus on original material.

Working with the artist at the time that a work is created and directly documenting their ideas regarding the constraints of the work is desirable, where possible. This helps to avoid the confusion, or later change of heart, which comes from reflection and time and might interfere with the work. We need to rely on the artist to disclose additional information which cannot be read from the work’s material alone, but we must also be sensitive to factors which are introduced and which may change and influence the artist’s understanding of their own work. These include considering when the artist’s intent is recorded – right after the work is made or much later, whether the work behaves as the artist has anticipated, and being wary of not influencing the artist. Jill Sterret, Director of Collections and Conservation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, notes ‘the artist’s intent is still our touchstone. But it shifts. You interview artists when their work first comes into the collection and then, years later, call for a clarification.’[xxx] It is worth noting here that for some of the works in question, there are no years.

The process of material unmaking as used in temporary works removes the focus from the object and places it instead on what curator Maria Lind refers to as the ‘performative structures’ – that which the material object ‘does’.[xxxi] The essence of the artwork and the purpose of the object are reconsidered through its material unmaking. The process of material obsolescence becomes part of how the work is read. The reality of its inability to physically survive is in accordance with the artist’s wishes.

Keeping a temporary artwork relevant, and indeed whether a work should be kept at all, for future generations of audiences depends on understanding how the artwork is made, and in this exploration also on figuring out where the artwork draws its perimeters, how it is defined, and the point at which is ceases to be – the artwork’s ‘death’. By necessity, the future of the work includes a kind of variability in understanding that what the work is in its material presence is not the same thing as the experience of the work in its absence. The artwork that no longer physically exists can continue to resonate with new generations of audiences and new experiences can be shaped from second-hand information. In trying to keep the work relevant, what matters is how its absence is contextualised. What exists after the work’s initial primary existence is no longer the material artwork, but rather as traces of the work, documentation and the memory of something that no longer is. The experience of absence does not replace the experience of the material presence of the artwork, but rather complements it, and could even be said to be an extension of the artwork’s life.


The importance of a temporary artwork’s material life is highlighted through an examination of the role that material selection, action and singular physical embodiment play in the work as a whole. The examples given illustrate the difficulty of placing a work in a stable object-position based on material alone. The changed nature of material and how it shapes the artwork conflates the idea of what it means to care for an artwork, and what it means for a work to endure. As the role of material within the art object has opened up with practices from the twentieth century onwards, our understanding of when and where there is material irretrievability has been challenged, and the myth that the work’s longevity can be read from material alone has been dispelled.

Conservators Salvatore Lorusso et al. maintain that in considering treatment for the artwork, ‘One must employ a methodology based on the critical study of not only the materials used, but also the philosophy and creative conceptual intentions of the artist.’[xxxii] Temporary artworks can be made out of traditional materials which include but are not limited to: bronze, wood, oil paint, marble, terracotta, as well as the non-traditional, including for example: perishables, fat, flowers, twigs, ice, blood, excrement, and cardboard. Knowledge is needed not only of the material, but also the artist’s philosophy behind using and applying the material. Where possible this requires direct input from the artist, or else from the artist’s associates who can clarify the artist’s intention. And even here we need to be wary of how time influences opinion, even that of the artist. What becomes clear is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer, but that all of these works pose similar questions and issues. Critically, materialism puts into question the desirability of permanence. And yet, if there is a desire to preserve these works, it is necessary to understand how their temporary nature is framed, so that we might conceive of ways to address the works’ evanescent quality while still conserving some aspects for future non-primary audiences. Understanding the role of material becomes the first step towards understanding how the artwork is made present and experienced.


[i] Martha Buskirk, The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art (London: MIT, 2003).

[ii] The use of lowercase within the title of the work is a conscious decision made by the artists.

[iii] Jonathan Padget, ‘For Snails, The Slimelight Is Fleeting’, The Washington Post (December 22, 2005),, (accessed, March 7, 2015).

[iv] Fernando Dominguez Rubio and Elizabeth B. Silva, ‘Materials in the Field: Object-trajectories and Object-positions in the Field of Contemporary Art’, Cultural Sociology vol. 7 no. 2 (June 2013):161-178, 164.

[v] The field of Material Studies researches the relationship between people and material objects, including their history, making, use, preservation and interpretation. Material Studies takes an interdisciplinary approach, drawing from multiple fields, including art history, archaeology, anthropology, history, and museum studies.

[vi] Webb Keane and Christopher Tilly, ‘Subjects and Objects’, Handbook of Material Culture, ed., Christopher Tilley, Webb Keane, and Susanne Kuechler-Fogden (London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2013), 198.

[vii] Note that these can be organic e.g. foodstuffs, or inorganic e.g. plastics.

[viii] Michael Archer, ‘Contemporary art is not ephemeral’, The Guardian, (November 18, 2009),,

(accessed March 7, 2015).

[ix] Francesco Poli, ‘Preface’, Conserving Contemporary Art: Issues, Methods, Materials, and Research, ed., Oscar Chiantore and Antonio Rava (Los Angelos: Getty Publications: 2012), 7.

[x] Ibid., 9.

[xi] Eva Hesse, ‘Eva Hesse on Impermanence of Her Materials’, (accessed March 9, 2015).

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Tate Modern, ‘Teacher and Group Leaders’ Kit – Eva Hesse 13 November 02 – 9 March 03’, 12,, (accessed April 19, 2015).

[xv] Mignon Nixon and Cindy Nemser, Eva Hesse (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

[xvi] Stuart Morgan, ‘Oh! More Absurdity!’, Frieze Magazine, Issue 11, (June-August 1993)., (accessed February 19, 2012).

[xvii]Jonathan Keats, ‘The Afterlife of Eva Hesse’, Art and Antiques Magazine, (April 2011),, (accessed February 17, 2012).

[xviii] Washington Pullman, ‘Eva Hesse sculptures deteriorating at WSU museum’, North County Times (October 4, 2006),, (accessed February 16, 2012).

[xix] This is indicated throughout conservation discussion by amongst others: Barbara Ferriani, ‘How to Pass on an Idea’, Ephemeral Monument – History and conservation of Installation Art, ed., Barbara Ferriani and Marina Puegliese (Los Angelos: Getty Publications, 2009), 120.

[xx] David Lowenthal, ‘Changing Criteria of Authenticity’, Proceedings of the Nara Conference on Authenticity in Relation to the World Heritage Convention, ed., K. E. Larsen (Norway: Riksantikvaren 1995): 121-135; David Lowenthal,  ‘Managing the Flux of Authenticity’, Proceedings of the Nara Conference on Authenticity in Relation to the World Heritage Convention, ed., K. E. Larsen (Norway: Riksantikvaren 1995):  369-370.

[xxi] Renee van de Vall et. al., ‘Reflections on a biographical approach to contemporary art conservation’, Proceedings ICOM-CC 16th triennial conference, Lisbon, ed. J. Bridgland (Critério, 2011); Vivian van Saaze, ‘authenticity in Practice: An Ethnographic Study into the Preservation of One Candle by Nam June Paik’, Art, Conservation and Authenticities: Material, Concept, Context, ed., Erma Hermens and Tina Fiske (London: Archetype Publicaitons, 2009): 190-198.

[xxii] Arjun Appadurai, ‘Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value’, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986): 3-63.

[xxiii] Erma Hermens and Tina Fiske, Art, Conservation and Authenticities: Material, Concept, Context,  (London: Archetype Publications, 2009): 190-198.

[xxiv] Crystel Sanchez, ‘VOCA’S Artist Interview Workshop: Crystal Sanchez’s Experience’, Voices in Contemporary Art (June 6, 2013,, (accessed March 4, 2015).

[xxv] Glenn Wharton, ‘The Challenges of Conserving Contemporary Art,’ Collecting the New, ed., Bruce Altshuler (Princeton University Press, 2005).

[xxvi] Sherri Irvin, ‘The Artist’s Sanction in Contemporary Art’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 63 (2005): 315-326.

[xxvii] Pip Laurenson, ‘Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-based Media Installations’, [Im]permanence. Culture In/Out of Time, ed., Judith Schachter and Stephen Brockman (Pittsburgh: Center for the Arts in Society, Carnegie Mellon University, 2008).

[xxviii] Paul Schimmel and Kristine Stiles, Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949-1979 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1998).

[xxix] Alison Bracker, ‘Oh, The Shark Has Pretty Teeth, Dear’, Conservation Journal, Issue 35 (Summer 2000),,-the-shark-has-pretty-teeth,-dear/, (accessed August 20, 2015).

[xxx] Jill Sterret, ‘Competing Commitments: A Discussion about Ethical Dilemmas in the Conservation of Modern and Contemporary Art’, The GCI Newsletter 24, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 18–24,, (accessed March 11, 2015).

[xxxi] Carlos Motta, ‘Relations in Real Time: A conversation with Maria Lind’, Sjónauki 3, (2008), 1.

[xxxii] Salvatore Lorusso et al., ‘The Traditional, The Innovative, The Ephemeral: Conception, realization, intervention in contemporary art’, Conservation Science in Cultural Heritage, Vol. 9 (Mar. 2009,): 170-214.



Appadurai, Arjun, ‘Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value’, The Social        Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986): 3-63.

Archer, Michael, ‘Contemporary art is not ephemeral’, The Guardian, (November 18,        2009),  art-ephemeral, (accessed March 7, 2015).

Bracker, Alison, ‘Oh, The Shark Has Pretty Teeth, Dear’, Conservation Journal, Issue       35 (Summer 2000),           journal/issue-35/oh,-the-shark-has-pretty-teeth,-dear/, (accessed August 20, 2015).

Buskirk, Martha, The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art (London: MIT, 2003).

Dominguez Rubio, Fernando, and Elizabeth B. Silva, ‘Materials in the Field: Object-         trajectories and Object-positions in the Field of Contemporary Art’, Cultural      Sociology vol. 7 no. 2 (June 2013):161-178.

Ferriani, Barbara ‘How to Pass on an Idea’, Ephemeral Monument – History and   conservation of Installation Art, ed., Barbara Ferriani and Marina Puegliese           (Los Angelos: Getty Publications, 2009).

Hermens, Erma, and Tina Fiske, Art, Conservation and Authenticities: Material,      Concept, Context,  (London: Archetype Publications, 2009): 190-198.

Hesse, Eva, ‘Eva Hesse on Impermanence of Her Materials’, (accessed March 9,           2015).

Irvin, Sherri, ‘The Artist’s Sanction in Contemporary Art’, The Journal of Aesthetics          and Art Criticism, 63 (2005): 315-326.

Kean, Webb, and Christopher Tilly, ‘Subjects and Objects’, Handbook of Material             Culture, ed., Christopher Tilley, Webb Keane, and Susanne Kuechler-Fogden        (London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2013).

Keats, Jonathan, ‘The Afterlife of Eva Hesse’, Art and Antiques Magazine, (April        2011),,       (accessed February 17, 2012).

Laurenson, Pip, ‘Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-based           Media Installations’, [Im]permanence. Culture In/Out of Time, ed., Judith       Schachter and Stephen Brockman (Pittsburgh: Center for the Arts in Society,       Carnegie Mellon University, 2008).

Lorusso, Salvatore, et al., ‘The Traditional, The Innovative,           The Ephemeral:           Conception, realization, intervention in contemporary art’, Conservation            Science in Cultural Heritage, Vol. 9 (Mar. 2009,): 170-214.

Lowenthal, David, ‘Changing Criteria of Authenticity’, Proceedings of the Nara   Conference on Authenticity in Relation to the World Heritage Convention, ed.,        K. E. Larsen (Norway: Riksantikvaren 1995): 121-135.

Lowenthal, David, ‘Managing the Flux of Authenticity’, Proceedings of the Nara Conference on Authenticity in Relation to the World Heritage Convention, ed.,        K. E. Larsen (Norway: Riksantikvaren 1995):  369-370.

Morgan, Stuart, ‘Oh! More Absurdity!’, Frieze Magazine, Issue 11, (June-August 1993)., (accessed         February 19, 2012).

Motta, Carlos, ‘Relations in Real Time: A conversation with Maria Lind’, Sjónauki 3,        (2008).

Nixon, Mignon, and Cindy Nemser, Eva Hesse (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

Padget, Jonathan, ‘For Snails, The Slimelight Is Fleeting’, The Washington Post     (December 22, 2005),        dyn/content/article/2005/12/21/AR2005122102274.html, (accessed, March 7,     2015).

Poli, Francesco, ‘Preface’, Conserving Contemporary Art: Issues, Methods,             Materials, and Research, ed., Oscar Chiantore and Antonio Rava (Los   Angelos: Getty Publications: 2012).

Pullman, Washington, ‘Eva Hesse sculptures deteriorating at WSU museum’, North           County Times (October 4, 2006),           and-theater/visual/article_0c0a1951-8ea5-5f58-8dd4-       9ce196b3d30c.html#ixzz1ng3n3jXq, (accessed February 16, 2012).

Sanchez, Crystel, ‘VOCA’S Artist Interview Workshop: Crystal Sanchez’s            Experience’, Voices in Contemporary Art (June 6, 2013,, (accessed March 4,             2015).

Schimmel, Paul, and Kristine Stiles, Out of Actions: Between Performance and the             Object 1949-1979 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1998).

Sterret, Jill, ‘Competing Commitments: A Discussion about Ethical Dilemmas in the          Conservation of Modern and Contemporary Art’, The GCI Newsletter 24, no.        2 (Fall 2009): 18–24,       alogue.html, (accessed March 11, 2015).

Tate Modern, ‘Teacher and Group Leaders’ Kit – Eva Hesse 13 November 02 – 9 March 03’, 12,,   (accessed April 19, 2015).

Van de Vall, Renee, et. al.,  ‘Reflections on a biographical approach to contemporary        art conservation’, Proceedings ICOM-CC 16th triennial conference, Lisbon,   ed. J. Bridgland (Critério, 2011); Vivian van Saaze, ‘authenticity in Practice:         An Ethnographic Study into the Preservation of One Candle by Nam June             Paik’, Art, Conservation and Authenticities: Material, Concept, Context, ed.,           Erma Hermens and Tina Fiske (London: Archetype Publications, 2009): 190- 198.

Wharton, Glenn, ‘The Challenges of Conserving Contemporary Art,’ Collecting the         New, ed., Bruce Altshuler (Princeton University Press, 2005).

Forming the Symbolist Identity: the Materiality of Fernand Khnopff’s Sculptures

by Maria Golovteeva, University of St Andrews

Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren described the artworks of his compatriot, symbolist artist Fernand Khnopff, as “suggestions of thought” due to their visionary and symbolic character.[i] Indeed, his œuvre is predominantly characterised by allegorical and emblematic symbolism, but it would be rather simplistic to dismiss the material aspect of his art. First, the physicality of works of art characterises artists’ intentions, as they choose specific materials and employ specific techniques to obtain a certain effect. Thus, as a versatile craftsman, who worked with paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and sculpture, Khnopff must have paid careful attention to the material aspects of his creations. His articles on various materials he employed and their physical characteristics demonstrate his interest in materiality (photography, ivory carving, etching and engraving, etc.). Second, considering the Kantian idea of the “aesthetic experience”, art can function through its physicality, as the viewer’s engagement with a work of art includes not only its intellectual aspect, but also the interaction with its physical components: “the immediate relation to the sensational apprehension of the objects is what forms the primary basis of experience”.[ii] Third, according to the Symbolist Manifesto, the objective of the movement was to wrap the idea in a sensual form, with the form being subjected to the idea, which it is meant to express.[iii] This declaration of the idealist nature of the Symbolism and movement away from naturalism still took the notion of the form into consideration. Moreover, the importance of the material culture within the symbolist subjectivity was determined by the symbolist desire to collect exquisite and unique objects or everyday objects with acquired deeper meaning.[iv] The main character of Karl Huysmans’s novel À rebours, Des Esseintes, was an example of this predilection to gather exquisite things and construct an artificial interior in his search for the self-realization.

Khnopff did not produce many sculptures: around seven are known to have existed, but most of them were produced in multiple copies or in various materials. For example, he created two versions of Bust of a Young Englishwoman, both in tinted gessoduro but with slight variations in a turn of the head.

Fernand Khnopff, Bust of a Young Englishwoman, 1891, polychrome plaster, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels (Inv. No. 70)


Fernand Khnopff (from Robert L. Delevoy, et al), Photograph of Bust of a Young Englishwoman, 1891, polychrome plaster/photograph, Private Collection, Brussels.

Another variation of this sculpture might have existed in tinted marble.[v] Khnopff also rendered Head of Hypnos in bronze (below) and in plaster (known from photographs).

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As can be seen, in terms of a subject matter, Khnopff explored the themes and imagery of his paintings and drawings in a three-dimensional form. The recurrent symbols comprise images of Hypnos as well as of enigmatic and mysterious women (a young Englishwoman, Sybille, Vivien, Medusa), who embody qualities of both an ideal woman and a femme fatale in different proportions. As already mentioned, the materiality of his sculptures was determined by the Symbolist doctrines, which articulated the physicality of the objects through the concepts of precious or unique objects (collectibles) and a self-expression of an artist or a collector. Moreover, Khnopff was an active participant in the fin-de-siècle milieu, therefore, his considerations of sculptural materiality were strongly influenced by several contemporary trends, particularly the nineteenth-century revival of sculptural polychromy and re-introduction of certain materials.

Almost all the sculptures that Khnopff created were polychromed. He explored the expressive and aesthetic qualities of sculptural colouring. His pictorial approach was to create an image of a mysterious female or androgynous creature, self-contained and withdrawn from reality, as found in his Bust of a Young Englishwoman (above), Sybille (below, known from a photograph), Vivien (below), Mask (above), Future (below).

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His sculptural polychromy evoked the enigmatic and visionary atmosphere of his paintings and drawings. As a Symbolist, who experimented with levels of reality and the coexistence of two worlds, real and ideal, Khnopff employed the sculptural colouring in attempt to add a lifelike resemblance to his visionary characters, which were neither living nor alive. As such, he highlighted certain realistic features of his mystical beings with colour: lips, eyes, eyebrows, and hair of Vivien, a young Englishwoman (Bust of a Young Englishwoman, Future), a two-winged creature (Mask), skin tones of Vivien and the 1891 rendering of a young Englishwoman. However, Khnopff did not use colour to create a naturalistic effect: emphasising the human traits of his creatures, he at the same time made them look like inanimate idols of his own ideal world of symbols and visions. This resulted from a certain tension between form and colour: despite relatively naturalistic colouring, his sculptures did not try to mimic reality or real human beings, as they were always presented as objects – busts, masks, heads, or, as in case of Sybille and Vivien, small statuettes against exquisite backdrops resembling George Frampton’s Mysteriarch (1892). Khnopff emphasised the physicality of his sculptures and thus the visionary nature of the creatures they depicted by an unrealistic slicing of their heads (Bust of a Young Englishwoman, Future), constructing elaborate compositions with a backdrop and a support (Sybille, Vivien), leaving an unworked piece of marble under a carefully sculpted face (Future) or simply exposing the uncoloured gessoduro with his monogram (Bust of a Young Englishwoman). Furthermore, Khnopff’s intention to create sculptures resembling some sort of religious idols was related to the Symbolist concept of a studio altar, which the Belgian might have learnt from a German artist Franz von Stuck.[vi] Just as Stuck’s studio, built in 1897, featured an altar to Athena, Villa Khnopff, which was constructed between 1900 and 1902, enshrined an altar to Hypnos (above), topped by a plaster version of his Head of Hypnos and composed of Tiffany glass, a Byzantine medallion, precious books, images of his family, and golden sphinxes, and inscribed with the artist’s personal motto “On ne a que soi” (One has only oneself).[vii] Combining the idea of the studio altar and the collectibles as a way of artistic and intellectual self-expression Khnopff also erected a construction recalling an altar (below), which included an original version of Mask in ivory and gilt bronze crowned with a crystal vase and placed on a blue column against a Japanese embroidered wall-hanging with a white crane flying against a blue background.

Robert L. Delevoy, Photograph of Khnopff’s House

Another German artist, Max Klinger, also dismissed the colour in sculpture as a trace of naturalism, instead praising it for its artistic qualities that allowed the realization of almost any idea. He wrote on sculptural polychromy and was partly credited for formulating a base for its reintroduction in the nineteenth-century arts: “Colour must come into its own here, must structure, fit, speak”.[viii] He stated that sculptural polychromy symbolised a return to simplicity that could help to emphasise the sculptural form and balance each part of the sculptural composition. These ideas of the fellow artist-sculptor must have appealed to Khnopff, who was possibly familiar with Klinger’s art through Franz von Stuck. Furthermore, both Khnopff and Klinger preferred to work with artificial polychromy based on the addition of paint to accentuate the painterly quality of the sculptures instead of natural polychromy represented by a combination of a naturally coloured materials (mainly stones and marbles). This approach to the colour aspect of sculptural materiality reveals the general artistic method of Khnopff and Klinger: they were concerned with colour in the first place and chose materials that granted them certain freedoms in terms of applying colour over the colourful materials that pre-determined the colour of the sculptures themselves. Introducing polychromy into three-dimensional works was a common practice of many nineteenth-century artists, who were equally interested in sculpture and painting: most of them, like Khnopff, were used to working with colour, but lacked training in sculpture.

At the same time, sculptural polychromy experienced an overall revival in the nineteenth-century. It represented a movement away from academic canons, which stood for principles of classical white sculpture. Furthermore, the nineteenth century was marked by medieval polychromy and by a final acknowledgement of the widespread colouring of the ancient Greek sculptures. Within the pan-European romanticism of the Middle Ages and supported by active restorations of medieval buildings around Europe starting from 1830s, coloured medieval sculptures came under the notice of artists and scientists.[ix] Moreover, conservation activities influenced to a certain degree the re-introduction of forgotten arts and crafts, such as gesso painting, fresco painting, stained glass, etc. Even though Medievalism was an international movement, Khnopff’s interaction with medieval subjects and sculptural polychromy was through his fascination with British art. The Neo-Gothic movement in Great Britain resulted in the re-introduction of coloured ceramics and gesso painting as well as the medieval themes (the legend of King Arthur, the War of the Roses, etc.). Khnopff most likely learnt the re-discovered technique of gessoduro during one of his many trips to England, presumably from George Frampton in 1891.[x] The Pre-Raphaelites, whom Khnopff admired and even was rumored to have befriended, also promoted the subject matters and techniques inspired by the Middle Ages.

The gessoduro re-established itself during the British medieval revival and since Khnopff was looking for a medium that united colour and matter, it became his material of choice.[xi] At the same time his works are often described as of polychrome or coloured plaster due to the closeness of these two materials. In his article on gessowork Walter Crane highlights its elasticity and a wide range of “effects and expressions it provides with almost no particular limitations or natural laws.”[xii] He partly attributes its expressive qualities to the variety of existing recipes and mixtures. Hippolyte Fierens-Gevaert, one of Khnopff’s critics, explains the artist’s fascination with the material through its aesthetic potential: it is susceptible to both moulding and carving combining organic and inorganic qualities and at the same time provides an extreme delicacy and softness that no other medium could grant.[xiii] His gessoduro sculptures (Bust of a Young Englishwoman, Vivien, Mask) demonstrate how Khnopff explored the physical characteristics of the material. The medium allowed him to carefully shape even the smallest and the most exquisite details, such as the laurel and flower wreath and small precious wings of the Mask, or convey a movement, such as the flowing hair and gown of the dancing Vivien, without any previous training. The fluidity and opaque texture enhanced the delicate feature of the mask and the young Englishwoman, while the fusion of the colour and the matter created an illusion of an inner glow. The colour receptivity of the gessoduro gave Khnopff an opportunity to control the intensity and shades of applied colours, thus, again, exploit the coherence between sculpture and painting.

Even though gessoduro or polychrome plaster was Khnopff’s material of choice, he turned to wax perhaps in pursuit of a greater artistic expression. As a more plastic material, wax provided more accuracy in details and allowed the creation of more complicated forms or more spontaneous expression. Even though it is possible to study Khnopff’s Sybille only from a photograph, it is obvious that the artist took full advantage of the plasticity of the medium: the mysterious priestess seems to be wearing an elaborate headpiece and a flowing garment with numerous folds along the sleeves. Again, with careful modelling, the artist depicted Sybille’s elegant gesture almost resembling a dance. While working in wax, Khnopff also paid more attention to the sculptural surface: he created a captivating difference between the smooth hands and calm face of Sybille and her vibrant outfit consisting of pleats, creases, and crinkles. It is unknown whether this sculpture was coloured, as the original, which had belonged to a British collection, was presumably lost during German bombing in 1940.[xiv] Nevertheless, the wax itself has a specific colour, which together with its other physical characteristics, including its ability to deteriorate with time, attracted the Symbolists as an intermediate state between human skin and marble and became their favourite material.[xv] In Georges Rodenbach’s famous work Bruges-la-Morte (1892) the makeup of Jane Scott resembled corpselike wax figures contributing to the overall dark atmosphere of that Symbolist novel.[xvi] With the medium experiencing a certain revival in the course of the nineteenth century and polychrome wax sculpture becoming more popular among the artists and more acknowledged by the public, Khnopff most likely became intrigued by the material’s ability to create fascinating fusions of form, texture, and colour (due to its great capacity to hold pigment), again realising his recurrent symbol of a mysterious and distant female. Khnopff’s approach to using wax characterised the changing perception of the material in the course of the nineteenth century. Traditionally wax was employed for its perfectly mimetic qualities: due to the highly naturalistic effect, cheapness and availability of the material, it was used to create votive sculptures, funeral effigies, death masks, and anatomical models. However, as with the sculptural polychromy, fin-de-siècle artists and sculptors attempted to move away from the naturalism bringing the symbolic aspect of the three-dimensional wax works to the forefront.

While Great Britain was going through the gessoduro revival, Belgium was experiencing an ivory movement. To encourage the chryselephantine revival, King Leopold II and the secrétaire d’état to the Congo Free State, Edmond van Eetvelde, invited Belgian artists and sculptors to create works for the Antwerp Interbational Exhibition of 1894.[xvii] This government campaign bordering on a colonial propaganda intended to promote the economic exchange between Belgium and Congo and revive the Belgian craft of ivory carving, which had been almost forgotten since the seventeenth century. In his article on the revival of ivory carving for The Studio Khnopff partly reviewed the exhibition, considering it a success and regarding the chryselephantine sculptures as the products of Congo rather than objects d’art.[xviii] Three years later he praised the organisers of the Tervueren Colonial section of the 1897 Brussels Exhibition for paying more attention to art rather than to the practical side.[xix] This was very representative of the quickly-established status of the recently rediscovered medium. Khopff himself contributed to its artistic acknowledgement: he exhibited his Mask (above) in the Brussels Exhibition. He also created a frontispiece for the catalogue of the exposition L’Etat indépendant du Congo. La sculpture chryséléphantine, Bruxelles-Tervuren. Just as Khnopff never returned to work with wax after the Sybille, he employed ivory to create only one sculpture, quite possibly caught in the overall celebration of the Belgian craft revival. One of the reasons could be that chryselephantine was a complicated material to work with: Khnopff’s ivory mask was mounted into a bronze laural wreath possibly because it was quite challenging for the artist to carve such small and delicate details, which he easily sculpted in the gessoduro version (above). On the other hand, merging ivory and bronze in one image corresponded with the fin-de-siècle love of exquisite materials and symbolist fascination with precious collectibles. The ivory mask was supposedly slightly tinted on the lips, eyes, and wings, but probably in a slightly colder palette when compared to the plaster version, due to the materials’ different capacity to hold colour.

Khnopff explored the expressive qualities of bronze more deeply in his two 1900 sculptures: Head of Hypnos and Head of the Medusa. Obviously inspired by the bronze head of Hypnos in the British Museum, which he most likely had seen during one of his trips to Great Britain, Khnopff stayed true to the material of the original but created a noticeably bigger sculpture. In the spirit of symbolist aesthetics with the form being determined by the idea, Khnopff chose the medium, which evoked the ancient Greek sculptures to render the classical imagery of two mythological creatures, Hypnos and Medusa. At the same time, he was clearly concerned with the aspect of presentation and exhibition: he placed his sculptures on elegant plinths, hiding the fastening behind the writhing snakes in the Head of the Medusa in a particularly clever and creative way. Deriving inspiration from ancient motives and taking into account contemporary aesthetics, Khnopff realised nineteenth-century visions of mythological imagery and produced fin-de-siècle versions of Greek sculptures, which also correlated with the symbolist desire to collect artifacts, even if they were only seemingly rare.

Khnopff’s only marble sculpture Future also recalls an ancient Greek bust, particularly because of the medium used, the form of a herm, and the laurel wreath. However, the Belgian again rendered the object according to nineteenth-century ideas. First, he left an area of crude marble in the form of a plinth building up a tension between the delicate features of the mysterious female and the unworked material. Second, Khnopff added colour to the face and hair, juxtaposing the cold marble and the traces of polychromy. The resulting contrast between the colour and the medium was stronger than in his much warmer plaster busts creating an impression of an almost vampirish beauty. Third, as he rendered the altars enshrining the Head of Hypnos and the Mask in a priestly manner, he also conducted physical manipulations resembling his own special spiritual rituals to change the appearance of the Future several times. Treating the bust as a precious collectible, Khnopff altered not the work itself, but the way in which he fashioned it, which nevertheless affected the presentation and thus the perception of the sculpture. At the first Viennese Secession the work was presented with a scarf sprinkled with little blue stars on her head.[xx] The photograph with Khnopff posing in front of the sculpture depicts it with a bare head revealing a skull cut across the forehead (below). Nowadays the bust is adorned with a laurel wreath. This is a clear example of Khnopff interacting with his sculptures and treating them as an extension of his personality and philosophy and as a means of constructing his artistic identity.

Photograph of Fernand Khnopff

Clearly Fernand Khnopff was attentive to the physical characteristics of his sculptures, adjusting their materiality to his artistic needs. Experimenting with sculptural polychromy and various materials Khnopff was influenced by contemporary trends in sculpture and at the same time supported them with his works, rendering his most recurrent imagery and symbols in a three-dimensional form. Rejecting the naturalism, Khnopff explored the artistic and spiritual coherence of his art as well as aesthetic and expressive qualities of different media. So with his art he constructed his artistic ego, his Symbolist identity, leaving almost no other documentation of his personality: the record found after his death hardly provided any information about the artist himself.



[i] Verhaeren, E., ‘Les XX’, Chronique artistique, I (no. 7), 1891, p. 251

[ii] Banham, G., Kant and the Ends of Aesthetics (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), p. 13

[iii] Moréas, J., ‘Un manifeste littéraire: Le Symbolisme’, Le Figaro, September 18, 1887

[iv] Sloane, R., ‘The Archaeology of Dreams: Fernand Khnopff, Henri Cros and the mask’, O’Mahoney, C. I. R., ed., Symbolist Objects: Symbolism and Subjectivity at the Fin de Siècle (High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire: Rivendale press, 2009), p. 165

[v] Blühm, A., ‘In living colour’, Blühm, A., P. Curtis, ed., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840 — 1910 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 1996), p. 57

[vi] Howe, J. W., The symbolist art of Fernand Khnopff (Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1982), p. 112

[vii] Ibid.

Sloane, R., ‘The Archaeology of Dreams: Fernand Khnopff, Henri Cros and the mask’, p. 165

[viii] Blühm, A., ‘In living colour’, p. 42

[ix] Blühm, A., ‘In living colour’, p. 54

[x] Hargrove, J., ‘Painter-sculptors and polychromy in the evolution of modernism’, Blühm, A., P. Curtis, ed., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840 — 1910, p.109

Draguet, M., Khnopff, ou L’ambigu poétique (Brussels, Paris, 1995), p. 136, note 134

[xi] Sloane, R., ‘The Archaeology of Dreams: Fernand Khnopff, Henri Cros and the mask’, p. 175

[xii] Crane, W., ‘Notes on gesso work’, The Studio, vol. I (2), May 1893, p. 47

[xiii] Fierens-Gevaert, H., ‘Fernand Khnopff’, Art et décoration, 4 (1898), p. 123

Quoted in Sloane, R., ‘The Archaeology of Dreams: Fernand Khnopff, Henri Cros and the mask’, p. 175

[xiv] Delevoy, R. L., C. de Croës, and G. Ollinger-Zinque, Fernand Khnopff (Brussels: Lebeer Hossmann, 1987), p. 35

[xv] Héran, E., ‘Art for the sake of the soul’, Blühm, A., P. Curtis, ed., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840 — 1910, p. 99

[xvi] Blühm, A., ‘In living colour’, p. 57

[xvii] Leonard, A., ‘Internationalism in Spite of Themselves: Britain and Belgium at the Fin de Siècle’, Brockington, G., ed., Internationalism and the Arts in Britain and Europe at the Fin de Siècle, CISRA Volume 4 (Peter Lang, 2009), p. 229

[xviii] Khnopff, F., ‘The revival of ivory carving in Belgium’, The Studio, vol. IV, 1894, p. 150

[xix] Khnopff, F., ‘Studio-Talk: Brussels’, The Studio, vol. XI (51), June 1897, p. 201

[xx] Hevesi, L., Acht Jahre Sezession (Vienna, 1906), p. 33


Banham, G., Kant and the Ends of Aesthetics (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999)

Blühm, A., P. Curtis, ed., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840 — 1910 (Van

Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 1996)

Brockington, G., ed., Internationalism and the Arts in Britain and Europe at the Fin de Siècle, Cultural Interactions: Studies in the Relationship between the Arts, Volume 4 (Peter Lang, 2009)

Crane, W., ‘Notes on gesso work’, The Studio, vol. I (2), May 1893, p. 45-9

Delevoy, R. L., C. de Croës, and G. Ollinger-Zinque, Fernand Khnopff (Brussels: Lebeer Hossmann, 1987)

Draguet, M., Khnopff, ou L’ambigu poétique (Brussels, Paris, 1995)

Hevesi, L., Acht Jahre Sezession (Vienna, 1906)

Howe, J. W., The symbolist art of Fernand Khnopff (Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1982)

Khnopff, F., ‘The revival of ivory carving in Belgium’, The Studio, vol. IV, 1894, p. 150-1

Khnopff, F., ‘Studio-Talk: Brussels’, The Studio, vol. XI (51), June 1897, p. 200-2

O’Mahoney, C. I. R., ed., Symbolist Objects: Symbolism and Subjectivity at the Fin de Siècle (High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire: Rivendale press, 2009)

Moréas, J., ‘Un manifeste littéraire: Le Symbolisme’, Le Figaro, September 18, 1887

Verhaeren, E., ‘Les XX’, Chronique artistique, I (no. 7), 1891

Fabricating Innocence and Fashioning Sexuality: The Material Culture of the Female Child in Nineteenth Century British and French Art

by Sophie Handler,  Durham University

Throughout medieval Europe, the most prevailing opinion of the state of children was their inherent sinfulness. The belief in the notion of Original Sin at home in the child, only to be cleansed away on one’s journey to adulthood through a positive, dutiful and pious life, was strong and widespread, such was the power and influence of the Church. The infiltration of Enlightenment philosophy from the eighteenth century onwards turned the world of established European thought on its head. The Middle Ages’ view of the young was characterised by “the temptation to equate the child with the savage”.[i] As close to basic physical and sexual urges as animals, children had to learn to become civilised in order to be considered human, for “childhood [was] merely the life of a beast”.[ii] However, by the eighteenth century, empirical thought had made considerable headway in chipping away at the cultural cornerstone of Europe that was religion, and began replacing it with a more sceptical attitude that declared man responsible for the corruption of an otherwise innocent and pure child. Accordingly, eroticism was no longer seen as something innate within a child, but acquired through exposure to the evil of the adult world; “crucial to the modern conception of childhood as a state of innocence was the notion that sexuality is dormant, or even non-existent, in the prepubescent body”.[iii] This attestation generated a sense of urgency on the part of social thinkers and philosophers of the period to protect the innocence of the young for as long as possible. In complete contrast to the tolerance of the unruly, carnal child of the medieval era, the Enlightenment period saw every effort imaginable to shield infants from the immorality of the world, perhaps to such a degree, according to some, that most anything besides the overtly pure and innocuous was considered a taboo subject, regardless of its natural roots: “Foucault contends that during the Enlightenment people became deprived of certain ways of speaking about sex”.[iv]

It is unsurprising, then, that by the nineteenth century, attitudes to the moral fibre of the child, particularly in relation to sexuality, were muddled and varied at best. Linda Pollock accurately summarised the perplexity of the situation thus: “The mingling of sexuality and purity, freedom and restraint, material indulgence and corporal punishment, in attitudes to and treatment of children in the nineteenth century indicates both the legacy of the past and the increased anxiety of Victorian society with respect to the new emphasis on the responsibilities of parents and educators”.[v] Social reform in Europe in the nineteenth century had launched parents especially into the spotlight of public scrutiny with regards to appropriate care and education of children, which had consequently intensified anxieties over the place of sexuality in the lives of children.[vi] Far from a sensible and considered approach being established, the pressure of the modern age appeared to merely conflate the issue, most often resulting in the projection of two very polarised images of the child, reflecting the paradoxical combination of innocence and sexuality at play: “in nineteenth-century Europe the diffusion and sentimental glorification of the cult of childhood coincided exactly with an unprecedented industrial exploitation of children”.[vii]

Correspondingly, this paper shall investigate the ways in which these two conflicting ideas of the child were represented in the visual culture of nineteenth century Britain and France, focusing on the depiction of the female child. This focus upon girls invites an issue that is something of a crux to the paper; that is to say, the identities, roles and manifestations assumed by children in these examples of visual culture are invariably a construct of adult design, a physical or symbolic ideal or concession to support popular and material culture of the epoch. The significance of the female child arises from the fact that this commodification of the image of the child is intensified tenfold in the case of little girls, who, from a very young age are “prepared to be looked at by another”, serving as a constant reminder that “the feminine body is constructed for display”.[viii] [ix] The ineffectualness of the child becomes enhanced yet further when that child is female, for her powerlessness does not dissipate gradually on the pathway through adolescence to adulthood as it does for boys. She will remain similarly objectified and manipulated throughout her life, having been prepared and worked upon for this very purpose from an early age. Given that childhood in general has been “primarily a cultural invention and a site of emotional projection by adults”, the subject of the female child becomes all the more loaded, meaning that “representing them visually can project adult questions and assumptions about the social order and can place [female] children in a political (and often sexual) economy that is greater than the contingency of the individual child”. [x] [xi] In order to investigate this issue, this paper will explore and discuss various examples of revealing visual culture of the period, including the work of Impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), the fairy paintings of British artists John Simmons (1823-1876) and Robert Huskisson (1820-1861), the photography of writer Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), and relevant advertising artwork of the period. By turning to some of the most prevalent yet simultaneously controversial artwork of this era from either side of the Channel, this paper can arguably obtain the most accurate gauge of how the female child was viewed and presented, both in terms of the extremes of artistic license and the representativeness, acceptance and popularity of such artwork amongst the general public.

Whilst in most art historical accounts, Impressionism is hailed as a deliciously treasonous movement, brashly subverting the established style and subject matter of the academic art world, its presentation of girlhood is all too often obedient and supportive of the status quo. [xii] Instead of concentrating on the blotchy, heavily stylised landscapes that gave Impressionism its name and renown, and which were so popular with key artists of the movement like Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), Renoir became arguably the most prolific producer of Impressionist artwork in which the focus was people in everyday scenes. From sisters collecting flowers and dreamy boat trips to intimate dancing couples and busy café scenes, Renoir became the purveyor of the simple bourgeois social scene for the Impressionist movement. Indeed, for although his style was decidedly neglectful of traditionally accepted techniques as supported by the Salon, conversely, his compositions often buttressed the approved lifestyle of the conforming middle classes. This is perhaps particularly evident in his idyllic family arrangements of mothers, daughters and sisters, whose leisurely role in the home “emphasises this cyclical reproduction of ideal feminine domesticity” at the heart of bourgeois culture. Consider, for example, Renoir’s Children’s Afternoon at Wargemont (1884), in which three sisters of varying ages are depicted partaking in activities appropriate to their delicately domestic upbringing and future, such as reading and sewing. [xiii]

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Children’s Afternoon at Wargemont, 1884, oil on canvas, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany.

These pastimes are peaceful and require little or no supervision; Renoir enhances the quiet insignificance of these girls and their activities by carefully blending them into their surroundings. The girl on the left in particular almost becomes part of the furniture; dressed in shades of blue and white and holding a blue book, she becomes camouflaged in the settee upon which she is seated, her chambray skirt fanning out into the navy stripes of the upholstery, which in turn fades into the blues of the wall behind. Similarly, though not to the same extent, the girl on the right, dressed in reds and with a plait of auburn hair is placed before a predominantly russet background. Far from individuals in their own right, these girls, engrossed in their pastimes, are a decorative feature of a blissful middle class home. Subject to the voyeuristic gaze of the adult viewer, they are “put on display as a commodity of bourgeois culture, signifying wealth, leisure and domesticity”, neither their activities nor appearance disturbing the idyll. [xiv]

It is perhaps the youngest girl in the centre of the composition who is most interesting, however. Unlike her sisters, her dress contrasts with the fabrics immediately surrounding her, and she is not wholly engaged with an activity, instead stood slightly nonchalantly, looking out of the artwork and in the general direction of the viewer, possibly meeting his gaze in a more confident, perhaps coquettish manner. Significantly, she is holding a doll, whose general appearance and countenance is strikingly similar to her own; that is to say, Renoir has seemingly painted the child’s face in much the same way as the doll’s, supporting the notion that in nineteenth-century Europe, “dolls had a powerful influence in helping to internalise, on an unprecedented scale, stereotyped role models”.[xv] In order to compete with the enormously successful German toy market, French company Jumeau, founded in the early 1840s, began designing and manufacturing high quality bisque dolls, whose soaring popularity with the middle and upper classes resulted in an explosion in doll sales by the latter decades of the nineteenth century.

Example of a Jumeau doll.

Far from an innocuous plaything, the Jumeau dolls became a powerful tool by which adults could project their ideals onto children, for these immaculate miniatures embodied the tiny ladies to which these little girls ought to aspire; “the dolls were as placid and perfect as the parent wished the child to be”.[xvi] Spotlessly manicured, stylishly clad, with engaging and unflinching eyes, sweet mutism and reassuring stillness, the Jumeau doll provided the perfect example of feminine decoration and domesticity from which the obedient and dutiful bourgeois girl could learn, and which Renoir’s portrayal of girls eagerly conflated. The ivory complexion, soft rosy cheeks and bright glassy eyes of Renoir’s infant subjects, combined with their idle and somewhat ornamental positioning in the home supported the aesthetic and behavioural ideal for the little bourgeois girl: “the prevalence of the doll type as a visual standard of children shows that children – girls especially – were being commodified as an essential element of bourgeois spectacle”.[xvii]

To explicate this issue yet further, it is important to understand the potential inferences that can be drawn from the name Jumeau, which translates from French to mean ‘twin’, and thus carries a sense of novelty appealing to a materialistic audience or buyer. This is perhaps best explored by looking to another of Renoir’s paintings, Pink and Blue (1881), a portrait of Alice and Elisabeth, the daughters of Jewish French banker Louis Raphaël Cahen d’Anvers.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pink and Blue, 1881, oil on canvas, Sau Paulo Museum of Art, Sau Paulo, Brazil.

Although not twins, Elisabeth was just fourteen months older than Alice, and the resemblance is palpable, further expounded by their outfits. The sisters, like a pair of little Jumeau dolls, are positioned before the viewer in matching outfits, separable only by the pink or blue embellishments, as if to offer the consumer a choice of colour, or indeed the complete set of two: “these children are like commodities on a store shelf, the shiniest of many luxury goods”.[xviii]

Reflective of the paradoxical projection of both innocence and sexuality upon the female child in this period, Renoir’s presentation of little girls fittingly corresponds to both characterisations. On the one hand, she embodies the pure innocence of childhood, partaking in simple, harmless activities, seemingly unaware of the adult surveillance to which she is subject; on the other, she has been prepared for viewing, trained from an early age to perform the appealing and perversely alluring role laid out for her, and which she is thus far unable to fully comprehend. Perhaps then, she personifies the “infantile stage of sexual ignorance (not innocence)”, for she is simply unaware, or at least does not wholly appreciate, the sexual economy into which she has been forced from an early age as an unavoidable rite of passage to womanhood. [xix] This is conflated and muddied yet further by the contention that in some cyclical twist, it is from the very innocence and purity of the female child that her sexual appeal is derived. Given that women of nineteenth century Europe had few, if any, rights beyond those of a child, it is unsurprising that the traditional male voyeur gleaned some sexual intrigue if not satisfaction from the same basic sense of innocence and powerless which characterises the perceived role and image of both women and little girls. [xx]  The traditional social expectation of women in this era, namely that they should be “pious, modest, virtuous and chaste” could equally be applied to one’s anticipations of a little girl, a comparison that becomes all the more poignant when coupled with the fact that in nineteenth century France at least, a married woman was considered a minor. [xxi] [xxii] In both life and culture, “young girls and adult men are the preferred couple”, and being that “rich men turned young and beautiful women into ‘trophy wives’ [who were] pampered, indulged and well-dressed, but […] uneducated, led pointless lives, and were little more than rich men’s playthings and status symbols”, it is scarcely remarkable that this deep preoccupation of innocence extended yet further to those most innocent and thus with the most potential for modulation, control and even initiation. [xxiii] [xxiv]

The nineteenth century saw a disconcerting shift in its symbolic figurehead, the middle class adult male. Whilst originally a protective authority, albeit an increasingly curious “voyeur of puberty”, the middle class man was transforming instead into an individual of considerable means and power dangerously captivated by the notion of “childhood innocence sullied by adult intrusion”. [xxv] [xxvi] It was Victorian Britain especially in which morbid and perverse fascination of all sorts flourished, and indeed where “the child-woman came into vogue [as] one yearned for unripeness”, and so the popularity of the bizarrely tantalising art form of fairy painting soared. [xxvii] The combination of the erotic and the supernatural in the art world was not new to the nineteenth century. Consider Henry Fuseli’s (1741-1825) 1781 painting The Nightmare, which, whilst ostensibly depicting a sleeping woman and the demonic manifestation of her nightmare, has overtly sexual motifs running through it, including connotations of violent male libido, conquest and rape of a virgin, and female orgasm. This mingling of the supernatural with taboo aspects of sexuality reached a climax of sorts in Victorian fairy paintings, which offered its viewers an acceptable and accessible way of exploring “a mixture of childish innocence and ripening eroticism”.[xxviii] Once again, the female child is “on passive display, an object of visual pleasure”, and now, instead of a doll, fills the role of a sweet little fairy, disturbingly similar to the ones found in her storybooks, thus partaking in the dangerous, though carefully otherworldly, game of mystical sexual initiation. [xxix] Against a backdrop of advancing awareness of the potentiality of the sexual life of the child, especially in light of “the Victorian era’s cultural fascination with fallenness and prostitution” and the wavering ambivalence towards the eroticising powers of the male gaze, fairy paintings offered an escape into the harmless, fictional land of guilty pleasures: “it often seems as if pictorial fairies overtly acted out what humans only covertly expressed in literature and kept under wraps in varying degrees in real life”. [xxx] [xxxi] By equating the little girl to a fairy, a chaste and miniature being belonging to a fictional universe, she is both protected by the reaffirmation of her innocence and unobtainability in the real world, and eroticised as a sexually appealing commodity to be viewed and sought, instead of appreciated and understood as a person.

John Simmons’ watercolour painting of 1872, entitled There Titania Lies, is just one example of his extensive work on Shakespeare’s fairy queen Titania. In the centre middle ground of the piece lies Titania, the reclining, erotic yet unknowing nude illuminated by her ethereal fairy bedchamber, sleepy, if not sleeping, and angelic. She is surrounded, in the foreground, by a collection of similarly delicate and unconscious fairies, one of whom, in the centre of this protective ring of supernaturalism, is clearly a small fairy child, huddled in the foetal position, the purest of the pure. The dusky background features the vague figure of an adult male approaching; whilst we may assume this is Oberon, Shakespeare’s king of the fairies, this is unclear, and could just as easily be some sort of threatening imposter suggestive of “rather orgiastic undertones, […] of male desire and possession” as he makes his way towards the collection of virginal girl fairies. [xxxii]

Robert Huskisson, The MIdsummer Night’s Fairies, 1847, oil on mahogany, Tate, London, United Kingdom.

A strikingly similar scene is replicated in Robert Huskisson’s painting The Midsummer Night’s Fairies (1847), in which the figure of Titania lies limp and unaware in the light of her purity, whilst a strong and virile knight approaches her from the opaque darkness behind, his white helmet plume aloft as he surveys this diminutive yet invitingly voluptuous child-woman, Huskisson’s use of chiaroscuro emphasising their moral polarity: “sleeping, recumbent, and vulnerable, she is visited by an erect […] youth with a shield […] who has entered her private boudoir”.[xxxiii] The secondary scene in the foreground is a violent one, featuring muscular male fairies battling one another, their lances raised and threatening, perhaps indicative of the all too frequent “sinister spectre of rape or assault [who] lurks in many corners” of the Victorian fairy world of lust, aggression, and prepubescent erotic investiture. [xxxiv] Ultimately, the fixation with fairy paintings points to a need for an outlet through which sexual taboos of the period (which included concepts of bestiality and gender non-conformity as well as the exploitation of young girls) could be safely explored and even enjoyed. Both virtuous and enticing, whilst maintaining a crucial level of fiction and thus separation from the human world, fairies served as the perfect fantasy, the personification of “the ubiquitous fetishisation of girlhood which is at once innocent and erotic”.[xxxv]

More worrying perhaps is the fact that such fetishisation and commodification of little girls, particularly on a paradoxical see-saw combining innocence and sexuality, extended beyond the fictional world and emerged into the human one. Charles Dodgson, better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll, is most renowned for his works about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865 onwards), but it is his photographs of little girls, in particular a little girl named Alice Liddell, the reported inspiration behind his eponymous character, which is of particular interest to this paper. Carroll spent a considerable amount of time and often photographed the daughters of friends and acquaintances, (consider for example, his controversial child-nudes featuring sisters Beatrice and Evelyn Hatch), frequently terming the infantile muses his ‘child friends’. Whilst Carroll sought and cultivated “the friendship of many little girls”, it was arguably Alice Liddell to whom he was most firmly attached. [xxxvi] The daughter of Henry Liddell, a long-established friend of Carroll’s from the University of Oxford, Alice became something of a muse to the young writer, manifesting herself in a series of photographs, which have, in more modern times, come under significant scrutiny for their paedophilic undertones.

Lewis Carroll, Open your mouth, and shut your eyes, 1858, photograph, Princeton University Library.

Consider as a prime example, Carroll’s 1858 photograph Open your mouth, and shut your eyes, in which Alice is pictured alongside her sisters Lorina and Edith, one sister dangling a pair of cherries before another who waits with closed eyes and open mouth, whilst the third sister watches. On the one hand, it is simply a portrait of three young sisters, wearing their white Sunday dresses. On the other, of course, it is overtly sexual; from the title of the photograph, suggestive of tactile and sensory games, to the poignant use of the cherries, a symbol of virginity and the relinquishment thereof, in the hands of Carroll as a practiced coercer. Perhaps an insight into the largely secretive and thus controversial relationship between Carroll and Alice, the image of cherry bobbing, just like “an adult male playing with a little girl, carries erotic connotations of sexual initiation”.[xxxvii] Reinforced by the third sister who coquettishly observes the scene, this is an acting-out of feminine, infantile sexuality to a captive audience, a “performance of childhood for the adult”.[xxxviii] Encouraging the little girl to come out and play on this intimate stage is metaphorical of the “titillating attractions of the young girl becoming a sexually mature adult”.[xxxix]

Stretching beyond the realm of art and entertainment, the power of the fetishised girl carried economic sway, allowing the materialistic and greedy heart of nineteenth century Europe to maximise upon her potential: female “childhood was elaborately capitalised”.[xl] Interestingly adopting a similar focus on the heavily loaded symbol of the cherry, British soap company Pears made use, from the early 1900s onwards, of John Everett Millais’ (1829-1896) 1879 work Cherry Ripe.

John Everett Millais, Cherry Ripe, 1879, oil on canvas, Private Collection.

Originally commissioned by the editor of Victorian newspaper The Graphic, the image proved immensely popular. Featuring a young girl sat beside a bundle of cherries, she is dressed in eighteenth century garb, a nostalgically unreachable image of yesteryear. Her tiny hands pressed together in black fingerless gloves and her ankles are exposed as her skirts bunch around her thighs and hips, suggestive of the curves which will develop beneath the fabric. As she gazes out to the viewer, half smiling, the inference here is that the little girl is ripening just like the cherries. However, her smile is unfounded, for like the other dolls and fairy girls to which she can be compared, her role and appearance is a construct that in itself feeds off its own ignorance: “girl children in particular must not be seen to explore sexual knowledge on their own terms […] they must perform childishness as if unaware of their sexual appeal”.[xli] Once again buttressing the juxtaposition of innocence and sexualisation in which the little girl is passively embroiled, this coy child is unknowingly harnessed for her pubescent sexual appeal in order to sell a product solely for the purposes of cleansing, cleanliness and purity.

A doll, a fairy, or a nostalgic ideal of the past or even one’s own youth, the female child is constructed in a contradictory manner that reflects her lack of natural place in nineteenth century Europe. Her absence of personal or cultural identity as formed on an independent basis conflates her role as harnessed by the beholders of the male gaze. As the miniature version of the already commodified woman, even more ineffectual than her adult counterpart, her existence and image renders her all the more useful to the unbending culture of materiality into which she has been tossed. Perplexed and unnerved by an unfathomable array of historical and philosophical accounts and teachings on the role and morality of the female child, the powerful male populace of nineteenth century Britain and France manipulated this situation, as they did with many others, in order to benefit from the material gains that their influence of careful modulation could afford. Little girls, like dolls and fairies, quite literally became constructions, not so much formed of bisque, fabric and painted magic, as of greed, enterprise and power.


[i] Colin, Heywood, Growing Up in France: From the Ancien Régime to the Third Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 286.

[ii] Ibid, 1.

[iii] Jennifer Milam, “Sex education and the child: gendering erotic response in eighteenth-century France”, in Picturing Children: Constructions of childhood between Rousseau and Freud, ed. Marilyn R. Brown. (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002), 45.

[iv] Ibid, 49.

[v] Linda A. Pollock, foreword to Picturing Children: Constructions of childhood between Rousseau and Freud, by Marilyn R. Brown (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002),  xix.

[vi] For example, the loi sur la déchéance de la puissance paternelle (‘law on the forfeiture of parental power’), which was passed in France in 1889 and essentially dictated that parents would lose their rights as such if convicted of “crimes committed against ‘the person or persons of their children’”. Sylvia Schafer, Children in Moral Danger and the Problem of Government in Third Republic France. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 19.

[vii] Brown, Picturing Children , 3.

[viii] Patricia Holland, Picturing Childhood: The myth of the child in popular imagery (London: I.B Tauris & Co Ltd, 2006), 188.

[ix] Ibid, 188.

[x] Brown, Picturing Children , 1.

[xi] Ibid , 2.

[xii] Renowned figure of the nineteenth century Parisian art scene, Louis Leroy (1812-1885) famously coined the term ‘impressionist’ by way of scathingly satirising Claude Monet’s artwork in a review for Le Charivari in 1874. John Rewald. The History of Impressionism. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1973), 323. In more contemporary times, the National Gallery (London), for example, defines Impressionism as a “radical breakaway movement”.

[xiii] Greg M. Thomas, “Impressionist Dolls: on the commodification of girlhood in Impressionist painting” in Picturing Children: Constructions of childhood between Rousseau and Freud, ed. Marilyn R. Brown. (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002), 105.

[xiv] Thomas, “Impressionist Dolls”, 107.

[xv] Ibid, 105.

[xvi] King, Constance Eileen King, Jumeau (Atiglen: Schiffer Publishing, 1983), 92.

[xvii] Thomas, “Impressionist Dolls”, 104.

[xviii] Ibid, 108.

[xix] Milam, “Sex education”, 47.

[xx] In the French Third Republic, for example, a married woman was considered a minor, over 40% of French women were illiterate and therefore excluded from education, and those who found employment had to settle for unskilled work for which they were paid less than half of their male counterparts. William Fortescue. The Third Republic in France 1870-1940: Conflicts and Continuities. (London: Routledge, 2000), 83-96.

[xxi] Fortescue. The Third Republic, 80.

[xxii] Ibid, 83.

[xxiii] Valerie Walkerdine. Daddy’s Girl: Young Girls and Popular Culture. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 140.

[xxiv] Fortescue, The Third Republic, 96.

[xxv] Alessandra Comini, “Toys in Freud’s attic; torment and taboo in the child and adolescent themes of Vienna’s image-makers” in Picturing Children: Constructions of childhood between Rousseau and Freud, ed. Marilyn R. Brown. (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002), 174.

[xxvi] Walkerdine, Daddy’s Girl, 174.

[xxvii] Comini, “Toys in Freud’s attic”, 175.

[xxviii] Walkerdine, Daddy’s Girl, 140.

[xxix] Thomas, “Impressionist Dolls”, 109.

[xxx] Susan P. Casteras, “Winged fantasies: constructions of childhood, innocence, adolescence, and sexuality in Victorian fairy painting” in Picturing Children: Constructions of childhood between Rousseau and Freud, ed. Marilyn R. Brown. (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002), 129.

[xxxi] Ibid, 127.

[xxxii] Ibid, 130.

[xxxiii] Ibid, 132.

[xxxiv] Ibid, 131.

[xxxv] Walkerdine, Daddy’s Girl, 9.

[xxxvi] Iain Mclean. Classics of Social Choice. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 52.

[xxxvii] Diane Waggoner, “Photographing childhood – Lewis Carroll and Alice” in Picturing Children: Constructions of childhood between Rousseau and Freud, ed. Marilyn R. Brown. (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002), 152.

[xxxviii] Ibid, 158.

[xxxix] Ibid, 153.

[xl] Carol Mavor, “Introduction: the unmaking of children” in Picturing Children: Constructions of childhood between Rousseau and Freud, ed. Marilyn R. Brown. (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002), 27.

[xli] Holland, Picturing Childhood, 180.



Brown, Marilyn R. ed. Picturing Children: Constructions of childhood between Rousseau and Freud. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002.

Fortescue, William. The Third Republic in France 1870-1940: Conflicts and Continuities. London: Routledge, 2000.

Heywood, Colin. Growing Up in France: From the Ancien Régime to the Third Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Holland, Patricia. Picturing Childhood: The myth of the child in popular imagery. London: I.B Tauris & Co Ltd, 2006.

King, Constance Eileen. Jumeau. Atiglen: Schiffer Publishing, 1983.

Mclean, Iain. Classics of Social Choice. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

‘The National Gallery’. (accessed 1st March 2016).

Rewald, John. The History of Impressionism. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1973.

Schafer, Sylvia. Children in Moral Danger and the Problem of Government in Third Republic France. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Walkerdine, Valerie. Daddy’s Girl: Young Girls and Popular Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.