David, Marie Antoinette Led to Her Execution, 1793
This is the last portrait done in Marie Antoinette’s lifetime. David sketched the widow queen on her way to the guillotine on October 16, 1793. Marie Antoinette’s husband, King Louis XVI, was executed on January 21, 1793 as she sat in jail at the Temple. While in prison her former Marchande de Mode, Rose Bertin, would send her clothing items from her new home in London. The queen’s jailers gave her black clothing to wear in mourning. However, Marie Antoinette wanted to follow Louis XIV’s decree that queens in mourning wear white.
This sketch by David shows Marie Antoinette with her hair cut off, a practice for all the executed to ensure the blade would make a clean cut. She is wearing all white, having managed to borrow a white caraco and petticoat from her jailers’ wives. She is sent to the guillotine without her corset, something all executed female aristocrats endured as a form of humiliation. The corset was a sign of aristocracy. It came into fashion as armor was influencing the dress of the upper classes. It formed a sort of woman’s armor, shielding the body and holding the back straight. Without the corset the body appears vulnerable and soft.
Vigee le Brun, Marie Antoinette in Chemise Gown, 1783
In this portrait Marie Antoinette is portrayed in the new chemise gown that the queen began wearing the year before. So-called because of its similarity to the chemise undergarment, it is in fact a separate dress worn over the chemise and the corset. The garment has no waist seam, instead relying on a tied sash for the silhouette. It is often paired with a wide-brimmed straw hat popularized in England and unpowdered hair, although this is not the case in this portrait.
This portrait was removed from the Salon due to widespread controversy. Marie Antoinette was not popular at this time, and what was seen as a portrait of the Queen in her underwear conveyed a sense that she did not take her position seriously and was a woman of loose morals. In reality Marie Antoinette had been reading the works of Rousseau at the time and was trying to convey her desire for a more simplistic lifestyle, a return to nature.
Vigee Le Brun, Marie Antoinette in Court Costume, 1779
Marie Antoinette is pictured here four years into her Queenship, at age 24. The court costume was strictly adhered to, featuring a chemise covered by a corset with a bodice on top and a skirt with side paniers. The sleeves shown are the sleeves of the chemise. This is the outfit that had been worn by the aristocracy since the reign of Louis XIV, the only indication of the period being in the changing hairstyles. At this point the hair was shaped into a powdered, frizzy ball with ringlets hanging down. Atop it is perched a poof, a hair accessory made possible by Marie Antoinette’s Marchande de Mode, Rose Bertin. During a period in history when clothing garments did not change much fluctuations in fashion were seen in accessories, hairstyles, and changing textiles.
artist unknown, Offering Bearer, ca. 1981-1975 bce, Dynasty 12, Egypt, reign of Amenemhat I, wood, gesso, paint, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Found in a hidden chamber in the tomb of the royal chief steward Meketre, at first glance this carving depicts a woman wearing the traditional costume of the time: a long, tight dress and tripartite wig. Upon closer examination, however, the dress displays a feather pattern often associated with goddesses. The woman is also posed with one foot forward in a posture reserved for males at a time when females were depicted with straight legs and arms. She holds on her head a basket of cut meats and in her other hand a live duck. This iconography points to the figure being a personification of an agricultural estate or farm, placed in the tomb to provide the deceased with sustenance in the after life. Thanks to the arid conditions in Egypt amenable to the preservation of artifacts, all paint on the piece is original and it has never been restored.
artist unknown, Hippopotamus, ca. 1961-1878 bce, Dynasty 12, Egypt, reign of Senwosret I to Senwosret II, faience, Metropolitan Museum of Art
This hippopotamus was found in the tomb chapel of the steward Senbi II at Meir. Ancient Egyptians understood the dangers associated with hippos, who were known to attack humans and topple small boats. However the animals were also seen as magical protectors against evil. This piece was likely placed in the tomb for this purpose, but to make sure the hippo did not attack the deceased three of his legs were cut off at the time of burial. They have been obviously restored by the Metropolitan Museum. The hippo is decorated with lilies which were seen as a symbol of rejuvenation.
Nicholas Godby and Simon Peers, Spider Silk Cape, 2009 11’x14’
Serving as the largest existing textile made from spider silk, fashion designer Nicholas Godby and art historian and textile expert Simon Peers decided to make this 11x14 foot cape after living for years in Madagascar. Eighty-two people worked for four years collecting the silk of 1.2 million golden orb spiders to create the piece. The fabric is undyed, displaying the natural color of golden orb spider silk.
Spider silk’s incredible elasticity and strength (greater than that of steel of equal diameter) has lead many to unsuccessfully attempt to replicate the fiber. In 2000 a Canadian biotech company injected DNA from a spider into a goat. That goat’s kid had a significant amount of genetic material in its milk to slightly mimic the properties of spider silk.
Rene Magritte, Not to be Reproduced, 1937
Art history is full of images, mostly done by men, of women gazing into mirrors as a commentary on female vanity and frivolity. Interestingly enough the Greek morality myth of Narcissus cautioning against vanity involves a male, yet painters love to focus this lesson on the female.
One of the few examples of mirror morality involving a male comes in Magritte’s satirical Not to be Reproduced. This piece, rather than focusing on the untruths given by mirrors, reflects a truth in mirrors. Instead of seeing a women gazing at her own face reflected back at us via the mirror, we are shown simply the same figure of the back of a man. This is because what is shown in a painting is not a real person. It is not a lesson or the shortcomings of the figure being portrayed and the group that figure represents, but merely a figure, a projection of the artist’s own issues and psychological hangups. Ceci n’est pas un homme.
Orvind Fahlstrom, CIA Monopoly, 1971
Fahlstrom used the popular game structure to make political points that the viewer would internalize within a familiar and comfortable frame of reference. In this particular piece, various international grassroots organizations are listed but the CIA has the power to destroy them all.
The artist employs this game model, which can actually be played, to comment on the pervasiveness of the Cold War-era CIA. He manages to drive home the vulnerability and helplessness of the public in the face of this all-encompassing government entity while the viewer is distracted by the nostalgic and playful art form.
Oscar Howe, Woman Scalp Dancer, c. 1950
Oscar Howe was born on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation in South Dakota in 1915. He is descended from a chiefs of the Yanktonai band of Dakota. Howe’s artistic ability was recognized early on and he was trained from a young age in mural painting, taught by Olle Nordmark.
Howe’s goal was to portray the contemporary realities of Native American culture, particularly as seen from the reservation, through his art. In 1958 Howe’s submission to the Philbrook Museum’s show of Native American art was rejected because it was not “traditional” enough. Howe’s use of the Native American Tohokmu (spiderweb) style of painting was seen as borrowing too heavily from European Cubist tradition by people incapable of conceiving that their dominant western culture may not have been the first to discover something. Nevermind that Cubism was inspired largely by non-white art Picasso referred to as “primitive”.
This was Howe’s response:
“Who ever said, that my paintings are not in the traditional Indian style, has poor knowledge of Indian Art indeed. There is so much more to Indian Art than pretty, stylized pictures. There was also power and strength and individualism (emotional and intellectual insight) in the old Indian paintings. Every bit in my paintings is a true studied fact of Indian paintings. Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting, that is the most common way? We are to be herded like a bunch of sheep, with no right for individualism, dictated as the Indian has always been, put on reservations and treated like a child, and only the White Man knows what is best for him… Well, I am not going to stand for it. Indian Art can compete with any Art in the world, but not as a suppressed Art. I see so much of the mismanagement and treatment of my people. It makes me cry inside to look at these poor people. My father died there about three years ago in a little shack, my two brothers still living there in shacks, never enough to eat, never enough clothing, treated as second-class citizens. This is one of the reasons I have tried to keep the fine ways and culture of my forefathers alive. But one could easily turn to become a social protest painter. I only hope, the Art World will not be one more contributor to holding us in chains.”
Marina Abromovic, The Artist is Present, 2010
Marina Abromovic and Ulay collaborated on performance art from 1976 through 1989, creating such seminal pieces as Rest Energy and Imponderabilia. As the relationship wound to an end in 1989, the artists decided to go on a spiritual journey. Each walked the Great Wall of China, Ulay starting in the Gobi Desert and Abromovic starting at the Yellow Sea, and met in the middle after having walked 2,500 kilometers. At that point they said goodbye and went their separate ways.
Over 20 years later, in 2010, the New York MoMA hosted a retrospective of Abromovic’s works, many with Ulay. At the same time Abromovic performed a new piece, The Artist is Present, in which she sat silently for 8 hours a day at a table as audience members came to sit with her. Although they had spoken the morning of the opening, Abromovic exhibited a particularly emotional reaction at Ulay’s approach.