Tag: Art History

The conservator’s eye: Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer


The conservator’s eye: Rembrandt van Rijn, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, 1653, oil on canvas, 143.5 x 136.5 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Speakers: James Coddington and Beth Harris

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, also known as Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, is an oil-on-canvas painting by Rembrandt.

It was painted in 1653, as a commission from Don Antonio Ruffo, from Messina in Sicily, who did not request a particular subject.

Aristotle, world-weary, looks at the bust of blind, humble Homer, on which he rests one of his hands. This has variously been interpreted as the man of sound, methodical science deferring to Art, or as the wealthy and famous philosopher, wearing the jeweled belt given to him by Alexander the Great, envying the life of the poor blind bard.[1] It has also been suggested that this is Rembrandt’s commentary on the power of portraiture.[1]

The interpretation of methodical science deferring to art is discussed at length in Rembrandt’s Aristotle and Other Rembrandt Studies.[1] The author notes that Aristotle’s right hand (traditionally the favored hand), which rests on the bust of Homer, is both higher and painted in lighter shades than the left hand on the gold chain given to him by Alexander.

The exact subject being portrayed in this portrait has been challenged in the book by Simon Schama titled Rembrandt’s Eyes, applying the scholarship of Paul Crenshaw.[2] Schama presents a substantial argument that it was the famous ancient Greek painter Apelles who is depicted in contemplation by Rembrandt and not Aristotle.[3]

It was purchased in 1961 for $2.3 million by the Metropolitan Museum of Art[4] in New York City, USA. At the time this was the highest amount ever paid for any picture at the public or private sale.[5] During the renovation of the Rembrandt wing of the Metropolitan Museum, the painting was retitled in November 2013 as Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.

The painting forms the central theme of Joseph Heller‘s 1988 novel Picture This.


Wells Cathedral

“The wells or springs, still seen today in the Bishop’s Palace garden, are the reason for the original settlement of this area. Stone Age flints and Roman pottery have been found near the springs and the earliest evidence of worship is a Romano-British burial chamber, which may have been Christian. Over this a Saxon mortuary chapel was built and in about 705, A.D. King Ine of Wessex gave permission for a minster church to be founded here.”

“The springs – in Anglo-Saxon, wella -, to which Wells owes both its name and its origins, bubble up continuously at a point which is now in the garden of the Bishop’s Palace. The most northerly spring was held to be a holy well and was dedicated to St Andrew. The springs are a result of the geology of the surrounding area. When it rains, water runs off the Mendip Hills and disappears into a system of underground channels and rivers. When it reaches Wells the water hits a layer of mudstone and is forced up through clefts in the rock to form what are known as the springs. On average 4 million gallons of water flow from the springs every day.”

“Native British tribes worshipped nature spirits, dedicating shrines near rivers, streams and springs. Whether they worshipped here, we do not know, though it seems highly likely and evidence of Stone Age flints shows that they visited the area. The sheltered location of the springs, with easy access to the summer grazing grounds of the Somerset Levels, meant that the area was very favourable for agriculture. In addition, the Mendips provided minerals, particularly lead, which were exploited by the Romans, and settlement, perhaps a villa, was established close to the springs.”

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Lost History: the terracotta sculpture of Djenné Djenno

Replaced in the 12th century by the nearby city of Djenne, Dj enne-Djeno was a major trading center in the central Niger Valley from the eighth to the 11th century.

“The ancient city of Djenne-Djeno was located about 220 miles (354 km) south of Timbuktu. Before its decline after the 11th century, Djenne-Djeno served as an important commercial center in the Niger River Valley. Its ruins are still accessible, and archeological evidence shows that approximately 10,000 persons lived in Djenne-Djeno at its peak. The same evidence also suggests that residents of Dj enne-Djeno enjoyed a relatively egalitarian society, as the dominant elite present in most European cities in the same period was absent in this desert urban center. By the 14th century residents deserted the city in favor of the more prosperous Djenne, only 2 miles (3 km) distant, which became an important intellectual and commercial center for the region.”(2015)

“The Bozo people originally founded the town of Djenne in the 13th century as a fishing village. In that century, after the decline of Djenne-Djeno, the Soninke established Djenne as a trading center, providing the desert city of Timbuktu with food, cotton, GOLD, cola nuts, and slaves (see slavery) in exchange for salt and North African trade goods. Salt brought to Djenne was most likely bound for the gold fields in the Akan forest. Trade between Djenne and Timbuktu, described at length by the chronicler Leo Aericanus in 1512-13, centered on the Niger and Bani Rivers. Djenne remained an independent city (outside the jurisdiction of the various empires rising and falling around it), and one seemingly without imperial aspirations, until Sunni Ali Ber conquered it in the 1470s. Djenne’s location provided some security for traders, as it was surrounded by the two rivers for nearly half of each year. However, the protection of the rivers did not prevent more powerful invaders such as the Mali in the 14th century, the Mossi in the mid-15th century, and the Songhai under Sunni Ali Ber in 1491 from laying siege to the city, nor from Moroccan invaders in the 1500s.” (2015)


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