Tuesday, January 24, 2012


("Olga Nikolayevna, Queen of Wurttemburg," Franz Winterhalter, 1865, Wurttembergisches Landsmuseum, Stuttgart, Germany)

We all know that it is possible to over do anything in life.

(That is, of course, with the exception of eating chocolate.)

It is also true that any queen worth her salt knows she must look spiffy in her official royal portraits.

After all, she is the first royal lady of her country and she should look the part, shouldn't she?

Olga Nikolayevna, later Queen Olga of Wurttemburg, certainly thought so.

This blue-blooded lady, born in 1822, was sister to the doomed Alexanader II of Russia.

The very same Alexander II who was ousted as czar during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

Miss Olga came with a long list of desirable characteristics.

Olga was attractive, cultured and intelligent.

She spoke several languages and thoroughly enjoyed music and painting.

She was one of the most eligible princesses in the Europe of her day.

Olga's parents wanted her to secure a high level dynastic marriage.

Three of her siblings had not done so well in the marriage department.

Each of them married - how shall I put this? - lesser members of European royal families.

So the pressure was on Olga to step up to her royal duty and outshine them all.

After only a few meetings, Olga accepted Crown Prince Charles of Wurttemburg's proposal of marriage in 1846.

The wedding was a royal shindig of the finest sort.

It was held at the Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Now that's saying something!

That's because Peter the Great of Russia became entranced with a little place called "Versailles" when he visited France several decades earlier.

So he went home to St. Petersburg and threw together his own version of Louie's palatial home.

I have seen both of these royal estates.

They literally glow with glittery architecture, furniture and decorative accessories.

(Louis XIV Bedroom in Versailles)

And they are a hoot to visit!

But I gotta say that, in my opinion, both Louie and Peter frequently passed the realm of good taste in their respective dwellings.

Too much of a good thing is often just too much!

(Peterhof, St. Petersburg, Russia)

Anyway, after the splendiferous wedding, Olga got busy with her royal work.

She dedicated her life to several social causes - particularly the education of girls.

I love this woman!

And she supported wounded veterans and children's health needs.

These charitable works endeared Olga to her subjects.

As a result, she was more popular in German society than her husband.

She was personally interested in agriculture and held a firm fondness for all of the day-to-day happenings on her farming estate.

Olga loved natural science as well.

She collected minerals and identified them in a systematic fashion.

As of 2011,  part of her collection is still on display in the Staatliche Museum fur Naturkunde in Stuttgart.

And to this very day, Olga's name is attached to a geological formation in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Well, now, this woman came packed with brains and she knew how to use them!

Olga was admired for her "dignity" and "queenly demeanor" as well.

During a visit by Olga and Charles to Austria in July, 1873,  a lady-in-waiting to Empress Elisabeth of Austria reported her observations of the royal couple:

"He is most insignificant.  She, however, makes a most imposing appearance."

That "imposing appearance" is readily apparent in Franz Xaver Winterhalter's 1865 royal portrait of Olga.

Winterhalter was a student of Joseph Stieler - the master who painted last week's subject, Maria, Queen of Bavaria.

As so often happens in the world of art, Joseph's student eventually surpassed his teacher in the mastery of technique and artistic innovation.

Eventually, Franz was appointed court painter to Grand Duke Leopold of Baden.  This was a promotion that jump started his career.

After success there, he moved to Paris in 1834 where the "citizen king" Louis Phillipe and his successor Emperor Napoleon III recognized his talent and kept him busy painting leading members of Parisian society.

It wasn't long before word got out concerning Franz's artistic talents.  When that happened many of the royal houses of Europe came knocking on Winterhalter's door.

For example, it is known that Franz painted the family of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of England at least 120 times.

Winterhalter was particularly skilled in combining "likeness with flattery and enlivening official pomp with modern fashion.  He created the image his royal sitters wished or needed to project to their subjects.  He was skilled in the art of painting fabrics, furs, jewelry and facial features as well.  His portraits are elegant, refined, life-like and pleasantly idealized."

Franz became an international celebrity of the first degree due to his royal patronage. The constant demand for his work made him a very wealthy man.  Though Franz desired to paint other subject matter, he was destined to paint portraits of the rich and notable for the rest of his life.

It was no surprise when Olga Nikolayevna asked Franz to record her queenly image for the ages.

He, of course, desired to accommodate her.

Let's take a look.

One glance at Olga's gown tells us that this woman is dripping in royal blood.

That splendid dress is a feast for the eyes - especially for all of us dedicated blue and white lovers!

Indeed, one can almost reach out and feel the soft texture of Olga's blue velvet over-skirt.

I love the background details in this painting.

Those gauzy greens, cloud-swirled skies and carved stones are the perfect note of serenity for Queen Olga's portrait.

We can't help but notice that Olga's ensemble is literally laden with heavy strings of pearls.

They seem to be hanging from every possible point on Olga's gown, don't they?

We see large loops of them drooping everywhere.

I'm thinking that the queen went a little too far with all those magnificent pearls.

But you know what?

There have been those times in my life when I have overdone it with jewelry myself.

So I can empathize with Olga's overzealous desire to wear her beloved pearls.

This girl loves her pearls!

It's easy to get caught up in the excess of lovely things.

I'm seriously guilty of this myself.

So thank you, Queen Olga, for reminding me that I don't really need another vase, bracelet, blouse or......bite of heavenly chocolate.


What about that last piece of gooey chocolate sitting seductively in that golden box?

Isn't there some sort of law that says "it is not lawful to pass up the last piece of chocolate in a box?"

There has to be!

I can tell you this:

Olga and I have made a pact born of courage and self-mastery.

We're going to pass up that last piece of chocolate lying innocently in the box.

That's because we're off to check out the new line of pearls at Tiffany's!

NOTE:  Some of the information in this post was sourced through "Wikipedia" and Claudia Lanfranconi's wonderful book,  "Girls in Pearls."

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


("Marie, Queen of Bavaria", Joseph Stieler, 1842, Schloss Nymphenburg, Munich)

Isn't it heavenly when you discover a kindred spirit?

That's what happened to me when I was walking through art-drenched Munich last year.

It didn't take long for me to see that King Ludwig I of Bavaria and I have a lot in common.

Allow me to begin by saying that we're both fanatical lovers of art.

To say that the King and I are admirers of the Italian Renaissance is undoubtedly the understatement of all time.

"Luddy" and I can't walk by a glowing Madonna without stopping to reverence her majesty.

But it doesn't stop there.

Ancient Greece touches our hearts as well.

Especially classical Greek architecture.

I'm crazy about majestic columns and angled pediments.

"Luddy" erected bunches of columns and pediments when he built his neoclassical buildings in Munich.

That's what happens when you are the king.

("King Ludwig I in Coronation Robes", Joseph Stieler, 1826, Neue Pinakothek, Munich)

You get to dip your sticky fingers into the royal treasury and pull out a boatload of bucks.

And before you know it, your name is splashed all over everything artsy in Munich!

Years later, art lovers like myself stroll through Munich thinking to ourselves,  "Ludwig, you little devil!  You're a man after my own heart."

But art wasn't the only thing Ludwig loved.

He loved the ladies as well.


Sounds like I need to reevaluate my "kindred spirit" relationship with Luddy.

Claudia Lanfranconi has the inside scoop:

"King Ludwig I of Bavaria was susceptible to feminine charms from an early age.  On his journey to Italy in 1817 he raved about "the eyes of Sicilian women, which glow with passion and with an unutterable yearning."

Goodness me, Ludwig, I'm blushing like a rose!

How about dialing it down a notch or two?

Well, now, that's not gonna happen.

Instead, ladies man Ludwig will decide to create a monument to the glories of feminine beauty.

Isn't that just like a man?

Just once in my life I'd like to see a male create a monument to the glories of normal looking women.

Yup......that's right.

Normal looking women who have inner smarts, inner humor, inner "beauty" coming out the ying yang.

Forgive me for being cynical, but I'm not holding my breath waiting for this to happen.


In 1826, Luddy commissioned his court painter, Joseph Stieler, to paint portraits of 36 lovely-to-look-at ladies.

The alpha dog himself - King Luddy - selected the models for these portraits.

No surprise there.

I do have to give the guy creds for including the "ordinary women of Munich" as well as the ladies of the court in his lineup of beautiful "Miss Munichs."

Claudia Lanfranconi tells us more:

"The main criteria for inclusion were outstanding attractiveness and a spotless character.  Entirely in the spirit of German idealism, Ludwig equated external beauty with high morality and human integrity."

Of course he did!

He's chock full of male chromosomes which means that his brain may not be cookin' on all its burners.

If I understand Luddy correctly, he's saying that it is impossible for a woman to possess inner beauty unless she is drop dead gorgeous on the outside as well.


I can't believe I actually thought this idiot - excuse me, man - was going to be my art lovin' soulmate!

Portraitist Joseph Karl Stieler was trained in the Parisian workshop of the esteemed realist Francois Gerard.

Eventually, Stieler was asked by Ludwig I to paint his pretties for the so-called "Gallery of Beauties" which would be on display in the royal residence in Munich.

This he did.

Stieler's most notable painterly characteristic was his ability to focus on the sitter.

The usual decorative additions are omitted in many of Stieler's portraits.

As a rule, you're not going to see a gaggle of columns, draperies and furniture in Joseph's paintings.

(Stieler's above portrait of King Ludwig is an obvious exception.)

Hence, there is nothing to distract the viewer from her or his enjoyment of the painting's subject.

Joseph Stieler successfully achieved this goal by deliberately using the contrast of light and dark in his works.

This technique helps to accurately characterize the facial features of Stieler's sitters.

Such was the case when Stieler painted "Marie, Queen of Bavaria" - one of the last women to be included in the "Gallery of Beauties."

Marie was born and raised in Berlin.

She was the daughter of Prince Wilhelm of Prussia and his wife, Landgravine Marie Anna of Hesse-Homburg.

In 1842, Marie married the Crown Prince of Bavaria who later became King Maximilian II.

This lovely woman was adored by the Prussian population which was mostly Lutheran and by Bavaria's Roman Catholics as well.

That's not an easy thing to pull off, by the way.

An important emphasis of Marie's royal good works was the reactivation of the Bavarian Women's Association whose objective was to care for and support wounded soldiers in the field.

The Bavarian Red Cross was officially founded as a result of the Bavarian Women's Association.

Those were some of Marie's good works.

And they were, indeed, good works.

Now, let's examine her stunning portrait.

As mentioned, Stieler used an economy of color and composition in Marie's portrait.

We see a pretty woman looking exquisitely royal in this painting.

Look no further than her ermine-bordered robe for that visual announcement.

Stieler has used raven-hued black, ruby red, creamy whites and a million shades of silvery gray to paint his portrait of Marie.

The effect is beautiful, isn't it?

I love his inclusion of two tiny spots of blue-gray which fill her eyes with clarity and life.

Marie is obviously an attractive woman.

Luddy got that right.

Her silvery gown is charmingly bowed and laced.

It is feminine to the max.

Marie's face is classically beautiful as well.

A simple strand of shimmering pearls loosely encircles Marie's neck.

Those splendid pearls, situated as they are in the middle of the painting, draw our eyes into the portrait.

Any further addition of accessories would take our gaze from the sitter herself.

Art museums are filled with portraits of women who are overdressed and over-jeweled.

Many of these painted ladies seem desperate for our attention.

Though, in fact, they may not be.

Marie, on the other hand, appears to have no such concerns.

She is tastefully adorned, simplistically beautiful and......

refreshing to the eye.

Marie's portrait is a perfect example of the truism "less is more."

King Ludwig I gallantly selected Marie for his "Gallery of Beauties."

Joseph Stieler masterfully painted her striking likeness for all to admire.

But that's as far as their visions and talents could take them.

Did they create the woman we see in this portrait?


Marie composed that picture all by herself.

Monday, January 9, 2012


(Eleonora of Toledo with Her Son Don Giovanni, Agnolo Bronzino, Ufizzi Gallery, Florence, 1550)

I've had a life long weakness for Italian art.

I'm talking about the old stuff:

Cimabue's Medieval madonnas.

Renaissance master Micheleangelo's bold bodies.

Pontormo's pastel-hued, elongated ladies.

And Caravaggio's Baroque masterpieces - bathed in the drama of light and dark.

I love it all.

My heart flutters when I get within viewing distance of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Delicious treasures hang on the walls inside the Uffizi - the oldest art museum in the world.

Some of those treasures were created by painter Agnolo Bronzino - the adopted son of the above mentioned Mannerist master, Pontormo.

Mannerists began tweaking Renaissance classical style around the year 1520 or the period known as the summit of the High Renaissance.

These innovators painted elongated or over-muscular figures which were often set in extravagant poses.

Mannerist colors, beautifully presented but just a bit off base, do not usually replicate what is seen in the natural world.

The Mannerist study and search for figural movement eventually led to the development of the Baroque era in art which began around the year 1600.

This puddle of information leads us directly to Eleonora of Toledo and her favorite court painter, Agnolo Bronzino.

Eleonora was the wife of Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici who ruled Florence from 1537-1574.

Like her Italian sister in spirit,  Isabella d'Este, Eleonora was no trophy wife.

In Cosimo's absence, Eleonora conducted state business herself.

And like Isabella, she thoroughly enjoyed promoting the arts.

Ladies, you rock!

Bronzino was the ultimate High Mannerist painter in all of Florence.

I love what the Random House Library of Art has to say about Agnolo:

"Bronzino was the coolest and most immaculate technician of the sixteenth century."

In my opinion, the folks at the Library of Art nailed it.

I never carelessly glide by a Bronzino painting.


His work pulls me in and invites me to stare in wonder every single time.

Then I get all googly-eyed and gushy.

I'm not embarrassed to admit it.

Such was the case with Bronzino's portrait  "Eleonora of Toledo with her Son Don Giovanni."

I'd like to say that it was Eleonora's magnificent pearls -  and they are magnifico! - that first grabbed my attention.

But that would be a lie.

It was that gorgeous gown she's wearing to perfection.

Talk about the epitome of Renaissance couture!


If that silvery gown isn't saying, "Hey, look at me!," I promise to eat it for tomorrow's breakfast.

Lovely black curlicues wind their way over the surface of Eleonora's fabulous frock.

They resemble one of the most popular and beautiful motifs of timeless Italian art - the acanthus leaf.

And you can't miss that bold punch of gold in those damask medallions that are strategically scattered across her gown.

The billowy, ruched sleeves, ruffled cuffs and rich braid trim are lyrically lovely as well.

But enough about that dress!


I forgot to say that the duchess's gown cost more than the painting itself.

And - hang on another second - this busy woman sent the whole gorgeous ensemble over to Bronzino's workshop to save time on sittings.


I think I just might be done rhapsodizing over Eleonora's gown.

Now it's time to go ga-ga over Bronzino's unabashedly blue background.

And Giovanni's demurely blue waistcoat.

I'm a dyed-in-the-wool blue girl.

Blue makes me feel calm, elegant and here's a shocker: beautiful!

No other color on the planet makes me feel as good as blue does.

Bronzino has permeated his background with mottled tones of cool blue.

The blues highlight the faces and the ensembles of his sitters.

Trust me - it wasn't a happy accident when Bronzino chose those beautiful blues for this royal portrait.

Now let's take a closer look at those heavenly pearls.

The duchess's necklaces are simple in design.

That's a good thing because the ginormous size of those pearls is show stopping, isn't it?

Eleonora's earrings are classic teardrops -  elegant and refined.

They are a much needed counterpoint to the busyness of the gown's sumptuous patterns.

Next, feast your eyes on that netlike head wrap.

And the matching netted collar of her dress.

Both are studded with pearls at every crossing of the braided trim.

Stunning, aren't they?

Eleonora wears a jewel encrusted belt around her waist.

Follow the tail of that belt along the outline of Eleonora's left hand.

Bronzino has lifted her index finger slightly in order to highlight the pretty presence of the serpentine pearl tassel.

That tassel, in my opinion, is the crowning jewel in this stately portrait.

I adore it's slinky lines that are simply dripping with undulating pearls.

If you look closely you can see the black lines of the gown's acanthus leaf motif under the curvy cluster of pearls.

That, my friends, is why Bronzino is a Mannerist Master!

Now, just a word or two about Bronzino's frosty faces.

They are supposed to appear cool, restrained and indifferent.

That's because Eleonora and Giovanni are members of the Florentine aristocracy, after all.

They aren't supposed to interact with us lowly peasants.

So they don't!

Again, from the Random House Library of Art:

"It was in court portraiture that Bronzino's style was most aptly and effectively engaged.  In the creation of images of absolute autocracy in human form he has never been surpassed.  He projects characters of detached superiority.  Communication with the onlooker is nonexistent.  The sitter is there for admiration.

Well, now, I'll have a big old bowl of that.

Personally, I don't want to interact with every Jane, Gertrude or Alice who looks my way!

I'd rather stand there drooling as I admire every one of Bronzino's disengaged sitters!

Go ahead - call me shallow.

I stand guilty as charged.



Most of all,  I love gifted painters who harbor genius in their souls.

The sort of genius that splashes color, form and line on canvas and creates sublime beauty for all to behold.

I'm speaking of beauty that defies time, place and, yes, even societal rank.

Bronzino's beauties do that for me.

They always have and they always will.

Monday, January 2, 2012


("Girl with the Pearl Earring," Jan Vermeer, 1665, Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands)

I adore the cool white shimmer of pearls.

And I'm not alone in my affection for these glimmering globes.

Women and men the world over have bowed to the beauty of the pearl.

Quality diamonds sparkle, of course.

But only after they have been precisely cut and polished to perfection.

Pearls have no such needs.

In 1913, German zoologist Friedrich Alverdes discovered that pearls are formed when a foreign body such as a grain of sand penetrates the shell of the oyster.

In order to isolate the foreign invader and make sure it does no damage, the oyster covers it layer on layer, with a substance called nacre - or mother-of-pearl.

Two or three years later, this process produces a round, shimmering pearl.

Author Claudia Lanfranconi states:

"While all molluscs can produce pearls, the true pearl is formed only in certain varieties, of which the most important is the Meleagrina or Oriental pearl oyster."

Historically speaking, the gathering of beautiful pearls was no small feat.

Many of the largest and most evenly shaped pearls were found in the waters of the Persian Gulf or off the coasts of India.

Divers risked their lives to harvest the pearls from these bodies of water.

Burdened with weights, local divers were lowered to the bottom of the sea.

Here they searched for pearl oysters until their breath literally gave out.

They repeated this process as many as one hundred times a day.

Many of the local divers drowned from sheer exhaustion.

Or shark attacks.

According to Claudia:

"The oldest piece of pearl jewellery known to us today is more than 4,300 years old.  It was found during archaeological excavations in the winter palace of the Persian kings at Susa and can now be admired in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo."

So there we have it.

Now let's fast forward 6, 000 years - give or take a day or two.

The year is 1665.

Dutch painter Jan Vermeer is busy at his easel in his hometown of Delft.

In time, Jan will reveal the elegance of 17th century interiors on his canvases.

He will paint black and white marble tiled floors, jewel-toned windowpanes and richly colored clothing and tapestries.

Objects such as maps, paintings, musical instruments and furniture will fill Vermeer's rooms with the business of life.

Always - there will be light.

Light will drench Jan's rooms and the objects and the people within them.

We see examples of Vermeer's luscious interiors in his work, "Art of Painting."

("The Art of Painting," Jan Vermeer, 1665, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna, Austria)

This is, indeed, a majestic work of art.

But today we are on a different mission.

In that effort,  we will lay aside Jan's signature interiors for another time.

Today we will look at Jan's most beloved painting, "Girl with a Pearl Earring."

This painting has captured the hearts of viewers for centuries.

It is easy to understand why, isn't it?

Could anything be more simplistically beautiful?

I do not know how.

What do we see in Jan's painting?

First of all, the young girl is set against an atypical Vermeer background - one that is painted stark black.

Next, we see that she is presented to us in close-up.

This is also unusual in Vermeer's works.

Some historians have identified Jan's sitter as one of his daughters.

The identities of many of the men and women who are seen in Vermeer's paintings remain a mystery.

Actress Scarlett Johansson portrayed "Griet," a young housemaid who inspired Vermeer to greater artistic heights in the film, "Girl with the Pearl Earring."

Was Scarlett's portrayal true to life?

Great speculation surrounds that question.

The truth is this:  No one really knows.

What we do know is that Jan has chosen to focus on the childlike innocence of the young sitter's face.

Her casual glance backward at us, the viewers, is striking to be sure.

But her expression seems to be contemplative and serene.

Jan's trademark sumptuous fabrics surround the young girl's body.

The burnished gold of her outer cloak adds a note of deep contrast to the black background.

Light is projected onto the girl's eyes and lips making them shimmer and gleam.

Her creamy, dewy skin is highlighted by the brilliant blue of her headwrap.

The bright yellow drapery of her scarf adds an element of joy to the portrait.

Then, of course, there is that unforgettable pearl earring.

Jan has pulled out all his considerable technical skills to create that earring.

A while ago, I was privileged to stand in front of this painting at the Maurithuis in The Hague, Netherlands.

I could not take my eyes off the girl's earring.

The painter created that delicate jewel with just a few carefully placed brushstrokes.

Most of the earring does not really exist on the canvas.

It is the viewer's eye that fills-in-the-blanks and "sees" a complete earring.

The sparkling white collar just under the earring serves to highlight the few brushstrokes that make up the image of the pearl.

Technique like this is what separates run-of-the-mill artists from the true masters.

I stood mesmerized by the soft and deliberate simplicity of this painting.

With this work,  Jan Vermeer has created visual beauty that transcends the bounds of this mortal existence.

For that, I am supremely grateful.


Claudia Lanfranconi's quotes are taken from her delightful book, "Girls in Pearls."  I have used Claudia's British spelling of several words that appear in her quotes.