Category Archives: Artists and their works

Pause from the Hustle and Bustle to Glimpse the True Meaning of Christmas in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation Painting

This year many of us are back to a more normal and busy season of shopping, decorating, and preparing for Christmas! What a blessing after many months apart, but sometimes the hustle and bustle becomes overwhelming and takes our eyes off the true meaning of Christmas.

In the Renaissance Florence, Italy was a city filled with hustle and bustle. It was a major center for weaving and dying wool and silk, and merchants made lots of money exporting their cloth all over Europe.

Their wealth helped fuel the Renaissance. Florence produced some of the most famous artists of all time:

Ghiberti (the bronze doors of the Baptistry), Brunelleschi (the architect who finally figured out how to build a dome big enough for Florence’s cathedral),

St. George, Donatello

Donatello (revolutionized sculpture with relaxed poses and realistic figures),

and of course Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

A few years before the pandemic my husband and I joined the thousands of tourists who daily spill out of trains into Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station and into a city still filled with hustle and bustle.

Getting our bearings outside Santa Maria Novella train station

Long lines await those who come to tour Florence’s Duomo (cathedral), gaze at the masterpieces by Leonardo and Botticelli at the Uffizi Art Gallery,

The Uffizi, author photo

Madonna and Child by Botticelli, photo by author

and see Michelangelo’s statue of David at the Accademia.

Not to be outdone, Florence’s streets are a shopper’s paradise. High-end fashions, gold jewelry, and home goods fill stores and overflow into big outdoor markets. Venders of leather products are everywhere, making it a toss-up whether the sales pitch, or the smell of leather is stronger!

Florence bustles even more at night. Families with babies in strollers and dogs on leashes emerge for their evening passeggiata, (stroll), joining tourists still snapping photos. Everyone throngs the streets, walking, shopping, visiting, and dining in outdoor restaurants. In every piazza (square), street musicians and puppeteers draw happy crowds. It’s fun, but can become overwhelming.

After a couple days we wanted a quiet place to refresh our tired minds and bodies and found it at the Museum of San Marco in what was once a Dominican monastery.

Surrounding a quiet cloister is some of the most beautiful art in Florence, though few people know about it. A cloister sometimes refers to a whole monastery, but is technically the covered walkway around a peaceful garden that the monastery buildings surround.

In the 1430s Dominican monks took over the monastery, dating from a much earlier time, and began renovations. One of the friars, Fra Giovanni, soon known as Fra Angelico, painted frescoes of the life of Christ throughout the monastery and in each of the monks’ cells (rooms).

In fresco painting, paint is applied to a freshly plastered wall, becoming part of the wall itself as plaster and paint dry together.

Once only monks could see Fra Angelco’s frescoes, but today anyone can wander through the quiet halls, looking into each small cell to see brightly colored frescoes of Jesus’ life on the otherwise plain walls.

One large fresco, The Annunciation, once greeted the monks, and now greets us, at the top of the stairs to the monks’ cells. Because the stairs turn a corner, we didn’t see the fresco until we were right below it. Then it filled our eyes as we climbed the last few stairs.

Fra Angelico’s Annunciation is a beautiful annunciation painting, showing a moment of quiet serenity in a cloister like the one downstairs. The archangel, Gabriel, bows before Mary to announce that she will bear the Christ Child, and Mary folds her arms in humble submission to God’s will.

The Annunciation, by Fra Angelico, Museum of San Marco, Florence, Italy, author photo

The fresco is part of a plain wall. It has no elaborate frame, but the simplicity of the painted columns and arches create lights and shadows that draw us into its painted space. They frame the serene Annunciation in beauty as no gilded frame could.

Archangel Gabriel’s colorful wings and gold embroidered robe catch our attention next. The robe drapes in graceful folds, showing rich shades and tints of pink.

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, detail. author photo

That pink repeats in just two other places—the floor of the open cell behind Mary and on her headband. The repetition of pink takes our gaze from Gabriel to the woman seated on a humble wooden stool. Mary’s plain, white robe contrasts with her dark blue mantle and frames her face and folded arms.

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, detail. author photo

Fra Angelico didn’t want us to miss her sweet expression and submissive gesture.

Behind Gabriel in the fresco, a garden blooms with delicate flowers and lush greenery. A walled garden in annunciation paintings symbolized Mary’s purity and virginity. It also reminded viewers of the Garden of Eden and what mankind lost when Adam and Eve sinned.

The Annunciation, by Fra Angelico, Museum of San Marco, Florence, Italy, author photo

Devotion, based on Luke 1:26-38

Fra Angelico eventually became prior of the monastery of San Marco. The Dominican order was founded, as were the Franciscans, as Europe transitioned from a mostly rural economy to a time of more trade and bigger cities. Traditional, often rural, monasteries and monks couldn’t easily help city dwellers.

Dominicans and Franciscans didn’t stay in their cloisters. They went out into the busy city streets to preach the gospel in down-to-earth sermons and minister to people in need. During the years of the Black Death thousands of friars died caring for the sick.

When the San Marco friars returned at the end of a busy day, they would pass through the quiet cloister and trudge up many stairs to their cells.

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico Museum of San Marco, Florence, Italy, author photo

  • As they turned the corner and Fra Angelico’s fresco of The Archangel Gabriel coming to Mary filled their eyes, were they reminded of the vast splendor of God and His heaven?
  • When they looked at Mary, did they share her attitude of humility and submission to be obedient to God’s call?
  • When they looked at the garden, did they think of the Garden of Eden and mankind’s fall into sin and separation from God?
  • When they looked at the cloister and thought of their own cloister downstairs, did they long for a permanent rest from their labors, especially against their own and others’ sins?
  • Did they stand in awe of the amazing love and grace God has given us in the gift of His Son?
  • Were they amazed anew by the miracle of God taking on human flesh and being born of a virgin to dwell among His people?
  • And did they praise God for opening the Way to return to a renewed and eternal garden of peace with God through faith in Christ’s perfect life, sacrificial death, and resurrection?

Most of us today can’t withdraw into a monastery to get away from the hustle and bustle of the materialistic holiday season.

But perhaps we can daily find a little quiet space and time to think on God’s splendor, our humble estate, our longing for a permanent rest from struggling with our own sin and a sinful world, and praise God for opening the Way through Christ back to the Garden!

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Molly and I hope you’ll come back for just one more post in December for an angel art project for your children. It’s so simple, yet bright and beautiful, you will want to display it on your tree or table!

 

 

Saying Grace by Jean-Siméon Chardin

Our November artist, Jean-Siméon Chardin, lavished time and great care on still life paintings of foods and genre scenes of everyday children and families. So what better artist for November, when we in the United States gather for a special Thanksgiving feast with family and friends, and give thanks to God for His blessings?

We’ll look briefly at a couple of Chardin’s still lifes and spend most of our time on the genre scene called Saying Grace.

Read on to:

  • Learn a little about Jean Siméon Chardin (Shar dan)
  • Be delighted by his paintings
  • See activities to help you and your children explore and enjoy Chardin’s work
  • See a photo of Molly, the Artsy Corgi

The Artist 

Chardin (1699- 1779) was born in Paris and never lived anywhere else. The son of a carpenter, Chardin was apprenticed at about 14 to a history painter. Even though he never traveled to Rome or the Netherlands, Chardin could study the works of artists from all over Europe in the various private collections and art markets of Paris.

He went on to join the Academie de Saint Luc (Luke) and open his own studio. (Luke, the gospel writer, was once considered the patron saint of artists, so artist guilds were named for him). Membership in such a guild was usually required for an artist to sell his or her work to the public and to have apprentices.

Though he trained with a history painter, Chardin never had an interest in that type of art. He also resisted the highly decorative rococo style popular in France at that time. Instead Chardin painted still lifes and genre scenes of everyday French people.

Near the end of his life, when his eyesight was failing, Chardin did some beautiful pastel portraits, such as the one of himself working at an easel. Look closely at his eyes and see that he’s looking at himself in a mirror before continuing his self-portrait. Don’t you just love those enormous round glasses? And his curious head gear?

Chardin, pastel self-portrait at an easel,1779, The Louvre, public domain

Chardin’s warm, expressive paintings were loved and bought by collectors across Europe and today are in numerous museums.

The Paintings

In Chardin’s work we see influences from the still life and genre art of The Netherlands in the 1600s. Like Dutch artists, such as Maria van Oosterwyck (see my post about her in March, 2021), Chardin lavished his talents on making still lifes realistic. The many intricate shapes and the red accents catch your attention. His still lifes show off gleaming silver and delicate china. You feel as if you could reach out and touch the fuzzy surface of a peach or the ridges of a walnut sitting in its shell. In the Basket of Peaches the knife handle seems to jut out into our space, showing Chardin’s mastery of perspective.

The Preparations of a Lunch, Jean-Simeon Chardin, 1756, Musee des Beaux-Arts de Carcassonne, public domain

Basket of Peaches with Walnuts, Knife, and a Glass of Wine, Jean-Simeon Chardin, 1768, The Louvre, public domain

In Chardin’s genre paintings, we catch glimpses of the clothing and interior settings of middle-class French people. We see women check a child’s lessons, arrive home with food from the market, and children play with tops and blow bubbles—all things we and our children can identify with.

In Saying Grace, a mother is putting a meal on the table for her 2 children, who look like they’ve just stopped their play. Notice the drum hanging on the front chair. Chardin’s colors are warm and inviting—muted reds, warm browns, and a rich teal blue.

Saying Grace, Jean-Simeon Chardin, 1744, The Hermitage, public domain

Apparently the mother has just asked the smaller child to say grace, and she gazes lovingly at the child’s hands folded in prayer.

Activities to Help You and Your Children further explore Saying Grace

Before doing any other activities, ask children to tell what’s going on in the paintings and what tells them that. Enhance their observational and verbal skills by rephrasing words and adding new vocabulary. Here are some things to notice:

  • What do they think the small pot and pan in the foreground are? (Probably the pot holds coals from a stove or fireplace to warm people’s feet, and the long-handled pan carries the live coals to and from.
  • Encourage children to see how the reds on the smaller child’s skirt and hat are repeated on the chairs and inside the foot warmer. That catches our attention and moves our eyes around the painting.
  • What do they think about the little chair the child is sitting in? How will the child reach the table to eat?

Further Exploration:

This genre painting is so true to its 1700s time period in France, that you and your children may be interested to learn and discuss some of the following:

  1. Did they notice the very pointy shoes the mother’s wearing?
  2. Children may also be interested to know that the small child in the foreground may be a boy. From the 1500s to the early 1900s, little boys usually wore skirts just like girls. This made potty training easier, as pants of that time often had rather intricate fastenings (zippers weren’t invented until the late 1800s and only came into use in men’s and children’s clothing in the 1920s and 30s). So for a long time boys wore dresses until somewhere between 2 and 8. When they reached the age to wear pants, there might be a celebration of this milestone in growing up.
  3. Certain styles of hats, belts, less lace, darker colors, etc. all help art historians decide if a young child is a girl or boy. But since clothes were expensive to make or buy, parents would often hand down clothes as needed, despite style, so it’s hard to be sure.
  4. Children may enjoy looking at a couple other of Chardin’s  paintings of children  here and here
  5. Older children may enjoy researching clothing styles through the centuries. Here are a few questions to get them thinking:
  • How often were pointy shoes in style?
  • When and why did men begin wearing pants.
  • What are some other names for pants?
  • When was the zipper invented and when did it first get used in clothes?
  • What about buttons and pockets?

Before You Go

If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free guide to making art museum visits a fun masterpieces for you whole family!

Visit my website where you’ll find free downloadable puzzles, how-to-draw pages and coloring pages for kids and an updated list of my hands-on workshops, chapels, and presentations for all ages.

Molly’s wearing her French beret and posing with a pumpkin in honor of Thanksgiving and Chardin’s work. She and I hope you enjoyed this peek into the ordinary life of 18th-century France, and will come back next time for a Devotion based on Chardin’s painting, Saying Grace.

 

 

 

Van Gogh’s Sunflower Paintings

Vincent Van Gogh loved the color yellow. When he moved to Arles in southern France, he painted his house yellow and decorated it with his many sunflower paintings. He wanted the house to become a studio center for artists, but like many other things in this troubled artist’s life, it was a disappointment.

The Yellow House, 1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, public domain

Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, but today his paintings sell for millions and brighten the walls of major museums all over the world. Amsterdam, in Van Gogh’s home country of the Netherlands, has a state museum dedicated to Van Gogh’s works, and his paintings are among the most recognized and loved everywhere.

The post includes:

  • A short bio of Vincent van Gogh
  • Information about the painting, Sunflowers
  • Activities to help you and your children enjoy and understand the painting, Sunflowers

The Artist

Born in the Netherlands in 1853, Vincent loved art and literature. At 16 he went to work for an uncle who was an art dealer. While in the London office he fell in love, but his proposal was rejected, and Vincent sank into a time of sorrow.

After a short time in the Paris office and a time working among poor coal miners, Vincent decided he could better serve people through art and returned to Paris in 1886. There he discovered the Impressionists and the works of Seurat, and his paintings changed from dark to bright colors. He moved to southern France for the rest of his short life.

); out of copyright

In Arles, he found the landscapes and people he wanted to paint, and he often painted all day and night without stopping to eat. He stuck candles onto the brim of his hat so he could paint at night.

Vincent began alternating between depression and periods of hyperactivity, but he continued painting even during times in hospitals. In those last years he produced an amazing 800 paintings, sometimes, one a day, and as many drawings. In 1890 Vincent, feeling like a failure and a financial burden on his brother, took his own life.

The Paintings–first a little about Van Gogh’s painting style

Portraits: In many ways, Van Gogh’s work followed in the footsteps of an earlier great Dutch artist, Rembrandt. Like Rembrandt, Van Gogh painted many portraits of the ordinary people of Arles,

Portrait of the Postman, Joseph Roulin, 1888, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, public domain

Van Gogh painted 40 self-portraits, almost as many as Rembrandt. Also like Rembrandt, van Gogh wanted to show what was going on inside people and once said, “I prefer painting people’s eyes to cathedrals.”

Landscapes: Van Gogh painted landscapes that show his swirling brushstrokes, bright colors, lots of movement. Like Rembrandt, van Gogh used thick impasto paint that creates textures. Van Gogh wanted his landscapes to show the healing power of nature.

Wheat field with Cypresses, 1889, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, public domain

Now the Sunflowers!

Still Lifes: Van Gogh probably grew up seeing many still lifes, as these were a big part of Dutch art. He enjoyed painting flowers, in gardens and in vases. Even these still lifes vibrate with color and the textures of thick paint.

Still Life Vase with Twelve Sunflowers 1888, Vincent van Gogh, Neue Pinakothek , Munich, public domain

Sunflowers, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, public domain

Activities to Help You and Your Children further Explore this Beautiful Paintings

Before doing any other activities, ask children to tell what’s going on in the painting and what tells them that. Enhance their observational and verbal skills by rephrasing words and adding new vocabulary. Look for details, such as:

  • Does it look like a photo or is it fuzzy?
  • Could the subject be real or not?
  • How does it make you feel?

1.You might compare and contrast these 2 versions of van Gogh’s sunflowers.

 2.The Sunflower paintings (there are several versions)  are great for discussing color and texture with children:

Color: Van Gogh loved the bright sunshine and colors of southern France.  With your children look at a few portable colorful objects (such as apples, toys, flowers, fall leaves) inside, then take them outside to look at how the colors intensify in sunlight. Take them into the shade and see how the colors change again.

The Impressionists studied the effects of sunlight on color, and Monet, discovered that when he went to the south of France, the sun was so much brighter, he had to adjust his colors to reproduce what he saw. The American, Winslow Homer, who painted his northern seascapes in oils, had to switch to watercolors to show the bright tropical sunlight of the Caribbean.

Textures: Van Gogh used thick paint that shows the textures of how things might feel if we touch them. Send children on an indoor and outdoor scavenger hunt to find different textures and then use adjectives to describe the textures.

Before You Go

Here are some fall photos of Molly with sunflowers and among the yellows and reds of my fall garden.

Molly and I  want to share some good news with you , which also explains why this post was a little late. We apologize! But here’s the good news. In September, I was honored to sign with the Steve Laube Agency, a great Christian literary agency.

And I was a guest on Patti Shene’s Step into the Light podcast, sharing my testimony and and why I love teaching art! Here’s the link.  

It was so much fun!

 

 

 

 

If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free guide to making art museum visits a fun masterpiece for you whole family!

Visit my website where you’ll find free downloadable puzzles, how-to-draw pages and coloring pages for kids and an updated list of my hands-on workshops, chapels, and presentations for all ages.

Molly and I hope you enjoyed learning a little more about Van Gogh and his art, and we hope to see you right back here soon for some devotional thoughts based on Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings.