The very spirit of an artwork remains in the time it was created. There is no better way to appreciate art than to understand its situational context, that is, the space and time of its creation. Works of art are like photographs taken in a particular time and place.
In this paper we explore the situational context of three works of art: (1) Produced in the late seventeenth century, Wedding of Mary and Joseph is Peruvian painting; (2) Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Acrobats At The Cirque Fernando (1879) shows two young Parisian girls; and (3) Figure of a Mother Holding a Child, created in the nineteenth century by an unknown Lulua artist (See Appendix). All three pieces of art tell interesting, unique tales about their makers and the conditions of their times.
What’s more, layers upon layers of human thought through different times and places of human history may be unearthed through this process of art appreciation. Our present understanding of historical societies and cultures must also influence the process of interpreting a work of art. After all, one scholar may consider a painting with the eyes of a sociologist in our time, while another may be a trained psychologist. Such designations did not exist before now. Regardless of how an artwork is interpreted and with what lens and in which frame it is looked through; works of art stay alive as we glean historical information through them.
As the following section on Wedding of Mary and Joseph shows, it is possible to develop various interpretations about the time and place of an artist even if researched historical information is there to assist us in our interpretation. Wedding of Mary and Joseph Produced by an unknown artist, Wedding of Mary and Joseph is an oil painting on canvas, depicting the couple getting married before the high priest who is clothed in a “richly flower-patterned hooded mantle (“Wedding of Mary and Joseph”). ” There are clergymen assisting the high priest. Joseph is carrying his staff which has flowers at the top.
Moreover, both the bride and bridegroom have golden halos. Ann, the mother of Mary stands right behind the bride. By Ann’s side is a suitor of Mary who has been rejected by God’s command. The suitor is shown breaking his staff, which has not flowered like the staff of Joseph (“Wedding of Mary and Joseph”). The painting is enriched by “gold stamping,” which “unifies the composition (“Wedding of Mary and Joseph”). ” There are Peruvian flowers scattered on the ground where Mary and Joseph stand. This transfers the scene of the Bible from the Holy Land to Peru (“Wedding of Mary and Joseph”).
Furthermore, it describes an important movement in Peruvian art history by the name of Cusco School (Bennett). Indeed, this painting accompanies a very important period in Peruvian history. Spanish colonization had not only managed to transfer the Spanish Inquisition to the Spanish territories around the globe, but also brought European art into Peru (Bennett). The Spanish Inquisition had claimed many lives in Europe. In Peru, the Inquisition had centered on the discovery of people who were Jews by birth, but had claimed to have converted to Christianity. These people were suspected to have gone back from Catholicism to Judaism.
Thus, the Peruvian Inquisition was about punishing the Jews or converted Catholics for apostasy (Lea). The Peruvian Inquisition had taken place in the seventeenth century. Seeing that the sociopolitical environment of Peru revolved around religious affairs at the time, it is not surprising that the Christian, Peruvian artists started a new art movement – the Cusco School – to create religious art in particular (Bennett). As a matter of fact, the Wedding of Mary and Joseph is a perfect example of Cusco art. The Cusco School happens to be the largest movement of art in the Peruvian art history.
The movement was represented by “mestizo painters and sculptors who produced countless depictions of religious figures adorned in gold (Bennett). ” The Spanish colonizers had used religious art to teach Christianity to the New World. Subsequently, the native artists of Peru had begun to meld European art with their local style and tradition (Bennett). So, while the figures of Mary and Joseph in the Peruvian painting reveal European, Christian influence on the Peruvian artist; the flowers and long tailed birds of Peru scattered on the ground show that the artist continues to love his land despite colonization.
The golden halos of the bride and the bridegroom are, of course, the signature of the Cusco School. Hence, the painting, Wedding of Mary and Joseph, reveals itself as an excellent tool to understand the culture of Peru with respect to Spanish colonization. By discovering more about the conditions of the artist’s time, history of the Americas may also be studied in great depth. Moreover, this painting helps viewers to appreciate how artists are influenced by their environments and the times. Acrobats At The Cirque Fernando
Produced in another place and time altogether, renowned Parisian painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Acrobats At The Cirque Fernando (1879) shows two real girls, most probably between twelve and fifteen years of age, taking turns to perform their act at the circus (Mancoff). The facial and bodily expressions of the girls and their onlookers are open to any number of interpretations. One of the young girls is carrying balls around her chest while the other is communicating with the audience as part of her act. The girl who is communicating with the audience has a questioning, innocent expression on her face.
The one who is carrying balls is possibly waiting for her turn to perform. She, too, is innocent and fresh in appearance as the other. However, she seems to be dwelling on her new experiences of semi-adulthood. Perhaps she is musing on the boys in her life – the young men who admire her very much. The audience depicted in the painting, behind the bodies of the two young girls, appears to consist of men alone after all. The men appear like judges, in their black coats, giving them the semblance of uniformed officers.
Only one of the men has his face visible through the painting, and the face is hard enough for the girls to display their innocence in all its glory with the assumption that the counterpart of a harsh and doubtful attitude must be softness. Although the girl carrying the balls has her back turned toward the hard faced man, she knows that she too would have to perform. The expressions of the male and the females in Renoir’s Acrobats At The Cirque Fernando are rather similar to the expressions of the two sexes depicted in many of the artist’s works of the time.
The woman is seen as the adored and innocent object that performs, even though the man is hard faced, perhaps weary of the work that he performs to fend for his family day after day. The woman is the amuser, the muse, and the object of entertainment to fend for. After all, she is beautiful (Norfleet). The only beautiful facet of the man is that he is strong – in Renoir’s paintings, at least. What is more, the man is always staring at the woman in Renoir’s works. He fondles her whenever he has the chance.
The woman remains faithful to him – this is depicted through the innocence on her face. If she becomes unfaithful she knows that the hard faced man would discontinue supporting her. The French word for ‘thank you’ is merci, which, if used in English, perfectly describes the attitude of the woman in late nineteenth century Paris. Although Paris was one of the first places in the west where women were generally believed to have been liberated, Renoir’s painting reveals that the women were definitely not liberated through promiscuity or debauchery.
Rather, the urban Parisian women in the late nineteenth century seem to have been given permission by their men to be out and about, entertaining them, while remaining faithful to their innocence as well as their marital vows (Norfleet). As the facial expression of the young girl carrying the balls in Renoir’s Acrobats At The Cirque Fernando reveals – women understood their position in Parisian society even as they were aware that men and women are equally dependent on each other. Then again, the painting remains open to numberless sociological interpretations.
Figure of a Mother Holding a Child As our analysis of Renoir’s painting shows, it is possible to understand the situational context of a painting in any number of ways. Sociologists and historians may be more interested in discovering the history of society in a block of time. If psychoanalysts were to join in, there would be various intricacies of the human mind revealed through artworks. On that note, Figure of a Mother Holding a Child is a very interesting sculpture because there are multiple ways of understanding its import.
On one hand, the sculpture is a perfect depiction of the pain of starvation that the African people have been experiencing for a long time, and that nobody outside of Africa has done anything consequential about – despite the fact that the entire world discusses it. On the other hand, it represents a ritual that the Lulua tribe of the Democratic Republic of Congo had practiced for its own survival (“Figure of a Mother Holding a Child”). The sculpture is that of a skinny, African female with an infant in her arms.
The woman’s head is larger than her body. The bone lines on her neck are particularly telling. Even so, the bone lines on her neck and the wrinkles on her face had actually been created by the artist to show that the Lulua peoples had used scarification to adorn their bodies (“Lulua Tribe: Democratic Republic of Congo;” “Figure of a Mother Holding a Child”). Indeed, it is scarification that adorns the woman carrying the infant. Just the same the viewer is made to feel sorry for the woman and her child because they appear extremely poor.
Made with wood and copper alloy, the woman in the sculpture has bulging eyes and a “pointed base (“Figure of a Mother Holding a Child”). ” According to the Brooklyn Museum, the base was most probably “thrust into a pot containing earth and various bishimba, or materials of mineral, plant, animal, or human origin endowed with protective powers (“Figure of a Mother Holding a Child”). ” In actuality, the sculpture had been created for a Lulua woman who had experienced difficulties in childbirth.
The Lulua people believed that it was the evil spirit which interrupted the process of childbirth for women. So that the woman would attract the ancestral spirit of the Lulua tribe and get rid of the evil spirit, the artist gave her the sculpture to care for until delivery. The bulging eyes of the sculpture reveal that the woman is aware of the influence of the evil spirit that is stopping her from becoming a mother (“Lulua Tribe”). The Lulua peoples had migrated from western Africa to the Democratic Republic of Congo during the eighteenth century.
These people lived in “small regional chiefdoms,” and therefore formed closely knit communities (“Lulua Tribe”). Because they were immigrants, they were rather concerned about their continuity. Moreover, the Lulua people believed that their sculptures had to be created for religious reasons (“Lulua Tribe”). The Lulua artists who created sculptures such as the Figure of a Mother Holding a Child must have had faith that they were carrying out their moral duty toward their own people. Indeed, the religious values of the Lulua people were guarded by their art.
Sculptures of females were quite popular among them, as these figures exemplified “the union of physical and moral beautify (“Figurative Sculpture”). ” The Lulua people believed in equating proper behavior with physical beauty (“Figurative Sculpture”). It can be inferred that the Figure of a Mother Holding a Child and all other sculptures created for the same reason were reminders for the Lulua people that the human body cannot be separated from morality. This principle is clearly exemplified by the bond between mother and child. Conclusion
We focused on the political conditions surrounding the artist of Wedding of Mary and Joseph. Societal context of Renoir’s painting, Acrobats At The Cirque Fernando, was explored with a brief overview of gender relations in 19th century Paris. This study may have been conducted with historical information gleaned through novels, too. Finally, the cultural context of Figure of a Mother Holding a Child was explored. Although this discussion was centered on political, societal and cultural contexts of three works of art, it was clarified as part of the discussion that an artwork may be appreciated in any number of ways.
There are countless theories and innumerable stories about the history of mankind. What is more, every piece of artwork tells a tale about the space and time of its artist alone. The work lives on as students of art and historians delve into paintings over and again. Any number of assumptions could be made about the situational context of an artwork thus. Perhaps, therefore, it is reasonable to state that a work of art has as many minds as interpreters as the number of people that consider the artwork through the passage of time. Moreover, only assumptions can be made about the situational context of an artwork.
History is best left to those that lived it. After all, we only make educated guesses about what people of the past lived through to gather useful information for our lives in the present. Works Cited Bennett, Caroline. “Art and Architecture. ” Viva Travel Guides. 11 Nov 2008. <http://www. vivatravelguides. com/south-america/peru/peru-overview/art-and-architecture/>. “Figurative Sculpture. ” Central African Art. 11 Nov 2008. <http://africa. si. edu/exhibits/journey/figurative. html>. “Figure of a Mother Holding a Child. ” Brooklyn Museum Collections: African Art. 11 Nov
2008. <http://www. brooklynmuseum. org/collections/african_art/50. 124. php>. Lea, Henry C. “Inquisition in 17th Century Peru: Cases of Portuguese Judaizers. ” Modern History Sourcebook. 11 Nov 2008. <http://www. fordham. edu/halsall/mod/17c-lea-limainquis. html>. “Lulua Tribe: Democratic Republic of Congo. ” For African Art. 2006. 11 Nov 2008. <http://www. forafricanart. com/Lulua_ep_56-1. html>. Mancoff, Debra N. “Paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. ” How Stuff Works. 2008. 11 Nov 2008. <http://entertainment. howstuffworks. com/paintings-by-pierre-auguste-renoir7. htm>.