If you have an interest in how the internet has widened the very concept of education, you may well know about Google’s Art Project, a digital wealth of free visual art information and viewing opportunities we’ve featured before. And you more than likely know about Khan Academy, the highest-profile producer of educational videos on the internet. Now, from the combined power of their learning resources comes this collection of video introductions to over 100 important paintings. Ranging from between two to nine minutes and covering works of art created in eras from 575 B.C.E to the Second World War, these brief but intellectually dense and visually rich lessons bear the label of Smarthistory, “a multimedia web-book about art and art history” that merged with Khan Academy in 2011. In the video at the top of the post, Smarthistory introduces us to Botticelli’s 1486 Tbe Birth of Venus, “one of the most iconic images in the history of Western art” — its content, its context, and its inspiration. The Birth of Venus might seem like one of those images that needs no introduction, but as all the information revealed in the video reminds us, most of us, if not art historians ourselves, could at least use a refresher.
Just above, we have Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 The Bedroom, a painting that, in the words of the artist himself, “ought to rest the brain — or rather, the imagination.” Though we all know the name of this particular post-Impressionist, we may not have seen this particular canvas of his before, a fact Smarthistory’s experts Beth Harris and Steven Zucker take into account when they explain to us how they themselves think about it. “What you’re talking about is the root of abstraction itself,” says Zucker. “It’s not that this is representative; it’s that the formal qualities of painting itself can have their own experiential aspect.” And they speak just as insightfully on the paintings we encounter, in one form or another, every so often in our daily lives. Edward Hopper’s 1942 Nighthawks, for instance, a replica of which I saw on the side of one coffee mug I used every day for years, gets discussed below as “an expression of wartime alienation” that delivers “an immediate implication that we are alone” that “makes us look for some sign of life, but we don’t see anything.” Smarthistory’s videos manage to reveal a great deal of emotional, technical, and historical knowledge on these and many other paintings in a fraction of the time it takes a student to cross campus for their art history lecture — let alone to sit through its entire slideshow. You can see all 100 videos in the collection here.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.