How the Mona Lisa Went From Being Barely Known, to Suddenly the Most Famous Painting in the World (1911)

Is the Mona Lisa really “ten times better than every other painting”? No one seriously believes this, and how would anyone measure such a thing? There may be no such critical scale, but there is a popular one. The Louvre, where the famous Leonardo da Vinci—maybe the most famous painting of all time—hangs, says that 80 percent of its visitors come just to see the Mona Lisa. Her enigmatic smile adorns merchandise the world wide. Books, essays, documentaries, songs, coffee mugs—hers may be the most recognizable face in Western art.

Learn in the Vox video above, however, how that fame came about as the result of a different kind of publicity—coverage of the Mona Lisa theft in 1911. It became an overnight sensation. “Before its theft,” notes NPR, “the ‘Mona Lisa’ was not widely known outside the art world. Leonardo da Vinci painted it in 1507, but it wasn't until the 1860s that critics began to hail it as a masterwork of Renaissance painting. And that judgment didn't filter outside a thin slice of French intelligentsia.”




Though the painting once hung in the bedroom of Napoleon, in the 19th century, it “wasn’t even the most famous painting in its gallery, let alone in the Louvre,” historian James Zug tells All Things ConsideredWriting at Vox, Phil Edwards describes how an essay by Victorian art critic Walter Pater elevated the Mona Lisa among art critics and intellectuals like Oscar Wilde. His overwrought prose “popped up in guidebooks to the Louvre and reading clubs in Paducah.” Yet it was not art criticism that sold the painting to the general public. It was the intrigue of an art heist.

In 1911, an Italian construction worker, Vincenzo Perugia, was working for the firm Cobier, engaged in putting several paintings, including the Mona Lisa, under glass. While at the Louvre, he hatched a plan to steal the painting with two accomplices, brothers Vincenzo and Michele Lancelotti. The crime was literally notorious overnight. The theft occurred on Monday morning, August 21. By late Tuesday, the story had been picked up by major newspapers all over the world.

Pablo Picasso and poet Guillaume Apollinaire went on trial for the theft (their case was dismissed). Conspiracy theories popped up all over the place, claiming, as per usual, that the whole thing was a hoax or a distraction engineered by the French government. “Wanted posters for the painting appeared on Parisian walls,” Zug writes at Smithsonian. “Crowds massed at police headquarters. Thousands of spectators, including Franz Kafka, flooded the Salon Carré when the Louvre reopened after a week to stare at the empty wall with its four lonely iron hooks.”

Once the painting was restored, the crowds kept coming. Newspaper photos and police posters gave way to t-shirts and mousepads. The painting's undoubted excellence seemed incidental; it became, like Andy Warhol's soup cans, famous for being famous. Learn more about the Mona Lisa’s long strange trip through history in the short Great Big Story video above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Gustave Doré’s Haunting Illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy

Inferno, Canto X:

Many artists have attempted to illustrate Dante Alighieri's epic poem the Divine Comedy, but none have made such an indelible stamp on our collective imagination as the Frenchman Gustave Doré.

Doré was 23 years old in 1855, when he first decided to create a series of engravings for a deluxe edition of Dante's classic.  He was already the highest-paid illustrator in France, with popular editions of Rabelais and Balzac under his belt, but Doré was unable to convince his publisher, Louis Hachette, to finance such an ambitious and expensive project. The young artist decided to pay the publishing costs for the first book himself. When the illustrated Inferno came out in 1861, it sold out fast. Hachette summoned Doré back to his office with a telegram: "Success! Come quickly! I am an ass!"




Hachette published Purgatorio and Paradiso as a single volume in 1868. Since then, Doré's Divine Comedy has appeared in hundreds of editions. Although he went on to illustrate a great many other literary works, from the Bible to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," Doré is perhaps best remembered for his depictions of Dante. At The World of Dante, art historian Aida Audeh writes:

Characterized by an eclectic mix of Michelangelesque nudes, northern traditions of sublime landscape, and elements of popular culture, Doré's Dante illustrations were considered among his crowning achievements -- a perfect match of the artist's skill and the poet's vivid visual imagination. As one critic wrote in 1861 upon publication of the illustrated Inferno: "we are inclined to believe that the conception and the interpretation come from the same source, that Dante and Gustave Doré are communicating by occult and solemn conversations the secret of this Hell plowed by their souls, traveled, explored by them in every sense."

The scene above is from Canto X of the Inferno. Dante and his guide, Virgil, are passing through the Sixth Circle of Hell, in a place reserved for the souls of heretics, when they look down and see the imposing figure of Farinata degli Uberti, a Tuscan nobleman who had agreed with Epicurus that the soul dies with the body, rising up from an open grave. In the translation by John Ciardi, Dante writes:

My eyes were fixed on him already. Erect,
he rose above the flame, great chest, great brow;
he seemed to hold all Hell in disrespect

Inferno, Canto XVI:

As Dante and Virgil prepare to leave Circle Seven, they are met by the fearsome figure of Geryon, Monster of Fraud. Virgil arranges for Geryon to fly them down to Circle Eight. He climbs onto the monster's back and instructs Dante to do the same.

Then he called out: "Now, Geryon, we are ready:
bear well in mind that his is living weight
and make your circles wide and your flight steady."

As a small ship slides from a beaching or its pier,
backward, backward -- so that monster slipped
back from the rim. And when he had drawn clear

he swung about, and stretching out his tail
he worked it like an eel, and with his paws
he gathered in the air, while I turned pale.

Inferno, Canto XXXIV:

In the Ninth Circle of Hell, at the very center of the Earth, Dante and Virgil encounter the gigantic figure of Satan. As Ciardi writes in his commentary:

He is fixed into the ice at the center to which flow all the rivers of guilt; and as he beats his great wings as if to escape, their icy wind only freezes him more surely into the polluted ice. In a grotesque parody of the Trinity, he has three faces, each a different color, and in each mouth he clamps a sinner whom he rips eternally with his teeth. Judas Iscariot is in the central mouth: Brutus and Cassius in the mouths on either side.

 Purgatorio, Canto II:

At dawn on Easter Sunday, Dante and Virgil have just emerged from Hell when they witness The Angel Boatman speeding a new group of souls to the shore of Purgatory.

Then as that bird of heaven closed the distance
between us, he grew brighter and yet brighter
until I could no longer bear the radiance,

and bowed my head. He steered straight for the shore,
his ship so light and swift it drew no water;
it did not seem to sail so much as soar.

Astern stood the great pilot of the Lord,
so fair his blessedness seemed written on him;
and more than a hundred souls were seated forward,

singing as if they raised a single voice
in exitu Israel de Aegypto.
Verse after verse they made the air rejoice.

The angel made the sign of the cross, and they
cast themselves, at his signal, to the shore.
Then, swiftly as he had come, he went away.

 Purgatorio, Canto IV:

The poets begin their laborious climb up the Mount of Purgatory. Partway up the steep path, Dante cries out to Virgil that he needs to rest.

The climb had sapped my last strength when I cried:
"Sweet Father, turn to me: unless you pause
I shall be left here on the mountainside!"

He pointed to a ledge a little ahead
that wound around the whole face of the slope.
"Pull yourself that much higher, my son," he said.

His words so spurred me that I forced myself
to push on after him on hands and knees
until at last my feet were on that shelf.

Purgatorio, Canto XXXI:

Having ascended at last to the Garden of Eden, Dante is immersed in the waters of the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, and helped across by the maiden Matilda. He drinks from the water, which wipes away all memory of sin.

She had drawn me into the stream up to my throat,
and pulling me behind her, she sped on
over the water, light as any boat.

Nearing the sacred bank, I heard her say
in tones so sweet I cannot call them back,
much less describe them here: "Asperges me."

Then the sweet lady took my head between
her open arms, and embracing me, she dipped me
and made me drink the waters that make clean.

Paradiso, Canto V:

In the Second Heaven, the Sphere of Mercury, Dante sees a multitude of glowing souls. In the translation by Allen Mandelbaum, he writes:

As in a fish pool that is calm and clear,
the fish draw close to anything that nears
from outside, it seems to be their fare,
such were the far more than a thousand splendors
I saw approaching us, and each declared:
"Here now is one who will increase our loves."
And even as each shade approached, one saw,
because of the bright radiance it set forth,
the joyousness with which that shade was filled.

Paradiso, Canto XXVIII:

Upon reaching the Ninth Heaven, the Primum Mobile, Dante and his guide Beatrice look upon the sparkling circles of the heavenly host. (The Christian Beatrice, who personifies Divine Love, took over for the pagan Virgil, who personifies Reason, as Dante's guide when he reached the summit of Purgatory.)

And when I turned and my own eyes were met
By what appears within that sphere whenever
one looks intently at its revolution,
I saw a point that sent forth so acute
a light, that anyone who faced the force
with which it blazed would have to shut his eyes,
and any star that, seen from the earth, would seem
to be the smallest, set beside that point,
as star conjoined with star, would seem a moon.
Around that point a ring of fire wheeled,
a ring perhaps as far from that point as
a halo from the star that colors it
when mist that forms the halo is most thick.
It wheeled so quickly that it would outstrip
the motion that most swiftly girds the world.

Paradiso, Canto XXXI:

In the Empyrean, the highest heaven, Dante is shown the dwelling place of God. It appears in the form of an enormous rose, the petals of which house the souls of the faithful. Around the center, angels fly like bees carrying the nectar of divine love.

So, in the shape of that white Rose, the holy
legion has shown to me -- the host that Christ,
with His own blood, had taken as His bride.
The other host, which, flying, sees and sings
the glory of the One who draws its love,
and that goodness which granted it such glory,
just like a swarm of bees that, at one moment,
enters the flowers and, at another, turns
back to that labor which yields such sweet savor,
descended into that vast flower graced
with many petals, then again rose up
to the eternal dwelling of its love.

You can access a free edition of The Divine Comedy featuring Doré's illustrations at Project Gutenberg. A Yale course on reading Dante in translation appears in the Literature section of our collection of 750 Free Online Courses.

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Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in October 2013.

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Famous Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci Celebrated in a New Series of Stamps

No special occasion is required to celebrate Leonardo da Vinci, but the fact that he died in 1519 makes this year a particularly suitable time to look back at his vast, innovative, and influential body of work. Just last month, "Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing" opened in twelve museums across the United Kingdom. "144 of Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest drawings in the Royal Collection are displayed in 12 simultaneous exhibitions across the UK," says the exhibition's site, with each venue's drawings "selected to reflect the full range of Leonardo's interests – painting, sculpture, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany."

The Royal Collection Trust, writes Artnet's Sarah Cascone, has even "sent a dozen drawings from Windsor Castle to each of the 12 participating institutions." They'd previously been in Windsor Castle's Print Room, the home of a collection of old master prints and drawings routinely described as one of the finest in the world.




Now displayed at institutions like Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery, Sheffield's Millennium Gallery, Belfast's Ulster Museum, and Cardiff's National Museum Wales, this selection of Leonardo's drawings will be much more accessible to the public during the exhibition than before.

But the Royal Mail has made sure that the drawings will be even more widely seen, doing its part for the 500th anniversary of Leonardo's death by issuing them in stamp form.

"The stamps depict several well-known works," writes Artnet's Kate Brown, "such as The skull sectioned (1489) and The head of Leda (1505–08), a study for his eventual painting of the myth of Leda, the queen of Sparta, which was the most valuable work in Leonardo’s estate when he died and was apparently destroyed around 1700. Other stamps show the artist’s studies of skeletons, joints, and cats."

While none of these images enjoy quite the cultural profile of a Vitruvian Man, let alone a Mona Lisa, they all show that whatever Leonardo drew, he drew it in a way revealing that he saw it like no one else did (possibly due in part, as we've previously posted about here on Open Culture, to an eye disorder).

Though that may come across more clearly at the scale of the originals than at the scale of postage stamps, even a glimpse at the intellectually boundless Renaissance polymath's drawings compressed into 21-by-24-millimeter squares will surely be enough to draw many into his still-inspirational artistic and scientific world. To the intrigued, may we suggest plunging into his 570 pages of notebooks?

Note: If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, consider attending the new course--The Genius of Leonardo da Vinci: A 500th Anniversary Celebration--being offered through Stanford Continuing Studies. Registration opens on February 25. The class runs from April 16 through June 4.

via Colossal/Artnet

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Neil Gaiman Reads His Manifesto on Making Art: Features the 10 Things He Wish He Knew As a Young Artist

I think you're absolutely allowed several minutes, possibly even half a day to feel very, very sorry for yourself indeed. And then just start making art. - Neil Gaiman

It’s a bit early in the year for commencement speeches, but fortunately for lifelong learners who rely on a steady drip of inspiration and encouragement, author Neil Gaiman excels at putting old wine in new bottles.

He repurposed his keynote address to Philadelphia's University of the Arts’ Class of 2012 for Art Matters: Because Your Imagination Can Change the World, a slim volume with hand lettering and illustrations by Chris Riddell.




The above video captures the frequent collaborators appearing together last fall at the East London cultural center Evolutionary Arts Hackney in a fundraiser for English PEN, the founding branch of the worldwide literary defense association. While Gaiman reads aloud in his affable, ever-engaging style, Riddell uses a brush pen to bang out 4 3/4 line drawings, riffing on Gaiman’s metaphors.

While the art-making “rules” Gaiman enumerates herein have been extrapolated and widely disseminated (including, never fear, below), it’s worth having a look at why this event called for a live illustrator.

Leaving aside the fact that each ticket purchaser got a copy of Art Matters, autographed by both men, and a large signed print was auctioned off on behalf of English PEN, Gaiman holds illustrations in high regard.

His work includes picture books, graphic novels, and lightly illustrated novels for teens and young adults, and as a mature reader, he, too, delights in visuals, singling out Frank C. Papé's drawings for the decidedly “adult” 1920s fantasy novels of James Branch Cabell. (1929’s Something about Eve featured a buxom female character angrily frying up her husband's manhood for dinner and an erotic entryway that would have thrilled Dr. Seuss.)

In an interview with Waterstones booksellers upon the publication of Neverwhere another collaboration with Riddell, Gaiman mused:

…a good illustrator, for me, is like going to see a play. You are going to get something brought to life for you by a specific cast in a specific place. That way of illustrating will never happen again. You know, somebody else could illustrate it—there are hundreds of different Alice in Wonderlands.

Which we could certainly take to mean that if Riddell’s style doesn’t grab you the way it grabs Gaiman (and the juries for several prestigious awards) perhaps you should tear your eyes away from the screen and illustrate what you hear in the speech.

Do you need to know how to draw as well as he does? The rules, below, suggest not. We’d love to take a peek inside your sketchbook after.

  1. Embrace the fact that you're young. Accept that you don't know what you're doing. And don't listen to anyone who says there are rules and limits.

  2. If you know your calling, go there. Stay on track. Keep moving towards it, even if the process takes time and requires sacrifice.

  3. Learn to accept failure. Know that things will go wrong. Then, when things go right, you'll probably feel like a fraud. It's normal.

  4. Make mistakes, glorious and fantastic ones. It means that you're out there doing and trying things.

  5. When life gets hard, as it inevitably will, make good art. Just make good art.

  6. Make your own art, meaning the art that reflects your individuality and personal vision.

  7. You get freelance work if your work is good, if you're easy to get along with, and if you're on deadline. Actually you don't need all three. Just two.

  8. Enjoy the ride. Don’t fret it all away. (That one comes compliments of Stephen King.)

  9. Be wise and accomplish things in your career. If you have problems getting started, pretend you're someone who is wise, who can get things done. It will help you along.

  10. Leave the world more interesting than it was before.

Read a complete transcript of the speech here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City tonight as host of Theater of the Apes’ monthly  book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Historic Manuscript Filled with Beautiful Illustrations of Cuban Flowers & Plants Is Now Online (1826 )

The internet has become an essential back up system for thousands of pieces of historical art, science, and literature, and also for a specialized kind of text incorporating them all in degrees: the illustrated natural science book, from the golden ages of book illustration and philosophical naturalism in Europe and the Americas. We’ve seen some fine digital reproductions of the illustrated Nomenclature of Colors by Abraham Gottlob Werner, for example—a book that accompanied Darwin on his Beagle voyage.

The same source has also brought us a wonderfully illustrated, influential 1847 edition of Euclid’s Elements, with a semaphore-like design that color-codes and delineates each axiom. And we’ve seen Emily Noyes Vanderpoel’s 1903 Color Problems: a Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color come online (and back in print), a study whose ideas would later show up in the work of modern minimalists like Josef Albers.




Above and below, you can see just a fraction of the illustrations from another example of a remarkable illustrated scientific book, also by a woman on the edge of being forgotten: Nancy Anne Kingsbury Wollstonecraft's 1826 Specimens of the Plants and Fruits of the Island of Cuba.

This study of Cuban plant life might never have seen the light of day were it not for the new online edition from the HathiTrust digital library, “by way of Cornell University’s Library Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections,” notes Atlas Obscura. The book is notable for more than its obscurity, however. It is, says scholar of Cuban history and culture Emilio Cueto, “the most important corpus of plant illustrations in Cuba’s colonial history.” Its author first began work when she moved to the island after her husband, Charles Wollstonecraft (brother of Mary and uncle of Mary Shelley) died in 1817.

She began documenting the plant life in the region of Matanzas through the 1820s. That research became Specimens of the Plants and Fruits of the Island of Cuba, a meticulous study, full of Wollstonecraft’s vibrant, striking watercolors. After making several attempts at publication, she died in 1828, and the manuscript never appeared in public. Now, almost two centuries later, all three volumes are available to read online and download in PDF. They had been dormant at the Cornell University Library, and few people knew very much about them. Cueto, the scholar most familiar with the manuscript's place in history, had himself searched for it for 20 years before finding it hidden away at Cornell in 2018.

Now it is freely available to anyone and everyone online, part of an expanding, shared online archive of fascinating works by non-professional scientists and mathematicians whose work was painstakingly interpreted by artists for the benefit of a lay readership. In the case of Wollstonecraft, as with Goethe and many other contemporary scholar-artists, we have the two in one. View and download her 220-page work, with its 121 illustrated plates at the HathiTrust Digital Library.

via Cornell/Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Download Free Coloring Books from 113 Museums

One can only color so many floral-trimmed affirmations before one begins to crave something slightly more perverse. An emaciated, naked, anthropomorphized mandrake root, say or…

Thy wish is our command, but be prepared to hustle, because today is the final day of Color Our Collections, a compellingly democratic initiative on the part of the New York Academy of Medicine.

Since 2016, the Academy has made an annual practice of inviting other libraries, archives, and cultural institutions around the world to upload PDF coloring pages based on their collections for the public's free download.

This year 113 institutions took the bait.

Our host, the New York Academy of Medicine kicks things off with the aforementioned mandrakes, and then some.




Medical subjects are a popular theme here. You’ll find plenty of organs and other relevant details to color, compliments of Boston’s Countway Library’s Center for the History of MedicineLondon’s Royal College of Physicians, and the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia (aka the Mütter Museum).

The coloring book of the Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center at the Davenport Public Library is a bit more all-ages. They certainly remind me of my childhood. The work of native son, Patrick J. Costello, above, figures heavily here. Either he deserves a lot of credit for developing the School House Rock aesthetic, or he was one of a number of hard working illustrators tapping into the cartoon-y, thick-nibbed zeitgeist

The Andover-Harvard Theological Library’s coloring book has some divine options for those who would use their coloring pages as DIY 16th-century bookplates or alphabet primers.

Those who need something more complex will appreciate the intricate maps of the Lithuanian Art Museum’s coloring book. Coloring Franz Hogenberg’s 1581 map of Vilnius is the emotional equivalent of walking the labyrinth for god knows how many hours.

As befits a content website-cum-digital-National-Library, the Memoria Chilena Coloring Book 2019 has something for every taste: flayed anatomical studies, 1940’s fashions, curious kitty cats, and a heaping helping of jesters.

Check out all your options here.

Once you've had your way with the Crayolas, please share your creations with the world, using the hashtag #ColorOurCollections.

Participating Institutions 2019

The New York Academy of Medicine Library

Royal College of Physicians, London

OHSU Historical Collections & Archives

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Special Collections

Swarthmore College Libraries

South Carolina State Library

Shenandoah County Library, Truban Archives

Biblioteca de la Universidad de Zaragoza

Christ's College Library, Cambridge

Tower Hill Botanic Garden

University of Waterloo Special Collections & Archives

Wageningen University & Research

Brunel University Special Collections

Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts

Washington State Library

Saint Francis de Sales Parish United by the Most Blessed Sacrament Parish History Archives

Getty Research Institute

Auckland Museum

Loyola University Chicago Archives & Special Collections

Seton Hall University Libraries

Bibliotheque interuniversitaire de Sante, Paris

Digital Library at Villanova University

West Virginia and Regional History Center

Bass Library, Yale University Library

University of Kansas Libraries

Medical Heritage Library

The Ohio State University Health Sciences Library

University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Rutgers University Special Collections and University Archives

University of British Columbia Library

National Library of Medicine

Science History Institute

Ricker Library of Architecture and Art at the University of Illinois

Chautauqua Institution Archives

Bibliotheque et Archives nationales du Quebec

The LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden

Auburn University Special Collections and Archives

Open Museum, Academia Sinica Center for Digital Cultures

Les Champs Libres

Lithuanian Art Museum

Memoria Chilena

Barret Library, Rhodes College

Wales Higher Education Libraries Forum (WHELF)

Royal Anthropological Institute

Delaware Museum of Natural History

James Madison University Libraries

Utah State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives

Stevens Institute of Technology / Archives & Special Collections

Waring Historical Library of the Medical University of South Carolina

Bernard Becker Medical Library at Washington University in St. Louis

University of Puget Sound

Drexel University College of Medicine Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections

Queens' College Library, Cambridge

Stadtbibliothek Koeln

Andover-Harvard Theological Library

Rare Book and Manuscript CRAI Library at University of Barcelona

Newberry Library

Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Lambeth Palace Library

Folger Shakespeare Library

University of Glasgow Archives and Special Collections

John J. Burns Library

Biodiversity Heritage Library

The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa Digital Library

Tennessee State Museum

Center for the History of Medicine, Countway LIbrary

Russian State Library

South Carolina Historical Society

Library Company of Philadelphia

The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary

Pratt Institute Archives

The Children's Museum of Indianapolis

Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, University of Minnesota Libraries

Washington University Libraries Julian Edison Department of Special Collections

Libraries and Cultural Resources, University of Calgary

Leonard H. Axe Library, Pittsburg State University

Susquehanna University, Blough-Weis Library

Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center, Davenport Public Library

Denver Public Library, Western History and Genealogy

Findlay-Hancock County Public Library

Northern Illinois University

Escuela Superior de Artes de Yucatan

Lake County Public Library

United Nations Library Geneva

Jeleniorskie Centrum Informacji i Edukacji Regionalnej Ksiaznica Karkonoska

Women and Leadership Archives, Loyola University Chicago

Grand Portage National Monument Archives Collection

Jagiellonian Library

Botanical Research Institute of Texas

University of North Texas Libraries

Lehigh University Libraries Special Collections

Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Massachusetts General Hospital Archives & Special Collections

Clark Special Collections, McDermott Library, USAFA

Bibliotheque nationale de France

Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art Archive & Library

Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

British Library

Western University Archives and Special Collections

Europeana

Denver Botanic Gardens

MedChi, The Maryland State Medical Society

Grinnell College Libraries

University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

National Library of Russia

Eastern Kentucky University Special Collections & Archives

Numelyo

Louisiana State University Special Collections

New York State Library

North Carolina Pottery Center

Royal Horticultural Society Libraries

Library of Virginia

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City this Monday as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Real Locations of Ukiyo-e, Historic Japanese Woodblock Prints, Plotted on a Google Map

The undisputed last great master of ukiyo-e was Utagawa Hiroshige. He is best known for the many series he created of bucolic landscapes, which offered collectors a chance to see parts of Japan they might never reach. The Japan of his early 19th century work holds a special place in Japanese hearts--a final look at an isolated and beautiful country just before the opening up of the ports to the West and, with it, industrialization.

Apart from Mount Fuji, the locations that Hiroshige drew have long gone, but “Computer science undergrad, martial artist, ukiyo-e lover” and British resident George--he goes by the Twitter handle @Cascadesssss--has plotted the location of Hiroshige’s prints on an interactive Google map that has gone quickly viral.




The red circles represent the series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo,” the blue circles “The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido” (one of five main routes in Edo Japan), and the green “Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces," the most expansive series showing scenes all the way from the The Two-sword Rocks of Bo Bay to the north province of Dewa and Mount Gassan. Each location opens to a separate web page with location information, including latitude-longitude numbers. (Pull up a chair map-lovers, you might be here a long time.)

“The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido” was Hiroshige’s most popular series and unlike the other two depicted horizontal landscapes. The artist sketched these in 1832 as he rode in a procession from Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto and set to work on the prints once he returned home. The 55 prints (two extra drawings of the starting and ending points of the journey) sold like crazy, as they cost about the same as a bowl of soup for the common person.

“Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces” is different in that Hiroshige did not make trips to see all these beloved locations--instead he put his own spin on existing drawings found in guide books and other sources. The total series of 70 prints took four years to complete, from 1853 to 1856.

By the time the “Provinces” series was winding down, Hiroshige started work on his final series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo,” which he worked on until his death. Again, though living in Edo, Hiroshige drew from the works of others from decades before. This is also the artist at his most adventurous--some landscapes are obscured by posts and bridge railings or even a carp streamer. One features what is rumored to be Hiroshige’s favorite geisha. These prints would go on to influence Western artists, especially Vincent van Gogh.

Hiroshige produced more series over his life--he died aged 61--and here's hoping Cascadesssss plots more on his map soon.

via Spoon and Tamago

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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