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April 2, 2020

Ballgame Vessel

Ballgame Vessel, c.700–1800; Maya, Guatemala, Late Classic period, 600–1909; ceramic with slip; 9 1/16 x 6 7/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Morton D. May 216:1979

  • Ballgame Vessel, c.700–1800; Maya, Guatemala, Late Classic period, 600–1909; ceramic with slip; 9 1/16 x 6 7/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Morton D. May 216:1979

This unusually large Maya vase provided the artist a generous surface on which to paint a detailed narrative of a ballgame. Like the Maya ballgame itself, the narrative is not seen all at once, but unfolds in sections as the viewer moves around the vessel. The animated scene shows ballplayers on the field and spectators in the tiered stands. One player wearing protective gear and headdress slides on the ground, trying to block or propel the large ball. Three spectators appear to be having an animated discussion about the game. For the Maya, the ball’s movement back and forth on the court celebrated the sun’s journey across the sky and the eternal cycle of life and death.

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April 1, 2020

The Plaza after the Rain

Paul Cornoyer, American, 1864–1923; The Plaza after the Rain, 1908; oil on canvas; 59 1/4 x 59 1/4 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase 65:1910

A drizzling rain creates watery reflections on the streets and sidewalks along the Grand Army Plaza in New York City. The rain hampers the view down the vista, though the moody tones of pinks, grays, and blues make up for this loss. The light in the distance offers a hazy glimpse of the southeast corner of Central Park, with its beloved bronze statue of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman.

St. Louisian Paul Cornoyer studied in Paris, France before returning to live and work in New York City. He is best known for his park scenes, such as this one, seen through the atmospheric reflections of rain or the soft calm of a snowy blanket.

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March 31, 2020

Mary, Lady Guildford

Hans Holbein the Younger, German, 1497/98–1543; Mary, Lady Guildford, 1527; oil on panel; 34 1/4 x 27 13/16 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase 1:1943

  • Hans Holbein the Younger, German, 1497/98-1543; Portrait study of Mary, Lady Guildford, née Wotton, 1527; chalk; 21 5/16 x 15 1/8 inches; Kunstmuseum Basel

Holding her prayer book and turning to face the viewer, this 27-year-old is the very image of matronly propriety. Hans Holbein added fashionable Renaissance architectural elements, based on forms he knew from Italy, together with green ivy and a favorite blue to create a background of considerable beauty. The preparatory drawing for this painting shows a winsome charmer who glances off to the side. The artist, however, changed the direction of her gaze to suggest a more mature and serious woman. This alteration was very likely at the request of her husband, Henry Guildford, who was comptroller to King Henry VIII.

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March 30, 2020

Little Dancer of Fourteen Years

Edgar Degas, French, 1834–1917; Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, c.1880, cast c.1920; bronze, gauze, and satin; 38 1/2 x 16 1/4 x 13 3/4 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given by Mrs. Mark C. Steinberg 135:1956

This study of a young ballerina standing in a relaxed fourth position was the only sculpture Edgar Degas exhibited in his lifetime. Degas challenged the prevailing conventions of sculpture by dressing his original wax statue in a fabric tutu, a doll’s wig, and by adding a silk ribbon to her hair. The work shocked the critics, who remarked on her “instinctive ugliness” and on “the vicious muzzle of this little flower of the gutter.” These strong responses suggest Degas’ desire not only to capture the awkwardness of the student dancer but also to convey something of her probable future, as ballerinas were often extremely poor, and many led difficult lives. With this approach Degas combined the beauty of the dance with the harsh realities of modern life. Degas was a flaneur, a kind of dandy and aesthete who had an eye for the subjects of contemporary Paris. He was attracted to the ballet as a spectacle that, like art itself, required discipline and the perfection of skill.

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March 29, 2020

Sunday Morning Breakfast

Horace Pippin, American, 1888–1946; Sunday Morning Breakfast, 1943; oil on fabric; 16 x 20 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Funds, Friends Fund; and Bequest of Marie Setz Hertslet, Museum Purchase, Eliza McMillan Trust, and Gift of Mrs. Carl Tucker, by exchange 164:2015

A kettle whistles on a glowing stove as two children eagerly await their breakfast in this warm family scene. The everyday narrative is balanced by the geometric simplicity of the door, curtained window, cupboard, and flat patterns of the apron and rugs.

Horace Pippin was a self-taught African American artist who began painting after he was wounded in World War I (1914–1918). His laborious painting process involved propping up his permanently injured right arm with a poker and guiding it with his left hand. Sunday Morning Breakfast is a scene remembered from his youth in Goshen, New York.

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March 28, 2020

Head of a Buddha

Head of a Buddha, 4th century; Gandhāran, Pakistan, probably Kidarite dynasty, 3rd–5th century; stucco with traces of pigment; 18 x 11 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase 43:1931

This head of a Buddha bears the distinguishing marks of an enlightened being. On his head is an usnisa, a topknot-like protuberance. In the middle of his forehead lies an urna, a circular tuft of hair. Long earlobes, stretched by weighty jewelry, reveal a former life as a prince. Additionally, the figure’s half-closed eyes represent a constant state of meditative equanimity. The gracefully idealized facial features represent a mixture of influences from Greece, Rome, Persia, and Central Asia. While the hair and some other aspects of this head were modeled by hand, the face was shaped in a mold. Examples of these molds have been excavated at Gandhāran monasteries, indicating that sculptures such as this were produced at the sites where they were installed. Originally richly polychromed, only traces of red, blue, and black remain.

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March 27, 2020

Betty

Gerhard Richter, German, born 1932; Betty, 1988; oil on canvas; 40 1/4 x 28 1/2 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given by Mr. and Mrs. R. Crosby Kemper Jr. through the Crosby Kemper Foundations, The Arthur and Helen Baer Charitable Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Van-Lear Black III, Anabeth Calkins and John Weil, Mr. and Mrs. Gary Wolff, the Honorable and Mrs. Thomas F. Eagleton; Museum Purchase, Dr. and Mrs. Harold J. Joseph, and Mrs. Edward Mallinckrodt, by exchange 23:1992; © Gerhard Richter 2019

The formal elegance and psychological ambiguity of this painting, which is a portrait of the artist’s daughter, combine to make it one of Gerhard Richter’s most riveting works. Captured in the act of turning away from the viewer, or perhaps looking toward an object in the distance, the young girl’s posture expresses both intimacy and withholding: while her face is averted, the figure’s torso actually leans precipitously toward the viewer. The sharp angle of her pose implies that this condition is only temporary and that the dramatically torqued body will soon relax to face us once again.

Betty, like many of Richter’s paintings, incorporates an element of photographic realism, but it also documents the artist’s interest in abstraction; in fact, the dark expanse that preoccupies the girl might be one of Richter’s own monochrome paintings. This painting embodies Richter’s insistence on a practice that weds, without blurring, abstract and realist modes of representation.

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March 26, 2020

Helmet Mask

Oduntan Aina, Yoruba, Nigerian; Helmet Mask, early–mid-20th century; wood, pigment, fiber; 13 1/2 x 10 1/8 x 8 11/16 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Shop Fund 67:1995

Gelede masks such as this one are worn by male Yoruba dancers. Through their movements, gelede dancers, who always dance in pairs of male and female characters, express Yoruba ideals of male and female behavior. Gelede masks are worn at festivals honoring the women of the community—living and dead. These performances are particularly aimed at appeasing the powerful Great Mothers, including both the elderly women of the community and the ancestors of Yoruba society. The Great Mothers have the capacity for bringing either great fortune or great trouble to the community if not pleased. The gelede performances entertain and educate, and document elements of everyday life.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Raftsmen Playing Cards

George Caleb Bingham, American, 1811–1879; Raftsmen Playing Cards, 1847; oil on canvas; 28 1/16 x 38 1/16 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Ezra H. Linley by exchange 50:1934

Raftsmen Playing Cards is an idealized scene of river life in Missouri. It depicts a quiet moment of leisure among six raftsmen aboard a simple flatboat. While most of the men are preoccupied with the card game, one man gently glides the boat along the calm, mirrored surface of the water while another seems absorbed in thought.

Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham began his career as an essentially self-taught portrait painter, but eventually turned to genre painting, such as this scene, which he saw as an outlet for his fascination with the subjects found along Missouri’s rivers. Always attentive to detail, Bingham emphasizes the casual atmosphere by depicting two of the men barefoot, with a pair of discarded shoes visible at right, and the charred remains of the previous night’s fire in the foreground. The artist even invites the viewer to participate in this intimate occasion by placing the viewer at the foot of the flatboat. Although Bingham aspired to paint everyday life in America, this romantic view of man in harmony with nature actually looked back to earlier days before steamboats dominated the waters.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Bearded Bull's Head

Bearded Bull's Head, 2600-2450 BC; Sumerian, Iraq, Early Dynastic III period; copper with lapis lazuli and shell inlay; 9 1/4 x 9 1/16 x 4 3/4 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Friends Fund 260:1951

This powerful head of solid copper is brought to life with inlaid eyes of lapis lazuli and shell. It was probably part of a copper relief or a three-dimensional figure that protected the facade or interior of an ancient temple. The bull’s massive head is emphasized by a stocky muzzle and shortened horns. The addition of a curled, wide beard looks curiously natural on an animal that symbolized the Sumerian sky god, An. As the embodiment of fertility and power, the bearded bull served as an ever-present symbol of divine protection and royal might through centuries of ancient southwest Asian art.

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Monday, March 23, 2020

Water Lilies

Claude Monet, Water Lilies

Claude Monet, French, 1840–1926; Water Lilies, c.1915–26; oil on canvas; 78 3/4 inches × 13 feet 11 3/4 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, The Steinberg Charitable Fund 134:1956

In 1893 Claude Monet expanded the garden of his home at Giverny. There he cultivated exotic water lilies in an exquisite garden pond rimmed with Asian plants. Over the next twenty-five years, he used the water lily motif as the basis of large compositions that would mark his transition from easel painting to ambitious mural-scaled decorations. In front of this panel painting, we imagine ourselves suspended over a seemingly infinite and somewhat mysterious field of subtle hues, as we are freed from the limitations of weight, of space as defined by traditional perspective, and of narrative. The result is a peaceful field of compelling beauty that invites contemplation and reverie. Originally conceived as the centerpiece of a three-panel installation that would envelop the viewer, this panel and its pendants (now in Kansas City and Cleveland) were intended by Monet to comprise a monumental Water Lilies decoration, like the one now permanently installed at the Orangerie des Tuileries in Paris.

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