Introduction to Series: Behind the Canvasses
Monumental paintings depicting historical events from countries all over the world abound in major museums, but when we look at, say, a group of richly costumed men emerging from a building carrying weapons, or a seemingly drunken mob led by two women in white, what do we really know about the events behind those scenes? This series will bring real life depth to works we discover as well an art historian’s perspective on what makes the paintings themselves masterpieces.
Parnassus, otherwise known as Mars and Venus, was painted by Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna for Isabella d’Este, the powerful Marchioness of Mantua, in 1497. The painting is a riot of mythological characters; deciphering them is a lesson in classical iconography in itself, but considering the iconography in the light of Isabella’s social position is a revelation. Isabella was a powerful patron of the arts. She commissioned many great artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, who drew her portrait but could never be persuaded to turn it into a painting. Parnassus is one of the paintings that hung in her studiolo, or private study, where Isabella would have entertained guests from the elite intellectual circles she frequented. At the time art collecting was considered a masculine pursuit. Isabella was also proving herself to be a more astute politician than her absent husband and found herself pushing the boundaries of what was considered appropriate for a woman of her social standing. She had to find a way to preserve her reputation as an honorable and virtuous woman and she did so by using classical mythology. Parnassus and her other studiolo paintings were decoration but they were also her own personal propaganda tool.
About the Instructor
Caroline Rossiter, a U.K. native, is an adoptive Parisienne and has been wandering Paris's narrow streets and leafy boulevards since 2003. She holds an undergraduate degree in French and Art History with a specialty in 19th-century art and literature, and pursued graduate studies in Art History at Paris 4 La Sorbonne, writing a thesis on popular imagery and caricature in Revolutionary and Napoleonic Paris. Her writing has been published in Apollo Magazine, the TLS, Condé Nast Traveler and WSJ Magazine. She teaches specialist English and Art History at universities Paris 3 and Paris 4.
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