Week 4: The Power of Context

Week 4: The Power of Context




  • Ballet Dancers – A woman (grandmother? mother? chaperoning – A male ballet teacher

A ballet class; we can use our cultural knowledge to recognize their costumes.

Late 19th c. besides seeing the date, what clues do we have to the time period?

We can use our cultural knowledge to discern that this is Paris, France.

  1. Tertiary (Intrinsic) Level

Considers personal & cultural history.

Work is a product of a historical moment or movement. Here we see the: WHO, WHAT, WHEN WHERE WHY & HOW

We USE our cultural knowledge – and ask what is all MEANS.

intrinsic: belonging naturally

Edgar Degas. Ballet Class. 1881. Oil on canvas.



Here we can conduct research on Degas’ artistic style and influences.

Degas is actually creating social commentary here. The ballerinas have a chaperone to make sure the wealthy male patrons who put these working-class girls (almost always under the age of 16) through ballet school didn’t come and take advantage of them – which was a common practice. This seemingly innocent scene has some critical undertones!

Jan Van Eyck. The Arnolfini Portrait. 1434. Oil on oak panel.

I’m a link!

Viewers Make Meaning

Meaning of an image does not come from the image itself. Rather, it is formed through a “complex social process” that involves:

  • the image – the producer of the image – how the viewer(s) interprets the image – the context in which the image is seen

The French Académies & Salons – dates from the 17th c. to the early 20th c. includes the Académie des Beaux-Arts

  • school that taught & critiqued French cultural (mostly artistic) production
  • government acted as patron; controlling and regulating artistic practices & styles.
  • Salons: (literally means “gatherings”) exhibitions hosted by the Academy
  • artists had to be accepted members of the Académie in order to show their work in the Salon. – the most important exhibitions of their day; thousands flocked to see the work in the Salon. – work typically ordered by importance and genre.

Francois-Joseph Heim. Charles X Distributing Awards to Artists Exhibiting at the Salon of 1824 at the Louvre. 1827. oil on canvas.

This is an excellent example of how the

Salons would have been arranged.

-considered ‘scandalous’ because of its subject matter & its composition.

  • painted with visible brushstrokes, not common of ‘high art’ of the day.
  • distorted space.
  • the woman in the foreground looks directly at the viewer; why?

Marcantonio Raimondi.The Judgement of Paris (detail). 1488-1530. Engraving, after Raphael.

  • referencing Classical material.
  • play on words – ‘judging’ Paris.
  • why might Manet be judging the city he lives and works in?

What made Manet’s painting so


Gustav Courbet. Burial at Ornans. 1849. oil on canvas I’m a link!

narrative context

Jacques Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine. 1806-07. Oil on canvas.

This is when a single work or a series of works tell a story or portion of a story; often in sequential


Here we see the moment Napoleon takes

over the Popes job and crowns his wife Josephine as Empress –

a statement that he is above the church.

architectural context

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1640s, Marble..

While beautiful in its own right, we can’t

fully understand this work until we see it in its

original context.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Cornaro Chapel, 1640s, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.

What a difference!

The museum as context

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa. 1503-5. Oil on canvas.

Although we are used to seeing art in the context of a museum – we need to remember that it almost always had a different original context.

Further – museums tend to act as shrines or time capsules and our understanding of a work of art can vary depending on how an exhibition is curated.

When you go to a museum, consider how works or art are arranged. By style? By artist? Theme? Chronologically? Is the setting formal? Casual? Reverent?

Take the Mona Lisa for example; this iconic work is seen everywhere from coffee mugs to t-shirts. We associate it as a grand masterpiece. Yet did you know the Mona Lisa is actually quite small?

There it is!

archeological dig as museum and context

Tomb of Ch’in Shih-Huang-Ti: standing soldiers and horses, ca. 246-210 B.C – Tomb, terracotta.

Here the dig site becomes its own


archeological dig as museum and context

Colosseum – Rome, Italy.

While the Colosseum does house some small exhibitions or artifacts found at the site – the site itself is the exhibition and can only

truly be understood as site specific.

natural context

Walter de Maria, Lightning Field. 1971-77, 400 stainless steel poles.

Walter de Maria created a work of art that relies on

the natural world for its context. If you remove the lightning rods and place them

somewhere else – the artwork no longer exists.

urban context

Banksy, Phone Booth. 2006, mixed media.

Banksy uses the urban landscape as a platform to create art that speaks about contemporary social, ethical

and political issues.

Banksy, Gaza Strip. 2015.

I’m a link! Follow me to watch a video about Banksy’s latest project in the

Gaza Strip.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude,The Gates. 1979-2005. Steel gates and orange fabric.

I’m a link!

Be sure to read about The Gates in this week’s

reading assignment!

Be sure to read about The Gates in this week’s

reading assignment!

Be sure to read about The Gates in this week’s

reading assignment!

Be sure to read about The Gates in this week’s

reading assignment!

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