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George Ellory Hale was the sickly (and only) child of a wealthy Chicago elevator magnate. At an early age Hale showed an affinity for science and quickly began thinking of astronomy in much deeper terms than the mere cataloging and plotting of stars (which was the direction of the discipline when he began his career). In 1889, as he was traveling on a Chicago streetcar, Hale had an epiphany about how to build a machine to photograph and analyze the sun. He thereafter invented the spectroheliograph, which revolutionized stellar physics, and he operated the first spectroheliograph from his private observatory in his parents’ backyard. Hale was a master of studying light in order to understand the physical characteristics and chemical composition of stars, which made him one of the first (if not the first) people to be officially called an astrophysicist.
Because of his obsession with starlight, Hale was also obsessed with building telescopes. His dual ties to the world of academic astronomy (he studied at MIT) and the world of business wealth gave him a unique ability to put together observatories and institutions. Throughout the course of his life, Hale was instrumental in building four of the world’s largest telescopes (each telescope substantially outsizing the previous one).
Working as a professor and department head for the University of Chicago, he first spearheaded the creation of the Charles T. Yerkes Observatory at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin which featured a 40 inch refracting telescope (the largest refractor ever used for scientific discovery). When his plans outgrew the University of Chicago’s budgetary constraints, Hale joined forces with the Carnegie Institute to build a sixty inch reflecting telescope at Mt. Wilson Solar Observatory near Pasadena. In 1908, this telescope, the largest in the world, was operational, but Hale was already building a 100 inch reflecting scope. This larger scope became world famous when Edwin Hubble used it to demonstrate that the universe is expanding. Hale was still not done: he laid plans and institutional groundwork for the 200 inch reflector at Mount Palomar. Although Hale died before the Palomar scope was complete, the final observatory more than fulfilled his vision. The Palomar telescope was the world’s most important observatory between 1948 and 1992.
Because this is a short article I have glossed over the technical, scientific, and administrative hurdles faced by Hale in creating these telescopes, but, suffice to say the challenges were daunting. Each scope was accompanied by breakthroughs in engineering, architecture, and material science.
Hale was not content to merely create 4 of the world’s largest telescopes. He was also one of the founding trustees at California Institute of Technology. Hale’s contacts and savvy were one of the fundamental reasons that Caltech so quickly moved to International prominence (and maintained its status as one of the world’s foremost scientific institutions).
Hale was an indefatigable scientist, administrator, and thinker who accomplished a huge amount in his life. His far-sighted observatories and his pioneering work in astrophysics laid the groundwork for humankind’s most profound discoveries about the actual nature of the universe. However Hale suffered terribly from neurological and psychological problems. He was sometimes incapacitated by headaches, insomnia, and a horrible ringing noise. Throughout his adult life he consulted with an elf or demon which appeared to him when the ringing in his head reached an unbearable pitch. Psychologists and biographers have argued that this visitation was not actually a hallucination but rather a sort of allegorical figure used by Hale to personify his manic-depression. Hale’s writings (and the accounts of those around him) cast doubt upon this interpretation. He spent increasing amounts of time in sanitariums and he was fully institutionalized for the last years of his life. Many biographers add this detail as a sort of embarrassing footnote to an otherwise glorious life of innovation and discovery. Perhaps it should not be a dismissive footnote—Hale’s madness and his greatness went together. Lesser men—or saner ones—could probably not have built huge eyes with which humankind stared into the darkness of deep space.
Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–1873) was one of the most successful and beloved English artists during the apogee of British power–in fact he was Queen Victoria’s favorite painter. From a young age, Landseer was a painting prodigy. He was ambidextrous and it was even said that he could paint with both hands at the same time. Although he could paint people and landscapes with equal ease, what most endeared Landseer to the Victorian public was his skill at painting the emotions of animals. Most of his paintings involve the faces and demeanor of dogs and horses–either by themselves or interacting with their owners. These sentimental paintings of pets and favorite livestock animals made Landseer rich and famous, but there was more to his art than just portraying anthropomorphised creatures.
In this painting (completed in 1839) Landseer has put aside the spaniels, geldings, and water dogs which were his normal fare in order to address the thin line separating domestication from wildness. Dressed like Mark Anthony, the American lion-tamer Isaac Van Amburgh reclines in a cage filled with tigers, lions, and leopards. In his arm is a little lamb (which, hilariously, seems to share Isaac’s expression of languid arrogance). Although the lion tamer and the sheep are nicely painted, the real subjects of the painting are the great cats which stare at the armored man and the lamb with mixed expressions of wild sly hunger, fear, ingratiating acquiescence, and madness. Beyond the bars lies the entire panoply of 19th century society. A mother holds her infant tight as a rich merchant stares into the cage. A black man in livery turns his head toward a martinet standing beneath the Queen’s flag. This is not a sanitized scene of dogs playing together: there are multiple planes of control and subjugation as one proceeds through the levels of the painting.
Landseer found the subject of the lion tamer fascinating and later he painted another painting of Isaac Van Amburgh which shows the great cats cowering and sad. As ever, the whip-wielding Van Amburgh is dressed as a Roman and is behind bars. Flowers and laurels lay at the edge of the cage but so do newspapers and detritus. The huge felines are one more the focus of the painting, but, if possible, they look even more crazed and miserable [unfortunately I could only find a small jpeg of this work—the original is at Yale if you are near New Haven].
There was a dark, scary, & agonized side to Landseer as well. He had a nervous breakdown in his late thirties and was slowly devoured by insanity in the years thereafter. In fact during his final decades he sank so deeply into substance abuse and strange bouts of gratuitous cruelty, that his family had him committed to an insane asylum. Both of these paintings were crafted after Landseer’s emotional breakdown. I wonder if he had noticed that the lion tamer is as cruel and alarming as the beasts he is whipping (and is likewise behind bars). I wonder too if the artist had glimpsed an allegory of apparently genteel Victorian society within these disquieting pictures. But, most of all, I wonder if Landseer had already intimated that he too would end his life in a cage.
Every artist has favorite themes which they revisit again and again throughout their life. Rembrandt painted and repainted his own face as he went from young student to successful portraitist to sad old man. Watteau’s works often feature lovers in the lingering twilight. Picasso was drawn again and again to the Minotaur whom he painted variously as a beast, a poet, a sensualist, a murderer, and a murder victim. To some degree each artist can be swiftly summarized by his or her favorite images. These artistic leitmotifs are the touchstone to an artist’s life and work. When looking over an artist’s entire canon, one can watch certain themes wax and wane or see how the artist’s favorite subjects overlap each other. It is rather like the category cloud to the left: except played out over a lifetime and with images only (indeed, when I finally launch my art website you can compare how my blog’s categories match those of my painting).
My favorite gothic painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), had several recurrent themes. Cranach’s preferred subject was sumptuous young maidens with triangular faces who are wearing nothing but a few pieces of jewelry and the occasional wreath or transparent veil (beautiful naked people top nearly every artist’s topic list: but each artist brings his or her own unique twist!). Cranach also enjoyed painting Adam and Eve and their fall from paradise. Like me, he loved to paint animals and his works are a veritable menagerie (only a handful of his canvases lack creatures, most notably paintings in which…well we’ll get to it below). On a darker note he painted women stabbing themselves: there are several “Lucretia” paintings in his oeuvre. Cranach was from Saxony and the Saxon landscape of vivid forests punctuated by fortresses perched on crags is another major component of his work.
Most disturbing to modern sentiments, Cranach loved to paint beheadings or, more commonly, pretty women carrying severed heads. There are so many paintings like this by Cranach that it is hard to keep them separate (so please forgive any mistakes or misattributions in the following grisly gallery).
It is unclear why Cranach loved this subject so much. Many painters have portrayed the subject of Judith and Holofernes–which speaks to nationalism, bravery, and feminism. Even more artists are captivated by the death of John the Baptist with its martyred religious hero and its wanton villainess (whose incest-tinged struggle so strangely mirrors the travails of the goddess Ishtar). A fair number of medieval artists painted beheadings (which were after all much more common events back then) and Théodore Géricault sometimes painted heads fresh from the guillotine.
But nobody that I know of carried this obsession as far as Cranach. Perhaps he is evoking the ancient theme of death and the maiden: the beautiful young women in their finery with their unknowable expressions certainly contrast dramatically with the slack ruined horror of the dead heads. Cranach lived in a dark era when terrible deeds were common: these beheading paintings, like his symbolic masterpiece Melancholia might speak to the grim state of Europe as it plunged towards all-out religious war. Or maybe Cranach had a dark and troubled side. Was he afraid of women? Did he revel in the charnel house? Art provides a funhouse mirror of the human soul and who knows what monstrous yearnings can be spotted wriggling in that mysterious edifice?
Maybe a better question is why I am posting about this facet of Cranach’s art. Hmm, well for one thing I love Cranach’s painting and, even after writing about Melancholia earlier, I wanted to address his work further. Also despite their ghastly subject, these strange paintings are singularly beautiful and dramtic: I wanted to draw your attention into their haunted depths. The fact that an incredibly talented painter spent nearly a decade painting nothing but pretty young women holding severed heads is worth remarking on for its own right(also I have also always thought that Freud might have something with his theories of Eros and Thanatos). At a more primitive level, I hoped some sixteenth century violence and horror might drum up ratings during the summer doldrums. Most of all I want to use the paintings as memento mori (and I believe this was Cranach’s most pronounced intention also). Cranach and John the Baptist are long dead and turned to dust. Such is the fate of all flesh, but you are still alive and it’s a lovely June day. Stop looking at troubling art and go revel in the sunshine!
Here is another portrayal of Saint Anthony tormented by demons—and what demons! One is some sort of ambulatory stomach lined with teeth. Another is a cross between a turkey and a mudpuppy. A ghastly leprous frogman clutches at Saint Anthony while beings with stumps and fungi for heads lurch up out of the darkness. High in the sky a glowing entity watches. Is it God seen through a fog of pain or is it an ancient demon made of diaphanous glowing lunch meat? The very forces of madness and hell are physically pulling Anthony apart.
Wow! What is this painting and what’s the story behind its hellishly vivid imagery?
This is one frame of a massive polyptych painted by Mathis Grünewald for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim near Colmar. Grünewald painted the altarpiece between 1505 and 1515 and the completed work is difficult to describe because it has two sets of folding wings as well as a folding predella.
Wikipedia describes the altarpiece’s elaborate construction and its sad history:
The first view shows a Crucifixion scene, flanked by images of Saint Anthony and Saint Sebastian. There is a predella with a Lamentation of Christ, which remains in the second view also. When the outermost wings are opened, the second view shows scenes of the Annunciation, the original subject of Mary bathing Jesus to the accompaniment of an Angelic choir (or various other titles), and the Resurrection. The innermost view shows the Temptation of Saint Anthony and the Meeting of Saint Anthony and the Hermit Paul to the sides, and a pre-existing carved gilt-wood altarpiece by Nicolas Hagenau of about 1490. Now the altarpiece has been dis-assembled (and sawn through) so that all the views can be seen separately, except that the original sculpted altarpiece is no longer flanked by the panels of the third view, which are instead shown together. Carved wood elements at the top and bottom of the composition were lost in the French Revolution, when the whole painting survived nearly being destroyed.
The Monastery at Isenheim was a healing facility: the Antonine monks who lived and worked there specialized in the treatment of skin diseases. A prevalent malady the brothers saw among their patiets was ergotism—a poisoning caused by fungus growing on wet rye (in fact during the Middle Ages the affliction was known as “Saint Anthony’s Fire” because the Antonine Monks were so gifted at treating it). Alkaloid compounds in ergot constricted sufferers’ blood vessels and brought on dry gangrene. In the altarpiece Christ himself is afflicted by the skin condition as he hangs on the cross in the central panel. Various secondary characters throughout the work also seem to be suffering from the skin disease.
Besides suppurating lesions and gangrene, two other effects of ergotism were convulsions and terrible vivid hallucinations. The ergot alkaloid ergotamine shares many structural similarities with LSD. It is poignant to imagine the sick and injured patients at Isenheim desperately praying before the altarpiece for relief from an ailment which was unhinging their minds and literally causing them to rot away. When they looked up at Saint Anthony’s torment, the intended viewers knew exactly how he felt.