Tag Archives: Art quiz

Another interpretation quiz and answer

Interpretation of art often depends on how far in time the interpreter is from the artwork. The young officer choosing stockings (from my previous post) would be interpreted very differently by his contemporaries 160 years ago, and modern observers.

But can there be any doubt on how to interpret this girl, sketched by Pavel Fedotov in 1848-49?

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What do you think is going on in this picture?

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Not for idealists!

I love idealists. Their very existence in today’s consumerist world is a wonder (and a godsend for contemporary romance writers and Amazon).

Grown-up idealists are especially rare, because idealism is similar to a space rocket.  As an idealist matures, their idealism drops off as burnt-out ballistic stages, until the tiny manned tip comes into orbit in the cold void of adulthood.

Psychiatrists believe it is suspicious if someone stays an idealist past their teenage prime. No one over 15 can be THAT blissfully ignorant of the sad facts of life, they say. Yet, most agree that a certain (and generally acceptable) lack of education can insulate a mildly disillusioned Twilight fan from progressing to the consummate cynicism of American Psycho.

What is it a mildly disillusioned idealist should not know to keep the last threads of idealism?

They should never learn that their belief about “things being better before” is a lie. Why? Because this belief supports the hope all is not lost and things may get better after. Men were gentlemen, girls were ladies, kings meant more than “kingsize” in tobacco, and princes rode a single, but very real horsepower. If things could be that way before, they could become this way once again, couldn’t they?

If you know art history, you know the answer is no.

Hereditary noble classes have never been nobler than modern rags-to-riches bankers. Sex, power, and money used to be just as big, if not bigger than today, because gentlemen and ladies of the past didn’t have rock-n-roll for balance.

In fact, you don’t even need to know a whole lot of art history to see through the “better-before” lies. If you are English, you just need to be aware of William Hogarth. If you are French, Honore Daumier will be your guide to cynicism. If you are Russian, Pavel Fedotov will prove to you that people don’t change, not really. If you are American, try Grant Wood, and, if accidentally exposed to Norman Rockwell, rinse the exposed parts with Dr.House at once.

Pavel Fedotov is the artist from my last art quiz, here. I promised you to show more of Fedotov’s pictures, so now I am making good on my word.

This is one of his sarcastic drawings, the Fashionable Store (1844), a terrarium cage of the society’s best driven by utmost self-interest towards moral degradation.

Pavel Fedotov, Fahionable Store. 1844.

Pavel Fedotov, The Fashionable Store. 1844

We find ourselves in the midst of an abridged drama of Anna Karenina in the centre of the picture. An old husband reaches into his deep pocket to pay for the load of goods his beautiful young wife has selected. She is buying “half the store”: their liveried footman is loaded down with her purchases.  Her son reaches out to his mum: he probably saw something he wants in the cabinet behind the counter, but his mother cares more about getting a secret love note from the handsome officer to her left than about her importunate child. Her dog is making advances to another visitor’s puppy as a symbol of infidelity that runs in the family.


The bored and somewhat irritated face of the husband who “knows it all” (but in fact knows nothing) runs in stark contrast to the careless expression of the young lover, who pretends to be busy with a jar of perfume while anticipating the smell of passion only a hungry wife of a senile husband can offer to a capable man.  Maybe tonight!


In the left corner, we see a couple that seems to be in disagreement about their budget. The lady has picked up some lace that her husband can’t afford: he shows her his pocket-book of expenses, and, quite possibly, gaming debts, This brings his wife to hysterics: in tears, she throws a length of lace she selected to the floor in indignation.


Their faces say it all.


Note the way the neck of the husband is drawn in the hunch of outraged innocence. But it won’t fool his wife. All the sorrow of a faithful keeper of the family hearth denied her rightful piece of lace is right there, in the silent twisted line of her mouth.

Behind the broke husband we can see a customer who asked the salesman to pick up something from the farthest shelf only to distract him enough to steal a scarf.


Further inside the store, in the backroom, we can see a visitor, who must be someone important as a bottle of champagne is not provided to any customer who gets lost looking for a toilet.

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The visitor wears the uniform of a civil servant. A tax inspector, perhaps. He shows the store manager a document and frowns. He doesn’t have to ask for a bribe: the manager will give him money and will be eternally grateful the money’s taken, at that.

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Let’s get on the right side now, to the young officer holding white stockings as a battle trophy.


Today, he is interpreted differently than a hundred years ago. A modern observer says it is a young man chosing stockings for his paramour.  Fedotov’s contemporaries would say – looking at his insignia – that he was a general’s aide sent either by the general himself or by the general’s wife to buy stockings either for the general’s lover or for the said wife. Look at the left hand of the young man. If he is ashamed of his role as a messenger boy, he doesn’t want it to be seen and adopts the pose that tells everyone around him he’s on top of this particular situation and the whole world, in general. He assumes all eyes are on him, but we know no one cares a bit about him, his looks, or his “situation”.

Behind his back, there’s a lady, somewhat past her prime, desperate to “steal some beauty” but unwilling to openly admit it. She’s using the sign language to tell the salesman she wants some rouge, while clutching a bottle of expensive perfume, a symbol of her female charm that is about to leave her.

There is one guy I can’t explain though. The man behind the rouge lady who appears to be opening a bottle of perfume. Who is he? He’s got artistic hair and tie, there are papers under his arm (drawings?). Fedotov loved infiltrating himself into his drawings, but never had hair this long… A small mystery.   


And the last detail is meant for those idealists who believe a salesman is your best friend whose utmost desire is to help you make the right choice.


I am sorry but while he looks into your eye with the dedication of a German shepherd dog, he can’t wait for you to get lost, so that he can continue reading his book while chewing on his sandwich.

Don’t forget to tell me if you want more of Fedotov’s satire. Or, alternatively, cry out, “show us something inspiringly optimistic!” I need to know, even if I don’t comply with the latter.

Prompt to yesterday’s art quiz – and now answer!

My yesterday’s question was about the detail that Pavel Fedotov used to make the interior a living space, and not a theatre set in one of his last paintings, the Widow.

Pavel Fedotov, Widow. 1851-52

Pavel Fedotov, Widow. 1851-52

Here’s a prompt. Fedotov made several copies of the Widow. He changed objects in the room, he changed the pose of the widow, but that detail remained unchanged. Look at the other two versions. The detail I am talking about winks at you from each version. 996d45d9bc9c3a2ae0b8affb8086026c 55378954_fedotov19

And now the answer: it was an amazing woodcuts artists, Abel Dewitz, who saw it first. I urge you to go over and see his work, if you haven’t seen it yet, and if you have, enjoy it once again!

Yes, it is the drawer that is not closed properly.

She’s a lady who cares about proper order and arrangement of things. Look at the pillows on the bed. Look at the draperies. Look at the top of the chest of drawers: in each painting all the items are arranged in the most organized way. But she is too emotionally distracted to properly close the drawer. This small details tells us she actually opened and closed the drawer, and so it is not a prop. Or a very, very clever artist who organised the prop this way to make it real.

Fedotov could spend 6 to 9 months on a painting, going out, searching for the authentic premises, authentic irons, kettles, even cakes! He paid attention to even a slightest detail to make it all…real.

Is your eye as keen as this artist’s? (Art Quiz)

Pavel Fedotov, a painter who was active in the mid 19th century, left only FIVE finished oil paintings (excluding portraits), but is known to each and every Russian. 

His father was a mid-ranking officer, who upon discharge from the army, took on a civil job as a mid-level government clerk. It was a typical “not enough money for more than enough children” kind of family. They couldn’t fund private education for their kids, so Pavel was educated by the street. It was the street he later credited for his gift of acute keenness of observation. And what a unique gift it was…

At 11, he entered a military school and in six years made it from the bottom of his class to the top of the school list, with his name cut in stone on the best graduate plaque in the school’s main hall. His academic success was rivalled by his talent in drawing funny sketches and portraits of striking resemblance.

He then spent about 10 years in the army, but with his unit quartered near St.Petersburg he could sign up for evening drawing classes at the Academy of Arts, gradually becoming a skilled draughtsman and water-colour painter.

One of his water colours earned him a diamond ring from a Grand Duke who was relative of the Czar. The latter was so impressed he offered Fedotov  a chance to quit the army with a modest pension that would support him as an artist, at least initially.

It took Fedotov some years to decide if he wanted to be a full-time artist, but eventually he took up the Czar’s offer.

He had an illustrious but brief career as an artist, with his mental health disintegrating so fast even a huge financial contribution by the Czar meant to put him in the best clinic couldn’t save him. He died at 37.

He left numerous drawings, but – excluding portraits – only 5 finished oils (some of them have a few copies that he did himself).

These five oils have changed the course of Russian art forever.

Before Fedotov, Russian art was as classical and romantic as in the rest of Europe.  A Russian painting was indistinguishable from a French or Italian one. Fedotov introduced so much “Russianness” into it that artists who followed him couldn’t revert back to Venuses, Apollos, and events from Roman history. It would be like praying to gods whose falsehood has just been proven by the physical appearance of new deities.

I can bore you for hours talking about each of his paintings and some of his drawings. Instead, I will ask you one question, which I will leave unanswered for a couple of days.

WHICH SINGLE ELEMENT IN THIS PAINTING of an officer’s widow, readying up her valuables for an auction (as she does not have an income of her own) TELLS THE OBSERVER IT IS A LIVING SPACE AND NOT A DECORATION BUILT BY THE ARTIST?

Which element (or what) tells the observer it is the truth, and not “an invention” with a model posed as a widow and surrounded by studio props?

Click on the painting to see a larger version (you may need it).

Pavel Fedotov, Widow. 1851-52

Pavel Fedotov, Widow. 1851-52

Wednesday, there will be answers. And, perhaps, a few more of his paintings, or rather stories in paint.



Answer to Art Quiz #4

The question was, “How are these two images related to each other?”


Now, the first image is about a girl who makes it known to the citizens of an Italian town that a roaming theatre \ circus \ curiosity shop has arrived and their performance is about to begin:

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Travelling performers would usually use a drum to announce that something interesting was going to begin happening in the main square. Then, the drummer would be doing rounds to collect money. Nowadays, drums are a prelude to the bass solo, and as any drummer can testify, money collection is the last thing that a drummer is entrusted with.

The second image is an Automaton:

devilThis automaton was exhibited by bands of travelling performers to the public some 400 years ago.

A clockwork mechanism that goes through a 16th century Christ torso to the head could make the devil turn its head, move the eyes, open the mouth, stick out the tongue, and make scary sounds.

It must have been a 16th century equivalent of watching a horror movie.

Answer to Art Quiz #3: bald man crucified

I am very grateful for the joking or thoughtful, or wondering comments to my Art Quiz post, but here’s the correct answer to my questions, “Who is that?” and “What is this crucifix all about?”


Yes, this is Jesus Christ. And no, this is not his bald and beardless version, venerated by a heretic cult. As much as I would like to agree with Boryana that this is Kate Moss, crucfied for her role in making consumerism a glamorous affair, this is not her voodoo doll. And no, this is not Eve (even though the figure’s anatomy is accurately noted as not exactly male by Rivera)

This is a dummy crucifix. Before it was taken out from the church’s treasury, it was implanted with real hair to max out its impact on the congregation of believers. The black dots on the sculp and the chin are holes to which strands of hair were attached.

This tradition existed in Italy from the 14th till 17th century.

This particular crucifix dates back to the end of the 15th century.

This is a simple, effective, and impactful solution to poke the public below the ribs, isn’t it?