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Archive for November, 2009

The Washington Monument

Posted in Sculptures & Monuments, United States  by admin on November 30th, 2009

The Washington Monument, which is visible from almost everywhere in Washington, D.C., is truly a city landmark. The 555-foot tall obelisk has punctuated the National Mall since 1884. It honors George Washington, “Father of the United States”, who was unanimously elected the nation’s first President.

When George Washington died in 1799, Congress praised him as “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Politicians proposed a Washington monument in the early 1800s, but they disagreed about details. For example, should the monument include Washington’s tomb? Would it be appropriate to depict him in ancient Greek style? When a statue was eventually presented, people objected to the half-clad classical Greek sort of George. Congressional quibbling ultimately led to the creation of a private monument foundation.

The National Monument Society was formed in 1833. The members raised a considerable amount of money within a few years, and in 1836 they announced a design competition for the memorial.

An artist named Robert Mills submitted the winning design. He proposed a 600-foot obelisk that would protrude from a circular base. The base and obelisk would be decorated with statues and frescoes of national heroes, including a toga-clad George Washington in a horse-drawn chariot. In the end, however, the obelisk would be a bit shorter, and the artist’s plan for statues and frescoes would not be realized.

The monument’s cornerstone was laid amid great celebration in 1848. Ceremonially, the National Monument Society ensured that the stone was set with the same trowel George Washington had used when setting the Capitol’s cornerstone years earlier. The city celebrated that night with fireworks.

With the cornerstone set, the National Monument Society increased its efforts to fund the project. Ordinary citizens were urged to pledge $1 each. Businesses, professional organizations, foreign governments and Native American tribes contributed stones. Sometimes the stone donations were engraved with messages that didn’t speak to the theme of George Washington; one block of stone read, “We will not buy, sell, or use as a beverage, any spiritous or malt liquors, Wine, Cider, or any other Alcoholic Liquor.” Engraved stones make up interior walls of the hollow monument.

Scandal erupted around a stone donation in 1854, and the entire project came to a halt. The anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party stole and smashed a donation made by Pope Pius IX. They dumped the stone chips into the Potomac River. This resulted in Congress rescinding an approval for $200,000 in memorial funds. The Know-Nothings then assumed management of the monument society, but their legacy is unimpressive. Everything they added to the monument was eventually removed, and no real progress was made until after the Civil War.

Because of the cut in funding, the monument ended up being shorter than originally planned, and without the statues envisioned by Mills. A lag in construction time also led to stone being sourced from different quarry layers, so the coloring of the monument is not uniform.

Work was finally completed in 1884. The monument, though short of its goal, was the largest structure in the world until the Eiffel Tower was completed five years later. It was much larger than the Egyptian obelisks that inspired it; these are typically about 100 feet tall. The walls were made fifteen feet thick at the base and narrowed to 18 inches near the top. The monument was capped with a 100-ounce aluminum pyramid. At the time, aluminum was scarce and was valued like silver. This was the largest cast-aluminum item in the world.

Starting in 1888, adult male visitors were allowed to travel up the Washington Monument in a twenty-minute steam-powered elevator ride. Somehow the ride was deemed too risky for women and children; they would have to climb the 800 stairs for a view! Progressively speedier elevators were installed since then, and for safety reasons people are now forbidden to use the stairs.

From the top of the Washington Monument, tourists can see most of Washington, D.C. as well as parts of Maryland and Virginia. In March and April, flowering cherry trees can be spotted in West Potomac Park below.

Paris – Versailles

Posted in Europe, Modern & Historical Art  by admin on November 23rd, 2009

As you approach the gates of Versailles you inescapably have the feeling of entering not a palace but an entire city. The impression is justified given the massive scale of the building and the even larger grounds.

Beginning as a modest château of stone and slate to serve as a hunting lodge for Louis XIII (13th), Versailles blossomed – figuratively and literally – during the reign of his son. By 1682, after 20 years of work, the ‘Sun King’ took up residence… and then building really began.

At its height the grounds covered 1,800 acres and housed over 1,500 fountains besides the enormous palace. Around 300 remain today. Around the grounds are several distinct gardens. Watered by a system only part of which were 150km (90mi) of canals, the gardens and fountains are themselves a show on Sundays.

Covering 250 acres, the gardens were designed mostly between 1661 and 1700 and continue to amaze visitors. Be sure not to miss the large Fountain of Apollo, with the sun god driving a chariot of horses out of the surface.

Also on the grounds are huge stables. Closed to the public for almost 200 years, they were originally home to 600 horses owned by Louis XIV (14th). Now home to 20 Portuguese Lusitanian horses, the indoor arena is decorated with a sculpture and drawings of which the Sun King himself would have been proud.

Visitors can enjoy a directed tour of the stables and watch a morning dressage with costumed riders. (‘Dressage’, French for ‘training’, is a standard equestrian term. It means, roughly: training horses to move in complex patterns similar to a dance.)

But, of course, it is the château itself that forms the (literal and symbolic) center of the place. With 700 rooms no single visit could encompass more than a small percentage of the total.

Thousands of nobles and their servants lived here in the late 17th century, as Louis managed his government with tight reins within the palace gates. Which were always left open, interestingly, in order to give a sense that the palace was ‘owned by the people of France’.

Throughout the château are paintings, sculptures, wall hangings and structural elements drawn from all over Europe.

One of the main attractions, justly so, is the 73m (239ft) long La Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors). Bearing no resemblance to a fun-house, the high mirrors line the walls on one side with seventy windows open to the gardens on the other. Still impressive, the mirrors were the latest technology of the time and awed even jaded visitors. Set off by Corinthian pillars of green marble, the room (which once hosted many a formal dance) still dazzles.

Viewed by thousands of visitors daily, the château can be quite hot and stuffy in the summer, even outdoors. Dress appropriately. The grounds and palace are open year round and can be reached via the RER line C: Versailles – Rive Gauche.

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History and Attractions of Boston Common

Posted in Modern & Historical Art, Sculptures & Monuments, United States  by admin on November 10th, 2009

Boston Common is the oldest city park in the United States. The eccentric William Blaxton settled the land, all alone with his books, in the 1620s. In 1634 he sold the land to English Puritan colonists for use as a shared cow and sheep pasture. Each household contributed six shillings to the purchase. Eventually, the land was also used for military training, sometimes by colonists and sometimes by their British occupiers. Until 1817, the land was Boston’s site for public hangings. Livestock grazing was banned in 1830.

In modern times, Boston Common serves mainly as a recreation center. It anchors Boston’s “Emerald Necklace”, a chain of parks that runs about seven miles through the city. The park itself measures about forty-four acres.As one of the nation’s oldest landmarks, Boston Common has become rich with items of historical interest. The park is home to the Central Burying Ground, one of Boston’s first
graveyards. Among those buried there are choral composer William Billings, portrait artist Gilbert Stuart, and many casualties of the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill. Unfortunately, the subway tunneling of 1894 disturbed more than 900 (perhaps 2,000) of the cemetery’s deceased residents! They were later reburied, and a tablet marks the location of the event.

Several monuments can be spotted throughout the Common. The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, for example, is a Civil War monument honoring the first free black regiment in the Union Army. (Shaw commanded the all-volunteer regiment and is depicted in the Hollywood film “Glory”.) Another impressive Civil War sculpture is The Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Located atop the Common’s Flagstaff Hill, this neoclassical work of art rises an impressive 126 feet. Elsewhere, in the park’s Parkman Plaza, statues pay homage to the ideals of Industry, Learning, and Religion.With so many acres of green space, the park has hosted many large public events. In 1713 a public riot broke out in response to a food shortage. Two hundred people were present, and the lieutenant governor was shot during the chaos. A century and half later, in 1969, a Vietnam protest drew 100,000 people. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pope John Paul II also drew large crowds for their speeches. The park’s Parkman Bandstand holds smaller crowds for plays and concerts.

Boston Common is full of longstanding attractions for people of all ages. The Public Garden was established in 1837 as the nation’s oldest botanical garden. Prior to that time, the land had been a salty swamp. The 24-acre garden is especially famous for its fleet of swan-shaped boats. Weather permitting, visitors ride the boats from spring through autumn.

The Frog Pond is another popular destination within the park. The Frog Pond is a popular children’s wading pool in the summer. During the brisk Boston winters, it freezes into an ice skating rink. When the Frog Pond first opened in 1848, school was closed for a day just so children could play in the fountain! Today the Tadpole Playground is adjacent.

Boston Common is flanked by other points of interest, such as: the Massachusetts State House, which stands to the north; Park Street Station – America’s first subway station – in the eastern corner; and Boylston Street Station – America’s second subway station – to the south. For those who prefer to walk, the Freedom Trail (a popular walking tour) also starts to the south of Boston Common at the Visitor Center.

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Paris – The Louvre

Posted in Europe, Modern & Historical Art  by admin on November 1st, 2009

Unquestionably the most famous name in the world of art museums, The Louvre largely deserves its renown. Enormous and filled with irreplaceable treasures from around the world, this premier series of exhibits offers something for everyone.

The building itself is something of an historical and art adventure. The construction of the original structures began as long ago as the 13th century, though the present museum has its origins in efforts of three hundred years later. The existing Château du Louvre, which forms a large portion of the floorspace, was begun in 1546.

The subject of sporadic expansion efforts for the next three hundred years, the only major alteration in recent times was the addition of a grotesquely inappropriate glass pyramid completed in 1989. The Crystal Pyramid forms the current entrance.

The change had one advantage in opening up the museum to large numbers of visitors more comfortably. Through the entrance and down an escalator the visitor enters a world of 6,000 years of every style and type of art known to man.

Within the museum walls are Egyptian sarcophagi, Persian and Greek artifacts, medieval and Renaissance paintings, 19th century classical and Romantic sculptures and a smattering of the latest forms. Some estimates run as high as 100,000 pieces, but in truth no one could know with certainty.

The museum itself is an eclectic collection of styles, the consequence of its many additions and changes over the centuries. Much too large to see in one day, the visitor is well-advised to pick a few favorite periods or countries and focus on them. Naturally, the best strategy is to opt for several visits but that may not be practical for most.

There are the pieces known even to those with little interest in art – the da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the marble Winged Victory (Nike) of Samothrace, the armless Venus de Milo. But there are works well-known to those with at least a passing acquaintance with painting – Delacroix’s Liberty Guiding the People, Vermeer’s Geographer or Lacemaker, Ingres’ The Bather, David’s Marat Mort.

Along with the more recognizable pieces there are literally thousands on display known only to experts or the most regular visitors. Most of the collection is in storage at any given time. Many of the walls are covered from floor to very high ceiling with paintings ranging from miniatures to 10m by 3m (33 feet by 10 ft) canvases.

And there are a lot of those walls. The floor space covers several thousand square meters and there are a dozen different major buildings including the Château and the Tulieres that have been joined by passageways over the centuries. The various parts are also on several different levels, many connected only by steps. Be prepared for an extensive walk.

Fortunately, there are benches scattered about and the steps in many places are lightly used, providing several places to rest. To take a breather and enjoy a sandwich before continuing, the exterior too provides several places to sit. Here you can enjoy the passing parade of people or the stationary Les Jardins Tulieres. (Jardins is French for garden)

Lines can be long for tickets. Best to buy a ticket in advance or purchase one of the many available multiple-tourist-site passes. The museum is easy to reach via the metro (subway). Exit at the Palais Royal or Louvre Rivoli stations.

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