HANDS DOWN: Nicolas de Largillière

NICOLAS DE LARGILLIÈRE (French, 1656-1746)

Hand gestures function as kind of a shorthand in 18th-century French portraiture. They are summary indicators of the subject’s station, qualities and character, which are set forth in full in the expository longhand of costume, facial features and setting.

These details taken from portraits by Nicolas de Largillière (French, 1656-1746).


In his history of early Rome, Dionysius of Halicarnassus credits the success of the empire not the heroics of Aeneas, republican rectitude, or the power of the emperor, but to unglorious feats of civil engineering:

The extraordinary greatness of the Roman Empire manifests itself above all in three things: the aqueducts, the paved roads, and the construction of the drains.

Roman Antiquities, 3.67.5

The citizens of the great cities of the Roman Empire viewed public amenities like baths, fountains, latrines and sewers as indices of civilization that distinguished them from barbarians. Those amenities were dependent on an abundant and regular supply of clean water, usually in excess of local supplies. Water from distant elevated regions were brought into the city via aquaeductus (aquae = waters; ductus = led, directed), or aqueduct. At itThe aqueduct system consisted mainly of underground pipes and tunnels, but occasionally to maintain the correct elevation and grade, or to ovecome a topographical obstacle like a ravine or valley, the water had to be carried above ground over bridges.

The overland aqueduct spans are the product of two building technologies invented by the Romans—the arch and concrete. Unlike the Greek post and lintel system, the arch supported much greater weights and spanned longer distance. Whereas the Greeks essentially piled cut stone into stacks to make walls and columns, the Roman mixed rubble with quicklime and water into concrete, which could be moulded into whatever shaped the tensile strength of the aggregate would bear. The combination of the arch and concrete made the gigantic structures of the empire possible, including the aqueduct, which is a sequence of arches, or arcade, made of concrete covered with stone or brick revetment. The aqueduct system, in turn, quadrupled the water supply into Rome, enabling its rapid expansion and causing its population to rise due to the health benefits of fresh, running water.

Water traveled along a deep trench at the top of the arcades, which was often covered to prevent evaporation and contamination. Deep valleys and ravines could be spanned and rivers traversed by bridges composed of superimposed arcades, without fear of wind sheer or currents. Some of the more elaborate spans, such as the Pont-du Gard in Provence have roads and walkways added at different levels allowing them to serve as roadway bridges as well as aqueducts. In the city, the aqueducts were incorporated into the city walls, the arch openings serving as gateways. The attic story of the Porta Maggiore in Rome carried water from two separate aqueducts, the Aqua Anio Vetus and the Aqua Claudia, both of which originated near Agosta, some 67km away. The Aqua Claudia, begun by Caligula and finished by Claudius in A.D. 47 delivered 185,000 cubic meters of water everyday, 20% of the city’s supply.

When the water reached the city it emptied into a castellum, a large cistern on a hill; from there ceramic or lead pipes directed the water to the various access points. In ancient Rome, water was free and no one had to walk more than 150 feet to the nearest public fountain. Waste waters from latrines and baths and rain water emptied into the cloaca or underground sewer system which emptied into the Tiber at a point just south of they city. The 260 miles of aqueduct supplying Rome were overseen by the curator aquarum, appointed by the Emperor.

1983: Barbara Kruger

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The Institute of Contemporary Art in London mounted the exhibition We Won’t Play Nature to Your Culture: Works by Barbara Kruger in 1983. The show featured Kruger’s first works executed in what would become her signature style— large-scale, black-and-white images appropriated from popular culture, overlaid with red or black bands, bearing cryptic texts rendered in Futura drop out-letters. Several of the works were also included in the 1983 Whitney Biennial.

When Mary Boone stated that her gallery’s roster of artists was all male because women artists didn’t sell, she was spoke a little too candidly about an ugly reality of the art market. Barbara Kruger had made it clear that not only could work by women artists sell, but that work by polemical, uncompromising, feminist artists could, and did, sell. Boone responded by signing Kruger, her first woman artist, in 1987, and giving her carte blanche to transform the West Broadway space for her first show in the same year.

Feminist art of the 1970s was largely concerned with the recuperation of craft traditions, which resulted in earnest, handmade objects. Kruger, who had learned the arts of visual persuasion while working as a commercial layout designer (specializing in text) at Condé Nast, took a different approach. Like the Russian Constructivist graphic artists, who used avant-garde means to accomplished radical political ends, believing that a revolution required revolutionary art, Kruger presented feminist political thought in a clean, modern, professional style on an assertive billboard scale.

The combination of meticulous graphic design, concise, yet eliptical, slogans and ironically-recontextualized, popular imagery made feminist agit-prop seem hip, confident and current. Like Keith Haring, another commercially-trained artist, Kruger knew how to use images to get the public’s attention and her visual style, like Haring’s, caught on immediately. Just as Haring’s art did much to incite action to fight AIDS, Barbara Kruger’s art played a significant part in the re-energizing, expansion and changing of the public’s perception of the feminist movement that took place in the 1980s, role for which she has yet to be fully acknowledged.

By the end of the 1980s Kruger, now an established art star, stepped up from the insular art world to the national stage, where she exerted a clear influence on the shaping of public affairs through the creation and deployment of stark images like with memorable rallying cries like Your Body is a Battleground. Designed for the Women’s March for Reproductive Rights on on Washington DC in 1989, the poster went on to become the standard of an entire movement. In a decade of political art, Kruger’s set a benchmark that has yet to be surpassed in terms of its political prestige, influence and widespread instant recognition.


Jacques-Louis David, Marie-Antoinette Led to the Scaffold, 1793, Paris, Louvre.

Jacques-Louis David, the chief artist and designer of the Jacobin government, watched the public execution of former queen Marie Antoinette on 16 October 1793 from a window of a friend’s apartment overlooking the Place de la Guillotine, as the Place de la Concorde had been renamed. He made this quick sketch of the gaunt, expressionless 38-year old prisoner as she was led to the scaffold  before a large mob of spectators. The king, Louis XVI, had been beheaded on 30 January.

Elizabeth Vigée-LeBrun, Marie Antoinette, 1785, Prague, Konopiste Castle.

Marie Antoinette had been convicted, after a two-day trial, of ruining the nation’s finances by renovating the Petit Trianon, conspiring with foreign powers to overthrow the revolutionary régime, and having molested her son, the Dauphin, who was forced to testify against his mother (all charges were patently false).  A witness noted her composure and dignity in her last moments.

As for David, once the grisly event was over, he went to his next appointment, the official unveiling of his portrait of the martyr of the  revolution, Jean-Paul Marat, who public obsequies he had choreographed on in July 1793.

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