Four Paintings That I Like
Our Banner in the Sky // Treaty of Paris // The Woman in Gold // Symphony of the Sixth Blast Furnace
I didn’t study art history in college, and for the most part I haven’t approached the world of fine art in any systematic way. Nonetheless, I do fall in love with individual pieces pretty regularly as I go about my life. Of those, I’m going to introduce you to four in this post.
The full catalog of paintings that I enjoy resides in the folder where I keep my computer’s desktop wallpaper images. This arrangement is accidental. Years ago, I realized that that folder had become my de facto art gallery, because I inevitably use my favorite paintings as my computer/phone wallpaper. I could systematize them in a different, more formal way, but this is a desire path that works.
Anyway, let’s get to the four paintings. I hope at least one of them captures your interest, and that you come to love it as much as I do.
1) “Our Banner in the Sky” (1861)
Painter: Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900)
Frederic Edwin Church was a member of The Hudson River School, a scenius of landscape painters who were based in New York City, but—as the name suggests—traveled up the Hudson to paint, travel, and eventually construct homes. The school was founded by Thomas Cole, who taught Church.
If you don’t recognize Thomas Cole’s name, perhaps you’ve seen one of his more famous pieces, the five-part The Course of Empire.
“Our Banner in the Sky” was painted after the start of the Civil War in 1861, and it reflects the spirit of union that was spreading throughout the North. I like the painting, because America is embodied in natural grandeur. When you look at a striking sunset and the emerging constellations beyond it, that is America, the beautiful.
Finally: this is a piece that celebrates American union, painted by a man based in New York City. It seems inevitable that I would like it.
2) “Treaty of Paris” (1783)
Painter: Benjamin West (1738-1820)
The American Revolution formally ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783. In the painting above, you see the American commissioners who negotiated the agreement. From left to right: John Jay, John Adams, Ben Franklin, Henry Laurens, and Temple Franklin (who is not Ben Franklin’s son).
And that giant empty part of the painting is where the British should be, but they declined to sit for it. So Benjamin West never finished it, and left it as you see here.
I like it better this way. It’s a little bit funny. The British were clearly mad and sour about the whole situation (kind of “I’ll take my ball and go home”), and I think that is best reflected in the painting as is. Via hindsight, there’s also a threatening foreshadow, because the War of 1812 would later shatter the Anglo-American peace.
3) “The Woman in Gold” (1907)
Painter: Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)
This is a portrait of an Austrian woman named Adele Bloch-Bauer, and that is real gold you see. You can read all about the painting here, but let me tell you about how I came to know it.
I don’t think most people, if they looked at this work, would think “Daniel will love this.” And really, I think I fell in love with the painting because I got to know it first through the 2015 movie Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds (I highly recommend watching it). This whole entry is almost just the high points of what I recall from that movie, along with a ton of New York Times articles (like these three from 2004, 2005, and 2006).
The painting, which belonged to Adele’s family, was stolen by the Nazis during World War 2, like so much other art. (If you want to watch a movie about a rag-tag group of Allies whose mission was saving this art, watch the 2014 movie The Monuments Men.)
But after the war, this painting was never returned to its owners, and instead went to the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna (so became the property of that museum and of Austria). Eventually, Maria Altman, Adele’s niece who fled the Nazis and made a life in America, sued to reclaim the painting…and won in the U.S. Supreme Court. The case was Republic of Austria v. Altman (2004). After further arbitration in Austria, the painting was returned to her in 2006. Side note: if you wonder how an American court can make a ruling where one party in the case is another country…you should take my government classes. It’s wonderfully fascinating.
And then Maria sold it (for a record $135 million) to someone who could properly take care of, and display, such a valuable and beloved painting: Ronald Lauder, one of the sons of Estée and Joseph Lauder, and the co-heir of their company. Lauder put the painting in the Neue Galerie in New York City, which he founded. If you ever want to go visit Adele with me, I’m always interested.
4) “Symphony of the Sixth Blast Furnace” (1979)
Painter: Evgeny Vasilyevich Sedukhin (1930—)
This was painted near the end of (and within) the Soviet Union, but of course neither the painter nor the regime knew that. It’s currently housed in Yekaterinburg, Russia, which is where Communist revolutionaries killed Czar Nicholas II and his family in 1918.
Unlike the other three paintings I’ve discussed so far, it’s difficult to find much information about this work or its painter online—I’m not even sure he’s still alive. I’ve also seen alternate titles like “symphony of the six blast furnaces,” but perhaps someone with more experience in the art world can help me learn more. When you search online, this Reddit post is often the top result, and it doesn’t have much information. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the painting and its scant provenance were faked, and unlike “The Woman in Gold,” I can’t go look at it myself. I’ve done my share of going down rabbit holes, and this seems like it’s either not what everyone thinks it is…or simply a painting made by a painter in a very closed-off regime. You wouldn’t expect to find much about the latter, just like you wouldn’t expect to find much about contemporary North Korean artists.
I like the painting because it reminds me of the following passage from the beginning of Chapter 2 of Atlas Shrugged, where Ayn Rand describes a steel plant producing the first run of the new, superior Rearden metal:
The [train] passengers could not grasp the complexity of what seemed to be a city stretched for miles, active without sign of human presence. They saw towers that looked like contorted skyscrapers, bridges hanging in mid-air, and sudden wounds spurting fire from out of solid walls. They saw a line of glowing cylinders moving through the night; the cylinders were red-hot metal.
To the men at the tap-hole of the furnace inside the mills, the first break of the liquid metal into the open came as a shocking sensation of morning. The narrow streak pouring through space had the pure white color of sunlight. Black coils of steam were boiling upward, streaked with violent red. Fountains of sparks shot in beating spasms, as from broken arteries. The air seemed torn to rags, reflecting a raging flame that was not there, red blotches whirling and running through space, as if not to be contained within a man-made structure, as if about to consume the columns, the girders, the bridges of cranes overhead. But the liquid metal had no aspect of violence. It was a long white curve with the texture of satin and the friendly radiance of a smile. It flowed obediently through a spout of clay, with two brittle borders to restrain it, it fell through twenty feet of space, down into a ladle that held two hundred tons. A flow of stars hung above the stream, leaping out of its placid smoothness, looking delicate as lace and innocent as children’t sparklers. Only at a closer glance could one notice that the white satin was boiling. Splashes flew out at times and fell to the ground below: they were metal and, cooling while hitting the soil, they burst into flame.
When I read these words, I see “Symphony of the Sixth Blast Furnace.” And I hear Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights” from his Romeo and Juliet.