Lesson #186: Van Gogh’s Suicide

I refuse to admit how this subject came up, so let’s just say I was reading up on Van Gogh today and leave it at that.

As everyone on the planet with a grade 3 education knows, Van Gogh cut off his ear and later committed suicide. He also painted things like sunflowers and villages with stars overhead and assorted other famous things, but those are secondary to his having cut off his ear and later committed suicide.

It turns out, he shot himself in the chest, which seems like a rather ignominious end for an artist. Even an unknown artist.*

Autobiographical note: A conversation about this piece of information between me and my friend in the Texas capital somehow moved onto Merriweather Lewis’ death and whether that was suicide, murder or syphilis which led us to James Wilkinson, which led us to the Burr/Wilkinson independent west conspiracy, which led us to a whole discussion about what happens if Burr and Wilkinson succeed including discussions on the War of 1812, the Spanish, the French and the Louisiana Purchase which led us to my disdain for and irrational anger towards people whose argument regarding either of the World Wars is “if it weren’t for XYZ, we’d all be speaking German now”** which led us to the USA Soccer, the World Cup and the Daily Show.

*I admit that I think this just because in my head suicidal artists should find more, well, artistic ways to off themselves. (Not that I think killing oneself  is a good thing, just that I hold artists to a higher standard.)  Like the English painter Robert Fagan who jumped out of a window in Rome. Or the myriad artists who drowned themselves or slit their wrists.  Or, best, like the Austrian painter Richard Gerstl who disemboweled himself after an affair with the wife of composer Arnold Schoenberg.

**A logically, but more importantly to me historically, preposterous statement.

Lesson #97: Pointillism

Let me start by saying I know exactly nothing about art. I know what I like when I see it, but I couldn’t tell you why I like it. I know nothing about aesthetics or scale or depth or anything else related to art. I know that I like pointillism because it’s not just creating something linear. It’s more complex.

Pointillism was the creation of the French painter Georges Seurat (of Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte fame) in the mid 1880s, and evolved out of the impressionist movement. The movement was termed “pointillism” by its critics, who felt it was a joke, which is why there are so few pointillist artists other than Seurat (most notably Paul Signac, whose work I find more precise and consequently less enjoyable than Seurat’s). While it may not have been taken seriously as a form of modern art, Pointillism did have an influence on Fauvism.**

*More information here, here and here.

Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte

Lesson #65: Easter Eggs and Art

My cousin in the same major Canadian city my dad comes from sent me this article today about the easter eggs hidden in (mostly) renaissance art. I’m on board with the genius!

As a side note, I actually knew about the Da Vinci musical composition.

Also…if you’re averse to swearing and/or mild sexual content, this is possibly not the site for you.

Lesson #63: Sealing Wax

I’m about to admit to something ridiculous. Follow me, won’t you?

Autobiographical note: You know the (utterly heartbreaking) children’s song (potentially about an opium addiction), Puff, the Magic Dragon? Of course you do; everyone in the English speaking world knows that song. There’s a bit in that about how the boy would take the dragon things like “strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff.” And for the longest time — seriously, I was well past college before it dawned on me — I was sure that it was ceiling wax.*

I’m just going to assume you know the purpose of sealing wax and move along.

Sealing wax was first used in the middle ages and was a colourless mixture of beeswax and a substance called Venice turpentine, an extract of the Larch tree.** Later, (though I can’t get a date on exactly when with the sources I have at my fingertips, but sometime before the 16th century,) vermilion was put into use to colour the wax red. From the 16th century, the wax was no longer wax, but composed of varying levels of shellac, turpentine, resin, chalk and/or plaster, depending on what it was being used to seal, and coloured red — though by the mid 19th century, a variety of colours, including gold, blue and black, were available.***

A fun side fact: Up until 2003, extradition requests between the US and UK were still sealed with wax and a ribbon.

*Whatever, I was like 5 when I first heard it. What did I know of sealing wax at the age of 5? And in my defence, it’s not like I thought awfully hard on this. Ever. Or sat around listening to Sharon, Lois and Bram after the age of 8. It was more one of those things that sealing wax came up — as it so often does**** — and the song crossed my mind and I went, “I’m an idiot!

**In other news, turpentine is a derived from the plant resin of coniferous trees. I did not know that. It also, apparently, was, and in some cases still is, used for medical purposes.

***More information can be found here and here.

****Okay, I was likely re-reading Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter.

Lesson #11: Wild Blue Yonder

By Wild Blue Yonder, I mean the crayon colour, not the US Air Force. Let’s be honest, the crayon colour is blue-grey, but they have retired the name in favour of, well, Wild Blue Yonder.

I am not fooled, Crayola!

Two quick tidbits about crayons: 1. By the age of 10, the average child will have worn down 730 crayons.* 2. According to a study done by Yale University sometime before November of 1999**, crayons are the 18th most recognizable scent to American adults.

About crayons: As we know them, crayons were invented by Crayola and are made of paraffin wax, but the first modern crayons, however, were made of charcoal and oil and have their roots in Europe. Crayola emerged as a result of teachers whinging about the quality of slate chalk in the US and the coinciding rise of wax crate and barrel markers being used in warehouses. Chemists decided that adapting the pigmentation of the (then only black) wax crayons used in warehouses would probably result in fun coloured things to draw with and…ta-da! Wax crayons!  There was the minor detail of making the pigment non-toxic before they could be marketed to children, but science prevailed and in 1903 Crayola’s 8 pack was introduced at 5 cents/pack. Today, Crayola markets 120 colours, including “23 reds, 20 greens, 19 blues, 16 purples, 14 oranges, 11 browns, 8 yellows, 2 grays, 2 blacks, 2 coppers, 1 silver, 1 white and 1 gold.”*** Nearly 3 billion Crayola crayons are produced every year.

*If by “worn down” they also mean eaten, stepped on, let melt and/or used as a projectile, I believe that.

**I can’t find the study, but there’s a fantastic article about crayons (including how they’re made) in the November 1999 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, which can be accessed here.

***As always, quoted text and more information can be found here. In this case you’re going to have to do a little digging because the file opens in Word. On the right sidebar, under the “About Crayola” section there’s the link to the History of Crayons. If you want to do more reading, go there. Honestly, though, the Smithsonian article is better reading.