Anna Culbertson's blog

Peter Paul Rubens receives the commission of a lifetime

In 1621, Peter Paul Rubens received Marie de’ Medici’s commission to create 24 tableaux for the decoration of two galleries in the Luxembourg Palace. The commission, which would come to be known as The Marie de' Medici Cycle, included a series of 21 paintings constructing a panegyric “visual biography” of Marie de’ Medici along with three portraits – of Marie, her mother and father. By early 1622, the terms of the contract were negotiated and Rubens had three years in which to finish one of the most challenging projects of his life, both artistically and intellectually.

Victorine Meurent's modest attempt to collect on a debt

Edouard Manet made a promise to his favorite model, Victorine Meurent – a promise in the form of a gratuity that she hoped never to have the need to collect, but clearly never forgot. Several months after Manet’s death in 1883, Meurent authored the following letter to his widow explaining their arrangement and essentially, attempting to cash in.

Dante Rossetti requires a suitable owner for his supersize masterpiece

Dante’s Dream (1871) has resided at the Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, since 1881, when the institution purchased the painting directly from Dante Gabriel Rossetti for £1575. The museum was not the first owner of this massive, stunning example of Pre-Raphaelite work, however. A single item from the Morgan’s collection of Rossetti letters figures into its interesting (read: frustrating) exchange of hands and underlines the turbulent nature of the art business...

To the National Razor!: Collecting Heads of the French Revolution

19th century dramatist and collector Victorien Sardou demonstrates a keen understanding of the varying nature of excess during the French Revolution via his meticulous assemblage of manuscripts, letters and engravings. Shortly after Sardou’s death, a manuscript by Maximilien Robespierre, two pamphlets, three letters, an original pencil sketch and an astonishing fifty-three engravings were mounted in a lavish volume of heavily gold-tooled red morocco by Zaehnsdorf, perhaps as a tribute to the avid investigator of all things revolutionary. The spine, shown here, and the upper and lower boards bear striking symbols of the Revolution, including a guillotine, a Phrygian or “liberty” cap, a triangle with plumb-line to represent perfect balance, and a spider’s web...

Death or Castration?: The Pains of Circus Management

What do you do when an angry elephant is terrorizing your menagerie? That was the problem facing legendary circus manager P. T. Barnum in this 1883 inquiry in which he seeks advice from an unidentified Professor about a “ferocious” male elephant that he “must kill or castrate.” Although the letter calls to mind the world-famous Jumbo, he was unlikely to have been the unfortunate subject of castration. By this time, he was already quite tame, having carried children on his back for years at the London Zoo before coming to Barnum's circus in 1882.