Arts and Culture

The Norton Simon Museum: Five Must-See Pieces of Art

Filed Under: California

Pasadena, CA, has been home to the rich and famous for over a century. Luckily 1 of its inhabitants, Norton Simon, had a love of art that matched his bank account. Here are 5 must-see pieces at the museum named for a man and his money -- The Norton Simon Museum.

Portrait of a Boy, 1655-1660
Rembrandt van Rijn
The first piece on our must-see tour is by Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn, 1 of the greatest painters in the history of Western art. Before Norton Simon purchased this piece, almost no one in America had even heard of it. But the story of its purchase was so remarkable that in 1965, Simon and "Portrait of a Boy" were on the cover of "Time" magazine.

In 1965 the world-famous Christie's announced that it was selling "Portrait of a Boy." Over 600 art collectors and dealers showed up for the bidding, Simon among them. While Rembrandt's artwork was already widely recognized and coveted, particular interest surrounded this piece; some historians believe that the young subject of this painting was Rembrandt's son, Titus. If true, this would be the earliest painting of him, at the approximate age of 6.

Simon was intent on winning the auction and created a shrewd bidding strategy to ensure victory. Through a complex series of signals with the auctioneer involving standing, sitting and hand gestures, Simon was sure that "Portrait of a Boy" would be his. Unfortunately, the auctioneer was soon confused by Simon's signals and sold the painting to someone else. Outraged, Simon demanded the bidding be reopened, procuring the piece of paper outlining his bidding strategy as agreed upon by the auctioneer.

Christie's agreed to pick up the auction where it had left off and within minutes, Simon had won. He paid over $2.2 million for "Portrait of a Boy," which at the time was the highest amount ever paid for an artwork in European history.

The Thinker, 1880
Auguste Rodin
Outside in the museum's sculpture garden, you'll find 1 of the most iconic images in art, Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker." It was Rodin himself who beautifully captured the essence of this statue by saying, "What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back and legs, with his clenched fists and gripping toes." Standing in front of this sculpture, you'll see exactly what Rodin meant; the muscles of this sculpted man are knotted, his toes are curled under, his face is twisted in concentration.

Rodin states that the subject of this piece is Dante, author of "The Divine Comedy." A well-known poem from this work is "The Inferno" which describes Dante's journey through hell. Rodin wanted to capture Dante contemplating this great literary work and the actuality of heaven and hell. Scholars suggest that it's this dark subject matter that causes such an intense physical response.

"The Thinker" first premiered at the Paris Salon of 1904. At its close, a petition circulated to have the statue purchased and donated to the people of France. The French government installed it in the center of Paris, but Rodin wanted the world to view his statue. He made multiple copies and now "The Thinker" can be viewed in over 20 different places around the world.

Portrait of Theresa, Countess Kinsky, 1793
Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun
Countess Kinsky, the subject of this painting, was born to a wealthy noble family in Austria. Her parents arranged her marriage to the German Count Kinsky -- and that was the start of her problems. After their marriage, the Count confessed he was in love with another woman and he quickly abandoned Countess Theresa Kinsky.

Humiliated, Theresa turned to famed artist Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun to paint her portrait. Vigée-Lebrun had painted many well-known nobles and celebrities of the time, including Queen Marie Antoinette of France. Times were not so different then, and a woman scorned knew the best revenge was to look fantastic at all times.

Vigée-Lebrun sympathized with Theresa's situation and painted this beautiful portrait. She captured Theresa with graceful, windswept hair, a flawless complexion and stunning jewels. We don't know if the Count ever saw this portrait, but we do know that he never returned to his legitimate wife.

Portrait of the Artist's Wife, Jeanne Hebuterne, 1918
Amadeo Modigliani
From 1 story of heartache to another, the the story of artist Amadeo "Modi" Modigliani and his wife Jeanne begins in 1917 in Montparnasse, an area of Paris known for its bohemian art scene. Jeanne was a 19-year-old art student when she met 32-year-old Modigliani, one of the most famous artists in Paris. It's known that Modigliani had some bad habits, including smoking hash, snorting cocaine and drinking absinthe. But Jeanne, like so many women, was drawn to his bad-boy behavior.

The 2 fell deeply in love and Jeanne became his lover, muse and wife. Modigliani painted her over 20 times -- and those portraits tell the story of their tumultuous relationship. Modigliani's signature style was inspired in part by African masks, visible in the elongated neck, enlarged head and blank eyes. In this painting, while some features are exaggerated, 1 of her curves is more than artistic choice -- Jeanne was pregnant when she sat for this portrait.

Modigliani felt trapped and lashed out physically, verbally -- even artistically -- at his pregnant wife. He began to paint her as more and more unattractive; her facial features become distorted and he portrays her as fat and misshapen. Unfortunately, this already sad tale does not have a happy ending. In 1920, when Jeanne was pregnant with their second child, Modigliani became seriously ill. He died shortly thereafter of meningitis at the age of 35. Jeanne was inconsolable, and less than 48 hours after his death, she flung herself out their fifth-story window -- killing herself and her unborn child instantly.

L.H.O.O.Q., 1964
Marcel Duchamp

What looks like da Vinci's Mona Lisa is actually Marcel Duchamp's "L.H.O.O.Q." Why anyone would want to portray "Mona Lisa," the most famous artistic subject in the world, with a moustache and beard? Marcel Duchamp was a 20th-century French artist who belonged to the Dada movement, which sought to ridicule Western civilization through performance, poetry and visual art. The facial hair Duchamp added to this cherished icon wasn't the only joke -- the title of the piece, "L.H.O.O.Q." is a pun. When read quickly in French, the title sounds like Elle a chaud au cul, the literal translation of which is "she has heat in the ass;" or, more colloquially, she has a hot ass.

When Duchamp first showed the piece, he claimed that by putting a moustache on the "Mona Lisa," he was creating an entirely new piece of art. His point was to get people to rethink their definition of art. Gaze at "L.H.O.O.Q." and decide for yourself; was Duchamp an artistic innovator or the ultimate defacer? This painting will force you to define art for yourself -- and maybe that was Duchamp's intention.

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