Celebrating the History of Science and the Science behind History
Diego Velazquez (1599 – 1660) was a famous Spanish painter. He had a slave named Juan de Pareja (1606 – 1670). Call him an indentured servant if you want, but it’s more accurate to say he was Velazquez's slave, as he was not at liberty to leave. For years, Pareja prepared brushes, ground pigments, and stretched canvasses for the artist. While he was at it, Pareja observed his master carefully, and secretly taught himself how to use the materials, and how to paint.
Pareja was referred to as a Morisco in Spanish. One way to translate the word is that he had mixed parentage (the offspring of a European Spaniard and a person of African descent). Another way to translate the word is that he was a Moor—someone descended from Muslims who had remained in Spain after its conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella.
In 1650, Velazquez was preparing to paint a portrait of Pope Innocent X. As practice, he painted Pareja, who had accompanied the artist to Italy. Here is the portrait.
It's a pretty amazing picture, isn't it?
Velazquez got all sorts of praise for it from the artists in Rome—he was even elected into the Academy of St. Luke.
According to some sources, Velazquez would not allow Pareja to pick up a paintbrush. But one day, when King Philip IV was due to visit Velazquez, Pareja placed one of his own paintings where the king would see it. When the king admired it, believing it to be by Velazquez, Pareja threw himself at the king’s feet and begged for the King to intercede for him. Whether or not that story is true, Pareja did become an accomplished painter, and impressed the king so much that he ordered Pareja freed.
Pareja remained with the Velazquez family until his death.
It was hard to find examples of his paintings, but here are two that are attributed to him.
Sarah Albee's latest book is Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions and Murderous Medicines. You can read a review that gives you a dose of what's in this book.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "The Painter Was a Slave." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/the-painter-was-a-slave.
In 1888, Vincent moved to Arles in the south of France. He planned to establish an artists’ commune where his friends could live together to create a new direction in painting. Vincent persuaded the artist Paul Gauguin, who was desperate for money, to move to Arles to help him. Vincent also was lonely.
For two months Gauguin lived in the Yellow House Vincent had lovingly filled with paintings hoping to impress his friend. Gauguin bossed Vincent around and criticized his artwork. Eventually, when Gauguin sold a few paintings, he threatened to abandon Vincent.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, after a quarrel at dinner, Gauguin stalked off into the streets. Vincent followed him. What happened next is unclear, but Vincent returned to the Yellow House alone and cut off his earlobe (not the whole ear) with a razor. Vincent couldn’t remember the details of this terrible night. But when he was discharged from the hospital a few weeks later, he went right back to work.
There have been many theories about Vincent’s condition. The theory most generally accepted is that he suffered from epilepsy, a disease that could have caused his seizures and hallucinations and for which there was no medication. In Vincent’s case, another reason for his “attacks” might have been his habit of drinking absinthe, an alcoholic drink popular in 19th century France. It contains a strong nerve poison, now illegal in most countries.
Today many popular performers advertise how dangerous and extreme their lives are by writing shocking lyrics and acted outrageously on stage. They are mimicking the lives of artists such as Van Gogh. But he was not advertising or pretending. He just wanted to be useful—to make art that would last. His glorious paintings are the result of his discipline and dedication, despite the turmoil of his life.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Yellow House, 1888, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. This is the house at 2 Place Lamartine, Arles, France, where, on May 1, 1888, Vincent van Gogh rented four rooms and where Paul Gauguin lived for nine weeks from late October, 1888. The left wing housed a grocery (French: Comestibles, inscribed on the signboard over the marque). Van Gogh indicated that the restaurant, where he used to have his meals, was in the building painted pink close to the left edge of the painting.
If you are interested in finding out more about Vincent Van Gogh, Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan have written an award-winning book on the subject. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Greenberg, Jan. "Vincent Van Gogh and the Case of the Missing Ear." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 20 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/vincent-van-gogh-and-the-case-of-the-missing-ear.
Nonfiction is the new black
Though people have lived in the Yellowstone National Park region for at least 10,000 years, it was only “discovered” in 1807 by mountain man John Colter. People scoffed at his descriptions of the famous geysers and other features as “fire and brimstone.” Succeeding descriptions by other men during the following decades received similar dismissals.
An expedition led by geologist Ferdinand Hayden in 1871 established the reality of Colter’s observations. Its members included noted landscape painter Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson. Hayden immediately realized the potential of the area. Aided by the stunning images Moran and Jackson produced, he persuaded Congress to set aside the area as a national park—the first in the United States and perhaps the world. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill establishing the park on March 1, 1872.
It was hardly an instant success. The new park’s remoteness and lack of amenities made it accessible only to the hardiest of travelers. Only about 300 people visited it in the first year.
Compounding the problem of access was the disapproval of many people who lived near the park. They wanted to continue to hunt its wildlife and cut down its trees for lumber as well as begin to mine its minerals.
It was difficult to exercise any control over the situation. Congress refused to provide more than a pittance for the park’s protection.
A key development came in 1886 when US Army General Phil Sheridan, acting on his own authority, ordered troops to take control of Yellowstone Park. They built Camp Sheridan (later renamed Fort Yellowstone) inside the park boundaries. Though their presence helped curb poaching and mining, they had little authority to punish offenders.
George Bird Grinnell, publisher of Forest and Stream magazine and founder of the Audubon Society, had long promoted the park even though he lived in New York City. He linked up with rising politician (and future president) Theodore Roosevelt to take advantage of a notorious poaching incident in 1894 and help pass the Lacey Act the same year. The new law provided “teeth” to prosecute lawbreakers.
By then, travel to Yellowstone had become a little easier. Railroads dropped off visitors near the park entrance. They boarded stagecoaches which took them to newly established lodging facilities. And by 1916, when Yellowstone became part of the newly established National Park Service, automobiles were making the park much more accessible. Today more than 3 million people thrill to Yellowstone’s natural wonders every year.
Jim Whiting was a voracious reader when he was a kid, and now he has turned into a voracious writer. He writes books on adventure, sports, history, and most of all, he writes about people. One of his biography series is "Modern Role Models," featuring such popular titles as David Beckham, Jeff Gordon, and Tim Duncan. For more information on the series, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Birth and Growing Pains of the First National Park."
Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
It was December 24, 1801, when bundled-up Philadelphians bought their 25¢ tickets and entered Peale’s Museum on Fifth Street. Once inside, they saw the owner’s paintings. And I’ll bet you have too—even if you’ve never heard of Charles Willson Peale. This one, for instance, of his fellow Revolutionary War soldier:
Visitors to the museum had seen Peale’s collections of butterflies, too, and other nature specimens, such as the fossilized teeth of mysterious beasts. (Who knew then that animals went extinct? Hardly anybody!) But on this extra-special Christmas Eve, people probably hurried past Peale’s handmade dioramas, with the lifelike bodies of birds and mammals that he’d stuffed and posed. Today, Mr. C.W. Peale himself was introducing his NEW ATTRACTION. People had paid an extra 50¢ just to see it! Now they looked up, up, UP at it, and were astonished.
What animal’s skeleton was eleven feet tall? Seventeen and a half feet from its bony tail to the tips of its giant, curving tusks? It was a mastodon.
No one had seen a live mastodon in more than ten thousand years. So how did one’s bones get to Philadelphia? Mr. Peale and other naturalists such as Thomas Jefferson, the new President-elect, wrote to one another about their studies, collections, and the latest discoveries, such as like these huge, mysterious bones in southern New York state. Some of North America’s long-gone mastodons ended up there, by the Hudson River. As soon as he heard about them, Peale hurried to see them. Then he not only figured a way to dig up the bones, but he also painted a picture of the huge excavation!
Peale’s son, Rembrandt helped to draw and assemble the bones:
For years, people paid to marvel at the enormous, sensational skeleton. Later on, after Mr. Peale’s death in 1827, his museum slowly went broke. P.T. Barnum, the circus showman, bought a lot of his exhibits. Later still, they were destroyed in a fire. And the mighty bones of the mastodon wound up lost for a hundred years, until the skeleton turned up in Germany, where you can see it today.
In Thomas Jefferson, her sixth presidential biography for National Geographic, Cheryl Harness illuminates the many sides of Thomas Jefferson: scientist, lawyer, farmer, architect, diplomat, inventor, musician, philosopher, author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and third president of the United States. Readers meet this extraordinary man of contradictions: a genius who proclaimed that "All men are created equal" and championed the rights of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," while at the same time living a life that depended on the enforced labor of slaves.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "The Big Deal in Mr. Peale's Museum." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 18 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Yes, they exist!
At the height of the Roman inquisition in the late sixteenth, early seventeenth centuries, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio ignored the rigid rules that guided what could be painted. Rather than follow the current style based on idealized human beings in ennobling religious stories, he used real people as models. More than that, he invented a genre based on daily life rather than on religious or historical stories. He taught people to see the holy in the everyday and the everyday in the holy. This alone was a tremendous act of rebellion and could have led to imprisonment, even death.
Caravaggio did go to prison, many times, but not for the crime of pictorial heresy. His first arrest was for carrying a sword without a permit— yes, you needed a sword license then, much as you need a gun permit today. His second arrest happened when an officer stopped him for carrying a weapon. Though Caravaggio had the permit, he refused to show it. The third time he was spotted carrying his sword, he showed the permit. The officer thanked him, but Caravaggio couldn't resist cursing out the policeman, so he was arrested for insulting an officer.
But the best arrest was for assault with a vegetable. This is the official deposition, taken 18 November 1599:
It was around five in the afternoon and the aforesaid Caravaggio, along with some others, was eating in the Moor of the Magdalene where I work as a waiter. I brought him eight cooked artichokes, that is four in butter and four in oil and he asked me which were cooked in oil and which in butter. I told him that he could smell them and easily know which were cooked in butter and which were cooked in oil, and he got up in a fury and without saying a word, he took the plate from me and threw it in my face where it hit my cheek. You can still see the wound. And then he reached for his sword and he would have hit me with it, but I ran away and came right to this office to present my complaint.
Caravaggio went on to be arrested many more times for more serious assaults, including murder. Now, though, he's not remembered as a criminal, but rather as an artistic genius who inspired generations of followers.
Judith Beheading Holofernes (1599–1602) is the first of several paintings in which Caravaggio chose to depict the dramatic and gory subject of decapitation. Wikimedia
Basket of Fruit, c. 1595–1596, oil on canvas. Caravaggio's realistic view of things is exemplified in this still life. The bowl is teetering on the edge of the table, some of the leaves are withered, and the apple in the front is far from perfect. Wikimedia
Marissa Moss's book Caravaggio:Painter on the Run tells a compelling story that humanizes Caravaggio while describing the political and social atmosphere in which he lived.
Moss, Marissa. "Police Reports from the Sixteenth Century?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 24 01 2018, http://www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/police-reports-from-the-sixteenth-century6158812.