Like most self-respecting art lovers, the idea of putting up reproductions of Old Masters paintings on one’s 65″ Samsung Frame TV as an ever-present wallpaper is, well, pretty revolting.
It’s almost worse than “right-click-saving” because, at least with digital art, the unowned reproduction maintains the full fidelity of the original. But with 500-year-old Renaissance paintings of various sizes, all Procrusteanly reformatted onto one’s living room pixels, that’s much less true. Where are the brush strokes, the cracks, the layers, and the ornate gilded picture frame? Really, the Samsung Art Store JPEGs should feel like having the fireplace channel on your TV at Christmas: a hollow and two-dimensional simulacrum of the original. And yet… it actually kinda works!
The quality of the reproduction is a big part of the appeal and impact; this isn’t just some 720p slap-dash effort (like the wiki image above). Whatever scanner-wizardry the Korean tech giant uses to give these paintings such depth, realism, and texture, is pretty magical. Like the canonical stone soup,i in spite of a lacklustre set of ingredients, they combine to deftly communicate their story to the viewer, teleporting us into another time and place the way the best art always does.ii
Which brings us neatly to Le Serment des Horaces (Oath of the Horatii) by Jacques-Louis David (seen at top). Completed in 1784, it depicts a dramatic moment in Roman history as recounted by the historian Livy. Specifically, we’re looking back to the 7th century BC when three brothers of the Roman family Horatii are swearing an oath to defend their city against its opponents, three sons of the family Curiatii from nearby city Alba Longa. The story goes that the Roman and Alban armies were engaged in a long-standing war and the two sides finally agreed to settle the conflict through a trial by combat, in which the Horatii brothers would fight the Curiatii brothers.
In the painting, the three Horatii brothers are shown standing to the left with their father, a Roman general. The father holds three swords and looks skyward in powerful prayer, asking the heavens for protection and victory for his beloved sons and city. The brothers are shoulder-to-shoulder with one arm embracing each other and one arm extended in oath of allegiance. The brothers look strong and determined, ready to fight, sacrifice, and suffer with courage.iii The two sisters at right – one of whom is married to one of the Curatii brothers – sit engulfed in woe and lamentation. Two young boys, only one old enough to have any sense of the potential magnitude of the situation, looks on upon his father and two uncles from underneath the sheltering embrace of his grandmother, his eyes pierced wide with concern.
Now this is all well and good for us art enthusiasts, but it turns out that it might even be more valuable for parents of seven-year-old ninjas:
Pete: Do you notice the facial expression of the older man in the middle?
Ninja: Yes… who are the three men on the left?
Pete: The sons of the older man.
Ninja: Why is the older man holding three swords?
Pete: He’s giving the swords to his sons as he looks up to the sky and prays for their success in the battle, and for their safe return home. Do you see how he’s looking up? Does the father look concerned or worried?
Ninja: A little
Pete: But he knows it’s the right thing to do, right?
Pete: Do the three brothers look scared?
Pete: Do they look brave?
Ninja: Yes…. but why do they want to go to war?
Pete: Maybe because they want to be heroes for their city and their families. They’re strong and they’re willing to sacrifice themselves for the safety of their community… do the girls on the right look sad that the brothers are going into battle?
Pete: And do you see this little boy on the right, maybe 5 years old, sheltered by his grandmother but still looking closely at his father, one of the three brothers? Does the little boy look worried about his dad?
Pete: But the little 1-year-old is too small to worry right?
Ninja: Ya… who are the three brothers going to fight?
Pete: Three brothers from another city
Pete: To settle a long war between the two cities, and to save both sides from further suffering.
Ninja: Well that’s fair because it’s three against three.
Ninja: Do all three brothers live?
Pete: *checks notes* Only one of these three brothers lives, so two of them pass away, and all three on the other side pass away too… which one do you think survives?
Ninja: This one [in the foreground with spear]. How do the other two die?
Pete: I’m not sure.
Ninja: Did swords cut them [pointing to toes]?
Pete: That’s not usually enough of an injury for someone to pass away.
Ninja: But it would be here right [pointing to heart]?
Pete: Usually ya…
Now imagine the preceding conversation about the virtues of heroism, death, sacrifice, strength, family, community, and suffering happening in front of a Rothko, Jungen, Gates, Giacometti, Diop, or Picasso, to say nothing of a Larva Labs, XCOPY, or Gremplin. Now that’s the power of the Old Masters: that they celebrate not just our vices, which are countless and only too visible in Modern and Contemporary art, but of our virtues and our aspirations as well.
Even when pixelated and Procrustean, the power of the Old Masters shines through the Frame. Amen for that.
- Via Chat:
The Stone Soup is a popular folktale that has been told in various versions in different cultures around the world. The story goes like this:
Once upon a time, there was a small village where the people were very poor and had very little to eat. One day, a stranger arrived in the village, carrying only a large cooking pot. He went from house to house, asking for food, but everyone turned him away, saying they had nothing to give.
Undeterred, the stranger went to the village square, filled his pot with water from the nearby stream, and started a fire under it. As the water began to boil, the stranger put a large stone in the pot.
Curious, the villagers began to gather around the stranger, asking him what he was making. The stranger replied, “I’m making stone soup, the most delicious soup in the world. But it needs a few ingredients to be perfect.”
The villagers, intrigued by the idea of a delicious soup, asked the stranger what ingredients he needed. The stranger replied, “Oh, just a few vegetables would be perfect. Maybe a carrot or two, some onions, and a bit of celery.”
One by one, the villagers began to contribute vegetables and other ingredients to the pot. Some brought carrots, others onions, and still others brought potatoes, garlic, and various herbs and spices. As the soup cooked, the aroma filled the village, and everyone’s mouth watered with anticipation.
Finally, the stranger declared the soup ready, and the villagers gathered around to taste it. To their amazement, the soup was indeed the most delicious they had ever tasted. They marveled at how such a wonderful soup could be made from just a stone and a few simple ingredients.
From that day on, the villagers never turned away strangers again, and they learned that by working together, even the poorest of communities can create something wonderful.
- When I first started setting up my Frame TVs, I saw that there was some corny-ass “Art” subscription. Puhhlease, I figured. But when the most thoughtful and gracious man in the biz – Snowfro – personally recommended that I check out the Samsung subscription, I had to give it a shot! While I wish there was more Caravaggio and a few other Old Masters, the overall product is so good that I’m now using it across all eight (8!) of our new Frame TVs in our newly renovated studio. Weird eh! I’d planned to show off my digital art collection but these pieces from The Louvre and , at least right now. And you just gotta go with the flow. ↩
- As Katherine Boyle rightly points out in her recent blog post “The War on Suffering,” penned just moments before she went into childbirth, noble displays of suffering are tragically lacking from our left-brained safetyist culture:
We have long been fully invested in eradicating the suffering we deem unconscionable, but more important are the simple questions that define a serious life: For whom will you sacrifice? What will you defend? For what will you choose to suffer?
The Horatii and Curatii had no problem answering this question! ↩