January 10, 1977
President Gerald R. Ford presented Georgia O’Keeffe, Alexander Calder, and Norman Rockwell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to American citizens. None of them were present to receive the honor personally; Calder’s award was posthumous.
January 9, 1839
The French Academy of Science announces a new photographic discovery, called the Daguerrotype (pronounced “da-GARE-o-type) photo process.
It was discovered in 1835 by Louis Daguerre. The plate was created by lining a thin copper plate with silver, then exposing it to iodine fumes. The plate was now photosensitive and ready to receive an image in the camera, with an exposure of at least ten minutes.
The exposed plate was then developed in the darkroom by bringing the plate into contact with fumes from heated mercury; then, the resulting image was fixed on the silver with a hot solution of salt. To give the image a warmer tone and physically reinforce the powder-like silver particles on the plate, a gold chloride solution was pooled onto the image and the plate was briefly heated over a flame, then drained, rinsed and dried.
The surface of the daguerreotype was very delicate and the silver was subject to tarnishing, so the plate needed to be kept sealed and under glass. Because the process was time-consuming and exact, and the resulting image was so delicate, other photographic methods displaced the daguerreotype fairly quickly.
Fun Fact: Because the image needed at least ten minutes of exposure in the camera, subjects had to sit perfectly still. A street scene taken by a daguerreotype would look almost deserted, since passing carriages, pedestrians, and horses would pass by too quickly to be captured.
January 8, 1963
The Mona Lisa, on loan from the Louvre, is unveiled at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in a star-studded opening reception.
The exhibition was made possible almost entirely due to the efforts of Jackie Kennedy, the First Lady. The Kennedys, and especially Jackie, brought a well-known love of art and culture with them to the White House. At the beginning of President Kennedy’s administration, she was far more popular than he was abroad, and charmed heads of state in ways the young, inexperienced president could not, notably by speaking French with President Charles de Gaulle and his wife. Her open affection for French art and culture endeared her to the French public as well.
Through Jackie’s persistence and charm, and also from a desire to display solidarity with democratic nations just as the Cold War against Communism was heating up, France agreed to loan the Mona Lisa, the first time it had left French soil. Notably, the loan was made directly to President John F. Kennedy, not to the National Gallery.
Fun fact: the Mona Lisa was crated in a temperature-controlled container and shipped via ocean liner in December 1960. The trip was supposed to be a secret due to security concerns, but when word got out about the famous passenger on board, the chefs created Mona Lisa-inspired dishes and passengers threw Mona Lisa theme parties.
On the evening of January 8, the opening reception at the National Gallery attracted over 2,000 people. In attendance were the President and First Lady, of course, as well as all 535 members of Congress, all nine Justices of the Supreme Court, the President’s cabinet, and many other diplomats and prominent people from the art and museum worlds.
The painting was unveiled to the public the next day and was guarded around the clock by U.S. Marines. Over 500,000 people came to see it at the National Gallery over 27 days. The Mona Lisa was then exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it attracted 1.2 million visitors. My mother was one, and still talks about the nuns taking her class to the city to see it.
January 7, 1990
The Leaning Tower of Pisa was closed to the public after it was deemed to be leaning too far. The lean was measured at 5.5 degrees, meaning that the top of the tower is displaced horizontally 5.5 metres (or about 18 feet from where it would be if the tower were vertical).
The bells were removed to relieve some weight, and cables were cinched around the tower and anchored to the ground. Over ten years, the angle of the lean was corrected by removing soil from underneath the raised end and resituating the tower. It was therefore straightened to 3.99 degrees, meaning that the top of the tower is displaced horizontally 3.9 metres (about 13 feet from where it would be if the structure were perfectly vertical). After a decade of stabilization, the tower was reopened to the public on December 15, 2001, and was declared stable for at least another 300 years.
January 6, 1998
The graceful bronze statue of The Little Mermaid by Edvard Eriksen is treasured by Copenhagen, where it has sat on a rock in the harbor since 1913. It was inspired by the fairy tale of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen. On January 6, two unknown vandals were seen decapitating the little mermaid, and taking the head with them. This wasn’t even the original head, since she was decapitated previously in 1964. This time, the head was returned three days later and reattached in about a month.
January 5, 1892
Dr. Martin Brendel, a German astrophysicist, successfully photographed aurora borealis for the first time in Lapland (now Finland). Though the photo gives some sense of the form and bending of the light, it doesn’t capture the color that is also characteristic of the natural electrical phenomenon.
January 4, 1997
Russian-born performance artist Alex Brener added his own touch–a spray-painted green dollar sign–to Kazimir Malevich’s painting Suprematisme while it hung in the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam. This was his comment on the “corruption and commercialism” of the art world. According to Brener, “Malevich wanted to change to the world using art. But now he is just a commercial site”. The Amsterdam Criminal Court sentenced the artist to ten months’ imprisonment and two years’ probation, and surprisingly, only a two-year ban from the Stedelijk Museum galleries.
January 3, 1496
Leonardo, who was known for his inventions as well as his artwork, unsuccessfully tests a flying machine.
January 2, 1921
The de Young Museum sprang from the Fine Arts Building that was part of the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition. Artworks from the exposition were combined with other works to form a permanent museum, San Francisco’s first. It opened to public on January 2.
January 1, 1803
Emperor Gia Long orders all bronze wares of the Tây Sơn Dynasty to be collected and melted into nine cannons for the Royal Citadel in Huế, Vietnam. The cannons have never been used for military purposes and play a symbolic role as guardian spirits for the Citadel.