“Social distancing” is a misnomer: what protects our body and nurtures our mind in this pandemic is a combination of physical distancing and social connectedness. As the Harvard Art Museums are closed, we are featuring here works that highlight fellowship in its many forms—and the support, inspiration, and delight it can provide.
Spanning some 2,300 years, these works are themselves expressions of social bonds and were created to foster them. An Indian painting of the early 18th century demonstrates both physical caretaking and the companionship found in overcoming adversity together and in the shared veneration of a deity. An ancient Roman terracotta group and a print created in the wake of the French Revolution illustrate and advocate for solidarity and strength in numbers. A 17th-century wall clock owes its very existence to the exchange between specialists, a powerful case in point of innovation through collaboration (of the kind that, we hope, will soon provide us with a vaccine and a cure). Parties and flirts are conjured up by an ancient Greek ceramic plate. The most recent object in this selection, a Japanese ink painting of the early 19th century, invites us to stay connected through the shared experience of nature—and art.
Shared hardships are thought to forge strong bonds. Under stressful circumstances, powerful fellowships may emerge from acts of loyalty, kindness, and courage. The adventures and tribulations of the exiled Prince Rama—an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu—have inspired poets and playwrights for millennia, the best-known account being the great Sanskrit epic the Ramayana, written between the fourth and seventh centuries BCE. The painting above depicts an obscure episode in the rich lore of Rama. Here, the prince’s blue skin contrasts vividly with the India yellow pigment of the background as he stretches across the laps of those who have followed him into the wilderness. The vertical lines painted on his followers’ foreheads and upper arms mark them as Vishnu devotees. Rama gazes up though the forest canopy as his brother Lakshmana tenderly removes a thorn from his foot. Observing from the left and right are Rama’s stalwart comrades-in-arms: the monkey warrior Hanuman and the bear king Jambavan.
Created by artists of India’s Himalayan Hill kingdoms, this painting illustrates the richly varied sources they drew on to develop a distinctive style. The relief detailing on Rama’s golden crown and garland continues an indigenous technique, but the figural composition suggests external influence. In the cradling of the god’s hand and injured foot, we sense the distant echo of a visual tradition focused on divine suffering, specifically, European representations of the Pietà.
Mary McWilliams, Norma Jean Calderwood Curator of Islamic and Later Indian Art, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art
A “Flock” of Actors
The actors of Roman antiquity embodied contradiction. On the one hand, they were legally disenfranchised, branded “infamous” along with prostitutes, gladiators, and disgraced soldiers. On the other hand, their brilliant performances, both highly expressive and elaborately costumed, earned them public adulation. It is not surprising, then, that they would seek comfort in their own company. Here, a grex (Latin for company and flock) of actors squeezes onto a tight platform and stands as a unified front. Their comic masks still on, they seem to smile, and embrace as if posing for a spontaneous portrait.
This terracotta figurine, and others like it, would have reminded its owner of the visual splendor of the theater: the originally painted surface of this object would have brightly complemented the joyful composition. Its small size and warm material would have further inspired handling. We make connections and learn through touch; much as the actors are enveloped by their flock, the figurine was held in the hands of its maker and its owners. Today, as touch is discouraged, the figurine still succeeds in drawing us into its narrative, not as a reminder of past performances, but as a promise that we may yet embrace our friends.
Frances Gallart Marqués, Frederick Randolph Grace Curatorial Fellow in Ancient Art, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art
Circle of Friends
This tightly grouped array of heads depicts many of the male artists who frequented the studio of painter Louis-Léopold Boilly. He made two paintings featuring his artist friends, highlighting the deep bonds that linked these compatriots through the French Revolution and its concomitant elimination of many sources of patronage. It is not just painters included in this group, but architects, miniaturists, and engravers, comprising a “new school” of French art. In this version of the cohort, where the heads are clustered together in one mass elevated in the clouds, the artists are presented in a scene of apotheosis. This was a typical way to honor military and political figures at the time, making this version of the group portrait part of a broader cultural effort to promote contemporary figures as lauded heroes. It also advanced Boilly’s aim to further the careers of his friends. The print is dedicated to “lovers of the arts,” making an explicit call to collectors to patronize the artists it represents.
Elizabeth Rudy, Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Associate Curator of Prints, Division of European and American Art
Connected in Time
In today’s global competition for innovation, scientific development is not often thought to be the product of friendly sharing of information—even less so across national boundaries. However, cooperation between the Dutch and British is exactly what’s behind this 1660s clock by Ahasuerus Fromanteel. Originally constructed to be mounted on the wall, the clock later received an oak and ebony cabinet. Its long pendulum, now encased, is the culmination of a longstanding exchange of ideas between Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens and a group of clockmakers in London, especially those of the Anglo-Flemish Fromanteel family. While the exact nature of their collaboration remains somewhat elusive, its impact on timekeeping in Baroque era Europe is beyond doubt.
Huygens invented the pendulum clock in 1656 and patented it the following year. The pendulum, as a harmonic oscillator, kept constant amplitude and frequency with its swing, decreasing daily inaccuracies in timekeeping from minutes to seconds. The Fromanteel family learned of Huygens’s findings through a relative who had apprenticed with Huygens’s clockmaker. They experimented further with long pendulum clocks and launched the production of a new, more accurate clock design starting in 1658. Huygens visited London in 1661 and examined the recent development. While contact between inventors in the Netherlands and England was not rare, as demonstrated by historian Lisa Jardine, the magnanimity of this exchange was unusual. Fromanteel clocks would become the foundation of the classic English grandfather clock. Born out of the shared spirit of innovation and discovery, this elegant and trustworthy instrument kept Europeans on time for the better part of three centuries.
 J. H. Leopold, “Clockmaking in Britain and the Netherlands,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 43 (2) (July 1989): 155–65.
 Lisa Jardine, Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).
Hollie Buttery, Graduate Student, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University
In ancient Greece, upper-class men socialized at drinking parties called symposia. They reclined on couches as lamp flames flickered and servants set finger food on low tables and filled cups with a mixture of water and wine. They engaged in philosophical discussions, song, and lively banter and were entertained by professional musicians, dancers, and female companions (hetairai). Depicted on this red-figure plate from the fifth century BCE is a favorite drinking game of the day called kottabos. The object of the game was to hurl the dregs left at the bottom of a wine cup at a target—a metal disc on a stand or a dish floating in a bowl. To raise the stakes, one could dedicate one’s throw to a love interest.
Here we see a woman reclining on the couch, propped up on a plush pillow decorated with dots and stripes. In her left hand, she holds a wine cup by its foot. The index finger of her right hand is inserted into the handle of a second cup, held aloft and caught in the act of flinging the residue toward its unseen target. Although it seems the woman is drinking in isolation, this is an excerpt from a larger party scene. Suspended behind her legs is an empty carrying case for musical pipes. Can you hear the strains of music among the laughter?
Amy Brauer, Diane Heath Beever Curator of the Collection, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art
Sharing the Sky
Art as shared human experience can bring consolation and a sense of solidarity during difficult times, something we are all very much aware of at the moment. The subject of this extraordinary window-like ink painting, which depicts river reeds rising out of the foreground of the painting to just caress the bottom of the full moon hovering above, is in fact fellowship and connection across time and space. The inscription tells us it was painted in Edo (present-day Tokyo) by Tani Bunchō (1763–1841) to commemorate a harvest moon viewing party that took place on the banks of Edo’s Sumida River on the 15th day of the 8th month in 1817. The painting encapsulates the ancient tradition of moon viewing, an activity long associated with friendship and yearning, for the idea that no matter the physical distance separating friends and loved ones, all can (in theory at least) look up at the same sky on the same night and gaze upon the same moon.
Bunchō’s enormous archaic artist’s seal amplifies a sense of connection to the past, but he does not simply repeat an established ink-painting theme here. The unusually large size of the painting and the Western-style implied low horizon generate an intense feeling of “thereness.” Further, the inscription interweaves this specific moon viewing with that of countless predecessors. When we as modern-day viewers encounter the moon rising through these inky reeds, our own unique experience of the painting also converges as a shared memory that echoes throughout centuries of human experience.
Rachel Saunders, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Curator of Asian Art, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art
Susanne Ebbinghaus, the George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art in the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art, and Joachim Homann, the Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings in the Division of European and American Art, compiled and edited the entries.