Painting - Parabolic Triangles (Archimedes)

According to the classical Greek tradition, the quadrature or squaring of a figure is the construction, with the aid of only straight edge and compass, of a square equal in area to that of the figure. Finding the area bounded by curved surfaces was not an easy task. The parabola and other conic sections had been known for almost a century before Archimedes wrote a short treatise called Quadrature of the Parabola in about 240 BC. This was the first demonstration of the area bounded by a conic section.
In his proof, Archimedes first constructed a triangle whose sides consisted of two tangents of a parabola and the chord connecting the points of tangency. He then showed that the area under the parabola (shown in white and light green in the painting) is two thirds of the area of the triangle that circumscribes it. Once the area bounded by the tangent could be expressed in terms of the area of a triangle, it was easy to construct the corresponding square. Crockett Johnson’s painting is based on diagrams illustrating a discussion of Archimedes’s proof given by H. Dorrie (Figure 54) or J. R. Newman (Figure 9).
This oil painting is #43 in the series, and is signed: CJ69. It has a gray background and a gray frame. It shows a triangle that circumscribes a portion of a parabola. The large triangle is divided into a triangle in shades of light green, which touches a triangle in shades of dark green. The region between the triangles is divided into black and white areas. A second painting in the series, #78 (1979.1093.52) illustrates the same theorem.
References: Heinrich Dorrie, trans. David Antin, 100 Great Problems of Elementary Mathematics: Their History and Solution (1965), p. 239. This volume was in Crockett Johnson’s library and his copy is annotated.
James R. Newman, The World of Mathematics (1956), p. 105. This volume was in Crockett Johnson's library. The figure on this page is annotated.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
Johnson, Crockett
Physical Description
masonite (substrate material)
wood (frame material)
overall: 124.5 cm x 63.5 cm x 3.2 cm; 49 in x 25 in x 1 1/4 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Science & Mathematics
Crockett Johnson
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Mathematics
Crockett Johnson
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Ruth Krauss in memory of Crockett Johnson
Additional Media

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