As well as grief, whatever is going on in our painting can also inspire derision. This man – a soldier, judging by his helmet – sticks out his tongue and points, the finger almost serving as a continuation of his tongue. There is something almost obscene about it. It reminds me of the very opening of Romeo and Juliet, after the chorus, Act 1, Scene 1: ‘Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?’ – it was a sign of disrespect. No thumb-biting here, admittedly, but the proximity of mouth and digit is nevertheless not good. The focus of the disrespect is demonstrated by the pointing finger, and enhanced by the soldier’s gaze, by the angle of the sharp peak of his helmet, and by the diagonal made by the rope. The soldier’s unpleasant character is emphasized by the way in which he shows his teeth, although something strange is going on here: there appears to be something circular emphasizing how pointed his teeth are, which might be damage to the painting, a knot in the wood, or a nail. I would have to ask a conservator, though, to find out what it is.
This detail is a wonderful demonstration of the ways in which an artist can abbreviate to create the illusion of reality. The curves of the helmet, and the seams running around its brim and up past the ear, are implied by brilliant white highlights painted on a basic black, for example, whereas the rope is a brown line (or maybe two – one lighter, one darker) with diagonal dashes of beige to create the twist. The mail sleeve of the man holding the rope is a dark grey, with lighter grey dashes creating the ‘weave’ of the fabric, and white dots added to create the highlights at the top. It’s not standard chain mail, though, as these are not circular links, but I’m sure that’s what it’s meant to be. Our eyes see the signs, and our brains accept what is supposed to be there, even if that is not what it looks like on closer examination.
If you look carefully, you will see that the rope was actually painted before this bit of sleeve: the lighter grey dashes, and the cream ones on the ‘gold’ hem, go over the rope. There are various layers visible: it is quite common, as paintings get older, for the paints to go slightly transparent. All across this man’s face and arms there are scrawly lines: this is the underdrawing, resulting from the transfer of the basic design of the image from a preparatory drawing to the picture surface. You can see traces in the tendons of his wrist (in the top detail), and marking the position of his chin(s) and the shape – slightly shifted – of his pointing finger. It would have been ‘sketched’ out on the prepared panel as a guideline. Once the painting was complete, it would have been covered, only to be revealed, gradually, as the paint aged. There is a single line that crosses the bridge of the nose and cheek, crossing to the lower brim of his helmet. I suspect that this is the underdrawing which helped to plan the position of the rope. Yes, it has moved somewhat, but the general position and direction is more or less the same. Tomorrow we will see further evidence of the artist’s planning, and of the way he changed his mind.