Day 1, Two Years On…

Another re-post – but why? Well, simply to celebrate the fact that this, my very first blog, was posted two years ago today. The day before I had been rescued from London, where my Borough alone had an unnerving 22 cases of Covid. We really had no idea what was coming. Three days later lockdown was announced. Up in Durham, knowing I had nothing to do, and that many others had nothing to do, I decided to go on ‘going on’ and write about a ‘Picture Of The Day’ every day for the next couple of weeks, by which time it would all be over… We really had no idea what was coming. It turned out to be 100 days, in the end. Initially I posted on Facebook, and then transferred the old posts – and then new ones – to this site. In an ever-evolving form we’re still here, with the now-irregular posts as much a newsletter as anything else. Zoom talks have been happening for just over a year, and finally I can even list live events. OK, so there’s just one ‘live’ talk so far – there will be more – but you can find details of that on the diary page, along with everything else that’s coming up. Thank you to all of you who have joined me on the way: I don’t know about you, but I’ve learnt a huge amount! Here’s to much more great art – and better health for all – in the years to come.

Day 1 – Titian, The Rape of Europa, 1562, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Originally posted on 19 March, 2020

In these extraordinary times, I’m going to attempt to write about a painting every day – but where to start? Having made a pilgrimage on foot to the National Gallery on Tuesday to catch the wonderful Titian exhibition just after it opened and immediately before it closed again, I am choosing the Rape of Europa from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

The painting is one of six Poesie which Titian made for the man who would become King Phillip II of Spain. They must rank among Titian’s greatest achievements. Not only do they show his phenomenal technique, his astonishing ability to manipulate paint and to form worlds out of colour, but they also demonstrate his brilliance as a storyteller. Drawing on classical mythology, and mainly the Metamorphoses of Ovid, he enters into a common Renaissance debate about the arts: which is better, poetry or painting? Although drawing much of his imagery from Ovid’s text, these are not illustrations.  He adapts the stories, reworks them, finding the perfect way to spin his yarn on canvas. He retells the tales with brushstrokes rather than words. 

Why this one, of the six? Well, although I have been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum at least three times, I can’t in all honesty say I stopped to look at this painting – there are so many other wonders there, and at the time I was either in my early stages of studying art history, and knew nothing, or was obsessed with the Ferrarese paintings in the collection. I’ve come to know it better through talking about the Poesie – particularly when the National Gallery acquired, with the National Galleries of Scotland, the two Diana paintings – and while teaching courses on the art of the 16th Century. I also love the fact that Velazquez knew it in the Royal Collection in Spain, and quoted it in the background of one of his own works. However, before Tuesday, I couldn’t swear that I had seen the original before, so in that respect, it is new to me.

In this work we see how, in his endless and unquenchable lust, in order to get his hands on the beautiful nymph Europa, Jupiter has transformed himself into a bull. He persuaded Mercury to drive a herd of cows down to the beach, and frolicked among them, flirting with Europa, who happened to be there with her companions. She was gradually entranced by his winning ways, and, as she clambered upon his back, he sidled from shore to sea, going from the shallows through the waves, without her realising what deep water he was getting her into. Her companions – and the unwitting herd – can be seen in the distance, helpless on the shoreline.

It’s a problematic story – it is after all a story of rape. Is she entirely unwilling? In this instance it isn’t all that clear, although in other encounters Ovid is explicit about the dread and terror Jupiter’s victims experience. Like Jupiter, Titian seduces us. His means: rich colours and lushly applied brushstrokes, underplaying the horror with a touch of the absurd. I’d never noticed before how cupid rides his fish in much the same bizarre and awkward way that Europa rides the bull, one arm clinging on, waving (not drowning), a leg flying free.

The other fish was a revelation, a new favourite, and I’d like to nominate it as the Best Fish in Art, a category of which I was previously unaware (although I do have two suggestions for the Best Cabbage). Its scales are evoked with flicks of white and blue paint, making it glimmer at the bottom of the painting, as if is merging with the sea, appearing and disappearing, painted with similar brushstrokes and tones to the sea itself, part of the watery world over which Europa is now conveyed.

Eventually she will get her feet back on dry land – on the continent of Europe, which took her name. And eventually we will be able to see these paintings again, brought together for the first time, to be seen as Titian himself never did, all in one room. I am a least glad that these paintings, long separated, must be enjoying some quiet time together, but I am looking forward to seeing them all again when we have got to the other side.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

13 thoughts on “Day 1, Two Years On…

  1. Certainly an anniversary to celebrate and remember those who sadly didn’t come through, like us, to the other side.
    Your posts were an inspiration and I thank you for creating an escape from the isolation of lockdown.
    Sharing and discussing your posts and zooming with friends a favourite pastime.
    But did you ever tell us which are the best cabbage paintings?
    Happy Anniversary!
    Barbara

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  2. I would like to echo the observation above. It certainly helped us through a tough time and gave us something to learn/ponder/consider/ discuss/ argue about. Thank you for introducing us to so many interesting paintings – and in such a lovely manner. You wear your erudition lightly. Happy Anniversary! (Ps – please continue)

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  3. Wonderful to have your up-beat message to celebrate ‘Two Years On’. Richard. Speaking for myself, the art history expertise, with fascinating insights and much humour, you have so generously shared, have been a real inspiration during those two years, not least in following the mystery Renaissance picture during Lent. There will be so many others who will feel the seem I feel sure. THANK YOU SO MUCH and please keep them coming ………..
    Best wishes Julia

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    1. Thank you, Julia – I enjoyed it, and the Advent and Lent posts too. Now I can’t see how I managed to do it, particularly the Lent series last year, but it was one of the few benefits to lockdown… And yes, I will keep them going as long as I can!

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    1. A pleasure – and almost everyone did, to be honest – it was only the relatively few people who follow my Facebook page who would have seen it! As I get busier (I’m trying to stop getting busier, but it’s not working) there will probably be more re-posts!

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  4. Yes, Richard, thank you again for all the inspiration and welcome distraction you so generously gave us for all those long and dreary months.

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  5. Thank you for the reposts. Have been looking at seed catalogues for vegetables to grow this year and I believe it’s time, as the Walrus said, “to talk of cabbages and King …Edwards”

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