157 – Florid

Caterina Angela Pierozzi, The Annunciation Miniature, 1677. Colnaghi, London.

I’ve just read a wonderful article in the New York Times, A Messy Table, a Map of the World by Jason Farago, and I’m half inclined to post a link to that today (which I have) and leave it at that. It’s a richly illustrated piece, and works particularly well on a smart phone, but I can see that scrolling through on my laptop it functions just as well. The technology is ingenious: as you scroll through the text, the illustrations move to focus your attention on what is relevant – a bit like a lecture in print… He starts by posing a bold question: ‘When you visit a museum’s collection of European painting, do you skip by the still lifes and head for the showier stuff?’ Well, do you? I confess, I often do… He then goes on to demonstrate precisely why we shouldn’t. This is timely for me, as next week I’ll be talking about a group of still life artists of whom I suspect many of you will never have heard. They are all remarkably good, or, at least, remarkably interesting. And if one of them wasn’t the best artist ever, that wasn’t her fault: women just didn’t get the chances that their male colleagues had, and from which they could learn. That’s what I’ll be talking about next Monday 16 May at 6pm: Women Painting Still Life in the 17th Century. The overall title, Forbidden Fruit, is taken from a display at Colnaghi, ‘the first commercial art gallery in the world’ according to their own website. It’s a clever title, referring of course to Eve in the garden of Eden, although no reference is made to the fall or its consequences in Colnaghi’s small display, nor is it, as it happens, in any way relevant! None of the fruits on view were ever forbidden, and these women were remarkably successful – it’s just that we don’t hear about them so much today. Fortunately, things are changing. The title is not the only thing I disagree with (as you’ll see below), but don’t worry about that, as the art is superb. I’ve included a number of the paintings I will talk about at the very end of this post.

Today, though, I want to look at the piece which alerted me to Colnaghi’s show – a (relatively) recently discovered painting by Caterina Angelo Pierozzi. I thought I had heard of her – a well-documented female artist none of whose work was known. But I’m starting to think that that was someone else, partly because the text written by Colnaghi seems to be the only thing currently available. However, there are many women whose work is still to be discovered.

It’s called The Annunciation Miniature, not necessarily because of its size, even if it is relatively small at 14.6 x 19.4 cm. It’s really because of the technique, which is that of a miniaturist: tempera and gold leaf on vellum. The expensive materials tell us that it must have been a luxury item. It’s not really a still life either, as the main focus is on the Annunciation, although it is surrounded by a rather beautiful border of intertwined flowers.

As I’ve said, the painting is presented as a work by a previously unrecognised artist, but if none of Pierozzi’s work was known before the discovery of this piece in a French private collection about 18 months ago, how can we possibly know that this is really by her? Well, quite simply, in this case, because she signed it.

Her name is clearly visible in the gold border, which just begs the question, why is it a recent discovery? Presumably because the owner didn’t know that it was important. This detail shows, of course, the archangel Gabriel. His flat, gold halo has a medieval appearance, although the softness of touch – the delicate stippling with a minute brush – tells us that this is not a medieval painting, as does the subtlety of the modelling around the eyes, nose, mouth and neck. He wears the palest of pink robes (I suspect it has faded), with a green cloak, and ringing out against the dark background is a pair of brilliant blue wings – the left one projecting behind the head much as it did in Raphael’s Annunciation drawing a few weeks back (see 155 – Pre-Announced). He looks down with humility, the angle of his head contrasting with that of the Virgin’s – her eyes are turned upward towards Heaven.

Mary has the same flat, patterned halo, and also has a pale pink robe, which is even more faded, perhaps. On top of this, her traditional blue cloak, which unifies her pictorially with Gabriel’s wings, appears to be trimmed with ermine, speaking of her future coronation as Queen of Heaven. Her long, uncovered hair – referring to her youth and virginity – is picked out in individual strands, parted centrally and falling in waves over both shoulders. In the gold border we see that Caterina Angela Pierozzi (as identified under the angel) was Florentine, and that she made this image in 1677.

It is not a coincidence that both figures look medieval: Caterina has taken them from what was once one of the most famous paintings in Florence. However, its fame was not due to its art historical relevance, but because of its status as a miracle working image.

So famous is it, that an entire church is named after it: Santissima Annunziata, the Most Holy Annunciate (Virgin). The myth behind the painting is that, two years after the foundation of the church in 1250, one of the friars, a certain Fra Bartolomeo (no, not the famous one – he came two and half centuries later) set out to paint this Annunciation, but, worried that he wouldn’t be able to make the Virgin sufficiently beautiful, he left it unfinished and had a nap. When he woke up, there she was, in all her divine grace, presumably finished by an angel. All well and good, and who knows, potentially even true, apart from the fact that the story must refer to a different painting: stylistically, this one is dated about 100 years later – mid-14th Century – and was painted by an unknown follower of Giotto. Not that an angel might not have followed Giotto. Nevertheless, its status as a miraculous image remained undiminished, and it was particularly highly revered in the 15th Century, when numerous devotees, from the local Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’ de’ Medici to the visiting Leonello III d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, paid homage and left ex-voto images of themselves in wax. This led to at least one fire, and, a contemporary author worrying, given the weight of all the tributes, about the potential collapse of the church. In 1448 Piero ‘the Gouty’ de’ Medici, son of Cosimo il Vecchio, paid for a tabernacle to be built around the shrine. The curiously obstructive and asymmetric frame, which oddly doesn’t even focus on the Virgin, was stuck over it on a different occasion. Equally oddly, despite all this attention, and even a recent restauration (2020), there doesn’t seem to be a single good image of the fresco available.

Following on from Piero the Gouty, Medici interest in this painting continued well into the seventeenth century, with artists such as Alessandro and Cristofano Allori (father and son) commissioned to paint multiple copies for members of the ruling family and as diplomatic gifts. The illustration above is one of around 20 which Cristofano is known to have completed early in the 17th Century. It is painted with oil on copper, which, like vellum, was seen as another ‘luxury’ support.

That Pierozzi’s Annunciation is based on the fresco can be seen from a simple comparison between the two images of Mary, and could easily be another example of Medicean devotion: Caterina is known to have worked for the family. However, go back to the images above and look at the angel’s wings – Pierozzi has replicated neither the colour (reds and pinks in the original, rather than the vivid blue) nor the form (the left wing is lowered in both the fresco and copy, and does not project to the right of the halo). She did not reproduce exactly what she saw, whether she was looking at the original or a copy, and this is worthwhile bearing in mind for later.

So what do we know of Caterina Angela Pierozzi? At the moment, relatively little. Even the longest reference to her is relatively short, and comes from a biographical dictionary of artists written in 1702, which tells us that she was the niece of an artist, Fra Manetto Pierozzi. In an entry on the uncle, the author Filippo Baldinucci writes,

‘Caterina Angela Pierozzi, niece of said Fra Manetto, who having learned from her uncle the art of miniature, with praise she practises in it, and we have from her hand in the chambers of the Serenissimo Palace a painting of circa 2 braccia, in which is represented the Blessed Virgin in the act of sitting, there are St. Joseph, and St. Ann, and the baby Jesus, and a little St. John, who, with beautiful grace, and extraordinary naturalness, pressed on his chest his little apron, in which he holds tightly wrapped two kittens, almost as if he wanted to defend them from a little dog, which with a beautiful gesture seems to want to cause them harm, and so realistic are the gestures of the young boy and of the little dog, that more could not be desired’.

From archival references we learn that, as well as having an uncle who was an artist, she was also married to one, a certain Michelangelo Corsi, and that one of her works hung in a Medici Grand Ducal Palace. An inventory of 1692 states that it was a miniature showing a portrait of a woman holding ‘a small image of the Annunciation in her right hand, covered with crystal and adorned with a floral frame’. In many respects this sounds like a portrait of a woman holding today’s miniature, which itself has a remarkably elaborate frame.

I’ve taken the above quotations from the Colnaghi website, as this is currently the only source I can track down. However, Sheila Barker, Art History professor at the University of Pennsylvania and specialist not only in the Medici in the 17th Century, but also artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Giovanna Garzoni (who will be featured in Monday’s talk), has made significant discoveries about Pierozzi which will soon be published. Hopefully she will also counteract some of Colnaghi’s inaccuracies. I just happen to be married to a plant ecologist, and I asked him about the plants in this image. His comments went something like this:

‘At the very top left, that could be the bottom of a striped tulip, and below that is something a bit like a pheasant’s eye. The one with six blue petals is a bit like a gentian but they don’t have six petals. Then there’s something that’s a bit like a rose, and a bit like a peony, and coming down the right side, maybe a dead poppy head, but verging on a clematis,’ at which point he gave up and said, ‘they are all bits and pieces, really’.

On the far right of this section there is, admittedly, an upside-down striped tulip which is reasonably accurate, and going across the bottom (left to right) we have ‘one which is vaguely chrysanthemummy… that’s a bit like a peony, they are possibly cornflowers and something vaguely magnolia-like…’. Please remember, though, that this is not a botanical illustration. It is, I think, a beautifully painted garland, even if it is not an accurate representation of known flowers. And remember, I’ve never seen an angel, and yet I still believe that there is one depicted here. And yes, this is the point at which we should bear in mind that she didn’t even copy the angel accurately, so why should she reproduce real, as opposed to imaginary, flowers? Given Pierozzi’s obvious creativity, it was with some surprise that I read Colnaghi asserting that the Annunciation is surrounded by  ‘… a border of minutely rendered flowers, which include irises, tulips, hyacinths, peonies and lilies.’ Tulips, yes, peonies, maybe – but the others? Admittedly hyacinths looked different in the 17th Century (they have been bred so that the florets grow closer together), but they still looked nothing like anything here. In a later paragraph the text continues, ‘The flowers are beautifully rendered with botanical accuracy, and presumably Pierozzi had these floral specimens in front of her as she created the miniature,’ which is, to adopt a technical term sadly underused in academic art history, utter garbage. Further on they point to the visible under-drawing (you’d have to get very close to see it) and extol Pierozzi’s skill with disegno, i.e. drawing (basically), the defining feature of Florentine painting in the 16th Century. The only problem with this assertion is that line is not at all important for this particular work – it is a soft-edged, painterly image which is almost entirely defined by the colour of the forms… It is an undoubtedly beautiful image, it’s just that the description – over-stated to promote an important work for a successful sale (let’s just say ‘florid’) – is wrong.

It’s a fantastic discovery, and a superb painting – and I’d love to be able to mount it on the wall of my study. If you would like it, why not make an enquiry at Colnaghi?! However, if I’m honest, I’d equally like one of the other images I will be talking about next week. Just to whet your appetites here are works by Rachel Ruysch, Giovanna Garzoni, Clara Peeters and Fede Galizia – all of which will be featured in Forbidden Fruit on Monday (even if not all are in the Colnaghi show).

Fede Galizia

156 – Second helpings at the Feast

Donatello, The Feast of Herod, 1423-7. Baptismal Font, Battistero di San Giovanni Battista, Siena.

‘Please, sir, I want some more.’  OK, so it seems extremely unlikely that these words, said by Oliver Twist in the eponymous novel by Charles Dickens, and so often misquoted, nor indeed anything like them, would ever have been uttered at the Feast of Herod, an event that would have put even the hungriest off their food. And yet, I want to return to the Feast. This is, in part, because I want to return to the fantastic exhibition in Florence, Donatello: The Renaissance – and maybe I’ll find the time to do so. At least I will be able to revisit it in my mind’s eye when I deliver Part II of my introduction to this rich and inexhaustible display this coming Monday, 9 May at 6pm. Of course, even single works of art can be remarkably rewarding, and any painting or sculpture can benefit from repeated viewing: there is always more to see, and so there is always more to say. A month ago I looked at today’s gilded bronze relief, putting it in its context as part of the decoration of Siena’s Baptismal Font (154 – A Feast for the Eyes), and today I want to look at its immediate impact on local artists. As an aside, people have asked a number of questions about sculpture as a result of the Donatello exhibition, so I thought I would dedicate a series of four lectures to the subject, stretching across all the Mondays in June – but I’ll give you more information about them nearer the time. Before then I will talk about Women painting Still Life in the 17th Century on Monday 16 May. The talk will be entitled Forbidden Fruits, and is inspired by Colnaghi’s focussed display of the same title – click on one of the links for more information. To return to Donatello, I want to start by comparing his relief to its equivalent on the front of the font, The Baptism of Christ by Ghiberti (if you want the context, have a look back at A Feast for the Eyes).

When you walk into the Baptistery, Ghiberti’s relief is the first that you see, and this is, of course, a deliberate choice. Any separate baptistery is effectively a church dedicated to St John the Baptist, and it is where the Sacrament of Baptism – recognised as a sacrament by Catholics and Protestants alike – was, and is, celebrated. Nowadays, of course (and for many centuries, it should be said) Baptism can take place in any church. St John the Baptist is overtly defined by this act, the ritual purification which Jesus undertook at the beginning of his mission. Not that he needed purification (and John was aware of this), but he was, in every way, acting as a role model. As this particular episode defines John’s role in God’s plan, it must be in the prime position on the font – the first thing we see. This also means that the decoration of the font had to be planned with the other ‘chapters’ of the story arranged appropriately around it. But this is all slightly beside the point for this post. It the style of the relief which really interests me today. Notice how all of the figures stand out in relief against a flat background. Jesus is in the centre, of course, where he is framed by John on the right, and two full-length, standing angels on the left. John’s elongated right arm stretching out over Jesus’ head is a curious throwback to gothic ideas for Ghiberti, an artist who had made so many strides into the Renaissance, but it is remarkably expressive, and may well relate to Sienese precedents: the late 13th century sculptures by Giovanni Pisano for the façade of Siena Cathedral, for example. The four figures I have mentioned are in the highest relief, together with the foreshortened, half-length figure of God the Father at the top of the panel. Below the Father is the Holy Spirit: it was at this point in the narrative that the bible says ‘And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased’ (Luke 3:22). In one verse we have (a) an explanation why artists usually depict the Holy Spirit as a dove and (b) the whole doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Joining the two full-length angels and John is a multitude of the heavenly host, arcing up and over Christ. The figures go into lower relief as they get higher up and further away. Nevertheless, however low the relief, the figures are still built up from a flat background. Let’s compare this technique with Donatello’s in The Feast of Herod (as so often, I hope these two images end up next to each other for you, it’s easier to see…).

In Ghiberti’s panel, the representation of the ‘sky’ is indistinguishable from the material nature of the gilded sheet of bronze from which it is made. I get the feeling that, if we were to imagine this as a ‘real’ space, and if we were to walk past Jesus into the depth of the landscape, we would soon bump into a featureless gold barrier.  Donatello’s space doesn’t seem to be limited in the same way – it just keeps going. There is, eventually, a wall – through two sets of arches – but it is a wall which limits the progression of space, rather than the background of the sculpture. He is creating the same pictorial illusion as a painting does, and although Ghiberti hints at this idea with the ‘fading’ of the angels, his background remains a sheet of gilded bronze, rather than a brick wall at the back of the third room in. This difference may have resulted from the practical technique used: rather than building the image up from a flat background, Donatello appears to have dug into the depth of the wax, or clay, from which his original model would have been made – almost a carver’s technique, rather than a modeller’s.

Ghiberti’s relief had been commissioned in 1417, and he was supposed to have finished it, together with the next relief in the sequence (showing the arrest of the Baptist) within 20 months. However, they weren’t finished until 1427, the same year in which Donatello submitted his relief. Meanwhile, Ghiberti had started work on his second set of doors for the Florentine Baptistery. Compare these two panels, one from the first set of doors – the ‘North Doors’ (made between 1403-24) – and one from the second, the so-called ‘Gates of Paradise’ (1425-52). The format changed, and so did the style.  

Although the second example is still based on a flat background, it shows a far greater interest in painterly effects and the recession of space defined by linear perspective. Admittedly not all of the panels from the Gates of Paradise use linear perspective, but overall their interest in spatial illusion is far greater, and, to a large degree, I think this is because Ghiberti was influenced by the work of his former pupil (Donatello is documented in Ghiberti’s workshop from 1403 – 1407, at the beginning of the work on the North Doors). The change in format, from quatrefoils to rectangular, painterly fields, was also influenced by the experience in Siena – the overall design of the font being a collaboration, it would seem, between Ghiberti and Jacopo della Quercia, with the latter taking the lead. So let’s compare Donatello’s Feast of Herod with Jacopo della Quercia’s Annunciation to Zacharias. This is the story which starts the sequence, and is found at the back of the font – it is next to Donatello’s relief, which marks the end of this abbreviated biography.

Jacopo’s relief was modelled and cast in 1428-29 – the years immediately after Donatello’s was completed – and the influence is clear. You’ll have to take it on trust for now, but his other relief sculptures place mid-relief figures against a plain background. The insistent brickwork of the walls should be enough to show that he was keen to capture something of the remarkable originality of Donatello’s creation, and as if that isn’t enough, look at the two figures in profile on the left, visible in the adjacent room through the archway. Even if they are not exactly a quotation, they are certainly an interpretation of the figures seen through the arches on the left of the Feast. Jacopo even tries trimming the edges of his figures, as if they are disappearing into the wings. However, he hasn’t quite got it, and doesn’t commit to the idea as fully as Donatello – and he certainly doesn’t understand perspective. The projecting arch, which frames the altar, seems to be folded back, as if it were made of jointed cardboard and someone has pushed the front edge of the structure to the right, a flat-pack temple that could be collapsed into one plane. Don’t get me wrong – I love Jacopo della Quercia’s work, and when he’s doing his own thing (look up the Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, for example, or the reliefs around the portal of San Petronio in Bologna) he is quite fantastic. But he’s not Donatello. Another person who wasn’t Donatello is Giovanni di Paolo, one of Siena’s leading painters.

His Feast of Herod – one of four predella panels illustrating the Life of St John the Baptist painted in 1454 and now in the National Gallery in London – is so obviously inspired by Donatello’s relief that his failure to get anywhere close to it is almost inspiring. It has a naïve charm which makes it a wonder to behold. Compare and contrast!

Although excess ‘staffage’ has been thinned out, almost all the main characters have equivalents: Herod, the kneeling servant, one of the people behind the table, Salome and the two men behind her. The last pair is the most interesting feature for two reasons, I think. First, it’s not immediately clear in the Donatello that there are two men, until you notice the hand on the nearer man’s shoulder, and then pick out he headdress above Salome’s own head (you’ll have to zoom in, or look at the details below). Paolo has made it more obvious that there are two men, the one at the back with his arm around the other, and both enjoying the view. The second reason, and perhaps even more intriguing, is that he has also quoted from Jacopo. The nearer man, in the Donatello, has his hand on his hip. Jacopo’s equivalent figure, framing the right-hand side of the relief of the Annunciation to Zacharias, has his hand tucked into his belt. It is this detail that Paolo has picked up on. Paolo has noticed the tiles of the floor – but cannot reproduce them – and the spaces in the background – with which he struggles even more. On the right-hand side the opening up of the doorway into a garden – not based on Donatello – takes on an almost Escher-like impossibility. He has noticed the way that Donatello frames the narrative, with figures actively leaving the space on both left and right, and even though he doesn’t have the same transitional figures he clearly wants to hang onto this idea of framing, and has painted two vertical grey strips, like the proscenium arch in a theatre. It would be possible for the characters to exit stage left or right, even if none of them is currently doing so. But the borrowing that always delights me the most is the cloth hanging over the edge of the table. Donatello does it, Paolo likes it and wants to do it too, but gives it form without function. He really hasn’t understood why the cloth is there: not as a serviette, or anything to do with the feast, really, but as a marker of the perspective, leading our eyes back towards the vanishing point. That’s what it represents for Donatello, who makes the section of the cloth lying on the table inflect to the left accordingly. Paolo makes it go to the right, and misses the point entirely. It’s hardly surprising that the man at the back of the table behind it has got his head in his hands. Again, don’t get me wrong: it’s not bad art, it’s a very different thing. OK, so it’s not great art either, but it is entirely delightful – and an important example of the transmission of ideas.

Somehow, Donatello only managed to make great works of art, and there is a lot which I haven’t spoken about yet currently on view in Florence – so do join me for Donatello: The Renaissance II on Monday!


155 – Pre-Announced

Raphael, The Annunciation, c. 1506-7. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

I’ve said in two different lectures (to two different audiences) that I intend to write about this drawing, thus announcing the Annunciation. I’d not seen it before my first visit to the glorious Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery, but it grabbed my attention, and instantly became my new favourite drawing. Having said that, I’m not sure that I had an old favourite drawing, even if there are many that I love! I showed it during the talk last Monday, but didn’t talk about it much. As it was probably drawn while Raphael was in Florence, and on Monday 2 May at 6pm I will be talking about Raphael: The Triumph in Rome – the second of my two-part introduction to the exhibition – I won’t talk about it then either. So I’ll just have to do that now. The week after (9 May) I will return to Donatello, and on the way home on the train today I decided that the following week (16 May) I will talk about the Colnaghi exhibition which opened today, which includes the only known painting by the 17th century artist Caterina Angela Pierozzi. It’s only just been re-discovered, which is remarkable, as for years everyone has assumed that all her paintings were lost! But more of that nearer the time – let’s get back to Raphael.

The subject matter is unsurprising, perhaps – The Annunciation – but what is remarkable is the quality of the drawing and the degree of finish. This is not a ‘sketch’, nor is it a working-through of ideas, it is a fully-fledged composition with almost every detail thoroughly considered and all the concomitant problems effectively resolved. What is surprising about that? Well, what is it a drawing for? Raphael made other drawings like this for altarpieces – but no such painting exists. In the catalogue of Raphael drawings, written by Paul Joannides (my PhD supervisor) it is categorised as a ‘presentation drawing’, which means, effectively, that it was made as a drawing in its own right, to be given (i.e. presented, hence ‘presentation’) as an independent work of art. It was only during the Renaissance – at some point in the late 15th century – that drawing acquired this status. On the whole though, drawing was still used to make observations, to think through ideas, to develop forms, to plan compositions, and to transfer the ideas to the finished work.

There are other oddities. Usually the Annunciation takes place in a domestic setting – Mary’s room, usually her bedroom, or some private space where she has been contemplating the scriptures.  However, in this instance the characters appear to be in a large building, presumably a church – although as the events depicted took place nine months B.C., and churches wouldn’t be legal for another 313 years, that would be entirely anachronistic. So it could be a synagogue or temple, I suppose. The angel Gabriel kneels in humble reverence of God’s chosen vessel, holding the by-then (then being Raphael’s time) traditional lily, symbol of Mary’s purity, in his right hand. His left hand rests on his chest as a sign of his heartfelt awe in the face of such beauty and perfection. Mary turns to greet him, standing in a classical contrapposto with the weight on her left leg and the right leg bent, the drapery pulling tighter around her right knee, her thigh illuminated by the bright light shining down from above.

In between them we can see a large, semi-circular apse, the architectonic structure that makes this look like a church, which is exactly the place where we would expect to see an altar. However, there is none there. Nevertheless, directly behind Mary, and off-centre, there is a large flat block of stone (presumably) on slightly broader base. It is too tall to be an altar, and its function is not clear. This should make us realise that the drawing is not, perhaps, as fully resolved as we first thought. It could be the base of a large column, although there is no column there – which could be a metaphor for the promised arrival of the Messiah, a tower of strength, if not, exactly, a column. To the right of Mary you may just be able to make out the rising diagonal of a reading desk – the drapery falling from her left arm falls from it (and while we are there, notice how her left hand is on her breast, just like Gabriel’s). She has been kneeling there, reading, and presumably praying. When the angel appeared she stood and turned round to greet him – her body turning 90 degrees, with the head completing the full 180. The shadowy depth of the apse is conveyed in two ways. To the left, above the angel’s head, there are vertical lines, and then, overlapping these, are slightly curving diagonal strokes which appear to link the two figures, almost as if this is the energy binding them together. The slight curve shows us the way they were drawn, with Raphael holding the quill (this is a pen and ink drawing) and making long strokes like a compass, with his elbow at the centre of a circle and his hand tracing arcs around it at the full length of his forearm. Try this yourself, and if you are right handed – like Raphael – you will make this sort of curve, with the lines going from top right to bottom left (for the left-handed Leonardo, the diagonals go the other way). The angel’s wings are just sketched in, the right one fully visible, with the other crossing behind his head, so that the foremost curving outline (do wings have ‘elbows’?) projects to the right of his nose. Notice how, despite the subtlety of the shading, none of the three hands in the detail above (or, for that matter, Gabriel’s right hand in the previous detail) is shaded. They are defined by outline alone, forming bright highlights, this clarity serving to make them more expressive.

The arched top of the drawing is very subtly sketched in, and perfectly frames God the Father, who looks down at the action below while surrounded by clouds and a small delegation of the heavenly host. Equally spaced are five tiny heads of cherubim and seraphim, creatures so holy they do not need a body but appear just as heads with wings. They are disposed symmetrically, with one each at top left and top right, two more towards the bottom left and right, and a fifth, bottom centre of this detail – although, if you wanted to read the loops of cloud as further cherubim, I wouldn’t disagree. Then there are four winged youths, evenly spaced in a rectangular formation, hands held in prayer or resting on chest or cloud, with the Father central. He looks down to Mary, his right hand raised in blessing, the fore- and middle fingers separated, and thumb held apart – so delicately defined, for such a tiny detail. The left hand seems to hover, as if to calm – to calm the angel, perhaps? It’s as if he was worried about getting the words wrong, but I suspect he is following the divine instructions well, and is being reassured from above. Or maybe, to calm Mary – who, nevertheless, does not appear to be especially troubled at the angel’s saying.

The Father hovers above the apse. It is almost as if the roof of the church – or temple – has dissolved as he manifests his presence. Yet more cherubim and seraphim solidify from the clouds below the previous group, and below them all, at the centre of the semi-dome of the apse (but some way in front of it) is the Holy Spirit, a tiny dove with a tinier dove-sized halo, appearing against another, larger halo, the same size as the Father’s, but flat against the surface of the drawing rather than angled in space. Of course, it is not there at all. There is a circle drawn by the pen – quite firmly, as the light catches indentations made on the paper – but the halo itself is not there. That is just blank paper. It is possible that details like this halo – the glow around the Holy Spirit – were drawn first with a ‘blind stylus’ – i.e. a pointed object without any ink. The outlines were indented in the paper in a way that is almost invisible – and then traced over with pen and ink if they are deemed to be in the right place.

Overall, the position of God the Father directly over the circle enclosing the Holy Spirit looks like a practice run for the Disputa, one of the frescoes Raphael would later paint in the Vatican Palace (if you don’t remember it, there is a detail below, and I will show a full image on Monday). The position of the dove is slightly unusual, to my mind. If proceeding from the Father, I would expect to see it in between the Father’s head and Mary’s. However, I suspect its position speaks of an absence – or rather, of a future presence. The apse should contain an altar, and on the altar, during the Mass, at the Elevation of the Host, the bread becomes (in Roman Catholic belief) the actual body of Christ. And so Christ would eventually be physically present directly underneath the dove, forming a vertical axis of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Again, this is equivalent to the monstrance containing the consecrated Host in the Disputa. I hope these two details appear side by side for you:

The space between Gabriel and Mary is, after all, full of grace. These are the words Gabriel is speaking in Luke 1:28. In the Vulgate, the Latin is ‘ave gratia plena Dominus tecum’. The King James version gives us ‘Hail, though that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee,’ or, in the Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition, about which I know little but seems a more accurate, and poetic, translation than some, ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee’. Imagine these words written on the curving lines between Gabriel and Mary, and you will realise that the space between them is sanctified – it is, in itself, ‘full of grace’. This is the place where the Mass will one day be celebrated, and so where the body of the announced Messiah will be shared. Raphael is imagining Jesus between Gabriel and Mary, I think.

As for the function of the drawing – well, however highly finished it is, I don’t think it’s quite finished enough to be a presentation drawing. There are still ideas which aren’t clear enough. I’m fairly sure that it is the design for an altarpiece, in which anything that is not yet specific would be resolved by colour. So much survives by Raphael: he was remarkably productive given that he only lived 37 years. In part, that was because of his skills as a draughtsman, and because he was an incredibly generous man. For example, he designed altarpieces for other people to paint: I showed an example of this on Monday, The Holy Family with a Pomegranate, which was designed by Raphael, but painted by Domenico Alfani. And yet we shouldn’t be surprised if other things haven’t survived. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Raphael’s renown would mean that we would know about any altarpieces he painted himself, even if, by now, some no longer exist. But if this drawing were used by another artist the painting would not have had the same reputation, and neither its existence, nor its loss, would have been recorded in the same way. On the other hand, it could simply be that it was a project for an altarpiece that, for one reason or another (for example, the unexpected death of the patron) was never executed.

I don’t know the answer to this problem – but I don’t really mind. It’s such a beautiful drawing that I’m not too worried about what it was ‘for’. And trust me, it is far more impressive than the photos I have shown you would suggest. Let’s face it, I took them on my phone. So I urge you (I don’t do nearly enough urging, quite frankly) to go and see it for yourselves in the exhibition at the National Gallery in London before 31 July, when it will disappear back to the shadowed safety of the stores in Stockholm. But for now, I need to move on to pastures new. For Raphael, this meant leaving Florence, and led to his Triumph in Rome. And trust me, there will be many more delights – not to mention a number of curiosities – in the talk on Monday!


Revisiting Raphael

Raphael Sanzio, The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels, about 1502-3, National Gallery, London.

Happy Easter! And greetings from Vienna! I’m here with a group, and actually wrote this paragraph in London on Easter Monday: I’m sure I’ll have to do a bit of preparation before I go. However, the blog below was written on Good Friday two years ago – it was Day 23 of Picture Of The Day during lockdown. It seems apt to re-post it now, though, as the painting in question, Raphael’s Mond Crucifixion (named after the family who bequeathed it to the National Gallery), is the very first thing you see on the way into the truly beautiful Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery. You see it even before you get through the doors, as it happens. I will ‘introduce’ the exhibition in two talks. The first is on Monday 25 April at 6pm (and don’t worry, I get back from Vienna on Sunday evening), and the second will be a week later. I’ll need two talks, partly because there are so many wonderful paintings and drawings to see, but also because this is the first exhibition in the UK to cover all aspects of Raphael’s multi-faceted production. Obviously, he was a painter, and, as a result, he also drew. On the whole, people know that he also designed tapestries. But did you know he designed mosaics? And sculptures? Or that he was also an architect? Or, most surprisingly (to me at least) an archaeologist? But more of that over the next two weeks! Let’s look back to Good Friday two years ago.

Of course, every year, the name of the day on which Jesus was crucified prompts the question, ‘Why is that Good’? Well, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of ‘guode friday’ was in 1290, and the word ‘guode’ is used in reference to ‘a day (or season) observed as holy by the Church’ – and we all like holy days – or rather, holidays. They are really good, even if this year [remember we were in lockdown!] the long Bank Holiday weekend will be spent at home. So now you know, don’t ask again next year.

Raphael, The Mond Crucifixion, about 1502-3
http://www.nationalgalleryimages.co.uk © The National Gallery, London.

It is of course the day on which Christians remember the Crucifixion of Jesus – making the choice of subject matter for today’s Picture Of The Day obvious. But why Raphael? Well, I missed it on Monday, but that day marked 537 years since he was born – or, more significantly, 500 years since he died. Like Shakespeare he had the good sense to die on his birthday, thus cutting down the number of dates we’d have to remember and making him look More Significant. ‘Why don’t you just say Anniversary?’ you ask. Well, it isn’t the same day. In the 16th Century, everyone in Europe was using the Julian Calendar. The Gregorian Calendar was instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, but Britain didn’t fall into line until 1752 (after all, it was clearly a Popish plot) when we ‘lost’ 11 days. By now the Julian Calendar is 13 days behind the Gregorian Calendar, apparently… so… oh it really doesn’t matter.

Back to the painting, which is a brilliant example of Raphael’s early style. As an artist he was a sponge – anything that he saw and liked he absorbed, assimilated and regurgitated, and here he is giving us his Perugino. Born in Urbino, the son of court artist Giovanni Santi, Raphael was initially trained by his father. He was then apprenticed to Pietro Perugino, and his early works are almost indistinguishable from that of his master – compare the second image. This is Perugino’s Archangel Raphael with Tobias painted around 3 or 4 years before Raphael’s Crucifixion – if you want to know the story, see Picture Of The Day 4 – Tobias and the Angel

If you compare the paintings, the standing figures in both have one foot firmly planted on the ground, with the heel of the other slightly lifted, making the knee on that side bend – a position known as ‘contrapposto’. The head is tilted to one side. The articulation of the angel’s fingers, especially the delicate curve of the thumbs, and exaggerated separation of the little fingers, is very similar to those of St Jerome, the figure kneeling on the left of the Crucifixion. The overall effect is feminine – or effeminate – and slightly fay. The landscapes are – or were – also similar, but you can’t really see that as the Perugino has been cut down, also losing Tobias’ and Raphael’s elbows, and most of the dog. It’s what is called an Umbrian bowl landscape – seen in Umbrian paintings, rather than in Umbria itself. On the left and right the horizon is higher, and more or less horizontal, dipping down to a lower central section, thus looking like a bowl. The distance is blue, the middle ground green and the foreground brown – an early example of atmospheric perspective (the effect that the atmosphere has on the way we see things as they get further away). This colour scheme is formulaic: if you were standing on green grass it wouldn’t look brown. Notice, in the Crucifixion, that they are also standing on a hill. Yes, that does have a narrative function, ‘There is a green hill far away’, after all (even if it is brown here), but it is also a way of coping with the progression from foreground via middle ground to background. It cuts out the transition between the first two stages, and brings the characters further forward. Raphael isn’t the only artist to do this.

Raphael, The Mond Crucifixion, about 1502-3 © The National Gallery, London.

The more astute among you will have noticed that I said that the man kneeling on the left of the Crucifixion is St Jerome. And the most astute will also have realised that St Jerome was not present at the Crucifixion, living, as he did, from 347-420 AD.  The other three were, according to the bible. Standing on the left is the Virgin Mary, and on the right, John the Evangelist. We know that, because the gospels mention them standing at the foot of the cross: this is the point at which Jesus, from the cross, commended them to each other’s care. Also, they wear their traditional colours, Mary in a blue cloak over a red robe, and John in red and green (his colour scheme is not so fixed as it is for other saints). Kneeling on the right is Mary Magdalene, who is also mentioned as present in the Bible. I’m glad she’s there, as she is a useful antidote to those who would rather believe bad fiction than standard Christian theology and art history. Mary Magdalene was not present at the Last Supper, and has never been depicted as being there. Yes, John looks very girly – with long flowing hair, and a smooth, beardless face, but that’s how the young Raphael depicted young men – as, of course, did everyone else, including Leonardo. Any self-respecting woman would have her hair covered, or at least dressed, and the Magdalene does indeed have ribbons in her hair. I know, you could argue she was not a self-respecting woman, but by the time she was kneeling at the foot of the cross, she was, having repented of her sinful ways. This is why she is paired with St Jerome. They are the two leading saints associated with the act of penance. Mary is repenting her sinful ways as a prostitute (there is no biblical evidence for that, by the way, but that is another story), whereas St Jerome is lamenting the fact that he had read so much classical literature. Not an ideal saint for the Renaissance, you might think, but renaissance scholars were adept at sidestepping minor inconveniences like this. According to his story, he retired to the wilderness as an act of penance for the folly of his youth, beating his chest with a stone and contemplating Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.  This painting was commissioned for an altar dedicated to St Jerome – so he is there by necessity. As a result, you could argue that the Crucifixion is really there because of him, in this case, rather than the other way around.

What we are seeing is an elision of two separate things. The Maries and John are physically present at the Crucifixion, whereas St Jerome is contemplating a Crucifix. Another way of looking at it is that everything in the painting, with the exception of St Jerome himself, is one big thought bubble: the Crucifixion, the Virgin, St. John, and Mary Magdalene are all part of Jerome’s contemplation. This goes to show that however realistic a painting might look, the visual elements are predominantly symbolic. And indeed, the more you look at it, the more you realise that the art is in the artifice. The figures are perfectly balanced – if not exactly symmetrical – from one side to the other. With the inner figures kneeling, the four heads take on a similar profile to the horizon, with those of the Virgin and John standing clear against the sky, and those of the kneeling figures seen against the rolling hills lower down. The colours of their clothes tie them together as well, with the Virgin’s dress, Jerome’s belt, and John’s cloak being the same shade of red. Exactly the same shade of red is used for Jesus’ loincloth, which, if you haven’t noticed it already, is remarkable.

Have you ever seen Jesus in anything other than a white loincloth? It is one of the features of this painting that suggests it was commissioned to replace a far older image, as the only other examples I know were painted in the 13th Century. The third image is a Crucifix by Cimabue in Arezzo, and is dated to around 1270. The colour is associated with Royalty, and goes back to the Byzantine tradition, when the Emperors wore purple – which is often shown as red. It is also, of course, associated with the blood that you can see in the Cimabue flowing from the wounds in Christ’s hands and feet. In Raphael’s version the angels gather Christ’s blood in chalices. This is the Holy Blood, which was the subject of yesterday’s image (POTD 22).

Notice how, in Raphael’s painting, the angels are flying in the same plane as Jesus. No, I know what you’re thinking: they are on the same spatial plane – the picture plane – and their ribbons fly out parallel to the picture surface as well, as does one end of Christ’s loincloth. Raphael is using them to pattern the surface of the painting – they do not move in depth at all – and, as ever, this placing of things parallel to the picture plane makes them look more iconic, taking them out of the reality of this world. In the real world, we move in and out of space. Likewise, and most otherworldly, we see the sun and the moon in the sky, on either side of the Cross, depicted with gold and silver leaf respectively. This is another feature of archaic images of the Crucifixion, and can be interpreted in several ways – all of which are valid. It probably derives from the biblical passage which states that the sky darkened when Christ died – we have night during the day, and see both heavenly bodies at the same time. But it is also prodigious – the two shouldn’t be seen so close together – and so it forebodes ill. In some cases they mark God’s anger at the death of his son. They also came to symbolise the Old and New testaments – St Augustine, a contemporary of St Jerome, promoted that interpretation.

In between the Sun and Moon we see the titulus, or ‘title’, which Pontius Pilate attached to the cross, saying ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Sometimes, but only rarely, artists include the full inscription in all three languages. More often, as here, they only include the abbreviation I.N.R.I., which comes from the Latin inscription: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum.

Raphael has produced a static, almost timeless image. However relevant to today, this lasts for all time, night and day. The angels gather the precious blood – too precious, indeed, to allow it to fall to the ground. The Virgin and St John stand witness with long-suffering devotion while Jerome and Mary Magdalene look on in humble, penitent adoration. The symmetry of the composition, its order and balance, are given strength by a pyramidal composition. The figures of Christ, Jerome and the Magdalene define a triangle – and no normal triangle at that. This is the golden triangle – the ratio of the long side to the short is the golden section, and if you were to bisect one of the lower angles, one of the resulting triangles would also be golden. The base is the length of a pentagon which would have its apex at the top of this triangle. 

The golden section occurs often in nature – usually in terms of growth – and is so remarkable that it was the subject of a book written around 1498 that was first published in 1509. The author, a Franciscan Friar by the name of Luca Pacioli, called it ‘De Divina Proportione’ or ‘About Divine Proportion’. This shape is, in itself, holy, it seems, and so is the painting – the angels and the angles tell us so. It is Good.


153 – Fly on the Wall?

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, c. 1480. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Buona Festa! The ‘Festa’ in question is the Feast of the Annunciation, or, to give it its English name, Lady Day. It’s the reason why we (in the UK) have Mother’s Day this weekend, rather than in May like everyone else. I suppose I should write about a painting of the Annunciation today (as I did two years ago), although I’d rather look at something else, as I will include The Annunciation with Saint Emidius – briefly, at least – when I talk about the exhibition Carlo Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky this Monday, 28 March at 6pm. Today I want to talk about a painting which is not in the exhibition to explain why I think Crivelli is such a remarkable painter, and, as it is Lady day, it is a painting of Our Lady.

The curators at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham wanted to include it in their exhibition apparently, but as it is painted on a wooden panel it is too delicate to travel. Wood is especially sensitive to fluctuations in humidity, among other things, and so it has stayed at home in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. However, that does mean that we can get up close to the details without worrying that someone might think we’re going to touch the painting.

Mary stands behind a stone parapet with a cloth of honour hanging behind her. Not only does this frame our view of her, so that we see her more clearly, but it also speaks to her high status, being effectively a sign of royalty: it reminds us of her role as Queen of Heaven. Another cloth is hung over the ledge, and Jesus sits on a cushion placed on top of it. Behind the cloth of honour is a landscape: we are out in the countryside, with a track running from one side to the other. It is not entirely clear where Jesus and Mary are, when you stop to think about it: what is the function of this wall, other than as a support for the child? And if Mary is in the countryside, where are we, on this side of the wall? Crivelli is actually using the convention of Northern European portraiture, in which the sitter appears behind such a parapet, or balcony, which both distances them from us, but also, conversely, forms a bridge. linking us to them. It also explains why we can’t see their legs. In this case, it allows us to see a bust-length image of the Madonna, while also providing a convenient surface on which her son can rest. In other paintings such a structure takes on the appearance of an altar, or tomb, or even both, and although that doesn’t seem to be the case here, we shouldn’t discount the possibility that it provides at least a distant echo of Christ’s fate.

The cloth of honour is held up by broad red laces, bound at their ends with metal aglets. A garland of fruits and a vegetable hang from the same type of lace, in front of the cloth but behind the Virgin’s head. It is not clear what these are attached to – or even what they could be attached to – and originally they would just have appeared from behind the engaged frame. ‘Engaged’ in this context means that the frame was attached to the panel before painting commenced, and the paint surface would have been continuous from one to the other. You can tell it was engaged because there is a lip around the edge of the painted surface just next to the bare wood: it’s hard to know why anyone would ever have wanted to rip off the original frame, and is greatly to be regretted, although it did happen surprisingly often. The vegetable is a gourd, which, from its appearance in the Book of Jonah (who disappeared into the belly of a giant fish, only to be spat up on the third day) is often seen as a symbol of the Resurrection (given that Jesus disappeared into the belly of the Earth, only to return after the same time had elapsed). Whatever the fruits are – apples or peaches, I’m not entirely sure – they represent the forbidden fruit from the Book of Genesis (it never actually says ‘apple’). Either way, between gourd and fruit, we are looking at sin and redemption. The garland casts shadows on the cloth of honour – but not on the sky. It would be very unusual if it did, of course, but another garland, in one of the paintings I will discuss on Monday, does – hence the title of the exhibition, Shadows on the Sky. It is unique in the History of Art as far as I am aware, and worth thinking about in detail – but more about that on Monday. However, Mary’s halo also casts a shadow – which is very odd. A halo was originally a way of representing a glow of light expressing the figure’s sanctity – but how could light cast a shadow? What Crivelli has painted is definitely a gold disc, a solid object encrusted with jewels, capable of casting its own shadow. Mary’s headdress is elegant and delicate, with the concentric arrangement of the opaque and transparent layers over her forehead entirely typical of his work, in which shapes are often echoed as he thinks about the patterns formed on the surface of the painting as much as the imaginary depth he can create using perspective and tonal variation.

Jesus’s halo is a similar gold disc, although marked with a red cross (it is only Jesus, as ‘himself’, or as the Lamb of God, or the Holy Spirit – as a dove – who have cruciform halos like this). He holds a goldfinch in his hands, a symbol of his passion. The goldfinch was supposed to have eaten one of the thorns from the eponymous crown when a drop of Christ’s blood fell on its head – hence the red marking. As if to emphasize its own symbolism, the bird stretches its wings like a cross. Jesus is not sure whether to look, or to look away: his face is turned to our left, but his pupils are in the corner of his eyes, looking towards the bird. Mary has the long, slim, fingers typical of Crivelli’s etiolated forms – they are overlong even, adding an almost unnatural refinement to her delicate gestures, as if unsure of how to hold her own son. The open stretch between her right thumb and forefinger loops his waist in the same way – and with similar angular inflections – as the loop of fabric that rings his right arm, another one of those echoes of form.

It is at the very bottom of this small painting – measuring just 37.8 x 25.4 cm – that it gets conceptually complex. There is no problem with the cloth – a yellow water silk equivalent to the pink of the cloth of honour. Having been stored tightly folded, one of those folds is clearly visible as the central axis of the material. But it is also softly wrinkled, the subtle shading forming a counterpoint with the markings of the fabric. The child’s legs and the tasselled cushion cast shadows, those of the latter being remarkably crisp. They tell us that the light is coming from high up to the left, and from just in front of the painting. At one end the parapet is cracked, and at the other there appears to be the most enormous fly. Both are symbols of change and decay, but Jesus has come for our redemption – to free us from the sin, which, in some way, the fly represents, associated as it is with death and disease, in part because of the brevity of its own earthly existence. The cracks can be read like the ruins in the background of many paintings of the Nativity: Jesus has come to rebuild, rather than to destroy. But let’s look at the fly again – and compare it to Christ’s feet. They are of the same order of size. Can you imagine a fly the same size as a baby’s feet? Look again at the fly, and then at its shadow, and compare the shadow to that cast by the tassel. The light on the fly appears to be coming from the wrong direction… which suggests that it is not standing on the parapet at all. It appears to be standing on the surface of the painting, and casting a shadow onto the paint. If I were there in front of it, I’d be tempted to brush it away. It is a fly from our world – hence its disproportionate size – and Crivelli is playing with our perception. If he is good enough as an artist, he will trick us into thinking it is real – like the old story of the competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted grapes which were so real that birds flew down to eat them, but when he went to pull back the curtain in front of Parrhasius’ painting, he discovered that it was a painting of a curtain… so which was the better artist? Crivelli adds these details to keep us involved, to make us believe what we see (‘if it can crack, it must be real stone’), but also to remind us that this is a painting. Why do we want to know that it is a painting? Probably because that itself implies that the subject is worthy – that Jesus and Mary are worthy – to be represented, and so should be honoured accordingly. And also, of course, to show us how good he is. But how do we know who ‘he’ is? Well, because he tells us.

‘The work of Carlo Crivelli from Venice’, says the cartellino (a word which nowadays could now be translated as ‘tag’, but which means ‘a little cartello’ – itself a word which could be translated as ‘sign’, but means ‘little carta’ – or paper – so a cartellino is a little little paper…). The wording is Crivelli’s standard signature: he was keen to be known by his origins .Venice was, after all, one of the great centres of art, and its inclusion implies that he must have been good. However, nothing he painted there is known, and all that survives comes from the Marche, where he spent the last three decades of his life. He was not the only artist to depict a cartellino like this. There are so many, in fact, by so many different artists, that we can assume that they really did put their names onto pieces of paper and then physically attach them to the painting, rather than painting their names directly onto the finished work. Indeed, one suggestion why we don’t know the names of so many early Northern painters is that the original cartellini have simply fallen off. This might happen here: the cartellino is attached by blobs of red wax, although the blob at the bottom right has fallen off, leaving a red stain. But what is the paper supposed to be attached to? To the water silk? Or to the painted panel itself? I’ll leave you to have a look and decide for yourselves, but do bear in mind what would be more appropriate. Whichever it is, Crivelli had the most remarkable sense of the possibilities of painting, of illusion, and of crossing the boundaries between reality and imagination. This, together with his technical brilliance, is what has convinced me that he was such a great artist. We will talk about about these ideas, including trompe l’oeil and meta-trompe-l’oeil – ‘going beyond deception’ – on Monday when we look at the Shadows on the Sky. And if you still want an Annunciation for today’s Festa, you could always look back to Piero della Francesca, from two years ago (Day 7 – The Annunciation), or Veit Stoss (Day 70 – The Annunciation, again) or Giotto (Day 80 – Gabriel’s Mission)…


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.


Rethinking Artemisia Painting Painting

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait (?) as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), c. 1638-9, Royal Collection Trust, London.

This Monday 21 March at 6pm I will return to the exhibition Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace to have a look at some of the paintings which I couldn’t cover last time. When I did Part 1 – not that I knew then that it would be Part 1 – I posted about Rembrandt’s portrait of Nicolaes van Bambeeck, as Bambeeck’s wife, Agatha Bas, is the ‘poster girl’ of the exhibition. I didn’t get to talk about her in the end, but I will on Monday – so if you want to remind yourself about him, why not click on that blue link? I’d write about something new today, but as I am up against a deadline, and away for the weekend, I thought it would be as well to revisit one of the paintings which was not in the exhibition when it was first mounted: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Allegory of Painting. At that stage the painting had been promised to the Artemisia exhibition at the National Gallery, but after lockdown the Queen’s Gallery restaged the show, and was able to include it. However, by then, the Wallace Collection had mounted Frans Hals: The Male Portrait – which meant that the Royal Collection took their Hals out of the Treasures and lent it to the Wallace: it’s been an exhibition with flexible contents. I can’t be entirely sure what will be included when it opens on 25 March at the Queen’s Gallery in Edinburgh – so I will go by what I saw in London, and what is in the catalogue. In subsequent weeks I will talk about Three Renaissance Heroes – Crivelli, Donatello and Raphael – as exhibitions about all three are currently on, or about to open. Information about these talks (all of which are now on sale) can be found on the diary page – where you will also find information about an in-person talk at the National Gallery on 24 May, and a trip to Vienna from 21-24 April (there are now spaces again as a couple of people have dropped out).

Since I first wrote this post, I have changed my mind slightly about this painting – a result of seeing the Artemisia exhibition at the National Gallery. I am no longer entirely convinced that it is a self portrait – but I’ll tell you the reasons why on Monday.. In the meantime, this is what I said about the painting back in May 2020:

It’s a while since I last talked about Artemisia Gentileschi – way back in Picture Of The Day 17 – so I thought we should re-visit her to see how she’s getting on in lockdown. There is still no sign of the museums opening, though, and the exhibition at the National Gallery is still on hold – it is yet possible that it will open… You could, of course, order the catalogue directly from the National Gallery – it has great essays and superb illustrations.

This particular painting is always worth thinking about, as it shows just how brilliant Artemisia was – in many different ways. For one thing, it is a self portrait, so it gives us some idea of what she looked like. It’s perhaps not the best self portrait from this point of view, and that is because of the point of view: it is extremely unusual. She paints herself from high up, and from off to one side. It’s hard to know how she could have seen herself from this angle – it would take at least two mirrors set up in the right positions. It’s still not going to be easy though. Unlike some of the other self portraits we’ve seen of women painting – notably Judith Leyster and Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (POTD 34 and 55 respectively) – she hasn’t bothered too much about her appearance. She may be wearing a rather wonderful green bodice, beautifully painted, but she has rolled up her sleeves and is wearing an apron. Who wouldn’t, while painting? Well, judging from most self portraits, most artists! And her hair is a bit of a mess! She has, however, put on some jewellery: a gold chain, with a pendant.

The pendant is the real clue to this painting’s meaning – it is a mask. It looks like a face, but is only the image of one, in the same way that this looks like Artemisia, but is only a portrait… This necklace is one of the ways of identifying this as an Allegory of Painting. Even in this detail we can see so much. Her left hand holds a few paintbrushes and a palette – one of the more ‘old fashioned’ rectangular ones, from our point of view. What is not so easy to identify is the object she is leaning on, the sort of stone slab used to mix her pigments – the coloured powders that give the painting its vitality – with the oil – the medium which binds the pigment; makes it liquid, so that you can actually paint; adheres the pigment to the support (usually, by this period, a canvas); and dries to protect it. Artemisia’s palette, brushes, and the stone slab form a stable foundation on which this portrait rests – they are the foundation of her art, after all – and it is here that she has chosen to sign the painting, using the initials A.G.F. – Artemisia Gentileschi Fecit – or ‘made this’, in Latin. Not only that, but she is showing us her technique. The left arm may now be a little worn with age, but it was always fairly thin – sketchy even – showing her skill at building up an image with an economy of means. Once the canvas was attached, taut, around the stretcher, she would have primed it, painting a dull brown ground layer of paint all across the surface: if you look at the areas of shadow between the green folds of the sleeve, that is the ground – particularly clear in the curving fold that comes up from the flash of white cuff, and curves down again just below the cord with which she has tied up her sleeve. This is something she could have learnt from her father, or directly from the work of Caravaggio, who often used this shorthand: not so much painting the shadow, as leaving it absent.

As for her hair, well, would you bother with that if you were hard at work? The fact is, this is another feature that helps to identify the subject of the painting. Artemisia is drawing on the Iconologia written by Cesare Ripa, an emblem book that describes the way in which personifications should be represented – a sort of ‘Handbook of Allegories’ . The first edition was published, without any pictures, in 1593, with a second illustrated edition following ten years later. ‘Painting’ is described thus:

A beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front ‘imitation’. She holds in her hand a brush, and in the other the palette, with clothes of evanescently coloured drapery.

Clearly, Artemisia has chosen some, if not all, of this description. Beautiful – well perhaps that was not for her to say – but with black hair, certainly. In other self portraits she has auburn hair with a wonderful sheen, beautifully dressed – whereas here it is ‘dishevelled, and twisted in various ways’, showing the distraction of the artistically inspired. The eyebrows are not arched – but this allows a wonderful passage of paint across the forehead: a thickly loaded brush was pulled across to pick out a highlight, emphasizing the light within, the power of her intellect. Or perhaps it was just showing us the form – like the little white fleck that shapes of the tip of her nose.  Her mouth is not covered with a cloth, of course. Ripa wanted to show that painting is mute, it speaks through the eyes, and not through the ears, but that wouldn’t make for a good self portrait. It also wouldn’t have allowed us to see the wonderful, pensive, slight parting of the lips (I almost expect to see the tip of her tongue. like you do with children when they concentrate). However, she does have the ‘chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask’. We don’t need the word ‘imitation’ – Ripa was always guilty of over-egging the pudding – the mask is sufficient. It is a symbol of imitation, yes, but it was also a symbol of deceit (POTD 32), and what is painting, if not deceit, trying to show us something that is not real?

Scholars have argued about the background of this painting – even though there is almost nothing there to argue about. There is vertical line, which is not so much a line as a change of tone. This could be the corner of a room, with two walls meeting. Or the lighter area might be a blank canvas, about to be painted. If it is, then we have an even more sophisticated possibility. Artemisia holds the paintbrush between thumb and forefinger just below the top left corner of this blank canvas, with the tip of the brush just about to touch very close to its left-hand edge. And what do we see in the self portrait just below the top left corner, very close to its left-hand edge? Well, the tip of the paint brush. Artemisia is about to start painting by depicting the very paint brush that we can see her holding. Which just shows us how clever she was. And it has to be ‘she’. Ripa tells us that ‘Painting’ is a beautiful woman – and that’s because, in Italian, ‘Painting’ is La Pittura, a feminine noun. Artemisia’s male contemporaries simply couldn’t have painted this. Apart from anything else, it would never have occurred to them.  


152 – One and a half princesses…

Thomas Gainsborough, The Three Eldest Princesses: Charlotte, Princess Royal, Augusta and Elizabeth, 1783-84. The Royal Collection.

This Monday, 14 March, I will be talking about Gainsborough’s ‘Blue Boy’ and the following week, I will be returning to the Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace which I didn’t get round to talking about the last time I tried… so what should I talk about today? Well, how about sticking with Gainsborough, and children (though maybe girls, to even out the gender balance), in a painting which is in the Royal Collection? It makes sense to me, at least. There are plenty to choose from, not least because poor Queen Charlotte had 15 children, and Gainsborough painted them all. Today I want to look at a portrait commissioned by the eldest of those children, George, Prince of Wales – the one who grew up to be King George IV.

This portrait was included in the truly splendid exhibition George IV: Art and Spectacle, and although that is long gone, the catalogue, which must be the definitive book on the patronage and collecting of the most acquisitive of monarchs, is still available – just click on the blue link above if you’re interested! Today’s painting does not usually hang in the Picture Gallery of Buckingham Palace (which is currently being refurbished), and so it is not part of the exhibition Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace which opens at the Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh next week – so I’m very happy to look at it today.

The eldest Princess is Charlotte, Princess Royal – a title given to the eldest daughter of the monarch, which is currently held by Princess Anne. Charlotte was born in 1766, so she would have been at least 17 when this was painted, still a ‘child’ as she would not attain her majority until she was 21. Augusta (the middle of the three in age, but on the left in the painting) was probably 15 and Elizabeth (seated) 13. It’s hard to be precise, as it is hard to pin down when, exactly, Gainsborough painted it. We know that he received the commission in 1783, and that he planned to exhibit what was a high status work in the most significant venue – the Royal Academy annual exhibition – in 1784. But we’ll get to that story later.

The status of Charlotte, as the eldest, is communicated by her central position, and by her height. Whatever her actual height was, she is shown as the taller of the two who are standing. Her shoulders are parallel to the picture plane, which means that she occupies more space on the canvas than her younger sister Augusta, whose torso is turned towards the other two, foreshortening the view of her body, and thus taking up less of the width of the painting. It is subtleties like this which help to define the niceties of family relationships, niceties which were still apparent to Jane Austen writing at the beginning of the following century. This turn inwards also helps makes the trio more of an intimate group, and is echoed, in reverse, by Elisabeth, whose chair is turned to face outwards, thus angling her towards the other two. Although being seated in the presence of those standing is often a sign of power, they do not pay her any attention, and so it simply brings her lower down the picture plane, and decreases her status. Elizabeth may have been the youngest of these three, but there were three more: Mary born in 1776, Sophia, born the next year, and Aemilia, who arrived in 1783, by which time this portrait, too, had probably been conceived…

There is something about the gazes which also conveys status. Charlotte has her face turned directly towards us, and yet she looks off into the distance, focussing on serious issues rather than merely being seen and being pretty: with age comes responsibility. Augusta, on the other hand, free from the potential burden of getting married first, may have her face turned dutiful towards her older sister, but she looks out to us, almost slyly, almost flirtatiously. Both have powdered hair piled up on their heads, with one long lock falling over a shoulder, a fashion popular in the mid-1780s. Both also have strings of pearls wound through their hair, helping to give solidity and form to Gainsborough’s evanescent brushwork, which shows the fully developed freedom and apparent spontaneity which were hallmarks of his late style. On the left we see a lowering sky, on the right a curtain – and between a column. All three are typical of Van Dyck’s ‘Grand Manner’ portraits, signs of the wealth and status of his sitters. The column, in particular, suggests the strength of the British monarchy, while the swags of drapery imply both wealth and the opulent femininity of the monarchy’s women. Gainsborough was enormously influenced by the 17th Century Flemish master – as we will see time and again on Monday – and so much of this portrait, from the compositional elements, to the freedom and transparency of much of the painting, is derived from an appreciation of his work.

The delicacy of the palette could hardly come from any other century. Pinks and blues are common to 18th century paintings from across Europe. In France and Italy Boucher and Tiepolo used the same light and airy shades for skies and skin, sunsets and satins. The primrose yellow is another common feature, and can be seen, for example, in Picture Of The Day 43 – Psyche, the work of Fragonard. It is above all in the collars and cuffs, the jewels, the scarves and the shawls that Gainsborough’s delicacy is most brilliant and most evocative, although when you get closer to the paintings themselves the shimmering fabrics are all constructed with a similar build-up of flickering, almost-transparent brushstrokes. The echoing of the black belts with jewelled buckles of the outermost sisters helps to bring them closer together, while the interlinking of the arms and hands makes the trio seem like an enlightenment equivalent of the Three Graces. Having said that, it is hard to see where Elizabeth’s right hand is – or her arm, for that matter… Even her left hand is cut off oddly. Is this an awkward attempt to bring the sisters closer to us, by pushing them into our space?

No. Emphatically ‘No’. George commissioned this portrait from Thomas Gainsborough in 1783, and paid him a handsome 300 guineas for it. Gainsborough himself was happy with the result, and later claimed he had ‘painted the Princesses in so tender a light’ that it really shouldn’t been hung too high on a wall. This comment was made in response to the Royal Academy’s decision to hang the painting ‘above the line’. The ‘line’, as I have mentioned before recently, was an imaginary one, at approximately eye-level. ‘Below the line’ you could hang small cabinet paintings, which would allow them to be examined closely. ‘Above the line’ you might hang large, bold paintings that need some distance to be fully appreciated. Or you could hang paintings which you don’t think really deserve to be seen clearly up there. This may result in them being ‘skied’ – literally as close to the sky as possible, where you can’t see them very well. Obviously the best place to be was on the line, and that is presumably what Gainsborough wanted for his Princesses. The hanging committee wanted it skied, so Gainsborough withdrew it, and never exhibited at the Royal Academy again. Instead, he showed it in his studio in Schomberg House on the south side of Pall Mall before it went to its owner, and found its place in Carlton House, the home of the Prince of Wales (and later Regent), George, who hung it in the Saloon.

Regular visitors to Carlton House apparently said it was impossible to keep up with the interior décor – George kept redecorating and buying more things. By 1816, even though the painting was still at Carlton House, it was in store, catalogued as no. 244. Three years later, it was still in store, and no. 352: I suspect that reflects the rate of acquisitions. But worse was to happen. Here’s a copy of the painting by Gainsborough’s nephew and only student, Gainsborough Dupont – who was, possibly, the model for The Blue Boy. I’m also showing you a print of the original painting (although probably relying on some other source), dated to somewhere between 1860 and 1900.

I know what you’re thinking. As a copy, it’s very free and inventive: they have legs. Well, skirts. Sadly not. At some point early in the reign of Queen Victoria (she succeeded to the throne in 1837, but this story was not recounted for another 30 years) the artist Edwin Landseer saw the ‘inspector of palaces’ – a man called Saunders – cutting down the canvas so that it could be used as an ‘overdoor’ (which is exactly what it says – a painting which is hung above a door). Comparison with what is left of the original shows that he removed the bottom third of the painting, and a considerable slice from the top. As it’s still there, it’s possible to say with precision that he also added an 11cm-wide strip on the left: the join can actually be seen quite clearly with the naked eye, even in reproduction.

The painting may have been cut down in its prime, but how did the Princesses fare? Well enough, I suppose, for women of their age. Charlotte became Queen of Württemberg, and lived to see her 62nd birthday, while Augusta died at the age of 71 having never married. Well, not officially, anyway: she did have a lengthy ‘romance’ with Sir Brent Spencer, an Anglo-Irish officer in the British army. If they married ‘illicitly’ there is no record of it. Elizabeth, the toungest here, became Landgravine consort of Hesse-Homburg, and lived to be 69. Not bad innings, you could say, for the 19th Century, and they all lasted a bit longer than the painting. What remains of it is charming, and delicate, even if the composition is now a bit unsatisfactory. The Blue Boy is different. We don’t know for certain who the model was, so we can’t be sure what happened to him. But the painting is doing remarkably well, and in wonderfully good condition for one that has travelled so far. I’m looking forward to talking about it and its family – all the paintings it looks back on and forward to – on Monday.


151 – Mommie dearest

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, 1871. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

This coming Monday’s talk, White: Whistler’s Woman… is an introduction to the Royal Academy’s exhibition entitled Whistler’s Woman in White. This does not refer to one specific painting, though, but to a person, as the subtitle of the exhibition makes clear: Joanna Hiffernan, one of Whistler’s regular models, and much more…. Curiously I’ve just noticed that the catalogue has a slightly different title – Whistler and the Woman in White, but I’ll try and explain why that might be so on Monday 7 March at 6pm. It is interesting, however, that none of the paintings for which Hiffernan modelled was ever called The Woman in White. The first, completed in 1863 (although it was reworked later) was called The White Girl, for example, although it is now known by the title that Whistler gave it some years later: Symphony in White No. 1. Today I’d like to think about a painting with a similar title, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. This may not be ringing any bells, but if I were to call it Whistler’s Mother I’m sure the reaction would be different.

This is one of those paintings that seems to have entered the public imagination as ‘famous’ and therefore even ‘important’. It has even been given that most dubious of labels, ‘iconic’. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past few years trying to work out what, exactly, gives a painting this status. There are relatively few paintings which could be said to have some sort of ‘celebrity’ in the world of art. The Mona Lisa is the best example, I suppose, followed by Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. But there are others, like Klimt’s The Kiss, Munch’s The Scream or Grant Wood’s American Gothic which are so readily identifiable that they accrue their own type of fame, or infamy, or even notoriety, and which leads to them being quoted, re-purposed and even parodied. Whistler’s Mother is no exception. Among other appearances, it is a key element in that unmissable classic Bean – starring Rowan Atkinson as the eponymous ‘Mr’, who, in this case, works as a security guard at the National Gallery. OK, so the painting is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, but that’s a minor detail: we are talking about a work of fiction. And yes, I’m wrong, it is miss-able, but when I saw it with a group of National Gallery educators it was very funny. But putting that aside, why is this painting, or any painting, for that matter, iconic?

Simplicity is of the essence, I think. You need to be able to take it all in, so that, even at a second glance, you recognise it. Before you’ve finished looking at it the first time, it is already familiar. I suspect that a strong 2-dimensional design plays an important part – and Whistler’s painting has that in spades. I know that the Mona Lisa has a distant, atmospheric landscape, and The Scream has a bridge in exaggerated perspective, but what you notice first in each is the single figure facing resolutely towards you. In this case, Mother sits in profile, looking to our left, with her feet up on a low rest. This makes her lap almost horizontal, a feature which I think is also relevant: it ties her into the rectilinear composition of the painting as a whole. She is parallel to the picture plane, which is in itself slightly unnatural, as we rarely choose to arrange ourselves in line with the walls of a room. It implies stasis, and deliberate choice: she is somewhat abstracted from reality.

Two images hang on the cool grey wall. A monochrome picture – a print, perhaps, with a white mount and a black frame – hangs in a landscape format in the space between Mother’s head and the dark grey curtain on the far left. There is another, similar frame and mount at the top right corner, although there is barely anything of it, little more than a sliver, which gives it a compositional power far stronger than the small percentage of the picture space it occupies would suggest. There is no way of knowing whether this picture is in landscape or portrait format, but what we see implies the latter. As such, the two images echo the composition of the human figure, the picture on the right paralleling the stiff back, while that on the left is equivalent to the sitter’s lap. The strong, black horizontal of the wainscoting also emphasizes, and gives weight to, the horizontal placement of the thighs. These parallels are enhanced explicitly through the colouration – or rather, the lack thereof. The black of the frames and the white of the mounts are the same as those of Mother’s dress and of the headdress, collar, cuffs and handkerchief, the last of which she holds placidly on her lap. The silver grey of her hair is linked to the grey-scale of the engraving. The curtain also echoes this tonal range, although not going to the extremes of deep black or high white. It is Japanese, or in Japanese style: the influence of Asian visual arts on Western European painting was profound in the second half of the 19th Century.

All of these details emphasize the two-dimensional nature of the painting, and of its design. Looking forward to the 20th century, we might be reminded of Mondrian’s contemplative abstractions. But then, looking back, Vermeer inevitably springs to mind, with his careful placement of human actors against backgrounds defined by the rectilinear forms of paintings, picture frames, mirrors and other furniture. The only hint that we are seeing a three-dimensional space – apart from our inherent understanding of the structure of the human body – is the rug on which both chair and footstool are placed, with its woven border leading from the bottom left corner of the painting ever-so-slightly to the right, and some other, parallel lines in the rug which lead towards the footstall. But there is nothing that really grabs our eyes, and drags them into the distance – there is no real distance after all. There is nothing we could call a repoussoir, pushing our gaze back into the space. It is all statement, on the surface, and instantly recognisable. It is this, I think, which makes the painting ‘iconic’ – like an orthodox icon, flat, abstracted from reality, to make it more ‘ideal’. And yet, it is just a little bit approachable, as the skirt hangs down in front of the rug, just possibly reaching into our space – almost as if Mother’s self-contained composure is, in some way, accessible, if we could only just touch the hem of her skirt…

She seems to be intently focussed, with slightly pursed lips, her head slightly lowered, perhaps due to old age. Anna McNeill Whistler was 67 when this was painted. Not so terribly old, you might be thinking, but things were different then. She was enormously proud of her son’s success, although also despairing of his failings – including his dubious morals. At one point, after Whistler had received a legacy from an aunt, Anna wrote to Jemie, as she called him, suggesting that he use the £100 ‘to bestow on your model’. Why should he do that? The letter continued, ‘…you promised me to promote a return to virtue in her. I never forget to pray for her.’ The fact that Joanna Hiffernan was a model was not a problem, but, as models effectively sell their bodies, it was only a small step away from prostitution. And, to put it bluntly, Hiffernan was sleeping with the artist, whereas Mother clearly wanted him to settle down with a respectable woman. His response? He gave Hiffernan power of attorney over his affairs while he was away for seven months, and signed a will bequeathing his entire estate to her. Not exactly filial obedience.

It is not known for certain how the painting came about, although the most common version of the story is that Whistler’s model for the day couldn’t turn up, so he asked his mother to stand in for her. However, standing in – or at least, standing – turned out to be a problem. Anna was getting on a bit, and not able to stand for long periods – hence the fact that she is sitting. I can believe the first part of the story, but not the second. Or rather, if the first part is true, he would instantly have decided to turn the canvas on its side. Everything about this painted is geared towards a seated figure, after all. Alternatively, the fact that he used his mother as a model could be related to a sense of filial duty, or it could also reflect the fact that money was scarce at the time. Three years earlier Anna had complained to a correspondent, ‘he must pay models for them every day a shilling the hour & they must be well fed!’ Presumably mother did not need to be paid.

I’m intrigued how one should categorise this painting. Although it is commonly called Whistler’s Mother, is it really a portrait? I have the same qualms about some of the paintings in the Royal Academy exhibition, about which I hold strong views (with which I will undoubtedly regale you on Monday). After all, Whistler called it Arrangement in Grey and Black – it is the abstract values that concern him, and if it hadn’t been his mother, it could have been a different model, perhaps. However, the same is not true of Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 2, which is subtitled Portrait of Thomas Carlisle.

The title claims it is a portrait, and there is a greater sense, I think, that Carlisle’s appearance and character are important here. Having said that, when today’s painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy Annual Exhibition it was given the subtitle Portrait of the Painter’s Mother – probably because, even in 1872, the Academy was not ready for the developments of the Aesthetic Movement, with which Jemie was becoming firmly aligned. ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ would be the best short explanation of this term, but again, more about that on Monday. Nevertheless, there are aspects of Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 which show that identity is important.

Take this detail for example – the top right hand corner of the curtain, and the framed engraving. The circle on the drape contains a highly stylised butterfly formed from the letters J and W – for James Whistler. This is his signature (a clearer version can be found in No. 2 above) and it is placed close to the print. The forms of this image are so specific that you would think it would be possible to identify the original – and indeed it is. It is a simplified version of his engraving Black Lion Wharf, dating from 1859. The example I am showing you here comes from the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

Whistler is identified as the maker of today’s painting by his signature on the curtain, and by its proximity to the engraving of which he was also the author. So we see his signature and some of his art while we are looking at another example of his art – the painting itself – which includes his mother. This is almost as much a self portrait of as it is a portrait of his mother, as if he were saying, ‘This is where I came from, and this is where I am now.’ On her arrival in London Anna was, apparently, surprised by her son’s ‘flamboyant bohemian lifestyle’. If her own lifestyle expounded the same rigidity with which she appears, metaphorically, in this painting (which, as it happens, it did), then that is not surprising. The modern, interior décor was presumably not to her liking.

The painting has an interesting, if coincidental, link with The Red Boy, the subject of my last talk. Lawrence’s portrait (and it is definitely a portrait – it was commissioned as such) has the curious distinction of being the first painting to appear on a British postage stamp. That was in 1967. Anna McNeill Whistler pipped young Charles William Lambton to the post, though – quite literally, in this case – as she appeared on an American stamp 33 years earlier, in 1934, ‘In memory and in honor’, as the inscription on the stamp itself says, ‘of the mothers of America.’  Such a pity she didn’t get on better with Joanna Hiffernan – but we’ll talk about her, and look at the paintings for which she modelled, on Monday.


150 – Pinkie

Thomas Lawrence, Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton: “Pinkie”, 1794. The Huntington Library, Art Gallery and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California.

As my next two talks are entitled Red and White it seemed like a good idea to write about something related to both, and hence, the colour pink. Not only that, but today’s painting, by Thomas Lawrence (who also painted The Red Boy, about which I will speak on Monday 28 February), has for many years hung opposite The Blue Boy, which will form the focus of the third in the series Red, White and Blue. It’s all connected, you see. Details of all of these talks, are, of course, on the diary page… And, as if this isn’t enough to read, here is a link to my review of Tate Britain’s exhibition Hogarth and Europe which was published in the February Issue of The Burlington Magazine. Some of you may have come to my talk about the exhibition. However, with that ‘introduction’ I was trying hard to talk about the art, and probably didn’t really communicate what I actually thought about the exhibition. Well, the review is a polite version, draw your own conclusions. I didn’t have enough time to talk about Hogarth as a portraitist, which is a great pity: I prefer his portraits to those of either Reynolds or Gainsborough, which might come as a surprise to some. But then, compared to that illustrious couple, I also prefer the slightly later Thomas Lawrence, whose work I want to look at today, and then again during the talk on Monday.

I find this portrait somewhat disarming. A young woman – a girl, even – steps forward, her delicately shod right foot placed equally delicately on the central axis of the painting, her body, like a marble column rising above it, almost coincidentally in the middle of our field of view as she moves along a diagonal from the back left to go out of the painting beyond the front right. As she steps to the right her diaphanous muslin skirts are blown by a light breeze to the left, revealing the form of her leading leg. The untied ribbons of her hat, the same candyfloss pink as her high, empire-style waistband, also flutter to the left, making you wonder what it is, precisely, that is holding her hat in place. But she is not looking where she is going. The movement may be to the front right of the painting, but she has turned her face to look directly out, and so directly towards us, and her fixed gaze is commanding, compelling, and just a little bit unnerving.

She is walking on a hill top, far, it would seem, from ‘civilisation’. What exactly is she doing, you might ask, a girl of this tender age, walking so far from human habitation, and indeed, so far from any sign of human presence? Except, of course, she is not alone: we are there, to see her. Or rather, Thomas Lawrence was there, to paint her (not that she was actually outside when painted, of course…). At her feet the grass is short, and from it grow indistinct flowers, beautifully evoked with just a few dashes of paint, possibly a nod to her youth and future fertility. At some distance, over the brow of the hill on which she walks, we see the brow of the next, far lower hill, with a path curving across it, past sheep and towards a grove of trees. And beyond that – water – a river or lake – and more trees, and more hills. When the painting is seen from a distance this may look like the sea, but the blue is the result of atmospheric perspective, almost as if the blue of the sky and the mist in the air are getting in the way of everything we look at. To the left of her leading right foot we can just see her left, lifting off the ground to take the next step forward, under the complex billowing of her dress.

Her right arm is bent, with the hand perhaps resting on the back of the skirt, her left hand is raised, floating in front of her chest, and casting a shadow on her bodice. The lace trim suggests that the neckline is relatively low cut – for one so young – and it may be that the hand floats there as a sign of her insecurity given her immanent womanhood. Or maybe she is dancing – this is almost a sailor’s hornpipe. Whatever this gesture means, it adds to the slight mystery of the painting, and to its magic. If she is insecure, she does not show it on her face, which looks towards us, inquisitively perhaps, but with determination. It is framed by the rich lustrous curls which were a hallmark of Lawrence’s portraiture –  if you wanted your hair to look good, you went to him – and the hair itself is framed by the pink halo of the hat.

Unlike The Red Boy – or, for that matter, The Blue Boy – the painting is not named for its colour. Instead, it is coloured for its name. The subject is Sarah Goodin Moulton, the 11-year-old daughter of Charles Moulton, a merchant from Madeira who settled in St James, Jamaica and married Elizabeth Barrett, whose family had settled there in 1655. Her name may be familiar: Elizabeth’s brother Edward was the father of the poet we now know as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which is perhaps why the painting is now given both mother’s and father’s names: Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton. The original Sarah Goodin had been the name of one the girl’s aunts who had died as an infant in 1791, two years before this Sarah was born. Within the family, though, the second Sarah was known as “Pinkie” – hence the name of the painting, and presumably, Lawrence’s choice for the colour which she wears. In Jamaica the family were wealthy landowners, and exporters of sugar cane and rum. And yes, there is no getting away from it, they owned slaves. Father seems to have been no good (and not just for this reason – after all, almost everyone was guilty either directly or indirectly). He left the family when Pinkie was only six, leaving Elizabeth to raise the girl, and her three younger brothers, on her own. In September 1792 the four children sailed to England to go to school, leaving Pinkie’s maternal grandmother, Judith Barrett, somewhat bereft. The following year Judith wrote to one of her nieces, who lived in Surrey, just outside London:

I became every day more desirous to see my dear little Pinkey. But as I cannot gratify myself with the Original, I must beg favour of You to have her picture drawn full Length by one of the best Masters in an easy Careless attitude. As your Taste and Judg’ment cannot be excell’d, I leave her Dress to You – You will therefore be so kind as to inform me by the first pacquet after you receive this, what the Amount will be, and I will get a Bill and send You as soon a possible – I shall expect it out as soon as the paint is well dried and Seasoned – Let the frame be handsome and neat.

The painting, with the requested ‘easy Careless attitude’ – perhaps inspired by the dance steps Pinkie would have learnt in her new school as part of her upbringing as a respectable and accomplished young lady – was completed in 1794, and exhibited at the Royal Academy annual exhibition the following year. The exhibition opened on 1 May. The day before – 30 April – Pinkie had been buried in St Alfege, Greenwich. The cause of death is not known. The painting was not sent to Jamaica, remaining with the family in England until 1910. Having passed through the dealers’ hands, in 1927 it was acquired by Henry E. Huntington, who just five years earlier had also bought The Blue Boy – and the two have been together ever since.

The portraits hang opposite each other in The Huntington Art Gallery, and are so connected in the public imagination that many imagine them to be brother and sister – even though one of them, although wearing 17th Century costume, was painted around 1770, while the other was completed, in contemporary fashion, some quarter of a century later. Lawrence was not exactly old himself when he painted the later portrait: he was 25, and had just been made a full member of the Royal Academy, an honour Constable would not be granted until he was more than twice that age. Mind you, when he was Pinkie’s age – eleven – he was already a professional artist. His father had realised that young Thomas – a child prodigy – was well placed to earn enough money from his portraits to support the whole family. But that’s another story, and one which I will touch on on Monday, when we look at what is arguably his best portrait of a child, The Red Boy.


149 – Sunflowers

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888. National Gallery, London.

There can be few artists more famous or more popular these days than Vincent van Gogh, and I must confess that each time I hear about a new exhibition my heart sinks a little. But I’m glad to say, I am often wrong! The last one was Tate Britain’s Van Gogh and Britain which I thought would be completely pointless: he was hardly here, and wasn’t even an artist at the time. I was wrong about the former, and the latter didn’t matter – it was a brilliant exhibition, and I would still recommend the catalogue. As for the current one – well – that’s an exception. I knew it would be good. Apart from the fact that charting van Gogh’s career through his self portraits is such a good idea that I’m surprised it hasn’t been done before, exhibitions at The Courtauld are always small, and as a result focussed, and to the point. Van Gogh. Self Portraits is no exception – both magical and haunting – and I am delighted to be talking about it this Monday, 14 February at 6pm. I’m not saying it will be the perfect Valentine’s date, but it could give you something to talk about over dinner! The following Monday I’m having a day off before we commute to Webinars, which will launch on 28 February with a series of three talks entitled Red, White and Blue. There is more information about the series on the diary page, and, via the blue links there, on Tixoom, but the talks will be an opportunity to look at the works of Sir Thomas Lawrence, James Abbott McNeil Whistler, and Thomas Gainsborough, and will focus on two paintings acquired or borrowed by the National Gallery, and on an exhibition at the Royal Academy. But for today, let’s look one of Vincent’s most famous paintings: Sunflowers. Even if it’s not a self portrait, identity is an issue, as we shall see.

One of the problems we have to confront when we look at this painting is that, by now, the image is so familiar that we recognise it instantly, we know that we know it, and we simply don’t look. To be honest, knowing anything about a painting is one of the first boundaries we all have to cross if we want to learn something new. So let’s just look at it. I have done this with a number of different audiences at different times – mainly school groups, often members of the general public, and occasionally on private tours. I would love to ask you a series of questions, but this is a blog and you can’t answer, so I will just give you the answers I get 99% of the time. Here are the questions:

  1. What is this a painting of?
  2. Where are the Sunflowers?
  3. Where is the vase?

The answer to no. 1, is obvious, really – Sunflowers, the clue is in the title – as is the next answer: in a vase. And the answer to question 3? On a table. It’s that simple. I get these answers every time. The only slight variation is in question three, and fair enough. A few people answer ‘on the floor’ – but very few people say that, simply because very few people have vases on the floor (as far as I’m aware). But, if I asked you to draw me a table, how would you do that? What does it need in order to be identified as a table? A table top, of course, but also legs. And van Gogh hasn’t given us any legs. So why do most people think this is a table? Well, because you tend to keep vases on tables or shelves, and this… well, it doesn’t look like a shelf to me. All this tells me two things. First, the human brain has a remarkable ability to fill in missing details. Second, van Gogh’s had a remarkable ability to abbreviate. How has he painted the table? With a change of colour and a blue line. There are relatively few artists who can convey so much with so little. Let’s face it – there is nothing about the painting of the table that suggests it is a horizontal surface. Imagine cutting out a section of the canvas, like this…

Please don’t actually try cutting out a section of the painting, it would be a rather expensive act of vandalism, and you would certainly get arrested. However, I have done it digitally, which is alright, and you can see that there is no shading, no perspective, nothing to say it is a horizontal, or even flat surface at all. In fact, there is nothing particularly remarkable about this bit of painting in any way, there is just the rough handling of the paint, with almost random brush strokes, used to fill up the space and little more. So we can move on to the next question: what shape is the vase? Or, to put it another way, if you were to take the flowers out and look at the top of the vase from above, what shape would you see?

The answer I always get is ‘a circle’. But how does Vincent tell us that? (I say ‘Vincent’ because that’s what it says on the painting.) There is barely any shading on the vase – OK, so the right side is lighter than the left, but it’s not exactly consistent, and it’s certainly not the subtle variation in tone to model the form in three dimensions that was perfected during the Renaissance. What really gives it the shape is a single line – the blue line curving down from one side of the vase and then up again on the other. This, and the slant of the word ‘Vincent’, together with the white blobs of paint. They are so obviously blobs of paint that quite a few people have asked me if the painting is damaged, or maybe unfinished. But no, blobs of white paint are exactly what Vincent wanted, and they represent a highlight reflecting off the vase, a highlight so bright that only white paint would do. It tells us (here’s the answer to the next question, which I shall therefore omit) that the vase is made of glazed ceramic. But wait a second. If there’s that much light reflecting off the front of the vase, what should we see, somehow, behind the vase? A shadow, surely? But no. No shadows. No shadows, no perspective… what else can he avoid using, I wonder? Well, we’ll have to go back to the painting as a whole in order to answer the next questions.

Pick a simple colour for every question. What colour is the wall? What colour are the flowers? What colour is the vase? What colour is the table? The answer to all of these questions should have been ‘yellow’. OK, so I know there are different shades of yellow, plus details in green and brown, and a couple of blue lines, but basically this is a painting of yellow flowers in a yellow vase on a yellow table against a yellow wall. It is almost – but not quite – monochrome, and the creation of a monochrome painting was really rather original in 1888. I know that Degas painted Combing the Hair using only red, but that was about 8 years later, and, while we’re at the National Gallery, Théo van Rysselberghe used only blue (more or less) for his Coastal Scene. But that was in 1892 – a little closer to Sunflowers in date, perhaps, but still four years later. And it still shows that van Gogh’s work was far more innovative that you might have thought. OK, in a letter to his sister Willemien (see below) he cited Monticelli as a precedent, but Monticelli’s paintings aren’t exactly yellow… And we are left with the problem that, if Vincent’s painting is yellow, then how does he make the vase visible?

It’s simple really, which is why it is so brilliant. The wall is lighter yellow than the table, and the top part of the vase is darker than the bottom. He places the dark of the vase against the light of the wall, and then, further down, the light against the dark. Economical, but telling.

And how does he depict the flowers themselves? At the bottom two droop down, balanced, but not exactly symmetrical. Each yellow petal, and each green section of the former bud, curves round in a single, curving brushstroke. One of the things that this painting makes clear is that van Gogh loved paint. He loved the feel of it, he loved the way it moved, and he loved applying it in different ways, with brushstrokes describing the qualities of his subject almost as much – if not more – than their colour and form do.

Just above the vase the composition is again balanced, but not symmetrical – with two thickly-painted seed heads in the centre, made up of thick blobs of glistening paint dabbed onto the canvas. To the left and right, and slightly higher up, are two more blooms with curling petals, tilted down, another tilted out. The petals here are fuller, and formed by a number of brushstrokes, each one with fairly thick paint in which we can see the lines formed by the separate hairs of the brush.

At the top we have a pyramid, with one, central, dominant flower. Admittedly it’s a very squat pyramid, but it focuses our attention on the centre of the image, leaving the top left and right as just ‘background’. Two flowers look out at us, one central, one on the far left, but both appear to be losing their petals, a little be worse for wear. The one on the left even looks a little tipsy – but I probably shouldn’t anthropomorphise. The texture of the paint is fantastic. The large central flowers are built up of the blobs of paint, dabbed and pressed onto the surface with the end of the brush, I presume, while the pale yellow background is applied in short horizontal and vertical strokes, almost as if it were woven.

The ‘story’ of the painting is well known, I think, but just as a reminder, it was painted when van Gogh was about to be visited in Arles by his hero of the moment, Paul Gauguin. They had met in Paris in 1887, but they weren’t exactly friends, and Gauguin only went down south because Vincent’s brother Theo – an art dealer – promised to pay him: Gauguin was desperate to raise cash to escape from France. Around 18 August 1888, shortly before Gauguin arrived, Vincent wrote to artist Emile Bernard saying,

I am thinking of decorating my studio with half a dozen pictures of “Sunflowers,” a decoration in which the raw or broken chrome yellows will blaze forth on various backgrounds – blue, from the palest malachite green to royal blue, framed in thin strips of wood painted with orange lead. Effects like those of stained-glass windows in a Gothic church.

And then, about three days later, he wrote to his brother Theo:

I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when you know that what I’m at is the painting of some big sunflowers.

I have three canvases going – 1st, three huge flowers in a green vase, with a light background, a size 15 canvas; 2nd, three flowers, one gone to seed, having lost its petals, and one a bud against a royal-blue background, size 25 canvas; 3rd, twelve flowers and buds in a yellow vase

Our painting is the fourth… he mentions it in a letter to Theo written around 27 August:

I am now on the fourth picture of sunflowers. This fourth one is a bunch of 14 flowers, against a yellow background.

And he mentions it again in a letter to his sister, Willemien:

So I myself too have already finished a picture all in yellow – of sunflowers (fourteen flowers in a yellow vase and against a yellow background …).

… which is pretty much the way I have described it for years, even though I only read this letter today! (You can find all the correspondence here – linking first to the letter to Bernard, in a better translation than I’ve quoted). In the end, rather than using this painting for the studio, it was hung in the room which Gauguin would use. The time the two artists spent together is the stuff of legend by now, but if you don’t know the story it will have to wait for another time, I’m afraid. Vincent presumably wanted Gauguin to feel at home, to enjoy himself, and to want to stay, so no wonder he wanted to decorate his room with a painting ‘all in yellow’ – the colour of light, the colour of life. But is it a happy painting? I’ll let you decide.

One last question: why does he sign himself ‘Vincent’. Well, I can assure you I’ve spent hours with every Dutch visitor I’ve ever shown this painting to – including entire school groups from The Netherlands – trying to get them to help me to pronounce ‘Van Gogh’ correctly. So far I have failed. Most English go for ‘van Goff’ (‘van’ to rhyme with ‘can’ – it should be more like ‘von’), the French for a soft ‘van Gog’, and the Americans for an insistent ‘van Go!’. It must have seemed far easier for him to stick to ‘Vincent’. Still, on Monday, when I get to talk about The Courtauld’s poignant Van Gogh. Self Portraits, I’ll give it another go.


148 – We’re all human

Francis Bacon, Head VI, 1949. Arts Council Collection, South Bank Centre, London.

There is nothing quite so exciting in 20th Century painting as getting close to the surface of a work by Francis Bacon – there was no one who handled paint as well, with such power, and with such variety, who had worked so hard to achieve the right effects, knew precisely where the paint would go, how thick or thin it should be, how carefully or recklessly it should be applied to grab the viewer by the eyes and penetrate the sinews. So I was thrilled to see the Royal Academy’s new exhibition, Francis Bacon: Man and Beast on Tuesday, and then equally excited to be able to share my enthusiasm with a group of patrons of the RA two days later. And now I am looking forward to talking about him again on Monday 7 February, as the RA’s powerful exhibition is the subject of next week’s talk. It’s been a good week! On Thursday afternoon I also saw – on the opening day – the remarkable, focussed exhibition Van Gogh. Self Portraits at The Courtauld (the hiatus-inducing punctuation is theirs). Only 18 works, perhaps, but it says everything you need to know about Vincent himself – and I will talk about that on Monday 14 February. Today though, an old favourite, in which one of the best modern artists looks back to the one of the best of the Old Masters.

Throughout his career Francis Bacon painted around 50 screaming popes, but this painting, Head VI, is the first. Or at least, it is the first which survives. We don’t know that there were any others which preceded it, but it was painted in 1949, and already in 1946 he wrote to a couple of friends, including the artist Graham Sutherland, saying that he was working on three paintings inspired by the Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velázquez (c. 1650). However, Head VI would not have taken three years to paint. Either there were other discarded versions that preceded it, or the work progressed slowly, with much thought preceding the actual execution. Either is possible, both are likely, and the ‘three’ he mentioned are probably among those that surfaced later.

It would be easy to argue that Bacon’s work is not so terribly similar to the original. Quite apart from the way they are painted, there is just not so much of the Pope. I’m not talking about the absence of the top of the head in the modern version, but about the format – Bacon’s is only a bust length work. Indeed, some have suggested that he was actually inspired by the version which found its way into the collection of the Duke of Wellington, and can still be seen in Apsley House.

But this just makes me think that ‘some’ should retire from the History of Art, and start looking at paintings instead. The Apsley House version does not have a visible throne, nor does the pope reveal his white sleeves. Both features were clearly visible to Francis Bacon, as both are included in Head VI – so we can forget Apsley House’s minor masterpiece and concern ourselves with the main event. But why was Bacon so obsessed with it? Well, because he knew how good Velázquez was. In an interview with the art critic David Sylvester in 1962 he said that the portrait ‘just haunts me, it opens up all sorts of feelings and areas of – I was going to say – imagination, even, in me.’ He was in awe of the way the Spaniard handled paint, and how he used it to go beyond the surface and reveal the character of his subject – whether the ‘subject’ was a portrait or a narrative. At one point he said that he wanted ‘to paint like Velázquez, but with the texture of a hippopotamus skin’. It had to be as good, of course, but rougher, and tougher, as he 20th Century demanded. The one thing that Bacon feared most was to be merely illustrative. In the 1962 interview the modern master said that what he admired in his Spanish predecessor was the latter’s ability ‘to keep it so near to what we call illustration and at the same time so deeply unlock the greatest and deepest things that man can feel’. It was the communication of the greatest and deepest things which most interested Bacon.

Much of the detailing we see here was the artist’s way of holding on to what interested him most, of pinning it down, and stopping it from escaping our attention – or, in his words, his need ‘to trap the fact’. The framing elements are his way of focussing our attention on the subject matter – something he believed that other artists did as well:

I think that the very great artists were not trying to express themselves. They were trying to trap the fact, because after all, artists are obsessed by life and by certain things that obsess them that they want to record. And they’ve tried to find systems and construct the cages in which these things can be caught.

In Head VI, the ‘fact’ is presumably – in some way – the inner life of Innocent X, and so it is on him that we must concentrate. His being is not, in this case, related to his mobility – so the legs are of no value – and everything we need to know is contained within the thinly sketched white cage, a feature, common in Bacon’s ouevre, which is often referred to as a ‘space frame’. Innocent is defined by his status – enthroned, as a monarch – and so the vaguely sketched gilded structure of the throne is also important, and also functions as another way to ‘trap the fact’. Notice how the painted image of the face does not go higher than the gilded chair, and the eyes – absent or veiled – are on a level with the back of the throne. Let’s have another look at the Velázquez.

The throne contains the Pope in much the same way that the space frame contains his 20th Century descendant – the arms contain his arms, and the top of the chair – although above his eyes – helps frame him in much the same way that there is a gilt-wood frame around the painting. Both help to ‘trap the fact’. What is this? In part, I think, ‘the fact’ that Innocent’s attitude is not clear. Is he in control, or clasping the arms of the chair in fear? Comfortable with his power, or afraid of the fall?

In the lower half of the painting our interest is refocussed on the subject by the presence of so much raw canvas – this is the material of the work, but that is not what it is about. The diagonal closure of the space frame runs parallel to where the chair arm would be – although higher, as we cannot see the whole arm. But what we do see is an incredible painterly display, broad brushstrokes of ‘dry’ paint (i.e. a low amount of oil compared to the amount of pigment) dragged and smeared across the canvas, and across wet paint where it mixes, the strokes flowing or creeping down towards the join in the mozzetta, or papal cape. The colour, you might say, is not ‘right’. This is definitely purple. Velázquez painted a deep red, heightened to pink by the reflections. You could go on for a long time about the problems with colour reproduction, the transient nature of some paints, etc, etc, but you would be wrong. Velázquez painted red, Bacon painted purple it’s that simple. But why? Because that colour expressed Bacon’s feelings more profoundly? Probably not. The reason is probably one of the most surprising facts about his obsession with this painting: he never saw it. Even when he spent some months in Rome in 1954 – five years after this particular version – he didn’t go and see it. He didn’t paint from life, life was too distracting, it was bound up with time and place, with mood and with gut responses. He painted from photographs, as they got closer to ‘the fact’. Admittedly there is a suspicion that, when he was in Rome, he might not have wanted to see the real thing, just in case he realised he couldn’t live up to it. Or worse, that it would disappoint him after years of building it up. Nevertheless, in an interview with Sylvester just four years after the other, in 1966, he regretted that his versions of the masterpiece were ‘records of it, distorted records.’ But it wasn’t just this great work of art that he painted ‘second hand’. Even the portraits of his friends and lovers were painted from photographs, commissioned from another friend, John Deakin. He also hoarded a vast archive of source material, in books and magazines, or torn out from them: I’ll show you more of these on Monday. Here, though, is one of the images that influenced him most.

It is a film still – the nurse from the ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence of Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece Battleship Potemkin, a film that Bacon saw even before he started painting, and which influenced him greatly in a number of ways. In his 1962 interview he said, ‘I did hope one day to make the best painting of the human cry. I was not able to do it and it is much better in the Eisenstein and there it is.’

But why? Why the concern with suffering? There is, perhaps, a little hint of an answer in another odd detail here, a tassel which seems to dangle above the Pope’s nose. It occurs in other paintings, and is, in some ways, like the arrows which can be seen elsewhere in his work – it is another way of drawing your attention to what matters. It falls between the eyes, or where the eyes should be, or where the eyes were. It is almost as if they have been burnt away, or, like the nurse, as if the Pope’s glasses have been broken (not that Innocent X wears glasses). This blinding, the end of sight, is a sign of fragility, an intimation of mortality: one day, the lights will go out. This tassel could be a light pull. But actually it comes from another photographic source: a photograph of Hitler leaning out of a window. In that image, it appears to be part of a cord to pull down a blind, a way of shutting things out – the darkness, or the light – or, when lifted, of revealing, in that theatrical way which has cropped up more than once in my talks recently. That the tassel may have some relationship to Hitler hints at the levels of human suffering which are involved. Eisenstein’s nurse wasn’t Bacon’s only source material for the scream. He also had a collection of images of leading Nazis declaiming at rallies, their mouths wide open as they rabidly spewed out their venom.

Bacon lived through two world wars. Too young to serve in the first (he was only five when it started), he was too sick for the second. He was a lifelong sufferer from asthma, which was triggered particularly by dogs and horses – just one reason why his ex-military father, an unsuccessful race horse trainer, was disappointed in the second child of five. Father was also disappointed by his son’s effeminacy, and so horsewhipped him, as well as having him horsewhipped by the grooms. Bacon was all too aware of man’s inhumanity to man, and of the way in which we, with our supposed sophistication, can behave worse than animals. As the Second World War ended, the full extent of the Nazi horror became known. It did not help that the sense of triumph over evil was undermined by the means used to end another part of the conflict, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For many, God was dead. For Bacon, he had never existed. He described himself, though, as an optimist, because, if there is no God-given purpose to our existence, then life is what we make it, and Bacon was determined to make as much of it as possible. Nevertheless, that underlying fear of being left ‘on our own’ spawned Existentialism, with its fear of the Void, and even for those not philosophically inclined, there was the gnawing angst inspired by the possibility of nuclear Armageddon. Was this the source of ‘the human cry’? Was this the ‘fact’ that Bacon wanted to ‘trap’? He was, from his own experience, only too aware how thin the veil separating our sophistication from our animal instincts can be. We are all flesh and blood, we are all meat – and that applies to the Pope every bit as much as to – well – anyone else. It is, perhaps, also worth remembering that – with one medieval and one modern exception – there is only one way to stop being Pope. Basically, you’re there until God wants you back. Or, to put it another way, you’re trapped there till you die. I think I’d scream, under the circumstances.

Now, having said all of that, I really hope I haven’t put you off joining me on Monday! Francis Bacon is undoubtedly one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century, dealing with issues that must concern us all: the nature of being alive, the full scope and depth – and depths – of humanity. For Bacon, being human during the 20th Century – missing only some of the first and last decades living, as he did, from 1909-1992 – put him in the best position to see what was going on. And the exhibition Francis Bacon: Man and Beast lives up to that ambition.


147 – Inspiring Devotion

Marie Spartali Stillman, How the Virgin Mary Came to Brother Conrad of Offida and laid her Son in his Arms, 1892. National Trust Collections, Wightwick Manor and Gardens, Warwickshire.

On Monday I will be talking about Lucy and Catherine Maddox Brown, whose work was once described as having Uncommon Power  – a description which has been used as the title for a small exhibition dedicated to their work at the Watts Gallery in Surrey. They were taught by their father, the ‘Unofficial Pre-Raphaelite’ Ford Maddox Brown, and while it was not unusual for female artists to be the daughters of successful men – certainly during the renaissance and baroque eras – it did not follow that the parent was also interested in teaching other women. Not so with Maddox Brown: a number of women frequented his studio, and it is about one of them that I would like to talk today: Marie Spartali. Or rather, it is one of her works which I would like to consider.

We find ourselves in the middle of a forest of fairly young trees, a landscape in which, from the title of the painting, we would expect to see at least three people – the Virgin Mary, Brother Conrad of Offida, and the Christ Child – and they are clearly visible on the right of the image. Mary stands as far right as possible, wearing a full, pink dress, and blue cloak, and holding her Son in front of her. White lilies, symbols of her purity, grow at her feet. Both mother and child look down towards the man we must assume is Brother Conrad, as it is to him that the Virgin Mary has come. Dressed from head to foot in brown, with a rope belt, he kneels at her feet, and reaches up towards them – an act of humility and devotion, but, from the title, we can assume that he is already hoping for the honour of holding the Christ Child. And indeed, we know Conrad’s hope will be fulfilled, as the title tells us that Mary will lay ‘her Son in his Arms’.  But these three are not the only ones present. On the far left is another figure in brown. He could not be further away in this painting, and is also half-hidden by a tree, suggesting that maybe he should not be there. Nevertheless, he holds his hands together in prayer, and leans towards the miraculous visitation. The brown habits and rope belts tell us that these men are Franciscan friars – from the Order of Friars Minor, founded by St Francis – and it is indeed a story which Marie Spartali has taken from one of the devotional biographies of the Saint, I Fioretti di San Francesco (‘The Little Flowers of St Francis’). Most authorities now believe it was written by Ugolino Brunforte (c. 1262 – 1348) some time in the 14th Century – over a century after Francis himself had died.

The image is painted on paper in watercolour and bodycolour (any sort of opaque, water-soluble pigment – watercolour is transparent), with the addition of gold paint. It is intricately detailed, showing every leaf of the dense thicket. (It’s not clear what the trees are: I’ve just asked the Ecologist. They could be holly, not all of which is prickly, or bay, but they’re not willow, as I originally thought, because they’re not by a stream). The simplicity and innocence of Brother Conrad’s devotion is shown by the simple clarity of his face, and his open gesture, stretching his arms full length towards the child (notice the subtle highlights on the top of the sleeves). Both Mother and Child look towards him, their heads lowered, Jesus’s expression being one of determined love, his mother’s perhaps more reserved. But that is not surprising. She knows what is in store, and her head is neatly framed by the Cross at which Conrad was presumably praying before she appeared: you can see in other details that his prayer book is lying open on the ground beside him. The cross itself is a humble as the friars – a tree trunk and a sawn section of a branch tied together with the same rope used for the friars’ belts. Jesus’s head and arm lie in front of the vertical of the cross, an unmistakable reference to his fate. Indeed, the way in which he is held seems to echo some images of the Descent from the Cross, when the dead Christ’s arms fall down to one side of his inert body. Here, however, he stands – almost miraculously, almost weightlessly – on his Mother’s left hand, her right supporting his stomach as he leans towards the devoted friar. For Mother and Child this gesture of their love for the faithful is effortless. Mary’s divinity is different to that of Jesus. His halo is a simple loop, formed from the gold paint, which floats above his head. Hers is a radiant burst made up of beams of light of different lengths. The gold also picks out the hems of the blue cloak, which is slung over her right shoulder and held up by her right arm, so that it falls beneath the Christ Child and makes his pale form stand out. We can also see short brushstrokes of gold defining the shape of the pink sleeve: this is no ordinary occurrence, and in the right light, both Mother and Child would glisten. According to the story, they appeared in a ‘great light exceeding bright’.

The Fioretti tells us that the other figure is Brother Peter, who followed Conrad ‘by stealth’. It’s such a lovely story that I am quoting it in full:

The holy Brother Conrad of Offida lived in the House of Forana, in the Custody of Ancona. He went one day into the wood to meditate on God, and Brother Peter followed him by stealth, for to see what might befall him.

Brother Conrad began to pray, most devoutly beseeching the Virgin Mary to beg of her blessed Son this grace, that he might feel a little of that sweetness that Saint Simeon felt on the day of the Purification, when he held in his arms the blessed Saviour Jesu. And when he had made this prayer, the Virgin Mary of her pity heard him; and behold: there appeared unto him the Queen of heaven with her blessed Son in her arms, with a great light exceeding bright, and coming near unto Brother Conrad, she laid in his arms her blessed Son: who taking Him with great devotion, embracing and kissing Him and pressing Him to his breast, was melted altogether and dissolved in the love divine and consolation unspeakable.

And in like manner Brother Peter, who from his hiding-place saw all that befell, felt in his soul exceeding sweetness and consolation. And when the Virgin Mary had departed from Brother Conrad, Brother Peter gat him back in haste to the house, that he might not be seen of him: but thereafter, when Brother Conrad returned all joyful and glad, Brother Peter said unto him: “ O what heavenly great consolation hast thou had this day!” Quoth Brother Conrad: “What is this that thou sayest, Brother Peter? and what dost thou know of that which I have had?”

“I know full well, I know,” said Brother Peter, “how the Virgin Mary with her blessed Son hath visited thee.” Then Brother Conrad, who being truly humble desired to keep secret the favours of God, besought him that he would tell it unto no one; and from that time forth so great was the love between these twain, that they seemed to have but one heart and soul in all things.

That Brother Peter was an upright and trustworthy man – despite his ‘stealth’ – is clear from the way he echoes the upward growth of the tree behind which he is barely hidden (an oak, as it happens), although as the tree grows left he leans right. He wears sandals: St Francis told his friars they should not wear shoes, much as Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 6:28-29 not to worry what they wear:

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

… and there are plenty of flowers growing beautifully here to underline that point. Brother Conrad’s humility is such that he does not even seem to be wearing sandals: the hem of his habit falls over his heels, but this leaves his unshod toes clearly visible. The woodland is beautifully structured. Further back, and to the right of Brother Peter’s tree is another, and at the same distance back and to the right we see a third stand of trunks. Then to the right, and coming forward is fourth.

Coming forward and to the right again we see Brother Conrad – he is as sturdy (in his faith) as these trees growing in the wood, and he kneels between that fourth clump and the Cross, which is itself often described as the ‘Tree’ on which Jesus died – with Jesus as the fruit of the tree.

If we look back to the whole image, we can see that these trees are arranged in an unmistakeable ‘V’ shape, leading back into the woods from Brother Peter, and then forward to Brother Conrad. It is one of the devices which emphasizes the distance between to the two friars. Not only are Peter and Mary at the extremes of the painting (although Spartali makes sure that both Mary and Jesus are higher than Peter), but this ‘V’ creates an open space in the middle of the painting. I do not think it is a coincidence that the diagonal formed by the heads of Mary, Jesus and Conrad lands at the base of the painting directly beneath the central cluster of trees, the point of the ‘V’.

It is just to the left of this central growth that the brightest elements of the distant landscape can be seen – the sky around a church on the horizon. This helps to tells us the extent of Conrad’s devotion. Not only is the church well lit – the source of his enlightenment – but it is also far: in his humility he has retreated far from the world, not wanting his prayers to be witnessed, or to ‘show off’ the strength of his belief. As a result, he has been duly rewarded. The expression on Peter’s face also reminds us that, as the story tells us, he ‘felt in his soul exceeding sweetness and consolation’ – although I can’t help thinking that Spartali has also added in a little hint of guilt, acknowledging that perhaps he really shouldn’t be there spying on his Brother.

I think this image is remarkably beautiful, telling a charming story with clarity and delicacy – both in terms of emotional truth and detailed naturalism. It has all the hallmarks of the Pre-Raphaelite ‘greats’ – but sadly, the artist is little known. Having trained with Ford Maddox Brown, Marie Spartali – part of the Greek business diaspora in London – married the American journalist William Stillman against her father’s wishes. When Stillman was posted to Florence, she inevitably went with him, and there they lived from 1878-83, socialising with the Anglo-American ex-pats, among whom the most interesting must surely have been John Singer Sargent. From ’86-’96 they lived in Rome (I’m not sure where they were in between!), and in 1892, when today’s picture was painted, they spent some time near Perugia – and so not far from Assisi where St Francis himself is buried. In all that time she continued to visit England, and to send paintings around the world, often – like Evelyn de Morgan, who I wrote about way back in April 2020 (see Day 41 – Night and Sleep) – supporting her husband with the income from her sales. There would have been plenty of opportunities for her to see art, and to be inspired – and there are many influences on this painting, as there are for any good artist who will acknowledge their work as part of a greater whole. The story itself is not so terribly far from the story of the stigmatisation of St Francis, which took place at Mount La Verna, in a ‘secret and solitary place’, according to St Bonaventura. On that occasion St Francis was accompanied by Brother Leo, and although Leo was not physically present, but nearby, he gave the first account of the stigmatisation, and many artists paint Leo as if he were in full sight when it happened. Spartali could have seen the fresco by Giotto in the Upper Church in Assisi, although I am showing you the version by Domenico Ghirlandaio from Santa Trinità in Florence (1483-5). Not only is the format similar to that of her painting, but in other works she seems to draw on Ghirlandaio for details of renaissance clothing.

The wooded landscape itself is derived from Giovanni Bellini, and his Assassination of St Peter Martyr (about 1505-7) – presented to the National Gallery by Lady Eastlake in 1870: Spartali could easily have seen it there.

Giovanni Bellini The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr about 1505-7 Oil on wood, 99.7 x 165.1 cm Presented by Lady Eastlake, 1870 NG812 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG812

And the last thing I would suggest is a source for the rather precarious way in which Mary holds Jesus. I am sure it is inspired by a Botticelli in the Palazzo Pitti – again, somewhere she is bound to have visited while she was in Florence. In this case Jesus embraces his cousin John – and it is as if Spartali ‘wound back’ the event (as well as reversing it), to depict the moment just before the child was lowered into Brother Conrad’s arms.

Two last images: the first, a portrait of Marie Spartali-Stillman by Ford Maddox Brown (1869, Private Collection). He is said to have had an unrequited passion for her, but I really can’t speak to that. He does, however – unlike many other male artists painting their female colleagues – show her as a competent, practicing artist. She sits beside her easel on which we can see one of her own works, her palette and mahl stick leaning up against it. This is, to my mind, one of her early works, The Lady Prays-Desire (1867, Private Collection) – the other image I have posted. However, some people wonder if the painting on the easel could be her first publicly exhibited work, Korinna (also 1867, now lost), but I really can’t believe that she would have replicated this precise chin-on-curled-finger pose in two contemporaneous images. Nor that in both the centrally-parted red hair would have been held back by black ribbons.

This is a good place to leave her. After all, she said, ‘it was Madox Brown who encouraged me to become an artist and who taught me to paint. I can never feel sufficiently grateful for his having given this immense interest to my life’. We will look at the work of two of his other students – his daughters – on Monday. If you would like to know more about Marie Spartali-Stillman, I can recommend the catalogue of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Pre-Raphaelite Sisters. There is also a catalogue to an exhibition held at Delaware Art Museum in 2015, Poetry in Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman, although this is now only available second hand at considerable expense. If you want to do some homework for Monday’s talk – or reading afterwards – the catalogue Uncommon Power has a number of thoroughly researched and well-written essays on various aspects relating to the Maddox Browns and female artists in Victorian England. Or you could just join me on Monday!


146 – You’ve been framed

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Nicolaes van Bambeeck, 1641. Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.

At the end of last week’s talk I said that the Royal Collection contained some of the best portraits ever painted. I’m not going to talk about them today – I will leave that until Monday, as they are included in the exhibition Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace, which will be the subject of this week’s talk. There will be more portraits – of a very different type – in the following week as well (Monday 31 January), when we move on to consider a pair of Pre-Raphaelite Sisters who painted, according to one contemporary critic, with Uncommon Power. Thank you to those who were there last week – and for those who were not, my problem with Constable’s rainbow has finally been solved. I’m now assuming that everyone else knew what was going on – but as Stephen pointed out to me in a comment on last week’s post, ‘isn’t it simply that the sun sets at around 310 degrees around the summer solstice, so a low sun (the rainbow appears ‘tall’) would be in the right place to form this rainbow?’ Yes! Of course! Why didn’t I think of that, and why did no one else tell me?! Having learnt as a child that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, I have never moved it from these fixed points – despite being aware of the declination of the Earth. Sunrise and sunset are only due East and due West on an Equinox. So, my end of term school report would be, ‘Physics: fine; Geography and Astronomy: poor’. Even the Physics turned out to be ‘not so good’, which is one of the reasons why I am now an Art Historian! Enough. Time to move on. Today I am going to look at a portrait which is not entirely unconnected to those in the Royal Collection – Rembrandt’s painting of the wealthy wool merchant Nicolaes van Bambeeck.

Soberly dressed, as good citizens of Amsterdam were wont to be in the 17th Century, with a black hat and cloak, the painting is perfectly presented in a black ebony frame, itself beautifully carved, and highly polished. Bambeeck himself looks entirely serious, as sober as his monochrome outfit, all black and white – with the exception of the calf-skin (?) gloves. These harmonise with the sandy-coloured background, the stone of the pilasters seen on the right, and the diffuse golden light which illuminates the sitter with a healthy glow. His starched collar shines brightly in its puritanical whiteness, and the same stiff cleanliness must surely also apply to the two cuffs, although we can’t be certain as they are painted in different depths of beautifully graded shadow. However, sober as he appears here, Bambeeck was not always so serious. He was also depicted as the Ensign (or flag bearer) in one of the many groups of voluntary city guards which existed in The Netherlands at the time, The Company of Captain Reinier Reael and Lieutenant Cornelis Michielsz Blaeuw.

Bambeeck is the one on the far left – holding the flag – with Reael and Blaeuw sitting next to him. This group portrait is one of many such images, a genre in its own right in The Netherlands, and in most of the paintings the sitters are – how can I phrase this politely? – well, they have far fuller figures. As a result, this particular group has come to be known as The Meagre Company. It was commissioned from Frans Hals in 1633, but he didn’t like the idea of travelling to Amsterdam (from nearby Haarlem) in order to paint it. A long dispute ensued, and after three years the Company hired Pieter Codde to finish the work. Bambeeck’s was the only figure Hals completed in its entirety. Although the Haarlem master planned the whole painting, and executed some of the portraits, and a few of the fabrics, it gets less like his style the further to the right you go.

That this is indeed Bambeeck can be seen by comparing details from the paintings by Hals and Rembrandt.

The angle of the face is slightly different, but that is nothing compared with difference in temperament. Hals gives us a smug, fashionable socialite, Rembrandt a contemplative scholar. But that nose is unmistakable – long, with a rounded, but almost beak-like tip, coming down below the nostrils, with a kink in the bridge.

So who was Nicolaes van Bambeeck, other than an embodiment of the styles of Holland’s two leading painters? Well, his family had originally come from Flanders, but fled to Holland after Nicolaes’s grandfather was executed by the Duke of Alva in Brussels in 1568. Alva had been sent by Phillip II of Spain to crush the rebellion in the Low Countries, but his heavy-handed tactics – exemplified by executions such as that of Bambeeck grand-père – led some of the Netherlandish provinces to break away from Spanish rule, resulting in the Eighty Years War and the establishment of the Dutch Republic as an independent nation state in 1648. Bambeeck’s father – also Nicolaes – married in Leiden in 1598, and moved to Amsterdam, where he died in 1615, leaving mother as the richest woman on her street. Nicolaes himself married in 1638, and at first the couple lived with his mother-in-law, in a house which just happened to be diagonally opposite Rembrandt’s. Within two years, they were well enough acquainted for Bambeeck to lend the artist money. He also lent money to Gerrit Uylenburgh, an art dealer, son of Hendrick (one of Rembrandt’s business partners) and cousin of Rembrandt’s wife Saskia. It was a close-knit group.

Bambeeck’s money came from trade – he was a cloth merchant, dealing mainly in Spanish wool, although he doesn’t seem to be showing off the latter in either of these portraits. But then, as I said last week, I’m not an expert on clothing.

Nevertheless, the focus in the portrait – by dint of the brilliant illumination – is the cotton collar, starched and smooth, with sharp pleats to give it its form, and minutely stitched hems. It is trimmed with copious quantities of lace. Collars had been fashionable since the 1630s, taking over from the ruff as they allowed for longer hair (as we saw when looking at Hals a few weeks back) and lace was always in favour. It may have been modestly coloured, perhaps, in chaste white, but it was hugely expensive, both to make and to clean. Note the way that, over the left shoulder (on our right), the edge of the lace just curls up and catches the light, not so very far from the signature at the top right of this detail.

The space itself is poorly defined – but then, excessive detail would distract us from looking at the sitter. Bambeeck’s face is at the height of some architectural detailing, part of two pilasters which mark a corner of the space in the background at the right. This is precisely where Rembrandt chose to paint both signature and date (1641). The whole is contained by the sober black frame – perfectly matching the blacks and greys of the costume – and just catching the light thanks to its perfect polish. The sitter wears his right glove, but has taken off the left one, and holds it in his right hand, allowing us to see his sophistication and elegance (gloves were that significant), but also, from the condition of his hand (if we could see it – sorry) that he is not a manual labourer, but a successful businessman who never needs to get his own hands dirty. He rests his right arm on a parapet – much as Rembrandt himself does in his Self Portrait at the age of 34 (which also has a semi-circular top), or for that matter, like the subject of Titian’s Portrait of Girolamo (?) Barbarigo, which was Rembrandt’s source for this motif, after he had seen the painting on the art market in Amsterdam. Both paintings are now, coincidentally, in the National Gallery in London.

But why did I trim the detail to cut off Bambeeck’s hand like that? Well, because it is precisely at this point that the painting gets truly interesting. He is resting his right arm on the parapet, yes, and he rests his left hand on it too. But is this really a parapet? And if so, of what is it made?

Well, it’s not a parapet at all. It is a picture frame – a beautifully polished black ebony picture frame. We see three glints of light reflecting off it in the bottom left-hand corner, defining its inner edge and two mouldings. But this is not the actual picture frame, as the edge and one of the mouldings are interrupted by the hem of Bambeeck’s satin cloak with its black lace trim, and then by the fingers of his empty left glove, which also cross the lower moulding. In the right corner the reflections are not so bright – although the form of the frame is still perfectly defined. The fingers of the subject’s left hand curl around it. The surface of the painting has dissolved, and the transition between our space and the space occupied by Nicolaes van Bambeeck becomes invisible – he is here with us, in one of the most brilliant trompe l’oeuil games that I know. He really could reach out and shake us by the hand (although maybe we would prefer it if he took the other glove off first). All of this should make you realise – if you hadn’t before – that the light glinting off the frame at the top right is not reflecting off the frame at all, as it is, of course, part of the painting.

The capital of the pilaster on the fictive frame sits just above the architectural detailing in the background. The bright white reflections draw our eyes towards them, and the upturned brim of the hat also seems to point the way. Just below this, this most bravura display of skill, is where Rembrandt tells you who he is, as if to see ‘Look at this! See what I can do!’ And of course, this is just above the subtly illuminated section of curling lace. ‘Put your name by the best bit’ – something else he could have learnt from Titian. The brilliance of the illusion is the result of Rembrandt’s ability to make paint look like polished ebony. This is precisely why paintings like this really should always be seen in their frames – even virtual reality can’t create such an effect: see how well the painted reflections match the reflections from the three-dimensional frame. From a photograph it is still hard to work out exactly which is which.

I said earlier that, three years before this was painted, Nicolaes van Bambeeck had married, but I didn’t tell you to whom. Her name was Agatha Bas, and she was the daughter of the mayor of Amsterdam, arms dealer Dirck Bas. Together with today’s painting Bambeeck commissioned a portrait of his wife as a pendant, and below you can see a detail from it: it is, of course, one of the Treasures from Buckingham Palace which I will be talking about on Monday. The two portraits seem to have stayed together until at least 1802, but by 1814 they had been separated. I shall reunite them in a few days’ time, when we will see what equivalent surprises Agatha has up her sleeve. Or rather, just beside it.


145 – Me, myself, and I?

Laura Knight, Laura Knight with model, Ella Louise Naper (‘Self Portrait’), 1913. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Happy New Year! And as this is the first blog of the year, let us start with a woman who could count several ‘firsts’ to her name: Laura Knight. Or, if you prefer, Dame Laura Knight: in 1929 she was the first female artist to receive this honour. Seven years later, she was also the first woman to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy, and in in 1965 she was the first woman to have a solo exhibition there. I will be talking about her more this Monday, 10 January, as an introduction to the MK Gallery’s exhibition Laura Knight: A Panoramic View. Further talks in January will include Late Constable, some Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace and a pair of Pre-Raphaelite Sisters of Uncommon Power. As ever, the details of all of these – and other things – are on the diary page. I am also hoping to deliver some in-person visits to London museums and galleries, focussing on the National Gallery where I am most at home, but I think I’ll wait for Covid numbers to calm down a bit before I start, so… maybe in February? Watch this space! But whatever follows, let’s look at a rather brilliant painting.

It’s a remarkably original choice for any artist – a self portrait seen from behind: she is focussing on what she does, not what she looks like. Knight appears sensibly dressed, with a mid-length red jacket over a grey skirt, and what I would interpret as a striped foulard around her neck (although, as you probably realise, I am not an expert on women’s dress). As it happens, it’s not a jacket, per se, but a favourite cardigan, which she called ‘The Cornish Scarlet’. She had bought it at a jumble sale in Penzance for half a crown (or 2/6, or 12.5p, depending on your age), and it appears in a number of her paintings. Nowadays it would be classed as ‘vintage’ and cost a whole lot more. She also wears a black hat with a colourful ribbon almost hidden by the upturned brim: all respectable women should wear a hat when in public. Her hair appears to have been plaited and pinned up. If she hadn’t turned her head to the right, we wouldn’t be able to tell who she was – and it is not clear why she has turned so far: certainly not to look at the model, as she looks past her, to something out of the frame. She is holding a paint brush in her right hand, and, from the bend of her left elbow, we can imagine that she is holding a palette in her left. The model, who is completely naked, stands with her back to us on a striped rug, which is itself on a raised platform. While her feet are more or less parallel to the picture plane, she is turned to the left, allowing us a partial view of one breast. She raises her arms around her head, with her right and left hands resting on her hair and right arm respectively. Behind her is a red screen – maybe a folding screen, although the right-angled section to the left has a trim not seen in the plain vermillion area behind her – this could even be a brighter cloth hanging over the screen, but the construction is not entirely clear. In front of it, though, to the left, and behind the image of the artist, is the canvas that Knight is currently working on. Having seen the model herself, here we see her painted image, and, to the left of her, the part of the red screen that the artist has completed so far.

The inflection of Knight’s right wrist means that her hand is held away from her hip, so that she will not get paint on her skirt. It also serves to draw attention to this hand, and to the gold ring on the fourth finger. It looks like a wedding band, even if it is on the right hand (I don’t think she was looking in a mirror to see what her own back looked like: the clothing itself does not reflect her appearance, and she may well have got someone else, possibly even the same model, to model for the back – so I don’t think that this is her left hand as seen in a mirror). She was born Laura Johnson in 1877, taking her husband’s name when she married artist Harold Knight in 1903, at the age of 26. They were both born in Nottingham, and met at the Nottingham School of Art, where Laura’s mother taught.

In some of her early works she experimented with the pointilliste technique of George Seurat, and she continued to return to it when it suited her – as it does here in the separately coloured brushstrokes which define ‘The Cornish Scarlet’. In this case, the brushstrokes are perhaps closer to the Impressionist tache (meaning blot, patch or stain) – a short, broad mark which emphasizes the making of the image. The brushstrokes do not allow us to confuse the painting of the cardigan for the thing itself, it is undoubtedly a painting. What you are looking at, the brushstrokes say, is the work of an artist. How appropriate that she uses this technique as part of her own image, given that she is the person who made it.

If the depiction of herself – or at least of her clothing – focusses on colour, the depiction of the model is all about form. Look how the precise tonal shifts tell us the exact structure of the feet, the slight lift of the right heel from the rug, the width of the Achilles tendon, and the structures of the muscles and the backs of the knees.

Looking at this detail I am more convinced that there is a cloth hanging over the screen – the vermillion appears to wrap around the dark frame. And the painting of this cloth is entirely different to that of the cardigan – extremely ‘painterly’, with long, broad, flowing brushstrokes painted wet-on-wet and blending in with each other. Although not part of the image that she has painted of herself, the use of a different ‘style’ of painting is surely another way in which she is inviting us to enjoy her skills as an artist, demonstrating as it does her ability to choose the brushstroke according to the nature of the material she is representing: here the vermillion cloth is broad, and flows downwards, just like the paint. The subtle but precise modulation of flesh tones continues, defining the curve of the spine and flexion of the muscles, as well as delineating the model’s long, slim fingers. Compared with the impressionistic image seen in Knight’s unfinished painting of the model, this might start to appear like photorealism – but the brushstrokes never let us forget that it is a painting. The canvas she is working on is still clearly unfinished, though. She may have started to paint the model’s shadow on the screen, but not the lit area: the white background remains, and is precisely what allows Knight’s bold profile to stand out so clearly.

When first exhibited in 1913, at the Passmore Edwards Art Gallery in Newlyn, Cornwall (where the Knights were then living), this self portrait – then called The Model – was well received. But later it was apparently turned down by the Royal Academy for their Summer Exhibition, and instead was seen in London at the Grosvenor Gallery, where reviews were mixed, to say the least. The Telegraph Critic, Claude Phillips, called it ‘harmless’ and ‘dull’ (which it is not!) – but he seems to have been in two minds, as he also called it ‘vulgar’, saying that it ‘repels’. As a work which, he had decided, was ‘obviously an exercise’, he thought it ‘might quite appropriately have stayed in the artist’s studio’. So what was his problem with it?

I think that if we focus on this central section we might get a good idea. One of the first things to remember was that women had little or no access to life drawing classes. At Nottingham, the men and women (or girls – Knight studied there for around six years from the age of 13) had been segregated, and the women did not draw from the nude. The model in this painting is Laura’s friend, and fellow artist in Newlyn, Ella Louise Naper. So for one thing, this is a bold statement declaring that women should receive the same education as men. However, the way it is painted also creates some surprising juxtapositions. The light comes from the left – you can see Naper’s shadow on the screen to her right – and, given that Knight turns to the right, her profile is entirely in shadow. However, it still stands out clearly thanks to the brightly illuminated canvas. The negative space created by the artist’s profile – the brilliant white patch of canvas – is similar in form to the equivalent area in red around the model’s left side, with a startling echo from Knight’s nose to Naper’s breast. And, as Naper is standing on a platform, her brightly-lit buttocks are more or less on a level with Knight’s shadowy face, surely enough to make any self-respecting (male) critic blush.

As a whole, the contrast between the two women is intriguing. One clothed, the other naked; one has both arms down, the other up; the artist on the left is turned to the right, the model on the right is turned to the left. Their poses echo each other, inverting only the arms, with Naper’s right arm hiding her profile. Laura Knight, despite the shadow on her face, is the one we can identify, but the various echoes and inversions could lead us to think about substituting one figure for another, reminding us, perhaps, that the artist herself could easily look like this if she weren’t wearing clothes. I suspect it is this that made men uneasy. It was one thing for them to paint naked women – they could tell the difference between artist and subject, but in this painting, the difference is not so clear. That, and the fact that Knight’s acknowledged skill was clearly a threat to their supremacy, of course.

One last question: what painting is Knight actually working on? We know that it is not finished, but we only see part of it. Nevertheless, what we do see is entirely consistent with the idea that the work she is painting is the finished self portrait itself, if we assume that we only see around 40% of it – the section which includes the vermillion cloth. Laura Knight herself is taking a break from painting herself painting herself painting a model – her painted image in this painted image is beyond the frame. Having said that, I do have a sneaking suspicion that she would finish the red screen first.

This complexly-conceived portrait is not in the exhibition in Milton Keynes, but there are many more remarkable paintings which are: do try and get to see them in person! But if you can’t, I will be talking about many of them on Monday. One of them – one of her masterpieces, I think – is Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring. As Zoom is not very good with videos I won’t be able to show you a wonderful newsreel clip from 1943, so click on the link in blue if you want to do some homework! If nothing else, it’s worth watching to see Knight being handed a cigarette by the presenter, and both of them lighting up in the Summer Exhibition itself. Not to mention, of course, how remarkably accurate her portrait of Loftus is. But more about that on Monday – I do hope you can join me!


144 – Make a joyful noise

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, The Glorification of the Virgin, about 1490-95. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

I have a new favourite artist (those of you who follow me on Instagram might have noticed), although sadly a dozen of his works seem to have survived, maybe a couple more or less. This does mean that I can look at all of them when I offer Some Light for the Solstice this Tuesday, 21 December – the Solstice itself. That will be the last talk this year, and I’ll start again with Laura Knight on Monday, 10 January. That week, on the Thursday, I will also talk about Dürer and the Art of the Garden for my friends at Art History Abroad. As ever, as well as these links, details are (or in this case, will be shortly) in the diary. For those at the Dürer talk last week I said I’d come up with some book suggestions. Have a look at those listed on this UK Bookshop link – I’d recommend the book edited by Christof Metzger (the one with the big, coloured wing) and Jeffrey Chipps Smith’s volume in the Phaidon Art & Ideas series (white, with a Hare).

My new hero is none other than Geertgen tot Sint Jans, an artist whose name, which seems unpronounceable (unless you are Dutch, of course), must have contributed to his relative lack of fame. Well that, and the fact that so few of his works have survived, of course. We know almost nothing about him, but what there is I will go into on Tuesday. For anyone who has joined me recently after my talk for Members of the National Gallery, first of all: welcome! And then, yes, this is more or less the same talk, but somewhat edited, with extra added paintings – but you have heard most of it before! The focus for the talk will be the National Gallery’s Nativity at Night, but today I’d like to have a close look at what may be a small painting (it measures 24.5 x 20.5 cm, smaller than an A4 sheet of paper – or for that matter, smaller than US letter size, if you’re over there), but it is, nevertheless, one of the noisiest I know.

The painting is a Madonna and Child, a common-enough subject, but it is unlike any other I have seen, even if it does draw on familiar elements. Mary, dressed almost entirely in red, as she often is in the North of Europe, holds the Christ Child in her arms as they both look down to our left. They are surrounded by a brilliant glow of light which gradually diminishes in a series of concentric oval forms, leaving the corners of the painting in deepest darkness. Jesus truly is, in the words of Simeon during the Presentation at the Temple, ‘A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel,’ (Luke 2:32). Neither the light nor dark is uninhabited, though – imagery is spread across the surface. Mary is poised on a crescent moon, although we cannot see how (this is a vision, after all) – it could be that she stands behind it, with her legs disappearing in the celestial effulgence. Her red robes fall over the moon, with a creature clinging on underneath. We are seeing how the Virgin Mary was associated with the Woman of the Apocalypse, ‘a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars,’ (Revelation 12:1), the description which would be used to furnish the iconography for images of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (for a full explanation, if you still need one, see Picture Of The Day 71 and POTD 72). This was a doctrine particularly associated with the Franciscans (in the 15th Century at least, when this painting was made), although elsewhere in the painting there is evidence that it might be better associated with the Dominicans.

Mary does not wear a ‘crown of twelve stars’ though (this was interpreted as referring to the twelve apostles – or for that matter, the twelve tribes of Israel, between them representatives of the ‘gentiles’ and ‘thy people Israel’), but a very elegant, filigree, medieval crown which, in essence, is very similar to the Crown of an English Queen in the Munich Residenz. It rests on a garland of roses – a single red one at the front is then flanked by a number of white (five, maybe?) before another red, and so on, to form a ring – not unlike a rosary. Now, as it happens (though not by coincidence), to the left and right of the holy couple, in the middle, orange/red ‘sphere’, we can see an angel on either side who is holding a rosary. These are made of a number of red beads separated by larger white beads: the connection to Mary’s garland is made clear by the use of identical – if inverted – colours. There was a ‘Confraternity of the Rosary’ in Haarlem, the city in which Geertgen worked. He painted an altarpiece for them which is now lost, although the composition is known through copies: I may have time to look at those on Tuesday. Today’s painting could be another commission associated with that Confraternity, or with one of its members. We simply don’t know where it was until the middle of the 20th Century when it ‘appeared’ on the market in the States. However, the rosary was an aid to prayer specifically associated with the Dominicans. Indeed, Dominican belief was that that Mary herself had introduced the founder of the order to the concept, and paintings regularly show her – or Jesus – handing the rosary to St Dominic. These are all clues which could help us to work out the origins of this jewel-like piece, although, as yet, we don’t have the full story.

In the central ‘sphere’, yellow/gold angels place the crown on Mary’s head, and below them on either side their fellows – cherubim and seraphim – continue the eternal tasking of praying and praising, with their arms raised or hands joined in prayer. Immediately above the crown the orange/red angels hold banners saying ‘laus’ – Latin for ‘praise’ – although each iteration of the word has a line above it, the implication being that these are abbreviations. In this case the full word would be ‘laudamus’, or ‘let us praise’. It works with either reading, or, most probably, with both. Below them are the two angels holding the rosaries, and then two more holding two of the ‘instruments of the passion’ – the ‘tools’ used to torture Christ before and during his crucifixion. Easter is never very far away from Christmas. On the left we see the cross itself, and on the right, the column to which Jesus was tied for the flagellation. In the top left and right of this detail, we see the edges of the third ‘sphere’ with ethereal angelic forms in a deep violet lit with yellow. If you thought it was quiet in heaven, the angel at the top right holds a set of bagpipes. Now, I do love the bagpipes but (and here I must apologise to my Scottish friends) I love them more the further away they are. I live in Durham now, and I prefer the (slightly more local) Northumberland pipes. Opposite the bagpiper the angel plays a fife and drum – more stirring, almost military music, it would seem.

However, this is not an overall ‘theme’, which, in terms of music if nothing else, is inclusivity. Every possible instrument is shown. At the top we see a large shawm (although without its protective cylinder, apparently) and a lute. Going down to the left from these is a vielle (an early form of violin) and a ‘flat hand bell struck by a beater’ and then the ‘long pipe and snare drum’ which earlier I called the fife and drum – I’m quoting from an article by Emanuel Winternitz in the Musical Quarterly of October 1963. In the top left corner is an organ, with the organist joined by another angel who is pumping the bellows. At the top right is another keyboard instrument which Winternitz identifies as – possibly – a clavicytherium (whatever that is…). Next to this are an angel with a number of small bells hung from a string and another playing a harp. The bagpipes are below, and further down there is a curved trumpet.

Continuing down from here, on the left are a hurdy gurdy, an angel with a pair of claw bells and another with a ‘small clapper’, while going up on the right we can see ‘large clappers’, and a triangle hung with metal rings. The orange/red angels on the left hold the cross – we saw the top of it before – and, below that, the spear which pierced Christ’s side. On the right is the sponge with which Jesus was given vinegar during the crucifixion, and above this is the full length of the column. Clinging to the underside of the crescent moon we see the grotesque form of some sort of lizard, its mouth open hissing, its long, thin tongue flicking over the edge of the Virgin’s robes. As God says to the serpent in Genesis (3:15), ‘And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel’. Mary is seen as ‘the woman’, and Jesus ‘her seed’: perhaps he has lifted his heel out of the way. But this creature is referred to again as the dragon over which St Michael and the angels were victorious: ‘And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world’ (Revelation 12:9). A similar form clings to the underside of the rosary with which Veit Stoss frames The Annunciation in Nuremberg which I discussed back in May last year (Picture Of The Day 70).

At the bottom in the middle sphere are the crown of thorns (on the left), and, on the right, the three nails which were driven through Jesus’ hands (one nail each) and feet (one for both feet), together with the hammer used to commit this barbaric act. Below this, an angel holds two hand bells, but must be deafened by the coiled trumpets on either side. In the bottom left corner one figure plays the clavichord, while another kind soul (quite literally in this case) holds the music. The focus required to play the dulcimer – a stringed instruments struck by ‘hammers’ – is evident in the bottom right corner from the angel’s downturned face. Nearby was can also see a double shawm and a ‘pot’. I don’t know how this works, but it looks like the angel is jangling cymbals over a small cauldron, presumably a version of a kettle drum. In the centre, flying up from below, the last musician blows a cromorne, which Wikipedia defines as ‘a French woodwind reed instrument of uncertain identity’. It certainly requires a lot of puff: look at his cheeks!

Notice how, for the outer sphere of angels, the music continues all around, and for the inner sphere there is a similar continuity of prayer and praising. For the middle sphere, though, there is a difference between top and bottom, a division between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The top four angels hold the banners saying ‘praise’ and/or ‘let us praise’, with a threshold marked by the pair holding the rosaries. Below them are the instruments of the passion, curving down beneath the moon into the zone of the dragon. The way to heaven is through prayer, assisted by the rosary, and this leads us upwards towards praising.

At the centre of it all, Jesus is also part of the music. He has a claw bell in each hand, holding them delicately between thumb and forefinger, each one shining with a silvery light reflected from above. He may be lifting his heel away from the ‘old serpent’, but he could equally be dancing for joy – one leg kicked up, arms swinging from side to side, wriggling with delight. He and his mother, as I have said, look down to our left, but why down there? Well, surely they are looking towards the angel who returns their gaze, the angel who is also playing claw bells. Jesus is leading the way, encouraging the music, conducting even, the source of all the joy and light, the origin of the harmony of the spheres, and all this for the glorification of his own mother. Similar bells can be seen hanging from a cradle in the collection of the Musée Cluny in Paris, dated to the beginning of the 16th century, no more than two decades after this beautiful image was painted.

Bells were used as talismen, as it was believed that their ringing would keep infants safe from evil spirits, as well as imitating the music of the angels at the Nativity. But this is no normal cradle – it is called a Berceau: repos de Jésus, and is neither the cradle of a normal, human baby nor a toy. It is a sacred object, a sculpture, probably made for a nun, to encourage her devotion. Writings recommend that the owner should think of the cradle as their heart, a place where Jesus should safely repose, with the pillars that support it on either side representing the Old and New Testaments. As you rock the Christ Child in his cradle (sadly, if there was an ‘original’ figure, it has gone) the bells would ring. The angels look down from above, the child is safe, and so are our hearts. In the painting, however, it is Jesus himself who rings these bells – and leads the heavenly host in making the most astonishing sound, music like you have never heard. These instruments would never have been played together, the rough and ready with the more refined. As a whole, this must be a remarkable cacophony, but a positive one, a fulfilment of the invocation in the first verse of Psalm 100: ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands,’ with the operative word being ‘noise’!

Whatever your beliefs – and I, for one, put my faith firmly in art – I wish you a very happy Christmas, and look forward to the light on the other side of the solstice. For more of this artist’s delicate, detailed, and delightful paintings, please do join me this Tuesday.


 143 – A new Dürer

Albrecht Dürer, The Virgin and Child with a Flower on a grassy Bench, c.1503. Agnews, London.

It’s not every day that a new drawing by a great master comes along, nor that, when it does, you have a chance to buy it. Sadly, it might just be beyond my reach, but instead I will – and did – have a close look. It’s a perfect way to start thinking about one of the greatest German artists, about whom I will be talking on Tuesday (14 December) in an introduction to the National Gallery’s monumental exhibition Dürer’s Journeys. As ever, details of this and subsequent talks and travels are listed on the diary page of my website. I showed you this image last week, to give you more of a chance to go and see the original first hand at Agnews in London (6 St James’s Place), but as today (Friday 10 December) is the last day that you will be able to do this with any ease, if you haven’t been, by now I am imagining it will be too late.

A pity, it was quite magical to ring on the door bell, and be welcomed in. Along the corridor on the right a dark room opened up with this gem glowing on the opposite wall. The drawing shows the Virgin Mary seated on a grassy bench, effectively a raised flower bed, common to gardens at the time, if their frequency in religious paintings of the 15th and 16th Centuries is anything to go by. As a result, Mary is effectively seated upon the earth – or humus ­– implying that this is a form of ‘Madonna of Humility’ – and yes, ‘humility’ literally means ‘down to earth’. It is a standard form of iconography, although in its usual formulation, Mary shown seated on the ground. However, as the ground is raised in this example, it is also a version of another common image, the ‘Madonna Enthroned.’ Interpreted this way, the drawing is a rather clever elision of the two. This is not Dürer’s invention – a painting in the style of Martin Schongauer in the National Gallery, dated, rather broadly, 1469-91, demonstrates as much. However, it is a theme that Dürer returned to often: together with the ‘Schongauer’ I am showing you an engraving dated c. 1495 from the British Museum.

The bench is constructed, it would seem, from two planks – a relatively narrow one at the top, and below it a hefty slab of wood, sawn from an enormous trunk. They are held in place at either end by a post. Each is a humble affair, a short length of a modest branch – but the attention to naturalistic detail is superb. The upper plank is broken, and has been repaired, the curving edge of the break echoing the fall of the Virgin’s draperies.

Most unusually, the Christ Child’s body faces away from us, and he turns back to look at his mother over his right shoulder. With his left leg in front of his right, it is almost as if he is starting to walk away from her – but maybe I am just reading forward some two decades to when Dürer travelled to the Low Countries and saw Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges, in which Jesus is stepping down from his mother’s lap, while simultaneously clinging to her hand. Dürer’s child holds the long stem of a flower, undoubtedly a reference to the Passion, but it is evoked with such brilliant spontaneity – and so few lines – that there is no possibility of identifying which species Dürer intended it to be. Mary supports her son with her right hand, and he leans gently on it – or perhaps she is preventing him from leaving. She holds a cloth which wraps around her hand, under his arm and around his back, but she doesn’t touch his flesh – like a priest holding a monstrance. The other end of the cloth is held in her left hand – his swaddling clothes, perhaps, but also a foreshadowing of the shroud. Her left forefinger is marked with curious rings – curious, that is, until you realise (and it took me a while) that Dürer is telling us that the end of the finger is in the shadow, as is what we see of Christ’s face, the lower half of his back and his delightfully pudgy bottom, which seems to rest ever so softly against Mary’s fully-lit hand. Her head tilts to one side, as if musing on her experience, as she did after the visit of the Shepherds at the Nativity: ‘…Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart,’ (Luke 2:19).

There are two faint, parallel, vertical lines on the left of the detail above, the one further left rising from the angular fold at the edge of Mary’s drapery, next to the grass. These are part of the watermark in the paper, vital for authenticating the drawing, as we shall see below.

You have probably read about it already, as there have been articles in much of the press and across social media. It was bought at a house clearance sale for $30, only later to be identified as an original, and authenticated by Christof Metzger, a curator at the Albertina in Vienna (which has one of the world’s best collections of drawings), who will include it in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Dürer’s work. There were various barriers to this identification, not the least of which was that it only cost $30 – how could it be the real thing for that price? And then, by the time it was bought it had been covered in a coloured wash, which might have been added to give a sense of aging to the paper, to make it seem more like an ‘antique’. This would be a clear sign that it was a forgery, made with the intention to deceive. However, this ‘wash’ has been successfully removed, and although the sheet was cut down at an unknown date, it is in a remarkably good condition. It is drawn with pen and ink on a fine linen paper which has a watermark made up of a trident – which explains the two vertical lines (a third is ‘behind’ the drawing) and a ball, or ring, an emblem used by the Fugger family in Augsburg who owned (among other things) a paper mill. There are more than 200 sheets of this paper used by Dürer which survive. The trident can be seen more clearly above the drapery in the lower left half of a drawing in the British museum, which I am showing you to the right of the Agnews version of the same subject.

The form of the signature – the monogram ‘AD’ – is almost identical, with the horizontal of ‘A’ and the ‘D’ doubled in both examples, and similar flourishes at the top left and right. Together with the similarity in the theme, this has suggested a date of c. 1503 for the newly-authenticated drawing.

What was the purpose of this study? It might have been Dürer playing around, trying out ideas – throughout his career he created over 100 images of the Madonna and Child in different media. Or it could have been him developing those ideas for a larger work. Agnews suggest that the Madonna with a Multitude of Animals (seen on the left below), which Metzger has dated to 1506, is one possibility, although, as far as I can see, the National Gallery’s Madonna with the Iris would be another. Although designed by Dürer, it seems to have been painted by members of his workshop while he was away in Venice. But I will talk more about that painting when I discuss Dürer’s Journeys this coming Tuesday.

In the meantime, Agnews will sell the drawing by private sale, not at an auction, so if you are interested you’d better get in there quick. You could see it this afternoon, if you can be that spontaneous, and you might even get in at the weekend, although as the National Gallery is hosting a Dürer conference the world’s experts would probably get in the way. It will then go on show at Colnaghi in New York from 20-30 January next year, so if you are Stateside you could see it there. One thing though – start saving now. It may have been bought for $30, but one estimate of the sale price is in the region of $50 million.


142 – Getting carried away

Nicolas Poussin, The Ecstasy of St Paul, 1649-50. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

On the whole I try not to get carried away by things, although, as I’m sure most of you know, my enthusiasm does mean that I rarely have the discipline to edit my presentations adequately – hence my now standard length of an hour and five minutes… I will try and keep them within the promised sixty minutes in future. Honest. My next attempt will be an introduction to Poussin and the Dance, on Tuesday 7 December, an entirely delightful exhibition at the National Gallery in London which dispels so many of the preconceptions people have about this, the most worthy of French (?) Baroque (?) masters. Not only will I explain those two question marks, I will also cover the full range of material within the exhibition, looking at the apparently effortless complexity of some of Poussin’s compositions, which is shared by the remarkable disposition of limbs in today’s painting. After that, on Tuesday 14 December, we will follow Dürer’s Journeys, another superb offering from the National Gallery, a talk which will also include a nod to the beautiful drawing currently for sale at Agnews (see below…). And there are other talks: full details are listed in my diary. But now it is time for some of us – or, at least, St Paul – to get carried away.

Poussin, NicolasFrance, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, INV 7288 – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl010062554https://collections.louvre.fr/CGU

A few years after his arrival in Rome in 1624, Poussin was commissioned to paint the Martyrdom of St Erasmus for St Peter’s, but this was to remain one of only a handful of church commissions. So few were they – and so out of tune was he with the Roman Baroque – that the entry on the website of the Met in New York goes so far as to says, ‘The large, theatrical saints in ecstasy and scenes of apotheosis so popular at the time clearly struck no responsive chord in Poussin,’ and yet it is precisely this sort of work – today’s painting, and an Assumption of the Virgin in the National Gallery of Art in Washington – which have always been among my favourites. They are completely airborne, not the earthbound, weighty things that his works, at their most stolid, can be – works which, I’m sure it goes without saying, do not include his elegant depictions of dance! We see St Paul raised aloft by three angels, his usual attributes of book and sword left behind, with the remarkable combination of legs, arms and wings (eight, eight and six of these respectively, although not all are visible) acting as a form of mandorla (Italian for ‘almond’), the shape in which the spiritual glow of an assumption or ascension is usually depicted.

The painting is an illustration of a passage from St Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, where, in Chapter 12, verses 1-5, he reluctantly describes one of his own visions:

12 It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.
I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)
How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities.

That this is St Paul is confirmed, as I have said, by the attributes left behind in the stark, classical portico. There is a sword, hilt resting on a doorstep, and blade sloping diagonally to the floor, crossing over, and just touching, the edge of a book. The shadow of the sword, going from left to right, cutting across floor and book, suggests that the light is coming from almost directly overhead – from Heaven – which in turn implies that the shadow which covers one end of the book and a fair proportion of the step must be that of the Saint and his accompanying angels. It is a two-edged sword, in both meaning and function. It stands for the way in which he, as Saul, persecuted the early Christians, but also represents his later martyrdom (in common belief, at least) by beheading. It is also, undoubtedly, a reference to his instruction, in Ephesians 6:10 to ‘Put on the whole armour of God,’ which culminates, in verse 17, with ‘the Sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’. The ‘word of God‘ itself is lying on the floor beneath the sword: the bible. He often holds this book in recognition of the vital role his epistles play in church teaching, but also to represent his own tireless evangelising.

An additional confirmation of his identity is provided by the colours he wears – red and green – although these are not depicted with the same canonical regularity as St Peter’s yellow and blue.  I always take a while to work out what is going on in this extraordinary tumble of figures. It is almost as if the angel on the right, in blue, is leaning back while sitting on a cloud, with the angel in yellow – on the left – sitting on his right knee, and also leaning back. Their legs then alternate. Looking from left to right we see two right legs and two left, with the addition of the blue robe of the right-hand angel falling between the right and left legs, echoing their shape as if it were a fifth ankle, heel and foot, like a pointed blue shoe. As these two angels bear Paul upwards he appears to be resting on the hip of one and chest of the other, his right leg uppermost, supported by the yellow angel’s extended right hand. This dazzling display of legs is rendered all the more remarkable by the flashes of light and shadow which tends to break up their integrity, making them not only more difficult to decipher, but also, surprisingly perhaps, more real. The right wing of the left angel and the left wing of his companion on the right frame this remarkable display, as they look up, in light and shadow respectively, in the direction they are going. The left wing of the yellow angel can be seen pointing downwards at the back, and forms its own counterpoint with the ends of ivory and gold ribbon – something like an ecclesiastical stole – which flutter out behind it.

The topmost angel only serves to guide the way. He points upwards, to heaven, while delicately holding St Paul’s left hand. There is no real support here: he doesn’t seem to bear any weight – nor does he need to look in the direction of travel, but gazes out with an almost visionary fixation. His wings echo those of his companions beneath, whereas the bend of his right arm parallels the open, accepting gesture of the saint. Paul himself appears in his prime. Unlike St Peter, who is always shown with short grey hair and beard (whether as Christ’s first disciple, or more than thirty years later, at his own death) Paul is identified by dark hair and beard. However, his hair is often thinning, and the beard longer and straighter. Here they are thick, and full-bodied – lustrous even. Maybe this is Poussin taking on board the comment, in 2 Corinthians 12:2, that this rapture happened ‘above fourteen years ago’.

Seen as a whole I find the composition truly remarkable. Intricate, accurate, and almost apparently effortless. The whole grouping is surrounded by an even array of heads, wings, arms and legs radiating in all directions, into and out of the fictive space defined by the painting, in its form a sort of sacred sea urchin. And despite this complexity, the internal logic holds: the way in which they are arranged and support one another, the positions they occupy in space, indeed everything we see, is entirely coherent. St Paul, comfortably borne aloft, looks upwards towards the light. Just above him we can see the edge of a cloud which is outlined by highlights which look just a little like lightning – and this reminds me of another painting of St Paul seeing the light which Poussin must have known.

In Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saul – painted for Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome in 1601, 23 years before Poussin arrived from Paris, and 48 years before his own masterpiece – it is the leg of the horse which defines the light coming down from heaven. Is it just me, or do the diagonals of the leg look almost exactly the same as the highlighting of the clouds? I wonder if Poussin was thinking of this? The gesture of the saint is not entirely different, after all, even if he is being carried towards the light, as opposed to being thrown back by it.

Poussin, NicolasFrance, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, INV 7288 – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl010062554https://collections.louvre.fr/CGU

It was the second time Poussin had painted the subject. The first, dating from 1643, just a few years before, was for his friend – and patron – Paul Fréart de Chantelou. It was a direct response to a commission for a painting to hang with one of Chantelou’s prized possessions, Raphael’s equally astonishing Vision of Ezekiel. Poussin seems to have been worried that his painting would not stand up well to the comparison with the great renaissance master, and asked that the two paintings should never be shown together. He even went so far as to suggest that his work might serve as a cover for the Raphael, as a sort-of warm-up act, if you like. Today’s painting was the result of another commission, from writer Paul Scarron, who in 1643 had published A Collection of Some Burlesque Verses. Poussin hated Scarron’s work, and tried to put him off. However, the commission came via Chantelou, and so eventually the painter relented. At first Scarron was offered a bacchanalian subject, but, for whatever reason, this was not what he wanted, and the commission evolved into this inspirational image of the poet’s name saint, Paul. For his second essay on this theme Poussin developed a composition which came far closer to Raphael’s Ezekiel than the earlier version, perhaps because this time, there was no chance of a direct comparison.

Poussin’s compositional skills can not be denied, and he deployed them in equal measure when painting dancers – just one of the reasons why the exhibition Poussin and the Dance is such a delight. I do hope you can join me on Tuesday, and then, the following week, for Dürer’s Journeys. If there’s time in between I may blog about the charming drawing below, but it’s going to be a busy week (see the diary). However, I wanted to show it to you today, to give you a chance to see it in person. Having been bought at a clearance sale for $30 it has only recently been authenticated as an original, and is on display at Agnews (6 St James’s Place) from 10-6 Monday-Friday until 10 December. Do go and see it if you can get into London – just ring on the bell and ask to see the Dürer. I did earlier in the week, and it is a wonderful experience – they are most welcoming, and very generous with their time and expertise. It really is worthwhile spending the time with just one drawing – although there are also other treasures on show. While you’re there, if anyone has a spare $50 million…  


141 – a rose, By any other…

Allan Ramsay, Margaret Lindsay of Evelick: The Artist’s Wife, 1758-60. Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

Context is everything. You’re a very sophisticated lot, and I’m fairly sure that most of you will have completed the above quotation from Romeo and Juliet, that tale of star-crossed lovers. It comes from Act 2, scene 2:

What's in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.

This is, of course, Juliet, lamenting that the boy she has just fallen in love with (and will later marry against her parents’ will) comes from the family of her own family’s sworn enemies. Be that as it may, I wasn’t planning to end the quotation with the word ‘name’. I do want to talk about a rose, though, the rose held between the thumb and forefinger of Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, who, as it happened, married artist Allan Ramsay against her parents’ will. It is so carefully and so delicately painted that I want to question if it could be ‘a rose, By any other’ artist? I suspect not, but we will have to look more closely at Allan Ramsay’s work to find out. However, it has been borrowed, and given back, by artist Alison Watt, whose work I will be looking at this Tuesday, 23 November at 6pm (details of this, and subsequent talks, can be found on the diary page of my website). The exhibition A Portrait Without Likeness is effectively a conversation between Alison Watt and Allan Ramsay, between his works and hers, and includes today’s painting as well as another portrait by Ramsay – of his first wife – not to mention Watt’s responses to, or meditations on, or conversations with these and other works by Ramsay. It is a beautiful, focussed exhibition, and I do hope you can join me to look at some of the best of contemporary painting, and the most technically accomplished of contemporary art. Meanwhile, back to the rose…

We see the artist’s second wife, Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, as if caught in the act of arranging flowers. She holds a rose in her left hand, her left elbow apparently resting on the table which supports a large, ceramic vase containing the other flowers. Her right elbow may also be on the table, but the forearm is tucked away, and lost in the abundant lace of the cuff. She looks out towards us – or towards her husband – as if temporarily distracted from her task. The appearance is one of spontaneity, but, as everyone will tell you, it is anything but. She leans into the picture, with her face arriving just to the right of the midway point, one of the features of the composition which suggests her interest in what she is doing. The line of her body runs, more or less, along the diagonal of the painting, from bottom left to top right, and her left forearm – with the hand holding the rose – lies parallel to this. Her right arm lies parallel – again, more or less – to the other diagonal, and continues the line of shadow that comes in from the top left. This interest in geometry, with the zig-zag shape formed by the body and arms, creates a harmony within the painting, but is not too rigid to render it mechanical: it is still a human experience. The panelling, or open door – it is not entirely clear what this is – cuts down vertically, and is another feature that pushes her towards the flowers. It also means that her head is neatly framed – again, evenly, but not too rigidly – by the deep and dark space behind her, so that her face rings out, ensuring that it is the focus of the painting.

The floral arrangement stands out against the background too. There is a wonderful equivalence between face and flowers, as if Ramsay is saying (in the words of Heinrich Heine, set to music by Robert Schumann), ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ – ‘you are like a flower’. A dark gap at the top of the arrangement would be, I think, the ideal place for the last rose, and there it would have an equivalent position to the pink ribbon with which the sitter’s braids, one of which curves around and frames the back of the head, are tied. Even the colours of her face are drawn from exactly the same palette as those of the roses, with the highlight which defines the ridge of her nose, and the silvery lustre on her lower lip being just the same as the tones which model the petals of the flowers. The blue feather, on the other hand, matches the blue patterns on the vase, more flowers, and leaves, which climb around the white ceramic form – Chinese, maybe, or one of the many imitations of the popular imported vessels.

The arm and hand holding the rose were based on a drawing which is also in the exhibition. In the painting they are given prominence by a pool of light which falls onto the vase, neatly framing the hand and pushing it forward as a result of its similar tonal value, a halo against the shadowed section of the vase. This is counterintuitive, perhaps, and the opposite of the head, which is brought forward by the contrast with the dark background. Her lace shawl is remarkably freely painted, with dashes of white and grey defining its structure and allowing us to see the rose-coloured dress beneath, with small dots of black standing in for the shadows it casts. What we are looking at is perfectly clear, even though the painting is entirely evocative, rather than slavishly precise.

The same is true of the rose. It droops, and the stem appears to be broken, something which Watt comments on in the catalogue of the exhibition, noting that we will never know why. For her, ‘it has come to represent the mysteriousness of painting itself’. The part of the stem which Margaret holds remains undefined: a thin, edgy white line passes behind the tip of her middle finger, and then appears, slightly higher up, behind her thumb. However, there is no green here, almost as if this was where Ramsay was going to paint the stem, but, for whatever reason, didn’t. Maybe he realised that the idea was enough. Then beyond the leaves, which are thinly painted over the vase and hand, and faded a little with time, the stem, more fully realised, continues at a different angle, until it reaches the delicately painted and delicately coloured petals. I’m prepared to believe that a rose, by any other artist, wouldn’t look as delicate, or as fragile.

And, as we have returned to Juliet’s words, ‘What’s in a name?’ Here are two photographs I took in the exhibition last week. OK, so one of them is out of focus, but you should still be able to read it.

The first is a label which was attached to the frame at some point in the past, but not as far back as the 18th Century when the work was created. All we learn is that this is ‘The Artist’s Wife’, the name of the artist in question, and his dates. This woman is entirely defined by her husband, there is nothing else we can know about her. The second, even if blurred, is stencilled on the wall of the current exhibition, with her name, ‘Margaret Lindsay of Evelick’, and her dates. Thank goodness we live in more enlightened times: she has – or had – an independent existence after all. The words ‘of Evelick’ tell us that she was from the landed gentry. Her father, Sir Alexander Lindsay of Evelick, was a well-respected baronet, who presumably wanted ‘the best’ for his daughter. Presumably that would be what suited him best. Ramsay met Margaret on a return trip to Edinburgh in 1751 – his studio practice has been based in London since 1738, and his first wife, Anne Bayne, had died in childbirth in 1743. The couple fell rapidly in love. Knowing that her father would never approve, they eloped the following year, and were married in the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh. Her father never forgave Ramsay, nor did he forgive his daughter for marrying beneath her, and against his will (but fortunately, unlike Romeo and Juliet, nobody died). Between 1754 and 1757 the couple travelled together in Italy, and in all probability this portrait was painted soon after their return, showing, as it does, Ramsay’s later, more delicate style.

It is currently on show at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery as part of the exhibition A Portrait Without Likeness (this is a link to the exhibition itself), near to Ramsay’s portrait of Anne Bayne (his first wife), and separated by two paintings by Alison Watt – both of them variations on the theme of the rose. I do hope you can join me on Tuesday to have a closer look.


140 – A Blog about a Dog

William Hogarth, The Painter and his Pug, 1745. Tate Britain, London.

I’m not much of a dog person, but I have developed a fondness for William Hogarth’s pet pug, not least because rejoiced in the name of Trump (no relation). This portrait – if that’s what it is – features in the exhibition Hogarth and Europe, currently at Tate Britain in London, which I will be talking about this Tuesday, 16 November at 6pm GMT. By then I will know what I am doing for the rest of the year (and even, conceivably, the beginning of next), but I will certainly be talking about Alison Watt’s beautiful and luminous exhibition A Portrait Without Likeness the following Tuesday, 23 November. The exhibition – which I was very happy to see yesterday – is effectively a conversation between her paintings and portraits by the elegant 18th Century Scottish artist Allan Ramsay – who will, of course, feature heavily in the talk. But that’s the week after next – let’s get back to Trump.

The Painter and his Pug 1745 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Purchased 1824 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00112

I questioned, above, whether this really is a portrait. It would seem so obvious that it is a self portrait that we don’t stop and question what genre of painting it actually is. After all, Hogarth is not presenting us with a direct image of himself, but shows us a painting within a painting. The image of Hogarth is, in itself, an object. The likeness of the artist is painted on an oval canvas, and rests, unframed, on a pile of three books. If you get in close, you can see light reflecting from the nails which pin the canvas to the oval stretcher. Next to the painting lies a palette resting on some fabric, and a red curtain hangs down from the top right corner, falling behind the dog. This is a collection of objects – canvas, books, palette, cloth: surely it is really a still life, with the dog featuring in the way that birds, insects, or even the occasional frog do in earlier still lives (see, for example, Picture of the Day 27). But then you could simply suggest that this is a portrait, pure and simple, of Trump, the proud and upright pug seen to the right. He is more real than the image of Hogarth, who, in this case, would have been included as one of the ‘attributes’ of the subject, Trump, telling us more about him: not just what our hairy hero looked like, but more about his background. For a dog, that would include the appearance of the owner, an aspect of the canine character that is usually omitted from the genre of pet portraiture. If this is indeed a portrait of a fully rounded hound, then we would expect the other objects to include further references to his occupations – nowadays, I suppose, that would include balls, mangled toys, and possibly even a dog chew or two. But no such luck – there is no other hint of animal husbandry. There are, however, books.

The Painter and his Pug 1745 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Purchased 1824 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00112

It seems highly unlikely, judging by what little I know about dogs, that Trump could read, and even if he could, it would surely only be the cleverest canine that would enjoy Shakespeare, Swift and Milton (specifically Paradise Lost), the very words written in gold lettering on the spines of the books. These clearly relate more to the owner than the owned, and appear to be the influences or inspirations that Hogarth is claiming for himself. Indeed, as the painting rests upon the books it would seem to suggest that they are the very foundations of his art.

The Painter and his Pug 1745 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Purchased 1824 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00112

Another way of looking at it is that his painting, on top of Milton, Swift and Shakespeare as it is, represents the very apogee of artistic achievement. But why does he limit his own appearance to a painting, while showing us the ‘real’ Trump? Maybe he wants to say that he is his art – this is not just what he looks like, but his very essence, as if to say, ‘we are what we do’. The palette says the same, in a subtler and more sophisticated way. This is not, it would seem, the palette of a working artist – there is no paint on it (even though he included grey-scale daubs in an engraved version), nor are there any brushes (although technical analysis shows that once there were, stuck through the thumb hole of the palette). Instead there is an inscription: ‘The LINE of BEAUTY’, after which comes, in fainter script, ‘And GRACE’. Further to the right is his signature – or at least his initials – and the date, ‘W.H. 1745’. This is as much the painting of a theoretician as of a practical painter. In 1753, eight years after the completion of this work, he would publish The Analysis of Beauty, a summation of his thoughts on art, expressed in essence by the Line of Beauty – the S-shaped curve we see on the palette. It implies not only a sense of flow in any depicted form, which he says is more interesting and varied than rigid, straight lines would be, but also gives a sense of liveliness and movement to a painting. It also, he believed, echoed the way in which our eyes look around an image.

The Painter and his Pug 1745 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Purchased 1824 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00112

As ever, things are never that simple. He was still formulating his ideas when this self portrait was completed in 1745, and painted out the words ‘And GRACE’ – only for them to be revealed again as the overpainting gradually became transparent. Even the line itself is not as simple as it may appear. An S-shape, yes, but one that casts a shadow on the palette. It is, in the world of the painting, a three-dimensional object, like a gold wire floating impossibly above the palette, resting with the lightest touch at either end. It is, in a way, a statement of the power of art to create things we do not know, or which can not exist within our physical world. In his book he would describe the line of beauty as being two dimensional, whereas the line of grace was three-dimensional – suggesting that this is the latter. However, it seems that he hadn’t settled on this distinction by the time painting was completed, and so tried to cover ‘And GRACE’. This still leaves us with Trump. Why is he here? And why is he ‘more real’ than Hogarth himself, given that the artist is ‘relegated’ to a painted image?

X-ray analysis tells us that Hogarth had initially planned a more formal portrait to feature in this ‘still life’. In all probability it was more like the miniature by André Rouquet, which is included in the exhibition I will be talking about on Tuesday. However, that formality – fully bewigged and dressed with cravat, waistcoat and jacket – was relaxed to show the artist in his cap and house coat, the way you would meet him ‘at home’, rather than dressed to the nines in performative fashion when out in Society. This is the man himself. And he was, of course, a man who loved dogs. He had a succession of pugs – Pugg, Trump and Crab are known by name, but Trump was the favourite, and gained the most renown. Apparently Hogarth often remarked how similar they were, and in this painting the proud pooch becomes an emblem of Hogarth’s pugnacious nature. The scar on the artist’s forehead, of which he was rather proud, might even imply that he (like Trump?) was a bit of a bruiser, although as it happens it was the result of an accident in his youth, rather than the trophy of a fight.

Trump himself became a well-known character. He may well appear in four other paintings, and nowadays he even has his own Wikipedia page, if you want to see what they are. Not only that, but he was modelled in terracotta by the great French sculptor, and friend of Hogarth, Louis François Roubiliac – whose terracotta bust of the artist (which, like the miniature above, belongs to the National Portrait Gallery) is also in the exhibition. Sadly the original Trump has been lost. Wedgwood made a version in black basalt based on a cast he got from a plaster shop owned by a man called Richard Parker. That doesn’t seem to have survived either: I certainly can’t track down a photograph. However, the Chelsea Porcelain Factory also released a white version, probably based on a similar, commercially available, plaster cast.  So here is Roubiliac’s Trump in a version by the Chelsea Porcelain Factory, now in the V&A. That’s what I call celebrity.

One question remains: in the exhibition Hogarth and Europe, how does our painting relate to the rest of the continent? Presenting the artist as a typical British Bulldog (or rather, Pug), and resting on three of the great British authors, there wouldn’t seem to be anything ‘European’ about it, until you realise that The Line of Beauty – that sinuous S-shaped curve – is, in itself, one of the founding compositional principals of Rococo art and design. As so often, Hogarth may have expressed disdain for everything ‘overseas’, but he was a great lover of its art. But is that even what Tate Britain’s exhibition is about? That in itself is a complex issue, so let’s think about it on Tuesday.

The Painter and his Pug 1745 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Purchased 1824 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00112

Revisiting Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, c. 1660. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

I am currently in Dresden, where yesterday I saw one of the most perfect exhibitions – Vermeer: On Reflection – at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister: thoughtful, thorough, purposeful, explaining everything you would want to know through a remarkable collection of truly superb works of art. As I am lucky enough to come back here next week, bringing a group with me, and in between will be giving a talk about the exhibition (a room by room introduction of the ideas it covers and the paintings it includes), I’m afraid I find myself a bit short of time, so I am revisiting a blog from February this year, in which I talked about the Dutch master’s Milkmaid – which is always worth a second look. And after that, a third, and a fourth, and so on. The exhibition was planned as a result of the exciting new discoveries about one of the Gemäldegalerie’s own paintings, A Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, and places it even more firmly within Vermeer’s oeuvre, showing, room by room, how it connects not just with the artist’s own development but also with the concerns of his contemporaries. It also traces the source of the imagery, and does as much as it can to explain the inexplicable: the remarkable allure of this most focussed of artists. If you would like to know more, then please do join me on Tuesday, 2 November at 6pm GMT (remember that, in the UK at least, the clocks go back on Sunday!). In subsequent weeks (all Tuesdays for the rest of the year) I will talk about exhibitions in England and Scotland – Hogarth and Europe at Tate Britain on Tuesday 16 November, and Alison Watt: A Portrait Without Likeness (Scottish National Portrait Gallery) on Tuesday 23. A couple more will follow. But for now, as The Milkmaid is not in the Dresden exhibition, let us look at it again.

The last time I posted this blog I was having trouble deciding whether I find this painting disarmingly beautiful or beautifully disarming – I’m sure there’s a difference. But also, I was wondering, if it is one, or other, or even or both of these things, what is it that creates this impression? I suppose because it is a painting that, for whatever reason, I do find very beautiful, and this always makes me try to analyse where that beauty lies – a process which can all-too-easily kill the simple pleasures of looking. It is disarming, I think, because at first glance it looks so simple, and yet it is hypnotically compelling. Vermeer paints everything with such apparent honesty and conviction that we remain convinced that there must be something more profound going on than the simple act of pouring milk. To try and work out if there is, I’m going to start at the top and work my way down.

I’ve always loved the way Vermeer paints walls. It’s never a case of getting out the roller and covering the whole surface with white matt. What we see is subtly modulated, with every square centimetre differentiated from every other. The setting – a corner of a room with a window on the left – was not his invention: it had already been used by artists for about 10 years by the time he picked up on it, it seems, and from then on he used it regularly, often returning to the same, or similar, corners. With the window a little way in from the back wall, the corner itself is left in shadow. The light passes through the glass at a diagonal, and illuminates the back wall away from the corner, the illumination getting ever brighter as we move to the right. Two nails are driven into the wall, and the higher of the two, further to the right, is in the light. It casts the sort of diffuse shadow that suggests this is large window, far higher than the part of it we can see in the painting. On the left a wicker basket – used for shopping, presumably – hangs from a similar nail, with a highly-polished copper pail hanging from another on the back wall. Above the basket we see what is probably a small picture: it’s too high to be a mirror. To the left of the nail from which the basket is hanging one of the panes of glass has been broken – there could easily be a a breeze coming through – and in the pane below this the glass is cracked, with the broken edge catching the light. If you go down one more pane, and two to the left, another of the small plates of glass threatens to fall into the room. The attention to detail is breathtaking.

The fall of light from left to right illuminates the maid’s face, showing its bold, simple forms: a down-to-earth presence, whose broad features would have been interpreted as indicative of her lowly status. The light also charts the very specific folds of her simple linen headdress, especially to the left of her face, where the sharp fold at the level of her forehead gradually opens out, so that, as it gets lower, less light falls on the fabric. As the hem curves forward the lower edge is left in shadow.

The light is one of the features which creates the attention-grabbing boldness of the central figure, and renders her monumental. Her right shoulder (on our left), the top of her right arm, and especially the back of her right hand – the one holding the handle of the jug – are brilliantly illuminated, making them stand out against the shadows on the wall. On our right, the shadow which forms the curve of her left shoulder, and the right side of her left arm, stand out against the brilliantly illuminated wall behind. Vermeer enhances this by painting the thinnest of white lines around the edge of the sleeve as it comes down from the shoulder. The reversed contrasts of light and shade push her towards us, making her more immediate, more entirely present. Not only that, but the perspective pulls our eyes towards her. The horizontals of the window frame and the leading which holds the glass in place form orthogonals receding towards a vanishing point, placed at the crook of the maid’s right arm. As the vanishing point is theoretically our point of view, this means that our attention is focussed on the action of holding the jug and pouring.  

The colour is also subtly vital. Her bodice is yellow, and she wears a blue apron. For me this is still a surprising colour for an apron (even given that I know nothing of the history of aprons), especially as Vermeer has used that most prized of pigments, ultramarine. The bodice uses lead-tin yellow, another good, traditional pigment, but nowhere near as expensive. For the sleeves – which are rolled up – he mixes the two to create green. It is almost a lesson in basic colour skills: yellow mixed with blue makes green – and in this case, the specific yellow of her bodice mixed with the distinctive blue of her apron makes this particular green.

The attention that the maid gives to the act of pouring also demands our attention: if she takes it this seriously, then so should we. This is not a haphazard act, but a careful, determined action, the support given to the milk jug by her left hand helping to make sure the liquid flows at precisely the right speed.

The measured flow of the milk has made people think that she is doing something specific, and one suggestion is that she is preparing a bread pudding. There is plenty of bread on the table, after all, and some of the pieces next to her bowl appear to have been broken. You have to put in exactly the right amount of milk, apparently, or the pudding would either be too soggy, or the bread would dry out and become too hard and crunchy. This is simple fare, made from wholesome ingredients with good honest labour. Again the light plays a major part, showing us the deep, sculptural folds in the sleeves and apron, and the form and textures of the bread and basket – and yet it does not do so with the highly focussed detail of a fijnschilder – or ‘fine painter’ – the name for artists like Gerrit Dou whose every surface is an almost microscopic exploration of precise surface textures, and yet not a single brushstroke is visible. As if he were a precursor of Seurat and the divisionists, Vermeer builds these objects up through a myriad of dots and dabs of paint. You don’t believe me? Look at this.

When talking about Vermeer it is hard to get away from the theories which try to explain his peculiarly focussed vision by suggesting that he used a camera obscura – basically a form of pinhole camera that projects an image onto a surface and allows you to trace the outlines. However, this would only provide the outlines, and not the colours or textures. Admittedly, the images a camera obscura produces can sometimes include some of the effects he uses – the bright, blurred highlights, for example. Although, if you think about it, you only get bright highlights on shiny objects, not on matt loaves of bread. This may well be the sort of effect you could see with a camera obscura, and that may be where he got the idea – but he would never have seen the particular highlights painted here. They are part of the magic of the image, and create the wonder – and some of the texture – of this fresh bread, the bounty of this work-a-day basket. As it happens, the construction of the perspective also suggests that he didn’t use a camera obscura: it isn’t traced, but drawn. Technical examination has revealed a pin hole in the canvas itself, at the crook of her right arm – the vanishing point. Vermeer would have inserted a pin, and tied a piece of thread to it. This could be covered in something like charcoal dust, pulled taut, and then snapped against the canvas to ‘draw’ lines onto it. It was a common way of working out perspective, as the lines drawn inevitably lead to the vanishing point.

When we get down to the bottom of the painting the lesson in colour continues. Under the apron the maid’s skirt is red – so she is wearing muted versions of the three primary colours, yellow, blue and red. This particular shade also harmonises well with the brick-red floor, and the ceramic pot, one of the truly revealing details in this painting. It is part of a footwarmer – a wooden box, with a perforated top – and the pot would have held hot coals. A practical object perhaps, given that we are presumably in a cold kitchen, ideal for keeping and using dairy products, although it is very small compared to the size of the room. In any case, footwarmers were used when seated. Behind it is the wainscoting, made of Delft tiles – local produce, of course, as it was in Delft that Vermeer lived and worked. Three tiles are visible, and the imagery of two of them can be read. On the left is cupid, wings to the left, firing his bow and arrow to the right, and to the right of the footwarmer, there is a man with a walking stick. Are these relevant? Probably. Have a look at this picture from the Sinnepoppen, an emblem book published by Roemer Visscher in 1614.

Any emblem has three elements, ‘pictura’, ‘inscriptio’ and ‘subscriptio’ – or picture, heading, and explanation. For the title of his book, Visscher invented a new word – where ‘sinne’ means the ‘sense’ of the emblem, and ‘poppe’ means the image. By creating a word that combines two elements from which we can determine the meaning, he is echoing the function of an emblem precisely. Neither the pictura nor the inscriptio gives the full sense on its own – they have to be considered together. The relationship between them – what, together, they mean – is explained in the subscriptio. In the example above, ‘Mignon des Dames’ means “the ladies’ favourite” – as in sweetheart, or lover. The subscriptio goes on to explain that modern ladies love nothing so much as a foot warmer, as it provides them with constant warmth. Any man who wanted to pay her court would find himself playing second fiddle to this household object. They can be seen often in Dutch 17th Century genre paintings, but even Visscher’s explanation doesn’t fully account for their presence. That is because Visscher wants you to be as clever and inventive as himself, and is always expecting you to make connections and take the meaning further. Think about it: when seated, the hot coals would fill the user’s skirts with warmth. Presumably, any potential lover would have to prove as reliable if he wanted any degree of success. Combined with the image of cupid shooting an arrow towards the source of heat, the implications are that our maid could easily be the subject of inappropriate attentions, welcome or otherwise. It’s worthwhile bearing in mind that it was usually assumed that milkmaids were sexually forthcoming.

Having said all that, from this point on you can make up your own mind. And that’s not because I don’t want to tell you what is going on here, or because I don’t know what is going on here, but because Vermeer’s great genius includes the ability to leave things open. Is it coincidence, for example, that her skirt plays with the same tonalities as the earthy floor and the glowing coals, which we can imagine but not see? Does it imply a heat within? Or does the fact that she is standing, at work, rather than sitting down enjoying the welcome updraft, suggest that she is a figure of virtue, rather than potential quarry, worthy of pursuit? It’s possible that the very title of this painting is incorrect, as it happens. A milkmaid would work outside, with the cows, milking. The woman in the painting is really a kitchen maid (although in some households they did double up, apparently). But then, kitchen maids often had the same reputation. I cannot get away from the care with which she pours, and I suspect that Vermeer is questioning the assumptions we make about the people, and objects, depicted by his contemporaries. The first assumption is that milkmaids – or kitchen maids, for that matter – were bound to be ‘up for it’. After all, in this case, she seems entirely focussed on her work. The tile with cupid and the footwarmer might imply sexual impropriety – but do either have any effect here? In other hands the jug itself might seem suggestive. Artists like Jan Steen regularly show women holding vessels with open apertures towards men who reciprocate with any number of phallic equivalents, from bulging bagpipes to pistols cocked. And yet here the act of spilling – which could be a sign of incontinence – of sexual incontinence, that is – is entirely controlled, and measured. If our maid represents anything, then maybe, for Vermeer, she could be a modern-day Temperance. Compare her with this print by Jan Saenredam, made in Haarlem in 1593, based on a design by Hendrick Goltzius.

This is the most common representation of Temperance – although not that we saw painted by Giotto, who has her sheathing her sword (see Day 59 – Virtues vs Vices), or for that matter, the version painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in his Allegory of Good Government, in which she watches the first known image of an hour glass. In Saenredam’s personification she carefully pours liquid from one vessel to another – usually interpreted as watering down the wine, a true sign of Temperance, as opposed to complete abstinence. This careful, measured pouring is precisely what our maid is doing. And if she is Temperance, then maybe we could interpret another of Vermeer’s paintings, Woman Holding a Balance, as a personification of Justice. The comparison here is also from the series designed by Goltzius in 1593, but this time executed by different student, Jacob Matham. I don’t have time to say more about this painting now, unfortunately, but, as it is in the Dresden exhibition, I will include it in Tuesday’s talk, Vermeer: On Reflection.

Before then, though, what conclusions can I draw about The Milkmaid? Is she awaiting an assignation, or, conversely, distracting herself from temptation by concentrating on her work? Is she a figure of virtue, expounding the positive values of honest labour? Could she be a personification of Temperance? Vermeer’s focus, his attention to detail, the care with which he has structured the composition, combined colours, balanced tones, and modulated light, not to mention the dignity he gives to his subject, an apparently commonplace maid made monumental, suggests that there must be more than meets the eye. What is this painting about? What is going on? Well, there is a woman pouring milk. What more do you need?


139 – Cavalier attitudes

Judith Leyster, The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier), c. 1629. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.

Famously, Frans Hals’ painting, The Laughing Cavalier, is neither laughing, nor a cavalier – I will talk about what he is and who he might be this coming Monday, 25 October at 6pm in the context of the Wallace Collection’s small (but perfectly formed) exhibition Frans Hals: The Male Portrait. In subsequent weeks in November I will talk about more exhibitions – Vermeer: On Reflection (in Dresden) on Tuesday 2, Hogarth and Europe (Tate Britain) on Tuesday 16, and Alison Watt: A Portrait without Likeness (Scottish National Portrait Gallery) on Tuesday 23 – all of these are now on sale. But for now, I’d like to talk about another painting which does not show a cavalier, by someone who could be considered one of Hals’ greatest rivals – although she was also one of his admirers – Judith Leyster. It seems only fair to look at the work of a woman, as the Wallace’s exhibition has an almost ‘dare to be square’ attitude – which is acknowledged by the director of the museum in his preface to the catalogue – given that it focuses on paintings of white men by a white man, with no suggestion that there might be any other type of person in the world. You could argue, I suppose, that as the curator of the exhibition is a woman, that the male bias is actually OK. But as far as I know, no one has suggested that it isn’t! Anyway, it’s a good excuse to talk about Judith Leyster – not that she needs an excuse. She was a great artist – we should talk about her more often.

Today’s picture is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and their online catalogue calls it by the title, or titles, that I have used above: The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier). It’s worth remembering that neither of these would have been used by Leyster herself. Apart from the fact that she was Dutch (and so anything she called the painting would have been in Dutch), artists simply didn’t give paintings titles back then – it was more common to describe what was depicted – ‘two drunk men with a skeleton’, for example. I have talked about the issue of names before – way back at the beginning of the blog, I think, with paintings like The Fighting Temeraire (which is actually just part of Turner’s title). So many paintings – The Laughing Cavalier included – have been given nicknames relatively recently (by which I mean the late 19th or early 20th Centuries), and even though they often have little or nothing to do with the subject of the painting, they have stuck irrevocably. I don’t know when today’s picture got the two titles it now has, but only the first is accurate. None of the people represented is dressed as a cavalier – although you could argue that the skeleton might have been one when alive. However, The Last Drop is entirely to the point.

Clearly, The Last Drop doesn’t only refer to this particular drink, even if the seated man on the left is on the verge of draining his stoneware tankard dry. This is also the last drop he will ever drink. There may be a small reserve of liquid in the very bulbous body of the vessel, but short of tipping it up vertically, there is not much more he could do to finish it off. It doesn’t really matter, though, as Death is watching eagerly to see if is time to finish him. The skeleton itself is an unmistakable Memento Mori ­(literally: ‘remember death’) – but it (or is it he? I’m going for ‘he’) is also holding other symbolic objects. Held aloft in his right hand is an hour glass, with the last few grains of sand trickling through. Time is nearly up, and the skeleton smiles gleefully as he displays the hour glass as evidence that soon it will be time for him pounce. As if a skeleton on its own wasn’t enough, he has a second skull in his right hand, clutching a lit candle with it, as he bends over to check that the drink – and so, it seems, the man’s life – is finally done. When it is, the candle will presumably be snuffed out, and the drinker, too, will ‘snuff it’, if I can use that most disrespectful of terms for death. Meanwhile, the candle sheds an unnatural glare around the profile of the drinker. Apart from that harsh light, the man is already in the shadows. Almost inevitably it reminds me of ‘the Scottish Play’ (and, if you can get a return, try and get to see the production at the Almeida Theatre, which is on until 27 November – tickets for the last set of performances go on sale today, 21 October). Here is ‘the’ speech from Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 5:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The hourglass tells us that the man on the left is at the last hour of his recorded time, and that the brief candle will soon be out. But this man has not drunk alone.

His standing companion has clearly had more than one too many, judging by the garish expression on his face – not to mention his all-too-evident teeth, which are rarely, if ever, seen in paintings of respectable people. Here too the expression is enhanced by the harsh lighting, and neatly framed by the brilliant highlights around the rim of his hat, and also by the bravura painting of the turned up trim of his collar. The sleeve is wonderfully handled too, with free, slashing brushstrokes of barely-mixed lighter and darker reds modelling the folds in the odd, baggy garment. Rather than the skeleton’s hourglass, this chap holds a smoking pipe aloft – another symbol, like excessive drinking, of a dissolute lifestyle, and also, of death. Like life, smoke is insubstantial, fleeting, and is gone before you know it.

That we are near the end is confirmed by the fact that this drink too (like the fun) is finished. Nothing remains in the upturned tankard, every last drop is drained. And as for the costume, it is extraordinary. Such a large, voluminous jacket, which is worn over a dark blue unbuttoned doublet. Underneath that is a white blouse, also unbuttoned, revealing far more of the reveller himself than the strict rules of 17th Century Holland would have allowed.

The tankard is maybe too brilliantly lit for an object which is at that distance from a candle, but I’m sure that this is a choice by the artist to make the whole painting seem more garish and more glaring, thus emphasizing what is important, and what is at stake. But it is also done to catch your eye – it draws your attention for more reasons than one. In 1903 this painting was attributed to Frans Hals, who was, after all, the master of the freely handled brushstroke. However, in that year someone noticed the letters ‘JL’ written on the mug – the signature of Judith Leyster (1609-60) – just to the left of the handle, where it joins the body of the vessel and is so brilliantly illuminated. If people had seen it before, they had failed to identify it, probably because until 1893 (just ten years before) she had fallen into obscurity, only to be rediscovered when her signature was identified on a different painting. The ‘JL’ is usually followed by a star, as her name, Leyster, means ‘Lodestar’ – another name for the pole star, the one used by sailors as a fixed point for navigation. She was famous in her lifetime, and even praised, punningly, as the ‘leading star’ in art. In 1633 she was the first woman to join the Haarlem artists’ guild – indeed, she was the first woman in Western Europe to be admitted to any painters’ guild. It was probably to celebrate this that she painted the wonderful self portrait which I wrote about during lockdown 1, on Day 34 of ‘Picture of the Day’. Leyster probably trained with Frans Hals, although there is no firm evidence for that. However, she did witness the baptism of one of his children in 1631: they were clearly (at that stage) on very good terms. Her status as a ‘Master’ meant that she was allowed to teach, and in 1635 she took on three pupils, although one of them subsequently left her to work under Hals. She sued the older master, and although the student’s mother paid Leyster punitive damages (but only half of what she asked for) and Hals also paid a penalty, Leyster too was fined by the guild for not having registered the student in the first place… But, as the saying goes, all publicity is good publicity, and work picked up… at least until the following year, when she married fellow artist Jan Miense Molenaer. There are hardly any works by her dated after 1636, the year in which she married. It could have been that, as a mother of five, she simply didn’t have the time to paint. Although it could also have been that, as a man, Molenaer was in a better position to sell the paintings, and so she worked as one of his assistants – a member of the workshop, but not its leader. It’s not that he was taking credit for her work, but that it was financially expedient for her to work this way. But back to the painting: why is the standing reveller dressed in this unusual manner?

His unusual garb ties the painting inextricably to another by Leyster, the Merry Company, now in a private collection, which was sold by Christie’s in 2018 for a little shy of two million pounds. They are of a similar size, and although the Merry Company is a little smaller, it has probably been cut down.  Seen next to each other like this, the similarities are clear. The two revellers in our painting are seen at a later stage of merriment – the plumed hat has been lost, and the man in red is now wearing the blue hat of his companion. He has also lost his blue belt, allowing his jacket to fall open – and the blue doublet has also been unbuttoned. He also seems to have grabbed a different tankard, while the seated figure drinks from the same vessel he had earlier. Their drinking started in daylight, and has continued well into the night – they have lost their more soberly dressed companion, but their debauchery has summoned Death. The moral is clear: it’s all very well to have some fun – but don’t take it too far. The baggy costumes – so unlike the closely tailored fashions of the 17th Century – are derived from Italian theatre, the Commedia dell’Arte, and had been adopted as carnival costumes by the 16th Century. So this could be vastenavond – the Dutch word for the night before Lent (literally ‘the evening before fasting’) – or, in other words, Carnival.

The Merry Company must have been significant for Leyster, as she quoted from it in her Self portrait. Surely there were reasons for this choice: technical analysis has shown that originally a female figure was depicted on the canvas, which Leyster covered with the fiddle player later on. It could be that she wanted to show that she was the master of at least two different genres – portraiture and the one annoyingly known as genre painting (i.e. normal people doing normal things). She was the only woman to paint genre scenes, after all. However, the reason for this choice might be more sophisticated. In Het Schilder-Boeck – ‘The Book of Painters’ – written by Karel van Mander in 1604, the author refers to a Dutch proverb, stating that ‘the more a painter he becomes, the wilder he gets’. By including the wild fiddler from The Merry Company, Leyster could be replacing ‘he’ with ‘she’.

I’d love to know what happened to the red hat with its oversized plume, though. It must have been lost somewhere along the way. Maybe it was picked up by Frans Hals, or taken by the wayward student, as Hals painted a young man wearing a very similar hat – and holding a skull – in one of his works in the National Gallery. If you want to see what I mean, click on that link, as it’s not a portrait, so I probably won’t be talking about it on Monday.


138 – Transfigured

Apse Mosaic, c. 549. Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna.

This coming Tuesday, at 6pm, I will be Revealing Ravenna – or at least, talking about the remarkable mosaics, putting them in their historical and religious context, and explaining why the best Byzantine art is in Italy, rather than in Istanbul. And the following week I will be lucky enough to visit them in person. But seeing as I know not all of you can come with me, and not all of you will be free on Tuesday, I thought I would write about one of the mosaics today – particularly as this one will not really get much of a look in, because it’s not really in Ravenna. In subsequent weeks I will start what is effectively a new ‘series’, talking about the increasing number of exhibitions which are opening in museums in London, across Britain, and even Europe-wide. Once more I’m doing this because I know that not all of you will be able to get to all of them – but also, in case you are able to go, to serve as an introduction. So far only one of them is on sale – Frans Hals: The Male Portrait, inspired by the exhibition at the Wallace Collection. That talk will be on Monday 25 October. Gradually, once I’ve been able to check everything out, I will release tickets for Vermeer: On Reflection (2 November), Hogarth and Europe (16 November), and Alison Watt (23 November). These will all be on Tuesdays, because I will be teaching a course for the National Gallery on Mondays – but more about that when that too is confirmed. There will be details about everything on the diary page, of course. Meanwhile, back to Ravenna.

I have not often visited the church of St Apollinare in Classe for the simple reason that it is a little out of the way – although maybe not as far as I used to think. Although it is one of the suburbs of Ravenna today, Classe (two syllables, clas-sé) was originally the port of the Roman city, its name coming from the Latin for ‘fleet’ – classis ­– and it was about 4km away. Each time I go, I am struck by the simple majesty of the building, although this is the result of complex historical processes which turn out not to be not simple at all. The church itself has a standard ‘basilica’ structure, with a central nave and two side aisles, separated by arcades, which lead to three apsidal endings. Originally the walls of the nave would have been covered with mosaics, but these have been lost. They were replaced with frescoes in the 18th Century, of which only the roundels with portraits of the bishops of Ravenna have survived, just above the arcades. The upper part of the walls, and the walls of the side aisles, have been stripped back to bare brick – wonderfully evocative, but decidedly modern in ethos. But at least they do not distract from the central apse, which is the true treasure of the church.

The church was dedicated to St Apollinare (five syllables – A-pol-lin-ar-é) in 549 – which gives us the approximate date for the mosaic within the apse. It was founded by Ursicinus, bishop from 533-536, and was dedicated by Maximian, who had also managed to get a promotion, being Archbishop from 546-556. Apollinare himself was said to have been the first bishop, having been converted to Christianity by none other than St Peter, although the ‘life’ which reports his deeds and martyrdom was, in all probability, written by Maurus, Archbishop from 642-71. There is no concrete historical evidence that Apollinare ever existed, if we’re honest, and Maurus almost certainly wrote his ‘life’ to make the diocese of Ravenna look more important, and to emphasize its apostolic origin. Indeed, one of the major subjects of the mosaics is the apostolic succession.

In the semi-dome of the apse we see Apollinare, dressed as a bishop, and with his arms raised. This is the attitude taken by an orant – someone at prayer – a common image in early Christian art. Walking towards him are a number of sheep: six on each side, making twelve in total, like Jesus’s apostles. But why are they sheep? Well, the earliest images of Jesus show him as ‘the Good Shepherd’, and indeed, priests and vicars today still refer to their congregation as their ‘flock’. Here Apollinare’s flock is the same size as Jesus’s. Apollinare therefore stands in for Jesus. If not Christ’s vicar on Earth, he is at least Christ’s vicar in Ravenna – and this is precisely what the apostolic succession is all about. In John, Chapter 21 Jesus appears to his followers after the Crucifixion and asks Peter the same question three times. The third time is in John 21:17,

He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

He has already, in Matthew 16:18-19, told Peter that he will give him the keys of heaven:

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Either of these quotations, taken separately, would serve to affirm Peter’s position as the first leader of the church after Jesus. Together, the message is reinforced. Peter takes Jesus’s place, and then, according to the belief current in Ravenna, Peter both converted Apollinare and appointed him bishop: so Apollinare takes Peter’s place, in Ravenna at least. In the mosaic he leads 12 sheep as Jesus led the 12 apostles. Above his head is a blue circle, set with stars and a jewelled cross. Three more sheep stand on the ground, two people appear in the golden sky, and a hand appears from the clouds. But I’ll come back to these details later.

About 120 years after its dedication, the church was partially remodelled, and additions were made to the mosaics above the arch of the apse. We see Christ blessing in the centre, surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists. On the left the eagle stands for St John, the angel is the symbol of St Matthew, and the lion – as anyone familiar with Venice will know – is St Mark. This leaves the ox to represent St Luke. The most handy mnemonic to remember these is that plant which makes such good hand cream – the ALOE. If the letters stand for Angel, Lion, Ox and Eagle they are in the right order for the canonical arrangement of the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Below these symbolic beasts, and once more against a golden sky, twelve sheep have left the gates of two jewelled cities – Bethlehem and Jerusalem – processing towards Jesus in the same way that their equivalents do towards Apollinare just below.

And further down again, below Apollinare, there are four figures depicted in the mosaics between the windows. They are all bishops, all of whom were Apollinare’s successors. In traditional accounts, he was the first Bishop of Ravenna, his episcopacy lasting until his martyrdom in 79 CE. From left to right the first of the chosen few is Ecclesius, the 24th Bishop, in position from 522-532, who founded the church of San Vitale (home to some of the glorious mosaics I will discuss on Tuesday). He is followed by St Severus (c. 308-c. 348), the 12th bishop; Bishop Lacuna (dates unclear); and Ursicinus (533-536), 25th Bishop and the founder of this particular church. OK, so there never was a Bishop Lacuna, it’s just that I can’t get a good enough detail to be able to read his name and tell you who he is. These four bishops show us, in abbreviated form, how the apostolic succession continues – Jesus appointed Peter, Peter appointed Apollinare, and he is followed by a number of successors in turn, down to the present incumbent. But what exactly is going on above Apollinare’s head?

Most striking is the jewelled cross in the blue circle. In the apse mosaic of San Vitale, Jesus sits atop a similar blue circle: it can be seen to embody the cosmos, over which he rules. The cross needs no explanation, although the jewels with which it is embossed express its value, as they do for the cities seen on either side of the mosaic in the additions. There are twenty of them in the cross: four on either arm (reminding us, perhaps, of the four evangelists), leaving 12 going from top to bottom – a reference, perhaps, to the 12 sheep, and so to the apostles. In the very centre we see, as an apparently minute depiction, the face of Christ. To the left and right of the cross are the letters alpha and omega, the beginning and the end of the Greek alphabet, as God proclaims more than once in the Book of Revelation. This is chapter 1 verse 8:

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.

Underneath the cross are the words SALVS MVNDI – ‘the health of the world’ – or, to put it more explicitly, ‘salvation’ – and above we see (although not very clearly) ἸΧΘΥϹ – ‘ichthys’, the Greek word for ‘fish’. The fish was one of the earliest symbols for Jesus, and is derived from an acronym. The letters stand for the Greek words meaning ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’. Nowhere in this image is Jesus explicitly named, nor, with the exception of the tiny image of his face, is he visible. But what of the three sheep, and the two people in the sky? Should we see the sheep as three of the apostles, by comparison with the others below? And if so, who are they? They are not named. However, the two half figures in the sky are. The one top left is labelled ‘Moyses’ – or Moses. The top right inscription is harder to read, but it is Elijah. The presence of these two Old Testament prophets is the key to the understanding of the mosaic. Here is Matthew 17:1-3 (and helps to know that ‘Elias’ is just another version of ‘Elijah’):

And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.

This is The Transfiguration, itself transfigured. The three sheep represent Peter, James and John. Matthew says that ‘his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light’, but in this mosaic Jesus is transfigured into pure symbol, whether as the cross, or as the words: ‘alpha and omega, salus mundi’, ‘ichthus’. Too perfect to represent, Jesus becomes entirely transcendent. Later on (17;5) Matthew tells us that, ‘a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’. The disembodied hand is that of God himself, and is the visual equivalent of the ‘voice out of the cloud’. And how better to represent ‘a bright cloud’ than with the light reflecting from a gold mosaic?

In the context of the church the meaning of the mosaic becomes clear. At the top, Jesus is seen as if in Heaven, blessing the congregation. His word is conveyed by the four evangelists beside him, and preached by the twelve apostles who process towards him – albeit in ovine form – from Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Below, in the apse – on Earth – he is transfigured. Seen in the presence of Moses and Elijah, and witnessed by Peter, James and John, this is the Son of God. In a direct line below him, Apollinare takes his place, having been appointed by St Peter, where, praying, he leads his own flock. His role is then taken by successive Bishops and Archbishops, whose throne would originally have been in the apse, directly behind where we now see the relatively modern altar (the same was true for all churches, although the only English cathedral to have its cathedra in this original position is in Norwich). Everything – the mosaics, the architecture and the original fixtures and fittings – would have combined to say that the apostolic succession continues to this day.

The steps leading up to the altar date from the restructuring of the church in the 670s. By raising the floor a crypt could created beneath the high altar for the display of the relics of Sant’Apollinare, allowing pilgrims to pay homage without disturbing the celebration of the mass. In the mosaic Apollinare appears directly above his own relics, as well as directly above the modern-day Bishop, who would be, in a more worldly and less symbolic way, presiding over his own flock. There should be no doubt as to the authority of this man – it descends from Christ, is justified by his suffering on the cross, and has been passed down from the first Bishop, himself installed by St Peter.

By the 9th Century the harbour silted up and the importance of Classe diminished. Not only that: pirates patrolled the nearby coast, and they would not be cowed even by the direct display of God’s authority. To protect Apollinare’s relics from the raids, they were moved to a church in the centre of Ravenna. Built as the chapel of the palace of King Theoderic, and dedicated to Christ the Redeemer in 504, in around 540 it was re-dedicated to St Martin and then, in 856, it was re-dedicated a second time, to Sant’Apollinare. Today it is known as ‘the New Sant’Apollinare’, or Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. The changes of dedication are reflected in subtle changes to the mosaics, which take on an added complexity. But I’ll be talking about all that on Tuesday.


137 – The little Lord Jesus, Asleep…

Cosmé Tura, Virgin and Child, 1480s. Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

Having spent a fair amount of time in my youth in Ferrara, when I was researching my PhD about the sculptures there, I grew inordinately fond of the idiosyncratic school of painting that flourished alongside my far scarcer sculptures. The paintings themselves are remarkably sculptural, we know that some of the painters designed three-dimensional works. I have always thought that at least two of them may also have carved, or at least modelled, themselves. They are Cosmé Tura – the great genius of the 15th Century Ferrarese school, about one of whose works I will write today, and Francesco del Cossa, who softened Tura’s style, and then moved on to Bologna – quite possibly because he didn’t like the way he was treated in Ferrara. It is one of his paintings – an Annunciation – which is the inspiration for my talk on Monday at 6pm, How to wear your halo – and the Significance of the Snail. Details of this are (a) on this link and (b) listed alongside details of everything I’m up to on the diary page of my website. Apart from the fact that it is a Ferrarese painting, the main reason for my choice today is the nature of Jesus’s halo, given that the ‘History of the Halo’ will form a considerable segment of Monday’s talk…

For obvious reasons, when I am taking people around the Accademia in Venice, home to this gem, I focus on the Venetian paintings. It is the strong point of the collection, after all, and I always assume that that is precisely what visitors will want to see. However, it does mean that I rarely get to talk about this image, for which I have a particular soft spot – a Ferrarese Madonna and Child in its original frame. Little is known about its origins, and nothing is known about the patron or the location for which it was intended. Before it was purchased by the Italian State for the Accademia in 1896, the painting’s history is a blank – so we have to rely on the evidence before our eyes. Stylistically it would appear to date from the 1480s, but to explain that would entail a book-length discussion of the work of Cosmé Tura. Let’s just go with his dates – which the National Gallery in London gives as ‘before 1431 – 1495’ – making this a fairly late work. By 1460 he had a salary from the Ferrarese Court (under Marchese, later Duke, Borso d’Este) making him, effectively, the unofficial ‘court’ artist. It has been suggested that the unusual stylisation of his work, with its angular twists, turns and sharp inflections, relates to the complex line of thought followed by the Ferrarese scholars – although, to be honest, Borso was far more interested in partying that listening to erudite conversation. That was more the concern of his predecessor, half-brother Leonello d’Este.

There might be some clue as to the original patron, and/or intended location, from the section of the painting at the top. The frame is a piece of miniature architecture. Two pilasters, decorated with what are referred to as candelabra, are topped by classically inspired capitals, sitting somewhere between Ionic and Corinthian – but this is an early renaissance form, as the full ‘classical language’ of architecture had not yet been fully formulated by renaissance architects. Nevertheless, the two pilasters support a full entablature, made up of an architrave (the ‘beam’ at the bottom), a frieze (decorated with stylised leaves, some of which seem almost anthropomorphic) and a cornice – the three flat strips at the top. In its turn, the entablature supports a segmental pediment, with rosettes sitting to the left and right and at the summit. The pediment itself is also painted with two angels in red holding onto a sun-like symbol. This is the ‘Name of Jesus’, a monogram formulated by the ardent 15th Century Franciscan preacher St Bernardino of Siena. As seen here it looks like ‘yhs’ – with a line through the ‘h’ – but ‘ihs’ would be a more usual formation, being derived from the first three letters of ‘JESUS’ in Greek (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ). The line through the ‘h’ tells us that the monogram is an abbreviation, but also, conveniently, forms a cross with the vertical of the ‘h’. Taking the idea from the biblical text, ‘At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow’ (Philippians 2:10, cue communal hymn singing), Bernardino used this sign to unite warring factions, and to inspire devotion. It would therefore make sense if this painting had been commissioned for a Franciscan church – and there is indeed a San Francesco in Ferrara, and there was from as early as 1232. But then, there was also a church – and convent – dedicated to San Bernardino himself. It is not there anymore, though – it was destroyed in 1825. At one point (1509) the convent was acquired by none other than Lucrezia Borgia (who was, among other things, the second wife of Duke Alfonso I of Ferrara) as a gift for her niece, who eventually, in 1543, became the abbess – but that’s another story.

Looking down to the main image – as indeed the two angels in the pediment are – we can see what, at first glance, could be a standard depiction of the Madonna and Child. However, that first glance would have to be a very quick one. The original gilt frame holds a separate wooden panel which has its own trompe-l’oeil frame painted in pink, a bit like a window frame looking out into the countryside (more of that below). Mary is seated on the window sill, her left knee bent, with her shin lying across the sill and her foot hidden behind the frame to our left. Her blue cloak falls over the frame, linking our space to hers, making the image more immediate. The weight of the Christ Child rests on her knee, with one of his feet planted on the cloak where it lies on the window sill – his foot is therefore protected from what could be cold, and potentially dirty, Verona marble. The other foot floats, almost unnaturally, in the air. He is completely naked – a common feature in 14th and 15th century images, although it went out of fashion with the strictures of the Counter Reformation in second half of the 16th Century. His nudity stressed not only his humanity, but his masculinity – he was both God and Man… Nevertheless, for the time being he is fast asleep, his right hand resting on his left shoulder, and his head almost weightlessly resting on that hand. The left hand hangs down limply, almost as it would in a Pietà. Mary looks down at him with tender affection, holding onto him gently with her left hand, and resting the fingers of her right hand even more gently on his shoulder.

When we look closer, we can see more details of the painted frame – the light is coming from the left, lighting up the inside of the right hand frame, but leaving the underside of the top section in shadow. However, you can’t see the inside of the frame on the left. This implies that, in its original location, when the painting was first seen, we would have been standing to the left of it, looking over towards it on our right. Tura seems to have taken the words of Leon Battista Alberti to heart. When writing down an explanation of how to do perspective, Alberti said, ‘I draw a rectangle which is considered to be a window through which I see what I want to paint’. He didn’t actually say ‘paint a window frame’, but more than one artist decided to play this game – Tura, in this instance, was one of them. It’s impossible to pinpoint the vanishing point with just one orthogonal (a line in a perspective scheme that is supposed to be at right angles to the picture plane) but, judging by the diagonal at the top right of the fictive frame, the vanishing point, and therefore our view point, would appear to be – roughly speaking – at the bottom left corner of the painting. This implies that not only would the painting have been to our right, but also quite high up. Mary’s halo barely fits in between her head and the painted frame, which of course begs the question, ‘What, exactly, is a halo?’ – just one of the questions I want to try and answer on Monday. Well, in this case, it seems to be a thin, flat sheet of gold which reflects some elements of Mary’s headdress. Jesus’s halo certainly appears to be solid – Mary’s veil rests on it, with several folds bunching together, wrinkling over the top, and falling over the other side. But if they are sheets of gold, how do they stay up? I’m not going to answer that question today.

Behind Mary’s head a vine has been strung up behind the window frame – or just happens to be growing there – with a bunch of grapes hanging from it on either side. Grapes make wine, of course, and Jesus will offer wine to his apostles at the Last Supper, saying ‘Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.’ (Matthew 26:27-28). This eucharistic reference strengthens the echo of the Pietà which we have already seen. But then, so does the goldfinch at the top right, which is a symbol of the passion of Christ. It looks down towards Jesus, echoing Mary’s gaze. The bird at the top left might also add to this meaning – but no one is really sure what it is doing there. The Accademia website says that it is another goldfinch, but it isn’t. It’s rather like a treecreeper, but with a red flash on its wing. In fact, it’s a wallcreeper – or Tichodroma muraria. As for its symbolism – well, I have no idea, although as it clings on hard, it could, like ivy, stand for steadfastness and fidelity.

Further down the painting an intriguing image comes into focus. Apart from the blissful sleep of the child, and his mother’s delicate touch, not to mention the curious folds of the veil going over the solid halo, there are gold patterns surrounding the Virgin’s shoulder. Sadly these have worn away a little – but I hope you can make out the image of a woman in the sky, her head tilted towards the baby much as Mary’s and the goldfinch’s are. This is the astrological sign Virgo – the Virgin. Apt, you would agree, but unusual. Throughout history the Church has had an ambivalent attitude towards astrology. Even when it was indistinguishable from astronomy there were those who thought that, even though God had placed the stars in the sky, the stars themselves could not govern our fates: astrology was superstition and should be discouraged. However, there were also those who thought that God had deliberately placed the stars in the sky as yet another way of communicating his message – which would mean that astrology had a certain validity. Above right of Virgo are also Sagittarius, Pisces and Aquarius, apparently (I can’t make them out here, to be honest), although these are not in the right configuration, and their combined significance has yet to be deciphered. It should be said that he court of Ferrara was especially interested in astrology. One of the city’s great treasures is the Room of the Months, each of which is governed by the appropriate astrological sign – not to mention the three relevant Decans, really obscure personifications – but more of them, briefly, on Monday!

Whatever the implications of these details, the overall symbolism of the painting is clarified when we look at the sill on which Mary is resting. Our attention is drawn towards it by the rich flashes of the deep blue cloak falling over it, and it would in any case have been more immediately present, as it would have been roughly at our eyelevel. It bears an inscription which reads

Sviglia el tuo figlio dolce madre pia
per far infin felice l’alma mia

‘Wake your son, sweet holy mother, so that my soul will finally be happy’

Now, as I’m sure you know, when visiting a mother with a young baby, it is always a bit disappointing if the baby is asleep, as it means that you can’t play with it and have a cuddle. But for the mother, it is a godsend, as her child is finally quiet. However Mary is on the verge of waking her child just for us – her right hand is poised to touch his right shoulder ever so gently, and wake him up without alarm. His little left hand, hanging for all the world as if he is dead, will come to life, and so will he. And our souls will finally be happy, because this reminds us that, in roughly thirty-three years’ time, the dead Christ, lying in a not entirely dissimilar way on his Mother’s lap, will also come back to life. The sleeping Baby Jesus is a symbol both of the death and of the resurrection of Christ – and this applies to any painting in which you see Jesus asleep.

The solidity of the halo is a mystery, though. Surely a halo is just a visual embodiment of the light of God, and the glow of sanctity? Or does this very solidity imply that the light and the sanctity are real? That, however spiritual, they are both solid and dependable? I don’t know the answer – but it is a possibility. The talk on Monday may provide alternative explanations…


136 – At Home with Uncle Gianni

Bernardo Bellotto, Venice: Upper Reaches of the Grand Canal facing Santa Croce, about 1738. National Gallery, London.

This Monday, 20 September, I will be putting the National Gallery’s small but perfectly formed exhibition Bellotto: The Königstein Views Reunited into context with a lecture I have entitled Bellotto – The Journey to Dresden, so today I thought I would have a look at one of his earliest views, painted before that journey had even begun. However, I’m having a bit of trouble focussing… I was lucky enough to get home from Rome on Sunday (and I really mean that – I was very lucky to go, I know, but it was so complicated getting out of that country and back into this, that I count myself lucky to be here!). Subsequently my dear friends at Art History Abroad have invited me to go to Portugal the week after next with next to no preparation, which has thrown me into a bit of a flurry. Yes, I should have been in Stockholm now, but I’m not, so I’ll go to Portugal instead. If anyone fancies a spontaneous trip to Porto and the Douro Valley click on the link and have a look. This means that I will not be giving a talk on Monday 4 October (not that I said I would), although the following Tuesday, 12 October (I don’t know where I’ll be on the Monday) I will repeat my talk about The Mosaics of Ravenna. You may have heard it already when I did it for AHA, but as I am finally off to Ravenna the following week (where is the year going?) it seems like a good idea. It will be more or less the same talk, though (if a bit more focussed) so please don’t come along if you want something new! Before then, though, I will talk about the Ferrarese artist Francesco del Cossa – not to mention halos and snails – on Monday 27 September (How to wear you halo – and the Significance of the Snail), and before that, Bellotto. So today, before the The Journey to Dresden, let’s think about Bernardo Bellotto at home with his uncle Giovanni Antonio Canal, or Gianantonio Canal, or simply, Canaletto. And no, I don’t really think he was called Uncle Gianni…

Bernardo Bellotto Venice: The Grand Canal facing Santa Croce about 1738 Oil on canvas, 59.7 x 92.1 cm Salting Bequest, 1910 NG2514 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG2514

Personally, I think this is a lovely painting. It’s unassuming enough, I suppose, and perhaps there isn’t really much to distinguish it from so many of the views of Venice which now enrich the walls of museums across the world, but it was the only Bellotto that the National Gallery had until its purchase of The Fortress of Königstein from the North just four years ago. Which is strange, perhaps, given that Bellotto was every bit as good as his uncle, and the National Gallery owns at least 14 of his paintings. Why did the British value Bellotto so far below his uncle? Who can say? But it is worthwhile remembering that, while Canaletto spent most of his time working in his native city – the haunt of many a Grand Tourist – Bellotto did not. And the little time Uncle Gianni was out of the country, he was in England – hence his pre-eminence here, perhaps. Not only that, but we do have a tendency to narrow our gaze. You want a view of Venice? You want Canaletto! He’s the main man, he’s the famous one, get the best. Only I’m not convinced that he always was the best: I’d rather have a Bellotto – or a Guardi.

So, what do I like about this painting? Well, it’s charming, it’s clear, well painted, well composed, and it sparkles with light, and with the life of Venice. As with so many of the vedute – or ‘views’ – it appears to assume an impossible point of viewing. We seem to be at the same height as the people on the bridge we can see on the right of the canal – only we also seem to be in the middle of the Grand Canal, and there is not, nor there never was, a bridge just here – although there is, admittedly, a kink in the canal. More of that later. We face the church of Santa Croce directly (it’s on the right), with its simple, apparently neo-classical façade. Now, however often you have been to Venice, I can guarantee that you have not been to this church. How can I be so sure? Well, it was destroyed in 1810: a communal garden now takes its place (see the photograph below). We can see gondoliers on the water, and people walking along the fondamenta – the canal-side path. A be-wigged aristocrat in red stands in the shadows at the foot of the steps to the church, and a hooded figure emerges from the left-hand door. Further back two people cross the bridge, and beyond that we can see the dome of San Simeon Piccolo, completed by architect Gianantonio Scalfarotto in 1738 as a neo-classical echo to Longhena’s baroque Santa Maria della Salute at the other end of the Grand Canal. The date of this church gives us a clue to the date of the painting. In the distance is the campanile (bell tower) of San Geremia – St Jeremiah. In the western church it is not usual to call an old testament prophet ‘Saint’, although it is in the orthodox church. The name of this, and other, Venetian churches reminds us of Venice’s connections with Byzantium. The view – with the exception of the absent church – is not altogether different today.

On the other side are three – or, arguably, four – more churches, only one of which survives.

From left to right they are the convent of Corpus Domini, which is more-or-less hidden by the surrounding wall. Further back it the taller renaissance façade of the Scuola dei Nobili – strictly speaking, a confraternity, although, as they all did, the complex would have included a consecrated chapel. This is followed by Santa Lucia, and finally, Santa Maria di Nazareth, known universally as the Scalzi, being the home of the Discalced (or ‘barefoot’) Carmelites. Its late-baroque façade was designed by Giuseppe Sardi and completed in 1680. This is the only surviving church from those on the left of the painting. Nowadays it is a familiar view, as it is, after San Simeon Piccolo, the second church you would see when emerging from the railway station. And if you have been to Venice by train, you may remember that the station is called Venezia Santa Lucia – which is the main reason why the buildings have changed so much here. In 1861 the Austrian overlords destroyed Santa Lucia (the church) to build the first railway station, at the end of a new land bridge. This was then re-built between 1936 and 1952 (the war slowed things down, of course) to a final design by Paolo Perilli.

This is the best photograph I can find of Bellotto’s view now – with the station on the left, the Scalzi covered in scaffolding, and the campanile – and dome – of San Geremia in the distance. But this is telling – hardly hint of the right bank of the canal, and only a glimpse of the portico of San Simeon. The vedutisti ­– the artists who painted the vedute – were experts at combining viewpoints, and this was something that Bellotto would have learnt as an essential part of his training. What we see in the images may look real, but we would have to look from side to side to see it all in one go.

Just visible in the background of this photograph – crossing in front of the brightly-lit palazzo – is a relatively ‘new’ bridge, built by the Austrians across the Grand Canal. This helped to connect the station to the city, and facilitated the movement of troops, who were needed to control the revolting Venetians. In 1848 there had indeed been a revolt, when the locals briefly took control of their own city. It didn’t last long: the Hapsburgs took back command the following year, and remained so until 1866 when Venice joined the newly-united (or, at least, uniting) Italy – even if most of them still don’t believe they really are the same as other Italians. Perhaps the best way to understand our painting is to look the other way. Here is a comparison with a painting by Canaletto, which also in the collection of the National Gallery: The Grand Canal with S. Simeone Piccolo painted shortly after the Bellotto, in around 1740. In case you were worried, the final ‘e’ of ‘Simeone’ is not a typo – nor is its absence above: the ‘e’ is Italian, but not Venetian, like ‘Canal’, Gianantonio’s family name. It was because he was the son of another Canal – Bernardo – that he was called ‘little Canal’, i.e. ‘Canaletto’.

Canaletto Venice: The Grand Canal with S. Simeone Piccolo about 1740 Oil on canvas, 124.5 x 204.6 cm Bequeathed by Lord Farnborough, 1838 NG163 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG163

We can see some of the same buildings – San Simeon is on the left, with the far simpler bulk of Santa Croce in the distance, just before the kink in the canal which means that the fondamenta curves round to our right – providing the viewpoint for Bellotto’s painting. Then on the right we can see the baroque façade of the Scalzi, and the projecting mass of Santa Lucia. Compare that with the view today – at least of the right-hand side of the canal, from more or less this point of view (where now the really is a bridge).

Enough said.

Apart from the skill, and the beauty of the painting, I love the historical content of Bellotto’s work – the documentation of the life and fabric of the city. I have little doubt that both of these paintings were created – in part, at least – to document one of the city’s latest landmarks – San Simeon Piccolo. The Bellotto is also interesting because he would have been young at the time it was painted. Born in 1722, he was the third child of asset manager Lorenzo Antonio Bellotto and Fiorenza Domenica Canal. He was named after his maternal grandfather, Bernardo Canal, a theatrical scene painter. He trained, of course, with his uncle, Canaletto (Fiorenza’s brother), and already by the age of 16 he was registered as a member of the Fraglia dei Pittori – the Venetian painters’ guild. It was around this time – 1738 – that our veduta was painted. He was sixteen. How could he have got to this level so quickly? Well, manual skill can easily be learnt with enough application and an early start, but the conceptual skill? He had help. His painting was based on his own preparatory drawing, now in the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt. Sadly, I can’t find an image of it – but not to worry, as Bellotto’s own drawing was actually based on one by his uncle, which is now in the Royal Collection. Compare and contrast:

The composition is almost exactly the same, of course, plus or minus the odd gondola, although Bellotto makes the distant campanile slightly more prominent. This is how you learn – by copying the master. You study his original sketches, see how he combines them into a coherent composition, and copy that compositional drawing, just to make sure that it has all sunk in. I would like to see Bellotto’s version of the drawing, though, as I’d like to see how he sketches the sky. I have no doubt that both artists were right handed. Apart from the obvious fact that most people are, and always were, and, if they weren’t, were often made to be, in Canaletto’s sky the lines go from top right to bottom left – the default direction for right handed people sketching. For Canaletto, this is not a regular angle, though, with the lines varying from 45˚ to the horizontal at the top right and left, and varying across the centre to something more like 25˚. You get a similar variety of brushstrokes in the skies of Canaletto’s paintings. However, one of the stylistic features of Bellotto – to my mind, at least, I’ve never heard anyone else mention it – is that the brushstrokes in the blue of the sky are often an almost obsessive 45˚- which I hope you can see in this detail. It looks as if there is an almost imperceptible rain.

The detail also shows the thickness of the paint in the clouds. This three dimensional ‘paste’ is given the Italian name impasto, and is one of the ways in which Bellotto’s paintings differ from those of Canaletto, who does not use impasto to the same degree. Other differences include larger canvasses, more magisterial views, and a cooler, more silvery palette – but these are the sorts of things I will be talking about on Monday, when I discuss Bellotto’s development after the early years in Venice, not to mention his journeys through Europe which led him to Dresden, and beyond, and then back again… I do hope you can join me then! As for everything else – well, as ever, it should be on the diary page.


135 – Say it with flowers

Carl Larsson, Azalea, 1906. Thielska Gallery, Stockholm.

On Monday (6 September) I will be lecturing about two great Swedish artists from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Anders Zorn and Carl Larsson, both of whom (and I know I’ve said this before) deserve to be better known. Aside from their enormous technical skill, the rich use of colour and original compositions are combined in what are, quite simply, wonderful paintings, easy on the eye and a pleasure to behold. On the whole, they communicate a sense of ease and well-being which was not necessarily that of their humble origins. Because of their outlook on life, and their interests in both tradition and innovation, I have called the talk How it was and how it could be – although you’ll find it listed on Tixoom (where you can book tickets) as Two Swedish Masters. But more about them on Monday at 6pm – today I want to talk about Mrs Larsson, although, perversely perhaps, I will do so by looking a painting by her husband, Carl.

According to that well-worn phrase, ‘Behind every great man is a great woman.’ I can’t help finding the motto a little tired. We now know that often the women weren’t behind the men. Often they were alongside, or even up in front – it’s just that the other men failed to notice them, and as some of those same men did much of the communicating (writing books, lecturing, etc, etc) even the other women didn’t get to know about the Great Women who were supposedly backing up the supposedly Great Men. You might, at first glance, assume this is the case with Mrs Larsson, who is half hidden in this work behind an Azalea – the star of the show. Like many a star of stage and screen, this plant has found its place in the spotlight, close to the audience in the middle of the stage – or, in theatrical terms, downstage centre. But then, the Azalea is what this painting is all about, surely? The title tells us as much, doesn’t it?

Azaleas are actually a type of Rhodedendron – a surprisingly broad genus – and, as such, it should really be a more sprawling bush. However, this would appear to be a ‘standard’ variety, with the attractively-grouped blooms growing from a tall slim stem. It could have been pruned, or even grafted, to make it look like this. A little further back, and to our right, we see Mrs Larsson wielding a pair of shears: maybe she is responsible for its current form. It is not entirely clear, given the scale, whether she is looking out towards us, or at the plant itself – I suspect it’s the latter, though, as her irises are in the far corner of her eyes – she is looking to her right, and a little downwards. Maybe she has just finished tending to it, and, and having walked away, she has looked back, over her shoulder, to check that its appearance is satisfactory. The light floods in to the back of the room through the expansive window, placing her, as the French say, contre jour, ‘against the daylight’, a bravura display of skill from Carl Larsson, using the luminosity of the watercolour medium to full effect. The light filters around one side of her face, leaving the other in shadow. It plays similar across the blooms, with those at the top catching the light, the translucency of the petals making them glow. The lower flowers are more in shadow, allowing Larsson to show off a range of pinks, from the palest tint to almost red. In this light – literally and metaphorically – his wife’s face appears another in the collection of blossoms. She has tended to the flowers, making sure they appear perfect, and he places her perfectly among them.

But is that how he saw her? One of the beautiful things in life, and nothing more? Merely part of the decoration? After all, she’s not front and centre – that position is given to the plant. Admittedly I haven’t helped by calling her ‘Mrs Larsson’ because, of course, she did have her own personality. Mr Larsson was more than aware of the fact. Ultimately, I think that is what this painting is about. Carl had been born into abject poverty (more of that on Monday), but, despite this, his artistic talent was recognised at an early age, enabling him to train at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts. After a period working as an illustrator (an experience which was to prove invaluable throughout his career), he headed off to Paris, and settled in a Scandinavian artists’ colony just outside the city a few years later. It was there that he met Karin Bergöö, a more recent graduate from the Academy. Previously she had studied at the Swedish Craft School, and came from a wealthy and progressive family: she had lived independently in Stockholm, with an allowance, from the age of 14. A year after Karin and Carl met, they returned to Stockholm and married. Following a couple more sojourns in France, they settled in Sundborn, near the town where her father, a successful businessman, had been born. He gave them a small, almost derelict cottage, called Lilla Hyttnäs – which, roughly translated, means ‘the small cabin on the isthmus’. They already had two children, and went on to have six more. Most women’s careers would have foundered at this stage, and, according to the standards imposed by the traditional rigours of the ‘fine arts’ – which insist on the primacy of oil on canvas – Karin’s did. She did not become a professional artist, unlike her husband. As a mother, she was all but restricted to the domestic sphere: it was this which became her ‘canvas’. She designed furniture, and interiors; she wove and embroidered; and she made her own and her children’s clothing. The pinafores she is often seen wearing in Carl’s paintings (she was also his chief model) were her own design, practical and comfortable. To this day they are known as karinförkläde – ‘Karin’s aprons’ – by the women of Sundborn. And, I believe, even much further afield.

On the left of the painting, behind the Azalea, we can see a loom set up with a partially woven textile. The curving lines in bold colours – blue, white, pink and red – framed by a similarly brightly coloured border of rectangles, is typical of Karin’s work. It is not dissimilar to the panel underneath the window of the dining room of Lilla Hyttnäs, their home, now a museum celebrating their work and their life together. Indeed, it might even be Carl’s interpretation of that particular work in progress. The loom itself is delicately depicted, with its bench outlined clearly beside it. In the background we also see a printing press, for the production of engravings. Or am I seeing it this way because I want to see this as the home of an artistic couple? Maybe it’s a sewing machine, and maybe one of you can tell me! Either way, it is part of the artistry.

Karin’s creativity is central to this painting. Although she, as a figure, is to the right of the composition and in the middle ground, she is certainly not marginalised: figuratively she is absolutely central to the composition, in the same way that she was at the centre of Carl’s life and work. She created the environment in which they lived together, and she nurtured the children – in the same way that she nurtures the plants. She was not ‘behind’ him, but beside him, inspiring him, enabling him, and encouraging him on – a sounding board and a critic. She made the family and home what they were, and these in turn became his core subjects, as we will see on Monday. The Azalea in this painting is not just a plant, it is a symbol of their life together, well-ordered, perfectly structured, luminous, and, ultimately, beautiful. Carl acknowledges here that this is the fruit of Karin’s particular genius. We cannot see witness this act of creation: Carl, sitting at his easel, is not in view. But while he holds his paint brush, and she, her shears, I can imagine their eyes meeting across the blooms.


Psyching myself up

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid, 1753, National Gallery, London.

I was going to write a new post today, but it turns out I’m still in acting mode. After two weeks in Sidmouth playing three different roles in the four playlets that make up Neil Simon’s California Suite we have half a week at the New Theatre Peterborough. Thank you so much to those of you who joined us on the South Coast – and if anybody would like to see the show in Peterborough, it is only 50 minutes from London on the train (and there is a matinee at 2.30 on Saturday…). Then I will psyche myself up to get back into lecturing mode for Tuesday evening (31 August), when I will be telling the story of Cupid and Psyche, illustrated with art from across the ages (most notably, of course, the decoration of the Villa Farnesina by the workshop of Raphael). Then the following week, on Monday 6th September at 6pm I will be talking about Two Swedish Masters – Anders Zorn and Carl Larsson – both of whom deserve to be better known. Those of you who were with me during lockdown 1 will have read my lengthy musings on the story of Psyche – but as an introduction (and while I’m still trying to get my head in gear) – I thought I’d repeat a post from April 30th last year… So here is Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid by Fragonard. 

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1732 – 1806 Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid 1753 Oil on canvas, 168.3 x 192.4 cm Bought, 1978 NG6445 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6445

The story of Psyche is a wonderful one, and sufficiently long to be shared over a couple of days…  It is peppered across Greek and Roman myth, but the version that is best known isn’t myth at all, but part of a late Roman novella, The Golden Ass, written by Apuleius in the second half of the second century AD. It tells of a man, Lucius, who, as the result of a freak magic-related accident, is turned into a donkey (if you think you’ve heard this before, yes, this is probably the origin of the Bottom sub-plot in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). He wanders the world trying to regain human form, and on his journeys hears various stories, which are recounted as part of the novella. The longest and most thoroughly told tale is the story of Cupid and Psyche, which became a particular favourite in the Renaissance. It is illustrated in full by Giulio Romano in the Palazzo Te in Mantua, and Raphael started a cycle in the Farnesina in Rome, although sadly it was never completed. I will come back to both, though, as well as throwing in other interpretations as the mood takes me!

Luca Giordano, Psyche Honoured by the People c.1695-7, Royal Collection Trust.

Psyche was a mere mortal, but as a girl, was said to be more beautiful than Venus herself, the Goddess of Beauty. She was so beautiful, in fact, that people started worshipping her instead of Venus. Gods never like a threat to their status, and Venus was no exception. 

Workshop of Raphael, Venus and Cupid, 1518, Farnesina Palace, Rome.

She sent her son Cupid to make Psyche very unhappy, by making her fall in love with a monster (another feature of the story which is echoed in the Dream, perhaps?), but when he saw her he understood what all the fuss was about. Leaning closer to get a better look, he accidentally pricked himself with one of his own arrows, and fell madly in love with her. Knowing that his mother would have been furious, he knew he had to get her out of the way, so he got his good friend Zephyr, the wind (who we have already seen in Picture Of The Day 8 and POTD 37) to pick her up and carry her off to his castle. Once there, she was brought food by invisible servants, played music by invisible musicians, and showered with gifts from who knows where. He came to her at night, in the dark… and the earth moved. Clearly she was happy to be there, and he told her that she could stay, on condition that she never tried to find out his name or see what he looked like. This suited Psyche, although she was a bit concerned that her sisters might be worried about where she’d got to, so she persuaded Cupid, much against his better judgement, to get Zephyr to bring them to the castle so they could see that she was alright.

On arrival she shows them all the gifts she has been given – some of these are scattered on the ground: a basket of roses, tipped up for inspection by the sister in red, and in front of that an elaborate golden bowl, with turquoise fabric lying in and around it. There is a pipe and a tambourine – evidence of the magical music, perhaps – and leaning against the frame of Fragonard’s painting is another frame, an oval one, with a blue ribbon tied onto the loops at the back so that it can be hung. We will never know what this is – a mirror, perhaps? Or a painting? Also lying on the ground is a quiver full of arrows – this should be a clue. Psyche is not the sort to go out hunting (unlike Diana and her virgin nymphs), so these must belong to Cupid. If only she had noticed them, and stopped to think what they were doing there!

She seems to have been given a vast amount of fabric. One sister, blonde, who is facing us, holds up a length that is a very pale lemon yellow and white, with a sky blue border, while the redhead with her back to us in shadow clasps what appears to be cloth of gold. The fabric pours across the floor and over the step on which this woman is kneeling. As this woman is in the left foreground, and in shadow against a lighter background, she should really be a repoussoir, encouraging us to look further into the image, but she looks off to her left, and directs our attention away from Psyche, the focus of the story. I can only imagine that Fragonard is implying that these bolts of brocade are spread far across the floor, way beyond the edge of the painting.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1732 – 1806 Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid 1753 Oil on canvas, 168.3 x 192.4 cm Bought, 1978 NG6445 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6445

Fine fabrics would appear to be the stuff of the sisters’ dreams, they are so well attired themselves. The primrose yellow of the standing blonde woman is one of my favourite colours in any painting – don’t ask me why – but Fragonard makes it ring out by surrounding it with different yellows and turquoises. Despite this, there is no doubt that Psyche is the most important person here. Her brilliant white drapery – it could hardly be called it a robe, as it barely covers her, despite its length and breadth – shines out between the shimmering yellow and the deep red. She is the only person seated, her feet resting on a splendid cylindrical cushion, in turquoise velvet, with gold tassels. Her hair is being coiffed by one of her more attentive sisters, who looks over her shoulder to see a swarm of amoretti  – ‘little loves’ – bringing yet more jewelry and roses. It is almost as if they are embodiments of the rich perfumes emanating from the large, gold censer on the far right. 

Her chair is elaborately carved and gilded, and next to the cherub’s head at the end of the arm is a cushion in delicate pink, with feathery gold embroidery appliqued freely and plentifully as if it were the cherub’s wings. All this appears to be taking place in a fantasy setting – well it is rather fantastic! A stage set, perhaps, or the courtyard of a grand palace, with a terrace that has been strewn with rich materials for a tête-à-tête – en plein air – as it were. Fragonard has himself changed his mind about how it is represented, as there is a ghost-like vase hovering above right of the two standing sisters. This is what is known as a pentimento – or change of mind – which has, through the aging of the paint, become visible again.

What do Psyche’s sisters feel about all the attention she has been getting? Well, flying through the sky is a woman with snakes in her left hand and a flaming torch in her right, looking down at the two standing sisters. This is Eris, the Goddess of Discord – the Goddess of Arguments. I’ve always assumed that she has the snakes to freak people out, and the torch to heat up the arguments. Of course, the sisters were jealous! They wanted to know who he was, this wonderful lover, and what did he look like? Psyche couldn’t answer. As he only came at night, she had never seen him. When they pointed out to her that he could be a monster, she lost the calm that she is so clearly enjoying in this painting, and got into an argument (Eris always gets her way in the end). She then told Zephyr to take them away again. But what should she do next? Well – you can look up the ‘Psyche’ archive, or join me for the talk on Tuesday!


134 – Displaced Angels

Raphael, The Sistine Madonna, 1512-14. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

I am constantly reminded of something that, when I first heard it, was attributed to Mark Twain: ‘I am sorry to have written such a long letter: I didn’t have time to write a short one’. Since then I have heard it attributed to any number of other authors, and really, I don’t have the time to research a short conclusion – so I shan’t. I was reminded of this during my lecture last week. Having tried to cover the life of short-lived artist Caravaggio in three talks, I thought four would be ideal for Raphael, who lived one year less (he died at 37, unlike Caravaggio, who lived to the ripe old age of 38). And yet, and yet… there is always more to say. So today I want to think about one of the glorious paintings which I just haven’t had time to include in the lectures. Why so busy? Well, that’s enough about me. There are two more talks in the Raphael series, though. Tomorrow, Monday 19 July, at 6pm I have re-named Telling Tales and Spinning Yarns, and then next Monday, 26 July, I will discuss the last phase of his prodigious career in the talk Competition and Collaboration. And then no more talks for at least a month. It’s not a holiday, but a break from art for acting. So if you like theatre, and find yourself on the South Devon Coast (Sidmouth, to be precise) or near Peterborough, I will be appearing in three of the four one-act plays which make up Neil Simon’s California Suite. But for now, back to Raphael.

You are aware of the concept of fallen angels, I presume, but have maybe not come across a displaced angel… but these two have certainly been cut adrift. You can find them in almost any large Italian town, staring up from the pavement and accompanied by an assorted array of different posters of varying standards and sensibilities. However, should the police appear, they will be whisked away, caught up in the sheet on which they have been reclining. Perhaps they serve a function as the guardian angels of street vendors, alerting them to the imminent arrival of rain or sun, thus explaining the supernatural ability of these outcast men (they are always men) to appear beside you with an umbrella or an array of sun glasses within seconds of the downpour or subsequent brilliant glare. And yet, despite their ubiquity, these angels are far from home: far from their original home, that is, and even further from their current place of residence. They are seen completely out of context, and few people – from among those likely take them home – would be able to tell you what they are and where they really live. And that is because no one on their holidays in Italy would have seen them: they too are on holiday, from Dresden. I should say that I do find them entirely charming, both leaning on the window sill, it seems (although as often as not, as here, that has been cropped out of the image), looking up at we know not what, one with his chin on his crossed arms, the other resting his head on his hand, that typical gesture of thought. Both are on the verge of boredom, it seems, and yet they still hold the possibility of being entertained. What is it that they are contemplating? And is their interest sustained by the possibility that things will get better or worse? Well, let’s put them into context.

They come from Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, which he completed in 1514, a painting which is now one of the highlights (if not the highlight) of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. Despite the name, it was not painted for the Sistine Chapel, nor was it painted for Pope Sixtus IV, after whom the chapel is named, as he died in 1484, the year after Raphael was born. However, it was painted for his nephew, Julius II, the Pope who commissioned Raphael to paint his Rooms in the Vatican Palace, and commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine ceiling. The ensuing disputes between the two great artists will feature in next week’s talk. Julius died the year after he commissioned the painting, and the year before it was completed, during the papacy of Leo X, the Pope who asked Raphael to design him a nice set of tapestries (the subject of tomorrow’s talk). However, the painting never had a home in Rome: it was commissioned for the Church of St Sixtus in Piacenza. More of that later, though, let’s have a look at the painting.

We see the Madonna standing on the clouds in a form of contrapposto – her weight on her right leg, the left leg bent, with the heel lifting off the ground, for all the world as if she is walking towards us, carrying her child – or, in theological terms, as if she is carrying her child towards us for the salvation of all the world. Her blue cloak is blowing to the right and the golden veil billowing as a result of a breeze. Two saints, male and female, kneel at her feet, the man looking up at her while gesturing to us, the woman exchanging glances with the angel on our left. The heavenly vision has been revealed to us thanks to a pair of green curtains, which have been drawn back to frame the Virgin on either side of the painting.

Tied visibly on our right, and behind the frame on the left, the bunching of the curtains means that the rings with which they are hung are unevenly spaced – a touch naturalism to help us believe the supernatural. The slim rod bows from the weight, revealing more sky at the top of the painting, suffused with ethereal members of the heavenly host – pale blue cherubim and seraphim merging with the clouds. Both Mother and Child look out at us – or do they look just past us? – wide-eyed, even concerned. Jesus sits cross-legged, like the monarchs of medieval manuscript illumination, preparing to judge us – to condemn, or have mercy. The motif of the curtain is also medieval in origin. In Matthew’s account of the crucifixion – Chapter 27:50-51 to be precise – we read:

50 Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.
51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent…

This event – the rending of the curtain – is interpreted as the revelation of divine truth, and here too, in this painting, the truth is revealed, as Mary presents us with her child, our saviour. Note how the curtains are at a level to frame the standing Virgin, but would not necessarily hang low enough to cover the saints. Like us, they are witnesses to this vision, this revelation, not part of it.

On the left is St Sixtus, who, as Pope Sixtus II, was the Bishop of Rome from 257-258, at which point he was martyred under the Emperor Valerian along with the better known St Lawrence. He puts his left hand on his chest, and gestures towards us with his right hand. On the right is St Barbara, a saint whose life spanned the late third and early fourth centuries. Like St Sixtus, she also puts her left hand on her chest and, given the implied symmetry, not to mention the turn of her body, may well be using her right hand to indicate her attribute, the model of the tower in which she was imprisoned by her pagan father. This can be seen over her shoulder at the bottom of the visible section of the curtain. She is dressed in a complex, but elegant, fashion, with overlapping yellow and blue puffed sleeves, and a blue/violet cloak with a green lining. The diagonal of the green continues up through the flicking cloak of the Virgin, leading our eye towards the Christ child’s left foot – which is notably at the eyeline of both martyrs. They are ideally placed to kiss it, a sign of their humility and obeisance.

But then, if the painting were in place on an altar, the Virgin’s own feet, so delicately poised on the weight-bearing clouds, would be at the right height for us to do the same. Sixtus’s cope, the hem of which is subtly embroidered with saints seated in shell-topped niches, hangs down below him, linking us to the more heavenly realm. He has placed his triple tiara – the headgear worn by popes up until the 1960s (when they also tried, unsuccessfully, to remove St Barbara from the Canon of Saints) – on the same ledge on which the cherubs lean. Their gaze, with its melancholy (which, like the startled look of Madonna and Child, probably results from the inevitability of Christ’s death, combined with a subtle hint of the awe that his revelation entails) leads our eye back up to the top of the painting.

Visually, this is a masterpiece in direction and redirection. The angels, closest to us, look up towards St Barbara, and she gestures back to her tower. Rising from this, the curtain takes us up to the Virgin. The green lining of Barbara’s cloak takes our eyes to Christ’s foot, at the same level as her head and that of St Sixtus. He looks up to the Madonna and Child while she looks down, a different form of contrapposto which Raphael uses to keep us attentive, and to keep our eyes exploring, travelling across the surface of the painting, discovering every detail. Sixtus is interceding on our behalf, looking up to Jesus, begging him for mercy for us, miserable sinners – and pointing back towards us, making us reflect on our own existence, and reminding us that we too should pray. His cope hangs down close to us, we could even reach out and touch the hem of this garment, just as the woman with ‘an issue of blood’ did in Luke 8:43-48 when she thought Jesus wasn’t looking. The golden cope catches our eyes, and leads our attention back up to Sixtus’s face, and so back to Mary and Jesus. Its red lining echoes the visible section of Mary’s dress, both forming curved arrows which, like so much else, point up towards Jesus: there is constant upward motion. If you join the heads of the saints to Mary’s head, and the hands of the saints to Christ’s foot, you will have two parallel arrows pointing upwards, framed by the hanging curtains, echoed at the bottom by the angels – all leading us up towards the un-depicted God the Father, imagined as looking down from heaven. This upward motion is part of the inspiration for this painting.

On the left is a late 15th Century drawing by one of the followers of Perugino, part of the collection of the Albertina in Vienna. It shows us what the fresco Perugino painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel looked like. The chapel is dedicated (not that you’d know it now) to the Assumption of the Virgin, and this image was painted in fresco as an altarpiece, only to be destroyed when Michelangelo created his Last Judgement.

At the bottom of the drawing we see Sixtus IV kneeling with his triple tiara sitting on the ground, much as it does in Raphael’s painting. He is confirmed as St Peter’s successor by the man himself, who places his left hand on his head, and taps him on the shoulder with one of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, almost as if knighting him from behind. At the bottom of the mandorla – or almond-shaped glory – surrounding the Virgin Mary are three winged cherubim heads, looking up in much the same way that Raphael’s two angels do. St Paul stands on the right, resting one hand on his sword, and looking out towards us. It is all but impossible that Raphael did not know the original painting.

As a Franciscan, Sixtus IV – born Francesco della Rovere – had a strong belief in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (for which, see Day 71 and Day 72). In 1473 he made the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which had previously been a purely private affair, into a fully public, official celebration. Six years later he dedicated the chapel which bears his name on the Feast of the Assumption (which is a logical outcome of the Immaculate Conception), that is, on 15 August, 1483 – hence the subject of Perugino’s fresco. But why didn’t he become Pope Francis? Why did he choose a different name? St Francis was a worthy model, after all, and according to his followers, alter Christi – ‘another Christ’. Admittedly, most cardinals, on being elected to the Papacy, do choose a new name as a sign of their new life. The Conclave of 1471, at which he was elected, started on 6 August, which just happens to be the Feast of St Sixtus – hence his chosen name. But that doesn’t explain why his nephew, Julius II, commissioned this painting for a distant city. However, in 1512 the warrior Pope had captured the city of Piacenza and absorbed it into the Papal States. This made up in some way for the loss, the previous year, of Bologna, an the event which he mourned by refusing to shave. That’s how he got the beard with which we are familiar from Raphael’s innovative and influential portrait. Indeed, he looked more than a little like Raphael’s image of the 3rd Century martyr St Sixtus, who is indicating us. But then, that figure could feasibly also represent Julius II, the donor, showing Jesus the new city he has captured for God… It is also relevant that Piacenza had a church dedicated to St Sixtus, which boasted relics of the man himself, as well as some of St Barbara, which is why they are the saints featured in the painting. And as if this wasn’t enough, Julius was all too aware that he owed everything to his uncle, and did everything he could to commemorate him, and thus, the della Rovere family from which they both came.

The painting stayed in its intended location in Piacenza until 1754, when it was bought by Elector Frederick Augustus II of Saxony (also known as Augustus III of Poland) – the avid collector who amassed new fewer than 157 pastels by Rosalba Carriera – from which point on it became, for the Germans, the most perfect painting ever created. Among others, it was praised by Winckelmann, Goethe, Nietsche and Thomas Mann. And there is a whole subsequent history to go into, not to mention the peculiar presence of the charmed and charming angels all over Italy – but I really don’t have time to go into all of that right now. However, looking at that drawing again has made me realise that I will have to add another slide (or two) to tomorrow’s talk. I’m sorry, I won’t have time to write a short one.


133 – Cleanliness next to Godliness

Luciano Laurana, La Facciata dei Torricini, 1464-72. Palazzo Ducale, Urbino.

It’s a long time since I’ve talked about a building, but as today’s façade has a brief mention in the first of my new series of talks about Raphael, (A Boy from Urbino, this Monday 5 July at 6pm) – I thought I’d look at what a sophisticated piece of design it is. Monday’s a busy day, as it happens. I will also start a new course for the National Gallery – Women Artists – which covers women in Western European Art from medieval to modern, focussing especially on those whose work is included in the Gallery’s own collection. It will fill the gap between coffee and lunch on Mondays and Wednesdays for three weeks – there are more details in the link above. But today we will talk about architecture. The Palazzo Ducale in Urbino is sometimes described as the greatest Renaissance palace. It was built for Federigo da Montefeltro, Lord of Urbino from 1444, who was promoted to Duke in 1474. There is a lot of discussion still about who was responsible for the design of different sections of the palace: Luciano Laurana incorporated a slightly earlier building, but did not complete the palace by the time he left Urbino in 1472. However, I won’t be discussing the whole building: it is simply too large and too complex for one post. Instead, I will just look at one side, known as the Facciata dei Torricini – the ‘Façade of the Little Towers’ – which most authorities seem to be happy to attribute to Laurana himself.

Most of the palace is far grander and more austere in appearance. The palace is undoubtedly the largest structure in the city – with the exception of the encompassing defensive walls, I suppose – and most of it is far grander and more austere than this façade – both more simple and imposing. This section is more elaborate as a result of its function – or functions – as the apartments of the Duke himself. The façade looks out over the countryside, rather than in towards the city, and so is designed to demonstrate Federigo’s wealth and good taste to anyone approaching from this direction. But it also expresses, subtly, a whole system of beliefs and convictions concerning the character of a good ruler. The façade is elaborated by a vertical series of three arches. The bottom two are labelled with the letters ‘F’ and ‘C’, standing for Federico Comes – ‘Count Federigo’ in Latin –  reminding us that this structure was completed before he became Duke in 1474.

The top two arches are supported by marble columns, and are also faced in marble – implying the high status of the rooms which are behind them. The lowest is framed by brickwork – it is more down to earth, like the palace as a whole. By picking out these details in marble, it becomes clear that this part of the palace must the Duke’s (or Count’s) personal domain. Both of the upper two arches have two doorways leading from the balconies, whereas the lowest has only one. Nevertheless, in all three cases, the balconies allowed Federico to survey his realm. Access from one to another was via the spiral staircase in the torricino to the left. In between this and the upper balcony is a window which illuminates Federico’s famed studiolo – or ‘little study’ – decorated with paintings of ‘famous men’ by Justus of Ghent and Pedro Berruguete. Some – those in colour – are still in situ, whereas the remainder, represented by the reproductions in black and white, have been scattered around the world.

More famous, perhaps, is the intarsia work by Benedetto and Giuliano da Maiano, showing off their skill with perspective and other forms of illusionistic representation, using intricate inlaid woods. The imagery displays Federico’s military prowess and artistic interests, including music and the arts, science, weaponry, a display of his honours (among others he held the Orders of the Ermine, the Golden Fleece, and the Garter – the last of these bestowed by Edward IV of England), not to mention personifications the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity, which we must assume Federigo was supposed to embody.

From the next balcony down the two doors lead into two small rooms, known as the Chapel of Absolution, and the Temple of the Muses. The entrance to the two is topped by a couplet in Latin, which translates as,

You see a pair of chapels, joined together with a small separation:
the one part is sacred to the Muses, the other sacred to God.

It has been suggested that Piero della Francesca’s painting of The Flagellation once stood on the altar of the Chapel of Absolution – although this is by no means certain. However, we do know that the Temple was decorated with paintings of the nine muses by none other than Giovanni Santi. Now, this name might not be familiar to you, but don’t worry, he wasn’t the most famous of artists. However, he did create some rather charming works, and did two things for which he has been considered especially important. For one thing, he wrote a rhyming epic in honour of his patron Federigo. This isn’t in itself remarkable, but Giovanni followed the encomium with a list of 27 recent and living artists who he considered to be important, praising their work and explaining what he thought were their chief qualities – one of the first and one of very few such statements from the Renaissance, and therefore an invaluable measure of how people in the 15th Century actually talked about art. Perhaps more important than this, though, he was the father of Raphael (one of those artists we tend to refer to by one name only, thus effectively denying his parentage any relevance). Even though he died when Raphael was only eleven, it seems likely that Giovanni had already taught his young son most of the technique he would need for a successful career.

This beautifully delicate drawing in the Royal Collection was used by Giovanni as the model for various works, but most directly for Clio, the Muse of History. The painting itself is one of several surviving Muses (not all nine have been preserved), and is probably the one in the best condition.

So Federigo’s apartments – including his bedroom, the antechambers, and audience rooms – and most specifically, his study – are above a Christian chapel and a humanistic temple to the Muses. What would be the function of the rooms down below? In moving from the study to the chapel and temple, we have moved down from head to heart, suggesting that the lowest level of the three could be related to the rest of the body, or, perhaps, to more lowly functions. And indeed, behind the lowest balcony are Federigo’s bathrooms, across the corridor from the stables. I would imagine that this allowed him, on getting home from one of his military campaigns (he earned much of his fame and wealth as a Condottiero, a leader of mercenary soldiers) to wash off the cares of the world before returning to the cares of the court, and having cleansed his body he could head up the spiral staircase to cleanse his soul, thanking God for his safe return and praying for forgiveness for any misdeeds. He could also consult the Muses for inspiration before heading up to his private study and other apartments.

When seen from above, we realise that one of the walls does not shelter a room, but acts as a screen for a ‘hanging garden’, which sits on the roof directly above the stables. There used to be a walkway above this wall, which led directly from Federigo’s apartments to those of his wife, the beautiful Battista Sforza. Sadly, she died in childbirth at the age of 26, but was immortalised posthumously by Piero della Francesco as one of the paired portraits in the Uffizi.

Piero della Francesca, Battista Sforza and Federigo da Montefeltro, about 1473-75. Uffizi, Florence.

The Duke had everything at hand. His own rooms, on a level, and within easy reach of his wife along a short corridor (passing between garden and countryside), worked along a horizontal axis, while, on the vertical axis, his study was supported by a foundation of God and the arts – the health of his soul and his mind. These in turn were supported by the wellbeing of his body in the bathrooms below (not to mention the kitchens, which are on the same level). This clarity of thought and the elegant disposition of spaces are just a couple of the features which mark the sophistication of the court to which Raphael belonged: this is where he grew up, and where he made his first steps in the world of art. It was undoubtedly an important foundation for the future development of his career, which is precisely why it seems an ideal place to start the series on Monday. I look forward to talking to some of you then.


132 – Giant, or Giant Slayer?

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, David, 1623-4. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

I was blogging about Bernini two weeks ago, and I had meant to write a post about Caravaggio’s St Francis last week, as we still have one more talk about Caravaggio to go (this Monday at 2pm and 6pm), before I start a new series of four talks called The Raphaels in One Room. However, I moved house instead, so St Francis will have to wait. I’m currently surrounded by boxes, and piles of detritus, and it’s very hard to focus! I’ll get back to the early Caravaggio another day, although a ‘late’ work will make a guest appearance later on, much as a ‘mature’ painting did two weeks ago. That post covered a recently re-discovered work by Bernini (see 131 – Memento Mori), although I wrote about two of his most famous sculptures – The Ecstasy of St Theresa (Day 63) and Apollo and Daphne (Day 56) – way back in the days of Lockdown 1. Today I want to look at his David, which he carved at the same time as the Apollo – or rather, in a break in the latter’s execution (having said that, he didn’t carve all of the Apollo and Daphne himself, but I don’t often mention the fact: for some reason it tends to upset people). Today’s sculpture, like its contemporary, is in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, so people naturally assume that it was commissioned by Cardinal Scipio Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V. However, it seems likely that it was originally conceived for the garden of a villa at Montalto, on the edge of Rome, and for a different cardinal: Alessandro Peretti, nephew of Pope Sixtus V. Peretti had planned a theatrical setting for the work which might explain the composition of the David. However, the patron died in 1623, shortly after the sculpture had been commissioned, and Bernini was probably worried he that would not get paid. Nevertheless, there was apparently no difficulty in persuading Scipio Borghese to take on the commission. Although he already had Bernini’s Pluto and Persephone, and was looking forward to Apollo and Daphne – which was was already well underway – a biblical subject could have been enticing. If nothing else, it might help to allay any criticisms that the Cardinal was too caught up with pagan myth – and if so, then this subject was ideal, given that it celebrates the death of the infidel.

We see David in the act of throwing the stone that will slay Goliath. According to the biblical account, after he had taken up the Philistine’s challenge, Saul thought it wise that he should wear armour. But this is how David responded, according to 1 Samuel 17:38-39:

And Saul armed David with his armour, and he put an helmet of brass upon his head; also he armed him with a coat of mail.
And David girded his sword upon his armour, and he assayed to go; for he had not proved it. And David said unto Saul, I cannot go with these; for I have not proved them. And David put them off him.

The text basically says that David didn’t want to wear the armour because he wasn’t used to it, so he took it off. It does not say ‘and so David went to fight Goliath naked’ – which is how both Donatello and Michelangelo show him. Although David is not entirely naked here, there is only a swathe of drapery to preserve his dignity, and even that is a tease, coming so close to falling off his thigh, and revealing just enough to be provocative.  Entirely naked may well have been less sensual. Bernini’s predecessors make no reference to the rejected armour, but it sits here behind the figure of David at the back of the base. There is also a lyre lying on the ground, a reminder of David’s musicality (he has traditional been identified as the author of the Psalms).

The sculpture has no hint of the staff which is mentioned in 1 Samuel 17:40, but Bernini does include other details:

And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine.

One of the five stones has been put into the sling, and David is holding it in his left hand, with the end of the sling is in his right. The shepherd’s bag,or scrip – apparently made from the skin of one of the flock – is slung over his right shoulder. He twists around to increase the momentum of the shot, concentrating so hard that he frowns, and bites his lip, as he looks up towards the giant, judging his aim. From the direction of his gaze we get a good sense of how tall Goliath must have been. His height is even mentioned in the biblical account: according to 1 Samuel 17:4 David’s foe was ‘a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.’ Or, to put in in other terms, just 3cm off 3m – or 9’9”. While we’re talking about height, it’s worthwhile pointing out that Michelangelo’s David measure 5.17m: 2.2m taller than the biblical Goliath – and has also been known as Il Gigante: ‘the Giant’.

The subject of David is familiar, and is one that sculptors – especially Florentine sculptors – had excelled at long before Bernini was born. You could even say that some of the giants of the field had created examples that Bernini would doubtless want to emulate and even surpass. Donatello created at least two, an early version in marble, and a mature – and rather bizarre – work in bronze. This was followed by Verrocchio’s bronze, which I happen to think is one of the best. Not only is it superb in terms of its execution, but it also fits the biblical description of the young shepherd boy more than any others. He shows David with the head of Goliath at his feet, as all other artists depicting the young man had done before. The boy’s challenge has been fulfilled successfully, and the young hero is at peace, with all the balance, and charm, that the Early Renaissance could muster. In all of the early images the head is vital as David’s attribute – the symbol which tells us who this young murderer is: God’s chosen victor.

Michelangelo’s innovation was to show David before he had slain Goliath – he was the first artist to do so. This introduces the psychological tension so typical of works of the Renaissance, not to mention the angst which Michelangelo loved to portray physically, although here it is limited to the strong turn of the head. David looks out for his enemy, anxious, his brow slightly furrowed, but calm in the knowledge that God is his strength. However, although this was new for a depiction of David, it did have a precedent: Donatello had earlier shown St George prior to slaying the dragon, alert, on the front foot, and seeking out his foe across the streets of Florence. HOwever brilliant it is, though, you could argue that there is a fundamental problem with the way in which Il Gigante is conceived – apart from the fact that it is, in itself, a giant: he appears to be looking for someone at the same level as himself, someone who must, therefore, be the same height. As a contrast, Bernini’s David looks up, and we can tell instantly that he is aiming at someone far taller than himself. Bernini also does that typically Baroque thing of showing us the moment of greatest drama. Not ‘it’s over, and we are at peace’ like Verrocchio, or ‘oh no, will he do it?’ like Michelangelo, but ‘IT’S HAPPENING NOW!’ – something he could easily have learnt this from the paintings of an artist of the previous generation: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The energy and drama he has depicted means that the sculpture looks good from almost every point of view.

From the side (on the left), the shoulders are turned towards us, and so this could arguably be considered the ‘front’ – even if the hero turns and looks away from us. His arms frame the body, and make the composition look ‘contained’, even if the angle of the right leg below the knee shows us how much David is leaning into his task. If we hadn’t understood this before, this lack of balance we see here should make us realise the extent to which the armour is there to anchor the body, and to support its weight. When seen from the front left corner (on the right), the drapery and the strap of the scrip are seen to be parallel, enhancing the harmony of the composition, and are counteracted by the line of the left arm. It is also clear from this angle that none of the weight of this block of marble can be supported by the left leg, as only the ball of the foot seems to be touching the ground.

The front view balances the extension of the left leg with the reach of the left arm – with the right leg halfway between the two. The armour reads as a separate unit, but is the only central element at ‘ground level’ – the extreme asymmetry of the composition is one of the things that generates the sense of energy, motion and momentum. Even viewed from behind the overlapping diagonals are interesting, even though, if you look at the armour itself, you can see that the sculpture was never meant to be seen from this side.

Some of the detailing has not been carved, and, like the base at the back, it is relatively un-worked. We can also see that the left foot, poised so delicately on the toes when seen from the front, is blockier than you would expect. This is a standard sculptors trick. In the setting for which the sculpture was originally intended – Cardinal Peretti’s garden – it was presumably meant to be set against some form of wall, with vegetation on either side to create an appropriately theatrical setting, and prevent us from going behind. In a domestic interior, which is what it was given – simply placing it against a wall would suffice.

The way in which Bernini imagines David is remarkable not only because it fits the story so well, but also because he was adapting a two-dimensional image, and one which, as he himself must have realised, subverted the idea of fighting a giant. The composition was based on a painting of the giant Polyphemus, by Caravaggio’s contemporary – and rival – Annibale Carracci, which was painted in fresco in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome in 1605.

Not only is Polyphemus a giant, but he is a giant throwing stones – at the fleeing Acis and Galatea. The choice of Polyphemus is not the only way that Bernini is playing with giants. I mentioned earlier that ‘some of the giants of the field’ had made sculptures of David. And Bernini – not yet 25 – was aiming to slay them. He particularly wanted to surpass Michelangelo himself, who completed his David at the age of 29. As a 19-year-old, Bernini had used Michelangelo’s Risen Christ – who is carrying the cross – as the model for his own Aeneas carrying Anchises. The intellectual leap required to replace the cross with the hero’s father is quite remarkable, I think. But apart from this, is there any reason why I should think that Bernini was putting himself in the position of David, wanting to slay the giant Michelangelo? Well, look at these two faces:

This is a self portrait, painted around 1623, when Bernini was carving this sculpture. David is Bernini, it’s that simple, it is another self portrait. And as a young man – not yet 25 – who else would be the one giant that he would want to overthrow, if not Michelangelo? All of this means that Bernini, at the beginning of his life, saw himself in a very different light to Caravaggio, at the end of his. I’ve always enjoyed the contrast between two Davids, both in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, one by Bernini (1623-24) and the other by Caravaggio (1610). This is the image I will end Monday’s lecture with. Although the focus of the talk will be the Salome in the National Gallery, if you are thinking about the last years of Caravaggio’s short life, the David says it all really.

Caravaggio, David with the head of Goliath, 1610. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

The regret in David’s eyes is astonishing: no triumph, no victory… The richly coloured palette of the youthful works has gradually faded away, and darkness seeps in from every shadow. David looks down at the conquered hero with compassion, while the severed head, which still seems to be conscious, appears to be confused, and tired, as much as anything. But compare these two faces:

Caravaggio is Goliath, it’s that simple. He seems to say, ‘I am a giant, and you have killed me’ to the public who failed to understand him. Of course, that was not the story at all. Caravaggio was a star, his works were popular, highly praised, and in demand, while he was famous across Europe. The was no problem with the art, it was the artist – the man himself, who was the problem. His behaviour was erratic and unpredictable, and he grew increasingly argumentative, and, it would seem, insecure. We will explore these final years, and the dark, evocative, profoundly moving works he produced this Monday, 21 June at 2pm or 6pm. And following Caravaggio, I will move on – if back in time – to another short-lived genius: Raphael. This series will include four talks inspired by the images in one room of the Pinacoteca Vatican – the Papal picture gallery – in a similar way to our exploration of the work of Caravaggio. You can find more details about this series, The Raphaels in One Room, on the diary page of my website. I look forward to speaking to you then, and even before, for the last of Caravaggio. And having renewed my admiration for this wonderful sculpture by Bernini, maybe I should do a series on him one day – although any other suggestions you have are always welcome.


131 – Memento Mori

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Skull, 1655.

It seems like it’s been a while since I wrote anything, but as I’m getting ready to talk again on Monday – the continuation of the series Caravaggio: A life in three paintings – I suppose it’s about time I got my brain in gear. It would make sense to focus on Caravaggio, I know, but I’ve been slightly distracted by a recently discovered sculpture by Bernini. Now, that doesn’t happen very often (I can’t remember it happening before), which is precisely why it was distracting. However, before you get too excited, I should warn you that it’s not his most dramatic work (and there are plenty to choose from), although it is brilliantly carved. It also appears to be entirely ‘autograph’ – i.e. he carved it himself. The question of originality is complex, but somehow we now have the feeling that artists should make all of their own work (this was not always the case with Rodin, for example, whose work I will discuss this coming Wednesday – for more details, see the diary). However, it would not have been possible for Bernini to execute all of the projects commissioned from him. These included sculpture, yes, but also architecture, and even, occasionally, painting. As a result he had a large workshop to help him out. Even the notoriously solitary Michelangelo had people helping him from time to time, but there were never that many – he rarely trusted others to get things right – and that is just one of the reasons why so many of his works remained unfinished. The fact is, in these cases, the artist knows exactly what the work should look like, and it is the assistant’s job to make sure that they recreate the master’s intentions with precision. But, as it happens, that is not the case today. For personal and political reasons, it seems likely that Bernini carved the work himself.

Die Sonderausstellung Bernini, der Papst und der Tod am 28.05.2021 in der Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister von Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden in Dresden. Foto: Oliver Killig

Now, if I didn’t know that this was carved out of the best carrara marble, and given that we are looking at a photograph, rather than the original, I think I would assume that this was not a sculpture, but a real skull. But then, I’m am art historian, not an anatomist. Indeed, it is probably because it is such a careful, naturalistic rendition – with no obvious stylistic traits, or period ‘flare’ – that it disappeared under the radar in the first place. The skull is currently being exhibited at the Ge,mäldegalerie Alte Meister – the ‘Old Master Painting Gallery’ – in Dresden, as part of an exhibition entitled ‘Bernini, the Pope, and Death,’ and it will be there until 5 September. Sadly I won’t get to Dresden until after the exhibition has ended, so I will miss the skull. Until now it has lived (if that word is appropriate) at Schloss Pillnitz, on the Elbe. Once out in the countryside, Dresden has expanded, and the Schloss now finds itself on the edge of the city, and easily accessible by public transport in about 50 minutes, so maybe I’ll try and make my way over there. The sculpture has been on display for years but nobody knew what it was. It had been included in the archaeological collection, where none of the curators would be likely to guess at its origins. However, when looking for illustrative material for an exhibition on Caravaggio, the art historians took over. Seeing the skull out of its display case made them realise precisely how impressive a piece of carving it was – and they decided to try and track down its provenance. They worked out that it had been part of the Chigi collection, which was acquired in 1728 by the Elector of Saxony, and King of Poland, Augustus the Strong, one of the world’s most impressive collectors. Apart from anything else, some of you may remember that he had no less than 157 pastels by Rosalba Carriera, all of which were exhibited in one room. Given that the collection, as bought, included 164 classical sculptures and a mere four from the Baroque, it is not surprising that the skull did not, for some long time, receive the recognition it deserved. When planning the Caravaggio exhibition, one of the curatorial team even joked, when they had found out that it came from Rome, that it could have been carved by Bernini. But you can’t just pull names out of a hat, and in order to find out who the true author really was – and, from my experience, with no expectation of ever finding out – they started scouring the archives. Among the correspondence which preceded the sale of the collection they found the phrase, ‘Una celebra testa di morto, opera del Cavalier Bernini’ – ‘A famous death’s head, the work of the Knight Bernini’.

The Chigi collection had remained with the family, having been put together by one of the nephews of Pope Alexander VII (Fabio Chigi). Further research revealed that the pope had commissioned the skull directly from Bernini in 1655, shortly after he was elected. Bernini worked under eight different popes, but not all of them were great patrons of the arts – or for that matter, interested in his work. Alexander VII’s predecessor, Innocent X (Giovanni Battista Pamphilj) had not been a great fan, and consequently, with a commission from the new pontiff, Bernini jumped to it and carved the skull himself, rather than handing a model to one of the assistants and letting them get on with the hard graft: it would be good to make the right impression. This choice paid off: Alexander VII turned out to be one of Bernini’s most ardent admirer’s and forthcoming patrons. It was not just the skull that Alexander commissioned in 1655 – there was also a life-size sarcophagus. The latter sat under the Pope’s desk, the former on top of it, both constant reminders that death comes to us all. Morbid, you might think, but given that, following the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, the Pope is St Peter’s successor, he is nominally in charge of the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. It was in his best interests to remember – and to remind us – that our actions will determine where we go after death. It was also relevant that, shortly after his election, there was an outbreak of the plague in Rome, and death visited every street. Alexander was quick off the mark – he insisted people wear masks, he introduced systems of self-isolation, and made sure people were quarantined. You know the drill. He might even have been painted holding this sculpture.

Guido Ubaldo Abbatini, Pope Alexander VII. with Bernini’s Skull, 1655/56. Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Rome.

This portrait is by a student of Bernini, Guido Ubaldo Abbatini, and is also featured in the Dresden exhibition. The publicity confidently asserts that the Pope is resting his hand on Bernini’s skull. I haven’t read the catalogue, but I can only assume that it would point out the most obvious difference: the skull in the painting has, as far as we can see from this viewpoint, all of its teeth, whereas the sculpture does not – and I’m fairly sure that that would be clear from any angle. The skull also looks considerably happier than the pontiff himself, but that’s beside the point. I’m not convinced that you can be sure which skull is in the painting, but as I’m also not convinced that Abbatini was an especially observant artist (not that I know his work, I’m only judging by this painting), I don’t suppose there’s any reason to argue that it isn’t the sculpture. However, it could be any skull. After all, people in the 17th Century were wont to hold skulls. Look at Hamlet (1599-1601, first performed 1609). Look at St Jerome (in this case, c. 1605-6).

Caravaggio, St Jerome Writing, c. 1605-6. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

As a scholar, Jerome is associated with the idea of melancholy, just one aspect of his relationship to the skull. In this, one of the most densely packed, and deceptively simple, of Caravaggio’s mature works, that is just one of the ways in which it functions. Another implication is that, after death – as represented by the skull – the soul is free to contemplate higher things, which is precisely what Jerome is doing. It is a reminder that we only have a limited time – and so we (like Jerome) should get on with our work. Or ‘seize the day’, it could work both ways. The skull is also, of course, the seat of the intellect. In the painting we see Jerome hard at work, deep in thought, translating the bible from its original languages into a consistent Latin – the version now known as the Vulgate. There is a wonderful contrast between the dry cranium and the saint’s bald pate, both reflecting the light (representing divine inspiration). One is… well, dry… while the other, slightly oily.  The brilliant light illuminating the aged man’s chest makes his shadowed, arthritic hand, grasping the pages of the original text, stand out clearly, while the other hand holds a quill, hovering over a page nearer the skull, ready to write. The reach of Jerome’s arm, slightly bent at the elbow, echoes the open halves of the book. I have always been in awe of this ineffable metaphor, an embodiment (quite literally) of the act of translation – the writing arm following the form of the original volume, making the old new, and creating a parallel equivalent. The angle of the elbow and book is then inverted by the red fabric behind them, part of the cardinal’s robes in which St Jerome is loosely wrapped. The book lies above the right leg of the table, the skull above its left, and while Jerome, alive, is clad in red, it is a lifeless white fabric that flows down beneath the skull. With its poetry and pathos, naturalistic making and symbolic meaning, contrasts and echoes, rich colour and deep shadows, this painting ranks for me as one of the all-time greats. Sadly I will only have time for a quick nod to it when I return to Caravaggio: A life in three paintings, this Monday, 7 June at 2pm and 6pm – but then, in recompense, I will be spending more time with The Supper at Emmaus which is also up there with the best. And as for Bernini – well, I suspect he always had an eye on the works of the older painter, and in a couple of weeks I will compare them again, although when I do, it will be more directly.

A view of Bernini, The Pope, and Death, in Dresden until 5 September.


130 – Sofonisba and Michelangelo

Sofonisba Anguissola, Asdrubale bitten by a Crayfish, c. 1554. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.

I have talked about Sofonisba before (see Day 77 – Sofonisba Anguissola and Day 90 – Sofonisba, too) but I am being drawn back again – drawn by a drawing, as it happens – because I want to examine a myth and ponder an influence. The myth is about the relationship between the first internationally famous woman of Italian Renaissance art, and the great genius Michelangelo. Almost anything you read about her will say something like ‘In 1554 Sofonisba headed down to Rome, where the story goes that she was introduced to Michelangelo.’ I know that, because that is precisely what I said on Day 90 of Lockdown 1. I also said, in the same post, ‘However, I really need to look into this incident – Michelangelo was a notorious old grump, and the idea that he would be interested in the work of a young woman seems inherently unlikely. However, if it turns out to be true, then how much more remarkable a man he was!’ That was on 16 June last year, and, nearly a year later, I’ve finally got round to it. If you want a reminder, I discussed Sofonisba’s background and her training as an artist back then – I won’t go into it here. I also included this drawing as an illustration, but said relatively little about it. Subsequently I have found a new, post-restoration image which is far clearer, and shows the drawing to be far more delicate, than the photograph I posted last year suggested.

We see a small boy crying. His mouth is open with the lips pulled back, and his cheeks look slightly puffed from the tension. His eyes are screwed up: the emotion is unmistakeable. Drawing this is not as straightforward you might think: it is all too easy to make someone crying look as if they are laughing – and vice versa. Film and T.V. often play on this potential confusion, creating double-takes, where you think you are seeing one emotion, and then are shown that it is the other. But here, we definitely see crying, it is clear from the face, and also from the gestures: the tension in the boy’s right hand, flicked back at the wrist, is one more sign. The left hand seems relaxed by comparison. He has short curly hair, and wears a 16th Century doublet. It has a slashed trim at the shoulders, and wrist-length sleeves which are slightly drawn back to reveal the cuffs of an undershirt, also seen in a modest collar. An older girl has her right arm around his shoulder, and looks at the boy with concern – and a hint of something else. A smile, maybe? Or perhaps she is impressed by the volume of sound this small human can create. Her hair is pulled back from her forehead, above her ears, and is held in place by a plait fixed around the crown of her head. She wears a chemise under a fairly low-cut bodice, with sleeves attached just below the shoulder, and holds something in her left hand.

If we look closer, we can see that it is a small basket. Her index finger stretches along the woven handle, and the basket itself, presumably wicker, or similar, can be seen vaguely below. The boy’s left hand hovers above hers, the back of it horizontal, with the thumb and one of the fingers – the ring finger, as far as I can see – hanging down. And from this bent ring finger hangs the crayfish which gives the drawing its title: Asdrubale bitten by a Crayfish. Now, Asdrubale Barca fought in the Second Punic War, and was the younger brother of the more famous Hannibal. They were both sons of Amilcare Barca. But we’re not dealing with classical history here. Even so, after the Carthaginians had crossed the alps with their elephants, one of the notable battles was near modern-day Cremona, where the 16th Century nobleman Amilcare Anguissola lived. He was presumably named after the warrior, and passed on the tradition by naming his only son after the younger of the brothers – Asdrubale – and by naming his eldest daughter (the eldest of six) after the tragic Carthaginian heroine Sofonisba. So the drawing shows us the artist’s brother – and, presumably, one of her five sisters, usually identified as Europa, the youngest.

One of the reasons why the drawing seems more than a little vague in parts is because it is not in a particularly good condition – large areas of the original paper on which it was drawn have been lost. The ground itself is a light, creamy brown. In order to strengthen it, the remains of the drawing have been mounted on another piece of paper, which is paler in appearance, and looks mottled. If you can distinguish these two background colours, then you will see that everything beneath Asdrubale’s right elbow is missing, as are half of the skirts of his doublet. The original paper ends just above the crown of his head, and cuts across the top of his sister’s, with some of her hair undoubtedly missing. There is also a lacuna between their heads, which goes very close to her right eye. Some of the basket is missing, too. This is a great shame, but given the high proportion of 16th Century drawings which must have been destroyed in their entirety, it is still a remarkable survival – and in all probability it had travelled widely, making that survival even more remarkable.

The story goes – as I was saying – that after her initial training with two ‘Bernardini’ – Campi and Gatti, probably from 1546-49 and 1551-53 respectively – she headed down to Rome, where she was lucky enough to receive instruction from none other than Michelangelo. It seems too good to be true, and is exactly the sort of anecdote that was made up just to make an artist look better, and more interesting. However, in this case it was, in some way, true – although the interaction may have been through correspondence. Letters from dad – Amilcare Anguissola – survive in the Buonarroti archives in Florence. I am quoting them here from an article written by Charles de Tolnay, the chief Michelangelo scholar of his day, back in 1941. So this is old news, it’s just not mentioned much now. On May 7, 1557, Amilcare wrote,

‘…we are much obliged to have perceived the honourable and affable affection that you have and show for Sofonisba; I speak of my daughter, the one whom I caused to begin to practice the most honourable virtue or painting… I beg of you that since, by your innate courtesy and goodness, you deigned by your advice in the past to introduce her (to art), that you will condescend sometime in the future to guide her again… that you will see fit to send her one of your drawings that she may colour it in oil, with the obligation to return it to you faithfully finished by her own hand… I dedicate Sofonisba (to you) both as a servant and daughter…’

A second letter, written just over a year later (15 May 1558), includes the following:

‘…I place among the first of so many obligations that I owe to God, that I am alive during the lifetime of so many of my children and that such an excellent gentleman, the most virtuous above all others, deigns to praise and judge the painting done by my daughter Sofonisba.’

So there we have it – I was entirely wrong: Michelangelo had not only seen Sofonisba’s work, but also praised it. How happy I am to know that! It doesn’t change my opinion that Michelangelo was, undoubtedly, ‘a notorious old grump’ – from time to time – but he was also, undoubtedly, generous with his time and advice – as de Tolnay goes on to say: ‘The correspondence between Amilcare Anguissola and Michelangelo… presents new evidence for the generous character of the artist’.

But does the correspondence have any bearing on this particular drawing? Well, yes, it does. Indeed, in some respects, it was well known for a drawing of its time. There is a reference to it in a letter from Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, the young nobleman with whom Michelangelo seems to have fallen helplessly in love some 30 years before. On 20 January, 1562, Tommaso sent two drawings to Cosimo de’ Medici, who at that point was Duke of Florence (he would become Grand Duke of Tuscany seven years later). One of the drawings was a Cleopatra by Michelangelo, and the other – well, in a letter accompanying the two drawings he wrote,

‘since I have one drawing done by the hand of a noblewoman of Cremona, named Sofonisba Angosciosa [sic], today a lady of the Spanish court, I send it to you with this one and I believe that it may stand comparison with many other drawings, for it is not simply beautiful, but also exhibits considerable invention. And this is that the divine Michelangelo having seen a drawing done by her hand of a smiling girl, he said that he would have liked to see a weeping boy, as a subject more difficult to draw. After he wrote to her about it, she sent to him this drawing which was a portrait of her brother, whom she has intentionally shown as weeping. Now, I send them such as they are, and I beg your excellency to consider me as a servant, which, in truth, I am.’

What a wonderful combination of drawings! A pairing of people being bitten, moving from the mundane to the mythic. It seems that Sofonisba’s family name – Anguissola – was difficult even then, and I find it rather charming that Cavallieri’s spelling implies that she was ‘anguished’ – the literal translation of Angosciosa. His comment that the drawing shows ‘considerable invention’ was high praise indeed. No one doubted a woman’s ability to copy someone else’s ideas: it was the ability to come up with your own that would be respected, and so his use of the word ‘invention’ was a recognition of Sofonisba’s artistic talent. Cavalieri’s letter is not the only mention of the drawing. Vasari was also knew it, describing it as, ‘a little girl laughing at a boy who cries, because, she having placed a basket full of crayfish in front of him, one of them bites his finger; and there is nothing more graceful to be seen than that drawing, nor more true to nature.’ These comments were included in the second edition of the Lives of the Artist in 1568, as an addition to the ‘Life’ of Properzia De’ Rossi, the only woman to get her own ‘life’ in the first edition of 1550. Vasari goes on to say that he has a copy of the drawing in his own collection – so he must have thought highly of it.

Somebody else seems to have been impressed by this drawing – or at least, by the idea of it – and this is what reminded me to look into the story of Michelangelo and Sofonisba. Compare these two images:

The Boy Bitten by a Lizard will, of course, be the starting point of Caravaggio: A life in three pictures this Monday, 24 May at 2pm and 6pm. It bears a remarkable similarity – in some details – to Sofonisba’s drawing. The precise cause of the pain may be different, perhaps, although both boys have been bitten. A lizard, hiding among the cherries, has bitten the boy reaching for the fruit. The expression of pain, the flexing of one wrist and the bent finger of the other hand – held on an equivalent horizontal – are remarkably similar, even if the hands are reversed. There is only one problem with that. In the 17th Century Sofonisba’s drawing could still have been in the Medici collection in Florence. I have read different ideas about how the drawing got from the Medici collection to that of the Farnese, but there is no evidence that Caravaggio had been to Florence. However, it could have been in the collection of Fulvio Orsini in Rome in the 1590s. But even if Caravaggio hadn’t seen the original drawing, that is not necessarily a problem. One theory has it that the painter was surprisingly literate, and that he often attempted to reproduce images of which he had only read descriptions but never seen (more about that on Monday). In this case, he would have read about the drawing in Vasari’s Lives. However, the response to the pain seen in the two hands and wrists is so similar, it does seem likely that he had seen some visual evidence of it. If Vasari had a copy of the drawing (OK, so some people think that he had the original), maybe there were more in circulation. There are, as it happens, several painted versions of Sofonisba’s composition around: as I say, it was a well-known drawing. It has been suggested that one of the versions – drawn or painted – found its way into the studio of the Cavaliere d’Arpino, one of the first artists with whom Caravaggio worked in Rome. It seems unlikely that we will