197 – Lavinia, Mary and Margaret

Lavinia Fontana, The Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis, 1578. Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA.

It is very rare that a museum can present an exhibition of the work of an artist who is not only very good, but also relatively unknown – especially when they lived in the 16th Century. But the National Gallery of Ireland has achieved just that with a superb exhibition entitled Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule Breaker which I will be introducing this Monday, 29 May at 6.00pm. I understand the title, although I’m not sure I entirely agree with it. Did she break any rules? Part of me suspects that, because she truly was a trailblazer, she got there so early that the rules she is supposed to have broken hadn’t yet been written. I’ll explain what I mean on Monday! The following week (5 June) I will return to that quiet, undemanding genius of 17th Century Delft, Johannes Vermeer, to talk about the paintings which were not included in the Rijksmuseum’s exhibition. Not only will we get to see them, but we will also find out what they can tell us about the paintings which are (or were, for one final week) on show in Amsterdam. Then a week off! I’ll be back on 19 June to look at the National Gallery’s intriguing Saint Francis of Assisi, with its wonderful and entirely apt combination of art both ancient and modern. Today, though, I would like to talk about a superb painting which has somehow found its way into Aoife Brady’s superb catalogue, but, for whatever reason, has not made it to Dublin (there are always complications when dealing with so many different institutions spread across the world). Having written what follows, I realise that the painting is even more complex and rewarding than I had realised when I chose it – both visually and iconographically. A true masterpiece – and I use the term ‘master’ deliberately.

It is always worthwhile remembering that the names we give to paintings today are usually relatively recent in date, and that they are not necessarily a reflection of what the artist originally intended. Very often they are simply descriptions of what can be seen, and Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis tells us accurately enough what is in this painting. However, I’m not entirely convinced that this title really conveys what the painting is actually ‘about’. The Holy Family are certainly there – Jesus, Mary and Joseph – but, as so often, poor Joseph is left in the shadows, and on the outside. He is also fairly small, thanks to the perspective – he is some way behind the Virgin, and it is only his left hand, resting on the stick, that thrusts into the foreground. Rather than ‘The Holy Family’ it is more like ‘The Virgin and Child with St Joseph’. Jesus is right in the centre, with his Mother supporting him to the right, and they both glow against the dark background as if lit by an evenly distributed spotlight. But then, the female Saint, St Margaret (we know it’s her from the title if from nothing else), is also well lit, and closer to Mother and Child than either of the men. This implies that she is more important, and so far more a part of what the painting is ‘about’. Maybe we should go for ‘The Virgin, Child and St Margaret with Sts Francis and Joseph’. I’ve suggested naming Francis before Joseph because he is at Jesus’s right hand, in what is generally called the ‘position of honour’. All this quibbling about the title is quite petty, you might think, but we too often take the written word as given, an un-questioned truth, whereas we should really be thinking about what we can see – and we can see the Virgin, Child and St Margaret very clearly, while Francis and Joseph both recede into the shadows, and into the background.

The men are in supporting roles, and help to direct our attention to what is important. We know this is St Joseph because of the role he has adopted: supporting his wife and her Son, but not pushing himself forward. Not only this, but he was traditionally seen as an elderly man, hence he is grey and balding. Nevertheless, he walked to Bethlehem and then on to Egypt while his wife rode on a donkey, which is why he has a walking stick. Added to this, he quite often wears yellow. At a certain point he also became associated with curtains, partly because they were hung on beds, and Joseph was often seen asleep. This was not just because he was old, and prone to nod off, but also because in the bible he had four significant dreams. As it happens, the curtains in the background of this painting turn out to be quite important for the composition, and not just as a backdrop.

Opposite Joseph is St Francis. Not only does he wear the brown habit of the Franciscans, the order he himself founded, but he also has the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. The mark of the nail through the left hand is clearly visible, thanks to the light, and even if the wound in the right hand is not so easily seen, being shaded, it is there. Francis had a particular devotion to Christ’s greatest moments of humanity – his birth and death – so the fact that he is holding a crucifix while looking at the baby Jesus is entirely appropriate (I will discuss his life and legacy more thoroughly on 19 June, of course). Not only do the two male Saints frame the central figures, but their gazes also help to direct our attention. Joseph looks across to the Crucifix, aware that this baby will die too soon, and we follow his gaze. Francis looks past the crucified Christ towards the living infant, thus drawing our attention towards him. The curtain also serves to frame and focus our attention. A lit fold in the material leads from the top right corner of the painting towards St Joseph’s head, and then his gaze takes us on to the crucifix. The two fringed edges of the curtains, right and left, lead vertically down to the Child’s head, and diagonally to the cross respectively. From the latter, the diagonal continues along the crucifix, past Francis’s left hand, to Margaret’s modestly inclined head. Francis’s right hand serves to introduce her, even recommend her, to Jesus, much as a patron would promote a kneeling donor. A stronger diagonal is created by the alignment of heads from top right to bottom left – Joseph, Mary, Jesus, Margaret, with both Mother and Child looking down at the deferential Margaret: in many ways, she is the ultimate focus of attention.

If Margaret is the focus of attention, that does not take away from the fact that Jesus is at the centre. Behind him the curtains are open, revealing nothing but darkness, but serving to make him stand out more clearly, his cruciform halo identifying him as the Saviour. With his right hand raised to bless the kneeling Saint, and his left arm behind his Mother’s neck, he echoes the position of his future self upon the cross. Mary supports his left leg, and we see the sole of his foot, while Margaret’s face, wherever she is looking (and I suspect she is deep in contemplation, and looking with the mind’s eye), is close to his right foot: in her humility she could be on the verge of kissing it. However, given Francis’s stigmata, and the proximity of the crucifix, we are reminded that these delicate feet will one day have nails driven through them. As if that intimation of suffering and mortality were not enough, the cradle echoes details from a sarcophagus, and the table on which it stands is not unlike an altar, a place of sacrifice. The bright, richly coloured figures of Mary, Jesus and Margaret (and they are more richly coloured in the original than this reproduction suggests) stand out clearly in the foreground of the painting, with the two women wearing matching pinks: the relationship between them must be significant.

And then, at the bottom, a touch of the absurd – a monstrous mouth yawning wide, for all the world looking as if it wanted to swallow the altar in one gulp. Its curving tongue lines up with the golden hem of the upper green cloth, and just above that golden hem is the artist’s signature: LAVINIA FONTANA DE ZAPPIS FACIEBAT MDLXXVIII – ‘Lavinia Fontana de Zappi made this 1578’. Fontana, born in 1552, had married Gian Paolo Zappi at the age of 25, the year before this was painted. The marriage negotiations were specific and astute, and we know that because the contract survives: you can see the real thing in the exhibition, and I’ll show you a photo of it on Monday. Zappi was, according to the catalogue, ‘of good social standing but with little potential for earning’. The unconventional contract specifies that he was to move in to Lavinia’s father’s house to live with her, and had to allow her to continue in her chosen profession. This was clearly in his favour, as he had been advised that she was talented, and had the potential to earn good money – which turned out to be true. In many ways he was being invited to take the role of St Joseph: there to support his wife, provide her with legitimacy in the eyes of the public, allow her do what she had to do, and not to get in the way. But why the monster?

According to The Golden Legend, St Margaret, a fourth century martyr, was imprisoned and tortured because she was a Christian. This is what happened next, according to the English edition printed by William Caxton in 1483:

And there appeared an horrible dragon and assailed her and would have devoured her. But she made the sign of the cross and anon he vanished away. In another place it is said that he swallowed her in his belly, she making the sign of the cross, and the belly brake asunder and so she issued out all whole and sound.

At this point, even Jacobo da Voragine, author of The Golden Legend, had his doubts, although he does keep his options open. The next sentence reads, ‘This swallowing and breaking of the belly of the dragon is said that it is apocryphal’.

Now, given that the dragon’s ‘belly brake asunder’ and St Margaret ‘issued out all whole and sound’ it is not entirely surprising that the Saint became the patroness of pregnant women and childbirth. I’m sure it is also the source of the story of Little Red Riding Hood. More to the point, Lavinia Fontana had married the year before this was painted, and in the very year it was painted her first child was born. She went on to have ten more children, although sadly only four would survive to adolescence. Given that the painting measures 127 x 104.1 cm, it is probably too small to have been an altarpiece, particularly if you bear in mind the size of contemporary altarpieces: there are three in the exhibition, all of which are more than two and a half metres tall. They are large paintings: we foolishly assume that women only painted small and delicate works. In all probability this is a private devotional image, the sort of thing that might have been gifted to a pregnant woman, or to one who had recently given birth. We do not know who the patron was, but could Lavinia Fontana possibly have painted it for herself? It does seem entirely appropriate: she would have known how relevant the invocation of St Margaret would be during her future married life. As it happens, Zappi fulfilled all the stipulations of the marriage contract, and was a supportive husband – not unlike St Joseph. St Francis, whose life and religious order were given over to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, reminds us that, in all humility, we are born to die – although death is, in Christian belief, a joyous rebirth into a new and eternal life. This is pure hypothesis, I know, but it would make sense if this beautiful painting, intricate in appearance and meaning, had been painted for the earthly family of the artist herself. And it would also make sense if we were to call it The Virgin and Child with St Margaret and attendant Saints. Credit where credit is due – and especially to the artist, Lavinia Fontana, who deserves to be better known.


196 – How to Sleep like a Princess

Vittore Carpaccio, The Dream of St Ursula, 1495. Gallerie Accademia, Venice.

I was in Venice recently for my birthday, and swore I wouldn’t do any ‘work’. It was to be pure pleasure and relaxation. But of course, I’m very lucky, my work is pleasure, and how could I miss an important exhibition like Vittore Carpaccio: Paintings and Drawings in the Doge’s Palace? Added to that, the cycles of paintings that Carpaccio made for different Scuole in the city are some of the greatest pleasures – so I took notes, bought the catalogue, and will report back this Monday, 22 May at 6.00pm. As well as introducing the exhibition, I will also cover other works by Carpaccio that you will be able to see in La Serenissima even after the exhibition has closed. The following week I’ll talk about Lavinia Fontana – there is a superb exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland – and then The ‘Other’ Vermeers, celebrating the success of the Rijksmuseum’s exhibition (which, by then, will have closed) by looking at the paintings that they could not include. And if you missed my talk on The Ugly Duchess, if you’re quick you could sign up with ARTscapades for the live talk tomorrow (Thursday, 18 May at 6pm), or to catch up with their recording later.

At first glance, this is an image of calm repose. After further investigation, though, it is a little more disquieting, but only until a final analysis does promise peace – a gradual unveiling of depths of meaning which demonstrates Carpaccio’s genius as a storyteller.

We are in a well-appointed if not overly elaborate room, high-ceilinged, well-proportioned, and brightly illuminated. The front wall has been cut away, revealing a rug lying in front of a four-poster bed, which has a single, sleeping occupant. The shutters and doors are open, and a second character enters the room, together with what we can only assume is the light of a fresh dawn, illuminating the floor and brightening the opposite wall.

The ceiling is coffered, with square frames of wood projecting below flat fields which have been painted blue, as if it were the sky seen through a trellis. The back and right walls both have circular windows set into them, and we can see that the one ‘opposite’ uses bullseye glass – the central sections of hand-spun sheets of glass – which allow for illumination but not clear vision. At that height it would not be important to see out anyway. The circular window to the right has light shining through it from below. The exact angle could easily be measured from the way it lights up a section of the ceiling. The precision with which it illuminates two of the coffers – no more, no less – suggests to me that Carpaccio was thinking of some kind of order, presumably divine. The angle of the light confirms the suspicion that the sun is low, and that this is early in the morning (unless, of course, the princess has taken an afternoon nap). There is a certain symmetry in the arrangement of the walls, although it is hard to tell how similar they actually are. However, we can see that each wall has a door with a statue above it, and a pair of windows, the frames made up of green marble columns supporting semi-circular arched tops. The lower, rectangular sections have shutters, which are open, and there is more bullseye glass in the semicircles formed by the round arches. The bedhead also has a semi-circular top – a segmental pediment above an entablature, an idea derived, like the frames of the windows, from the classical language of architecture. The canopy of the bed is covered with a red cloth, fringed with rounded and be-tasselled pennants. It is like the canopy you would find above a throne, and speaks of the royalty of the bed’s occupant. In other ways it is not perfect as a four-poster bed: there are no curtains to provide privacy or maintain warmth. Its design is presumably intended more for clarity, and to allow our understanding of the room and its contents. It certainly allows us to see the door at the back of the room, and the wall to the left.

The door frame is carved with elaborate detail, speaking of considerable wealth. Through it we see a smaller room, with another open window. It is a dressing room or similar, presumably. Above the door is a sculpture of a naked man carrying something. Undoubtedly, like the architectural elements, this is another classical reference. It is usually identified as representing Hercules: that could be a tail projecting to the right, which would belong to the skin of the Nemean lion – but this is by no means certain. What can be identified, although not seen clearly, is the subject of the painting on the left wall. It has a gold frame, and a gold background, and depicts a blue form which takes up most of the picture, although a little less towards the top: it is the Virgin Mary. Despite the pagan references, we are in a Christian household. A lit candle, which has presumably been burning all night, stands in front of the painting on a projecting candelabrum, and a bowl hangs below. The object projecting from it is presumably an aspergillum, the object used to sprinkle holy water: this is a sacred space.

The sanctity of the scene is confirmed by the nature of the visitor – the winged visitor – an angel. As he steps through the door the light also enters the room, spreading out across the floor as far as the doorway at the back left. He looks towards the princess in the bed, sleeping soundly, who lies on her back with her feet towards the door, effectively aligned with her heavenly guest. The room has a high wainscot, topped by a classical cornice, and hung with a pea-green cloth.

In the back right corner the green hanging has been lifted to reveal a cupboard with open doors, containing books and a candlestick. On a table just in front of it are further appurtenances of a scholar: more books, an hourglass, and the thin white curve of a quill pen sitting in an ink well. It seems odd that the cupboards would usually be hidden behind a cloth, but perhaps this is because the implied level of scholarship would not normally be expected of a young lady. But then, she is no normal young lady. There are apparently more books resting on the cornice behind the angel’s head, and, to our right of the door, the cornice closer to us projects over the brightly lit doorframe, pointing to the angel, and framing his wings, at roughly the level where the light catches the golden hair at the back of his head. Light streams through the door behind him, yes, but it also emanates from a patch on his chest, glowing white through the blue of his tunic, drawing our attention towards – as if we hadn’t noticed it before – the palm leaf he is holding in his right hand. The palm is a symbol of victory, and here it is a symbol of victory over death. The princess is Saint Ursula, Virgin Martyr, and she is destined to die: she is currently dreaming of her death.

Only those of the highest status would have a carpet on the floor – with the exception of the Arnolfini, who have bold pretensions – and it is most commonly seen in paintings under the feet of the Virgin Mary, in front of her throne as Queen of Heaven, on occasions when she is sitting under a canopy very much like the one above this bed. With both canopy and carpet, Ursula is depicted as a Virgin Princess of Heaven. As a good girl, she has taken off her slippers – they are blue – and has left them on the carpet in front of the bed. As a good princess, she has taken off her crown, and set it on the step at the foot of the bed. Her cat sits nearby. Or is it a dog? There are similar dogs in other paintings by Carpaccio. It’s hard to tell, the painting is sadly worn – another victim being the small cartellino, the scrap of paper above the pet, which originally bore Carpaccio’s signature. In the background we see the light from the door on the right reaching through the door at the back left. But… wait a moment…

The light from the door on the right emerges from behind the red bedspread and crosses the threshold of the back room. In that room another window is open, or it could be a door, with a step leading out. There is light shining through that open door or window, and it is shining from left to right. The light which enters with the angel shines from right to left. Only one of these can be the light of the sun, and, let’s face it, it must be the light in the back room. The low angled light on the ceiling, the light which announces the angle, and flows into the room with him, must be the Light of God. Ursula will awake to a new day, yes, and it is the light in the back room which shows us that. The light in the foreground also signals a new dawn – a symbolic one – which is also a new life. The princess is dreaming of her death, and yet she sleeps with perfect repose, calm and untroubled, her cheek nestled in her right palm. There is no peace for the wicked, it is said, but her peace is perfect: she is as far from wicked as you can get. Why should she be troubled? Why should the news of her death concern her? She knows that she is going to Heaven, and will go straight there: the palm of victory over death is hers for the taking. Her crown, the crown she has placed so carefully at the foot of the bed, sits precisely between her and the angel: the God-given crown of her father’s earthly kingdom (if we believe, as people did, in the Divine Right of Kings) is also her heavenly crown.

Remarkable as the intricacy and complexity of the storytelling is in The Dream of St Ursula, this is only one of the paintings from a cycle dedicated to her life, and that is only one of the cycles which Carpaccio painted, either on his own (if with the collaboration of his workshop), or as part of another team. There are also drawings associated with it, and with the myriad of other paintings which stood alone. We will look at the very best of it on Monday.


195 – Behold!

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation), 1849-50. Tate.

Today’s painting is the very first thing you will see if you visit The Rossettis at Tate Britain, the exhibition I will be introducing this coming Monday, 15 May at 6.00pm. It’s the perfect choice to start this exhibition, as I will explain below, and a fascinating work in its own right – hence my choice today. On 22 May I will talk about Carpaccio: Paintings and Drawings, covering both the exhibition at the Doge’s Palace in Venice, and also the other paintings by the Venetian master that can be found elsewhere in the city. I’m currently in Dublin to see Lavinia Fontana – it’s a superb exhibition – and I hope to talk about that on 29 May, but I won’t put it on sale until I’m sure that I’ll be in the country that day. However, as you’ll know, I’m already lined up for The ‘Other’ Vermeers – the ones that aren’t in the Rijksmuseum’s sold-out show – the day after that finishes, 5 June. See the diary for more!

Even if the subtitle of this painting weren’t (The Annunciation) the subject would be clear. The angel Gabriel arrives from the left and announces to the Virgin Mary that she will be the Mother of the Son of God. Initially ‘troubled at his saying’ (Luke 1:29) – and that was only at his initial greeting – Mary accepts her role in the divine plan with the words, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word’ (Luke 1:38). In the Vulgate, from which the King James Version was translated, this is given as ‘ecce ancilla Domini fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum,’ giving Rossetti the title for his painting. However, he adds an exclamation mark: Ecce Ancilla Domini! This could be translated as Behold! The Handmaid of the Lord. The exclamation mark makes it imperative. Whereas the sentence in the bible implies that Mary accepts her position as the Lord’s Handmaid, Rossetti is effectively insisting that we behold her.

When the painting was first exhibited – at the Old Portland Gallery on Regent Street in April 1850 – it was not well received. One reason was that, unlike all precedents, Gabriel has no wings. Both he and Mary wear white, partaking of the same purity, humility and simplicity, which is also expressed by white of the walls. Gabriel is dressed in a simple robe, a length of white cloth with a hole for the head, like the most basic of chasubles (‘a sleeveless outer vestment worn by a Catholic or High Anglican priest when celebrating Mass’). His right arm is unclad, and its muscularity suggests a very corporeal presence, a physicality that is heightened when seeing his body between the hems of the garment.

Gabriel’s head appears against the blue sky – suggesting that, as an angel, he belongs to the heavenly realm. His divinity is made clear by the halo, but that was a late addition, painted three years after the work had been completed: initially his association with the blue of the celestial realm was more direct. He holds a lily, a symbol of Mary’s purity, with the stalk nearest to her, as if he is inviting her to take it. She looks at it with a mixture of curiosity and concern, uncertain whether to grasp it or not. Had she not been shying away, her head – haloed from the outset – would sit comfortably in front of the blue fabric hanging behind her. If she were to take the lily, thus accepting her role, she would have to lean forward, and her head would be framed by the blue cloth. Both angel and virgin would have blue as a background, but, as yet, it is not certain whether or not she will fulfil her destiny to become Queen of Heaven. Above the bloom closest to Gabriel – and of the same order of size and shade of white – the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, bridges the gap between the sky and the cloth, between the celestial and symbolic blues.

In many medieval and renaissance images of The Annunciation there is a bed in the background, but here Mary is actually seated upon one, a simple white mattress on a rush mat, with a simple white cushion. Her white robe reaches beyond her feet, she is chastely covered, making her look like a newly married bride in her nightgown. As the male, wingless figure approaches, she shies away. Notice how he casts a dark shadow across the foot of the bed: the promised birth is a death foretold.

Gabriel’s body could be seen below his elbow, and indeed we can also see the full length of his leg. He is all but naked, which seems surprisingly shocking. At the foot of the bed is a strip of red fabric – like a stole, perhaps – which has been embroidered with a white lily. This ties in with myths not included in the bible in which Mary grew up in the temple with other virgins, spinning thread and weaving the veil of the temple. Mary was given responsibility for the red thread, the colour of royalty, the colour of incarnation, the colour of blood. And the lily is inverted – not so much a symbol of purity here, but perhaps one of death (although I suspect that lilies didn’t really gain that symbolism until the 20th Century).

At the very bottom of the painting we see the red cloth hanging to the ground in front of the foot of the bed. The rush matting under the mattress is painted in great detail. Gabriel does not set foot on Earth, but is held aloft on flaming feet – an innovation of the artist’s. His signature appears underneath the left foot: ‘DGR/March 1850’: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the name by which we know him. He was christened Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti. His father, Gabriele, who had fled Naples in 1824 under penalty of death, having incurred the wrath of King Ferdinand II, was a scholar of Italian literature, with a particular interest in the author of The Divine Comedy. But compare young Gabriel’s signature here with that on a slightly earlier painting, The Childhood of Mary Virgin (1849).

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1848-9 Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882 Bequeathed by Lady Jekyll 1937 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N04872

The signature reads ‘Dante Gabriele Rossetti/PRB    1849’. His second given name, Charles, was for his stepfather, with whom he did not get on. It might also have seemed too ‘English’. For either, or both of these reasons – or for simplicity’s sake – he removed it. He added an ‘e’ to Gabriel, thus making himself look more Italian – and indeed, he was named after his father Gabriele. And, although friends and family alike called him Gabriel, he put ‘Dante’ – his third given name – first because, well… he put Dante first, as an author and authority. ‘PRB’ stands for ‘Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’, the movement founded by Dante Gabriel and six other young men, including his brother William Michael Rossetti, in 1848. (Just so you know, the red you can see in the above detail is part of the same piece of fabric as the one at the foot of the bed in (The Annunciation): in this painting Mary is still working on it. It is in The Rossettis, so I will show you the whole thing on Monday.)

In his painting Ecce Ancilla Domini! Dante Gabriel seems to aspire to the simplicity Fra Angelico achieves in his paintings for the cells of San Marco in Florence. Even the window frame in front of which Gabriel (the angel) appears looks like the recess for the window in the cell. But this seems to be a coincidence, as he had never been to Italy. During the Autumn of 1849 he and William Holman Hunt – another founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – travelled to France and Belgium, where they saw works by Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling in Bruges. It could be from these that he derived the awkward perspective. It’s not something we notice now, after a century of modernism and abstract art, but in 1850 it was the aspect of the painting that came in for most criticism: the failure to create a coherent space, with a properly foreshortened bed in it.

However none of the above really explains why this is such a good painting to open The Rossettis – but they are almost all there. Painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), the models were his brother William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) and his younger sister, the poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). The only sibling who is not represented here, in the first image in the first room, is the eldest, Maria Francesca (1827-76). She was an author, and became an Anglican nun, but there is precious little of hers that can be included in the exhibition, sadly – and the same is true for the other siblings. The bulk of the display constitutes the largest collection of works by Dante Gabriel to be seen together for years. It is quite glorious, and the influence of the family is constantly felt. And there is one more Rossetti – Mrs Dante Gabriel Rossetti – or Lizzie Siddal, as she is better known. Generally thought of as a milliner and model who nearly met her demise posing as Ophelia for John Everett Millais, she has been increasingly recognised as an artist and an important influence on Dante Gabriel. This exhibition states that argument better than ever before. But more about that on Monday.


194 – Visionary, too

Hilma af Klint, Tree of Knowledge, No. 1, 1913-15. Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland.

Tate is currently hosting a remarkable exhibition, Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian, about which I will be talking this Monday, 8 May at 6.00pm. It is remarkable, I think, in that it combines two artists who never met, and who, in all probability, didn’t even know each other’s work. From that point of view, I have never known another exhibition like it. However, they had so many things in common, starting with an early romantic approach to the landscape and evolving towards their own, idiosyncratic and highly individual forms of abstraction, inspired by what would nowadays be seen as occult – or at least, esoteric – theories, which were nevertheless much in vogue at the time. But more about all that on Monday, of course. Thereafter, we will see The Rossettis at Tate Britain, Carpaccio (in Venice), and Lavinia Fontana (Dublin), all of which will take us up to The ‘Other’ Vermeers at the beginning of June. It will all be in the diary soon. But today I want to look at Hilma af Klint herself – or, at least, one of her intricate and intriguing works. Or, rather, part of one of her works…

To give it its full title, this is Tree of Knowledge, The W Series. This is the full series – eight works in watercolour on paper, as exhibited by David Zwirner before it travelled to its new home, Glenstone, in Maryland, USA. As such, it is one of the very few works by the Swedish master not held by the Hilma af Klint Foundation (and the reason why this should be the case will be one of the things we will discover on Monday). What we see in the photo above are Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7a and 7b. She often created series of paintings, rather than individual works, and, having amassed a huge number of them during her nearly eighty years, af Klint catalogued them, giving each series or group a letter or number: Tree of Knowledge, The W Series is actually one of the simpler titles. Today, though, I just want to focus on No. 1.

By the time Tree of Knowledge, No. 1 was painted, af Klint had already created what could be considered the first abstract work of art, and had done that in 1906, some five years before both Kandinsky and Malevich claimed to have been responsible for this major innovation. However, throughout her career she continued to shift between two modes, and this image certainly contains both abstraction and representation, as well as, mid-way between the two, stylisation. As a ‘tree’, it is clearly highly stylised – but in the bottom circle, we can see what could be a root system. I say ‘circle’, but the darker brown oval looks like a foreshortened circle on a horizontal plane, making this a diagrammatic representation of a three-dimensional form, in which lighter brown circle is a sphere. A white trunk grows up into a mottled area, the canopy of leaves. Sets of concentric blue and yellow lines flow up from a red ‘node’, spread out, and loop back around two birds, and continue to loop up and around towards the top of the tree.

To understand why the subject itself was of interest, I’d like to compare it to a couple of other images of trees.

What I’m showing you – and to be honest, where they sit on your screen depends on whether you have a phone, tablet, laptop or desktop – is Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve (1526) from the The Courtauld, London; the af Klint; and Yggdrasil, The Mundane Tree (1847), by Oluf Olufsen Bagge, which is illustrated in a superb entry by Nabila Abdel Nabi in the exhibition catalogue – which I can recommend highly. The fact is, trees are not only important for our existence, but, as such, play a vital part in many religions and numerous myths. Christianity has the Tree of Knowledge (…of Good and Evil), under which Adam and Eve are standing in the Cranach. It also has the Tree of Life, later identified as the Cross, with Jesus as the Fruit of the Tree. Norse myth has Yggdrasil, the ‘world tree’. I’m just going to quote what the Encyclopedia Britannica (online) says about it:

Yggdrasill, Old Norse Mimameidr, in Norse mythology, the world tree, a giant ash supporting the universe. One of its roots extended into Niflheim, the underworld; another into Jötunheim, land of the giants; and the third into Asgard, home of the gods. At its base were three wells: Urdarbrunnr (Well of Fate), from which the tree was watered by the Norns (the Fates); Hvergelmir (Roaring Kettle), in which dwelt Nidhogg, the monster that gnawed at the tree’s roots; and Mímisbrunnr (Mimir’s Well), source of wisdom, for the waters of which Odin sacrificed an eye. After Ragnarök (Doomsday), the world tree, though badly shaken, was to be the source of new life.

This description does not correspond exactly to what we see in Bagge’s illustration, but the format is telling, and it gives some idea of where af Klint was coming from. She is illustrating neither the biblical Tree of Knowledge, nor Yggdrasil, but is using a similar format to explain some of her own beliefs.

In the ‘root system’ we see yellow, red, and blue roots: like Mondrian, af Klint had an abiding interest in the three primary colours. For her, they had specific symbolism. Yellow was related to the masculine, and blue to the feminine, while red was associated with love. In 1904 she had joined the Stockholm Lodge of the Theosophical Society (Mondrian would also join the society – in Amsterdam – five years later). Theosophy, usually considered to be an esoteric religious movement, was founded in the States in 1875. It drew on Eastern religions to promote the idea of the evolution of humanity and of the human spirit. At the bottom of the trunk, the red ‘node’ (as I described it above) can be seen as two joined spirals, or two shells, which grow out from separate centres and then combine. Both shells and spirals were used regularly by af Klint to represent the idea of growth and development, and therefore evolution. From these shells issue the two interweaving strands of yellow (male) and blue (female) lines.

At the crown of the tree is a golden chalice. Gold, as in so many world views, represents the divine, and the source of light. The aim of alchemy was to turn base metals into gold, to ‘redeem’ them from their ignoble state: it used much the same language as Christianity. The chalice is rimmed by small white forms, two of which, contained within a figure of ‘8’ – a symbol of eternity – are also seen in the pink centre. Pink, like red, implies love, but in another form. Amongst the ‘leaves’ of the tree further pairings in white, blue, yellow and pink can be seen. The chalice stands on the top of the series of loops which have grown up from the roots, and contained within this top loop is a white bird.

Below this single bird are two more – one white, one black, the basic opposition of light and dark, and potentially, of life and death. In the lowest loop the two have separated, as if the white bird is being chased away, while the colour of the loops has gradually changed, from top to bottom, from white, through cream, to yellow and blue. However, we should probably be reading from the bottom up – as the opposites gradually combine to create unity and light, as they aspire towards the chalice and its divine radiance. To explain at least part of what this is about, I am going to quote from the website of the contemporary Theosophical Society in America:

The three basic ideas of Theosophy are (1) the fundamental unity of all existence, so that all pairs of opposites—matter and spirit, the human and the divine, I and thou—are transitory and relative distinctions of an underlying absolute Oneness, (2) the regularity of universal law, cyclically producing universes out of the Absolute ground of Being, and (3) the progress of consciousness developing through the cycles of life to an ever-increasing realization of Unity.

Hilma af Klint’s work is continually dealing with these opposites, their ‘fall’ from unity, and their evolution towards a renewed harmony. This can all be related in her paintings to the Fall in its Christian sense, and to mankind’s salvation, which is a return to harmony with God. As such, we could read the tree from bottom to top and from top to bottom – there is a continuous cycle at play.

She was not alone in seeking a diagrammatic representation of esoteric ideas: Bagge’s illustration of Yggdrasil is another example, and in the catalogue Nabil Abdel Nabi also draws a parallel to one of the illustrations in Carl Jung’s The Red Book, written, in secret, in 1922. This is Illustration 135.

Again we see a tree, which, like Yggdrasil, has three roots, while the leaves seem to be a source of light. The whole is contained within an egg shape, symbolic, in all probability, of new life, ‘possibly evoking the cosmic egg, or world egg, which features in the creation stories of many Indo-European cultures’, according to Nabi, who sees the Tree of Knowledge as existing within a similar egg-like form. The series as a whole was sufficiently important to Hilma af Klint for her to paint it twice.

If you were really observant, you might have noticed that the previous illustration was slightly different to the one I have used so far, which is the first of this pair, the one now at Glenstone. The second (also seen in the previous pairing) belongs to the Hilma af Klint Foundation. It is less precise, suggesting it was the first to be painted: she is working out her ideas, settling on the colour scheme, and using pencil to sketch the different possibilities for the composition. Once decided upon, the second version (the first illustrated here) is more precise, clearer, and more luminous. It is the second set which belongs to Glenstone, and it was only discovered relatively recently. One of the great advocates of Theosophy – meaning ‘Divine Wisdom’ – was Rudolf Steiner. However, like the beliefs of the movement itself, he too evolved, and broke away from Theosophy to found Anthroposophy, ‘Human Wisdom’, which sought (seeks) to align the original aims of Theosophy with aspects of Christian belief, all backed up by what is described as a scientific method. Af Klint met Steiner when he visited Stockholm in 1908. It was not a happy occasion for her, as he did not approve of her method. Nevertheless, as her viewpoint changed, she too shifted her allegiance towards Anthroposophy and made the second set of Tree of Knowledge as a gift for Steiner. It was probably intended to decorate the Goetheanum, the home of Anthroposophy in Dornach, Switzerland, the entirely original design of which was due to Steiner himself. However, the watercolours were passed on to Steiner’s successor as the head of the movement, and from that collection, sold to Glenstone very recently: Zwirner exhibited them just last year before they headed to their permanent home.

The original series is owned by the Hilma af Klint Foundation, and is the one I will show you on Monday. The reason for the Foundation’s existence, and why we have known so little about this undoubtedly original artist until now, will be just some of the issues we will consider. We will also discover why such esoteric beliefs – shared by Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian alike – made sense in the context of the late 19th and early 20th century world view, at a time in which the unseen became manifest. And, apart from all that, we will look at some truly wonderful, life-affirming paintings.


193 – Visionary

Paul Gauguin, Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888. National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.

From Shaping Impressionism last week, I am moving on to After Impressionism, the big blockbuster of a show at the National Gallery which I will introduce this Monday, 1 May at 6.00pm, hence my discussion of Paul Gauguin today. ‘Why are they calling it After Impressionism rather than Post-Impressionism?’ you might ask – well, that’s one of the things we will cover on Monday, but basically Post-Modernism is a term that was invented in 1910 by Roger Fry as a title for an exhibition that included artists whose ideas differed from those of the Impressionists, but who didn’t necessarily have a lot in common. Since its first use the term has become somewhat limited in scope, referring mainly to artists who lived or worked in France, but excluding much else. The curators want to give a far broader sense of the rich variety of art in the years after the last Impressionist Exhibition of 1886 and up until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. It’s a tall order, and the scope of the exhibition is quite breath-taking as a result. But I shall limit myself to my usual ‘hour’ (i.e., 75 minutes). In the following weeks we will see Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian, The Rossettis, and, already on sale, The ‘Other’ Vermeers on 5 June – but details of all of these are on the diary, of course.

The curators of After Impressionism focus on three ‘Pivotal Figures’ who played ‘a central role in forging avant-garde art in Europe at the turn of the 20th Century’. One of them was Paul Gauguin. This particular painting is a good example of what was so new about art ‘after Impressionism’. For a start, the colour is striking – strident even – with a vivid, virulent red taking up much of the canvas. I was talking last week about the liberation of the brushstroke from its descriptive function, and in Gauguin we see that colour, too, is no longer describing visual appearance. This is neither red floor nor red sky – indeed, it is hard to specify where one stops and the other begins. Instead of describing, the colour being used for its visual impact and emotive force. People are gathered in the foreground and along the left-hand side of the image, a tree cuts diagonally across the surface, and in the top right we see Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, the subtitle of the painting.

The story comes from Genesis Chapter 32. The full story is told from verses 22-32, but I’m just giving you the central section:

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.

You’ll notice that it doesn’t say ‘Angel’ anywhere, but there is one mentioned in Hosea 12:3-5, which refers to the same episode. However, this is not the subject of the painting.

The title (rather than the subtitle) of the painting is Vision of the Sermon: this is not a religious painting, but a painting of a religious experience. The vision is being experienced by the people in the foreground, a group of Breton women and their priest, who is on the far right. He has preached a sermon on this text so vividly that the scene has come to life before them. It could almost be a metaphor for the creative act: the priest has, through his words, brought the episode to life to the extent that the congregation believe they can see it. Gauguin has painted it – and there it is, before our eyes.

The priest frames the image at the right: his face looking down and towards our left stops our attention from straying beyond the picture frame. The women next to him look in, and, like Eugène Manet last week, are acting as repoussoirs, pushing our eyes back towards the vision. Gauguin only shows their shoulders and the very tops of their backs, as if we are there with them, pushing in closer to get a better view. The woman on the left of this detail looks to our right, again directing our attention towards Jacob and the Angel: she and the priest act like a pair of brackets for this small section of the congregation. However, they are cut off from the vision by the tree growing at a diagonal, which seems perfectly placed to frame the woman’s profile. We can tell that Jacob and the Angel are further away because they are smaller, but apart from that we cannot see how far – the unmodulated red gives no sense of traditional perspective. Indeed, it is flat on the surface of the painting.

The left flank of the painting is also framed by the gathered congregation, huddled together nearer to the foreground group, and kneeling on the ground in the top left corner. There is also a cow whose position is impossible to define, but it speaks of the bucolic nature of the scene. Gauguin had tired of the sophistication of Parisian life, just as the Impressionists had earlier tired of the artificial requirements of the official Academy. He headed out to visit an artists’ colony in Pont-Aven, in Brittany: he was looking for somewhere which had not reached the same levels of industrialisation as the French capital. He wanted something innocent, and unsophisticated, where people were living a far more down-to-earth lifestyle. A romantic view of the peasant life, perhaps, and not a little condescending. And if it wasn’t exactly what he was looking for – well, you’d never know that from the painting, in which traditional costumes are on show as if they were worn every day. It was in Pont-Aven that he got to know Émile Bernard, who many consider to be the true originator of the style that Gauguin is using here. Its aims would be summed up best by Maurice Denis in 1890, two years after today’s painting was completed:

‘It is well to remember that a picture before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order’

We are seeing what now seems like the implacable movement of painting towards abstraction, where the elements of colour, line and form stand for themselves rather than representing aspects of the world we see and live in, those things that all artists since the Renaissance had sought to emulate. Gauguin even said that his paintings were ‘abstract’, but he was not using the word in the same way that we do now, meaning art with no visual reference to objects in the visible world. This particular style was called Synthetism, as the artists wanted to synthesize three things: what something looked like, what the artist felt about it, and the purely aesthetic concerns of colour, line and form (as in the statement quoted above).

Common to the style are strong, bold outlines filled by plane areas of colour. In this example the outlines are perhaps not as bold as in others – but they can be seen clearly around the headdress of the woman on the right in this detail, and they also define the headdress and profile of the woman to her left. There is a limited amount of three-dimensional modelling in the face of the woman on the left, but the red background is implacably flat. The effect is sometimes referred to as cloisonnism, as in cloisonné enamel, in which the cloisons (or ‘compartments’) of single-coloured enamel are separated by gold borders. It is not dissimilar to the appearance of stained-glass windows, in which the coloured glass is separated by black leading.

Jacob and the Angel are seen as if in a compartment of their own, cut off by the tree to the left and the branches and leaves at the top. The brilliant yellow wings and rich blue robe stand out against the red background, making the angel appear other-worldly. The red, both hot and exciting, could easily represent his power, and the energy of the struggle. Jacob and the Angel appear clearly before us, and yet, however much we see them, Gauguin himself was entirely convinced that they were not there.  In a letter to Vincent van Gogh, whom he had met in Paris in November 1887, he said, ‘For me the landscape and the fight only exist in the imagination of the people praying after the sermon.

Art has truly been stood on its head. No longer are artists painting what they see, or what they imagine one could see, thus making the natural world visible, however tempered its appearance might be by their own feelings. Instead, they are finding visual equivalents for what they feel or think, things which do not, and never did exist in the world around us. The choice of colour, line and form represents the artist’s inner world, rather than representing the shared visual world. As a result, the way a work of art is made becomes one of the things that it is about: how paint is applied, and which paints are used, for example, become some of the ‘subjects’ of art.

There is some modelling of form here, yes, but on the whole the whites, blacks, browns – and of course, the red – constitute flat planes defined by lines which, although inflected, are also two-dimensional patterns on the canvas. Where did these ideas come from? Well, one of the major sources was Japan.

On the right is Utagawa Hiroshige’s, The Residence with Plum Trees at Kameido, from the series One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo, printed in 1857. This is a photograph of a print the Art Institute of Chicago, but there is another version in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, which was owned, and copied, by Vincent van Gogh himself. Many artists were influenced by Japanese prints: Monet and Van Gogh, yes, but also Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard, not to mention the other Synthetists. I don’t know whether Gauguin had seen this particular print before he painted Vision of the Sermon, but if not, there are several, if not many others, in which a dark tree cuts diagonally across the foreground. It is clearly a red sky in the Hiroshige, and it is distinguished from the ground, which is green, whereas for Gauguin there is no distinction. Western European Art was heading forward at a remarkable rate, and these developments constitute what was probably the biggest change in outlook since the Renaissance. In order to innovate they were not looking back, but nor were they necessarily looking forward. Instead, they were looking elsewhere, drawing on art from the rest of the world to find new ways to paint. As so often, they did not fully understand what they were looking at: they liked elements of the forms they saw, the use of line and colour, without having any real sense of what the art meant for the society which was producing it. But it gave them ideas which fuelled their vision of what art should be – and, whatever else we might think about him, Gauguin truly was one of art’s great visionaries.


192 – Role reversal

Berthe Morisot, Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight, 1875. Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris.

Last week I talked about a traditional, old fashioned couple, where the man was in the driving seat. This week, we will see woman take the reins: Madame Manet, better known by the name she called herself – as she never let go of the reins – Berthe Morisot. She is the subject of the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s current exhibition, Berthe Morisot: Shaping Impressionism, about which I will be talking on Monday, 24 April at 6pm. If they had staged the equivalent exhibition about one of her colleagues (Claude Monet, you might have heard of him) people would be queueing round the block, but they aren’t, so I can only assume that they don’t know what they are missing. You lot are, however, far more sophisticated, and if you have any sense you’ll hotfoot it to South London in case the hoi polloi find out that she was (a) a far more ardent supporter of the Impressionist cause and (b) arguably a greater innovator.

Thank you to everyone who came to The Ugly Duchess on Monday – and apologies for (and thank you for putting up with) the technical difficulties. If any of you weren’t free, or were, and would like a second attempt at an interruption-free talk, I will be repeating it for ARTscapades on Thursday 18 May at 6pm – I’d offer you all free tickets, but they are a charity, raising money to support our under-funded museums… It’s also worth bearing in mind that they record their talks, so if you’re not free on the 18th, you can catch up with the recording over the following couple of weeks.

After Shaping Impressionism I will talk about After Impressionism at the National Gallery (on 1 May), and the following week head from nature to abstraction with Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian – keep an eye on the diary for what comes next.

The painting shows an interior, although the focus is not on the room itself, but on the outside world, the view through the window. In some ways, the real subject of the work is the act of looking, and, because this is a painting, it is also about the act of painting what we see when we look. Our eyes are directed towards the view by the various framing devices – the window frame, for example, which draws our attention to the exterior landscape in the same way that the frame of a painting gives the art a heightened status and proclaims it to be something worth looking at. The view is also framed, to the left and right, by the gauze curtains which hang down on either side. We are also encouraged to look out by the actions of the man on the left of the painting who, sitting on a chair that looks as if it is facing towards us, turns to look over his left shoulder and out of the window. He functions as a repoussoir – literally, something that ‘pushes back’ – thus ‘pushing’ our eyes ‘back’ to the landscape out of the window. However, the amount of landscape we see is relatively small compared., to the size of the painting – the framing elements take up a lot of space. Although the curtains do not entirely block the view, they do restrict it, and the man’s white jacket enhances the drape’s ability to obscure. The predominantly vertical form of the jacket also echoes the fall of the curtain on the right hand side. There is a similar horizontal pairing, with the wall below the window echoed by the row of small, framed glass panels at the top. It may be the weather, or the fact that there are few features visible in the sky, but at first glance these panes of glass might even appear to be opaque. There are many grid-like elements here – not just the verticals of the curtains and jacket, or the horizontals of wall, window sill and upper row of windows panes – but also the posts and rails of the picket fence which marks the boundary of the garden, the two people on the promenade beyond it, and even the masts (and hulls) of the boats in the background.

If you’ve read the title of the painting then it comes as no surprise to learn that this is Eugène Manet, and that he is on the Isle of Wight. He was an artist, but he was not the Manet – that was his elder brother, Édouard. It is August 1875 (in this painting), and the previous December – the 22nd, to be precise – he had married another artist, Berthe Morisot, who had always wanted to go to England. This is them on their honeymoon. Or rather, this is him on their honeymoon, because she is standing behind the easel painting. What is now known as the First Impressionist Exhibition had taken place in Paris from 15 April – 15 May 1874. Morisot had exhibited alongside Monet, Renoir, Degas et al, and had in many ways ‘arrived’ on the scene – although she had exhibited regularly at the annual salon over the previous decade, so in many ways had ‘arrived’ even before her now more famous peers. What seems to have happened is a commonplace for male artists going back to the medieval times: you finish your training, you make your mark, you settle down and get married.

This detail alone shows how fundamental she was to the shaping of Impressionism. Notice how freely it is painted, with the bold, apparently haphazard brushstrokes nevertheless making coherent sense of the shape and structure of Eugène’s jacket. The sunlight shining through the window glances across the front of the collar, shoulder and sleeve, and purple/blue shadows define the unlit sides. This colour choice alone shows Morisot’s mastery of Impressionist colour theory. If sunlight is considered to be a yellowy orange, then the absence of light should be represented by the colours which are opposite on the colour wheel, the complementary colours. Opposite yellow and orange are purple and blue, he colours she uses for the shadows. However, the back of his jacket also includes a lighter peachy colour. There is just a thin sliver of wallpaper visible in the detail above (and just below), edging the left-hand side, but you can see the same peach-coloured paper with orange/red dots under the windowsill in the full painting illustrated above (and in other details below). The light has reflected off the wallpaper and onto Eugène’s back. This explains the peach-coloured brushstrokes: it is reflected light.

The composition is so very specific here: Eugène’s face is neatly framed by the bottom element of the window frame and the top of the fence – allowing him the maximum available view: his view is framed as ours is. He appears to be looking towards the girl standing with her back towards us, although he may well be looking further to the right. The girl herself is depicted on the canvas directly underneath the vertical element of the sash window. Impressionists were ‘supposed’ to be painting what they saw when they saw it, grabbing each moment spontaneously as it came – but that didn’t stop them adding in the artfulness, and arranging things to create richer harmonies: jackets like curtains, hat ‘ribbons almost lining up with the horizontals of the window frames, girls continuing the verticals of the same… that sort of thing.

In the detail above it is clearer that the lower half of the window has been slid upwards (which is, of course, how a sash window works): there are two horizontal framing elements, with the darker one further in, and similarly, there is a lighter, outer vertical element to the right of its darker, inner equivalent.

I read somewhere that Eugène looks relaxed in this painting – but I really don’t agree. The chair faces us, and if he were relaxed, and sitting comfortably, he would be too. But his legs (or at least one of his legs, Morisot is unconcerned about his precise posture) slide over the edge of the chair, and he has to turn through about 120° in order to see out of the window. Not only that, but look at the contorted position of his fingers – the fourth, ‘ring’ finger is buried between those on either side: there’s quite a bit of tension there. And Morisot’s own account of painting him confirms this. She learnt to paint alongside her sister Edma, one of whose paintings is included in the Dulwich exhibition. However, Edma married, and dedicated herself to her family, leaving painting behind. She often modelled for Berthe, both before and after marriage, and the two continued a lively correspondence. During her honeymoon Berthe wrote to Edma from Globe Cottage in West Cowes, on the Isle of White,

“…I began something in the sitting room with Eugène; poor Eugène is taking your place; but he is a much less accommodating model; he’s quickly had enough…”

There is a strong sense that he’d prefer to be outside exploring, rather than being confined to the domestic sphere. You could even suggest that the sketchy style of painting might result from his reluctance to pose for too long. Compare the way in which he is painted in the above detail with the precise focus of the plant pots and their saucers, especially given the brilliant precision in the way the light and shade is defined – notably around the tops of the pots: clearly the plant pots were not in a hurry to get away.

However, this has nothing to do with the willingness or otherwise of the model – it is a fundamental aspect of Morisot’s style. Where precision is needed, she can supply it. If evocation will convey something more eloquently, that is what we see – see below! The plant pots themselves might be models of exactitude, but as for the plants – well, the stems are clear, but the leaves and flowers blend with those of the plants in the garden, and they become indistinguishable. But pictorially, that isn’t a problem. Certainly when looking at the picture as a whole we take it all as given.

The curtain on the right is also the model of Impressionist ellipsis – so much is missed out that is not necessary. The curtain is defined by a few thin white brushstrokes of different densities, which express the depth and positions of the folds. They are either painted on top of the painting of the fence, or of the foliage, or, in the bottom right, over blank canvas. The contrast between the intensity of colour in the garden and the pallor of the curtain over the windowsill could hardly be more marked.

We can see this again towards the top of the curtain. Almost more than any of her Impressionist colleagues Morisot has liberated the brushstroke from its descriptive function, so that dots, dashes and lines evoke the the appearance of the form rather than enumerating each of its material qualities. This detail is also an important indicator of the precision of the viewpoint she has chosen. Just separated from the curtain by a sliver of the landscape is a women in a lavender dress and white apron. She is a woman in service – the nanny of the little girl we have seen before. She has a black belt – which could equally well be a continuation of the boat behind her – and a black hat, which protrudes above the raised window frame. But how frustrating that we can’t see her face. Or is that, in fact, a deliberate choice on the part of the artist?

There is, in fact, a remarkable role reversal in the painting. In Western European society – and indeed in many other societies across the world – it was usually the woman who was restricted to the domestic sphere, while men could travel freely outside. In this painting, whether consciously or otherwise, Morisot explores another possibility: the women have gone out, while the man remains at home. However, it also touches on one of Berthe’s problems as an artist who had, until recently, been an unmarried woman: she wasn’t allowed to go out painting on her own, even if she was just heading to the Louvre to copy the works of others. She had to be chaperoned, just as the little girl is here. Indeed, she even wrote to Edma speaking of her frustration. As a little girl, being chaperoned is not entirely surprising, but as a fully grown woman? At least this girl has the possibility of exploration, and, even given the rapid brushstrokes with which she is painted, we can tell from her clothes that her parents have substance. They can afford a nanny for one thing. Morisot even seems to be showing her awareness that the girl’s future is dependent on the unacknowledged work of a faceless multitude – and maybe that is why the nanny’s face is hidden behind the frame.

However, much of what see derives from the artist’s continued determination to work, and to work unchallenged. There is more than one role reversal here. It is often implied that Eugène gave up his career to support that of his wife, which, if it is true, is admirable, but it does nothing to undermine her own strength of purpose. She certainly didn’t give up her name, and continued to work as Berthe Morisot long after she became Madame Manet. But it wasn’t always easy. When painting en plein air she had a number of strategies to avoid being harassed. For one, she would often start work as early in the morning as possible so as to achieve as much as she could before there were too many people around. The choice of painting the view from the living room was also, in all probability, a pragmatic one. Inside her own space she will not be confronted by curious observers. However, it does mean that she is still constricted to the domestic sphere – even if, in this case, she is the maker rather than the model, an active participant in the world of art, rather than its passive subject.

And talking of subject, I’m am intrigued about the subject of this painting: what is it actually about? What is Eugène looking at? The girl? The nanny? The boats of the Cowes regatta? Is the act of looking out an act of looking forward? Is he imagining the future of his own family? Three years and three months after this painting was finished, the artist’s and the model’s daughter Julie was born, and Berthe would go on to paint the relationship between father and child which few artists – if any – had ever thought to explore. Maybe they are both thinking about that.


191 – In the driving seat

Jan Gossaert, An Elderly Couple, about 1520. National Gallery, London.

Today’s painting is one that I have loved for years, but rarely get to speak about, so it was a great pleasure to see it in the National Gallery’s exhibition The Ugly Duchess, about which I will be talking this Monday, 17 April at 6pm. The subtitle of the exhibition is Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance, and the couple we will be looking at are not exactly beautiful, but neither is the painting in any way satirical – even if we could approach it with a subtle sense of humour. This begs the question, ‘why is it included?’ Well, you’ll either have to go to the Gallery, or come along on Monday to find out (although there are hints below)!  The phrase ‘small, but perfectly formed’ could have been coined for this exhibition. Every work plays a vital role, the ideas are expressed clearly and succinctly, and there is no padding with irrelevant art: a lecturer’s dream. In subsequent weeks I will give a mini-history of early modernism, with an Impressionist (Berthe Morisot in Dulwich), some Post-Impressionists (After Impressionism at the National Gallery), and, following on from the last works exhibited in the latter, abstraction (Piet Mondrian and Hilma af Klint at Tate Modern) – details via these links, and on the diary, of course.

So what is it I like about this painting? Its directness and apparent honest, the precision of depiction, and the wealth of telling details. A brilliance of technique, inevitably, with exact descriptions of texture and form, resulting from a masterful disposition of light and shade, a superb control of colour, and a penetrating analysis of character. Of course, I have no way of knowing if any of this is an accurate portrayal, as we don’t even know who this couple were, let alone if they looked – or behaved – anything like they appear to. But Jan Gossaert, that great and still neglected master of early 16th Century Netherlandish painting, convinces us that they did. I for one certainly believe him, and believe in this grumpy elderly man – soberly, but wealthily dressed – and his plain and respectful (if not entirely submissive) wife.

There is no flattery here, I think, nor is it caricature, but a direct and uncompromising description of an aging face. The determined closure of the mouth, with bottom lip projecting and upper curling in suggests that many, if not all of the teeth have gone. There are wrinkles, if not large bags, under the hollowed eyes, thoughtful lines between the brows, and slightly sagging jowls. He’s not in a bad shape, for what we might presume to be his age, but there is no vanity here – he hasn’t even bothered to shave for his portrait. The stubble is grizzled, and the hair grey. Strands have fallen out: one hangs down the left side of the neck while a second curls over the fur collar. These details alone put the portrait high in my ranking. Although the act of being portrayed implies a certain regard for posterity, we, the viewers, are not especially important to the sitter: he does not match our gaze, but looks upwards, to the right, as if there is still more to be achieved in what remains of his life.

His achievements so far? It’s hard to say, but a certain wealth. The thick fur collar, which he grasps as if to bring it to our attention, must have cost a fair penny. The subtly decorated walking stick, with its carefully depicted, finely-etched silver top, presumably didn’t come cheap either. But there is no excessive adornment: no rings on the fingers, for example, which are clean, with neatly cut nails, and which are beautifully articulated. Each one is different – look at the phenomenal care with which Gossaert has traced the fall of light and shade on every joint, defining every knuckle and arthritic swelling.

The artist’s skill at the depiction of light is also evident in the portrayal of the wife, notably in the shadow cast across her forehead by her plain white headdress. This nevertheless allows the definition of her right eye socket (on our left) thanks to a small passage of apparently reflected light which traces its outline. Her eyes are downcast, looking to our left, and her slightly protruding lips show that, unlike her husband, she still has her teeth. Her simple jacket has a thin fur lining, and is modestly clasped over her chest (certainly in comparison with The Ugly Duchess, as we shall see on Monday) over a simple white chemise. There is apparently no adornment at all, although her headdress was originally pinned in place by two gold pins. Sadly these were covered many years ago – for no apparent reason – by an unknown picture restorer. The headdress disappears behind the husband’s left shoulder: she is slightly behind him, as she has been for many years, one assumes.

The merciless depiction of the couple’s age is only heightened if we look at the one prominent piece of elaboration in the entire painting: the man’s hat badge.

It depicts a naked couple – man and woman – who gaze into each other’s eyes. The man’s arm appears to be around the woman’s shoulders, and they walk along together, almost as if in a dance. Their show of unity, and their physical form – however sketchily rendered on this tiny scale – couldn’t be a stronger contrast to the Elderly Couple, helping to make the painting as a whole a striking portrayal of the passage of time, if not exactly a memento mori. The naked man holds a staff, and the woman a cornucopia – a horn of plenty. It is not entirely clear who they are, but they could be Mars and Venus, gods of War and Love respectively, which would cast a whole new light on the aging man and woman. Alternately, they could be Mercury and Fortuna, ‘the gods of trade and prosperity’ (I am quoting from Lorne Campbell’s exemplary catalogue of Sixteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings in the National Gallery – the entry for this painting is online, if you click on that link). The latter seems more likely to me, as the man was clearly enriched by trade, but does not appear to be blasé about his good luck. Evoking Mercury and Fortuna would seem entirely appropriate. It implies that the man’s prosperity is not only the result of a successful business strategy, but also reliant on good fortune – which he is not about to risk with an unnecessary display of finery.

All in all the couple behave as they should, and certainly in compliance with all the gender stereotypes of the era. The man is at the front, in charge, and looking up and out towards whatever the future has to offer. By means of contrast, the woman is in his shadow (even if her white headdress makes her presence clear), just behind his shoulder, and looking modestly down. They may not appear to communicate, but there is some sense that they are part of a shared enterprise. And they know their place. In the UK we drive on the left side of the road. Back in the day, it would have been the man who drove, with his fair lady in the passenger seat to his left. Why should this be? Well, everyone was, or was supposed to be, right handed, and with the gentleman to his lady’s right, it meant that he could easily draw his sword and defend her. Not the usual response to road rage, I know, but that is where the relative positions in a car come from. Or for that matter, from the Last Judgement (see Giotto’s version, for example, in Day 38 – Enrico Scrovegni). The blessed are at Christ’s right hand, the damned at his left: the ‘right’ is the better place to be, and so it is the perfect position for the man. Looked at from our point of view – as if looking through the windscreen of a car – that means that the man should be on the left and the woman on the right, just as they are. The man is in the driving seat in this painting. As I said above, they know their place – unlike The Ugly Duchess. But more about that, as I’ve also said before, on Monday.


190 – Leading a still life

Giorgio Morandi, Still Life, 1936. Magnani-Rocca Foundation, Mamiano di Traversetolo, Parma.

Thank you to everyone who signed up for my two Vermeer talks: it made it so worthwhile to have such an eager audience. However, if you weren’t free, I will be delivering another introduction to the Rijksmuseum’s Vermeer – in person this time – at the Dutch Centre in London on Wednesday 26 April: it would be great if you could come along and say hello! Contrary to my concerns in the last ‘Third Anniversary’ post, my next online talk will be this coming Monday, 3 April, as originally planned, and, as planned, I will look at the wonderful Italian artist Giorgio Morandi. Why was I concerned? Well, I’m currently in Bucharest. I should have been on holiday in Lisbon, but I only managed two days of that before being torn away for a few days filming: I still don’t know when I’ll be back in the UK. However, it will be in time for the talk on Monday, by which time I will have listed more of the following talks in the diary.

Like Vermeer, who was born, worked and died in the same city – Delft – Morandi also led a relatively still life, by modern standards. He too passed his entire career in one place – Bologna, in Northern Italy – although, unlike Vermeer, he did occasionally travel abroad. Coincidentally, Morandi also claimed Vermeer as one of his major influences, particularly during the time-frame of today’s painting. But that’s not the reason for the talk: it is an introduction to the exhibition of the Magnani-Rocca Foundation’s collection of works by the Italian master – fifty in all, including paintings, drawings and etchings – which is currently on show at the Estorick Collection, in North London. It’s been so successful that the catalogue has already sold out once, and the exhibition has been extended until 28 May.

At first glance the connection to Vermeer might not seem obvious, but listen carefully and you might just hear it: quiet, isn’t it? Both artists created paintings of stillness, order, beauty, and calm. These qualities are evoked through a harmonious palette, with muted colours and gently graded tonal values, absolute precision in the positioning of individual elements to create unexpected but satisfying compositions, and a slight softness around the edges. There is visually enough to let us know where we are, but nothing too bold to bring us up short. And the colours themselves allow a comparison – the blue and yellow on the left of this Still Life are so similar to those worn by The Milkmaid or The Girl with a Pearl Earring, for example. But although Vermeer often included Still Life details in his paintings, Morandi rarely painted the human figure. Still Life was his focus, together with regular forays into the landscape. But even in the outside world he treated every building, hill or tree much as he would a bottle, bowl, vase, or tin.

Morandi enrolled in Bologna’s Accademia di Belle Arti – the Academy of Fine Arts – at the age of 17, in 1907. Two years later his father died, and the family – his mother, three sisters and a younger brother – moved into a house on the via Fondazza. He was still there when he graduated from the Accademia in 1913, and it was there that his career developed, flourished and brought him fame. He was still there when he died, at the age of 74, in 1964. I lived on the same street for six months a quarter of a century later, although I’m sad to say I was barely aware of the fact at the time. However, in retrospect, being nestled in one of the least frequented arcs circling the medieval city centre seems entirely appropriate for this, the most focussed of artists. During his lifetime his style formed, evolved, crystallised and then gradually evaporated as he got ever closer to visualising the essence of things. Most of his time in the studio appears to have been taken up with the meticulous arrangement of an ever-growing collection of household objects – they had to be reasonably mundane, or they didn’t really interest him. After that, the actually painting didn’t take so long. By then he knew exactly what everything looked like, and precisely what its relationship to everything else was: he had already spent so long considering those very details, after all. Roberto Longhi, one of Italy’s most important art historians in the 20th Century, described this process as ‘a meditated slowness’. Throughout his oeuvre objects appear and reappear, stepping forward into the limelight, or shyly peering from behind a bolder form, for all the world like characters in a long-running serial.

In this detail we see what is described as ‘a spherical toy’ standing directly in front of two blue bowls stacked on top of each other. The left edge of each element, the ‘toy’ and the ‘two bowls’, lies on the same vertical line, a precision of placement that reminds me of Vermeer’s decision to place a hand, or a flask at the bottom corner of a picture frame, or a book just in front of a chair leg. There is some harmony at work there which creates that longed-for quietude. In the same way, the white rim of the lower bowl is at the same level as the ‘label’ on the unevenly-topped white vessel, which I recognise from a painting in the Tate collection. Its shape has always slightly unnerved me. The curvature of this vessel is mapped subtly by a change in colour, left to right, from a cold, bluish white, through the lightest of pearly pinks, to a duller fawn-grey. The bluish white is probably the colour of the bowls bleeding into that of the vessel. Morandi painted wet on wet: he didn’t wait for one colour, or layer of paint, to dry before continuing with the next – a reminder that the painting, although careful, didn’t take so very long.

The modelling of the tall white vase – one of the leading actors in the subtle drama of Morandi’s career – reminds me of Vermeer’s painting of sleeves, with dabs and dashes of pure white functioning as highlights, puffing out from the shadows of the folds. This bottle has almost human proportions, with full hips – or a voluminous skirt – waisted below a billowing blouse, the torso gradually tapering towards an impossibly long, slim neck. One of the great skills for an artist to acquire is concision, and I suspect that Morandi didn’t paint the shadows at all. They appear to be cast – given that the light is coming from the left – by the body of the object itself, and also by the groove which forms the ‘waist’. But the colours of the shadows are so close to those of the background, I suspect that he was probably painting the vase on a mushroom-coloured ground, only reinforcing the precise shape of the vase with more strokes of the same colour later. The white highlights, indicating the individual swelling forms running vertically, certainly appear to be painted on top of a colour midway between the mushroom and the white. The painting of the highlights of these elements leaves their own shadows behind.

The small bowl in the right foreground is painted a far ‘higher’ white – or, more simply put, it is brighter. This helps to push it forward. The dark shadows underneath both it, and the vase behind it, separate them from the table top, making them just that little bit clearer than might, in ‘reality’, have been expected. This adds a slightly visionary status to the image. The same is true of the way in which the brilliant white edge at the left of the bowl stands out against the vase, which is itself slightly darker than perhaps it should be at that point. If you stare at something for long enough the image burns itself onto your retina and starts to become other-worldly. I think this happens often in Morandi’s paintings, with similar visual phenomena seen in his drawings and etchings as well – we’ll see several examples on Monday. The visual impact of that small, brightly lit bowl even appears to have a physical impact on the vase, the front right curve of which appears slightly dented.

The artist is always aware of the geometry of his forms: the shadow on the inside of the small white bowl is mapped out horizontally, whereas on the outside, to the right, another shadow scans down a diagonal from top right to bottom left, concentric to the right-hand edge of the form. The abstract values of these shadows – horizontal and diagonal – add to the artist’s pleasure in the composition, I think. His signature sits at the very bottom of the canvas, scanning the visible section of the base of the bottle. ‘Morandi 36’ is painted in thin, dark salmon paint, almost like an emanation – a thin wisp of ectoplasm – from the pale pink of the table. Or am I seeing things?

Still Life 1946 Giorgio Morandi 1890-1964 Presented by Studio d’Arte Palma, Rome 1947 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05782

The white vessel, toy and vase reappear in one of Tate’s two paintings by Morandi (they also have two etchings). This Still Life was painted in 1946, ten years after the Magnani-Rocca painting (which is one from a collection of seventeen), and has a more ethereal, lighter mood. I think this is because the blue bowls have left the stage, their departure followed by the entrance of two more predominantly white forms. One, centrally placed in front of the vase, has a brick-red rim, the other, spiralling fuchsia stripes. The ‘toy’ stands downstage right again (at the front left, from our point of view), and notably, again, in front of another object, this time the unevenly-topped white vessel. And this is precisely where it stands – although on the other side of the image – in an etching in the V&A. As printmaking reverses appearances, though, the position is effectively the same. Dating to 1946, the same date as the second painting, this etching shows us how slowly the drama unfolds. In the intervening decade all that has happened is that the blue bowls have left the stage. The small white bowl is still there, but the ‘new’ forms have not yet entered: there can’t be long to go!

I both admire and respect Giorgio Morandi’s patience and skill. As a printmaker he was an autodidact, learning from old manuals, and relying on his own abilities, rather than using professional printing studios, as most printmakers would. Everything was etched and printed in the house on via Fondazza. His control of the medium was superb, and in 1930 he became Professor of Printmaking at the Accademia di Belle Arti, a position he held for 26 years. But then, I also admire and respect his constant search for stillness and calm. As reported in a superb review of the Estorick’s exhibition in The New European, Morandi once refused an invitation to exhibit his works because the curator’s flashy ideas made the artist worry that his paintings would be denied ‘that tiny degree of quiet that is vital for my work’. As ever, he was using the full force of understatement. I am always happy to spend the time to seek out that deafening ‘tiny degree of quiet’. I think it is something that would do us all the world of good amidst the wittering noises of the 21st century, the 24-hour news, social media, the traffic. Time for some slow looking, I think.


Three years on…

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

So – it’s three years since I started writing this blog! On the 17 March I walked into London to see the National Gallery’s Titian, and, realising that all the museums were closing, all the theatres were shut, and all my work had been cancelled, I realised there was no reason to be in London. On the 18 March I was rescued by a Knight in Shining Armour (actually, a Ford Focus) and taken up to Durham, where I’ve lived ever since (with regular forays back to London, after the first five months had elapsed…). The next day, 19 March, I started posting on my Facebook Page, then transferred to WordPress – hence the first comment after this paragraph. So thank you to all of you, my loyal followers – by now there are now nearly 1,500 of you! People sometimes ask me why I don’t send out a mailing list of all of my talks and courses – well, it’s all on the diary, and with every post there is a link to the diary in the first paragraph – so, if that’s what you want, just click on that! And I always mention upcoming talks, with links to them, in the first paragraph… so the first paragraph is my newsletter, for those who want a newsletter, and then after that follows the blog, if you’re the sort of person who likes more extensive reading. Having said that, things are always open for change, and I’m having one of those ‘up in the air’ moments when I’m not sure what’s happening next. I may have to change the date of the Morandi talk. If you’ve booked already – thank you! – I’ll get back to you with options if I do need to postpone it. If you haven’t – hold fire… I should know what’s going on soon. Meanwhile, I’m in Amsterdam again… and off for a second visit to Vermeer (I know, it’s hard work, but someone has to do it). But back to what almost seem like more innocent days, with my first post from three years ago.

after 2019 cleaning

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 the Titian 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.


The Milkmaid Returns (again)

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

The Milkmaid, to whom I want to return today, rejoices in a room to herself in the Rijksmuseum’s stunning Vermeer. Brilliantly reviewed, and now completely sold out, the exhibition will be the subject of my talk this Monday, 13 February at 6pm which I have called Vermeer: Amsterdam ’23. If you are lucky enough to have secured a ticket for the exhibition, I hope this talk will be a good introduction. If you haven’t, I will give you a (virtual) guided tour of the paintings, so you’ll know what is there, with the added advantage that no one will get in your way! Spoiler alert: I will only talk about the Vermeers in the exhibition. The will be no comparative materials, just Vermeer, just looking, in line with the clean-cut design of the display itself. Second spoiler alert (and a date for your diaries, perhaps): on 5 June, the day after the exhibition closes, I am thinking of celebrating its success by talking about the ‘other’ Vermeers – the ones which, for one reason or another, didn’t make it to Amsterdam this year. Trust me, there’s always more to be said! And there will be plenty more before then, of course. On 3 April, for example, I will talk about the Estorick Collection’s fantastic display of paintings, etchings and drawings by Giorgio Morandi from the Magnani-Rocca Collection – you can find more details on the blue link.

Last week I mentioned that one of the women waiting for the ferry in the foreground of the View of Delft looked familiar. Wearing a yellow bodice and blue apron, she is remarkably similar to The Milkmaid. I wrote about her first on 14 February 2021 (during lockdown 3?), and re-posted the blog in the September of the same year when I was in Dresden for the exhibition Vermeer: On Reflection. The Milkmaid was not in that exhibition, but as she has the honour of a room to herself in Amsterdam, I thought I would use this as an opportunity, for the first time, to give her the admittedly dubious honour of re-posting a blog for the second time…

When I first 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? 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 sculptural, 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. Yet it does not do this 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, without a single brushstroke being visible. In contrast to the fijnschilder, and 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 the footwarmer 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 (by men, of course) 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 the one 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 Amsterdam exhibition, I will include it in Monday’s talk, Vermeer: Amsterdam ’23.

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?


189 – Vermeer… of Delft

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660-61. Mauritshuis, The Hague.

As I start writing, I am on the verge of flying to Amsterdam. By the time you read this, though, I will have spent the day in Delft, visiting the viewpoint from which Vermeer saw his native city, seeing the streets he lived and worked in, and the churches where he was christened and where he was buried. I will also have been to the Prinsenhof Museum to see the exhibition Vermeer’s Delft, which will be the subject of my talk on Monday, 6 March at 6pm. It puts Vermeer’s paintings into context, looking at the history and culture of the town in which he spent his brief life, including its art and its science – the developments in optics, which might explain his fascination with perspective, for example. However, there will be relatively few Vermeers, as they are all at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I will talk about his own paintings in a talk entitled Amsterdam ’23, looking in detail at what is said to be the ‘greatest Vermeer exhibition ever’. If you’re not free on Mondays, I will give both talks as one study evening for ARTscapades on Tuesday 7 March. By Monday, I might also have worked out what I am doing next (don’t tell anyone, but I know – I just need to be sure – and will post details in the diary as soon as I am). Meanwhile, what better today, in order to introduce both upcoming talks, than to look at the city itself, in a view painted by its most famous son.

One of the aspects of Vermeer’s work which is most attractive is the pervading sense of calm he communicates, a perfect balm for our twenty-first century lives which are, for some of us, all too rapidly reaching pre-pandemic levels of business. As it happens, the calm is sometimes only on the surface, like the proverbial swan, for which all the action is taking place under water. But in this painting, started on a late spring day in 1660 (although some have argued it’s early autumn), it is calm throughout – both above and below the reflecting surface of the ‘Kolk’, the triangular harbour just to the south of Delft. Admittedly the clouds are lowering at the top of the painting – but that is just an artistic device to frame the view and encourage us to look into the lighter distance, where the rooves of the houses, and the spire of the Nieuwe Kerk – the ‘new’ church – shine in the sunlight. All is well in this fair city. On the far right two barges are moored in front of the Rotterdam Gate, to the left is a bridge, allowing boats through the ramparts and into the city centre, and to the left again, is the Schiedam Gate. It might help to look at a detail of a contemporary map, published by Joan Blaeu in 1649.

Flowing out of this detail on the far right is the river Schie, which had been diverted to form a moat around the defensive walls of Delft early in the city’s history. Two separate branches of the river can be seen coming along the bottom left, and vertically down from top centre. On the right edge of the picture, just below the river, are three houses: it is assumed that Vermeer made his initial observations and sketches for this painting from an upstairs window of the house on the left. At the right-angled corner at the ‘top left’ of the Kolk (north-east: south is to the right here) you can see a canal going under a bridge between the Rotterdam gate, with its two towers, above it, and the Schiedam gate, a more compact structure, below. If you came out of the Rotterdam gate, over the small bridge, and turned left, the first right would take you along the ‘Weg na Rotterdam’ – the way to Rotterdam. The Schie could also take you there, as well as to Schiedam, as we will see below. Inside the city three canals lead away from the bridge. The lower one is the ‘Oude Delft’, the old Delft, the name coming from ‘delven’, as in ‘to dig and delve’: the canal was dug out, to drain the marshy land, and to provide a transportation route, in the earliest days of the settlement. By the 17th Century it was the poshest place to live.

On the right of this detail is the Schiedam gate. There is a clock at the top of the stepped gable. It’s hard to read, and probably only has an hour hand – with a counter-balance – but tells us that it is somewhere around 7 o’clock. From the direction of the light we know that it is morning. In the centre of the detail there are two towers. On the right is the Parrot Brewery. Much of Delft’s wealth had been derived from beer, but the business was starting to wane: neither the brewery, nor its tower, survives. To the left is the top of the tower of the Oude Kerk – the Old Church – in which Vermeer was buried on 15 December 1675. The church still stands, as does the tower, just as we see it here. Reaching to the left side of the painting is a long building with a red-tiled roof: this is the Delft chapter of the Dutch East India Company, called the V.O.C. from its name in Dutch: Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie – the United East India Company. They didn’t need to say they were Dutch – they knew that. Founded in 1602, the Company’s success brought wealth to the seven Dutch provinces during their war of independence with Spain. That wealth enabled them to win the war, and in 1648 the Dutch Republic finally become an independent nation state. This new-found freedom led to enormous civic pride, which in its turn led to an interest in celebrating the country itself, not just in terms of landscape paintings, but also with a wealth of cityscapes such as the one we are looking at today.

Further to the right, the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk is given particular prominence, brilliantly lit by the morning sun, and standing proud of the other buildings. But however accurately Vermeer appears to have painted this view, he has been artful in the way he has shown things – the very nature of art not being to reproduce exactly what you see, but to make it look better, or more significant, or more interesting. He made the whole view of the city more frieze-like, for example, and played down the projection of the Rotterdam gate to achieve this. He has also shifted the tower slightly and changed its proportions to make it stand out. It is also worth pointing out that you can see through the upper section of the tower – the belfry – because there are no bells there. They were re-hung between 4 May 1660 and the summer of 1661, which provides one of the clues for dating this painting. However, the prominence of the tower might have another significance – a political one. William the Silent, the leader of the Dutch revolt at the start of the Eighty Years’ War in 1568, was assassinated in Delft in 1584, and buried in the Nieuwe Kerk. He was given the title Father of the Fatherland, and his magnificent mausoleum became a place of Protestant pilgrimage, effectively a tourist destination for the proud, newly-independent Dutch. The tomb appears in many paintings of the period, all of which include gatherings of contemplative onlookers. It seems likely that Vermeer is suggesting that the sun shines on this notable place for good reason: the Father of the Fatherland has illuminated the nation as a whole. However, it is also worthwhile pointing out that this was the church in which he was christened, next to which he grew up, lived, and worked, and in which many members of his family were buried.

Putting the Nieuwe Kerk back into its context, we can see that it stands above the right-hand end of the Kapel bridge, which connects the Schiedam gate (to the left of this detail) to the Rotterdam gate (on the right here), the distinctive twin towers of its barbican topped by conical rooves. A wooden drawbridge to its right crosses the moat around the town, and in front of it are moored two boats. They have been identified as herring buses, and have been cited as evidence of global cooling. The 16th and 17th centuries saw what has been called the ‘little ice age’, one result of which, it seems, was that herring swam further south, into the warmer waters, and so could be fished by the Dutch. It’s even been suggested that the herring were an additional source of revenue which helped to enhance the Republic’s enormous wealth, one product of which was the Golden Age of Dutch art. However, this is not the right time of year for fishing herring, which gives us another clue to the date when Vermeer made his initial studies. The boats are here for refurbishment – the masts have been removed, among other things – and usually they would be nearer to the sea. They worked in and out of Delfshaven, the harbour which was created for the express use of the citizens of Delft in 1389 in order to allow them direct access to the river Maas (or Meuse). Now a district of Rotterdam, Delfshaven it is one of the few areas near that once-powerful port to have survived the destruction of the Nazis in 1940, and that one canal maintains its old world charm. Time was not so kind to Delft’s defences. The Rotterdam gate was destroyed in 1836, two years after the Schiedam gate had met a similar fate.

The detail on the left shows the Rotterdam gate, and on the right we can see the River Schie (marked ‘1’) flowing south, and dividing into three branches – just so you know where it is possible to go: Schiedam and Rotterdam, as the names of the two gates suggest, with Delfshaven in between. Technical analysis has shown that Vermeer originally painted the reflection of the Rotterdam Gate far more sharply. As he completed the painting he made it more diffuse, and also stretched it to the bottom of the painting, creating a visual bridge into the heart of the city. The gate itself was originally painted in bright light, but Vermeer later cast it in shadow, presumably so that our eyes would be led into the sunlit centre of the city, and especially towards the brilliantly lit tower.

You might wonder how this all looks today? Well, every building has more or less changed. The Oude Kerk is the same, but you can’t actually see it from this spot now (unless you were in a taller building) and although the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk looks similar, the original burnt down in 1872 and was rebuilt, taller, and more pointed, by P.J.H. Cuypers, who was coincidentally the architect of the Rijksmuseum. But if you really want to know, here is a photograph I took the last time I was there, in 2015.

One last thought. The people gathered on the quay are heading to one of the three destinations mentioned above. The boat behind them is a recently-instituted passenger ferry. The well dressed group of three would have sat in the covered cabin, whereas the more down-to-earth women, each with an apron, would have travelled in the open air.

I can’t help thinking that I recognise one of the two women on the right. She is wearing a yellow jacket and blue apron, and I think she may be heading off to buy some milk… I could, of course be wrong – but in case you don’t know what I’m referring to, well… tune in next week!

It’s taken a while to write this, and by now I’ve got back from Delft: it still looks pretty much the same. And the exhibition is superb. It is entitled Vermeer’s Delft, and I suspected that it would be more about Delft than Vermeer – but no! It is all about him – covering his life and the life of the city, the people he met and artists he would have known. There are various objects like the ones he painted, and some he might even have owned, not to mention a number of fantastic loans I was really happy to see, as well as some curios that I would never have imagined. It is also beautifully designed. As it happens, I have discussed the View of Delft without much reference to Vermeer or his techniques at all – just to the city. The exhibition has a far more balanced view, though, so I do hope you can join me on Monday.


Donatello, take 2…

Donatello, The Feast of Herod, c. 1435, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille.

Well, I’m just off out to talk about Donatello, so I’m afraid I don’t have the time to write a new post now. Instead, I’m going to revisit a post from 6 May 2020: it was Picture of the Day 49. Re-reading it, I was surprised that I said that I ‘kept coming back to him’, as this was only the third post about one of the most important artists in the Renaissance – but then, it was only day 49. After that, I have only written about him twice more, with an extended double post dedicated to the same work, 154 – A Feast for the Eyes and 156 – Second helpings at the Feast, about a different Feast of Herod. They were published last April and May when I was talking about the Florentine outing of the Donatello exhibition. It turns out that the version currently at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance, which I will be talking about this Monday 27 February at 6pm, could hardly be more different. The V&A have taken it as a rewarding opportunity to re-evaluate its holdings of Italian Renaissance sculpture – the best outside Italy – and the exhibition includes works which were not seen in either Florence or Berlin, which hosted its own variation of the original in the interim, but more about that on Monday. After that, I will give two talks related to Vermeer (that link goes to the first talk which – spoiler alert! – is more contextual, and will include relatively few actual Vermeers – they will all be in Vermeer 2), and then a slight pause. But for now – Donatello! This is what I said ‘back in the day’:

There must be something about Donatello that means that I keep coming back to him (Picture Of The Day 25 and 35) – it’s probably the simple fact that he was very good. One of the best, in fact. And this particular image – not his most famous work by any means – has been sitting in my mind for a while for all sorts of reasons. One is that I have mentioned Alberti quite a few times, and I might even have said that he was the first person to write down how to ‘do’ single vanishing point perspective. The technique was worked out by Brunelleschi, best known as an architect, around 1415, and first used in paintings by Masaccio in the years 1425 and 1426. However, a relief carved by Donatello in 1417 suggests that he’d got a pretty good handle on it already, although the relief is fairly worn now, after centuries outside, and only a little bit of it could be classified as ‘in perspective’. But by the time he carved this masterpiece, there is no doubt that he knew what he was doing. 

It is generally dated to ‘c. 1435’ – which is, coincidentally – and I really think it is a coincidence – the year that Alberti wrote On Painting. Both Alberti and Donatello presumably learnt the technique from Brunelleschi anyway. The other reason it has been in my mind is that this is one of the finest exhibits in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille, which is the next place I am scheduled to travel should we come out of lockdown – and as we’re not due to go until December, I’m hoping it may yet be possible [Ha! We finally went in December 2022, two years late…].

When talking about the Resurrection (POTD 25) – one of the reliefs on the South Pulpit in San Lorenzo in Florence – I said that it broke all of the rules, and that is something you can only really do if you know what the rules are. Otherwise you are just doing your own thing. Donatello really did know the rules, some of which he had effectively written himself. The Feast of Herod is a type of sculpture known as rilievo schiacciato (pronounced rill-ee-AY-voh skee-atch-ee-AH-toh), which means flattened, or squashed relief. It was effectively invented by Donatello himself, although he may have been influenced by some of the passages in low relief by his one-time master Lorenzo Ghiberti in his first set of doors for the Florentine Baptistery. Donatello perfected a technique in which the depth of the carving doubles as an indicator of distance. Anything in the foreground is carved in higher relief, and the further away an object is supposed to be, the lower will be the depth of the carving, until objects in the distance will appear as if scratched into the marble background. The effect is similar to atmospheric perspective, whereby the air, dust and haze in between us and distant objects make them look fainter (and this was before atmospheric perspective has developed in painting). There was no precedent for this type of carving at all. Classical relief carving was well known: there were, and still are, Roman sarcophagi to be seen all over Italy. And by the time this particular sculpture was made Donatello had spent some time in Rome itself, where, in addition to the sarcophagi, relief sculptures could be seen all over the triumphal arches and columns. However, it is only ever carved in what we would think of as high relief. Figures appear like statuettes that have been sliced down the middle and stuck onto a flat background, whereas Donatello’s figures move in and out of space as his chisel moves through the marble like a hot knife through butter. There is hardly any real space here, it is a matter of millimetres deep: what we are looking at is an illusion. And, in accordance with the laws of perspective, it is not just the depth of relief that decreases the further back into the imaginary space you go, but any other measurement too. Simply put, things get smaller.

At the top is a photograph of the whole sculpture, measuring a mere 50 x 71.5 cm, taken relatively recently, after it was cleaned. The next photograph, and the details below, were taken before cleaning. I am using them because the translucency of the marble means that, after cleaning, it can be hard to see how delicately it has been carved. The light refracts through surface of the marble, and reflects back out again, creating a wonderful, luminous quality, but confusing the eye. Here, however, the patina allows you to see how remarkable, and how delicate, the detail is. The subject is The Feast of Herod, and Donatello shows it, as so often, as a continuous narrative – more than one part of the story is depicted. Herod had been condemned by John the Baptist for having an affair with his sister-in-law Herodias, and for his pains, John was thrown into prison. During a feast, Herodias’ daughter Salome danced so beautifully that Herod promised her whatever she wanted. Unlike any young girl nowadays, she doesn’t seem to have had a strong opinion of her own (although Oscar Wilde thought differently), so she asked her mother. Herodias was still smarting from the Baptist’s tirades, and told her exactly what to ask for: the head of John the Baptist on a plate. In the centre of the image – indeed, her head is almost exactly in the centre of the panel – we see Salome dancing in quite a frenzy – waving a veil between her raised arms, with her left leg kicked back into the air.

The floor she dances on is marked out with the thinnest of scratches, defining, in perfect perspective, a geometrically patterned tiled floor. Behind her head a pillar supports two arches. To the left of the pillar we see figures standing in conversation in front of a diagonal grid. On the right a flight of stairs goes up diagonally, with a child asleep on the bottom step, and a man in a toga standing and looking to the left. However, he isn’t looking towards Salome. Like the soldiers, standing slightly aghast, and the ragged-looking man who rests on the soldier’s back, his right hand on the soldier’s shoulder, they are ignoring her dance, and looking towards the left of the image. It is as if the dance is a flashback – or as if she is dancing on in triumph, unaware of the consequences. 

On the left we can see what has grabbed the attention of the onlookers. A woman, sitting with her back to us on a bench which runs parallel to the bottom of the image, has shied away in horror. This allows us to see, just to the left of her, a man kneeling down, placing a platter – bearing the head of John the Baptist – onto the edge of the table. The man on the far left – possible Herod himself – places both hands on the table and pushes himself back. The woman next to him – possibly Herodias – puts her hand to her face and looks away. Be careful what you wish for. The other three people at the table seem to be unaffected by it all.  In this detail alone there are the most remarkable things: the solidity of the bench, and the fact that we can see the woman’s feet – and Herod’s – underneath it. The ‘wall’ behind them, carved with decorative details at the right end, which, just a little to the left, are cut across by a straight, vertical line. There is a fabric hanging in front of the ‘wall’, which appears to show a circle enclosing a seated woman with a person on either side. The circle itself is supported by two more people. If this weren’t The Feast of Herod I would suggest it was a tapestry showing the Madonna and Child with Angels. And even given its location, it still could be. Whatever it is, the image is repeated twice: it occurs again just to the left. 

So much of this detail is completely unnecessary. The ‘wall’ appears to be at the base of a temple-like building. It supports three fluted columns, which in turn support an entablature, made up of architrave, a plain frieze, and a cornice, all of which is topped by a triangular pediment. Donatello’s studies of Roman ruins have really paid off. The pediment even has relief carvings itself, showing two reclining figures. I’m not sure how Donatello knew that pediments included reclining river gods in the corners, nor why he thought it necessary to include them here. Nor was there any real point in showing two more reliefs at the back wall inside the ‘temple’ – pairs of legs can just be seen emerging from behind the entablature.  And off to the right there is a building at an angle, with one corner towards us. This is an idea he got from a Giotto fresco in Santa Croce in Florence: he would use it again ten years later in Padua. But, like everything else I have just mentioned, it doesn’t need to be there. It doesn’t add to the story, it is simply Donatello showing off, because he can.

It clearly impressed the most important ‘collectors’ in Florence. After Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’ de’ Medici died in 1492 an inventory was taken of everything in his possession, and one of the items listed was a ‘Panel of marble with many figures in low relief and other things in perspective, that is, of St John, by Donatello’. It has always been assumed that this was the very relief mentioned. It was valued at at 30 florins, and kept in the same room as paintings by Giotto, Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi, as well as two other reliefs – showing the Madonna and Child – by Donatello. This must have been the room where Lorenzo kept his special treasures. It might originally have been owned by Lorenzo’s grandfather, Cosimo il Vecchio, who had come back from exile in 1434 and effortlessly taken over the reins of power just as the relief was being carved. Or maybe it was acquired by one of his sons. Piero ‘the Gouty’ was a lover of fine things – given his medical ailments he couldn’t lead a very active life. He had a small study with a glazed terracotta ceiling made for him by Luca della Robbia – all that remains of that is now in the V&A. This sculpture would have looked good in there. And to be honest, if not there – apart from in a private collection – we really don’t know where this would have gone. 

The fact is, nobody has any idea what this relief is for. You might say that it doesn’t need to be for anything, it is art. As Oscar Wilde once said – in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray – ‘All art is quite useless’. He meant that art has no function, it is simply required to be beautiful. That description fits this sculpture perfectly. However, the attitude is fine for the 19th Century, and is indeed the central tenet of the Aesthetic Movement, but this is an object from the 15th Century. Everything was made to go somewhere or to do something – an altarpiece, a private devotional panel, a cupboard door, some wainscoting, an over-door panel, a clothes chest, a tray for sweets, a portrait to remember someone by. These are some of the functions of paintings from the 13th, 14th and 15th Century in the National Gallery, for example. But if this was carved simply to impress, because it looked good, and because it showed off Donatello’s technique – if it was a collector’s item – then this is quite possibly Western Europe’s first ‘Work of Art’.


188 – Of Cabbages

Alison Watt, Frances, 2022. Courtesy the Artist and Parafin, currently on view at Tristan Hoare.

When I first started writing this blog, on 19 April 2020 (the week before lockdown – see Day 1 – The Rape of Europa), I nominated one of the fish in Titian’s painting as ‘the Best Fish in Art’, and went on to clarify that this was ‘a category of which I was previously unaware (although I do have two suggestions for the Best Cabbage)’. Inevitably, I went on to post about the two vegetables, with Day 3 – Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit by Nathaniel Bacon, and Day 6 – Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber by Juan Sánchez Cotán. I still think that they are wonderful paintings, and well worth re-visiting. But, of course, there are plenty more cabbages in art – there’s a fine example by Joachim Beuckelaer in the National Gallery, for example – and more have been painted since I started the blog. There are always more pages being written in the book of art, and today I want to turn over a new leaf. A new cabbage leaf, of course, and one painted by Alison Watt, whose current exhibition, A Kind of Longing, will be the subject of my talk this Monday, 20 February at 6pm. The following week I will introduce the V&A’s superb exhibition, Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance (which turns out to be very different from its embodiment in Florence last year), and then two talks inspired by exhibitions in the Netherlands, Vermeer’s Delft – in the eponymous city – and the Rijksmuseum’s Vermeer, in Amsterdam. Click on those links, or check out the dates in the diary.

This is Frances, painted by Alison Watt last year – 2022 – so arguably art’s most recent brassica. The materials are oil on canvas, and it measures 76 x 62 cm. Those are the facts – what remains is the looking, and, as so often, looking at the original is far more revealing than seeing reproductions. The subtleties of human sight are not matched by cameras – or, for that matter, communicated by screens, whether phone, tablet or laptop. So what you are seeing is only an approximation. In any case, so much is dependent on context (but more of that on Monday). What we see is a single cabbage leaf, lying on its back (if that means anything), or at least on its outer side. The inner, shallow, bowl-shape of the leaf is therefore uppermost (towards us), the stump of the stalk at the top of the painting, almost as if the leaf is hanging down. It casts a diffuse shadow to the right, dense in the upper two thirds, framed by a penumbra which encompasses different degrees of light and shade: the illumination of this leaf is broad and unfocussed. But what are the shadows cast on? Where is this leaf? And why is it there? We are not told. The shadows are cast on the background of the painting, effectively, which is a uniform pale pink. The colour might suggest that the background wasn’t really pink, but white, and that what we are seeing is the complementary contrast to the light, bright green which make the leaf look so fresh. Either that, or the background is painted pink so that the leaf will look greener. We don’t see digitally, but by comparison: next to something green everything else looks more ‘not-green’, and as red is opposite green on the colour wheel, it will look more red – or in this case pink, which is, simply put, pale red.

But there is a contradiction in what I have said. The leaf appears to be lying on a flat surface, and yet I have also suggested that it could be hanging. Are we looking down at the leaf, which is lying flat on a table, or straight across at it, floating mysteriously in front of the vertical canvas? If it is the latter, then how does it stay in place? The leaf has been presented to us as if it is a specimen, an example of something, inviting us to look and to learn, even if we don’t know why it is there, or why the artist has chosen to paint it. The flawless technique with which it is painted makes it appear real, and demands our attention. Its very presence in the middle of this large, apparently empty space, asks questions about its purpose, and the nature of its existence, which we can not answer. This combination of mastery and mystery is a feature of Watt’s art that intrigues me.

The leaf is painted in almost hypnotic detail. As so often, I am indebted to the Ecologist, who directed me towards a diagram of the Parts of a Leaf. At the top, the petiole (stalk) has been roughly broken off, with a mere stub remaining. The midrib stretches two-thirds of the way down the leaf, with veins, and then venules, radiating from it, supporting the lamina (leaf blade) with its ragged margin. The subtle variations of light and shade model the contours of this leaf as securely as if it were a topographic map, and where, down the right-hand flank, the leaf is folded over, the sheen of the reflective surface is indistinguishable from reality. Trust me, I spent a good ten minutes with my nose almost touching this painting yesterday, and I couldn’t see how the luminosity was achieved. However, it is not unique.

On the left is ‘our’ leaf, Frances. On the right is Boscawen (2019), which featured in Watt’s last exhibition, A Portrait Without Likeness, staged at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 2021 (see 141 – a Rose, By any other…). Boscawen has subsequently been acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland. The exhibition link will take you to the catalogue (should you wish to read more about Watt’s art), from which this quotation is taken:

I like to portray the same objects multiple times, from different perspectives, as a way of suggesting that how we view the still life fluctuates. Sometimes objects stand for what they are, sometimes they suggest something other. (Alison Watt, in conversation with curator Julie Lawson)

I have no doubt that Boscawen and Frances show the same leaf – the fold on the right flank confirms it. And yet I know that this is not possible. Or rather, I know that Watt can’t have painted both ‘in front of the motif’ – to use an Impressionist idiom. One was painted in 2019, the other, 2022. Cabbages do not last that long. But whether one was painted from life and the second from a photograph, or one was based on the other, I do not know. Boscawen is a darker green (or at least, it appears to be so, from the available photographs) and on a lighter background. It also appears to be slightly closer: it takes up a larger proportion of the surface of the painting. However, Boscawen is actually a smaller painting, measuring 67 x 53.5 cm (about 12% smaller). The earlier leaf is also tilted, with the midrib running along a diagonal from top right to bottom left. These differences remind us that we see things according to their context – whether position, time of day, weather, or lighting – or, for that matter, our mood, our state of mind, how much sleep we had last night, and so on. But the differences do not tell us whether the objects are standing ‘for what they are’, or suggesting ‘something other’. The names of the two paintings are the key. Also important is the subtitle of the 2021 exhibition: ‘a conversation with the art of Allan Ramsay’. If we put these clues together, we might want to look at Allan Ramsay’s Portrait of Frances Boscawen (c. 1747-48), which is in a private collection.

There is nothing else quite like it. A society hostess, wife of an admiral of the fleet who was also a Member of Parliament, sitting there in all her finery with a cabbage leaf on her lap. In the cabbage leaf are some berries, or maybe hazelnuts. Why does she have them? What is the symbolism of the cabbage? What did it mean to Frances Boscawen, or to Ramsay? Or, for that matter, to Bacon, or Cotán, or Beuckelaer? Rushing to what is still the standard dictionary of symbolism, Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects & Symbols in Art (Revised Edition), published in 1979, we are none the wiser: James Hall goes from Butterfly to Cadmus without so much as a whiff of Cabbage. In his essay in the catalogue for A Portrait Without Likeness, Tom Normand suggests, ‘It may be, given its position on Boscawen’s lap, that it alludes to her fecundity – and certainly she had five children’. Fruitfulness and fecundity are certainly themes in Bacon and Beuckelaer’s works, and the latter is also celebrating God’s bounty. Normand continues, ‘More prosaically, it may connote Boscawen’s fascination with gardening… In which case the cabbage leaf was simply a convenient salver carrying some fruit from the garden’. His essay, by the way, was entitled A Kind of Longing, giving the current exhibition its name. We are seeing the continuation of the same body of work, a working through of similar ideas.

If Boscawen was a gardener, then so was Nathaniel Bacon. As well as being that rare thing, an aristocratic artist (even fewer and further between than women, in this particular profession) he was also an avid horticulturalist. A cabbage, as you probably know, is a bud. If left to grow, the leaves will open out as the stem lengthens, and before long, your cabbage has bolted. In a third painting, Stocking (2020), also seen in A Portrait Without A Likeness, Watt painted the whole vegetable, placing it further down the canvas, and to the left. The remains of the petiole are to the lower left, allowing the possibility of growth up the canvas towards the top right corner. This could imply that the cabbage stands for ‘something other’ – fecundity, and growth. Or maybe it is just itself. What the cabbage meant to Cotán (Day 6) is not entirely clear, but the abstract values of form, texture and colour were undoubtedly important, as was its value as food. However I was intrigued to see, in a photograph of Watt’s studio that was reproduced in the above-mentioned catalogue, that she had a book lying on the floor open at a page illustrating Cotán’s painting, with a detail of the cabbage itself pinned to the top of the wall. I would have shown you a reproduction, but my scanner isn’t working.

Through all of this we must remember ‘Ceci n’est pas un chou‘ – to misquote Magritte. This is not a cabbage. Or, in the case of Frances, this is not a cabbage leaf. It is a painting. And ‘painting’ has always been one of the themes of Alison Watt’s work. How does painting function? What is it about the application of paint to canvas that allows us to assume that this is a leaf, and make us question where it is, and why it is there? If it is it lying on a flat surface that we are looking down on, or floating, magically, in front of a wall? Why are we so willing, in theatrical terms, to suspend our disbelief? All of the paintings in this exhibition, and all the objects they depict, have a source, we are told, and therefore a relevance to the artist. She presents them to us as ideas, as clues, as evidence from which we can construct a narrative. There is something almost forensic about them. But we are left free to make of them what we will. Seen in their present location, 6 Fitzroy Square, built in 1792 to a design by Robert Adam, who was a friend of Allan Ramsay – and in a space which can be mapped, almost directly, onto Alison Watt’s studio in Edinburgh’s Enlightenment New Town – they are given a context which can only serve to deepen their meaning. As Watt herself has said, ‘As only physical appearance is actually visible, the rest is conceptual’. This idea – this concept – is just one that I will explore further on Monday. Mastery, mystery and meaning: what more could you want?


187 – After all…

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, After the Bath, 1908. Hispanic Society of America, New York.

I suspect the title of today’s painting suffers from mistranslation – the original Spanish was probably Después del Baño, which does mean ‘after the bath’, but it could equally well mean ‘after the swim’ – the connection is, of course, bathing in the sea. This is not important though: what matters is the image, what we see – but this is definitely not a bath. The painting is known under its English title as it was bought by the Hispanic Society of America, in New York, directly from the exhibition of Sorolla’s work which the Society itself was hosting. The museum had opened in 1908 (the same year the painting was made), and the exhibition took place the following year. It was the American public’s first exposure to Sorolla’s work, and the first time this painting had been seen. It’s been there ever since, apart from a few exhibitions, with a mainly anglophone audience. The painting is currently one of the culminating images from the Royal Academy’s rich, majestic and encyclopaedic exhibition Spain and the Hispanic World which I will be introducing this Monday 13 February at 6pm. The following week I will look at the luminous, hypnotic paintings of Alison Watt (20 February), and after that, the innovative sculptures of Donatello (27 February). Finally (for now) I will give two talks on Vermeer, which will be introductions to the exhibitions in Delft and Amsterdam, and entitled (rather unimaginatively) An Artist from Delft (on 6 March) and Amsterdam ’23 (13 March). If you’re not free on those two dates, I’m giving the same talks (more or less) for ARTScapades as a single study evening on 7 March (and if you’re not free then either, they do record their talks, unlike me). All of these details are, of course, in the diary… Meanwhile, back to the ‘bath’.

Sorolla has painted a spontaneous moment on the beach. A girl has stepped out of the sea, and the button on the right shoulder of her diaphanous robe has come undone. As she reaches round to secure it, a boy holds a white bathing towel around her, some say to shelter her, and protect her from the view of others, but I would suggest that it is so that she can dry herself. Why do I think this? Well, she is still in plain sight for everyone on the beach, which includes not only Sorolla, but also, as a result, all of us. The artist was born in Valencia, on Spain’s south-eastern coast, in 1863, and grew up there: scenes such as this must have been a common feature of his childhood. He left home and went to Madrid to become an artist at the age of 18, but before that he worked as an assistant to photographer Antonio García Peris, whose daughter he met, fell in love with and would later marry. The informal aspects of his work, and the ‘snapshot’ views he depicts, were ideas he discovered by experimenting with the camera at this young age. The same approach lasted throughout his career, bearing fruit in images such as this, painted on one of his return trips to Valencia as a successful, Madrid-based, artist in 1908.

It is only when you get close to the painting that you can see how young the two subjects really are – a boy and a girl (this was long before the invention of the ‘teenager’). Nevertheless, the boy looks, entranced, at the girl. She smiles as she fastens the button, only too aware of his presence. They are on the verge of moving beyond childhood. In the background mere daubs of paint suggest the presence of a least three children – boys, as the colours suggest they are not wearing robes – playing among the waves. Dots, dashes and smears of white create the breakers on the deep blue/violet/turquoise sea. The range of colours is truly remarkable. The boy wears a broad-brim, straw, fisherman’s hat which casts most of his face into shadow. However, Sorolla was always the master of the precise fall of direct sunlight – a small area of the boy’s left cheek and the corner of his mouth is lit, while the side of the nose seems to be illuminated by light reflecting off the towel. The girl’s arms and hands are similarly lit by direct and reflected light, and the modulation from light to shadow and back to light is perfectly realised, however broad and apparently free the brushstrokes. The shadow to the left of the crown of the hat is purplish, while the darker areas of the towel are blue: in 1885 he had headed off to Paris, and fell under the spell of Impressionism. Evidence of this is the use of complementary contrasts (hence the purple and blue of the shadows, marking the absence of yellow and orange light), and his devotion to plein air painting. There are photographs of him on the beach, palette and brush in hand, standing in front of his easel, looking at a collection of patiently posed children.

There is a fair breeze, and the white towel billows around the girl’s form. I say white, but it only looks white, and brilliantly so, where it reflects the direct sunlight, or transmits it, as it passes through from behind. Elsewhere it appears lilac and pale blue – or even pale pink, where it is lit by reflections from the girl’s robe. Her right leg steps forward, the knee slightly bent, and the thin, wet fabric clings to her form – or, at least, to her leg and stomach. Folds in the drapery ensure that decorum is preserved.

In the bottom right corner is the artist’s signature, almost modest in its retreat to the margins: ‘J. Sorolla y Bastida 1908’. The rest of this detail includes what look to me like wild, almost abstract forms, but they are, of course, an accurate mapping of the light and shade as it bounces off and through the towel and hits the sand. The girl’s right foot is firmly planted while her right heel lifts off the beach as she continues to move away from the water. The thinnest brushstroke of white paint shows how the sole of her foot is still wet, the water refracting light around the form. We only see the boys left foot, together with the shin, which is in shadow. The bottom of the towel hides the right foot, although the shadows of the legs tell us where it is: it’s almost a game that Sorolla is playing, both revealing and concealing. In fact, if you look back, you’ll realise that we can’t see what the boy is wearing, if, indeed, he is wearing anything at all. Other paintings tell us that Sorolla worked in far more innocent (if inequitable) times. Girls always wore robes like this on the beach and in the sea, whereas boys, until they reached the age of puberty, wore nothing. Here’s another painting from the RA’s exhibition that I will include in Monday‘s talk, Sea Idyll, which was also painted in Valencia in the summer of 1908 and bought directly from the exhibition. It could be the same boy and girl, although her hair appears blonder (that could the direct sunlight) and her robe is a different colour (it is probably a different day, and she could have had more than one).

The oblique angle, and the way in which the two figures are not evenly placed in the centre of the image, are both features which create a sense of spontaneity. Indeed, the shadow of the boy’s hat is cut off by the edge of the frame, helping to give that ‘snapshot’ effect. And yet, as you could surmise from the photo above, this would have been posed, and must have taken several hours at least, which wouldn’t allow for much spontaneity. As far as After the Bath is concerned, other images can confirm this.

The sculpture on the right is called the Venus Genetrix – Venus as ‘founder of the family’ – an iconography for the goddess of love related to a new cult founded by Julius Caesar, but based on a Greek sculpture from the 5th Century BCE. Sorolla had seen and admired examples in Paris and Rome (where he spent four years on a scholarship after his visit to France): the photograph illustrates a Roman sculpture ‘after’ – i.e. inspired by, or based on – the Greek original, and is an example from the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Indeed, I’ve read that he commissioned a version of the sculpture for the garden of his House-Studio (and now museum) in Madrid (which was built with the income from the successful New York exhibition), although I haven’t been able to track down a photograph of it. According to a description by Pliny the Elder, the original, by the Athenian sculptor Callimachus, showed Venus holding a golden apple in her left hand, while her right was raised to cover her head with her robe. Elsewhere it has fallen off her left shoulder, revealing her breast, and the wet drapery clings to her body. Decorum is not preserved. Sorolla takes this idea and paints an image after the Venus Genetrix, moving beyond it so that the shoulder – and, as a result, also the breast – are now covered. He also adds a greater twist to the body, although the basic contrapposto, with the left leg straight and the right bent, is basically the same. But does the action of Sorolla’s painting – a woman stepping from the sea to be clad in robes held out by someone else – ring a bell? It probably should, as Sorolla is also painting an image ‘after Botticelli’.

A female figure steps from the sea, protecting her modesty, while another figure reaches across with something to clothe her more fully. The comparison is both direct, and simple, even if there is not a precise replication of any of the forms. The relationship is in concept rather than appearance. But it does tell us that Sorolla’s After the Bath – after a Roman sculpture after Callimachus, and after Botticelli – was not spontaneous after all. That doesn’t make it any less wonderful. Rather, it demonstrates Sorolla’s brilliance, inspired by the ideas of others and adapting them to make them completely his own, showing an awareness of art that is part of the definition of art itself. And, of course, this is not the only painting inspired by other works of art: we will see several other examples from the Hispanic Society on Monday.


186 – Morisot and Motherhood

Berthe Morisot, Le Berceau, 1872. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

My series of talks, Women Artists, 79-1879 (the first 1800 years) comes to an end on Monday, 6 February with Week 5 – Getting Real. The title refers to the artistic movement known as Realism, which may or may not be relevant to Rosa Bonheur (a problem I will consider on Monday). Realism was, in many ways, an essential stepping stone to Impressionism, and it is there that the series will end. But why grind to a halt in 1879? Well, it’s not a stop, it’s a pause. As it turns out, it is also a beginning. What followed was a greater, if faltering, acceptance of women within the world of art. At least, the situation was slightly better than before, but that is not saying much. However, there were enough women working in the 20th Century to allow for another series of five two-hour lectures on them alone. Don’t worry – I’m not planning to do that, as you can see in the diary! The precise reason for the date? Well, you can find out below, or sign up for the talk on Monday. For now I’d like to look at one of the works of one of the Greats (pace Nochlin), Berthe Morisot. It’s what she did (or didn’t do) in 1879 that is relevant.

A woman sits behind a cradle – the ‘Berceau’ of the title – and looks down at the child lying within. Her chin rests on her left hand, with her right hand lying at the foot of the cradle. A curtain hangs over what we assume to be a window behind her, and the cradle is similar curtained. It sits at the bottom of the painting, its length parallel to the picture plane.

It’s actually not entirely clear what the curtain at the top left represents – it could be in front of a window, but, as the woman does not appear to be contre jour – literally ‘against the day’, but meaning ‘backlit’ – that is by no means certain. Nor is it clear why there would be a fold in this curtain, apart from its function for the composition of the painting, leading our eye down towards the sleeping child, just like the woman’s gaze. On the far right a metal pole rises and curves round in a brief and broadly curving spiral, and it is from this that the fabric hanging around the cradle hangs. In addition to the white, muslin-like fabric, there is a pink decoration as well. To modern eyes this might, still, signify that the child is female, but had the blue/pink gender stereotype already been fixed in the late 19th Century? It certainly hadn’t in the 18th.

The woman’s hand is not just resting on the end of the cradle, but also holding the curtain, thus screening us from the sleeping child behind. The tiny head is turned towards us, the eyes shown as sketchily drawn lines, tight shut, fast asleep. The little right arm is bent at the elbow, so that the hand rests just behind the head. There is a lot of white at the bottom of this painting – the whole extent of the bassinette, not to mention the veil-like fabric enclosing the child. Not every artist is as good with white in all its coloured variety as it picks up the reflected shades from surrounding objects, and is modelled itself by different coloured lights and their resulting shadows, but Berthe Morisot was one of the artists who was. Throughout there are delicate hints of blue and pink, particularly along the lacey trim of the canopy.

This can only be the child’s mother – an assumption you probably made from the outset. She is just one in a long line of theme and variations played on a subject which starts with the Virgin Mary. Our secular Madonna nods to her immaculate predecessor in the muted grey-blue stripes of her bodice. Like any happy couple the mother and child mirror one another, the bent arm and head-on-hand pose reflected from adult to baby. The hem that comes down on the diagonal above the mother’s head – parallel to her left arm – is cut off by the opposing diagonal of the falling canopy. The diagonals frame the mother beautifully, as well as suggesting a rocking motion – left to right, right to left – which could echo the movement of Le Berceau itself. Although our view of the child is veiled, the mother has privileged access, able to see her baby directly behind this cloth: we are witnessing a private moment of contemplation.

The accepted practice of the Impressionists was to paint en plein air (‘outside’) in front of the motif (the subject, effectively), spontaneously depicting what they saw when they saw it, and trying to capture their initial sensations. And yet this is an interior, and the expert composition suggests that nothing was left to chance. But then, it was also painted before the Impressionist movement officially started – or at least, two years before the first exhibition of the group that would later become known as The Impressionists took place. However, by 1872 many of the ideas were already current, and the ‘movement’ went in many different directions. As it happens, this painting was included in the 1874 exhibition, and that is significant. You could argue that the Impressionists, however diverse in their styles and intentions, formed the first artistic group to include a woman from the outset. How did Berthe Morisot get there? Well, incredibly supportive parents for a start. She and her two sisters, Yves and Edma, were all given lessons by Geoffroy-Alphonse Chocarne and Joseph Guichet. Berthe and Edma continued, inseparable, copying works in the Louvre, and having their works accepted at the official salon – although their mother complained that the paintings were hard to find (and indeed, oone year, for one of her daughters, she failed). They got to know Manet and Monet, and before long Berthe was studying plein air painting with Corot. There was a problem though: young ladies could not go out unchaperoned, and Berthe would later write to Edma, telling her how frustrated she was by her inability to head out on her own, constantly waiting for the maid to be ready to accompany her. But at least there was a maid – the Morisot’s were well off – which is one of the things that enabled Berthe’s career. Edma married in 1869, and her artistic career fell by the wayside. As Madame Pontillon, she continued to model for Berthe – and this is her, with her daughter Blanche, Berthe’s niece. Berthe formed a firm friendship with Edouard Manet, and some believe they were in love – but he was a married man. However, in 1874 she married his brother Eugène, also an artist: there couldn’t have been a more supportive background.

The group exhibited in 1874 as ‘The Anonymous Society of Artists, Painters, Sculptors, Engravers etc.’ and ‘Mlle MORISOT (Berthe)’, as she was listed in the catalogue, was represented by nine works (as was Monet), four oils, two pastels and three watercolours. Le Berceau was no. 104 in the catalogue. There were seven subsequent exhibitions, in 1876, ‘77, ‘79, ‘80, ‘81, ‘82 and ‘86. Of the ‘famous’ Impressionists, Monet and Renoir only exhibited in four: they got fed up with being counter-cultural. Only Camille Pissarro exhibited in all eight, and next to him, in terms of ‘loyalty to the cause’, was Berthe Morisot, who was represented in seven. Which one did she miss? The fourth exhibition, in 1879. And why did she miss it? Her daughter Julie had been born on 14 November 1878, and she was too ill. I don’t quite understand it, as there must have been a ‘back catalogue’ to choose from, and someone else could have helped. Admittedly, of course, there was no obligation to exhibit (and, as an independently wealthy woman, she really didn’t need to – but that wasn’t the point). All I can say for now is… it wouldn’t have happened to a man. Not that it stopped her in the long run, and indeed Julie, and her relationship to Julie, and for that matter her husband’s relationship to Julie, became some of the major subjects of her work. And Julie herself also became an artist. Although many women’s careers were curtailed by marriage and children – Edma Morisot Pontillon being a case in point – that was not always the case. Lavinia Fontana had eleven children, and ended up painting for the Pope. Mary Beale had three. Sadly, one died in infancy, but the other two worked as her assistants – at least for a while. And Berthe Morisot went on to contribute to the remaining four Impressionist exhibitions. Even if she wasn’t represented in 1879, two other women were: Mary Cassatt and Marie Braquemond, both for the first time. So as well as being a ‘hiatus’ (and definitely not an end), 1879 was also a form of beginning.

One last question: what did Edma Morisot, Madame Pontillon, think of motherhood? I’ll leave you to decide: the interpretation of art is, ultimately, a personal thing. But however you read this expression, the delicacy with which it is painted, and the complexity of thought it allows, are what persuade me that Berthe Morisot was a Great Artist, and the ideal conclusion to this series of talks on Monday. But please remember: however many women I may have been able to discuss, some in depth, others fleetingly, there are many more I wasn’t able to include – so watch this space! And keep an eye out for the Berthe Morisot exhibition which will open in Dulwich in April.


185 – To finish the King.

Rosalba Carriera, King Louis XV of France, 1720-21. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

If I’m honest, it’s not been the best week. To start off with, last week I said I would be doing a play in February: I’m not. It’s a long story, but not something I needed to lose my head about, though, and fortunately neither I, nor today’s subject, did (that was his grandson). Here we have Louis XV as painted (see below) by Rosalba Carriera, one of the most successful, innovative and influential artists of the 18th Century, about whom I will be speaking on Monday 30 January when I ask if her work, and that of her contemporaries, constitutes A Vindication of the Arts of Women?

It is a bust-length portrait of King Louis XV, who must have been ten when it was painted (see below). He had succeeded his great grandfather Louis XIV five years earlier, and, until he reached his majority (at the age of 13) in 1723, his great-uncle, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, was regent. The painting is often listed as Louis XV as Dauphin, which is odd, as he was Dauphin (heir to the throne, the French equivalent of the Prince of Wales) from the age of two until he became King at five. He is clearly older than that here. The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (‘Painting Gallery of Old Masters’) in Dresden, which has the best collection of Carriera’s work, and to which this painting belongs, correctly calls him King. I say ‘painting’ advisedly, as pastels have always, traditionally, been called paintings, even if they are done with crayons rather than brushes. My primary school training (painting is with brushes, drawing with pencils and crayons) fights against it, but there you go. Pastels are, like paint, a pigment supported in a medium. The pigments are the same, but for pastels the medium is gum arabic (or an equivalent), mixed with a ‘filler’, often kaolin (a type of clay). The medium supports and protects the pigment, as well as fixing it to the support, just as it does in a paint, and the technique is used, as it is with a paint, to colour broad areas of the support – which, for pastels, is a thick, prepared paper. Rosalba Carriera was the early master of the developing medium – but more about that on Monday.

Her control of the technique was second to none, and you can see that here in the subtle variation of tones across the King’s face, modelling the form in three dimensions while not making it too solid and sculptural. It is possible to blend different coloured pastels together, either with the fingers or rolls of paper (a process known as ‘stumping’), but you cannot mix them freely on the surface as you can with oils. This means that, if you want a greater degree of subtlety, you need a large number of different crayons covering the whole range of hues and tones (colours and shades). As well as her subtlety of tone, Carriera was also remarkably adept at suggesting that you can see things which aren’t actually there – the hair for example. The locks on the right of the image were built up on a very deep brown, which is just shading – there is nothing especially ‘hair-like’ about it: it’s almost plain, unmodulated black. But then the swift strokes of auburn on top of it, tipped with touches of butterscotch, give it all the lustre of youth and build it into vibrant curls. All of this encourages the mind’s eye to fill in details for the almost black shadows which, in reality, have no detail. The King’s eyes are given catchlights with the smallest dab of a white crayon, and the mind expands these to fill the whole surface of the eye, white and all, with a liquid glow. The catchlights also help to focus the eyes on us – or maybe, looking just past us.

The lace of the stock is also a marvel of abbreviation. Using a white crayon again, she would have run the length of it across the surface, creating a white haze, almost like a semi-transparent gauze. Then, using a sharpened end, she would have drawn in a few loops of white around the edges to create the sensation of lace. For the water silk of the sleeve the orange/red base was elaborated with darker red lines, and some of the spaces then filled with freely drawn white lines of different strengths to suggest different intensities of reflected light. Where there is less reflection, the base shows through more.

The King’s status is made clear at the bottom of the painting. Wrapped around his back and across his left arm is an ermine-lined cape, telling us that he is King. He is also wearing a light blue ribbon, and a Maltese Cross-shaped badge. These are the accoutrements of the Order of the Holy Spirit, established by Henry III of France in 1578: by this point he considered the older Order of St Michael to be somewhat devalued. In French ‘blue ribbon’ is cordon bleu. The order was supposed to have had such lavish banquets that before long the their nickname – ‘Les Cordons Bleus’ – became synonymous with haute cuisine. Well, that’s one theory. The badge shows the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove mounted on the Maltese cross, the details of which are all symbolic (with numbers relating to the gospels and the beatitudes, for example), although Carriera, for probably obvious reasons, shows it only schematically.

Rosalba’s fame had spread from Venice as early as 1700, and she was invited to Paris by some of the leading lights in the arts. Notable among them was Pierre Crozat, a great patron, who is seen as especially important for his promotion of the work of Antoine Watteau (whose portrait Carriera painted). While in France she wrote a fascinating journal made up of regular entries which are, by turns, succinct and intriguing, informative and amusing. This has been transcribed and translated into English by Neil Jeffares, whose exhaustive Dictionary of pastellists before 1800 is (a) the go-to resource for anyone interested in the subject and (b) available for free online. For the Dictionary, click on Dictionary, and for the Journal, click on Journal.

Carriera was in Paris for nearly a year, and she makes many references to her encounters with the King, whether seeing him dine, inspect the troops, or sit for a portrait. For example, on 14 June 1721, she ‘Began the small portrait of the King’. Then six days later, (20 June), ‘Thursday, in heavy rain, went to the King, and began his large portrait’. She went back the next day: ‘I went to the King’s with a terrible headache; then went to the table of the Duke Governor, who took me by the hand, and said: “you must have been nice for the King to be so patient”. It’s hard to imagine. A ten-year old head of state of what was arguably the most powerful nation in the world, sitting still for long enough to have his portrait taken… particularly with everything that might happen (see 25 June). She was back again the next day (22 June): ‘Went with others to the King’s’. It seems to have become almost habitual. My favourite entry, though, is undoubtedly three days later: ‘25. Went with my brother-in-law to finish the King, who suffered three small accidents: his gun was dropped, his parrot died, and his dog fell ill.’ I can’t imagine how the poor little Sun King coped with it all. I’m not sure how Rosalba Carriera coped with it all either: she must have had the patience of a Saint (she does seem to have been quite religious). The ‘brother-in-law’, by the way, was Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, one of the great men artists of Venice (why does that sound stranger than ‘women artists’?), who had married her sister Angela, and had previously spent a number of years decorating some of the Stately Homes of England.

So far we have mentioned two portraits of the King – one small, one large – but there are others. On ‘First of August, Thursday. I had orders from the King to make a small portrait of him for the Duchesse de Ventadour, and on the same day I began another small portrait also of the King’ and two days later she ‘ordered ivory for the miniature of the King’. Again, on 19 August, ‘Started the small portrait of the King’. There are also references to copies… It’s hard to say which version this is, but it could be one of the four ‘small’ portraits mentioned on 14 June, 1 August (two examples) or 19 August. The last three could be the ones later referred to as copies – it’s hard to tell. Still, they were all made in 1720 so it seems safe to say he was 10. But we can’t be 100% sure.

Overall the portrait has an extraordinary sense of confidence, and even, swagger – for a 10-year-old, whose father and grandfather were both dead by the time he was two. His chest faces to the front left, with his left shoulder towards the front right, thus defining two diagonals going back in space. He turns his head to look out towards us, even if he doesn’t appear to be entirely focussed on us. Affairs of state weighing on his young shoulders, perhaps. Or a dead parrot. His stock traces a diagonal from top right to lower left, and is paralleled, however briefly, by the ermine at the bottom right corner. The blue ribbon echoes this on the opposing diagonal, the lines of both stock and ribbon also being echoed by the locks of hair falling over both shoulders. These short, overlapping diagonals, the tumbling curls of the hair, the delicacy of handling and the delicacy of colour are all features which alert us to Carriera’s importance for the development of the Rococo. I think it’s a fantastic portrait, and I am lucky enough to have seen it in the flesh three or four times now (some of you might even have been there). I also think that Carriera will be a great introduction to the women of the 18th Century on Monday.


184 – A Mother by a Sister and a daughter

Andrea de Mena y Bitoria, Mater Dolorosa, 1675. Hispanic Society of America, New York.

As I think I’ve said during the talks recently, I keep finding more women who were artists. Apparently there are people who think that these artists are being ‘discovered’ more and more nowadays, but don’t be fooled – they have all been known about for a long time, it’s just that, for all sorts of reasons, people stopped talking about them – and that seems to have happened way back in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. So in this case, it’s just a sign of my ignorance. Not only that, but I almost missed the fact that today’s sculpture was made by a woman: in Italy Andrea is a man’s name, the equivalent of Andrew, whereas in Spain (with which I am less familiar), as in England, it is given to women. Andrea de Mena carved and painted this delicate sculpture in 1675 – and so it deserves inclusion in this Monday’s talk A Baroque Abundance (23 January, 5.30-7.30pm). Indeed, she adds to that very ‘abundance’ of women artists in the 17th Century. We will also, of course, discuss the now-famous Artemisia Gentileschi, her superb Dutch counterpart, Judith Leyster (who may be well known, even if she does not have the same celebrity status) and many (many) more.

Where did I come across Andrea de Mena? Well, in the Royal Academy exhibition Spain and the Hispanic World, which I will talking about in-person for Art History Abroad this Tuesday, 24 January. I will then repeat the same talk online on Monday 13 February (booking is now open). Today’s sculpture will feature!

This is an incredibly delicate sculpture. According to the Hispanic Society of America’s ‘Collection Search’ it is 17cm high, and I am assuming that this refers to the bust, rather than including the base, although the entry is not specific. I’ll take a ruler the next time I go to the exhibition. The materials are listed as  ‘Wood, polychrome’ – meaning, quite simply, that it is carved out of wood and then painted in different colours. The colours themselves are entirely traditional for the subject, and indeed, our identification of the subject is entirely based on the colours: a red dress, a white head-dress, and a blue cloak hung over the head – this must be the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus. She looks up, her chin slightly lifted, with her eyes shaded and partly closed. Her eyebrows slant down towards either side of her face, her lips are slightly parted and even more slightly downturned on either side. She is looking up, of course, at her son on the cross, her restrained grief plain for all to see, hence the title in Latin: Mater Dolorosa, ‘the grieving mother’. When the title is given in English – as it is for an equivalent sculpture at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (see below) – that it is listed as ‘the Virgin of Sorrows’. Within this difference – ‘mother’ and ‘virgin’ – the entirety of Mary’s unique status is made clear.

If we get closer, we can see that the materials are more complex than suggested. She appears to have real tears, not to mention real eyelashes. Her flesh tones are painted with the same delicacy we would expect of an oil painting on canvas, with a slight flush of the cheeks, the red of the mouth and a shadowing around the eyes that speaks of sorrow rather than shape. You might also notice that a tiny flake of paint has become detached from the tip of the nose, and carefully restored so as not to disturb the otherwise perfect – immaculate – complexion. The cheeks are ever so slightly hollowed, and there is a tiny dimple in the chin, while the face is framed by deep shadow, a result of the deep cutting of the cloak.

Remember that this is wood cut with a mallet and chisel. Both the blue cloak and white headdress – which has delicate stitching along the hem – are carved to a couple of millimetres of thickness (or thinness, rather): it would have been so easy to break through these membranes with one slip of the chisel. They are carved deeply around the head and neck to create the deep shadows which enhance the depth of Mary’s sorrow. Whereas the catalogue photograph (below) is lit evenly, as befits a catalogue, for clarity’s sake, in the exhibition the lighting is superb, and more dramatic: the shadows are deep and the tears glint in the light. You might argue – and you would be right – that Andrea de Mena did not have electric lighting to achieve these effects. However, the deep cutting of drapery was common, especially for Baroque sculptors who wanted to capture the drama of painterly chiaroscuro, which is best exemplified, of course, in the work of Caravaggio. And daylight coming through a window – or candlelight, or lamplight at night – would achieve similar results in any century. But how did Andrea de Mena, an artist of whom I had not previously heard, achieve such mastery? And, for that matter, how do we even know that she did? Well, for one thing, she signed it.

The label painted onto the base of the sculpture starts ‘Soror Andrea’ – Sister Andrea. She was a nun. ‘Soror Andrea in M. Cisterçiensi F.t’ – Sister Andrea made this in the Cistercian Monastery (don’t get hung up on the English usage that monks live in monasteries and nuns live in convents: the words are effectively interchangeable). The last line reads (well, I hope it does, this is my transcription, as I can’t find an official one anywhere), ‘Malace anno 1675’. Málaga, in the year 1675. So, Andrea de Mena y Bitoria was a nun in the Cistercian monastery in Malaga. We also know, given that I’ve given you her full name, who her father and mother were: Mr de Mena and Ms Bitoria respectively. Which is why I nearly missed that she was a woman. My response, when I read the name on the label, was, ‘ah yes, de Mena – but I don’t remember that being his first name’. Not that I am that familiar with Pedro de Mena’s work, but I do remember a fantastic sculpture of his being bought by the Fitzwilliam Museum a few years back, and have talked about it when discussing sculptural materials. Compare and contrast:

Andrea learnt from her father before she entered the monastery (or convent…), but seems to have carried on working as an enclosed nun. Her technique and style are both remarkably similar to that of her father. The Fitzwilliam’s list of materials is revealing: ‘polychromed wood, human hair and glass’. Actually, they are listed on the Art Fund website, and a page on a Cambridge University site goes on to clarify that the eyes and tears are made of glass, with the glass of the eyes being painted from behind. The eyelashes are made of human hair, and the teeth from ivory. The differences between the two sculptures are mainly in tone – and age. Pedro really captures the sense that, as a result of her purity, the Virgin never aged: this could easily be the 15-year-old mother of a 33-year-old son. Andrea’s work shows a more mature, but by no means old, woman. However, this comparison is by no means ideal, as I suspect Andrea’s version has been conserved since the photograph on the right was taken. In the flesh it certainly has more life than this image would suggest.

The survival of Andrea’s signed works means that her name lives on. Of the women who did work in the world of art, we probably know only a fraction, as women were not allowed to sign legal documents – which meant it was hard, if not impossible, for them to set up business independently (for this and much of what follows I am indebted to a paper by Casey Gardenio-Foat, ‘Daughters of Seville: Workshops and Women Artists in Early Modern Andalucía’ in Woman’s Art Journal, Spring/Summer 2010, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 21-27). However, within the family sphere this legal constraint was not a problem, and it made sense for artists to train their children – whether sons or daughters – as this provided them with what was effectively free labour. What was so remarkable about Luisa Roldán, about whom I wrote about a few weeks ago (see 182 – The Rest of Christmas), was that she set up her own studio outside of her father’s house, outside of the court (although she did become a court artist) and outside of a convent. She wasn’t the only one of Pedro Roldán’s daughters who worked in the family business. All three of her sisters also sculpted, and all three of them married other members of the workshop – and all three couples continued to work in the studio until Pedro’s death. Luisa married yet another member of the workshop, Luis Antonio de los Arcos, against her parents’ wishes. Was he not suitable? Not a good man? Worse than that, not a good artist? Not at all. It seems likely that they didn’t want to lose her talents if they set up a workshop on their own. The same was probably true of Jacopo Tintoretto’s reluctance to let his daughter, the artist Marietta Robusti, go and work for Philip II of Spain. As it happens, Luisa Roldán’s signed works are all dated after her marriage, while the early work is lost among the production of the family workshop. Roldán’s husband Luis was the nominal head of the workshop, as he could sign the contracts, but he worked, effectively, as his wife’s assistant. She carved the sculptures, he painted them, she signed them.

Andrea de Mena, who carved and painted this Mother, was also a Sister. Both Andrea and her sister Claudia entered the Convent of St Anne in Málaga in 1672, when Andrea was 18. They both trained with their father. But wait a moment – is it really fair to define them by their relationships? Does this diminish their achievement? Some people might think it does: should we not talk about them in their own right, rather than in terms of their relationships to the men in their lives? And yet Hans Holbein Jr – the famous one – would have been nothing without his father. And Lucas Cranach the Elder – well, he was better than his son, as it happens (although the quality of his work diminished with time). And as for the Brueghels… too complicated! So we do it with men too. And anyway, we know so little about Andrea. After she and Claudia, daughters of Pedro de Mena, entered the convent (and the sisters became Sisters), they are known to have carved statues of Sts Benedict and Bernard, but, if these sculptures survived, no one has ever identified them. The only undisputed works are this Mater Dolorosa and its companion, an Ecce Homo, in exactly the same format. We know, therefore, that she was still working as a sculptor three years after entering the convent, but we only know that because she signed and dated them – but we only know that Andrea made them because she signed them. What else did she do? And where is it now? No one knows. At least we can treasure what little is left, as I’ve said before. Both sculptures have found a home with the Hispanic Society of America, and both have a temporary residence in the Royal Academy. Anas we’re talking about them, if you ever thought that young women could not possibly be as gruesome as old men, well, see below and think again. We will see these two jewels, briefly, when I talk about this exhibition on 13 February, and they will also feature (equally briefly) alongside the abundance of Andrea’s artistic ‘sisters’ on Monday. And let’s keep looking for the others.


Looking back at Catharina

Day 28 – Catharina van Hemessen, Self Portrait, 1548, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel.

I got back from Paris last night after a 36-hour art attack on the city, and was very glad to catch the Musée d’Orsay’s Rosa Bonheur exhibition in its final week. I will talk about it – and her – in the final week of Women Artists, 79-1879, which started last week – details about the remaining weeks can be found view the links in the diary. But before then, I want to introduce Catharina van Hemessen, who will feature the second talk, which is taking place this Monday, 16 January, from 5.30-7.30pm: A Renaissance for Women? I’ve introduced her before, but that was back in April 2020, within the first month of lockdown, and so the first month of this blog. As I’m still rushing around (even if I only two days out), what better time for a re-post? So here she is, painting herself painting herself.

It is no coincidence that the first self portrait to show an artist painting – at least, the first that we know of – was painted by a woman. Everyone knew men could paint. All the famous artists were men after all – or we used to think they were: see Picture of the Day 14, 15, 16 and 17. Catharina van Hemessen was painting at a time before the first art schools – the academies – had been founded. In her day you became an artist by becoming an apprentice. Women couldn’t do this, because it meant going to live with a strange man when you were still, effectively, a child. Men, who were known to be artists, didn’t need to show that painting is what they did. They had other concerns – being respectable, for example. So the vast majority of male self portraits show them dressed up, showing off their status and not their craft. Even Rembrandt, who painted more self portraits then anyone else before, and for several centuries after, only rarely showed himself holding a paint brush. X-ray analysis shows that, fairly often, he actually painted them out.

But women needed to let people know that they could do it – and what better way than by showing themselves in the act of painting. As a result there is a disproportionately large number of self portraits of artists painting which were executed by women. And Catharina was clearly proud of her work: a direct translation of the inscription on this example would be, ‘I, Caterina de Hemessen, painted myself, 1548’, and then, ‘Her age 20’. 

Catharina didn’t have to go and live with a strange man to become an artist, because she was already living with one. An artist, that is, not a strange man. Her father, Jan Sanders van Hemessen, had two daughters – but with no sons, who could he train to become his assistant, and take over the family business? Catharina was indeed trained by dad, and collaborated on a number of religious works. However, most of her own work seems to have been in the field of portraiture. Only 10 of her signed works survive, two of which are religious, and the rest, small-scale portraits. Other paintings have been attributed to her for stylistic reasons. There may well have been more religious works, but so much was destroyed in the waves of iconoclasm that passed through the Netherlands in the second half of the 16th century that it is hard to know. Her father’s work is full of bluster and posing, and is rather wonderful because of it. Hers is far more delicate, and really focuses on the details.

Look at the specificity with which she depicts the five paint brushes in her left hand, their shadows crossing her thumb, and on the way the paints have been worked across the palette, with the different shades of white and off -white she has blended to produce this painting. These tones can be seen in her headdress, the flesh tones and the white, chalk ground of the framed panel. She has also carefully observed the structure of the easel – the pegs which hold the shelf at the right level, and the unused holes beneath them, as well as the light and shade defining the form of the picture frame. And yet, she is only 20, she is still learning her craft.

The depiction of fashion would become one of her strong points. Above is a detail from her Portrait of a Woman in the National Gallery. The subtle patterning of the chemise is remarkable, as is the delicate lacing which ties it at the neck. The headdress, wired to hold it in place towards the back of the jaw, includes a semi-transparent veil, which reveals the slightly unruly wavy red hair. Painted just three years after the self portrait, the structure of this face is far more secure, the eyes deep within the sockets, shadowed bags beneath. Admittedly the unknown woman doesn’t look especially healthy – but you can’t fault the way she has been painted. A highlight along the ridge of the nose, and another at the rounded tip, define its form. The cheekbones, brow and slightly pouting mouth receive the same attention.

In  1554 Catharina married Christian de Morien, a musician – he was an organist in Antwerp Cathedral – and in 1556 the couple moved to Spain with her patron, Mary of Austria, a niece of Catherine of Aragon, and sister to Charles V. None of her paintings are dated later than 1554, though, so it is possible that she stopped painting when she got married – which is a tragedy, as she would only have got better.

I have always assumed that this self portrait shows her painting someone else – because her own face is in the top right, whereas the one she is working on is in the top left. But looking at it this morning I realised that this is exactly how she would have seen the self portrait when looking at it in a mirror. Rather than looking at us, she is, of course, intently looking at her own reflection. She has either adapted the composition to show herself painting with her right hand – or she could have been left-handed. For various technical reasons, most artists in self portraits appear to be looking over their right shoulders – but here she appears to be looking over her left. Which makes me think she was left handed. I tried explaining this once during a lecture, and failed to communicate why this should be so, until someone pointed out I could use the reflection in one of the windows in the lecture room to explain. I can’t do that here, so here’s a challenge: have a look in a mirror and work out why a right-handed artist would end up looking as if their right shoulder is closer to you. I will come back to this and explain what I mean at some point if it doesn’t make sense! 

If I’m right, and the painting in the painting is this painting, then not only was Catharina the first artist to paint herself painting, but she was also the first artist to paint herself painting herself.


183 – Another Epiphany

Elisabetta Sirani, Study for ‘The Baptism of Christ’, c. 1658. Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.

Happy New Year! And Happy Christmas (yes, as I write, this is the Twelfth Day), and (given when I am writing) may I wish you a Happy Epiphany for tomorrow? The Wise Men will arrive and recognise Jesus as The Boy Born to be King. Thirty years later, Jesus will go to be baptised and John will recognise him as the Lamb of God: a second Epiphany. Back in the day both the Feast of the Epiphany and the Feast of the Baptism of Christ were celebrated on 6 January (so was the Feast of the Wedding at Cana, but that’s another story), hence my choice of image for today, a drawing of The Baptism by Elisabetta Sirani. Nowadays the Baptism is celebrated on the first Sunday after Epiphany, which this year is Sunday 8 January, coincidentally the anniversary of Sirani’s birth, which took place in Bologna on 8 January 1638. I first learnt about her two months into lockdown (see Day 62 – Portia), and she continues to fascinate me: her body of work is extensive, and yet she died at a mere 27, when so many artists today have not even started. She will, of course, feature in Women Artists, 79-1879 in Week 3, dedicated to the Baroque. I have now posted details of all of the talks, accessible via the diary, although tickets for Weeks 3-5 will go on sale after the talk on first talk, Women Artists 1: Following Fathers and Painting as Sisters, on Monday 9 January, 5.30-7.30pm.

In many ways this drawing is entirely conventional – a product of its time. Essential to the story are the central figures of Jesus and his cousin, John the Baptist, engaged in the act of ritual purification by which he is defined. Not essential to an illustration of the story, but usually there for reasons which will become clear, are the figures of God the Father, looking down from above, and, in a broad beam of light, the Holy Spirit, descending in the form of a dove. Even less important – but common from an early period – are the onlookers, including those who have been, and those who are waiting to be, baptised, as well as the Pharisees and Sadducees grumbling in the background. What makes this particularly of its time is the number of onlookers – a far larger assembly than you might expect – and the way in which they are depicted stylistically (but more of that below).

If we start by focussing on the essentials, we can see that Jesus is kneeling on a rock, and apparently not in the water itself. Without checking every other baptism I’ve seen, I can’t think of any others like it. Also unlike many other depictions of the story he is wearing some form of drapery. In most images he wears only a loin cloth, and in some early paintings, even less, and is visibly naked. Sirani clothes him in something like a toga, but with no tunic underneath. This may well be due to the fact that it was considered unsuitable for a woman to depict (let alone look at) naked men – and a man in a loin cloth was, to all extents and purposes, naked. This drapery also strengthens Jesus’s relationship to John the Baptist, who is similarly attired – although the quality of his drapery is different. This could be in line with the biblical description of him wearing camel skin, or it may simply be that Sirani is giving Jesus a higher status. Notice how she draws attention to him by using a darker shade of ink for the shadows, a strength of contrast which is only equalled in the Baptist’s head: we are made aware of John’s presence, but it is Jesus who stands out. The figures in the background look further away not only because they are smaller, and because we can see the ground between them and us, but also because the ink is paler, and the details are not heightened with darker lines. It is a form of atmospheric perspective. As I hope this will show, Sirani’s drawing technique was extremely accomplished. You may be able to make out some faint, wispy lines – between the Baptist’s legs, and in the drapery across Jesus’s right thigh, for example – which give a clue to the development of this image. The materials quoted are ‘pencil, ink, and brown wash over black chalk on paper’. The initial sketch would have been in black chalk (what remains of this are the wispy lines), and this sketch which would then have been refined with pencil (although not in the form we have today, with graphite embedded in wood: the modern pencil was invented by Conté in 1795). The brown wash would have followed, and after this came further definition from the darker ink.

God the Father peers down from Heaven with his right hand raised in blessing. He is flanked by two angels, the one on our right supporting the robe which billows over God’s left arm. The Holy Spirit flies below them, looking suspiciously like an owl in this tiny sketch, but it’s only meant to be an indication. None of these characters have any definition from the darker ink, pushing them further away, and also making them more ethereal, as if seen in a vision. The beam of light, broadening as it descends, is not actually there at all, but represented by a gap in the clouds: we see it simply because it has not been painted whereas what surrounds it has.

The presence of these figures – God the Father and Holy Spirit at least – is what makes this episode so important. According to Luke 3:22 (and there are equivalents in the other synoptic gospels) immediately after the Baptism, ‘… 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.’ In one verse we have the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (not to mention an explanation of the Spirit’s appearance in art). Not only was Jesus the Boy Born to be King, and the Lamb of God, but also, the Son of God. Another revelation, another Epiphany.

I think the brilliance of Sirani’s draughtsmanship is made clear in this detail – admittedly most of the drawing – where we can see how she pushed the figures forward using the darker ink, without losing focus on Jesus. The gathered dramatis personae are framed, and so also contained, by the details of the landscape, a steep hill to the left, with mountains in the distance, and crossed trees on the right. These remind me of Titian’s sadly lost Martyrdom of St Peter Martyr, now known only through copies. The hills and trees, together with the heads of the onlookers, form the curved outer edge of an arc around the appearance of the first and third persons of the Trinity, and make an entirely coherent, if busy, composition.

There is a great description of Sirani’s drawing technique by a contemporary admirer, Carlo Cesare Pittrice:

‘I can truthfully say, having been present many times when some commission for a painting came, she quickly took the pencil and placing the pensiero [‘thought’, or in this context, ‘idea’] down quickly in two marks on white paper (this was the great master’s only method of drawing, which was practiced by few, not even by her father himself, if I don’t lie), dipped a small brush in ink wash; from this quickly appeared a spirited invention that seemed to be without drawn or shaded strokes, and heightened together all at once’
(quoted by Babette Bohn in ‘Elisabetta Sirani and Drawing Practices in Early Modern Bologna’, Master Drawings, Vol. 42, No. 3).

This ‘heightening’ Malvasia mentions is precisely the definition of forms using darker ink which I have discussed. As we can see from this detail, it is also used to created drama, through what we now see as a typically baroque chiaroscuro – the contrast of light and shade. The figure leaning against the rock on the left has details of both the drapery and anatomy heightened in this way, but he also casts a shadow onto the figure to the right, who is pulling on his hose (leggings), having just been baptised. The dark shadow initially makes this seated figure hard to read. The leaning figure is in quite a complex position, with one leg crossed over the other, the right hand behind his back, and the left resting on a stick in front of his chest. He also looks out towards us over his right shoulder – a position so convoluted in fact, that it seems that Sirani was clinging on to some mannerist tendencies from the 16th Century. Indeed, it has echoes of another figure, which I have up-ended to make my point.

And yes, I have now made reference to both Titian and Michelangelo in this one drawing. It is not impossible that Sirani was deliberately quoting these masters to demonstrate her knowledge of great art, and so her qualification for her job. Her fluency and skill cannot be doubted, and, given that there are few pentimenti (changes) that are clearly visible here, we could assume that she already knew what she was going to draw. It therefore seems likely that this is a modello, following on from other compositional studies (which no longer survive), a modello being a drawing presented to the patron for their approval. She received the commission – to paint The Baptism of Christ for the church of San Gerolamo della Certosa in Bologna – from Daniele Granchi, the prior of the monastery, in February 1657. The contract allowed two years until completion. However, the finished work is signed ELISABETTA SIRANI F MDCLVIII – 1658 (‘F’ stands for fecit which means, in this case, ‘she made’). She completed this painting in less than two years, and it measures, approximately, 4 x 5m. She was twenty years old.

Clearly there have been some changes compared to the presentation drawing. There are more angels, for example, both in the sky and on earth, including the two kneeling to our left of Jesus. One of them carries Jesus’s red robe, usually worn under the blue cloak, which, given the colour in the painting, we can see is the drapery Sirani has given him in the drawing. The other angel, to our left, carries a towel with which to dry the Son of God. How do I know it’s a towel? Well, it’s a guess, based on the fact that there are two more towels hung up to dry on the tree to the right. Notice how Jesus’s bright white towel grabs our attention, and falls from the angel’s arm thus leading our eyes straight to the signature. This is right at the bottom of the painting, and so closer (given how the painting is hung in its original location) to our eyeline. This was Sirani’s first important public commission in Bologna, and it made her name. She wanted us to know who she was – and her strategy worked. When she died seven years later, there was public lamentation.

The group on the right has also been extensively altered when compared to the drawing. The mother has lost one of her children, but gained a mother of her own, and the onlookers are altogether more animated. All of these alterations might have been made at the suggestion of the patron, having seen out drawing which was created for this purpose, but some might have been made by Sirani herself. They would clearly have needed further studies, and at least two have survived.

This elegant drawing for the group on the right is held in the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. It includes most, but not all, of the figures who would finally be painted, and uses a slightly different way of creating depth. The foreground figures are fully realised in terms of shading, whereas the semi-naked man further back only has a sketched outline. It is this definition without tone which distances him, as opposed to the tone without definition which we saw in the modello.

This highly finished red chalk drawing is for the man leaning at the front left. Rather than the Michelangelesque muscularity seen in the modello, he adopts a more relaxed pose in the finished work, and looks in, towards the action, rather than out towards us. It is one of at least 27 drawings by Sirani in the Royal Collection, which also boasts several more attributed to her less securely. She appears to have left about 200 drawings in total. We know a lot about her because she kept extensive records of everything she painted: about 200 works in a career spanning around a decade, of which about 120 survive. The three types of drawing I have illustrated show that she had a thorough grounding in academic techniques. She learnt these from her father Giovanni, who was himself a student of one of Bologna’s leading artists, Guido Reni. However, by the time Elisabetta was sixteen, Giovanni’s hands were so crippled with gout that he could no longer work – meaning that she had to support the whole family. She did this through her work, and also by teaching. As well as her two younger sisters, at least twelve other women appear to have studied with her. Given everything I have said, you may be wondering why so many people (not you, clearly) have never heard of her… Well, where do I start? I start on Monday, of course. Like so many women, Elisabetta learnt from her father, and the same is true of the women mentioned by Pliny in his Natural History nearly two millennia ago – hence the first part of the title of my first talk, Following Fathers and Painting as Sisters. We won’t get to Elisabetta until Week 3, of course, but there are plenty of other women who were masters of their art to consider before then.


182 – The Rest of Christmas

Luisa Roldán, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, c. 1690. The Hispanic Society of America, New York

Happy Christmas! And yes, it is still Christmas – as I write it is only the fifth day of twelve, and on the Fifth Day of Christmas… but that doesn’t matter right now. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, today is the Feast of St Thomas Beckett, whereas yesterday was ‘Childermas’, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. As I discussed during the Childhood of Christ course, the Massacre of the Innocents itself could have happened a full two years after Christ’s birth, but more of that later. As it is, I’m already looking forward to 2023, and I will be starting the year with a five-part series Women Artists, 79-1879 (the first 1800 years), the first two talks of which, on Monday 9 and Monday 16 January respectively, are already on sale. I’m also looking forward to some of the great exhibitions coming up: the Royal Academy will host an exhibition dedicated to Spain and the Hispanic World, while the Victoria and Albert Museum will show the sculptures of Donatello. I will talk about these exhibitions in person as part of Artemisia’s London programme (see the diary), and will also give online talks about both (dates to be decided). And so, to tie all of this together, trying to stay in the present, while also looking forward, here is something for the Fourth Day of Christmas, by a woman, which is both Spanish, and a sculpture: The Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Luisa Roldán.

Mary is sitting in front of a tree with her left foot firmly on the ground, providing support for the Christ Child who is seated on her left knee. He looks upward toward his heavenly father, while leaning towards his earthly equivalent, Joseph, who kneels before him, leaning in and proffering a fruit. An angel kneels on the other side with yet more fruit gathered in the folds of the otherwise simple white-lined pink slip. Three cherubs fly among the branches of the tree, while a donkey looks on from behind. Together they form an insistently pyramidal composition.

The angel kneels on his left knee (further back), although the front, right leg is also bent, even if the knee does not rest on the ground. The right foot stretches back towards the bottom left of the sculpture, with the big toe slightly bent as it rests on the ground. The pale pink flesh is subtly differentiated from both the pink slip and its white lining (or is that yellow, or cream?) and the split in the drapery reveals enough flesh to show Roldán’s superb understanding of anatomy, without any risk of appearing inappropriate. The angel’s clothing must have something like an apron attached – otherwise it is not clear what forms the drapery in which the fruit has been gathered. In front of the angel’s knees are three white flowers with yellow centres, probably meant to be daisies, a symbol of Christ’s innocence, but also associated with Easter as they first flower in the spring. Indeed, in French they are called pâquerettes: ‘little Easter flowers’. In front of Joseph’s knees are his gourd, or water flask – important for any traveller – and two bags, which, as it happens, are not overly packed with other essentials for the journey, such as clothing and food, presumably. A small, even insignificant lapdog rests its front feet on one of the bags. I don’t remember the presence of a similar creature in other representations of this theme, but dogs are always welcome as symbols of faith, or fidelity (hence the name ‘Fido’). Like the angel, Joseph’s weight is on his left knee – although as he is on the other side of the group, this is at the front. His right knee (at the back) is more raised than the angel’s. His left foot, with the toes more bent, as at the far right of the sculpture. Between them, the two feet – the angel’s right and Joseph’s left – form the bottom corners of the compositional pyramid, a structure which is also hinted at by the diagonals formed by the lapdog and the right hand bag, and echoed by the dark pink triangle of Mary’s dress which is visible under her blue cloak.

This pyramid is continued by the backs of both the angel and Joseph, and reaches its apex, via the cherubs on either side, with their companion at the top (nb: the white garland, which you can see in this photograph, and which I initially read as part of this sculpture, is actually is in the display case half-way down the gallery). I would love to know what type of tree this is supposed to be. I asked the Ecologist, but after the briefest of glimpses he walked away with the comment that ‘it might as well be a cabbage’, which can be translated to mean that it doesn’t have any features which could lead to a positive identification. Presumably it is the source of the fruit which both Joseph and the angel are holding, and I’ve seen suggestions online that they are both pomegranates and figs. Personally, I’d like them to be dates, as there is a fantastic story in the apocryphal Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew in which a date palm kindly bends over to allow the Holy Family to gather its fruit, but I can’t convince myself that it is. Some of the leaves could almost be fig leaves – but, in a similar way, I can’t convince myself that the fruits look like figs. I suspect that it’s meant to be an apple, with the implication that Jesus has come to take Original Sin upon himself, and that Roldán wasn’t too worried about the specific nature of the Forbidden Fruit. After all, the sculpture is only 41cm high, and 46cm wide – so each individual fruit is probably less than 5mm in diameter. Given that this is polychrome terracotta the detail is superb, and the anatomy and draperies are wonderfully delicate: beautifully modelled and subtly coloured.

This is a sculpture, of course, and designed to be seen from a wide angle. From the left, we get a better sense of Joseph’s humility, with his left hand placed on his chest, a sign of his devotion and awe. He is a very young Joseph, compared to others, and this is probably due to one of Luisa Roldán’s compatriots, if not her contemporary, the 16th Century Spanish visionary, St Theresa of Avila. Her respect for St Joseph was one of the things that led to him being seen as young man, almost of an age with Mary, rather than the doddery old codger of medieval myth. We also get a far clearer view of the angel’s multi-coloured wings from this angle. But then, seen from the right, we notice the adoration in the angel’s eyes as he looks up towards the Immaculate Virgin. We just catch the donkey emerging from behind Mary’s right arm, its profile adding to the strength of the composition. In both of these views – from left and right – we get a stronger sense than we do from the front of the isolation of Virgin and Child: they really are on their own, God and Mother of God as they are, in categories of being quite apart from everyone else.

What is absolutely clear is that that this is a sculpture in high relief, and that Roldán never intended this piece to be seen from behind. The tree is completely formless, even incoherent, while the backs of Joseph and the angel tempt us to go round to the front. The cherubs at the top match their colours symmetrically – the blue harmonising with Joseph’s mauve, and the red with the angel’s pink. Luisa Roldán knew what she was doing, having trained with her father, the sculptor Pedro Roldán, and married one of his other students – against Roldán senior’s will, apparently. She was the first Spanish woman to set up her own studio outside of a convent, the first documented female sculptor, and her husband worked for her: she carved or modelled the sculptures, and he coloured them. I’ll talk more about her in week three of Women in Art, which is about the 17th Century, as that is when her career started.

When the event she is depicting, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, is supposed to have happened is not at all clear. Immediately after the Wise Men departed – avoiding a return to Herod’s court – Joseph was warned in a dream to take Mary and Jesus away, as Herod would be after the baby’s life. When Herod realised that the Wise Men hadn’t come back, he sent his men to kill all the baby boys aged two and under in Bethlehem and thereabouts – hence the suggestion above that the Massacre of the Innocents might have happened two years after Jesus was born. But The Flight into Egypt could have happened immediately after the Wise Men had left, although, as they didn’t arrive until Epiphany – 12 days after Jesus was born at the earliest, if not a year and 12 days, or two years and 12 days – it wouldn’t have been on the 4th day of Christmas, despite the ‘celebration’ of the Feast of the Innocents then. Indeed, as The Presentation in the Temple should have happened on Candlemas – 2 February – the Holy Family surely can’t have headed off to Egypt before then? However, all this book-keeping of the dates and the order of events is immaterial, really, it’s the thought that counts. And the idea that Jesus was safe, and sound, and cared for, with a guardian angel, loving adults, and something to eat, is all that really matters in the end. Luisa Roldán depicts these qualities with a beautiful delicacy and telling intricacy – and more than a little sleight of hand to make it all fit together. I look forward to showing you more of her work on 23 January, but before then I will look back to the classical past and on through the mysteries of the medieval in the first talk, Following Fathers and Painting as Sisters, on Monday, 9 January, from 5.30-7.30pm. Until then, enjoy the remaining seven Days of Christmas – and have a Very Happy New Year!


181 – Candlemas comes early

Jacques Daret, The Presentation in the Temple, c. 1434-35. Petit Palais, Paris.

Theoretically I should have written about this painting last week, as I talked about the theme – The Presentation in the Temple – in Monday’s talk. This coming week, Week 4 of The Childhood of Christ, I will include a lot of paintings of The Virgin and Child – which I blogged about last week. But you can blame Sofonisba Anguissola for that: I wanted to talk about her with a month left for you to catch the exhibition in Nivå. (However, if you can’t make it by 15 January, all is not lost, as it will transfer to the Netherlands, where it will be on show at the Rijksmuseum Twenthe from 11 February – 11 June). This week, on Monday 19 December, the talk is entitled …to Epiphanies, and is effectively the conclusion of last week’s talk. From Jesus’s biblical, and non-biblical, boyhood, we move on to the beginnings of his mission, with two further ‘revelations’ or ‘Epiphanies’ which let the world know who he really was. It will be my last talk this year, but the first two of my New Year’s series 79-1879: Women Artists (the first 1800 years) are already on sale. Part 1 will be on Monday, 9 January, and Part 2 a week later. Having said all that, I did want to look at the last of Jacques Daret’s surviving paintings, the fourth remaining panel from the Arras Altarpiece, having seen the others in posts 178 and 179. So here it is.

For those who weren’t at Monday’s talk, and as a recap for those who were, The Presentation in the Temple is a fairly common subject in western European Medieval and Renaissance art, but is actually an elision of what should be, according to Jewish law, two separate ceremonies. But I’ll explain that as we go along. In Daret’s version the Presentation takes place in a centrally-planned octagonal structure as an evocation of the Temple of Jerusalem. It is an undoubtedly theatrical depiction, the space packed to bursting by the seven adults who squeeze into the structure, which is open on the three sides facing us, the audience, thus allowing us access to the action. With variegated, predominantly red columns in each of the corners, supporting low rounded arches, it is meant to represent the ‘Old Order’ (Judaism and pagan cults, as seen by Christianity). Round arches were seen as ‘old fashioned’. In Arras, as in the rest of Northern Europe (unlike Early Renaissance Italy), ‘modern’ architecture was gothic, with pointed arches, and was used to represent the ‘New Order’ (Christianity). However, with its stained glass windows and prominent altar, in what could be read as an apse, the building could equally well be a church, even if the Hebrew script on the altar cloth tells us it must be Jewish – a synagogue, or, as I have already said, the Temple. In addition, all of the imagery is taken from the Jewish scriptures – even if the Temple wouldn’t have been included such decoration. Mary holds Jesus, naked but for a transparent veil, over the altar, as she presents him to the priest Simeon, who has been living in the knowledge that, according to prophecy, he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. But who are the other people?

On the far left is Joseph, dressed in the same types of clothes as he wears in the Nativity and Adoration of the Magi, if in slightly different colours: a third actor has taken over this role (click on the second blue link if you want to remind yourself what I mean). He holds a white dove in his left hand. Next, going to the right, is a respectable women, holding a spiralling, lit candle, and wearing simple clothes, which include a headdress: it is not unlike the outfit Mary is wearing. The Virgin wears her traditional blue, and is given extra status by the beams of holy light around her head. The gold script on the hem of her cloak comes from a canticle for the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, a text which is scattered across three of the surviving four panels from the Arras Altarpiece. This feast was derived from the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 12, which expounds God’s instruction to Moses that, after the birth of a child, a woman should be considered ‘unclean’. On the 8th day after the birth of a boy he should be circumcised (a requirement echoed in Luke 2:21), and after a further 33 days, as an offering to conclude her purification, the woman should give a lamb and a dove, or, ‘if she is not able to bring a lamb’, then two doves, or young pigeons. This explains the basket with two pigeons held by the woman to our right of Mary. She is dressed in a modest – if bright red – dress, appropriate (for the fifteenth century) for a girl who is not yet of marriageable age. We can tell that as her hair is uncovered, and flows freely over both shoulders. As yet, no one has worked out who she is, although the doves she is holding must relate to Mary’s purification, as she herself is unmarried. She also holds a lit, spiral candle.

The remaining three adults are dressed very differently to those on the left of the painting. Or, to put it another way, they look different to those below God’s right hand, if we were to imagine him sitting up above the Temple looking towards us. Those on our left (God’s right) represent the New Order, while those on the right (God’s left), the Old (see above…). From left to right we see Simeon, the Priest, who is marked out by the V-necked robe with long, full sleeves, the collar, sleeves and hems of which are elaborated with gold and pearls: far more elaborate than the clothing of the group on the other side of the altar, and not at all ‘European’ (clearly none of these characters were European, but the cut and elaboration of the robe marks Simeon out as ‘foreign’, and certainly ‘different’ to the original audience for this painting). Next to him is an old woman, who is given the standard symbol of ‘otherness’, an exoticizing turban. She also has an inscription on her collar which is meant to look like Hebrew. Given the radiance around her head, she is also considered to be holy. This is Anna, who, according to Luke 2: 36-38, was 84 years old and spent all her time at the Temple. After Simeon had praised God in thanks for His revelation of the Messiah, ‘she, coming in that instant, gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.’ Her sanctity is the result of her recognition, in an effectively prophetic way, that this baby was indeed the very source of that redemption. She too carries a candle, as does the women on the far right. Anna’s candle is plain yellow, and, unlike the two we have seen before, not twisted, whereas the one held by the woman in red is white, and is decorated with a series of ring-shaped markings at regular intervals along its length. She also carries a basket containing two doves – which might suggest that she, too, has come for purification. Her hair is dressed in a single, long plait which falls down her back – a style used by artists contemporary to Daret to imply that she, too, is ‘exotic’. Her headdress has the same implication.

Even if the people on God’s right (including the woman behind the altar) represent the new order, and those on his left, the old, they have all come to the Christian faith: all of the women hold candles, except Mary, who has no need of a candle, for she holds the Light of the World: in his song of praise to God, Simeon recognises Jesus as ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel’ (Luke 2:32). These candles represent that light, which, curiously, is the one word from the Canticle for the Purification that Daret does not include. But then, Jesus is there in person: he is the Light, and he is the Word (and I am immensely indebted to a paper by Penny Howell Jolly, ‘Learned Reading, Vernacular Seeing’, published in The Art Bulletin of September 2000 for this and many other brilliant revelations). The candles are also included because, at some point in the late 7th Century, Pope Sergius I added a candlelit procession to the observance of the Feast of the Purification, from which derives its more common name: Candlemas. This is celebrated forty days after the birth of Jesus, on 2 February, and marks, for a number of Christian denominations, the end of Christmas.  Clearly Sergius’s procession had not been instituted at the time of the original event, in the first century, and so it irrelevant to the people in this painting, but in this case Candlemas has come early…

Who, exactly, are the women? They don’t appear in most images of The Presentation. I would assume that the modest, respectable lady next to Mary is the midwife Zelomi, who believed straightaway in the virgin birth, while the flashier, more recent ‘convert’ on the far right, the one who needed proof, is Salome (again, see 178 – No crib for a bed for a reminder). The woman at the back remains a mystery, but is probably related, according to Howell Jolly, to local tradition. Other elements clearly are: Joseph holds a single dove, for example, which has nothing to do with the Purification of the Virgin, nor to the Presentation of Christ, but more of that later. As I suggested, the two ceremonies should, in Jewish law, be two different things. According to Numbers 18:15-16, the firstborn of any species should be deemed holy to God, and the first born human, if a boy, should result in an offering of five shekels ‘from a month old’. So the Presentation should have happened about 30 days after Jesus was born, whereas according to Leviticus, Circumcision should happen after a week (or eight days, the eighth day being the same day of the week as the first) and then 33 days more for the Purification – forty days in all. Remembering that the French for ‘forty’ is ‘quarante’, and in Italian it is ‘quaranta’, this is just one source of the word ‘quarantine’. But it is ten more days than required for the presentation: they shouldn’t happen at the same time. Nevertheless, the two are elided in the Gospel According to St Luke, and so they are elided in art – and with no appearance of the shekels.

But how does Josephs’ dove relate to local tradition? According to Howell Jolly (but cutting a long story short) a plague in Arras, back in 1105, ended shortly after the faithful were rewarded with a vision of the Virgin Mary holding a lit candle, which she gave them in order to cure the plague. For centuries the candle survived as a relic, and, although it is lost today, the container it was stored in – the reliquary – survives. It looks like a candle, and has similar ring-shaped markings to the one Salome holds. She and Joseph are placed symmetrically, each holding something white: they are balanced, as if part of the same event. In a ceremony celebrating the miracle of La Sainte Chandelle, (as it was known) at the Abbey of St Vaast (the church for which this image was painted), ‘a man of note’ was required to present a white dove at the altar. This is the role that Joseph is playing: it is a very local, and very specific reference which, outside the original context, we would have no way of knowing. I love it when art historians can work out what is going on in an obscure image – and Penny Howell Jolly’s article is one of the best example of this that I’ve read in a long time!

The differentiation of character between those present continues right down to the ground. Joseph wears black shoes, and his stick rests on a violet, a symbol of humility – in this case, his. To our right both Simeon and Salome wear red shoes, and richly jewelled gold hems encircle the bottoms of their robes. Simeon’s even has bells on, a tinkling echo of the biblical description of Aaron’s robes as High Priest.

Meanwhile, the decorations of the temple are also, inevitably, packed with meaning. In the capitals here we see, from left to right, the Creation of Eve, The Creation of Plants, and God introducing Adam and Eve to the Garden of Eden, whereas in the stained glass window we see Noah trimming his vine.

The central window shows Noah, who has grown grapes, made wine, got drunk and fallen asleep, exposing ‘his nakedness’ in the process, while the capital shows, I think, the creation of the animals.

Finally, on the right, one of the capitals depict the Fall: Eve gestures towards Adam, who follows her suggestion and takes a good bite of the forbidden fruit. On the right, they are being expelled from Paradise as a result. In between, at the back, God appears to be having a chat with a few more animals, but Anna’s radiance is getting in the way, so I’m not entirely sure what he’s saying. The window shows Noah’s Ark. In what way can this odd combination of imagery be relevant?

According to St Augustine, in his The City of God, written in the first quarter of the fifth century, Noah’s growing of the vine was a foretelling of the incarnation: Noah was, after all, the one good man through whom all men were saved, so he would be an apt prefiguration of Jesus. Augustine interprets The Drunkenness of Noah as being like the mocking of Christ.  It also contains, he says, a ‘mystery’, which I take to be why Noah got drunk in the first place. Nevertheless, having got drunk, he falls asleep, ‘and was uncovered in his tent… And Ham saw the nakedness of his father’ (Genesis 9:21-22). So Noah is naked, and humiliated, and rather than showing some respect, pitying his father, and covering his father’s nakedness, Ham reveals it to his brothers – hence the connection to the mocking, where Christ is likewise stripped and humiliated. Directly below the image of the ‘naked’ Noah, is the naked baby Jesus: the incarnation, prefigured by the vine, has been fulfilled. Noah was saved by his presence in the Ark, seenin the right-hand window, and, believe it or not, Mary, the ‘vessel’ who bore Jesus, was seen as an equivalent for the ark, which becomes a symbol of our salvation, and thus Mary’s role in our redemption. Notice how it is specifically the creation of Eve which is depicted in one of the capitals, rather than that of Adam, and that her creation is followed on the other capital at the front by The Fall and then The Expulsion from Paradise. As so often, the message carved into the capitals is ‘through a woman we fell, and through a woman we are redeemed’.

‘But how is related to The Purification of the Virgin? you might ask. ‘And while we’re at it’, I hear the more astute among you are saying, ‘Mary was immaculate, free of original sin. What need had she to be purified anyway?’ Good question, and one that was answered by theologians and mystery plays alike. And that is entirely the point. Even though she was pure, and free of original sin, she still followed the law. In the same way Jesus, perfect in every way, was subject to both circumcision and baptism, even though neither ritual act of purification was necessary. Both Jesus and Mary are role models: if they followed the law, when they did not even need to, then so should anyone who actually has original sin. Which means, for the original viewers, you.

To be honest, having checked, I’m slightly surprised to find that this is not the longest post I’ve written, but I’m sure it is one of the more complex. It’s amazing how specific a small, and apparently obscure painting can be, and this is just one of the four that survive from a total of six. The ones we have seen were, if you remember, topped by an Annunciation divided between two panels, one at the top of each wing of the altar when it was closed. When the wings were opened they revealed a sculpture of The Coronation of the Virgin, (now lost, like the Annunciation), the story which is the culmination of a story which starts with Mary’s Immaculate Conception. As I’ve said before, it’s such a pity that so much has been lost, but wonderful that so much remains. IOf course, I should have said all of this last week, as this Monday’s talk will go in a different direction – although it will head towards The Baptism of Christ. I do hope you can join me for my last talk of this year – but if not, let me wish you a Happy Christmas now, whatever your beliefs. And I would also like to wish you a fulfilling year ahead, packed with as much great art as you would want.


Sofonisba and Michelangelo: a second bite

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

I made it back safely from Copenhagen yesterday, having seen a wonderful exhibition: this is just a quick re-post to tempt you to come and find out more about it with my talk Sofonisba in Denmark tomorrow, Wednesday 14 December at 6pm. This drawing isn’t in the exhibition, which is a pity, so all the more reason to think about it again today. Other beautiful gems are included, though, so I do hope you can make it. If not, I will also cover Sofonisba (more briefly, and with different paintings) in my five-part course in the New Year, 79-1879: Women Artists (the first 1800 years). The first two talks will go on sale after the talk tomorrow, with the others to follow in January. Details are in the diary!

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 ever find out precisely what the connection between the two is – or indeed, if there really is one. Maybe this similarity is a coincidence. Maybe this is simply how boys behave when they’re bitten when they’re young – or when they forget the conventions that suggest that ‘real men don’t cry’. But that opens up a whole new topic of conversation better suited to a different forum, and I’m certainly not going to go into it now. So, until I come back to Sofonisba on Wednesday, have a great day – and don’t play with your food. Some of it bites.


180 – Virgin and Virgin and Child

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self Portrait at the Easel, c. 1556. Museum Zanek, Łańcut.

Greetings from Copenhagen! And welcome to a first: I’m doubling up this week, in more ways than one. My series on The Childhood of Christ reaches Week 3, From Epiphany… this Monday, 12 December at 6pm. We will cover everything in Jesus’s childhood from the moment the Kings depart up until the return of the Holy Family from Egypt, at which point Jesus carries on his life as an apparently normal, if supernaturally powerful, very naughty boy. Expect dragons, mobile plants, living toys, and excessive revenge. No, none of them are in the bible, but I’m going to show them to you anyway. And in addition to that, on Wednesday, 14 December I will be reporting back from Copenhagen, having seen Sofonisba in Denmark. So two lectures in one week. To introduce both talks I want to look at a painting which will cover both The Childhood of Christ and Sofonisba Anguissola, so here is a self portrait in which she shows herself painting The Virgin and Child.

I’m doubling up the doubling up, though: I have written about this painting before. This is the first time I have repeated myself without actually re-posting the old blog. That was Day 90, and this is post 180 (so double again, although the numbering doesn’t include the Advent Calendar, the Lenten penance, or the various re-posts…). However, I’m not even going to read Day 90 – Sofonisba, too: I’ll leave that to you, if you have time on your hands. Instead, I’m going to write something completely (?) new.

Sofonisba stands – or is seated – in front of her easel. She looks out towards us, as if to make sure that we are aware of what she is doing: she is painting. Not unusual as an artist, perhaps, unless, of course, you are a woman in the 16th Century. Not only that, but a woman who is not the daughter of an artist, which was – up until the 18th Century at least – the most common route for women to become artists. She is probably, of course, really looking at a mirror, so that she can paint her own appearance, although it would be possible to argue that she has already done that. Another self portrait survives showing her in a similar position, and wearing much the same outfit – although in that one she is holding a book. She might have copied that portrait, omitting the book: elsewhere there is evidence that she painted from other images, either paintings or drawings (I’ll come back to that on Wednesday). But would she really have dressed like this while painting? It’s possible – there is nothing too flowing or floaty which could get caught in the wet paint. But we have no evidence, so we can only hypothesize. What we see is a woman who is modestly dressed, with a clear eye and a steady hand.

Her hair is centrally parted and plaited, with the plaits bound up in a snood, the black, net-like threads ensuring that none of her hair escapes, giving a sense of control and containment which matches her self-contained demeanour. A small black collar is buttoned underneath the short, frilled collar of her chemise. The subtle handling of light and shade softly models the forms of her face. She has painted the eyes slightly larger than they would be for ‘natural’ proportions, giving us a feeling that she is watching intently, observing us as she might have observed the models she has been painting – or for that matter, the drawing on which the picture she is painting might have been based. The picture itself sits on a standard easel, just visible at the top of this detail, but clearer in the image above. Given that the self portrait is painted on canvas, we could assume that her Virgin and Child is too. She leaves the edges of the canvas blank, as they will later be covered by a frame. The fact that she is painting the Virgin and Child is important. There were very few women painting in Sofonisba’s day, and very few Still Life paintings. Later, that would be the genre which women were ‘allowed’, although portraiture was also a viable option. They would, it is often said, be all but excluded from ‘History Painting’ – the depiction of instructional and uplifting narratives – but these genres of academic excellence had not yet been codified during Sofonisba’s lifetime.

The first self portrait which shows the artist in the act painting – or, at least, the first to survive – was painted by a woman (see Day 28 – Catharina van Hemessen). As far as I can tell, Sofonisba’s is the second. Whereas Catharina is painting a portrait (and, in all probability, she shows herself in the act of painting herself), Sofonisba chooses what could be interpreted as a more noble endeavour: painting the same subject as St Luke, who was fabled to be the first artist to depict the Virgin Mary. She also shows how important Mary was for Christian theology by finding a symbol for her strength. She is seated in front of a high, rectangular pedestal, topped by a cornice, which supports the circular base of the column. As well as a symbol of Mary’s role as a true pillar of the church, this also shows us that Sofonisba was aware of the latest developments in renaissance architecture.

Sofonisba did not always sign her paintings, and so several works attributed to her are still subject to debate. However, when she did, they often follow a similar formula, exemplified by the portrait I mentioned earlier, in which she is wearing what is probably the same outfit. Written in the book she is holding is the phrase, ‘Sofonisba Anguissola Virgo se ipsam fecit’. The apparently bold assertion of her own virginity merely states that she was unmarried – a maiden – and lived in the paternal home. But basically it could be translated as, ‘Sofonisba Anguissola, Virgin, made herself’. The making is important.

The black collar is part of a buttoned cape, which fits tightly around her upper arms, and has a hem that is slashed like the tops of the brown sleeves. It is a sensible, modest, and well-fitting ensemble: she may be a woman doing a man’s job, but she is not a brazen hussy. She rests her right wrist on a mahl stick, which is itself resting on the unpainted edge of her canvas, thus enabling her to paint detail securely and with accuracy: it is a sign of her diligence. She is just about to add a stroke to Jesus’s left arm, which is resting on his mother’s lap. In this sense, what she is doing echoes what the Virgin has done: Mary ‘made’ Jesus, and Sofonisba is ‘making’ him again. Or, to put it another way, Mary may be the mother of Jesuss, but Sofonisba is is the ‘mother’ of this picture. She is also, of course, painting a male nude, something which was inconceivable for a female artist even as late as the early 20th century, although given Christ’s perfection, the innocence of his youth, and the modesty of his stance, posed discreetly as he is behind his mother’s leg, there is apparently nothing untoward in this depiction.

I can’t help reading her left hand, holding the end of the mahl stick, as a sign of her sophistication: the little finger is crooked. However, parallels to the elegant drinking of tea would be more than a little anachronistic. In this detail we can see the unpainted lower edge of the canvas resting on the easel, and in front of it, to the left, is her palate. On it we see black, red and white paint, and a variety of mixtures, mainly grey and pink. Oddly, though, there is very little blue, despite this being the colour of Mary’s cloak. The bottom right corner of the palette might show the ochre which is the basis of the yellow lining of the cloak, but that’s not entirely clear. To the right of the palette is a quill, used for the drawing on which the painting was based, presumably. There is also what I assume to be a palette knife. Once the paint had been mixed, this was used to transfer the paint to the palette – and in later centuries, to apply the paint to the canvas. There is also another brush.

I’m intrigued by the image she is painting. Some of her paintings of the Virgin and Child do survive, and are included in the Danish exhibition (I will show you them on Wednesday), but none look like this. Where do the ideas come from? Perhaps we can answer that by considering how it compares to the work of her contemporaries.

Sofonisba studied with two artists, both called Bernardino. Her first master was Bernardino Campi, and then, when he moved away, she was taught by Bernardino Gatti. I can’t find a Virgin and Child by either which resembles Sofonisba’s, but to me this Pietà resonates in some way. It was sold at auction in February last year, when it received an attribution to Bernardino Gatti. Although in one we see Christ as an adult, and in the other he is a child, there is something about the way the arms fall which strikes me as similar. Notably, the right forearm of the child and the left of the adult seem to curve slightly, and have the same somewhat ‘arch’ flexing of the index finger.

However, as well as looking to her own teachers, there also seems to be an echo from the work of the Florentine master Agnolo Bronzino: this one is in the National Gallery. Compare the long, slim fingers of the Virgins, for example, and the depiction of the loving relationship between mother and son: the way they lean together and look intently into each other’s eyes suggests that they share a similar ethos.

I have no doubt about the function of this self portrait. It is a declaration of the artist’s ability – and of her integrity. If I wanted a portrait of myself looking respectable, this would be the woman to go to. And if I wanted a painting of the Virgin and Child, this would also guarantee the quality I would get: technically skilled, intricate, intimate, and up to date. Having said that, I realise now, despite the number of times I have talked and written about Sofonisba (even before this, I have dedicated three posts to her), I have never seen any of her paintings in the flesh – so I can’t wait to see the exhibition tomorrow! And, as I’ve said, I will report back on Wednesday. Before then, though, on Monday I will consider some of the lesser known of Jesus’s exploits – while also untangling some potentially confusing biblical episodes. I hope you have as good a week as I am planning!


179 – Surviving treasures

Jacques Daret, The Adoration of the Kings, c. 1434-35. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

It’s December 1st – let the Advent Calendars be opened! I wrote one in 2020, and if you want something to read every day, and weren’t with me two years ago, I wrote about a single detail from Gossaert’s glorious Adoration of the Kings for all the days leading up to Christmas. If you do fancy it, click on An Advent Calendar – 1, and once you’ve read it, bookmark the page. Then tomorrow, you can go back, click on Next Post: An Advent Calendar – 2 which you’ll find to the bottom right of the first post, and so on… And if you haven’t read last week’s blog (178 – No crib for a bed), you might want to do that now, as today I will make certain assumptions. I enjoyed looking at one of the panels from Jacques Daret’s Arras Altarpiece, and thought it might be a good idea to look at the others. There are two more today, and a fourth in two weeks’ time. This occurred to me because Monday’s talk (5 December at 6pm), From Shepherds to Kings, will cover the Adoration, one of the four panels to survive. In many respects the next talk will be far more straightforward than last week’s, but it will be interesting to see how the Church celebrates the time between the arrival of the Shepherds (arguably Christmas day itself) and the arrival of the Kings. Although celebrated on the 6th of January (or the evening of the 5th), the precise date of the latter – well, let’s just say that it’s open to debate. One more thing before we get going: a newsflash! I’m adding in a mid-week talk to cover the Sofonisba Anguissola exhibition which is currently on in Nivå, just outside Copenhagen. I’m getting very excited about going to Copenhagen for the first time, and about seeing the work of this remarkable 16th Century woman: I’m bound to want to report back. As everything else is already scheduled, Sofonisba in Denmark will take place on Wednesday 14 December, at the usual 6pm. There are bound to be Christmas parties on, I know, but if you are free it would be lovely to know that you’re there! Meanwhile, back to the Kings.

Mary is seated as if enthroned at one end of the stable – the open, triangular ‘gable’ frames her and acts as a marker of her high status. It’s not entirely clear what she’s sitting on, to be honest, but it appears to be covered with a rich, royal red. At the apex of the ‘gable’ are beams of light emanating from the star, ‘right over the place,’ to quote the carol, ‘where Jesus lay’, although he is now standing, supported by his mother, and holding one hand up to the eldest king. OK, so in theory he is only 12 days old at this point, but he was the Son of God, so anything is possible, including standing up. Mary wears her most usual colour, blue, although as we saw on Monday (and maybe I’ll do a talk about this one day), the precise colours she wears can vary. Here it is a blue cloak over a blue dress. The eldest king is wearing red – often the most expensive fabric, and one associated either with royal courts or with wealthy merchants. That he is a king is vouchsafed by the broad cuffs of his sleeves and the hem of his robe, made of ermine, a pure white creature with a black tip to its tail, the fur of which was often reserved for royalty. His crown – an elaborate red hat – has been taken off and lies on the floor at his feet, a sign of respect for the boy born to be king. Behind him stand his two companions, a middle-aged man with long dark hair and a dark beard, and a young man, with no beard at all. Joseph stands to the left, and also wears red, not because he is part of a royal court (although that could be argued, as step-father to the second member of the Holy Trinity), but as a sign of his status (for the same reason). As in the Nativity, which we saw last week, notice how he is, nevertheless, slightly excluded from the proceedings. The king kneels in front of Mary and Jesus, who (if we adjust for the point of view) are in the centre of the opening to the stable, whereas Joseph is ‘outside’, cut off from the action by the same rough-hewn tree trunk which excluded him before. And this is something I love about these paintings: it is the same stable, but seen from a different angle. I really hope these two pictures end up next to each other, but it depends on the type of device you are using, I think.

In the Nativity we are alongside the stable, whereas the point of view for the Adoration is a diagonal, from what was the front right. The rough-hewn, slender trunk at the corner is the same, with a y-shaped cleft at the top, supporting the horizontal beam which runs along the bottom of the sloping roof. The diagonal beam which forms part of the ‘A’-frame at the end projects beyond this cleft in both images, and the same bevelled branches are attached top and bottom of the slender trunk to make it more secure. The back wall of the stable has an open window divided into three by two vertical beams – it can be seen next to the midwife Zelomi in the Nativity and above the head of the eldest king in the Adoration. If we were watching this in the theatre, a high budget production would place the stable on a revolve, but with less money a couple of stage hands would have to run on and trundle it round the requisite 45˚. And yet, even if the stable is the same, there is a major difference. One of the actors appears to have been replaced by his understudy.

Compare these two images of Joseph. All that really remains the same is the shape of the face, and arguably the purse – green, with diagonal decorations, slung on a dark leather belt.  The coat has been removed, yes, but everything else looks different. The robe has changed from purple (in the Nativity) to red, and the hat, which he has now put back on, has a more blue-ish tinge. It is worthwhile remembering that these paintings are now in two different museums, have different histories, and have probably been given different conservation treatments. Not only that, but different cameras were used to take the photographs, under different lighting conditions. So a few variations in tone and hue would be understandable, but not a shift from purple to red. And what would definitely not happen is a change in age. In the Nativity Joseph had white hair and a white beard, in the Adoration all this has miraculously gone brown – he has regained his lost youth! Now, given some of the stories which surround the birth of Jesus, this would not surprise me, but I have never come across a story which includes Joseph’s rejuvenation. What seems more likely is that this is a studio production – everything of any scale was – and that different members of the workshop painted the two Josephs. The general shapes and overall details of props and costume remain the same, but colours are different.

The gesture which Joseph uses, with his right hand cupped to the side of his head, is not familiar to me, but the same gesture is employed by the middle-aged king. Admittedly the latter is on the verge of removing his crown, but nevertheless it is similar, and I imagine it could be an expression of awe. Unless, that is, Joseph has decided he shouldn’t have put his hat back on after all. He is wearing a common form of medieval headgear called a chaperon, made up of three elements – the patte, which could be a relatively simple cap, although it could become more elaborate, surrounded by a bourrelet, which is a round, effectively donut-like form, and a liripipe (or cornette), which we see as a long tail which hangs down as far as Joseph’s knees. Chaperons are commonly seen in portraiture: several of Jan van Eyck’s sitters wear them, for example. Meanwhile, as we saw before, the eldest king has placed his crown on the floor. With his left hand he passes the gift of gold to Joseph, who is, likewise, reaching out to take it with his left. I have seen him given this practical responsibility – of looking after the gifts – more than once. With his right hand the king holds the child’s tiny arm, preparing to kiss Jesus’s hand as a further acknowledgement of his respect.

If you look back to the full picture, you will see that the youngest king has removed his hat, and holds it by his side. The middle king wears a turban, topped by crown-like elements. The turban was commonly used as an ‘exotic’ feature, to mark the king as ‘other’, and to explain that he was not European. However, there is no black king here: it was really at about the time this image was painted that the the black king starts to appear. Within a few decades he would become a constant presence. The gospels do not say where, exactly, the kings came from. But then, the gospels do not mention kings at all. According to Matthew 2:1,  ‘there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem’. It doesn’t even mention how many. So why three, and why kings? Well, they brought three gifts, and the number three is significant because of the Holy Trinity. That’ll do for a start. But then, they were also seen as representing the three known continents (Europe, Africa and Asia), although not all three are ‘east’ of Jerusalem. They are also frequently interpreted as representing the three ages of man: old, middle-aged (or ‘mature’) and young. As for their identification as kings – well, you’ll have to wait until Monday for that to be explained.

In the same way that the Nativity shows us the next bit of the story – the Annunciation to the Shepherds – so does this Adoration. Way away in the distance at the top right we can see soldiers on horseback emerging from behind a hill, and, on the far right, they have gathered in front of a wooden building, where you might be able to discern frenetic activity. The scale is tiny, and the image unclear, but these are Herod’s men. The kings were warned not to tell Herod of Jesus’s whereabouts, and the jealous monarch has realised that they have not reported back. He sent his men out to kill all the infant males – an episode known as the Massacre of the Innocents – and that is what is taking place in and around the wooden building.

The Nativity and Adoration, together with this Visitation (the story was covered in Monday’s talk), were all painted for the outside of the wings of an altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin in the Abbey of St Vaast in Arras, now known either as the Arras Altarpiece or the St Vaast Altarpiece, for obvious reasons. It was commissioned by the man who had been abbot there since 1428, Jean de Clercq, Daret’s great patron. It is him kneeling between St Elizabeth and his own coat of arms in this Visitation. He kept remarkably good account books, which record Daret’s activities over a period of about 20 years – but sadly the results of almost all of this have been lost. When open the wings revealed a sculpture of The Coronation of the Virgin above a series of sculptures of the twelve apostles. Although he did not carve them, Daret was paid to paint this ensemble, and to build and decorate the structure which framed and supported all the figures. On the inside, the wings were painted blue and decorated with gold fleur-de-lys. When closed, they were surmounted by an Annunciation group (presumably with Gabriel above the left wing, and Mary above the right), but that is now lost. The four surviving panels – the Visitation, Nativity, Adoration of the Kings which we are looking at today, and the Presentation in the Temple which I will come back to – made up the remainder of the wings. We know this thanks to a description from 1651, but sadly, some time later, and probably in the 18th Century, the whole structure was dismantled, and everything, apart from the four painted panels, was lost. This is a great pity – but it is a reminder that the vast majority of paintings from the 15th Century and before have been lost. We are so lucky to have the elements which survive – and I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve seen them all yet: there is still so much more to look forward to! Some of these treasures will inevitably be included on Monday


178 – No crib for a bed

Jacques Daret, The Nativity, c. 1434-45. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

If you have ever enjoyed the obligation of seeing your child, or a friend’s child, or relative’s child – or anybody’s child for that matter – in a school Nativity play (now curiously abbreviated to ‘their Nativity’ as if you were about to watch their birth), you may have wondered at the twists and turns of the narrative that call for quite so many random characters, creatures, and I suspect even inanimate objects to pay homage beside the manger. ‘Jesus wants me for a snowflake’ must be the song on every with-it teacher’s lips. But trust me, whatever you have seen is nothing compared to what the medieval mind was able to imagine. Dragons? Animated trees? Toys coming to life? Jesus being grounded? Trust me, it’s all out there, and we’ll see all of these in Week 3 of my series The Childhood of Christ which starts this Monday, 28 November – the first Monday in Advent – with Until the Nativity. Of course, there will also be the usual wholesome ox and ass, even if they don’t get a mention in the gospels. Today’s painting includes more than one such apocryphal story, although I’m only going to tell you one of them for now…

I wanted to look at this painting because it is one of the few known works attributable to Jacques Daret. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of him: although a surviving account book from the 15th century lists many of his paintings, only four survive, all panels from an altarpiece originally made for the Abbey of St Vaast in Arras, Flanders (now France). Daret was born in Tournai, Flanders (now Belgium), and studied with Robert Campin, who had settled there in the first decade of the 15th Century. Daret was a member of Campin’s studio for 15 years, and coincided with another student who is named in the archives as Rogelet de la Pasture. If you were to translate that in to what is presumably old Flemish, that would be Rogier van der Weyden, a more familiar name, I imagine, and another great artist who was a native of Tournai. And why am I interested in Jacques Daret? Well, I was in Tournai last week, and I’ll be going again next… Sadly they don’t have any of his works there: two are in Berlin, one is in Paris and today’s is in Madrid.

As foretold, it shows the Nativity, or, to be more precise, The Nativity of Christ. He is lying on the floor, waving his arms and legs and looking up at his mother, who can be identified easily thanks to the traditional blue cloak, which spreads around her as she kneels on the ground, and from her immaculate complexion, and flowing blonde hair (I know, this is supposed to take place in the Middle East, but fair-skinned and blonde she is – more about that another time, probably Monday, although I must have discussed it elsewhere already). To the left are the ox and ass in their stall, and beams of light come down from God the Father up in Heaven. If these are the only things in the painting you can identify, don’t worry – we’ll get there. There are two more women, who I really doubt have ever made it into any school Nativity play, and a wealthy-looking man. They are all gathered in and around a rickety-looking stable, apparently made of re-purposed wood and rough-hewn branches which prop up a decaying roof, attached at the back to a crumbling wall. At the top of the painting is a smattering of angels, but we’ll come back to them. I want to focus on Jesus.

He has been left on the ground, without as much as a bottle of hay to keep him warm and comfortable. As if the idea of placing him in a manger – a food trough – was not enough to show God’s humility in taking on human form, here he is completely exposed and vulnerable. This exposure is only enhanced by the way in which he is surrounded by expensive-looking fabrics, with the hem of Mary’s cloak meandering to the left, the purple skirts folded over the knees of the woman at the back, and on the right, a rich array of different, costly materials. In case we’d missed who this is, golden beams of light – the glow of sanctity – emanate from him in every direction, not unlike the beams of light that reach down to us from his Father in Heaven. The woman on the right has a red brocade dress woven with gold thread, and a fur-lined overskirt of green brocade. She also has two belts – a wide purple one around the overskirt, both ends of which hang behind her, the longer of the two falling to the bottom of the painting. It terminates in a simple knot, and has gold studs, or embroidery, as a ‘simple’ decoration. The red dress is gathered at the waist by what looks like a black and gold plaited belt, and there is sheathed knife tucked under her left knee. Golden, pearl encrusted cuffs circle the ends of the short sleeves of her red dress. From these emerge fuller blue sleeves. Her hands hang limply, their light colour and the angle of the fingers directing our attention towards the similarly pale baby. He looks up at his mother, as I have said, but what is his expression? Slight surprise, and concern, perhaps? There is a little questioning as well. ‘What, exactly, is going on?’ he could be asking. As for the waving arms and legs – well, they’re not, really, are they? They are placed very specifically. One foot over the other, and two hands raised, with both palms clearly visible. This looks like a non-verbal means of communication, an explanation of his purpose here on earth. In approximately thirty-three years’ time nails will be driven through those hands and feet in almost exactly that configuration. We are always being reminded of where the story is going. Flat on the bare ground, he could equally uncomfortably be lying on an altar as a sacrificial victim.

The focus is so intently on Jesus. Mary and the two women look at him almost demurely, whereas the Ox and the Ass stare with determined focus – as if to show that they can. They recognise their maker, which is why, as we shall see on Monday, they are there in the first place – even if they aren’t mentioned in the gospels. The only ‘creature’ whose gaze is not certain is the man, who may well be looking timidly towards Mary. He is, as you have probably realised, Joseph, but unlike most Josephs you will have seen. He is imagined not as a poor carpenter, but a successful merchant: he would be more than capable of making, or having made, and selling you for a good price, a far more sturdy stable. He wears a purple robe under a lined, brown cloak, together with a fashionable black hat. This he has removed, as a sign that he is in a holy place, and a specifically Christian one at that (were he Jewish, which of course he was, he would have been required to put one on). He also has a finely decorated purse attached to his belt, green, with embroidered ribbons appliqued in diagonals – a sure sign of wealth – and he holds a candle, which seems to have little effect – but more of that on Monday, too.

As far as the stable is concerned, this is not the product of a skilled workman: we are making do with what is available. The notches and peg holes in the vertical on the left suggest that it has been used for something before, while the support on the right is little more than the trunk of a tree felled young (are we looking forward to the Crucifixion again, and Jesus’s untimely demise?). It is cracked, with some branches sawn off (one of which, about a third of the way up, was sawn off some time before the tree was felled, allowing more growth to accumulate around the stump), and some bark still clinging on, a marvel of naturalistic detail. There are also two smaller, rough-hewn branches which have been trimmed, bevelled, and attached to keep it upright. Notice how the three women, as well as the ox and the ass, are all framed neatly between the two uprights, whereas Joseph is standing just to the right – effectively ‘outside’ this humble shelter.

And the two unknown women? Well, they are the midwives, clearly. You can’t have a birth without midwives, even if they weren’t mentioned in the bible. However, the fact that they weren’t there is a result of the way in which the bible was edited. Some of the gospels didn’t make the final cut (and when we hear some of the stories they tell in Week 3 of The Childhood of Christ you will realise why). The midwives are mentioned in at least one of them, the so-called ‘Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew’ (that’s a link to the whole thing, if you want to read it all). In chapter 13 Joseph goes to look for a midwife, but the miraculous birth occurs while he is gone. He returns with not one but two, who he introduces to Mary. The first, Zelomi, goes in to the stable (which I think we must imagine as being more enclosed than this one), examines Mary, and realises that, even after the birth, let alone after conception, she is still a Virgin, causing her to cry out in amazement. This brings the second midwife, Salome, into the room:

And hearing these words, Salome said: Allow me to handle thee, and prove whether Zelomi have spoken the truth. And the blessed Mary allowed her to handle her. And when she had withdrawn her hand from handling her, it dried up, and through excess of pain she began to weep bitterly, and to be in great distress, crying out, and saying: O Lord God, Thou knowest that I have always feared Thee, and that without recompense I have cared for all the poor; I have taken nothing from the widow and the orphan, and the needy have I not sent empty away. And, behold, I am made wretched because of mine unbelief, since without a cause I wished to try Thy virgin.

And while she was thus speaking, there stood by her a young man in shining garments, saying: Go to the child, and adore Him, and touch Him with thy hand, and He will heal thee, because He is the Saviour of the world, and of all that hope in Him. And she went to the child with haste, and adored Him, and touched the fringe of the cloths in which He was wrapped, and instantly her hand was cured. And going forth, she began to cry aloud, and to tell the wonderful things which she had seen, and which she had suffered, and how she had been cured; so that many through her statements believed.

This is where we are in the story. Zelomi is at the back with hands which are both expressive and beautifully articulated. Salome’s withered limbs droop down towards Jesus, about to touch him and be healed.

I am now beginning to wonder whether Jesus is really looking at his Mother, or rather, perhaps, to the longest beam of light which crosses Zelomi’s green sleeve, and red overskirt, reaching as far as its incredibly plush fur lining. This, the longest ray, is pointing directly towards Jesus – and maybe it is this that the new-born is fixing – the radiance of God the Father. Our course will end in Week 4 with Jesus’s first biblical miracle, turning water into wine. But already, in the apocryphal texts, minutes after his birth, the miracles are happening – and Jesus could well be looking up to Heaven in the knowledge that they won’t stop any time soon. No peace for the perfect.

Meanwhile, at the top of the painting, we continue to look ahead. In the distance, on the far right, an angel is announcing the great tidings of glad joy to the shepherds (we’ll talk about them in Week 2), while more angels – and birds – gather on the roof. This angel is happy to point to the baby Jesus, while holding his voluminous and magnificently flowing robes. Just to the left is a goldfinch, a frequently-seen symbol of the Passion of Christ. It was believed that goldfinches ate thorns, and that one went to eat from the Crown of Thorns. A drop of blood fell from the Saviour’s forehead, and left a permanent red stain, which you can see to this day around the Goldfinch’s beak. At the top are two swallows – barn swallows, presumably (or stable swallows, I suppose). Migration was not fully understood until we travelled far enough and fast enough and could track where the birds went in the winter. But it was clear to the medieval mind that they went away and came back again. Jesus did the same, but far more quickly – and so the swallow became a symbol of his death and resurrection.

At the other end of the roof there are three more angels in even fuller and more swirling robes. They are on the verge of singing. I say ‘on the verge’ as they appear to be holding their song sheet (such scrolls are often are inscribed with the words ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’, although I can’t see anything here) – and yet their mouths are shut. There are also two things I don’t remember seeing before in paintings of the Nativity. I’m sure I have, I just don’t remember. First – icicles, hanging from the beams and the thatch. In the deep mid-winter frosty winds made moan, even in the Middle East. Second, at the top left, a great tit: yellow breast with a black stripe running down the centre, and a black head with white cheeks. It’s unmistakeable. And it’s there because – well, because it wanted to join in, maybe. I see them a lot in my garden, and I bet Jacques Daret did too. I can’t for the life of me imagine what it’s symbolism could be, simply because it doesn’t occur often enough to be commented on. For us now, though, it’s a symbol, as much as anything, of the observational skills of the artist, and the growing interest in naturalistic detail; of looking at the world around us and painting things which we know are there. And if we know that the great tit is real – then the angels must be too. Its presence helps us to believe. The tit is looking in to the centre of the picture, as is the goldfinch and at least one of the swallows. Even if they are not looking down, their gaze focusses us inwards, towards their maker. Not only that, but the beak of the goldfinch is directly above the forehead of the baby on to which – in thirty-three years’ time – a crown of thorns will be driven. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.


177 – Taking Germany by storm

Gabriele Münter, Portrait of Anna Roslund, 1917. New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester.

I love exhibitions which truly have something new to offer, and Making Modernism at the Royal Academy is, for me at least, one of those – so I’m looking forward to talking about it this Monday, 21 November at 6pm. My only problem will be the usual one – too much to say! I found that on Wednesday morning when I took 40 minutes of an hour’s tour in the first room – with two more rooms to go. But don’t worry, I really will edit down and show you the best! The exhibition focusses on four superb women artists who were not only innovative, but also highly successful. And yet they are relatively unknown today. Käthe Kollwitz is probably the most familiar of the artists, and I was also aware of (but not familiar with) Paula Modersohn-Becker’s work. I knew Gabriele Münter’s name, but I don’t think I’d ever seen any of her paintings. Marianne Werefkin, on the other hand, is completely new to me – and a great discovery. There are also three ‘guest’ artists – but more of them on Monday. The following week I will move on to The Childhood of Christ, which I will discuss over the four Mondays in Advent – but can more details about those talks can be found via the links in the diary. Art History Abroad have now announced their tour schedule for the first half of 2023, including a trip I am taking to Amsterdam to see the Vermeer exhibitions in Amsterdam and Delft. But for today I want to look at the ‘Poster Woman’ of Making Modernism, Anna Roslund, as painted by Gabriele Münter. I would say ‘Poster Girl’, but recently had my wrist slapped for my careless use of language…

Munter, Gabriele; Anna Roslund (1891-1941); Leicester Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/anna-roslund-18911941-80902

I’m afraid I can tell you relatively little about Anna Roslund herself, but we get a strong sense of her character just by looking at this portrait. Apart from anything else, how many women have you ever seen smoking a pipe? I know there are some famous examples in history, but I can’t for the life of me remember who they are. ‘Women smoking’ is something one didn’t used to see (a long, long time ago), and ‘women smoking a pipe’ make up an even smaller sub-group.  This bold gesture is combined with an open pose, left arm resting on the arm of the chair, with her head resting on her left hand. The right arm is tucked in, holding the pipe to the mouth. Add to that the strong, bold colours of the outfit, royal blue and black, heightened by the bright red of the pom-pom (?) in front of her chest, and you have a strong sense of individuality, the image of self-confidence.

Anna Roslund has the clearest, light-blue, piercing eyes, and a stylish haircut, apparently bobbed with a fringe (although we can’t see what it’s like behind), which makes me think more of the 1920s than 1917. She is clearly a serious, thoughtful woman, her head tilted to one side and her eyes gazing into the middle distance some way above our left shoulders. Like Rodin’s Thinker, with his chin on his fist, or Dalí’s Narcissus, who we saw last week, his chin on his knee, the head leaning on the hand adds to the sense of contemplation, albeit in a different way. Each finger is clearly demarcated (although the little finger is oddly truncated – I don’t know whether that was an anatomical fact, or an artistic abbreviation), and there is a clear space through to the light background. Presumably, given the curtain, this is a view through a window, with broad, light brushstrokes of white and pink over a darker ground, giving an idea of a light, but cloudy sky. The curtain itself, in a deep turquoise, is angled parallel to the tilt of the head, and completes the ‘virtual’ pyramid which gives this composition – and Anna Roslund – stability, and strength of presence. Another note of stability is the horizontal of the arm, marked strongly by the contrast between the upper edge of the blue sleeve and the light background (and see how the thumb and fingers echo shapes of the arm and head).

Roslund is clearly comfortable in this chair, and I love the way in which the curve of her right shoulder, clad in blue and enhanced by a subtle black outline, echoes the curve of the left arm of the chair – it is as if she is a completion of the chair on that side. The chair itself, with the yellow arm given texture and form by the darker brushstrokes, is painted in a similar technique and colour to Van Gogh’s more famous example, a symbolic self portrait (having said that, having posted the pictures, the chair looks more violet than it did in the file on my laptop!). Indeed, as we shall see on Monday, Münter was an admirer of the Dutchman’s work, even naming her house in the country ‘The Yellow House’, as a nod to his home in Arles.

The arms of the chair curve round and in before flaring out again, as if hugging the sitter. The right arm (seen on our left) is more brightly illuminated, and, as a result, appears to be a different colour (but with colour, everything is relative – see above). The left arm (on our right) reminds me of the roads you see in some Dutch landscape paintings, which start in the bottom corner of the painting, and lead you into the middle ground, as if the artist is expecting you to go on a journey with him (I don’t think there was a woman who painted landscapes in the Dutch Golden Age). I think the same is true here: Münter is using these arms, particular the one on our right, to lead our eye into the painting – and also, as the corners of the pyramidal composition.

I’m not an expert of women’s dress (nor of men’s, for that matter), but the blue top appears to continue as an open overskirt, framing the sleeker black skirt. Either that, or she is sitting on a blue cushion of the same hue as her blouse. Whatever it is, this blue, and the uncovered section of the seat of the chair, both form triangles pointing up towards Roslund’s face. Her left leg is crossed over her right – again, a confidence in her body language which we might not think of as ‘lady-like’ for the first half of the 20th Century.  The black outlines to the blue blouse might relate to the clothing itself, or they may be the result of Münter’s interest in Bavarian folk art, particular reverse glass painting (painted on one side of the glass, to be seen from the other), which often had rich, jewel-like colours separated by black outlines, a cloisonné effect not unlike stained glass windows.

Munter, Gabriele; Anna Roslund (1891-1941); Leicester Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/anna-roslund-18911941-80902

So who was this remarkable, stylish, self-confident, thoughtful woman? Well, a musician and author at the forefront of the Danish Avant Garde, but that is as far as I can get, I’m afraid. Münter met her while living in Copenhagen during the First World War. However, I can tell you that Anna Roslund had a sister called Nell, who was an artist, and who married a man called Herwath Walden in 1912. And it is this that makes the portrait a key image for Making Modernism, one theme of which is the nature of artistic communities and the resulting dissemination of ideas. From 1910 Walden published a weekly journal dedicated to modern art (monthly from 1914-1924). It was called Der Sturm – ‘The Storm’ – the title expressing Walden’s conviction that that was how modern art was going to take Germany. His focus was on Cubism and Futurism (he effectively introduced these movements to the German public) and also on the burgeoning German Expressionist movement. In 1912, the year in which he and Nell Roslund married, they opened an art gallery in Berlin under the same name. Both Gabriele Münter and Marianne Werefkin were exhibited regularly, as was Dutch artist Jacoba van Heemskerck, one of the ‘guests’ in the RA’s treasure trove of an exhibition. Münter’s introduction to today’s sitter came via her gallerist, effectively. It might even have been this connection that took her to Copenhagen.

One question remains: if these artists were so successful when they were alive, why is their work so little known today? One reason, for the British at least – apart from the fact that the men they were associated with took all the limelight – is that there is very little of their work in public collections (Kollwitz excepted – but hers are works on paper which are rarely on display). This portrait is one of the few which has been borrowed from a British institution. It forms part of Leicester’s notable collection of German Expressionism, one of the rich seams of great art which, when you find them, are a surprising, but rewarding, feature of our regional museums. As to how they came to acquire this remarkable body of work – well, that’s another story. For now, though, I can highly recommend Making Modernism at the Royal Academy as a way of discovering – or, if you know them already, familiarizing yourselves with – some great and unjustly neglected artists.


176 – All change!

Salvador Dalí, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937. Tate.

Salvador Dalí was a Surrealist, obviously, and, some would say, the Arch-Surrealist. In 1934 he even claimed a form of ‘über-Surrealism’ when he explained that ‘The difference between the Surrealists and me is that I am a Surrealist’ – a typically Surreal statement. As such, like all members of ‘Modernist’ movements, we would probably expect Dalí to turn his back on the art of the past and everything it stood for. However, on Monday I will be talking about one of his paintings of the Crucifixion, putting it (briefly) into the context of the rest of his career, and comparing it to a work by El Greco. Both are on show together at the Spanish Gallery in Bishop Auckland in a display entitled Dalí/El Greco: Christ on the Cross – a micro-exhibition which is well worth a visit if you’re in the area before Sunday 4 December. Having discussed both works I will also introduce the Gallery itself (briefly) for those who haven’t been. I’m saying ‘briefly’ to myself as a reminder not to get carried away when I’m prepare the PowerPoint. Dalí, El Greco and the Spanish Gallery will be on Monday 14 November at 6pm, and if you can make it you’ll see whether or not I succeed! Other talks up until Christmas are, of course, in the diary, and there will be more news about my plans for the New Year soon. As I’m talking about Dalí and Christianity on Monday, today I thought I’d have a look at him confronting another pillar of Old Master Painting: classical mythology. So here is the Metamorphosis of Narcissus.

‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’, 1937, Salvador Dali (1904-1989). Purchased 1979 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02343

The story is probably well-known to you – or, if not the story itself, the general idea: Narcissus was in love with himself. Only that’s not exactly what happened. Let’s start by looking at the painting, though. There are two main forms set in a landscape. To the left of centre is a person crouching or sitting in the water at the edge of a lake. The right knee is strongly bent, and appears to lie across the surface of the water, where it is reflected in the mirror-like surface. This would only be possible if the figure was completely immobile, and had been still for some time: any movement and ripples would disrupt the reflection. The left knee is raised, and the chin of what must be the head (even if there are no facial features) rests on the knee. A chin resting on a hand implies thought – just think of Rodin – but here we can see that a knee can perform the same function: this figure is deep in contemplation. The shoulders are hunched, and frame the head, both being caught in the brilliant sunshine which streams down from the top left of the painting. The right arm is barely visible, bent back behind the form, with the hand probably resting, unseen, on the shore of the lake. The left hand is dipped into the water, though. We can see the articulation of the wrist, and the flare of the hand, but the fingers are out of sight. The arm frames the figure, and is bent at the elbow, with the joint itself in deep shadow. Like the right leg, the left leg and arm are both reflected in the lake. The hair, which seems to blend with the flesh of the forehead, is pulled back in a topknot, which blows in the breeze above the left shoulder. The head itself is furrowed and rough: to me it looks a bit like a walnut.

The ‘figure’ on the right is remarkably similar in form, but looks more like a sculpture, or statue, carved out of white marble. Standing on the shore of the lake, and a little closer than the human figure, it represents a hand holding an egg, delicately poised between the tips of thumb, index and middle fingers – it is a right hand. The ring and little fingers are both bent. A flower is growing from the egg.

If we take this detail out of context, the brilliance of Dalí’s conception becomes clear, if it wasn’t already. No longer are we distracted by the placement of the figures. It is irrelevant that the hand is closer to us than the human figure, as the head and the egg are at the same height, and appear to be the same size, on the picture surface at least (perspective would suggest that, as it is further away, the head is actually larger). However, now that we are looking closer we can see that the index finger does not touch the egg, but is at a small remove, the gap being equivalent to the area of shadow cast on the left shoulder by the head. In between the finger and the egg is a root – perhaps a development of the hair which has otherwise disappeared. Dalí is showing us metamorphosis –  a change of form. However, in order to do so he is also using a staple technique of medieval and renaissance art: continuous narrative. This allows an artist to tell a story by showing the same character more than once in different time frames. Here we see Narcissus both before and after his transformation, or rather, perhaps, shortly after the metamorphosis has commenced, and when it is all but complete. But why does this happen in the first place? And how? The origins of the story are, of course, Greek, but it is told at its fullest in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a treasure trove of source material for classical myth which was used by artists across the centuries. Using these stories Ovid set out to show how everything changes: the world we live in is in a state of flux, and everything we know now was once something else. As such, it is a sort of origin myth, with explanations of the creation of many plants and animals, among other things, and story of Narcissus is just one of these – or maybe two, as his fate was tied in to that of Echo.

Long story short: Narcissus was so beautiful that everyone fell in love with him: men, women and minor deities alike. Beautiful on the outside, he was less than perfect within, and he treated all his suitors with bitter disdain. Eventually one of them begged the gods to let him know the same pangs of unrequited love that they endured, and the plea was answered by Nemesis, the goddess of retribution. This is how the story progresses, in a prose version I’ve just found on the internet (click on this link for the whole of Book 3, and if you start with line 339 you’ll get the story of Echo as well):

There was an unclouded fountain, with silver-bright water, which neither shepherds nor goats grazing the hills, nor other flocks, touched, that no animal or bird disturbed not even a branch falling from a tree. Grass was around it, fed by the moisture nearby, and a grove of trees that prevented the sun from warming the place. Here, the boy, tired by the heat and his enthusiasm for the chase, lies down, drawn to it by its look and by the fountain. While he desires to quench his thirst, a different thirst is created. While he drinks he is seized by the vision of his reflected form. He loves a bodiless dream. He thinks that a body, which is only a shadow. He is astonished by himself, and hangs there motionless, with a fixed expression, like a statue carved from Parian marble.

So he himself waits, motionless, like a marble statue – hence the stillness of Dalí’s figure, and the appearance of its equivalent, the hand. Important for the story, though, is that Narcissus did not know what – or who – he was looking at. As far as he was concerned it was a beautiful boy in the water, who actually reached out to touch and even kiss him – but who shied away at the moment of contact. Only later did he realise that it was his own reflection, and that his love was doomed, like that of those he rejected, never to be requited. In Ovid’s telling of the story, Narcissus weeps, and the tears disrupt the reflection, but still he continues to watch the effects of unrequited love on his own behaviour, and body:

‘As he sees all this reflected in the dissolving waves, he can bear it no longer, but as yellow wax melts in a light flame, as morning frost thaws in the sun, so he is weakened and melted by love, and worn away little by little by the hidden fire. He no longer retains his colour, the white mingled with red, no longer has life and strength…’

Eventually his sisters, the Naiads, lamenting his death, prepare a funeral pyre, but there was no body. They came upon a flower, instead of his body, with white petals surrounding a yellow heart.’ So Narcissus is transformed into a flower: a narcissus, a type of daffodil. It’s Latin name is Narcissus poeticus – which is, of course, entirely apt – and this is what Dalí shows, with poetic (and surreal) ambiguity, emerging from an egg.

The lower half of the painting shows how ingeniously Dalí mapped one form onto another. The bent right leg becomes the ring finger, and its reflection is the little finger. The thumb is continued down to the wrist by its own reflection – and there is subtlety here: the surface of the water is mapped onto the hand with a crack in the marble. This gives the impression that the metamorphosis is ongoing, and that the stone will eventually break up and wear away. This feeling of decadence – literally a state of deterioration or decay – is enhanced by the ants which are swarming up from the ground and along the thumb. Ants are frequently included in Dalí’s art as symbols of death and decay, apparently the result of him seeing them on the bodies of decomposing animals when he was young. The scrawny dog has a lump of raw meat in its mouth. A scavenger, it might even be imagined as eating the flesh of the dead boy.

If we’re talking symbols, Dalí uses the egg as a sign of hope – of new life, or rebirth – hence its place as the origin of the flower. Like the rest of the hand further down the thumbnail is cracked – another sign that the transformation is continuing, and that eventually only the flower will survive. On either side of the hand are more elements of continuous narrative. The myriad figures to the left of the hand, stretching and writhing, are usually interpreted as Narcissus’s suitors, suffering the pangs of rejection, while to the right a figure stands on a plinth looking down: Narcissus admiring his own perfection. He’s been placed on a pedestal, either by the suitors, who have put him there metaphorically, or by himself: he has set himself apart, whether metaphorically or not. Placed on a grid like a chess board there is perhaps a sense of strategy at play here. And directly above this statuesque figure – a hint at what is to come – there is an echo of the finger tips holding the egg in a distant mountain. Maybe there are more people like Narcissus out there, suffering a similar fate.

Dalí did not always elucidate every detail of his work – probably just as well, given how much detail each painting contains – and as often as not he is providing poetic suggestions which give full rein to our own interpretative powers – and to our imagination. However, it is interesting to consider what his interest in this particular story was, and how it relates to his practice at the time. It is one of the fullest realisations of a technique he called the paranoiac-critical method. One of the main symptoms of paranoia is the ability to find links between things which, in reality, have no rational connection. Although not paranoid himself, Dalí had what was an extraordinarily active imagination, and, after letting himself go on more than usual flights of fantasy, he would re-form his ‘paranoid’ imaginings into a concrete image – the ‘critical’ side of the paranoiac-critical method. One of his suggestions about this particular painting was that you should stare at it in an unfocussed way until the two primary forms combine. A bit like ‘magic eye’ images – which rely on the left and right eyes focussing on two different elements of the image to allow the brain to resolve a single, three-dimensional design – he was basically suggesting that we let our focus go so that our left eye sees the left form and our right looks at that on the right. At that point the two forms would merge into one, and Narcissus’s transformation would be complete: the human figure  would ‘disappear’ within the hand.

‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’, 1937, Salvador Dali (1904-1989). Purchased 1979 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02343

In 1938 the Catalan artist was taken to see one of his heroes, the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud: both were in London. Dalí had read The Interpretation of Dreams years before, and Freud’s interest in the subconscious was one of the driving forces of his art – as it was for all Surrealists. On the visit he took this painting, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, with him, like a proud schoolboy eager to impress the teacher. Sources relating to Dalí tend to stress the positive outcome of this meeting, quoting Freud’s letter to Stefan Zweig, the Austrian author who had introduced the artist to the thinker, in which the psychoanalyst said:

I really have reason to thank you for the introduction which brought me yesterday’s visitors. For until then I was inclined to look upon the surrealists – who have apparently chosen me as their patron saint – as absolute (let us say 95 percent, like alcohol), cranks. That young Spaniard, however, with his candid and fanatical eyes, and his undeniable technical mastery, has made me reconsider my opinion.  

Elsewhere, though, he said, ‘In classic paintings, I look for the unconscious – in a surrealist painting, for the conscious.’ Some suggest this was said directly to Dalí, thus completely undermining one of the cornerstones of the entire Surrealist movement. I shall leave you to look into Freud’s own theories about the story of Narcissus and its relationship to homosexuality for yourselves – the theory has long been discredited, even if this may well be the reason why Dalí chose this myth in the first place. For now, I am happy to enjoy the painting’s appearance. In any case, I would prefer to move on to Dalí’s interest in Christianity, which is precisely what I shall do on Monday.


Second Impressions

Mary Cassatt, The Tea, about 1880, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Things have been building up with all the exhibitions opening over the past few weeks, and I’ve run out of time – so, time for a re-post! But what to choose? Would would be relevant to the National Gallery’s third exhibition to open this autumn, Discover Manet and Eva Gonzalès, which will be the subject of my next talk on Monday, 31 October at 6pm GMT (remember that the clocks change in the UK on Sunday)? It is, I would suggest, the best of the three. Definitely the smallest, it is also the most focussed, beautifully coherent, with a number of fantastic paintings which you have probably never seen, by artists of whom you might not have heard, but which are truly wonderful. It is also far-reaching for an exhibition based on one painting – the portrait by Edouard Manet of his only formal student, Eva Gonzalès. As well as this painting, the exhibition also explores the nature of their complex relationship, looks at how the portrait relates to paintings of other women artists, including a superb selection of self portraits, as well as exploring the possibilities for women in the arts in the late 19th Century. All this is supported by a brilliantly written catalogue, which I would certainly recommend. This was sponsored by ARTscapades, a superb organisation who raise money for the arts, and if you’re not free on Monday, I will be repeating the talk for them on Tuesday… After that, of course, my talks until the end of the year are all listed in the diary.

So, what to choose? I could have gone for one of my favourites from the selection of self-portraits in the exhibition, the complex ‘manifesto’ by Laura Knight, which I discussed back in January, or an alternative self portrait by other women exhibited, including Vigée Le Brun or Angelica Kauffman. Or I could have gone for paintings related to Manet’s portrait which are cited in the catalogue but not exhibited, such as the self portrait by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard or the allegory of painting by Artemisia Gentileschi (which I no longer believe is a self portrait). Indeed, thinking about this has given me an idea for the new year (spoiler alert!) when I will deliver a series of five (I think) talks, introducing women artists over the centuries. More of that in December…

In the end I’ve chosen one of my earliest posts, Picture of the Day 15, which was originally ‘published’ in the second week of lockdown, on 2 April 2020, on my Facebook page, before I’d even started this blog. It is a painting by Mary Cassatt, one of the great Impressionists – and even if Eva Gonzalès chose, like her master, not to exhibit with the young rebels, her work can certainly be associated with this diffuse ‘movement’. Enough introduction. This is what I said over two years ago, and reading it through again today, I think I would probably agree with myself (although there are only two cups).

A change of mood: let’s calm things down a little, and have a nice cup of tea, brought to us by Mary Cassatt, and the good people of Boston. There are some paintings which just make me want to stop, and look, and say, ‘Isn’t that lovely!’ And this is one of them. It’s so carefully composed, and harmoniously coloured.  The two women, the tea service, and the vase in front of the mirror – or is it a painting? – are evenly spaced across the surface. The rich red of the tablecloth, with its thin, decorative border matches the floral patterning of the upholstered sofa shared by the two women, as well as the stripes of the wallpaper. The blue, presumably Japanese vase, with its gilt fittings, together with the frame of the painting (or is it a mirror?) echoes the colours of right-hand woman’s outfit, while also, together with the carved marble fireplace, describing the richly appointed lifestyle that was Cassatt’s milieu. The antique silver tea service is another indicator of this. There is such a focus on these still life details, with the carefully but freely painted teapot, sugar bowl and cup, the reflections on their surfaces and their reflections in the tray, that we might assume that this tea service is the real the subject of the painting. It is more prominent than the women, a third character in this domestic drama. 

Mary Cassatt came from a wealthy Pittsburgh family, and left the States just after the Civil War, like so many other Americans – she could almost have been in a Henry James novel.  She wasn’t the only woman to exhibit with the Impressionists, but she was the only American. She joined them in 1877 at the invitation of Edgar Degas, so often maligned for his misogyny. I suspect he got grumpier as he got older (I know the feeling), and so a lot of the misogyny was general misanthropy.

You can see what he liked about her work from this image. The composition of The Tea is not so very far from some of his own: two people in a room, drinking, a tray on the table, the table taking up most of the foreground space, the same tones and colours as the walls – a description that would fit both The Tea by Cassatt and Absinthe by Degas, painted three or four years earlier. The connection is purely coincidental, I suspect – or rather, it is part of what makes them both Impressionists: they have common interests and concerns.

The Impressionists didn’t set out to be the most famous and successful artistic movement of the 19th Century – they just wanted their work to be seen. At the time there was only one main art exhibition per year – the annual ‘Salon’ – held by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and therefore officially sanctioned. If you wanted to get known, to be accepted and to sell work in France, you had to be seen there. But the paintings of a group of young artists who hung around in the circle of Edouard Manet in the Batignolles district of Paris were rejected. In true 1950s American movie fashion, they decided to ‘put on a show right here’ – ‘here’ in this case being the studio of the photographer Nadar at 35, Boulevard des Cappucines. This was in 1874. But what should they be called? Well, they marketed themselves as ‘The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc.’ It was never going to catch on. 

Although there were bad reviews, they were not really as bad as everyone always says. One critic did try and suggest a name for the group, saying that, as the word ‘Impression’ had been used by one of the artists – Claude Monet exhibited a landscape called ‘Impression: Sunrise’ – you could do worse than calling them ‘Impressionists’, as they really did capture the impression you had on first seeing things. The exhibition was definitely not a financial success, and they didn’t follow it up the following year. However, in 1876 they put together a second exhibition, under the same name and, in 1877, a third. This was the first that Cassatt contributed to – she was delighted to be involved. On receiving Degas’ invitation she said, ‘I accepted with joy… I hated conventional art’. This was the moment, she thought, at which she ‘began to live’. It was also the point at which the ‘Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc.’ decided to cut to the chase and call themselves Impressionists.

They weren’t really a group, as such, and they didn’t really have a single style, although some of the more prominent artists did share similar interests. A lot of them painted outside, to capture the freshness of the moment – although Degas never did: he based a lot of his work on photography. Some of them were interested in bourgeois society, and the life of the city. Cassatt certainly fits in here. However, someone like Pissarro preferred peasant life and chose to live in small towns some way outside the capital – like Norwood, where he stayed during his years in London. But with all of them there is a sense that they stand on the outside looking in – voyeurs, perhaps. Or anthropologists. They loved people watching, and Cassatt’s great advantage was that she was a woman. Not only did she know how women behaved, but she had access to spaces and rituals that men could not have experienced. Had The Tea been painted by Renoir it would have been very different. The women would have been more buxom, for a start. And probably more girly – looking at the artist and smiling. Even giggling. Or languishing with bedroom eyes. Not Cassatt, though – she’s too good for that. She knows what it’s really like.

The similarities with L’Absinthe relate to her attempt to make the image look real – almost like a snapshot. The table gets in our way, and distances us from the women, although, in an apparently contradictory way, it also bridges the gap between us and them, leading our eye into the painting. Cassatt has portrayed the scene just as she saw it, without bothering to tidy it up, to move the table out of the way, or to make sure we can see both of the women clearly. In fact, she goes out of the way not to show us the women, choosing, very carefully, the moment at which one of them is drinking her tea, so that the cup is almost completely covering her face. This is the point at which you realise that the Impressionists’ claim to be painting what they saw, when they saw it, just as they saw it could not possibly be true. This isn’t ‘fly on the wall’ observation, it is careful calculation. How long would you spend with a cup tipped up like that? And how long would it take to paint? More than a few minutes, certainly.

The women are dressed rather differently, one in plain brown, her right hand leaning on her cheek, the other resting her saucer on her left hand, which is clad in a delicate primrose-yellow glove. The other gloved fingers lightly hold the cup to her mouth, little finger aloof, as she looks away from her companion. As well as gloves, she wears a hat – she is a guest in the other woman’s house and has recently arrived from the outside world. Her rich, deep blue coat, like the accessories, points to her wealth. The woman in brown is presumably as wealthy – look at her room – but, as she is at home, she does not feel the need to make the point (all those Working From Home bear this in mind). Cassatt was the master (or mistress?) of gesture and character, of setting and mood. Why did she want to paint the guest in the act of drinking? Why cover so much of her face? And why is she looking away? The cup is tipped quite high – she must have nearly finished. And not a moment too soon – the hostess has nothing more to say to her, it seems. And, possibly, she is thinking to herself, ‘I hope that’s the last sip’. The patient, long-suffering expression seems to say as much. And why is there so much focus on the tea service? Maybe we are also present in this room, a third, unseen person, and like the woman in blue we have looked away, we’re focussing on the silverware, as there really is nothing more to say, nothing more to do.  Talking of which, I really wouldn’t want to keep you any longer. But do feel free to linger, and enjoy the colours, the careful composition, the contrast between reclined relaxed hostess and upright, edgy guest, and that wonderful, tense, long, dramatic pause…

Having said all that way back when, I can now add that Eva Gonzalès was every bit as good in her observation of behaviour, and was also at the forefront of innovation in the genres of art. I do hope you can get to the exhibition at the National Gallery, or, at least, join me for the talk on Monday.


175 – Solid and durable

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1886-87. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Mont Sainte-Victoire was undoubtedly Paul Cézanne’s favourite landscape motif. He painted it over 80 times, but, to keep a handle on things, today I’m just going to look at one. However, my next talk, on Monday, 24 October at 6pm, will be an introduction to Tate Modern’s exhibition – Cezanne – and that includes a whole room dedicated to the subject (Tate have omitted Cézanne’s accent, as apparently, in Provence, where Paul grew up, it was not used). It is a monumental exhibition, and if you are planning to go, you might want to plan to go twice. Talking of planning, my Zoom talks are already lined up for the rest of the year – so do check out the diary to see what is on the cards. In November I will pay a visit to The Spanish Gallery in Bishop Auckland, and I am also looking forward to the exhibition of ground-breaking paintings by early-20th-century German women at the Royal Academy, Making Modernism. Throughout Advent I will be hanging around the Wallace Collection – and elsewhere – thinking about The Childhood of Christ in Art. But for dates and details, as I say, you’ll need to check out the diary.

I’ve long been fascinated by Cézanne’s stated wish to ‘make of Impressionism something solid and durable like the art of the museums’. His misgivings were that, in capturing a fleeting impression, the work itself might end up being ephemeral, too closely related to a specific moment in time. His repeated studies of Mont Sainte-Victoire were therefore completely different to Monet’s various series, with which he aimed to show how different his motifs looked at different times, in different weathers, and in different moods. Cézanne was in search of the timeless and unchanging, something universal, which would last. But how to achieve that? He wanted to rely on his sensations – a French word which translates as ‘feelings’ – although ‘feelings’ in terms of ‘sensations’, I suspect. So, effectively, he did want to paint what he felt, as a result of what he saw – he wanted to convey the impressions he had when looking at something (just like the Impressionists) – but he wanted to make it last. Not only that, but the image had to make coherent sense on a two dimensional surface – the painting – while holding true to the three dimensional nature of the motif. Put like that, it seems like a tall order – so it’s hardly surprising he tried so many times to ‘get it right’. Did he ever succeed? And if so, how?

The paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire are so familiar that it is perhaps hard to stop and look at them properly, or to see them afresh. In this example, as in so many, the Mountain – in reality a limestone ridge stretching over 18km – takes its familiar position on the horizon, rendered blue by the aerial perspective as if enough sky has got in between us and the distance to render it celestial – the colour of the sky (indeed, for Italians, celeste is a different colour from blue, in the same way that, in English, pink is different from red). The view is framed by two trees, one of which leans into the picture and spreads its branches across the sky, while the other is close enough to the artist that we can see neither its base, nor canopy. The lower two thirds of the painting is taken up with farmland, with the upper third being mountains, hills and sky, together with the aforementioned branches. The palette is extremely limited: greens, blues, and sandy browns.

This detail, from the bottom of the painting, is almost all of the ‘farmland’, the lowlands before we get to the foothills. At the top right you can see a railway viaduct – but, without knowledge of the location, it could have been an aqueduct. Quite apart from the fact that it was there, Cézanne may well have painted it to make Provence look a little more like the Roman Campagna. Indeed, it is the sort of thing you can find in some of the paintings of Poussin. In another of his aspirational statements – although one that some doubt he ever made – Cézanne is supposed to have claimed that he wanted ‘to redo Poussin all over from Nature’. This implies that he wanted to paint classical landscapes – in terms of harmony, proportion and monumentality – by looking at the real thing, rather than using his imagination, as Poussin did. In this detail we see him seeking out these harmonies. There is a long, straight track leading from behind the brow of the hill at the bottom right, which rises on a low diagonal toward the top left of the detail. Indeed, if we were to continue this line in either direction, it would stretch to the bottom right-hand corner of the painting, and reach the top left-hand corner of this detail. I cut the detail here deliberately, to show how the top of this diagonal would coincide, more-or-less, with a continuation of the viaduct, were it to stretch all the way across the painting. To the right of this straight track two dark lines – hedges perhaps? – run parallel to the same diagonal. Was this ‘harmony’ really there? Or was the ever-observant Cézanne simply enhancing the classical possibilities of his motif, idealising what he saw to make it more ‘timeless’?

Another way to harmonise the image was to make certain aspects of the painting consistent across the whole surface. Let’s focus in on the bottom right hand corner.

The predominant colours here are green and a neutral off-white. But only the green is painted: the ‘off-white’ is the colour of the primed, but unpainted, canvas – the ‘ground’. This might imply that the work is unfinished, but no, it is a technique Cézanne learnt from the Impressionists: you don’t have to cover every bit of the canvas with paint. Indeed, if you leave some gaps, and providing that your ground is light, it will add a sense of luminosity to your painting. After a certain stage in his career Cézanne did this with practiced regularity: look out for it in the following details. As well as adding luminosity, the repetition of these light areas across the whole surface of the painting lend it a sense of unity. The track – so important for structuring the composition and leading our eye into the distance – was also left ‘unpainted’, although as it emerges from the foliage at the bottom of the hill the artist has decided to emphasize its presence by heightening it with a brighter off-white paint. However, by the time we get to the top left corner of this detail, we seem to be back to the unpainted ground, ideal to represent the track, which is, after all, bare, and free of vegetation. The brushstrokes in this detail are quite scrubby, but many of them are short diagonal strokes going from top right to bottom left. These are Cézanne’s ‘constructive’ brush strokes, themselves derived from the Impressionist tache (blotch, patch or stain), which made up the tesserae from which many of their mosaic-like images were formed. In other, slightly earlier, works, Cézanne’s constructive brush strokes are far more consistent – ‘monotonous’ would be the correct word (but without the implication that they are boring), because they are all the same. The artist uses them, as the word suggests, to build up the entire image, and they also become another way of unifying the surface. The brushstrokes have the same function in this painting, but are used more freely – a sign that Cézanne is relaxing into his technique.

If the unpainted ground and constructive brush strokes can unify the surface – thus making the image coherent on the canvas – how can he imply a sense of distance, while still holding onto this cohesion? The answer is in the palette. The same sandy browns are used from the foreground slopes, through the middle ground (omitted above) and all the way into the foothills of the mountain. The greens – of different shades – are similarly disposed. Notice how the dark bottle green of the shrub in the bottom right – just above the largely ‘unpainted’ section – can also be seen in trees next to the farmhouse on the left of the upper detail here, and all the way over to the viaduct, recurring in shrubs which are growing at almost evenly spaced intervals. Every point where this bottle green can be seen is therefore related to every other one in our eyes, and therefore also in our mind. The same is true of the lighter emerald and jade hues, not to mention the sandy browns, and their more orangey variants, as seen in the cuboid farmhouses to the left and nearer the viaduct, which are exactly the same colour as one of the fields at the lower left.

The leaves of the pines at the top of the painting use the same bottle green, thus tying the foreground at the top to the foreground at the bottom – and to the middle ground, in the middle of the painting. But Cézanne also ties the foreground into the horizon by emphasizing the apparently concentric growth of the branches around the curves of the distant hills. There is unity across the surface, and also in depth. Like Lucian Freud (although in reality, of course, Freud was like him) Cézanne was a very considered painter. He would look at the motif and determine what it was he was seeing, then look to the painting and his palette and mix exactly the right colour for a particular brushstroke, before applying it. He was painting exactly what he saw as he saw it, looking directly at the section of the motif he was painting. One effect of this was to deny a sense of perspective. All the branches appear to be growing parallel to the picture plane, even if we do try and make sense of this by pushing some of them further back into the space. The branches and leaves form a two-dimensional filigree across the surface of the painting, and the darkness of the branches echoes the darkness of the edges of the distant hills. Atmospheric perspective does apply though, as somehow there is a softening of the brushstrokes – and undoubtedly a lightening of the tones – for the distant fields.

Another result of this painstaking approach was that every additional brushstroke altered what had already been painted. We do not see digitally, but by comparison. Adding a dark brushstroke would make the previously painted areas look lighter, and so adjustments had to be made continuously. Inevitably, like a game of patience, there were times when both Cézanne and Freud realised that the combination of brushstrokes meant that the painting would not have a ‘solution’, and remained unfinished.

Looking back at the whole painting, you can see colours calling to each other across the painting. For example, the tree framing the painting on the left has one visible branch – even if its connection to the trunk cannot be seen – which appears to reach down to the bottle green of the tree lower down the slope at the bottom right; the nearer face of all the cuboid buildings ring out with the same yellow/orange notes; the brushstrokes of the grass at the bottom echo the leaves of the trees at the top, and even there the constructive brushstrokes of the leaves seem to harmonise with those of the sky, as if tree and sky move together in harmony with the wind. A patchwork of dabs and dashes summons up this whole world, compelling us towards the might of the distant mountain. To answer at least one of my questions at the end of the second paragraph, I think this counts as a success – and this is only one painting. There are six alternative views in the Tate’s impressive exhibition – and that is only one room. Elsewhere Cézanne approaches Still Life and the human figure with an equivalent rigour. Don’t miss it.


174 – Freudian

Lucian Freud, Painter and Model, 1986-7. Private Collection.

I think it is an unacknowledged sign of ageing that more and more I am aware of a succession of artists’ retrospectives. The exhibition to celebrate Lucian Freud’s 80th Birthday, for example, at the relatively-recently renamed Tate Britain in 2002. Or the 90th Anniversary exhibition in 2012, the year after his death, at the National Portrait Gallery. And now, at the National Gallery, the celebration of the centenary of his birth. Nevertheless, with each iteration I have seen something new, and something which has come as a surprise. In this embodiment of the great artist’s work, apart from a number of paintings that I have never seen before, I have been really impressed by something I have always been aware of: Freud’s admiration for the delicacy of touch, and for the profound nature of the relationships between people, animals, and even things, that touch implies. I will talk about this more thoroughly on Monday 17th October at 6pm when I introduce the exhibition Lucian Freud: New Perspectives. If you’re not free, or fancy hearing the talk in person at the National Gallery on Thursday 20th, have a look for details in the diary. Today, though, I want to focus on something else: a painting in which the artist gets to grips with the nature of painting itself.

Called Painter and Model, we see a woman standing on the left wearing a brick-red painting smock, covered in paint, and holding a paintbrush between both hands. She is effectively in profile, looking down towards the bottom right corner of the painting, with her pale face standing out against a dark wardrobe which occupies the back left corner of the space. On the right is a battered leather sofa, the colour of which is strikingly similar to the woman’s smock. Lying on it, on his back, is a naked man. If her head is framed by the wardrobe, his is placed against the far arm of the sofa, and is seen full face, rather than in profile. Binaries, and contrasts, are always an important aspect of Freud’s work. The man’s left forearm lies along the back of the sofa, while the right rests on the seat, with the hand just sticking over the edge. His right leg, extended, stretches down so that the heel of his right foot is resting on the floor. The lower half of this leg, and the foot, cast intense, dark shadows on the meticulously detailed floorboards. His left leg is bent, and leans against the back of the sofa. His left foot is tucked up behind the near arm, and can’t be seen. Lying on the floor in the foreground is some of the paraphernalia of painting – tubes of paint, and paintbrushes of different sizes. The walls are in an appalling state of repair – painted yellow, but re-plastered with pink plaster, which nevertheless still seems to be showing signs of damp, presumably the initial cause of the repairs, and which has not yet been repainted. A blind has been pulled down over the window, and crumples untidily as if in need of replacement itself. The top of the walls are deep in shadow, but brightly illuminated further down, with the boundaries marked by uneven half shadows, probably cast by an uneven lampshade.

Lucian Freud was renowned for making what might seem to be unreasonable demands of his models. Once his career was established, he became a man of habit, and would paint regularly, either during the day, in natural daylight, or after nightfall, in artificial light. This is clearly a night-time painting – the stark shadows tell us as much. He would work on more than one painting at a time, with the daytime models making way for those arriving in the evening. They would return every day at the allotted time for weeks or months, or even, in some cases, for years. In order for him to discover something ‘unexpected’ and create something new, he would often pose them in unusual positions, or in surprising relationships to one another. It might seem that he was being entirely controlling, making the models obey his whim. And yet, of course, they didn’t have to be there. Often they were friends or family, but above all, they were people he was interested in. If he wasn’t interested, he couldn’t paint. Nevertheless, as a substantial number of his models were women, and, moreover, women who were naked, he was sometimes criticized as a voyeur.  I’m sure this painting was intended to confront this claim, as it turns the idea of ‘the male gaze’ on its head.

In terms of the title, Painter and Model, it is surely clear which is which. The woman on the left is the painter, the naked man is the model. In this one bold gesture Freud manages to subvert the whole history of the Western European nude, in which, we imagine, a fully clothed man paints a naked woman, and in the process, he objectifies her. It is the man here who becomes the object, subject to the whim of the female artist. She is standing, upright and secure, whereas he is supine, passive and vulnerable – apparently a complete reversal of gender stereotypes. Of course, it’s a little bit more nuanced than that. Or, to put it in other words, it’s nowhere near that simple. I’m intrigued, for example, that the painting is called Painter and Model rather than Artist and Model, but paint is clearly of the essence. And, whether Painter or Artist, is the woman really the one who is in control? One of the problems for women over the course of Western European Art History was the nature of the female gaze, because, quite simply, it wasn’t allowed. ‘It’s rude to stare’, as I’m sure many of you were told by your parents, and it was particularly rude for women to stare. You were supposed to stand with your hands politely held in front of you, and look modestly down. And if you’re looking ‘modestly down’ all the time, then you can’t look at things to paint them. Women weren’t allowed into life drawing classes until the 20th Century (on the whole): for them to look at a naked man was considered to be inappropriate. But in this painting we see Freud reconsidering the whole issue. Or do we? Maybe we should have another look at the painting. Even in this detail, although more pointedly if we look at the whole image (above and below), it becomes clear that the woman is standing in precisely that appropriately ‘modest’ feminine way, hands held in front of her body, and her face looking down towards the floor. She is not staring at the man, not even gazing at him, despite his unabashed nudity. Indeed, the male gaze is still fully active, but it is the naked model in the painting – the man – who is gazing – even staring – at us. The model seems to be more in command, and more commanding, than the painter.

It becomes more complex when you realise that, given the title of the painting, the woman on the left is both painter and model. Although she holds a paintbrush, she is modelling for Freud as a painter. And she is painted – in more ways than one. First, she is one of the subjects of the painting, one of the models that Freud has painted, but second, her smock is covered in paint. She appears to have used the fabric to clean her brushes in between different brushstrokes, as Freud used to, either on the walls of the studio or using the rags which can often be seen lying on the floor in the background of his paintings. So, Freud has painted her, and she has ‘painted’ herself. Look again, and you will her smock covered with the yellow of the walls, the light greys of the damp and of the window frame, and the darker shades of the wardrobe and of the shadowed areas of the sofa, with the smock itself more or less the colour of the sofa. Indeed, the smock is effectively Freud’s palette, an inchoate mass of paint like that from which he has formed this image.

We add yet another layer of complexity when we realise that both models were also artists. On the right is Angus Cook – described as ‘model and artist’ in the National’s exhibition, although I can find little about his work online. One source describes him as a poet, and there are also some of his texts about art. Above all, he was part of a nexus of friends and lovers, several of whom feature in Freud’s work. On the left is Celia Paul, a respected artist in her own right. She came to Freud’s attention as a student at the Slade School of Fine Art, where he was a visiting tutor. They went on to have a ten-year relationship, with Paul often modelling for Freud, as she does here.

In the bottom half of the painting we can see five feet – three human, two sofa. It’s a sort of game, and one that Freud played in different ways in different works. Each foot has a different relationship to the floor (and Freud was always interested in relationships). The two carved wooden feet are connected by the sharp line of shadow cast by the edge of the sofa which, together with the glints of light on the curving bulges of these feet, reminds us that this was a night-time painting. Cook’s right heel rests on the floor, whereas Paul’s two feet are firmly and securely planted, the toes turned out a little from the heels. And yet, how secure are they?  A curious detail suggests that something might be awry.

Whose paints are these? Stop and think about it: have you seen an easel, or even a canvas? If Paul is the painter, what is she painting, and where, exactly, is the painting itself? Or is she just posing as a painter, for Freud? Are these her paints or his? And look – her right foot is planted on one end of a tube of paint. A tube of green paint. You can see that: the lid was not put back on the tube, and some of the green paint (more brightly coloured in the original than in this reproduction) is squeezing out. Am I wrong in seeing some form of sexual connotation here? Would I be right in going so far as to say that it seems a little bit, well, Freudian?

In case you didn’t know, Sigmund was Lucian’s grandfather. This must have had an impact on the boy, but more so on the student, and, as he came to a fuller understanding of the world, and of the significance of his grandfather’s work, on the adult artist. Both spent a lifetime analysing people lying on couches, for one thing. On Monday we might just find that there were other things that they had in common.


173 – Illuminating

Eadfrith, Chi-Rho page, The Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero DIV, f. 29r), c. 700. British Library London.

Today I’m going to look at one page of one book. It is, surely, one of the most spectacular pages of what is – according to every account you read – one of the most spectacular survivals from Anglo-Saxon England. However, England is not an accurate geographical designation, as the manuscript was the product of the kingdom of Northumberland, the largest kingdom in the British Isles at the time. Spreading North from the River Humber (how had I never realised that before?) it reached well into what is now undoubtedly Scotland. On Monday 10 October at 6pm I will flick through the whole book – or rather, turn the pages carefully (and virtually, in virtual white gloves) in a talk entitled The Lindisfarne Gospels. I will focus on the book itself before putting it into the context of the exhibition mounted by the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, but will discuss the Gospels as thoroughly as I can (given the time available) as, whenever you get to see it, you only ever see one opening, so it is hard to understand how everything fits together. For that matter, it is not entirely obvious exactly what is in it: it’s not just the Gospels! In the following weeks I will turn to Lucian Freud, Paul Cézanne (or Cezanne, as Tate would have it) and Eva Gonzalès (with a French accent, rather than a Spanish one…). Details can be found via these links, or as ever (together with details of an in-person repeat of the Freud), in the diary.

I suspect that, for most of us, the initial impact of this page is pretty much the same experienced by much of the congregation who may have had a distant view of it during religious ceremonies when it was first produced: bright, colourful, intricate – magical even – but ultimately, incomprehensible. And even if they had a chance to get closer, for the illiterate it would not have revealed its secrets. There are no pictures here to explain what is going on, but rather a celebration of the word itself, and, in this case, of the word made flesh: it is a celebration of the birth of Jesus himself, even if, to the uninitiated, that is by no means clear. However, the richness of the decoration, its elaborate sophistication and vibrant colours, not to mention the space it occupies on a single page, tell us how important the initiated knew this was. They also knew that the image, not to mentions the devotion, skill and time required to make it, would be one way to impress the illiterate with its significance: sometimes words are not enough.

The inscription at the top of the page says ‘incipit evangelium secundum mattheus‘ – which literally translates as ‘begins the gospel according to Matthew’. Almost all the letters are there, although in evangelium the ‘l’ and ‘i’ are combined and similarly, in secundum, so are the ‘u’ and ‘m’. However, the illumination seems to have got in the way of mattheus, so a small squiggle is added over the ‘u’, to imply an abbreviation, and there are also a couple of dots: the ‘s’ is implied. Above this inscription more words are written in smaller, darker letters. The first two read onginneð godspell – ‘begins the gospel’, in Old English, rather than Latin. A truly remarkable thing about the Lindisfarne Gospels is that, centuries after the book was first created, somebody wrote all over it. It isn’t the only manuscript this happened to. The entire volume (well, almost the entire volume) was translated into Old English, and the translation was added to the pages. I may have suggested that sometimes words are not enough, but sometimes words that people understand are valuable. In this case, they are also significant: this is the very first surviving version of the bible in English (even if it is Old). So – the book has been defaced, but we know a lot more about it as a result (more about that on Monday). The word onginneð is not so very far from ‘beginneth’ (‘ð‘ is effectively ‘th’) nor is godspell that far from ‘gospel’. Back in 1971 it was even used as the name for a musical based – albeit loosely – on the evangelium secundum mattheus. The ‘spell‘ is related to magic (the other ‘spell’, as in spelling a word, has a different etymology), and also to ‘spiel’, which is now slang parlance for a glib recitation, apparently recited often, showing a practiced stance or belief. The incantations of priests were often likened to magic spells, given that they were related to raising the dead, turning water into wine and the like. However, the curious thing about this inscription – which is not even the most visually striking element on the page – is that it is wrong. This is not the beginning of the gospel according to Matthew. It is chapter 1, admittedly, but verse 18: ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.’ As the text was written in Latin, though, it would be as well to quote the Vulgate (St Jerome’s translation of the bible), of which this happens to be one of the purest versions:

Christi autem generatio sic erat: cum esset desponsata mater ejus Maria Joseph, antequam convenirent inventa est in utero habens de Spiritu Sancto.

Notice that ‘Christ’ comes first, as, for Christians, Christ surely should. And now look at this.

What we see, on the largest scale, is the word ‘Christ’ written in Greek, but represented with only the first three letters, chi, rho, and iota – or Χρι (the full word ‘Christos’ would be Χριστός). This abbreviation was effectively standard practice, and the combination of just the first two letters, chi and rho, was one of the earliest symbols of Christianity. It was adopted even before the cross, which was such a humiliating form of execution that, in the early days, it was deemed unsuitable for celebration. Like mattheus, therefore, this is an abbreviation, and, in the same way, I think there is a hint about that: you could read the elaboration of forms at the top right of the chi and above the rho as equivalent to the ‘squiggle’ above the ‘u’ in mattheu – a sign for an elision, or abbreviation, which would be used for centuries.

It is, therefore, the word Christ which is the most important thing on this page, vibrant with colour and apparently moving forms, wheels within wheels, stylised, elongated birds, writhing and threaded together, and knotwork. The whole form is surrounded by a series of small red dots, as if it were glowing. This is not, maybe, the beginning of the gospel of Matthew, but it is the first time in the bible, after the list of his ancestors, that Jesus appears. It is where he is born, the first mention of the incarnation – god made flesh. As such, as well as being called the Chi rho page, this is also sometimes referred to as the Incarnation page, and it was a fairly common feature of the most elaborately illuminated manuscripts. According to the gospel according to John, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Here, in the gospel according to Matthew, we see the Word for the first time, and we see it as a word. It was clear to the early Christians that the Light of the World came into the world at this point, and that this was worth celebrating: let Salvation begin!

The letters underneath Χριστός make up the following one and a half words of the Vulgate: ‘autem gene’(‘ratio’is on the following line). The ‘u’ and ‘t’ are combined, as are the ‘e’ and ‘m’. After this, the ‘g’ is looped round the ‘e’, and the ‘n’ and ‘e’ also combined. This abbreviation may simply help to fit the words in, although it also adds to the almost magical nature of the text – as if this were an incantation to summon the birth of Jesus, the words transformed beyond their mundane import. The way in which they have been written shows what a brilliant visual sense Eadfrith, believed to be both scribe and illuminator of the gospels, had. Like most of the work, they were sketched out in lead point (a bit like starting with a light drawing using a modern-day pencil), and then outlined with red dots. They have an obvious presence on the page, but interrupt the background tone and colour of the vellum as little as possible. This allows Χριστός to ring out loud and clear at the top of the page: when shown to the congregation (or even, when opened in front of the officiating priest) the impact would be clear: Christ is here, visible, among us, the most important thing.

Without considering their impact on the whole page, these (partial) words, ‘autem gene’ might seem incomplete, as all the others here are filled in with black, and heightened with yellow, pink and green infills. The whole text is contained by the elaborate tail of the chi to the left, and a green-bordered frame which comes down from the top right of the page, wraps along the bottom and continues up on the left.

The second line of text continues after the ‘gene’with ‘ratio sic erat cum’. In the King James Version, this would be the end of the word ‘birth’, followed by ‘…in this wise. When…’. Although I said that all of the letters (after the first line) were filled in black, the letter ‘c’ of ‘cum’ is not. It’s not clear why – it might just be a mistake! Eadfrith, scribe and illuminator, was Bishop of Lindisfarne from around 698 until his death in 721, and some people think that his work on the volume was not complete at his death. The British Library wisely refuses to be too specific. Between the text and the illumination the gospels would have taken at least five years to complete, and possibly as much as ten – so the given date of the manuscript as ‘c. 700’ can only really be counted as the date it might have been started.

The final lines on this page are ‘esset desponsata mater ejus Maria Joseph’, or ‘…as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph’, leaving the second half of the verse to the next page – or rather, the next side. Manuscripts, have ‘leaves’ rather than ‘pages’. This is leaf 29, or folio 29, and we are looking at the ‘front’ side of it, the recto (so this is f. 29r). The rest of the verse is on the ‘back’ of this folio, or folio 29 verso (f. 29v). Despite the technicalities, I think the amount of the verse that is included might explain why Eadfrith went to the pains of abbreviating the ‘autem gene’. It was, I think, quite simply, to get this much onto this one page. As a result we have all of the Holy Family present at Jesus’s birth: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. And notice that Joseph only just makes it – the green frame has had to be thinned, and even broken, to accommodate the letter ‘h’. Or he might have done that to emphasize Joseph’s name, or even to imply a continuation of the verse onto the verso. But I suspect it is, practically, to fit it all in. Poor Joseph: always squashed into corners. But at least he’s there. Above the word ‘mater‘ is written ‘moder’ – the Old English form of ‘mother’ – but the rest of the translation has been squashed into the margin.

We’ve got to the end of the page, but before we go, let’s have a look back at the top – and get a little bit closer. You can all do this, in the comfort of you own homes, which is just as well, as the British Library doesn’t lend to private individuals. However, part of their remit, as a national institution, is to make their collection available as widely as possible, and they are attempting to digitize as much of their collection as they can. The Lindisfarne Gospels can be accessed if you click on this link. I’ll leave you to read it all cover to cover before the talk on Monday! But not before this:

It is truly astonishing.  The intricacy, the complexity and the sheer attention to detail – the time taken to write just one word – speaks of a faith and devotion so profound that it is hard to measure. And within this one detail we also have all of the common decorative techniques. On the left are the red dots, an influence from Ireland, and in the cross of the chi, we see a writhing mass of birds, biting their own elongated necks which are looped around and threaded through the equally elongated tails and the knotted legs of their fellows. Between the chi and the edge of the rho on the right are spiralling circular forms, often described as pin wheels, which would seem to derive from the La Tène culture, one branch of the broader Celtic tradition, as is the knotwork in the rho itself. It is open to debate as to whether these forms of decoration have symbolic significance within a Christian context. Most obviously, many of the pin wheels have threefold symmetry, and, at the heart of the word ‘Christ’, this must surely be an allusion to the Holy Trinity, with God present in Christ and Christ as a part of God. The knotwork could be interpreted as a reference to eternity – each is an endless loop – but also to the journey of the soul on a defined, if complex path. In some way this imagery must also function in like a mandala, encouraging contemplation and meditation. This is perhaps clearer with the manuscript’s glorious carpet pages, each a variation on the shape of the cross, but I will look at them – and, indeed, at all of the fully illuminated leaves – on Monday. All that, and many more remarkable details, too, not to mention the overriding structure. And, despite what I said above, you really don’t need to read it all before then!


172 – Incisive

Winslow Homer, The Army of the Potomac – A Sharp-Shooter On Picket Duty, 1862. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Today I want to look at an engraving as a way of introducing the work of a great painter: Winslow Homer. This is, of course, by way of an introduction my talk this Monday, 3 October, which is in itself an introduction to the exhibition at the National Gallery, Winslow Homer: Force of Nature. There follows a series of talks related to exhibitions which are mainly in London, and which are dedicated to The Lindisfarne Gospels (in Newcastle, 10 October), Lucian Freud (National Gallery, 17 October), Cezanne (Tate Modern, 24 October) and Edouard Manet and Eva Gonzalès (National Gallery again, 31 October). The blue links will take you to the relevant Tixoom page for information and booking, and they are also all listed in the diary.

Winslow Homer has been a revelation to me, as there is not a single painting by him in a British public collection. I haven’t been to the United States for well over a decade, but in the days when I went regularly I tended to focus on the Italian Renaissance, or on American works from the second half of the 20th Century. Having discovered his paintings, I now want to know more about Winslow Homer’s prints, even though, as far as I can see, he doesn’t seem to be classed as a printmaker as such, for reasons which may become clear. In 1855, at the age of 19, he became an apprentice at John H Bufford and Co., a lithographic printing shop in Boston. Two years later, his apprenticeship complete, he entered the profession which he was to follow for the next two decades at least: an illustrator for popular magazines and periodicals. However, the majority of his work was not in lithography but wood engraving. The technique is different from engraving on a metal plate. For the latter the design is gouged out of the plate using a tool called a buren, and when the plate is inked the ink fills the resulting grooves. This is what is known as intaglio printing (tagliare is Italian for ‘to cut’), which is different to Japanese wood blocks or linocuts (see, for example, Sybil Andrews’ Via Dolorosa in 161 – Negative Spaces), which are relief prints. In a relief print the lines are the result of ink sitting on the ridges between the carved out gaps. Wood engraving is a form of relief printing, so everything white has been cut out of the block, and everything black is printed from thin ridges which sit proudly at the top, on the original surface.

We see a man in uniform – a soldier – sitting in a tree, with his rifle trained on a target to our right. His position is precarious, perched on a diagonal branch growing from the trunk of a conifer growing on the right of the image. His left foot is in the crook of the branch, where it joins the trunk, and his left leg is slightly bent, leaving a gap between the branch and his knee. His right leg is more bent, and the foot hangs freely, offering neither support nor security. He grasps a small branch with his fully stretched left arm, which forms the only real horizontal in the image, affording him, and the composition, some degree of stability. The rifle rests on the same branch, next to his hand, tilted at a slight angle downwards, implying that the soldier is aiming at something on the ground at a considerable distance – although we cannot be sure how high in the tree he is. The marksman leans forward with his torso at roughly 45˚to the vertical, showing how intent and focussed he is on his activity, while the precarious position, and the fact that he is surrounded by foliage and branches – which stretch downwards almost more than up – creates a real sense of tension, which is only enhanced by the view of the sky we see through the branches and needles of the conifer in which he is sitting, some way above our heads.

A water bottle hangs from an offshoot of the branch the soldier is holding, knotted around it to keep it secure. The attention to detail is supreme, from the precise definition of the sole of the shoe, to the exact arrangement of the laces, threaded through holes and tied, defined by spaced, diagonal lines, suggesting that the laces are formed from strands of thread which are twisted together. The ends of the trousers are tucked into socks, or puttees, both garments depicted using regular parallel lines. The branches are created with shorter, curved lines, dashes and dots, which convey the rough, varied flakiness of the bark. Clouds in the sky are blank paper, with the clear blue, slightly darker than the clouds, is indicated by thin, horizontal lines. There is some sort of bird hovering high up, visible to the left of the soldier’s right foot, its distant presence adding a somewhat vertiginous feel to the danger inherent in the situation.

The sky under the left arm is one of the brightest parts of the print. It helps to emphasize the stability of this gesture, and to enhance the drive of the focus from left to right, towards the unseen target. The right hand, holding the rifle, and about to pull the trigger, is almost equally bright, only a few lines having been left on the surface of the wood to create the shape of the fingers and define the tendons on the back of the hand. Against the darker carving of the rifle, and emerging from the mid-tones of the sleeve, this hand and its imminent action become the main focus of the image. Near to this is the white of an eye, flashing from the dark socket, in shadow thanks to the soldier’s cap. We are looking at a sharp-eyed sharpshooter intent on his enemy. On top of his cap the letter ‘A’ tells us the company with which he served. The intricacy of detail and subtle variety in tone and texture which Homer has been able to achieve, creating the appearances of different materials, and defining the forms and positions in space simply by varying the length, density, and direction of the lines, show him to be a printmaker of the highest order. However, unlike, say, Dürer or Rembrandt, he is not necessarily celebrated as such. But why not? Well, the pictures I have shown you so far are from a print which has been cut out of its original context – so let’s put that back. This is another example of the image, also in the collection of the Met in New York.

The print was published as a page-sized illustration. Indeed, the detail below shows us that it was page 724 of Harper’s Weekly, published on November 15, 1862 (that was volume VII, in case you wanted to know).

Homer had worked for Harper’s more-or-less since its inception in 1857, and four years later, in October 1861, the periodical sent him to Washington D.C., where he was to become an artist-correspondent during the American Civil War. He joined the Union Army, representing the Northern States which were fighting to maintain the Union (as the name suggests), against the Southern Confederates, who had seceded. By the time the Civil War ended in 1865, the New York Tribune called Homer ‘the best chronicler of the war’, and this image, The Army of the Potomac – A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty, became one of his most celebrated works from that period.

The wood block was not necessarily carved by Homer himself . The hard-wood block was both polished and whitened, and Homer would draw his designs directly onto this pristine surface in pencil. Highly skilled craftsmen would then cut away all of the remaining white surfaces – effectively removing what would be left white in the print. This is equivalent to the way in which Dürer created his relief wood-block prints, such as the Small Passion series, although Dürer drew his designs onto paper, which was then attached to the block and cut through. As a result, although some of the blocks survive, Dürer’s original drawings do not. I suspect that Homer’s skills as a printmaker are accorded a lower status because he worked as an illustrator: it was only when he turned to painting that he would be called an artist. As it happens, it was with this very image that he made this step. Have a look at the caption of the image as it was originally published.

After the title, there is a parenthetical statement, ‘[FROM A PAINTING BY W. HOMER, ESQ.]’. In this detail, we can also see his signature, inscribed among the whorls of the bark, at the bottom right corner. At this point Homer was already known as an illustrator, but now his status as a painter has been revealed – even advertised – to an already eager public. The painting itself, quite possibly the earliest he completed, and certainly the first significant oil of his career, is the first on view in the National Gallery’s current exhibition.

Winslow Homer, Sharpshooter, 1863. Portland Museum of Art, Maine.

Its title is slightly different, reduced, simply, to Sharpshooter. However, the composition is fundamentally the same. The foliage is denser in the painting, so there is less open sky, but this is probably because the clarity needed for a monochrome print becomes less important when colour can be used to distinguish forms as well. However, details are omitted. There is no bird (too fiddly?), nor is there a water bottle hanging from the tree. The company letter ‘A’ has been replaced by a red lozenge. However, there is something about this painting which, at first glance, could appear oddly inconsistent with the evidence so far provided. It is dated 1863, and yet the wood engraving was published in 1862, claiming to be ‘from a painting by W. Homer’. However, this is by no means impossible, and his first painting could also be the first example of the artist changing his mind. In the following decades Homer would regularly complete a painting and exhibit it, only to rework it later, often to simplify, and so clarify, the image. He may well have decided that the water bottle didn’t read well enough in the painting, and although it was ideal for an engraving, the company letter could well have proved too intricate in paint: presumably he replaced it for reasons of clarity. Have a look at these two Union Army hats which I found on Pinterest. The first is a ‘Union Model 1858 Forage cap, circa 1861, with company letter “C”’, while the second is described as a ‘Civil War Bummers Cap’ (another name for a Forage Cap), with the ‘Original insignia of the 3rd Corps 1st Division, 3rd brigade, Army of the Potomac’. The brigade number here is not unlike the company letter in the print.

According to one war insignia website I have just found, from which you can buy a reproduction red badge of the Third Corps, Army of the Potomac, for a mere $4.95, the lozenge was adopted on 21 March, 1863 – so in time for the painting, but not the wood engraving. I imagine that it was adopted for the same reason that Homer included it in the painting: it is far easier to see from a distance than it would be to read a brass letter. This is one of the reasons that I love the History of Art. Some people mistakenly think it is about looking at pretty pictures, but in reality it can cover every human discipline, from religion to war (and let’s face it, often there hasn’t been much difference between these two). Whatever the subject, I always end up learning so much about the world by learning about the art it produces… In later years Homer showed that he was all too aware of the inhumanity of the action in this particular painting. We are looking intently at a single man, himself intent on seeking out and killing a single opponent. In 1896 Homer wrote to his friend George Briggs, saying, ‘I looked through one of their rifles once when they were in a peach orchard in front of Yorktown in April, 1862’. He included a sketch of this, and went on to write, ‘The above impression struck me as being as near to murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army & I always had a horror of that branch of the service’. The print I have been looking at today illustrated a report on the sharpshooters of the Army of the Potomac, which explained that, from 600 feet, the men were expected to be able to hit a target no more than 5 inches from the bullseye with ten consecutive shots. You can find some more information in a short article about the painting which was published in the Washington Post last year.

Conflict was to be a constant theme in Homer’s work, but although the Civil War was to be important for his development, and brought his name to a broad public, it did not remain a subject to be revisited for long. However, the repercussions of it did, particularly in regard to the Abolition of Slavery, which the victory of the Union Army helped to bring about. One of the things I will be exploring on Monday is the ways in which these repercussions played out, but I will also be looking at other manifestations of conflict which were essential to his work, especially in regard to the natural environment – just one of his concerns which make the paintings entirely relevant to us today, more than a century after his death.


171 – All together now…!

Attributed to Michelangelo, Study for one of the Medici tombs at San Lorenzo, 1524. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Gesamtkunstwerk. It’s the word that Wagner used in 1849 to describe his ideal art form, with all genres of art working together through theatre. Of course it applies specifically to opera, which involves music, drama, and visual design, which in itself includes painting, sculpture and architecture. But gesamtkunstwerke have existed ever since… well, ever since anybody ever built any environment in which people would gather. A church, for example, has architecture, sculpture, painting and music. And, of course, drama. Birth, death, and resurrection – what could be more dramatic than that? And then, of course, there’s the liturgy. However, there are relatively few artists who were talented enough to create ‘a’ Gesamtkunstwerk on their own, although some, like Michelangelo, were nearly there. He was only really held up by external circumstances. Throughout much of his life he wanted to be known as a sculptor, but he is equally well known for his painting. And as you will know by now – especially if you joined me for the talk this week (thank you!) – he also wrote some rich and complex poetry, and was a great correspondent. As he became more successful, he also became an architect – the subject of the fourth and final talk in my series Almost All of Michelangelo. But of course, being Michelangelo, it’s so much more than just putting up walls. He sculpts with light and space, he creates theatres of public drama, and he even manipulates the way in which we move through the environment. No time to talk about all of that today, so I do hope you can join me on Monday 26 September from 5.30-7.30pm. Today, I just want to talk about one drawing of one element of one of his Gesamtkunstwerke, the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo.

Buonarroti, Michelangelo dit Michel-Ange, Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques, INV 838, Recto – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl020001376https://collections.louvre.fr/CGU

This is one of the drawings I didn’t include in the talk this week, having deliberately omitted anything architectural as otherwise there would have been too much to look at. It should be said that not everyone believes this drawing to be by Michelangelo himself, although Carmen Bambach, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and curator and author of the catalogue of the exhibition Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, which I mentioned, does. And that’s good enough for me. For those of you familiar with Florence, or Michelangelo, you will instantly recognise one of the Medici tombs from the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo, although this is not how the tomb was finally executed. As work progressed on the chapel Michelangelo gradually simplified his ideas, in part because, stylistically, he was moving towards a greater simplicity, and in part because it was proving impossible to get everything done. As executed, we have the architectural structure from this drawing, including the sarcophagus, plus three sculptures: the figure seated in the central bay (a ‘unit’ of architecture) and the two figures reclining on the casket.

If we start with the top half of the drawing, we can see that it is a highly refined image, drawn in black chalk with a brown wash to give the forms volume and to create a sense of ‘atmosphere’ that is more than diagrammatic. It is clearly a highly finished drawing, with few pentimenti (changes). The only hints of ‘planning’ are the vertical and horizontal lines which are ruled in different places across the image, as well as a very faint circle which would define the lunette of the wall above the monument – although that is all but cut off at the top (the circle is most visible on the right). This is clearly a drawing by someone who has made up their mind exactly what they want, and wants to communicate that to someone else: the patron or his agent, in this case Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, who by this time was Pope Clement VII. I will tell you more about the chapel itself, and its history – both as planned and as executed – on Monday. Today I just want to look at this drawing.

The architectural structure of the tomb is three bays wide, two narrow bays flanking a wider, central bay. The bays are separated by paired pilasters, with slightly taller and simpler pilasters at far left and right. The rhythm of the tomb – narrow, wide, narrow – is not unlike that of a triumphal arch, and inevitably the implication would be that the soul of the deceased will triumph over death because of their Christian faith. The two outer bays contain niches framed by tabernacles – like a temple front but with only one ‘opening’ – topped by segmental pediments (i.e. a segment of a circle). In each we see the top half of a standing figure. The central bay is less shadowy, which implies that it is further forward, and also that it doesn’t have any sculptural framing elements, like the two tabernacles, to contain the seated figure, of which here we can only see the head and shoulders.

The four pilasters support a cornice, which itself supports elaborate decoration, none which was executed (with the exception, perhaps, of one of the crouching figures – I’ll show you that on Monday). Above the outer bays are pairs of seated figures – their legs dangling over the cornice to the left, and tucked up on the right. The paired pilasters support narrow balustrades, the balusters being placed further apart than the combined width of the pilasters, making these units look a bit top heavy, almost like a sense of growth as we go upwards. There is a herm – a flaring column which develops into the torso of a person – standing on each of the balusters, and each pair of herms holds a scallop shell. Garlands hang from the outer herms, looping up again towards the edges of the monument, where each is supported by a candelabrum. In the centre are trophies of war – an empty suit of armour, topped by shields, with a helmet at the very top.

It is the lower part of the monument with which we are more familiar. Not only does it have the most identifiable sculptures – and ones which were actually executed – but also, when we are in the chapel, this is the section at eye-level. Certainly in this detail we can ‘recognise’ the two figures slumped across the sarcophagus, even though there were not finished in exactly this form. But they do have the extreme articulation which is typical of Michelangelo’s ‘early mature’ style, an extreme exaggeration of contrapposto whereby one leg is as bent as it can be, while the other, if not exactly straight – and certainly not ‘weight bearing’ in this context – is at least stretched out. Both figures also twist through the torso, with one arm bent, and the other more elongated. A clue to their identities is given by details sketched around the heads. On the left, the bearded figure has at least four wavy forms radiating around his hair, while the figure on the right has two curving horns. These represent the sun and a crescent moon – unusually diagrammatic elements of symbolism for Michelangelo, which is probably why he simplified the figures and carved Day and Night without them. These figures refer to the passing of time, which is, in itself, a memento mori – a reminder of death – an idea made explicit by the two skulls carved on the capitals of the pilasters which support the sarcophagus.

Seen in the context of the lower half of the tomb, the figures of Day and Night still look familiar – but you’ll know if you’ve seen them in person that there is nothing lying on the floor. Reclining on one arm with both legs stretched out, these characters have circular objects tucked under their arms. These are jugs, and the reclining pair represent river gods – we saw the river Eridanus, who ‘received’ Phaeton as he plummeted to his death, in last week’s blog. Michelangelo did get as far as planning these sculptures. There are drawings of them, and he even made a full-sized model for one of them which is now in the Casa Buonarroti in Florence.

Modelled in terracotta, Michelangelo could have handed this over to an assistant to carve, but chose not to, preferring the bold simplicity which the chapel has now. It’s a remarkable sculpture, but not the most flattering image of a god. Rather than the bold, broadly muscular classical figures he arranged on the Capitoline Hill – one of his great architectural projects which is effectively small-scale town planning – this figure looks somewhat emaciated, with admittedly muscular, but wiry legs, and too much skin, but not enough muscle, around the midriff. It has to be said that the current ‘simplicity’ of the chapel was not just an artistic choice. He left Florence in 1534 never to return, and the chapel was put together by assistants following Michelangelo’s instructions which were posted from Rome, a correspondence course in architecture.

Had the River Gods been included there would have been a strong pyramidal structure, with the seated figure – a portrayal, though not a portrait, of Giuliano de Medici, Duke of Nemours – at the top centre. Notice how the feet of the river gods lie in front of the base of the tomb. Not only would they have been further out to the left and right, but they would also have been further forward, encroaching onto the floor space of the chapel (another potential reason why they were omitted). Day and Night are further back and further in, with Giuliano further back again. The sculpture recedes in space towards the middle of the wall. So although the architecture seems to push forward, the sculpture pulls back, a tension typical in Michelangelo’s work as a whole. This also creates areas of light and shade, with the side niches, the rivers, and the sarcophagus creating the darkest shadows, leaving Giuliano in the light – so as well as being at the apex of the pyramid he is also the most brilliantly illuminated. This is what I mean by sculpting in light – and I’ll talk more about this, and other ways in which Michelangelo achieved it, on Monday.

When I was talking about Michelangelo’s drawings this week, I started with the earliest, which were drawn from frescoes by Giotto and Masaccio. As a young man he learnt from the Masters, and the most sculptural painters at that. Inevitably later artists learnt from him in the same way. How do we know that? Well, apart from the obvious visual influence in their art, there are other drawings which suggest as much. As well as today’s drawing of Giuliano’s tomb by Michelangelo himself, the Louvre also has a drawing by Federico Zuccaro of the opposite tomb – of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino – as it was executed. If you thought it was busy the last time you visited, that’s not entirely new. Look at what it was like in 1580. These are all artists drawing (plus a dog). I don’t think you’d get away with clambering over the architecture nowadays.

Zuccaro, Federico, Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques, INV 4554, Recto – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl020101809https://collections.louvre.fr/CGU

170 – Drawing to an end

Michelangelo, The Fall of Phaethon, 1533. The Royal Collection/HM King Charles III.

This week, a drawing from the Royal Collection – it seems apt. And, although Monday sees the funeral of its former owner, Queen Elizabeth (she held it in trust for the nation), I have decided to go ahead with my talk, Michelangelo 3: The Works on Paper. Between those who believe that we should stop our normal activities as a sign of respect, and those who wish to carry on to honour our late Queen’s memory and celebrate a steadfast life, I have decided to leave the choice to you: feel free to join me from 5:30-7:30pm, or to take some quiet time for yourselves. Future plans, including a talk on the National Gallery’s revelatory exhibition Winslow Homer: Force of Nature, are listed in the diary.

The talk on Monday will cover different forms of ‘work on paper’. Drawings, yes, but also letters and poetry. And of course there were many different types of drawing – preliminary sketches, compositional studies, detailed analyses of form, cartoons, and architectural plans to name the most important. But this – this is something else. All the other types of drawing listed are preparatory works, made to enable the completion of a painting, sculpture or building. This is not preparatory, it is a work of art in its own right, to be presented to someone as a completed project in and of itself, and this gives it its title: a presentation drawing. The composition, on a sheet of paper in portrait format, is clearly divided into three main sections structured as a pyramid, with two elements – man and bird – at the apex, six in the centre, and seven or more at the base. We’ll start by looking at the central section, as it is this which gives the drawing its title.

We see a chariot – reduced to a simple box-like element with a wheel on either side – a male nude, and four horses in free fall. Given the small scale (the drawing is 23.4 cm wide) the detail is remarkable. The nude is Phaeton, and he is almost upside down, his left arm curled round his head, the right arm extended. There is a bend in his torso, stretching the skin over his left ribs, and creating folds to the right of his abdomen. The right leg is strongly bent at the knee, with the sole of the right foot just appearing behind the left knee, which is less bent. The right foot, more stretched out, can be seen in front of one of the wheels of the chariot. The horse seem to collide with one another, curling forward, or bending back, their legs flailing as they try to find some form of foothold, vainly seeking security. Each figure has a firm, but soft outline, and the shading is delicate, as if stippled. Individual details are sketched in with the greatest delicacy – tails, manes, facial features. And surrounding them all, there is an atmospheric haze, indicating the horses’ trappings and clouds in the sky.

What can have happened? Well, if you’ve ever given your children driving lessons, look away now.  The story is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which all shapes change: the poet’s message is that the world we live in, and everything in it, is in a state of flux. Phaeton was the son of Phoebus, God of the Sun (we tend to call him Apollo now) – although he grew up in ignorance of the fact. Long story short: he finds out, seeks out his father, and, to prove his paternity Phoebus offers his son anything he wants. Phaeton asks for the use of the chariot of the sun for a day, which would be a bit like driving a Ferrari at full speed over a revolving race track with no breaks, with the combined engine and steering wheel headstrong and out of control. Of course, despite his father’s warnings, Phaeton never had control, shot far too high, and then plummeted towards the earth, causing forests to burn and oceans to boil. Short story shorter: Jupiter was summoned, and solved the problem the only way possible, by blasting chariot and driver out of the sky with a thunderbolt.

At the very top we see the Jupiter, unusually beardless, seated astride his familiar bird amidst the vaporous clouds. The eagle looks round to its master, its legs fully extended on either side – spread-eagled! – and firmly planted on a cloud as if it has slammed on the breaks having arrived at precisely the right point. Jupiter raises his right hand high, twisted 90˚at the waist – so that his shoulders are at right angles to his hips – the torsion giving him the full force necessary to fling the thunderbolt, which is shown as a suitably indistinct, but jagged, blur.

Down below, on the ground, we see distressed, lamenting figures. On the left is a river god, implacably and impossibly pouring the flowing water from a jug, as classical river gods always do. This is Erídanus, which Ovid describes as ‘the longest of rivers’, and which is now a southern constellation, one of the 48 listed by Ptolemy in the 2nd century. According to Ovid, the river ‘received [Phaeton] and washed the smoke from his charred face’. That is where he was buried, and where his three sisters, the Héliades, mourned him. They spent four months in hopeless lamentation, wishing that the earth would just swallow them up, only to realise that they were indeed setting root. They were metamorphosed into poplar trees, and through it all their tears continued, now falling as drops of amber. Also present was Cycnus. ‘He was related to Phaeton through his mother, but feelings of friendship were stronger than kinship,’ Ovid tells us. A later writer, Servius, makes this more explicit – rather than ‘friend’ he uses the word ‘amator’, or lover. Basically, Phaeton’s boyfriend also mourned his death, and was transformed into a swan – Cygnus – another constellation. The quotations are from the Penguin Classics edition of Metamorphoses, but for something meatier, though not as detailed, Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid is more exciting.

The inclusion of Cycnus gives us a hint about the origins of this drawing, and about the person to whom this drawing was presented. In 1532, at the age of 57, Michelangelo met the young nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, who was probably less than half his age, although his birthdate is unknown. The artist seems to have fallen hopelessly in love. We don’t really know what this meant for Michelangelo, as we know nothing of his relationships in physical terms, or even if there ever were ‘physical terms’ with anyone. However, a correspondence ensued, a number of remarkable poems were written, and several astonishing drawings ‘presented’. They remained friends for life, and Tommaso was one of the few people present at the artist’s death. This is just one of the drawings – I will talk about the others, and how they relate to this one, on Monday. Unlike the other drawings made for Cavalieri, preparatory sketches for this one survive.

The Accademia in Venice has what is probably an initial idea, although the precise ordering of the drawings is not certain. Michelangelo may be rethinking the composition after initially sketching it all out. He is thinking about a more ordered composition here, with Jupiter dead centre, though in a very similar position to the drawing we have seen, at the top of an axis which passes vertically through Phaeton. The main focus is on the horses, though – they are the most highly finished. There are two on either side of a centrally-plummeting Phaeton, with the right-hand pair almost grabbing each other from fear. Phaeton falls headlong, his arms stretching out below him, legs bent above, with the carriage behind. I suspect this idea was rejected as being too neatly arranged given the apocalyptic events of the story. At the bottom the sisters, and possibly also the river, are just sketched in, apparently based, as so often, on male models.

This example is in the collection of the British Museum, and is closer to ours, though less highly finished. It is not so obviously pyramidal, even though Jupiter is still at the top, with the horses below in a different state of disarray, and Phaeton in a similar position. The major difference is down below. Erídanus and the Héliades are in more-or-less the same arrangement, with Cycnus wandering among them. But the sisters are already in a state of transformation, being or becoming trees, their hands close to their faces, or thrown out as branches, with shoots sprouting from their fingers. Unlike the other examples, there is writing on this particular page, probably using the same piece of black chalk with which the image was drawn. It is quite legible, and can be translated. The name referred to is not the city, but Michelangelo’s assistant, and friend, Pietro Urbino. It was he who took the Risen Christ to Rome, installed it, and even carved its final details. This is what it says:

Mr Tommaso, if you don’t like this sketch, tell Urbino so that I have time to do another tomorrow evening as I promised, and if you like it, and would like me to finish it, send it back to me.

What did Tommaso think? We can’t be sure, but the Royal Collection version must be the final, finished work. Either the young man didn’t like it, and what we see is an ‘improvement’, or he did, and rather than finishing the BM’s drawing on the same sheet, Michelangelo made a fine copy, altering his ideas in the process. Both are superb, and I for one would be happy with either. It didn’t end there, though. The drawings Michelangelo sent to Tommaso were highly sought after among the cognoscenti in Rome, to the extent that a highly skilled craftsman, Giovanni Berardi, was commissioned to cut replicas of them in rock crystal. We know this, because Cavalieri wrote to Michelangelo to tell him about it, and I’ll read some of that letter on Monday – as well as suggesting why Michelangelo might have chosen to draw this particular subject. For now, though, I’ll finish by showing you one of the surviving examples in rock crystal, from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The composition is different though (compare and contrast for yourselves) – maybe there was yet another version of the drawing which has subsequently been lost.


169 – Michelangelo’s Lost Love

Alessandro Algardi, Sleep, 1635-6. Museo Borghese, Rome.

Yes, you’re right, this is not a sculpture by Michelangelo. Nor is it, for that matter, ‘Love’. You might have realised that already from the photograph – or for that matter, simply by reading the caption. But I do love this work – and after Bernini’s flashy showpieces on the ground floor of the Museo Borghese I love the calm of this glowing gem which you can find upstairs: Algardi may have been outranked, but he was never outclassed. As I can’t show you Michelangelo’s lost ‘Love’ (for the simple reason that it’s lost), I’m showing you the Algardi instead. However, I wanted to tell you about the renaissance equivalent today, as I won’t feature it in my talk on Monday, 12 September (Michelangelo 2: The Sculptures). There are enough sculptures I can show you without taking time for things we can no longer see. After that, weeks three and four of the series Almost All of Michelangelo will look at The Works on Paper and The Architecture – click on those links or check out the diary for more information. And if you missed the first talk, don’t worry – each one is effectively a free-standing entity. Meanwhile, back to Michelangelo, albeit Michelangelo via Algardi. Look first, think later.

This is, in a way, one of my secret pleasures, something I always look forward to seeing, especially as it is something I see relatively rarely. The Museo Borghese in Rome is a hugely frustrating place, you have to book in advance and even then you only get a two hour slot. At one point you had to check in to the ground floor, check out again, and then check into the first floor, but I think they gave up on that complication fairly early on. When I take groups I find I can spend all two hours on the ground floor looking at the Canova, the Berninis and the Caravaggios: five sculptures and five paintings are more than enough for one visit. But if I can get upstairs (where most of the paintings are) then I will make sure I catch at least a glimpse of this sleeping marvel. However, I will rarely say anything about it, short of ‘look at that – isn’t that wonderful’, which, despite my usual verbosity, should be all that anything really needs. What do I like about it? The richness of the colour, the perfection of the forms, their apparent softness (yes, it’s hard stone) and the roundness of most elements, which adds to the sense of repose created by the total relaxation of this child, helplessly abandoned to a deep sleep.

The child is lying on a sloping ground. The latter is differentiated from the rest of the stone by its rough, unpolished surface, created by small, regular chisel marks which make the black stone look grey. Spread over the ground is a cloth, which, like the infant, is highly polished, the sharper, more angular folds of the fabric contrasting with the rounder forms of the body. The child’s left knee is raised, the sole of the foot resting flat on the ground, with the right foot stretched further out. The left arm, slightly bent, lies by its side, resting on some rounded forms, while the right arm is wrapped around its head – you can just see the right hand resting on top of the hair at the far right. The shoulders are turned slightly towards us, and the chubby face lolls, allowing us to see it from this angle – which is presumably why almost every photograph I can find of the sculpture is taken from this side. As ever, with sculpture, this is so frustrating: it is a three-dimensional art form, this is only a partial view! The eyes are closed, and the mouth downturned – looking a little grumpy, perhaps, but really showing the release of sleep. There is also a creature with a long bushy tail curled up on the rough ground (rather than on the cloth), presumably also fast asleep.

This is not a great photograph, I know, but it is one of very few that does not show the ‘predominant viewpoint’ seen above. It’s surprising there are not more, as this side reveals some new information, and helps us to understand what is going on. This is a boy, for one thing, and he has wings, although they look more like butterfly wings than the usual feathered forms you expect to see on amoretti and angels alike. The subtle twist through the body is more evident from this point of view, with the shoulders turned a little to our right, the knees to our left, a movement that is indeed a common feature of works by Michelangelo. However, there is none of the tension inherent in his output, and the cloth lying on the ground is more fulsome, maybe even more generous – look at the rich, unnecessary folds going down the right side in this photograph. It has all the sensuality of the Baroque – which it is, of course, being by Algardi –  and a dramatic naturalism (at least, I think that if sleep can be dramatic, this is how it would look), which is what separates it from the contrived etiolation of Mannerism.

Without a close up – again, the best that I can find – it is hard to see what the rounded forms under the winged boy’s hand are – but they also form a garland around his head. Even here I suspect it’s not obvious, unless you are an avid, and slightly imaginative, gardener. They are the seed pods of a poppy, the source of opium, and a symbol of Sleep. The butterfly wings, too, belong to this pint-sized personification, as, unlike Cupid’s flapping bird wings, which presumably would wake you up, these would flutter noiselessly as you drift away. The small creature we saw before is a dormouse (I would never have recognised it) – just think of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and you’ll realise they have always symbolised sleep, because they really do sleep for up to seven months a year. The choice of a black material is, of course, not coincidental, as most sleep takes place at night.

The sculpture was carved in what is called Belgian black marble, although it is not, truly speaking, marble (a metamorphic rock, transformed by high temperature and huge pressure), but a very fine-grained carboniferous limestone – a sedimentary rock. It was commissioned in 1635 by Marcantonio Borghese, nephew and heir of Cardinal Scipio Borghese who had built a phenomenal collection of ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ art, and who had died just two years before. We don’t know why, exactly, Marcantonio wanted a personification of Sleep, but it was an image derived from antique prototypes which were popular not only in classical times but also in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Here is another embodiment of a similar idea, and another of my ‘secret pleasures’.

Well, not so much a secret, as a treat I look forward to seeing on the way to talk about something else – usually, in this case, the portraits by Raphael or the ceiling paintings of Pietro da Cortona in the Galleria Palatina in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. It is Caravaggio’s Sleeping Cupid, painted while he was in Malta in 1608. Photography doesn’t always cope well with Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro, and here, if anything, the image is lighter than when the painting is seen in the flesh, when it appears more subtle and evocative, at the same time as allowing the boy greater dignity: the shadows function as a loin cloth, and grant him a deeper repose. He rests on a plank on the stone floor, bow and arrow by his side, his head resting on his quiver. The left wing lies on the ground, the right is just traced across the darkness of the background, both framing the figure and protecting it. Like Algardi’s Sleep, his left arm lies beside him, although the right does not curl round his head. Again there is a Michelangelesque twist through the body, although going the other way – the knees fall towards us, the shoulders are flatter to the floor. But there is still the utter calm of undisturbed slumber.

This is one of the classical prototypes, a Sleeping Cupid in the Uffizi dating from the 2nd Century CE. The idea goes back (as so many Roman ideas do) to the Greeks, and there is a wonderful Greek bronze Sleeping Eros, which was restored by the Romans, in the Met in New York – click on that link if you’d like to see photos, and read a very detailed analysis. I’m showing you this one because it was once – like most things in the Uffizi – part of the Medici collection, and so could easily have been known to Michelangelo. More of that in a moment. Like Algardi’s Sleep, this little chap (he’s only 69 cm long) lies on a cloth on the ground holding poppy seed-heads. This is definitely cupid, though – look at the wings – although there is a butterfly (perhaps not the most naturalistic) lying next to the poppies. His legs are spread, and flat out, while his right arm falls over his chest onto the floor. His left arm curves round his head, and holds onto some sort of bag or cushion to make himself more comfortable.

The Ancient Greek for ‘butterfly’ is Ψυχή – or ‘Psyche’ – which also means ‘soul’, while poppies, as well as referring to sleep, can also imply death, the sleep from which we do not wake. Sad as it is, one of the reasons why this particular genre of sculpture was popular in classical times was its suitability as a marker for the graves of dead children. This was not the motivation behind Algardi’s Sleep, though. Instead it was, like many other of the ‘modern’ sculptures in the Borghese collection, made ‘in competition’ with the classical prototypes – an idea which had been essential for the development of the Renaissance a good two centuries before Algardi turned up in Rome from his native Bologna. Sometimes, though, the admiration and emulation which inspired great art could descend into forgery, with even the greatest falling foul to temptation.

As I discussed last Monday when talking about Michelangelo’s paintings, the young genius was an apprentice in the workshop of painter Domenico Ghirlandaio from the age of 12, in 1487, until he was about 15. Then, from roughly 1490-92, he seems to have studied informally at the Medici sculpture garden. Nobody is really sure how it worked, or who taught him to carve, but I’ll talk a bit more about it on Monday anyway. What is certain is that the garden was home to some of the Medici collection of classical sculpture, potentially including the Sleeping Cupid in the Uffizi (above), and another example, in bigio morato (a different type of black limestone), which might be the ‘cupido nero’ which was a gift to Lorenzo the Magnificent from the King of Naples. After Lorenzo’s death in 1492, and just before the Medici were exiled in 1494, Michelangelo fled – the first of several times he did this – heading first to Venice and then back to Bologna, where he carved a number of figures on the Arca of St Dominic (see 159 – Michelangelo, holding a candle). On his return to Florence in the autumn of 1495 he worked for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who was from a different branch of the family to the previous (unofficial) rulers. It was then that Michelangelo carved his own Sleeping Cupid in emulation of the antique. Vasari mentions it the first edition of his Lives in 1550, and in his biography, three years later, Condivi gives us more information, describing it as ‘a god of love, aged six or seven years old and asleep’. Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco approved, and also suggested to Michelangelo that he if he sold it in Rome as an antique, he would get a better price than if it was marketed as his own work. Indeed, a dealer managed to sell it to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, one of the nephews of Pope Sixtus IV, for 200 ducats – although he told Michelangelo that he’d got 30, which is what a ‘modern’ sculpture might have fetched. However, Riario found out it was modern and sent for the young upstart who had deceived him. The Cardinal returned the Cupid to the dealer, but commissioned another work from Michelangelo – which he then also rejected (more of that on Monday, too). In later life Michelangelo claimed that Riario had never bothered to commission anything from him, covering his back, no doubt, for the double rejection.

So what happened to the Cupid? It went back on the market, and initially Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, showed an interest in it – until she found out that it was modern. At this point nobody really knew who Michelangelo was. It’s not clear what happened to it next, but somehow it ended up in Urbino, where it was seized by Cesare Borgia (son of the Pope) when he sacked the city. In 1502 he gave it to none other than Isabella d’Este, who, by this time, would probably have heard of the young sculptor who had carved a Bacchus and a Pietà in Rome. She exhibited it alongside a genuine, classical cupid (with an unlikely attribution to Praxiteles) which she acquired a few years later. Both remained in the Gonzaga Collection in Mantua until the 17