‘Their illusions are enchantments.’ – Andrew Graham-Dixon on the Northern Renaissance

April 13, 2018 at 12:54 pm (Art)

The following is from Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Renaissance:

Robert Campin – Jacques Daret; The Virgin and Child in an Interior

The sense of the real in fifteenth-century Northern European painting is so intense  that it becomes uncanny. The liquidity and brilliance of colours suspended in oil lends a particular lustre to details such as the copper ewer and the lights reflected in it. A dappled patch of light conveys the passage of sunshine onto a wall through the small panes of a thickly glazed window with astonishing virtuosity. Such effects would come as a revelation even to the Italians, who had done so much to achieve their own effects of naturalism in the different media of egg tempera and fresco. No wonder, perhaps, that the early Netherlandish artists should have acquired a reputation as necromancers and alchemists. Their illusions are enchantments.

 

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Writing About Art

March 31, 2018 at 2:21 pm (Art)

The more I read in art history, the more I encounter exceptionally beautiful and eloquent prose. I’d like to share some portions of it with you, in this and in future posts.

   In Rendez-vous with Art, Martin Gayford asks his co-author Philippe de Montebello, who served as Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from 1977 to 2008, if he could name a particular experience that caused him to devote his life to art. Here is his response:

 That’s the toughest question, Martin, and the one most likely to yield an invention, or a half truth. But since an episode just happens to spring to mind, let’s go with it. It was my first love, actually, a woman in a book.
She was Marchioness Uta in Naumburg Cathedral and I loved her as a woman. When I was maybe fifteen years old, my father brought home a book called Les Voix du Silence by André Malraux. I leafed through it, looking at its great, four-tone black-and-white illustrations. And suddenly there was Uta, with her wonderful high collar, and her puffed eyelids, as though after a night of lovemaking. She stands perhaps twenty feet up in the west choir of the building, so you could never see her so close in reality. But then I was seeing her in a book, held in my hand. I still think she’s one of the most beautiful women in the world. I’ve since discovered, a bit to my dismay, that she can be found all over Internet, because it seems I’m not the only person who thinks she’s supremely alluring.

I love the simplicity and directness of the statement: “I loved her as a woman.”

 

Naumburg Cathedral, Germany – groundbreaking in 1028; consecration in 1044. Inside this ancient and holy edifice, Marchioness Uta, serene and unchanging, has captivated those who gaze upon her for close to eight hundred years.

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The Art Institute of Chicago: the third visit…

March 13, 2018 at 4:19 pm (Art, Family)

…And this time Mom and little brother Welles came with Etta and me. After we got inside the museum, we split up: Welles and his Mom went off to see the miniature rooms, the paper weights, and other items of interest. Etta and I had sampled  these delights on a previous visit, and we hope to visit them again in the future. But meanwhile, wet went off in search of certain other favorites.

Such as:

Little Dancer, Age 14, by Edgar Degas (with littler dancer, age 7)

Etta calls this “The Dot Painting.” (A close look at it reveals the artist’s signature use of the Pointillist technique):

Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte) by Georges Seurat, 1884

And then, there’s this character:

These tasks happily accomplished, we wandered off to do further exploration. Quite by happy accident, we found ourselves in The Deering Family Galleries of Medieval and Renaissance Art, Arms, and Armor. This new installation opened only last year and is really stunning.

St. Francis Before the Pope, by Spinello Aretino 1390-1400

 

Left – St. Lucy Vergos workshop ca. 1500 Right – St .Agatha Vergos workshop ca. 1500

 

Retable and Frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin Made for Pedro López de Ayala, 1396

Adam and Eve, engraving by Albrecht Durer, 1504

 

Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1533-1537

Medieval and Renaissance music played softly in the background. We fell under the spell of these beautiful works. Etta was inspired to dance!

The arms and armor display was  also quite striking. We were especially impressed by these two who were jousting on foot:

In the European Decorative Arts collection, we saw a beautiful door whose design is attributed to Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo:

I think of the Art Institute as having three iconic paintings: L’Apres-midi Sur La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (see above), American Gothic by Grant Wood, and Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. I’ve been eager to lay eyes on the Hopper, painted in 1942, for quite some time, and finally – finally! – we did:

Here’s a somewhat better close-up:

About ten people were clustered around this painting. We waited a few minutes for a clearer view. Etta stared intently.

I said: “Etta, what do you think is going on in this picture? The two people facing us seem to be discussing something important. The man around the corner may just happen to have dropped in – or maybe he’s there for a reason. What do you think?”

She thought for a moment and  then replied: “I think he’s onto them.”

She left it at that, and so did I. 

The Khan Academy has an interesting video on Nighthawks:

Singer-songwriter Tom Waits has his own take on Nighthawks:

As for American Gothic, painted in 1930, it was once again out on loan – sigh… Later in the gift shop, when we were lamenting its absence, a person within hearing commented that she’d been to the museum three times in recent years and missed American Gothic every time!

Here it is, anyway, absent yet still in our hearts:

While Etta and I were covering all this territory, Welles and his Mom were also ranging far and wide:

The Family Room in the Ryan Learning Center, also one of Etta’s favorite places

 

 

Enchanted by the Thorne Miniature Rooms

Thanks to Welles and Etta’s Mom for these snapshots of Welles in action!

The four of us met up in a room filled with colorful helium balloons:

This was followed by lunch at Terzo Piano on the third floor:

At last, we rounded out the day with a visit to the Museum Shop, where we all did ourselves proud!

My daughter-in-law Erica took this picture of the children and me across the street from the Museum:

With her usual generosity, Erica made this day possible for all of us. I especially admire her skillful driving in the city and her negotiation of the interior of an especially challenging parking garage. Thanks so much, Erica! And bountiful thanks to my very special grandchildren, Welles and Etta: You make all things possible and joyful in my life.

 

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Gleanings from Vasari’s LIVES and THE COLLECTOR OF LIVES, by Rowland and Charney

March 8, 2018 at 11:54 pm (Art, Italy)

 

This is the second and final post on Vasari’s Vite (Lives) and the biography Collector of Lives.

As Michelangelo was preparing to unveil his monumental sculpture of David, Piero Soderini, who occupied the  high post of Gonfoloniere of Justice in the government of Florence, arrived on the scene. As he gazed upon the great artist’s masterwork, he voiced the opinion that David’s nose was too thick. Whereupon Michelangelo proceeded – or appeared to proceed – to remedy this imperfection. Vasari describes what happened next:

Michelangelo, realizing that the Gonfaloniere was standing under the giant and that his viewpoint did not allow him to see it properly, climbed up the scaffolding to satisfy Soderini (who was behind him nearby), and having quickly grabbed his chisel in his left hand along with a little marble dust that he found on the planks in the scaffolding, Michelangelo began to tap lightly with the chisel, allowing the dust to fall little by little without retouching the nose from the way it was. Then, looking down at the Gonfaloniere who stood there watching, he ordered:

‘Look at it now.’

‘I like it better,’ replied the Gonfaloniere: ‘you’ve made it come alive.’

David by Michelangelo Florence Galleria dell’Accademia

Vasari knew many of the artists that he wrote about it; he also knew that  people loved hearing inside jokes and gossip about those same artists. His Lives is thus filled with such anecdotal material. Some of it may be apocryphal; but such stories enliven his text and are a major aspect of what makes it still so readable and entertaining.

“Vasari’s stories tend to endure, even when scholarship overturns them.” Rowland and Charney in The Collector of Lives

In 1506, during the excavation of a vineyard in Rome, workers broke through to the remains of the Golden House (Domus Aureus). This was an elaborate palace-cum-park created by Nero, built from 64 to 68 AD following the destruction wrought by the Great Fire of 64 AD. Workers soon found  themselves uncovering an extraordinary sculpture: the Laocoon Group.

Not only was this work astonishing in and of itself, but it exercised a profound influence on Michelangelo, who happened to be in Rome when it was first brought out of the earth and back into to the light of day. (When the work of excavation was complete, the Laocoon Group was brought to the Vatican, where it still is, and where I saw it several decades ago.)

Here are Rowland and Charney on the subject of the Laocoon:

The statue is astonishing for its realism, the hyper-accurate musculature of Laocoon and the adolescent bodies of his sons as they struggle against the tightening coils of the serpents, one of which is about to bite Laocoon’s flank. It is a frozen moment of highest tension. Muscles are taut, the serpent’s jaw is set to clamp down, an expression of adrenaline-pumped effort,, pain, and hopelessness can be read in the face of Laocoon.

The authors go on to point out that this is an extremely different effect than that which Renaissance sculptors normally strove to convey in their work.

During the High Renaissance, when so many great artists were at work in northern Italy and in Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, painters established workshops where apprentices ground pigments, prepared canvases, and performed other tasks. If an apprentice showed promise, he could learn technique from the master. In fact, many masters emerged from this system, Vasari himself among them.

Painter’s workshop, by Philip Galle, c.1595

There’s an interesting post on this subject at the Art Post Blog.

Rowland and Charney have a vivid description of what it must have been like to work in such a place:

In a Florentine painter’s studio…scents of linseed oil, sweat, and sawdust would have greeted the visitor outside the door. Ideally, the large windows would face south to catch the best possible light, and  the studio had to be tall enough, and wide enough, to accommodate altarpieces of all sized. Sawdust, scattered on the floor, absorbed splatters and facilitated cleaning as apprentices. like Vasari, aged eight to eighteen, mingled with older paid assistants, bustling around the space, sweating profusely into grimy leather smocks, laughing, cursing, mopping, grinding pigments, creating an atmosphere that was surprisingly lively and social.

They add that the image many of us carry in our minds of the lone artist struggling to achieve his  goal simply did not apply here. For example, Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) of Wittenberg ran “a veritable factory.”

(I can never hear of Wittenberg without thinking of Hamlet: “Go not to Wittenberg,” the Queen implores her son, thereby sealing her fate, his, and that of many others at the ill-fated Danish court.)

This paragraph on Leonardo da Vinci pretty well sums up the man’s astonishing achievements:

Leonardo’s legacy in art was far greater than his modest output would suggest. The development of techniques like sfumato (the intentional blurring of color to create a smoky, atmospheric effect),  chiaroscuro (the dramatic focus on emerging from darkness),  and replicating nature with as much accuracy as possible (such as employing “atmospheric perspective,” in which objects far in the distance appear hazier, as we view them through layers of atmosphere, and pinpoint accurate anatomy as studied from dissections) all made a lasting impression and influenced future generations of artists. His books (on art, and on mathematics) helped to disseminate his ideas. His inventions, more of them designed than actually built, showed tremendous forethought: he was the first to conceive of helicopters, machine guns, tanks, parachutes, foldable bridges, and more.

(And still with me is the moment last December when my sister-in-law Donna and I stood before Leonardo’s other worldly masterpiece The Virgin of the Rocks, in London’s National Gallery.)

Vasari did not want to elevate any artist to the level of his revered and beloved Michelangelo; nevertheless, he readily acknowledged the supreme gifts of Raphael:

His colours were finer than those found in nature, and his invention was original and unforced, as anyone can realize by looking at his scenes, which have the narrative flow of a written story. They bring before our eyes sites and buildings, the ways and customs of our own or of foreign peoples, just as Raphael wished to show them. In addition to the graceful qualities of the heads shown in his paintings, whether old or young, men or women, his figures expressed perfectly the character of those they represented, the modest or the bold being shown just as they are. The children in his pictures were depicted now with mischief in their eyes, now in playful attitudes. And his draperies are neither too simple nor too involved but appear wholly realistic.

The School of Athens, Raphael’s famous fresco in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican (1509-1511)

 

Raphael’s Alba Madonna has long been one of my favorite works of art in Washington’s National Gallery. Painted circa 1510

Vasari brought home to me the importance of Masaccio in the evolution of Italian painting. I hadn’t realized how key his contribution was:

The superb Masaccio completely freed himself of Giotto’s style and adopted a new manner for his heads, his draperies, buildings, and nudes, his colours and foreshortenings. He thus brought into existence the modern style which, beginning during his period, has been employed by all our artists until the present day, enriched and embellished from time to time by new inventions, adornments, and grace.

Masaccio’s achievement and influence are all the more astonishing when the brevity of his life is taken into account: he died at the age of 26. Vasari appends a rather provocative speculation to his remarks on this artist:

Although Masaccio’s works have always had a high reputation, there are those who believe, or rather there are many who insist, that he would have produced even more impressive results if his life had not ended prematurely when he was twenty-six. However, because of the envy of fortune, or because good things rarely last for long, he was cut off in the flower of his youth, his death being so sudden that there were some who even suspected that he had been poisoned.

Vasari does not elaborate on this startling conjecture; rather, he goes on to note that upon hearing the news, the great painter  and architect Filippo Brunelleschi was grief stricken and exclaimed: “‘We have suffered a terrible loss in the death of Masaccio.’”

Masaccio, San Giovenale Triptych, 1422

 

Masaccio Expulsion, 1424-25

Rowland and Charney assert that had Vasari not made note of several women artists, we might not know about them. They refer specifically to Sofonisba Anguissola and her sisters – she had six of them! – and Properzia de’ Rossi of Bologna. Vasari had actually had occasion to meet Sofonisba and three of her sisters when he was visiting Cremona, where their family belonged to the local aristocracy. He  was deeply impressed by a particular work of Sofonisba’s:

The Chess Game, 1555

 

This year in Cremona I saw in her father’s  house a painting by her hand made with great diligence showing her  three sisters playing chess, and with them an old housemaid, with such diligence and attention that they truly seem to be alive and missing nothing but the power of speech.

As for Properzia de’ Rossi, she was famous primarily for her carvings on nuts and on fruit pits.  I read somewhere that this meticulous endeavor was deemd especially well suited for a woman to undertake, as it required both patience and diligence.

 

Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Mone (Simone) Cassai, called Masaccio 1401-1428

Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael), 1483-1520

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519

Properzia de’ Rossi (?), 1490-1530

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giorgio Vasari, self-portrait, (1511-1574)

Michelangelo Buonarroti 1475-1564

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sofonisba Anguissola self-portrait 1532-1625

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Giorgio Vasari and Michelangelo Buonarroti

February 18, 2018 at 1:45 pm (Art, Italy, Music)

  I feel as though The Collector of Lives were written just for me. Admittedly, it is a rather specialized narrative, concentrating as it does on the work of the great Giorgio Vasari and the Italian painters of the Renaissance whom he celebrates in his magnum opus, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. (‘Excellent’ is sometimes rendered as ‘Eminent.’)

Amazingly, there were those who practiced more than one of these arts – in some cases, with a varying degree of proficiency, all three. Vasari himself was proficient both as a painter and an architect; it was he who designed the Uffizi, now Florence’s preeminent art museum. Add to which, of course, he was an extremely skilled writer. By means of this one book,  he legitimized art history as a field of study. He was helped in this endeavor by  he fact that he knew personally a good number of the artists whose lives and works he describes in such a lively and engaging manner.

(Vasari’s book is sometimes referred to simply as The Lives. You will see it occasionally called in Italian  Vite – pronounced ‘veetay.’)

The cover of The Collector of Lives features a detail from St. Luke Painting the Virgin by Vasari; it dates from about 1565. My copy of Vasari’s book has the same work on its cover:   Here is the actual painting:

I often see comments to the effect that while Vasari achieved greatness through his writing, he was not quite great as a painter. I find this airy dismissal rather unwarranted. True, in his era he was up against some incredibly gifted artists; nevertheless, I find his own work singularly compelling.

Vasari’s own hero in the arts was unquestionably Michelangelo. Many of us are familiar with Michelangelo’s most famous creations, but I think, especially in this age of anguish in which we now seem to dwell, it might do us good to look at them again:

The Sistine Chapel

 

1508-1512

 

1537-1541

 

1508-1512

 

1498-1499

It would be impossible for any craftsman or sculptor no matter how brilliant ever to surpass the grace or design of this work or try to cut and polish the marble with the skill that Michelangelo displayed. For the Pietà was a revelation of all the potentialities and force of the art of sculpture. Among the many beautiful features (including the inspired draperies) this is notably demonstrated by the body of Christ itself. It would be impossible to find a body showing greater mastery of art and possessing more beautiful members, or a nude with more detail in the muscles, veins, and nerves stretched over their framework of bones, or a more deathly corpse. The lovely expression of the head, the harmony in the joints and attachments of the arms, legs, and trunk, and the fine tracery of pulses and veins are all so wonderful that it staggers belief that the hand of an artist could have executed this inspired and admirable work so perfectly and in so short a time. It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists

 

1501-1504

The legs are skilfully outlined, the slender flanks are beautifully shaped and the limbs are joined faultlessly to the trunk. The grace of this figure and the serenity of its pose have never been surpassed, nor have the feet, the hands, and the head, whose harmonious proportions and loveliness are in keeping with the rest. To be sure, anyone who has seen Michelangelo’s David has no need to see anything else by any other sculptor, living or dead.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists

I only found out recently that Michelangelo was also a poet:

“When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel” (1509)

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

Just in case you thought painting that ceiling was in any way an easy undertaking….

Michelangelo also wrote poems of a more lyrical nature, such as this one in praise of the author of The Divine Comedy:

DANTE

What should be said of him cannot be said;
By too great splendor is his name attended;
To blame is easier than those who him offended,
Than reach the faintest glory round him shed.
This man descended to the doomed and dead
For our instruction; then to God ascended;
Heaven opened wide to him its portals splendid,
Who from his country’s, closed against him, fled.
Ungrateful land! To its own prejudice
Nurse of his fortunes; and this showeth well
That the most perfect most of grief shall see.
Among a thousand proofs let one suffice,
That as his exile hath no parallel,
Ne’er walked the earth a greater man than he.
Translated into English by H.W. Longfellow (1807-1882).

More poetry by Michelangelo can be found at the Michelangelo Gallery.

In The Collector of Lives, Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney offer this assessment:

There are many bones one can pick with Vasari, but he makes a persuasive argument for his candidate as the “greatest” artist in history. To this day, Michelangelo Buonarroti seems a reasonable choice as Giorgio’s ultimate hero.

There are many other genius artists of the Italian Renaissance whom Vasari admired and wrote about. I’ll return to these in a later post.

A hundred years after Michelangelo, Gregorio Allegri composed the Miserere Mei, Deus expressly to be sung in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. Here, it is performed by the King’s College Choir in their magnificent Chapel.

British art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon has made a two part film about Giorgio Vasari:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Haunted by the genius of Hugo van der Goes

February 7, 2018 at 6:51 pm (Art)

It’s hard not to be, once you know his story. But first, several of his works:

Portinari Altarpiece, open c. 1475

 

Portinari Altarpiece, closed (This style painting, which imitates the qualities of sculpture, is termed grisaille.)

 

Death of the Virgin c. 1472-80

 

The Fall, 1480. (I find that conniving reptile with the human head profoundly unnerving.)

Hugo van der Goes (pronounced ‘hooss,’ with the ‘h’ being guttural) was born in or around Ghent, in present-day Belgium, in or around the year 1440. As with many of the artists of this early period of the Northern Renaissance, little is known of his childhood. It’s known that he became a master in the painters’ guild of Ghent in 1467. (Bless these good people for keeping such meticulous records.)

By 1477, van der Goes had achieved considerable success. Nevertheless, in that year he closed down his workshop with a view to entering the Roode Klooster, or Red Cloister. He had been living there for five years when the brothers of this monastery sent him, along with his half-brother and another monk of the order, to Cologne. On the return trip, he suffered a breakdown, declaring himself to be damned and attempting suicide. He was conveyed back to the Roode Klooster, where he experienced a brief recovery before dying in that same year, 1482.

Knowledge of this turn taken in van der Goes’s life became lost in obscurity until it was rediscovered by Belgian historian Alphonse Wauters in 1863. Wauters’s nephew Emile made a painting on the subject in 1872. That work of art in turn made a profound impression on Vincent van Gogh.

Here’s more detailed recounting:

In 1863, the Belgian historian Alphonse Wauters published a startling revelation: that the great Ghent painter Hugo van der Goes had experienced a disastrous episode of insanity around 1480. This information was discovered by Wauters in “The Chronicle of the Red Cloister,” written by Gaspar Ofhuys, prior of the monastery in the early sixteenth century. Ofhuys had known van der Goes personally, having taken vows at the same time as the painter.

According to the chronicler, Hugo van der Goes became demented while returning from a trip to Cologne with a party of fellow monks. Shortly before reaching Brussels, Hugo, without any prior signs of distress, suddenly erupted. He insisted that he was a lost soul, that he was doomed to perdition, and tried to commit suicide. His brothers had to forcibly restrain him from violently taking his life. When the travellers finally attained Brussels, treatment for Hugo was ready. The prior of the Red Cloister had arranged for the appropriate remedies– music therapy and performances. Unfortunately, these proved ineffective and van der Goes returned to the Red Cloister incapacitated. Remission occurred some time after his return but we do not know whether it was complete. About a year after this incident the artist was dead.

Wauters’ remarkable discovery did not have any immediate impact upon historians but it did impress painters. Emile Wauters, Alphonse’s nephew, caused a sensation in 1872 with his painting of Hugo van der Goes Undergoing Treatment at the Red Cloister. And as early as 1873  Vincent van Gogh referred to this painting in a letter to his brother Theo. On at least two further occasions the Dutch artist likened his own appearance to that of Hugo’s as recreated by Wauters, and identified emotionally with the fifteenth–century painter.

From a 1978 paper presented  By Susan Koslow

Here is the painting by Emile Wauters:

It’s my understanding that this is a depiction of an effort to ameliorate van der Goes’s suffering with music.

The Portinari Altarpiece is widely considered to be Hugo van der Goes’s masterpiece. It can be studied in its particulars while still inspiring wonder as a whole. At some point I was alerted to the presence of a dragon-like creature in the right hand panel. I had trouble focusing on it at first. It’s directly below Saint Margaret, who wears the red robe. The dragon is, in fact, her attribute. Attributes are objects that are depicted along with a particular saint, in order to specify his or identity. (Think of Saint Catherine and the wheel.)

Apparently several versions of Saint Margaret’s story exist. In one, she is swallowed by a dragon, but once inside the beast, she makes the sign of the cross; this causes the dragon to burst asunder. In another, somewhat less drastic retelling by Voragine in The Golden Legend, the dragon rushes toward Saint Margaret, but when she makes the sign of the cross, it vanishes.

I cannot thank Professor Catherine B. Scallen enough for her enormously enriching work on two Great Courses DVD sets: Museum Masterpieces: The National Gallery, London; and Art of the Northern Renaissance.   Ron and I have now watched both of them twice. We fervently wish that Professor Scallen would make more of these.

 

 

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London: Canaletto and Sir John Soane’s Museum

January 30, 2018 at 10:48 pm (Art, London, London 2017)

Canaletto: View in Venice, on the Grand Canal (Riva degli Schiavoni). Date: c. 1734-1735.

Click twice to enlarge; then sit back and take in this marvel.

Many are the views of Venice painted by Giovanni Antonio Canal, called ‘Canaletto’ to distinguish him from his father Bernardo Canal, also a painter. Along with other works by this master, Riva degli Schiavoni is housed in London in Sir John Soane’s Museum. This is without doubt one of the strangest  places I have ever visited.

Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was a brilliant architect and a compulsive collector. Crowded into his house – which is actually  three town houses knocked together to form one domicile – are numerous objects from antiquity, beautiful furnishings, and priceless works of art.

Sir John Soane’s Museum – exterior

 

The Picture Room – a very unique arrangement

 

Dining room

 

On the bottom floor of the Soane Museum is the three thousand year old sarcophagus of Pharoah Seti I. It is carved from a single block of translucent alabaster. To celebrate  the two hundredth anniversary of this object’s discovery, a special viewing was arranged. (This description is from an article in The Guardian last November):

Over three days and nights [when it was first displayed], almost 900 people trooped through his [Soane’s] rooms and into the basement renamed “the Sepulchral Chamber”, where the sarcophagus glowed eerily, lit by candles placed inside. The museum recently recreated the experiment, and deputy director Helen Dorey recalled the extraordinary effect when the whole block lit up like a lantern, and the thousands of tiny human figure hieroglyphics carved into every inch of stone seemed to flicker and move. “It was a truly shiver down the spine moment,” she said.

Below is an illustration of the ‘sepulchral chamber:’

Remember – this was at one time a family home!

Sir John Soane, by Thomas Lawrence

It’s hard not to become incoherent on the subject of Sir John Soane and his fabulous if eccentric house of treasures. Last month, my sister-in-law Donna and I had a wonderful time there. But the Canaletto works are what stayed with me, and most especially the painting at the top of this post:

By his precision of touch, the subtleties of his use of light and shade, by his skillful blending of the qualities of sky and water with every variety of timber, stone and other building materials, Canaletto has surely created a work of art of total harmony and order.

J.G. Links, in The Soane Canalettos

 

 

 

 

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Two women artists of the Northern Renaissance

January 25, 2018 at 3:58 am (Art)

I’ve recently come across the names of two women who lived and worked in the period known as the Northern Renaissance.

First, Agnes van den Bosshe (c. 1435–40 – c. 1504) of Bruges. From Wikipedia:

She is one of the few known women admitted to the painter’s guild of Bruges, and worked mainly on designing flags and banners. Although these are records of numerous commissions, she is known today for her one extant work, the triangular silk banner The Maid of Ghent with a Lion, the only recorded painting by a Flemish woman of the 15th century.

1481-1482

Then there is Caterina van Hemessen (1528 – after 1565). Slightly less obscure, van Hemessen was a reasonably successful painter in her day. From the Wikipedia entry:

A number of obstacles stood in the way of contemporary women who wished to become painters. Their training would involve both the dissection of cadavers and the study of the nude male form, while the system of apprenticeship meant that the aspiring artist would need to live with an older artist for 4–5 years, often beginning from the age of 9-15. For these reasons, female artists were extremely rare, and those that did make it through were typically trained by a close relative, in van Hemessen’s case, by her father, Jan Sanders van Hemessen.

Here are some of her works:

Portrait of a Woman, c. 1540s-early 1550s

 

Girl at the Virginal 1548

 

Christ meets Veronica, 1541-1554

In the above painting, Saint Veronica is shown kneeling with a cloth that bears a faint image of Jesus. This cloth is known as the Sudarium. Legend has it that as Christ, laboring his way toward Calvary, was struggling with the weight of the cross, Veronica offered him a cloth – possibly her veil – with which to wipe the sweat from his face. This he did and then handed it back to her. By some miracle, a depiction of his face was transferred to the cloth.

This phenomenon is more  clearly shown in a painting made around 1420, by an artist known only as the Master of St. Veronica:

Of Caterina van Hemessen, the Wikipedia entry also says this:

There are no extant works later than 1554, which has led some historians to believe her artistic career might have ended after her marriage, which was a common occurrence in the case of female artists.

She did in fact marry a musician in 1554.

Caterina van Hemessen’s self-portrait is dated 1548. In addition to a paintbrush, she is holding a mahlstick. Sometimes also spelled “maulstick,” this device was used by artists to help steady the brush hand:

There is poignancy in her expression here, I think. In The Art of the Northern Renaissance, Craig Harbison states the following concerning this artist:

Notably she developed a straightforward realism of style, demonstrating her independence of her father’s influence – his work was mannered and highly contrived. Her self-portrait is thus a tantalizing but conflicted image of a woman’s ambition and its thwarting by both family and society.

I think her life would make a fine subject for a historical novel.

 

 

 

 

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London, Day Three: Beauty and riches beyond belief

January 5, 2018 at 2:45 pm (Art, London 2017)

That is what I encountered at London’s National Gallery.

Somehow in the course of my lifelong Anglophilia, I’d never been to this museum. This past May, my friend Jean and I attended a Smithsonian lecture entitled “A Day at the National Gallery and the Tate Britain.” Ron and I then watched “Museum Masterpieces: The National Gallery, London,” a set of DVDs accompanied by a book length insert with, among other things, a terrific bibliography. The professor, Catherine Scallen, is outstanding. (This set of Great Courses is produced by The Teaching Company.)

Just as my longing to visit this storied institution was reaching its peak, the opportunity arose for me to spend a week in London. I naturally took it.

The British Museum was about a half a block from my hotel. I was there once, many decades ago. It was the first place we went to – “we” being my sister-in-law Donna and myself. We spent an unforgettable day attending to its enchantments.

And speaking of enchantment….

Coronation of the Virgin, by Jacopo di Cione 1370-1

 

The Wilton Diptych 1395-99

 

Saints Jerome and John the Baptist 1428, by Masaccio (1401-1428).

Look at those dates! What a tragedy, the early loss of one so greatly gifted. His real name was Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone; Masaccio was a nickname bestowed upon him Giorgio Vasari. In his ground-breaking work Lives of the Most Excellent (sometimes translated as ‘Eminent’) Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Vasari describes the architect Filippo Brunelleschi‘s reaction to the news of Masaccio’s death:

It is said that when he heard the news Filippo Brunelleschi, who had been at great pains to teach Masaccio many of the finer points of perspective and architecture, was plunged into grief and cried: ‘We have suffered a terrible loss in the death of Masaccio.’

Vasari also says the following:

Although Masaccio’s works have always had a high reputation, there are those who believe, or rather there are many who insist, that he would have produced even more impressive results if his life had not ended prematurely when he was twenty-six. However, because of the envy of fortune, or because good things rarely last for long, he was cut off in the flower of his youth, his death being so sudden that there were some who even suspected that he had been poisoned.

Two Watermills and an Open Sluice, by Jacob van Ruisdael at Singraven  1560-2

Really brilliant landscapes like this one put me in transports. I want to be in that very place, or at least to powerfully imagine that I am.

A Man and a Woman, by Robert Campin ca. 1435

 

A Scene on the Ice near a Town, by Hendrick Avercamp ca. 1615

 

The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, 1483-86

Two versions of this painting exist: the one above, and one in the Louvre in Paris:

Virgin of the Rocks, Louvre 1483-86

 

Virgin of the Rocks, National Gallery, London 1495-1508

I read somewhere that the National Gallery version features ‘John’s traditional cruciform reed staff’ in order to differentiate between the two infants, as to which was John the Baptist and which, the Christ Child. (For more on this subject, see the Wikipedia entry.)

For whatever reason, I’ve never heretofore been able to respond to Leonardo’s art. Perhaps because of its iconic status and media overexposure, the Mona Lisa has never moved me. Of course I acknowledge its greatness, but for me this has always been an intellectual response rather than an emotional one. The same is true of Ginevra de’ Benci, though I well remember the excitement caused by the acquisition of this work by our own National Gallery in 1967.

(Demand, not to mention price, for Leonardo’s paintings remains stratospheric. Salvator Mundi, in recently restored condition, was just sold to a Saudi prince for $450.3 million dollars.)

Virgin of the Rocks affected me profoundly: the atmosphere created by the rocky seascape, the aura of holiness and stillness, the infants exchanging blessings, and above all, the beauty and serenity of the face of the Virgin – I found this painting incomparably beautiful. And deeply haunting as well.

 

 

 

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London, Day Two: the British Museum, second post

December 23, 2017 at 3:54 pm (Art, History, London)

If you have only one hour to spend in the British Museum, these are some of the objects you’re advised  not to miss:

In this space, there will be more on the British Museum. In the meantime, here is a video on the Parthenon Sculptures:

 

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