Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Avercamp's Winter Scenes: Now or Then?

The Dutch climate dictates many facts of life in The Netherlands. The winters are long and dark and the summers are short and glorious, with long, perfect sunny days. At the first sign of warm weather, the Dutch are out in the sun. To walk past any Amsterdam café any afternoon in the summer is to pass rows of patrons enjoying the hospitality of the café almost as much as they enjoy basking in rows in the glorious sunshine.Sitting at the table together, they turn all chairs to the sun, as if they are there to pay homage to it rather than to converse with each other. In fact, passing some cafes, it is hard not to be reminded of turtles lined up in the sunshine on a partially submerged log.

With the recent cold snap, I have learned a winter habit of the Dutch as interesting and nature related as their famous love of sunshine. As soon as the canals freeze, out come the skates. The temperature in Amsterdam recently has not reached above freezing and the Prinsengracht and the Keizersgracht are frozen solid. The moment the ice was thick enough people were on it. In fact, the first night people started venturing out onto it there were several accidents where someone fell through the ice. Now, as you can see, the ice is plenty thick for pedestrians, skaters and posers.

The scene of all this activity on the frozen canals reminds me of paintings by Hendrick Avercamp. He lived from 1585 to 1634, and between 1610 and his death, specialized in scenes of people frolicking on the frozen waterways of The Netherlands. This painting from the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is called Winter Landscape with Skaters, and dates from 1608, but it is much more than that. It is a social history textbook for the 17th Century Netherlands.
His scenes include people from all walks of life pursuing many different activities, preserving a great deal of social history. Where else do you see how upended rowboats were used as privies (look just above the little bridge at the lower left hand side and see someone relieving him or herself in such a structure)? Look behind the large brick building on the left, between it and the church, where you see a giant haystack with a conical roof. Look closely and you will find a pair of lovers trysting in the hay just under the roof.

In some of Avercamp’s scenes you may find a lady with exposed bum, having fallen on the ice without any undies, or a man relieving himself against a wall. Sometimes someone has fallen through the ice and people come to the rescue with ladders. The man just to the right of the center of this canvas has fallen on the ice and lost his hat.

Boats are frozen in their berths; someone walks across the ice carrying a load of hay. Teams of boys play kolf, a game related to both hockey and golf. A woman washes clothes through a hole in the ice and well dressed people skate in a group.
A group of thrillseekers rides a horsedrawn sleigh on the ice.
All these snippets of life are available if you take a moment to examine an Avercamp painting. In that moment you will discover an artist with a wicked sense of humor and keen powers of observation of both the natural and social world.

Known as “the mute from Kampen,” Avercamp was deaf and unable to speak. His handicap may have contributed to his ability to observe and express the variety of details of life that he so deftly displays in his many panels. Though he comes from a long tradition of northern landscape painters who include anecdotal scenes of everyday life, and he also comes from a long tradition of paintings of the seasons, Avercamp is the first to specialize in winter scenes with such rich social detail.
This painting was made in about 1608-1610. Caravaggio died in 1610. The Renaissance had happened. Mannerism was dying a slow death in Rome. The baroque had not really gotten going. Bosch and Breughel were gone. Rembrandt and Vermeer were a few years off. And here was this little guy who was deaf and couldn’t speak, who studied in Amsterdam under a Danish landscape painter, recording in his studio in Kampen some of the most interesting social history of any painter - in incredible detail and with an obvious sense of humor. Though he is not well known today, once you have discovered the magic of Avercamp’s winter scenes, you can appreciate that he was quite popular and well known in his day, and you have an insight into the Dutch culture of self-effacing humor. Looking at those Avercamps and watching the residents of Amsterdam playing on their frozen canals this week, I have to note: the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Sargent's Madame X - Enough to run him out of Paris?

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Art Historian Mary Alexander, “who has lectured extensively in museums, the Open University, and Christies as well as arts, heritage and antiquarian societies. She also has been a museum curator at Platt Hall, and the Gallery of Costume, Manchester. She has a BA in History and History of Art and a MA with distinction in History of Art from University College London.” The lecture was sponsored by The Decorative and Fine Arts Society of The Hague and was entitled “Scandal in Paris: John Singer Sargent’s Mysterious Portrait of Madame X.” In her lecture, Ms. Alexander intended to tell why Sargent was run out of Paris after exhibiting the painting we now know as “Madame X,” but I remain unconvinced of her premise, and suggest she has all the pieces of the puzzle, but has not assembled them completely.

In her lecture, Ms. Alexander began by describing Mme. X as a real person, a well known society matron and hostess, whose pale beauty attracted the young Sargent, and who only agreed to sit for him after many attempts and connivings. The speaker showed us some of Sargent’s previous paintings, which he no doubt would have shown Mme. X as he made his case to have her sit for him. Sargent would also most likely have shown her his recently completely masterpiece, “El Jaleo,” now in the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston, as a sample of his virtuosity and ability to paint a dramatic portrait of the pale Parisian beauty.

“Mme. X” was never actually a commission. Sargent pursued the sitter until she relented and allowed him to paint her, but he retained the work until after her death. Notice the similarities of the poses and the aristocratic, even haughty bearing of the women in both paintings.

Also among the early works he may have shown her was a portrait he exhibited in the Salon of 1881 and whose subject she no doubt knew, as she was allegedly involved in an affair of the heart with him. That portrait, called “Dr. Pozzi at Home” is now in the Armand Hammer Museum and is quite a dramatic and flattering portrait: a symphony of red and black and a study of heat and cold.

Like “El Jaleo,” and modeled after El Greco’s “Portrait of a Man” in El Prado, Madrid, Dr. Pozzi is portrayed in the unusual full length format in a glowing red robe, the toe of his bejeweled Moroccan slipper peeking from the hem. The canvas is a symphony of reds and browns and blacks, as “Jaleo’s” is a symphony of browns, ochres and blacks. Sargent is a master of tone on tone backgrounds, creating objects in the murky, dark corners which appear almost ghostlike, yet very real. Dr. Pozzi appears from behind his barely rendered, but distinctly velvet curtain, hand fiddling with the neckline of his dressing gown, and looking distractedly away from us, almost as if trying to avoid our gaze, not looking off to the side with intent, like the dancer in “El Jaleo,” summoning someone to join her in her dance, or with a squinting leer but glancing away as if to look back in a moment. That squinting, intent gaze he reserved for Madame X. She gazes off the canvas luridly.

So what did cause such a scandal with Mme. X that Sargent could no longer find commissions and soon had to move to London? According to Mary Alexander, it was the strap and the jewels. Let me explain. Sargent has portrayed Mme. X in the notorious black dress with jeweled straps. She shows off her wedding ring by displaying it against her black satin skirt. She also wears the tiniest of tiaras, barely there, in the shape of a crescent moon: the symbol of Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt. In the 1880’s no one would wear evening dress without jewelry, earrings, bracelets, brooches and necklaces. The fact that Mme. X has only her wedding ring and tiara on, suggests that she is home from an evening out and has removed her outer wrap and jewelry. The wedding ring is, however, intentionally prominent. When Sargent originally showed the work in 1884, Mme X’s right strap was painted so that it had fallen off her shoulder, baring her chest suggestively. As Ms. Alexander pointed out, while these standards would change completely within the next couple of years, in 1884, the only contemporary works showing women in such states of undress, were Toulouse Lautrec’s paintings and drawings of prostitutes. Showing Mme. X in such a state lacked the propriety one should expect in a society portrait. Simple as that, according to Ms. Alexander.

Through letters between Mme X and Sargent, Ms. Alexander proved that initially the sitter was pleased with the portrait, though she found the process of posing for it tedious, so we know her initial reaction to the work was not the reason for its infamy. Ms. Alexander says that because it showed the Parisian society matron in a state of undress and posed as Diana “the Huntress,” with her haughty, aristocratic bearing, it lacked the dignity that Parisians expected of society portraits. Though there was a long tradition in French portraiture of portraying aristocrats as classical heroes or goddesses, this was not Mme. X as a Goddess. Her tiara and its reference to Diana allude to her as a huntress/seductress, not the embodiment of a classical goddess, and the strap, fallen off her shoulder and pressing into her arm reinforced the sexual power of the image, but all that seemed acceptable even to the sitter, until the picture was shown in the Salon of 1884.

That’s when all hell broke loose for John Singer Sargent. Critics hated the painting. Cartoons of it appeared in the papers mocking it and portraying Mme. X as a wolf with her strap fallen and leering lustfully. Perhaps that’s what all the ruckus was about. In Ms. Alexander’s view, all the pieces are there: Dr. Pozzi as Sargent’s previous work, the strap, the lack of jewelry, the reference to the goddess of the hunt, the provocative bold pose, the mysterious dark background. But I think she missed one crucial piece.

The canvases of Mme. X and Dr. Pozzi are exactly the same size. They are pendants, yet never intended to hang together.

The full length portrait was a format usually reserved for royal or historical subjects. For these two portraits to be full length is, first of all, a statement of ostentation. For them to be exactly the same size begs that we consider them as a pair. “Dr. Pozzi at Home” was exhibited at the Salon of 1882 and “Mme. X” in the Salon of 1884, so Parisians would have remembered the bold red canvas of the hot young artist, exhibited just 2 years before when they first saw “Mme. X” with her strap falling off her provocatively cool, bare, white shoulder. They would have remembered his dramatic pose and the reference to El Greco. Now, they were confronted with its pendant or companion in its polar opposite. Parisian society was confronted with the affair between two leading socialites in a thoroughly unambiguous way.

Though the two were not displayed together, the sophisticated Parisians of the 1880’s would have recognized that Sargent had painted Dr. Pozzi and Mme. X in the same format, facing one another and in what appears to be a conversation, she confronting seductively and he responding furtively. Add to this equation that Dr. Pozzi was alleged to have been Mme. X’s lover in a time when having a lover was acceptable but indiscretion was not, and that Sargent did not paint Mssr. X, and I think you have the real reason John Singer Sargent’s Madame X caused such a sensation at the Salon of 1884: he dared to create a pair of unforgettable and undeniably beautiful portraits which alluded to the sitters’ affair in a way Parisians would have understood, and which scared them away from the artist for fear of their own reputations. Certainly, despite having seen Dr. Pozzi’s portrait and approving her own, Mme. X could not have anticipated the firestorm of criticism the portrait launched, nor what a perfect companion her portrait was to Dr. Pozzi’s. His is a study in reds: vermillion, cerise, bold orange and crimson.

The counterpoint to all these hot reds is the Doctor’s averted, cool, misty, seductive, teal green eyes. As green is the compliment to red, his eyes become the mesmerizing cool focal point in the giant glowing hot canvas. Mme. X is a study in browns and blacks with her dramatic lavender-white skin shimmering: a study in cool, almost frigid, but with her pink ear and lips offering a hint of the heat within. The two portraits are completely complimentary: her leer and his self awareness, her hot cool and his cool heat, her beseeching and his granting. I think Parisians would have noticed!

As soon as the reviews were written, Sargent tried to remove the painting and repaint the strap, as that was nominally the critics’ chief objection, but the director of the Salon refused to allow it to be moved until the close o the exhibition. A photo of the artist in his studio shows that by 1885, a year later, he had repainted the fallen strap and tried to ameliorate the damage.

Sargent titled the portrait “Mme. X” when he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York after the subject’s death, saying it ought not be called by her name “on account of the row I had with the lady.” Though no records exist of the exact nature of the row, one is tempted to infer that it had something to do with the painting. It seems that later, the sitter wrote to Sargent requesting that he loan it to her in Germany, but he never did. He exhibited it several times in his lifetime and called it “the best thing I have done” when sending it to the Met in 1915. As a single work, no doubt he was right - it certainly is among his best. However, when viewed as a pair of portraits, “Mme. X” and “Dr. Pozzi” create a conversation unlike any in portraiture, more dramatic, flirtatious, sensual, realistic, more human than any before or since. I think the Parisians of 1884 recognized that conversation and the scandal it caused forced the young Sargent to London, gave us perhaps the greatest pair of pendant portraits ever painted not to hang together, and set a standard of psychological portraiture unrecognized in its brilliance even today. I think Mary Alexander had all the pieces in her lecture about Sargent, but I think the artist’s brilliance is exactly the subtlety she missed.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Madrid, El Prado, Velazquez, Titian, and the Duke of Ferrara

Visiting Madrid recently, my host asked if there were anything in particular I would like to see. Knowing fully the size and the scope of my request, I asked to see only one tourist site in a four day visit: El Prado.

El Prado is a museum of monumental importance. Like the Louvre, the National Gallery, London, the Metropolitan and the Hermitage, its collections were amassed over centuries, with nearly constant acquisition of only the best artworks. Marriages, inheritances, wars, treaties and alliances brought gifts of extraordinary value to the Spanish crown, and I was mesmerized by two of these, as people have been for almost 600 years.

It will come as no surprise to my friends and readers that the highlight of my trip to Madrid was seeing Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians and Offering to the Goddess of Love. Though I haven’t written my great treatise on Titian yet, many already know that I find him to be one of the best, most innovative and influential painters in history, and to see these two masterpieces side by side, in the flesh as it were, took my breath away, prepared as I was. But I didn’t get to them right away.

The evening I arrived in Madrid, El Prado happened to be open for free from 5 to 8, so we headed downtown for three hours of fun in the galleries. Of course on my list were the Titians, Velazquezes and Goyas… and anything else we happened to pass and want to see. We dutifully started with the Spanish Master of all masters, Velazquez.

First, among many masterpieces, we visited The Weavers, about which I will say little here, except that with its dramatic red curtain, forced, stage-like perspective, and asymmetry within a symmetrical framework, it epitomizes the Spanish Baroque. But there, in the background, what should appear, but Velazquez’s tribute to his hero Titian.

Dead center in the background, in the strong light from the left of the canvas, is a tapestry of Titian’s Rape of Europa. Now at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and thus never to be loaned or removed, the Rape of Europa will never join a retrospective of Titian’s work unless held at the Gardner, though it was one of Titian’s greatest masterpieces and most influential paintings. It singlehandedly opened the door to the Baroque, and influenced such artists as Rubens, Poussin, Rembrandt and Manet.

But I do digress.

Las Meninas
is also amazing and deserves the tomes which have been written about it. Its subtlety and complexity are just not there in photographs. The king and queen in the mirror are barely ghosts, and yet you expect to see their reflections moving any second. The confidence of Velazquez’s self portrait does not come across in a smaller print. And make no mistake, the painting is huge, so the portrait is nearly life size. Las Meninas is dark the way a John Singer Sargent painting is dark – layers upon layers of dark, yet somehow with fully disclosed details. It tells a story the way Giorgione tells a story – leaving as many questions as answers. It is real and living, yet frozen in time. It is one of history’s most intriguing works of art, but is not the subject of this post.

After this head-spinning trip through the Velazquezes, including those faves of camp humor and drag queens, the Infanta portraits of the over-groomed, pale, uncomfortable looking Austrian girls, who through luck or treachery were there to rule Spain…or marry a cousin and rule somewhere else…we arrived at a hallway full of large Raphaels and some of the Titians I hoped to find.

We found Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor and also as Charles I, King of Spain) and his brood, all Titians, including the very first equestrian portrait ever, Charles V at Mühlberg, celebrating the Emperor’s victory over the Protestants in Germany. Just fantastic, but I do have to note that above the brilliantly armored and richest man who ever lived, riding his victorious steed over the hills of Germany, tassels and velvet saddle flying, is a clearly Italian sky, with all the stripes, yellows and blues and horizontal cloud formations you would expect in a painting from Venice, the Veneto or Tuscany areas of Italy. I spent too much time admiring the royal portraits, especially those of Charles V and his son, Philip II.

Charles is the only person who owned everything. As heir to Phillip I and Juana of Spain, he was the King of the newly united Spain (Ferdinand and Isabella were his grandparents) and thus the newly discovered and unfathomably rich colonies in the New World, and as Phillip’s Hapsburg heir, he inherited the Holy Roman Empire. In fact, it all proved too much, what with the reformation and inquisition and gout and overdeveloped mandible and all, and he eventually abdicated and gave his nephew Austria and the Empire and his son Phillip II Spain and the New World, and went off to eat porridge in a monastery, but he was the one on whose empire the sun never set – that in itself is amazing.

Though we had seen so much, eight o’clock arrived and I felt like I had not seen what I came to see, and yet I couldn’t feel disappointed. Another trip was in order.

Saturday involved an exhibition at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Fundacion Caja Madrid on Architectural Paintings (on view through January 2012), impressing me more than ever with the vibrancy of Belloto’s landscapes and how he uses light to animate the buildings, making them characters in his scenes.

Lunch was at the Museo de Jamon, where we enjoyed a plate of what? Ham. And a separate plate of cheese with a basket of fresh bread and a good Spanish Red. Excellent.

Then, we continued on to a Delacroix exhibition where I was surprised to find Horses Coming out of the Sea from The Phillips Collection, where I worked for several years and came to know this painting as a friend.
Delacroix is of that family of “painterly” painters, for whom perspective and physics were laws to be manipulated for the sake of an image, and for whom brushstrokes are not sins. In that respect, though French and of a very different school, my visit to this retrospective at the Caixa Forum Madrid (through 15 January 2012) was more complimentary to my intended itinerary than I might have thought, as his “painterly” style is a 19th century evolution of the work of Titian, Velazquez and Goya, and therefore quite relevant to the primary art quest of this trip: the Titians.

It was not until Sunday evening, when it was again open for free, that we ventured back to El Prado, a distinct mission in mind. I was determined to find the Titians first off and hope we would have time for Goya too, but was happy to have this second chance to find Gallery 42.

There was a line. It seemed long at first, but once they opened the doors, it moved very quickly and we were inside in moments.

How could we have missed them the first visit?

There they were – right up the main hall and on the left. Oh, it was hard passing all those giant Raphaels and El Grecos so quickly, but I was on a mission. And then, there: on the left, framed by the huge arch…there they were. The sheer size of the canvases overwhelms you as you see them side by side, framed by the archway, a riot of color and activity, bodies and landscapes and life.

As if to make the Renaissance argument that painting is a better art form than sculpture (a competition which notoriously ran among intellectuals and artists of the time), Titian has painted the infants in the Offering to the Goddess of Love and the celebrants in the Bacchanal in every conceivable position: sleeping, standing, flying, swirling, dancing, cavorting, as well as actually painting statuary, and thus has completed the process begun by his predecessor and teacher, Bellini, of softening the human form from the old Byzantine and Middle Age painting from which the Renaissance was a “rebirth.” The bodies here are entirely three dimensional and lifelike, even plastic, only idealized enough to have you believe they are gods. Many of the poses are based on classical sculptures, but interpreted in the language of color, flesh and blood. No one had ever painted the gods so human and alive before
My absolute favorite detail is the perfect glass jug of wine exactly in the center of the Bacchanal. It is virtuoso painting, as perfect as any glass ewer in any 17th century Dutch still life – and placed in the exact center of the canvas to show off its virtuosity. It’s sheer bravado and it’s fantastic.

But the real reason I love these paintings, wanted to see them again live, and think they are among the most important pieces of art of all time is that they were commissioned for a certain room, a certain documented, real, historical room, the importance of which, because of the artwork in it, eclipses that of any other room, including the great Hall of Mirrors at Versailles or the Amber or Malachite rooms of the Russian palaces, or any of the great Scuoli of Venice, and which sadly is alas no longer extant. Though Titian was court painter to the Spanish kings and was knighted by Charles V, these paintings came into the Spanish royal collection as a gift to Phillip IV over a hundred years later from Niccolo Ludovisi, Count of Monterrey and Viceroy of Naples (and nephew of Pope Gregory XV!), but they were intended originally for a very different room.

Duke Alfonzo I of Ferrara started it all. Maybe it was it was his wife who inspired it – she was the notorious Lucrezia Borgia: illegitimate daughter of the Pope whose reputation still inspires questions. The deaths of her first two husbands were questionable. She allegedly had many affairs, including with her brother and/or father, and she inspired a fashion for rings with poison compartments. Clearly the Duke needed a nice place to get away. He was a little cocky about building his study, but then one might expect that from Lucrezia Borgia’s third husband.

In those days, most palaces were fortresses as well as grand palaces, like the Medici palace in Florence, which appears very much like a fortress, as opposed to the later and more refined Barberini palace in Rome, and those of that ilk.

Alfonzo, however, had a luxury palace for living the grand life and a fortress for the many times when his lands were under siege. Imagine such a life.

Anyway, he built a structure to connect the two so he wouldn’t have to mix with the rabble while beating his retreat from the palace to the fortress or vice versa. And he could be safe hanging out between the two, always on the alert. With the commanding view that this “bridge” location offered, it was the perfect, if vulnerable and therefore somewhat cocky, place to build his luxury “camerino d’alabastro’ (alabaster cabinet). Wildly popular among the aristocracy of the time, and a precursor to the “collectors cabinets” which came later, an aristocrat’s camerino was his private library where he could host his erudite and important guests in a suitably impressive setting and dazzle them with his collection of marvels and antiquities.

Alfonzo’s sister, Isabella d’Este had another very famously decorated camerino in which she entertained one of the most illustrious courts in the world, not far away in Mantua, perhaps inspiring her brother to want bigger and better.

As with many expensive and/or public art commissions of the time, Alfonzo’s camerino was from its very inception intended to be a competition. Originally, he intended to collect five huge canvases from the best artists of the day to hang together in the same room so that the viewer could openly compare them. Each painting was to tell a story from Roman poets Ovid and Philostratus and highlight the artist’s skill. Fra Bartolomeo was commissioned, and Raphael submitted a drawing, but both died before completing their commissions. In the end, Fra Bartolomeo’s sketch was influential in the Offering to the Goddess of Love, as this was the theme he had submitted, and the first Titian finished for the room. However, Titian’s teacher, Bellini, completed the first panel for the room, The Feast of the Gods (now at the National Gallery, Washington), just before his death in 1514. Imagine Lucrezia Borgia sitting by the fire in her husband’s study looking at that painting, next time you’re in DC. I used to when I worked at the National Gallery and visited it daily.
Dosso Dossi completed another of the large mythological scenes, but he was not of the caliber of the others. He was a good local painter, but not in league with Raphael, Fra B and Titian. His panel may be one now at the National Gallery, London; in fact it was once thought to be, but is now considered a later work with improvements in Dossi’s style based on his knowledge of the Titians painted for this room. The Dossi from the Duke’s Alabaster Chamber now considered lost. Even if it was better than this Bacchanal of Men at the National Gallery, it pales compared to the Duke’s Bellini and Titians.
Dossi also painted the mythological scenes in the medallions around the golden ceiling of the camerino, but this time with the characters in modern (early 16th century) dress. One of these is in the National Gallery, Washington as well.
Imagining the room from the few remaining fragments, and from the known floor plan and location, all available at “Investigating Bellini’s Feast of the Gods,” it all seems so coherently planned and beautiful.

Drawn together with a golden ceiling and walls of marble described in a contemporary account as luminous as alabaster, hence its nickname, with gilding and columns and pilasters in the newest renaissance style, with relief carvings on the walls based on the classical ruins being unearthed throughout Italy, and with the richest fabrics covering the windows and furniture, the room must have been lavish beyond what a modern imagination can conjure.

With Bellini’s demise just after completing The Feast of the Gods, and with Dossi’s contribution limited to one major painting and the ceiling decoration, Raphael’s famous refusal to complete the project, and his and Fra Bartolomeo’s deaths, Titian was suddenly in quite a powerful position with the powerful duke. He finished the room. For a wonderful timeline of the development of the paintings in the duke’s camerino, and a very detailed explanation of Dossi’s and then Titian’s retouching Bellini’s painting to make it more harmonious with the landscapes they finished later, please visit the website “Investigating Bellini’s Feast of the Gods.”

Completed, the paintings create a unified whole. The undulations of the landscapes and the placement of the trees blend the scenes together as if they are one panorama. Imagine them all bracketed with marble and gold pilasters and reliefs. They would appear as windows, huge panels of these giant landscapes with dancing, active figures. But even in these, the Renaissance competition cannot be far removed. Look at Bellini’s figures, and note how wooden they seem compared to Titian’s, though they were the vary model of plasticity and realism when they were painted only a few years before. The reclining nudes in the lower right corner of both the Feast of the Gods and the Bacchanal of the Arians begs comparison, and by far, Titian has created the more realistic, sensuous, desirable goddess. The sleeping figure of Father Time rests on a hillside in the Bacchanal, which across the divide of pilaster and sculpture continues into the looming hill of the Feast, the trees on the right of which are separated from the grove on the left of the Adoration by more architectural ornamentation and upholstery. While each is a masterful composition alone, the overall composition of so many pictures specifically designed as a suite in a perfectly proportioned chamber, must have been an impressive statement of the Duke’s power and wealth.

Sadly, Lucrezia died before the room was complete, though it’s fun to imagine her there, devising entertainments. The Duke did eventually finish the room, which passed to their son, Duke Ercole and then to his son, Duke Alfonzo II. Despite marrying women from three of the most powerful families in Europe, the Medici, the Hapsburgs, and the Gonzagas, Alfonzo II died without an heir. His possessions were first claimed by his cousin, with permission of the Holy Roman Emperor, but were eventually taken by the Papal States and the room dismantled and the treasures dispersed. Bellini’s Feast of the Gods eventually ended up at the National Gallery, Washington, these two masterpieces at El Prado, and the Bacchus and Ariadne at the National Gallery, London.

You can get the stories of the myths represented in the paintings from other sources, and can explore the paintings at your leisure at El Prado’s website, the National Gallery London’s website and the National Gallery Washington’s website. “Investigating Bellini’s Feast of the Gods” is a fascinating, interactive website which explains the placement, development, commissioning and installation of the paintings, and the architectural layout of the room, all based on the latest art historical research tools, but offers little insight into the other components of the décor, which must have been splendid as well.

To see the paintings in the flesh was my goal, and I had achieved it.

So for the rest of the Sunday evening, I spent nearly all my time loving these Titians, among many others of his mythological scenes collected by Phillip IV when he was collecting early Titians in an effort to round out the collection of his ancestors’ court painter. Painted long before Titian become involved with the Spaniards, these giant mythological scenes had already lived quite a life before moving to Madrid, and the only way to completely imagine their history is to see them.

Mission complete, we headed for Goya, where everything we saw was a bonus, and which I will write about another time. Exiting, I had one last chance to say goodbye to Charles V and the family.

If you have never visited El Prado, it is a life destination, and I would rate it with The Met, The Louvre, The Uffizi, The Hermitage, The National Gallery, London – among the finest museum collections in the world. Having spent these few hours exploring its treasures, I left Madrid on Monday morning, feeling as though I had accomplished much, and grateful to a very indulgent and patient host.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Last night’s full moon provided me the inspiration to write about something I have observed for some time. Different artists have used the specifically identifiable skies of their native environments to great effect and fame, yet no one seems to point out that the skies and heavenly effects in paintings are actually painterly attempts at realism.

We credit artists with an ability to see somehow differently than the rest of us, as if they have some special sort of vision. I am not arguing that they don’t have certain special gifts or abilities or insights; they do. I cannot help but notice however, that the great pre-Impressionist artists painted to the best of their abilities what they saw, interpreting their own visual reality onto canvas. Their attempts to capture the fleeting reality of the effects of light mark their work.

When an artist paints a sky, presumably he looks up and paints what he sees, or has seen in the past which might suit the painting’s theme. I cite four examples here that I find striking, and admit having noticed many others in galleries around the world.

Titian has successfully captured the wistful layers and streaks of the late summer Tuscan sky in his Sacred and Profane Love at the Borghese Gallery in Rome.

You can see the same light effects today: here a photo I took of the view from the Pope’s Hanging Garden in Pienza, Italy. Looks like Titian’s sky, doesn’t it?

A generation later in Spain, we find El Greco painting skies unlike anything in Italy. Long an El Greco fan, I once thought his skies were fantasies which presaged abstraction, as in his famous “View of Toledo.”

However, a trip to Toledo, Spain taught me that those crazy swirls which animate El Greco’s canvases were real, the same crazy, swirly, animated Spanish skies you can still see there today as in this fantasic photo of Toledo by David Iliff.

Moving north and to the 18th century, there’s England’s John Constable, who was known for his clouds, skies and light effects. The same Constable who gave us tons of paintings called “Cloud Studies” as part of his oeuvre, including a few at the Frick in New York and the National Gallery, Washington whose collections also include “The White Horse” and “Wivenhoe Park, Essex,” shown here.

His clouds are those fluffy, cottony white English clouds you can still see today on any brisk stroll across Millenium Bridge in London.

Big, fat, bucolic English clouds skip as lively across his paintings as they do the River Thames today.

But the painter of whom I was reminded during last night’s full moon was Rembrandt. Living in his city, I am struck by how often the Amsterdam sky looks like Rembrandt’s skies, and never more so than during a full moon. Where did Rembrandt learn about what the sky would look like at Christ’s ascension?
Clearly he had not witnessed the event firsthand, but he had seen the Dutch sky with the racing clouds leaving a halo of light around the moon and looking very much like a portal into heaven itself.

Since beginning my art history studies, I have many times noted that Rembrandt’s skies often have a brown tint. I have never seen this effect noted in any scholarly essay or museum catalogue, so I have credited it to darkening varnish on old canvases. But living in Amsterdam and seeing the sky night after night, and especially the full moon last night, I see that Rembrandt painted the sky he saw. The brown is actually there. Look at the ring around the moon in the photos I took last night: definitely brown, not old varnish.

So, while great artists do have a special gift, I reckon it is that of being able to translate the visual input from their real world experience onto a canvas for us to enjoy centuries later. They don’t necessarily see differently, Titian saw the same striated Tuscan sky I saw. El Greco contemplated the same swirly Spanish sky I did. Constable adored same the whipped cream clouds that float above the land of clotted cream today. Rembrandt gasped at the same drama in the Dutch sky that I saw last night. But in it, he saw the Resurrection of Christ.

That was his gift.