Royal Family with a Selfie by Velazquez

Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez 318 cm × 276 cm (125.2 in × 108.7 in)

Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez,1656, from Prado in Google Earth.jpg 318 cm × 276 cm (125.2 in × 108.7 in)

Velazquez is painting a portrait of King Philip IV and his wife, Mariana of Austria. They are posing outside the painting, standing where we stand. We see what they see. We know it’s them because of that blurry reflection in the mirror.

Velazquez self-portrait in Las Meninas

Velazquez self-portrait and the mirror reflecting his subject, the royal couple

Velazquez stands at the enormous easel, brush in hand, with the abstracted look of an artist considering his subject. It is the only sure portrait he ever painted of himself, the only likeness we have. The one where we see him with that strange moustache Salvador Dalí adopted in imitation.

Velazquez usually worked alone  but this time he has company. The Infanta Margarita and her maids and other members of her household have come to pay the royal couple a respectful visit.  Margarita is their first child.

Las Meninas by Velazquez (fragment)

Las Meninas by Velazquez (fragment)

One of the chambermaids stoops to offer a drink to the little Infanta; the other seems to curtsy to the royal couple. Perhaps the Queen beside us is addressing the Infanta, who seems to listen.

It is a strange group of attendants. The woman with the big face formed part of the royal entourage along with other dwarfs and bufones. The boy with his foot on the big, sleeping dog is not a boy but a tiny man named Nicolasito. In the background, two palace headservants watch; and still farther back, the Queen’s “Chief of Tapestry”, or mayordomo,  hesitates a moment on the stairs, deciding whether to enter the room or discreetly retire.

The room

It is Velazquez’s atelier in the old castle of Madrid.  Besides containing portraits of people, Las Meninas is a portrait of the great room—a cold, empty, high-ceilinged palace hall. Velazquez, who was in charge of the royal art collection, used it to hang up some of the paintings. Those on the back wall are by Rubens and Jordaens.  But there is no furniture around—not even a chair for the visitors to sit on. In fact, Velazquez had one installed just for King Philip who came regularly to watch and chat.

By a masterly use of certain features of linear perspective  and the very subtle use of lights and shadows, Velazquez presents it so realistically that Theophile Gautier, standing in front of it for the first time, exclaimed: “Where’s the painting?”

Critics have tried again and again to explain the realism and the originality of this painted room. “This isn’t the ‘passive space’ of those fifteenth century experiments in perspective,” wrote Camón Aznar, “but … a dense and palpable spatial complexity.” “It’s not only the objects that mark the distances,” wrote another. “Velazquez paints the very air”.

Las Meninas by Pablo Picasso,1957; Oil on canvas 194 x 260 cm; in the Museo Picasso, Barcelona

Las Meninas by Pablo Picasso,1957; Oil on canvas 194 x 260 cm; in the Museo Picasso, Barcelona (free use wikimedia file)

Why is there so much of the room in the picture? Why so much dark space above the Infanta and her attendants? Any amateur photographer would tell Velazquez to center his subject and cut off the whole top half of the painting. What does it add?

A further step in illusion

It is, precisely, one of the great experiments of this painting and the one that has intrigued people ever since it was shown to the public. The room seems to envelop the viewer and include him in its space. Its high ceiling goes on above our heads and behind us. We seem to stand inside, not just peek in through a window. Each person who comes to the painting is, for a moment, included in it, and stands a witness to the illusion. Then he steps out of it, just as he steps out of the world, and is gone.

The king’s household

Velazquez painted this for his king, who liked to sit and watch him. Diego was as fast as a wizard. In no time the King’s pretty little daughter smiled out at him, along with her maids-of-honor (las meninas), and then all the other members of the royal household. “And don’t forget to put yourself in the picture too,” said the Monarch. “I don’t have any of you, my friend.”

It was all like a vision that the Wizard cast on the big canvas for His Majesty; but it stayed. And when it was finished, the king hung it in his private room, and there it remained until long after he and Velazquez had passed on.
Then came the terrible fire of 1734 and the palace burned down with most of its five hundred paintings, many of them by Velazquez.

Real Alcázar or palace of Madrid, which burned down in 1734Real Alcázar or palace of Madrid, which burned down in 1734. Velazquez’s atelier was on the second floor (Wikipedia PD file)

But Las Meninas, the “fabric of [at least] this vision”, though scorched on both sides, somehow survived. And now it is one of the most celebrated paintings in the world and we can see it just as King Philip did and behold the vision Velazquez the Wizard called up for him.

The way Velazquez paints

Manet called him “the painter’s painter.”

After years of painting live models, Velazquez became a master of alla prima—painting without a preliminary drawing and without any re-touching. He set up his easel and began to copy the model in front of him, building his image on the canvas with light, accurate brushstrokes. First came the dark paint, then the light. He worked with a minimum of paint—he even thinned it to emphasize the look of sketchiness. The final brushstrokes, squiggles, and dabs—those that are most brilliant and lively—he applied with such apparent ease, precision, and economy that even master crafsmen were astounded.

fragment of Las Meninas by Velazquez

fragment of Las Meninas by Velazquez

Not everyone liked this look. “The man never finishes his paintings!” complained many, who, approaching his paintings, saw only shapeless blots of color. They were used to seeing greater definition up close, not lesser. Yet Velazquez realized that a broken, sketch-like image was more lively than the fixed, definite, flat ones of most paintings, like those of Raphael or Poussin.

Are they real?

His light touch gives his figures a strange fleetingness, a ghostlike indefinition and temporariness. They might be just coming into being or just about to vanish as we see them. Las Meninas is full of references to illusion. For instance, the mirror shows a reflection of the King and Queen who are there but not there. We ourselves—phantom visitors—are part of a room which, though it looks real, is only stains and blots of paint. Illusion versus truth was a preoccupation of the philosophers and dramatists of his time. Life Is a Dream  was the famous title of a play by Calderon de la Barca, one of Spain’s greatest Golden Age dramatists.  Velazquez too thought long about the meaning of his work as a maker of images.   He might have placed this caption beside Las Meninas:

“ …these our actors,
as I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep…” The Tempest Act. IV, Scene I

What does Meninas mean?

Meninas is an old word, no longer used, that meant “ladies-in-waiting”, i.e. those girls from noble families who were chosen to live in the palace and wait on the king, the queen, and the royal children. Velazquez didn’t give a title to this painting. In the palace inventory it was simply listed as “A picture of the Family”.

That strange red cross?

The red cross on Velazquez’s black doublet is the emblem of the Military Order of St. James.


For years he tried to be recognized as a nobleman but couldn’t find the necessary documents to support his claim. Then finally, just before he died, and with the help of his friend King Philip, he received the official authentication, became a Knight of St. James, and proudly painted their cross on his self-portrait.

Philip IV of Spain by Velazquez

Philip IV of Spain by Velazquez

His pupil’s family portrait

Velazquez’s son-in-law and pupil, J.B. Mazo, painted this portrait of his own family and paid homage to his master by showing him at work in the old palace.

The Artist's Fanily by J.B. Martínez del Mazo

The Artist’s Fanily by J.B. Martínez del Mazo

In the painting Velazquez is at work on another portrait of the Infanta Margarita, like this one:

Infanta Margarita, aged eight, by Diego Velazquez

Infanta Margarita at  eight, by Diego Velazquez

Today’s Infanta Princess

What is an Infanta?
In Spain and Portugal an “infanta” is a legitimate daughter of the king. This is the Infanta Leonor, daughter of Spain’s present-day Philip VI. The photo is by Cristina García Rodero and appeared on last year’s Christmas greeting from the royal family.

Leonor de Borbón by Cristina García Rodero

Leonor de Borbón by Cristina García Rodero


Posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Dalí, Diego Velazquez, great artists, Madrid, oil painting, painting, Picasso, Rafael Sanzio, Shakespeare, Spain, Tempest, Velazquez | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Boy Jesus Astounding the Learned Rabbis by Veronese

“…[His parents] found [the twelve-year-old Jesus] in the temple, sitting among the doctors, listening to them, and asking them questions, and all those who heard him were astounded at his intelligence and his replies.” Luke: 2, 46
Jesus Disputes with the Doctors by Veronese

Jesus Disputes with the Doctors by Veronese (1560) 236 cm × 430 cm; Prado Museum, Madrid

A stir in the temple

Jesus is carrying on a debate with the big man in orange at the left. His colleague pushes a book into his belly to urge him to give up his line of argument: the Boy is right.

Veronese was not just a painter: he was a dramatist as well. Here are a dozen men looking surprised and baffled–some of them awed–at what they hear and see. Look at their faces—realistic, believable faces, surely portraits of real men. No wonder Diego Velazquez bought this painting for King Philip when he was in Italy. He knew a good thing when he saw it.

See their body language too. Even those that have their backs turned show agitation and bewilderment. One, clearly stumped, listens with a finger behind his ear. Another, confronted by the problem Jesus has proposed, pushes himself back in his chair to mull it over. The professor behind him, his hand frozen on his breast, realizes that his ready refutation is no good. A tall wise man seems to surrender in respect. A disbelieving scholar searches out the Law in his big book.

The psychologist painter

Few have ever created men in such believable attitudes. Norman Rockwell was the last able American painter who tried this kind of representation…

The Rookie by Norman Rockwell, on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post

The Rookie by Norman Rockwell, on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post

but, until he began to use photos, his people were often cartoonish, i.e. exaggerated humorously or sentimentally. Veronese’s men do not look like actors, and actors mostly do.

Modern painters do not venture on the invention of complex dramatic scenes like this one. They leave the representation of behavior to movies and TV. Now you can watch the entertaining theatralics of judges, sometimes behaving like puppet-show figures, in America’s (or Britain’s, etc.) Got Talent, for example.

Deliberation judges on the TV show Britain's Got Talent

Deliberation judges on the TV show Britain’s Got Talent

What’s that pillar doing there?

A unique, a memorable, feature of this huge canvas is the column in the middle. Who’d have imagined a scene with a column blocking the view?

Linear perspective, a fine way to show depth in a picture, was discovered in the Renaissance and artists loved to experiment with it. Objects in the picture recede toward the horizon along lines of geometrical precision, and those that are supposed to be farther away from the viewer are drawn smaller and higher up the canvas. Here is one of the extravagances of Veronese’s friend Tintoretto:

The Foot-Washing by Tintoretto (1548–1549) , 228 cm × 533 cm (90 in × 210 in), Museo del Prado, Madrid (Wikipedia public domain image)

Veronese, in a stroke of genius, sticks a column right in our way, frustrating us a little and making us try harder to peer into the great hall. He too plays with the receding perspective lines but he disguises them, and achieves an illusion of depth by defining the men nearest the viewer better than those farther back; by darkening some of the figures that sit between the column and the Boy, as though they were in a shaded region;  and by the spacing of the pillars.

Jesus Disputes with the Doctors by Veronese

Jesus Disputes with the Doctors by Veronese (1560) 236 cm × 430 cm; Prado Museum, Madrid

Those circling pillars behind the doctors encompass the scene, center it, keep it on stage, as it were. They also establish a middle ground—one behind Jesus but well in front of Mary and Joseph at the far entrance to the temple. Without the device, the background would seem to have little to do with the foreground.

What are they wearing?

Notice the costumes. What artist invents clothes today? In Renaissance times that was part of their job or their freedom. Michelangelo attired all his Prophets in clothes of his own invention, created to highlight their movements and dignity, as well as to embellish them with color. He painted in fresco, with its limited color gama.

Libyan Sibyl by Michelangelo

Libyan Sibyl by Michelangelo

Veronese’s vestments are no less original. And, as to color, few painters in all of history could come near him. Oils were his medium. Look at the strange yellow outfit of the doctor nearest us, with its black hood and black piping. What is that pink “skirt” all about? That’s for color. It was never enough for Veronese to make a figure without dressing it in as gorgeous a color as he could imagine.

Magic Squiggles of Paint

There’s one more thing that will make you stand at this painting for longer than the  twenty seconds museum visitors ordinarily spend on paintings: Veronese’s way of putting on the color.

His master, the Venetian Titian, had already begun to paint with free strokes of his brush, which was a great novelty—free strokes with brushes that left tracks in the paint.  And he left the color just as he had laid it on, without smoothing it over.
The Florentines, meanwhile, kept applying their paint in smooth layers. For instance, there are no brush strokes visible in Raphael’s paintings. The colored areas are flat.

The Deposition by Raphael

The Deposition by Raphael

Veronese followed Titian’s lead. He liked the sweeps of his brush to show in the finished work. Ever since his time one of the delights of a viewing a painting is seeing how a mere squiggle of colored oil becomes, when applied skillfully to the canvas, in just the right place, in just the right quantity, a beam of light, a reflection, a shadow, or an object. The highlights on the clothes of these doctors, when seen close-up, remain the blobs or strands of oil paint that Veronese turned so magically into light and shape. Two fragments:

 Jesus Disputes with the Rabbis by Veronese (fragment1)

Jesus Disputes with the Doctors by Veronese (fragment1)

Jesus Disputes with the Rabbis by Veronese (fragment 2)

Jesus Disputes with the Doctors by Veronese (fragment 2)





Posted in art, art history, Bible, Diego Velazquez, Italian painting, Norman Rockwell, oil painting, painting, Renaissance, Titian, Velazquez, Veronese | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Michelangelo Meets Titian

Titian was one of the most famous painters of the Renaissance.  He and Michelangelo  were contemporaries but their conceptions of painting had little in common.

They met once.  Giorgio Vasari arranged the meeting.

Titian ((1490–1576) by himself, in the  Prado Museum, Madrid (a Wikimedia Commons photo released by The Yorck Project)

Titian showed them his latest picture—a nude Danaë—and “naturally, as one would do with the artist present, we praised it,” says Vasari.

Those old-timers could be pretty eloquent. Michelangelo probably told Titian the Danaë was a magnificent painting and Titian scoffed and said he was much too kind, it was a mere trifle. Then Michelangelo, getting inspired, maybe called him the greatest painter in Italy and Titian replied that he was just a poor apprentice who tried his best but produced clumsy results; not like Michelangelo, who was a real painter. Whereupon Michelangelo in his best confession style would have retorted that he was no painter, just a bungling sculptor, God pity him–and so on.
The three said goodbye, no doubt with brotherly embraces and promises to repeat the honor and the enjoyment.

Then afterwards, on the way back to the hotel, Michelangelo and Vasari, with their masks off, shook their sour faces and said it was a pity Titian didn’t know how to paint. Or rather, didn’t know how to draw.

“I like the man’s style and his coloring,” Michelangelo told Vasari, “but it is a great pity that in Venice they don’t learn to draw well from the beginning and pursue their studies with more method. I tell you, if Titian had been helped by art and design as much as he was by nature—for the man has exceptional talent—no one would have been able to beat him, because he has a fine spirit and a captivating style. Really.”
And Vasari agreed. “If an artist has not drawn a great deal and studied carefully selected ancient and modern works, he can’t work from memory or enhance what he copies from life, and so give his work the grace and perfection of art which are beyond the reach of nature, some of whose aspects tend to be less than beautiful.”

Were they reworking their old prejudices about Venetian artists or did they really see faults ascribable to bad drawing in the Danaë? Here she is:

Danaë with Eros, 1544. This painting shows the youthful figure of Eros alongside Danaë. 120 cm × 172 cm. National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples

Danaë with Eros, 1544. This painting shows the youthful figure of Eros alongside Danaë. 120 cm × 172 cm. National Museum of Capodimonte, Naple s  (public domain photo)

See Titian at His Best

See Titian at His Best


Posted in art, art history, drawing, great artists, Michelangelo, oil painting, Renaissance, Titian | 22 Comments

Veronese’s Inquisition Trial

“What is your profession?”
“I paint and I make figures.”
“Do you know why you have been called here?”
“No, but I can imagine. The Prior of San Zanipolo told me that the Inquisition officials had ordered me to paint a Mary Magdalene in my painting instead of a dog; and I answered that I would gladly have done so for my own honor and that of the monastery but that I just didn’t feel that such a figure would be right in that place; for many reasons, which I will explain whenever the occasion is given me to do so.”

So Veronese was brave enough, and arrogant enough, to refuse to obey an order given him by the very Inquisition.
The painting in question, a Last Supper, was commissioned for the refectory of the Sts. John and Paul Dominican Monastery of Venice. It is now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

Oil on canvas  555 cm × 1280 cm (219 in × 500 in)   Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

After other questions about the technique and dimensions of the offending painting, the inquisitors—it was a tribunal—asked:  “Did you paint servants in this Last Supper of Our Lord?”
“Which? And in what attitudes?
“Besides Simon, the owner of the house, I painted a kitchen hand [with a knife at his side, between the balustrade and the columns, beside the Moor] who I pretended went there out of curiosity, to see how things were going; and a lot of other figures which I can’t now remember because it was so long ago.”

“Have you painted other Last Suppers?
Veronese enumerates a few. “One was for the refectory of the Reverend Fathers of St. George the Greater.”
This gives the inquisitor occasion to severely reprimand the painter: “How is it possible to confuse the Last Supper with the Marriage of Cana?
…To return to the painting in question: what is the meaning of the figure whose nose is bleeding?”

“It is supposed to be a servant who because of any sort of accident has a bloody nose.”
“What is the meaning of those soldiers with their weapons, dressed like Germans, with a halberd in their hands?”
“Here I really must say a few words.”
He is given permission.
“We painters take the same license that poets and madmen take; and I made those two pikemen, one drinking and the other eating beside the false stairway, and put them where they are in order to fulfill a certain purpose; since it seemed appropriate that the owner of the house, which was large and wealthy–so I have been told—would have such servants.”

Veronese knows he is a great painter but his arrogance before the Inquisition examiners is shocking. “A license we poets and madmen take”?

Here is his huge painting of the Cana Marriage Feast, showing more of his license:

The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese (669 x 990cm.), in the Louvre, Paris

The questions continue rapidly, each more and more pressing.
“This one, dressed as a buffoon, with the parrot on his fist, now for what purpose did you paint him?”
“As an adornment, as is usually done.”
“Who are the men sitting at the table beside the Lord?”
“The Twelve Apostles.”
“What is St. Peter, the first of them, doing?”
“He is slicing the lamb into pieces to pass it to the other end of the table.”
“And what is the other man beside him doing’?”
“He is holding a plate for what St.Peter will give him.”
“Please tell me what the man beside him is doing.”
“He’s cleaning his teeth with a fork.”
“Who do you think was really present at the Last Supper?
“I think Jesus and the Apostles; but if there is left-over room in the picture I adorn it with figures, depending on the subject.”
[... ]
“Did anyone order you to paint buffoons in this picture, and Germans, and things like that?”
“No, sir. But the commission was to adorn the painting as I saw fit.”
The judge insists: “But do you generally make the ornaments for your paintings proportioned or suitable to your main figures or do you make them according to your fantasy, without reason or judgment?”
“I make pictures with the proper consideration, that which my understanding can handle.”
“And do you think it is proper that in the Last Supper it is suitable to paint buffoons, drunks, Germans [tedeschi], midgets, and similar vulgarities?”
“Then why did you paint them?”
“I did it because I supposed those people were outside the place where the Last Supper was held.”

And here the Inquisitor lets show the real reasons the ecclesiastical authorities were disturbed.

“Don’t you know that in Germany and in other places infested with heresy they often, by means of diverse paintings full of vulgarities and similar inventions, vituperate and ridicule the things of Holy Mother Church, with the aim of teaching false doctrine to simple and ignorant people?”
“Such a thing is bad, sir; but I have to follow what those better than I have done.”
“What have those better than you done, pray?  Don’t tell me they have done such a thing.”
“Michelangelo, in Rome, in the Pontifical Chapel, painted the Lord Jesus Christ and His Mother and St. John, St. Peter, and the celestial court, all of them naked, from the Virgin on down [sic], and in different attitudes, with little reverence.”

Under pressure, Veronese blows his defence. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is a bad example and the “with little reverence” was silly.

“Ah, but painting the Last Judgment, in which one doesn’t presume there were any clothes, there’s no reason to paint them; and in that painting there is nothing but spirit, there are no buffoons or dogs or weapons or similar nonsense.”
The inquisitor goes on to  attack and challenge Veronese: “Do you really believe, for this or any other example, that you did well to paint your picture as you did and do you want to go on affirming that your painting is good and decent?”
“Sir, it isn’t that I want to defend it but I thought I was acting correctly and I didn’t consider so many things, supposing that since those figures of buffoons were outside Our Lord’s place, I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”

This was enough for the judges and they passed sentence, ordering Veronese to correct his painting. Since the words “Our Lord’s Last Supper” have been erased from the original manuscript, it is believed that some member of the tribunal, seeing the impossibility of correcting the painting as was ordered, suggested that it be interpreted as a banquet attended by Jesus for the consolation of sinners.

The document with the transcription of Veronese’s interrogation was discovered and published in 1867 by A. Baschet.
My source is La obra pictórica completa de Paolo Caliari, el Veronés, Rizzoli Editore, Milan, 1968.  Biographical notes, pp. 84—85, by Remigio Marini, included these excerpts from the original interrogation transcript.  The translation into English is mine.


Posted in art, art history, great artists, Inquisition, Renaissance, Veronese, Wedding feast | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Michelangelo’s Only Easel Painting

Tondo Doni, 1504-1505, (diameter: 120 cm)  Uffizi, Florence  (Wikipedia public domain photo)

Tondo, short for rotondo, is a round painting or sculptural relief. Doni is the name of the man who ordered it.

It is the only easel painting by Michelangelo that has survived, one of his few tries with the brush before Pope Julius ordered him to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—all three thousand square feet of it.
At work on this “little” picture was “a Hercules at the spinning wheel”, as the French novelist Stendhal put it.

At first glance, you might think it is just another Holy Family picture, like this one, painted three years later by Raphael:

The Holy Family (1507) by Raphael (Wikipedia Public domain photo)

But glance again. The Virgin is reaching upwards and backwards to take hold of the Child that St. Joseph, kneeling behind her, is handing over her shoulder.  Why such a strange contortion?
And what are those naked youths doing in the background? What do they mean?

It’s an allegory, said some: the Virgin stands for the Church and the nudes in the background represent prophetic figures.

Others, just back from theology class, declared the nudes “symbols of mankind ante Legem [before the divine Law was given], Mary and Joseph, of mankind sub Lege, and Jesus, of mankind sub gratia [with God's grace after the Revelation].”   They might be angels too, or allusions to primordial life or to baptism.

To Walter Pater, the nineteenth-century English art critic, the nude youths were like “fauns of a Dionysian orgy” and symbols of paganism; they stood in contrast [some contrast!] to the figures in the foreground, which symbolize Christianity.

But no one knows for sure.

In any case, most people, starting with Angelo Doni who ordered the painting, didn’t like it much.

Portrait of Angelo Doni (1506) by Raphael (Wikipedia public domain photo)

That may have been why he was slow to pay Michelangelo (see that story here) and why he took the painting out of its ornate frame and put in another one by Lorenzo di Credi.

“The play of the arrangement of limbs ruins the impression; the idyll of parental felicity becomes a gymnastic exercise,”  complained one critic [Justi].

“The problem of the contorted position isn’t completely resolved…With sentiments of this kind, nobody ought to paint a Holy Family”, wrote Jakob Burckhardt, the Renaissance historian.

Victorian art critics were put off by the Virgin’s bare, masculine arms, too, as well as by the immodest view of the Baby.

The painting is odd in other ways. There’s something confusing about the perspective: the Holy Family is seen from one point of view and the nudes in the background from another. Michelangelo put a gray strip between the parts of the picture to hide the discrepancy. Why such a complication?
One theory is that this was done to accommodate the painting to the place at Doni’s where it was going to be hung.

But all these peculiarities are welcomed by art historians: “This odd articulation of the picture’s perspective—and even more, …the spiral disposition of the Virgin—ought to make us consider the Tondo Doni the starting point of Mannerism,” wrote Ettore Camesasca. “And the work contains the germ of everything that makes the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel unique…The Madonna is a sister of the Delphic Sibyl; the youth half-concealed by Joseph’s shoulder is a forerunner of one of the nudes of the Sistine ceiling.”

The Delphic Sibyl (1510)
Fresco, 350 x 380 cm., in the Cappella Sistina, Vatican (Wikipedia public domain photo)

The colors are particularly bright and must have been a surprise to the people who knew only Michelangelo’s sculpture. “[They] would have aroused the enthusiasm of Ingres”, says Camesesca.

It isn’t an oil painting.  It was made with “the usual Italian mixed technique of the period: drawing on a plaster ground, a thin layer of green earth, in covering resin, and a graduated heightening with white in tempera. The overpainting is done with transparent resin, except in the flesh parts, which are painted in pure tempera.”  (Ludwig Goldscheider)

Michelangelo never worked in oils. He must have envied Raphael and Titian for their great paintings in that medium. Remember: the famous Virgins of Leonardo and Raphael and Correggio were not yet painted in 1504, when Michelangelo did the Tondo Doni. Botticelli’s were the ones he might have studied. Actually, this tondo looks more like a painted version of his tondo reliefs of the same years:

The Tondo Taddei (1504) (Creative Commons license at Wikipedia)

The frame for the Tondo Doni was designed by Michelangelo too, or at least approved by him.

The Tondo Doni in its original frame (published at Wikipedia)

Besides some fully-sculptured heads in relief, a grotesque mask, vines and other ornamental features, it bears the arms (those making up the family coat-of-arms) of Angelo Doni and Maddalena Strozzi, his wife. The painting was probably commissioned on the occasion of their wedding in 1503 or 1504.

See the frame and some excellent photos showing how a reproduction was made.

My sources were: La obra pictórica completa de Miguel Angel in the Clásicos del arte series published by Noguer-Rizzoli Editores, Barcelona. Notes by Ettore Camesasca

Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculptures, Architecture by Ludwig Goldscheider, Phaidon,

Lives of the Artists, by Giorgio Vasari, first published in 1555.


Posted in art, art history, great artists, mannerism, Michelangelo, Rafael Sanzio, Renaissance, Sistine Chapel | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Two Famous Equestrian Statues

Here comes a big battle horse pounding the streets and throwing a mean look left and right.

The Condottiere Gattamelatta in Padua by Donatello (public domain photo by Lamré)

Horses are usually shown to be like their riders—playful if he is a child, combative if he is a warrior, elegant if she is a lady, inexorable if he is a tyrant. Like here.
But isn’t there a lot of horse? Doesn’t it steal the show from the rider?

Reader: It’s no bigger than the Rolls-Royce a dictator rides through town or the tank with the general standing at the hatch.

But a horse isn’t a Humvee.  Donatello could have made it and the general go together better. He could have made a kind of Centaur out of them.  As it is, both rider and mount are as stiff as dolls.

Reader: That’s the poker-face and fearless pose of power.

I see it as simply weak sculpture.
Gattamelata’s portrait head is probably good but the body is a manikin.
And the horse is almost as stiff. There is too much bronze without articulation. Donatello tried to give it a look of movement with those wrinkles where the leg is lifted and under the neck where the head bows; but they are just pretty grooves in the big block of bronze. He put in that long vein in the belly too, but it looks more like inscribed decoration than a real throbbing vein.

Reader: I think the whole statue is wonderful. What could Donatello have done to give the figures more life?

Twist them. Sideways, up and down. A horse is not just a big cylinder held up by four sticks, and the eyes and lips and feet aren’t the only parts that move. Everywhere there is tension, slackening, twisting, bending, pushing; and it is up to the artist to find those points of tension and of articulation and to emphasize them.
A muscle isn’t just a bump in the skin: it begins somewhere and ends somewhere and takes the skin along with it.
One gets the impression everywhere on this statue that Donatello had not thought enough about movement, that he considered muscles and skin features only as designs.

Reader: Show me a better horse and rider.

This one.

The equally famous Colleoni statue in Venice, by Donatello’s pupil Verrocchio (public domain photo)

Verrocchio corrected all the defects of his teacher.
Colleoni is now clearly in charge of that horse—he is not simply being transported. He is alive—everywhere there is realism based on good observation. His pose is tense. He really pushes on those stirrups, he twists in the saddle, he leans back in arrogance.

And his horse is no longer a big decorated ton of bronze but a living animal. These wrinkles under the head and upraised leg are not simple parallel scratches but true accidents of skin. They cover the entire neck. You can almost see it shiver. The muscles too are not mere designs but each is itself a sculpture, each adds to the movement of the whole.

Notice how the forward-coming back leg pushes into the belly.
The horse really walks—its front leg is stretched back a maximum and the left hind leg is just coming down—there is no weight on it yet.
Only the tail is treated as an ornament.

Reader: Maybe Verrocchio gave his monument more naturalism but the general shape is not as beautiful as Donatello’s. Naturalistic truth is only one kind of beauty. And it may be a lesser kind.

The Colleoni figure was no doubt the reference for this modern statue of Pizarro.

The Conquistador Pizarro by Charles Rumsey in Trujillo, Spain   (Creative Commons Atribución 3.0, no adaptada photo by © Manuel González Olaechea y Franco)

See also The First Great Equestrian Statues

Leonardo da Vinci’s Great Horse


Posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Donatello, equestrian statues, great artists, Renaissance, sculpture, Verrocchio | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

The Queen of Sheba by Claude Lorrain

Claude Lorrain’s painting, The  Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, catches the feel of morning like few other paintings.

The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, 1648, by Claude Gellée, called Le Lorrain (1600—1682)
canvas 148.6 x 193.7 The National Gallery of London (public domain photo)

See close-ups at the webpage of the National Gallery here.

He painted many harbors with the rising sun opening the morning mist and flashing on the waves.   He made them the backdrops of famous myths and Bible stories, which sometimes seem arbitrary additions.
But here the story and the setting serve each other perfectly. The picture combines the glory of morning and the excitement of a new day with the thrill of setting out on an adventure and the anticipation of happiness.

The Queen of Sheba is about to embark on a trip to Jerusalem, where she will meet the great Solomon, King of Israel. She had heard of his  wisdom and wanted to judge for herself.  Some lines of The Song of Songs seem to speak of a love between the two monarchs.

She descends the palace steps and receives the gallant goodbyes and well-wishes of her noble friends before stepping onto the royal rowboat, cushioned with colorful tapistries.  The rowers watch the great lady approach; their captain stands with outstretched hand to help her board.

Her handsome little ship waits at the entrance to the harbor, its sails soon to unfold and billow. The flags, which blow seaward, show that the wind is favorable.  In the foreground  two of the Queen’s servants load a pretty trunk onto another rowboat,  which others begin to free from its moorings.  The momentous voyage, like the new day of so much promise, is about to begin.

Of course the Queen of Sheba didn’t live in a seventeenth-century palace with Roman ruins lying around. And she didn’t sail out of a harbor with medieval towers for charm. It’s all make-believe, elaborated in the quiet of the painter’s studio with the memory of a  sunrise in his head and heart.

Though down at the dock Claude made sketches and took notes.  In his scenes with distant views he worked hard to get the tones of color and brightness just right, not only for the objects at different distances but for the very air.  The critic Lawrence Gowing says this:
“Claude developed the habit of drawing from nature in pen and wash…He went out to the countryside in the morning and evening and mixed a sequence of colors to correspond with the series of tones he observed from the middle ground to the greatest distance. He then took them home for use in the appropriate parts of the picture that was waiting on his easel. Both mixing opaque colors and matching them to nature were in his time most unconventional procedures.” Paintings in the Louvre,  Ed. Stuart, Tabori and Change, New york, 1987

The tones seem clearly differentiated in this view of an idyllic landscape with a morning mist.

Hagar and the Angel, 1646 (public domain photo)
52.7x 43.8
The National Gallery, London

Read more about Claude.

Engraving after a self portrait of Claude Lorrain (public domain photo)


Posted in art, art history, Baroque, Italian painting, landscape, oil painting, painting | Tagged , , , , , , | 12 Comments