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

Eight Ways Raphael Bettered His Master

Here are two versions of The Marriage of the Virgin. The one on the left is by Perugino, Raphael’s teacher.

Raphael’s painting, made when he was around twenty years old, bettered Perugino’s in at least eight ways. Can you find them?

Marriage of the Virgin by Pietro Perugino.. …… ..Raffaello_-_Spozalizio_-_Web_Gallery_of_Art

1 Raphael tightened the composition. He made his design more strictly triangular and circular. He brought the temple down into the picture, and removed its porches. Pietro’s tall building, stretching up and out of the picture, pulled the eye away from the wedding ceremony.


2 Raphael emphasized the roundness of the little temple by giving it sixteen sides instead of eight and capping it with a round roof. This is surely one of the most beautiful and original buildings of the Renaissance. No wonder a pope asked Raphael to design St. Peter’s Basilica.


 3 He gave more natural, more graceful movements to the figures in the foreground. He was original enough to bend the rabbi’s head and NOT make it the peak of the triangle.


 4 He reduced the number of folds on the robes of his people, and he enlarged and simplified them. He also reduced the number of colors and gave them each more power and beauty. The black cape worn by the woman on the left must have astounded even Pietro.


5 He moved the Virgin to the left and isolated her slightly, making her the clear protagonist of the picture. In Pietro’s she barely stands out from the group of women on the right, and Joseph’s yellow robe makes him more prominent.


6 He grouped them better. His figures did not stand in a line. Instead of becoming part of the scene behind them, Pietro’s guests form a fence in front of it, and the square and temple behind them might as well be a backdrop of stage scenery. Raphael integrated them better. Besides isolating the holy couple slightly, he stood them back from the others in a sort of introductory triangle, within the broad, general one of the picture.


7 Raphael realized that the square behind the wedding party would better integrate into his picture as a darker region, and he deepened the color of the tiles to accentuate the perspective lines.The white tiles make paths for the eye to stroll along on its way back to the temple.


8 He placed some of his middle-ground figures right on the perspective lines and not outside them, where they might call the viewer’s eye away. Their red cloaks, one on each side of the “stroll path” and above Mary and Joseph, hold the eye in position and tag the two great personages. It was one more instance of his unifying the elements of the picture and fitting them more tightly into a single point of view than his master had done.


Any more?


Could Raphael have done anything better?

Many viewers find the influence of Pietro still too strong, especially on the faces of Raphael’s figures, which are bland objects of a very mannered beauty, not demonstrations of character.

Were Pietro’s shortcomings obvious to people before Raphael came along and pointed them out?

Yes and no. This was not one of his best works. It was a repetition—a rehashing—of the Sistine Chapel fresco that had brought him so much fame twenty years earlier: The Delivery of the Keys to St. Peter.



Christ Hands the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-1482)

That work, which was much wider than high, dealt with very different problems of design.  And Pietro’s exposition of the perspective laws was very skillful (except for the odd angle of that arch of triumph on the right). The small figures in the second row marked the distance but did not distract from the group of saints. Rather, the lively movement of the boys on the central perspective “tracks” called the eye of the viewer to the center of the picture. Each of the figures in the foreground was the result of careful study—some were portraits of patrons and important personalities. It was Pietro’s debut in Rome and he had worked hard to impress everyone.


The Best in Italy?


For a while Perugino was considered one of the best artists in Italy.

Raphael’s father was an artist who worked for the court in Urbino but he took his boy to Perugia to study with Pietro. “You don’t know how lucky you are to have Pietro for a teacher,” he told his son. “Pietro and Leonardo da Vinci are the two greatest painters in the world.”

Self-portrait by Pietro Perugino

Self-portrait by Pietro Perugino

But by the time he painted his Marriage of the Virgin with Raphael (some 20 years later), Pietro was being criticized by the artists in Florence for his constant repetitions and mannerisms. They said he was more interested in money than in art now. Michelangelo called him a lousy artist. All this made Pietro furious but he had only this reply: “The figures you find so bad now you used to praise.What can I do about it?”


Self-portrait by Raphael Sanzio in his teens

Self-portrait by Raphael Sanzio in his teens

Raphael quickly learned everything Pietro had to teach him and went on to become one of the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance.



Posted in architecture, art, art history, Beauty, fresco painting, great artists, Italian painting, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, oil painting, painting, Pietro Perugino, Rafael Sanzio, Renaissance, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's, Vasari, Vatican | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Rockwell on Main Street

Where Was Norman?

Wasn’t there a revolution going on in the art world in his time?  What about abstract art,  Cubism, Surrealism?


Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, 1937–42, oil on canvas, 72.5 × 69 cm, Tate Gallery. London

Those started in Europe and hadn’t yet reached “middle” America.

America participated in the wars fought in Europe but it did not take part  in the revolution of ideas or values. On the contrary, it became more and more preoccupied with its purpose in the cause and progress of civilization.


Norman Rockwell Freedom of Speech, 1942

It considered itself “blessed” and happy.  Never much given to philosophical reflection, now it considered the value question closed and it set about work on improving the material aspects of the great country. It needed an artist to decorate that busy enterprise.

Where was the Audience?

Europe’s new art had become its own aim, its own reason for being and, in a way, its own critic. It had less and less to do with the viewer.  It even seemed to snob him. Most people could not get any pleasure out of it.


The Connoiseur by Norman Rockwell, 1962

Yet they wanted homey decoration, they still needed art that would speak directly to them.

See Main Street !

Rockwell was their man, their jinni. He wasn’t afflicted with agonizing doubts about art’s presentability or adequacy or good health.  He set right to work. He was, after all, a jinni not from a bottle but from Main Street. He was “one of us”.
If a boy told you he wanted to be an artist, he was thinking of Norman Rockwell. Who wouldn’t like to paint like him?


New Player by Norman Rockwell

Few painters were ever as gifted.  His colors, his clarity, his composition, his drawing—they were all supreme. But he was no philosopher—he was rather a psychologist. He took for granted the common morality of his time.  He was American the way Livy was Roman or Churchill was British. The older he got the more he contributed to the great social and political issues of his time.


The Problem We All Live with, 1935 by Norman Rockwell

See the Story !

Rockwell never wanted comparison with the revolutionaries in art.  “I’m an illustrator,” he said, “not an artist.”  But while most illustrators don’t invent the story they illustrate, Rockwell painted his own stories. Every detail of his picture was like the carefully chosen paragraph of a narrative. Because of the viewer’s familiarity with the objects of the painting, and their realism and appropriateness everywhere, he “saw” the story as though he were a witness to it.

Rockwell wasn’t the first to do this. In great museums there are many paintings that tell their own story and make some comment on the customs or morality of their time. This one by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) hangs in the Louvre.  It is called The Village Marriage.


The Village Marriage, 1761, by Jean Baptiste Greuze

The wedding takes place at the village notary’s office. A very young couple have decided to marry, perhaps feeling obliged by the girl’s pregnancy. Both their families are present and each of the members can be identified by their gestures and their proximity to their children. The lovers are much too young to begin their own life. The boy’s anguished father tries to convince him of the foolishness of what he is about to do.  The girl, suffering from all the disapproval, gropes for the hand of her lover for support.  She comes from a big family. Perhaps her parents offer less resistance to the proposal because of all the other mouths to feed.

The painter’s fine characterization, as well as his dramatist’s sense of tension, make this an exceptional piece of “illustration”.

Rockwell’s humor

Maybe no narrator-painter has made humor such an important ingredient of his stories. Even serious themes Rockwell presents in an atmosphere of humorous contradiction. A viewer smiles at nearly all his paintings.  Humor is Rockwell’s hallmark and it is also Uncle Sam’s.  Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, James Thurber, for example:  Americans say things with a wink.

But the humor of Rockwell’s anecdotes is what, to many, disqualifies him as a serious artist. Humor was never considered the best “atmosphere” for art, which requires concentration, reflection, abstraction in the original sense. “An artist,” some would say, “does not bind himself so closely to a time, a place, and a mentality. There is too much matter-of-fact absorption with material detail in Rockwell’s world. He is like an eagle who only hops on the ground. Shouldn’t an eagle soar?”

Missing from battle?

And others might object to Rockwell’s complacency at a time when other artists were struggling with a new conception of art. To many, even in America, the traditional forms of art seemed inadequate. It was no longer considered enough for an artist to become skilled in the old techniques and to illustrate the traditional themes. Now he had to find new subject matter: he had to find a new aim, he had to decide on the very point of his work. He could take nothing for granted. Every one of his paintings was an experiment, a jump into the void. He could no longer count on his viewer to follow him, to understand. Artists spent their lives in this mostly fruitless search.

“But that was not my battle,” Rockwell might have replied. “I knew from the start what I wanted and I worked hard all my life to get it. I was one with my audience and I painted for us. Put me in the category that you want.”


Self-portrait by Norman Rockwell


Posted in abstract art, abstract expressionists, aesthetics, Albert Anker, art, art history, great artists, illustration, Norman Rockwell, oil painting, painting | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Norman Rockwell


Shuffleton’s Barbershop

He painted stories

Rockwell was the most outstanding illustrator of his time. He had no equal in the selection of evocative details or the skill at rendering them.    The big broom for sweeping up the hair clippings, the bench for waiting customers, the old stove with its pipe through the room, the little crack in the corner of the window—each of them is a call to the memory of anyone who lived in America at the time.  Each is a shot that goes home.

Sometimes, as he got older, he stood up for national causes:


Homecoming Soldier

The young soldier is home from the war.  He is in uniform, maybe he’s come from a parade or a hometown tribute and has stopped in to see his friends at the neighborhood garage. His picture from the newspaper is up on the wall—he’s a hero.

The handshakes and little welcome jokes are over and his enemy flag trophy has been passed around. Now he has begun to answer their questions and to quietly tell them how it was.  He doesn’t look like a braggart or a teller of tales. With his report he has awed his friends to silence.

The men and the boys are each so familiar and their gestures so “right”  that it might seem you are recalling such a conversation rather than seeing it for the first time. Rockwell’s depiction of the garage is as true as that of his men.  The workbench, the girlie calendar, the tools, the grease marks and other details—they evoke a sort of “ideal” garage, at least the one that existed in the America of the twentieth century.  With a reconstruction of the setting, the men, and the mood Rockwell has as good as told the soldier’s war story.  It is an epic scene.  No one has ever done it better.

America’s painter

There was never a painter who had such a wide, loving, group of viewers. They were the whole of America. His paintings came on the covers of one of the most popular magazines in America for more than a generation. Delivery boys tossed them onto porches from their bikes every month. They lay on coffee tables in homes and doctors’ waiting rooms everywhere. You couldn’t miss them. No paintings were ever looked at and thought about by so many people.

They were full of details so familiar it seemed Rockwell spoke of one’s own family and neighborhood. In fact, he sang the neighborhood well-being and morality of  America. If the aim of an artist is to make people feel at home in their world, he achieved it like no one at the time. While college kids were reading Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, their parents and grandparents were smiling at the covers of  The Saturday Evening Post and feeling that the world, their world, was right and good.
Remember how “we” all used to say grace before meals?


Saying Grace

Even in restaurants and cafeterias people stopped talking when the food was brought, and bowed their heads to pray. But the practice was going out by the time Rockwell recorded it. The young men at the other end of the table are so surprised they can’t keep from staring.  Even the middle-aged man who stands behind them, and the comfortable fellow with his cigar and newspaper, have paused to look.  None of them seems critical, just fascinated.

But Rockwell was best known for his humor.

Norman Rockwell self-portrait

Triple Portrait

This is a little skit.
We catch Norman at work.  He has hurriedly set himself up in the living-room and improvised everything, having gotten a sudden inspiration, probably while looking through that book of masterpieces on the chair. He has clipped pictures of his favorite portraits to the canvas to remind himself to put into his portrait the psychological depth of Rembrandt, the color and vividness of Van Gogh, the lordliness of Dürer,  and the new freedom and originality of a Cubistic painting.

The canvas came down from the attic and there wasn’t even time to blow the dust off before he started to copy one of his little sketches.
The eagle mirror, balanced so dangerously on a chair, is from the entrance hall. A self-portrait is not easy, especially for the artist who is near-sighted and needs another pair of glasses for far. Every time he glances at the mirror he needs the other pair.  And since neither will be included in his portrait, he has to do some guesswork around the eyes.

He absent-mindedly set down his drink on the book, which threatens to close and tip it over. To judge by all the matches on the floor, his pipe went out half a dozen times; and he is so careless about dropping them that he hasn’t noticed the smoke rising from the waste-paper basket.

He called this a triple portrait but there are four if you include  the character sketch or yarn he tells about himself.

Maybe in that book of masterpieces he saw this Vermeer.

He used photos

Rockwell selected very carefully the objects that fitted the setting of his story. He didn’t rely on his memory to depict them. He copied. Yet, though realistic, his things don’t look copied. His people either. That was his genius. See how he used photos and transformed each of the “real” people into the more lively figures of his paintings.

Posted in art, illustration, Norman Rockwell, oil painting, painting, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Rothko’s Magic

Walking thoughtfully through one of the great art museums, you come across this:



Rothko No. 14 at SF-MoMA

It could be you dislike “abstract art” and keep right on walking until you are out of the room; perhaps you even accelerate your pace. But maybe too, no matter your distaste for abstract art, in this case, you get hooked.  The painting seems to call you over.

There’s a bench in front of the big canvas. You sit down. Something there is…

ImageNo. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, 115 cm × 92 cm (45 in × 36 in). Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

It is a large canvas, half as big as the wall. “I make them big,” said Rothko, “because I want the viewer to feel enveloped within the painting. He should move close to it and get right inside.”

You are sitting only a few feet from the picture and, in fact, it starts to talk. Not with language, of course, but with a strange glow or flimmer or aura that you have never seen or felt in any other painting.  It is as though you look into a dark, yet luminous room, or at a cloud, or across a sea …

What the devil? How does Rothko do that?


Horizontal rectangles of color on a big field, like stripes across a flag. The edges of the rectangles look torn. The colors are pretty but the combinations unusual—they seem to collide or flirt with each other. Look at one rectangle for a moment, get into it, feel its blue or its orange, then look up or down at the one above or below it and get a little shock as you realize you have jumped the fence and are trespassing on another’s property. You were in a desert getting the sun and now suddenly you find yourself in a forest.

ImageFour Darks in Red, 1958, Whitney Museum of American Art

The colors of the rectangles vary in intensity. Some are thin and dim, others luminous. The color is not applied uniformly: here, there is a thick, almost opaque patch of it; there, only what is left after a quick pass with the brush, and underneath you see another color peeping through.

The pictures look as though they were painted in a hurry, as if they were sketches made just at the moment when their idea first occurred to Rothko. So there is imprecision everywhere and apparent correction. That gives a freshness to the paintings and a feel of traveling, not yet arriving.

ImageNo. 3/No. 13 (Magenta, Black, Green on Orange), 1949, 85 3/8″ × 65″ (216.5 × 164.8 cm), oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art.

The longer you look, the better you realize how intentional everything is, how nothing has been left to accident. The spaces between the rectangles, each irregularity of line or tone has been studied and has its place in the effect. Though at first you might suppose Rothko “merely” took brushes dripping with different colored paint and swept them across the canvas, soon you realize that the paintings are the result of much experimenting and thought.


Rothko said he learned from Matisse, another genius with color. Matisse wrote:

“…color goes beyond itself: if you confine it within some curved black line, say, you are destroying it (from the point of view of this color language) because you are robbing it of all its expansive potential. Color does not have to appear in a prescribed form. For it to do so is not even desirable. But what does matter is the chance to expand. Once color reaches a point that is only slightly beyond its limits, this expansive power takes effect—a kind of neutral zone comes into being where the neighboring color has to enter once it has reached the extent of its expansion. When that happens you could say the paint breathes.”


Rothko’s aim

.He declared that his aim was to address the spirit and the emotions of the viewer. He came to believe that his blocks of colors could “free unconscious energies” and “relieve modern man of his spiritual emptiness.” They could sooth his tortured soul and take him into a land of peace and beauty.

ImageUntitled (Black on Grey), 1970

He counts a lot on the viewer. “A picture,” he wrote, “lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.”  Beauty isn’t the only thing in the eye of the beholder. Artists presuppose a lot of other things in him. The bigger his inner life, the better the artist’s chance of reaching him. Some have vast spiritual worlds inside, with a large population of kindred souls, broad landscapes with mystic mountains and deep seas. By thinking and reading they have extended the rich land they were born with, cultivated it, and established settlements. These are the people an artist wants to show his pictures to. Unless they have strict border controls in the form of prejudices or irrational obstacles, his work can move right in, move around freely, and make itself at home.


Many other artists, especially abstract artists, have declared that their aim was to grace their viewers with a spiritual experience. Matisse wrote: “I am after an art of equilibrium and purity, an art that neither unsettles nor confuses. I would like people who are weary, stressed, and broken to find peace and tranquillity as they look at my pictures.”


When at the end of his career Rothko finally became famous and began to sell his work, he started to worry that people did not understand it and were buying it only as an investment or because it had come into fashion. He was afraid his pretty colors were misleading people about his intentions. “I am not an abstractionist,” he snarled, “and I’m tired of being called a great colorist…My aim is to express basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom…. Color is only an instrument. The fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.”


Rothko’s Depression

The color and mood of his paintings changed in the last years. They got darker and darker as “tragedy, ecstacy, and doom” became their stated message.

ImageRothko Chapel in Houston, Texas

Rothko accepted a commission to paint  religious paintings for a chapel designed specifically for their exhibition and contemplation. They were black, dark gray or dark brown.  Some visitors delight in the depth of feeling and “transcendence” they experience as they sit on the benches in the chapel; others either doze off dreamily in contemplation or slump into a willful depression. “The secret to transcendence is the tragic,” said Rothko.


To many, abstract art is handicapped by its absence of cultural elements. The artist can perhaps set free the imagination of the viewer but then lacks the means to control its direction. “Our function as artists,” wrote Rothko in a famous proclamation, “ is to make the viewer see our way, not his.” In these last works, heavy with the artist’s depression, Rothko seems to have gone too far; he bullies the imagination of his viewer with a sort of dictatorial “pronouncement”.


But in his best work, his handling of a painter’s rhetorical devices is brilliant; his eloquence is overpowering. There is, as Robert Hughes put it,  “foreboding and sadness” in some of the paintings and an “exquisite and joyful luminosity” in others. Few other abstract artists have ever been able to make paintings that do what his do. Their attraction cannot be explained by an examination of the elements and their arrangement. There is the magic “something else” of great art— the call to come away from the moment, the invitation to another world, the soothing delight of the beautiful and the mysterious.


Photo_of_Mark_Rothko_by_James_Scott_in_1959 Photo of Mark Rothko by James Scott in 1959



For photos, all displayed here, see fair use posting here.

Rothko by Jacob Baal-Teshuva. Taschen, 2003

Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malévich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still by John Golding, Trustees of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000

Matisse by Volkmar Essers, Barnes and Nobles Books, 1996

Wikipedia biography of Mark Rothko


Posted in abstract art, abstract expressionists, aesthetics, architecture, art, art history, Beauty, great artists, Matisse, painting, Rothko, Rothko Chapel | 13 Comments

Five Old and Broken Statues, Models of Perfection

In Michelangelo’s time people were crazy about the past. They worshipped old Rome; they considered it a better world where people were wiser, braver, and more beautiful.

An example:  In 1487, when Michelangelo was a boy, an old Roman grave was discovered with the body of a Roman matron—not the skeleton but the well-preserved body—the miraculously well-preserved and breathtakingly beautiful body.


Stefano Maderno’s Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia, Church of St. Cecilia, Rome (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license photo by Sébastien Bertrand from Paris, France)

People flocked to see it. They were sure they would see (and when they looked they were sure they saw) a woman far more beautiful than any alive in their days. “She was more beautiful than can be said or written, and were it said or written, it would not be believed by those who had not seen her,” wrote one pilgrim. A Roman matron just had to be a prodigy of beauty and grace, even 1500 years dead*. (From The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt; Rome: the City of Ruins)

Everyone began collecting Roman antiques. Pope Julius II sent out expeditions of “archaeologists” to dig around and see what they could unearth. All Rome was an Easter egg hunt.


The Roman Forum ( GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 photo by DannyBoy7783 (talk)

Antique statues were found everywhere, some of them really beautiful but all of them venerated.  The Belvedere Venus was found then, and the Ariadne  (for a while  known as Cleopatra); the Laocoön; the Torso; the Belvedere Apollo.  From all over Italy artists pilgrimaged to Rome to see these heavenly discoveries—and imitate them. They were the models of excellence.

Art customers and patrons didn’t have to tell the artists what they wanted. The artists themselves were all under the spell of the new finds.

Botticelli couldn’t think of a better figure for his own painting,  The Birth of Venus, than Praxiteles’ statue, a copy of which he probably saw at the Medici palace.


Medici Venus (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by user:shakko)


The Birth of Venus by Botticelli (1483-1485)

Many considered the Belvedere Apollo the epitome of beauty.  It showed less body-building than the later, Hellenistic, works like the Laocoön.


Belvedere Apollo (Roman copy after a Greek bronze original of 330–320 BC. attributed to Leochares)

To show Adam and Eve, Albrecht Dürer decided he couldn’t do better than a version of the Apollo.


Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer

Apollo is tall. Tallness was catchy, both in this and in several of the other great finds; and the Mannerist artists (those just after Michelangelo, himself sometimes considered one) thought they saw in it the secret to elegance, and they began to stretch their figures. Though Michelangelo preferred a more dynamic god, he too saw the benefits of making one that was eight or nine (or ten) heads tall.


He was working in Rome and dropped what he was doing to go and see the Laocoön when it was unearthed.


Laocoön and his sons. Marble copy after a Hellenistic original from ca. 200 BC. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506.

Such was its influence on his work that it is hard not to recall Laocoön’s groaning face and prominent torso in Michelangelo’s unfinished Giants.


Awakening Slave by Michelangelo

The so-called Torso, on display in the Vatican Belvedere villa, also showed him a very powerful way of representing the male nude.


Belvedere Torso (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by F. Bucher)

St. Bartholomew’s hefty torso in the Last Judgment painting seems a sort of painted version of the antique sculpture.


St. Bartholomew on the wall of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo

The sleeping Ariadne, whether troubled by a dream, stretching gloriously like a cat, caught in a cute thought, or inviting company, has never left Western art.


Sleeping Ariadne (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Wknight94)

Goya’s Naked Maja, painted two hundred and fifty years after the Renaissance itself was buried, may well be a late version.


Naked Maja by Francisco de Goya

Perhaps you think that many of these poses are so natural that they would occur to any artist with a model in any age. But in art as in science, everything has to be invented before it is considered obvious; perceived and pointed out before it is appreciated. Then only a genius can depart from the original model, and he might not come along for centuries.

* Burckhardt’s source for the story believed the lady wore a wax mask, colored to simulate living flesh.



Posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Beauty, Botticelli, great artists, Greek art, Italian painting, mannerism, Michelangelo, nude, Renaissance, sculpture, stone carving, Vatican | 11 Comments