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

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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?”
“Yes.”
“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?”
“No.”
“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.

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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,
1957

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

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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

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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)

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Any more?

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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.

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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.

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The Best in Italy?

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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?”

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.jpg!Blog

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.

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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.

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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.jpg!Blog

Self-portrait by Norman Rockwell

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