For an artist to have two favourite subjects for his paintings, biblical stories and female nudity, one would have thought combining the two would be somewhat difficult, if not risky. However my featured artist today, the leading Romantic painter and portraitist of his time, Francesco Hayez, has, on a number of occasions, achieved that very thing.
Francesco Hayez was born in Venice in 1791. He was the youngest of five sons. His father was a French fisherman originally from Valenciennes and his mother, Chiara Torcella came from island of Murano, situated in the Venetian lagoon. He was born into an impoverished household but fate took a hand in his life as Francesco was brought up in the household of his mother’s sister whose husband, Giovanni Binasco was a wealthy antiquarian and an avid art dealer and art collector. It is more than likely that his uncle’s love for art transferred to his nephew, who in his childhood days developed a love of drawing. Hayez’s uncle further developed Francesco’s love of art by gaining him a position as an apprentice in a studio of an art restorer. His uncle then arranged for Francesco to study art under the tutelage of the Italian historical and allegorical painter, Francesco Maggiotto where he learnt about the Neo-Classical style of painting. From the age of eleven to fifteen he studied the use of colour in classes run by the Bergamo painter, Lattanzio Querena, a skilful portraitist and copyist of 16th century Venetian paintings.
At the age of seventeen, Francesco Hayez was able to be enrolled at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia where he studied under the historical and portrait painter, Teodoro Matteini. It was whilst at the Academia that he won a painting competition, the prize being the chance to study for one year at one of the leading art establishments, Academia di San Luca in Rome. Although his prize was for a one-year study period, Francesco Hayez, remained in the Italian capital for almost five years and spent much time studying the works of Raphael in the four Stanze di Raffaello (“Raphael’s rooms”) in the Vatican Palace. He then moved on to Naples in order to fulfill a commission he had received from Joachim-Napoléon Murat, who at the time was the King of Naples, and brother-in-law to Napoleon Bonaparte.
Hayez moved to Milan in 1823 when he was thirty two years of age. He was appointed Professor of Painting at the Accademia di Brera and soon became part of the academic and aristocratic life of the city. It was around this time that he concentrated his art work on history paintings and portraiture and regularly exhibited his works at the annual Brera exhibitions. In the mid 1830s he attended the famous Salon, which became known as the Salotto Maffei, as it was hosted by Clara Maffei, a leading Milan society hostess of the time. Salon was the name given to gatherings of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase their knowledge of the participants through conversation. Clara’s salon was always well attended by well-known writers, artists, scholars, musical composers such as Verdi and people who were pro-Risorgimento (the political and social movement that wanted all the different states of the Italian peninsular united into one single state of Italy). Hayez received many commissions from the men in the forefront of the fight for Italian independence and unification, one of these was his good friend Teodoro Arese, who in Hayez’s 1828 painting, Count Francesco Teodoro Arese in Prison, he depicted Arese in chains as a reminder of Arese’s imprisonment in 1821, as a result of his struggle against the government.
The paintings of Hayez were often dominated by biblical themes but Hayez had also developed an interest in the history of his country and began to incorporate contemporary political and social figures in historical backgrounds. The sense of patriotism which he depicted in his portraiture was always well received by his patrons. In 1850 he was appointed the director of the Academy of Brera and it is the Pinacoteca di Brera (“Brera Art Gallery”) which now houses one of the most famous of Hayez paintings, The Kiss (see My Daily Art Display Jan 6th 2011).
As I stated at the start of this blog, besides his love of historical and biblical paintings, one of his other favourite themes was that of the semi-clothed, or the naked female. He often incorporated these within oriental themes or scenes from harems, such as his 1867 painting, Odalisque. By doing this he and other artists were able, in some way, to counter any possible negative comments by people offended by naked flesh.
What was more controversial was his 1825 portrayal of a naked repenting, Mary Magdalene, entitled Penitent Mary Magdalene, which surprisingly depicted such a well-known religious figure in a full-frontal nude pose. Hayez’s reasoning behind such a depiction, which was not the normal portrayal of Mary Magdalene recanting her sins, was that it was to remind us of Mary Magdalene’s somewhat erotic and dubious past.
My featured Hayez painting today has also religious connotations but is unlike many similar depictions. The work, which he completed in 1850, is entitled Susanna at her Bath and is housed in the National Gallery, London. It has allowed the artist to combine his love of biblical stories and the portrayal of a well-endowed female nude. The story of Susanna and the Elders comes from Chapter 13 of the Old Testament Book of Daniel
The story revolves around a Hebrew wife named Susanna who was falsely accused by two lecherous voyeurs. Whilst bathing one day in her garden and having dispensed of the services of her attendants, two lustful elders secretly observe her. On making her way back to her house, they accost her, threatening to claim that she was meeting a young man in the garden unless she agrees to have sex with them. She is horrified at their suggestion and refuses to be blackmailed. The two lechers carry out their threat and inform the authorities about her affair with an illicit lover. She is arrested and about to be put to death by stoning for promiscuity when a young man named Daniel interrupts the proceedings, shouting that the two elders should be questioned to prevent the death of an innocent. The two men are questioned separately and their stories do not agree. The court then realises that the two elders have made false accusations against Susanna. The false accusers are put to death and virtue triumphs.
The Susanna in Hayez’s painting is the same Susanna but unlike other depictions of the event we do not see the two elders and accordingly Hayez has not included the words “the Elders” in the title of his work. Hayez has preferred to concentrate all his artistic ability in his depiction of the nubile and beautiful young woman. Although the two men are not seen by us we notice the accusatory expression on Susanna’s face as she looks over her shoulder and catches a glimpse of her voyeurs. It is a truly beautiful painting and Hayez’s portrayal of the voluptuous Susanna with her pale skin and pursed lips is remarkable. Look into her eyes. It is as if she is looking straight through us. We ourselves feel accused of staring at her naked flesh. We can just imagine her unwavering stare as she browbeats the two old lechers. The background to the right is dark and contrasts with the pale white skin of her leg and this chiaroscuro effect adds to the painting.
This painting depicting the biblical scene portrays Susanna’s character as being quite hard, determined and dare I say slightly brazen. If you want to see a slightly different depiction of Susanna, in which she is shown as being vulnerable, frightened and devastated by the overtures of the two lechers then you must look at the painting Susanna and the Elders by my favourite female artist, Artemisia Gentilesschi. She completed the work in 1610 and rather than showing Susanna as a coy or flirtatious person as often depicted by male artists, including Hayez, Artemisia looks on the event from the female perspective and deftly portrays the vulnerability of Susanna, showing her as being both scared and repulsed by the demands of the two men who menacingly loom over her. It is one of the few Susanna paintings showing the sexual assault by the two Elders as a traumatic event. Artemisia Gentileschi at the time of her painting was having a torrid time with her boyfriend who two years later would rape her and Artemisia had then to endure the trauma and mortification of the rape trial.