Bathers at Moritzburg by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Bathers at Moritzburg by Ernst Kirchner (1909)

My last three blogs looked at Italian Renaissance paintings but today, and in my next blog, I want to move in a completely different artistic direction and look at the life and work of a man who is widely acknowledged as the greatest artist of German Expressionism.  His name is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Before I look at the early life of Kirchner I suppose I should explain a little about the term Expressionism.  Expressionism came about around 1905 and lasted until about 1920.  It is a term given to a style of painting, music, or drama in which the artist or writer seeks to express the inner world of emotion rather than external reality.   This term Expressionism is applied to art which seeks to cause an emotional response, not to actual pictorial content but to the exaggerated style adopted by the artist who is seeking to reflect his inner self.   The term is generally applied to modern European art, where exaggerated forms and vivid colours were employed.  In Germany, at the beginning of the twentieth century, there was disillusionment with the old fashioned academic styles of painting and this prompted a flood of experimentation and innovation.  The artists were desperately searching for a new way to express themselves through the medium of painting and by doing so convey their personal experiences of their new modern world with all its advancing technology.   Expressionism is an artistic style in which the artist attempts to depict not objective reality but rather the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse in him or her.   They accomplish their aim through distortion, exaggeration, primitivism, and fantasy and through the vivid, jarring, violent, or dynamic application of formal elements. The actual term Expressionism was first used in the preface of the catalogue for the 22nd Berlin Secession Exhibition of April 1911 to describe the work of Braque, Derain, Picasso, Vlaminck and Marquet.

Kirchner was born in Aschaffenburg in northwest Bavaria in 1880 and is now looked upon as one of the most important representatives of Expressionism.  Kirchner was brought up in a middle–class family environment.  His father was an industrial chemist.   Kirchner showed an early interest in drawing and as an extra-curricular activity, during his school years his parents arranged for him to have drawing and watercolour lessons at home.  His parents support for his love of art was not wholehearted as they saw no future in their son becoming an artist and so after taking his final school leaving exams they insisted he attended the Königliche Technische Hochschule to study architecture.  Kirchner went along with his parents’ plans as he believed the course would also allow him to have further training in art, such as freehand and perspective drawing.  He took his preliminary diploma in 1903 after which he spent the winter term studying in Munich.

Whilst at the Hochschule he became close friends with another student Fritz Bleyl and later they, along with two other architecture students, Karl-Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel, after successfully completing their architecture degree course in 1905, formed an artist group which they called Die Brücke (The Bridge).  The name, given to their group by Rottluff, was to symbolise a connection between Germany’s artistic past and future and they intended that their art would be that very link and the way forward.  Theirs was a radical group which was opposed to middle-class conventions, which they considered lacked fervour, and it was their aim to shun the traditional academic style of art and initiate a new style of painting which would be more in keeping with modern life.  They still saw their artistic work as belonging firmly within the tradition of German art, especially the art of Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald and Lucas Cranach the Elder.  This young group of artists was anti-establishment, liberal in their attitude and full of revolutionary ideas.  Like all new groupings the four founders decided that the group should have its own manifesto setting out its ambitions.  Kirchner was in the forefront of thinking up the wording for the manifesto and he clearly summed up what the group wanted to achieve:

 “….. freedom in our work and in our lives, independence from older, established forces…”

The group met regularly at the Dresden studio of Kirchner.  The lifestyle of this group was Bohemian in character.  In the Royal Academy 2003 exhibition catalogue Kirchner – Expressionism and the city, a quote from Fritz Bleyl described his friend’s first studio, which had formerly been a butcher’s shop:

“…[it was] that of a real bohemian, full of paintings lying all over the place, drawings, books and artist’s materials — much more like an artist’s romantic lodgings than the home of a well-organised architecture student…”

In Kirchner’s studio social standards were largely ignored. Art historians quote reports of the goings-on which took place at the studio and recount tales of “much impulsive love-making and naked cavorting”.  During these meetings at Kirchner’s studio, the artists met to study the nude in group life-drawing sessions.   However, Kirchner wanted to distance himself from the rigid and painstaking academic style of life drawing and he and his fellow artists would instead sketch the naked women, quickly in quarter-hour sessions (Viertelstundenakte) and by so doing, they believed that they were able to capture the fundamental nature of their subject as instinctively as they could. The models who posed nude for Kirchner’s group were not professional models; they were just part of Kirchner’s circle of friends, who were only too willing to become part of this newly-founded art movement.

The lifestyle of the group in some ways was mirrored in the flower-power days of the 1960’s or the punk rock days of the late 70’s.  They hoped and succeeded in shocking the bourgeoisie.  Normal social conventions were abandoned and the group’s studio became a place almost of decadence with group life-drawing sessions, frequent nudity and casual love-making.  Like Matisse and Picasso, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was fixated with the female nude, as a symbol of his own intense sexuality as well as it being a seductive return to primitive nature. The intention of Die Brücke artists was to wage battle against the constricting forces of bourgeois culture.  To them this culture was linked indelibly with mediocrity, corruption, and weakness. Kirchner believed fervently on self-empowerment and complete freedom from convention and this could be seen in his early art which often concentrated on erotic subject matter. In the paintings done by Kirchner and the other artists of this group they often depicted the female nude crudely as both “primitive” and submissive.  For them this depiction of the female signified both male domination and male virility.

Die Brücke poster for the 1906 exhibition

In the September and October of 1906, a year after the formation of Die Brücke, the first group exhibition was held at the K.F.M. Seifert and Co. in Dresden.   The works exhibited focused on the female nude and Fritz Bleyl designed the lithographic poster for the event.  In 1906, Kirchner met Doris Große, who became his favoured model and remained at his side until 1911 when he decided to leave Dresden and move to Berlin.   Doris would not make that journey.  From 1907 to 1911, Kirchner liked to spend part of his summers at the Moritzburg lakes which lie to the north of Dresden.  He and the other members of Die Brücke art group, along with their friends relaxed amidst the countryside tranquillity and led a relaxed communal lifestyle and embraced the popular German culture of going back to nature and dispensing with such frivolous things as clothes !

My featured painting today is by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and is entitled Bathers at Moritzburg which he completed around 1910.  It is a painting depicting people who have for a short time shunned the claustrophobic and overpowering life in the city and have gone back to the freedom of nature.   This is their reunion with nature.   It is a painting full of energy.  There is vigorous activity all around.   The first thing that strikes one about this work of art is the overstated colours he has used in this painting.  We have the contrast of the yellow-orange flesh of the bathers with the blue of the water.  This contrasts serves to emphasise the nudity of the figures. Although I have dated the painting as being completed around 1909, the original effect may have been too extreme for Kirchner as in 1926 he repainted parts of the picture making the colours lighter and the surface of the painting more even. It is presently housed in the Tate Modern in London.

As a leading proponent of Expressionism how did Kirchner view his style?  In a letter written in 1937 to art dealer Curt Valentin, he explained the development behind his own Expressionist style:

 

“…First of all I needed to invent a technique of grasping everything while it was in motion…I practised seizing things quickly in bold strokes, wherever I was and in this way I learned how to depict movement itself, and I found new forms in the ecstasy and haste of this work, which, without being naturalistic, yet represented everything I saw and wanted to represent in a larger and clearer way. And to this form was added pure colour, as pure as the sun generates it…”

In my next blog, I continue looking at the life of Ernst Kirchner as he moves to Berlin, suffers mentally from the rigours of World War I, splits from Die Brücke and spends the last years

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The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca (c.1468)

For today’s blog I am staying with Italian Renaissance art and looking at a work by, some say, the greatest Early Renaissance painter, Piero della Francesca.  This is the second time I have featured this artist in one of my blogs.  The first being The Flagellation of Christ (My Daily Art Display, September 29th 2011).   Today I want to look at his beautiful fresco entitled The Resurrection which he completed around 1468.

Piero della Francesca or as he was known in his day, Piero di Benedetto de’ Franceschi, was born around 1415 in the Tuscan market town of Borgo San Sepolcro, which is now known as Sansepolcro,  a small town located on the plains of the Upper Tiber Valley in the southeast of Tuscany, bordering Umbria and The Marches.  His family were merchants dealing in leather and wool and his father, Benedetto di Franceschi, hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps.  With that in mind, Piero was sent to school to learn arithmetic and the ability to calculate weights and measures, assess the volumes of barrels and bales, and most importantly, learn how to keep accounts.  Piero was academically gifted and became well known as a mathematician and in fact after his death he was revered not so much as a painter but for his mathematical knowledge.

Piero’s initial artistic training came as an apprentice to Antonio di Giovanni, a local painter, who was based in Anghiari, a town across the Tiber Valley from Borgo San Sepolcro.  From being Antonio di Giovanni’s apprentice, he soon became his assistant and during the 1430’s the two of them worked jointly on commissions around Borgo San Sepolcro.  Piero went to Florence for the chance to gain more work and he worked on commissions as an assistant alongside another young artist, Domenico Veneziano.  It was during this time spent in Florence that Piero would have probably come into contact with the great Florentine artists of the time such as Fra Angelico, Mantegna and the architect, Brunelleschi.

In 1442, Piero returned to Sansepolcro and three years later, in 1445, Piero received a large commission from the Compagnia della Misericordia, a confraternity of Borgo San Sepolcro, for a polyptych, Polyptych of the Misericordia: Madonna of Mercy, as an altarpiece for the local church, Church of the Misericordia.  The confraternity had asked Piero to complete the work in three years, setting the anticipated completion date as 1445.   Piero however did not feel constrained by this suggested timeline and any way he had many other projects on the go at the time and in the end did not complete the altarpiece until 1462, some seventeen years late!

Piero moved around the country a good deal during his life, living in Ferrara and Rimini before arriving in Rome in 1455.  Here he painted frescoes in the Vatican for Nicholas V and continued to work in the Vatican Palace for Pius II. Sadly his works were destroyed to make room for paintings by Raphael.

Piero’s birthplace, the town of Borgo San Sepolcro which literally means “Town of the Holy Sepulchre” derives its name from the story of its founding back in the tenth century.   The story of its coming into being would have us believe that two saints, Saint Arcano and Saint Egidio were returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land bearing some wood shavings from the sepulchre in which Christ had been buried, when they were miraculously instructed to create a new settlement – Borgo San Sepolcro.   These sacred relics have been preserved in the local Benedictine abbey and so when the town hall of Borgo San Sepolcro was renovated and extended in the late 1450s, Piero was commissioned to paint the fresco on the appropriate subject of The Resurrection for the building’s state chamber. This room was set aside for the use of the Conservatori, the chief magistrates and governors.  Before holding their councils, these four appointed guardians of the town would solemnly kneel before Piero’s image, to pray for the grace of God to descend upon them during their deliberations. The room is now the civic museum.

My featured painting today is a fresco which exudes an air of peace and tranquillity.   In the painting, the risen Christ can be seen in the centre of the composition.  He is portrayed at the moment of his resurrection, as we see him with his left foot on the parapet as he climbs purposefully out of his marble tomb clutching the banner in his right hand, as if he is declaring his victory over death.   He looks formidable as he stands tall.   We don’t see the lid of the tomb but look to the bottom right of the painting and we can see Piero has depicted a large rock which probably harks back to the biblical tale which told of a rock being rolled away from the entrance of Christ’s tomb.   In most resurrection paintings we are used to seeing Christ dressed in white burial clothes and yet Piero has depicted him in red robes, which was probably done to infer royalty and signify that this resurrected person is Christ the King.  Piero has portrayed the pale body of the risen Christ as almost blemish-free with the exception of the wound to his side and the wound in the back of both his hands made by the crucifixion nails.   In his depiction of Christ he has not let us forget that this central figure is both man and God, for if you look closely at the stomach of Christ we notice that the artist has given it an almost human appearance.  It has a slightly wrinkled appearance caused by the folds of the skin happening as he raises his leg to exit the tomb.

The sleeping guards

The alertness of the risen Christ in the painting contrasts starkly with the four soldiers who instead of keeping guard on the tomb, lie asleep.  The Renaissance painter and biographer of artists, Vasari, would have us believe that Piero included his own self-portrait in this fresco.

Piero della Francesca

It is the face of the second soldier from the left, and Vasari postulates that Piero did this as a sign of his own hopes of awaking one day to redemption. It is also interesting to note the contrast in the way Piero has depicted the risen Christ and the four soldiers.  Christ is shown in a solid vertical stance looking straight out at us, whereas the sleeping soldiers are depicted in diagonal poses and viewed at various oblique angles.  The way the artist has portrayed Christ almost gives one the feeling that he is about to step out of the painting to join us, the viewer.  In some ways the expression on the face of Christ is disturbing.  It is a penetrating glance and one art critic commented that it was if he was looking into the soul of the viewer.

The landscape is bathed in the new cold and clear light of a Tuscan dawn.  Look carefully at the trees on the right of the painting and those on the left side.  Do you spot the difference?   The ones on the right are depicted as flourishing specimens adorned with leaves and healthy green shoots whereas the trees on the left of the painting are grey in colour and bare as if on the point of dying.   This contrast almost certainly alludes to the renewal of mankind through the Resurrection of Christ

It is likely that Piero painted his striking image of the risen Christ stepping resolutely, banner in hand, from the tomb, to represent not only the resurrection of Jesus but also the resurgence of the town of Sansepolcro.  After a few years under the rule of Florence from 1441, Sansepolcro regained its identity and dignity in 1456 when the Florentines returned the use of the Palazzo to the Conservatori. The church Council which the young Piero had witnessed in Florence had thus had unforeseen consequences for Sansepolcro. The Pope, his treasury depleted by his lavish Council, defrayed some of the costs by ceding Sansepolcro to Florence which was later returned by Florentine authorities to the citizens of Sansepolcro on February 1st 1459, as a sign of the restoration of some measure of autonomy to the Borgo.

One interesting end note to the tale of this painting comes from a BBC article which tells the story of how a British artillery officer, Tony Clarke, during World War II, defied orders and held back from using his troop’s guns to shell the town of Sansepolcro and his decision is believed to have saved this beautiful fresco.   To read the full story click on:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16306893

The Transfiguration by Raphael

The Transfiguration by Raphael (1520)

In my last blog I looked at The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo and talked about how this and a painting by Raphael, entitled Transfiguration, had been commissioned in 1517 by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici as a high end altarpiece for the French Cathedral of S. Giusto Narbonne.  Raphael was, at the time, busy on other commissions.  He had been summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II to paint frescoes on the rooms of his private Vatican apartment, the Stanza della Segnatura and the Stanza di Eliodor and at the same time he was busy working on portraits and altarpieces as well as working alongside Sebastiano del Piombo on frescoes for Agostino Chigi’s Villa Farnesina.   It is thought that Giulio de Medici was so concerned with the time it was taking Raphael to complete The Transfiguration altarpiece that he commissioned Sebastiano di Piombo to paint the Raising of Lazarus for the cathedral in an effort to stimulate Raphael to work faster on his commission.

Today I am featuring Raphael’s work, The Transfiguration, which was considered the last painting by the Italian High Renaissance master.  Giorgio Vasari, the sixteenth century Italian painter, writer, historian, and who is famous today for his biographies of Renaissance artists, called Raphael a mortal God and of today’s painting, he described it as:

“…the most famous, the most beautiful and most divine…”

Although Raphael Sanzio was only thirty-four years of age when he was given the commission, bad health prevented him from finishing it. It was left unfinished by Raphael, and is believed to have been completed by his pupils, Giulio Romano and Giovanni Francesco Penni, shortly after his death on Good Friday 1520.

If we look closely at this work of art we can see two things going on simultaneously both of which are described in successive episodes of the Gospel of Matthew.   In the upper part of the painting we have the Transfiguration, which is described in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 17: 1-7):

“…After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.  Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.   Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”    While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”   When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.  But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid…”

We see the transfigured Christ floating aloft, bathed in a blue/white aura of light and clouds.  To his left and right are the figures of the prophets, Moses and Elijah.  Below Christ we see the three disciples on the mountain top shielding their eyes from the radiance and maybe because of their own fear of what is happening above them.   The two figures kneeling to the left of the mountain top are said to be the martyrs Saint Felicissimus and Saint Agapitus of Palestrina.

 In the lower part of the painting we have a depiction by Raphael of the Apostles trying, with little success, to liberate the possessed boy from his demonic possession. The Apostles fail in their attempts to save the ailing child until the recently-transfigured Christ arrives and performs a miracle.  Matthew’s Gospel (Mathew 17:14-21) recounts the happening:

“…When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him.  “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water.  I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”    “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?  Bring the boy here to me.”   Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment.   Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”   He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you…”

Observe this lower scene.  The young boy, with arms outstretched and distorted in a combination of fear and pain, is possessed by some sort of demonic spirit.   He is being led forward by his elders towards Christ who is about to descend from the mountain.   The boy is crying and rolling his eyes heavenwards.   His body is contorted as he is unable to control his movement.   The old man behind the boy struggles to control him.  The old man, with his wrinkled brow has his eyes wide open in fear as to what is happening to his young charge.  He looks directly at the Apostles, visually pleading with them to help the young boy.    See how Raphael has depicted the boy’s naked upper body.  We can see the pain the boy is enduring in the way the artist has portrayed the pale colour of his flesh, and his veins, as he makes those violent and fearsome gestures.   The raised arms of the people below pointing to Christ, who is descending, links the two stories within the painting.  A woman in the central foreground of the painting kneels before the Apostles.  She points to the boy in desperation, pleading with them to help alleviate his suffering.

Contrapposto

The contorted poses of some of the figures at the bottom of the painting along with the torsion of the woman in what Vasari calls a contrapposto pose were in some way precursors to the Mannerist style that would follow after Raphael’s death.   Vasari believed that this woman was the focal point of the painting.     She has her back to us.  She kneels in a twisted contrapposto pose. Her right knee is thrust forward whilst she thrusts her right shoulder back.   Her left knee is positioned slightly behind the right and her left shoulder forward.  Thus her arms are directed to the right whilst her face and gaze are turned to the left.  Raphael gives her skin and drapery much cooler tones than those he uses for the figures in heavy chiaroscuro in the lower scene and by doing so illuminates her pink garment.  The way he paints her garment puts emphasis on her pose.  She and her clothes are brilliantly illuminated so that they almost shine as bright as the robes of the transfigured Christ and the two Old Testament Prophets who accompany him.   There is an element about her depiction which seems to isolate from the others in the crowd at the lower part of the painting and this makes her stand out more.

The unfinished painting was hung over the couch in Raphael’s studio in the Borgo district of Rome for a couple of days while he was lying in state, and when his body was taken for its burial, the picture was carried by its side.   Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici kept the painting for himself, rather than send it to Narbonne and it was placed above Raphael’s tomb in the Pantheon.   In 1523, three years after the death of Raphael, the cardinal donated the painting to the church of San Pietro in Montorio, Rome. In 1797, following the end of the war in which Napoleon’s Revolutionary French defeated the Papal States; a Treaty of Tolentino was signed.    By the terms of this treaty, a number of artistic treasures, including Raphael’s Transfiguration, were confiscated from the Vatican by the victorious French.   Over a hundred paintings and other works of art were moved to the Louvre in Paris.   The French commissioners reserved the right to enter any building, public, religious or private, to make their choice and assessment of what was to be taken back to France. This part of the treaty was extended to apply to all of Italy in 1798 by treaties with other Italian states.   It was not until 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, that the painting was returned to Rome. It then became part of the Pinacoteca Vaticana of Pius VII where it remains today.

The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo

The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo (1520)

My next two blogs feature paintings by two different artists, commissioned almost at the same time by the same person, one of which is often looked upon as the greatest painting ever.

My featured artist today is Sebastiano Luciani, who would be better known later as Sebastiano del Piombo for reasons I will explain later.   Sebastiano was born around 1485 and his birthplace is thought to have been Venice as he often signed his works Sebastianus Venetus.   His first thoughts, regarding what he should do with his life, were to join a religious order and he may well have started along the path towards the priesthood. His first love was not drawing and painting but music.  He had a great interest in music and was an accomplished singer and also played many musical instruments, including the lute, which was his favourite.  This musical talent of his made him very popular in Venetian society.   He did however eventually turn his attention to art when he was about eighteen years of age and his first artistic tuition came from Giovanni Bellini, who was a member of the great Bellini family of Venetian artists and brother-in-law of Andrea Mantegna.   Having learnt the basics of art from Bellini he left the studio and became a pupil of Giorgione da Castelfranco, whom he had first met through their joint love of music.  Sebastiano and Giorgione had a long association and the early works of the young aspiring painter were greatly influenced by the style and technique of his master, so much so, that some of his early paintings were confused with those of Giorgione.

Giorgione died in 1510 and the other great Venetian artist, Tiziano Vecelli (Titian) was away, working in Padua.   Sebastiano was now looked upon as the leading painter in Venice.   In early 1511, the Siennese banker, Agostino Chigi, who had become one of the richest men in Rome and a financial backer of the Popes,  visited Venice and persuaded Sebastiano to return with him to Rome.  Chigi believed that Sebastiano was the greatest living painter in Venice and he wanted him to carry out some work in his newly acquired villa.   Chigi was a great lover of the Arts and a wealthy patron of art and literature.  Chigi, at that time, owned a suburban villa on the shore of the River Tiber, known as Viridario, but later owners changed its name and it became known asVilla Farnesina.  Chigi wanted his residence to be one of the most opulent in the city befitting a man of his standing in society and wanted the best artists of the time to come and decorate the interior.  Besides summoning Sebastiano he invited other great painters to put their mark on the villa, such as Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano, Sodoma and Raphael Sanzio.  Sebastiano worked alongside Raphael on the frescoes for the villa which depicted scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

It was whilst working in Rome that Sebastiano became acquainted with, and became one of the rare and trusted friends of, Michelangelo Buonarroti.   According to Vasari, Michelangelo befriended Sebastiano and offered him pictorial designs for him to develop in paint.  This friendship however drew Sebastiano into the long running rivalry Michelangelo had with Raphael Sanzio but in a way it had a lot to do with today’s featured work.  It is believed that through the good auspices of Michelangelo, Sebastiano was, at the end of 1516, commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici to paint a large altarpiece, depicting the Raising of Lazarus.  Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici was appointed to the see of Narbonne, in south-west France, by his cousin Pope Leo X.  The painting, along with its proposed companion piece the Transfiguration, which the cardinal had commissioned, shortly before, from Raphael, were to be sent to the cathedral in the Cardinal’s own bishopric in Narbonne, which owned a relic relating to the story of Lazarus.  There seems nothing strange about the cardinal commissioning two paintings for the same cathedral but Vasari would have us believe that there was a little devilment with the cardinal’s request as, in a way, it was to pit the two artists against one another and of course the cardinal was well aware of the rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael as we know Raphael’s “artistic enemy” was Michelangelo, who was therefore only too willing to lend Sebastiano a hand with the work by supplying him with sketches that could be incorporated into the Raising of Lazarus.

Michelangelo’s sketch of Lazarus

The featured painting today, the Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano, is a great example of the highly colourful style of Venetian painting of the time.   Sebastiano completed the painting in January 1519 and it was immediately hailed as an artistic triumph.  Raphael was concerned that his painting of the Transfiguration was not compared with Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus but the two were seen together in April of the following year, a couple of days after Raphael’s death.  Raphael’s painting never went to Narbonne, remaining in Rome whereas Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus eventually went to the French city.

The biblical tale tells us about the request of the sisters Martha and Mary for Jesus to visit the grave of their brother Lazarus and raise him from the dead.  In his Gospel, St John divided the story of the miracle into three parts. Firstly, Jesus bids the people to take the stone from the tomb.  Next he tells his friend, Lazarus to rise, and finally Jesus tells Lazarus to unbind his shroud and it is this third command to Lazarus that we see in the painting.  The painting we see before us is a depiction of a biblical story from the Gospel of Saint John (John: 11).  Verses 40 to 44 recount the event:

“…Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance.   “Take away the stone,” he said.  “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”    Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”   So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.    I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”  When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.  Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

In the background of the painting, we see a cloudy sky being penetrated by a shaft of light.  We can make out a distant town by a lake or river. The town is more a depiction of a high-walled fortified Roman town with its large and solidly built bridge, rather than a depiction of somewhere from Sebastiano’s birthplace, Venice.   It feels Roman more than Venetian. We see the figure of Christ standing in the foreground, slightly left of centre,   He is portrayed theatrically pointing towards the seated figure of Lazarus, who is still partly covered by his burial shroud.  It is almost as if Jesus is giving a speech.   Jesus needs all his powers of persuasion to bring back Lazarus. It is not so much a command Jesus is giving to Lazarus, more that he is appealing to the old man, his friend, to rise from the dead.

All around, and squeezed tightly into the composition, are men and women all of who pose in a most theatrical manner, due to their shock at seeing Lazarus coming back to life.   In the left mid-ground we see a group of Pharisees unimpressed by what they have seen and are still hell-bent on plotting the death of the so-called miracle maker.    The various figures in the painting are all clothed differently.  It is interesting to take time and study each figure.  There is an old man knelt on the lower left, hands clasped in a prayer-like manner as he looks up at Jesus.    Look how some of the men and women hold their hands up in horror and look away rather than cast a glimpse on the back-from-the-dead figure of Lazarus.  Dramatic poses have been given to Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus.   Mary is on her knees to the right of Jesus, her hand placed over her heart.   Martha, dressed in a blue robe with a red sash, stands to the right of Jesus, recoiling from what the Biblical passage termed “the bad odour”.

Martha recoiling at the sight and smell of Lazarus

Others talk together discussing what they see before them.   Take time and look at all the various expressions on the faces of the people.   All these figures are painted in bright colours.  The artificial and theatrical gestures we see before us seem almost as if time has come to a standstill.  It is like a freeze-frame shot from a film.   Lazarus is indeed a strong, mature man and Sebastiano used the red and black chalk drawings given to him by Michelangelo for a preliminary study of the figure of Lazarus and some of his attendants. Three of these drawings still exist and one can be seen at the British Museum in London.   The way the figures are portrayed by Sebastiano are depicted in a Michelangelo’s style. A prime example is the depiction of Lazarus.  Look at the way Sebastiano has shown him half turned which is often the way a sculptor would position his figure.  The arms and legs of Lazarus are so positioned to show off his musculature and sinews.  It is so like the work of Michelangelo.

Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici chose to keep Raphael’s Transfiguration for himself and it is now housed in the Vatican Gallery.  He sent Sebastiano’s painting to Narbonne.   The Raising of Lazarus in now housed in the National Gallery, London.    After Raphael’s death, Sebastiano became the leading painter in Rome and he was the first artist to return there after the 1527 Sack of Rome.  In 1531, the Pope rewarded his service by making him Keeper of the Papal Seal and it was from this position that Sebastaino became known as Sebastiano del Piombo, (piombo being the Italian word for lead which was used for sealing).

Tomorrow I will look at the companion piece or some would say the “competition” piece to Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus – Raphael Sanzio’s Transfiguration, a painting many art historians believe to be the greatest painting of all time.

The Slave Market by Jean-Léon Gérôme

The Slave Market by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1866)

Today I am returning to the nineteenth century French academicism painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme, looking at his early life and featuring one of his works.  I had previously featured this artist in My Daily Art Display of February 10th 2011 when I talked about his painting entitled A Roman Slave Market.

Jean-Léon Gérôme was born in 1824, in Vesoul; a small town close to the city of Besançon and near to the French-Swiss border.  He was the eldest son of Pierre Gérôme, who was a goldsmith by trade, and his wife Claude Françoise Mélanie Vuillemot, a daughter of a merchant. He initially attended school locally in Vesoul where he was looked upon as a star pupil and attained a good deal of academic success culminating in being awarded first prize in chemistry, and an honourable mention in physics.  From the age of nine he took drawing lessons under the tutelage of Claude-Basile Cariage and when he was fourteen years of age he received formal art tuition and was viewed as a great up-and-coming talent and he received a prize from the school for one of his oil paintings.    At the age of sixteen, with his school days behind him, he set out for Paris with a letter of introduction to the French painter Paul Delaroche who at this time was at the height of his fame.   Delaroche’s artistic style was a blend of the academic Neo-classical school and the dramatic subject matter favoured by the Romantics.  This combination was to become known as the historical genre painting style. Gérôme was to be greatly influenced by the paintings and the tuition he received from Delaroche.

In 1845, after three years of studying under Delaroche and having just returned to Paris after a visit to his home in Vesoul, Gérôme discovered that Delaroche had closed his studio.   Delaroche had just suffered the loss of his wife, Louise, whom he deeply loved and whom he had depicted in many of his paintings.   Gérôme discovered him to be in the depths of depression following the death of his wife and was about to close his atelier and journey to Italy. Gérôme asked if he could accompany him.  Delaroche agreed and the two of them along with a couple of other of Delaroche’s students, one of which was the English painter Eyre Crowe, set off on their painting trip.

Gérôme stayed in Italy and visited Naples where he viewed the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum which were to become the foundation for his gladiatorial depictions.  His sojourn in Italy was cut short in 1844 when he contracted typhoid fever and he had to return home to Versoul where his mother nursed him back to health.  Later that year, fully recovered, he returned to Paris and entered the atelier of the Swiss painter and teacher Charles Gleyre.   Gleyre was to guide many young aspiring artists who would become famous household names, such as Monet, Renoir, Bazille and Whistler.  From the studio of Gleyre, Gérôme went on to attend the École des Beaux-Arts.

Meanwhile, Delaroche, who had remained in Rome, returned to Paris to work on an important commission.  Delaroche offered Gérôme a position as his assistant on the commission and so Gérôme left Gleyre’s studio to work with his former master.  He remained as Delaroche’s assistant for just on a year. Whilst working alongside Delaroche, he was encouraged to prepare paintings for the Salon exhibitions and within a short time, his talent as an artist was recognised and he was commissioned to paint a reproduction for the Queen. This was to be the start of many official and lucrative commissions. In 1846 Jean-Léon Gérôme began to work on one of his most famous paintings – Young Greeks Attending a Cock Fight.  Gérôme had just suffered the setback at the École des Beaux Arts of not achieving his main aim that of winning Prix de Rome prize, which would have given him a scholarship to travel to and study in Rome.  He was probably questioning his own ability and was somewhat hesitant to submit his painting to the Salon jurists, but on Delaroche’s insistence, he did and it was accepted into the 1847 Salon and hailed a great success.  One of those to take a liking to his work was the art critic and poet, Théophile Gautier, who would later support Gérôme throughout most of his career.  Gautier’s commendation of The Cock Fight made Gérôme famous and his artistic career was well and truly launched.

Gérôme travelled extensively visiting Turkey in 1855 to make studies for a large official commission, and two years later journeyed to Egypt in preparation for the Salon of 1857 in which his first Egyptian genre paintings were shown.   In the 1860’s he returned to Egypt and also visited Judea, Syria and the Holy Places.   Gérôme was fascinated with the Near East and many of his subsequent works highlighted the Near East culture and traditions and it was to mark the start of his career as an Orientalist or a peintre ethnographique.

The painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme which I am featuring today was completed by him in 1866 and is entitled The Slave Market.  It is without doubt one of Gérôme’s most provocative works.  The scene is set in a market place in a Near East country, more than likely, Egypt.  The idea for this painting and others featuring the slave market probably came to Gérôme during his Near East travels, when slavery was still practiced.  However the open air slave market as shown in this painting did not exist in the mid-nineteenth century and so this should be viewed as an idealised depiction.  The artist has put a great deal of effort into details of the costumes worn by the traders as well as the way in which he has carefully depicted, in detail, the architecture of the surrounding buildings.  In the centre of the painting we see a nude woman who is being offered up as a slave and is surrounded by a group of prospective buyers.  One of these men, dressed in a gold and green covered cloak, examines the “goods” on offer.  His left hand holds the back of the woman’s head whilst the fingers of his right hand are forced into her mouth so he could better examine her teeth.  Behind the woman stands the seller and from the smile on his face he seems assured that he is about to be paid handsomely for the woman.  There can be no doubt that prospective buyers of this painting were not totally absorbed by the way the artist depicted the clothes worn by the prospective buyers or with the architecture of the building in the background.  They were sold on the erotic nature of the painting.  Viewers were able to be vociferous in their condemnation of the slave trade whilst enjoying the sight of the female body.

The painting was acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark in 1930 and is part of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts collection but is currently (until September 23rd) on view at the Royal Academy, London.

The Clothed Maja and The Nude Maja by Goya

La Maja Desnuda (The Naked Maja) by Goya (c.1797-1800)

I ended my last blog with the tantalising statement:

“…I will offer you a work by another famous Spanish artist, Francisco Goya, and tell you about the connection it has with myself, as a naughty schoolboy, and my first sighting of erotica !!!!…”

I suppose I will be accused of cynically employing cheap tactics in order to get people to read my blog but there is a connection between the two Goya paintings I am featuring in this blog with the dubious habits of a young school boy.   My early school days were back in the late 50’s and the first sight of what I loosely termed as “early erotica” came in the form of a pen.  It was not just any pen.  It was a pen which had a picture of a beautiful and fully clothed young woman.  However the titillating aspect about the pen was that if you  turned the pen upside-down the clothed lady slowly shed all her clothes !!!

La Maja Vestida (The Clothed Maja) by Goya (c.1800)

Today I am looking at, not one painting by Francisco Goya, but two, albeit as you will realise, they are almost the same except for one major exception.  His two paintings are entitled La maja vestida (The Clothed Maja) and La maja desnuda (The Nude Maja) were painted around 1800 and 1803 and the only difference between the two is that in one the woman is fully clothed whilst in the other she is naked.  I suppose the first question that comes to one’s mind is who is this lady and how come Goya painted her reclining portrait.  The question has never really been answered but the names of two ladies are often bandied about by historians as being this sultry temptress.  The two candidates are the 13th Duchess of Alba and Pepita Tudó.

The Duchess of Alba or to give her, her full title, Doña María del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva-Álvarez de Toledo y Silva, the 13th Duchess of Alba de Tormes was a Spanish aristocrat who featured in a number of Goya’s paintings.  Francisco de Goya profited from wealthy patronage probably more than any other artist. He was without doubt the darling of the Spanish monarchy.  His first appointment as court painter came from King Charles IV of Spain. The King and his wife, Queen Maria Luisa, sat for the artist themselves many times.   For their portraits they would dress in the most colourful and showy costumes adorned with the royal regalia.  Besides the royal portraits Goya received many lucrative commissions from other high-ranking government officials as well as requests for altarpieces for churches and cathedrals.  However without doubt and notwithstanding his many prominent sitters, one stands out above all the others – the 13th Duchess of Alba.

The Duchess of Alba was not just any royal courtier.  She was a very wealthy and powerful woman in her own right.  She was a  member of Spanish nobility and held the title of 13th Duchess of Alba.  She married José María Alvarez de Toledo y Gonzaga, who was the 15th Duke of Medina-Sidonia, and she became the wealthiest woman in Spain. She was quite a character.  Besides her natural beauty, she was the height of eccentricity, and very strong-willed.  Goya was besotted by her and rumours had it that, at one time, the two were lovers.  He recounted the time she came to his studio and asked him to apply her make-up:

“…the Alba woman, who yesterday came to the studio to make me paint her face, and she got her way; I certainly enjoy it more than painting on canvas, and I still have to do a full-length portrait of her…”

It has been suggested that the two paintings were originally owned by the Duchess of Alba and later acquired by Manuel de Godoy after her death. Goya’s close and intimate relationship with the Duchess of Alba has made her the most popular candidate as a model for the Majas, or at least as a source of inspiration.  Another persuasive argument in favour of this candidate is the many drawings of herself and members of her household Goya made during his visits to the Duchess’s country estate. However the face of the Majas does not show a close resemblance to the facial qualities of the drawings of her but this could be put down to the need to conceal her identity.

The second candidate for the model in Goya’s two paintings was Pepita Tudó, whose full name was Josefa de Tudó, 1st Countess of Castillo Fiel.  Pepita being the diminutive of Josefa.    She was born in Cadiz.  When she was just sixteen years of age, she along with her mother and two sisters, were living in the household of Manuel de Godoy.  Five years later, aged twenty-one, she became the mistress of Godoy who was then Spanish Prime Minister and because of the influence he had with King Charles IV and his wife Queen Maria-Louisa he became one of the most powerful men in Spain.  In 1797, Queen Maria Luisa arranged a marriage for Godoy toMaría Teresa de Borbón y Vallabriga, 15th Countess of Chinchón, the granddaughter of Philip V of Spain, despite him still having Pepita as his mistress.  This was an arranged marriage, set up by the queen as the bride and groom had never met.  The Queen ensured that the partnership was financially advantageous to both bride and groom.  So what was in it for the Queen?  Historians would have us believe that the queen’s ulterior motive was two-fold.  Firstly she had hoped that the marriage was a way of ending Godoy’s dalliance with Pepita and secondly the marriage would act as a cover for her own relationship with Godoy. Godoy was pleased with the arrangement as it boosted his finances and despite what the queen had hoped for, he continued his liaison with his mistress Pepita,  who bizarrely lived in the same house as his wife.  In 1805, Godoy’s wife gave birth to a son, Manuel, and in 1807, she gave birth to another son, Luis.  His wife died in 1828 and Godoy married Pepita although rumour had it that they had married years earlier.  Godoy was a very amorous and amoral man and had many lovers but who was his one true love –the Duchess of Alba or Pepita?  According to the ninety-year old Pepita who died in 1869, Godoy had one, and only one true love, and that was Queen Maria Luisa.

The paintings I am featuring today were possibly first owned by Manuel de Godoy.   The Clothed Maja was hung in a room in his house and placed on top of The Naked Maja.  He had arranged a pulley mechanism to be attached to The Clothed Maja so that it could be raised, revealing the naked version which was behind it !!!

In 1807 Godoy was at the height of his power and as prime minister had negotiated the Treaty of Fontainebleau with Napoleon and the French, which in essence carved up Portugal and Godoy was awarded the “Principality of the Algarves”, under the protectorate of the King of Spain. However as is the case of most powerful men he had made a number of enemies, one of whom was the heir to the Spanish throne, Ferdinand VII.   Unfortunately for Godoy France did not keep to their non-aggression treaty with Spain and Godoy, along with King Charles IV and Queen Maria Louisa went into exile in Bayonne.  Charles IV was forced to abdicate and Ferdinand VII, Godoy’s enemy, became king of Spain.

The following year, in 1808, all Godoy’s fate was sealed.  His property was seized by the Spanish monarch and in 1813 the Spanish Inquisition confiscated both of the La Maja works considering them to be obscene.  In 1815 Goya was denounced to the Inquisition as being the artist who painted the two “obscene” works.  In May of that year he was summoned to appear before the Inquisition and pressure was brought to bear on him to reveal who had commissioned the works, who were the women and what were his intentions for such paintings.  Alas, it is not known what Goya told his inquisitors.

Las Majas at the Prado Museum, Madrid

The two paintings were eventually returned in 1836 and housed in the Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando.   We will probably never be one hundred per cent sure as to who modelled for the two paintings.  Since 1901, both The Clothed Maja and  The Nude Maja have been exhibited side by side in the same room at the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Thankfully there was no Inquisition around when, as a pre-teenager, I giggled as I watched the woman’s clothes disappear with just a flick of my prized pen !!!!

I send this blog from a very hot Spain and I am reluctant to return to the cold and wet place I call my home.

An Old Woman Cooking Eggs by Velazquez

An Old Woman Cooking Eggs by Velazquez (1618)

My featured painting today is another by Velazquez.  It is entitled An Old Woman Cooking Eggs and Velazquez completed it in 1618.  It is an example of his kitchen scene creations which he made popular in the early seventeenth century and became known as a bodegón, which showed peasants eating or preparing meals and the utensils they used to prepare and serve them.  It should not be forgotten that when Velazquez completed this work he was barely nineteen years of age.   It, without doubt, demonstrates his talent for painting people and everyday objects directly from life.  In some ways this painting was demonstrating his masterly painting technique for all to see and as we will see later,  it was his to be his calling card for use in his search for lucrative patronage.

The background of this painting, like Velazquez’s Waterseller of Seville, in my last blog, is dark and indistinct, and is in marked contrast to the often over-crowded colourful backgrounds of Dutch and Flemish kitchen scene paintings of the time, which were full of animated happenings.  This is a more sombre scene.  Like many of Velazquez’s early works, it demonstrates the influence of chiaroscuro, the artistic technique developed during the Renaissance, referring to the use of exaggerated light contrasts in order to create the illusion of volume.  In this painting we have a strong light source coming in from the left, illuminating the woman, her utensils and the poaching eggs but at the same time casting the background and the boy into deep shadow.  It is a wonderful display of the contrast of light and shadow, and as was the case with the Waterseller of Seville, Velazquez has utilised subtle hues and a palette dominated by ochres and browns.

Christ in the house of Martha and Mary (1618) (detail)

Before us we have two characters, an elderly woman and a young boy.   I can find no evidence of a relationship between the artist and the old woman but what we do know is that he used her as a model in another of his works, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, which he painted that same year and thus one assumes he knew the woman well because he has portrayed her so beautifully.  She is sitting in front of a small clay vessel in which she is cooking eggs over a charcoal fire. From her facial features, such as her high cheekbone, we know that in her early days she would have been a true beauty but now these facial qualities are somewhat worn and we are aware that she has lived a hard life, which has taken its toll on her.   Velazquez has imbued her with a solemn and contemplative quality. She seems transfixed by some unknown apprehension and appears to be lost in a world of her own and looks to have lost concentration with the cooking of her eggs. The woman holds a spoon poised over the pan in one hand and an unbroken egg in the other, as the whites of the eggs in the boiling liquid below thicken.   It is almost as if she is just going through the motions of the food preparation and her mind is somewhere else.

The boy on the left of the painting, which looks to be the same model Velazquez used in his Waterseller of Seville painting, strangely makes no eye contact with the old lady.  He looks out at us and his demeanour is somewhat grave.  Although not looking at the woman he is helping her as we see him proffering a glass cruet full of a liquid.  It could be vinegar or oil but whatever it is, it has obviously been called for by the cook.  His right hand cradles a large trussed honeydew melon.  The contrast in the ages of the cook and her helper, as well as the egg the old lady holds in her hand, maybe symbolic of the passing of time and the transience of life as in a Vanitas painting, but maybe that is reading too much into the painting.

However the beauty of this painting is not the depiction of the old woman or the boy but Velazquez’s mastery of his portrayal of the inanimate objects seen in the painting.   In this kitchen scene, the common utensils used in preparing food, such as a mortar and pestle, pots, ladles, bowl and jugs have at least as important a place as the two characters themselves. Look how all these utensils are lit up against a much darker background.  Look how Velazquez has incorporated into this work items made from various materials such as clay, wood, glass, brass, copper and pewter and how he has illustrated how the light affects them differently.    Note the curved shadow of the knife which balances on the chipped rim of the bowl on the table.   See how Velazquez has depicted the moist surface of the inside of the pan as it glistens above the egg whites.   Observe how Velazquez has skilfully depicted the various textures of the items on display such as the eggshell, the straw of the basket which hangs on the wall in the background, the skin of the melon the boy is holding, the onion which lies on the table to the left of the woman, as well as the textures of the linen clothing and the string wrapped around the melon.  It appears that Velazquez was fascinated with the different materials and textures and how the light and shadow danced upon both the opaque and reflective surfaces.   All of these brilliant touches showcase the artist’s virtuoso performance.  This is indeed a case of an artist showcasing his masterly painting techniques and offering proof of his artistic ability to the viewer of this work, who maybe a prospective patron.

Velázquez was born in 1599 in Seville.   At the age of eleven, Velázquez was apprenticed to Francisco Pacheco, who at the time was Seville’s most famous artist and art theorist.  Pacheco taught Velazquez the technical skills of drawing and painting, still-life and portraiture and soon the young artist outshone his tutor.  In 1617, Velázquez completed his apprenticeship and was allowed to set up his own studio. Pacheco said of his young pupil and future son-in-law:

“…After five years of education and training, I married him to my daughter, moved by his virtue, integrity, and good parts and by the expectations of his disposition and great talent…”

The following year, 1618, Velazquez married Pacheco’s daughter Juana and by 1621, the couple had two daughters.  In 1623, due to his father-in-law’s connections, Velázquez was asked to paint a portrait of the young King Philip IV, the ruler of Spain.   The portrait was viewed as such a success by the sitter that he immediately appointed Velázquez as one of his court painters, and from then on would allow no one else to paint him.

This was the second of my Velazquez paintings which I wanted to give you before I headed for the sunnier days of Madrid.  In my next blog, which I hope to send from the pool side of our parador, I will offer you a work by another famous Spanish artist, Francisco Goya and tell you about the connection it has with myself, as a naughty schoolboy, and my first sighting of erotica !!!!