The Nude among the Habsburgs in Spain
The Body as Subject in Paintings from the Prado
This summer’s exhibition at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado (running until October 10, 2016), presents 28 paintings from the collection of the Spanish kings now in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, 24 of which are said never to have been in the United States before. The theme that organizes this event is the nude in paintings collected by Philip II (r, 1556-98) and his grandson Philip IV (r. 1621-65), whose portraits (by Titian (#2) and Velázquez (#3), respectively) greet the visitor at the entrance. Both these men were voracious collectors. Philip II inherited the art of his great-grandmother Isabella I and his father Emperor Charles V (King Charles I of Spain), but he not only enormously increased the collection but also greatly stimulated art in Spain. After the reign of his son, Charles III, who showed interest in neither governing nor art collecting, Philip IV resumed the obsession of greatly expanding the royal collection of art. He commissioned Rubens to deliver numerous works and underwrote the purchases that Velázquez made on his behalf during tours through Europe. Both these kings preferred Italian (especially the Venetians) and Flemish paintings, and a handful of Titian, Tintoretto and Rubens works are the heart of the Clark exhibition. Flemish cabinet landscapes with mythological figure and few other Italian and Spanish painters (including Velázquez (#3)) make up the remainder of the show.
Collecting Nudes in Royal Spain
Philip II’s father, the emperor, was a patron of Titian, from republican Venice. His son (who would achieve no imperial crown even if he had aspirations) also became a patron of Titian, who met Philip in 1548 when the latter was still a prince and touring Italy and the Netherlands to inspect the lands he would inherit. Titan painted his portrait at the time. Philip thereafter engaged him regularly until the artist’s death more than a quarter of a century later. Unlike his father, however, Philip did not confine his acquisitions to Titian’s orthodox and conventional religious subjects. In 1553 Titian offered Philip three of what he called “poetical compositions”—mythological scenes involving nudes. One of these almost surely was the famous Danaë and the Shower of Gold, one of a series on Danaë that Philip specifically requested. Similar paintings followed, including in 1562 the Rape of Europa. Philip II also purchased numerous religious paintings from Titian, as well as “historical” paintings not involving nudes (such as Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist) and commissioned portraits. He also inherited works from his father and his aunt, Mary of Hungary. Philip’s collecting was not limited to Titian, but included masterworks by Bosch, Veronese and Tintoretto. The best estimate of the collection he amassed is 1,567 paintings.1
Velázquez was the painter most closely associated with Philip IV. A young Velázquez on his second visit to Madrid from his native Seville, got the opportunity to paint the young king in 1623. The king was so pleased with the result that he installed Velázquez in a court position and granted him the exclusive right to paint his portraits. Velázquez spent most of the rest of his career largely concerned with portraiture. He painted so many of Philip IV that Enriqueta Harris concluded that he “probably painted more portraits of Philip than any other artist has ever painted of a single patron.”2
Philip IV became closely acquainted with Rubens in 1628 when he was acting as a diplomatic agent for Philip’s aunt, the Infanta Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia, Regent of the Netherlands. Rubens had become engaged in diplomatic (and related spying) activity for the Habsburgs in efforts to establish peace between England and Spain. He impressed both courts so much that he was knighted by both Philip and Charles I. In 1628 he brought to Philip nine paintings, and during his nine months in Madrid he engaged in considerable painting, including many portraits of the King and royal family as well as several other notables. He also copied all the paintings of Titian in the royal collection. All of these paintings he he took back with him to Antwerp to use in his workshop (where copies of the royal portraits were made by Ruben and his students). Philip acquired some of the copies made by Rubens on the latter’s death. In all, Philip was so impressed with Rubens, both as an artist and a functionary, that he conferred on him and his son for their lives the office of Secretary to the Privy Council in the Brussels court. For his part Rubens found the king’s taste agreeable and he would produce a great number of paintings for Philip for the rest of his life. Philip engaged his brother, the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, who was appointed governor of the Netherlands in 1634, as his purchasing agent not only of the works of Rubens but also of other Flemish painters. In 1638 Rubens dispatched 112 pictures to Madrid including many mythological works with nudes. Other Flemish painters also supplied cabinet landscapes some of which are also found in the Clark exhibition together with a large Flemish allegory (#4) which had been sent to Philip IV before the diplomatic mission of Rubens.
Philip’s collection was increased not only by commission and purchases from living artists but also by gifts, purchases from other collections and even at auction (such as from the collection auctioned after the execution of Charles I). By Philip IV’s death the collection of paintings that had been amassed by the Spanish monarchs was immense, filling several residences, a large monastery with royal chambers attached and other buildings. Fires, invasion, revolutions and gifts would only reduce the holdings—the normal risks of an expensive art collection. The nudes in the collection had another risk. So their most Catholic Majesties took steps to prevent the nudes from being seen by those with less catholic tastes and more Catholic piety, at the same time that they publicly conformed to the morality policed by the Church and the Inquisition. So while Philip II erected the monastery of El Escorial as a demonstration of his piety, he also built nearby a private hunting reserve, La Fresneda, where the paintings considered lascivious were kept. He also had at least another private room for paintings; Titian wrote letters to him mentioning such a room. Philip IV also had private rooms for paintings that might be considered salacious. He had a special vaults for certain Titian works at the Alcázar Palace. He also greatly expanded another hunting lodge originally commissioned by Philip II, called the Torre de la Parada and located in the mountains of El Pardo outside of Madrid. An inventory in 1700 showed that the residence held 176 paintings, mostly by .Flemish and Spanish artists. The paintings included family portraits, hunting scenes, animal paintings and religious works for the chapel. Philip IV also commissioned Rubens for a series of large mythological works. Making small sketches on panel to plan the arrangement of the series, Rubens designed fifty two paintings (including Fortuna (#5)) which were executed by Rubens alone or together with members of his workshop and other Flemish painters, the last of which was delivered in 1639.
The Williamstown show begins with Rubens’s 6 by 3-1/3 foot painting of Fortuna (#5), which the portraits of the two monarch flank. The first of these two kings never saw the painting, but it is an apt painting to apply to the reigns of both kings, who experienced the fleeting attention of fortune, although both would have been surprised to see how unfaithful a mistress Fortune could be. Philip II presided over the largest extent of the Spanish empire and with the gold and silver mined by the pueblos indígenas Spanish conquerors had subjugated amassed a luxurious court filled with, among other things, sumptuous art. That empire and the wealth it commanded would reach its tipping point when the defeat of the armada sent by Philip II to bring down Protestant England (a land he once presided over through his late wife Mary) not only checked Spain’s European ambitions but also removed the last restraint to Anglo settlement of the New World. Philip IV, who commissioned Fortuna, found himself during the Empire’s war against Protestants involving in a war with Catholic France which Spain could not win. The peace treaty handed over ascendancy in Europe from Spain to France’s Louis XIV. Fortune would rarely smile on the Spanish monarchy again.
Fortuna also illustrates another theme of the show—the paintings survived intentional destruction by censors more staunchly Catholic than the Habsburgs. Some of Rubens’s work escaped the flames twice. On the painter’s death, his wife Helena Fourment wanted to destroy the nudes. She had posed for several of Rubens’s most famous mythological paintings (as well as several more conventional, clothed, portraits) and planned to preserve her modesty by destroying the nudes. She was talked out of the decision by her confessor, Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, who seemed less interested in ministering to his penitent than saving the works for his brother Philip IV. All of the nudes in the royal collection escaped another threat, this one from Charles III (r. 1759-88), under the influence of his confessor Joaquín de Eleta, an archbishop so fanatically reactionary that he was appointed to the Supreme Council of the Inquisition. Charles was persuaded to relent by Mengs, the neoclassical painter who was a favorite of Joaquín. His son, Charles IV (r. 1788–1808), agreed to transfer the royal nudes to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts on the condition that the paintings be kept in a sala reservada with access to this private room limited to those with prior written authorization (presumably art students or visiting dignitaries). Soon in 1792 and 1797 37 works by 15 different artists were deposited. In addition to the Titian and Rubens works, Dürer’s important Adam and Eve and others were saved from the flames and also from public view. They were briefly shown after the Napoleonic invasion, but two important Titians (a Danaë and Sleeping Venus) disappeared. It wasn’t until 1827 that the works were integrated into a collection organized by schools of art and later exhibited to the public. The works in Clark exhibition come from these one time hidden paintings.
The Nude and the Nature of Desire
Even in a day awash in pornography and the objectification of women for even trivial ends, it is surprising to see that these kings selected and secretly displayed pictures whose essential purpose is to titillate and arouse. It is not simply the hypocrisy of men who donned titles like “the pious” or “the devout” that is so unexpected. A large part of it results from the realization that in a society where political, religious and economic systems were designed to strictly enforce the most oppressive and reactionary orthodoxy (not the least of which concerned “purity” and mortification of the flesh), a society which elevated the Virgin as the paradigm for female virtue, was presided over by men who acted outside of prevailing morality. This was at a time when the forces of reaction outside the monarchy held the upper hand. (This post tells how Philip II, for example, was unable to intervene at the behest of his friend Theresa, when the Inquisition kidnapped John of the Cross. Such was the power of fundamentalist conformity that even the absolute monarch had to defer.)
The major Titian in the exhibition, Venus with Organist and Cupid (#6) exemplifies the nature of these erotic paintings. Like Sight and Smell (#4) and Fortuna (#5), the Titian canvas is part of a popular Late-Renaissance-Baroque category, the Allegory. In the Brueghel painting the two women represent the two senses. (The painting is a companion to another in the Prado, Taste, Hearing and Touch, another painting supervised by the elder Brueghel.) “Smell” is presented with a bouquet by a Cupid, while “Sight” is shown her reflection in the mirror by another. The dog to the left represents a keen sense of smell, and the abundance of flowers is for Smell’s delight. The painting has a variety of devices, like magnifying glass, telescope and various calibers to aid Sight, and the walls are covered by an abundance of paintings, subjects for this sense. Fortuna‘s subject is the fickleness, and the far-reaching consequences, of fate. Standing on a glass globe, Fortune surrounded by a churning sea is buffeted by winds which blow the fabrics she is holding and others swirling around her. The Titian work is an allegory concerning erotic desire, but, unlike th other two works, it really has no “symbolic” meaning or message; it is purely an erotic representation for its own sake.
Aside from the nude the supposedly allegorical elements are the cupid, a deer, and the lovers to the left in the garden. On the right is a fountain with a satyr (a lustful goat-like forest creature) and a living peacock resting no the edge (because of its use of its lush ornamental display in courtship rituals?). The reclining Venus dominates the picture, and her body is turned fully toward the viewer. She is considerably larger than the organist, who twists about to leer at her genitals. Her hair is in the style of a contemporary courtesan, but unlike a courtesan, it is she who is being entertained. She dominates the color scheme of the painting as well. Her skin seems luminous and stands out against more muted colors which comprise most of the rest of the canvas. The works of both Titian and Rubens in the exhibition show remarkable treatment of the female skin, and Rubens in particular seemed to revel in the way the play of light on curves and folds created different color mixtures and tints (e.g., #5).
The Titian nude has a remarkable background. While the sofa on which Venus reclines is covered with fabrics draped in a way to suggest luxurious pleasure, the background seen through the window is a rich, formal landscape with fountain and domesticated animals and rows of harmonious, ornamental trees. The rows open up to clouds that reveal traces of a beautiful blue sky. The combination of the nude, a musician and background landscape through a window was a popular series by Titian. In fact, the Prado has another, nearly identical, except that a dog replaces the Cupid. A curious detail is that the other Prado reclining Venus has a wedding ring on her right hand. Aside from these two Titian painted three other reclining Venus with musicians: Like the two in the Prado, the one in Berlin’s Staatliche Museen has an organist. The two others (one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the other in Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge) have a lutenist as the musician. This series is the culmination of Titian paintings of reclining nudes including Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, which Titian completed by painting the background landscape, the Venus of Urbino and the Danaë and the Shower of Gold (also in the Prado). The Roman masters were not attracted to these paintings by Titian. Michelangelo saw Danaë and the Shower of Gold when Titian had a temporary studio in Rome. That painting had the advantage of depicting an established mythological story and having a color scheme that impressed Michelangelo. Nevertheless, in private Michelangelo criticized Titian’s composition for failing to adhere to classical principles of depicting the human body (involving the distances between breasts, navel and separation of legs). The same “non-classical” body proportions is seen in the painting at the Clark.
Domenico Tintoretto’s Lady Revealing Her Breast (#7) is another case of pure eroticism. The work is the portrait of a courtesan. That her head is off to the side, possibly in embarrassment, convinced some that the picture shows the woman first being introduced into her profession. Like most paintings of the younger Tintoretto, this one is characterized by subtle use of unusual colors. The pale purple background softly enhances the shade of her flesh in much the way late nineteenth century painting might attempt. Originally, the Prado attributed this work to Domenico’s father, and others believed it was painted by Jacopo’s daughter Marietta, but Domenico’s specialty was portraiture and the work lacks the energy and emotional concentration of his father’s works.
The elder Tintoretto is represented by two biblical-historical works with nudes. One is the often painted story of Susannah and the Elders (of which more below). The other is the encounter between Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife. Both of these paintings, together with four others at the Prado (Esther and Ahasuerus, Judith and Holofernes, The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon and Moses Rescued from the Nile), were part of a frieze decorating a dome in a Venetian palace. Velázquez purchased the paintings for Philip IV while on tour in Italy. The paintings were mounted in the dome at a 45° angle and so the paintings have an unusual perspective. Philip IV arranged the paintings in a ceiling at the Alcazar palace, arranged around a central oval painting, possibly The Purification of the Midianite Virgins. This last painting, however, seems to be later than the horizontal paintings by the elder Tintoretto and painted by another, possibly his son Domenico.
The six rectangular paintings are unlike other Tintoretto works. They are interrelated by color and pattern and appear designed primarily for decorative purposes. Five of the six paintings are about two feet tall. Three of those five (including both nudes at the Clark) are about four feet wide. The other two are 6¾ feet wide. The sixth, the painting of Judith with the body of the Assyrian general she had just decapitated, has dimensions of slightly over 6 feet by by just under 8¼ feet. This largest of the paintings thus was the central work of the paintings fixed in the frieze. Although they all portray scenes from the Old Testament, they have neither a devotional or didactic purpose. All of the paintings feature elegant costumes, opulent jewelry, stylish coiffure set against luxurious furnishings and drapery and often with background of gardens and modern buildings. The fabrics, clothing and foliage created a complex pattern with intricate design that connected the paintings around the frieze of the dome. Although all other aspects of the paintings related to modern Venice, the costumes appear Oriental and may give a clue to the dating of the paintings.3
The painting of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (#8) shows the crisis point of the story of the attempted seduction of Joseph by the wife of the Egyptian captain to whom he had been sold into slavery. The lust in this painting is not the male’s (Joseph), who is recoiling from the attempt. Rather, the (unnamed) wife, though naked and turned toward the viewer’s leering gaze, is in the midst of being rebuffed. Her face is heavily made up with black lines around her eyes. Her double chin makes her appear much older than Joseph and marks her as the predator, even though her body is rendered in a way to arouse the prurient interest of the viewer. She appears to have just thrown a robe or cloth to ensnare Joseph, but neither her body nor her overt appeal succeed. When viewed from straight on, as at the Clark, it looks like Joseph is leaning backwards. But given the angled mounting in the original dome, likely Joseph appeared upright with the captain’s wife reaching up towards him. Joseph will pay for insulting his master’s wife of course, but his innocence is demonstrated in this painting by his face, his feminine attire, posture and ornaments (including what looks like a necklace). The event takes place in the richly furnished bedroom and the characters seem swaddled in the drapery from the bed. While Tintoretto became known for his dramatic expressivity, here the moment is lost because the painting is only one of a series which highlights the ornamentation rather than the intensity of the moment. Nevertheless, despite its ornamental intent, the scene is rendered as a moment of dramatic narrative (however stylized), unlike the Titian (#6) and the one by Tintoretto’s own son (#7), whose works seem essentially about tantalizing rather than presenting a moment of drama with a delineation of character. These latter features were characteristic of both Tintoretto specifically and the Baroque in general.
The apocryphal story of Susannah (a Greek addition to the Book of Daniel recognized by the Catholic, Orthodox and Syrian churches) is represented in the Clark exhibition not only by the panel by Tintoretto but also by an oil by Guercino (#9). The tale is a simple one. Two lecherous old men spy on the chaste Babylonian wife of a wealthy Israelite while she bathes in her own garden. Aroused, they confront her and threaten to testify that they witnessed her meeting a lover unless she submits to them. She refuses but unable to prove her innocence is sentenced to death. The execution is prevented by Daniel who has the men examined separately, which reveals inconsistencies, resulting in Susannah’s freedom and her accusers’ execution.
The Guercino Susannah shown at the Clark was originally purchased by Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi. This version is relatively chaste as Susannah is shown in profile and face averted. Her right arm covers much of her breasts and a cloth covers part of her right thigh. Generally among the many paintings of this scene, the choice is to show the nude Susannah directly to the viewer. That was the choice made by Tintoretto in the panel at the Clark, and in that case Tintoretto adds the titillating detail of one elder grasping Susannah’s breast. In that painting the robes of the elders and the foliage of the tree Susannah sits under provide the design details for the overall frieze pattern. (The tree is key to the inconsistencies of the elders’ testimony.) Another early painting (ca. 1555-56) on the same subject by Tintoretto, now in Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, also shows Susannah frontally, as does another by Guercino, a work in the National Gallery of Parma. The Guernico showing at the Clark is a more masterful rendering than these other three. It is formally composed with the leering elders to the left backed by the branches of the telltale tree and Susannah demurely in the right half, seated on a stone bench in front of a serene sky, her body in the pose of a classical Greek sculpture. The contrast of color makes a formal division of the painting and highlights the contrasting characters of those depicted. The chiaroscuro treatment of the men and their grotesque expressions and movements show the disturbing nature of their emotions, especially when contrasted with the innocent and calm depiction of Susannah. One of the men points toward the viewer as though to warn us to remain silent, making the viewer complicit in their behavior. It is an odd point to be made by a painter who depends on patronage of the devout. The painting merges the emotional turbulence of the Baroque art to come with the deference to classicism of the Renaissance works of Michelangelo.
The Nude Among the Gods
Rubens is represented by three other large mythological paintings. One, Rape of Europa (#10), is one of the copies of Titians which Rubens made during his visit to Madrid in 1628-29. The copy is a faithful reproduction of the original (now at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston) and shows the respect Rubens had for the Venetian master. By the time Rubens made this copy he was already celebrated for his scenes of violence, mythological paintings and nudes. But the Titian is a work of intense expressivity. The story told by the painting is how Zeus, transformed into a bull, tricks the young Europa, for whom he lusts, and is now abducting her against her will. Europa’s terror of the abduction is physically palpable, as she rides precariously on his back with a foreboding sea populated by two evil looking creatures in the front (and unknown terrors below). But it is not just a representation of physical and sexual violence (although it is that indeed), because cupids fly overhead apparently benignly and one is riding one of the creatures below. In ancient Greece and Catholic Europe during the Counter-Reformation, especially Habsburg Europe and very particularly Spain, the terror of an encounter with a god is also an occasion of frightening enthusiasm (in its original, etymological sense). To be possessed by a god is beyond one’s control and if one submits, the result is ecstasy. Bernini would brilliantly express the terror of the rapture 20 some years later in his sculpture of Saint Teresa (a contemporary of Philip II). Bernini portrayed the ecstasy of the Spanish mystic, when Ruben only emphasized the devoutness of the saint (not her experiential response) in his early painting. It’s tempting to think that Rubens’s encounter with Titian with this painting added to his palette both ardent passion and emotion pressed to its human limit.
The Rape of Hippodamia (#11) shows another aspect of Rubens. The picture is among the last set commissioned by Ferdinand for Philip IV, intended to decorate the 25 room Torre de la Parada, Philip’s hunting lodge near Madrid. For a year and a half Rubens produced 112 oil sketches of mythological scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Rubens was suffering from gout at the time and some of the paintings were completed by painters in his school although he did finish many himself. This painting comes from Book 12 of Metamorphoses. The epic is an intricate series of stories, sometimes within other stories, all of which lead, like a river, into the next, and all describing the cause, process and result of change. The story in the Rubens painting is one of the stories within a story. It is told after the Greeks had finished their first battle upon landing to lay siege to Troy. Achilles found himself unable to kill a Trojan warrior, whose skin was impervious to spear or arrow. He was therefore forced to strangle him with his own helmet strap. After the battle, the oldest of the Greek heroes, Nestor, as he often does in the Iliad, tells the Greek lords how he knew of a more remarkable fighter in the good old days, when he was young. And he tells the story of the warrior Caeneus, who like the Greek adversary had impenetrable skin. This was part of an earlier metamorphosis granted by Neptune (detailed by Nestor). What concerns the painting took place at the wedding feast of Pirithoüs and Hippodame to which Caeneus was invited as a guest. Also invited were the centaurs, half-brothers of the bridegroom (whose father, Ixion, the king of the Lapithae, mated with a cloud in the form of Juno and fathered the half-men, half horse creatures). The most savage centaur, Eurytus, drunk and overcome with lust, abducts the bride Hippodame, setting off a lethal brawl, which Nestor, who claimed to have attended, details at great length with the blows given in all their gruesomeness in a parody of Homer’s battle descriptions. Eurytus is killed by a wine bowl broken over his head. Caeneus comes to the aid of the bride and is protected by his skin, but the centaurs bury him under so many rocks and trees that he is sent to the underworld. On being questioned after this account, Nestor reveals that he has not told the tale quite accurately. In short, Ovid is satirizing Homer with this burlesque of a battle in the wedding hall. I think Rubens is also presenting a burlesque battle.
Beside being a diplomat and artist, Rubens was something of a classicist. Son of an Antwerp lawyer, Rubens was educated classically, learning Latin and possibly Greek, and read the classics, especially Virgil, until his early teens.4 His early “pocketbook” (a sketchbook that was largely destroyed by fire but partially reconstructed from copies and descriptions) arranged sketches of poses and emotions with appropriate quotes from Latin texts (particularly Virgil). His single-sheet annotated sketches show that he deeply contemplated classical texts (including Ovid), sometimes adding details or combining events or characters to more acutely render the underlying meaning. “Classical texts were for Rubens sources of inspiration, liberating rather than confining and restricting.”5 Surely, Rubens both consulted the text and understood the burlesque treatment Ovid gives the wedding hall battles.
The Hippodamia work is unlike his earlier battle scenes (of which Rubens was something of a master). Those scenes emphasize the contortions and agony of conflict and death. Viewed from a distance they seem a writhing mass of chaos. They seem to owe something to Michelangelo’s Battle of the Centaurs, which Rubens made two chalk sketches of: one in the Boijmans Collection in Rotterdam and the other in Frits Lugt collection in the Institut Néerlandais, Paris. Michelangelo’s relief, though on a rectangular stone panel, is not composed as though the figures were on that single plane. Rather the characters occupy several planes, seemingly in three dimension. Rubens’s chalk sketches not only study of the bodies and their movements but also, by shadowing, the relative depths of the carvings of the high relief.
The composition of Rape of Hippodamia is quite a contrast. In fact, with the two parallel planes that the figures inhabit, it is more like a relief than a painting (just as Michelangelo’s relief is more like a painting, or sculpture, in composition). The movement is all from left to right with the Lapiths chasing the centaurs. But the chase is somewhat cartoonish, and there is something emotionally distant about the moment. The figure with the dagger on the left (Caeneus?) has both feet well off the ground, leaping far higher than seems normal in that space. The disorder of the banquet is emphasized with bowls, jars and furniture toppling over. Hippodamia herself, in the grasp of Eurytus, has a stylized expression, quite unlike the terror or agony which we would expect and which Rubens excelled at painting. And the clothing (aside from Hippodame’s which is partially ripped from her) hardly seems what wedding guests would normally be clad in.
Whether or not the intent of Rubens is what I suggest, it is clear that the painting creates a sensation of great rushing tumult partially resulting from the rhythmic placement of heads. (I simply happen to believe the tumult is over the top.) The contrast of skin colors between Hippodame and the combatants makes her the central figure. And her horizontal placement among the mostly upright men shows that she is object of the tumult. The complimentary color tones which surround her makes the painting highly decorative, and given the subject matter, appropriate for the men’s lodge for which it was intended.
The large painting (nearly 6 feet (h) x nearly 9.5 feet (w)) Marriage of Thetis and Peleus (#12) by Flemish artist Jacob Jordaens was a later example of a situation (the gods coming together to feast) executed by numerous painters of the Spanish Netherlands, often several times by a single painter. The popularity of this setting arose around the turn of the seventeenth century at the height of the Mannerist movement in Northern Europe. The scene allows for bravura treatment of the human form, permitted the use of nude figures and freed the artist from the constraint of High Renaissance formalism: an assembly of Olympic gods, after all, was not the Last Supper. Jordaens himself began as a Mannerist, but by the time of this painting had fully imbibed the influence of Rubens. The Jordaens feast is for the wedding of Thetis and Peleus arranged by Zeus. The feast would ultimately result in the Trojan War owing to the refusal to invite Discordia (Eris in Greek, the god of Discord). In pique, Discordia flies into the banquet and tosses a golden apple with the inscription “To the fairest.” Each of three goddesses immediately assume the apple belongs to her—Venus, Juno and Minerva (in their Roman names). Paris will be invited to judge the contest. When he renders judgment in favor of Venus, she (as she promised him beforehand) delivers to him Helen (wife of Greek warlord Menelaus), and the Greek fleet was soon off to retrieve her and lay waste to Troy. The marriage has another connection with the later contest: their offspring would be Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, who would himself die before the walls of Troy. (Do not concern yourself with trying to correlate the time lines of the Judgement of Paris and the birth, adolescence and eventual participation in the Trojan War by Achilles; they do not correlate well. Perhaps this is why Homer only indirectly alludes to the Judgment of Paris because the backstory is problematic.)
The painting features the three goddesses. The central nude is Venus with Cupid at her knee. Behind her is Minerva, in full battle gear. Across the table is Juno, whose hand is outstretched for the apple. Discordia flies overhead, having just dropped the apple which is visible in the middle of the table. I suppose it is Thetis and Peleus at the far right.To the right of June is Zeus, her husband, and behind him is Mercury, one of his sons. As goddess of love, Venus is is entitle to sit naked at the nuptials. The painting was used by Philip IV as part of his redecoration of the Torre de la Parada. The work is elegantly composed, competently executed, contains the requisite nude per wish of the patron and displays the requisite opulence to decorate one of the palaces a specifically redesigned palace. Yet it is neither a work of Renaissance perfection nor Baroque passion. But when a patron like Philip IV commissioned works in bulk, he probably did not expect every one to be a masterpiece.
The Nude as Decoration
In the Flemish cabinet landscapes, represented in the exhibition by four works, the nudes are ornamental features among lush scenery. While each of the four works are interesting in their own right, my favorite is Abundance with the Four Elements (#13). This is another of the allegory class of paintings. The four elements are represented here by female nudes: earth, fire and water on in the midground with air flying above to the left. When this canvas was painted, the elder Brueghel was the most important painter in northern Europe. His fame allowed him to run a studio on something of an industrial model. The master would design the work but his students and other Flemish collaborators (including the young Rubens) would assist. In this genre the landscape was the essential design element, and the nudes were the feature desired by the clientele. This particular allegory was used over and over, both the elder Brueghel and his son painted more than one. The general pattern of landscape with nudes seems to have been immensely popular among Brueghel’s clients and it influenced many Flemish painters. Today we think of Brueghel as the painter of radical works of peasant life. But what funded the art was the studio which catered to patrons with specific tastes, and the Flemish cabinet landscapes with nudes was a popular decorative item that funded the art that lasted. Philip IV and his grandfather may have been shrewd connoisseurs and patrons, but it is the artist, not the buyer or the broker, who changes the way we see things. And that was as true 400 years ago as it is now. And today, Brueghel’s peasant paintings are probably more indelibly imprinted in the modern mind than anything that the Habsburg collectors most treasured.
Nakedness as the Mystery of the Human Condition
Perhaps it’s an unreasonable idea that we, in our age, should expect “meaning” in our terms from artists 400 years ago. And of course Titian, Rubens and Tintoretto did not expect to be judged on the basis of a handful of nude paintings they made at the request of (or second-hand purchase) of a couple of immensely wealthy collectors. But that was the premise of the Clark exhibition, and so let us see if we can glean meaning from the selection. Notwithstanding their superiority as the front rank of the post-Renaissance painters, it is not Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens or Brueghel that suggests an underlying drama and mystery to human nakedness. It is true that they, particularly Titian and Rubens, were unmatched in creating luminous flesh, mixing pigments in such a way that the color itself is more real than all the surroundings, and indeed more “real” than actual flesh. Moreover the texture and movement of this color expresses a surface not seen since, not even by Renoir.6 These masters achieved (or nearly so) for the surface of the body what the ancient and Hellenistic Greeks achieved for its form, and they did it by a similar technique—by idealizing and slightly exaggerating certain components to trick the viewer into thinking he has seen a naturalistic representation.
But this breakthrough by these masters was used largely for ornamentation and for the kind of eroticized remake of traditional subjects that they believed the patron class demanded. It would be the lesser Baroque artists who used the nude to attempt to achieve effects beyond mere titillation. Furini’s Lot and his Daughters is perhaps the best example in this exhibition.
Genesis 19 tells the disturbing story of the last day of Sodom. Lot, sitting at the city gate, meets two angels (מלאכים) arriving to retire for the night in the center of the city. Lot urgently prevails on them to stay at his house, but shortly, the men of the city, young and old, arrive and demand that Lot turn over the strangers so that they can rape them. Lot begs with them to desist and offers his two virgin daughters instead. They refuse and try to force entry, but the angels blind them. The next day the angels instruct Lot to gather his kin to leave the city to escape the destruction that god intends to deliver. Lot attempts to persuade his sons-in-law to accompany him, but they think he is joking. On their exit the angels tell Lot, his wife and daughters not to look back on Sodom, an injunction Lot’s wife disobeys, and she is turned into salt as a result. When Lot and his daughters reach the mountain cave which is their sanctuary the daughters realize that they will remain barren unless they seduce their own father. They twice intoxicate him so that each can couple with him, unions that will impregnate both, and allow the seed of their father to live on.
The painting is the first seduction of their father. It is profoundly unsettling. The figures are in an uncomfortable mass, standing in front of a dark bluish void, a color that dominates the composition (including Lot’s face) and contrasts with the green drapery which cover the lap of the daughter on the right. The daughter on the left, whose buttocks is covered by a diaphanous robe, holds a wine jug in her left hand. Both daughters are naked as they face their father. Most of the intimate details are shown in the section contained in figure #14. We see the hair of both daughters, each with a jeweled headband of sorts. The daughter on the left also has a red ribbon which accents her own red hair. The daughter on the left (the elder one, whose idea it was) is pulling down her father’s robe with her left hand. A tress of her hair falls on her left cheek, a detail that makes the scene even more intimate. Lot tentatively touches both daughters on the shoulder. The scene is entirely non-judgmental, as is the ancient text it is based on. And yet, it also allows the viewer to contemplate the incest taboo which makes the story noteworthy in the first place. Naked flesh is unsettling, the source of moral corruption, but also what is responsible for the race surviving.
The treatment of the figures, which does not exalt in the flesh that made Rubens famous, is nonetheless more “modern” to viewers of today. The composition is designed to convey a moment not a bravura technique nor sensuality. It is perhaps that choice that makes it more memorable than the works of Furini’s betters.
Francisco de Zurbarán, the Spanish master of chiaroscuro who mainly confined himself to religious paintings and still lifes, is represented by two works from a series of 10 paintings illustrating the labors and death of Hercules. Zubarán was not a natural to portray the demigod, and it seems that attribution to him was not certain until the mid-twentieth century when the record for payment for the works was discovered. The commission was for Zurbarán to supply 12 such paintings (later reduced to 10) to decorate the newly built Hall of Realms at another of Philip IV’s pleasure houses, Buen Retire Palace outside Madrid. The identification of the works remains somewhat clouded. The work called Hercules Defeats King Geryon (#15) in the Clark Exhibition was entitled Hercules Kills Eryx when the attribution to Zubarán was first made.7 Indeed, two things compound that confusion. First, the online Prado collection does not contain or identify the work. But more importantly, the defeated figure does not resemble Geryon or Geryones, who is consistently referred to in ancient sources as “three-bodied” and depicted in ancient iconography with three heads (and other features). Whether the slain figure represents Eryx or Geryon is probably of little importance since both are figures in the tenth labor of Hercules and both are slain by him (see Apollodorus, Library, ii.5, for the story). The painting does not rely much on the narrative of that tale, instead showing Hercules from behind standing over a corpse. We would perhaps not call this painting a “nude,” showing only the buttocks of Hercules (and, unusually the anus of the corpse, which can be seen more clearly in the painting than the reproduction here). This is true also of the other painting from this series shown at the Clark, Hercules and the Hydra (#16). (The latter however may have show frontal nudity, with a loin cloth painted later, since the stance of Hercules is quite odd, unless it was intended solely to display his genitals.)
The treatment of Hercules in this series is quite different from that of Hellenistic artists. The Hellenistic kings identified with Hercules, just as the Habsburg rulers did, but the former emphasized his youth and beauty (unabashedly showing full frontal nudity and the body in three dimensions in action). The depiction of Hercules by Zubarán, however, is not one of idealized beauty. Hercules is both stolid and largely static. His body does not show sleekly rippled muscles but rather unusual muscular architecture, with tube-like features that don’t look anything like classical depictions. Nor are the scenes done with the wit and flair of Rubens, who was much more comfortable with mythological scenes than probably any other Baroque artist.
But the paintings seem to serve their purpose. They were hung above the ten large windows in the very long Hall of Realms with their bottoms more than 10 feet off the ground. Between those windows and below the scenes of Hercules were battle scenes. The room (which was the ceremonial throne room of the palace) was designed to show the virtues, accomplishments and duties of the Catholic King.8 The martial aspects went back to Charles V; the allegorical representations were more recent. In addition to the other reasons why kings identified with Hercules, Philip IV’s image handlers wanted him associated with an ineluctable force that defeats Discord. The goddess Discordia (who we encountered in the Jordaens painting in her traditional setting, above, #12) was a topic on the mind of politicians, writers and artists in Habsburg Europe at least from the beginning of the 17th century.9 A few years before the commission to Zurbarán, Rubens himself had completed the dramatic ceiling of the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall in London under commission of Charles I. One of the corner ovals consisted of a painting, Hercules as Heroic Virtue Overcoming Discord, an oil planning sketch of which can be seen at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Like Zurbarán’s depiction, Hecules is excessively muscled, and Discordia, like Eryx/Geryon, is defeated in a grotesque position. Years later an elderly Calderón del la Barca tackled Discordia in a nuanced way (after Philip and his efforts against the goddess were over) in his comedia famosa entitled La estatua de Prometeo (Prometheus’s Statue) (written in 1669; first published, posthumously, in 1715), but a discussion of that treatment must await a future post. The Habsburgs, however, saw no nuance behind Discord, only Lutheranism (or other heterodoxy), rebellion or succession dipsutes. The latter two would come later. Now Philip IV was assisting the empire in defeating Discord by setting Europe on fire and waging a war that already lasted a generation and that would devastate and depopulate Germany. Zurbarán was not asked to create visually interesting work or works filled with devotional or spiritual meaning, both of which Zurbarán specialized in. He was only asked to create a mythology to justify the monarchy in its brutal and grim work, and Zurbarán complied. From the floor, where the dignitaries had audiences with the king or viewed the many productions that were staged in the room, the unrealistic musculature and postures of the figures were not apparent. Only the atmosphere, which the dark palette also contributed to, was necessary to communicated the implacable force meted out to those who defied Habsburg Order and their inevitable destruction. The final picture in the Hercules series, which showed a dying hero wearing the poisoned robe of Nessus seeking the pyre that would end his torment, showed the reward at the end of the King’s labors—apotheosis.
The final three paintings in the Clark exhibition are works that would customarily (or perhaps better, a priori) be considered as filling the role that certain nudes did in Hellenistic art: depictions of intense human suffering. We saw this in the Dying Persian in the Metropolitan Museum exhibition earlier this year (fig. #14 in that post). Other examples form the Hellenistic age include the flaying of Marsyas, such as the 2nd century B.C.E. version now at the Musee Capitole Palazzo Conservatori in Rome. The representation of Marsyas would foreshadow all later representations of the Passion of Christ. The most famous and influential Hellenistic work in this genre, however, is the Laocoön Group, now in the Vatican. This sculpture profoundly influenced Italian artists from the time it was excavated in Rome in 1506. Renaissance and Baroque painters applied the conceptual framework to four more familiar mythological figures, who were repeatedly drawn on to signify suffering: Tityos, Sisyphus, Tantalus and Ixion. (The later was the father of the centaurs in Rubens work above, #11). These (nude) figures could be painted in the throes of agony because they were condemned to Hades by the gods. Early on the Habsburgs endowed them with political meaning. Mary of Hungary commissioned Titian to paint these tormented figures as a symbol of the punishment inflicted on the German rebels by Emperor Charles V. See, for example, Titian’s treatment of Sisyphus. Of course the figures were seen as deserving to suffer, but some of the renderings were quite gruesome (even according to Habsburg taste for vengeance). See, for example, Titian’s Tityos. By politicizing the stories (and casting the Habsburgs in the role of Olympian deities), the symbols became unmoored from their ancient meanings, and in the Baroque these stories became excuses for something close to sadism. We would expect depictions of saints, on the other hand, to be handled with pathos of the Hellenistic originals (which the Hellenistic kings, unlike the Habsburgs, even accorded to their political opponents).
The three works that end the Clark show are treatments, with the usual iconography, of the first martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, done by by Guido Reni (ca. 1617-19) (#17), Jusepe de Ribera (1636) (#18) and Juan Carreño de Miranda (1656). Sebastian, according to legend, was a captain in Emperor Diocletian’s Praetorian Guards. When it was discovered that he was a Christian, Diocletian (who was in the midst of a campaign to exterminate Christians) ordered that he be executed by being tied to a tree and having archers fill him with arrows. Although he was left for dead, Irene of Rome collected his body, nursed him back to life and healed his wounds. Sebastian, once recovered, proceeded to denounce Diocletian in person, who had him seized and clubbed to death. It is the scene of an arrow-punctured Sebastian that was routinely rendered.
Despite what we might expect, in contrast to the Baroque treatment of tormented mythological beings, none of the three renderings of the saint seem to attempt to elicit feelings of pathos or express the agony of the torture. Indeed, although each has received multiple arrow punctures, they all seem unnaturally tranquil. This is not how El Greco treated his subject, in a painting in the Prado collection. The earlier work, like all of Greco, is an intellectualized, expressionistic treatment of suffering and shows the saint yearning for release. The three in the Clark exhibition seem, by contrast, highly stylized, more a reason to show the male body than a contemplation of the suffering, or indeed the devotion, of Sebastian. A Prado curator, Pablo Pérez d’Ors, who helped organized a Masterpiece showing of Prado works in Puerto Rico in 2012, even suggested that the Ribera painting disproved criticism’s of Spanish art as reflective of inherent cruelty in Spanish culture.10 But it was only three years later that Ribera showed that he could paint a scene of a saint tortured before an uncaring audience with his Martyrdom of Saint Philip, which seems an eminently more sensible way of portraying a martyrdom, however much it also reminds one of the practices of the Inquisition in Spain.
If one puts aside the purported setting of the pieces and treats each work not as a depiction of a martyrdom or an object to be venerated, then they can be seen as studies of the male body in two dimensions, much as the ancients treated the male nude in three dimensions. All three show the careful study Italian artists had made of classical models for nearly a century, not only in terms of proportion but more importantly how the male torso was designed (both geometrically and in terms of muscular architecture). But the Reni (#17) and the Carreño (#19), which show the orientation of the pelvis, also display the counterpose posture (contrapposto) which was the first great classical innovation in the portrayal of the human body. Reni especially is able to give his subject’s body a rhythm that suggests discomfort and perhaps yearning to be released. (Reni’s attempt to relate his subject’s body language to his predicament in this case seems not to have been attempted in another of his paintings in the exhibition, Cleopatra, who appears to be eating figs as she exposes her breast to the viewer and the small serpent who will kill her.) Carreño’s subject has the most individualized physiognomy, perhaps based on a real person. His painting is the one with the most non-Italian influence—the sky and landscape seem to owe more to Rubens and other Flemish painters than to Roman ones. In short, all three portraits contain the key features of classic Greek and Italian Renaissance art, but Carreño also has more contemporary coloring.
Yet both classical Greece and Renaissance Italy celebrated the male nude as part of a philosophy that exalted in the belief that man was the center of all thought and the measure of all things. This was decidedly not the philosophy of Habsburg Europe. While the Habsburgs themselves, and their courtiers, were not constrained by the oppressive morality they imposed on their subjects, they required the illusion that they, like their subjects, served higher powers. So the celebration of the male body had to be packaged into a context where it clearly did not belong and which diminishes it as a work of imagination.
The nude was an integral part of Greek culture. It was not just art. Spectators watched naked athletes compete. Philosophers celebrated the beauty of the human body. In fact, gods were made in the image of man because there could be no higher beauty. Over several hundred years classical artists explored the body and created rules for representation that to this day seem to define human beauty, at least in representational art.
No Western culture since then celebrated nakedness as much as the Greeks. The Romans were shocked by the rampant nakedness of the Greeks and their art, but they recognized how the Greeks had discovered a beauty that they could only copy, not invent. For nearly a millennium Western art hid the body. (Greek respect for the body may have been exported to Buddhist lands, where it thrived while Europe rejected it.) When the Italians rediscovered the classical reverence for the body, it was part of the general acceptance by Italian intellectuals of most of the “new” ideas they were learning form the ancients. The Spanish Monarchy never fully accepted the humanism of the ancients and certainly not the concept that a human, qua human, was the highest good.
On the basis of this (admittedly small) sample, it appears that Philip II and Philip IV understood that the nude provided a delight to those who could afford them. Women of course provided carnal delight, so they could populate expressly erotic works and populate “poetical” compositions in which they played figures subject to or fleeing from sexual assault. In any event, the female nude was mainly an object of lust or given over to it.
The male nude was not an object of lust so he is seen only in exceptional circumstances. Oddly those circumstances were either to delight in physical torment (something near bloodlust) or to display religious devotion. By far the most frequent male nude in the royal collections was the Savior. Next his most devoted followers, suffering torments for their devotion.
It is difficult to leave this exhibition without meditating more on the collectors than the artists. This is in part due to the fact that the artists the Spanish kings patronized (with few exceptions) worked in narrow, often trod, paths acceptable to their clients. The power of the artistic imagination, his ability to shock, the primacy of his vision, concepts that existed earlier and later than this period, were unknown. But the impression is mainly due to the particular subject of the exhibition, which only was a small part of the collecting activities of these two kings. If the exhibition were of royal family portraits, scenes of the life of Christ or other biblical narratives, ancient persons, historical works, still lifes, etc., all of which are much more amply represented in their collections, the viewers’ rumination would be on the works and not the society that consumed them. But the curators chose to examine the nude in the collection of rulers who enforced a highly conservative and religiously dominated social order. That fact cannot be separated from the works themselves, even if some would be considered masterworks in other contexts.
1Sanchez Canton, F.J., The Prado trans. by James Cleugh (New York: Harry M. Abrams, Inc., c1959), p. 21. [Return to text.]
2Harris, Enriqueta, The Prado: Treasure House of the Spanish Royal Collections (London, New York: The Studio publication, ), p. 29. [Return to text.]
3Based on stylistic evidence Renaissance art historian Mary Pittaluga (Il Tintoretto (Bologna, N. Zanichelli ) assigned the panels to ca. 1655, while Rodolfo Pallucchini (La Giovinezza del Tintoretto (Milano: D. Guarnati, ) thought they were painted ca. 1544. They attributed the costumes to the influence of the Mannerist painting of Parmigianino. Stella Mary Pearce has argued, however, based on a fashion book published in 1590 that the costumes reflect the dress of peoples from Rhodes and Persia, who were not uncommon in Venice, given its status as a maritime trading center. She concludes that the paintings were painted around 1588 but certainly within the last 10 years of Tintoretto’s life (1584-94). For a discussion, see Stella Mary Pearce, “Dating on the Evidence of Costume and Hairdressing” in Newton, Eric, Tintoretto (London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1952), pp. 228-31. [Return to text.]
4Jaffé, David and Elizabeth McGrath, Rubens: A Master in the Making (London: National Gallery Co., 2006) (“Jaffé & McGrath”), p. 11. [Return to text.]
5McGrath, Elizabeth, “Words and Thoughts in Ruben’s Early Drawings” in Jaffé & McGrath pp.29-37, at 35. [Return to text.]
6You can evaluate this assertion yourself at the Clark, which has more than 30 Renoirs on permanent display, including an early and late self portrait. [Return to text.]
7Caturla, Maria Luisa, “Zurbaran at the ‘Hall of Realms’ at Buen Retiro,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 89, no. 527 (February 1947), pp. 42-45. [Return to text.]
8For a reconstruction of the Hall of Realms as it existed when redesigned for Philip IV, see Brown, Jonathan and J.H. Elliott, A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV (New Haven [Connecticut]: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 141-92. A drawing of the placement of the paintings on the long walls is found at p. 144-45. A discussion of “Hercules Hispanicus,” the authors’ construct for how the monarchy in 17th century Spain viewed Hercules, is found at pp. 156-61. [Return to text.]
9See, e.g., DiPuccio, Denise M., Communicating Myths of the Golden Age Comedia (Lewisburg [Pennsylvania]: Bucknell University Press, 1998), pp. 175-76. [Return to text.]
10See the description of Ribera’s Saint Sebastian in the Museo de Arte de Ponce’s catalogue, Hartup, Cheryl and Pablo Pérez d’Ors (eds.), Del Greco a Goya: Obras Maestras del Museo del Prado ([n.p.:] Museo de Arte de Ponce, ), p. 116 (English version) (PDF file). The defense of Spanish culture is odd for two reasons. First, Ribera’s treatment owes more to the influences of Italy (where he studied and was then livving) than his original Spanish roots. And second, a single painting is hardly evidence to contradiction the religio-political institutionalized intolerance, repression and cruelty evidenced by such things as the 1492 Alhambra Decree, Spanish treatment of native Americans, the Inquisition, the auto-da-fé, the Habsburg war policy during the Thirty Years War and such bizarre symptoms as the Hermanos Penitentes. This religious-tinged dalliance with reacton was not eliminated with the Habsburgs but remained only slightly below the surface of Spanish society until the explosion of the 20th century. [Return to text.]